51PDEHPzjpLI don’t usually read mystery novels, but I enjoyed Goats’s comic novel Incomplete Works so much that I gave Houses on the Sand a try in spite of the different genre. And it turned out to be just as good—indeed, maybe even a bit better, because it has as much wit as Incomplete Works, but also some gorgeous descriptions of the desert landscapes in which the story is set. Interludes about the winding canyons, or the beauty of the night sky, are interspersed with the fast-paced development of the plot, and it all works extremely well.

The book also has a greater emotional range than I was expecting. The protagonist, Quincy Logan, has come to the small town of Harper’s Knob to bury his grandfather, with whom he was not terribly close. There are some poignant moments when he thinks back on awkward boyhood visits to his grandfather, when he was too young to appreciate the old man’s ranch or surrounding desert. These passages, though brief, injected some real emotion into the tale.

Now, lest I scare off anybody who doesn’t care about landscapes or pathos-filled backstories, I want to be clear: this book is a tightly-written mystery, and it can be enjoyed as that alone. I admired how Goats was able to succinctly introduce these literary elements without killing the pace and tension of his central plot. And all of it was filtered through Quincy’s witty, often sardonic narration. 

I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say that it kept me guessing right up until the identity of the perpetrator was revealed. Maybe experienced mystery readers will solve it faster than I did, but I found it to be a very enjoyable ride.

iwI saw this book after reading Jersey Ghost Stories, which Goats co-authored with Erren Michaels. One of the reviews of Incomplete Works likened it to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comic novels ever written. I decided to give it a try, although I doubted very much that it could live up to such billing.

Within a page, I was hooked. The protagonist of Incomplete Works reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the twisted but unforgettable lead of Dunces. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Thornton Mordecai Lathrop is a student at Snaketree College in Buffalo Wallow, Wyoming. Coming from San Francisco, he is uncomfortable with life in the small, rural community, with it hard-drinking, bull-riding cowboy ways. Thornton is a bit of a snobbish dandy, whose letters home combine references to classic literature with pleas for money.

These letters are mixed with chapters of a book Thornton is writing—a fictionalized account of his own life, in which he has named his surrogate “Larry Lambert”. Larry’s exploits echo Thornton’s, though with various alterations. This ingenious device establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on, which I loved.

There are all sorts of humorous episodes and memorably over-the-top characters, most of which feel distinctly Wodehousian, from a zealously vegan love interest to a drunken ride on a mechanical bull. One dream sequence in the novel-within-a-novel, wherein Larry attempts to sell his soul to a demonic car salesman, felt like something from a Russian satire.

In addition to the hilarious setting and characters, Incomplete Works is brimming with clever turns of phrase, again very much in the spirit of Wodehouse. I rarely laugh out loud, even when I’m reading something funny, but there were a few lines of this that got me audibly chuckling. Goats has an immensely enjoyable wit.

I don’t want to give away too many plot details. Indeed, this book seems not to have much of a plot at first, but gradually the disparate zany characters and situations do tie together to a degree. It’s not as intricate as Wodehouse’s novels or the incredibly layered plot of Dunces, but it works pretty well.

I had a few nits to pick here and there—sometimes the structure of the novel-within-a-novel makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who. (Thornton changes the names of his roommate and his girlfriend, so names alternate between his letters and his novel.)

There were also a few typos here and there—mostly of the sort where it was obvious the spellchecker had automatically altered something (e.g. “dues ex machina”) I am always very sympathetic to this sort of thing in indie books—it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. This is why I so love the easily-correctable format of ebooks.

Despite the modern setting, Incomplete Works—like Thornton himself—feels like a throwback to an earlier era of writing. The abundant wit often relies on references to literary works that are hardly read anymore, and Thornton more than once uses expressions that sound like something Bertie Wooster would say.

To be clear, this is one of the most wonderful things about the book—its timeless quality. It feels like it could take place at almost any point in the past century, give or take a few passing references. And that was what made Wodehouse great, and what made Toole great as well. Anyone who enjoys those classics will likely appreciate this novel.

It’s a short read; only a few hours, and well worth the time. Incomplete Works is a delightful tale, ingeniously told. It was a pleasure to discover that people are still writing books like this—now if only more people would read them.

jgsThis is a delightful collection of ghostly tales set on the island of Jersey. Most of them follow classic ghost story archetypes—haunted houses, buried secrets, and wandering female specters, among other things. But each story is well-written, with carefully fleshed-out characters, so they always feel fresh, even if many of them hearken back to ghostly legends of the sort that can be found all across the globe.

I read a lot of ghost story collections like this when I was around 12 or 13 years old, and this one certainly ranks with the best of them. None of the tales are too gory, at least not by today’s standard, but they are certainly quite disturbing—with glimpses of horror that evoke more than is written on the page, just as a good horror story should.

“The Haunting of Longueville Manor” and “The House of Screams” were particular favorites of mine, but every story is creepy and effective. And it was nice to read stories set in a place that I was unfamiliar with—I learned something of the island’s history, in addition to getting some memorable scares.

This is a terrific Halloween read for anyone who enjoys good scary stories. It’s probably too disturbing for young children, but anyone 12 or older is bound to enjoy this collection.

[Many thanks to Twitter user @ESXIII for recommending this book to me.]

waiting-for-earl-to-dieI’ve been following Lydia’s blog for some time now, but I just recently read this entertaining collection of her short stories. Most of the stories have some science-fiction or fantasy element to them, and usually involve some unexpected twist or surprise ending. I won’t write about any one of the stories in too much detail, because I don’t want to spoil them.

My favorite story is the one entitled “Proof”. I don’t think it’s giving away anything to say that I had no idea where it was going or even really what type of story it was until I read the very last line, and then it all clicked into place, and I laughed at how well I had been set up.

Most of the tales in the collection are like that. Some of them seem like fragments of a larger story, still waiting to be fleshed out, because each has a thought-provoking premise.

The collection is small, and takes only about an hour to read. Some readers might be disappointed at the short length, but given that it’s available for free on Kobo, there’s really no excuse for not getting it if you’re a fan of short stories with a touch of irony to them. It’s a quick and fun read, and it left me eager for more of Lydia’s fiction.

Casca1Before I begin, let me give a special shout-out to my blogger friend and loyal reader, Pat Prescott: yes, Pat; it’s finally happened! I don’t know how many years it’s been since you first told me about this series, but I finally have gotten around to reading it. Many thanks to Pat for the suggestion, and for all his support over the years.

Also, for those of you who don’t want to wade all the way through my long-winded review, I made a short video review for your convenience. (And also just for my own amusement.)

Casca begins with military doctors in war-torn Vietnam finding an American soldier named Casey suffering what should be a mortal wound that miraculously begins to heal. As the doctor examines him, he feels himself drawn into a vivid recollection of the man’s past: a flashback to his time as a Roman soldier, Casca Rufio Longinus, a legionnaire assigned to the province of Judea.

During his time in Judea, Casca torments a prisoner about to be crucified–Jesus of Nazareth, who curses him to an eternity as a soldier of fortune, until the Last Judgment. (Note that in the above video, I mistakenly said Casca stabs him on the way to the crucifixion. I meant to say he guards him on the way, and then stabs him.)

Casca dismisses the curse as the raving of a mad prisoner, but as he fights and receives wounds and does not die, he begins to realize that it truly is his doom to live forever, always moving from one battle to the next.

He is sent into slavery for a time, where he is mentored for by a kindly Chinese man who teaches him martial arts as well as philosophy. Eventually, he makes his way into the gladiatorial arena and battles his way to freedom. Ultimately he rejoins the Legion, centuries after he originally knew it, when Rome has seen many emperors rise and fall, and the once-mighty empire verges on collapse.

The book flashes forward again to the hospital in Vietnam–Casey having gone, and the doctors shaken by the experience. In the final chapter, the action moves to Egypt, where young Israeli soldiers fight alongside a grizzled mercenary–Casey again, who recalls fighting in the same desert many centuries before.

The writing is straightforward with no frills, so the book is a quick read. The description is limited, with most heavily-described parts being those relating to battles and Roman tactics.

There is a lot of violence, naturally, and quite a bit of sex as well. Actually one of the things that bothered me about the book was the sexism–women are described exclusively in sexual terms, and rape is commonplace. The worst part is, this probably is an accurate depiction of attitudes during the time period. There was also one section during Casca’s time as a gladiator about his rivalry with a cruel Numidian (African) gladiator that was dripping with racism (and sexism, in terms of how the man is depicted preying upon women) that rivaled Lovecraft in terms of appalling the modern reader. I could have done without that.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this from a book written in the 1970s by a man who grew up in pre-Civil Rights America. All in all, Sadler had a strange life–maybe one that would have been worthy of a novel in its own right. His military career was cut short when, to quote Wikipedia, “he was severely wounded in the knee by a feces-covered punji stick“. Before writing Casca, he wrote and performed the patriotic song “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. Later on, he shot and killed a romantic rival, for which he served 28 days in jail. Years later, he himself would be shot–whether accidentally by his own hand or by a would-be killer is unclear.

Honestly, people who don’t like to learn the biographical details of authors are missing out on a lot.

Anyway, back to Casca: for me, the most memorable character in the book was the Chinese slave whom Casca meets when sailing back to Rome. He’s also a bit of a cliché–an Asian philosopher-warrior-monk who dispenses wisdom as well as being a master of martial arts–but it kinda works anyway. Unlike most of the characters, he does a bit of introspection, and seems to grasp the horror of Casca’s curse even before Casca does.

What I liked most about the book was the concept: the idea of a man condemned to live forever is an ancient one. Or, as Harlan Ellison wrote for an episode of The Outer Limits:

“Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death … the hero who strides through the centuries …”

This idea of an immortal condemned to live through endless cycles of fruitless quests is a great one. It’s the premise for the legendary video game Planescape: Torment, as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (I’ve also heard some claim that King’s protagonist Roland was influenced by the soldier-of-fortune character “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“, from the song by Warren Zevon, which features the line “the eternal Thompson gunner”.) It’s a great premise for exploring themes like the futility of war, “man’s inhumanity to man”, etc.

Because the concept is so fruitful, the Casca series currently spans 47 books and counting, following Casca’s adventures across pretty much every war in recorded history. It surprises me the series was never made into a movie. I could see it very easily being adapted into one of those over-the-top, hacking and slashing and/or guns-blazing action films like they made in the 1980s. Or maybe that’s the problem: the teenage boys who would probably have been the perfect audience for these books in past eras are now spending their leisure time watching action movies and playing online first-person shooting games, and don’t even know about them.

 

Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

51-tF08D1ULPat Prescott is a long-time reader, commenter, and great friend of the blog. (My very first follower, actually—dating back to my pre-Wordpress days.) So, I feel a little sheepish that it took me this long to read his novel, Human Sacrifices.

It’s an extremely ambitious book—a blend of various genres, with elements of horror, of romance and of satire. The story follows Jan, a young schoolteacher who suffers through a brief marriage to an abusive husband, and tries to find peace in helping her students escape the perils of local gangs. She ultimately remarries to a thoughtful preacher, Paul, who has a tragic history of his own.

The horror parts of the story come from the allegorical demonic face that Jan sees in the trees outside her room early in the book—a face she refers to as “Mal”, a God of Death, and which comes to symbolize the evil in the world—whether it be the gangs, or Brother Bobby (a flamboyant fundamentalist preacher who holds considerable influence over Jan’s first husband), or the tedious nature of school bureaucracy that prevents Jan from teaching her students.

As you might imagine, the horror writer in me loved this idea, and thought the scenes where Jan addresses Mal were among the most effective in the story. These are deemed “hallucinations” by the other characters in the story, but for Jan, it ultimately signifies all the adversity she has to overcome.

Paul and Jan face plenty of adversity over the course of the book, whether from school administrators or religious fanatics, but also have plenty of good times and interesting discussions about relationships, sex, and religion.

Through it all, Prescott skewers many targets, from the everyday annoyances of the educational system to deeply sensitive religious topics. Jan’s second husband Paul holds forth at length on some of the most controversial issues—abortion, religious monuments on government property, gay rights, etc.—and on each of them delivers well-reasoned arguments against the worldview of the zealous Fundamentalists, all based on evidence found in the Bible itself.

Being not terribly well-read on the topic of religion, I found much of the terminology initially unfamiliar, but ultimately very interesting. For example, I learned about “millennialism”--a belief held by some Christians regarding Christ returning and ruling for a thousand years before the Final Judgment.

I admire Prescott’s courage for taking on these topics, and the viewpoint of a liberal protestant which he portrays was quite an interesting one to read.

Now, putting on my critic hat, I did have a few problems with the story, particularly in the middle section, where I felt things dragged a bit as the day-to-day facts of Jan’s relationship with Paul were explored. That could just be my tastes, though; as I’m not generally one for romance in novels. And while Paul quotes from plenty of male experts on sex and gender relations, I think it would have been good to include a bit more of women’s views on it. The female characters, in my opinion, all seemed a little too sex-crazed. There’s nothing wrong with sex-crazed characters mind, but I prefer to have some who are not very interested in sex at all, just to balance things out.

Also, I felt the book wasn’t divided into enough chapters. Cutting into smaller chunks might make things more manageable, and might even suggest a way to address the “flow” issue I mentioned above. As it was, they seemed a little too packed, and also a bit too sequential—plot twists and minor dramas arise, play out, and are resolved in a fairly linear fashion. It might work better if these plot threads were mixed up a little, so that different ones came to the forefront at different parts of the book. For example, the last chapter is largely Jan interviewing another character and learning her life story. I would have broken this interview up over the course of several chapters, so that we have more time to mull parts of it over, and to put the final part toward the end, but also coincide with other dramatic developments. (Of course, this is something that is very hard to do, and something I doubt if I myself could do—again, I respect the level of daring it takes to even attempt this.)

Finally—and this is an issue I can relate to, having struggled with it myself—there were some typos, missing commas, and run-on sentences, particularly in the first part of the book. These are just editing glitches, and probably inevitable. I heard about similar issues from readers of my most recent book. It seems like no matter how many times you reread something, errors still get through. The great thing about eBooks is that you can correct them.

Human Sacrifices is a promising effort which, with some revision, I think could become a very good novel indeed. I hope none of my criticisms seem too harsh, because I really think there is a lot of good material to work with here. Patrick has done me a great favor by critiquing my stories honestly, and his comments made me a better writer, so I think the least I can do is try my best to return the favor. I know firsthand that it’s tough to work on something for a long time and then hear people asking for changes and modifications—but I also know I was very grateful for it afterward.

Because in spite of the flaws I mention above, I give the author a lot of credit for trying to pull off something so ambitious. It’s not easy to address all of these different facets of life in a book, and probably doing so is bound to occasionally be messy—rather like life itself.

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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.