Book Reviews

My occasional book reviews.

My Thoughts on Werewolves and Shape Shifters

Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within, edited by John Skipp
Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beast Within, edited by John Skipp

Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beast Within is not a mere book, but a thick tome of wonderful, frightful shapeshifter stories. Editor John Skipp lovingly collected 30-plus pieces, introducing each with a remarkable photo-realistic illustration and brief insightful commentary. My hat’s off to his masterful effort. Continue reading “My Thoughts on Werewolves and Shape Shifters”

My Thoughts on Portrait of a Town

book cover: Portrait of a Town by Pat Parsons
Portrait of a Town by Pat Parsons

Reading Portrait of a Town: Cape Charles, 1940-1960 was like spending time with a dear friend as she shows you around the town she grew up in. You can imagine her taking you by the arm as the pair of you stroll down the streets. Continue reading “My Thoughts on Portrait of a Town”

My Thoughts on Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles

Book cover: Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles by Bert Ashe
Book cover: Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles by Bert Ashe

In Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, author Bert Ashe examines his decision to grow dreadlocks while exploring the hairstyle’s history and cultural significance. The personal and often humorous narrative invites the reader to share in Ashe’s dreadlock journey of discovery, not only about twisting hair, but about himself. Continue reading “My Thoughts on Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles”

My Thoughts on Destiny of the Republic

Book cover.
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Assassin Charles Guiteau believed he was doing God’s work in killing President James Garfield. Surely he would be rewarded with the consulship to France he long sought; surely Vice-president Chester Author would be delighted and grateful by Guiteau’s deed; surely General William Tecumseh Sherman would come to free Guiteau from his jail cell; and surely the American people would celebrate and insist he become president, himself.

Guiteau’s flights of fancy followed his flights from creditors all his life; he would bluff and borrow then skip town, chasing one idea after the next till he hit upon the idea that killing the president would turn his fortunes around. The man’s delusions were astounding to read.

Guiteau is only one part of Candice Millard’s well-researched, but never for a moment dull, book on the events surrounding the assassination of the twentieth president. What unfolds are tales of life’s ironies interwoven with tragic results for Garfield, his physician D. Willard Bliss, Alexander Graham Bell, Arthur, the spoils system, Robert Lincoln, and on and on.

For a man who never sought to be president, there were few so worthy to be one as Garfield.

My Thoughts on Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild by Nicola GriffithHild is an amazing historical novel. I can’t recall another recent novel that so superbly puts me in the world the author creates. The work seems effortless. Whenever I open the book, it’s only a sentence or two till I’m back in seventh-century Britain. Author Nicola Griffith’s skill is par excellence. The narrative is lush, scented, textured, alive.

The book is Griffith’s recreation of the life of the very real Hild (Saint Hilda of Whitby) based on the scant documents of her and that period that survive today. Seamlessly woven into the real historic figures and events of the period are Griffith’s fictional characters and circumstances.

Hild is a young girl and niece to King Edwin. In the midst of clashing tribes, Christianity is making inroads on the island, replacing the old gods. But superstition still holds, and Hild’s visions come to pass, earning the king’s trust and favor, while also earning the enmity of the chief priest Paulinus, who sees her as a rival and a witch. As her influence grows so does the danger.

Finished Reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Cover of Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of eight short stories written by Karen Russell. Each story takes the reader to a different time and a different place. All are vivid and touched with magical realism, though Russell’s own writing borders on otherworldly – effortlessly drawing you into these fantastical, sometimes funny, stories.

  • “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” features vampires seeking to slake their thirst on something other than blood.
  • “Reeling for the Empire” is about captive girls made into silkworms.
  • “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” is where a boy discovers these birds are hoarding stolen bits of the future.
  • “Proving Up” is a ghostly tale set during the homesteading period of U.S. history.
  • “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is my favorite (perhaps due to my fondness for U.S. presidential history). A funny speculation about what happened to some of these presidents after they died.
  • “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a no-nonsense primer for hard core fans of Team Krill who trek to the bottom of the world for the annual competition.
  • “The New Veterans” is about a massage therapist whose patient has an unusual tattoo that changes beneath her hands.
  • “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is about a group of bullies who discover a scarecrow that has an unsettling likeness to that of their victim.

My Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

Cover of novel Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.

What if vampires exist and the 16th president of the United States made a vow to destroy each and every one of them? It’s the central idea of the novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Lincoln’s hatred for the undead begins when he learns that a vampire took his mother’s life. Hot-headed and heedless of danger, he clumsily seeks them out, swinging his trusty ax into the heads and hearts of those he finds. Along the way, he gains allies and a patron, who reveals to Lincoln that the vampires have a grander design for America, and he, Lincoln, has a greater destiny in opposing them.

The idea certainly intrigued me, but while there are admirable elements found in the novel, on the whole, the idea was more gimmick than story.

The writing quality is strong and the author captures the voice of Lincoln and those around him with apparent authenticity (as well as this non-Lincoln-expert can tell). To the point where, especially in passages of Lincoln’s younger life, the writing could pass for creative non-fiction. The voice is authoritative and engaging, painting vivid scenes of young Lincoln, his father and mother, and their hardscrabble years. The details are either well researched or well fabricated. (Less convincing are the “historical” pictures interspersed in the novel.)

But the life of Lincoln is as well known as any historical figure can be. What is really there to add? Where is there room? We all the know the arc of his story. The novel is much like those photographs — something lifted from real history and manipulated to insert a vampire. And like those photographs, flat, bordered, awkward.

I had joked on Twitter while reading this that the story would have been better served if it was Millard Fillmore: Vampire Hunter. Take the most forgettable, inconsequential of U.S. presidents and give him the story of fighting vampires. There would be more potential for humor and suspense. Whereas Lincoln might turn over in his grave with this novel — hadn’t he enough real horror and tragedy in his life? — Fillmore might sit up and read it. A chance at being talked about, remind the world he existed as the last Whig party president and opener of relations with Japan.

I was willing to read further than I otherwise would have as the first third of the book was slow to start. What didn’t help also was the framing, such as it was. The narrator exists in present day and is entrusted with the secret journals of Abraham Lincoln. The narrative flits between the narrator (third-person) and the journal entries (first-person). I did not care for this, finding it distracting too often.

Also, the narrator has no story of his own. He does not even complete the “frame,” as he doesn’t “appear” after the setup in the introduction. It’s as though he was forgotten. And it isn’t convincing that the narrator, as much as we are to know him at all, could relate the tale in the voice and with the knowledge that he does.

At the bottom of it, I guess I just wasn’t that interested in the  fate of any of the characters. Again the writing is good, but somehow it failed to  connect with me.

Book review: The Impersonator by Mary Miley

Book cover of The Impersonator by Mary Miley.
The Impersonator by Mary Miley.

Leah Randall has been acting all her life, but her talent for timing, impressions, and improvisation will be put to the test. Success will mean more money than she can count, while failure will mean prison, perhaps worse.

After seeing her vaudeville performance twice, Oliver Beckett is convinced that Leah is in fact his long lost niece Jessie Carr. The resemblance is unmistakable. No one knows what had happened to the girl who disappeared seven years ago, but if she turns up by her 21st birthday, she’ll inherit the family fortune.

Perhaps Leah is not Jessie, but all the same, Oliver persuades her that with his help, she can convince the family and the fortune’s trustees’ that she is truly Jessie. Of course, Oliver will expect his share, enough to sustain his appetites for the rest of his life.

Well prepared by Oliver’s lessons on Jessie’s life, home, and family, Leah journeys to San Francisco to meet with the trustees, then live at the Carr family home, Cliff House, at the very edge of Dexter, Oregon. The new Jessie overcomes suspicions, reuniting with her family as though she had never left. But one family member is not convinced at all. Then the bodies of strangled women begin appearing.

The Impersonator is superbly written, transporting the reader to 1924 with expert, passing details such as the “four pans of oxalic acid” to keep bugs out of beds, the contemporary attitudes on race and women, and the yet-to-be-famous faces. A delightful peek at the days of vaudeville and life during Prohibition, the novel moves along nicely, maintaining the mystery of the true Jessie’s ultimate fate, and concluding with a smashing finish.

This debut novel is a personal pleasure, as I have read Mary Miley’s early drafts of it. I am thrilled to read its published, polished, and justly-laureled form.

Review of Rationality Zero

Rationality Zero, by J.M. Guillen, is a sci-fi novel where a team of agents investigate and eliminate creatures from another reality. While on mission, the agents are cool, calm and deadly; but when they are off the clock, they lead ordinary lives, unaware of the covert  assignments they had performed, their memories having been wiped.

The opening was a little precarious for me (due to my unfamiliarity), but once I found my stride, I was immersed in this sci-fi story. It follows our protagonist Michael Bishop and his teammates Wyatt and Anya as they take on a mission given to them by the Facility. They are to travel to Nevada and look into strange readings pinging out there. The mission takes on larger proportions than anticipated, and lacking backup and resources, the team finds itself facing horrors that threaten their sanity, if not their lives.

Each agent is equipped with something like cybernetics and performance-enhancing drugs. Through the Facility’s Lattice, a sort of communications network, each agent is able to send thoughts and receive dossiers and other mission-pertinent information. The access point is a crown of one of his or her teeth. Agents can select among a number of skills and reality-pressing abilities to slot into themselves.

The Facility charges its agents with confronting beings that come from a different reality. These realities have their own physics and logic. Agents can perceive weaknesses in our reality where these creatures can push through. Rationality zero represents our ordinary experiences; the further from zero, the weirder things get.

(The world that Guillen has created reminded me of the Technocrats from the role-playing game, Mage: the Ascension.)

Guillen deftly describes Michael’s immediate world – his gear, the investigation, the horrors. There is confidence in the writing, supported by the shop talk and jargon the characters employ without explanation of their meaning, relying on context of the story to carry that. It’s done well. As is the eeriness, other-worldliness, of the creatures Michael and his teammates encounter. The moments are vivid and suspenseful.

But what gave me trouble in the beginning was the vagueness of the mundane world. When are we? My sense is it is the present or near enough. Is the technology that Michael has access to known by the general population? The horrors the team fights, what is their purpose? Are they simply animals living in an ecosystem that borders our reality, and somehow tear through in some aimless way, or is there intention behind their incursions, and if so, what? In the wider world, what have these creatures done to warrant teams like Michael’s to be formed and take action? Is the Facility a government entity or some shadow organization?

The book would have benefited from a longer look at Michael’s civilian life to give the reader answers to these questions.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the story and would be up for reading more about Michael’s adventures as long as I get a wider view of his world next time.

Finished Lives

Earlier, I had posted my concern about possibly not enjoying Lives: Perception is Reality, by JJ McMoon. Once reading it, such concern was left behind.

Earlier, I had posted my concern about possibly not enjoying Lives: Perception is Reality, by JJ McMoon. Once reading it, such concern was left behind. The novel clips along briskly, full of fist-to-the-gut lines, realistic characters and memorable scenes.

What is a real credit to the writing is the author deftly telling eight separate stories, each from the 1st-person point-of-view, while flipping forward and backward in time within each of those lives, while reeling out a thread that ties them all together by the end.

This thread is the question: What do we make of coincidences in our lives? Are they truly chance encounters or milestones on destiny’s path?

Be aware that the book is full of explicit language, sex and violence, though I don’t see any of it as gratuitous.

Have you read it? What did you think?