Category: book review

Book Review: Boy’s Life

Boy’s Life came out back in 1991, so I realize it might be old news to some of you, but I came across it recently due to a sale that was running on Kindle. As usual, I jaunted over to Goodreads to check out the reviews, and this one just seemed like a home run, so I bought it. Finally got around to reading it, and I absolutely adored it. The best comparison I can think of is that it’s a light horror version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, I realize that’s setting this book up against one of the most beloved American novels of the last ever, but I don’t think that’s too big of a stretch.

It follows a year in the life of a 12 year-old boy in Alabama in 1964. The big plot arc is focused on a murder that happens at the start of the book, as the boy wonders who did it and why something like that would happen in his small hometown. But interspersed throughout all the murder mystery are slice-of-life elements about school, work, small town life, and growing up. McCammon does a fantastic job with his prose, describing it all in a way that’s both beautiful and engrossing. (Two things that don’t always pair up in books.)

Despite the POV of the main character, it’s important to note this is definitely not a YA book. Not that the content in it would be bad for kids, but the style is much more mature. Think of it as the literary equivalent of the Christmas Story movie. It’s told by the main character when he’s already much older, looking back on the events from that year of his childhood. As a result, there’s much more reflection and idealization of the plot, and McCammon definitely indulges in many asides and mini soap boxes. Some have objected to that, but once I got used to the device, I didn’t mind it. The point of view is so consistent, those asides ended up only making it richer, in my opinion.

Additionally, the extra space away from those events makes it so the narrator can add context to what was happening historically. Having written my fair share of first person novels, it can be hard sometimes to hold back from going on side tangents–but you have to, because those are tangents a 16-year-old would make. Having an adult looking back on it makes some things strong and some weaker. It’s less immediate, but this isn’t that sort of a book. I really enjoyed seeing how much life could change in that one year, as the narrator went from being a boy to a young man, the nation wrestled with racial tensions and changing technologies, and the town struggled to stay relevant in a world that was already beginning to leave little towns behind.

In the end, it’s a lovely book. Well-written, accessible, engrossing, and just plain fun to read. I’m really glad I finally had a chance to get to it, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to give it a shot. 10/10

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Book Review: The House of Salt and Sorrows

I just finished this retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and it made me think of a number of things that I wanted to go into a longer discussion of. It was an interesting read for a number of reasons. On the one hand, I really dig creepy gothic horror, and Craig does a fantastic job of upping the creep factor throughout the book. But at the same time, I really dislike romance subplots. I know this is probably a weakness of mine, not those plots. I mean, as an author, I realize there are many many people out there who love romance, so it would probably be in my best interest to throw some more passion into my books.

But I just can’t bring myself to do it, or at least, I haven’t been able to so far. The simple truth is that almost any book with a heavy romance plot is going to fall somewhat flat for me. So the fact that I’m still giving House of Salt and Sorrows four out of five stars should tell you just how much I loved the creepy.

Writing a good creepy scene, in my opinion, takes a number of elements to pull off. First, you need to be quite present in the scene itself. You have to take the time as an author to dwell on the details, and you have to take the time to think about just why those details would be so off-putting. There’s a scene in this book where the main character confronts an animal’s corpse. She feels terrible for it, but then she notices that it’s still moving. That’s pretty terrible to imagine: something that’s so hurt it looks like it’s dead, but it hasn’t passed yet?

And then Craig shows why the critter is still moving: it’s almost bursting with maggots. When they all explode, raining down the corpse . . . that’s an image that’s going to stick with you for a while. Yes, I realize to some of you that just sounds disgusting and makes you want to never read the book, but I was seriously impressed, especially because in-scene it’s much, much better executed.

The book has so many scenes like that, and Craig deftly weaves in the other necessity to make something really creepy: give the scene time to unfold. I suppose that goes hand in hand with providing plenty of details, but I think it’s more than that. A scene can move as quickly or as slowly as an author wants. Imagine a scene where a character goes into a room for the first time. It could be fast: she goes in, glances around, and leaves. Or it could be slow: she goes in and is awed by the parquet flooring and the crystal chandeliers. She sits down at the piano in the room and plinks out a few notes, noticing it’s out of tune. She can stay in that room for hours, if the author really wanted her to. There are all sorts of actions a character can take that prolong the action of the scene.

Details don’t do that. You can inundate a reader with tons of detail, spending four pages to describe the piano and its history. While that might take a while to read, it doesn’t do much (in my opinion) to extend the scene itself. It just stops the action while you take a long digression.

So to be really creepy, a scene has to have enough action to justify its length, and enough detail to hit home. It’s a balance you need to walk, and I was seriously impressed with how well Craig did it.

In any case, if you love romance and creep, then do I have the book for you. If you just love romance and not creep, then I’d steer clear. If you just love creep and not romance, then you’ll still have a great time with this one. 8/10

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

It’s Not You, Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s Me

I’m a completionist at heart. I like finishing what I started, though over the years I’ve been able to wean myself away from the innate need to finish any book I start reading. I also don’t generally write reviews of books that I didn’t like, simply as a professional courtesy to other authors. But here’s the thing: I liked book 8 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (Toll the Hounds). Steven Erikson does a tremendous job of making epic fantasy really feel epic. When the book is clicking, it’s really riveting stuff. I care about the characters, I’m in suspense about what’s going to happen next. It’s heady stuff. There were scenes in the book that were fantastic.

And yet I gave the book a 7/10, and I made the decision to not continue with books 9 and 10 to finish the series.

I’m 80% of the way through the books, and I’m stopping? What the what?

The problem is that I just don’t get what’s going on for long swathes of the series. When we talk about epic fantasy, we talk about steep learning curves. The amount of time and attention you have to devote to the book to be able to really understand what’s happening. In fantasy, anything is possible, so it takes some time before you can understand the way a world works. What the rules are of that world. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, typically because the pay off is really good. I think of Neal Stephenson’s books. Anathem was totally confusing and bewildering, until suddenly I got it, and then I devoured the rest.

In earlier books in the Malazan series, I felt that same experience. At some point, the story would crystallize, and I’d be off and running. But the longer I read the series, the more I began to feel like I wasn’t up to the task anymore. I would find myself pausing reading to go look up the Malazan wiki to see just who it was who I was reading about at the moment. I couldn’t remember plot lines. Couldn’t keep track of character arcs.

It was like I was watching a movie through a bad internet connection, and so I kept missing huge chunks of what was going on, and I just ended up bewildered. And the further I went into the series, the more severe this became. New characters were introduced to the point that it felt kind of like I was staring at a Where’s Waldo page, except I knew if I were smart enough, then I’d be able to remember what everyone on that page was doing other than Waldo, and I’d really care about it.

In the end, I just can’t keep it up. Yes, I’m two books away from the finish line. I had thought if I read the series in one big go, then it would all make sense. I thought wrong. And I’ve resigned myself to that. There was a time in my life where that sort of book was just what I was looking for. That time in my life isn’t now. It’s not because the books are bad. It’s because they don’t work for me, even if I wish they did.

If anyone ever asks me for a recommendation for a really epic fantasy, Malazan will be right at the top of my list. But it’ll come with a disclaimer. An acknowledgement that the series was beyond me personally, though I really enjoyed pieces of it. That might sound like faint praise, and it’s certainly conflicted, but it’s not every day you come across a series you both love and yet also realize isn’t quite for you.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Book Review: Wintersteel

Wintersteel by Will Wight

Generally speaking, I almost never buy books the day they’re released. I also have very rarely actually enjoyed a self-published book. I tend to think I have only a certain number of books I have time to read, and so I’m fine having the wheels of publishing sort through the manuscripts out there so that I don’t have to.

So the fact that I bought Will Wight’s Wintersteel the very night it released, cleared my schedule to read it, and finished it two days later, says all you really need to know about the book. Wight has done a fantastic job marketing himself, often giving away all his current books for free because he seems to be just that confident that people will turn around and buy his later books at full price. It’s an approach that works for illegal substances, and it definitely works for the Cradle series, one of my favorite fantasy series to come out in quite some time

I believe I’ve reviewed at least some of these before, but the conceit is very straightforward. Think of a video game RPG. Final Fantasy, say. It’s all about leveling up your character, getting it able to do even more powerful things so that it can then go and fight more powerful monsters. You keep doing that until you beat the game, which basically means there are no more powerful monsters to find anywhere.

That’s the Cradle series. Each individual book is like an installment of a larger RPG, and his characters level up, gaining new powers and abilities so they can always face the next step. At some point, there’s going to have to be a big bad guy with no more bad guys after, but that point is not Wintersteel.

So why is a book that’s so straightforward so much fun to read? I mean, going into it, you know it’s not the final book, and so you’re almost certain what’s going to happen. The characters will level up, face adversity, and emerge more powerful than they were going into it. If playing an RPG doesn’t sound like a fun time to you, reading one probably won’t be any better. But to a guy who grew up pouring hours into Final Fantasy, reading up on all the strategies and figuring out how best to win?

This book is pure catnip.

Wight writes great action sequences. He manages to make all his characters have unique ways of fighting, so the action doesn’t just blend together. There’s always some new weapon or spell they’re working on, and you get a good enough grasp of how they all work that you can appreciate it when a character does something innovative to pull off a come from behind win. Are the characters the deepest ever? Nope. Are there sweeping themes that will leave you breathless? Definitely not. This is a popcorn book, plain and simple. You read it for the pyrotechnics and the fun.

It very much makes me want to write something like this.

In any case, if you’re looking for a way to escape the blah of the everything right now, and you like yourself a good RPG and a fantasy novel, then boy howdy is this series perfect for you. The only thing that I can critique it on is that it’s not finished yet, and so now I have to wait until the next book comes out. (There are two more planned for the series. One to come out in March, and one next September.) But I wouldn’t let that stop you from enjoying the 8 that are already out now. 9/10

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Book Review: The Testaments

I read The Handmaid’s Tale last year for the first time, and I was blown away by how well done it was. One of the most realistic dystopias I’ve read, which is depressing I suppose, since it was written decades ago and has only seemed to get more likely as a possible predictor for the future. (1984, of course, is another clear leader in the genre, and also depressing for the same reasons. But 1984 wasn’t quite as accessible to me as Handmaid’s Tale was. There’s a bigger learning curve involved, figuring out exactly what’s going on in 1984, though that might also just be that I read it so long ago. I probably need to give it another go . . . )

In any case, when I heard Atwood had written a sequel, decades later, I was suspicious at first, worried that it was just a money grab to tie in with the Hulu adaptation of the original. But it went on sale, and I was curious, and I’d loved the first one so much . . . how could I resist? I really wanted to know how she’d approach the sequel, since I felt the first one stood so well on its own. (Something she must have agreed with, since it went sequel-free for so many years.)

I shouldn’t have been suspicious at all. Atwood hit this book out of the park as well. If anything, it was more of a thriller than the first, and I found myself ripping through the last third, just wanting to know what happened next and how it all turned out.

The book is told through three viewpoints, all female: a Canadian middle-class teen, the daughter of a Gileadean Commander, and Aunt Lydia herself, the leader of all the Aunts in Gilead. By weaving between those three characters, we finally get to see a clearer picture of both what Gilead really looks like, how it came to be what it is, and what its future might be. It’s still not spelled out directly all the time–Atwood enjoys putting the puzzle pieces in front of her audience and letting them make connections on their own–but that’s part of the enjoyment of the series, as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more of the plot than that. If you were a fan of the original, I consider this one a must read. If you haven’t read the original, they’re both more than worth your time. If you didn’t care for the original . . . this one, as I said, is more accessible, and so might be worth a shot still. 10/10.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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