Category: book review

Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

I’m a well known fan of Groundhog Day, and I’ve loved seeing just how many time loop movies have come out since Phil first went to Punxsutawney. However, I haven’t seen much in the way of books that cover the same ground, so when I read the description of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I was more than a little intrigued.

The premise is fascinating. A select number of people in the world live their lives over and over and over again. Every time they die, they are reborn back on their original birthday, under their original circumstances. From then on, they are free to make different decisions than they originally made, though they remember all their previous lives. This essentially makes them much, much older than they appear, as a ten year old boy might in fact be on his seventh life, and have over 400 years of experience and memories to draw upon.

The book traces fifteen run throughs of one of those people: Harry August. The first part of the novel is mostly focused on showing how such a life would work. What trials and advantages would come with it. How exactly such an existence would play out. (In this way, it reminded me a little of the first half of Flatland, though not nearly as cerebral as that was.) Once you’ve got the hang of what’s going on, a new conflict is introduced: something has gone wrong in the future, and these special people are trying to do what they can to fix it by sending messages to the past.

I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, but that should be enough to give you a taste of what to expect.

The book is written in a non-linear fashion, which makes for a bit of a bewildering experience, and was my only real critique of the novel. Not that it makes it too confusing. In a way, I enjoyed seeing bits and pieces of the whole revealed over the course of the read, but it was a bumpy experience at times, and I would have liked to have it smoother.

That aside, it’s a terrific read and well worth your time. 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 this DON’T GO TO SLEEP 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.

Revisiting The Wheel of Time

After I watched the first season of The Wheel of Time on Amazon, I couldn’t help but try to remember just how much had changed from the source material. It had been nine years since I’d read anything of the series, despite having read the earlier books many many times. (I would guess I’ve read the first book, Eye of the World, around ten times, since I’d typically reread the whole series before each new book came out.) These days, I’m much more hesitant to reread books, simply because there are so many other books out there. Rereading the whole series (14 books plus the prequel) means about 12,000 pages of reading. 4,410,036 words, according to Wikipedia. When would I ever feel like reading that much of something again? Something that I’d already read so many times?

After the first season of the TV show, I decided the time had come. Yes, this meant I’d be reading beefy books, which might put my “1 book a week” goal in peril, but in the end I wanted to read the series again, so I did. I started it in January, and I finished it on Saturday. It took three and a half months, though during that time I also read two non-fiction books as preparation for my current novel, and Don’t Go to Sleep one more time for the page proofs.

Did I fall behind in my reading goal? Nope. I’m actually about 4 books ahead of where I need to be at this point in the year, which goes to show just what a difference reading a book you really love makes versus reading just anything. I finished the last two books in three days a piece. Plenty of times I was reading instead of doing pretty much anything else.

I realize that the series gets a fair bit of flack from some corners. There’s a popular perception that the middle of the series is particularly weak, with a lot of time spent doing a lot of nothing. Reading through the whole thing all at once helped me to see the series as one long work. There’s a weak spot indeed in Crossroads of Twilight, which almost felt like an experimental book to me. A “What if we just looked at a few days in the life of all of the characters for an entire book” sort of thing. There are a few scenes that do fine, but by and large the book could be skipped over without a huge impact on figuring out what’s happening in the book.

But other than that one, I enjoyed my time with all the others, giving them at least a 7/10. In the end, the series is noteworthy to me for a few reasons. First off, it actually has an end, and the payoff is worth it. So many of the looong series these days feel like they just sort of sputter or else spiral out of control. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is hailed by many as an excellent series, but to me, its writing is so dense as to be almost incomprehensible at times. I love the beginning five or six books, and then it just gets bewilderingly sloggy. Game of Thrones is still not finished and likely never to get finished. But with Wheel of Time, you’ve got a beginning, middle, and an end.

The final book is almost all payoff. It’s essentially one very long action sequence as all the different plots of the earlier 14 books come to a head.

People try to lambast the series, saying the writing is too simple, so I suppose if you’re in the market for high literature, this isn’t the place to come. But if you’re looking for page-turning epic fantasy that tells a great story, this is a great place to come. Perhaps that says something about me, but by and large, when I’m reading, I want to escape. I want to be entertained. If I want to think, I’ll read pieces online, but almost always reading is what I turn to for fun.

In the reread, I thought I’d notice the change from Jordan’s prose to Sanderson’s prose more than I did. I remember in my first read through that I felt like Matt became a different character. This time reading, that didn’t stand out to me. The story just kept rolling along, and I didn’t notice much in the way of differences. In many ways, I think allowing someone else to finish the series did a lot for The Wheel of Time, and it makes me wonder if George RR Martin wouldn’t be better served just hiring someone else to do what’s proving so difficult for him. Having someone else who’s both a fan and an excellent writer come along and tie things up allows the series to refocus itself. Back before Jordan passed away, the word on the street was there was just one book left to write. When Brandon signed on to write that one book, he looked at all the material and said it would be impossible to pull off. He’d need three books. Judging by how much happened in those final three books, he was very right. (This isn’t to say George RR Martin has to do anything. It’s his series, and he can write it or not, as he sees fit. But I’ll be stunned if we see another book out of him, let alone the rest of the series. So if fans want an actual resolution, they either need to watch the TV show or write their own. I’m confident some of them could do it.)

In any case, I got to the end of the final book, and I just sort of stared off into space. I’d been reading the same continuing story for so long, switching to something else was going to feel strange. In the end, I’m very glad I reread the series. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but I’d never read the whole thing straight through, and that’s a different experience than reading it one book at a time.

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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: 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.

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