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Chance's Take on Books

I'm a novelist who loves to read and discuss all things word-bound.

Currently reading

Swann's Way
Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style
Virginia Tufte
The Chicago Manual of Style
John Grossman, Margaret D. Mahan
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
Steve Earle
Exit Ghost - Philip Roth
I need not critique Roth, I think. He is a skilled and professional writer recognized as such through numerous awards, etc. Instead, I'll use this review to remind myself of what was interesting and instructive about this novel: 1) The narrative flow, sentence construction, and all mechanics of writing are smoothly modeled here, and make for good reference. I simply enjoyed the writing. 2) The overwhelming theme, and one that will be useful for understanding a population of humanity that I'll not directly experience: the aging of successful men "has-beens" as they look back on their lives and interact with the young "not-yets" and all the emotional turmoil that entails. Women have their version, I'm certain, but I felt an empathy for the physical and emotional adaptations that come with aging. They were especially poignant here--perhaps due to the modern references of 9/11 and the tragedy of Bush's re-election. All that pain is a tad more bearable in hind-sight, and through a pair of old man's glasses.
Art Does (Not!) Exist - Rosalyn Drexler
I wasn't going to review this, but a thought occurred this morning when I recognized similarities between this novel and [b:Infinite Jest|6759|Infinite Jest|David Foster Wallace|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1165604485s/6759.jpg|3271542]. Drexler doesn't go over-the-top as much as Foster, and the book is much more concise, yet there is a flavor -- perhaps a brand of creativity -- that I enjoyed in both. They have messages about entertainment and art in modern society that motors both plots. Drexler is more stable, perhaps due to her age at the writing as compared to Foster, who was still so very young. Anyway, just something that made me go Hmmmmmm.
Pink Water - James  Field
This is the second installment of The Cloud Brothers series. I suggest reading [b:Gathering Clouds...|13454738|Gathering Clouds...|James Field|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328520555s/13454738.jpg|18982195] first because I believe I would have enjoyed Pink Water more had I already been acquainted with the Cloud Brothers, their parents, and the insect aliens.

Pink Water is a YA Science Fiction story, and is appropriate for the younger range of that genre except for one scene with strong language. The lessons of peaceful socialization, empathy, and anger management would work well in the younger age range.

One thing that struck me about the writing was that a good 85% or more of the text seemed to be dialogue. Descriptive prose was sparse and mostly used to change scenes. The dialogue was close to life rather than fictionalized, which added redundancy and characterized verbal tics that seemed a bit overused.

The plot was clear and brought to completion. It suffered from mid-novel drag, but pulled off a large action scene at the end. For avid readers of science fiction, no new ground was covered, but for those exploring the genre, the swim in Pink Water should be fun.

I received a free copy in exchange for a non-reciprocal, honest review.
The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany, Neil Gaiman
This was a pleasure. I read in the evenings and for this novel, I always looked forward to returning daily to the poetic prose and magical landscape of Elfland. The writer, you can tell, is mature and steady in his craft, beautiful minded, and simply perfect. His voice is calming and rich. Something interesting--I loved [b:Infinite Jest|6759|Infinite Jest|David Foster Wallace|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1165604485s/6759.jpg|3271542] too, but that novel is 180 degrees different from [b:The King of Elfland's Daughter|14686|The King of Elfland's Daughter|Lord Dunsany|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320543666s/14686.jpg|16704]. Foster's voice, while clever and insightful, felt unstable, wobbly, and exploring the world like a bright child might, grabbing hold of shiny objects and giving sometimes rather eloquent descriptions of human frailty. Lord Dunsany, on the other hand, is full, mature, ripe and steady. His messages and observations are subtle, deep, and time flows like a ancient running stream. I loved both, but this one, I read with a hungry heart.
The Fleshless Man - Norman Prentiss
The Fleshless Man is a creepy novella about monsters inside and outside--monsters in stories and dreams, in sickness, and in people we love, as well as those we should love but don't. Now these monsters aren't the sort that can crush you or tear you apart with sharp incisors. No, the monsters here are decrepit, repulsive, and needy. They slurp and drool as you feed them, and feed them you must, for, like the superstitions of sailors, killing such perversions of nature could threaten our own survival--or so they say, and we fear they might be right. But we dream of killing them--those who linger painfully in life and bring us dis-ease. Yes, for me, this somewhat disjointed novella was about monsters.
Noah's Ark - Andrew J.  Morgan
Noah's Ark should be enjoyed with the mind's visualization eye, like a graphic novel. Fun elements abound -- mutant zombies who are coordinated and quick moving, Matrix-like cyberspace adventures, and tension enough to keep the reader turning pages -- all wonderful. I enjoyed the imaginative plot, which was a fresh mixing of technology with horror film nail biting. I "watched" the action in movie form, as though it were a storyboard or script. For such accomplishments alone, I would rate the novel 4 stars.

However, I cannot deny the literary tastes that have come from my years of studying writing and reading great writers. In my opinion, and please understand that many readers will not to agree -- but for me, the writing is the weak link and detracted from my enjoyment enough that I can not award 4 stars. The heavy use of adjectives, adverbs, clunky text and cliches got in the way of the story's momentum. Commercialism is king, however, and I have the same criticism for many bestsellers, so what do I know? Still, words are important to me. Since the prose stabbed at my more writer-ly sensibilities, I have to give 2 stars for that.

Averaging the marks, a solid 3 stars, meaning I liked the novel. Noah's Ark is a fine first effort and the author's raw talent is evident. With additional polishing and editing, this will be a thrilling work, even for curmudgeons like me.

(I received a free copy of the book in exchange for a non-reciprocal review.)
Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) - Iain M. Banks
This is a world, fully fleshed, with the concept of what constitutes humanity expanded, then the concept of consciousness and alien races stretched beyond that--Space Opera to the pores.

The plot--an artificial intelligence called simply the mind makes a grand escape, hides, and is sought by its enemies, and we are allowed inside its head, so to speak. Two cultures are at war, one cold and perfect intelligent and analytical, yet with hopes and dreams, the other a brave, noble race of warriors fighting to extinguish the influence of artificiality. Alliances are formed.

The protagonist fascinated, drawing me into resonance, then shocked me with differentiation allowing innovative characteristics within the definition of humanity. Actions are ripe with laughter and tragedy, but written with a pragmatic hand that reinforced life in a galaxy with giants at war. The ending is grim, indeed, but a world has been built and I'm drawn to visit the next adventure.
Thirty Miles South Of Dry County - Kealan Patrick Burke
Congratulations to Kealan Patrick Burke for Thirty Miles South of Dry Country appearing on the final ballot for the 2012 Bram Stoker Awards.

For a horror novella, this was spot on. The voice of Warwick Tanner, the story's plot & pacing, and characterizations in general were all polished, phrasing professionally turned, subtly horrifying, and thoroughly entertaining.

At heart, the story is about aging, loneliness, and loss. The creepy aspect feeds on vulnerability, yet, in a way, redeems it. Sad, creepy, and finally, one can't help but think a certain amount of satisfaction is swirled in with the sinister results. If you like your horror without glistening gore--if you like the sinister to creep up behind you, and block the exit--then I would expect you'll love this tale.

The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley
Increasingly, I'm learning that perception is far more complicated than I ever imagined. Sight, as an example, isn't simply eyes acting like cameras, sending image data to the brain for interpretation. An article in the online journal, Nature, described the mechanism by which the brain "sees" what our eyes are going to see before our eyes see it. This is why we don't view the world through what would otherwise look like a hand-held camera. Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has shown that "the human retina can transmit data at roughly 10 million bits per second."

What the brain does with this data is amazing. For one thing, it compensates for anything that prevents us from seeing things as normal. In 1896, George Stratton experimented with eyeglasses that inverted his vision. After a few days, his brain adapted and Stratton saw everything the right way up.

The brain, needing to process data rapidly, is predisposed to see a perceptual set, which means we see what we expect to see, based largely on prior experience. No wonder children look at the world with such wide eyes--they are truly looking, whereas adults are watching re-runs. All this is necessary from an evolutionary point-of-view, since survival depends on quick data interpretation and reaction--useful for escaping lions, for example.

In The Doors of Perception, (published in 1956), Huxley recounts his personal experience with mescalin and its effect on his senses and thought processes. An interesting springboard into the discussion was Huxley's admission of being quite ordinary in artistic skills, yet wanting to see the world as an artist sees it. Likewise, he wanted to see and feel about the world as would a mystic. Most of the essay described exactly that.

An interesting section, which I expect has been more thoroughly researched by now, discusses adrenochrome, a product of the decomposition of adrenalin. Huxley wrote that adrenochrome "can produce many of the symptoms observed in mescalin intoxication. But adrenochrome probably occurs spontaneously in the human body. In other words, each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause profound changes in consciousness. Certain of these changes are similar to those which occur in that most characteristic plague of the twentieth century, schizophrenia."

Mescalin, it seems, along with chemicals found naturally in the body, can shake up the way the brain normally filters and manipulates data input. Huxley thought it prevented the brain from filtering input from our senses, thereby making everything intense and amazing. The end result was to make other things less important, such as the idea of the individual and our self-importance. If we have a finite capability for 'input', then it stands to reason that turning the valve on the senses will change other aspects of our world view. Huxley coined a term, Mind at Large, which I rather liked--

“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large."

In any case, I enjoyed this slim volume as it connects scientific inquiry with what seems to me to be a higher pursuit of our consciousness. The other edge of the sword is that one cannot operate or navigate in this world, outside a lock down mental facility, with other than a brain that functions within certain margins of filtration. While under the influence of mescalin, Huxley lost interest in relationships and all sorts of trivial pursuits necessary to sustain life in society. Seems we are as we need to be, and if one wants to pursue other avenues of consciousness, they'll have to do so within certain limitations.

Sidenote from internet search: "On his deathbed, unable to speak, Huxley made a written request to his wife for "LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular". According to her account of his death, in This Timeless Moment, she obliged with an injection at 11:45 am and another a couple of hours later. He died at 5:21 pm on 22 November 1963, aged 69."

One can't help but wonder what that trip was like.
The Beginning of This, the End of That: Part 1: The End - James E. Matteson James E. Matteson's debut novel, The Beginning of This, the End of That is one unique and ambitious mixing of a post-apocalyptic utopia with fantasy adventure--complete with those irritable and vindictive gods of yore, dual-edged magic potions, and elves, lots of elves--carrying with it an exploration of philosophical topics that range from spiritual paths to governmental rules. For the author's bravery in the telling, the story deserves 5 stars.

The fantasy adventure is presented as a series of legendary tales starring two college graduate students who step through a portal into what appears to be medieval Europe. If that sounds convoluted, just you wait, because the story of those students, who I suspect are from a time in our future, are also about 1000 years older than the book's principal narrator--a fictional editor who provides commentary and generally helps the reader keep the tales in perspective--which is no easy task.

But, it works--mainly due to how the story is framed: An iron asteroid hits the earth, wiping out civilization. A new civilization is formed and evolves peacefully. Story/legends/myths, as always, become the vehicle of history and ideas, as well as a means to ask questions, such as, was the Earth hit by an asteroid, or was the previous civilization purposely destroyed by an alien race? 1000 years later, from this new utopian civilization, a scholar at a university publishes a series of myths with illuminating editorial. One word of advice for those planning to read this novel--the footnotes are essential components of the story.

On the subject of the many tangled subjects explored by The Beginning of This, the End of That--this is not a philosophy primer, but one that jumps directly into some of the more interesting nuances. Those with some subject background will recognize and appreciated the depth. One can tell the author has given his topics considerable thought.

This is not a lazy read, and if you try to read it when you should be dozing, I expect you could become quite lost. It's worth the effort however, as are most novels that are in fact, novel.
Bottled Abyss - Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Congratulations to Benjamin Ethridge for Bottled Abyss appearing on the final ballot for the 2012 Bram Stoker Awards.

Bottled Abyss is a novel in the horror genre, so one expects physical and psychological gore, but what I found most interesting and enjoyable was the River Styx folklore brought forward to a modern setting where the mythical cosmology is developed into a fascinating scenario far more frightening than brain spatter. The buildup was restrained in pace, but held my interest enough to keep pages turning when, with all plates on sticks sent spinning, action and wild imagination really kicked in and during the final quarter, a tantalizing discovery brought the entire story into tight focus, at which point I said, "Whew, that was pretty damn cool."
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Tales that Truly Terrifiy from the Master of Horror - H. P. Lovecraft
To the best of my recollection, this may have been my first reading of H.P. Lovecraft. Seems unlikely, I know. What I found is that Lovecraft is as familiar as meat on a stick, seen at carnivals and malls everywhere. I feel as though I know Lovecraft's work, for I've read those who influenced him (Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood), and I've read or seen films by multitude of writers influenced by him, such as Steven King and Brian Lumley, for example. I wasn't aware until now that Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos which you'll find in music, comic books, video games, and who knows what else in modern culture. Lovecraft is everywhere -- shocking! During my brief research, I discovered that a fictional book Lovecraft refers to often in his stories, "The Necronomicon," is believed by some Christian fundamentalist groups to be a real book. Amazing, isn't it, how writers' imaginations can create generational uproars? Therefore, although I have no memory of reading a Lovecraft story before this book, I probably have, either directly or indirectly, because I'm a child of a culture with a deep thumbprint of Lovecraft upon it.

The collection of stories I've read was put out by the Carlton Publishing Group, not by Createspace which has a cover by the same name, but of poorer quality and fewer stories, or so I'm told. So, be careful out there. Here are the titles in the Prion copy:

Herbert Wesst - Reanimator
The Rats in the Walls
The Call of Cthulhu
THe Dunwich Horror
The Whisperer in the Darkness
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow over Innsmouth
The Shadow Out of Time
The Haunter of the Dark
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Quite a nice selection, as it turns out. Most of Lovecraft's works are public domain, but, as expected, lots of legal wrangling went on after his death (he died young! Only 47!). I loved that he was generous with his work, encouraging others to borrow from his stories, etc. In fact, the more I read about Lovecraft, the more I would have liked to have known him.

Almost forgot that I was here to write a review. Overall, I was enthralled, but the ideas are so ingrained, that they felt familiar rather than fresh. I could accurately anticipate much of the plot and was only surprised two or three times in over 600 pages--that is how deeply I've been seeped in Lovecraft's influence!

The benefit of this was that it allowed me to think outside the plot. I could ask myself, why is this or that so frightening? What cosmology has Lovecraft created here? Etc. This led to explorations of Cosmicism, which is Lovecraft's philosophy (from Wiki) "that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos, ever susceptible to being wiped from existence at any moment." I see now why Lovecraft has such ardent supporters. His philosophy resonates and can displace the notion of a man-centric universe that requires a personal god with a notion that we don't know what the hell is out there. I imagine, for that, Lovecraft was discredited and a bit feared.

Fear. That is what we go to horror for, isn't it? We love to fear without real danger, but Lovecraft doesn't let us off the hook so easily. You are an insect, he says, and there are things that go slop and slurp in the shadows that will eventually destroy you, and you will never see or understand them. That, folks, is cosmic horror, and it doesn't need gore to send chills. Reading Lovecraft can be pretty amazing if you have courage, entertaining if viewed on merely a plot level, but quite disturbing, perhaps, if you are of a highly sensitive nature. Reading it is your choice, of course, but Lovecraft has most likely worked his way in your psyche already.
Iron Jackal (Tale of the Ketty Jay) - Chris Wooding

Yum. I've had my Firefly fix.


The fun continues. Silo comes alive, Jez learns to enjoy being dead, and Captain Frey grows up some (but not too much), and a new crew member joins the band of merry swashbucklers we've come to know and love. Good romp and a good read for snappy dialogue, well-written action scenes, and exciting adventure.

The Willows - Algernon Blackwood At this point in my reading career, I don't believe I've read better building and rendering of fear than The Willows by Blackwood. The writing--word choice, dialogue--everything around those moments of terror were so evocative, I felt them, all while lying safely beneath a roof, on the sofa. The plot is simple--two men rowing a boat along the Danube River. They camp in an area overgrown with Willows. From that point, the mix of terror in the imagination, and subtle hints in the environment, is simply, excellent. The dialogue too, takes a sinister turn, along with the rushing of wind and gurgle of water. Amazingly well done, this fear, without gore or slashers or zombies. The Willows was a personal favorite of Lovecraft, so I was curious, and now I understand why. I intend to revisit the story and dissect how he did it, but for this first read, I was enthralled.
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."

I had a strong urge to read this novel. Perhaps it was the title, a quote from one of the witches in [b:Macbeth|8852|Macbeth|William Shakespeare|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327866505s/8852.jpg|1896522] where she says she can tell something evil is about to come because of the way her thumbs are itching. In the next two lines, she welcomes that evil--open the door, let it in (which reminds me of a Paul McCartney song....). Anyway, what a wonderful title! And who can resist a sinister carnival rolling into town? So, I was hooked.

Other reviewers have mentioned loving this novel in their youth, which is understandable due to its two young protagonists, Will and Jim. Boyhood is at once idealized and fraught with danger in the form of devices, both fleshy and mechanical. The one adult who connects with the children, stands both small and tall, in the eyes of the boys, as often a parent will do. And it is the parent who grows and leads and helps, so security is provided in a fearful world. Things are scary, but the good people can prevail. Or maybe not, since I don't want to give anything away....

For me, and I'm no longer young in years, this story is about time and the possible disasters of aging. The Wicked of the title is that future you--old and wrinkled and weak. And for all, it is coming. However, the story offers hope. It offers a way to nullify the wickedness of time. The secret is a matter of perspective. The secret is to look it in the eye, and laugh. To go ahead and run with the boys if you wish. We have the power to overcome the dread that awaits us, by not crying over lost youth or trembling in fear. Step outside the finite, and you will be amazed at the world again.

In summary, I enjoyed the story and loved its ability to speak across the ages. The lack of a fifth star is due to the style of prose that bothered me at times--still highly recommended though, for the springboard into thoughtfulness.
At Her Majestys Request: An African Princess In Victorian England - Walter Dean Myers What is commendable about this work is that Walter Dean Myers has unearthed an amazing story that otherwise would have been lost forever in a decaying package of letters and diary entries in the British Royal archives. Myers hired professional researchers to ensure accuracy in his telling of Sarah Forbes Bonetta's life journey and I had the feeling he never wanted to overstep the bounds of a faithful historian. I applaud the effort and am thankful to Myers for his insight and dedication to bring Sarah's story to light.

The sketchiness of detail and human interaction left me wanting more. I'd love Sarah's biography to be written again by someone willing to step into her shoes and write as she might have experienced a life as an 8 year old African princess saved from death at the hands of brutal King Ghezo of Dahomey and then given to Queen Victoria, who became her patron and the god-mother of her daughter. But, I've read the story of Ghengis Khan by [a:Conn Iggulden|119121|Conn Iggulden|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1235073163p2/119121.jpg], for example, and watched the Khans live and breathe, so I know what can be done.

To write Sarah's novel would require bravery. Myers alluded to what may have been flaws in Sarah's character. Given the privileges she enjoyed, a tendency to become haughty or spoiled is likely. However, I believe her married life had a turning point that would be amazing to explore. But I'm off track. Sorry. In short, this was a fascinating story about a fascinating time in history--it was just a little too short.