Indie Review: The Painting by Ryan Casey

The-Painting-Final-600I like to group the horror genre into two categories: Lovecraft and King. Lovecraftian horror is weird, often relies on creatures of a sort, and is terrifying because Lovecraft was a master at “between the frames” writing–he leaves just enough open to interpretation that the reader fills in the blanks, ending up with a story tailor made to the reader’s own fears. Kingsian horror is often weird too–sometimes really out there–but more often than not is rooted in a believable and extremely detailed setting, with natural dialogue and organic characters. It’s effective because it feels so real. In my experience, most horror falls somewhere under one or the other of these categories, but it’s rare that a book does both. Speaking to the Eyes Indie favourite Ryan Casey manages to pull it off with his newest offering, The Painting (The Watching).

King and Lovecraft had very different styles of writing, and The Painting works as well as it does because Casey is able to emulate both while retaining his own unique voice. It’s essentially divided into two parts, which I’ll term the House and the Quest.
The House, consisting of the beginning and ending of the book, the main character–Donny–is set up as a writer desperate to get his creative juices flowing. He’s stagnated on his current book, and comes to an abandoned house in an effort to find some real inspiration. In the house he finds a painting–a painting featuring six mysterious figures who seem to moving closer and closer…and who are definitely watching him.
This part of the book has a delightfully gothic flavour–it reminded me a lot of Poe in the way it’s set up, though it had a nice conversational feel to it rather than that author’s usual stuffy prose. This is an opportunity for Casey to show off–I’ve said before that’s he’s got real talent for creating tension, and it pays off in spades here. It’s creepy, atmospheric, and (in parts) disturbing. In a good way, of course.

But the real character of the book comes through in the Quest. (That’s a bit of a misnomer, but the closest thing I could think of to describe this part without spoiling it.) Donny finds himself is an unusual situation, and needs to find his way out. He elicits help, but the odds are stacked against him–especially since he’s not clear on what exactly is going on. The tension is prevalent here, but in a different way; it’s a sense of foreboding panic that rises to a perfect climax. It’s a great middle to this narrative, and Casey does a great job in making sure that the built up tension doesn’t release too slowly so that it carries through into the last part of the book.
The great thing about the Quest is that it’s very different from the rest of the book. A lesser author would run into some trouble here–it could seem jumbled or incoherent. Instead, the juxtaposition works in Casey’s favour, and acts to strengthen the story as a whole. One of the conceits in this story is that Donny is continually unsure as to what’s happening around him–he questions the things he sees, ascribes it to an over-active imagination, even convincing himself he’s been lost in his own narrative. The differences in tone reinforce that theme.

But here’s the thing: the Quest part of the book is completely different. It’s jarring, and a bit weird–but it actually feels more sane than the rest of the book. This is closer to Kingsian horror. The characters and setting are vibrant, living things, and one has no trouble getting invested in what’s happening. Whereas Donny spends the previous couple dozen pages frightened and trembling (and rightly so), he seems more in control during this part. And yet, he shouldn’t–for reasons I can’t give without spoiling. This juxtaposition, in my mind, is the best thing about this story. It brings the story from a good horror tale to something completely unique–something I’ve come to expect from Casey’s writing.

I think Casey has struck a delicate balance here. If the ‘flavours’ were reversed (King sandwiching Lovecraft), it wouldn’t work; the middle would seem like a fever-dream that’s so out there that the reader can just suspend their disbelief (and connection to the character) until things “get real” again. (Something like Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” stories, which never really sat well with me.) By giving us instead a potentially unstable character who finds a bit of stability, we question how authentic that stability is–giving an immense amount of depth to the character. It’s really very well done.

There’s only one thing I can really say against The Painting: there are parts of it that aren’t explained as much as I may have liked. Now, on the one hand, you want horror stories to leave something to the reader’s imagination–that’s why Lovecraft was such a genius. And I’m pretty sure that if the menacing shapes in the painting were explained, it would drain the magic out of the story. In point of fact, the mystery is as it should be, and there are bits that shouldn’t be explained. If I think something’s missing, it’s only because I want to learn more about the world Casey has created. This story left me with questions about what’s really going on, despite the execution and resolution of the plot.

Fortunately, this is only part one of three. The other instalments are coming–keep an eye out for the other instalments of The Watching. I have no doubt the rest will be as gripping as the first.

You can find Ryan Casey online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for some excellent reading material. 

Indie Review: Troll Magic by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Troll MagicIt’s no secret on this blog that I have favourite writers. J. M. Ney-Grimm is one of them, and with good reason–her writing style is unique, and engrossing. Up to now, I’d only read her shorter works; I’ve been holding onto Troll Magic for some time, eager to start but wanting to give it my full attention. And it did not disappoint.

On the surface, we have the simple story of lovers trying to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart, but it’s more than that. Troll Magic is a cunning exploration of a very human question: how does one follow their dreams, knowing all the risks that entails and without any promise of the outcome? And more importantly, when should we sacrifice our own dreams for those of someone else? It’s a big question, and one I won’t pretend to be able to answer. You’ll just have to read the book.

There are really three stories going on here: the Trolls (characters who suffer from Troll-Disease), the Family (Lorelin, our main character, as she come of age) and the Court (where Gabris and Panos try to find a cure for Troll-Disease). The meat of the story is taken up by the first two, as Lorelin is recruited by a man named Kellor to help him break free of a curse. It’s a clever reinterpretation of the original Beauty and the Beast tale, though it’s more complicated than that. It’s an exploration of how each of them have their dreams and fears, overlapping at times and always in concert, even when they don’t realize it. There’s a sub-plot here with Helaina (an unwitting and invisible servant in Kellor’s household) and her family, which follows a similar path.
The Court is almost an entirely separate story, to the point where I wondered if it would be best placed in another novel. The experiments of Gabris and Panos are interesting, but don’t seem to have a direct impact on the rest of the story–instead, they provide a sort of foundation that explains why Troll Disease is such a problem. But by the end of the book, the reason for this became apparent; it is a sort of running commentary on the issues of the book. It’s far enough away from the main plot that it gives the reader an objective view of the situation, and it works well enough that I wondered if it needed to be integrated with the rest of the stories after all–although bringing everyone together in the epilogue is a nice way to end the book.
With these three stories come many different characters. While the core cast is manageably small, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters. For an author, this can be daunting–it’s all too easy for some to become one sided and underdeveloped–but Ney-Grimm pulls it off nicely. Each character feels like they’ve got their own personality and quirks and the result is a world that feels large and well populated.

Where this book really excels is the presentation. I’ve described Ney-Grimm’s writing style as effervescent, and it’s still the best word I can come up with. There’s a light and lilting tone to the prose that doesn’t diminish from the importance of the story, and gives the whole book a very pastoral feel. It’s evident from her other stories that Ney-Grimm takes a lot of inspiration from Norse culture, which has a rich oral tradition, so it’s not surprising that her books have this sort of voice. Troll Magic feels like a book that should be read aloud at bedtime, or around a campfire. It’s very approachable, and because of that it does a great job of putting across the ideas presented.

Hand in hand with the voice of the book is its pacing. This was, for me, the most interesting feature of the book, and I’m still not sure how to describe it exactly. The best word I can offer is “ponderous,” though I don’t mean it with any of the negative connotations that word can carry. It’s far from a plodding or meandering book–the plot lines and character arcs are followed in nice progressions that take as long as they need to. Instead, the books feels like it’s in no great rush to get where it’s going, while wholeheartedly promising to get you there. As a reader, I felt like I was being led around the story by a guide; sometimes we’d stop so she could tell me about something of interest, sometimes we’d simply linger in a setting to enjoy it for it’s own sake, and sometimes she’d point and whisper “you’re going to like this, pay attention.” It feels welcoming and relaxed.

In fact, the pacing of this book reminds me in a lot of ways to The Lord of the Rings. That is an absolute tome of a book, but for fans of that kind of literature, it’s not daunting at all. Tolkein was a master at filling in details about his world in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story–but if you were to remove those details, the story would be much less than it is. It’s a long book, but the pacing just feels right. As it does in Troll Magic.

Another fascinating thing about this book is the way magic is explained. It’s very similar to certain Eastern traditions: energy is carried along lines in the body to verticies, through which it can be drawn to conduct magic. Troll disease results when too much energy is drawn through these vertices, pushing them off point. This isn’t very far off the idea of meridians in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and it’s natural fit for the world that’s been created. The antophoners (those who practise magic) even use a series of moving meditations to align and fortify their verticies–not unlike Qi Gong or Tai Chi. I find this fascinating because I’ve done quite a bit of research on these systems, and practice Qi Gong occasionally myself. I can attest that it’s both relaxing and energizing, so it’s not a huge stretch for the imagination that such a system could be magical in nature. And yet despite the comparison, this system feels unique to Ney-Grimm’s world, and fits so well that it seems the only possible explanation.

In the end, all I can say is that this is a book you’ll need to read  in order to truly appreciate. I have lots more to say about it, but nothing that can’t be better said by reading it yourself. I’d certainly recommend it. Troll Magic is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on twitter, her own blog, and of course at the Kobo and Amazon stores. Ney-Grimm also have a handy reference for all her main characters here.

Indie Review: Two by Brian Rathbone

Brian Rathbone was one of the first Indie Writers I happened to come across. He’s very active on twitter, and has a good philosophy about it: interact, and they will come. He’s a good example of the Indie Writer’s Community, in that he truly encourages it to be a community.

But I digress. Rathbone has a series called The Dawning of Power; it’s a trilogy about the young Caitrin Volker, who discovers a power unknown to the world–a power that could tear her world apart. It was followed up by another trilogy, The Balance of Power–but I’m not going to write about those today, as I’ve only read the first out of six, and don’t feel I could do it justice.

Instead, I want to touch on a couple of short stories by Rathbone. I found these after reading Call of the Herald, (the first in his series), and think they’re a good introduction to his writing style. They’re both free on his website, and on Kobo.

First up is Redtooth. This one is quick, (only twenty or so pages), and an absolute pleasure to read. I wasn’t sure what to make it it until I was well invested in the story–and I mean that in a good way. It starts out with a man tinkering with a delicate piece of technology because he doesn’t want to upgrade (the characterization in the opening paragraphs alone is enough to grasp your attention), then turns into a sort of high-tension chase. The ending turns everything on its head. Normally, if I were to read a book like this I’d say that it jumped around too much, or was unfocused–but Rathbone pulls it off so well that it doesn’t seem that way at all. It’s fast paced, but that’s the way it should be.
The real star of this story, of course, is the protagonist Bob. He has a beloved bluetooth headset–very obsolete–that he can’t bring himself to give up. It’s falling apart, but he insists on buying new parts to continue repairing it, rather than upgrading. The way he’s presented is endearing, and though he’s something of a doddering middle aged man, we love him for it. He always seems a step behind, but that’s what makes his story so entertaining as he’s put on a wild adventure through the city.
The plot is simple: Bob goes to the pawn shop to buy some spare parts to repair his bluetooth, and is “coerced” instead into buying the newest gadget: Redtooth. This is when the real fun begins. As soon as he puts the device into his ear, the reader is treated to an absurdly delightful (and deadpan) conversation with the virtual assistant in the device. What follows is best described as a ridiculous romp, as the assistant sends him on a mission well against his wishes. Bob is baffled the whole way through, adding to the absurdity of the story.
And all of that is wonderful. This story is just plain fun. But there’s a subtle subtext as well–Rathbone seems to be commenting on the technological obsession we’re in the grips of today; innovation for the sake of innovation–or capitalism. Sometimes the tools we have are good enough as they are, and we should leave them that way.

If I have a criticism about this story, it’s that there’s a hint of something sinister throughout that’s never really followed up on. Perhaps I was reading that tone into the story–it’s clearly written to be funny, not sinister–but I felt that angle of the story could have been explored. Of course, if it had been, the humour would likely have been lost to an extent. It’s probably best left alone as well.

Next we have Beyond the Veil. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Redtooth, but it’s a very different kind of story. I read them back to back, and perhaps this story would have benefited from a sort of palate cleanser. But that’s besides the point, and a purely personal observation–it doesn’t reflect on the story itself.

Beyond the Veil tackles a delicate and provocative question: just how thin is the barrier between the living and the dead? And: which side of that veil is more real? There’s a real jarring dichotomy in this story as our main character–Vincent Pels–explores either side. The ‘living world’ is presented as very real and concrete, while the ‘other side’ is fantastical and wonderous. When I say jarring, I mean it in the best way–it should be disorienting for the reader to travel between these worlds, the more so the better. It serves the story, and the point I think Rathbone is trying to get across. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world, but it leaves an indelible mark on the reader. There’s some very real tragedy here, so it’s almost a relief when we move to the other side of the veil. Here, we’re treated to a fantasy world where Vincent finds himself as an armour-clad knight on a quest to slay a horrible creature–though it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is where things get more complicated. I have to admit that I got a bit lost; the ‘other side’ seems muddled, and jumps around a lot. Landscapes merge into one another and characters are ephemeral. It suits the tone of this world, but I found it confusing. The disorientation could have been intentional–again, it serves the story–but there were a few times when I was left wondering just what happened. It wasn’t until reflecting on the story after I’d finished that it began to make sense.
I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand (and the more I think about it), it’s exactly what should happen. The veil between worlds is presented as effervescent, porous, and fantastical, and so when we cross over we shouldn’t be surprised that what we see doesn’t always flow as naturally as the ‘real world.’ But as a reader, it was disorienting enough that it left me wanting a more clear explanation. It’s like waking in the morning and only remembering parts of your dream–enough that it’s tantalizingly interesting, but leaving you with something you can never grasp, and which ultimately fades beyond memory anyway.

Of course, it’s quite likely that this is exactly the author’s intent. Not every story should be cut and dried, spelled out for the reader–in fact, the best stories are those that leave enough to the reader’s interpretation that they can make their own personal observations, thus making a stronger connection to the narrative than if the writer did it for them. Ultimately, I think it begs for a second reading, and I may eventually explore it again on this blog. After this first read, though, I would recommend it–as long as you’re interested in some open questions. As a book you need to think about, it certainly fits the bill.

Brian Rathbone is the author of the Godland Series. You can find his books on Amazon and Kobo. Brian is also on twitter, and I’d definately reccomend following him–of only for his ruminations on how much animals can teach us. 🙂

Indie Review: Bodies of Evidence by Jefferson Smith

***Special note: I got this story as part of a Story Bundle, where you can get a selection of Indie Books for one low price. Check it out!

I think there are two kinds of short stories: the “novel in miniature,” and the “punchline.” The former, as you’d imagine, is everything you’d expect from a novel, just shorter–and most good short stories would fall under this category. The punchline is a story that exists for a specific end; the author wants to make a particular point (not always a joke, mind you), and the story serves as a sort of roadmap so the reader gets there. It’s a lot harder to pull off–but when you do, it’s wonderful. Asimov is a master at these kinds of stories, and in fact, they seem common in the science fiction genre. But I hadn’t really come across one from the Indie Writing community until I read Jefferson Smith’s Bodies of Evidence.

Now, I should make something clear: I like punchline short stories. When they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun: quick, entertaining, and relevant. Even when they’re not funny–Asimov’s The Last Question is the best example of this I can think of–they can be extremely thought provoking. Bodies of Evidence manages to hit both targets. It’s a darkly humorous tale that asks an interesting question: what about the middleman?

I’ll explain, but first an overview of the plot: Sid works for Corpus Corp., an outfit that cleans up the pesky mess left at a murder scene. He’s training a new kid–it’s a tough job, and he has to push the newbie to make sure he’s up to the task. The story follows Sid and the kid as they clean up a relatively simple job–though not less disconcerting for it.
Quick, entertaining, and relevant. These are normal guys just doing a job–a shady job, admittedly, but it has to be done. Sid and the kids are the middlemen–the cogs of darkness as our narrator puts it.

And this is what I like most about the story. One of the necessary failings of storytelling is that you’re always telling the story of something important or noteable. You want to read about the daring knight, not his follow-along squire; the mastermind mad scientist, not the butler who brings him supper. When telling a story, you should always ask “why today?” and “why these characters?” If they’re not important, why bother telling the story?
The result is that stories are always significant and grand–the way we like them. But I always wonder about the people who aren’t important. The ones who make it work behind the scenes. What’s their story?

Bodies of Evidence successfully addresses this question by showing us just another night at work for two people trying to make ends meet. There’s a larger story going on here–a criminal mastermind has just ordered some powerful directed energy weapons and plans to take over the world–but we don’t even care about that. Smith does an excellent job of setting this larger story aside so we can concentrate on the little guy, in turn making that the better story. And it works, very well.

I don’t know if this was the author’s intent, but it serves the story. Concentrating on these cogs of darkness fleshes out his world, giving us a look behind the curtain. This technique can be powerful when used correctly because it provides a foundation for the larger stories when they come along. If Smith were to write a novel set in the same world, he wouldn’t have to waste space on telling us what Corpus Corp does–it’s already here.
But this story is more than just a “behind the scenes look” at the criminal world. It’s funny and explores a couple of good characters. Even without the “cogs of darkness” aspect, it’s a well written and entertaining story.

The one thing I didn’t like about the story is how it’s presented to the reader. It’s introduced by a narrator, Louis Corelli, a go-to guy in the employ of the aforementioned mad scientist. He introduces us to Sid and the idea that the underworld is built on the shoulders of such working class folks, then lets the story tell itself. What’s disorienting about this is that Corelli’s scene is told in the first person. At first this works really well, because he addresses the reader directly, bringing the reader into the world in a personal way.
Once we meet Sid, however, the narrative switches to third person without any real transition beyond a line break and a hint that Sid told the story to Corelli. This makes it seem like part of Corelli’s narrative until you realize that it’s in the past tense.
The story is also framed with a narrative, by Corelli, in italics; he’s blatantly setting up the story for the reader. Normally this would work really well, but moving from that frame story to a first person narrative, then a third person story told by someone else, is a bit disorienting. This isn’t a fault in the writing so much as a stylistic or formatting choice; if, for example, the entierty of Corelli’s set up were confined to the frame story (which is what it really is), the story would flow smoothly.

I also want to know more about Corelli. He’s introduced to the reader as what we’d call a Watson: he’s there to explain things to us so we’re not bogged down by exposition. It’s a great technique, especially when that character has a personal connection to the reader, as Corelli does here. This connection can only grow stronger with further entries into the series. The World Smith has set up is intriguing as well; there are hints of a pseudo-sci-fi bent, with particle weapons and even a mention of time travel, though this isn’t explicitly a science fiction story. It would be very interesting to read about a world where such futuristic technology exists without it being the focus of the World.  As far as I’ve seen, this story is the only entry in a supposed series, but I hope more are forthcoming.

All in all, it’s a great read–you can pick it up at Amazon for $0.99, and I’d certainly recomend checking it out!

Jefferson Smith also has a novel available on Amazon, Strange Places. You can find him on Twitter, Goodreads, and his own blog, Creativity Hacker.

Review Rewind: Star Drake

Sorry for the missing post yesterday; we did bathroom renos this weekend and I fell behind. On the plus side: brand spanking new bathrooms!

Anyway, I don’t have a review prepared for this week, so we’re going to switch things up with this month’s Review Rewind, with a new review next week.

So, here is Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm!

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

J. M. Ney-Grimm writes in a unique–or at least uncommon–genre: Nordic mythology. I’ve enjoyed Norse myths since I was a child, and although these stories don’t involve the familiar Germanic gods and themes, they have a similar feel. When you’re immersed in this world, you’re thinking of trolls, giants, hairy dwarves and buxom women. Okay, maybe not that last part–no Wagner here–but you get the idea. It’s a very particular brand of fantasy, but a refreshing one. Your main elements are present–magic, monsters, and heroism–but it’s somehow more down to earth. I’d say it’s almost “Tolkienesque” in that the stories feel like they’re happening on the Earth we know, but long before our recorded history.

Star Drake features three stories woven together. Gefnen the troll warden searches for a meal for his master; Laidir the zephyr searches for his dear friend Geal, the rainbow; and the sea-lord Emrys and company protect a young boy. It seems complicated at first as the stories ebb and flow, and sometimes each thread only gets a few paragraph’s attention. But before you get twenty pages in, the threads begin to coalesce–or at least hint at doing so–and you see how they’re all inter-related. And this is where the magic of the story comes alive; this isn’t a case where you have a main plot and two subplots. Each thread is dependent upon the others, and they support each other nicely. To explain more would give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that.

The thing that struck me most about this story was the tone. After having read another of Ney-Grimm’s stories, Troll Magic, I was expecting a fairy tale like story with a lighthearted feel. Not so for Star Drake: this one has a deep sense of importance to it, of destiny. It’s still written very much in a storyteller’s fashion, and you can easily imagine it being told around a campfire somewhere in the snows of the North, but it has a satisfying sort of weight to it. At the same time, it has a very dreamy feel to it. The style of writing is hard to describe–I’ve been trying to do so since I read it last week, and still can’t find the right words. The closest I can get is ephemeral. It has an extremely poetic cadence to it, and the words drift across the page like a layer of gauze draped over someone’s shoulder. You get the impression that, while the words are poetic and lilting, the tone belies extraordinarily high stakes.

And that’s not to say that the stakes aren’t explored; there’s a good deal of action in the book’s 60 pages. The way Ney-Grimm’s characters use magic is certainly interesting, and a scene between Emrys and his friends fighting Gefnen is particularly satisfying. I’d like to have seen it explained a bit more, though; it seems to be elemental in nature, but it’s hinted that there are different levels of magic. I got the feeling that there was an underlying structure to it, but one that wasn’t shared with the reader.

And this is the only real criticism I have for this story. The world it’s set in is vibrant and unique, but it seems taken for granted that the reader will relate to it. I don’t know a lot of the mythology of the Nordic region, and while it’s similar enough to the Norse myths I’m familiar with that I can make educated guesses, it’s different enough that I was sometimes left wondering. Things like the relationship between Laidir and Geal are not explained, and I was confused at to who Gefnen’s master was, and why he was hunting at his command. I’m still unsure as to the significance of the titular creature. Ney-Grimm included a helpful guide to characters in her novel Troll Magic; something similar would be useful here.

Fortunately, many of my questions were answered by the accompanying story, Rainbow’s Lodestone, which follows at the end of the book. I would actually recommend readers look at this story before Star Drake, as it helps set up that story, and serves as some excellent background. On the other hand, it does reveal certain plot points that could be considered spoilers for Star Drake, so I’m a bit on the fence as to which one should be read first. At the very least, I’d tell readers to read them both in one sitting, in whatever order. They compliment each other very well.

Rainbow’s Lodestone concerns…well, I don’t want to give away the spoilers I mentioned, so I’ll just say it could almost be a prequel to Star Drake. It has a different tone entirely than the preceeding story, and it’s a testament to Ney-Grimm’s talent that she makes the transition so smoothly. This story is more lighthearted–much closer in tone to Troll’s Belt–and has an almost “childhood bed time story” feel to it. Despite the fact that it deals with a grim act of mischief, it’s a delightful read. This reminded me a bit more of the Germanic myths I know, so it was easier for me to relate to this story. The enchanting thing about it is the personification of the Rainbow, and the general attitude she has towards her fate in the story. There’s a nice underlying moral here.

All in all, these are wonderful stories and definitely worth a read. Ney-Grimm’s unique blend of Nordic fantasy and fairy tale mentality is a refreshing take on the genre, and the poetic style of writing (whichever tone she uses) adds a special sheen to the work. I read a lot of fiction, and I can honestly say I’ve not come across anything quite like this. Fortunately, Ney-Grimm has a respectable body of work, so there’s more to explore!

You can find Star Drake at Kobo and Amazon; if you’re interested in Rainbow’s Lodestone separately, it’s available in both stores as well. You can find the author J. M. Ney-Grimm at Goodreads and on twitter. Finally, if you’ve been following my blog you may remember a couple posts I did on cover design–much of what I learned there was thanks to a post of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s own blog.

Indie Review: Last Dance of a Black Widow

Every once in a while I come across a book that I think I’ve “figured out” in the first few pages. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good read–Michael Chrichton and Dan Brown, both good writers, have quite formulaic books that are nonetheless a lot of fun–but there is a lot of literature out there that is, frankly, predictable.

But the best of those manage to surprise you anyway.

Last Dance of a Black Widow gives away its premise in the title–it’s about a woman who’s spent her life murdering husbands, and is now made to atone for her sins–and if the story were left at that, this would be an unremarkable book. But the “black widow” trope isn’t the focus of the story at all, merely an icebreaker that opens up a delicate and thought provoking series of questions.

The greatest literature almost treats plot as a secondary consideration. It’s there, but it doesn’t matter much at all compared to the theme of the work. Think of Catcher in the Rye (one of my all time favourite novels); lots of stuff happens to Holden, but none of it really matters in the larger context of the work. It’s not about a young teenager’s adventures in New York City, it’s about how he copes with them. While I wouldn’t put Last Dance in the same category as that seminal work, it works in a similar way. The trope used to set up the story isn’t so much a plot point as it is an excuse to explore an important theme.

On the surface, the main question is what happens when we die?–but that’s not the focus either. The real questions are: how does one atone for or explain their actions in life? What happens when you run out of excuses? To whom do we answer? They’re questions that lie at the centre of the human condition–and more importantly, questions that don’t really have quantifiable answers. They’re open ended because each person will bring their own experiences and dogmas to the answer; they’re questions that are intensely personal. These are the questions good literature should ask.
I appreciate that despite the potential for some hardcore religious overtones, those are conspicuously absent. This makes the story more universal; and, as a person with complicated spiritual beliefs, I honestly probably would have stopped reading if it had gotten too preachy. With this story’s subject matter, it could easily have gone that way, and it’s just not my thing. I’ve read books that ask these same questions and try to answer them, but it always seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth; I’m not reading a book to be force-fed someone’s ideologies. Fortunately, Convissar makes no attempt to tell you what to think; he merely leads you through the story, and lets you make your own conclusions.

Inasmuch as that, I wish the story were longer. It’s a pretty quick, one sitting read, and I wanted it to keep going. And yet, there’s nothing missing. The main character–Abbey Whistler–is well explored, there’s some great pathos and development, and a satisfying conclusion. The writing itself is excellent. This is actually a good strategy for an Indie Writer, I think–grab the reader and leave them wanting more. I’m eager to read more of his work–this is another Indie I’ll keep my eye on.

One thing I didn’t like was the way the protagonist’s crimes are set up. From the title I assumed she had made a habit of murdering husbands, but Convissar found it necessary to provide a litany of her crimes. I’m a bit on the fence about this; from a narrative standpoint, it’s important to do this because it sets up what comes next. From the reader’s viewpoint though, I already knew she was a murderer—her crimes could have been summarized without losing much characterisation, and leaving behind a more concise story to boot.
But that’s a small complaint against a relatively strong story. The author makes some good choices here in making it approachable and universal. It’s even touching in places. This is an example of an antihero you love to hate. We’re intended to sympathize with her by virtue of her being the protagonist, but the author makes no excuses for her behaviour. We don’t sympathise because she’s been wronged, we do it because we see a bit of ourselves in the character—it’s only human to worry about how your sins will be judged. Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, I think all of us worry to a certain extent about what people think of our actions, good or bad. That’s what makes this story powerful for me—it’s a catharsis, as we live vicariously through a character who’s being judged so we don’t have to. That’s the highest purpose of literature, and I’ll recommend this book on that alone.

Special Mention: Blink.

I picked up Last Dance for free at Kobo, and saw another book by Convissar that looked intriguing: Blink. In a move that’s very rare for me, I didn’t even really read the blurb for the book, except for one line: “It’s amazing how quickly everything can change in the blink of an eye.” That, and the powerful cover, sold me immediately.
And it doesn’t dissapoint. Again, it’s a quick read, though this story has a more light-hearted feel, a very tongue-in-cheek tone (pun very much intended) to it. I thought of it as a nice jaunt.

The premise is simple. Brian is a dentist, a down to earth man who loves his job and cares for his patients. But then he stumbles across something…well, I can’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to find out for yourself. I’m not going to write a full review of this because it’s really just something you should go and read. It’s just plain fun. Really, go read it.

You can find Bradley Convissar on Facebook and Twitter; he’s got a Goodreads profile as well, but the site appears to be down. You can pick up Last Dance of a Black Widow  and Blink on Amazon, or here and here on Kobo. Check them out!

On Wednesday, I’m getting back to my writing with an experiment–something may not end up working at all, but is going to be a lot of fun to try anyway!

Indie Review: The God King by James A West

It seems that most of the Indie books I’m reading are fantasy–and there’s a reason for that. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I admit it’s not my favourite genre to read. Apart from Tolkein and Robert E. Howard, I don’t read a lot of it. Mostly, that’s because I find a lot of fantasy to be ponderous and overwrought. Epic. The great thing about Indie writers, though, is that they write fantasy because they love it. They write what they want to write, not what the publisher thinks will sell. And because of this, the writing (in my opinion) tends to be better.

Enter James A. West. I came across The God King while browsing for free books, and got hooked early on. This is Epic Fantasy at its best. The concept is simple, but captivating: a prince wants more power than he has, and is willing to go to any lengths for it. Of course, he gets more than he’s bargained for–but the nicer twist is that an Everyman Character is granted that power too, and must act as a counterpart to the prince, with precisely zero will to do so. This sets up a satisfying and complex conflict that flavours the book and saves it from being just another ponderous fantasy adventure tale.

We have three main characters; the aforementioned Prince Varis, his Everyman counterpart Kian, and the wonderfully named Ellonlef, Kian’s love interest. This is a nice triad that works well with the conflict posed in the book; while Kian and Ellonlef are obviously on the same side, Varis is much more powerful than either of them. What should be an unstable “two against one” handicap is actually very well balanced. I felt that our protagonists were up against insurmountable odds–which should absolutely be the case in a good story–but that their friendship gave them an edge that Varis lacks.
What’s more, this isn’t a clear good vs evil story. Kian is obviously on the side of right, while Varis is not–but our villain isn’t as much of one as you’d think.  He’s certainly not the stereotype who wants power just because, and to a certain extent he even has a good reason for what he’s doing. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil–he’s evil because his desires run amok and he has no choice but to move forward. Of course, he’s set up as an antagonist, and so Kian and Ellonlef seem convinced that he is completely evil, and must be stopped at all costs. I always talk about stakes: they’re certainly here, as far as our protagonists are concerned.
The really great thing about this, though, is that we as readers get an insight our heroes don’t. We see the foibles Varis has, the very human mistake he makes. We see him shake in fear with the powers he’s unleashed, and his insecurity as to just what he should do with his powers. He’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it now. I got the impression that but for the grace of god, he would have been the hero of the story. A villain of circumstance.

The prose of this book is very good. West has a talent for excellent description–though almost too good in places. He’s got an impressive vocabulary, which is great for any writer, but there were points where it seemed that every noun was coupled with an adjective. It ran against the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell;” in being overly descriptive it becomes difficult for the reader to experience the world on their own. This isn’t really a large issue, however; after the opening pages, it fades into the background and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.
And the reason for that is the wonderful World West has created for this book. It’s incredibly vibrant, and I had no trouble nestling into to it even in the opening pages. There are several cultures in the World that are well rounded, even if we only see hints of them; castes and kingdoms which aren’t explored but are still described well enough that they seem complete. There’s also a detailed history that’s hinted at here and there, but feels complete without any gaps. And best of all, the religion of the World is well crafted. Competing beliefs make the world seem real, and the characters more human. I particularly like the way he’s able to combine religious dogma and science; for example, there are three moons in the sky, and the people believe they represent three gods. When the moons are destroyed, it has a crippling effect on the faiths of the people. This kind of chthonic religion is natural and realistic. At the same time, West makes it clear that this has a very real scientific effect on the world; you can’t remove the gravitational effect of a moon and be surprised when the sky starts falling.

There’s a lot to like about this book–but on the other hand, there’s something flat underlying it all. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I think it has something to do with the well developed World and Characters as opposed to the relatively simple plot. The story involves Varis reaching for this insurmountable power, then trying to take over the realm, while Kian and company chase him down to defeat him. Aside from some setbacks our heroes suffer along the way, it’s pretty straight forward. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course–it’s still an engaging story–but there’s a clear contrast here. The World and Characters are great examples of how fantasy should be done, while the plot is a pretty straight line from beginning to end. It’s also a rather lengthy book, and although there were parts that could probably have been left out without much trouble, it wasn’t padded, and there wasn’t anything that seemed gratuitous. One thing I really enjoyed about the was the book was written was that the last several chapters are significantly shorter than the preceding ones; this gives the climax of the book a nice staccato feel, and really serves the action well. A nice trick, and a great narrative choice.

All in all, this is a fun book. It’s the first book in a series, and though the next book doesn’t seem to expand on these characters, it’s sure to flesh out the world even more–I’m quite looking forward to it. You can find it on Amazon for $0.99, or on Kobo for free. James A. West is on Twitter, and keeps a blog as well. If you like epic fantasy, this is an Indie Writer to watch out for!

Review Rewind: What we Saw by Ryan Casey

If you’ve been following Speaking to the Eyes, you know that I’ve got a new schedule: the first three Mondays of the month are a review of an Indie Author’s work. But what of the fourth week?
Originally I thought I’d make that an interview, but with time constraints that’s not always going to be an option. So instead I thought I’d keep to the theme–I’ll use the last post of every month to reblog a previous Indie Review. I think it’s a nice way to revisit some of the best works I’ve read, and to put them front and centre for newcomers to the blog, or those who may have missed it the first time.
So, without further ado, here’s the first: one of my favourite books in recent memory (Indie or otherwise), Ryan Casey’s What We Saw:

What we Saw, by Ryan Casey

I have a bad habit when it comes to reading books: I read ahead.

I’m not one of those people who read the last page first, but I do tend to skip paragraphs sometimes, or look to the bottom of the page when I get to the end of a chapter so I can see the cliffhanger. I always go back and read what I glossed over, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. And it’s not a common thing: it only happens when I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. I take it as an indication that I’m so into the book that I want to read it faster than I’m capable of doing.

This was the case with Ryan Casey’s new release–and first novel–What We Saw.

I’ve mentioned Casey on the blog before, with a review of his short story collection, Something in the Cellar. What We Saw is in the same vein–a nice suspense story with a few twists. Casey is really damn good at writing tension, and this book is chock full of it. When I got to the end of Chapter 7–even though I’d suspected what would happen–I had to put the book down for a minute to catch my breath. After that, it never lets up–I read more than half the book in one sitting. This is the kind of novel that readers search for: it grabs hold and doesn’t let go until that final page–and even then, it keeps you thinking.

What We Saw concerns two young boys, Liam and Adam, cousins on summer break who are (for differing reasons) living with their grandparents. Liam’s parents make a small appearance and there’s much talk (which I won’t spoil) about Adam’s family. The grandparents are colourful characters as well, and there’s another child, Emily, who serves as a call to action and a love interest–but really, it’s the boys’ story. They want to be detectives, spending their time solving mysteries around the campground–and their aspirations get them thrown head first into a mystery that’s much much bigger than them.

To go into too much detail would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say there’s a missing girl (not Emily), hints at violence around the campground, and some untimely deaths. There’s no lack of suspects, either–the campground seems filled with people who are up to some sort of mischief, and they boys have a lot to keep them on their toes. There’s a lot that would make this a great mystery book, but it’s much more than that.

The great thing about this book is that it’s written from a ten year old’s point of view. This creates a special kind of tension, where the narrator knows more is going on than meets the eye, but can’t quite put his finger on it because he’s just too young to understand. He’s neck deep in “grown up stuff,” and though he wants to help and understand, he’s kept at arm’s length by virtue of his age. This isn’t for a lack of trying–it’s just because he’s never had to deal with these kinds of things before. In that, What We Saw is a terrific example of a coming of age novel, though that’s not the focus.

What all of this does is help keep the mystery fresh. Casey is able to add details that, if the protagonist were an adult, would make the mystery easy to solve–and if you go back through the book reading it through the eyes of an older person, those clues were there all along. But because you’re reading the book through the eyes of someone so young, you feel like you’re reaching after something that’s on the tip of your tongue. You know what it probably means, but you’re just not sure…and it’s not until the end of the book that Liam is able to string it all together.

I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it seems to be a very effective way of stringing the tension along. The tension is real not only because the characters don’t know what going to happen next, but because they don’t understand why people would do such things; they’ve still got a foot in their childhood, and their naivety is colouring their approach to the situation. Better still, all the adult characters have adult motivations. The children can only guess at them, and this adds a lot of uncertainly to their deductions. They quickly realize that they’re over their heads, but not before it’s too late to walk away. This raises the stakes considerably: it’s like you’re blindfolded at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster and have no option but to fall to the bottom, hoping you don’t fall off the rails.

But besides the characters and the mystery, the thing I get most from this book is how genuine it is. The characters act like children; the adults act like adults; there was nothing in the book that asked me to suspend my disbelief. The characters are emotionally involved, and the stakes are very real. This sounds like a list of things that should be in every novel, but browning through the stacks at any bookstore will show you how many books lack this kind of attention. Casey has tied everything into a nice package, and the result is a well rounded story that feels very real.

Which, of course, makes all the tension all that more powerful.

There’s a lot to like about What We Saw, and it’s an impressive first novel for Casey. This is a writer to keep an eye on–you can expect great things down the line.

You can find Ryan Casey at his blog and on Twitter. Pick up What We Saw on Amazon for Kindle and in Paperback, and at Barnes & Noble in paperback. Don’t miss out on this book if you don’t have a Kindle–Amazon has Kindle Apps that run on your PC, Android and Windows tablets, iPhones/iPads, and even from the cloud on their website! And don’t forget to check out his other releases Silhouette and Something in the Cellar here.

Indie Review: Who Walks in Flame

Flame-Project-Transparent1-813826_600x480As an avid reader, I tend to keep to certain types of books–and, honestly, certain authors. Reading Indie Fiction is changing that;there’s so much wonderful work out there that it would be almost irresponsible not to test new waters. And my favourite part about reading Indie work is finding that occasional diamond in the rough, an example of writing that’s so good you wonder why you didn’t find it sooner. Who Walks in Flame by David Alastair Hayden is such a book.

It’s a short story set in Hayden’s lush fantasy world of Pawan Kor. Bregissa the Skald is charged with leading an army to victory against an ancient nemesis–if she can hold her allies together long enough. There’s a Witch King, a host of reptilian infantry, and an enormous flame breathing dragon. What’s not to love?

When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was right up my alley; I’ve had a couple of Hayden’s books on my reading list, unopened, for quite a while now, and Who Walks in Flame was a great excuse to finally get going. I approached this book eagerly, and wasn’t disappointed. It perfectly sets up his writing style and the feel of Pawan Kor–though I’ve found his newest novel, Chains of a Dark Goddess, to have a unique flair that keeps this world fresh.

The opening words of a book are crucially important; they not only set the tone of the book, they act as a litmus test for the reader. If you can’t grab their attention in the first pages, you’ll fight for their attention throughout. But it’s a special kind of writer who can do it in the first sentence. This book had me from the beginning, and never let go.
And this is what I loved about the story as a whole. Hayden does a tremendous job of creating a compelling story. The bones of the plot are pretty straight forward–Bregissa leads her army against the witch king Khuar-na and his Scorch Walker, accompanied by a faithful companion who has more to lose than he’s letting on–but Hayden is able to weave it into something that seems almost mythic. Better yet, as fantastical as some of the events and characters are, they’re completely believable and I never found myself having to suspend my disbelief. This is good fantasy.

Bregissa is at the heart of this story, taking even second place to her conflict with Khuar-na. Don’t get me wrong; the urgency of this conflict is well described and will obviously have repercussions for the world. For the people of Pawan Kor, it’s do or die. But Bregissa’s story is much deeper.
On the surface, we have a woman who’s not only willing, but more than capable of leading an army–yet has to earn the respect of the kings she’s gathered together before she can accomplish anything. There’s also the relationship with her lover Kerenthos, who would do anything for her, even at the risk of his own destiny. But the real story here is that Bregissa is a remarkably powerful person, more so than the others in her life know–and this power has come at a grave cost. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it involves a betrayal and an evil act that is (perhaps) justifiable. This act gives her character a satisfying depth, and she ceases to be the resolute and unfailing hero she”s presented as in the opening pages. She’s not an anti-hero–I found myself sympathizing with her easily–but neither is she  a spotless soul.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about this story, it’s that Bregissa isn’t explored enough. I got invested in this character more than the others, and that makes me want to know more–but the story is under 50 pages, and we only get hints of her origins, potential, and the arc in between (save for what happens in the plot, of course). I thought that this story served as a backstory for some of Hayden’s other books in the Tales of Pawan Kor series, but none of the plots of those books seem to reference the events in this one. Of course, I haven’t read them yet, so I may be presently surprised; still, I was disappointed to not get to know Bregissa more in this story.

There’s more to tell of Khur-na and his giant dragon as well, and I hope that Hayden revisits this character. There are hints of a great empire in which he enslaved much of the world, and tremendous rebellion in which he was overthrown and imprisoned. I’d be interested to see a sort of prequel for this book that explores what’s sure to be an epic tale. But, unlike Bregissa’s story, hints and teases are enough for Khuar-na. The mystery adds some depth to his character that wouldn’t be diminished if left as is. Although he’s such a great villain that I wouldn’t hesitate to read more about him.

One more thing to note about this story is Khuar-na’s dragon, the Scorch Walker. This beast is massive, and nigh undefeatable. Talk about raising stakes–when Khuar-na rides the Scorch Walker into battle, they reach the stratosphere. The climactic battle with Bregissa and her army is just plain awesome–this is the reason I read this kind of book in the first place.

As I’ve gotten more involved in the Indie Community–and make no mistake, I’ve still just scratched the surface–I’ve definitely found a cadre of authors I’ve dedicated myself to following. Ryan Casey, J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker were at the top of the list–but now David Alastair Hayden joins their ranks. Who Walks in Flame is a terrific quick read–and it’s free. If you haven’t read this gem yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame is available for free at Kobo, Amazon and Smashwords. He keeps a nice looking blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Indie Review: Red Island

Red Island by Lorne Oliver

I used to read a series of books by Evan Hunter/Ed McBain called tales from the 87th Precinct. The were the first real police procedurals–the books that spawned popular shows like Law and Order, CSI, and NCIS. They are, in a word, awesome. If you’re into that kind of thing.

I am, but it’s been a while since I’ve read one of his books. Or anything in the genre, for that matter–which is why I was so pleased to hear about Lorne Oliver’s indie novel Red Island. It has everything I loved about McBain’s books–grit, infamy, crime and bad weather–but (taking place as it does on Prince Edward Island) with a distinctly Canadian flair. I’ve been waiting with baited breath to get to this book, and kicking myself every time I push it further back on my reading list. It fought hard to live up to my expectations, but…well, let’s get to the review.

Red Island is about Sgt. Reid, a disillusioned officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who specializes in Major Crimes. When a vicious rape/murder occurs on the quiet island–the first murder in twenty years–he’s thrown head first into a race against time to find the killer before he takes too many victims. Great premise, and certainly gripping–the way it’s set up in the opening chapter is fantastic, and promises some tense moments to come.
The second chapter is even better–written from the point of view of…the other main character. Intriguingly, this chapter is written in third person, past tense–a stark contrast from Reid’s scenes, which are first person present tense. We’ll get to that contrast in a moment, but suffice it to say that it sets the tone for the whole novel, and is quite effective in building tension.

The story is great, if violent. The violence actually gets to be a bit much at times, but it’s never out of place; in fact, the excessive brutality (shown only occasionally) is shocking enough that it makes an already tense novel all the more frightening. I often talk about the need for high stakes in a story, and Red Island doesn’t hold back. You’re left wondering how it’s going to be topped in the next chapter, all the while knowing that Oliver can (and will) deliver. No apologies are made for it, and none are needed. This is what makes police procedurals like this work so well; it’s not the glorification of violence and crime as much as the stark realism it portrays. I was always left feeling (sickeningly so) that the crimes committed in this book were all too believable, which makes the stakes not just high, but real. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that gave me a legitimately physical sense of panic–but this one sure as hell did.

But, Red Island is not without its flaws. And in this case, I mean that quite literally–this book is riddled with spelling and formatting errors. It’s an unfortunate truth of the self-publishing industry that errors like these are common, but the correction of those errors are what sets a good book apart from something stellar. It’s hard to take a book seriously when mistakes as simple as writing “creek” instead of “creak” are so prolific. There are many hanging quotation marks and missing periods. One reader, in a review, counted no less than 103 spelling and formatting errors. I don’t mean to pick on the author or the state of the book, but it really is that noticeable; and unfortunately, it lessens the impact of what is otherwise a great book.
Edit: I’m told that this book is currently in revision, with many of the editing and formatting errors corrected before it is published as a paperback. With those changes, this book goes from good to great!
There were also some issues with continuity. In one example Sgt. Reid is described as having “pushed the sweat from [his] forhead into [his] hair”–despite being described rather often as completely bald. The timeline of the book also jumps around a lot. In the beginning of the book, this is well explained and–although it’s rare that actual dates are given–it’s easy to follow. There are really two stories here, Reid’s (which take place in the present) and Ben’s (which start in the past and work their way forward). At first this is effective in setting a contrast between the two characters and their motivations, but as the timelines converge–and overlap–it gets a bit confusing. There is one chapter of Ben’s in particular that constantly jumps from the past to the present and back again; the switches are jarring, and there’s no explanation except through indicitive description buried in the paragraphs. It took me a while to realize when each snippet was happening, and the switches are so quick that it was disorienting. Granted, this could be a neat writer’s trick, mirroring the character’s state of mind–but it was so jarring that it was just confusing.

The thing that stands out most about this book is the contrast in writing style between Reid’s scenes and Ben’s. Reid is written in first person present tense, which gives a great sense of immediacy and suspense. Ben’s are written in third person past tense, which fits with the way his story is being revealed. When the two timelines are separate, this works very well, setting up a stark contrast that draws clear lines between the characters and their motivations. As the timelines converge, this effect weakens; when we start to see the different tenses changing within the same chapter, it becomes disorienting. Again, this could well be intentional, but I found that it took away from the story as I had to “reset” my approach to each POV. It felt clunky.

The lead-up to the climax was very satisfying. The third to last chapter ends on such a note that you literally can’t not turn the page. Unfortunately, the following chapter didn’t quite live up to the promise of that cliffhanger–I had thought something much more serious would happen than what did. Still, the penultimate chapter is well written and takes the story to a great place–the stakes, again, are high, and it was thrilling to read. Perhaps I was spoiled by the excellent buildup of tension through the rest of the book, but the resolution seemed a bit weak in comparison.

On a more positive note, the description in the book is wonderful. It’s delivered (in Reid’s scenes, anyway) in a rapid fire, short sentence barrage of information–exactly as you’d imagine a police officer would appraise a crime scene. This is a wonderful way to write a procedural like this: it put me right in Sgt. Reid’s boots, and made me feel like I was solving the crime along with him. It involved me on a deep level, and while the present tense style still held me back a bit (that technique tends to be less involving because it’s so transient), I had no trouble getting into the World of the book. As for that, I particularly appreciated all the quaint “Canadianisms” in this book–how often does a writer mention Tim Horton’s in fiction? The book feels very Canadian, and while I’ve never been to P.E.I., I certainly felt at home in this book.

All in all, I’m pretty divided about Red Island. I really like it, but I doubt I’ll go back to it–though that’s more a sign of the genre than anything. It takes a special case for me to want to get back into a crime story once I know how it pans out, but that’s not the writer’s fault. On the other hand, I’ll definitely look forward to other books in the series.
This is certainly a book I’d recommend. The characters, structure and narrative were all gripping, and I enjoyed this book very much–but the mistakes, poor editing, and little confusions noted above are what keep this book from becoming something truly great. As mentioned above, these are being changed.