Friday, June 28, 2013

"All You Need is Love" and Maybe a Little Imagination

Half a Dozen Star Jumps by Helen J Beal is a collection of six short stories.

The first, "The Sculptor's Muse" is the story of an artist enchanted by a singer. Red, black and white play a motif through this short and sweet story. 

First Sentence: 

"I heard her first."

Inspiration comes in many forms and a muse can be a reciprocal thing.

In the second, "Blackberry and Apple Crumble", a young, married couple are hitting a few snags in their very new marriage. This causes a lot of tension. So when they discover that both their phones are missing, they are quick to blame each other. Can the Christmas spirit and some delicious treats bring back the spark?

First Sentence:

"Larry wandered down the stairs dressed in yesterday's underpants and a burred sweater Meg had bought him when he was in a fat phase."

This is a humorous little story that defines the saying, "You are what you eat."

Thirdly, there is "The Jigsaw Fairy". 

First Sentence:

"As he turned the key in the back door lock Dan thought about the last time he'd been here."

Dan ran away from home in the middle of the night three years ago when he was sixteen. His parents were overly critical and unsupportive, so he just packed up and left. One Christmas Eve, he left a jigsaw puzzle on their doorstop. Now he's breaking into the house to finish it for them. He's certainly planning on leaving his mark.

Next is "The Blight of Blossom". 

First Sentence:

"I am old now and it is dusk in the cherry orchard."

An old woman looks out over a cherry orchard and reminisces about how the human race fell, leaving a few survivors to rebuild on the moon. They live in a biodome where everything is controlled. She remembers what life was like before the end came, and what's come since. 

Loneliness has many forms.

In the penultimate story, "Flutter to a Fall" we meet eighteen-year-old Tilly and her friend, Izzy. 

First Sentence:

"A floorboard creaked under Tilly's sandal as she stopped at the window."

Returning from a week at Glastonbury, the two girls are staying at Izzy's house (well, castle. A huge castle) with the rest of her family. On the night they arrive, Tilly spots an owl. The family react very oddly to this news.

Every castle has its ghosts. People are complex. Sometimes, you have to see the signs. 

The last story is "The Thought Collector", and is based on real events. When the World Trade Center stood before 9/11, one of them held a 28-inch, bronze cast of Rodin's "The Thinker".

First Sentence:

"I am tense."

"The Thinker" sits all day and contemplates. He is a thought collector. When someone touches him, he collects their thoughts. One day Laura touches him and he is given insight to the immediate things on her mind. Through her he sees and feels the towers collapse. The panic that ensues. 

Buried in the rubble, he is found by a firefighter- Laura's husband. Through Laura's description of her workplace, he remembers "The Thinker" cast, and keeps it as a piece of her. 

Ten years later, he still clings to the bronze statue, that weeps because all it can do is collect. It cannot help the broken man, but maybe someone else can.

A little background on this story. For those who don't know, one of the towers of the World Trade Centre had a 28-inch, bronze cast of 'The Thinker'. It was recovered from the rubble by a firefighter, then vanished. Even all these years later, the location of the missing cast is unknown.

These are six stories about the intricacies of the human mind. Our relationships with each other and the symbolism we find in the smallest things. 

They are beautifully written, with prose-like characteristics and charm. Delightfully emotive, they will play bittersweet melodies on the heartstrings. There are jovial, lively bars and slow, mournful ones, with the entire book ending on a single, melancholy note.

There are a few abstract aspects to these stories, but I think that just adds to the atmosphere the author creates. Things are not always as they seem.

My favourites are probably "The Sculptor's Muse" for its originality and gorgeous description, and "The Thought Collector" for its insight into one man's sorrow and the unusual voice of the narrator. 

A quick set of stories, that are very well-written and well worth a read. 

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Many Different Killers Lined Up in a Row, Ready To Fill Your Lives With Chaos and Woe

First Paragraph:

"Assistant District Attorney Keith Foster sat down at his kitchen table with a steamy coffee mug and picked up The Azalea County Herald. The headline above the fold made him grimace."

These Unquiet Bones by Dean Harrison is the epitome of a horror/thriller.

The story starts in Alabama during 1982. There's a mass slaughter in the news and the small town is dealing with the repercussions.

Cut to decades later. Seventeen year old Amy Snow wakes up after yet another bad dream. Always the same one. Always featuring the hidden face of a man she's named The Nightmare Man. Her dream is a memory from four years ago. Her mother's murder and an unknown man coming for her, looking to collect. 

When her mother died, police searched for her murderer, but no trace was ever found. They had no evidence to go on. Amy's young mind blocked out the events after her mother's murder, and has two missing days that are complete blanks. She remembers being grabbed by the unknown man, then waking up in a hospital bed two days later. Her therapist said the mind represses traumatic events to protect itself. That the memories may come back, but they never did. 

Amy is desperate for answers. To find the identity of the Nightmare Man is to destroy him, to stop him haunting her dreams, and to get justice for her mother. After her mother dies, suspicions turned to her father. A violent, abusive drunk, who her mother had recently kicked out of the house. But he's also an ex-cop, and he had a watertight alibi. Her maternal grandparents blamed him, but Amy hates them for it. The only parent she has left, she doesn't want to believe he could've had anything to do with it. 

Adam is a killer. A sadistic, quite insane, ritualistic killer. He fights for a cause known only to him. He is searching for 'Eve', but not just any 'Eve'- the 'Eve'. The Lost One. He's on a mission from "God" to restore paradise. To bring back the Garden of Eden. To this end, he has to sacrifice 'Eve'. So far, all he's found are 'decoys', but he'll search for as long as it takes. To take revenge on Eve for tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. He must punish her and right the wrongs, so that Eden may rise again. Adam is a 'fundamentalist' with a psychotic streak and little value for human life. Almost ironic, considering his cause.

Amy's father, Hank, has a secret. One that has haunted him for most of his life. One that causes him to obsessively drink, so the ghosts can be kept at bay. He loves his daughter, but the alcohol ruins him. Makes his abusive. He hates it, but he doesn't stop drinking.

Teenage girls have started going missing. The police don't think too much about it. Only three girls are missing, all believed to be runaways that'll turn up eventually. 

Layne is Amy's best friend. He's also deeply in love with her. But he too has a secret. A dark past, something he can't control. Something that occasionally controls him. 

Lots of different points of view in this book. There's a few more that I haven't mentioned, because I don't want to give too much away. Despite so many different POVs, it's not confusing. Most of the story focuses around Amy and (a little less so) Hank. A broken family that have a hard time trusting each other. Every family has a few skeletons in the closet, and Hank's certainly does. 

Each character has their own ghosts. Which is really the focus of the story. The darkness each character has and the way they deal with it, or don't. How real are the ghosts that haunt them? How real do they need to be? 

Every character is damaged. Some use that as an excuse to damage others, while the rest attempt to fix themselves, to rise above it. Even when their demons are still dragging them down.

A lot of the characters are not necessarily what you'd call the nicest people, or even good people, but most of them at least have a little good inside them that'll occasionally shine through. I'm torn between like and hate with most of them. They do unforgivable things, but because we see through their eyes (and the eyes of those who trust and love them) we are made to feel sympathy for them. Though, not all of them. The few genuinely good people, we want to protect and save, but are left utterly helpless to do so. 

Religious fanaticism seems to be all the rage in horror/thrillers at the moment. Perhaps because of how easy it is to use as a mark of insanity. A terrifying one at that. To use religion as a reason for hurting anyone is wrong, but when the 'God' they claim guides them is one that exists only for them, it becomes all the more chilling. To take a dark voice in their head and make it the voice of 'God' creates a deeply disturbing character, but a good antagonist. In their minds they do no wrong, quite the opposite in fact.

This is an intensely tense book that keeps you guessing and strapped to your seat. The story starts off a little slow, but quickly builds in the traditional horror/thriller paced way. It's a very dark book. Not 'PG'. There's a lot of violence and the atmosphere is foreboding and oppressive. The plot twists, turns and writhes, occasionally giving the reader glimpses of what's going on, but never enough to reveal.

At the end, people are left picking up the pieces. There is resolution, but it's more straining than satisfying. In the end, I found that the reasons were unimportant. That I really didn't care 'why' or 'what' or 'who'. They just don't matter. There is so much suffering and violence in this story, helping to fuel the tension, that when it's over, you just feel weary and drained. It's very well done by the author, to make the reader feel the after effects along with the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's very dark, which can make it a hard read, but it's worth it. The characters are gritty and not only flawed, but chipped and broken. Most of them are pretty unpleasant, which is something I haven't seen very often in a book. It's too dark to be a thriller, and the horror is a mix of the 'monsters-in-the-closet' young adult genre and the 'anything-to-be-disturbing' adult one. It's an interesting mix. Most horror will either try to scare you or disturb you. This does both. It's also a good look into the human psyche. To how much damage a person can sustain and how they deal with it.  

Sometimes we can't forget. No matter how hard we try, our ghosts are always there. They always come back. So no matter what, never try to bury the unquiet bones.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

With Every Inhale of Smoke Something is Damaged, With Every Exhale Something is Lost

     Amazon /

Seven Different Kinds of Smoke is a collection of short stories by Roman St. James.

Seven stories to be exact. They all focus on some kind of hardship or harmful element. 

The first is 'The Greenest Grass', and tells the story of Tasha Evans- who is a transgender man born into a woman's body. 

First Sentence:

"Tasha Evans stared at her face in the mirror and wondered what it would be like to no longer exist."

He always knew he was interested in women, but considered himself gay for the longest time, having never made the connection between wondering what it would be like to be a man and actually being one. 

Growing up in Mississippi, this alone would cause friction between him and a lot of the residents, but adding to that his African-American race and there's a lot of bigotry thrown in his face. Through the story we get a view of his past and a glimpse of things to come. He has a plan, but how much is he willing to sacrifice to make it happen? This is a story about identity.

The second is 'Seven Different Kinds of Smoke', the namesake for this book.

First Sentence:

"Kenya Watkins was nervous."

This story provides an explantation of the 'seven different kinds of smoke', though they're pretty interchangeable. The seven different kinds of smoke are just different (and more specific to the characters of this book) names for the seven deadly sins, mixed in with some life lessons to help deal with them. What's important to note, is that while 'smoking' harms the 'smoker', it also harms those around them. Other people's 'sins' can harm others, whether intentional or not. 

Here we meet Kenya Watkins- a twenty-nine year old woman with an eventful past, of which several events have unfortunately been plastered over the news. She's sitting in a cafe contemplating the bottle of pills in her pocket, when an old woman joins her, claiming she is one and the same person and is here to save Kenya from herself.

As with any sane person, Kenya 1 does not believe Kenya 2's story and so decides to test her with a series of questions, ones only she knows the answers to. If Kenya 2 can pass the test, she'll listen to anything the old woman has to say.

In 'Babble' Angela and Jack are a married couple with communication problems. 

First Sentence:

"The woman, Angela, walked into her home and dropped her purse on the dining room table."

They're trying to get through them and listen to each other better and more and are a prime example of how one small misunderstanding can lead to serious repercussions. 

Next up is 'Leap Frog', a story about Alexandra 'Alex', who believes she turns men into frogs with a kiss.

First Sentence:

"So do you want to play, or what?" Blue asked Alexandra."

She and her girlfriend are visiting Dr.Phillip Sanford, for help with their relationship. The problem it seems, stems from this belief. Alex isn't so sure she's gay, but she has sworn off men, after turning one too many of them into amphibians. Dr. Sanford has his work cut out for him.

'A Void of Sorts' is the story of Marie, a woman who has just lost her son.

First Sentence:

"One day you have a son."

A son she doted on a treasured, as all mothers do. She had always wanted a child, but had no partner of her own, so spent her savings in sperm banks. After that failed, she went 'bar hunting', looking for a suitable man (physical features wise), with the best genetics, that she could use to get her pregnant. After a few failed attempts, she finally managed it, and now her precious son is gone. Hell hath no fury like a mother.

The penultimate story is 'The Tell Tail Tale'. 

First Sentence:

"Ding Dong."

We meet a grandfather babysitting his twin, seven-year-old grandsons and making up a bedtime story for them. He is a little upset with the man his son has become- or rather where his son's values lie, so the story he tells his young grandsons, is his son's. Not that they know that.

The last story is 'Elevation'. 

First Sentence:

"Mrs. Alberta Terrell Henderson woke up and looked at her clock."

Mrs. Alberta Terrell Henderson has sold or given away all of her possessions. Her beloved husband died a year previously and she is 'going to meet him'. When her daughter shows up confused by the movers, Alberta finds herself with an extra person for the 'journey'. Her daughter, afraid of what her mother's ambiguous words mean, decides to follow her and make sure she doesn't do anything stupid. 

Despite her probing questions, her mother remains vague, and keeps repeating the same phrase as an explanation, without much detail. All her daughter can do is tag along and try to keep her mother safe. 

An interesting range of topics are explored in these seven stories. Some bittersweet, some humorous and some hateful. That's one of the good things about collections of short stories- there's usually something for everyone. 

The stories can be about a lot of uncomfortable topics. For example hate crimes. Most of the stories centre around women. Every main character is black and a couple are gay. All three are hot topics that can draw a lot of bigotry. In some of them, it provides a very raw and real perspective and we get a good story out of it. But I found myself wondering if it was necessary for every story to centre around a particular race. I want to point out now that I have absolutely no problem with any race. I'm not against any skin colour, hair colour, religion, sexuality, gender, etc, what I'm interested in is the person. 

So, would it have made any difference if some of the character's race was different? There are a few stories where race doesn't really play a part. Perhaps leaving some of the character's features deliberately vague might've been a better option. Rather than making this a book about seven stories of seven black people, I think it could reach a larger audience if it was simply seven stories about seven people. There's always the danger of putting yourself into a too specific niche. 

And these stories are worth reading. They all have interesting things to say and their own points of view. I can see what the author was trying to achieve by making all the characters black, but I think a little more subtlety could make this an amazing book. Rather than simple saying 'this person is African-American', allow the description to convey the same thing. Through the culture and the environment. If this had been one story, the method used would've fine. But when each time you start a new story and immediately see 'this person is black' it can get a little tedious and repetitive. Instead, work it into the story. Something along the lines of 'so-and-so always faced prejudice because of the colour of their skin'. It gets across the same point without being quite so blunt about it. Allow the reader to make the connection themselves.

Other than that, I did enjoy these stories. If I had to pick a favourite it would be either 'The Greenest Grass'- which deeply explores the subject of a person's identity or 'Leap Frog' for the comedic (though slightly dark when I think about it) tones. If you're wondering whether to pick this up, as I said earlier, short stories almost always have something for everyone.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How Many Words Does It Take To Sum Up a Life?

First Sentence:

"He awoke to the sound of rustling sheets around him and the fire burned through his body; the pain of idleness and of being nearer to death than life."

Window on the South Wall by Jeremy Mark Lane is one of the shortest stories I have ever read. At only 3 pages, it has to deliver a lot in a very small amount of time.

The story is told through an anonymous young man's eyes. There are no names in this story. He lives in a children's hospital, and is their oldest patient (at 19). He is paralysed from the neck down, and spends his days in emotional agony, waiting for an end that never comes. 

One day a stranger visits the hospital. A beautiful woman, and light is brought into his dark life once again.

A quick, little story that doesn't really end. In place of one, we are given something more akin to a new beginning. This book is the outline of a story. The bare minimum required for understanding and interpretation. It provides the reader with basic edges, that they can expand on and fill in themselves. 

However, because of its length, the story is over before it's begun. So it can be a little difficult to immerse yourself in, but - as with most short stories- it gets better with time. Because you can read the entire book in the time it takes to brush your teeth, the ending can come rather abruptly. Give your mind a little time to catch up and for the meanings to sink in.

The plot is complicatedly simple. It conveys everything you need to know about the character's emotions, but not necessarily everything you'd want to know. There are a lot of gaps, but the story wouldn't feel quite so ethereal if every little detail was given.

Overall, I enjoyed what there was of it, but I often have an internal debate when it comes to short stories. On one hand, I wish there was a little more, that they were a little longer, but on the other hand, I don't. Adding more information can distort the atmosphere too much and lessen the meaning of the story. It's down to the individual in the end. 

Interesting and a little eerie, with just a hint of bittersweetness. 

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Oh the Complexity of Living

 First Paragraph:

"1992. The Shamen yelled "Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode". Alex listened; decided that MSc's 're good and started his postgrad in physics."

Cold Fusion 2000 by Karl Drinkwater begins with an interesting prologue.

The first chapter is made up of brief paragraphs describing the most important parts of our protagonist Alex's life, with the help of some suitable song titles worked into each sentence. We get a brief history of Alex between 1992 and 2000 (when this story takes place).

Alex is a 32 year old man living in Manchester, with a passion for sciences and poetry. He teaches physics and other sciences part-time at a local college, still lives at home and, like all of us, wonders what his life could've been like if he'd made different choices throughout it. Starting with the year he began his PhD in Physics. That year he fell head over heels with another student, only for her to break his heart, resulting in him dropping out of college and veering his life of track. 

Alex is a complicated man. Like every other person on the planet, he has his ups and downs. He can be optimistic or very pessimistic, and has a tendency to 'give up the fight' before it's even started. Still living with his mother, along with his kid sister Kelly and her friend Natalie, none of whom share his passion for science, can take its toll. That and the fact that he's quite neurotic, is a little OCD, is very introverted, slightly germaphobic, obsesses over routine, is possibly autistic and a bit of a cliche nerd and geek (yes they are two different things). Case and point- Star Trek is one of his favourite shows. 

He also gets frequent blackouts- lasting only a few seconds, but he can never remember anything about them, apart from a couple fragments at most. His neuroses all seem to stem from his painful split with his long-past girlfriend. 

When he breaks up with his current girlfriend, he considers changing. Something. Anything. But Alex is also a procrastinator and is afraid of change. Whenever he puts his mind to changing something, he always has a reason not to. 

He always wanted to get his papers published, and is constantly reading about his favourite things. The subject du jour- the RHIC (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) that is about to be turned on for the first time. During his research, he picks up on the same numbers time after time, and they act as a motif throughout the story. 

He thinks about the past a lot and mourns the one that got away, his first love. So when she turns up in Manchester, he can hardly believe it. 

To say anymore would be to spoil.

This is almost a coming-of-age story. A reminder that maturity is not all-encompasing, Some things take longer to grow. A look into how powerful a pull our past can have on us and how much it can affect us, but we all have the power to change that. The past does not hurt us because we try to move on, it hurts us because we do nothing. A simple change in attitude can completely alter our perceptions and the way we are perceived by others. 

A bittersweet, slightly confusing ending, that leaves a little hollowness, along with new, tentative hope. A small hint- the story is not always as black and white as first it seems. You really have to pay attention to the small clues in this book. Remember everything. One tiny, little detail can change how you perceive the entire story. The revelation that comes with understanding, only adds to the bitterness left at the end.

There's a few different interpretations of this story, that are each entirely down to the reader. You'll be wondering long after the pages (or in my case iPad) close. This is the perfect re-read. Like with the completely irrelevant murder mysteries genre, once you get to the end and have all the answers, it's fun to look back and see all the obvious clues you missed first time through. It is the ending that makes this book. A plot that seems so ordinary, and sometimes disjointed, becomes an epiphany, but only for the reader. That is what makes it so good. For the characters, the story is simplicity itself, but for those reading it, it is hours spent wondering. Thinking back, seeing clues that could point in so many different directions. An almost personalised book- each person will get something a little different from it. There can be confusing aspects, but overall, this is a simple plot about living. Moving on from your past and yourself.

In the end, the world is what we make of it. Not positive or negative. A neutral that waits for us to imprint on it. 

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just More Proof That Visiting a Small Island Is a Bad Idea

First Paragraph:

"Velocity. It was like flying three feet above the tarmac. Wind rushed against him, roared in his ears, and he let out a whoop of excitement. This was living: taking the turns in the road at high speed, every one a risk and a reward."

Turner by Karl Drinkwater is a fast-paced story horror/thriller. 

The book starts '2 months ago' and introduces us to Tom Stanley- a cycling fanatic. He loves to spend his holidays out in the wild, undisturbed parts of Wales, with nothing but his bike. This time he's headed for a small village in Anglesey, Wales- courtesy of a creepy story from a friend. Why he's going to an island that so spooked his comrade, is probably one of those human nature things I'll never understand. 

The destination he's heading for is Stawl Island (better known as Devil Island- translated directly from the Welsh), a tiny village on the coast. The theory is that the name came from piracy in the thirteenth century. There is another rumour. One that says the name came about because Satanists occupied the island. The island is occasionally connected to the mainland by a sandbar- subject to tides and weather. 

Once in the village, he feels a kind of unease and eeriness about the place. It's too quiet and the villagers are a little 'off'. Nonetheless, he decides to stay the night, but the village may have other plans for him.

Cut to the present. We are slowly introduced to three new characters. First, Chris- who has been living on the island for two weeks. Around thirty and with a bit of a past, he's come to the village looking for a new place to start a peaceful life. He too has noticed odd things about the place. For one, women are rarely seen, apart from the mysterious Bran Ddu- who exudes an odd, unnatural air. 

Now on the hunt for a job, he takes a tip from the local barman and heads towards the logging camp. After a night of drinking, he gets to the camp hours later than arranged and finds it empty- abandoned. 

Next we meet David- a young cop who has also recently moved to the island. He requested the transfer after an incident at his last post, and is looking for the relaxation that comes with a tiny community with no crime. He has a love of jogging, and often goes jogging around the island with his dog Spotty. But he's not the only thing running through the forests. 

Finally Megan- who's taken herself on a camping holiday in order to persuade herself that she's completely and utterly, 100% over her ex. She's been on the island for three days, watching the wildlife and solving a puzzle book she brought along. 

The three characters are all eventually thrown together. All three go through varying degrees of awareness about what exactly is going on on the island. Soon, all three find themselves on the run, but escape is barred by the lack of a sandbar. A storm is upon them and it's vicious waves have tossed the sand aside. They have nowhere to go. No choice but to wait for the sandbar to reform. They'll have to wait it out and hope they survive long enough to get the chance.

First impressions of this story are as follows. The first time we see the village, it is immediately creepy and unsettling. For anyone who is genre-savvy, you'll instantly expect the worse. There are a lot of homages to various horror films in this book, and the first few scenes in the village reminded me a lot of King Kong and Deliverance. The villagers communicate in an unknown language (unknown to the protagonists anyway) and give off a creepy aura. Common sense denies there's anything wrong, but instinct screams for you to run. On a small side note, if I was ever in a situation of being in one of those creepy towns or villages from so many horror movies, I would follow my instincts. Between mild embarrassment and horrific death, I certainly know which one I'd choose. 

Some of the timeframes can be a little confusing until later in the book. Until Megan, Chris and David all met up, I hadn't realised they were there at the same time. But that's only the half of it. This is a very confused story, but for good reason. It is a chaotic string of events, that eventually tie together. There are a few leads that go absolutely nowhere, and some things that seem of grave importance are, in fact, meaningless. 

I've been quite ambiguous about the plot because we are given so little information. Anything I tell you could spoil the story. I don't want to mention anything beyond first impressions of the characters, for fear of ruining the book. Which leaves me with very little that I can actually tell you about the story.

We are given the same information as the protagonists- which is very little. The 'why's', 'who's', 'what's' and 'how's' are predominant. Why is is happening? Who are these people? Who can be trusted? How can they escape? What the hell is going on? We gain understanding as they do- if they do. For obvious reasons, they aren't exactly in the loop, and so, neither are we. We do get a little more information than they do, but it doesn't really help to make any sense out of anything. Which can make the events very hard to grasp, but create that brilliantly terrifying fear that comes from being hunted and from not knowing why. The tension is palpable. 

There are a lot of 'dark magic' elements to this. How much of any of it is real, is unclear. I'm pretty sure it's mostly rubbish, intended to brainwash the necessary people, but I could be wrong. It's dark science or dark magic or just dark nature. 

The climax is the only thing I really have any criticisms for. When we get the reason behind everything, it just seems a little flat and unoriginal. The build-up to it is so raw and substantial, that the ending is just a little overshadowed by it. The villain is one of the most disappointing aspects.  The actual ending after the climax peters out a little, but still manages to keep that unease. Having said that, neither the climax, the villain or the ending are bad, they're just not as great as the bulk of the story. The villains reasons are their own. To them, the reason is everything. To us, it's not really a reason. I know I said the end is a little lacklustre. We aren't given any answers up to that point, and when we finally get the big one I was expecting a little more. In the end though, the reason is irrelevant. 

When we start to get those answers, they can be even more terrifying. It's human nature to want to know 'why', but the cold truth of it is that sometimes some people, some things, don't need a 'why'. As you drown in the confusion and fear paralyses your body and mind, the 'why' won't really matter. What difference would it make, knowing the reason for the madness? Sometimes, it is better not to know. 

There are a lot of horror aspects to this story, but without taking them too far into the genre. I would class this book somewhere in between horror and thriller. There is a lot of violence and gore, but it's also integral to the story- which is very much a thriller trait. Often horror has violence and gore for the sheer hell of it, with no reasoning behind it other than to shock the audience.

Any horror themes present are more young adult based than adult based. Young adult horror mostly revolves around the monster in the closet, the things that go 'boo', urban legends and myths. Adult horror is generally more psychological, and a lot of it applies the 'shock' method of adding things in for the sole purpose of being shocking, gruesome or disgusting. There's no necessity. It has no effect on the story. If it's a movie or a game, it's the same principle as adding in jumpscares. They're completely irrelevant, serve no purpose, but always scare the audience (unless they're terrible).

I admit that between the two, I am much more a fan of the urban legend inspired young adult horror and not much of a fan of adult horror. Make no mistake, horror is horror. And this book does horror. It will creep down your spine and tense your muscles. Those myths and legends that inspire young adult horror, have always been scarier to me. Adult horror disturbs me more, but children's horror was always more terrifying because those monsters and demons always seemed so real to me. When we're alone and in the dark, it's the monsters we feared as children that haunt the shadows.

Somewhat of a digress there, but back on track now. Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. This is one of those books where the story will carry you more than the characters. To me the characters are almost irrelevant. We are given very little background on any of them. They mostly take a back-seat, and just get carried through by the plot. Very typical of horror. Anyone who's seen any horror movie will know the basic characters you get in every one. For the most part, they're just vessels that allow us to see the events, and that's what these characters are. 

A little background before you go. There actually is a Stawl Island. It is a small village in Wales and even has it's own Lord. It was a hotbed for pirates. There's even a sandbar that connects it to the mainland. However, everything else (you'll be glad to know) is entirely fictitious. In fact, the island wasn't even open to tourists, but after this book, the current Lord of Stawl Island is thinking about changing that. 

This book is a fast-paced, nerve fraying, seat grabber of a story. It starts off a little slow, but once it gets going, there is absolutely no stopping it. 

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Bipolar Writer, With a Chaotic Mind and an Alter Ego Named Gideon

First Paragraph:

"No screaming this time. Nobody drying out with the DTs, no meth-mouths groaning through  black teeth. I kept my eyes shut and willed myself through the walls."

  Amazon / 

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli is an odd read.

The main character, Tommy Pic, may share the author's name, but I am assured that all characters and event are fictitious (though to what extent, who knows?). The story starts with him waking up in a psych ward, strapped down to a bed (a commonplace occurrence for him apparently). The last time he woke up with the straps, was a couple years previously, when he attempted to 'hara-kiri' himself with a steak knife. Not because he wanted to die (necessarily), but because he was trying to get Gideon out. Gideon lives in his stomach, and is the ghost of a giant komodo dragon- who lived during the Pleistocene Age, and whose fossil is now on display in the Queensland Museum in Australia. For those wondering, it didn't work. He lost four foot of intestine, but Gideon is still inside him.

A depressive, bipolar,  alcoholic, who is subject to frequent blackouts, Tommy is lost in the past. He is a screenwriter, though somewhat of a failed one. There was a time when he was moving up in the scene, living in Hollywood, he had the world in his hands. A few of his scripts were picked up, but then changes were made, he lost his spark and all his money and is now most famous for films he despises, and living in his mother's basement. 

His father died when he was eight, one of his friends went missing a few years later, and his wife left him when his career took a downward turn. Memories haunt him, and due to his imagination and profession, they play out in front of him, like one of his movies, with full surround-sound. He spends hours lost in his own mind. He focuses on his failings and his losses, creating a bleak environment, that looks as washed out as he feels. 

But the words don't flow anymore. He's tried everything. So when his agent, Monty, tells him he loves his latest manuscript, Tommy is more than a little confused (while breaking the fourth wall a bit. The manuscript is 'What Makes You Die', but seems to tell a completely different story to this one). Monty returns his script with amendments and asks him for the next act by Monday. Tommy leaves panicked. The script is written on his paper, has his name, everything about it screams that he wrote it, but he can't remember writing it at all. 

He meets various characters, though I'm not sure how many of them are actually real, but neither is he, and attempts to find closure, or finish his script, or come to terms with his past, or any number of things.

If you're having trouble figuring out the plot, don't worry. The entire book is practically told constantly in Tommy's mind, with not too much dialogue. Because of this, if can be confusing for the reader, as Tommy's mind is a chaotic mess, his thoughts whirl around in his head, howling. It is a jumbled flow of information, that is hard to understand and yet somehow causes unease. I doubt even he understands half the stuff that happens in this story.

There are times when this book is quite tiring to read. There are no breaks in the story, just a constant, turbulent flow of turmoil, self-loathing and uncertainty, that takes its toll after a while.

This is a bleak, reasonably dark story, but with a surprising amount of humour. I would describe it more, but one of the characters  (Timmy Pic himself, in fact) explains it so well, I'll let him do it:

     "Innocent kid who hasn't had his liver torn out and stuck on a pike yet:

    Mr. Pic, some of your work is intensely stark and bleak, but it's also surprisingly funny. How do you manage to put so much emphasis on such spiritual pain and have laughs along the way?"

That describes his writing style in a nutshell. To hear the answer you'll have to read the book. Oh, and what a good answer it is. 

Going through the story, with its lack of direction, there comes a point when you believe you've found the plot. It seems like it's going to be this big thing, this conclusion, this remedy for his mind, something to fix the damage that begun so long ago and help get his life back on track. Then it finishes with a a completely different, very ordinary and not quite fitting ending. There is a hopeful air to it, though it's still a little unsure, but doesn't entirely work with the rest of the story. 

It's almost like the majority of the book is coated in deep fog, that makes it hard to tell what's going on, and then it lifts right at the very end and changes the story, it changes everything. The oddities that frequent the pages are made trivial and such a normal ending does not fit with the insanity that came before it. 

After finishing the book, I went back, thought about the plot and discovered it to be something very simple- a writer overcoming his writer's block. There are a few additions and complications, but that is basically what the story is, though you wouldn't know it. But they do say it's the journey and not the destination. 

Overall, this is an unusual book, quite macabre in places, and will most likely be a hit-or-miss kind of book. You'll either like it or you won't. For what it's worth, I enjoyed it, though most likely didn't understand most of it. I'm not even entirely sure whether most of the events in the book even happened or were just delusions of Tommy Pic's mind. I don't think he knows.

Maybe I enjoyed it because it was unusual. Because it's not something you read everyday. Why I enjoyed it isn't really relevant, all that matters is that I did- though the confusion does lessen than somewhat. 

Disclaimer: I received this book through a Librarything giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

But For the Kindness of Children

First Paragraph:

"The bench felt cold and damp beneath his thighs. His tattered coat only just reached around his stomach if he breathed in and pulled. It missed a button or two. He watched the leaves curl beneath his feet, a sea of vibrant reds and ochres. The wind caught his face and whipped through his hair, rolling through the trees and under the children skipping along the path. The church bell chimed eleven. It always chimed one number short of the hour, before a long pause and a final strike. It rang with gusto, threatening to take the steeple with it. Cars hooted from the road beyond the park- beyond its railings skirting the perimeter- reminding him of days in the city. He tried not to think for too long about his hours in that God-forsaken place. It pained him to recall the sacrifices he had made, and for what?"

The Bench by F.C. Malby is a remarkably short story (in more ways than one).

Sitting on a bench in a park, we meet Bill (though his name isn't important). An old man, weary from the trials of life, he sits and watches as the world goes by without him.

One day, a little girl greets him, one who is very astute and mature for her age. She teaches him some simple life lessons, through very simple, yet quite profound ways. 

A very quick read (at only 5 pages), but meaningful nonetheless. There's very little I can say without spoiling anything. The story is so short, it's almost over before it's even begun. 

There are some interesting conversations and concepts present, all met by a very sudden end. It leaves you with the beginnings of hollowness, but there just isn't enough familiarity for it to be anything more than a slight tug. I will say this, because the story is so abrupt in its end, the message and consequential ending that it creates, gain more strength and depth the longer it's been since you finished the story. In other words, it can take a little time to sink in, but the story only gets better with it.

On another topic: the little girl's lessons only work because of her age. If she had been older, they could've seemed pretentious and condescending, though imaginative. As it is, her age makes both her personality and her lessons sweet, innocent and kind, yet very mature and surprisingly eerie, as well as showing her awareness of the world around her. 

If you are someone who likes all the questions answered and all the strings tied up in a pretty bow, this may not be for you. There is just enough description and just the right amount of information and hints given, to understand the story, but nothing more. Most of it is left pretty ambiguous, and for good reason. This story would not work anywhere near as well, if we had all the answers. It would be more mundane and less universal. This is minimalist writing at its best.

There are only really two characters in this story, and yes they are both given names, but those names are largely irrelevant. They are outlines of people, allowing many different characters to fit in their places. The answers (especially to the ending) are all debatable and up for interpretation. The 'who', the 'why', the 'what' are never given solid form, and it's down to the reader to imagine.

An interesting read, that is a good example of why quality is more often than not, better than quantity.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Journey Can Take You Many Places

    First Paragraph:

   "All I ever wanted was a life less ordinary."
Manny lay flat on her back, eyes wide, staring at the ceiling while she waited for her clock to hit 6:00. Another day of work, she thought. Another day older and deeper in debt."

A Life Less Ordinary is the first book published by Victoria Bernadine.

Starting out at 'minus 31 days', we meet Manny Mankowski, a 45 year-old woman, who feels unmotivated and unattractive. She sticks to her routines like clockwork. Goes to work, goes home, repeat process. 

To get her through the boring trivialities of life, she's created an imaginary beau- Harvey. Her Mr. Perfect. Harvey acts as her inner voice. Not just a conscience, but also a true reveal of her inner thoughts, some selfish and dark, some reassuring and hopeful. He is her sounding board.

He helps her get through the days, but when she's passed over for a promotion at a job she's been doing for fifteen years, it tips the scales. Now off balance, she's thinking hard about her life. The missed promotion is a wake-up call and just puts emphasis on the 'dead-end' aspect of her career. But the deciding factor comes when she is faced with the prospect of another fifteen years working the same job at the same place, and she quits.

She's decided to have her mid-life crisis (her words, not mine) in the form of selling her house and most of her belongings and departing on a six month road-trip around the States and Canada. But she doesn't want to travel alone, so she puts out an ad for a travelling companion and awaits the results, much to the shock of her sister, Daisy and best-friend, Rebecca.

Zeke Powell works for an e-magazine called 'What Women Want'. He's a blogger famous for rocking the boat. He can be arrogant and fancies himself a ladies man, but is a good guy when push comes to shove. His boss, Leah, is also the wife of his best-friend, TJ, and she suggests he reply to Manny's ad and go with her on the trip. All for the purposes of their blog. They want to expose her 'mid-life crisis' to the world and try to gain popularity for their e-zine by doing so. He wants a scoop and he doesn't mind being a little cruel to get it.

Of course, he doesn't tell Manny that. So, off they go, choosing the next destination from a hat (or plastic bag in this case), with Zeke (unbeknownst to Manny) blogging about her actions and his reactions along the way. He sees her as vulnerable and unaware and doesn't want to hurt her, but of course it won't stop him from writing, so he has to tone down the level of harshness usually present in his work. 

They spend the time sight-seeing and generally exploring everything they can, all down to Manny's itinerary. The point of the trip for Manny, is to get out of her comfort zone and learn how to connect with people again. To be comfortable with strangers and start enjoying life. Zeke may just learn something along the way too.

Meanwhile, Rebecca is struggling with changes of her own. Thirty years ago (when she was sixteen) her (then) boyfriend got her pregnant, changing her life forever. He abandoned her, her parents disowned her and if it wasn't for Manny and Daisy's parents, her life would've just about ended there. 

Now her daughter, Jaime, is a grown woman, going through a divorce of her own. Mother and daughter don't have the best relationship, but Rebecca finds herself looking after Tris, Jaime's ten year-old daughter, as Jaime sets out to find the father she never knew.

At the same time, Daisy's marriage is failing. She spends her nights at the casino. Her husband, Hub, is an estranged partner and father to their two teenage kids, and is rarely around. She labels herself a 'married, single parent'. They're already unhappy marriage is put to the test when Daisy discovers something Hub has been keeping secret. 

Finally, Tj and Leah are trying for a baby, but are having complications. They're taking fertility tests to see if there's an actual biological reason why they're having such a hard time. 

As you can tell, there are quite a few storylines going on in this book. All connected through theme, they focus on the complications of life- in all meanings of the word. There are many forms a journey can take, and many endings and beginnings to them. Change can be for the better or worse, through a decision we've made or something we had no control over, but in the end, it is what we choose to make of it. So many sub-plots can be confusing, but it works here, and each one is just as interesting and meaningful as the others. The focus is on Manny's journey, but the other stories aren't any less significant.

The description of travelling is beautifully done, namely the emotions experienced. The wonder of a new place, the almost child-like joy and excitement. The curiosity, a little nervous tension and the anticipation all mixed up with good old-fashioned fun. How the journey differs when you share it with another, even just a stranger met along the way. It's so addictive and infectious that I'm almost tempted to take off on my own six month adventure.

The characters are complicated and unique. They're not infallible. The relationships and conversations between them are enjoyably witty and very wry, especially between Manny and Harvey and Manny and Zeke. Harvey is more of a safety blanket. He's a constant figure, but is only ever constantly present, when Manny is stressed, afraid or nervous. 

The relationship between Manny and Zeke is oddly endearing. Somehow, with all the confidence he shows and she lacks, Zeke comes across as the older of the two. Sometimes. Manny's friendly personality and honesty open people up to her. Zeke, however, while not necessarily dishonest (depending) is a closed-book. He won't straight out lie, but he will emit details or refuse the question. But it leads to quite hilarious interactions between the two.

The characters are well-rounded and well-written. And you know what? I'm actually going to miss them. As odd as it sounds, they've grown on me. It's always sad when one journey ends, but you just have to keep looking forward to the next, and you'll always have the memories.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. To the point that I had trouble putting it down, and only managed it when (at 6 am) I was facing sheer exhaustion. What kept me reading so obsessively? In short, the characters. I've commented on why I think they're great characters, but I'm not sure I can so easily pinpoint why exactly I liked them so much. They're very real, and the way they interact with each other is as though they've been friends forever (which in many cases they have), and they pull you right into that inner circle. They make you their friend. They're not necessarily the most original characters, but when I'm with my own friends, or meeting someone new, I don't compare them to others, I don't find fault in similarities or unoriginality, I just see them for them. And that's what these characters are to me- just them.

A rather subtle ending, with a call-back to the beginning. Such small things can be so big, while such big things can be so small. Life is scary. We all know it. They're will always be things we wish we could run away from, forget or change. But strength comes in not letting fear win. In standing up and fighting back. Yeah, life is scary, but it's real, and what more could we hope for? What better reason do we need to live purely for the sake of living? To come out of our shells and be who we really are, to let people see us as we really are. What better motivation do we need to do something a little less ordinary?

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author through a giveaway. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.