Casting a Light on the Bierce Darkness…

Book 5 of the ‘Penguin 6o’s collection’ comprises a half dozen short stories by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). For the uninitiated (among whom I include myself), the author was apparently “America’s foremost nineteenth-century satirist”, which explains his inclusion in the series celebrating the publisher’s sixtieth anniversary. Bierce is best known for “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1906), but he also published two poetry books and many short stories. The cluster of stories in this short anthology surely stand testament to his qualities as a talented writer. However, Bierce also fought with distinction in an Indiana regiment during the American civil war and this may help explain the authentic undertone detectable in a couple of the stories. Moreover, the common theme, albeit sombre, repeated across these tales, relates to the dark, mysterious nature of death and echoes macabre exploits of the living, unwittingly touched by the gossamer veil masking the beyond.

Certainly these ‘taster reads’ have perked the reader’s curiosity and the knowledge that Bierce was a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain only inflames the interest further. Indeed, the notion that ‘art imitates life’ may even seem prescient. In 1913 Bierce openly shared his intention to travel to Mexico and join Pancho Villa’s forces as an observer of that country’s civil war. That he was never heard from again and the circumstances of his death are obscure feels like a fittingly mysterious and intriguing end.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Construction of Dreams

2021 novel, “Paper Castles” was my first taste of the work of indie author, B.Fox and though formatted into three parts, the smooth conversational style of this debut novel had me hooked by the end of the first chapter. It is true that the book may be regarded as ‘literary fiction’, given that it does not fit neatly into an established genre, but be assured, irrespective of the notional label, this is a fine example of accomplished storytelling.

James Brooke, aged 28, graduate of Cleveland and wannabe architect has returned home to Westland, Ohio, weighed down by student debt and a glaring lack of opportunity. Moreover, James finds himself reliant on a father beset with his own struggles and in the absence of James’ late Mom, without the maternal influence that formerly kept the family together and fanned the embers of their son’s aspirations.

On one level the story is an interesting study in the communication James has with himself (and the reader), but also the collision of the possible with the pragmatic, respectively represented by son and father and the consequences of a failure to engage. More broadly, the novel calls into question the status of the ‘American dream’, the worship of money and the human casualties that get left behind, collateral damage in an unattractive, largely utilitarian system.

Using the real estate industry as a metaphor to reinforce the themes, the author also highlights the need for aesthetic vision, combined with pragmatic discipline, if huge potential is not to be simply sacrificed on the altar of crude economics.

Still, it is the wanton disregard for human capital and the disadvantages to be overcome by the socially powerless that lend real depth to this book. Karen, whom James meets in a diner, is trapped in a waitressing job that enables her to also provide elder care to her frail grandmother. But, can this unusual alliance provide the key that may liberate the young couple from their respective challenges? The author has created a fascinatingly complex relationship between the two characters and James’ observation that “it feels good to be outside of my own head for once. Hers is so much more interesting”, alludes to an important psychological connection, but can it be enough?

Certainly, Karen’s assertion that “It’s not the American dream what’s important; it’s the dreamer! A dream can’t be alive without a dreamer who believes in it.” seems to best describe the essence of this novel, However, on balance, the avoidance of a trite conclusion is also to the credit of B. Fox. Hugely satisfying read, I shall look forward to the author’s future work with great interest, but, for now, I have no hesitation in lodging “Paper Castles” on my current favourites’ shelf.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Comrades Under Threat

Having enjoyed Robert Craven’s 2021 novel, “A Kind of Drowning” (see earlier blogpost), I was encouraged to go back a decade to the author’s debut book, “Get Lenin”. Set in Europe amid the tumult of World War II, the author introduces Eva Molenaar, a young Polish woman, brutalised by the craven (forgive the pun) behaviour of fascist thugs, but possessing language skills and beauty that can be used by the allied secret services. This first instalment of the heroine’s wartime adventures is an exciting romp, as the advancing German army threatens to capture Lenin’s Moscow mausoleum and in a potential propaganda coup, hold the icon to ransome.

The reader learned from the author’s blurb that Mr Craven started writing the book in 2006 and it took five years to complete. Still, in an exciting, fast-moving plot, the reader comes to learn about Eva and her serendipitous progress to fledgling spy and the well-honed story has clearly benefited from the original polish (sorry, can’t seem to help myself).

With Russia very much in the news, the repeated echoes of an “orgy of destruction” carry a contemporary poignancy, but while the backdrop is darkly familiar, the author’s focus on a woman’s wartime experience is both interesting and refreshing. More earthy than simply James Bond wearing nail varnish, in Eva, the reader glimpses a strong, determined woman, whose contribution to the 1940s struggle is both important and dangerous, but not without enduring the manipulation of spymasters willing to sacrifice all. Snatching romantic comfort in the most unlikely of situations, the tale is well-set for further episodes in this seemingly ever-fertile WWII soil. I look forward to Book 2 in the series, entitled “Zinnman” and the further development of the main character and her peers. I also wonder if the author has another such innovative plotline, around which to intrigue the reader with Eva’s ongoing adventures? Time will tell.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

No Lightweight Short Story…

This was my first experience of Ken Stark’s work and yet, despite the short format, “Dead Weight” packs a powerful punch. Subtly horrifying, the author exposes the abject vulnerability of a mind imprisoned in a paralysed body, juxtaposed with a shackled body, the consequence of a broken mind. In common with top writers in the genre, Stark doesn’t rely on graphic description, but instead allows the reader to formulate a mental picture in all its shuddering repugnance. Bravo!

Rather like a tasty aperitif, this short story has stimulated my appetite for a more substantial course and waiting in my tbr list is Mr Stark’s post-apocalyptic zombie thriller. “Stage 3”. Can’t wait. Bon appetit!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mesopotamian Blues

I don’t regard myself as a connoisseur of children’s books, though I’ve read quite a few over the years (what parent hasn’t?), but it’s been a while. Still, it made my dip into the world of ‘Varjak Paw’, a Mesopotamian blue cat, all the more refreshing.

Originally published in 2003 and winner of the Smarties Prize Gold Award, in Varjak Paw the author (S.F.Said) has created an interesting main character, heroic but humble, timid but courageous, naive but open to new ideas and tolerant of different pedigrees and perspectives. In keeping with classic books, such as “Watership Down”(Richard Adams, 1972), the fact that the characters are animals simply alters the context, but not the need for the cast to resolve the attendant challenges. In this example, feline blue-blood Varjak Paw and his family are living a leisurely existence with the Countess, but when their kind benefactor mysteriously disappears, Varjak Paw finds himself traumatically relegated to the street and facing threats to which he is not accustomed. The young cat needs help and to learn quickly how to survive.

Given the nature of the book, it is only right that due credit also go to the illustrator, Dave McKean, whose minimalist black and white drawings complement the story and deftly draw the eye, providing a visual treat that supports the fast-moving narrative. I note there is also a sequel to this adventure (“The Outlaw Varjak Paw”, 2005), which I shall add to my tbr pile, but in the meantime, I have sent my copy of the original book to my eight year-old nephew for a rather more expert opinion, though I remain confident that he will approve.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Masking an Iceberg

Jane Davis is the author of nine novels to date, of which I have read six so far. This latest example was published in 2015 and the following year was lauded by Writing Magazine as the ‘Self-Published Book of the Year’. Indeed, “An Unknown Woman” exemplifies much of what I enjoy about Ms Davis storytelling. The themes are broad, the female characters especially are fascinating and the situations confronting them incite in the reader a deep-seated empathy.

The premise of this novel is that each of us is akin to an iceberg, with only a small proportion of ourselves showing above the surface. Even those closest to us may project a persona that avoids the exposure of unflattering traits and inner compromises, in the face of life’s changing demands. However, crises sometimes have the capacity to ‘out’ submerged feelings and secrets, enabling them to bob unexpectedly to the surface,no longer private, no longer hidden.

A fire, which destroys the home of Anita and Ed and with it the possessions gathered over their fifteen years together, is such a catalyst. It is a stress test of their cohabiting relationship. Without the trappings built up over time, are their foundations strong enough to withstand the necessary rebuild and attendant doubt? “Something of herself or of Ed had been invented in each object.” The wrecked house is perhaps a metaphor for the decisions required. Whether to replicate their former home, or take the opportunity to remodel a more ambitious project, maybe just cash in their chips and go their separate ways. For Anita in particular, her job as a curator at a famous historical site provides an interesting perspective around the relationship between past and present, but the reader also gets a glimpse of the influence of nature and nurture in Anita’s upbringing and the source of the bond with her father.

A parallel and contrasting strand to the story, though equally absorbing, concerns Anita’s parents. Patti and Ron have a longstanding marriage shaped by the traditions of a different generation, a very different time, but they have their own secrets. As the two couples work through their respective challenges, learning anew about each other and recalibrating their attachments, the novel alludes not so much to a radical ‘reset’, as to an ongoing evolution that the reader can’t help but find familiar.

Notwithstanding the delicious language and attention to descriptive detail that makes Ms Davis writing stand out, for this reader, it is also the underlying scope for reflection and food for thought that offers genuine depth. It may be reassuring to note that as we float along the currents of life, the ice from which we are formed will be sculpted. Still, worth also remembering the mask one chooses to wear may be simply a protective covering.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Werewolf & the Tailor…

I have drawn these two short stories together, as companion pieces, released under their own covers (on Kindle only) and because I found them intriguing. Author, Alan Scott, has created ‘The Storm’ series, which currently comprises a trilogy of novels and three books of short stories and ‘Tea’ was taken from “Stories of a Storm Filled Night”(2014). The stories are set twenty five and twenty six years respectively, after the events detailed in ‘Scions of the Storm’ (Book 2 of the trilogy) and signpost the reader towards “Echoes of a Storm” (Book 1), where it all begins. It’s an interesting promotional strategy, which offers the prospect of a much more developed dark fantasy, but hinges on whetting the readers’ appetite through two short abstracts.

The signs were good, when having immersed myself in ‘Tea’, I was very quickly loading the follow-up onto my tray for the conclusion to the initial story and therein lies a clue. The two stories are of their nature – short and centre on the curious relationship between two very different characters, who come together annually on the longest night, “when the shadows were at their deepest and darkest”. This single night, established as the briefest of respite from their respective experiences of isolation, stands testament to the value of companionship and the healing potential of hot tea and warm attention. In these brief pages, the seemingly mundane traverses life, death, loss, duty and identity and gives the reader the sense of epic events distilled into a cup of tea shared between people, with whom a special affinity exists.

It is very much a case of less is more, yet the quality of the writing leaves the reader wanting to understand the broader context for the short stories and learn more about the enigmatic ‘Shadow Killer’ (William) and the diffident tailor (Samuel). Certainly, for fans of dark fantasy, these morsels will surely have readers seeking the main course and spurred by these tasters, I have added The Storm trilogy to my tbr list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Time Stands Still for No One?

As we tentatively turn the early pages of 2022, it puts me in mind of the recent launch of the latest novel by Kevin Ansbro – a moment of exciting expectation to be savoured. Ordinarily the author has a distinctive flair for storytelling and perhaps a connection to the Blarney Stone, which has the reader suspending any shred of disbelief, to simply revel in the warmth and feel-good vibe radiating from the page. Yet, with each new book, the author needs to deliver anew.

In his latest book, “In the Shadow of Time”, Mr Ansbro utilises the device of time travel, albeit sparingly, but the presence of a machine opens the door to the prospect of extraterrestrial technology and the possibility that alien beings walk among us, or at the very least, have a ringside seat to the soap opera that is humanity. Still, in this incarnation, ‘they’ are more than bystanding viewers, able to influence individual lives and the impact for the clutch of main characters is profound. I have commented in earlier reviews of the author’s penchant for the unusual melding of elements from multiple genres and here too Mr Ansbro has created a kaleidoscope of literary colour, borrowing from romance, scifi, thriller, contemporary history and the paranormal, embroidered together in a unique style, which also shares with the reader the author’s twinkle-in-the-eye humour and fondness for the absurdly macabre.

Hugo Wilde is of noble birth, yet plies his trade as an assassin for British intelligence, supported by his loyal friend and sidekick, Vincent O’Toole. Meanwhile, also residing in 2020 England, Sophia Ustinova is a leading physicist, married to a Russian assassin backed by the Kremlin. It’s an unlikely match, not so much ‘made in heaven’, as enabled by the distance of fifty years and the sanctuary provided by the intervention of benign, but mysterious benefactors. Starting from different spots in time and space, ‘fate’ conspires for the lives of two remarkable youngsters in the story, Pablo and Luna, to also converge in a new home in Mexico City, 1970. The gathered cast are all integral to the plot and for a series of reasons appear to have been granted the chance for a fresh start, unhindered by disparate pasts, but with the means to influence a series of wholly different future outcomes. Indeed, the theme of salvation is strong within a story that oozes a sense of karma at play.

It is to the author’s credit that the intricate choreography of the central characters is understated and yet the attention paid to developing the supporting cast, as well as reference to authentic time and place detail, is also admirable. The reader instinctively wants good things to happen to good people. but through the trade-mark elegance of Mr Ansbro’s prose, even the resident villain is not begrudged the potential of a second chance. In common with many good books, this fine addition to Mr Ansbro’s growing body of work may evince different responses in the reader. For myself, the range stretched from the simple enjoyment of masterful storytelling evoking a range of emotions, to a thought-provoking tease, which I fancy may also have been the author’s intention. Bravo!

In any event, the New Year is off to a good start.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine…

Whilst ‘romance’ is a genre I have ordinarily neglected, what better time to indulge in a novel high on the feel-good quotient, than Christmas week? Moreover, in her latest novel (published November 2021), Christian author, M.C.Harrison has certainly tapped into the Christmas spirit and the magic that attends the festive season, whisking the reader away to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Miss Holly Bennett hails from Richmond, but when her unreliable boyfriend (Craig) disappoints yet again, the main character takes her sister’s advice and heads to the snowy slopes, with her dog ‘Skeeter’, for some retail therapy in the Victorian quaintness of rural Bethlehem.

Lifelong member of that community, Tyler Morris, is owner of ‘The Olde Yarn Bookshop’ and is also leading the local response to a bizarre drone problem besetting the townsfolk. Still, it is the palliative care of his mother and childcare of his orphaned nephew that dominate Tyler’s life.

The challenges for this star-crossed couple include creating the space for their natural chemistry to flourish, but also finding common cause in combatting local corruption and fashioning a very special Christmas celebration, the life-blood on which the town depends.

This is an easy read, over a gingerbread latte that oozes traditional values and charm. It also made this reader want to book into the ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’ bed and breakfast immediately and inhabit a world not so much lacking realism, as simply filtering out some of the customary ugliness. Escapism – absolutely, but a welcome reminder perhaps that the sharing of life’s trials and tribulations can make the good times even sweeter. Certainly, in this COVID-dominated period, Ms Harrison has demonstrated that happiness can also be infectious!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Wilt Wields, Others Yield…

5 December 2021 (13:35)

In “The Blood Within the Stone (Book 1 of the Wraith Cycle)”, published in 2017, T.R.Thompson seeks to establish an impressive cast of characters and introduce, in particular, professional thief, Wilt and his street urchin friend, Higgs. The accompanying world-building also takes in their home environment – ‘Greystone’, where Wilt modestly aspires to join the ‘Grey Guild of Thieves, but the growth of his precocious mental talents brings Wilt to the attention of more powerful forces that draw the friends to the mountain fortress of ‘Redmondis’. In this rarefied atmosphere, overseen by the sinister ‘Nine Sisters’, the skilled are nurtured (crafting, healing, apothecary, etc), while for potential ‘wielders’(those who can read and eventually control minds), a chance to train among the elite ‘Black Robes’ and develop their prodigious gifts.

The proverb, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, is an underlying theme for the plot, denoted by the ruthless exercise of the collective might of the Sisters and their company of guards. However, Wilt and Higgs are able to rely on allies operating outside of Redmondis, able to offer some protection and insight into the seeping evil threatening to subsume and suppress the population. It’s a risky strategy, to place the youngsters at the heart of such a nest of vipers, but Wilt and Higgs must also develop their skills quickly, if they are not to be overwhelmed.

Of course, the ability to shape-shift is a useful skill to have, in the circumstances, but the awe-inspiring power of the mind and Wilt’s struggle to master his inner strength, for the good of others, without compromising his humility or jeopardising his spirit, is an interesting challenge. The book also emphasises the value of friendship and it is the circle of strong characters around Wilt who realise his potential, yet also keep him grounded.

This first book in the ‘The Wraith Cycle’ series, is necessarily required to familiarise the reader with this fantasy world, the nature of the key characters and their evolving relationships. Certainly, the author has seeded the reader’s curiosity around the onward adventures of Wilt, Higgs and their diverse crew. The description of something as intangible as the wielders’ ‘gift’, is an unusual challenge for the writer, to formulate images of coloured ‘welds’ connecting minds, but not in a reciprocal fashion, but rather at the bidding of a frighteningly powerful minority. It is an uncomfortable proposition for the reader! Still, T.R.Thompson has forged a gripping tale and I look forward to reading Book 2, “The Forked Path” and in the knowledge that Book 3, “A Flame of Song” is due to be released on 17.12.21. Happy holidays fantasy fans!

Rating: 4 out of 5.