Category: Book Review

Book Review – The Savage Apostle (by John Kachuba)

Review by Patrick Stuart

In February SICCO was lucky enough to have author John Kachuba speak, where much ofScreen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.10.42 PM his presentation centered on his new book The Savage Apostle. The novel takes place during the 1670’s in the American colonies, with the crux of the story focusing on the expanding Plymouth settlement. The title of the book refers to a Christianized Native American named Sassamon who is murdered, with three members of the Pokanoket tribe then accused on trumped up charges to be decided by a white jury.

The Good: There’s a lot to like in this novel, especially if you’re a fan of historic fiction. The author spent several years researching this time period and it shows. The places and character names sound authentic, as do the settings and daily interactions of the characters, and there’s even guest appearances by historical characters such as Miles Standish, Squanto and Cotton Mather. The novel’s voice sounds transplanted from the seventeenth century so that the reader actually feels in the scene, rather than simply reading a modern description of another time period. Chapters oscillate between the main white protagonist (John Eliot) and the Native American protagonist (Metacom/Philip), and both points of view show their shared despair as Governor Winslow of the Plymouth settlers uses Machiavellian techniques to push Metacom to a fateful and calamitous decision. No matter how much might wish for a happy ending . . . unfortunately, we all know how history typically played out in these situations.

The Bad: Ironically, what makes the novel so rich in detail is what takes away somewhat from the plot. The novel is a trim 220 pages, and the plot is a pretty straightforward trial scene. Not much mystery is involved, and the decision and aftermath are no surprise. Which is the conundrum of historical fiction; how much can you deviate from history in the interest of story? Other novels from that time period do the opposite, such as The Pilgrim (by Hugh Nissenson) and The Midwife’s Tale (by Sam Thomas), where history becomes the background for the story to happen, allowing a tapestry of fiction and reality to form. Perhaps there’s more of a middle ground to investigate in future books.

Either way, John Kachuba is a promising author with a deep understanding of this vastly underrated and unexplored time period in American history. Although I felt this novel could’ve expanded into additional plot and intrigue, I definitely look forward to future work from him. Out of 4 thumbs up, I give this a strong 3.

 

 

 

 

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Review: Where All Light Tends to Go

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WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO by David Joy, another Edgar nominee for best first novel, is a first rate debut novel. Jacob McNeely is a young man trapped by the circumstances of his Appalachian upbringing and convinced that his destiny is pre-ordained. His violent meth-dealing father controls what goes on in Cashiers, North Carolina, including the local authorities. Jacob dropped out of high school and has been working for his father for years on the promise that his father will eventually pay him for his efforts. The high point of his life comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl bound for bigger and better things.

Initially, I found it difficult to get into the book. Joy is a very descriptive writer, and in the beginning, he made use of a number of clichés. As I got further into the book, I was swept away by his use of language, sense of place, ability to catch the reader off guard with brutal and often upsetting incidents, and heart-pounding pacing. I highly recommend this book.

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The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield

Review by David Ploskonka

I reaScreen Shot 2016-03-19 at 6.05.26 PMd a lot of books on writing. My nightstand almost always has one or two books from the library about how to write a better novel, better characters, better anything. And I’ll tell you what – most of them are terrible. If I had a dollar for every book chockfull of bad advice or painful clichés, I could buy my own publishing house.

But that is precisely why I get so excited when I find one that is good. And let me tell you, I’ve found a good one.

The Scene Book: A Primer for The Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield is jewel: detailed, concise, practical, and full of great examples. Scene Book explains that every good piece of fictional writing requires good scenes. Its central premise is that to write a good scene you must understand the following:

  • Every scene has an EVENT
  • Every scene has a FUNCTION and a FOCAL POINT
  • Every scene has a STRUCTURE
  • Every scene has a PULSE

The author then unpacks all of this over the course of 14 chapters. Each of these chapters include instruction, actual scene examples, and analysis of what works in those scenes, making each chapter a mini-course in scene construction. Scofield even has the best explanation of the differences between conflict and tension that I’ve ever seen.

Most of the scene examples come from the “literary” genre and include examples by people like Raymond Carver, Richard Stone, and Joy Williams. While I love these writers, this is not what I write. But no matter—I found the examples elucidating enough that I did not need them to match my genre of choice. Whether I am writing or revising, I find myself reaching for The Scene Book over and over to help me out of jams. I fully recommend it!

Table of Contents Below
Part One

The Scene Primer:

  • The Basics (Ch. 1)
  • Event and Meaning (Ch. 2)
  • Beats (Ch. 3)
  • The Focal Point (Ch. 4)

Part Two

  • The Heart of a Scene: Pulse (Ch. 5)
  • Tension (Ch. 6)
  • Negotiation (Ch. 7)
  • Images (Ch. 8)

Part Three

  • Some Useful Scene Skills: Scene Activity and Character Response (Ch. 9)
  • Scene Openings (Ch. 10)
  • Big Scenes (Ch. 11).

Part Four

  • Moving to Independent Study: Reading for Story and Scene (Ch. 12)
  • Evaluation (Ch. 13)
  • Scenarios (Ch. 14).Sample Scenes

    Further Reading

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“X” Marks a Good Book

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Review by Carolyn Melvin

Sue Grafton is another author I admire. I’ve read every one of her alphabet books and was very much looking forward to reading the newest, X.

In this latest installment, private investigator, Kinsy Millhone, has several cases that are demanding her attention.  She is approached by a wealthy woman named Hallie Battencourt to find her son, Christian Satterfield, who has just been released from prison. It was supposed to be an easy job, but Kinsey discovers that Hallie was lying, and Kinsey gets involved in a domestic dispute. At the same time, Ruth, the widow of Pete Wolinsky, a private eye with whom Kinsey once worked, hires Kinsey to sort through her late husband’s files, since the IRS is threatening an audit. Kinsey soon discovers new information that opens up a series of events from the past. The third case involves Kinsey’s landlord Henry Pitts’ new retired, elderly neighbors, Joseph and Edna. While Henry takes them at face value, Kinsey finds them supremely annoying and becomes suspicious of their motives as she looks further into their background.

Beautifully constructed and well written, X is a satisfying, if somewhat slow, read. Sue Grafton still delivers, and I anxiously await the last two novels in the series.

 

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The Nature of the Beast

Review written by Carolyn Melvin, SiCCO Treasurer Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 7.51.49 PM

One of my all-time favorite mystery authors is Louise Penny. I eagerly await each of her releases with great anticipation, and I have never known her to disappoint. The Nature of the Beast, the newest in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, is a different, in that it is a bit more thriller than mystery, but for me, it was still among her better efforts.

Armand Gamache, retired from his position as the head of homicide for the Surete of Quebec, and his wife, Reine Marie have moved to Three Pines, an almost magical Quebecois village across the border from Vermont. Among his circle of friends, Gamache befriends nine year old Laurent Lepage, an out-going boy with a vivid imagination. Each day Laurent races home from his adventures exploring the woods near his home with stories of alien invasions, wild beasts and other amazing creatures. When he arrives home one afternoon insisting that everyone should come to see something extraordinary that he has found, no one takes him seriously, including Gamache. When Laurent disappears, and is later found dead, Gamache becomes involved in the investigation with his former colleagues from the Surete.

The usual cast of quirky characters is back, and, as always, I love the dialogue and the humor. Penny is unsurpassed in her ability to build a sense of heart-stopping urgency. In her earlier books the stakes were more personal. This time, Penny creates a threat with potential world-wide impact.  I highly recommend this book.

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The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley (by Jeremy Massey)

book cover (last four days)Book Review by Patrick Stuart, SiCCO President

I was tipped to this debut novel by our very own SICCO member, Connie Berry, because I suspect she knows I like weird storylines and funky plots. And The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley definitely fits that description.

The novel centers on the protagonist Patrick (a.k.a., Paddy) Buckley, a middle-aged funeral director in Dublin, Ireland, who lost his pregnant wife and has since dealt with it via insomnia and work. Despite his professionalism and careful manner, learned from his casket-making father until his death from a car crash, Paddy is quite literally an accident waiting to happen. And true enough, in a blinding rainstorm he runs over a pedestrian crossing the road. The unintended victim is Donal Cullen, younger brother of Vincent Cullen, the most feared mobster in Dublin. And once Paddy recognizes what’s happened he speeds away in his damaged car, but not without one witness getting a partial view of his profile.

You can pretty much figure out what happens next. As a top employee at the most prestigious funeral home in Dublin, Paddy is soon tasked with Donal’s funeral. He has to meet with Vincent Cullen to arrange the details, and his guilt almost gives him away. Vincent is ‘the alpha male of alpha males’ . . . a character both intensely charming and strangely beautiful, but nonetheless brutal and vicious, wearing his barely tamped aggression like a second skin. Much of the allure of the novel is undoubtedly Vincent, who makes an art form of intimidating people. In the hands of a lesser novelist he might have been ham-fisted and stock, but the author paints him like an artist, something between Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. Eventually Vincent finds the truth of his brother’s death, and the reader finds out the real malevolence of the Irish mob. Mobsters of the United Kingdom are in a different class than our own home-grown variety, and the Cullen crew is a great example. Which makes the story unique, intense and terrifying as the plot progresses.

Lest anyone be turned off by the fact that everything takes place around a funeral home, keep in mind that the Irish grieve like nobody else. These are drawn-out, sonorous, serious affairs, which doesn’t mean that the occasional slapstick mistakes occur. Such as the wrong person being cremated by a London colleague . . . no doubt intended as an Irish tweak at British expense. And author Jeremy Massey, also the son of an Irish funeral director, provides plenty of detail that gives the story additional spice. At times the plot goes off in unnecessary directions with elements of magical realism, hokey love interests, occasional plot holes and a somewhat disappointing ending, but the excellent writing and unique premise carries this novel. Jeremy Massey is a natural storyteller and an author to watch: read this and you’ll never look at a funeral quite the same way again.

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Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plumb Series

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Review written by by Kristin Crump, SiCCO Secretary

I love to read. I really love to read. I have since I was a little girl. Back then my bookcases were filled with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries. My tastes have changed but now, as then, I get hooked on a good series. I enjoy seeing characters I’ve come to regard as friends come back time after time, getting into new predicaments and finding danger around every turn, only to be rescued (either by their own ingenuity or someone else’s) at the last possible moment.

Last November I decided to give Janet Evanovich a try. Even though I knew she was immensely popular, I’d never picked up one of her books. I was addicted as soon as I started reading book 1, One For The Money. The entire series revolves around the life/train wreck of the main character, Stephanie Plum, a New Jersey girl turned bounty hunter. She works for her cousin Vincent Plum, who she isn’t proud to admit is a branch on her family tree and who she had to blackmail into giving her a job by threatening to reveal his amorous relationship with a duck.

Stephanie will be the first to admit she isn’t great at her job. Most of the time she isn’t even good but she perseveres none the less. Aided by her cohort Lula, an ex-ho, who has a size 4 body image in a size 16 reality, and her Grandma Mazzur, who carries a .45 in her purse, they are always getting Stephanie into more trouble than she was in to begin with.

Other main characters in the books include Stephanie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Joe Morelli, a Trenton cop. Ranger, the other man in her life, who is a cross between Batman and GI Joe. Her mother, who drinks to get through dinner and irons when she’s stressed, her father who tries to ignore everyone around him, especially his mother-in-law, and Connie, the receptionist at the bail bonds office. In addition to the main characters you’ll also see a whole host of secondary characters who make appearances throughout the series. Most of the books are set in Trenton, New Jersey, specifically “The Burg”, a Trenton suburb. Stephanie and her friends do take trips to Atlantic City and the “Shore” though in search of their targets…and a little fun.

Each book in the series has a number in the title, One For The Money, Two For The Dough, Three To Get Deadly…you get the picture. The latest in the series is Tricky Twenty-Two. Each and every book will have you laughing out loud at the hijinks of Stephanie and Lula and their friends as they set about trying to solve mysteries and apprehend criminals who have skipped out on their court dates and their bail.

If you haven’t read any of the Stephanie Plum novels, I highly recommend them. I also recommend not reading them at night, unless of course you want to wake up your spouse with your laughter. If so, then by all means, carry-on!

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Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Review written by David Ploskonka

Looking foScreen Shot 2016-02-07 at 2.30.21 PMr a book you can truly sink your teeth into? A book practically designed for the winter months when you’re trapped inside?

The Luminaries is exactly what you need.

Think HBO’s Deadwood set in New Zealand during the 1860s gold rush. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a book with a dozen interlocking mysteries; a cast of characters so compelling you will change whom you’re rooting for every time you turn the page; and a plot chock-full of dead bodies, adultery, opium addiction, con artists, gold prospecting, prostitutes, and séances. Yes, séances.

We follow Walter Moody who has come to make his fortune during New Zealand’s gold rush, but finds much more than he was looking for. We are pulled into the town’s story as well, following the lives of over twenty key characters as they struggle for wealth, love, power and, sometimes, for life itself.

The Luminaries is not a beach read. But, worry not, for Catton manages to make every page compelling with her gorgeous writing, sumptuous world building, and unyielding eye into the mysteries of what makes us all human. (And, yes, it even won the Man Booker Prize.)

I defy you to examine even a single piece of this jigsaw, and not play until the entire puzzle has been revealed.

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Book Review: Incarnations by Susan Barker

Review written by Patrick Stuart, SiCCO President

0You know, everyone has a different genre they prefer. Some like books that are comfortable, tried and true . . . like snuggling under an old comforter, with an equally old dog across your feet, on a cold winter’s day when the house is empty and it’s just you and that cozy or whodunnit that’s been tempting you for yea so many weeks. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that.

And then there are books that bitch-slap you repeatedly across the face, then drag you semi-conscious into a dirty bus station restroom to do even worse. The Incarnations belongs in that category.

The story takes place in current China (Beijing) with the protagonist Wang Yu, a man in his early thirties, and his young wife and daughter. Wang is estranged from his father, an upper-level party official used to nights of binge-drinking and wanton decadence, now brought down by a stroke and trapped in a wheelchair piloted by his spiteful and much younger mistress. Wang’s mother is just a memory, having suffered a bad marriage and dying under mysterious circumstances, now only briefly appearing in her son’s thoughts. As the story unfolds, Wang also appears to have suffered in his youth, paying for his acts with various forms of abuse and imprisonment.

Wang throws away his vaunted education to become a taxi driver, and eventually starts receiving notes on his cab from an anonymous soul-mate who claims they’ve been together for centuries, reincarnated in different bodies, sexes and nationalities. The notes describe their different pairings in detail, without offering a clue as to the author. Wang first thinks it’s a joke, then slowly descends into a cycle of schizophrenia as he tries to determine the source. The growing swirl of events and physical acts culminates in an ending like a broken mirror, shattering the reflected lives of everyone involved.

The modern parts of the story are timely and strong, but the real interest is the interweaving with the historic passages of past lives. All involve acts of depravity and violence, both fascinating and disturbing in their detail. As someone with part-British, part-Chinese backgrounds, Susan Barker combines ancient and modern China with fantastical British story-telling, and I often found myself comparing this to one of several books by David Mitchell (e.g., The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Cloud Atlas). It’s a blend of Chinese history with a unique sense of magical realism, resulting in a story that’s, quite simply, difficult to put down. The Incarnations may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something that’s equal parts inventive and engrossing . . . step into that bus station restroom.

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Lucy A. Snyder, Past SICCO Speaker, Makes Stoker Award Ballot

Lucy A. Snyder spoke to us last year about writing, publishing, and the specifics of the horror and dark fantasy genres. Her newest book, While the Black Stars Burn, was just listed as a contender for a 2015 Bram Stoker award. In keeping with our support of SiCCO speakers, we asked her to keep us updated and she shared the following guest blog post. Thanks for sharing and good luck Lucy!


0Raw Dog Screaming Press published my latest book While The Black Stars Burn two months ago, and since then it’s been well received by readers and reviewers. Most recently, it was selected for the preliminary Bram Stoker Awards ballot (titles which advance to the final ballot become official award nominees.) I’m very excited about being on the Stoker long list; other working horror writers vote on the award, and it’s always a joy to know that your peers enjoy the work you’re creating.

Publishers Weekly had this to say about the collection: “Malevolent lineages and emotionally fraught familial relationships propel the plots of most of the 13 genre-spanning stories in Snyder’s strong collection. … Snyder (Soft Apocalypses) excels in her depictions of characters struggling desperately—and often futilely—to extricate themselves from terrifying snares set by loved ones. Readers will find her stories a cut above most other tales of interpersonal and supernatural horror.”

While the Black Stars Burn is the follow-up to my previous RDSP collection, Soft Apocalypses. I think that readers will enjoy While the Black Stars Burn even more than Soft Apocalypses, and if you’re new to my short fiction, it’s an excellent place to start. It’s got a gorgeous cover from Italian artist Daniele Serra; he’s been creating covers for a whole lot of Lovecraftian and weird fiction books lately, and it’s easy to see why! He’s an amazing talent, and I’m thrilled that the folks at Raw Dog commissioned his work for my book. This is hands-down one of the best covers my books have ever received, and it’s even prettier on the trade paperback than it is on screen.

About three quarters of the stories in this book are tales I’ve written in the past two years. The collection is a mix of horror, dark science fiction, and dark fantasy. Several of the stories have Lovecraftian and King in Yellow mythos themes, and the stories all feature female protagonists, most of whom are struggling against terrifying family situations.

Here’s the Table of Contents with a quick description of the stories:

  1. “Mostly Monsters” – A literary short story about a woman attempting to cope with a recent PTSD diagnosis.
  2. “Spinwebs” – A medieval fantasy story about a family in a mutualistic relationship with giant spiders.
  3. “The Strange Architecture of the Heart” – A near-future science fiction story about a woman with an intrusively helpful android.
  4. “Approaching Lavender” – A horror story about a woman artist whose family is destroying her identity.
  5. “Dura Mater” – A science fiction horror story about a woman who encounters a malevolent force during a faster-than-light space journey.
  6. “The Still-Life Drama of Passing Cars” – A horror story about a desperate family on a road trip.
  7. “Through Thy Bounty” – A science fiction horror story about a female chef who’s forced to cook humans for her alien captors. It’s one of my older stories, and a reader favorite.
  8. “Cthylla” – A Lovecraftian story about the daughter of a cult movie star.
  9. “While the Black Stars Burn” – A horror story about a young violinist; this ties in with the King in Yellow mythos.
  10. “The Abomination of Fensmere” – A story about a girl detective named Penny Farrell who goes to visit her Southern relatives and quickly finds herself ensnared in a plot to summon Lovecraftian horrors.
  11. “The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul” – The continuing adventures of girl detective Penny as she finds herself transported to Carcosa and trapped in The King in Yellow’s sinister plans.
  12. “Jessie Shimmer Goes to Hell” – A horror adventure story featuring Jessie Shimmer, the protagonist of my urban fantasy novel series (the first book in the trilogy is Spellbent). This tale also features Lovecraftian monsters.
  13. “Fable Fusion” – A Doctor Who story that originally appeared in Doctor Who Short Trips: Destination Prague. It features the Seventh Doctor (portrayed on television by Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Ace.

 

Lucy A. Snyder is a four-time Bram Stoker Award-winning writer who wrote the novels Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, and Switchblade Goddess. She also authored the nonfiction book Shooting Yourself in the Head for Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide and the story collections While the Black Stars Burn, Soft Apocalypses, Orchid Carousals, Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger.

Her writing has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Czech, and Japanese editions and has appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Steampunk World, In the Court of the Yellow King, Shadows Over Main Street, Qualia Nous, Seize the Night, and Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 5.

She lives in Columbus, Ohio and is a mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. She also writes a column for Horror World. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @LucyASnyder.

 

 

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