Monday, December 22, 2014

Athame by Morgan Alreth

I hate to admit it, but I sometimes avoid the local library’s fantasy section because I’m not up for the intellectual investment in a fictional world’s historical and political minutiae, simply to understand the conflict at hand. I don’t always want to spend page after page hearing about all the factions, which dale or fell they inhabit, and which one slew the other’s thane. If you share these sentiments, Morgan Alreth’s Athame may be of interest. This charming novel falls squarely on the more playful, less overwrought end of the fantasy literature continuum.

Athame begins with a chance meeting in the forest between Jess, a woodsrunner and witch, and Peteros, the youngest son of King Jansen and Queen Lora. Pete, as Jess immediately begins calling him, is lost and without provisions after a werewolf attacked his group, killing all his companions and their horses. Because of his privileged upbringing, Pete lacks wilderness survival skills and is ignorant about the creatures that threaten travelers in that part of the world. Jess conducts him safely back to her family’s cabin and then agrees to escort him to a nearby town, where he can find transport back to his home city of Kulhn.

A romance ensues, and Jess travels with Pete to Kulhn. Numerous conflicts erupt after they reach the city. Confronted with the nobles’ disdain for her as a commoner, Jess must decide whether she and Pete can overcome the differences in their backgrounds and build a life together. They also face hostility from Pete’s father and brothers, who will go to any lengths to cut Pete out of the succession. The priests of Hohdwan, who persecute witches, arrive on the scene, determined to take custody of Jess. She and Pete also struggle to understand why their movements are dogged by ghaunts, which are deadly, nocturnal creatures of unknown origin.

Because these obstacles are relatively straightforward, Athame has no need for exhaustive world-building. Relationship woes, family drama, and class conflict don’t require a lot of context-setting to make them understandable. When Jess and Pete make their first appearance at court, its denizens’ antipathy toward Jess is obvious. We don’t need to know who is in the sneering crowd or why they hate Jess. It’s the age-old contempt of the haves toward the have-nots:

The jewel encrusted mob of satin-choked humans in front of Jess made Marge’s bird collection look drab and subdued. They stood crammed together, rib to rib and ankle to ankle, whispering and staring at Pete while he walked the length of the carpet toward the platform. Then some of them, mainly the women, started sizing her up and snickering. Jess tightened her jaws and straightened. She took a grip on her belt with both hands and lifted her chin.

In spite of Pete’s advantages as a prince, he and Jess are equals in their adventures. When they meet trouble, they rely on Jess’s magic and woodlore along with Pete’s swordplay. As they prepare to spend a night in a dilapidated fort, Jess detects signs that something nasty already occupies the structure. She instructs Pete to prepare by making torches and smearing garlic on their weapons. When they encounter the vampire Selvana inside the fort, Pete draws first blood, but Jess makes sure that the vampire is permanently out of commission.

…Pete lunged and buried the point of his sword in her belly.

Selvana’s form began to twist and morph as the edges of her body faded into mist. Jess took one step, drew back her arm and snapped it forward. The belt ax flew spinning across the room and chopped its way through undead breastbone, directly into the heart beneath. A stinking corpse hit the floor, already falling in on itself.

“Take the head, Pete. Quick.” He obeyed promptly. Jess grabbed it by the hair and ran for the fading sunlight outside. She called over her shoulder, “Grab my ax and put the stick through her heart.”

There was still enough sunlight for the head to start fuming when she emerged. Jess tossed it onto a pile of nearby trash and lit the disgusting thing with her torch. Pete came pounding up behind her and watched in wonder as the head crumbled into ashes.

“The old ones like her are hard to put down,” Jess said. “Gotta finish them in the sunlight or they might heal up. But that should take care of her.”

Jess exhibits strength, intelligence, and confidence when dealing with assorted natural and supernatural threats, and a well-developed sense of humor adds to her appeal as a main character. As she and Pete approach the vampire’s lair, he asks, “Shouldn’t we have some kind of holy symbol?” “Only if the vampire goes to church regular” is her response.

Although the character of Jess is one of Athame’s strongest points, she is also the source of its main shortcoming, which is the dearth of information about Jess’s life up to the point at which the story opens. The novel provides much more insight into Pete’s background. But the reader is left to wonder how Jess honed her magical abilities, what kind of relationships she had with family and friends, and what her prospects were before she met Pete. Clocking in at slightly more than 200 pages, the novel could easily have accommodated more backstory on Jess. Athame is the first book in The Unfortunate Woods trilogy, so perhaps this missing detail will be provided in subsequent volumes. Wrath, which I have not read, is already available, and Recompense is in progress, according to the author’s blog.

On the whole, the novel has much going for it. The two main characters’ experiences are easy to relate to – struggling to adapt to new circumstances, compromising in order to make a relationship work, and trying to figure out where you belong and what will make you happy. The pace is just right, striking a good balance between action and introspection. And the unresolved dilemmas are intriguing enough to leave the reader with a sense of anticipation for the trilogy’s remaining installments.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Expanding Your Brand: A Guest Post by John Vorhaus

Normally I'm a sci-fi and horror guy. While I do venture outside of these genres from time to time, a story has to have something that grabs my attention. We didn't receive any sample chapters for Poole's Paradise and the blurb didn't have a firm grip on me, so I was on the verge of passing on it. But before I did, I checked out its author, John Vorhaus. I was impressed by what I saw on Amazon and his website. It was there that I got hooked. He had so much going on with novels, poker guides, Twitter, and videos that I was sold on reading Poole's Paradise. And I'm glad I did.

In the publishing world, an indie author has to find a good editor for their manuscript and make sure it has a professional looking cover. But even with those two things set, there's still the matter of marketing. There are some rudimentary things an indie author can do to self-promote, but sometimes that's not enough. Recognizing that John sold himself more than the book, I asked him if he would write a blog post on self-promotion.

Without further ado, here's John offering advice on "Expanding Your Brand".

I understand my problem exactly.

On one hand, I have a lot of how-to books (on writing and on poker) which sell their asses off because they have just exactly the information that certain people need, just exactly when they need it. On the other hand, I have all these terrific novels that struggle to find their audience, because reading a novel is a recreational activity; in other words, it’s a want to, not a need to proposition. How-to books sell because they meet the needs of a specific need-to proposition. Novels compete against other forms of recreation because they don’t have that urgent gravitational pull. And they face fierce competition, not from other novels but from other forms of recreation. I, for example, read books quite happily and enthusiastically on my iPhone—once I can get past my email and twitter and the baseball scores and all the dang games. I know I’m not alone in this. Never in human history has the act of picking up a book had to compete so hard against the act of picking up something else.

the little book of sitcom book coverOkay, so that’s where we are: need-to books sell easily; want-to books sell hard. How should we, as cottage-industry entrepreneurs, respond to this? One thing we could do is write a lot of need-to books. This is simply a matter of looking around, saying, “What am I good at?” and knocking out 15,000 words on that subject. Did I say 15,000? Yes, 15,000. That’s not much, nowhere near the 70,000 words, minimum, that you need to call a novel a novel. Is 15,000 words enough for a how-to book? I can tell you from personal experience that the answer is an emphatic yes. Because, you see, a function of all those short attention spans out there, and a function of the competition of all those games, websites, downloads, videos, and social media, is that people would rather spend less – less time and less money – even for information they know they really need. My two small reads—the little book of SITCOM and How To Write Good—routinely outsell my whole novel catalog combined. How to Write Good book coverThey earn. They earn consistently and reliably, month after month, year after year, and they (and titles like them) allow me to call myself a working writer—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

So why don’t I write how-to books exclusively? I sure could if I wanted to. I know enough about enough things that I could write how-to books till I die and never run out of subjects. But I wouldn’t be satisfied, because my heart lies in my fiction. Perhaps yours does, too. And even as I’m here saying “expand your brand through non-fiction,” you may be thinking, Nah, not so much. That’s really not for me. I feel ya, dawg. I do.

But here’s the thing: these books cross-sell. Someone discovers my poker books or writing books. They drop me a line to say how much they enjoy my writing style. I write them back and say, well, if you like my style, you’ll love my novels. Having already become fans of my way with non-fiction words, they’re ready to love my fiction words as well. I’ve reached them. I’ve used my non-fiction works as a bridge between my novels and my audience. That’s the argument for expanding your brand: The more people who approach you—from whatever direction and for whatever reason—the bigger your audience will be for the stuff you really want to sell.

A Million Random Words book coverSo where, in this pantheon of titles, do we put such odd frivolities as my book, A Million Random Words? It contains, as the title promises, exactly a million random words, arranged in random order, and offered either as a one-note joke or as a sneaky-useful random reference book for writers or other creative types looking for new ways to trigger new thoughts. But what exactly is this book? It’s not fiction, certainly. It’s not non-fiction, certainly. It’s something altogether else. It doesn’t fit within my brand.

Which means that it expands my brand.

It brings other people to my work from a wholly different direction. Vorhaus? Isn’t he the guy with the wacky random words project? Indeed he is. And if you got the joke of that, you’ll probably like some of the other items in his catalog as well. This is how I think of cross-selling. I want my brand to be broad and deep and interesting, with many points of entrance for many different kinds of readers or users. I want to welcome them into my world, and once they’re there, I want to have many intriguing things to show them. And that’s everything from a million random words to the latest novel I have so lovingly birthed.

The Albuquerque Turkey book coverIf you choose to adopt this model of go off in all directions at once, there are a couple of mental adjustments that will help you. First, be willing to try anything. Don’t worry about how esoteric or random or silly your book idea seems. Get it out there. Put it up on Amazon where any conceivable buyer could conceivably buy it. Second, think strategically about your brand, and about expanding it. You may now be known as that yodeling-cowboy-mystery guy. Could you be known as that and also as that history-of-yodeling-cowboys guy? Of course you could. And if you walk that road, you’ll be making a broader invitation to a broader audience. You will be expanding your brand. Third, yep, you’re going to have to put in the marketing time, and that’s everything from social media to the promo cards you hand out on the bus. Fourth, don’t be too precious. Yes, it would be great if we could all be the Oprah-guest novelists of our wildest dreams, but if you don’t have that luxury then you have to do the work. That’s the bad news. The good news is you get to do the work, and I don’t care what that work is, if it involves putting words on the page, it’s bound to teach you something about something.

I’m a wacky guy. I have a wacky brand. It now extends to the fringes of rationality (or beyond—some people who hear about A Million Random Words do think I’m quite demented). But that’s my approach. It’s working for me and I’m striving to make it work better still. So how about you? What steps can you take, now, today, to expand your brand? Think strategically, and think long-term. If your goal is to be a working writer, the conversation certainly doesn’t begin and end with the novels you might write.

One final thing: Many writers find self-promotion distasteful at best or odious at worst. I used to think that way. I used to regard it as a necessary evil. But then I decided, hey, my work has value—why should I be shy about saying so? If you stand behind your work, there’s no shame in self-promotion. Feel good about it. After all, what’s the point of writing if no one’s going to read?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Poole's Paradise by John Vorhaus

Poole's ParadiseWhen you’re Alexander Poole, everyone’s your teacher: a skeevy stereo salesman, master of the bait and switch; a flaky folk singer and his dog that reads Tolkien; a drug dealer loan shark with a passion for trees; a ballsy townie chick who turns you on to Springsteen; your wiseass roommate whose favorite pastime is smoking your dope; even your one true love. Together they point you to paradise — Poole’s Paradise – but what will it cost to get in?

Poole's Paradise is set in 1974 in the "wilds of Western Connecticut", among the Berkshires to be more specific. It's the story of Alexander Poole, a Cort College sophomore in the fictional town of Greenville. As the blurb implies, Poole is trying to assemble a personal code of ethics, or philosophy for life, from the interactions he has with several people in his life. There's a certain level of naïveté to his demeanor. He's too trusting and deals with the world in an open and honest way that, while admirable, is dangerous—the cover features the tarot card of "The Fool" for a reason. As Poole is willing to apply this approach to everyone, he inevitably winds up in a serious predicament involving a sizable stash of drugs and cash. Ultimately, he has to choose between abandoning this philosophy or figuring out how to make it work in order to save himself and his friends.

In the first third of the book, Poole's Paradise seems like it's going to be Zen and the pursuit of the perfect stereo. Poole engages in several discussions about stereo equipment, and it serves as a great introduction to those characters. My father is something of an audiophile, and I grew up listening to him expound upon the merits of music media (vinyl vs tape) and the constant refinement of his stereo gear: turntables, amplifiers, speakers, and more. Reading the exchange between the characters on this subject had me fondly recalling those days.

There are also other conversations that ring true in the story, particularly between Poole and his roommate, Dawkins. Whether they're talking about music, weed, or women, the dialogue is dead on for the 70's. The college kid vs. townie dynamic is accurate, having witnessed it myself in the small towns of Western Connecticut. Vorhaus knows people and how they interact. Each character, major and minor, is finely crafted. He has a mastery of dialogue and characterization that strikes me as effortless.

The one problem I had was with the ending. At first, I was shocked and confused. It took a couple read throughs and some thought before it clicked. It wasn't the ending I was expecting, but as I reflected on the course Poole took, it made sense.

Poole's Paradise is a solid coming of age story set in the 70's. With a well-rounded cast of characters and accurate dialogue, Vorhaus places the reader smack dab in the middle of the most important days of Alexander Poole's life. Whether you fondly recall vinyl, want to know what college life was like for your parents, or just enjoy stories with realistic characters, Poole's Paradise is for you.

For more information about Poole's Paradise, check out the author's website.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Northern Star: Civil War by Mike Gullickson

Reviewed by The Bookworm's Fancy.

The Northern Star: Civil WarMike Gullickson’s The Northern Star: Civil War picks up with a bang eleven years after the events of The Northern Star: The Beginning. The tentative cooperation between the world government and MindCorp (the company that owns the technology that makes civilization possible in a world drained of oil) has slowly begun to fray. Like its predecessor, Civil War is full of complex characters with interconnecting motives. It is very hard to separate the bulk of the characters into good/bad or black/white. Instead they all (except for Evan Lindo) exist in a state of varying shades of gray. This, in of itself, makes for a compelling read. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start with the easy stuff. All too often, we hear horror stories of indie books with bad editing and horrible covers. Not only are Gullickson’s covers amazing, but the editing is spot on. No odd formatting or glaring grammatical errors to break the reader’s immersion in the story.

I referred to Gullickson’s The Northern Star: The Beginning as an “old school, science-fiction romp”. The Northern Star: Civil War is this and so much more. It is more than just men in mechs destroying each other. It is more than amazing technological advances. Gullickson manages to make it all accessible to the average reader without overloading the senses. The technology is intricate and complicated but explained to the reader with a simple ease that just flows.

All the characters that survived through the first book are back to continue their journey in this book. Most interesting, though, is the inclusion of John Raimey’s now twenty-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Just a child in the first book, she has blossomed into a confident, intelligent young woman working with the bionics. While Gullickson’s story sets her up as the lynchpin to the ultimate evil scheme, the character of Vanessa becomes the emotional center of the story. Her relationships with Evan Lindo, Mike Glass, and John Raimey drive the story just as much as the constant struggle for power between MindCorp and the government.

Following the trend of the second installment in a trilogy being darker, Civil War is to The Beginning as the Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope. It is decidedly darker, dirtier, and grittier. You find yourself rooting for the heroes and rallying with them only to have the rug pulled out from beneath you when they fail. The final scenes evoked the same emotional distress and despair as when Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite. The ending compels you to read the last book in the series because it just can’t end like this. The good guys have to win. Or do they?

The Bookworm gives The Northern Star: Civil War 4.5 stars for delicious darkness. For more information, please visit the author's website.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis by Dan O'Brien and Steve Ferchaud

Mobsters, Monsters and NazisMobsters, Monsters & Nazis is a six-part illustrated series that is a throwback to pulp books. The first installment goes on sale this Halloween, but you can pre-order now.

Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis takes place in an alternate universe where lizard men, fish-faced nightclub owners, and tentacled mobsters are everyday people. Derrick Diamond, a private eye, is tasked with delivering a mysterious artifact to the Fat Man. But there are others who are interested in the artifact, and their intentions appear to be just as malevolent as the titular Nazis. To put it succinctly, Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis is an illustrated short story, so I can't say anything more about the plot as that would spoil it for you.

O'Brien has lovingly crafted his characters with familiar personalities. Derrick Diamond channels Bogart. Ava Harpy is the femme fatale nightclub singer. The Weasel lives up to his name. And the Fat Man is the successful mobster who wields power and conducts his business transactions with shrewd calculation.

Ferchaud's ink drawings capture the noir atmosphere and the essence of the hard-boiled characters. To say that they add a nice touch to the work would be an understatement. While O'Brien's words offer enough visual cues, Ferchaud's work brings it to life.

So if you're a fan of pulp or old gangster films, and don't mind a dash of dark fantasy, check out the first installment of Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Noise by Brett Garcia Rose

Noise by Brett Garcia RoseThe only person that Leon ever loved was his sister, Lily. But ten years ago, she left a suicide note and allegedly drowned. Allegedly, because her body was never found. Regardless, he was left alone.

But then a postcard in Lily's handwriting arrives one winter, drawing him to New York City. What he discovers unleashes a deadly rage that knows no bounds. A grisly trail of clues leads him to "The Bear", a sadistic Russian crime lord who traffics in human flesh. The police are of little help and don’t like Leon’s methods or the mess he leaves in his wake. He is single-minded in his purpose and will do anything to find Lily.

Now here's the kicker: Leon is deaf.

But being deaf isn't much of a handicap to Leon. He can read lips. He pays attention to his surroundings, aware of the change in shadows, the vibrations of someone walking across a floor. It's what kept him alive as a child in Nigeria and later through a stint in the army.

By and large this could simply have been the literary equivalent of one of those revenge flicks you curl up with on the couch, a bowl of popcorn and a beer (or two) close at hand. But no, we're given a story that's more than popcorn and violence (though there is plenty of the latter). When Rose isn't detailing Leon's choreography of investigation and execution, he offers Leon's reflections on his predicament and surroundings.

Our introduction to Leon:
The world is an ugly place, and I can tell you now, I fit in just fine.
We see New York through Leon's eyes, and it is a cold, heartless place where:
The sidewalks are narrow and crowded, the pedestrians impartial and unaware of one another in a way that even the simplest of animals are not. They never make eye contact; inches apart, they never touch. A New Yorker approaching another human being is indistinguishable from one approaching a utility pole or a tree.
And Leon makes no effort to hide what he thinks of the place:
It is not possible for me to be the first to say this, but I'll say it nonetheless: I hate the place. It is cold and ruthless. Humanity in constant battle, all its inhabitants rushing towards some invisible exit, never tiring of the trap. Cities are hell, and New York is the Grand Dame of them all.
I couldn't resist the noir-like atmosphere that Rose conjured. Now, I love New York—warts and all—but I know what he's talking about. It's the perspective of an outsider, and it's very easy to relate to it.

The story moves along predictably enough, with Leon punishing the guilty without mercy or remorse. There are no clean executions, no crises of conscience. His methods are as brutal as those he seeks out. He exists to make sure that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Were it not for the fact that his cause was just, it would be difficult to root for him. In fact, some might pity the guilty.

One thing I found lacking was detail about Leon's past. There is scant little about his childhood in Nigeria, and his adoptive mother only receives a few sentences. There is Lily, but all we know of her is her suicide note, and that she was the one person in Leon's life that showed any kindness to him. Perhaps, it's intentional. Leon's single-minded determination leaves no room to dwell on the past.

Noise is a revenge flick dressed up as art house mystery. Rose juxtaposes brutality with spirited, yet acerbic, prose. Meticulous attention to detail evokes noirish cinematic imagery. Read the book before Hollywood figures out how to make the movie.

For more information visit the author's website.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells

Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells is what 2001: A Space Odyssey would’ve been if the monolith had actually talked to the crew.

NASA has known about an alien spaceship parked in the Asteroid Belt since the 1960s but has kept the information from the public.  All efforts to establish radio contact have been met with silence.  In the early 21st century, NASA finally develops the technology required to send six astronauts to the ship to discover its secrets. 

Dr. Jane Holloway is a linguist and a reluctant astronaut recruited by NASA to communicate with any possible aliens.  As soon as their capsule docks with the mysterious ship, she begins to hear voices.  She not only has a hard time convincing herself they are real, but most of her crew as well. 

When the mission takes a disturbing turn that not even the highly trained astronauts are prepared for, it’s Jane’s connection to the ship that becomes their only hope for survival.

Fluency was a finely written derelict spaceship story.  Wells’ style and language are beautiful and descriptive without relying on cliché.  Wells does not overly explain the science behind the ship's gadgets, but gives us just enough to make them all seem plausible without bogging the story down. 

I liked how the alien cultures that the ship reveals to Jane Holloway sounded very different from one another, even among individuals within a species.  Too many sci-fi stories depict aliens as one monolithic culture where all individuals share the same values.  I prefer my aliens to be, well, more human and unique between individuals.  Besides drone-like insectoid aliens, that just seems more realistic to me and Wells does a fine job of it in this book.

I only had some minor nit-picks.  The main characters ruminated too much for my taste, making me skip pages at a time to get back to the action.  I also thought the ending was too abrupt; I got the feeling I had just read the opening chapter of a longer work rather than a complete work in itself.  Fluency's sub-title is "Confluence Book 1," so this was obviously by design, but I'm not a fan of the style.

Fluency is Wells' debut novel and an impressive effort that I enjoyed.  It hit all the right notes that a derelict spaceship story should hit.  The novel only hints at the strange galaxy awaiting humanity, so I look forward to the alien wonders that Wells introduces us to in the sequel.

Fluency is available on Amazon as an ebook and paperback.

[Note: Fluency was purchased by the reviewer.]

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Numbers 16:32 by Brady Koch

Joseph's Sunday morning routine of church, beer and solitude is interrupted by a ragged screaming coming from the far side of his farm land. What he finds there will challenge his resolve in ways he hasn't faced since losing his wife or facing the horrors of the Korean War.

Numbers 16:32 is a long short story (25 pages), which makes it a novelette. It gets off to a slow start as Koch focuses on character building. I stuck with it as Koch successfully forged a connection between this reader and Joseph, the protagonist. Once Joseph sets out to find the source of the screaming, the pace of the story picks up and stays steady right up to the end.

Joseph's actions and dialogue ring true. As a Korean War veteran and widower living out his remaining years on a farm out in the Midwest, you really get a sense for the loneliness that he keeps bottled up. There's no self-pity with this man. He's seen far too much to bother with any of that.

Once the reader's connection with Joseph is made, Koch leads Joseph out into the fields to face the peril. I can't say too much more without spoiling it. Joseph's military training kicks in. No, I'm not talking about his combat skills. He assesses the problem, comes up with a plan, and acts on it. He's the "cool under fire" type. As the situation changes and the stakes escalate, Joseph adapts.

Unfortunately, the story is marred—for me—by typos: many missing commas, some capitalization issues, and several misspelled words. If Mr. Koch had sent the manuscript to a proofreader before publishing, 95% of these would've been caught (A cheaper alternative would be to have had it peer reviewed in a writer's group). It takes away from the experience for me. To be fair, even traditionally published books have typos. I'm also reading Moving Mars by Greg Bear. There's a scene where they talk about eating cheesecake for dessert, but it's misspelled as "desert".

Numbers 16:32 is a finely crafted story. The plot and characterization are solid. Despite my grumblings over typos, I enjoyed Numbers 16:32 and would recommend it for the character of Joseph alone. I hope that Mr. Koch will continue to hone his craft.

Stop by the author's website to find out where you can get a copy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

In The Clear by Ayami Tyndall

In The ClearArne was content with her career as a hydrogen rigger, harvesting fuel from Saturn's clouds for use across the solar system, until two prospectors offered her a job that kindled old desires. She used to be an angel, a guide through the lightless sky beneath Saturn's clouds, but abandoned that deadly wasteland years ago. Now she returns, taking flight again on cybernetic wings to guide a new prototype through the invisible gale of the liquid sky. She used to know Saturn's depths well, but returning ignites old scars, and there is something new and unnatural waiting in the burning air.

When the wind comes for her and her wings fail her, will she remember why she calls herself an angel?

This is one of those sci-fi novels that dares to dream big. I got hooked on the concept of "angels", humans with artificial wings, flying through the depths of Saturn to assist in hydrogen mining. Tyndall evokes colorful language to describe Arne's flights through Saturn's atmosphere. She relies on her suit's sensors and the flutter of eddies as they play across the metallic feathers of her wings. There's a grace to her swift acrobatics and deft maneuvers that is reminiscent of a well-choreographed ballet.

The story also deals with obsession. Tyndall's main characters each have something they're obsessed with and can't let go. Arne is obsessed with her past failures as an angel, while the Drakes, Arne's employers, are obsessed with their mission. Neither seems willing to let go when confronted by the other, and the story becomes a race against time to see if anyone will come to their senses before facing disaster.

So it is with reluctance that I have to dredge up the flaws in this work. First off, there are problems with commas. There aren't enough of them, and there are many more that are misplaced. These—and other typos—would've been easy to repair with a proper proofreader.

A more serious problem lies with the layout of the story. There is the current story where our intrepid heroine guides her employers down to the depths of Saturn, and then there are the flashbacks to her days as a full-time angel. The placement of the flashbacks within the overall story confused me. The book starts with Arne in the middle of her current job, and then flashes back to the day when she met the Drakes. At the start of chapter two, I realized that this was the new current setting. But in chapter three, we get another flashback that goes back even further to her angel days before returning to the current story. As there are similar action sequences in Arne's past and present, it was too easy to get lost. It was only when Arne interacted with other characters that I could place when we are at. I'm not sure that all of them were necessary or in the right sequence.

The other major problem I had was with the characters. The present day story and the flashbacks are told from Arne's POV. While she walked a fine line between reliable and unreliable narrator, I was more concerned by her interaction with other characters. When told by her employers that an angel had died on their previous foray into Saturn's depths, she seemed a bit too unmoved about it. This was supposedly an organization with close ties among its members—a brotherhood. She was more concerned about bad intel from the Drakes than the death of a fellow angel. But as soon as she found out it was someone she knew, she flipped out.

I found too much inconsistency with the Drakes' behavior. They could be remorseful one moment, and then snippy and insensitive in the next. I couldn't figure out if the remorse for dead angels was sincere or not. There is also one point where Mel seems like she's near death, and then in the next chapter she's up and around going about her business. No explanation was given for her miraculous turnaround.

Ok, I've spent way too much time being critical. Despite these flaws, In The Clear is a good read. Besides inspiring us with humans flying through the reaches of Saturn, there are also matters of exploration. Tyndall draws parallels to deep sea diving here on Earth. What lies waiting for Arne and the Drakes in the depths of Saturn? What effect does Saturn's magnetosphere have on the human mind? While the underlying theme of the destructive consequences of obsession is a familiar one, Tyndall demonstrates that there's a way out if you're willing to recognize it for what it is.

In The Clear is available from Amazon and Smashwords.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Letter from Hell by William Presley

A Letter from HellIn a desperate attempt to save his soul before he dies, southern aristocrat William Virgil Hollingsmore writes the world a cautionary letter on the last of his twelve days in a personalized Hell. In it, through the haze of his own mental deterioration, he chronicles the horrors and agony that befell him at the hands of Satan, as well as the sad events leading up to this unfortunate climax.

When Hollingsmore was a younger man, he was an alcoholic and did as he pleased when drunk. He's older now and full of regret. Upon returning home, he finds that Satan is chomping at the bit to claim him and drag him on down to Hell for his eternal punishment. This is a man desperately trying to find a way to avoid his fate. There is no excusing his past behavior, so it is difficult to sympathize with him. But does he deserve to burn in Hell? His "letter from Hell" is his attempt to find redemption by warning others.

Hollingsmore serves as protagonist and narrator. As such, we only get to see the other characters when he interacts with them. There is a chapter where Hollingsmore is put through out of body flashbacks in order to learn what suffering he has inflicted upon the people in his life. Satan is obviously the antagonist, but his character only sees development when he shows up to torment Hollingsmore. I wouldn't say that he's two-dimensional, but he doesn't stray from what we expect of him.

A Letter from Hell reminds me of old fashioned horror—more concerned with chills and suspense than gross outs and visceral gore. The writing style Presley uses reads like something out of the Romantic movement of the 19th century, which produced such notable greats as Poe and Coleridge. Presley forgoes the purple prose but retains the suffocating imagery and puts it to use at all the appropriate times. While in the midst of Hollingsmore's recounting of his ordeals, I was often reminded of Vincent Price horror movies from the 60's.

A Letter from Hell is William Presley's first novel. There are times when I felt it could've used another round of proofreading to remove extraneous commas and freshen up the dusty writing style he chose. However, it should be noted that when it was published earlier this year Presley was only a junior in high school. I could not have written something this good back when I was his age. I have no doubt that if Presley sticks to it and continues to work at his craft, we will see great things from him in the years ahead.

I don't have an author's website to point you to, so I'll just state that A Letter from Hell is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and even Google.