Winter In the Blood by James Welch – A Book Review

Once again, I must give Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” credit for helping me find yet another substantial read. This time, it is the novella Winter In the Blood by James Welch. At just 138 pages, it is indeed a brief, yet potent, experience.

Though it’s a provocative, expertly executed book, I must admit that I didn’t find it all that engaging. This could be due to the author’s intent. Welch wrote the book in such a way that its slow, simmering plot mirrors the personality of the narrator.

By my estimation, our narrator is in his early thirties living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana at some point during the 1960s. A woman, possibly a new wife, has stolen his gun and electric razor and he decides to reclaim his two most prized possessions. During his meandering quest, we get a sense of his poverty, the difficulties of life surrounding his area, the aimlessness of his adulthood, but also the joy and camaraderie he experienced during his youth. Those smarter than I could perhaps argue the existence of an extended metaphor throughout the novella, but I’ll attempt no such thing.

Though we never learn the narrator’s name, we learn that alcohol is a prevalent constant amongst his friends, family, and he, and it seems responsible for many hardships he endures throughout the book. (Obviously those hardships are ultimately due to the mistreatment of tribes across the continent throughout the last several centuries, but I’m speaking in a more immediate sense.) At times, those hardships feel almost surreal. I never quite decided if that was a result of the alcohol or the author employing a fluid style. By story’s end, we’ve learned a lot about the narrator, especially due to a major revelation concerning his heritage.

The execution of Winter In the Blood was quite interesting, but, as I said, I never connected with the book. Sometimes this is no fault of a work. Sometimes the demands of life can impair the enjoyment of reading, and sometimes those demands can enhance the joy of reading. Whatever the case may be, while I appreciate a great deal about Winter in the Blood, at this point, I can’t personally say I’d recommend it. Because it’s so short, though, if it sounds remotely interesting to you, you should give it a try. It won’t take up much of your time.

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – A Book Review

Like several of my other recent reads, I discovered Mrs. Caliban on Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” At just 111 pages, Mrs. Caliban is indeed a swift, potent read full of social commentary but cleverly disguised as pseudo-fantasy.

The story focuses upon a housewife named Dorothy. Dorothy is in an unhappy marriage. She has suffered great tragedy in regards to children. Her friends are equally troubled in their own way, especially one in particular. Her husband has been known to cheat on her. Life is not at all what she hoped for.

And then a giant, muscular frog man enters her home. She quickly gives the frog man refuge and names him Larry. She discovers that Larry is intelligent, sensitive, and willing to kill in order to preserve his own life. He is from the ocean, had been captured and mistreated by a local laboratory, and recently escaped.

Larry remains hidden in their spare room, unknown to her negligent husband, and soon enough a romantic relationship blooms between Larry and Dorothy.

Again, keep in mind this book is only 111 pages long.

As Dorothy enjoys the kind of relationship she once dreamed of, her best friend, Estelle, endures a series of hardships that will eventually impact Dorothy. Her husband, Fred, also makes poor choices that will prove catastrophic for her as well. In the end, everything builds to a crescendo and connects quite tragically.

Even with the complex, concussive plot, Ingalls manages to insert quite a bit of social commentary into the short tale. Larry himself is a striking figure in regards to xenophobia. However, as he settles into his relationship with Dorothy, he begins to take on some of Fred’s attributes. I believe here Ingalls is commenting on the tendency of men to assume and even abuse their preconceived notions regarding both women and wives.

However, Estelle, her best friend, also proves a challenging figure. On the one hand, she is refreshing in that she rejects the traditional constructs men place upon her. However, on the other hand, she ultimately contradicts the conventional expectations we have for her as Dorothy’s “best friend.”

As you can see, Mrs. Caliban is rife with sophisticated concepts. It is the perfect example of an effective novella. Short, fast, yet no less complex than the longest of novels. I’m so glad I came across this book and I look forward to reading more of Ingalls’ work.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine – A Book Review

Though Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is one of the wackiest books that I’ve ever read, it has burrowed into my heart and will stay there for quite some time.

It won’t reside in my heart because it’s sentimental to me or because it imparted upon me some important life lesson. No, it’s special to me because it is so bold, so outlandish, so concise, and so awkwardly funny.

The story revolves around an unnamed and incredibly unreliable narrator who is in her early twenties. She’s decided to use the classic novel Treasure Island as her “how-to” guide in life. However, the book doesn’t really delve into Treasure Island as much as you might think.

Rather, we witness our narrator steamroll her way through life while mistreating her sister, mother, father, boyfriend, boss, friend, and former friend. She would fit right in among the characters of Seinfeld, but she would be the one without even a hint of self-awareness or morality.

As the book progresses, Sara Levine, the author, keeps upping the stakes in terms of ridiculousness. At times, Treasure Island!!! is laugh out loud funny, yet it never crosses over into the impossible. Absurd? Definitely. Unlikely? Maybe. Possible in real life? Yes!

Part of what makes Treasure Island!!! so charming is its brevity. This a short book–a novella. Truthfully, I don’t think I could spend more than 172 pages with this narrator; she would overstay her welcome. However, because it’s such a quick read, the narrator manages to worm her way into your heart before you can become totally disgusted by her antics.

I applaud Sara Levine for creating such a character. Despite all of her unlikable traits, the narrator is quite charismatic, and though the story is borderline ludicrous, it manages the balancing act well enough to be an enticing read.

As you can plainly see, I recommend Treasure Island!!! as your next read.

Range by David Epstein – A Book Review

While discussing our range of interests with friends, one of them recommended a book with that very name — Range by David Epstein. You may remember this author from his other, very popular book entitled The Sports Gene.

Subtitled Why Generalists Triumph In a Specialized World, Range offers many examples as to why it’s totally okay to find your path later in life and that specializing too early may actually prove to be an ultimate detriment. Epstein provides case after case of athletes, musicians, artists, scientists, and even inventors who benefitted from flitting from one interest to the next and how synthesizing all of those experiences proved a great advantage to them.

Epstein also discusses that when we become too specialized, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. A tight focus adhering to policy and routine can actually sometimes blind specialists to both potential problems and obvious solutions. Of course, Epstein celebrates those who are both specialists and generalists, but that’s not an easy feat for most people to accomplish due to time constraints.

As a parent, Range offered me quite a bit of solace. Epstein advocated for choice and play, especially among young people. He claims that driving children into a specialization, such as golf, can sometimes create the next Tiger Woods, but evidence suggest it is unlikely. For many different reasons, those kids become very good, but usually not exceptional.

I enjoyed some aspects of Range more than others. Like with similar books, the examples can sometimes feel overdone to me. However, I learned a lot from this book and I’m very glad that I read it. If you are interested in psychology, achievement, or specialization, I highly recommend you give it a look.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang – A Book Review

When I mentioned to a friend that I grew interested in reading novels written by international authors–especially those from Eastern cultures, she quickly recommended The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Because I completely respect her opinion, I put it on hold at my local library.

I just finished it, and, wow … there’s quite a bit to digest. (No pun intended.)

On the one hand, The Vegetarian is indeed unlike those books rooted in Western culture. On the other hand, it is an incredibly challenging, almost surreal, work.

Broken into three parts, The Vegetarian is about a women who has decided that she will no longer eat meat. This decision begins to impact her husband and family, and, before long, those other characters attempt to assert their control over her. As a result, conflict arises, but not the kind you would ever expect.

As I read over the above paragraph, I’ve made the plot sound very mundane, perhaps even inconsequential.

Believe me when I say The Vegetarian is anything but.

Because Han Kang is a South Korean writer, and because I read a translated version of the book, I cannot necessarily trust my instincts with this novel because I understand that I may not completely understand the deeper context. However, on the surface, it seems to be that The Vegetarian is very much about freedom of will, the ugliness of abuse in a male dominated society, the exploitation of others in order to achieve sexual satisfaction, and the unwillingness to accept behaviors by loved ones if perceived as being odd or eccentric. It’s rare that we are told to live in a way that makes us happy. It’s far more common to be chastised if we don’t live up to others’ expectations.

For such a slim novel, as you can see, it is stuffed with complexities.

I can’t pretend to completely understand The Vegetarian. I reread the ending several times and remain confounded. I also found it surprisingly eerie, brutally violent, and uncomfortably sensual. However, even with all of that being said, I really and truly did enjoy the book. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read, which is exactly what I hoped for.

Sea Of Rust by C. Robert Cargill – A Book Review

Though I enjoy the science fiction genre, I often have trouble finding actual science fiction books that hook me. A friend thought Sea Of Rust by C. Robert Cargill might do the trick, and my friend was spot on!

The premise is not necessarily anything new. There’s been a robot uprising. Humans are the virus. Certain factions of robots band together and begin warring with one another. The landscape as we know it is obliterated. We’ve seen that kind of thing before.

What truly sets Sea Of Rust apart is the narrator–Brittle. Brittle is a scavenger. A robot bent on survival at all cost. A character willing to do almost anything for her own benefit. But what happens when that character is finally faced with something possibly more important than even herself? Of course, “possibly” is the key word there. Additionally, she’s got a great voice and is just incredibly engaging.

Furthermore, Sea Of Rust is a fast-paced, action-packed page turner. I flew through the last 25% of the book in a matter of hours because I simply had to know how it ended.

Of course, you know I’m going to be a little bit critical. My only issue with the book-and it’s a small one at that–is that while it’s science fiction in name, I felt as though this story could have fit virtually any genre with a few tweaks. Realism, fantasy, horror–any of them could have worked. I say that because Brittle and the rest of the robots are so very … human. Cargill is careful to include technological aspects and code jargon, but in the end, all of the characters seemed like what we think of as “human.” This obviously made them very relatable, but it also struck me as a little subversive in regards to the genre. Upon reflection, that’s likely why I enjoyed Sea Of Rust so much!

If you’re looking for a good science fiction book–or any good book, for that matter–I highly recommend Sea Of Rust.

Hanging Around With Neil Gaiman

I took my ten-year-old daughter to the Bloomington, Illinois, Barnes and Noble today so that she could use her hard-earned money to buy a Hermione Granger replica wand.  I live in Bloomington-Normal and actually did a signing at this store recently, so I thought I’d take a look in the science fiction section just to … you know.

First all, imagine my joy when I saw several copies of Andropia sitting on my local Barnes and Noble’s bookshelf.  That was pretty cool.

Then, to make it even better, I saw one of my literary heroes–Neil Gaiman–on the shelf below me.  To see my book in proximity to his work … it gave me chills.

Of course, while Neil Gaiman seems incredibly polite and genuinely kind, I’m sure his excitement regarding this occasion would not match mine.  I’m definitely getting the better deal out of all this.

Take a look at the picture below.  Cool, right?

By the way, my daughter was not impressed by any of this.

Ah, to be humbled.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s Dr. Nekros e-book series HERE)

My Thanks To Jen Weaver For Her Souls Triumphant Review

I wanted to take a moment to thank Jen Weaver for the following Souls Triumphant review …

“Disclaimer: I describe myself as a lover of murder and psychological thrillers…this does not mean I hate on Sci-fi, but it is not often my first, second or third choice. That being said, when someone gives me a book to read, I read it, and today, I’m glad to say that I may not be putting those Sci-fi books on the back shelf!

I have read a lot of Scott Foley’s other books and I always enjoy the depth and reach of his characters. Souls Triumphant is no different! Within the first few chapters you instantly can relate to Joe! He is kind, inquisitive, and who doesn’t like a dreamer? The action starts fast and doesn’t stop! What will happen to Joe? What will happen to Alexandra? Can they survive? Can their love survive?

I flew through this book, it is easy to read, keeps you turning the pages and ends with you wanting more!

So the real question is….When is book 2 coming out?”

Reviews are so important to an author. They help readers decide if they want to try a book out while also spreading the word. During these busy, difficult times, I greatly appreciate Jen’s time and effort!

Interested in Souls Triumphant? Click the cover to visit it at Amazon.

Star Wars: Light of the Jedi (The High Republic) – A Book Review

I must admit that I wasn’t that excited to hear about “The High Republic” campaign. This new Star Wars onslaught is set 200 years before the prequels and explores the Star Wars galaxy at a time when the Jedi were at their most powerful and the Republic was at its most efficient. I call it an onslaught because “The High Republic” includes novels, young adult novels, children’s books, comic books, talk shows, video games, and presumably a Disney+ event.

Personally, I enjoy moving forwards in terms of story, not backwards. I thought it was a mistake to do a “pre-prequel” storyline across so many mediums.

Frankly, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I checked Star Wars: Light Of the Jedi out from my local library. Within the first twenty-five pages, I returned it and then bought a copy of my own. That’s how much it instantly captured my interest. Before I got anywhere close to finishing it, I wanted it on my bookshelves.

The premise involves a catastrophe regarding hyperspace that scientifically (in Star Wars’ reality) shouldn’t have happened. The book first executes the disaster, then explores the aftermath of the disaster, and then sets the stage for the ramifications of the disaster.

Furthermore, it introduces a whole new batch of Jedi and dives deeply into both the characters and their connection to the Force. The author, Charles Soule, presents a new philosophical take on the Force that I found both groundbreaking and riveting. I won’t spoil it too much, but he details how each Jedi interprets and uses the force differently, both in everyday life and in battle. These nuances were such thoughtful, fresh perspectives on the Force–it truly fascinated me.

I also consider the format of the book a real victory. It begins as a countdown of sorts and then reverses that format and introduces a build-up. It also alternates chapters between several different characters as they deal with the disaster and then the fallout of the disaster. Each chapter was relatively short, which made a fast paced plot move even more quickly.

The characterization proved engrossing, the storyline captured my interest, the structure and format of the book made reading it a pleasure, and the hints at things to come piqued my curiosity, which guaranteed my return for book two.

Despite my initial doubts, The Light Of the Jedi should be considered an unmitigated success. I highly recommend it to any and all Star Wars fans.

The Turn Of the Screw By Henry James – A Book Review

Pictured above is my actual copy of The Turn Of the Screw by Henry James. I bought it in the early 1990s at my local Walmart when they had a 2 for $1 special going on. Yes, even in high school, I loved books and read them for the pure joy of it.

This book has sat on my shelves decade after decade ever since. Finally, after watching The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a show supposedly based on The Turn Of the Screw, I decided to read the source material.

I have to tell you, even though this is a short read, I found it to be quite a chore. Henry James, like so many others of his era, delivered complex sentence that, while carefully constructed, tended to take a while to say anything. That fact, coupled with very little actual information being conveyed by the narrator, proved frustrating.

In fact, I found the premise of this novel rather unbelievable in that no governess would write in such a complicated, intricate manner. This style of writing seemed very specific to authors such as Henry James from that particular moment in time. The idea that a governess would write so similarly bothered me. Or, perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe all governesses wrote like world-renowned authors.

I also felt bothered by the fact that, by book’s end, we have no solid answers as to what exactly took place in The Turn Of the Screw. I’ve read some of the analyses regarding this novel, and I think they are all being quite gracious to Henry James.

Is it a ghost story? Is it a psychological story? Is it a story about induced hallucinations? Take your pick. All could be argued.

I must comment on one specific thing about the governess, though. Her infatuation with ten-year-old Miles troubled me to no end. Perhaps it was just me, but I picked up on some overt sexual overtones in The Turn Of the Screw. For example, the governess commented that, at one point, she kissed Miles. That was it. Not on the head. Not on the cheek. Just kissed. She also often described him as beautiful, charming, and perfect. She frequently held him, alone, when it was just the two of them. This coupled with the fact that the ten-year-old Miles spoke as though he was twenty-five, alarmed me. Remember, the governess is the narrator, so all information is flowing through her, including the depiction of Miles. By the book’s end, I was fairly sure our narrator was the story’s true villain. Maybe this is too modern of a reading … or maybe this kind of thing has always existed and it’s now more recognizable, even in books over a century old.

While I recognize that Henry James has been studied across the world for a very long time by some of our brightest minds, I honestly cannot claim to have enjoyed The Turn Of the Screw.