Tag Archives: Five Stars

MORTALITY BRIDGE by Steven R. Boyett – Review

If you’re planning a trip to Hell to get back your lost love, the best way to get there is by Checker Cab, because if you live in Los Angeles, the entrance to Hell is probably not where you think it is.  This particular cab driver, however, knows the way and will get you there, if not without incident, at least in one piece.  Welcome to the singular mind of Steve Boyett, where the souls of the dead are feathers, the torments of Hell are worse than you thought, and it just might be possible to save someone with a song.

Mortality Bridge is the story of Niko, an ex-junkie musician whose fame has come from literally making a deal with the devil (actually, an agent of the devil named Phil). After achieving success and some amount of happiness, Niko’s girlfriend Jemma falls ill and dies, and like Orpheus before him, he sets out on a journey into Hell to try to get her back. That’s the short version. In reality, Niko’s odyssey is a long, painful trip through gleefully rendered torment.  As Niko proceeds through the various plains and mountains, rivers and oceans of “The Park,” as its inhabitants fondly refer to Hell, Boyett’s unrelenting descriptions of torture boggle the mind, and like being compelled to look at a car crash on the side of the road, I found myself reading certain horrible passages over and over again.  At one point it occurred to me that once Niko got to where he was going, he would have to go back through it all in order to get out.  (Not to worry, readers, the return trip is fairly swift.)  Niko is aided along the way by a variety of Hell’s denizens, including demons and acquaintances from his past.  On a speeding train we meet Nikodemus, Niko’s own demon, a strangely loveable character who embodies all of Niko’s past mistakes and is now determined to help him get home.

The story moves at breakneck speed from start to finish, punctuated by flashbacks from Niko’s past as he reminisces about his fractured relationship with Jemma, life as a drug-addled musician, and the sudden and terrible death of his brother Van.  But the horror of Hell is tempered by Steve’s mastery of prose.  His lovely, uncommon sentence structure is especially poignant as Niko muses on his past with Jemma:

“…in his heart he’d felt a driven nail of terror because she already loved him more than ever he would her.” 

It is sentences like this that enable the reader to understand how keenly Niko feels for those he has failed. And in the background, like an unsteady pulse, Niko’s music accompanies him on his journey, as references to the blues are scattered throughout the story. (The chapter names, in fact, are all blues song titles.)

I won’t tell you what happens to Niko.  You’ll just have to read Mortality Bridge for yourself.  I will tell you this, however:  it was worth the painful trip to Hell and back just to get to the end.  Niko’s story may end on page 417, but his journey has just begun.

Subterranean Press, 2011. Limited Edition. Cover art by J.K. Potter. Also available in paperback and e-book versions.

More great reading from Steve Boyett (available in paperback and e-book):

Visit the Mortality Bridge website here.

You can visit Steve’s blog here.

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READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline -Review

So, after reading Ready Player One, it turns out I’m a geek.  I suspected I was, since I’ve always had a fondness for all things geeky. But although I was never really into video games (I do remember, however, obsessively playing a game called “Castle” sometime around 1988 or ’89.  It was loaded on my computer at work and my coworker Dilip and I played it every chance we got), I realize now that it is possible to geek out over reading about people playing video games. If you aren’t a geek now, I guarantee you will be after reading this fantastic debut by Ernest Cline.

Ready Player One takes place in 2044, where a desolate Earth has fallen on hard times that feel very familiar: fossil fuels are all but used up, the predicted effects of global warming have finally come to pass, and the economy has gone to hell in a hand basket. The world is in the midst of the Global Energy Crisis, and Wade Watts, our eighteen-year-old hero, is struggling to survive in “the stacks,” a low-income housing area consisting of hundreds of mobile homes stacked on top of one another, just outside of Oklahoma City. Life is grim, and most people spend their waking hours inside the OASIS, an intricately constructed virtual reality world where every bit of 80’s pop culture has been lovingly recreated.  Here avatars are free to explore the galaxy, play video games, slay opponents, and earn credits by collecting magical objects and winning games. Wade’s avatar, Parzival, like many others, is obsessed with finding Halliday’s Easter egg, which has been hidden somewhere inside the OASIS by James Halliday, the brilliant and eccentric creator of the game who died five years earlier. Because finding the egg first means acquiring Halliday’s fortune and control of the OASIS, Parzival spends his days learning every possible bit of minutia about the 80’s, hoping he will stumble upon something that will unravel the first clue. Pursued by “Sixers,” the identical employees of Innovative Online Industries, who are collectively trying to find the egg and gain power of the OASIS for nefarious purposes, Parzival and his avatar competitors Aech and Art3mis race to find the egg.  But when the danger of the OASIS spills over into Wade’s real life, Wade joins forces with his friends to try to stop the Sixers from getting to the egg first, win the prize, and save the world.

If you think this plot seems overly complex, then you would be right.  Ready Player One is stuffed with so much information that I marveled at Parzival’s (and Cline’s) exhaustive knowledge of the 80’s. (In fact, I’m pretty sure the aforementioned “Castle” makes an appearance somewhere in this book.)  And this review barely scratches the surface.  Dive into the story on your own and you will discover a story driven by frenetic energy, likable characters, and enough suspense to keep you going for the rest of 2011. Add in some social commentary and witty dialog, and you’ve got a winning combination. Will the good guys win? Will Parzival ever meet Art3mis in real life? Will the coin Parzival won at Pac-Man figure into the final showdown? You’ll just have to read to find out.

Ready Player One is a wild and exhausting romp through time and space, and the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time. If you love the 80’s (and even if you don’t), you will find this action-packed trip down memory lane an unforgettable experience. So stop what you are doing right now and Go. Read. This. Book.

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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness -Review

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”

I read A Monster Calls and Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck back-to-back, and they seemed eerily similar in more ways than one.  My original plan was to review them together, but after writing my review for Wonderstruck, I realized that although A Monster Calls is also a children’s book and is also heavily illustrated, and is also about a young boy experiencing loss, it deserves its own review.

Based on an idea by the late author Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer in 2007, Patrick Ness was asked to complete the story along with illustrator Jim Kay.  Conor, a typical thirteen-year-old boy, awakens one night from a recurring nightmare at 12:07 a.m. and hears someone, something, calling his name.  As he fearfully peers out his bedroom window, across the yard to the nearby graveyard, he realizes the giant yew tree that usually stands guard over the headstones has appeared in his backyard, and it has sprouted monstrous features.  A monster has come calling, and it’s there for a reason: he has come to tell Conor three stories.  In return, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story, and “it will be the truth.”

The driving emotional element of the story is that Conor’s mother is sick, very sick, and has been in and out of the hospital for various treatments.  It’s not too hard to figure out what’s wrong, although Ness, in good writerly fashion, never comes out and names the disease.  His mother gamely assures Conor throughout the story that she’s getting better.  On a deeper level, we know that Conor is not convinced by these assurances, and so the monster arrives to help him deal with the truth.

In between the monster’s parables and Conor’s nightmares, he deals with his waking life: being bullied at school, taking care of the house while his mother lies in bed, and enduring his bossy grandmother who comes to help out. It is implied that Conor will live with her when, well, when all this is over.  And he doesn’t like that idea one bit.

Jim Kay’s illustrations fit the tone of the story perfectly. In a black and white, smudged inky style he draws from Conor’s point of view: a small boy looking up at the giant yew monster who lurks above him. Conor’s surroundings mirror his gloomy existence:  the solitary graveyard near his house in moonlight, the monster with his human yet tree-like attributes, a garden of tangled thorns.  Conor’s recurring dream of his mother falling over a cliff is rendered with angry, dark strokes, yet his mother is a white silhouette.  All of the illustrations let the reader know that something bad is going to happen.

But as Conor’s mother continues her inexorable slide into death, the monster does what he has come to do: to help Conor face and deal with the inevitable.  Yes, the bad thing is coming and he can’t escape it. But he can, and does, learn how to accept it. Even though the ending was no surprise, and I figured out the significance of “12:07″ long before the end, I was still caught off guard by the powerful emotional impact of the final pages.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears.

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WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick – Review

The wonderfully inventive Brian Selznick broke new ground in 2007 with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a “children’s” book that combined text and illustrations in a way that had never really been done before.  In fact, half the book is text and the other half full-spread illustrations, and the illustrated passages tell just as much of the story as the text.  His latest is Wonderstruck, which is done in much the same style as Hugo Cabret, but has a completely different twist to it. Set in two time periods and locations, the story alternates between Ben, a boy who lives in 1977 Minnesota, and Rose, a girl in 1927 New York.  Ben’s story is told with words, and Rose’s with pictures.  Ben’s mother has recently died, and he is living with his aunt and uncle just down the road from his old house.  Ben was born deaf in one ear and uses this to his advantage as he is now forced to share a room with his noisy cousin Robby. One night he escapes to the house where he and his mother lived to comfort himself, and is trapped there when a thunderstorm hits. In his mother’s bedroom he finds an old book called Wonderstruck, a history of museums.  In it is a bookmark with a message to his mother from someone named “Danny,” and a phone number.  Thinking this might be a clue to his long-lost father’s identity, Ben decides to call the number, but as fate would have it, lighting strikes the house just as Ben puts the phone to his ear, and he is knocked unconscious. He awakens deaf in both ears. Thus begins Ben’s journey to New York City to figure out the puzzle of who Danny is.

Meanwhile, Rose’s story unfolds in illustrations, an appropriately silent narrative since Rose is deaf. Rose lives across the river from New York City in Hoboken, New Jersey, and spends her days gazing out her window at the skyscrapers of New York and making models of the buildings out of cut-up newspapers. Her mother is a famous silent screen actor and spends most of her time working in the city.  Lonely and missing her mother, Rose runs away from home one day to visit her mother at work.  She winds up in the American Museum of Natural History where her older brother Walter works.

It is at this point that the two stories start to merge, and the reader learns not only the mystery of Ben’s father, but the very important relationship between Ben and Rose.  Selznick has done an amazing amount of research to create this book. It is filled with details about museums, in particular the Cabinet of Wonders, the earliest examples of museums, where objects were gathered together and put on display in a cabinet.  Since both of the main characters are deaf, he researched the Deaf culture extensively before writing the book. The New York World’s Fair of 1964 also plays an important and fascinating role in the book, as we find out when the two stories converge in the present and Ben experiences the wonder of the scale model Panorama of New York City that was created especially for the Fair.  Make sure to read Selznick’s Acknowledgements at the end, where he describes every detail about how the book was created.

Wonderstruck is a wonder of a book.  Its pieces all fit together like a puzzle, and the experience of reading both words and illustrations intertwined will have you flipping through the pages as fast as you can to get to the end.  But savor the experience.  And when you’ve arrived at the last page, go back and read it again. You may discover something new.

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THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern – Review

A contortionist folds herself into a tiny box.  A young girl’s gown changes from white to black in front of your eyes.  A magical ice garden waits to be explored within a black and white striped tent.  Welcome to the Night Circus, a place where imagination is real, and reality is whatever you can imagine.

Erin Morgenstern has an abundance of creative ideas, and many of them seem to reside in The Night Circus. Told in lush, fluid language, the story centers around a pair of magicians who decide to have a competition. Each selects a protégée to train in the art of illusion, and many years later a playing field is selected and, unbeknownst to the players, the games begin.  This playing field is the Night Circus, a creation of mystery and wonder by a man named Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre, that appears out of nowhere and is only open from nightfall until dawn. The two players in the game, Celia and Marco, finally meet as young adults; Marco is the circus proprietor’s assistant, Celia the circus illusionist. Both have become masters of illusion, but amidst the magic of the Night Circus, their enforced rivalry turns to love.  If the plot seems hazy from this inadequate description, then you can begin to understand the complexity of this labyrinth of a book. 

Like the Night Circus itself, there are many twists and turns in the story, and time is a fluid character that winds in and out, taking the reader back and forth between the story of Marco and Celia, and the near future where a boy named Bailey is set to play an important role in the circus.  Morgenstern writes in present tense, usually a negative for me, but for this book it seems to work fine; the style creates an immediacy and a feeling that something is about to happen, and it might just be a mystery to the writer as well.  The chapters alternate more or less between the present, linear story of the creation of the circus and its beginnings, and the future chapters about Bailey and his propitious meeting with Poppet and Widget, red-haired twins who were born the night the circus opened. Occasional short bursts that address the reader directly are interspersed throughout, leading us on a private tour of some of the circus’ hidden corners.  As present and future converge, secrets are revealed and magic is lost and found. Characters fade away and the circus grinds to a halt.

Reading The Night Circus is like being in a dream.  Each of Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus and its inhabitants is more unusual and sensual than the next, her creations a feast for all the senses. To over-explain my experience of reading it would take away from the enchantment, and so I leave you to discover the magic for yourself.

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THE LAST WEREWOLF by Glen Duncan – Review

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Glen Duncan, and he’s written eight books. Where have I been? I wonder. I have a lot of catching up to do, because I loved this book. I love werewolf stories.  There is something appealing about a character who is compelled to commit monstrous acts, but whose nature does not give him any choice in the matter.  The werewolf is a tragic sort of beast, don’t you think?

Enter our werewolf protagonist, Jake Marlowe.  Jake has just been given some bad news: as of a couple of nights ago, he is now the last werewolf on earth.  This news is delivered apologetically by his long-time friend and human protector, Harley, a man dedicated to shielding Jake from “the Hunt,” a very determined group of werewolf hunters. According to Harley, Grainer, the head werewolf hunter, will have the honor of killing Jake himself on the next full moon. A complicated game of cat and mouse ensues as Harley and Jake try to prevent this from happening.

Two things set this book apart from other monster stories. First is Duncan’s writing style.  Glen Duncan is not just a writer.  He’s a writer’s writer.  Which means not only can he write a rip-roaring tale filled with action, danger, humor, sex, shady characters and redemption, but he writes it beautifully.  Reading his prose is like sipping liquid chocolate while soaking in a hot bath under a starry sky in a mountain-top retreat.  A starry sky with a full moon, of course.  The book is full of gorgeous sentences, like this one, where Jake attempts to describe a girl he has just noticed: “Certainly not ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ but Saloméishly appealing, visibly smudged with the permissive modern wisdoms.” After only a few pages of this sort of writing, one almost doesn’t care what’s happening to the story.

The second thing I loved about this story is the complete self-awareness of the monster.  Unlike other werewolf stories where the human loses all sense of himself during the change and forgets what he’s done afterwards, Jake knows exactly what he is and what he’s doing as a werewolf. Becoming a wolf is a glorious, powerful, and erotic experience for Jake, whose first-person descriptions of how it feels to be in the wolf’s skin give the reader a unique experience.  We know from story and myth that werewolves have enhanced senses of sight and smell, but Jake’s unique perspective turns these senses sensual.  As Jake takes a life, the blood causes him to relive the victim’s life, as though watching a film strip sped up.  The experience of killing seems justified, and the reader falls in love with Jake the monster.

If some of the story elements seem predictable, then Duncan can be congratulated on his ability to make the predictable seem fresh and exciting. I won’t tell you what happens mid-way through the story. I can only say that Jake’s tale becomes infinitely more interesting, and readers will tear through the book at a breakneck pace to find out what happens. What more can one ask of a great book?

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Review: BECOMING QUINN by Brett Battles

OK, I’ll admit it.  I know Brett Battles personally.  In fact, Brett and I met years ago, when we were both freshmen in high school, during auditions for the school play The Pajama Game. (He got a part, I didn’t.)  Since then, we’ve gone our separate ways, lost touch and gotten back in touch again more than once, helped each other through personal crises, and celebrated milestones and triumphs together.  Most recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading Brett’s manuscripts before they were published and helped out with editing and proofreading.  I was there when Brett was struggling to get his first novel published and felt pride when he finally achieved that goal.

So you can see that we’ve got somewhat of a history.  When Brett needed people to review Becoming Quinn to help get the word out and promote it, I was happy to do so.  I mention all this because even though we’re friends, I am not giving Becoming Quinn a good review because of that.  I’m giving it a good review because the book deserves one.

Becoming Quinn is a short, tautly written story with a suspenseful edge that ramps up gradually and doesn’t stop. Jake Oliver, a twenty-two-year-old rookie cop with an eye on becoming a detective someday, is called to investigate gunshots in a remote area of Phoenix.  He and his partner arrive at the scene and find a barn on fire. Through alternating points of view, we learn that the fire is the responsibility of a man named Durrie and his team.  Anyone familiar with Brett’s other novels will know who Durrie is.

Our rookie Jake, it turns out, has extraordinary powers of observation, and he proceeds to notice that things at the crime scene, where a body has been found in the fire, are not what they seem.  What follows is a rollicking, breathless story that brings Jake closer and closer to the truth, and closer to danger as well.

In about half the space of a typical novel, Brett has created a novel-sized story and fully developed characters. It’s definitely what I would call a “page turner,” although I’m not sure we can use that phrase when talking about a digital book, can we? In any case, Becoming Quinn accomplishes very neatly what it has set out to do:  it gives the reader an engaging back story and some insight into the Quinn of the future.  And if you haven’t met the future Quinn yet, luckily for you his stories have already been written.

Read more Quinn here:

 

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