Thursday, January 28, 2016

Creepier by the Dozen: Twelve Twisted Tales - Stephen Hise, Cole Hise, and Anneliese Hise

This book is truly a family affair. Stephen Hise and two of his children, Cole and Annaliese, pulled together twelve of their best short horror stories and put them together in this anthology.

I'm not a fan of the blood-and-guts variety of horror stories, and I was relieved to discover that very little of that appears in this book. Instead, these stories are meant to give you a little shiver, as if perhaps someone walked across your grave.

Among my favorites was the fifth tale, "Guardian," about two kids and a dog that could have been better socialized. The ending of that one rattled me. Then there was "GPS," the seventh tale, a ghost-in-the-machine story with a satisfying ending.

I would recommend Creepier by the Dozen to anyone who likes a shiver on a dark winter night.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Grendel - John Gardner

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never read this fantasy classic until after I heard it recommended twice in one day at last year's World Fantasy Convention.

Most English-speaking readers are familiar with Beowulf. Even if it wasn't foisted upon you in a high school or college English class, most people have at least heard of it: the eleventh-century epic poem that was among the first, if not the first, instance of English literature. The story, set in Scandinavia, tells of a monster that terrorizes a local lord's hall until Beowulf, our hero, comes from across the sea to slay it. Once he does, the monster's mother comes after Beowulf, seeking revenge.

The monster's name is Grendel -- and in Gardner's book, he tells the story from Grendel's point of view. But Grendel is the narrator here, not just the main character, and he is caught in an existential morass -- forced by fate to attack these people over and over again:
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I pus against, blindly -- as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.
Well, he's young. As he grows older, he visits a dragon (a very funny scene), and takes the dragon's philosophy to heart. Eventually, destiny catches up with him in the form of Beowulf, as we all knew it would, and the ending scene echoes the story's beginning, as the wheel of time turns and the world moves on.

While it's always interesting to read a famous story from the villain's point of view (see Gregory Maguire's Wicked), Grendel is far more than that. Gardner is a superb writer, and he's managed to make Grendel almost a sympathetic character -- almost (dare I say it?) human.

Highly recommended, and required reading for anybody who aspires to write epic fantasy.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hereafter (Afterlife #1) - Terri Bruce

Irene Dunphy is 36 years old. She lives in Boston, and she has an okay middle-management job that allows her to go out clubbing most nights with a couple of friends. Then one day, she wakes up on the side of the road, having only a vague recollection of what happened the night before. She gets in her car and drives home, to discover that she's apparently been gone for some time. Her mail has piled up and her answering machine is full of messages, mostly of the "Irene, where are you?" variety.

Slowly, it dawns on her that she's dead, and she begins to grapple with the question of why she hasn't gone through the tunnel to The Light. She meets a still-living neighbor -- a 14-year-old boy named Jonah -- who knows a lot more about death customs than any well-adjusted teen should. Together, they begin to figure out how to get Irene to move on.

I'll be honest: I didn't much like Irene. Besides her obvious drinking problem, she struck me as vapid and shallow, and way too snippy to Jonah. Although I didn't much like him, either. By the thirty-percent mark, I was sick of their bickering and ready to bail. But I got interested again when Irene began learning her way around ghostly Boston, and eventually she becomes at least a little self-aware.

So in the end, I was glad to have stuck with the book. But I'm on the fence about sticking with the series. I gather from reviews on Goodreads that Bruce plans at least five more volumes, one of which is already available. It's possible that the author made Irene such a piece of work in book one in order to give her plenty of room to grow in the following books. The danger with that game plan is that you end up with a main character who is so unlikable that your readers won't bother seeing it through.

Maybe I'm just not the audience for this type of urban fantasy. The book has plenty of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads. If you don't mind shallow, cranky protagonists, Hereafter might be right up your alley.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Labyrinth Quest - Yvonne Hertzberger

We've started a brand-new thing at Indies Unlimited this week -- the IU Reading Challenge. Anybody can join -- just click the link to get the skinny. The only hard-and-fast rule is that all the books you choose must be by indie authors.

I'm going to participate by posting a review of one challenge book per month here at Rursday Reads. I plan to go in order (we'll see how long that lasts...), and the first challenge is to read a book by an IU minion or admin. Herewith, then, is my review of:

A young woman named M'rain ventures far from her desert village and must shelter in a cave overnight. There, she is captured by a group of people she didn't know existed -- they live in the caves and are enslaved to a man from their village, on the other side of the mountains.

M'rain gets help from an unlikely source -- a magical lizard named Glick, who claims to work for a deity. He helps M'rain get free of the evil man -- but in return, he demands that she free the other slaves and take them home. There, she meets a young man named P'puck, who fits about as well in his home village as M'rain does in hers. And Glick has more work for them both.

Labyrinth Quest skirts the boundary between magic realism and fantasy. In Hertzberger's earlier series, Earth's Pendulum, the planet itself was sentient, or nearly so. Here, the planet's sentience is wrapped up in Glick. The lizard knows all about the world these people inhabit, but Glick only gives the information out in dribs and drabs. The villagers on both sides of the mountains have found a way to survive, even when the land is harsh; that's more of a testament to their resilience, I think, than to the planet giving them what they need.

My only complaint is that M'rain doesn't have to struggle very hard to meet her challenges. She finds her way almost unerringly through the cave maze, thanks to the magic sight Glick bestows upon her -- and when she does go astray, it turns out Glick wanted her to. She never has to hunt for food and water because Glick leads her to both, and the lizard even reminds her to stock up when it's time to move on. I wanted to see M'rain fail spectacularly at least once, and become stronger by thinking her way out of her problems.

That aside, I enjoyed the book. M'rain and P'puck are appealing characters, the bad guy is suitably evil, and Glick -- well, Glick is an annoying know-it-all. But then, most demigods are. Recommended for readers who enjoy both magic realism and fantasy.