Book Review: Ghost River by Chad Ryan

I received “Ghost River” by Chad Ryan, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC, an advance review copy, in exchange for an honest review. It took me a little time to read and this book is now available as a new release, but it’s definitely the kind of book that you want to take your time with, sink your teeth into, absorb into your marrow. This novel is an experience, a journey into a land of ancient predators and the power of the names that keep them in their boxes.

It’s a long read, an epic saga. It’s a story to which you make a commitment. On its surface, it is a monster book, but at its heart, it is a story about a family, the blood-soaked ties that bind, and the boxes of worlds that we trade for better boxes. This is a story of fear and love, loathing and revenge, power and control, mythos and modernity. This is the story of Ghost River, and more importantly, Orphan Rock, and the eclectic, dangerous melee that calls this particular box home.

Ghost River is a town in Arizona, a desert place between worlds, between the riverfolk and the desertfolk. In one world there is the tribe, which has always protected Orphan Rock and its fatal secrets from the outside world. But times are changing. Development is coming to Ghost River. First a freeway; then a casino. The old pacts wear down, are no longer valid for the times. Promises wear thin. The old world of Orphan Rock and its shapers of worlds have become mythos, fragments of memories. The monsters become greedy. Their egos enlarge. The Grim Seed always wants more; darkness is never satisfied.

Orphan Rock, you see, is a monster town. It serves the wills of Father Pig, and fighting for dominance, the Sisters of Sorrow. These ancient creatures, predators who subsist on human flesh, come from a crack in the worlds, a portal to another dimension. In Orphan Rock, everyone serves someone, and no one can ever leave. Or so they think. Years of servitude and grooming will do that. Dreams are dangerous. Or are they?

The Northamm family makes up the protagonists in the story; Esther, Minister, and their children, Little Snake and Dark Bird. Esther and Minister can leave the land, but the curse of the dirt keeps the monsters to the box. So Esther and Minister are the ones who feed their insatiable appetites. Love in the cages. Hoping for a better life. Or any life, at all, since choice isn’t something that people like them get to experience, those who are servants to the dark.

But like all monster books, who is really the monster here? The monsters become the sympathetic characters, and traditional narrative arcs twist and turn until you’re not sure in the end who the antagonist really is. Is it Father Pig and the Age of Filth? Is it the endless march of modernity, the people who forgot ancient promises? This is a monster book, but this is exquisite filth, reverent in its hideousness.

There is much to offend in these pages, but I found it a comfort read; because in the end, all good writing hopes to connect us to very human moments. Like Little Snake, escaping the confines of Orphan Rock for the promises of another Sister of Sorrow, Desyre, who made a little boy believe in a better box. It turned out to be just another box, and the boy wanted nothing more than to return home, with the wind on his face as he ran by the desert river, the home that he once wanted so badly to leave. Nothing more human than that, even for a snake.

The prose and writing style was choppy at times, a tug of active voice rapping on your spine; but this was for effect. This was a novel meant to be read aloud, to be experienced. Part of the experience of this storytelling was in the sounds of the writing, the sharp shock to the heart, the vivid descriptions of Arizona desert and ancient dreams and immortal death.

This book, in a word, was a “Wow.” This is the best of indie. Give it a chance, even if you don’t like horror or magic realism. It will make you cringe, and then it will make you revel in its gruesome glory. This may be a monster book, but it’s really, in the end, a human book. It’s a book about what breaks us, and what keeps us together, what keeps us moving, what gives us reasons to get up anyway despite all the burdens of all the worlds. We need more books like this. More stories that help us remember those things, ancient promises stirring, whispering to us from across the desert scrub in the midnight black. Welcome to Ghost River, indeed. You might never want to leave.

Buy the book: Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Book review: “A Map to the Stars” by Ashley Hutchison

I received “A Map to the Stars” by Ashley Hutchison, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC (advanced review copy) in exchange for an honest review. 

Form in literature is something that is often relegated to the province of poetry, with novels often devoid of experimentation in rhythm, grammatical structure, and arranged in the same standard manuscript formatting. Sure, over the years plots and storytelling may have changed and evolved, with traditional publishers preferring third-person narrators instead of omniscient narrators. Publishers will cater to the increasingly short attention spans of modern readers by favoring inciting incidents in the first three pages, thinking too much backstory old-fashioned, wanting to see novels written in a fast-paced, cinematic style. Epistolary novels sometimes rise in popularity, those comprised entirely of letters, emails or other documents that drive the plot forward. But more often than not, the epitome of true experimentation in the modern novel comes in the format of comic books and graphic novels. 

“A Map to the Stars” breaks that mold, the kind of experiment that is made for the indie market. At the beginning the author steps outside the fourth wall to caution the reader, “Please know this memoir was written to be a movement, so it is best experienced in a single sitting. Find a comfortable chair and prepare yourself for an emotional journey.” That in itself is not like my usual reading style; I typically find myself reading with the TV on in the background, or stealing snatches of passages before bed or between breaks at work. It took me about a couple of hours to read and digest.

This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family, a painting of the scars of abuse. It follows the story of Avery’s childhood, as Avery confronts the abuse and neglect of her mother, and the instability of her upbringing. In many ways it reads like the kind of letter that you write to the family you did not choose, but then the pain is too much to handle, the emotions too raw, so you burn up the letter and never send it. The story moves from poetry, to epistolary in text messages and emails, to prose, a collection of fragmented vignettes strung together as almost a therapeutic exercise. 

At times the writing style veered into a bit heavy of a florid/purple prose style for my taste, but I largely found the style to flow well. The writing adapted to the form of each vignette. In many ways this novelette was like one long primordial scream, an exercise in stream-of-consciousness expressionism as Avery tries to come to terms with her troubled childhood and the people in her past. Each chapter is introduced with a drawing of a tarot card, outlining each relationship in Avery’s life, each fairy tale inevitably turned dark, except for a strain of hopefulness throughout, a child’s faith. 

At times this story was uncomfortable, but it begs you to sit with it the way you eventually have to sit with your own discomfort, when you are not avoiding your pain or distracting yourself from it. At times it was achingly beautiful. It was always raw. This story was something real, something bold and honest, and it will linger with me for awhile afterward.

Find “A Map to the Stars” on Amazon or Goodreads.

Book Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

For some reason I thought it was a good idea to read four books at once so I am slowly catching up on my book reviews. I am not going to post as many after this because I am going to be focusing on WWII research for a historical fiction novel I am brewing.

“The Last Policeman” is a dystopian sci-fi mystery novel by Ben H. Winters. It’s a police procedural, certainly; but it is also an examination of how people would act in an apocalyptic event. And no, I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to read a dystopian novel in a pandemic, but I found it strangely comforting. The interesting thing about dire circumstances like pandemics or catastrophic asteroids hurtling toward Earth is that they show people for who they really are. Nothing like a crisis for bringing out people’s true colors.

It turns out this book is also going to be adapted for TV by NBC, so I’m even more intrigued in continuing on in the trilogy because I really enjoyed this book. The writing was strong and vivid. It was a classic literary fiction meets genre mashup, and the characters were all so good. This truly was a character-driven story. And literary sci fi excites me to no end. You know it when you see it, but it’s difficult to define. It turns out I also have another Winters book on my to-be-read shelf that I have not read yet; Underground Airlines.

The story is about newly minted Detective Hank Palace during a crisis in which Earth learns that an asteroid will hit in six months. Everybody reacts to catastrophe and death differently; much of the detective force quit to go work on their bucket lists, but for Palace, a spot opened up for this patrol officer to fulfill his lifelong dream of solving murders as a detective. His parents were killed, so the dream flows naturally from that.

But who wants to solve murders when we’re all going to die? the book’s tagline goes. Mostly, the police department is investigating “hangers,” how detectives casually refer to suicides. And besides, there are just not many murders any more. The story opens with Palace responding to a case of a hanger in the bathroom of a McDonald’s restaurant. (McDonald’s are no longer McDonald’s, but people operating slow-food restaurants out of the former fast-food franchise.) Everyone is convinced that this death is just another hanger, but Palace is convinced it is a suspicious.

Palace was my favorite character because I saw myself in him. I couldn’t see myself overdosing on drugs, partying at ragers or flying to Tahiti if the world is about to end and we’re all about to die. I could see myself making sure that the job is done right, because that is all I have left. Palace’s dogged integrity was fascinating to watch, as was the sociological study of all the various responses to impending doom and the exploration of economic collapse and religious response.

This was a carefully paced, thoughtful book, that had me guessing and speculating as to the broader implications of this one death until the end. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy. Usually I don’t read trilogies because I’m not as taken by the first book, but this one is different. This one hooked me.

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Ebook Review: Champion of the World by Chad Dundas

My library is closed during quarantine, appropriately so, and I realized I could be spending a lot of money on books if I didn’t start trying out ebooks. So I downloaded the app cloudLibrary on my iPhone, entered in my library card information and started checking out books on my phone.

This was a novel experience (pardon the pun) for someone who has long held a prejudice against ebooks. I have refused to join the modern world in this regard, and in fact consider myself a late adopter of many forms of technology. I spend all day looking at a screen for work, and I spend quite a bit of time on social media, staring at my phone’s screen, all thumbs, giving myself carpal tunnel. The thought of spending more screen time to read felt like a disaster for my eyes. I already have poor vision.

I also have an iPad so that screen size is preferable to my iPhone, when I remember to charge it. Even so, I simply prefer the tactile feel of paper. I like looking at a bookshelf full of books I treasured. It’s a feeling you cannot replicate in a screen. We spend our whole lives on screen these days. I’m old fashioned in that respect.

But I decided to give it a shot because I wanted to read more and not spend more. So my first ebook on my phone was a selection called “Champion of the World” by Chad Dundas. I was in the mood for historical fiction and this fit what I wanted in ways I did not anticipate.

The book follows the story of disgraced wrestler Pepper Van Dean through several different life sequences, all showing the decaying world of wrestling in the Prohibition Era from different lenses on various settings. In the opening of the book, we find out that Van Dean lost the lightweight championship in a fixed match, and ever since travels with a carnival performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” act and five-cent wrestling bouts with all comers. His wife Moira, a card sharp who was raised around poker tables and smoky bars by her gambling father, travels with him. Van Dean, despite his flaws, is a champion of what is called the “scientific” form of wrestling, a dying art.

Stranded by the carnival in Oregon after an impromptu fight with a local man goes horribly wrong, Pepper and Moira are left with nowhere else to turn. So they link up with a shady promoter who wants Pepper to train Garfield Taft, an African-American wrestler with sights on the heavyweight championship — if someone would fight a black man in the ring.

But at the training camp in Montana, all is not what it seems, and a job taken out of desperation becomes a hornet’s nest of bootlegging, gangsters and other secrets.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about a book about circuses and wrestling, at first. I am not exactly a wrestling fan, and there was a time when circus books became altogether too trendy. I think I read too many of them and got burnt out. But I soon became immersed in this fascinating world. This was a time when wrestling was transitioning from its golden years when matches were always on the level and honest, to a darker time, in which fixed matches yielded big money and it became more of a performance, more of a circus act.

Pepper Van Dean is a wrestler of old school dreams, absurdly naive perhaps for someone with his worldly experience. His naïveté also fit his character of the hopeless romantic. He was the kind of man who would do anything for his dreams, but he also had his own code of honor. The gray areas of integrity. In the end, Pepper Van Dean is kind of like me and ebooks. Hanging on to an old world that is getting crushed by progress. But progress is not always for the best.

I became hooked on this book for the character development. Although it features a medium-sized cast of characters, we are treated to an intimate look at each. This is a character-driven story, as the action takes a back seat to the complex characters we get to know. There is certainly action in the fights and the gangland crime, but it’s not the point of the story in the broader arc.

The prose is spare and clean, no frills, not showing off. Just good, solid, basic writing, but basic in a meaningful way. It wasn’t trying too hard. The words were in service of the story, in service of character.

I enjoyed this book overall. It played a little loose with the history as historical fiction often does, but it was all in the service of a compelling story and interesting characters, so I forgave its continuity issues.

And I must say I took to ebooks more than I would have expected. I decided to purchase a Kindle because I find the light from the phone to be hard on my eyes, so I think a Paperwhite may be easier to read. However, I enjoyed reading ebooks more than I thought I would. I can still lie in bed or curl up in a chair with my phone and read a book – just on my phone. There are still pages to turn, but this time, I turn them with a flick of my thumbs and a quick scan. I am of course distracted by all my social media apps while doing it, but I can pay more attention than I expected I would. It turns out as well that I read ebooks faster than real books, and I appreciate the large print text of most of them. I’ll be checking out more ebooks in the future, for sure.

Just call me a reformed curmudgeon, slowly joining the world of technology. Let’s hope I can change as fast as technology does, but when I get to the latest model, you’ll know it is worth it. I like good-quality technology that lasts, is useful, and serves my needs. Right now, ebooks are where I am at.

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Book Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

I have not kept up with my goal to blog daily, sadly. The truth is I’m devoting more of my time to writing fiction. I came up with an idea for a contemporary novel that is semi-autobiographical, exploring my manifesto on the arts, and I’ve been spending much of my time ruminating on that. Not truly writing, perhaps, but there you have it. So you’ll see more book reviews on this blog than nonfiction pieces. Another decision I made recently was that I will not be shooting any more portraits in 2020. It’s a hobby for me, and not enough people have hired me yet to make it worth the risk. Things will be different in 2021, though, I hope; I have a few projects in the works with regard to human-centered photography. I will still be shooting other things, though. Yes, with a camera.

Anyhow, without further ado, to my review of “The City of Brass” by S.A. Chakraborty. This is the last of my library books that I have checked out and am borrowing indefinitely for free from my generous local library. Never fear, though, I have three indie books coming up to review. I found this to be an intriguing book, a fitting start to a trilogy, but one that left me with more mystery than I wanted, at times.

This is a tale of magic, djinns, and other worlds just out of reach of the perception of humans. The book is set, at first, in Cairo, Egypt, following the story of Nahri, a scrappy twenty-something street urchin who makes a living as a con artist and a thief. But she also has real healing abilities, which seem like magic, even though she does not believe in such things. Despite being stuck in her ways, which she has used to survive all her life as an orphan on the rough-in-tumble streets of Cairo, she dreams of saving her money to apprentice as a doctor, and of a more respectable living. Above all, what she wants is respect, and to feel as if she belongs, somewhere. She is a child without a family, with no knowledge of her origins.

Then one day, when performing a ritual intended to exorcise a demon from a young girl’s body, but is really just a sham intended to swindle money from the family, she accidentally summons a real-life demon. Her business partner, a Jewish accountant, always told her not to meddle in magic she did not understand, and it seems he was right. It turns out to be a Daeva called Dara, a mystical being that has survived for fourteen hundred years, enslaved to humans and to other beings called ifrits, with a bloody past and a prejudice against shafrit, those of mixed magical heritage.

As the tale unfurls, it turns out that the mysterious Nahri is allegedly the last of her species, a race called the Nahids with powerful healing abilities. The Nahids ruled the world beyond, a place called Daevastana, fourteen hundred years ago. Dara was sworn to protect them, an Afrshrim; now Nahri’s Afshrim. The two race against time and demon enemies to reach Daevastana, where they will be safe from the human world and such demons due to their blood. Or so they think. A lovingly built up romantic subplot entangles the two further.

This is also the story of Ali, a brash, impetuous young prince, the secondborn son of King Ghassan. Ali, nought but a teenager when the story begins, was taken from his mother at a young age and raised with soldiers in a place called the Citadel, trained for war. But it turns out he has a soft spot for lost causes, a penchant which, along with his rash impulsivity, will get him into trouble. His family rules this land with an iron fist, always one step away from rebellion. Ali yearns for reform.

The stories of Ali and Nahri become intertwined, their fates linked, and not in the way you think.

I found this to be a mystical, lush book, full of beautiful descriptions and rich writing. It was a wonderful insight into the mythos of a culture about which I am learning. I’m so used to Western folk tales that it was refreshing to read about magic from the other side of the world.

I did, however, have many questions. I would presume these would be answered in the succeeding trilogy, but the magic system and some inconsistencies in it kept me puzzling. I’m not sure this was in a good way. I felt as if the plot and narrative arc took a back seat to describing the magic system and the culture that accompanied it. While there was plenty of romance, action and character development, I wanted… more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I guess I’ll have to read the next books in the series to find out. Overall, my feeling about this book was a positive one.

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Book Review: Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness by David Casarett, MD

I will be the first to admit that it took me some time to get into this book — Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness by David Casarett. Usually by about page 50, I know whether to give up on a book. Even if the first few pages don’t capture my attention immediately, I have a hard time investing in it for the long haul. I am of the opinion that life is too short to waste on books you hate. However, this was not a book I hated, after all. 

Well, gee, that sounds like a ringing endorsement, doesn’t it? Persevere, dear reader, as I have more to say. This is one of those books that builds slowly, perhaps with a touch of clunkiness. But once I got into it, I was thoroughly charmed. 

This is a book about a Thai nurse ethicist named Ladarat Patalung. If that’s not intriguing to you by itself, then, well, you and I won’t get along. She solves ethical problems for her hospital, the only ethicist on staff. She spent a year in Chicago studying for this work, and took a touch of American attitude home with her. She’s a widow who expects to remain a spinster, but she has come to peace with that. She enjoys simple pleasures, like tea by the river. Her cat is named Maewfawbaahn. She relies on a textbook on medical ethics written by a Professor Dalrymple, and this American professor’s witticisms always inform her toughest decisions. See? Charming.

Until one day when a detective comes to see her with an ethical problem. It is not a good day for a detective with an ethical problem; Ladarat is in the midst of preparing for an inspection and trying to please a micromanaging boss. She’s also dealing with the ethical problems of her own job, namely, an American tourist who fell into a coma after an injury on an elephant ride, who was there on a honeymoon; as well as a strange, simple-minded farmer from the country who seems to be living in the stairwell of the waiting room. 

But Ladarat has a natural gift for detection, as she calls it, with a strong work ethic, and a keen eye for observation and the nuances of human behavior. It is also what makes her interested in ethical problems. The detective comes to her with a case that piques her curiosity — men have been showing up to her hospital dead, with the same name, accompanied by the same wife. She agrees to help. It doesn’t hurt that the detective is also attractive. 

This was a colorful book, with excellent character development. I felt like I was Ladarat’s best friend by the end of it, although it took me some time to warm up to her. When I finally did, I found her charming. It’s a fine line between what one considers charming and what one considers annoying, perhaps. 

Also intriguing in this book was the descriptions of Thai culture, personalities, and customs. What I found clunky about it at first was that sometimes it was handled in too much of an expository manner. But my interest in the culture soon took over and I found it a well-researched, convincing book. It turns out that the author is also a doctor who made frequent trips to Thailand, both for business and research. His insight into the medical field was also interesting and full of attention to detail. I admired that he brought out the standard of care exhibited by the Thai health care system and was very respectful toward Thai doctors and nurses, portraying the challenges and showing their humanity and strength of character. 

In short order, this was a fun mystery, a lighthearted read, and a delicious escape into the rich sights, smells and food of Thailand. This book really made me hungry for Thai food by the end of it, besides. If you’re looking for a pleasurable mystery with colorful characters and thoughtful attention to detail, this book is the ticket. 

As a side note, I would like to thank Corvallis Public Library for this book, because I have checked it out past the due date and they have waived fines for it on account of their closure. I will return it as soon as things get back to normal around here, whatever normal can be after all of this. I always find interesting books at my wonderfully stocked local library and I am grateful for them. 

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