CLUBHOUSE: Reviews: Five Fantasy Novels Worth Reading

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

This week I was focused on publishing issue #10 of my magazine Polar Borealis.

You can find all ten issues and download any or all of them for free at:   Polar Borealis Issues

So, not having had time to write a review, for this week’s column I’m posting five book reviews I wrote a couple of years ago for my now defunct OBIR Magazine. These books deserve a wider readership!

MUCH ADO ABOUT MACBETH – by Randy McCharles

Published by Tyche Books, Alberta, Canada (2015)

Premise:

High School Drama teacher Paul Samson decides the students should perform Macbeth. He is reminded it is infamously cursed. He doesn’t believe in curses. But the three witches responsible for bewitching the play ever since it was written most certainly do. Fortunately they’re a bit bored, and rather lazy. The curse doesn’t amount to much. Till the Gorgon shows up. Well, not literally a Gorgon. The head of the PTA, Mrs. Caldwell, who is out to put an end to this “satanic” production. Still, Paul is clever. He figures he can win. Then supernatural elements begin to intrude and only he can see them. Kind of hard to teach when you’re convinced you’re going insane. The witches are annoyed. The manifestations are not of their doing. Something darker seems to be at work, something genuinely evil. Now the kid’s very lives may be at risk.

Review:

This is a pleasant romp. It’s not a realistic novel, the teenagers aren’t nearly as angst-ridden as real ones, and I’d say it is more situation-driven than character-driven. Nothing wrong with that when you’re spinning an entertaining tale, and I would have rated it as such, would have noted it was well worth reading if all you wanted to do was smile and chuckle for a few hours. But in my High School days, having once played Father Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and stunned the audience (they gasped) with my ferocity, not to mention my “daughter” whom I hurled to the stage floor (got a bit carried away), I found myself nodding in appreciation and nostalgia over this or that item of business. Still, I was resigned to a predictable ending and figured, the witches being a bit too obsessed with fast food, overall it was loads of fun but not quite great fun. Then came the ending. Blew me away. Diabolically clever. Brilliant. Put a smile on my lips.

CONCLUSION:

In hindsight, everything builds relentlessly towards the conclusion to the point of making the novel all of a piece. Which is why I upgraded my opinion to “Great Fun.” A seamless whole, unlike many a good tale ruined by weak endings. Not what happened here. I was quite taken with the ending.

You can check it out at: Much Ado About Macbeth

TOWER IN THE CROOKED WOOD – by Paula Johanson

Published by Five Rivers Publishing, Ontario, Canada (2014)

Premise:

Jenia is a 19 year-old arborist in her wattle & daub village in the narrow valley. One night she and her siblings are stolen by magic to work in a poisoned land to build a concrete tower for an evil wizard. Her brother breathes lime dust and dies. Transported a day later back to her village she sets out on a quest to find the wizard and enact her revenge. Her journey is somewhat handicapped by frequent magical returns to the wizard’s building sites to work as a whip-driven slave again and again. She finds this distracting.

Review:

At first I found this difficult to get into you. I’m literal-minded, or simple-minded, or less than minded, or something. A linear plot is what I like best, because that way I drift along with the flow like an invisible presence accompanying the protagonist. In this novel early chapters sometimes refer to things not yet described or even mentioned till someone says something like “There is no tower.” A declaration like that confuses me, pulls me out of the tale being told. Immediately I ask “What tower? Who said anything about a tower?” Maybe, as a reader, I’m supposed to ask these questions, but I personally prefer a process of revelation devoid of hints of flashbacks to come.

That said, the lush description of setting kept me reading further. It is “obviously” based on the west coast and offshore islands of British Columbia. You can tell from the description of sea wrack that Paula has walked along the beach many a time. She brings the setting vividly to life, as she does the way of life of the inhabitants of a village of wooden longhouses by the shore. This put me in mind of a famous non-fiction book titled The Adventures of Captain Jewett among the Nootka who, being the one man spared after the Nootka murdered the crew of a trading vessel whose metal fittings they coveted, became a slave for a number of years till he was able to make his escape. Here, in contrast, the natives of the village are presented in near utopian terms, though there are veiled references to slavery and tribal warfare (part of west coast culture in British Columbia) to maintain a subtle balance. Overall the villager’s way of life appears superbly adapted to the environment (also historically true of west coast tribes) and their closeness to nature is an ally against evil wizardry. Natural magic VS. unnatural magic.

Jenia’s tendency to forge ahead despite her confusion and ignorance of what is actually going on, a victim of life determined to gain the upper hand by being better than those who disdain her, probably resonates with many a teenager. Once the nature of her quest became clear I settled in to enjoy her interaction with other characters, especially Ronay, the Captain of the Guard from a medieval Hold, whose mission is to capture her and bring her back to tend neglected orchards, but whose love for her enmeshes him deeper and deeper into her quest absolutely against his will. Their relationship parries and thrusts are probably another thing teenagers can identify with, and to a somewhat worldly adult is both nostalgic and amusing.

The Wizard Krummholz is a distant, unknowable force rather than a character. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how he could be built up, given that Jenia never interacts with him. Her quest is a crusade against evil, an evil meant to reflect the difficulties every teenager confronts when attempting to enter the adult world. Personifying that evil and consequently shifting the focus away from Jenia might lessen the impact of the book on its younger readers. So, I figure Paula chose not to explain the villain’s motivation or elaborate his character in order to keep the focus on Jenia’s point of view. This strategy works.

CONCLUSION:

As an adult, I’m just as confused about my own motivation and purpose as I was when I was a teenager, so I found it easy to identify with Jenia’s perseverance in her quest. And, being a west coaster, I particularly appreciated the wonderful description of the setting. I enjoyed this book.

Check it out here: Tower in the Crooked Wood

THE APPARITION TRAIL – by Lisa Smedman

Published by Tesseracts Books/Hades Publications/Edge Books (2004)

Premise:

In 1877 a large comet strikes the Moon and alters its speed of rotation. Slowly the traditional face slips away and a more heavily cratered, previously unknown face begins to appear. All at once there are breakthroughs in the sciences of perpetual motion and the paranormal. Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn of the North West Mounted Police (as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were then known) appreciates steam power being replaced by perpetual engines, especially in the realm of flying machines, but is a bit slow on the uptake in observing the mystical beliefs of the prairie Indians taking concrete form. Seems everyone’s former “magic” is becoming real. Settlers begin disappearing. The Manitou stone is missing. And what’s with the resurgence of Buffalo herds roaming the land? Something odd is afoot. Something dangerous.

Review:

This delightful mystery is solidly grounded on historical research. Every major character, from Chief Poundmaker to Old Man Stone, from Wandering Spirit to Four Finger Pete, even Grayburn himself, were alive in 1884, their paths intertwined. Only Arthur Chambers is fictional, but he is typical of the members of his quite genuine Society of Psychical Research (founded in 1882). Even the sacred boulder, the Manitou Stone, is real, stolen by a Methodist Missionary (one of the first people to disappear in this novel) and eventually shipped to a Methodist Church back east where it still resides. (They should give it back, methinks.) The legendary Sam Steele—the most famous “Mountie” of all time—forms a paranormal investigation unit and both Grayburn and Chambers join the team, much to their peril.

I’m a sucker for “what if?” alternate history novels and this is a good one. Grayburn, despite his inborn precognitive powers, is reluctant to accept the existence of the “new” magic—devout shamans being able to literally transform into their spirit animals for instance—but his own logic and common sense, not to mention confrontations with said spirit critters, leads him inexorably deeper and deeper into a complex conspiracy threatening the lives of every settler if it succeeds, and the lives of every native Indian if it fails. Reminiscent of the famous “Ghost Dance Religion,” a new cult is uniting previously warring tribes to common purpose, only in this case prophecy will be made very real if it is not stopped in time.

CONCLUSION:

Much attention is paid to the historical attitudes of both whites and Indians, in bringing their mental culture (assumptions, misunderstandings, justifications, etc.) to life, and this aids the overall impression of authenticity. So much so I think it would make excellent required reading in High Schools, in part because it portrays the reality of the period very well (albeit subliminally beneath the magic), and because it’s a ripping good yarn. A pleasure reading it. Loads of fun.

You can check it out here:   The Apparition Trail

BLACK BOTTLE MAN – by Craig Russell

Publisher: Great Plains Teen Fiction (2012) – Find it here

AWARDS:

Winner — Gold Medal Moonbeam Awards

Finalist — Aurora Awards

Finalist — McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award

A CCBC Best Books for Kids and Teens selection

Premise:

Two childless prairie-farm women resort to the “Black Bottle” and black magic signs to become pregnant. A few days later Mr. Scratch, “The Black Bottle man,” rides up to their farms to close the deal. He’ll have their souls, and those of their menfolk, unless they can come up with a champion to defeat him. That’s just for starters because, being rather bored, he likes to complicate his contracts as much as possible. So if he’s bored, why does he keep at his job and not call it quits? Turns out his true motivation is not something he can go back on.

Review:

I always enjoy being taken back into the past, and this novel jumps me back into my family’s past, for my Great Grandparents traveled to Alberta in the last of the Red River wagon trains before the railway began operating. In fact, my Great Granddad became the first stationmaster in Alberta (can’t remember where exactly, though as a kid I remember seeing his photo on display in a museum outside Calgary where an old locomotive was running and an old stationhouse, possibly his, had been re-erected from its original site).

For instance, this bit struck me forcibly:

“People today can hardly credit how much time it took back then just to keep body and soul together: split wood to feed the stove, to heat the water, to make the porridge, just to have breakfast. More physical effort went into making that bowl of cereal than most folks now expend in a full day at the office.”

This spoke to me, or rather it reminded me of the stories my Grandmother used to tell me about growing up on the Prairies. Granted, the beginning of this book takes place in the mid-twenties, but farm folk were still basically living pioneer style, and the coming Great Depression set modernization back on its heels for a long while. The “pioneer” past not as long ago as some people think.

And here’s a quote that practically brought tears to my eyes, for it brought my Great Grandmother, whom I never met, vividly to life:

“People’s bodies weren’t on display in those days the way they are now. Clothes covered everything save face and hands, even when the mercury climbed to a hundred or more. And as far as marital relations were concerned, there was many a man who never saw the bare body of a wife who gave him eight or ten children.”

My Grandmother always said her mother’s proudest boast was that no man had ever seen her naked, not her husband, not even her doctor. Yet she had numerous children (half a dozen I think). Different times.

Oh, and she lived to be more than a hundred. Credited a shot of brandy every night just before she went to bed. Hmmm, could be. But I digress.

One quote impacted me personally.

“Then a hot breath of wind would find its own tail and a dust devil would stir … he and his uncle would race, each trying to be the first to catch a piece of straw out of the spinning wind … most times Uncle Thompson won the race. He’d stand in the dust devil with his hair dancing and his eyes closed to keep the dirt out, reaching up to grasp a golden piece of straw.”

I thought I was the only kid on earth to ever catch a dust devil. Evidently not.

A hot summer day in Ottawa circa 1959. I was fooling around in an abandoned farm a block from my home. There was a low ridge of dried earth cutting across a field. Suddenly a dust devil materialized, slowly dancing the length of the dirt path atop the peak of the ridge. Acting on impulse, I raced forward as fast as my little legs would carry me and for ten or so glorious seconds I was running inside the gritty blast of the dust devil as it pranced along the ridge. My presence made no difference to the intensity of its whirling. I imagined that an observer would see me as the “Tasmanian Devil” of Warner Brother cartoon fame. Suddenly the dust devil darted to the right and dissipated when it struck some stagnant waste water, leaving me covered in grit and a memory that would last a lifetime.

CONCLUSION:

To sum up, I really, really enjoyed this. Read it in one sitting. I don’t even like farms. The Prairies, apart from the Hoodoos and the dinosaur fossils, I find boring, but this novel awakened my nostalgia for my Great Grandparent’s life experiences, and both the premise and the plot I found utterly fascinating.

You can check it out here: Black Bottle Man

SIGNAL TO NOISE – by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by Solaris/Rebellion Publishing (2015) – Find it here

AWARDS:

Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2016)

Sunburst Award Nominee for Novel (2016)

British Fantasy award Nominee for Novel (2016)

Prix Aurora Award Nominee for Novel (2016,

Copper Cylinder Award for Adult (2016)

Premise: 

Being a teenager is bad enough, but being a teenager rejected and derided by all the cool teenagers is a torment from hell. Fortunately, three such loners (who know they are losers) find each other and form a close bond. Meche, the ordinary girl with a brilliant mind and a passion for recorded music, Daniela, the overweight romantic girl who wishes her life was more like a romance novel, and Sebastian, the tall and skinny guy who likes to read and just wants to get laid, all have one thing in common, a desire to be accepted, admired and approved. Typical teenagers: over-sensitive, self-conscious, hard on themselves, and prone to second-guessing and wishful thinking. Not at all like us adults, no sir. Besides, adults never regret the turmoil of our youth, do we? We’re too mature for that. Right.

In 2009 Meche, who is earning a living in Norway, returns home to Mexico City for her father’s funeral. She’s okay with seeing Daniela again, but she’s dead set against running into Sebastian because she’s never forgiven him for what happened in 1988, the year she discovered the magic in music and the three of them set about casting spells to improve their lives. Ask any teenager. Something always goes wrong.

Review:

Totally absorbing and hard to put down. I can’t recall ever reading anything as alert to the subtle nuances of a teenage mindset than this novel. It’s fair to say I identify with Sebastian. Perhaps unusual to say I also identify with Daniela, Meche, Meche’s parents, and darn near every other character in the book, as well as Mexico City itself. It was a sprawling monster when I visited in 1981. Can’t imagine what it was like later. Wait, yes I can, because the author conveys the tone of the city, and the characters, in small, incremental steps adding layer upon layer of complexity which makes the characters and the setting absolutely convincing regardless of whether the chapter in question is set in 1988 or 2009.

There’s a simple explanation. This is a novel. I mean, a novel novel, a literary novel in the proper sense, a novel with intense focus on subtleties of character, minor but telling details, and evocative, ever-shifting mood. More so than the average idea-driven genre novel.

In fact you could strip out the fantasy element entirely and it would still be a good read. But with the magic the book is a great read. I think because the character’s stumbling yet absurdly confident approach to learning how best to utilize their newfound power without buggering things up (which of course they do) amplifies and clarifies their struggle to fulfill their teenage longings beyond normal levels of obsession. And yet, for all that, this is a very subtle book. One that gets under your skin (at least, if you still remember what it was like to be a teenager.)

CONCLUSION:

I have to confess I started reading out of a sense of duty. Silvia is a very important part of the Canadian Independent Publishing scene and considered a very good writer, so I figured I had to read this book, even though the basic premise is far removed from my normal reading tastes. I was reluctant to start reading, but soon found it near impossible to stop. Damn good book.

You can check it out here: Signal to Noise

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