Title: The Snow and the Darkness
Author: Matthew Warren Wilson
Jason doesn’t care that a snowstorm is coming. He spent $800 on plane tickets for him and his girlfriend Valerie to travel to Virginia, and he intends to use them. At the airport, Jason’s brother Frank and his girlfriend Lucy meet them. As Frank drives them home amid a freezing blizzard, an accident causes them to divert to a side road. There, Frank sees a lone man walking in the snow. He picks up the stranger out of a sense of compassion. But the stranger gives Jason a bad feeling. The worst seems to be confirmed when, on a pit stop, Lucy is attacked and their tires are slashed. But is it the work of the stranger? Jason thinks he saw… something… in the darkness. Can it be that a monster lurks in the snow?
I was on Amazon, buying some DVDs, when The Snow and the Darkness popped up on the suggestion screen. Normally, I’d download a sample, but this book happened to be free, so I “bought” it. Since it was a gloomy day and I was feeling tired, I decided to go through my books and see which one would be worth reading. The Snow and the Darkness was that lucky book.
The Snow and the Darkness is a horror novel that contains lots of gore, some of it very creative. But it has little in the way of scares. I felt disturbed once or twice in the beginning, but eventually the fountains of blood caused me to feel detached and repulsed. This was because I never felt more than a mild interest in the human characters. Rather than reveal deeper personalities and develop heroic traits, Jason and the survivors unraveled, and I found myself liking them less and less.
The character that came across as the most sympathetic was, ironically, the monster. The monster kept me reading, as I became curious about its origins, its relationship to the human villains, and its fate. Unfortunately, none of these things were answered in a way I found satisfying. Toward the end, the action was so bizarre and ridiculous it was almost comedic, and the ending put me in a bad mood.
As you may imagine, this book contains copious amounts of violence and gore, including mutilation and attempted rape. There is a healthy amount of cursing, mostly the f-word, and some sexual content and nudity.
(Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead.)
A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Title: The Guardian: A Dream-Hunter Novel
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon
Genre: Romance, Fantasy
After thousands of years of being tortured in hell, demigod Seth has one chance to escape his misery. His master, the primal god Noir, has captured Solin, god of dreams, who has information about a key that can grant great power or cause great destruction. Seth is put in charge of interrogating the Solin. Little does he know that Solin’s daughter, Lydia, has come to free him. Lydia is an immortal were-jackal with the power to walk into another person’s dreams. But she is no match for Seth, who quickly captures Lydia and offers Solin a trade--the missing key for Lydia’s life. Solin agrees, and Seth keeps Lydia as collateral. But when Seth gets to know Lydia, he finds himself drawn to her. And though Lydia would like nothing more than to hate the man who tortured her father, the more she learns the horrors of Seth’s past, the harder it is to keep her own creeping feelings at bay.
A friend recommended Sherrilyn Kenyon to me a while ago, but I hadn't really gotten around to checking her out. So when I spotted one of her books at the La Habra Library bookstore for the low, low cost of ten cents, I quickly jumped on the chance. I was not disappointed. I finished the book the same day I bought it. The Guardian was that addicting.
The Guardian is a romance book first, a fantasy book second. It has a kind of Beauty and the Beast vibe going, which I really like. If it were a film, it would be a hard R for cursing, sex, and, most prevalent, scenes of violent torture. (More on that later.)
Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
Title: The Sanctity of Sloth (Seven Deadly Sins)
Author: Greta Boris
Medieval anchorites hold a special fascination for Abby Travers. These pious women chose to entomb themselves in small cells built into cathedrals. In order to understand anchorites better--and write a best-selling book on the topic--Abby convinces her father to build her an anchorhold in Mission San Juan Capistrano (a famous historical landmark in California), where she will secretly hide for 40 days. This plan is ruined when Abby witnesses two men dumping a young girl right in front of her. When the girl dies, Abby is the only witness to the crime. But coming forward will mean sacrificing her book and exposing her family to ridicule. When Abby decides on a compromise, she sets in motion a series of events which will put everything she loves in danger.
I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this book; I think it was a recommendation. Regardless, the sample intrigued me. I had never heard of anchorites, but I found the topic fascinating. From the first chapter, Abby finds herself in a moral dilemma, and I was interested to know how it would resolve. So I bought the book and read it during my long road trip to California.
The Sanctity of Sloth delivered on what I wanted from this book. I learned a little about anchorites, and I watched Abby grow and change as she confronted the bizarre circumstance she found herself placed in. The story held my attention, and the prose was serviceable, if not super descriptive.
Title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Author: D. H. Lawrence
Genre: Classic, Fiction, Romance (?)
When Constance Chatterley’s husband Clifford returns from World War I paralyzed from the legs down, the two try to make the best of a bad situation. Clifford throws himself first into a literary career and later turns an industrial eye toward the mines that pepper his land. Although Connie does her best to support her husband, she falls into a depression. Something vital is missing from her life. She meets the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, a man who is reclusive and insolent, but who attracts Connie in a primitive way. They begin an affair, and through it, Connie finds out what it means to be truly alive.
From its title, Lady Chatterley’s Lover sounds like a melodrama. It’s not. This is a novel of ideas, and the story is the canvas upon which the ideas are stitched. What D. H. Lawrence really wants to do is posit a thesis as to the ailments of the modern world, namely, the disconnect mankind has toward their fellow man and the natural and the physical world, due to materialism, industrialization, and over-intellectualism. The solution, he posits, is a return to a more pagan time of “real men and real women,” which means sex.
I like my novels to have ideas in them; however, these ideas come at the expense of the story. You might think that Connie cheating on her wheelchair-bound husband would cause drama. It doesn’t. And the reason is simple: no one cares. No one cares about Clifford. No one cares about morals. No one cares about what society thinks. And as such, there are no consequences, only inconveniences. I’d say that this is a comment on the disconnect of people, but I’m not sure it is. I think the problem is that D. H. Lawrence became so enamored with his ideas he forgot about the characters.
Title: Found Dead in Arugula: Faith Interrupted a Cozy Mystery One
Author: Michelle Knowlden
Genre: Mystery, Short Story
When Faith Lisstrom Towe finds her friend and neighbor dead in her patch of arugula, the last thing she expect was to be charged with his murder. Now this gentle Quaker and gleaning enthusiast must set about finding the murderer if she wants to prove her innocence.
I know author Michelle Knowlden from my time living in Brea. She’s my friend. She always found the best new coffee shops or interesting specialty stores that sold different flavored olive oils. She is a generous, caring, and overall wonderful person, and I miss her. That’s why I bought this book. Because her writing reminds me of her.
Faith Lisstrom Towe, like Michelle, is also a warm and endearing person who happens to love quirky, healthy, and interesting foods. Faith, specifically, has an arugula patch in her garden, along with an amaranth plant and 19 varieties of beans. But it’s the arugula patch where her dear friend Darryl Arias is found dead. The investigation brings the scrutiny of the cops: Walter Steiger, a cynical former Sunday school student, and Henry Saito, the son of a man Faith once loved. The first few chapters beautifully tease out these relationships, with subtle notes of grief and longing. When the accusations start flying toward her, Faith struggles to keep her dignity intact.
Needless to say, I felt attached to Faith right from the start, and I was really rooting for her, not just to prove her innocence, but also to be seen for who she is and perhaps re-kindle the spark with her former lover, who is now conveniently a widower. Aside from that, I love the calm and steady flow of the words and the lovely description of the food.
However--and this is my main critique of the book--as soon as I started settling in for a nice, cozy read--boom, it was over. Only 5 chapters long, Found Dead in Arugula can be read, start to finish, during a single long lunch break. For certain people, this is a selling point, but I wanted more.
The mystery did conclude in a satisfying manner, but because it was so short, there was not enough room for twists and turns, red herrings and reveals. It did promise further adventures for Faith, which I, for one, would be happy to read more of. I’d just prefer a full novel, or perhaps a collection of “Faith-based” short stories, so as to have a meaty amount of writing to sink my teeth into.
Title: Suicidal Samurai: Meiji Mysteries Book One
Author: Sarah G. Rothman
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Action
In 1878, a tall Japanese cowboy in a black duster arrives at the port of Yokohama, Japan. Fifteen years ago, Makoto Mori’s family was killed by the Shinsengumi, the infamous corps of Shogun loyalists. Makoto survived by hiding in a ship bound for America. Now, in the Meiji era, he’s come home for revenge. But before Makoto can gather his bearings, he finds a dead man in his hotel, a man who has seemingly committed suicide. The dead man, Watanabe, was an associate of actress Helen Arkwright’s industrialist husband. While she plays detective, the bumbling policeman Kotaro Yamada thinks he knows who the real killer is: Makoto, “the man in black.” As Makoto, Helen, and Kotaro collide, they uncover a conspiracy that threatens the very heart of Japan.
I bought this book last June, when I was at the Local Author’s Showcase at Cumberland County Library, because of all the books for sale, Suicidal Samurai appealed most to me. I love mysteries and I love the Meiji era in Japan. In fact, I lived in Japan for three years and made it a point to study the bakumatsu, a chaotic period when the two hundred year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate came violently to an end and the stage was set for rapid modernization under the Meiji era. I read the first couple of the chapters, and the prose flowed smoothly. It didn’t seem like high literature, but I thought it might be a fun read.
Fifty pages in, the struggle began. There was nothing really wrong with Suicidal Samurai, but there was nothing really right, either. This could be me--I’m very picky--but when I read a book, I want to learn something, to feel something, to experience sights and sounds I can only imagine. When I read Suicidal Samurai, I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other. The prose was competent but did not have an artistic signature. I could see what was happening, but I did not get swept up in the moment. It was fine but not novel, and so I found myself getting bored.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.