Review: The Congregation by Aric Mitchell (@aricmitchell)

(Format Note: I read The Congregation as an ePub review copy kindly provided by the author.)

Now, I’ll say up front that I’m not usually one for horror. I normally stick to my tried-and-true genres of science fiction and fantasy whenever possible. The last time I branched out into horror was when I read Brian Keene’s City of the Dead and found myself both revolted and fascinated by the bleakness and absolute worst of humanity. The conflicting feelings were so strong that I’ve sort of skirted the genre since, but since I love indie fiction so much, I jumped at the chance to review Mr. Mitchell’s debut horror novel and give the genre another try.

The Congregation is dark, intense, disgusting, hideous, and bleak. In other words, it’s exactly what it set out to be.This isn’t horror in the traditional sense, with creepy things waiting to jump out of the shadows and lots and lots of suspense. This is somewhere halfway between the kind of horror where everything is implied and nothing really happens and the splatterpunk horror made popular in many cult zombie films. The setting is the Arizona-Mexico border, the time could be anywhere from the 80s to now (given that there’s very little modern technology referenced… I don’t even remember if anyone had a cell phone) with an ensemble cast in which only a couple of people are genuinely likeable and you expect them to die at every turn.

Beyond the blood and gore, though, there actually is a pretty cool story at the center of this novel, which is what I was hoping to find. It’s not just pointless violence and nasty-gross bad guys and possession, but an interesting take on an old story that really ties the whole thing together. It’s a competent narrative, for which I was pleasantly surprised.

There were times when the prose could have used a bit more editing and/or proof-reading,  mostly for tightness – some of which may be personal preference – but I noticed very few scattered typos and minor errors. They did not overly distract from the reading.

Overall I felt that The Congregation was a strong debut novel, from an indie author who’s probably got a lot of good things coming his way. For near-perfect professionalism I would suggest one more editing/proofing pass to reword the occasional confusing sentence, but since we live in a world of ebooks, I’m not deducting much for formatting/editing unless it’s egregious. The fact was that when I started reading it, I felt like I was watching a train wreck – it was not so much that I had to turn away, but instead stared, riveted by the horror until I hit the final page, the twist… and was satisfied.

Final Score:

Review: Once We Were Like Wolves by M. Todd Gallowglas

Once We Were Like Wolves

(Format Note: I read Once We Were Like Wolves via the Amazon Kindle Select Library, as I am an Amazon Prime member.)

Once We Were Like Wolves is the second book in the Tears of Rage series (see my review of First Chosen here).

Mr. Gallowglas turns everything up a notch in this second entry to his Celtic-feeling fantasy series. The world he has created is rich and vibrant, featuring: tricky gods, warring factions who all increasingly hate one another, ancient history that feels alive, and truly engaging characters that draw you straight into his narrative without letting go until the end.

Being that I am currently writing a ‘Book 2’ of my own, I entirely understand the difficulty involved in that process. One has to pull threads through from the first entry, while raising the stakes and expanding the scope but without sacrificing the feeling that made the first one connect with readers. It’s not just about continuing the narrative, it’s about extending the feelings you forged in Book 1 while simultaneously making everything grander.

I believe that Mr. Gallowglas succeeded on every point. We see our main characters begin to grow into the roles they have been forced into, the story introduces new twists and turns driving us toward the final conclusion while being immersed in frenetic action. Most of the second half of the book is a rocket-powered ride of genuinely enjoyable action, filled with imagery that’s still stuck in my head, slowing down just barely enough so that you don’t break your neck when you arrive at the end.

M. Todd Gallowglas is a writer to watch. Speaking as an author myself, his rich storytelling, excellent characterization and frankly amazing world-building makes him the kind of author that I would love to have a chance to collaborate with.

So, the final score for Once We Were Like Wolves:

For fantastic world-building, an engaging story, haunting imagery and excellent characterization. Also, for addressing (whether purposefully or not) my major issues with Book 1 and providing a story that gets going from Page 1. This is well-worth the read and you would be missing out if you didn’t.

Review: Halloween Jack & The Devil’s Gate by M. Todd Gallowglas (@MGallowglas)

(Note: I read HJ&TDG via the Amazon Prime KDP Select lending option. My reading device was a combination of Kindle for PC and Kindle for Android.)

To be up front, I read Halloween Jack because I am a huge fan of Gallowglas’ First Chosen, which incidentally was named one of my Top 5 Books of 2011. I am also what you might call ‘friendly’ with the author on Twitter, who’s a great guy and I always love to read his tweets.

Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate is, at its heart, a folk tale. It stirs up feelings of stories featuring other characters named Jack – like Jack & The Beanstalk, for example. This is a story of whimsy and hearkens back to an age of storytelling when history was a murky blur and legends ruled and had power.

In fact, the power of myth, story and legend is one of the central themes in HJ&tDG. The mythical figure Jack o’ the Lantern (who keeps the demons away from Earth, chasing them back into Hell after they are allowed to come out on Halloween) loses his power, and it’s up to his distant descendants to do something about it.

The characters are larger-than-life, as they are in any good folk tale. This tale of the triumph of human ingenuity over adversity is a rollicking good read from beginning to end. John and Moira are heroes you can really root for, and the supporting cast (including my favorite side character, the ogre named Mickey) lends great color to the story.

The story has a steampunk-esque feel to it – the Devil’s minions use something called Steam Soldiers as part of their world-conquering army, which seem to be Victorian-esque robots, though they are never described in great detail. There is a gas-lantern feeling about the whole story, which covers locations such as Boston, rural Ireland, London and even ranges all the way out to Texas. A folk tale with globe-trotting heroes is exactly what this story sets out to be, and it accomplishes that task with panache and daring.

I do have to deduct minor points for a few technical issues – namely, editing ones. More than once, there is a homonym confusion. The most prevalent one is “heals” to refer to the back of one’s feet – the correct word is, of course, “heels”. There was one other homonym confusion I noticed which I do not now remember.

On the more technical side, I only encountered one actual typo, and for a ~40,000 word work, that’s excellent.

One of the joys of indie publishing is that all of these things could easily be fixed with a quick edit and re-upload to the sites, and nothing is committed to a massive print run where these minor mistakes would be set upon parchment in indelible ink.

With that, I award the final score for Halloween Jack and the Devil’s Gate:

For a great and engaging folk-tale about the terrors of Halloween and the triumph of human ingenuity, marred only by a few minor editing mistakes, I award 4 1/2 stars.

Note: Because the story itself is fantastic and editing errors can be easily fixed, in places which do not allow half-star reviews, I will be awarding 5 stars.

Thanks once again to Mr. Gallowglas for a great story; I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in his Tears of Rage series!

Top 5 Books of 2011

Since I sort of inadvertently became a book reviewer this year, I thought I should go back and look at my list to see what my favorite books of 2011 were.

I haven’t done nearly as much reading as I would have liked since October, for two reasons: my budget got a lot tighter when the wife and I moved into our new house, and also because preparing for and then executing a NaNoWriMo strategy took up most of the time I would otherwise be reading. Now I’m working on planning and writing my next book very actively, which also leaves little time for reading, but I’m hoping to get back to doing more quite soon.

On a side note: this top 5 will only be out of the books I reviewed here on my blog this year, because that only seems fair. Also, I would like to note that actually ranking these was very difficult, since I enjoyed all of these books so much.

And yes, for those of you who are wondering: those are custom blue-manna themed star images designed in Photoshop by me.

…nobody was wondering, were they?

5

First Chosen by M. Todd Gallowglas
“First Chosen
is a strong entry into the indie fantasy market, helped significantly by its fascinating world and genuinely interesting characters.” (9/13/2011)

4

The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III
“This is not just one of the best independent books I have ever read; this is one of the finest fantasy novels (period, full stop, etc etc) that I have read in many years.” (9/16/2011)

3
The Hero Always Wins by Robert Eaton
“When the first major plot twist happened, I had been lulled by the fantasy tropes, and then I got hit in the face with a real, honest-to-god surprise. The last time I was actually surprised by a book was Changes by Jim Butcher, and that is some high praise right there.” (9/5/2011)

2
Scriber by Ben S. Dobson
“I really can’t describe in text how much I liked this book. The independent author community should welcome this new writer with open arms, because he will be lending credit to our movement for years to come.” (10/8/2011)

1
Ghost Story
by Jim Butcher
“If you’re already a fan of the series, you probably don’t need a review to tell you that this one isn’t to be missed. If you went looking for reviews anyway, you can rest assured that you really ought to buy this book.” (7/30/2011)

Review: REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is well-known as one of the near-future sci-fi/cyberpunk masters. I have always liked, if not necessarily loved, the books of his that I have read.

Much like the other books that I have read from his catalogue, REAMDE is an amazing central idea. Being an avid gamer myself, particularly in the massively-multiplayer space, the world of T’Rain is astounding in its implications – if pretty much entirely implausible. There’s never anything mentioned about the monstrous server infrastructure which would be required to run an ‘Earth-sized’ virtual world the way it is described. However, we accept that this is our nod to science-fiction, our central suspension of disbelief, and so it is allowed to carry on.

Around this central idea is a fairly standard modern-thriller plot, replete with many of the cliches we’re used to hearing about if you read or otherwise consume that sort of media. The crux of this plot, though, is the game (played by seemingly everyone in the world, save for a few of our main characters).

In the hands of a lesser author, this would be a snoozefest. Instead, Stephenson delivers powerful, strong and interesting characters which carry us through this suspenseful-thriller-plot without putting us to sleep. It is one of those strange confluences – even though you know as you’re reading that the tropes and cliches invoked by the story should be dull, they end up being engaging instead. This is a testament to the power of Stephenson’s characters, because even in the midst of a story at times burdened by unbelievable coincidences, background-dropping exposition and plot twists that might have come out of a desperate NaNo writer’s quest for more words, you can’t help but care about these characters and want to know what happens to them next.

Don’t get me wrong – I really liked this book. It was long enough that it stretched into three days of reading, for which I am exceedingly grateful. However, for those who are not drawn in by character drama or those who cannot appreciate the central video-game idea, this book would probably not be a recommendation.

If, like me, you love the MMORPG genre and characters are enough to keep you going through stories of the Russian mob and jihadists – or if you’re a massive Stephenson fan, you’ll definitely want to read this one.

Pros: Engaging characters, cool central idea, makes you want to know what happens

Cons: At times exposition-y, improbable plot twists, standard modern-thriller plot sometimes seems tacked on

Final Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Review: Grave Situation by Alex MacLean

(Note: Grave Situation was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway. It can be found on Amazon & Smashwords.)

Grave Situation is not the kind of book I normally pick up off the shelf. Generally speaking, I tend to stick to the realm of urban fantasy when looking for a detective-style yarn, although I do enjoy procedural crime TV shows on occasion.

The story is gripping, dark (dark dark dark) and draws you in even as you find yourself both fascinated and disgusted. Clearly, Mr. MacLean knows his crime fiction, and based on his apparent knowledge of the processes and procedures regarding everything from following a lead to an autopsy, may have first-hand experience. Everything was very convincing, and the plot expertly constructed. It is disturbing at times, with a relentlessly grim vision of the world and its main character, and achieves an excellent level of verisimilitude.

On the technical side, this book feels like one which is just teetering on the knife-edge of that polished, professional level that we’re all unconsciously looking for in a book. The formatting of the ePub version has no hyper-linked chapters, meaning that when I was using my online reader (Bookworm by O’Reilly) I was not able to close the window, as I would lose my place – and the one time that Firefox crashed on me, I had to manually click through the chapters in order to return to where I was. Also, I noticed a few minor typos, and one word confusion in a prominent place at the beginning of the book (‘except’ instead of ‘accept’).

Grave Situation is an engaging, gripping, psychological mystery that questions the wisdom of giving your whole life to your profession, and what happens when that whole house of cards comes crumbling down.

Final Score: 4 out of 5. Excellent story & just a few technical flaws.

Review: Scriber by Ben S. Dobson

(Note: I reviewed Scriber as a LibraryThing Member Giveaway win. I downloaded an ePub copy from Smashwords.com. The book is available at Amazon and Smashwords, and the author’s website can be found here.)

Scriber is, at its heart, a story about the value of history. The description of the book does it justice, so I will not repeat a basic summary in this review. The wrapping for the historical theme is an epic/heroic fantasy, filled with legends, monsters, betrayals, unexpected allies and true heroism.

The cast of characters, including the reluctant Dennon Lark, the stoic Bryndine Errynson, and her company of female warriors, is both charming and engaging. The fact that I can remember many of their names even though I finished reading it two days ago is a testament to just how strongly these characters come across.

The world itself reminds me of the history of Great Britain, with enough fantasy elements and well thought-out and intriguing world-building to truly pull you in. Being a fantasy world creator and fanatic myself, Mr. Dobson has truly created something wonderful here, and I hope he intends to visit it again. The history of his world is riveting, full of intrigue and danger, and is one of the more believable fantasy settings I have had the pleasure to come across.

The story has enough twists and turns to keep any lover of fantasy, problem-solving or discovery fascinated. It has almost a treasure-hunt vibe, and Dobson is not afraid to make the moments count and raise the stakes. Discoveries in the plot are well-timed, with nothing seeming rushed, and true surprises coming out of the shadows.

I really can’t describe in text how much I liked this book. The independent author community should welcome this new writer with open arms, because he will be lending credit to our movement for years to come.

Final Score: 5 out of 5. Buy and read this book – and do it now.