The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli

It is a novella with the paramount importance of three Ls: love, life, and loss. The setting is unbelievably believable and the atmosphere is nearly tangible. The author manages to modernize the Gothic concept of a castle turning it into an outpost of death, life, desperation, help and hope.
The narration is powerfully gruesome and very dark, but the seemingly brusque character is, in fact, vulnerable and full of compassion. His callous shell harbors a passionate and kind heart. He is in a semi-exile, grieving the loss of his child. His self-imposed madness when the character forgets his true name, alienates from his wife, and lives on the massive premises of a hospital, called the Castle, is quite belieavable despite the seeming incongruity. In his voluntary incarceration in this casle, he saves the family from an abusive husband, helps other patients, and gives us an excellent lesson of compassion and kindness.
The novella also conveys a very powerful social message. It is not the leading one, but it is clearly visible and read between the lines.
If you like Robin Hood-like characters that fight for justice for others and eventually find peace for themselves, if you enjoy the passages with virtually haunting atmosphere, this novella is for you. It is a well-written oxymoron of a compassionate character and hard-boiled dark fiction

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Filed under Book Review, ebook, Gothic, Hardboiled, Horror, Indie, Noir, Uncategorized

Hunting Mr. Old Sack Bones by A.D. Bloom

I do feel bad leaving a two-star review, but the two stories in this ebook do not deserve more. The first one is typo-ridden with the mistakes that my Remedial English students are prone to make. The other one is cleaner when it comes to language, but the stories are ‘too conceptual’. I have nothing against conceptual art and conceptual literature. Moreover, I find it challenging, intriguing, and stimulating.
This is not the case. I appreciate the author’s diversity in the selected topics for his stories, and I also like the social criticism his second story conveys: we as human beings, even if we are warned beforehand about our demise, will ignore the message and indulge ourselves in the decadent life.
But these are the only positive messages. The stories are so small that they look like sketches, so we are not talking about character or plot development. I am not complaining about the size. Many writers write sketches that have a powerful aftertaste and are beautifully written. Again, I feel bad leaving a negative feedback, but these two stories do not even fit into the sketch category. Oh, well, I was beguiled and tricked by the Amazon review and the intriguing title because I love discovering self-published authors. This was not the discovery with the feeling of accomplishment.

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Horror, Self-publishing

The Black Bird by R.L. McCallum

Being mired in my chunky and long novels, I have nearly forgotten the pleasures of reading a novella, especially a novella so masterfully written. This novel was again my foray into the world of indie and self-published authors, and overall, I am happy with my choice.

The novella is a stylish compilation of recognizable moves in the horror genre and allusions to the very foundations of this genre. It is also a deftly written Victorian period piece with the language imitating the famous early ghost stories. The imitation goes beyond the level of wording and vocabulary, but rather successfully attempts to follow the syntax and even ideas and values of this epoch. Some fans of the splatterpunk might consider this a softie, a sub par performance, BUT I FOR ONE really enjoyed its deftly linguistic fabric of the text.

The author also masterfully used recognizable allusions (allusions to Poe, the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, and definitely the image of the raven). Ravens conventionally are used to create the unpleasant murky feeling of something sinister but hardly tangible. This raven gains even more power and turns not only into the harbinger of disaster but also the extension of something immeasurably darker.

Allusions to Jack the Ripper are key if you want to create this dark, Gothic world of Victorian England. The ever-used mystery of the serial killer is also given a new supernatural explanation in this novella. The Gothic setting of the novel is another commendable point. The aura of an old, ramshackle, dilapidated, haunting place perfectly recreates the chilling atmosphere of the Wuthering Heights.

The most important thing is that the horror, experienced by Mr. James, the protagonist, and a famous poet, could have a logical explanation of him being addicted to the laudanum with the subsequent hallucinations and gradual descent into madness. It could be explained, but who would settle for the banal explanation of hallucinations caused by this drug. It is indeed much more exciting to entertain a darker idea of the raven as the embodiment of evil, of a beautiful woman, who is THE killer and whose skin is as cold and cadaverous as of a corpse.

Dreams and nightmares in this novella are very visionary in their nature, but also very Victorianesque when they were interpreted as a certain affinity bond with the inexplicable part of our nature, our subconscious mind, and our dangerous potential to cross the line of normalcy and madness. I really enjoyed the Victorian interpretation of madness as a dangerous and a dark gift into which Mr. James tapped to create his poems with the eerie and otherworldly feeling.

Overall, a novella that deserves four stars for its stylish intertextual literary content and a really spooky and eerie atmosphere. A job very well done!

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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Gothic, Historical Fiction, Horror, Indie, Victorian

The Light at the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector

As a voracious reader, I always try to explore fringe genres, but my heart is always with the well-written books with believable and fleshed-out characters, human drama and serious choices both characters and readers have to make.

Horror is one of those borderline cases when an exceptionally well-written novel with flawed but interesting characters and an insight into the psyche of a human mind cam enthrall me. Unfortunately, I believe this is not a case. I gave this novel three stars, but this rating is only valid within the frame of splatterpunk fiction (a literary genre characterized by the explicit description of horrific or violent scenes). In the bigger frame of fiction, this novel deserves only two stars.

The novel is definitely abundant in scenes of violence and gore, and some of them are truly repulsive if you look at them objectively. On the other hand, everyone knows, objectivity in portrayal is not the most laudable adjective. The subjective perception is everything in fiction. The more you can relate to it, the more memorable the writing is. This is what this book lack. Despite the gory and grisly scenes, they did not stir any feelings of fear or repulsion. The setting was a traditional one for a vampire story. I am very well aware that we do not have many choices when it comes to the time of the events in a horror novel, but the nights in the novel, although they harbor ugly scenes of murder, do not create the natural spooky, creepy feeling. Night is just a time when most of the events took place in this novel, and the dark enigma of the wee hours till dawn is totally non-existent.

The other thing that is only attributable to the zeitgeist, but still quite unpleasant is homophobia. The evolving values of today’s world warp my interpretation and leave the tangy, bitter and unpleasant sediment in the wake of the book.

To counterbalance my negative arguments, I still want to justify my choice for three stars (again only within the frame of this genre). First and foremost, the vampire Rudy is a nasty, ugly being from the very beginning. He does not suffer from the complex of modern vampirism – I am a vampire, but I want to be a good guy, and I am conflicted, and my soul is torn apart by my intentions and true identity. He is rotten through and through. There is not a morsel of goodness in him. This is how monsters should look like.

Surprisingly, the books also provides an interesting insight into the philosophy of nihilism. Although the premise for this view is interesting and appealing (our world is non-cognizant, and we will never learn what is good and what is evil, and justice is not inherent in our universe; thus there is no point in trying to better the world around us), but the development of this idea leads to acts of terrorism and extremism as well as to the utmost egotism and gratification. This is clearly manifested in Rudy, the human being and the vampire. It is rarely a case when such a complex idea could be clearly explained and put into the appropriate context.

The most memorable moment in the novel has nothing to do with the imaginary horror, but with our human history. The character with the Holocaust past narrates the story of his experience, and this is the most disturbing moment in the whole books. I find it both enlightening and nonsensical. It is a story that is harrowing in its nature due to our own ability to acquiesce to the dogma and doctrine of ethnic cleansing; a reminder of that kind even in the most grotesque context is always a necessary reading experience. Conversely, the setting for the Holocaust survival story is the most bizarre one – who would anticipate this story in a horror novel about vampires? Consequently, it does contribute to the jarring discrepancy of ideas within the book. 

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Filed under Book Review, Holocaust, Horror, Splatterpunk, Uncategorized, Vampire

Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

Speaks the Nightbird, Speaks Robert McCammon! The novel ‘Speaks the Nightbird’ celebrates McCammons’ return to the big publishing game after nearly a decade of silence when his contract with the previous publisher was terminated, and what a lovely celebration it it.
The novel that is classified as a historical mystery is actually a book that defies and expands the constraints of this genre. This is the third McCammon’s novel that I have read, and he is yet to disappoint me. This delightful novel for me reveals McCammon’s Southerness. I live in the South, and as an immigrant I do see many things I personally strongly dislike, but the South McCammon loves is the genteel South, the South of a true colonial style. Do not be confused – he does not show the South in the romanticized, biased way – slavery and bigotry, evangelical loud proselytizing and duplicity, humid unbearable climate with the swampy terrain, all these ingredients are there, but the narrative itself and the way people and places are described and shown conveys the unmistakable feeling of finesse and refined gentility of the old Colonial South.

The mystery per se is not a brilliant mind-boggling puzzle, and the suspect is clearly identified by the narrator quite early in the novel although his guilt and his role of a culprit are questioned throughout the novel. The quest to find the truth, on the other hand, reveals the deeper verity and other ugly discoveries. The seemingly ideal community eventually drops all the pretenses and turns into a nest of wasps. This image is only accentuated by the actual nest of wasps in one of the households with the most vitriolic and poisonous housewives literature has ever offered.

This plot-forming mystery eventually turns into a gruesome travesty, an orchestrated performance of malicious mind. And again, the troupe of actors underlines and spices up this idea of travesty, performance, duplicity, and double identities. If this is not enough for a doubting reader, the book that is constantly being read by our protagonist, Matthew Corbett, is about theatrical performances in England. The mystery of witchcraft turns into the mystery of murders, greed, and envy. It also challenges many of the characters to question their values and even question God. It also surprisingly forges the goodness in people in whom this goodness is present even if they dislike each other. I think namely this feeling of respect of other people, even disagreeable, gives this books this elusive feeling of gentility.

As any good book, it is not only an entertaining story, it is a story about painful losses (both present and past), redemption, forgiving love, and an unobtrusive social commentary. The passages about the slaves were among the most powerful ones in the book, and although these passages were not tremendously instrumental in the plot development, they are still very memorable.

The review would not be complete without the remarks about the narrator. I listen to the audio book, and sound-wise, it was a brilliant performance. Edoardo Bellerini manages to convey the inflections of many characters, both male and female; likewise, he relays the ambiance of multiple settings: the tavern, the official dinners, the jail, the untamed landscape, everything seems virtually tangible in this audio version.

What’s the conclusion – if you read the historical mystery for the sake of the mystery and the brilliance of human deduction, this book might disappoint you. If you look for a read about emotional maturity as a rite of passage for a young gentleman, about the journey of self-discovery, love, and loss, and revaluation of your personal stand, if you want to learn about the multicultural perspective during the early days of colonial life, if you enjoy patient and pleasant reads, this is the book for that occasion. I know one thing for sure – the next book in the series will be purchased as soon as possible

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction, Historical Mystery, Mystery

Jack Dawkins by Charlton Daines

This is my first experience reading the self-published novel, and I believe it was a successful attempt. I sincerely and responsibly state that I enjoyed reading this novel. It was not a breathtaking read, neither was is a classy read when you enjoy and devour the literary dessert of words, phrases, and sentences, but not all books are created to be literary masterpieces. Some of them serve a laudable and pragmatic function to entertain its readers. This novel surely does.
The premise of the novel is the return and the new leash of life for one of the fringe but memorable Dickens characters, Jack Dawkins, also known as Artful Dodger.
Jack Dawkins tries to reestablish himself in the society and finds himself split between two societies: the underworld of London thieves, prostitutes, muggers, kidnappers, and other shadowy characters, and the world of the genteel and rich society, the upper crust. He even entertains the idea of being a gentleman thief. Eventually, he does have to make a choice, but it is upon the reader to decide how plausible his choice is.
The character of Jack Dawkins is a flawed character that is always torn between his natural impulses to be good and his desires to practice his superb skills. It might seem strange, but namely this duality is one of his most sympathetic features. The spontaneous combination of doing good things and being remorseful with his permanent desire to pick pockets is truly authentic.

I also believe that though the book is highly entertaining, it provides an interesting historical insight into the underworld and does convey a certain social message: the book reflects the societal structure of nineteenth-century London, the indulgent and decadent life of rich students, the dietary habits, means of transportation, and other facts that create a certain feeling of historicity.

On the other hand, there are things in this novel that prevented me from giving four stars. I refuse to believe that the life of one person could be so intensely built on serendipity: how he meets Oliver, Tom, and the policeman who eventually recognizes him, how other characters’ lives are interwoven, all this is highly questionable. For the situation to develop the way it developed in the book, too many things should come together, and they did, which, in my opinion, is a stretch.
Another weakness is the choice of words. The author makes a laudable effort and painstakingly diffuses the text with the professional argot of thieves, but he refuses to create a minuscule semblance to the Victorian discourse. Conversely, I have to admit that the author is definitely well-versed, but his choice of words, though elaborate, reflects his position as a modern man of letters. Again, some of those high-brow words and verbal moves did look sparklingly beautiful, hilarious, and even tongue-in-cheeky when they were used in the mundane context.
All in all, I spend a couple of enjoyable evenings in the company of this novel. If you want to know more about the dark underbelly of London in the 19th century and, surprisingly, about the ambrosial desserts, this is the book for you.

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Filed under Book Review, Dickens, ebook, Historical Fiction, Neo-Victorian, Self-publishing

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi is one of the must-read books. This necessity does not arise from its amazing plot, excellent multidimensional characters, intriguing twists, and etc. This reading necessity can be compared to a polio vaccine. It is something that must be done. In the hectic life of the twenty first century and brain-numbing historical ignorance, the biggest cultural and moral disease the humanity ever experienced – The Holocaust- seems to be sidelined in the modern world. Yes, people know vaguely something about it; yes, they remember it was a crime against a certain ethnic group, but the personal side of the these events is lost. It might be a certain blessing to live in the world where MAJOR WAR has not been waged for more than sixty years, and the immediacy of this human catastrophe is not razor sharp any more, but does it guarantee that we will not repeat the same mistake again, that we will not be brainwashed and bigoted to the level of intolerance and hatred?Unfortunately the humanity has a bad history of repeating its own mistakes, and this book is a powerful warning message to avoid the same abysmal path of self-destruction.

The author writes about his personal experience, but he does not turn this book into memoirs, and I am not sure whether this term is applicable. Memoirs have a feeling of completeness and achievement while this book is not about life, it is about anti-life. It is both personal and impersonal, and these two ideas are intermingled in this book. The harrowing experience of dehumanizing life in the concentration camp turns people into human shells that are driven by a simple basic instinct to survive. The depravity of life is so immense that some people lose this very basic instinct and even anticipate the so-called ‘selection’, a process of selecting for the gas champers if they are too weak to carry on.

The author switches the perspective of narrating all the time – sometimes it is personal and poignant, like the beginning and the end, sometimes it is impersonal as if he steps aside from the personal exposure and observes the life in the huge ant house. This life still goes on and evinces all elements of a regular human community – the survival of the fittest, the competition, the desire to get the better lot even if the end is visibly the same for the most of them.

Staying human is both impossible and dangerous in the camp. Being human will not numb the pain, will aggravate the feelings of loss, angst, shattered and forgotten dreams, the feeling of accomplishment. On the other hand, all this is not totally lost, but only hidden somewhere very deep within, and the process can be easily reversed as soon as people are placed in semi-decent conditions (Ka-Be, also known as hospitals for the convalescing). One might argue that this was impossible in the camp where everyone was doomed to die, but death would be just too easy without exhausting and human-spirit-sucking toil and labor, so anyone who could be used as a slave were treated only to kill them later in the most dehumanizing manner.

The narration in the book is so powerful that it sometimes reaches the transcendental level of clarity and scientific objectivity. This feeling is only heightened by the present-tense that adds the edge of immediacy, incompleteness, and intensity. Was it it a pleasant read? Definitely no. Was it a necessary read? Most definitely yes.

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Filed under Book Review, Holocaust, nonfiction