BOOK REVIEW: “Damnificados” BY JJ Amaworo Wilson

Damnificados is loosely based on the real-life occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, the Tower of David. In this fictional version, 600 “damnificados”—vagabonds and misfits—take over an abandoned urban tower and set up a community complete with schools, stores, beauty salons, bakeries, and a rag-tag defensive militia. Their always heroic (and often hilarious) struggle for survival and dignity pits them against corrupt police, the brutal military, and the tyrannical “owners.” Taking place in an unnamed country at an unspecified time, the novel has elements of magical realism: avenging wolves, biblical floods, massacres involving multilingual ghosts, arrow showers falling to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth, and a trash truck acting as a Trojan horse.

Steering away from my normal track of horror and dark fantasy, I recently read Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson. Published back in 2016, this heavily fictionalized story based on true events delves deep into magical realism. It’s a mix of humor, human drama, and fantastical events that is entertaining if not flawed.

cover art of book damnificadosDamnificados essentially tells its readers a legend. The legendary tale of Nacho Morales and his struggle to keep together a community of people after they successfully take over an abandoned tower in the center of a city. The story is told in present tense which lends an urgency to the writing. Wilson’s prose is excellent, especially his detailed descriptions of locations and events. I found myself laughing and re-reading certain sections simply for the pure enjoyment of the printed words.

On the flip side, the book’s pacing is tough. For a novel clocking in at under 300 pages, some portions drag heavily. New characters are constantly introduced and there are a few world-building subplots that were unnecessary, if not entertaining. The overall plot was straight forward and could probably have been told as a novella, were it not for the elaborate descriptions and prosaic experimentation (one chapter features a 4-page long sentence). As the saying goes “middles are hard”, but I’m glad I put up through the minor slog to reach what was a satisfying ending.

As someone who has written satire, I appreciated Wilson’s often tongue-in-cheek tone and the positive message he portrays even in light of the struggles the characters face in his book.

If you’re at all interested in political fiction, magical realism, or stories told as legends, you may want to grab Damnificados and give it a read.

What I Liked:

  • Excellent prose and voice.
  • Wilson’s humor and effective political satire
  • Literary experimentation

 

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Middle section dragged
  • Plot/story was sacrificed in spots for purple prose
  • Some members of ensemble cast felt underdeveloped
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BOOK REVIEW: “The King In Yellow” By Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895. The book is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural. There are ten stories, the first four of which (“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign”) mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.

 

I recently borrowed an audio book of The King in Yellow (support your local library!) as part of my Halloween reading list. I’d heard so much about it, and how it inspired many other works of horror I enjoy. I felt like Halloween season was the right time to check it out.

Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it.

king_aceI’ve never read (or listened to) a book that I was so conflicted about. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and early weird fiction from the turn of the 20th century. I also enjoy hoity-toity literature with complex prose, so The King in Yellow should be right up my alley.

Here’s the thing: I loved the first half of the book. It was great! The stories weave semi-related tales of dread and supernatural menace, interspersing lines from the frightening play that is the common thread between them.

The second half of the book is what lost me. Chambers totally changes gears and spins tales about bourgeoisie life in wartime France. This portion of the book supposedly “evokes thematic feelings of dread”, but if they are in there, I couldn’t find them. There are few if any references to the King, and a thematic shift from horror to romance and longing. I kept waiting for something to tie the second half back to the first, but it never happened (the ending arguably has a call back to the first story, but its weak). The prose and language remains excellent, but begins to ramble and turn purple, eschewing story-telling for overly dramatic description. I was disappointed since I enjoyed the first half so much.

Can I recommend this book? Sort of.

If you’re a fan of “cosmic horror” (H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales) or video games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls then the first half of The King in Yellow is in your wheelhouse. “The Repairer of Reputations” up through “The Yellow Sign” along with “The Prophet’s Paradise” are must reads. Everything else can be ignored, especially the final three installments that begin with “The Street of the First Shell”. Fortunately, the nature of the book (short stories) allows it to be consumed this way.

I can see how portions of Chambers’ work inspired so many future writers and artists. The King in Yellow was certainly a groundbreaking work for its time, and portions of it still hold up today.

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Initial quartet of stories are excellent works of classic horror
  • Fanciful, engaging prose
  • Themes of madness and existential dread

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Inconsistent themes in latter half of book
  • Latter stories are just American bohemians bemoaning their upper-middle class lifestyle while in Paris. Extremely boring.

BOOK REVIEW: “BLACK GOD’S KISS” By C.L. Moore

First published in the pages of Weird Tales in 1934, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry is the first significant female sword and sorcery protagonist and one of the most exciting and evocative characters the genre has ever known. Published alongside seminal works by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the six classic fantasy tales included in this volume easily stand the test of time and often overshadow the storytelling power and emotional impact of stories by Moore’s more famous contemporaries. A seminal work from one of fantasy’s most important authors, Black God’s Kiss is an essential addition to any fantasy library.

I’m continuing my journey down the rabbit hole of “sword & sorcery” fantasy from the early 20th century. While mostly dominated by Conan the Barbarian, I picked up Black God’s Kiss on recommendation from Reddit  listing it as a “must read”. Is it a must for fans of the genre? Absolutely.

paizo_black_gods_kissJirel of Joiry is a fantastic protagonist. Unlike most of the heroes (anti-heroes?) of this grim subgenre, she is well rounded. She’s a fierce warrior, but she displays a variety of emotions the basic trio of rage, arrogance, and lust that her male peers default to. Questioning her own motives and decisions, as well as her own capabilities make her a flawed and relatable heroine. She’s larger-than-life, but far more humanized and less of a “force of nature” than Conan, Kull, or any of the Burroughs archetypes.

Set in a fictionalized version of France, Moore’s writing is grounded in a familiar geography. Jirel’s adventures take her to fantastical lands and alternate dimensions, but she always returns home to her fortress tower.This re-occurring thematic element along with the French setting adds a tangible, central anchor to some otherwise wild stories. It also plays well with the romantic elements that wind through most of the stories.

The tales are fairly consistent, with Jirel facing off against different antagonists and risking her life for conquest, honor, and revenge. Moore’s prose is dense, as was the style of the time, and the word repetition wavers between poetic and redundant. These are not breezy reads. People in the 1930’s clearly read at a higher grade level.

“Quest Of The Starstone” (the 6th and final installment in the book) is the only entry I really didn’t care for. It focuses on Northwest Smith, another of Moore’s heroic creations, as the protagonist and Jirel is a supporting character. It’s what they refer to as a “cross-over” in the comic book industry, and just felt a bit trite, since Moore dis-empowered Jirel to give one of her other characters the limelight. This was a collaboration with Henry Kuttner, and another author’s influence in the mix surely had an impact as well.

Black God’s Kiss gets a strong recommendation for fantasy fans. Jirel is a great character, and was clearly the foundation for numerous other famous female warriors like Red Sonja and Brienne of Tarth. It’s also convenient to have the complete collection of her adventures in one book, since the “sword & sorcery” era is notorious for numerous incomplete collections which can leave a reader wanting.

If you’re searching for some intense fantasy action with a strong female protagonist, check this one out!

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Likeable, flawed heroine with more depth than is usual for her genre
  • Beautiful, complex, prose
  • Stories of (mostly) consistent quality

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Some of that beautiful prose had weird stylistic/editorial choices
  • The last story in the book is a little weak

Book Review: “the Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town” by Gregory Miller

The Uncanny Valley…

… is a macabre serenade to a small town that may or may not exist, peopled with alive and dead denizens who wander about the hills and houses with creepy fluidity. Told by individual inhabitants, the stories recount tales of disappearing dead deer, enchanted gardens, invisible killer dogs, and rattlesnakes that fall from the sky; each contribution adds to a composite portrait that skitters between eerie, ghoulish, and poignant. Miller is a master storyteller, clearly delighting in his mischievous creations.

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I love horror anthologies. Something about collections of short stories just feels right to me when I delve into the genre.

That said, I just finished The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town by Gregory Miller, and I can definitely recommend it to fans of the genre who are looking for some lighter horror fare.

The book takes a a unique approach, posing as a documented collection of essays submitted to an NPR contest. The entries were supposedly written by the residents of a strange Pennsylvania town named Uncanny Valley. As the book progresses, what begin as quirky tales become increasingly ominous and supernatural.

Most of the letters (stories) range between 2-6 pages, and are told in different narrative voices by each of the residents. This works to varying effect, and like all anthologies, some entries are better than others. However, overall Miller does a good job weaving so many tales from so many different perspectives. He doesn’t stray too far down the path of extreme horror or gore, and many of the stories are more akin to Twilight Zone than Tales from The Crypt so I think this would be a great series for younger horror fans. I also enjoyed the illustrations by John Randall York, which reminded me of Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (my first true horror anthology).

If you’re looking for some satisfying, light horror that you can read in short sessions, then Uncanny Valley is definitely worth checking out.

What I Liked:

  • Interesting concept for an anthology
  • Varying narrative voices
  • Great illustrations

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Some stories were much stronger than others
  • I wanted certain entries to last longer

Book Review: “Good As Gone” by Amy Gentry

Thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, witnessed only by her younger sister. Her family was shattered, but managed to stick together, hoping against hope that Julie is still alive. And then one night: the doorbell rings. A young woman who appears to be Julie is finally, miraculously, home safe. The family is ecstatic—but Anna, Julie’s mother, has whispers of doubts.  She hates to face them. She cannot avoid them. When she is contacted by a former detective turned private eye, she begins a torturous search for the truth about the woman she desperately hopes is her daughter. 

51r-+GWWHmLGood As Gone showed up under “New and Notable” in my Kindle Prime Reading, and I downloaded it since I occasionally branch out into other genres to mix things up. I don’t normally read suspense thrillers, but I enjoyed this one all the way through, despite a few flaws.

The story is well written, and moves between the protagonist, Anna Whitaker, and a few other characters. This is broken up between chapters, so it doesn’t get confusing, although toward the end of the story there is a lot of jumping around and “perspective shifts” which I won’t go into more detail on since it borders on spoilers. Suffice to say, I had to re-read a few pages to make sure I knew what was going on.

Gentry’s writing is solid, and she crafts a dark, believable tale that should satisfy fans of the genre and anyone looking for a gritty suspense story. It’s a quick read with very little filler, and only lagged briefly in a few spots. It was also refreshing that this appears to be a standalone novel, since so many thrillers are huge series.

What I Liked:

  • Strong story pacing, excellent characterization
  • Interesting perspective shifts
  • Complete story arc. No cliffhangers

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Perspective shifts became confusing at some points late in the story
  • A key subplot dragged a bit midway through
  • This piece of the publisher blurb that I initially spared you from. “Propulsive and suspenseful, Good as Gone will appeal to fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and keep readers guessing until the final pages.” Makes me speculate they pressured the author into that title due to its similarity

Bird Box Review

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bird Box is one of the best speculative/horror novels I’ve read in the past year.

It’s a tale of survival as a woman named Malorie and her two children travel blindly (literally) through the wilderness. I suppose this could be classified as “post apocalyptic” as it contains elements of that sub genre, but similar to “The Road” it is far more about human behavior and how people manage to cope with extreme situations than the cause of the actual events themselves. It was an interesting idea to take one of the major senses away from all of the characters in the story, and provided for some tense moments.

Malerman’s writing is direct. Short, punchy sentences keep the action moving as the story flips between present and flashbacks. This was a quick and entertaining read. Concise, well written, and frightening, not much more I could ask for when it comes to a horror book.

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A Writer’s Guide to Persistence Review

A Writer's Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing PracticeA Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually just copy and paste these reviews in from my Goodreads profile, but I wanted to quickly preface this one. I’ve been having some difficulty finding the time and energy over the past few months to persevere in revising my current novel while working on other projects. This book was exactly what I needed to give me an important perspective shift and realize I can continue accomplishing what I set out to do. I highly recommend it to anyone who might be questioning themselves and their writing. It can be a bit on “new-agey” in parts, but the core message it delivers is honest and sound.
An excellent read to help inspire authors and give some firm but fair advice on creating a long lasting writing practice. Jordan Rosenfeld does well in re-framing a lot of common problems that writers face, from rejection to self-criticism, and gives solid advice getting through those issues with a positive attitude. There are exercises (both physical and creative) at the end of each section, so the reader can take action on what the author is advising.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Rosenfeld adding a chapter that “de-glamorizes” self publishing, and makes the reader ask some important questions of themselves prior to diving into that world versus the traditional publishing route. People are quick to push their work out to Amazon these days, and I like her thought process on why writers should be a bit more mindful prior to clicking the “publish” button.

Definitely a more personal and storied tone than many writing advice books. It’s not a sterile technical manual (looking at you, Strunk&White). If you’re looking for something akin to “On Writing”, but without as much autobiography, this would be a solid addition to your repertoire.

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Pines (Wayward Pines, #1) Review

Pines (Wayward Pines, #1)Pines by Blake Crouch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had mixed feelings about this book, and like most other reviewers, I’ll try to explain my feelings without spoiling anything.

The majority of the book is decent. It starts with a compelling mystery that really hooked me. Roughly 40% of the story continues to expand on that, and it has a nice “Twin Peaks” vibe. Very ominous.

Unfortunately, that mystery eventually wears out its welcome and devolves into multiple extended chase scenes, along with some pointless flashbacks peppered in. This ultimately leads up to a reveal that is ultimately lackluster. Although I wasn’t as taken aback by the author’s style (intentional lack of pronouns, etc) as some were, what really stuck out to me was the weapon and vehicle details. The main character IS ex-military/secret service, but the explicit naming of some equipment and processes just felt odd and jarring to me.

Based on the reveal and ending, along with the teaser chapter at the end of the novel, I don’t plan to read any further into the series, which is a bummer because I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I started it.

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“Heart of Darkness” Review

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh Joseph Conrad, could you ever have imagined you’d get such conflicting reviews about your work on social media over a century after you wrote it?

Of course not, but at least his book has staying power.

I picked Heart of Darkness back up for the first time since high school, after watching Apocalypse Now on basic cable, and thought to myself “Let’s see if this little book is as dense as I remember it being.”

Yup.

This isn’t an easy read, nor is it particularly cheery or fun. It’s not the type of book you crack open to feel good about on a short flight, but it’s not without merit. Here’s a few highlights and key points that may help influence your decision on whether to read this classic.

* This story defines “purple prose”. Conrad was great at description, and loved his unnecessary words. That, along with the “stream of conscious” style can make things difficult to follow at times.

* The main character isn’t the narrator. This is kind of easy to miss, but Marlow is telling a story, and the narrator is an unnamed person sitting on a boat listening to him.

* This book is a condemnation of colonialism, and as such, features a LOT of racism. There are all sorts of metaphors and even some allegory in Heart of Darkness, but not when it comes to the racism. That’s just right in your face. If you’re sensitive to reading about things like that, it may turn you off from the story.

* The language is dense. At times I found myself re-reading passages just to assure I really understood them. It took way longer to read than a 100 page book has any right to.

TL;DR – It’s a story about a dude listening to a dude tell a story about another dude.

I enjoyed Heart of Darkness for what it is, and it’ll definitely challenge you more than the standard YA vampire novels that are churned out these days. I’m just glad that this time around I didn’t have to write a 4-page essay about the deeper meaning behind Kurtz’s last words.

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“The Best Bizarro Fiction of the Decade” Review

19464141 The Best Bizarro Fiction of the Decade by Cameron Pierce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an enjoyable anthology of strange fiction. I’ve been seeking out, reading, and writing odd stories for a number of years now, but was never aware of the “Bizarro” genre label.

This collection was my first foray into the relatively current crop of bizarro authors. It’s a very hefty collection containing 35 stories, and most are entertaining. A few of them weren’t really up my alley since they seemed to be weird for the sake of being weird, or used their “weirdness” as a crutch to mask questionable writing, but the weaker stories are few and far between.

The gems in my opinion were “Crazy Sh!tting Planet”, “Atwater”, “Ear Cat”, and “The Sex Beast of Scurvy Island”. These alone are worth the price of entry.

If you’re looking for something different that will make you laugh, possibly offend you, and occasionally make you scratch your head (what good books should do!) then this is worth a read.

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