Book Review: ‘Eternal Road’

Front cover of Eternal Road, with a 1956 blue and white Oldsmobile on a road

Eternal Road: The Final Stop by John W. Howell

An imaginative story of one man’s entrance and journey in the afterlife. This is quite different than St. Peter standing before the pearly gates and checking a book to see if you can enter, or if you’re sent downward.

James Wainwright dies in a car wreck early in the story. As a spirit, he’s still driving, and he picks up a hitchhiker — who turns out to be Samantha Tourneau, with whom James had a childhood love. Samantha (mostly going by Sam) has grown up in the afterlife, as she was killed when she was in the first grade.

So a trigger warning: a girl is murdered at the beginning of the book. More depth comes to that plot line toward the ending.

James and Sam embark on a time-traveling journey: jumping into Tombstone, Arizona during the OK Corral gunfight, to the Alamo just before the battle, to more. I don’t want to list all the destinations and give away surprises in the story.

The time-travel locations have a feeling of randomness, but that gives an entertaining unpredictability. Also, these are times and places where James could spend his eternal home. Sam serves as a guide to help James find his eternal home, but the jumping through times is mostly out of their control.

Indeed, the time bouncing makes for a fun story, and it helps James and Sam get reacquainted after not seeing each other for 17 years. Their relationship deepens beyond that childhood affection. And Sam is a good guide to get James acquainted with this stage in his spiritual life.

However, James must face some struggles alone, as Lucifer himself makes several appearances in trying to convince James to join him in the hot place.

The book works on several levels and isn’t simply a time-travel adventure. In the book’s dedication, John talks about a lesson from his father: “we all have challenges in our lives, and those that can succeed in reaching their goals despite them will find happiness.” John certainly wrote a story to describe challenges for James to endure. James needs smarts and courage and assistance from Sam for those challenges. And throughout, he holds on to hope.

The book is available on Amazon.

Also, John is a prolific blogger, and you can read more of his stuff here.

Book Review: Leave the World Behind

front cover of Leave the World Behind book

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

A world-shattering event occurs in this book. Unlike a Hollywood blockbuster, however, there’s no CGI special effects to wow us. The event occurs off stage.

The book’s characters (Amanda and Clay and their two kids) are vacationing in a Long Island home isolated from others. Except others knock on the door one evening. These others claim to own the house. The older married couple isn’t random, as they know Amanda’s name, who arranged this stay for her family in this Airbnb property. Amanda recognizes the gentleman’s name (G.H.) as the person with whom she communicated for this vacation stay.

Another problem: The wi-fi and cable TV stopped working in the house. So Amanda and Clay can’t verify what G.H. and his wife (Ruth) are claiming about a blackout in New York City.

The world, as advertised on the Airbnb property’s listing, has been left behind. Not all of it, since the two strangers show up on the doorstep. Good-bye, hoped-for family vacation.

The worlds for both families are thrown topsy-turvy as they try to piece together what happened — and is happening. What was that enormous sound? Why are the animals acting differently?

Instead of invading aliens or swarming zombies or crashing meteors, the tension in this story comes from more subtle sources. One: the characters trying to puzzle out the odd events. Two: the interactions among the two family groups and between the two groups.

Subtlety is the key in the previous paragraph. The book has a Shirley Jackson-type vibe of discomfort and potential danger as undercurrents. This story builds slowly and doesn’t wrap up neatly. I imagine this won’t be the cup of tea for some readers. Items are listed in the beginning, like the assortment in Clay’s car and what Amanda buys at a grocery store.

These are the things we accumulate. As are what’s in the house. The things we buy and use as we aim for comfortable lives. The good life. But how many of those things will help us when civilization crashes? Do we have the skills to survive in that event?

These — and other questions — are presented in this book. It’s more of a thoughtful exploration than a rush of action in every chapter.

Book Review: Dune

Book cover of Dune: the silhouette of a man walking across a series of desert dunes

Dune (Dune Chronicles, Book 1) by Frank Herbert

My first experience with Dune was watching part of the David Lynch-directed movie (1984). I didn’t see the movie in a theater; I watched part of it when it came to TV — which was in 1988, according to Wikipedia. I remember being confused by the story, and I didn’t last through the whole movie. (I was 16 years old in 1988.)

I didn’t get around to reading the book until this year, so it’s my second experience. And it lived up to the description of it as one of the masterpieces of science fiction. Actually, it’s a masterpiece of a story — forget about genre for a minute.

This is one of those books that I thought during reading, How the hell did the author create this? As a self-published writer who feels like an amateur, to me the experience was like watching a master magician’s show and scratching my head in wonder about how the tricks were pulled off.

Why do I say this? Because Frank Herbert invented a world with various forces acting upon each other, societies, and histories to form the story’s setting. This is akin to Tolkien’s inventing Middle-earth in which to place The Lord of the Rings.

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”
Ernest Hemingway

However, Papa didn’t invent an entire, other-world for a story. Tolkien and Herbert created a huge mass of iceberg to support the tip that can be seen above the water’s surface.

I’m far from an expert in the Dune universe, but I’ll give it a go for the basics around this book…

At the start, House Atreides rules the planet Caladan. House Harkonnen rules Arrakis (Dune), a desert planet where “spice” is collected and shipped to all over. Spice is in demand for its ability to extend life, and to help see into the near future. The Emperor instructs House Atreides to leave Caladan and take over the rule of Arrakis. And, oh yeah, the Atreides and Harkonnens don’t care for each other.

House Atreides has Duke Leto, his “concubine” Lady Jessica, and his son Paul Atreides. Only 15 years old at the beginning of the story, Paul is the book’s main character. He is taught by his parents, as well as several mentors.

Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, an all-female group that runs a school to teach keen powers of observation of others and control of their own bodies. Bene Gesserits act as advisors to the heads of Houses.

There are many groups, each with their own agenda to expand their power. The Houses, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Guild that controls travel among planets (they’re focused on commerce).

And there are the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who have learned to live in the very harsh conditions of the desert.

That’s a tiny part of the iceberg. I won’t go further about the plot, since the delight of the book is experiencing events unfold. If you want a plot summary, there’s the Wiki page.

Also, in the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, episode 417 has a really good, in-depth discussion of the book — hosted by David Barr Kirtley with guests Andrea Kail, Rajan Khanna, and Matthew Kressel. The episode is available on Youtube, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.

I’ll wrap up by saying that Dune has political strategizing, knife fights, careful walks over the desert, rituals and life of the Fremen, and trippy moments. And let’s not forget about those enormous worms.

I admired how much ecology Frank Herbert included about Arrakis. Not only does that planet have a delicate ecosystem, the same adjective could be applied to any ecosystem:

“A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”
— Planetologist Pardot Kynes, quoted in Appendix I: “The Ecology of Dune”

Herbert’s words were published in 1965, five years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established and the first Earth Day.

One almost-last thing! I never went back to watch the David Lynch movie of the book. Maybe I’ll check it out sometime. More importantly, there’s a new Dune movie directed by Denis Villeneuve. I don’t know when the movie will be released. I was excited seeing the trailer before I read the book, and reading the book made me look forward to the movie even more.

One last thing! The above swoon-worthy cover (yes, I typed swoon-worthy) was designed by Jim Tierney — and he created designs for the series. Please excuse my drooling.

Book Review: Echoes from an Expired Earth

Front cover of Echoes from an Expired Earth

Echoes from an Expired Earth by Allen Ashley

This poetry collection was listed in Amazon’s “You Might Like” kind of lists for me. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. But I was intrigued by the book’s title and blurb, so I went for it.

I’m glad I did. This poetry has a sly sense of humor, like a twinkle in the eye and a raised corner of its lips.

The poem “H. P. Lovecraft’s Loathly Eldritch Band” gives the horror author a musical tribute to the rhythm of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” While reading the poem, I couldn’t help but hear an instrumental version of the Beatles’s song underneath the poem’s lines. For those not accustomed to Mr. Lovecraft’s stories, he well used “eldritch” in describing creatures — and “gibbering” with townsfolk.

That poem is a good example of what this collection does. It holds up different topics and looks at them at fresh angles. Which takes marvelous creativity.

We get a list of characteristics of an imaginary friend. Another list tells us about things that will be gone after the Apocalypse. On a related note, another poem explains the postponement of “The End of the World Orgy.” If that disappoints you, we also get Sleeping Beauty’s thoughts of disappointment after being awoken by the prince’s kiss. In a more complicated romance, we hear three perspectives in the love triangle of Camelot.

If these poems — and those described in the book’s blurb — sound amusing to you in an off-kilter way, I encourage you to check out the book. It’s an entertaining combination of humor, absurdism, pop culture, and some of what it’s like to live in these modern times where we “big” ourselves up on Facebook, but don’t have jet packs or interplanetary flight.

Book Review: Embrace Your Weird

front cover of Embrace Your Weird

Embrace Your Weird: Face Your Fears and Unleash Creativity by Felicia Day

I’ll begin this review with a quote from the book’s introduction:

“Simply put, this book is about uncovering, unblocking, and letting loose FEELING. And then activating ways to SHARE THAT FEELING.”

Simply put, this book is wonderful.

It’s not a “how to” book on improving specific skills on whatever artistic endeavor that you enjoy: writing, creating music, sculpturing, painting, etc. The book aims to help you identify obstacles in the way of you expressing your creativity.

The little word on the back cover’s top left corner is “self-help,” not “art.” You may think of self-help books as corny, ooey-gooey, and “twisting myself into a yogic pretzel and meditating on the mysteries of the cosmos.”

Okay, some readers might label some parts of this book as ooey-gooey. You’re invited to think back to your childhood, when playing pretend and inventing games was natural. Then, while growing up, we learn how things are “supposed to be.” The good part: we become more knowledgeable about the world. The not-good part: the knob of our imagination machine is turned way down.

As a remedy to turn that machine’s knob up is to think to our childhoods to remember how we were back then. The book’s exercises invite us to write what profession we dreamed of as kids, and what we collected. (Actually, exercises are all through the book, with space to write and draw, so it’s a workbook — not just for reading.)

Also included are descriptions of enemies of creativity — whether those are emotions inside us or how other people might treat us. Emotions include anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, shame, regret, and more. I’ve felt all those, sure. This chapter talks about how we can work on those feelings, with the goal of calming their voices and strengthening the bravery of our creative wishes.

After the chapter on enemies is, helpfully, a chapter on allies. We don’t live in a vacuum! People are out there who can help us. Family and friends who can encourage us and offer feedback on our projects. Mentors who can guide us in techniques particular to our creative pursuits.

Throughout, the writing is friendly, with quirky asides typically spoken in parentheticals. Illustrations add to the playfulness. Yep, the book practices what it teaches: play, play, play! Direct quote: “the heart of creativity is play.” That’s shown in a drawing of a heart — a more realistic heart than the simple one used in the I Love NY logo (which works very well, no offense to the great Milton Glaser).

I loved this book, and very much recommend it to those who are struggling to connect with the creative/imaginative-ness inside themselves and wish to work on freeing that up.

Book Review: Light Bites

Front cover of Light Bites book

Light Bites by Helen Laycock.

The title is fitting for this book, as its short stories are on the light side, serving a delightful selection such as you might get with hors d’oeuvres served at a party.

Twelve stories are included here, ranging from singles looking for love, to a woman jealous of a neighbor, to a fairy who doesn’t feel comfortable in her skin, to a ghost attending her body’s funeral.

Humor runs through the stories, offering zings to the palate here and there. A prank doesn’t work as planned. A woman’s mission to get to the train station to pick up her husband doesn’t go smoothly. A couple on a vacation are surprised when they reach a cozy cabin. And when things don’t proceed as planned, you can laugh and make do with the happy accidents.

Of course, not all events are accidental or happy. Such as when you learn why many homeowners on a street are putting their houses up for sale. And when a women is quite underwhelmed by a man on their first date — and her reaction deepens when the man emails her what has to be the most awkward poem ever sent to someone after a first date. Or any date. The poem includes references to a scab and body hair. Yeah. You read that correctly. But at least the poem has rhyming lines.

That poem and date occur in the last story of the book, “Shaken, and Stirred,” my favorite story of this collection and the most funny to me.

If you desire lighter fare after yet another horrific event in the news or dark fiction, give this book a shot. The delightful assortment of stories just might have you smiling and chuckling.

Book Review: Before Familiar Woods

front cover of Before Familiar Woods

Before Familiar Woods: A Novel by Ian Pisarcik

Two teenaged boys from North Falls, Vermont are found dead. Three years after that tragedy, their fathers disappear. Those events occur right away in this amazing novel.

Ruth Fenn and Della Downing are the unfortunate characters who have to bear the burdens of killed sons and missing husbands. They investigate in separate ways to try to find out what happened to their husbands. In this storyline, we spend time with Ruth, as she’s one of the two main characters.

The other is Milk Raymond, a young man who has returned to town after serving overseas in the military. He takes custody of his son because the mother has left. Milk rents a place to stay with his son Daniel, but Milk needs to find a job.

With the setup of the tragic events, this book sounds like it could be a suspense thriller. And there are thrilling parts.

But to me, the book was more about how people deal with the absences of loved ones. In addition to the absences of Ruth’s son and husband, her mother has memory issues. Daniel Raymond first had to deal with Milk’s absence, and now must deal with his mother’s.

The book has a steady, deliberate pace as the characters struggle to gain understanding and footholds. And throughout, the book describes the small Vermont town and the woods around it.

In this book’s blurb, we learn it’s the first novel by Ian Pisarcik. So I knew that going into the story. And after reading it, I thought, “What the hell? He’s this good on his first book?!”

Why that reaction? Before Familiar Woods has a precision of language along the lines of what I admire of Cormac McCarthy, Karen Russell, and George Saunders. We’re talking sharp and vivid. There are some lines that stopped me in my reading tracks. I read the lines several times because they so finely conveyed the ideas. For example, the sentence after how Ruth Fenn “had treated her son like a tanager that she could hear but not see.” I won’t put the sentence here, from concern that would lessen the impact if you read the book.

Book Review: Mr. Donut & Friends

Book cover of Mr. Donut and Friends

Mr. Donut and Friends: One day when I grow up, written and illustrated by Andrea Benko

After discovering Andrea Benko’s blog, where she posts lovely drawings, I learned that she has published two picture books. I was curious to see more of her work, so I bought the Kindle edition of One day when I grow up.

Thankfully, Covid-19 isn’t a part of this book, as none of the characters is wearing a mask when the new school year starts. Gary the Ghost is the teacher. He says that today, the class is going to explore various jobs. It’s a fun activity for these characters, and each is highlighted with a job and reason for focusing on that job.

A few examples: Spikey the Hedgehog could become a fashion designer, Finn the Shark a doctor, and Pando the Panda an astronaut.

The illustrations are very cute, and I can see how the details in the backgrounds would inspire young readers to spend time on those pages to investigate them. Such as the image of an arched bridge that’s behind Gary the Ghost, who enjoys painting. And the world map, dotted with icons, that’s on the wall next to a hotel’s reception desk.

The book’s last page asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Inspiration for grown-ups to have conversations with kids to chat about the many possibilities of jobs out there. The jobs in this book are a good starting point, and jobs beyond these could be discussed.

Check out Andrea Benko’s blog for her fun drawings!

Book Review: The Teleporter

cover for The Teleporter

The Teleporter by Lee Hall

This is an entertaining superhero story about Kurt Wiseman, who’s bumbling through life. He loves booze so much, having a hangover on a Tuesday morning is not out of the ordinary for him.

Kurt once wrote a graphic novel — One Night in New York — and that seems to be the extent of his ambition beyond drinking at his buddy Douglas’s bar. Kurt could write another graphic novel, but hasn’t made the effort. And he makes minimum effort at his job.

But when an accident happens at his place of employment, Kurt’s life is changed forever. The kind of change along the lines of Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider and Dr. Bruce Banner shot with a gamma ray. These changes dramatically transform their lives.

Kurt’s new power to teleport cracks the cycle of lazing around at his job during the day and drinking deeply at night. Along with the power, he’s transformed on an emotional level. Yes, you could just use teleporting to save the hassle of walking, but you could use it for more, namely helping people.

Kurt makes for a fun narrator, with snarky remarks and how he describes things. I especially enjoyed the first part of this novel, as the narration took the time to develop each scene. The writing became more streamlined in the middle and final parts. I realize that happens as the action picks up, but I would’ve liked a bit more meat in those scenes.

The story takes a serious message — struggling with our demons and transforming into a stronger, more selfless person — and delivers it in a playful wrapping. I had fun along the way.

*****

Check out Lee Hall’s blog for updates about his writing.

Book Review: Edge of the Breach

cover for Edge of the Breach

Edge of the Breach (Rift Cycle Book 1) by Halo Scot

Halo Scot did a great job in setting up the environment in this book. The story happens far into Earth’s future, after us dumb humans have demolished most of the planet into an uninhabitable mess. People live in Antartica, either in the downtrodden Shelf or in the city of Zawad. Added to that, the sky has torn a hole, which leads to the dimension of gods.

And that’s not all! (Said in a deep-throated voice of a guy narrating a movie trailer.) Humans are born with special abilities, depending on the season of your birth: spring as healers, summer as mages who can control gravity, fall as shapeshifters, winter as protective shields.

Impressive world-building here. Inserted into this world are our main characters: Julian Kyder and Sira Rune. Both are born on a solstice (Kyder in summer, Rune in winter), so their abilities are especially powerful. The book’s chapters alternate the points of view of these two characters.

We follow Kyder and Rune in part of their childhood, through teenaged years, into young adulthood. And believe me when I tell you this isn’t a “gosh I feel awkward in high school” type of story. Um, no.

Be prepared for dramatic scenes, because this book is a wild ride. Kyder and Rune make their way in this world, taking initiative to better themselves and dealing with horrific events. We see the powerful influences of family, from Kyder’s single mom to Rune’s parents and brother. Shocks that come early will reverberate for years.

I found that I was pulling for the characters and wishing their struggles weren’t so difficult. But the characters are shaped by these, in a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” kind of way.

This ride isn’t for squeamish readers, as Halo Scot has included a content warning in the book’s blurb. Yes, there’s very graphic violence. There’s torture and self-harm. I had never heard of “grimdark” as a story category, and this book is both grim and dark. And it has a gripping story.

This is the first part of the Rift Cycle series, which has four books — all of them have been published.