Review: Elements of Mind by Walter Hunt

I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.

To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.

First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.

The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”

Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”

Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.

Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.

Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.

I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: A Name Like Thunder

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being given the book A Name Like Thunder, written by my friend Lee Goff.  It’s the first book of the Thunder Trilogy, a series about God’s relationship with his modern followers.  I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect.  Because Lee is someone I’ve known for some time and have a lot of respect for, I was terrified that I wasn’t going to like the book and unsure of what I’d do should that happen.  People who know me know that I have very demanding tastes when it comes to fiction and can be a real snob about reading.  I don’t have much time on my hands to devote to reading, so if I’m going to read something I want to feel like it really adds something to my life.   I have friends that read over a hundred books a year and I used to be able to read like that.  These days, aside from schoolwork, I only have time to read about as many books as I can count on my fingers and I want each and every one of them to be memorable.

That’s why I was mortified when just thumbing through the book I saw grammar and punctuation errors.  Those things are my kryptonite.  I reminded myself that I really owed it to my friend to try to look past it and enjoy the read anyway, and I am oh so glad that I did.

As snobby as I am about fiction in general, I am even worse when it comes to things written by Christians.  I don’t want to be preached at by anyone but my preacher, I don’t want to have someone else’s doctrine “snuck in” under the radar, and I really hate it when I can feel writers pulling punches and dipping what could be powerful moments into dopishly saccharine dialogue.  There have been some books (especially the romances) where I found myself screaming “PEOPLE DON’T TALK LIKE THAT!  YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED!  WHAT IF AN ANTHROPOLOGIST FOUND THIS BOOK AND THOUGHT THIS IS WHO WE REALLY WERE?”  So when my dear Christian friend writes a novel, my first impulse is to never read it so I can keep on respecting him.

A Name Like Thunder is a different kind of Christian novel.  The fact that it is written from a Christian perspective is undeniable from the first sentence- the story is introduced by an angel and each chapter is headed off by one of the angel’s dialogues.  Yet the author focuses on telling a story instead of preaching to the reader.  The story he tells is about a normal couple who have their faith tested by a string of circumstances.  They make the kinds of decisions normal people make, doubt their faith, and doubt each other just like any other couple.  I found myself very quickly getting attached to Len and Liz, the main couple.  The fact that the story bounces around over the course of several years helped with that, as well as the fact that hanging in the background was the knowledge that a very physical and imminent danger was coming nearer.  The truth is, the author is a masterful storyteller.  He writes compelling and believable dialogue with characters that act as if they were culled from real life.  The messages in the story- that couples were made to compliment each other, that life is precious, that God is waiting in the wings with your salvation if only you would ask for it, that your calling is not dictated by your righteousness in the moment but your ability to respond to God’s call- are all very apparent, but you aren’t beat up by them.  The God that the author writes about is a God that is sadly overlooked in much of Christian dialogue.  It’s a God that longs for the holiness of his servants and loves every life unconditionally and passionately, and longs to use even the most broken for His glory.

A lot of the writing reminded me of shades of Stephen King, if Stephen King were writing for a Christian audience.  The characters love a good barbecue and they love to make love.  Friendship is fierce and binding, and evil is most definitely evil.  Even though not too much happens right off the bat you find yourself getting drawn in deeply, and once the story winds up for the end the book is almost impossible to put down.  (As evidenced by my kids trashing the campsite while I obliviously held my breath and tried to read as fast as possible.)

I would even suggest this book for a non-Christian to read, as it might illuminate some things about faith and belief in God that you might not get anywhere else.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing about A Name Like Thunder is the way it quietly defends the idea of a Christian who isn’t close-minded, bigoted, or insular.  I would strongly suggest reading Lee’s books, or at the very least say hi to him on Facebook.

A Name Like Thunder gets 4.5 thunderous hurrahs!

***This review is not paid for, sponsored, or coerced in any way.

Random Monday

In Politics: If “Change” is the theme of the primaries, why does it all sound like politics as usual?

In Religion:  Prayer can be like sex in a marriage.  First you can’t possibly get enough and you do it four times a day and never really think about the quality.  Then you start to want to have it better, even if it’s less.  Then, one day, you notice it’s been months and you wonder, “how is this possible?” and the next time you try it, you feel like you’ve forgotten what it’s all about.  Pray-a-Thons on TV are like Christian pornography, which explains why so many non-Christians find it offensive.  They are seeing something that was meant to be done behind closed doors.

In Family:  I’ve noticed that almost all five year olds seem to go through a stage where they have short term memory loss every time they do something wrong, which is why my children will be going straight from age four to age six.

In Health:  I find it amusing that there are so many sex articles coming out post Valentine’s Day.  Or is it pre-Spring?  In any case, this time of year seems to make sex leak in to everything.  Unlike bacon, sex does NOT make everything better.  It must be used appropriately and in reasonable amounts, or like bacon you will regret having so much later.  There’s the thought for the day:  Sex is like bacon, sex is not like bacon.  Also:  Sex and bacon should only be combined in carefully controlled environments.

In Literature:  Stephen King’s Duma Key is definitely worth reading, but make sure you’ve got 30 hours of free time and enough food in the house.  You won’t want to have to do ANYTHING but finish the book once you’re four chapters in.  (Trust me on this- I stayed up until one reading it, despite the fact that I’d only gotten four hours of sleep the night before and my son was teething and I KNEW I’d be exhausted.  Every time I turned off the lights I thought about the moon over the water and I freaked out and turned the lights back on so I could finish reading it and know that everything ended well, and then when the book ended I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to cry, but I LOVED it.  Stephen King is an evil genius.)

In Movies:  I’m really looking forward to the Spiderwick Chronicles, even though I’m already bracing myself for a letdown.  It seems like I’m always bracing myself for a letdown these days.  PRODUCERS:  MAKE BETTER  MOVIES.  For the love of me, PLEASE!  I have two small kids- if I bother to put on something not covered in ambiguously colored stains to go to the theater, I don’t want to be thinking, “and I could be napping in my car right now” the entire time.  (ambiguous stain = is it poo or chocolate or blood?  Do you WANT to know?)

In food:  Pepsi and mint Milanos are SO close to being the perfect breakfast. All I want is a sausage link and a bowl of cherries.  Mmm…  Then I would have the four food groups:  caffeine, chocolate, pork and fruit!