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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Oz: The Great and Powerful (and everything I hate about gender stereotypes in movies).

If you’ve heard me rant about strong women on TV, you know I have a huge (massive, epic even) ax to grind when it comes to how women are written for the screen.  I mean, really, do all women have to fawn over men who treat them badly?  Do women have to be good to get the guy?  And on, and on, and on. I’d heard that the new Oz movie wasn’t particularly good and not to expect too much from it.  That’s okay, we were really only going to the theater as a treat for the kids, I could lower my expectations accordingly.  I wasn’t prepared for how intensely bad the writing was.  For your edification, let me count the ways:

  1. A kingdom full of intensely powerful witches really can’t handle crap for themselves.  They need a powerful, male, wizard to come straighten things out for them.
  2. The protagonist is a shallow and selfish egomaniac who has never done anything good for anyone, even his best friend. Yet the audience is clearly expected to identify with and applaud this absolute nimrod.  Why?  Because of his roguish grin?  Because he’s attractive?  Because for three nanoseconds he shows signs of having a conscience?  I don’t understand why men in film get incredible license to be absolute jerkfaces that their mother would be embarrassed to call their own but audiences still cheer for them- but what do you call a woman who is that selfish and ignorant of the consequences of her actions?
  3. All of the women fawn over this selfish brat.  Even the smartest woman in the film, Glinda the “good”, is completely reliant on him and ends up falling for him.  (Even though when she first meets him, she says she knows that he’s a selfish liar.)
  4. Do we really need another movie whose romantic plot boils down to a selfish man who leaves a chain of broken hearts in his wake with no thought to consequences just needing someone good, pure, and innocent to believe in his better nature so that he ultimately becomes a better man?  What’s the moral there?  Your actions don’t have consequences because when the right one comes along you’ll be different?  And girls, it doesn’t matter how much of a rat a guy is, your love can change him?
  5. It’s not like it’s a redemption story.  Oz becomes all powerful by using the same cheats and sleight of hand that he always did, but do we ever know that he does it for a different reason than what he always had?  Did he do it to be good, or to become more powerful?
  6. There’s a dual story arc I find troubling.  Oz, the character, is selfish and self-serving and is ultimately rewarded with a kingdom.  The two evil sister-witches are selfish and self-serving, and are rewarded by being made ugly and exiled from society.  Whaaaaat?  It’s okay to be selfish, as long as you’re male.
  7. Glinda’s power is being good, and she shoots rainbows and bubbles.  In the Oz universe this is logical.  But in the real world, how far does sweetness and innocence get a girl?  Maybe this is just me being jaded, but the fantasy can only be taken so far, and the trope of the sweet innocent girl’s love changing the jaded heart of the bad boy is so done.  Plus, her goodness wasn’t enough to protect her people  by itself.  She needed a man who cheated and tricked others in order to stay safe.  Wonderful.

Okay, okay, so it’s a fantasy movie.  And, to an extent, it had to be faithful to the fantasy it precedes.  Everyone knows that Oz is a trickster and Glinda is good and on and on.  Okay, so there’s that.  Did they have to make this movie?

But I can only be so bitter. It gave me something to get my blood boiling for an afternoon, and the heaving bosoms were glittery and abundant, so that’s always nice in a film.

le sigh.

GUEST POST: Lee Goff reviews Honest Conversation

(A review of my novella Honest Conversation by Lee Goff, author of the Thunder Trilogy books)

Honest Conversation’ is a novella that wastes no time getting directly to one of the most controversial issues of our day, homosexuality in the church. The story opens with Zoe, an associate pastor in a local church, agonizing over the congregation’s reaction towards a recent addition to their church, two gay men, Kyle and Evan. Kyle is a long time believer, Evan is not. Enter John, the lead pastor for the church, bearing the burden of leading a church in the way he feels Christ would, which at the moment seems to be in opposition to the feelings of the membership.

Zoe, for her own personal reasons that are revealed in the book, champions both kyle and Evan, to the point of threatening resignation if they are not treated as she feels they should be. John, the one called to shepherd the church, tries to find the path that pleases everyone, especially the influential members that strongly oppose the gay couple.

Kay has chosen her characters nicely and writes in a style comfortable and easy flowing. She gratefully skips the ’feel what I feel’ format and leaves the reaction up to the reader. There is not a deep development of the characters, but that is typical in a novella. I confess some disappointment here, but it is a compliment rather than a criticism, as she has given us enough of John and Zoe to want more. In John, we are shown a pastor, the shepherd, as opposed to a preacher. He is more interested in the spiritual health of his flock than he is the potential loss of members, and make no mistake about it, this threat is a real one in our churches today. This is refreshing, and likely contradictory to the reality of many churches. Just my opinion, but his character could serve as an example of how a challenged pastor might handle this situation in their own church.

Zoe, on the other hand, irritated me beyond description. I give kudos to the author in being able to achieve this, since I rarely get this personally involved with characters. Zoe is non-compromising, bull-headed, and seems to ignore the pain her pastor and friend is going through during this time. It is in this view I have of the characters that might just be the most accurate mirror of our church society today. Sides are chosen; an ‘all or nothing’ attitude developed, and because of that, the ability to compromise is gone. Here is where the author makes a difference, and by doing so, sets this book apart from those with a singular agenda owned by the author, and the intent of pushing that agenda on the reader.

I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it shocked me. I expected a neatly wrapped up story with a bow designed by the author and her self-imposed agenda of accepting gays into the church without any thought to the sin that the others feel accompanies the lifestyle. The author, through the wisdom of john, the pastor, gives us what just might be the best way for a church to address this issue. It is not a compromise, it is not a victory for one side only. It is possibly just the way a man that walked 2000 years ago would have handled it.

I do not recommend this book to someone with a closed mind; unwilling to learn. I do, however, recommend it to anyone open to learning something about this issue, and willing to look at it as Christ Himself might have.

One more thing…that criticism. It’s too short. The characters and their personalities leave us wanting more of them. They are who they are due to their past, and I wanted more of that. And in the world of authors, this criticism is perhaps the best thing one could hear.

–Lee Goff

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.

Book Review: White Buffalo Gold

White Buffalo Gold is a book I had the pleasure of reading as part of the process for my good friend, Adam Fleming, to pursue publishing.  (Check out his Kickstarter project!)  White Buffalo Gold follows the lives of three girls as they come of age in a rural town.  Amy, Emily, and Melissa share a long history together.  Through the novel you see that history laid out through several decades.  You see how complex friendship can be, and the many faces people may wear as friends, but Adam dares to go deeper.  You see those three girl’s lives intertwined with other souls in the town and you see the interweaving of those souls as well.  Some people seem like the stereotypical “decent folks”. Other people betray the complexity of life through their actions, both good and bad.  Adam writes about how easy mistakes can be and how the repercussions can last throughout a lifetime.  Yet what resonates is not that there are “good” and “bad” people, but that we are more than the sum of what we do.

What I love the most about this novel is it’s honesty.  It never feels contrived, even when the spirit of a white buffalo starts haunting someone.  The characters all play out as very genuine, and the greater themes of small town identity, regret, aging, death, and starting over all get a fair shake.  You’ve got small town Nebraska, a gold rush mystery, and Native American spirituality all weaving into a coming of age story about the choices that make us leave and the choices that keep us close.  When I finished reading the novel I felt as if I’d just had tea with old friends and neighbors I hadn’t seen in a while, and I was so glad to have caught up on their lives.

If you like contemporary fiction that harks back to some of the great American narrative traditions, then this book is one you’ll enjoy reading.  It’s got small towns, rural America, big potential and simple dreams: all the Americana with none of the pretense or cloying sweetness that can make the genre turn sour.  I’m so proud and privileged to be a part of seeing it put into print.

***This review is not paid or coerced in any manner.  I volunteered it because I believe in Adam’s project.