Friday, June 24, 2011

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

John Milliken Thompson’s debut historical mystery novel, The Reservoir (Other Press, 2011), starts off very promising. We are introduced to a pair of workers at a reservoir who find the body of a young pregnant woman floating lifeless in the water. This is a great set-up for a moody, atmospheric story. We have one character – one of the workers who found the body – fall into infatuation with this young lifeless woman. He takes some items from her that come back as evidence later in the novel. Too bad we never really come back to this character. He was fascinating. This reservoir worker is one of many minor characters in the novel. Unfortunately for the novel, there are many secondary characters within the text that tend to be more interesting than the main protagonist.

Based on the synopsis and cover, I was expecting a tale of lust and mystery. I was expecting a moody historical piece of southern literature, perhaps something along the lines of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Thompson, a historian, does a great job recreating Richmond, Virginia, circa 1885. He also did a great job researching his story – the book is based on an actual case – and filling in some blanks where the historical documents left off. What I did not expect from this novel was a courtroom drama. I tend to not like courtroom dramas as fiction, to be honest. I read many, many of them as a young man (everything from the Grisham books to To Kill A Mockingbird), became a little burned out on them, and a novel set in a courtroom is going to have to be extremely compelling and have some measure of novelty to keep me involved. In fact, I would rather read true-life transcripts such as those coming out of the current Casey Anthony Trial than another court case in novel form. In fact, the Anthony case, in a way I won’t go into because of possible spoilers, parallels this case nicely. Unfortunately, for me, the court case was the centerpiece of the novel, and I felt it dragged on. I just could not get into that section of the book, and it was a very long section.

Where this novel worked best was in the flashbacks, in the descriptions of minor characters, and in the recreation of a time now long gone. The author deftly handles matters of real-world theology. Once the narration moves past the courtroom drama, the novel became extremely interesting once again. This last act of the novel is a wonderful examination of truth, religion, and resignation. I finally kind of cared about the main protagonist.

The Reservoir is a good, but not great, debut novel. The beginning and ending were well done, the historical details are engrossing, but the middle section of the text was kind of a slog. I see promise for Thompson and would pick up another book by him. There’s ample evidence of a good writer here. I just hope in the future, he dwells on his strengths as a writer (characterization, descriptions) and learns how to make the more interesting characters the primary focus of his stories instead of relegating them to the background. I find myself wondering what this novel might have looked like if written from the perspective of the reservoir worker who was the focus of the first section of the novel, the one who falls in love with the corpse? I believe his would have been an interesting world view to filter this unfolding story through.

My six-pack rating: 3 out of 6 Legend Brown Ales

*Legal Notification: Free electronic copy received from publisher via

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ideomancer, Vol. 10, Issue 2, June 2011

Overall, this issue was a pleasant little mental vacation for me…

Per editor Leah Bobet: “Our June 2011 issue is full of summer travels, both physical and of the mind and soul and heart.”

FICTION: We have one great selkie story; one good – if slightly derivative – shape-shifter piece; and one complex, thought-provoking experiment that is as well-written and intriguing as it is difficult.

“Rendered Down” by Cory Skerry – It appears Ideomancer is fond of selkie stories – I’ve read a quite few of them here if memory serves me right. In this selkie story, the protagonist, Miranda, is overweight and extremely uncomfortable in her own skin. She wants to be with a boy, she wants for boys to want her, and is disappointed when all the boys in her life prefer her coworkers and other girls “shaped like a Barbie” over her.

One day, Miranda finds a handsome selkie boy on a rock near the sea and begins to dream about him and his lifestyle.

Miranda is an instantly likeable and identifiable character. Her perspective – while a little pessimistic throughout much of the narrative – makes this story work. One of the best selkie stories I can remember reading in recent memory. There’s an interesting twist at the end which is a little different take on the whole selkie myth. It makes sense in the context of the story. Yet, to be honest, I kind of mourned the protagonist’s choice. I was sincerely hoping she would learn to love her own skin, and more importantly, her self.

I highly recommend this one.

“A Letter from Northern Nairo” by Alter S. Reiss – One character says to another at one point during this story: “This is a confused plot.” Well, no, not really. This one is a straight-forward werewolf tale, except instead of a werewolf, we are given the tale of weretigers. It is set in an Asian setting that I could not quite buy into. The description of the hunting party brought to mind Victorian-era England and fox hunts. I know similar hunts happened in other cultures as well, but the narrative is simply too similar in form and structure to other European werewolf stories. It is an enjoyable read, but there’s nothing particularly new or notable about this one. I also feel the format of this one is off. The narrative is in the form of a letter and I personally think it would work much better from either a 3rd person omniscient viewpoint or just a straightforward 1st person narration without the letter device. Who writes letters this detailed while adhering to Freytag’s Pyramid? Nor do letters typically have section breaks. These thoughts threw me out of the story. There is simply too much story “telling” for me to buy this story as a letter. Still, despite being a little derivative, it is a fun read.

“Chrestomathy” by Anatoli Belilovsky -- Per Mirriam-Webster, “Chrestomathy” is “a selection of passage used to help learn a language.” This title sums up this sometimes disjointed and meandering structure nicely. Fictional snippets of literature and correspondence and conversations between various famous authors weave a hidden tale of hidden meanings that discusses politics, slavery, and the ability for writers to spark revolutions (as indicated by the imaginary text-within-the-text “The Reluctant Revolutionist” by Vladimir Nabokov). A unique and interesting structure and format for which the author should be commended. You can feel a sincere love and appreciation of the authors mentioned in the text. Unfortunately, this story has very little narrative pull for a casual, lunch-break reader such as myself.

Also, on a personal level, I tend to disagree with some of the narrative’s assumptions. I see literature as more reactive than proactive as a tool for social change – much like a photograph. Sure there are famous, moving photographs out there that have ultimately, often indirectly, led to action (Kevin Carter’s photographs from Sudan come to mind), but those images are only reflections of a present reality. That reality is ultimately what leads to action – not the reflection, not the art. The art only serves to bring awareness, not change, although awareness can sometimes lead to change. But this is something which can be argued both ways and kind of beside the point and getting my review off on a tangent...

In short, a complex tale utilizing a unique narrative technique. Well worth reading and thinking about, just don’t expect any easy, clear-cut answers or a straight-forward story.

POETRY: A mixed bag. Two really great poems alongside two perfectly nice poems that I found somewhat problematic (although I admit the problem could be with me as a reviewer – poetry reviews are no joke because as subjective as fiction can be, poetry is even more subjective).

“Redcap Repast” by WC Roberts – A sonnet that merges the feel of modern urban noir and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I am left feeling these disparate elements never really coalesce into a whole. The purpose and meaning of the poem remains just a touch out of focus. I feel like I missed something important here, contextually, even though I read it several times.

“The Conqueror of Mars, To His Beloved” by Megan Arkenberg – An apologetic and confessional love poem to the Red Planet itself. Nicely done.

“Splendours to Devour” by Mike Allen – Full of powerful imagery, this disturbing narrative poem tells the story of a war between “…twin hunger holocausts/who shredded and swallowed every scrap/of squirming flesh and shrieking soul/between them…” Highly recommended for those with a taste for dark speculative poetry.

“Beansidhe” by Shannon Connor Winward – “Beansidhe” is the Gaelic word for banshee. This is a first-person poem from the perspective of a beansidhe. In this version of a banshee story, the beansidhe is the ghost of a drowned woman. She mourns the loss of her lover and murderer, an unnamed figure referred to as “you.” Who this “you” is remains unclear and perhaps a little beside the point. Whoever “you” is, she loves this person and misses them and forgives them for doing her wrong. That seems to be what matters. She’s happy enough in her cold marshy grave it appears, but would like for people to stop spreading rumors about her. She only has one love in her life, and that love is “you.” In the last two lines, instead of speaking to “you” she talks to a “they.” Does this mean that “you” might be more than one person? That seems to be the implication here, but I’m not positive to be honest. I found myself wishing the author would have stuck with “you” in place of “they” in these last two lines. This would have made for a more coherent and personal piece of poetry, I think. The “they” – in my opinion – depersonalized all that was building up in previous lines. Although, looking at it a different way, I can see how the “they” could add another meaning to the poem; I’m just not sure this other meaning is built up enough in previous lines to justify the twist ending.

Overall, despite some minor subjective matters, this issue is a great read from one of my favorite electronic markets. You can read the full issue here:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Nascence: 17 Stories That Failed and What They Taught Me

I've been thinking about 'story' all month. What makes a good story? Why do some of my stories sell and others don't? Why can't I judge what's good in my own stories?

Then, as in answer to my wordless pleas, I came across Nascence by Science Fiction/Fantasy author, Tobias Buckell..

What a genius idea. Buckell has published 17 of his trunked stories written over a decade. Each story has an introduction explaining why he belives the story failed.

If you find yourself reading the author's introductions to stories as carefully as the stories themselves; if you're a writer who thinks about that mysterious thing called story, do consider this book. Tobias Buckell is offering something unique: a real insight into the mind of an author. Lessons to be learnt. Nascence has really crystallised some ideas I've been having about 'story' and given me some new insights.

Available on kindle for three dollars. (And if you don't have a kindle, did you know that you can download a free reader for your PC, that's what I did)?

This is the most helpful book I've read on the craft of short story writing for ages.