Stories of teenagers trying to find their way through turbulent times have always fascinated  me. It’s quite inspiring to see young people growing up, forming their personalities in times of great social upheaval.

So when I heard about TEN THOUSAND SAINTS, the gritty, emotional novel by Eleanor Henderson, about the straight-edge movement, with which I was vaguely familiar due to professional wrestler CM Punk), I knew I had to read it. I fell in love with the plot description instantly.

Meet Jude. Jude is a teen raised by parents who are very, very liberal, to say the least, in regard to using various addictive substances.  Jude’s best friend, Teddy, has lost his life to a drug overdose, so this kid’s got quite a personal history with drug abuse. Which is why, in turbulent, AIDS-panicked New York in the 1980’s, Jude, together with Teddy’s former girlfriend, left pregnant, and Johnny, Teddy’s half-brother, join  the straightedge movement. To the “uninitiated”, this is a punk subculture, with a strong aversion to drinking, smoking,  drugs and sexual promiscuity.

The novel pulls no punches in dealing with heavy subjects: drug abuse is very common, Jude’s parents being very big into this sort of thing. Eliza’s pregnancy, given that she’s not even out of her teens, is another point of controversy.  Pretty much every adult in this book, as a previous reviewer remarked, is a wreck. So, in its essence, this is a story about growing up with no suitable role models. It’s a painful, gritty, honest story, with flawed, vulnerable, and yet likable teenage protagonists trying to find their way in a wayward world.  The plot twist with Johnny was something unexpected, as was the bittersweet ending(read this book!) I also had a chance to get educated on fetal alcohol syndrome, which I knew vaguely about, so there’s stuff to learn from this novel as well.

For the authenticity of the setting and the compelling nature of its characters, TEN THOUSAND SAINTS gets TEN THOUSAND stars! This book rocks, and though I received a copy from the author for review purposes, this review is entirely composed of my own views. Thank you, Ms. Henderson! Great job!

The power of stories is undeniable. I’ve always been aware of the fact that it is through stories that our reality is shaped.

These days,  there is a wide selection of storytelling environments at one’s disposal. Books, comics, films, television series, and yes, even videogames, can compel us in ways which we cannot fully fathom.  I have to be honest and say that sometimes, I get compelled by the story of a videogame just as much as that of a film, or even a novel.

Such was the case with the mindblowing story in Quantum Break,  a story in which time, in and of itself, can, and in my view, does take center stage. The game is groundbreaking in the manner in which it allows players to choose possible outcomes for the story, which play out in a live-action series tied into the storyline.

A groundbreaking game deserves a groundbreaking prose adaptation. And such is the case for Quantum Break: Zero State, an awesomely complex novel which takes the characters of the game and places them in a similar and yet wholly different context than that of the storyline that players get to explore. As per the words of Sam Lake, the director of Remedy Entertainment, the publisher of the game said, the game didn’t need a straightforward novelization, and as such, Cam Rogers, the author of the novel, who was gracious enough to provide me with a copy, which doesn’t mean that the views presented herein belong to anyone else, got total control.

And boooy, oh boy, did the novel ever end up in a pair of capable hands! The storyline is as complex and multifaceted as the original novel is, the plot is blistering, and the characterization is spot-on. This book completely changed my view of what a tie-in novel is, and it may well be the best such book that has ever crossed my path. The characters are familiar to those who’ve played the game: Jack Joyce, the time-bending drifter seeking to escape his past, and possibly his future too, Paul Serene, a man for whom time is an illness, Beth Wilder, a woman in search of her true loyalties, and William Joyce, the brilliant, eccentric mind who believes he can change the world through time travel.

The concept of time permeates, drives and sustains this high-octane, high-concept, high-stakes narrative, and its 400+ pages move at a blistering pace, redefining tie-in novels in the process. This is a must for everyone who loves solid, character-driven sci-fi. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. Heck of a job!  Solid ten out of five!

In a previous review, I was discussing a novel called DOC, by Mary Doria Russell, a novel that I loved for the aura of grit and authenticity it created around its characters and setting.

The sequel to said novel, titled EPITAPH, takes the points in which its predecessor shined to the next level.

The subtitle to this sprawling saga is “A Novel of the OK Corral”.It’s a good thing wasn’t “A Novel About the OK Corral” because  if we were to title it according to what it actually is, the cover would probably need to be 20 times wider, because there’s so, so much more to this book than just the OK Corral in and of itself. In fact, as we’re reminded by the author, the shooutout in and of itself took 30 seconds.

Which is why I believe Ms. Mary Doria Russell is one of, if not the most compelling voice in American historical fiction that I have ever come across. To be able to build an almost 600-page novel around what is basically half a minute of American history, one has to know what they’re talking about.

And, trust me, you know that you don’t NEED my confirmation that Ms. Russell knows what she’s talking about. Like its predecessor, EPITAPH is an immersive, impeccably  researched labor of love.

When one says the word “Western”, everyone seems to know what they refer to: a piece of fiction, whether on paper or on screen, which deals with a certain period in American history where things were very clearly settled between gentlemen with wide-brimmed hats of opposing colors. Right?

Aaaand then, there’s EPITAPH, the aforementioned labor of love which prefers honest-to-God authenticity and believability to larger-than-life pomp and circumstance. That’s why this novel is so brilliant. It is an excellent, one-of-a-kind answer to the heavily romanticized perspectives that have become such a common trope in Western fiction. It focuses on the motivations and feelings of all the characters involved in the story, from the Wyatt brothers and Doc Holliday, to the Clantons and McLaurys. In the middle of it all is Sarah Josephine “Sadie” Marcus, the Jewish woman who hero-worshipped Wyatt Earp like none other. It is through her perspective that the novel becomes much more than a novel about the OK Corral. It becomes an enthralling meditation about justice, honor, truth, fiction, a true-ringing testament of the undeniable power of myth. In fact, myth is at the very core of the novel, with Homeric quotations being used for every chapter and section title.  This is a gritty, violent, bitter, sweet, sad, funny, depressing and uplifting saga that is sure to become an American classic. Heartily recommended, and we’re not talking stars, but constellations for this solid yarn! Thank you, Ms. Doria! Superb read! As in the previous review, the views expressed herein are mine and my own entirely.

 

There is something about Westerns that I have always found fascinating.  There’s a certain aura of myth around the whole Old West period and its figures, people in wide-brimmed hats, with a very clear idea of justice, either revered as heroes or reviled as villains. There’s always this impression that there’s no “middle ground” when it comes to the figures of Old West lore.

The name of John Henry “Doc” Holliday is known to everyone who’s passionate about American history, or so it should be.   His image will forever be etched in my mind as it was penned by the brilliant, vibrant mind of Ms. Mary Doria Russell, author of DOC, a novel I’m proud to have on my shelf.

This book is one of the most impeccably written and researched historical novels I have ever had the chance to read.  It tells its story vividly, with a great deal of passion and wit, and readers feel as though they are eavesdropping on American history.

What I love the most about the book(and its awesome sequel, EPITAPH, which is going to be the subject of another review) is the fact that it doesn’t fall into a very common trap of Western fiction, which is that of putting its heroes on some sort of pedestal, turning them into untouchable monoliths. No. This book tells the very down-to-earth story of a man upon whom history placed a larger-than-life reputation. A man battling very personal demons, consumed with disease. An avid reader and skilled musician. A fierce fighter and inveterate gambler.  A man who’s known for living in the proverbial shadow of an Old West legend, in the person of Wyatt Earp(their relationship is the backb0ne of this thoroughly solid novel), gets a voice of his own. A voice that rings with the authentic grit of Uncle Sam of old.  I love how the author made me, as a reader, understand that sometimes, there is both less and more about the iconic figures of history than we think there is. It is a valuable lesson that every writer of historical fiction should be able to put across very clearly.  Though receiving a copy for review purposes, it is my pleasure and honor to state that the views herein are entirely my own, as is the ten-outta-five rating for this unique Western odyssey. Thank you, Ms. Russell. A darned fine yarn, if I do say so myself!

 

Someone once said a good book is meant to make you laugh, cry and think. Now, if I were to judge the book that I am about to review from that point of view, I’d call it one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.

Which is something that I can say about it without these criteria as well. I’m talking about MY LIFE IN A NUTSHELL, a beautiful, heartrending novel by Tanya J. Peterson.

The book tells the story of Brian Cunningham, a 37-year-old man working in the maintenance department of an elementary school, where he meets young Abigail, a 7-year-old little girl with serious attachment issues. Brian has a deep dark secret of his own: his crippling social anxiety. The novel essentially tells the story of how a beautiful friendship blooms between two broken souls.

The most amazing thing about this book is how vivid the characters are. I genuinely was under the impression that I’m inside the mind of a socially anxious man. The book is the type of read that grips one from the very beginning: “I’m an idiot. I must be the dumbest man on the planet […] What kind of an idiot forgets to take a sack lunch to work?”   It’s amazing how up-close and personal the author gets with the character, it’s like she’s writing about a lifelong friend, and it feels heartbreaking, and yet inspiring to read about Brian’s struggle with making it through one day after another.  His friendship with Abigail, another very endearing character, will test both their limits in a number of ways. This is a very powerful story, and Ms. Peterson writes not with the clinical dryness typical of mental health professionals, but with the emotionally engaging confidence of an accomplished novelist. I loved the overall message of the book, which, to me, is that it’s perfectly okay not to “fit in”, as long as you know you’re not alone. I loved the story of the tree that Brian told to little Abigail during their time together, and I cheered each of them on whenever they progressed. The backstory of Abigail, a child too young to witness the horrors of adulthood she’d been put through, will even soften hearts of stone.

If there’s one book that completely changed my perspective on mental conditions, and my outlook on the power of a great friendship, this book is it. It truly has the power to change lives. Whether you are struggling with social anxiety, or you’re a professional dealing with people who are, or you just want a healthy dose of inspiration and positivity, this extraordinary book is for you. A clear summer night’s sky full of stars for this gem of a book! Thank you, Ms. Peterson! Superb read! While I received a copy from the author in exchange for a review, the views expressed herein are entirely my views, and I’m proud to say so.

Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorite Biblical novels, so whenever I hear of a book that is similar or related  in any way to it I jump at the chance of reading it.  So, of course, as soon as I heard of the existence of a sequel to Ben-Hur written from the point of view of his archrival Messala, I immediately sought more information.

The novel in question, called MESSALLA: THE RETURN FROM RUIN, and written by Canadian author Lois Scouten, is very clear evidence in favor of the fact that a timeless classic SHOULD have a sequel, provided that said sequel is done right.  And trust me when I say that this sequel is done exactly right.

The story of Messala is left with an unclear ending by Lew Wallace in the original novel. We only know that the brutal accident he was involved in with Ben-Hur has left him crippled, physically and spiritually broken. This leaves space for the wonderful thing that is known to those who love reading and those who love writing books as “speculation”.

There’s a great risk when writing a sequel to a classic novel, the risk of not being able to completely capture the spirit of the original.

Fortunately, Ms. Scouten is very well-versed in this very thing: capturing the spirit of the era in which the story takes place, and furthermore, the spirit of the character who narrates his story.  Readers get to spend time with a bitter man on his way back to a normal life, and follow him through the perils that do not seem to let go of him: a cruel and jealous woman ready to murder him and the dog-eat-dog Roman society of the time.

As a historical fiction enthusiast, I always appreciate it when the author puts in a great deal of effort to pay attention to the language they use. This novel, while not as linguistically ornate as the 19th-century original, benefits from a great deal of attention to linguistic details, managing to provide engaging dialogue without pandering to the modern reader by using anachronisms. The novel truly feels like the memoir of a physically and psychologically traumatised Roman nobleman, which is how the author  meant for it to be read.

As a person born with a physical disability, I loved to get a chance to see how a man of more than 2000 years ago could have perceived himself after remaining physically disabled in a society in which a body as healthy and strong as possible was the norm. I loved reading about Messala’s exploits as a novelist, and his relationships with various figures in the “high” society of the times, from Valerius Gratus, the procurator Ben-Hur was accused of having assaulted, to Herod Agrippa, the King of the Jews. I loved Messala’s interest in Christianity, explored, but not overdone. The novel manages to be a piece of Christian historical fiction by not forcing Christianity down the throat of the reader, and though we never get a clear answer to whether Messala actually becomes a Christian, we do get to see him grow to respect the movement started by Jesus, if only for not being the threat to Rome that every emperor up to Constantine the Great claimed it to be. The character of Caligula is also very well done: the reader gets to see him grow from spoiled brat to demented tyrant.

The character of Ben-Hur is very compellingly presented in this novel. The reader is constantly kept aware of the fact that Messala is the narrator of the tale, and thus, he spends a large period of time being bitter about the fact that Ben-Hur is living a prosperous life and considered a legendary hero. However, the relationship between the two grows into something resembling mutual respect, and the journey towards that relationship is a thing of beauty.

Overall, MESSALA: THE RETURN FROM RUIN does an excellent job at creating a believable sequel to a beloved classic, with the first-person narration giving it the always welcome air of intimacy. It’s one of the best books on Ancient Rome in my library, and I’m richer in knowledge and spirit for reading it. Ten stars out of five for an epic tale of bitterness, betrayal, faith and perseverence. I received a copy of the book courtesy of BPS Books in Toronto(and Mr. Donald Bastian), but I’m proud to say that the views expressed herein are my own.

I have had a soft spot for Biblical fiction for a long time now.  My almost lifelong fascination with the historical figures who shaped Christianity has taken me on many journeys of the mind and heart into the life and times of Christ and his apostles.

The latest worthy addition to my wealth of novels set during the days of the early Church is A TIME TO ACT, by SJ Knight.

Though connected to the previously reviewed trilogy, this novel falls into the more specific category of biographical Biblical fiction, focusing its attention on Shaul, later known as Paul the Apostle, a man of remarkable intensity in his conviction.

The reader follows Shaul from his very birth, sharing the excitement of his parents as he is delivered into the world, a scrawny little underdog willing himself on into life by the awesome capacity of his mind, rather than the brute strength of his body.

Of all the fiction I have read about the life of the Apostle Paul, this book offers the most emotional representation of his intensity, and shows a man willing to risk deteriorating his relationship with his own family for the sake of what he sees as preserving the Law of Moses.  Never before have I read such a stirring, gripping depiction of what  he was willing to do for his faith. Ms. Knight delves deeply into the mind of the Shaul that very well might have roamed the world, first as a persecutor, then as a fervent, wholly dedicated believer in Christ, and shows a man who is often at odds with himself in the mission he’s been given. Much like all of us.  This book follows the style of the trilogy, and puts flesh on the historical and scriptural figure of Paul of Tarsus, giving readers a compelling picture of a completely relatable Saint Paul, which, in my view, makes it a guaranteed success in the field of Biblical fiction. Ten out of five for a stellar portrayal of a colossus of the Christian faith and his times. Cannot wait to see how the story further unfolds, regardless of how much I have to wait for it! And though I received copies of Ms. Knight’s work, the views here and in the previous reviews are my own, and it’s a blessing to say so.