Tag Archives: Historical

Once Upon a Time: A Review of The Raven and Other Tales

 

Title: The Raven and Other Tales

Author: Joy V. Spicer

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: 2019

Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical

Length: 132 pages

Source: I received a free copy from Joy

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb: A raven appears on a cold winter’s night. An old woman helps a stranger find his way home. A young girl encounters a bad-tempered dwarf. Enter within, where magic is found alongside the ordinary, and things aren’t always what they seem. Where curiosity leads to a nightmare. Where ashes have the power to transform. And where stolen mortals are doomed to be forever lost in the forest.

Review:

This is a collection of ten short stories that are all firmly rooted in the fantasy genre. One of the coolest things Joy did with them was to briefly explain where her ideas for them came from after the conclusion of each story. I always enjoy learning where writers find inspiration for their work, so I was excited to have a sentence or two of explanation before beginning the next tale.

The most effective way I’ve found to review anthologies like this one is to pick about three of the stories in them that most accurately represent the over-arching themes and writing style in my opinion, describe their plots in a spoiler-free sentence or two, and then share my impressions of them. If any of these mini-reviews grab your attention, I’d heartily recommend checking out the whole book.

The Forest of the Others

Grace’s father and younger brother had wandered into a mysterious, forbidden forest and never come home again in “The Forest of the Others.” Three years after their disappearances, Grace ignored her mother’s warning to stay away from those trees and went into the forest to see if she could find out what happen to them.

I sure would have liked to see better communication between Grace and her mom. These woods were such an irresistible place in this universe that I think Grace would have still gone into them even if her mother had been more clear about how dangerous they were. It felt a little odd to me for someone who had already lost two relatives to what should have been an innocuous patch of land to be so vague about what she thought happened to them or why Grace should never break this rule.

This is something I’m saying as someone who loved everything else about this story. The dialogue was fresh and crisp. Grace’s character development was handled wonderfully. Her experiences in the woods made me shudder, although I’ll leave it up to future readers to discover why. The world-building was really nicely done, too, especially when it came to the mixture of emotions Grace had about the forest she wasn’t supposed to visit. All I needed was for Grace to know exactly why that area was forbidden before she decided to break that rule anyway.

Stranger at the Crossroads

Some of the tales in this collection were so short and filled with plot twists that I need to be pretty careful what I say about them for fear of wandering into spoiler territory.  “Stranger at the Crossroads” was one of them. In it, a woman who was walking down the road with her donkey met a stranger who wasn’t at all what he appeared to be.

Does this sound like a mystery or possibly something from the horror genre? Well, it wasn’t. The main character was such a brave and kind soul that her reaction to the unnerving stranger at the crossroads was as pleasantly surprising as it was creative. I enjoyed this entire anthology, but I must say that she was my favourite character of them all. I couldn’t have asked for a better protagonist on that particular day and in that specific time and place.

An Unlikely Friendship

In “An Unlikely Friendship,” a young girl named Meg met a grumpy dwarf in the middle of the woods one day while she was out searching for edible plants to feed her family. Meg’s friendship with Nev, the dwarf, was unexpected but a nice distraction from the grinding poverty she, her widowed mother, and two older sisters had struggled with for years.  Yes, this story was one of the ones mentioned in the blurb!

Meg’s personality was nicely written. She’d been taught to be kind to everyone she met. That’s a common trope in the fantasy and fairy tale genres, so I won’t go into much detail about it here. What was refreshing about this particular take on that lesson was how Meg reacted when it appeared that her kindness was not only going to be taken for granted but could very well lead her into a worse predicament than she’d been in when she was only poor and hungry.

This is the sort of twist to a genre that makes me want to come back for more.

 

What It Means to be Human: A Review of Let’s Play White

A few months ago, Apex Publications invited me to be part of their Back Catalogue Blog Tour. I chose to write a book review for Chesya Burke’s Let’s Play White as my contribution to it. Other participants will be sharing author interviews and guest posts throughout this month, so click the link above to check them out.

Title: Let’s Play White

Author: Chesya Burke

Publisher: Apex Publications

Publication Date: 2011

Genres: Science Fiction, Horror, Contemporary, Historical

Length: 200 pages

Source: I received a free copy from Apex Publications.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Blurb:

White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It’s the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.

From the spectrum spanning despair and hope in “What She Saw When They Flew Away” to the stark weave of personal struggles in “Chocolate Park,” Let’s Play White speaks with the voices of the overlooked and unheard. “I Make People Do Bad Things” shines a metaphysical light on Harlem’s most notorious historical madame, and then, with a deft twist into melancholic humor, “Cue: Change” brings a zombie-esque apocalypse, possibly for the betterment of all mankind.

Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let’s Play White feature real people facing the worlds they’re given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you’re ready to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, then it’s time to come play white.

Review:

Content Warning: racism, pregnancy, childbirth, deaths (including the death of a child), rape, domestic violence, and miscarriage. This will otherwise be a spoiler-free post, and I will not be going into detail about any of these topics in my review.

As much as I’d love to write a full-length review of all eleven stories in this anthology, doing so would have inflated this post to five or six thousand words at minimum because each one was set in its own unique universe. What I decided to do instead was to pick a few of the stories I enjoyed the most and talk about why I liked them so much. If any of these mini-reviews catches you attention, I highly recommend reading the whole anthology! It was well done and pretty interesting to read.

Purse

In “Purse,” a woman named Manyara battled anxious thoughts about the other passengers on the bus she was travelling on, especially when it came to a black man who was sitting near her. She was carrying thousands of dollars in her purse and worried she’d be robbed. This tale was filled with creative plot twists, so I’ll need to be mindful of what else I say about it.

What impressed me the most was how much effort I had to put in as a reader to figure out what was really happening on this bus ride. There was so much more going on with Manyara than she originally shared with the audience. This is something I’d recommend reading with as few assumptions about what is happening as your brain can handle.

What She Saw When They Flew Away

Grief doesn’t always end on a set schedule. Pearl, the main character of “What She Saw When They Flew Away,” had suffered a terrible loss before this tale began. Not only did she struggle to come to terms with it, she had even more trouble helping her daughter, Nayja, adapt to their new life together. Their sometimes-conflicting reactions to the same tragedy made me wonder what would happen by the final scene.

While I can’t say much else about their lives without giving away spoilers, I loved the metaphors Pearl used to explain how she was feeling even though I do wish she’d been given more time to show how they affected her life instead of simply telling the audience they were bringing up bittersweet memories.

Cue: Change

As the blurb mentioned, “Cue: Change” was set in a zombiepocalypse. These weren’t typical zombies, though, and their unpredictable effect on society was something I couldn’t have predicted ahead of time. I was fascinated by this twist on this monster. It was completely different from any other take on them I’ve read before, and it made me wish for more stories like this.

The humans also didn’t behave the way I’d normally expect them to in this sub-genre. Not only did they make calm, rational decisions, they stuck to their regular routines as much as they possibly could. This isn’t a common reaction to zombies, and it made me wish this was a full-length novel so I could get to know the characters even better than I did.

What to Read If You Liked The Clan of the Cave Bear

I’ve decided to start another series on this blog. Just like with the interviews with people who love speculative fiction that I’ll begin publishing here next week, Hopeful Science Fictionfilm reviews, Questions from the Search Engines, and Blogging Advice, this series won’t be updated on a specific schedule. Once I’ve come up with several similar titles to recommend to people who enjoyed a certain book, that post will be added to the queue.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is a prehistoric novel written by Jean M. Auel in 1980 about an orphaned human girl named Ayla who was raised by Neanderthals. It has four sequels about Ayla’s life as an adult.

Part of the reason why I picked this specific tale to start this series off with is because I’ve been getting a spike of visitors coming to this site looking for information about Auel, her characters, and whether there is going to be a TV show or movie made about  the Earth’s Children books.

No, it doesn’t look like there’s anything in the works. I’ll be the first to shout it from the rooftops if that ever changes! In the meantime, why not talk about something I enjoyed quite a bit?

The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those stories that I’ve returned to over and over again. The plot is an intriguing blend of adventure, romance, mystery, and even a touch bit of the paranormal genre at times.

Life wasn’t exactly easy for hunter-gatherers 30,000 years ago, so there were also plenty of subplots about gathering food, making weapons, preserving medicinal herbs, and doing everything else necessary to survive the cold, long winters of an ice age.

I’ve spent years on the lookout for books that are comparable to this one and its sequels. The following list is the cream of the crop of everything I’ve read so far about Neanderthals and how they might have interacted with Homo sapiens tens of thousands of years ago or in modern times.

The Inheritors by William Golding

This was the first well-written book I discovered when I went to the library as a young teen in hopes of finding more storytellers like Jean M. Auel who had clearly done their research about life in the prehistoric era.

It was fascinating to see how Mr. Golding imagined Neanderthals might have behaved as their culture began to bump up against a stronger one. The Neanderthals in this world were caring, but they had trouble competing in a world where a more intelligent and dangerous type of human was beginning to move into their territory.  I’d argue that this twist says just as much about him and the era he lived in as it does about one of the possible reasons why this species might have gone extinct.

Ember from the Sun by Mark Canter 

I read this title soon after finding The Inheritors, and it’s something I’ve been recommending to likeminded readers for many years now. It’s by far the most science-fiction oriented part of this list because of how much time the narrator spent setting up the storyline and explaining why the things he imagined could possibly happen with the use of science instead of magic to explain them.

In short, the main character was a scientist who found the body of a frozen Neanderthal woman that was so well-preserved he actually found a viable embryo in her womb. (Yes, there was a somewhat-scientific reason why this was possible in this universe, but I can’t tell you specifics about that scene without revealing an important part of the plot).

He implanted that embryo into a human volunteer, named the resulting baby Ember, and raised her as his own. As she grew up, she began to explore her unusual past. She had many of the same questions that people who are transracially adopted have about their identity, and those questions lead to some very interesting developments in the plot that I still mull over to this day.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

The title of this one gives away its subject matter. We know that eventually all of the Neanderthals died out (or interbred with a much larger group of humans until their genes almost completely disappeared). There are so many things that bones can’t tell us about an individual or their culture, however!

What was the life of the last obvious Neanderthal like? How were they different from us? I can tell you almost nothing about this protagonist other than the fact that I found her delightful. Everything else I want to say would wander too close to spoiler territory because of how long it took the author to explain some of her character’s most enduring traits.

There is a film by the same name that is currently in the works. I can’t figure out if it’s supposed to be based on this book. Either way, I’m tentatively hoping to review it when it comes out!

Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

One of the things I wish had been different about the Earth’s Children books was how far they eventually strayed away from describing all of the hard work that people needed to do in order to survive in such harsh climates. This novel always stayed true to its setting in that way. Life as a hunter-gatherer is never something that should be romanticized even if there are certain parts of it I wish I could incorporate into my own urban lifestyle!

I also loved the friendships the characters in this tale developed with Neanderthals. They worked together to survive in an unforgiving climate. As much as I respected Mr. Golding’s take on this topic, I’d like to think that the past was a cooperative place.

The Neanderthal Parallex trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer

In Hominids, the first book of this series, humans from our Earth meet a modern-day Neanderthal from a parallel universe where their species survived and humans died out tens of thousands of years ago.

The cultural differences between Neanderthals and humans were vast. To give one of the least surprising examples, all of the Neanderthals in this universe are bisexual and have two spouses, one man and one woman. It was fascinating to see how these two worlds collided once the characters realized just how many assumptions they made about life didn’t fit the other society in any way.

I can’t believe no one has turned this into a TV series yet. Robert J. Sawyer has written dozens of worthwhile books, but this world in particular really needs to be shared with a wider audience. It was so thought provoking.

Respond

If any of you have recommendations for other prehistoric tales or a request for a book I should feature next in this series, do speak up. I’m always open to suggestions.

Echoes of the Past: A Review of The Little Stranger

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, and Winchester

This is a spoiler-free review. 

The Little Stranger is the 2018 film adaptation of a book by the same name written by Sarah Waters, one of my favourite authors. This story was set in 1948, and it followed about a year in the life of Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged man who was one of only two doctors in his rural community. He grew up in a low-income family at a time when the vast majority of children did not move into higher social classes as adults than the ones they were born into, so he was still adjusting to the changes that higher education had brought to his life when this mystery began.

In one of the earliest scenes in the plot, Faraday revisited Hundreds Hall, a mansion that his mother once worked in, after one of the servants who worked at that estate came down with a mysterious illness. The last time he’d visited it had been nearly 30 years ago when he was a young boy and his mother brought him to a public celebration there after the end of World War I.

Hundreds Hall was crumbling by 1948, and the family who lived in it had isolated themselves from the surrounding community to an alarming degree. It was nothing at all like the glamorous, well-kept home that Faraday recalled from his childhood, and the Ayers themselves didn’t seem to be doing well either. After a brief encounter with Roderick, Faraday asked to come back again to see if he can treat some of the pain and muscle stiffness that Roderick had been dealing with since he was wounded in the war. (I’ll give you more details about these characters in a moment).

While he knew that the Ayers have lost much of their wealth over the past few decades, Faraday was still shocked by how much the property has deteriorated since he last saw it. Could their inability to pay for necessary repairs explain what is going on, or was there something else afoot in this once-stunning mansion?

 

The Characters

Domhnall Gleeson as Dr. Faraday

Dr. Faraday, the protagonist, was a middle-aged bachelor whose days are generally spent holding office hours at his clinic and doing home visits for patients who were too contagious, sick, or frail to come see him. Most of his patients were poor, so he didn’t make a great deal of money for someone in his position despite his prestigious title and the long hours he worked.

Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Ayres

Mrs. Ayers was the matriarch of the Ayers family. Her life had changed dramatically since Dr. Faraday first met her in 1919, from the births of Caroline and Roderick to the steep decline in her fortunes and social standing. She had once hosted grand parties in her home, but she now hid away from the community she’d once embraced. Even her own children didn’t seem to spend a great deal of time with her despite the fact that they all lived in the same home.

Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres (right)

Caroline Ayers was Mrs. Ayers daughter. She was by far the most intelligent and resourceful member of the Ayers family, and there were several intriguing references to the things she’d accomplished before her brother’s terrible injuries happened in the war.

Will Poulter as Roderick Ayres

Roderick was Mrs. Ayers son. He was badly injured during World War II. When the events of this book began, he was still dealing with both the physical and psychological effects of his wartime experiences in a time when mental health issues were not well understood and when doctors had far fewer treatments for the serious burns and other injuries he’d survived.

My Review

One of the things I’ve always loved about Sarah Waters’ writing style is how adept she is at giving evidence that can support multiple interpretations of a scene or plot. Most of her books don’t have the strong mystery elements in them that this one does, so the fact that she was able to pull this off while writing in a genre I haven’t seen her spend much time in before was impressive.

Dr. Faraday was a character I had mixed feelings about from the beginning. In one of the earliest scenes, the audience saw him visiting Hundreds Hall in its heyday and purposefully breaking off an ornamental acorns from one of the walls in this home. The reasons why he did that were explored later in the storyline, but they didn’t give me a good first impression of this character.

Getting to know him as the adult he was a few decades later softened my opinion of him. As I mentioned earlier, he’d grown up in a time and place where it was nearly impossible to escape the social class one was born into. The fact that his family had scrounged up enough money to get him through medical school was amazing, and I did admire the determination and grit he must have needed to get through such an experience when his family had so little money to spare.

As intrigued as I was about the Ayers, I didn’t feel like I got to know them quite as well as I could have. I appreciated the fact that Faraday was given so much time to shine, but I would have liked to know a few more details about who Roderick, Caroline, and Mrs. Ayers were as individuals before they began experiencing so much misfortune. The little pieces of their pasts that were shared were well done. I simply needed a few extra scenes describing how and when things had gone so terribly wrong for them.

With that being said, this was something I also noticed in the novel. Explaining why these characters weren’t quite as open with Faraday or the audience as I would have preferred them to be would be wandering dangerously close to spoiler territory, and I do understand why they were written that way even though I wish they could have been a little more forthcoming in the film.

What I did love about the storyline was the way it encouraged the audience to ask questions. It wasn’t immediately clear what was really going on at Hundreds Hall. The servant that Faraday was called to treat was quite spooked by living in there, but she refused to tell him who or what had frightened her. This pattern of dancing around the question of whether what was happening in this mansion was supernatural in origin or had a purely rational explanation occurred over and over again.

Just like when I read the book, I formed my opinion about what was going on pretty early on. I won’t tell you what it was, but I will say that I really enjoyed the process of weighing the evidence and coming up with the most likely explanation for all of the strange, and sometimes violent, occurrences at Hundreds Hall before the final scene was revealed.

This is something I’d strongly recommend checking out to anyone who likes any of the themes or genres I mentioned in this review. I liked this adaptation and thought it complemented the original story nicely.

Speaking of Violence, Is It Gory?

I definitely wouldn’t call this a gory film, but there were a few scenes in it that involved a little blood. If anyone would like more information about this, know that I’ll have to share some mild spoilers in order to go into detail about it. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t bothered by these scenes even though I strongly dislike gore in general. They were brief and fit the tone of the storyline well.

The Little Stranger is available on iTunes.