Underneath by Dan Dewitt

It is a pleasure to introduce our second Guest Reviewer, Jackie Keller. She is currently a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and her major is Psychology. She hopes to attain her B.S. in said science by the end of the year. When she is not delving into the minds of murderers and lunatics she can be found either either reading horror literature and exploring the underlying emotional processes behind them or sewing the skin from her victims into a human skin suit. We hope to have many more reviews from her in the coming weeks!

Just in time for Halloween, it is my pleasure to present you ravishing readers with my review for the short story collection, Underneath. Underneath is a collection of unique horror tales by author Dan Dewitt. The stories presented are “true” short story length, ranging from 1500 – 4000 words, making it very quick and easy to read. They draw on many themes such as family, marriage, technology, and of course, zombies.

Dewitt switches between first and third person for his different stories, but has an overall realistic style. That is to say, even in third person, the writing style clearly and directly conveys the thoughts and emotions of the characters, even the more “coarse” ones. It’s a good choice for short horror, in my opinion, because it allows the reader to more easily sympathize and empathize with the characters as the tension rises in their respective plots.

That said, the “thought style” presented for nearly all the main characters, as well as many of the supporting ones, tends to be very masculine. I realize that authors tend to write characters more along the lines of their own gender identity, and since Dewitt is male, it is more probable that many of his characters are going to be more masculine. However, this style in which he portrays many of the characters almost makes them blend together – nearly all of them drink and smoke cigars, are tough, even if unsuspecting heroes, protective fathers, etc. Seriously, this guy seems to have a cigar fetish or something, the characters smoke them in at least two or three different stories.
I can’t completely dump on gender representation in Dewitt’s work, though. The only female protagonist in any of the stories is an intriguingly dark character, though here I am mentioning that she is the only female main character. As for the supporting female characters, however, the vast majority of them are smart, strong, definitely capable, and have at least some backstory of their own. One of the only possible exceptions being the character Dahlia in the Father-Daughter Dance story, but let’s just say that she has a… certain physical condition that we can cut her some slack for.

Gender issues aside, I greatly enjoy Dewitt’s style for the way that it plants you right in the character’s heads and hearts. He even still does it well with multiple character perspectives in the book’s final story, Orpheus which is DeWitt’s unique take on the traditional post-zombie-apocalypse tale (and has actually been created into a full-length novel).

Allow me to get back to the Father-Daughter Dance tale for a moment. This story follows one of many emotional trials of a father grieving over his lost daughter. Though Dahlia is arguably presented as a weak female character, the story itself is a strong parable of a parent’s love for a child, and how far a parent can and will go to try to save their child. This story is also one of the only stories that tap into more of a fantasy or “mystical” element. The only other story being How Many Years of Bad Luck Am I Up to, Anyway?. The occult themes in this story are a great style change from many of the more “realist” and contemporary styles of his other stories. It’s also pretty action-packed, and does keep you on the edge of your seat, but in my opinion, the ending falls a little flat. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t skip this one.

Speaking of contemporary style, allow me to finally introduce to you my favorite story in this book, Terror by Text. Yes, it’s a monstrously cheesy title, and the author admits it himself, but don’t let that turn you away! The protagonist of this story is a sort of horror blogger who tells the story of his trip to an abandoned hospital entirely through a series of Tweets. You’re probably thinking, “Oh God, a story out of Tweets? What trend is this guy trying to latch onto?” And hell, even one reviewer on Amazon was reduced to bibliophilic tears, bemoaning what literature has become. Ignore your initial inclinations, and definitely ignore bibliophile snobs. Anyway, our protagonist uses Tweets to document his haunting hospital tour, as well as an encounter with a strange, evil online figure who isn’t exactly a welcome commentator. What is it about the Tweet-style that makes this story the scariest, in my opinion? I’ll be honest, I’m not certain. It probably does have to do with the fact that I am a generation Y kid, and this story is written in a bite-by-bite style that appeals to my attention span-deficit young mind – or so the elders might tell you. I’ll go ahead and tell you that it’s to do with the fact that it creates a “pace” for the reader to follow. We know where the protagonist is going, how he’s feeling, and how fast the story is going, even at only 140 characters at a time. And yet, that text line length creates not only an “out-of-breath” tone that seems to match the trekking on of the protagonist, it leaves us enough mystery as is necessary in a ghost story, for us to wonder what exactly happened in that particular ward…

Underneath is free for the Kindle on Amazon, and the paperback price is also extremely affordable, so if my review hasn’t piqued your interest enough in Dan Dewitt’s work, the price may as well! Obviously, if you aren’t a horror fan, it’s probably not going to be up your alley no matter what. But if you like mystery, a bit of the occult, contemporary drama, or even just zombies, I highly recommend getting this book, especially now that we’re entering the haunting season.

The Shattered Citadel Series by Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Spoilers!

I have found in my experience with stories about war that during battle scenes it is a common incident that the action of a battle leaves me bored and reading faster just to get to a part with real human dialogue and storytelling. Is it odd to say that I have become desensitized to the battlefield in literature? Maybe and maybe not. It is very hard to pack real emotion into a battle scene. This is understandable as any battle in war is barely controlled chaos. How is it possible to pack real emotion and sympathy in something where absolutely nothing is certain and every character essentially becomes faceless as they fight for survival? This week’s review is different from those, in that the author has found a way to humanize (as terrible as it sounds) his battle scenes into something more than a faceless mass of death and destruction.

I was first introduced to the world of Shattered Citadel by Michael Mangual, by a stranger at a Barnes and Noble store who saw me looking over the Alternate History section. I’m thankful he suggested it. Shattered Citadel at this point is a series of short stories that can be found here: http://shatteredcitadel.com/ . They are a work of love from the author, one Michael Mangual who hopes to one day turn this labor of love into a full-fledged book in the same style as The Good War by Studs Terkel and World War Z by Max Brooks. Shattered Citadel is about a future world war (also called the Third Human Civil War) between a Federated Europe, United North America, and India against the hordes of the Chinese Hegemony, a newly born Soviet Union, and a new Muslim Caliphate that is made up of the entire Middle East.

I will not lie many of the stories involve intense scenes of violence which include graphic depictions of genocide, cannibalism, and the unmitigated use of weapons of mass destruction. The world he paints is one that I desperately hope we can avoid. Despite these scenes of intense violence there are also instances of compassion and humanity. Many stories deal with the redemption of characters and champion the sacrifice one person can make out of love for another. While Mr. Mangual is able to make his battle scenes stay interesting he is also able to create real sympathy from the reader for the characters he creates.

This series does not only focus on World War III. Many of Mr. Mangual’s short stories also describe the world afterwards as well as the colonization of the solar system by humans along with Humanity’s first interactions with beings from other planets. These stories I find especially well planned and executed as the alien species are very interesting. One race, the Huellok are described as two headed flesh eaters. The second are the Voorik, large crystalline beings that speak through telepathy in the voices of dead loved ones. Both are very different from the standard aliens we seem to get today, most of which always seem to be overly human. These actually seem otherworldly.

I am genuinely glad to have had this series of short stories introduced to me by a random person in a book store. I have not been disappointed. These series of short stories are great reading for anyone who has an interest in military Sci-Fi.

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Courtesy of Michael Mangual

Red Plenty Review Part 2

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/08/the-glorious-terrible-strange-ussr-francis-spuffords-red-plenty

Recently I reviewed the novel Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (which can be read here: https://jhame085.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/red-plenty-by-francis-spufford/) I figured it would be fun to read another review of the book (in this case from the blog on Tor.com) to see what another reader enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about it.

If you read the review you’ll find that the blog’s author, Jo Walton, seems to enjoy the book. Like me he mentions how he enjoys the mixture of historical fiction with historical facts to weave a very interesting and telling series of tales. Mr. Meier seems to go a step further into his back research of Francis Spufford research for the book than I did. He mentions in his article that some of the things that the charterers say in the book are, in fact, taken from direct quotes from real people living in the Soviet Union. Walton makes special note of many scenes from the book quoting them word for word.

Walton is also amazed at the level of research Spufford acheived in his research of the book. He mentions the 53 pages of end notes that are included at the end of Red Plenty. Despite the fact that I knew that there were so many end notes in the story it is only after reading this article that I can genuinely appreciate the hard work put into this book. To be honest I feel that this ignorance is quite common among avid readers like myself. We are often so ignorant at the level of hard work our favorite authors put into writing their books.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford


Spoilers

Relations between the West and Russia has always been on the cold side. This is despite the fall of the Soviet Empire over 20 years ago. Because of this we in the West (and I’m sure those in Russia as well) have a very stereotypical view of our former opponents. This is due to propaganda released by both sides as well as the indoctrination schools used to convince their students that the opposite side was the personification of physical evil in this world. Because of this it was and continues to be very hard for us in the West to understand what life was like in the Soviet Union and what life is like in Russia today. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford gives a brilliant view of what life was like in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev Era. He does this through a series short stories that show views of life from the point of views of various Soviet citizens, from upper politicians to regular factory workers. The stories range from funny to downright depressing. All the stories attempt to explain what exactly led to the Soviet System to collapse a few decades later in the late 80’s. The reasons presented not only include the oppression that the Soviets were never able to completely rid their system of, but also due to the lack of imagination of the Soviet Leadership. One story tells how Soviet Leader Alexei Kosygin makes a crucial decision that leads to the collapse of the Soviet Computer industry. This is due to the fact that he opts to buy Western computers rather than allow the Soviet industry to develop. This allows their own industry to fall behind.

A common theme in the book is disillusioned optimism. The Soviet Experiment was meant to be the final step towards a perfect utopia. This optimism is similar to the post-war optimism that the US experienced. The US optimism, however was tempered by the numerous problems that occurred during the 60’s and 70’s such as the counter culture and the Civil Rights Movement. These problems never occurred in the Soviet Union and optimism was propagated by the state. Reasons for the disillusionment are demonstrated as to be the lack of social mobility, the lack of consumer goods, as well as the harsh oppression committed by the government. One point in the story that is particularly harsh is the dramatization of the Novocherkassk Massacre of 1962, in which government and KGB forces massacred protesters asking for better working and living conditions.

This book is a must for anyone trying to better understand the Soviet State and the culture it propagated. It is also a good read for those who are trying to understand the Post-Soviet Russia. It is written clearly and is well researched. I also found it a highly entertaining read.