[Review] Bulb – Bradley Wind

Welcome back to the next review 🙂 Today we’re looking at Bulb, by Bradley Wind.

Full disclosure – I received this book for free as part of the TBRinder advance review program for indie authors.

If light records everything we do, can even shadows hide our secrets?

Imagine your entire life is available for review.

Imagine each day any event can be watched over and over again – your birth, your first kiss, your recent shower, that private itch – all replayable from any angle. Now imagine these can be viewed by anyone at any time.

Is a world where there is far less ego, little crime, and even the smallest moments are recorded and available publicly through the ‘Grand Archive’ a Utopia or a Dystopia? Traumatized by memories he does not want to recall, artist Ben Tinthawin is recruited by the enigmatic, Grand Archive creator Dr. Mamon, who seeks help for his nextgen designs to enhance the world. Ben stumbles across a secret revealing the doctor’s true scheme in all its surreal splendor and questions whether the doctor really is the benevolent soul he claims to be.As the paths of a broken man and a brilliant revolutionary cross, the world shifts and cracks start to appear. Even our most fundamental codes can be encrypted – or corrupted. If the wrong information is discovered, more than Ben’s life will be in danger of total shut down.

Prepare yourself for full exposure.


Please note – This book and review are 18+.  Topics will be discussed ranging from sexual acts involving minors to rape.  Read at your own discretion.

You all know the drill.  We’re going to take a look at Bulb, beginning with things that worked for me, moving into things that didn’t, and then we’ll swing back for an overall ‘feel’ on the book.  Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped, and so my points will be accompanied by excerpts from the texts to substantiate what I’m talking about where necessary.

But first!

Let’s start with the positives, before we get into it 🙂

What worked for me with Bulb?

First and foremost, I was really impressed by the unique ideas presented in Bulb.  The book centers around the idea that all of our experiences are constantly logged and archived – and that archive can be viewed by anyone.  It’s a very black mirror-esque take on a dystopian society, and in a good way. It’s not *new*, and everyone’s used to it, so society has just…moved on.  I liked that this facet of society was more a setting for the story that happened, rather than the problem itself.

To top that off, I was fascinated by the idea of Saints – essentially, people placed into comas by scientists, volunteers who donate their minds and bodies to fuel the research of this society.  Our main character Ben’s job, then, is an interesting one. He ‘paints’ images out of biochemicals, which show up in the Saints’ frozen minds as dreams and daydreams. He moves from patient to patient, reading a short journal written by the Saint before they slept, and then paints them an image.

I found these ideas really interesting, and something that I haven’t seen before.  The idea of a man who can influence others’ minds through chemicals – and have it approached as an art form rather than some form of bizarre assault – I’d read a book on that alone. 

Second, I found moments of Wind’s descriptions to be absolutely stunning.  Now and again, there’d be a scene where I was left with a perfect mental image, and this novel is a very visual-heavy piece.  Being able to visualize the lush petals of the flowers and how they melded and interacted with the flesh and bone of the characters was a really unique aesthetic, and it was really given quite vivid imagery.

More on the story side of things, finally, I felt that Bulb did a really good job of creating tension and suspense, once the story began.  The mood of it was quite solid, and partly due to how Bulb is structured, the slow transition between normal life and “something’s not right” did give a very spooky effect.  I enjoyed that very much.

What didn’t work for me, then?

All right.  As usual, I’m going to approach these sorts of topics in categories, beginning with the ones I felt were least impactful and moving toward the ones that were most important in my eyes.  A lot of these things overlap, but for the sake of organization, I’m going to clump them together in the way that best makes sense to me.

Let’s get this started, then.

Character actions and believability

So – the first point that I’d like to bring up as something that struck me as a little off but not necessarily in a book-breaking way, was the way in which characters acted and influenced the story.

I’m going to look at one example in particular, as an series of events early in the book that seemed a little off-putting with this topic.

As stated in the initial section, Bulb is based around the concept that people’s memories are recorded and stored, and are available for the general public to rewatch.  This leads to a scenario where characters can revisit memories whenever they like, essentially.

Early on, and in the blurb itself, it’s told to us that the main character Ben has some traumatic memories that he doesn’t really want to face, but he keeps getting brought face to face with.  We learn quickly that he was involved in a car crash, where his father died and he was severely injured.

Okay.  So. Initially, the details about this crash are sort of dripped out organically, with little hints and tidbits.  I was picking up what Wind was putting down. I really enjoy that sort of piece by piece storytelling.

And then, at a certain point, when Ben visits his friend, she abruptly ends their previous conversation about a woman he’s met, and informs him that they’re going to review his memories of the crash.

Just like that.  Without any preamble, they simply go and watch his most traumatic memories.  Just like that.

Again, I don’t think this was book-breaking for me.  But it just seemed wildly off that she would approach him like that, and he didn’t seem to have any more than the most mild resistance to it.  I’ve had traumatic memories myself, incidents where people around me died and bad things happened. I think many people have.  And if a friend casually told me that we should go relive those most traumatic moments of my life, out of the blue, I would tell that friend to fuck off.

Now, there are explanations given later in the book as to why she was behaving this way, but it still had all the subtlety of a crowbar when it happened, and that’s what stuck with me.

On some level, I also feel as though this memory archive was used as a cheat code, to easily and quickly offload the situation onto the reader.  I don’t know if I’d feel that way if the narrative was approached more head-on to begin with – but it felt like the story was committing to a slow and steady drip-feed approach, and then got tired of it and decided to just dump-truck Ben’s traumatic past onto the reader.

This was the most notable example for me that made me scratch my head, but there were other little moments like a pen pal Ben gets a letter from identifying her age in literally the first sentence they exchange.  These were just interactions that didn’t feel like things characters would actually do – but were shortcuts for Wind to more easily pass along detail to the reader. Past a certain point, it did start to damage my immersion in the story.

Paragraphing and Comprehension

As will be described later, there are some odd quirks about this book that can make it a little hard to follow.  But more than that, at times I felt like the structure of the book was working against me.

It might seem like a small thing, something more in the background and less to do with the writing itself, but especially in high-action or chaotic scenes, I felt like the paragraphing in Bulb was poorly handled.  I read on my phone, by and large, with the font turned as small as it will go so that I can get more on every page.  Even with that, then, it was very common for me to turn the page and find the whole screen filled with a single paragraph or two.  

It was a little overwhelming, and when characters were running around doing things with a high intensity, it became very difficult to follow.  The content of the novel is surreal anyway, which made the text that much harder to process. Together with that, I think that some additional care toward making sure sentences didn’t get too long and paragraphs were an appropriate length would have been a huge help to making this story accessible.

Sex and Shock Value

Here’s where the 18+ rating starts to come in, I think.  I’ll note before I begin that Bulb has no indications that there’s anything that might be 18+ in it, or any trigger warnings or such.  I can understand that this is hardly a smut novel, and plastering it with warnings would go too far in the other direction, but some of this content deserved a mention in the foreword section, in my opinion.

Bulb establishes early on that this society has advanced beyond some of our own hangups about sexuality, nudity, and the human condition.  Cool. I can get behind that idea. From there, though, it feels very much as though sexual content and nudity has been sprinkled in, tossed into chapters as something to make things feel different from other novels.

Some of this is a little bit weird, but fine, like Ben’s friend Lenny being a nudist.  I find that it doesn’t add anything to the story and is a touch obtrusive, but it doesn’t actively bother me.

What bothers me more is that at certain moments, sex and sexual acts seem to be used as a tool, and in some of these situations, I don’t find it appropriate or even acceptable with how it’s done.  Two notable examples come to mind.

The first example (In I believe chapter four no less – so right at the start) features a indigenous boy copulating with a flowering tree, as part of a ‘second birth’ ritual.  The ritual is unsuccessful, the act fails, and the boy dies.

Now, on rereading, I can start to see where this scene ties into the ending of the story.  But on my first read-through, this scene didn’t connect with anything we’d done or learned about so far, and so it was just a boy having sex with a flower and then dying.  I think the fact it was explicitly said to be a minor didn’t sit well with me, to begin with.

More than that, though, it just felt unnecessary.  The book as a whole centers on the sort of idea of a merging of human bodies with plants, and so I can understand perhaps what was sought after here, but there would have to be ways to express this that didn’t have a boy graphically bumping uglies with a plant – especially when the readers don’t have the first clue why this is happening. 

Having this series of events was a conscious choice, and when it doesn’t connect to anything else, it makes it feel like it was done purely for shock value.  To be honest, I really hadn’t signed up for this sort of content when I picked up the book, and I don’t feel it was handled meaningfully enough to justify including it.  For a blurb and cover that sold me on a black-mirror style dive into the human psyche with a surrealist spin on top, this type of thing caught me off guard and unprepared.

The second incident, though, has gotten a bit stuck in my craw, and really tarnished my opinion of the novel.  At a certain point, Ben dives back into his memories, to relieve the aftermath of the car crash.

Specifically, a younger Ben fled the scene of the crash, direly injured himself and desperate to find help for his family, and sought aid from a nearby home.  Inside, he finds the residents – a man and woman, and two ‘Downs Syndrome young men’, and seeks their help. Instead, they believe him to be on his deathbed.

Since he’s dying anyway, they give him to the morbidly obese, mentally impaired woman they keep locked in their back room, who rapes him.

Now, of course, I do feel I have to mention that when this memory is brought up between him and his friend from earlier, she handles it with all the subtlety you’d expect.

Okay.  So that’s what happens.  I…need to unpack my feelings on this whole series of events a little, because this is a lot.  First off, I immediately found the use of mental illnesses as a tool to facilitate this…distasteful.  Really, really distasteful. It felt like these illnesses were being thrown in as a way to simply deus ex a situation for sexual assault to happen, rather than having to come up with characters and scenarios that play out in that way.  Like, when he walks into the room and characters are immediately called out for their medical conditions, that was a giant red flag going around and around my head as I read it.

And then we come to the act itself.  I do think that something like rape should be handled delicately.  I think that Wind did a fairly decent job in that it certainly wasn’t a scene that glorified rape.  There was little way to read that scene and see someone getting their rocks off to it.  I can’t say that about every book I’ve reviewed, so I do appreciate that. But more than anything, I return to the same point I made about the flower sex.

It just felt unnecessary.

In the end, it served essentially no purpose.  Ben is never particularly affected by it, besides for some extremely odd nightmares and occasional dark memories.  It never impacts how he does his job, or interacts with his younger brothers. It’s just a throwaway plot point to give him a tragic past, and I do find that to be a massive no-no in fiction.

Worse was when his romantic interest revealed that she too was raped, in their second correspondence.  Because of course.  Now they can bond over having been raped. Never mind that if this was such a fresh wound, I find it hard to believe a woman would be so comfortable revealing it to a complete stranger. It’s implausible.

Eventually, you find out that the memories of the rape were in fact falsified, and Ben was never raped at all.  It was used as a cover to mask other memories as Ben was toyed with by the Big Bad.  

I found this whole situation…frustrating, and odd.  Ben still has the memories of being raped.  Even if it’s real or not, that doesn’t change the impact on the person.  And this truly goes to show that the rape itself was just selected because it’s shocking.  If the memory was false, anything could have been picked. A car could have driven past as he stayed with his mother and father at the crash scene, knocking a rock from its tires and hitting him in the head.  He could’ve slipped in the torrential rain and struck his head on the debris. 

But instead, a very serious topic was inserted because it’s known to be traumatic and dramatic and shocking, and it wasn’t given the development and care I would have expected to see.

Unfortunately, that’s the part that stuck with me.

Pacing and Surrealism

Bulb is a surrealist piece.  There’s really no arguing that.  The cover itself sets that tone, although I can say the blurb does not. I think if someone simply read the blurb, and skimmed past the cover, they would not pick up on the tone that this novel truly has.

But, okay.  I’m fine with that.  I’ve read some odd stuff before.

The problem for me came in where the surrealist prose and events began to overpower the story itself.  When I read through the blurb, I was legitimately excited. It sounded like a neat concept – that when we base our own selves off a record that is widely accessible, it opens vulnerabilities in our own identities.  I liked the idea of people being manipulated from within.

The deeper and deeper I read into the chapters without seeing this concept of Ben realizing something’s not right, the more off-center I felt.  I kept expecting to see something happen with this grand research facility that was introduced and the ominous situation promised in the blurb.  Instead, the characters went tornado riding, and to orgies, and dreamt of their new relationship.

That isn’t to say that a story has to be laser-focused on the plot, but at times, the weird became hard to follow and process.  It didn’t have the context it needed, although with the context that came later in the book I can again better guess at things while I reread. Instances like Ben and Lenny dressing up as presidents and thinking about what genetic illnesses they’d had (ostensibly because people didn’t have those illnesses anymore).

Sometimes, lines would be spoken and I’d have no idea at all what just happened.

I can appreciate the idea of fiction being surreal, but I do think that in Bulb’s case, at times it made the actual important parts hard to recognize from amidst the sea of…everything else.  It felt like a drug trip – and while that may have been Wind’s intent, on some level, more than anything it just made me feel lost and adrift without any meaningful plot or anchors to hold onto.

And here we get to my core issue.

With all of this, with all of my own impatience and searching desperately for a plot thread to surface, the first moment where I latched onto something and said “this, this is the lead-in for the storyline, here it is” came at 50% of the way through the novel.

Halfway through.  And while Bulb isn’t as big as some novels I’ve read, it’s not short.  And I’ll be fair – I do think that Wind probably had been building up atmosphere and world through that 50%, establishing characters and settings and laying all the plot threads he was going to be calling upon, but they just weren’t recognizable through the chaos.  They got lost, somewhere along the way. And so it wound up feeling like nothing of meaningful significance happened.

If I hadn’t been reading for a review, if I didn’t have that reason to keep going and push through, would I have made it to the actual story, or would I have stopped after nothing seemed to be happening?  I asked myself that question a lot. And if I was just a random reader, to be perfectly truthful, I don’t think I would have made it far enough for the actual good content to seep through.

And this is the part that left me conflicted – From about 70% to 90%, the content is actually pretty darn good.  Once things get moving, they get moving, as though the story is trying to make up for lost time.  Mammon Mamon, who is introduced as the big bad in the blurb, is finally shown in his true colors, and Ben has to race against time to save his little brothers.

It was really good.  But it was also really rushed, and with Mamon stated as being antagonistic in the blurb, it left me itchy and impatient for like…70% of the book.  I think I’d have enjoyed the book much more if the plot was incorporated more strongly into the rest of it.

Final Thoughts

Bulb was one of the most unique books I’ve ever read.  It takes a lot of risks and goes places other fiction doesn’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.  In the days since I read it, I do find myself torn between the two books that seem to be spliced together within it – the core of the story, and the book that wants to explore the setting and universe.  I just don’t think these two books worked together nicely in this instance.

With that said, the creativity of this book is remarkable.  Given a hard, long look at structure and what the book is trying to accomplish, I would welcome another book from this author, as there’s a ton of potential to be had.

At this time, though, I think there’s still some progress to be made, and I wish Wind the best of luck.

Final score: 2.5/5

[Review] Ch05en: Ivy – William Dickstein

We’re here today with another review, this time of Ch05en: Ivy, a dystopian superhero novel by William Dickstein! Ch05en is a longer series of novellas and collections, of which Ivy is the most recent entry. I’m more than likely going to slip and refer to this book as Ch05en at least once during this review, so I apologize for that. As always, full disclosure – I received an ARC for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book follows Ivy, a young woman in a world of ‘Capes’, superheros powered by the Ch05en gene. Awakening to her powers on the night of her father’s murder, Ivy is put in a quandary; she doesn’t know what her power is, and no one has been able to help her. All that she knows is she hears voices – voices no one else can hear, voices that seem ready and waiting to help her.

On the opposite side is Lochlan, an android who works for The Control, an organization that handles the collection and recruitment of those who are found to be gifted with abilities. Lochlan is called out to investigate a Cape who has defected from their side, and before long, their paths cross. Mysteries abound, answers are few, and both soon realize there’s more going on.

Check it out on Amazon!

Just to put it out there early – I enjoyed this book xD As always, I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free through this review, but let’s dive into how I felt about this novel!

What about this book worked for me?

First and foremost, I’d like to give a shoutout to the first chapter of Ch05en. First chapters are hard. I’ve had more arguments and debates over story openers than pretty much any other topic among the writers of /r/RedditSerials. It’s a subject that comes up over and over again, and no one has just the right answer.

With that said, then, the first chapter of this book hooked me in a way that, frankly, not many of the books I’ve reviewed have. The book opens with a dark scene, the young girl and her brother fleeing and hiding while their Cape father is murdered in front of them. It does a wonderful job of setting the dark, ominous tone of the book, and it certainly does create a lasting first impression.

And that’s really where I’d like to start with what Dickstein does well – to me, the characters felt totally real and totally plausible. Emotions were conveyed simply and well, and that made the whole thing feel very authentic. When my heartstrings get tugged at, without making it feel like you’re whapping me over the head screaming cry, damn you, it makes the whole thing that much more enjoyable.

To add to that point, dialogue felt extremely natural to me in Ivy. That seems like a little thing, but it’s such a palpable relief to read an interaction and not have it come off stilted. It makes the world that much more immersive, and immersion is very important for me. If I’m getting pulled out of the world because the language didn’t flow correctly, it has a dramatic impact on how much I enjoyed the read. Ivy really impressed me with that.

All of this was tied together with a relatable, plausible central conflict and storyline. I was interested. Ivy’s struggles and questions felt important, and it was easy to put yourself in her shoes. As a first person story, I consider that to be a huge facet of a story’s quality 🙂

All right, was that cheerful enough?

Let’s begin.

What about this book did I struggle with?

Just as a housekeeping bit, since I always talk about it, I felt that Ivy was by and large well edited, with a few notable sticking points. There were a number of places where things were described in present tense, even while the story was in past tense. That was a little jarring. It was not a big deal, considering the majority of the story is in first person, but there were also a few places in Lochlan’s chapter (written in third person) where a few lines of that first person prose slipped in. Now, I think that a lot of this was intentional, but intentional or not, it felt awkward to me. If I have to sit there and hem and haw as to if something was a mistake or what the author wanted, then the effect is lost. Put together, my impression of the book on a technical level was that Dickstein is very capable and it was solidly built, but with a few burrs that could have been smoothed over/spotted.

It’s also worth noting that I’m a notorious grammar nazi, so take all of that with a grain of salt 🙂

But on to the real stuff!

So, one of the first things I struggled with was this. Like I said, the first chapter of Ivy really hooked me in, solidly. I loved it.

After that first chapter, though?

Well, after the first chapter, the point of view changes, and we follow Lochlan the android for a while as he navigates The Control. I…did not enjoy this chapter as much. It wasn’t bad, and I enjoyed the concept of his story and The Control. Little by little, though, something began to become a little apparent to me.

Generally, I found that starting with Lochlan’s chapter, the prose became a little more passive. In short, that generally means that instead of the character doing things, it reads as things happening to the character. It wasn’t a massive concern, but I hadn’t felt that about the opener.

But, on the whole, I found that the passive issue did continue on through the first person sections, even while it wasn’t book-breaking. It was clear that Dickstein had a thoroughly developed world, but at times, it felt as though we spent more time being told about a story than explaining it. There were large sections of exposition, especially early on, and I did find myself struggling not to skim through some of that. There was also a fair amount of story-telling, of people explaining situations, scenarios, and rules to the main character.

Did it keep me from enjoying the book? No, it didn’t. But it made some sections a bit of a slog, and at times it felt like the story was trying to cram all of the backstory and world-specific lore into a few chapters of dense explanation, versus letting it breathe and come out more naturally. That did make it a bit overwhelming.

Final thoughts?

I think that Ivy is a solid, enjoyable take on a superhero story. It’s a little more traditional in the setup as far as it being cape fic, so for those of you who aren’t into that, just be aware – but within that, it really does break away from a lot of the vibes of most superhero fiction. It’s a darker story, with a lot of politics and intrigue. The plot is well crafted, and the characters are solid.

Despite what I’ve said about the passive voice and exposition-heavy sections, I did enjoy reading Ivy. The premise was intriguing and exciting, and the characters were relatable enough to keep me emotionally attached. That nets it the half-point boost upwards to round out its score 🙂

Final score: 3.5/5 (4 for the sake of scoring)

[Review] Projection – Tabatha Shipley

Check it out on Amazon!

Projection is a young adult novel with strong scifi vibes and backing. It follows Emma, a young woman going through high school, who begins to have problems with a unique piece of technology this universe has developed. Specifically, they’ve created a chip implanted in one’s arm that hooks into the central nervous system, and allows individuals to interface with ‘plates’ placed at key locations. Through this, they can do things like project memories, videos, and fantasies.

That’s all fine and dandy – except, something begins going wrong, and Emma finds herself projecting randomly and seemingly without control. Her innermost thoughts wind up shown to classmates and total strangers. Not exactly ideal, when you’re trying to cope with an ongoing love triangle situation!


I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review, as part of the TBRindr program for independent author reviews.

Okay.

So.

Moreso than probably any of the other books I’ve read through this program, this book took me on a rollercoaster of ups and downs in terms of how I felt about it. I’m trying to work through exactly how I wound up, in the end. Because of that, this review is going to look a little bit different from a lot of the other ones I’ve done.

To start us off – what worked for me with Projection?

I think the big thing that really stands out to me was the innovative way they laced a serious story in alongside what amounted to teen drama. I think there was a definite Black Mirror element in play, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. This, in my eyes, was very much more of a YA spin on how technology would interface with our culture, particularly when technology goes badly.

Once the story got moving, additionally, there was basically no fluff or filler. I really appreciated that. It did take a little bit to reach that point, but once I did, it was every bit as fast-moving as I’d expect from a YA novel.

To get some of the nitty gritty laundry list stuff out of the way –

I think that Projection was pretty well edited, but I did have some issues here and there. Particularly, there were a fair amount of run-on sentences and comma splices near the front of the book. Those settled down as I went on, but it was noticeable. I’m also a notorious grammar nazi, so take that as you will, naturally. I think the book would have benefited from another read-through, or reading it out loud.

My other main critique before diving into the meat of this would be that occasionally, dialogue didn’t really…work. This was incredibly hit or miss for me. For the most part, I found that the interactions the students had with each other felt pretty plausible and authentic. I think it could be as simple as being more consistent and using contractions more fully – there were a lot of instances where it got really close to what I could see a 15-16 year old saying, but not quite there. It was on the whole a fairly minor complaint as the book went on, though.

I think especially in the first half (I know I said ‘my other’ last paragraph like there wasn’t a third point, but sue me) there were a lot of lengthy physical descriptions which shanked my enjoyment as well. It wasn’t a book-killing aspect, certainly, but it was a bit much sometimes.

Let’s jump into the main stuff I’d like to talk about, then, which is my shifting reaction to the book as it went on.

As a note, I will keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but there will come a point when I will have to discuss the ending to properly illustrate my point. I’ll post a spoiler warning when we reach that 🙂

The first third –

When it opens, Projection is a fairly standard teen drama, to be blunt. Emma just split apart from her boyfriend, Tyler, and has a crush on the resident jock, Alex. It follows her and her friend Bella as they go through their day to day class life, with the whole chip issues very much being a side issue.

I’ll be honest. I was never much for the love triangle teenage bullshit, when I was a kid. It wasn’t my style of fiction. I do take that into account – but I did also simply find this first third of the book to be a little…difficult. I kept going, and I’m glad that I did, but this was definitely the weakest part of the book for me.

Like I mentioned earlier, there were some minor grammatical and dialogue issues that picked at me. For the most part, that was really evident in this first third, and the prose settled down as it went on. Additionally, a lot of it was really spent in some pretty juvenile reactions.

Notably, I was extremely turned off by an early memory of Emma’s we witness, which is an interaction between her and Tyler before they broke up. In it, frankly, Emma is borderline verbally abusive to him, and he’s trying his damndest to keep her happy and win her back. I expected this to be a starting place – the ‘rock bottom’ of their relationship, if you will, which they eventually grow out of and come to move beyond.

This scene was never referenced again, and that really threw me for a loop. I think especially in a young adult book, which is being marketed to children, coming back to an interaction like that and having Emma even apologize or realize that she was being a massive, massive bitch would be meaningful. Emma does improve as a character from that point, but Tyler remains very consistent . All the way to the end, he’s bending over backwards to please her, to help her out, to put himself in physical and legal jeopardy for her. These things are definitely justifiable, in the context of the events that transpire, but it did feel a little bit like he was the dog on her leash from beginning to end.

The middle third –

I was actually really impressed by the middle parts of the book. I’ll still keep this spoiler-free, but basically, Emma starts digging a little more into what exactly is going on that’s causing her to project randomly, and the answers she finds are more than a little spooky. I think this added a wonderfully tense dystopian element, and it edged into horror. I really wasn’t expecting that, and I enjoyed that very much.

Through it all, though, I had little inklings of unease. It seemed incredibly odd to me, for example, that her family was still letting her go to school when she’s randomly blasting her innermost thoughts onto any TV in range. That’s a metric fuckton of emotional trauma to put a high school student through, and it’d be more than enough reason to take some time off or take classes from home. Emma’s reactions also seemed pretty detached – if I was in her position, I’d probably have been a hell of a lot more freaked out about what was happening.

On the whole, though, I was really surprised how much I liked this section. If the opening acts were a 2-2.5 to me, the middle third was a 4-4.5, by and large.

The ending –

I’m…incredibly conflicted about how things went. And, here’s where I’ll give you the spoiler warning.

If you’re considering reading, then this is your cue to stop.

Right.

So, in short, upon digging into the subject, Emma and Tyler discover that Emma’s father was involved in a series of studies with his company, where he developed the chip they’re all implanted with. Specifically, he was working on developing a way to download memories – and upload them as well. They had 50 subjects in the trial, and out of those 50, one of them suffered permanent damage to their chip. It appears that Emma was that one. They get the evidence they need to prove that the studies have been illegally continued and confront him, after which he leaves. End of book. It’s quick and abrupt, but it is YA, so I’ll give it some leeway there.

This is where my issues really begin in full, and where the inklings of doubt I had blossomed into full skepticism.

So, for this premise to work, Emma’s dad would have been essentially experimenting on her, his daughter.

On a fundamental level, as an engineer and person of science, this immediately triggered my bullshit sensors. No researcher would ever, ever be allowed to have their own child as their subject in a clinical trial. That just wouldn’t happen.

Let’s say this is a YA novel, though, and handwave that. We’re left with the fact that the father has zero, zero ethical qualms about experimenting on his daughter, who until that moment he’s appeared to love very much. The family life laid out is very normal. He’s stern, yes, and he’s a techie, but both him and Emma’s mother seem very loving. We’re then told to believe that this loving father toyed and continues to toy with the memories of his daughter and her friends, without a care given to the emotional and physical distress he’s causing her. Because it’s for the greater good!

I had a hard time buying that.

Indeed, in the final act, things seem to change very quickly. Emma, in her infinite wisdom, decides that the proper way to handle this isn’t to go to the police or another authority. No, she’ll confront him at the dinner table. His reaction to that is a very matter-of-fact “So you found the spreadsheet”. His justifications are all very top-level and insincere. And then he gets up from the table and sets his office on fire. His home.

And then he leaves – after grabbing his daughter and physically throwing her out of the way. The same loving father we’ve seen through the whole book.

And that’s really where the book ends.

But how do you feel about it?

I had a lot of lingering feelings about this book and this ending, which is part of why this review is a little more rambling than my normal ones. Sorry xD I didn’t like the opening act, to put it bluntly. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but more than that, it felt clumsier than the rest. I enjoyed the middle third, but I had growing doubts about plausibility.

And then, when the ending hit, I was forced to face the fact that the very premise of the book was built on some pillars that weren’t all that well substantiated. I think that the idea of the father being this mastermind/evil scientist archetype isn’t inherently a bad one, but it needed a lot more work for me to buy into it. As it was, it just felt out of character – and since it was the domino holding the rest of the book up, once it fell, it did leave me with some real doubts about the rest of it.

In conclusion, I think that Projection was on the whole a good, enjoyable book. Despite the fact that it was YA, I was able to read it as an adult and get a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. That’s pretty good. I think the plot is unique and enough to make you think, which is a big plus for me. But, the core of the story needed to be developed a little more. In the end, the highs and the lows balanced out to leave me with a pretty neutral taste in my mouth.

Final score: 3/5

[Review] The Yoga of Strength – Andrew Rowe

Check it out on Amazon 🙂

The Yoga of Strength is the story of Andrew Cardiff, a long-time squire on the cusp of elevation to Knighthood within the Yellow Order of the Kingdom of Thrairn. There is only one issue: he is an abject coward and slave to his baser instincts. Thrust into a world of magic and treachery, Andrew tumbles along a path that threatens devastation at every turn. This unlikely hero must plumb the depths of his soul in search of the courage and strength that have always eluded him. Around him, the world is crumbling. Will Andrew discover his answers at the center of the mystery before it is too late?

Disclaimer – The Yoga of Strength was a book I received for free as part of the TBRindr program for indie authors! In exchange, I was asked to provide an honest review.

All right! The Yoga of Strength is a high fantasy novel that was released last week, written by Andrew Rowe. It follows Andrew, a young, bumbling squire, as he finally ascends to knighthood. All too quickly, though, things go horribly wrong on his first voyage, and he winds up caught in the middle of all of the intrigue and bloodshed.

So, what worked for me with this novel?

One of the first things that I noticed when I started reading Yoga was the prose. It’s frankly very dense, with a lot of exposition and a lot of flowery language.

There is a page missing from the text of my life, though scraps of the words written thereon still come to me unbidden from time to time. I know that this page deals with dissolution, an unraveling of self from semi-formed tapestry of youth to a mess of filament lying disheveled on the tavern floor. More bruises were added to my collection, though I was not sure who the assailant – or, more likely, assailants – were. What I do know is that I awoke to a splash of water on my face that smelt of ancient piss on the morning of my birthday, with a pain in my head like I had been stabbed, groggily blinking my eyes awake to Rolf the Tavernkeeper’s ugly face. He was holding a bucket in his hand and a furrow on his brow.

That’s the opening paragraph of the novel. I read that, and I’m not going to lie. I winced. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I’ve read enough bad attempts at dense prose that I was immediately put on edge.

Much to my surprise, then, I found that the stylistic language…worked. Mostly. For the most part. What I will say is that Rowe is exceptionally consistent. When you have a really unusual voice like that, it’s very easy to let that slip and slide the longer you go, and to fade back into your natural voice. That didn’t happen, and it really did go a long way to making the book feel consistent from start to finish. I found that within a chapter or two, I was able to blur past most of the outlandish language, and actually sink into the story.

Which brings me to the second point that really did appeal to me – the story. I was a bit shaky on the novel, to be honest – until the first main twist. I’m going to try and keep this reasonably spoiler-free, so I’m going to hold the details close to my chest, but there came a certain moment in the story when the proverbial shit hit the fan, and things changed very dramatically.

The twists and turns in that section really intrigued me. I liked the style of it, I liked the blending of dark reality and morbid humor, and I liked the stakes. It felt very real and very relatable.

And now, we get to the fun part of the review, the part where I get to push all of that aside and say but. Turn your head and cough, please.

What didn’t work for me, then?

Forgive me, author. I tend to get long-winded about specific issues I had, to lay them out clearly and properly. This section will always, always be longer than the “things I liked”. And the fact that I’m being sarcastic means I liked it. Yeah, it’s weird, but that’s how my family works.

I’m going to lay the first part out plain and simple.

The beginning kind of sucked.

Now, now. I understand the concept of it. For some context, at the opening of the story, the main character wakes up in a whorehouse/bar deal, having shit himself and realizing that he’s late for his initiation ceremony. This whole section really goes to establish how much of a fuck-up he is, how much he’s disappointed his family, how much he’s failed at his knightly lifestyle.

The problem is, it sort of does that too well. Or, in my opinion, it goes into it a bit too much. About the fifth time it was stated how fat the main character was, I found myself rolling my eyes. He was supposed to be a bit lazy, yes, and have failed in life. But it wound up feeling very self-pitying at times.

In short, the beginning tried so hard to make the main character unlikeable that the main character was, in fact, unlikeable. It did get better, in time. But I think that it made the opening acts a lot more cringe than they had to be, and when I’m giving the book a test drive, that’s not the sort of thing that would really draw me in and convince me I should read more.

The second half of this meshes with my next point, in fact. Yay, transitions.

The main character, fat and slovenly, has a long voyage by ship. And when he arrives, among other things, he finds that the diet and exercise he had to partake in on board, as part of the crew, left him muscular and no longer fat! Just like that!

I think that for me, this was a case where it didn’t feel like the main character really earned it. It was just…an appropriate length of book had passed, and it no longer served a purpose for him to be fat, so he wasn’t fat anymore. That’s what it wound up feeling like, and so I felt cheated of character development.

And that’s really my largest complaint about Yoga. The single biggest sticking point that I had was that characters felt incredibly impermanent, and I never quite knew what I was getting. Rather than the characters changing as a result of events and development, they changed in fits of unpredictable emotion.

Let’s look at Andrew’s relationship with his taskmaster, just as one illustration of what I mean here.

I felt a small twinge of respect for the elder man then. A small twinge that I soon buried in a heap of impatience.

“Hurry up, Terence.” I chewed the words as I spit them out, relishing that I could now say such things to a man who had humiliated me at the training grounds so many times before, even if my losses of face were always transmitted in the spirit of lessons from teacher to student.

These are back-to-back paragraphs – literally going from respect to harassment in a few breaths’ span. And then-

I could not exchange any further words with him. I knew that if I turned to face him, I would feel the hot sting of tears on my cheeks. I could not allow it. Not here. Not in front of Gerard, my brother whom I could not admit to myself that I loved. Not in front of Terence, the man who was more father than trainer to me.

What?

That’s the same chapter, keep in mind. So the main character has gone from respect to harassment to this man is like my father, just like that. To be honest, I was starting to lose my ability to understand how characters related to each other. It was like all of them were high, and just letting random emotions burst out.

This is repeated with pretty much every relationship Andrew (the main character) has. His brother torments him – No, his brother gives him a prized memento of their dead mother, because he loves him – No, his brother harasses him for being fat and sloppy! His father hates him for being a failure – No, his father has always been proud of Andrew’s success, even if it wasn’t in the way he wanted – No, he’s so disappointed in Andrew he threatens to lock him in stocks for the entire journey if he messes up again!

Each of these cycles plays out within the span of a chapter. It’s dizzying.

I think that trying to represent complex relationships, where, say, a father can both be proud of his son and wish for him to be better, is challenging. I can see what the goal here was, I just found it rushed. What it felt like was that character arcs that would normally take an entire book – or an entire series – were being jammed into a single chapter as though the author was worried he was going to run out of words.

I’ll call out one specific example that I had a big issue with. At one point, the father is upset at Andrew for accidentally killing a man. ‘Upset’. We’ll call it that. But Andrew explains that this man was raping his soldiers (and…kinda sorta turning them gay by doing so. That’s a whole other can of worms that I felt was very badly handled), and so even if it wasn’t okay that this man had died, it wasn’t all that bad because this man was evil! And his father caves and gets all teary eyed.

Just looking at this one example, I felt that this was a classic case of trying to do away with character development. What should have been a long, slow, painful process of mending that wound was instead patched over with a “Well I was wrong but this guy was more wrong.” And that felt cheap. It didn’t make the main character any better, it just made some dead guy worse.

Occasionally, I did have issues with scenes that just made me shake my head and go what? A prime example would be the scene where the king is speaking to his knights and soldiers before they depart for lands foreign.

In this speech, after he’s been all motivational, he takes it upon himself to tell them that he understands if they need to sleep with some whores, but that they need to do it in the list of approved whorehouses they’re given. For their safety!

“One final note,” the King continued, his voice becoming serious. “I ask all of you men to keep the honour of Thrairn in your hearts and minds when you conduct yourselves. While making use of prostitution is a grave crime in our fair Kingdom, an offence against the state and a sin against our Holy Mother Church, I do understand that, ahem, virile men of your ages, good breeding or not, have certain requirements during periods of rest and relaxation. Especially when blood is shed or yet to flow. There may be such quiet moments while we are in Erifracia. King Revanti has graciously offered up a list of brothels and public houses that you will be permitted to frequent.” King Janus held up a piece of paper.

I basically just stared at the book, brow furrowed. It made no sense for this to be something the king said, versus something their medieval drill sergeant said. It felt out of character for someone who’s supposed to be goddamn royalty, and just seemed like the text was trying to over-emphasize that whores were involved.

Just in general, I think that was one of my impressions of Yoga. There’s a definite push for fantasy novels these days to mimic Game of Thrones in the whole ‘war is real’ kick. Murder, death, sex, blood, all the good stuff. Sometimes, I felt like this book went too far in trying to emphasize the sex and prostitution and people soiling themselves. The point was made the first few times the characters referenced it – beyond that, it felt like the book was trying about 20% too hard to fit that niche.

As a minor complaint about the book – At a certain point, I started to feel overwhelmed by all of the names and titles and countries being thrown at me. I think that the book might have tried to bite off too much too quickly.

This is a situation where the fanciful, flowery language worked against it. With everything being long and old-fashioned and a little bit dense anyway, it really hid names and things within it. It was significantly harder for me to pull those things out and match them with their proper context, than it would have been if the text was a little more accessible. That’s just my instinct on it, anyway. Especially once the ship had reached its destination and they were in foreign lands, I was a little bit off-balance with everything being thrown at me.

Finally – I’ll just comment on this in passing, and it didn’t affect my rating for this book, but I didn’t like the use of “Christ-man” for the country’s deity xD I think it’s the -man suffix. It made it feel either like the deity belonged to a culture more primitive than the one the MC lived in, or simply a bit campy. Not book-breaking, but it did make me sigh a little.

Final thoughts

Good lord, it looks like I’ve ripped this poor book apart. In truth, I do think it was a solid book – and one of the reasons I’ve let the sarcasm out more in this review and come off like a bit of a dick is that overall, I do think this book worked. With the indie novels I review, often times I find it hard to switch off my internal reviewer and just sit back and enjoy the story.

With Yoga, I found that I was reading it for its own sake, and I was enjoying it. I think that the world worked and was compelling, and there were complex plotlines weaving themselves in and out of the character’s actions.

And it was written in first person. What can I say. I’m a sucker.

So take my sarcasm for what it is – ribbing of a book that has places it can improve on, but was overall a pleasant and enjoyable experience. If you enjoy high fantasy novels written in a more complex style, I recommend giving it a try!

Final rating: 3.5/5 (4 on Amazon)

Words with Ino #4 – Dialogue Tags, Part 2 (The Said Quandary)

Wew. Moar words. Let’s do it.

So! Way back when, I labeled #1 as being dialogue tags, part 1. At long last, let’s get around to part 2.

Said.

Okay, so, fair warning. This is probably one of the most hotly contested topics I’ve seen online and in the writing community, and people definitely get passionate about it. So, full disclaimer here, all I can do is state my own opinion on it, and there’s no reason you can’t go the other route and still be quite successful in your writing.

What the fuck are you talking about, Ino? Yes, I can already hear you guys back there. So, in short, what we’re looking at is the decision of what verb you should use in your dialogue tag.

In general, there are two basic schools of thought that I’ve seen. The first is to use ‘said’.

“That’s stupid,” Alex said.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey said.

For this case, ‘said’ will be used primarily as the dialogue tag.

Now, I’ll dive in a little more in a moment, but in short, the second school of thought goes that said should be rarely used, and other dialogue tags should be favored and used in variety.

“That’s stupid,” Alex exclaimed.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey retorted.

Okay. So, I’ll come right out and say it. With those two as the main ‘options’, I’m here today to urge you to use ‘said’ as your primary go-to.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t always feel this way. I think that a lot of the controversy and conflict comes from a few points – I know that when I was younger and trying my hand at writing things, it was very much a case of “said isn’t descriptive, and writing should be descriptive, right? And wouldn’t using said all the time be repetitive?

To top it off, I had a good vocabulary, damn it. I read a lot of books to learn all the words that I knew, and I wanted to use them. So I did. I used everything under the sun, and I felt pretty strongly about the notion that people who advocated for ‘said’ were just oversimplifying fiction.

And then….something changed. Honestly, at a certain point, when I was reading through conversations and posts at places, and seeing people talking about how said is good, I got curious. I thought, there’s no way this is right. So I went and I found my favorite book by my favorite author, and I flipped it open. I’d prove all of them wrong.

Huh.

Somehow, despite this word being apparently incredibly repetitive and annoying (according to internet experts everywhere), I’d never once noticed it being abused in rapid-fire use throughout my favorite author’s works.

I checked another book. And another. And each time I found the same thing – they were using said almost exclusively. I’d just never noticed.

Once I realized this, once I started paying attention to it, my viewpoint started shifting. It wasn’t an instantaneous thing – it took months of writing and critique, slowly changing my opinions. But in the end, there was a noticeable trend.

Things for you all to look forward to.

When I read a piece someone gave to me to critique and it made a point of using varied and always-changing dialogue tags, I started finding it stood out to me. A lot. It didn’t flow naturally, and it felt choppier – all things you want to avoid as a writer.

Before I realized it, I was in camp ‘said’ – a place I never intended on being. And I was opinionated about it.

Enough, Ino, you say. Get to the point.

The idea behind using said as a dialogue tag, then, is that it’s a ‘nothing word’. When you use said, it has a way of dropping out of sight altogether. It’s repetitive, sure – if the reader is actually paying attention every time it’s used.

But they’re not – or they shouldn’t be. The dialogue tag is only there to inform them of who’s speaking, after all. So when you primarily use said, the reader’s eye will more often than not just skim over it, wiping it away entirely. This is a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions. I’ll start by addressing one of the counter-arguments – that the dialogue tag can be used to inform the reader of how the character is speaking, moreso than just who.

Yes. That’s true.

My counter to that, then, is that if written properly, the rest of the information should already be contained in the context of the sentence and how the character is moving/speaking. Give your readers some credit. If the scene is structured well and they’ve got a good mental image of what’s going on, they really don’t need you to be spelling everything out for them.

Like I said, there are exceptions, naturally. Most authors have a list of words that they’re at least comfortable with tossing in. I use muttered, murmured, whispered, hissed, and snapped, each in turn. But, good rule of thumb, there should be 5-6 uses of ‘said’ for every instance of these words.

To go along with both that and the point before – if you’re worried about ‘said’ becoming repetitive, or you’re trying to include more context in the scene, drop a dialogue tag entirely!

Alex folded his arms across his chest, glaring down at Casey. “That’s stupid.”

A lot of writing is about establishing ‘ownership’ – ownership of dialogue, ownership of paragraphs. You’re conveying to the reader which character is the one taking the actions. If you pair up dialogue with an action or descriptor of the character who has ‘ownership’, then you can drop the dialogue tag entirely. The reader already knows it’s them, after all! And now you don’t need a fancy dialogue tag to establish that Alex is annoyed.

You can also eliminate the need for dialogue tags entirely if you have rapid-fire back and forth between a limited cast!

Now, the ideal situation, then, is to create a scenario where you have a mixture of A) Dialogue tagged with ‘said’, B) Tags dropped where they’re totally unnecessary, and C) Lines ‘tagged’ using character actions instead of dialogue tags at all. Whenever possible, it is ideal to avoid the topic as much as possible!

Something like that.

Why does all of this matter, you ask?

Well, besides for the comments I’ve put above about how it’s damaging to how the story flows, I would say that it’s important to keep in mind that readers can become desensitized very quickly. If you go around using strong vocal verbs for every last dialogue tag, then it’s going to be harder to create an impactful line.

Essentially, you’ve raised the ‘floor’ on your dialogue. Every line is ‘special’ – so none of them are.

When you actually have a big moment, then, when a character is behaving in an extraordinary manner, it’s much more difficult to convey that. The reader is already used to each of those tags being varied and different, and they’re glossing over it. So you lose that extra little oomph.

Again, I know this one’s liable to rustle some jimmies. It’s a hotly debated topic, and I know that everyone’s got their own way of doing it.

Just remember that my way is the right way.

/s/! It was /s, damn it!