Book Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)

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Review #13


As a child I was obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales. I was also completely horse-mad, as only a little girl growing up in farm country can be. The 1982 film adaptation of this book was one of my favorite movies back in the glory days of VHS. So how I managed to go thirty years without picking up a copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a complete mystery to me. But I’m so very glad I finally did.

The Last Unicorn is the purest form of fairy tale. Between its slim pages contain a marvelous world of decrepit old witches, terrifying monsters, heroic princes, and miserly kings. Coexisting with all these fantastical creatures are a wonderfully diverse cast of ordinary folk.

It is also a classical fairy tale in that it is was not written as a children’s story. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, The Last Unicorn is like a rosebush, lovely on the outside but beware the thorns. The descriptions of the harpy and the Red Bull are sure to frighten small children. There is a sadness and a weight underlying Beagle’s narrative, and a happily ever after is no guarantee. I do think this would be the perfect book for parents to read to children who are old enough to handle more mature themes. The overall plot is simple enough to understand and they will delight in the vivid descriptions of the unicorn and her companions.

I criticized an earlier fantasy novel on this blog for its use of overly flowered, obnoxious metaphors. That author should take a page from Beagle’s book, for every single sentence in this story flows naturally and fluidly into the other. Take, for example:

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

That’s the opening paragraph from the novel. With these few short sentences, Beagle draws his reader in and paints in their minds the portrait of a lone unicorn in a magical forest. The rest of the story continues in a similar fashion, leading the reader on a delightful journey that ends too soon.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, fairy tales, or just a really beautifully written story.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Last Unicorn here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!



Book Review: Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun (2017)

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Review #12


Jomny is a aliebn who’s a little weird. None of his fellow aliebns seem to think or act like him. He is left alone on Earth in order to research the strange creatures known as humabns. While on Earth, Jomny meets many new friends, and learns a few important lessons about life, loneliness, and nothing at all.

Due to the deliberately bad spelling and grammar, my inner English teacher was in a mild state of apoplexy when I  began this book. I need not have worried. Within ten pages I was absolutely enthralled with this tale of a lonely alien who is trying to learn his place among things. This is a “novel” in the loosest sense of the word. One, it is a graphic novel which gives author Jomny Sun nearly unlimited freedom. Some pages have only one or two words on them. Others don’t have any words at all. The illustrations are simple to the point of being childlike, which makes them somehow more impressive at second glance. It takes talent and a degree of restraint that few artists have to express so much through such spare drawings.

The most important idea presented in Everyone’s a aliebn is that all the people we meet are fighting a harder battle. This is not a new idea in any sense, but it’s conveyed here without the heavy handedness that often comes with that territory. Jomny the alien encounters a variety of characters throughout the book, each one dealing with their own problems. Most notable are an insecure hedgehog who dreams of creating art but anticipates rejection, a bear who is feared by all but just wants to make friends, an egg who is anxious because he doesn’t know what he’ll be when he hatches, and a tree who is lonely because every autumn all his fruit and leaves abandon him and to fall to the ground. None of these characters are defined by their fears, and instead are just trying to work through them. Not everything is sadness and not everything is joy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes the right book just finds you at the time right. I’ve been struggling for the past few months with pretty crushing loneliness. It’s manageable on a day-to-day basis but then I read a book like this one and come across this:

“u may be sad because u feel alone. the comforting thing abot feeling lonely is that every thing that has ever existed also knows what loneliness feels like too.”

Simple thoughts, told in the simplest words, can have the power of a thousand pithy self-help books. I didn’t even know how badly I needed this book until I was halfway through it. And what’s great is that this isn’t a “self-help” book. It didn’t offer platitudes and self-esteem boosters. It is just a series of observations of the highs and lows that accompany the human condition.

Everyone’s a aliebn deals with questions of life and death, friendship, and creation. It would be a great book for a child to read once they begin asking the important questions in life. It would be a great book for a person who is struggling through hard times. It would be a great book for a person on the precipice of change. Basically, it would be a great book for just about anyone.

Bonus: it’s also an incredibly quick read. I sat down one afternoon and read the book cover-to-cover in thirty minutes. I got up to do some other things around the house but couldn’t shake Everyone’s a aliebn. So I sat back down and read it again.

My rating: 5/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


Book Review: Communion by Whitley Strieber (1988)

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Review #11


“Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?”

“Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.”


The X-Files (1993-2002)

Reading Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion, this quote from The X-Files kept flashing into my mind. According to the preface, this book was considered highly controversial when it was released in 1988. However, thirty years of science fiction in the form of the aforementioned TV show, as well as other television programs such as Falling Skies and V, films such as The Fourth Kind and Dark Skies, and even children’s books such as the Animorphs series have all prepped my imagination to accept the idea of alien abduction and invasion with a far more open mind than would have been normal at this time of this book’s publication. I did not find anything particularly “shocking” between the pages of Communion.

Instead, I was left wondering how many of the alien abduction tropes that pop up in so much of pop culture originated, or were at least fueled by Strieber’s memoir. The running theme of anal probing makes an appearance, as does the idea of owls as a screen memory for the alien visitors. The unnaturally thin aliens with huge black eyes that are depicted here are the same ones that people have been describing for decades.

Communion is split into roughly three parts. The first segment details the events that forced Strieber to wonder if he was being taken by “visitors”. (Note: he rarely uses the word “aliens” and instead offers up several theories that these beings aren’t from outer space at all). Strieber is able to give an immense about of detail about the physical appearance of these visitors and everything that was done to him one night in December of 1986. These early chapters are probably the most interesting, but also read the most like fiction.

The second segment deals with Strieber trying to figure out if he is losing his mind. He visits hypnotherapists and discovers repressed memories of these visitors from his early childhood. There are full transcripts offered from these hypnosis session, which are stream-of-consciousness in style and incredibly difficult to follow. (Note: We also know now that hypnotherapy is an incredibly imprecise branch of psychiatry, and can often result in the placing of false memories inside the mind of the patient). Strieber then wonders if he has epilepsy, and explores that route through a variety of medical professionals. Strieber adamantly wants his readers to believe that he explored every viable medical and scientific option to explain away his memories before he was forced to admit that he truly was being taken against his will by visitors. (Note: The now popular explanation of sleep paralysis is never explored, possibly because it was not fully understood in the late 1980’s).

The third section of Communion is the gathering of witnesses. Strieber convinces his wife to undergo hypnosis, and her transcripts seem to corroborate his account. We are then presented with transcripts from group sessions, wherein Strieber and other self-proclaimed abductees compare and contrast their various stories. This part was actually very interesting, and the strange similarities between the stories are worth a second look.

The last twenty pages go completely off the rails. This was the only part of the book where I thought that Strieber may have been under the influence of a great deal of marijuana. He uses obscure Aztec, Hindu, and Sumerian poetry to discuss the importance of the duality and trinity of life. He uses the mystery of the Sphinx to talk about the idea of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. He throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then tosses the kitchen sink in for good measure. While reading the final section of Communion, I found myself wishing that I too were under the influence of a great deal of marijuana.

It is completely impossible when reading Communion to leave your preconceptions at the door. If you are a hardcore skeptic, than the memoir will read as the ramblings of an attention-seeking man spouting nonsense. The fact that Whitley Strieber was a moderately successful horror writer before the publication of this book is a pretty damning black mark in favor of the skeptics. If you are an affirmed believer in UFOs and abduction theories, than this book will only confirm and intensify your previously held beliefs. Personally, I’ve always tried to maintain an open mind when it comes to the unexplained things experienced on the Earth. It is impossible to prove a negative, therefore I cannot state with any certainty that Earth hasn’t been visited by creatures from another world. Therefore, I left Communion with very much the same opinions that I entered with. Alien abduction is a possibility, but not a likely one.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Communion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (2017)

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Review #10


Lizzie Borden took an axe.

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

In a small New England town in 1892, Elizabeth Borden screams for her maid that her father has been murdered. Police arrive and find the body of Andrew Borden hacked to pieces with what appears to have been an ax. The body of his second wife, Abby Borden, is later found upstairs, also killed by an ax blade.

The story of Lizzie Borden is one of those immortal stories that everyone seems to hear about growing up. She was arrested for the double murder of her father and stepmother, but was acquitted in spite of all the evidence. The jury simply did not feel that a women was capable of such a violent crime. It was an early case of media hype around a murder trial possibly swaying the verdict.

In her debut novel, Sarah Schmidt attempts to recreate the historical circumstances around the days leading up to the murders, as well as the morning that the bodies are found. We begin with Lizzie’s point of view as she “discovers” the her father dead in the house, and then switch perspectives to her older sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and a local man named Benjamin.

Schmidt’s novel, at under three hundred pages, is too short to be split between four perspectives. Instead of one well-developed narrative, the reader is given four half-developed narratives. Lizzie’s is by far the most intriguing since she’s so unreliable, but we spend far less time with her than I would have liked. Her sister Emma obviously detests her younger sister and yet feels a protective instinct to shield her from the realities of the world. I would have liked to have explored that sibling dynamic further. I have no idea why Schmidt felt the need to include their maid, perhaps it was so we could see the way that the family interacted from a dispassionate perspective? Either way, her chapters are infrequent and add little to the overall story arc. The final character, Benjamin, could have been given a lot more to do, and is treated more as an odd red herring than anything else.

The thing is, you have to have someone to root for. If all the characters in a novel are unsympathetic, than logically it is difficult for a reader to feel sympathy towards them. I had hoped to find in this novel a different take on the Lizzie Borden legend. Instead, Schmidt touches briefly on the themes of sisterly love and feminine captivity, but then sacrifices that with repetitive narration that becomes increasingly difficult to follow.

See What I Have Done presents Lizzie Borden as mentally disturbed, possibly even mentally deranged. And let’s be honest, she probably was.

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If anything, she had a very convincing case of crazy eyes.


My rating: 2.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

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Review #9


Having spent her entire life on the island of Trisda and under the thumb of her bullying father, Scarlett Dragna has dreamed for years of Caraval. A yearly game run by an enigmatic man known only as Legend, Caraval entices participants with the prize of a single magical wish. With the help of a renegade sailor, Scarlett and her sister Tella escape their island and arrive at Legend’s magical island. But Scarlett quickly learns that nothing in Caraval is what is seems, and the consequences could be deadly.

The last two books I read for this blog were both about horribly dysfunctional families and the lasting scars they leave on their children. Having been through the emotional wringer, I wanted my next book to be something a little lighter. I chose Caraval because its cover is gorgeous and I knew it was YA fantasy. Turns out I might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Caraval is a fantasy that exists in a vacuum. The novel opens on the “Conquered Isles” in “Year 50 of the Elantine Dynasty”. Yet we are never told why these Isles were conquered, or by whom. What is the Elantine Dynasty, and what happened fifty years ago to set it in place? A lot of the place names are derived from Spanish such as the hotel La Serpentiene and the Castillo Maldito. Even the name of Scarlett’s home island, Trisda, comes from triste, the Spanish word for sadness. So we’re on Earth? In the past or the future? None of these questions are addressed which made it increasingly difficult to envision this world as a place that has weight and meaning.

Caraval is also a fantasy that exists without any meaningful character description. The only thing we know to be true of Scarlett is that she loves her sister. This is repeated twice a page, lest we should forget. When the generic love interest is introduced, we are subjected to the familiar “I hate him but he’s so intriguing”. Which of course changes without warning to “I cannot live without him”.

Then there are descriptions such as this:

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”

What does that even mean? What the hell does midnight taste like? But that’s not the only example:

“The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke.”

“Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.” 

None of that makes a bit of sense, and it kept pulling me out of the novel because I had to roll my eyes. I can get on board with a bit of purple prose, but when you use it at the expense of actual character development it becomes tedious.

The biggest problem was that, at the end of the day, this book was not written for me. It was written for thirteen year old me. Thirteen year old me would have bathed in all of those overly romantic descriptions. She would have reveled in the countless descriptions of gorgeous ball gowns. She would have relished the oh-so passionate and yet determinedly chaste romance between Scarlett and Julian. This book was written for thirteen year old me. Thirty year old me is just too savvy (cynical?) to fall for it.

In the immortal words of Agent Murtaugh, I’m getting too old for this shit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Caraval here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Kimberling Lake Chapter Two by Ashley Schlueter

If you haven’t read the first installment, you can find it here. Again, I welcome any constructive criticism and comments! Happy reading everyone!

Kimberling Lake

by Ashley Schlueter

Chapter Two

How long she lay prone on the deck, Nellie didn’t know. It could have been two minutes or two hours. She finally opened her eyes to an angry black sky above Kimberling Lake, and she shivered violently as rain lashed around her. She coughed hoarsely and tried to sit up, but her head spun and she sank back onto the wooden boards. Turning her head to the right, she could see the metal ladder where Jeanie had last stood. She managed to lift her head slightly to look for the bloodstain that had marked where her cousin fell, but the rain had washed it away. It was as if Jeanie had never been there.

Nellie was alone.

Bile rose in her throat. She rolled onto her side and vomited weakly onto the dock, shaking as her stomach heaved the contents of her breakfast onto the wooden slats. Her head pounded fiercely, and she was unbearably thirsty. Opening her mouth, she allowed rain to drip into her mouth and coat her swollen tongue. This helped clear her head, and Nellie slowly managed to rise, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the dock as far away from the lake as possible. She looked out across the choppy water to the beach. The picnic basket still sat on the rocks, next to Jeanie’s discarded clothes and shoes.

At the sight of her cousin’s shorts and T-shirt, Nellie was seized by a sudden rage. “Give her back!” Rising unsteadily to her feet, she screamed her frustration and helplessness over the water. Tears streamed alongside rain on her cheeks as she cursed the thing in the water. “Give her back! Give her back!” she howled over the lake. The lake, however; merely continued lapping at the buoys of the floating dock, deaf to the pain of one small girl child.

Nellie shouted wildly, “I’m going to kill you! You killed Jeanie and now I’m going to kill you!” Her voice hitched and her chest was tight with grief and pain. “I’m going to kill you!” she cried again. Looking around for something to throw and finding nothing, she resorted to stamping her small foot ineffectually.

Without warning the dock rose into the air, tilting violently to one side. Nellie was thrown off her feet. Scrambling for purchase, she grabbed for a gap between two of the wooden boards and dug her fingers in. Jagged splinters pierced her hands but Nellie gripped harder as the dock rose at a sharper angle out of the water. She screamed again, this time from terror.

Then, just as suddenly as it has begun, the tilting stopped and the dock settled back onto the surface of the lake. Water washed over the sides in waves. Nellie’s heart was hammering in her chest. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her head against them, breathing raggedly.

It heard me. It’s under the dock right now, waiting and listening to the frightened girl alone on the lake. Nellie pictured the two malevolent red eyes watching her from the water, its slimy black claws curled for the chance to drag her into the drowning deep.

It’s there, and it wants to make sure I know it’s there. Wants to keep me scared. Maybe scared kids taste better. Or it’s just playing with me until it gets bored.

As if the monster could read her very thoughts a series of bubbles broke the surface of the lake, as if something under the water had released air very quickly. It’s laughing at me. Nellie’s head sank back onto her knees, and she struggled to calm her hammering heart, to ease her breathing.

Think. She commanded herself. Stop panicking and think.

How long had she been stuck out here on this rusty old dock? It felt like years ago that she and Jeanie had arrived at the lake. The girl in the yellow sundress who had flown to the edge of the lake with such joy felt like another person entirely. A completely different Nellie had dived down to the lakebed to grab some mud. That other Nellie’s biggest problem had been trying to earn the respect of her older cousin. Somewhere over the course of the morning, that girl had been replaced by a new Nellie. One who had seen her cousin dragged off the edge of a dock by a dripping black claw. A Nellie who was now trapped like a rabbit in a snare. Her chest began hitching and she squeezed her eyes tightly to stop the tears.

Breathe. Think.

She and Jeanie had left the house early that morning, around 9:30. The events of the ill-fated lakebed dive had occurred perhaps thirty minutes later. It was difficult to judge the position of the sun due to the dark clouds blanketing the sky, but Nellie would guessed it was somewhere around noon. Lunchtime. On cue her stomach gave a faint grumble. She and Jeanie were usually expected back at Aunt Cynthia’s for lunch. Perhaps when they didn’t show up, Aunt Cynthia would come looking for them.

The picnic basket.

Nellie groaned into the space between her knees. Of course. She and Jeanie had packed a lunch to take down to the beach. Her parents had left this morning with Uncle Frank and Aunt Cynthia for a boat show in Branson. They were going to eat dinner in the city before driving back, and probably wouldn’t be home until past eleven. Why would they hurry? Jeanie was there to babysit. Even if they tried calling and Jeanie didn’t answer her phone, they would just blame the notoriously bad service of the Ozark hills. 

What about the neighbors?

In the middle of a lightning storm, it seemed highly unlikely that she would encounter any fellow beachgoers. Besides, if her screams hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention by now it was doubtful that they were. Kimberling Lake was an isolated place, away from the raucous crowds of university students and families with speedboats that swarmed like sand flies over the larger lakes in the area. That was precisely the reason that her uncle had chosen to buy his particular property.

Shit! Nellie swore loudly in her head, and then rose her head, “Shit-damn-ass-sonofabitch!” she screamed at the top of her voice. For some reason, the taboo act of swearing lifted her spirits a little, and a fleeting grin crossed her face. “Damn-bastard-shithead-asshole-FUCK”. A tiny giggle escaped her lips. She had never dared to say the forbidden f-word before. But if any situation truly deserved the f-word, it was being trapped on a rusty dock by a lake monster. This new thought sobered her and she dropped her head back onto her knees, but her heart now pounded with defiance as well as fear.

Options. What are my options?

It was unlikely that she would last until her parents got home. The thing in the water would be picking her out of its teeth by then. It was equally unlikely that a neighbor would chance to come upon her. Nellie was on her own.


She needed to make a plan. She took a deep breath, held it as long as she could, and slowly exhaled. She had seen people do that on T.V. when they needed to come up with a good idea. No flashes of brilliance came into her mind. She breathed again.

Options. What are my options?

She couldn’t stay on the dock. Eventually the creature would tire of scaring her and come to finish her off. So that meant she had to get back to shore. Safety was beckoning from the rocky beach a mere fifty feet away. From where she sat it might as well have been fifty miles. The second she put a toe into the water, the thing would be there with its slashing claws and sharp teeth. It would drag her under the water down to where the sun couldn’t penetrate and it would sink its teeth—

Stop it, Nellie. Breathe. Think. What do you have? 

What did she have? Nellie took inventory of the objects at her disposal.

One pink-and-white swimsuit. One blue elastic hair-tie. One woven friendship bracelet that she’d been wearing since Christmas. Two silver earrings in the shape of crescent moons. One skinny blonde girl who was woefully unprepared for monster-slaying. None of this inspired her with great confidence.

What else?

Nellie looked around. One floating dock with weathered wooden boards. The boards were warped by time and exposure, leaving large gaps in some places. Could she perhaps pull up one of the boards and use it to bash the monster over the head? Crouching down, she inspected the wooden slats that ran across the dock. After forty years the wood had swollen to almost completely cover the rusty old nails holding it together. She wiggled her fingers between two boards and tried peeling it up. The board creaked slightly but didn’t budge. Leverage, she needed some kind of leverage. Face wrinkled with concentration, Nellie looked once more around the dock. Her eyes settled on the rusty metal ladder descending into the water.

What do you have?

Nellie tilted her head to one side. The rain was beginning to ease and a faint ray of sunshine peaked out from behind a cloud. For the first time since she had seen the scarlett eyes on the bottom of Kimberling Lake, a smile crept over Nellie’s face. A plan was beginning to form carefully in her mind.

To be continued….

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Review #8


Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!




Kimberling Lake Chapter One by Ashley Schlueter

I don’t practice writing fiction very often, therefore I am very rusty. I welcome any comments or critiques!


Kimberling Lake

By Ashley Schlueter

Chapter One

The bright July sunlight gleamed off the green waters of Kimberling Lake. A gentle breeze shook the heads of the reeds and cattails that lined the edge of the water, leading them in a merry dance that spread slow ripples along the surface of the lake. Overhead, the puffy white clouds looked like something out of a child’s drawing, and a lone hawk circled lazily, on the lookout for unsuspecting rabbits. A group of turtles pulled themselves onto the rocks to bathe in the early afternoon warmth. It was a glorious summer day.

In the distance came a high-pitched shouting. To the south of the lake towards the forest, emerged a thin girl in a yellow sundress. She squealed again with delight upon spotting the water and began running, her scabby legs navigating fearlessly over the upturned roots and gopher holes that covered the forest floor. Behind the girl, sweating and looking studiedly annoyed followed an older girl with long auburn hair. In both hands she clutched a split-oak picnic basket. Unlike the younger girl, the teenager’s eyes were focused on the ground beneath her feet as she carefully negotiated her way out of the forest and into the small meadow which led to the edge of the lake.

“Nellie! Slow down! Don’t you dare go in that water!” the older girl shouted. The girl, Nellie, had reached the lake and was looking into its dark green depths as if transfixed. She glanced back at her cousin, and then longingly back at the water. Nellie fought a brief internal battle with herself before heaving a great sigh of indignation and plopping herself gracelessly on the narrow, rocky beach. It wouldn’t do any good to annoy her cousin Jeanie. She would just go on for ages about how she was always stuck babysitting whenever Nellie and her parents came to visit. Nellie just wished she would hurry up.

However slowly, Jeanie did eventually manage to drag herself and her basket to the side of the lake. Breathing heavily with the exertion of leaving her bedroom for more than ten minutes, Jeanie stood for a moment with her hands on the hips of her denim shorts, squinting across the water with a slight scowl on her face. Nellie waited, silently screaming for her cousin to catch her breath and grant her almighty permission to go swimming. Finally Jeanie turned, sweeping sweaty strands of hair away from her face. She rolled her eyes, but her lips turned slightly upwards in what might have been a smile and nodded, “Go ahead then little tadpole. Off you swim.”

Grinning at her cousin’s use of her old nickname, Nellie didn’t wait to be told twice. She stripped off her sundress in one fluid motion, revealing a faded pink and white striped swimsuit. Jeanie had already settled herself down on a patch of grass and was wholly engrossed with staring at her phone. Nellie rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Tadpole” had been Jeanie’s name for Nellie since she was very little. Every summer she and her parents traveled down to the Ozarks of northern Arkansas to visit her mom’s sister. And every summer since she could remember, Nellie spent each long languid summer day splashing in the cool waters of Kimberling Lake with her older cousin. They would race from edge of the lake to the weathered floating dock that Jeanie’s grandfather had built fifty years ago. They had created the Lake Olympics, with competitions ranging from who could hold their breath underwater the longest to who could catapult themselves the farthest off the old dock. The fact that Jeanie was five years older and easily won most of these contests had never bothered Nellie in the slightest. Summers with her cousin had almost been like having a sister.

At least until last year, when Nellie had been nine. She had arrived at her aunt’s house ready for another series of endless summer days only to find that Jeanie was no longer interested in her young cousin. Instead, she spent all her time in her bedroom, staring at her phone. Or sitting on the garden swing, staring at her phone. Or on the couch in the living room, also staring at her phone. Nellie, whose parents had decreed that she would not receive her first cell phone until her thirteenth birthday, was by turns irritated, envious, and above all, bored. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go down to the lake alone, and she herself was far too busy sipping white wine in the garden with Aunt Cynthia to supervise her daughter. Her father generally spent the duration of his summer vacation helping Uncle Frank tinker with the rusty 1969 Mustang that Frank referred to jokingly as his “second wife”. For four weeks, he was more or less oblivious to anything without four wheels and an engine. So Nellie had had to make due to the rare occasions on which her aunt and uncle would force Jeanie out of the house to “watch her cousin”. As if Nellie was a little girl who needed watching. As if she hadn’t learned to swim when she was three years old. It looked like this summer was shaping up to be much the same.

Heedless of the rough pebbles digging into her bare feet, Nellie waded out a few steps and then dove into the green depths of Kimberling Lake. The cold water was a shock after the hot July sunshine, but Nellie stayed underwater as long as she good, kicking hard. She surfaced about twenty feet from the shore and turned back to Jeanie. It was only another twenty feet or so to the old floating dock.

“Sure you don’t want to come in?” she called, “I’ll race you to the dock!”

“No, I’m good. Have fun.” Jeanie replied without looking up.

Rolling her eyes once more, Nellie dove back under the water and opened her eyes. As usual there was nothing to be seen. The lake water was a bright, opaque green near the surface, fading into a murky brown towards the bottom. When Nellie had been little, she had often been frightened by the fact that she couldn’t see more than a few feet below her legs. It was all too easy to imagine a hundred slimy monsters with a thousand slimy tentacles crawling along the bottom of the lakebed. Jeanie had quickly laid these fears to rest by diving the fourteen feet or so down to the bottom of the lake. She had returned with a loud gasp for air and a handful of mud. “No monsters down there little tadpole” she had said, laughing, “only up here!” Then she had splashed water in Nellie’s face until they were both giggling, all thought of lake monsters forgotten.

Smiling at the memory, Nellie decided to try to get some of that lake bottom mud for herself. The lake was only about ten or fifteen feet deep this close to shore, though it sank to chilling depths of over two hundred feet further out.

Filling her lungs with as much air as she could, Nellie flipped over and began dolphin-kicking as hard as she could. She stretched her arms out as far as they would go, imagining her body as an arrow. The water around her grew darker, and she grasped blindly for the bottom of the lake. She kicked harder, her lungs beginning to burn. The pressure built around her ears. She reached out and felt nothing. Damn. She would have to go back and try again. Perhaps if she dove off of the dock.

Just as she was about to turn back, Nellie felt her fingers brush against something. Victory! She thought as she curled her fingers around the mud. Her chest felt like it was about to burst from lack of air. She scooped the mud into her hand and flipped herself over, aiming herself at the water’s surface and the blessed oxygen that waited. The pale reflection of the sun seemed far away now, and the darkness around her absolute. As she began kicking, mud clutched tightly in her palm, she looked back down at the dark waters.

A pair of red, blazing eyes looked back.

Nellie screamed silently underwater, bubbles exploding from her mouth along with what little air had been left in her lungs. The eyes gleamed like glowing coals, huge and menacing in the dark waters around it. There were no pupils, only a steady burning fire that seemed to look straight into Nellie’s heart. I see you, little girl the eyes seemed to say. I know your name. Then Nellie felt a cold current of water swirl around her as the eyes shifted and moved closer. Whatever this thing was, it was pulling itself off of the lakebed.

Nellie began kicking desperately towards the surface, which still seemed so far way. I’m going to die down here and the monster will take me, she shouted wildly in her mind. Then, without warning she was suddenly surrounded by cool, wonderful air as she popped out of the water. She splashed frantically, trying simultaneously to gasp for breath and scream in terror. Swiveling around she realized she was much farther out than she had started, only three feet or so from the old wooden dock. Her legs burned with adrenaline as she jerkily swam up to the rusty ladder that had been welded on to the side of the dock. Her eyes swiveled wildly in her skull, trying to see everywhere at once, waiting for the red eyes at the bottom of the lake to rise up to claim its prize.

Nellie’s body felt like stretched out taffy as she made her way up the short ladder and collapsed onto the smooth wooden surface of the dock. Her heart pounded in her chest as she panted for breath, and all her muscles went limp with exhaustion. It’s going to come for me now, she thought pitifully, and I’ll never get away.

At this thought Nellie began to cry weakly, and she gave in to all of the terrible terrors that haunt the imagination of a child. There were monsters in the lake. She had been right all along. They had fiery red eyes and long claws dripping with lake water that waited to pull little girls down into the black waters and devour them. Her thoughts spun wildly.

 Does this mean that all monsters were real? What about the monsters in my closet, and in the basement? Every time the grown-ups laugh and say there’s nothing to be scared of. They’re liars, all of them. They had probably seen the monsters too, when they were little. But they were just lucky enough to escape. And they grew up and told themselves it was nothing but a scary story. And the monsters just moved on to new children.

How long Nellie lay like this, face down on the wooden dock, consumed by fear and despair she did not know. She came back to the world with a start as she heard Jeanie’s voice calling, “Nellie! It’s going to rain! Swim back it’s time to go home.”

Nellie slowly turned over and lay on her back, looking up at the sky. Sometime during her ordeal, the beautiful summer day had ended. The puffy white clouds had been  replaced by ominous gray thunderheads. The happily chirping birds had fallen silent, and the bright green waters of Kimberling Lake had turned a uniform slate blue. As if on cue, a low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Nellie began to shiver as a gust of wind rippled the water around the dock. She sat up and looked towards the shore. Jeanie stood on the rocky beach, the neglected picnic basket tucked in the crook of her elbow, an annoyed expression on her face. “Come on!” she shouted, “It’s going to storm!”

At the thought of entering the cold dark waters of the lake, Nellie felt her stomach give a sudden lurch. Her knees began shaking and she wrapped her arms around them. She shook her head violently, and whispered, “I can’t go back in. It’ll get me if I go back in. I can’t go back in”.

“What?” Jeanie shouted from the beach, “I can’t hear you! Get back over here before it starts to rain!”

Nellie cleared her throat several times, searching for her voice. “There’s something in the water,” she managed to say.

“What? What the hell are you talking about?” Jeanie shouted. She put the picnic basket down on the rocks and stepped closer. “We don’t have time for your games. Get your ass back here. Now.”

Nellie continued shaking her head, and rocked back and forth on her heels. “I saw it at the bottom of the lake. It has red eyes.”

“You didn’t see shit at the bottom of the lake, Eleanor. Stop being a baby and come back to shore!”

At being called a baby, what little control Nellie had been clinging to shattered and she began sobbing wildly, gasping for breath. “I’m not….a baby! I saw…it…in the water! I saw its eyes!” she managed to shout in between tears.

Jeanie paused, a concerned expression now on her face, “Nellie what the hell are you talking about?” she asked in a gentler tone, “You’re too old to believe in monsters. You know there is nothing in that water that can hurt you. I don’t know what it is you think you saw but it was probably just the light on the lake water. It messes with your eyes.”

Nellie considered this idea. Could she have imagined the red eye on the bottom of the lake? Maybe it was a reflection off an old broken bottle or something?

No, she had felt the water move as it the thing had shifted on the lakebed. She had felt an ancient evil in its eyes. It had seen her, and now it was hungry for her. Nellie shook her head before burying it in her knees once more.

Back on shore, her cousin pressed two fingers to her forehead and sighed heavily. “Okay, Nellie I’m going to swim out to the dock. Then we can swim back together before we both get our asses electrocuted. K?” Without pausing for an answer, Jeanie stripped off her tank top and shorts and kicked off her sandals. Muttering too quietly for Nellie to hear, she waded into the water, wincing as the rocky beach pebbles dug into her feet.

Nellie heard a splash. She lifted her head from her knees to see Jeanie waist-deep in the water. As she pushed off from the shore and began a front crawl towards the dock, a flash of lightning tore across the sky, echoed a moment later by the slow rumble of thunder. “If I get zapped out here I’m going to kill you!” Jeanie shouted between strokes, “My extra crispy ghost will haunt you until the day y—“ Jeanie suddenly stopped swimming and pulled up about fifteen feet away from the edge of the dock.

“What the hell?” she breathed confusedly.

Nellie’s mouth went dry and her heart dropped into her stomach. “Jeanie,” she managed to croak out, “Jeanie. Swim! Please!”

Her cousin shook her head and resumed swimming towards the dock, her brow furrowed with concentration. She was only ten feet from the ladder. Now five.

Nellie gave a sob of relief as Jeanie reached the edge of the floating dock and grasped the old metal ladder. “Why did you stop?” she asked as Jeanie began climbing.

“I thought I saw something in the water. Probably a big fish. You got me all freaked out little tadpole. Now can we please go home?” Jeanie stood on the top rung and extended her hand.

Nellie reluctantly nodded and began unlocking her knees, which seemed frozen in place from fear and adrenaline. She took a shaky step towards her cousin. Then she stopped, her eyes widening in terror.

Jeanie’s feet were on the top rung of the ladder.

Her feet were still in the water.

A black claw was reaching out of the water towards Jeanie’s feet.

Nellie screamed.

The dripping claw wrapped itself around Jeanie’s feet and pulled. Before she had time to react Jeanie was pulled to the ground, her chin striking the wood of the dock with a sharp thud. Jeanie’s breath left her body with a sudden oomph, spattering blood across the warped boards as she bit her tongue.

Then, with a small splash, Jeanie was pulled backward off the dock and was gone.

Pools of water rippled outward from the place where her cousin had vanished beneath the waters of the lake. The ripples quickly faded, leaving only the smooth surface of Kimberling Lake, dimpled here and there by an occasional drop of rain.

A spray of blood in the shape of question mark stained the dock.

Less than five seconds had passed.

Nellie screamed again. She fell backwards, hitting her head on the wood. And then she knew nothing.


Click here for Chapter Two.

Book Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)

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Review #7


Geek Love details the lives of the Binewski family, a traveling sideshow whose members have all been “blessed” with various oddities. When Al Binewski feels that hiring sideshow acts is no longer profitable, he decides to breed his own oddities instead, using a careful regiment of drugs during his wife’s various pregnancies. His final result consists of Arturo the Aqua Boy, Siamese twins Iphy and Elly, Fortunato who is special in ways too astounding to describe, and Olympia. Olympia is an albino hunchbacked dwarf, the least special of her brothers and sisters. She is therefore relegated to grunt work, and we watch as she comes to grips with the her dysfunctional family and her place among them.

For the Binewski family, the traveling show is all they know. None of these children have ever been to school. Or lived in a house that wasn’t on wheels. Or even seen a film. The circus is the beginning and end of their realm of understanding. Which makes it all the more difficult when some of them begin wish for something more.

The fourth season of American Horror Story was subtitled Freakshow. If you want a good idea of what to expect from Geek Love, picture that television show but with more suspense and human drama in place of all the incessant whining. Geek Love is not an easy book to categorize. It’s certainly contains some horror elements, but it isn’t a horror novel. It could be considered realistic fiction for the first  hundred pages or so but then takes a running leap into magic realism. Mostly, it’s the story of familial bonds that can seem like familial bondage. How can you trust anyone when you know that their love for you is based on your earning potential?

Katherine Dunn has constructed a novel that is equal parts compelling, horrific, and occasionally just confusing. We feel compassion for Olympia towards the beginning of the book, but her incessant spinelessness render her unsympathetic as the story unravels. Arturo the Aqua Boy is a wonderfully developed character. The way that he creates and maintains a cult of personality are reminiscent of Jim Jones or Charles Manson. I won’t give anything away, but his vision to become more than a “circus freak” is as terrifying as it is fascinating. The end result is graphically and disturbingly detailed.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Geek Love. On one hand, it is incredibly well written. I felt drawn to the characters and their seemingly endless plight. On the other hand, the whole thing left me feeling uncomfortable and a bit nauseated. Take that for what you will.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Geek Love here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Daughter of the Gods by Stephanie Thornton (2014)

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Review #6


Egypt: 1400s B.C. Hatshepsut is the indulged second daughter of Pharoah Tutmose I. After the tragic death of her older sister, Hatshepsut is expected to wed her half-brother and become the Great Royal Wife. But Hatshepsut has ambitions for greater things than living out her days in the Hall of Women, and begins a journey that will end with her becoming one of the most powerful female rulers in ancient history.

I was obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child. This alien culture growing and thriving on the banks of the Nile was always so delightfully mysterious. That same alienness might be why ancient Egypt is rather underrepresented in historical fiction. Readers have a glut of novels detailing World War II, ancient Rome, and don’t even get me started on the Tudors. But ancient Egypt, a land where it was the height of fashion to have every hair plucked off your body, where it was considered practical to bear your brother’s children in order to preserve bloodlines, can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around.

Thornton’s novel doesn’t shy away from any of this. She presents her novel through her heroine’s eyes, and for Hatshepsut, all these things that are extraordinary to our modern sensibilities are perfectly normal. Going in, it does help to have a basic understanding of the Egyptian pantheon. Within the first few pages, the gods Re, Hathor, Bastet, Sekhmet, and Nut are mentioned. They are not accompanied with a lot of explanation, so it might be useful to have a chart of their mythology available. Same goes for a map of Egypt and perhaps a basic chronology of their civilization.

With or without the extra research, this novel is easily to submerge yourself in. Once you understand the numerous references to various deities, the story of Hatshepsut and her journey to the throne of Egypt is a compelling one. She is acknowledged as one of the first women of power, and yet almost everything we know of her life is pure speculation. Thornton does an admirable job of filling in the gaps, adding a small romantic element, and painting a portrait of a woman who uses her intelligence, daring, and political acumen to cement her place in Egyptian history.

Why is Hatshepsut so shrouded in mystery? It’s impossible to know, but historians all agree that sometime shortly after her reign, nearly all her images were stricken, and her monuments pulled down. Because Hatshepsut’s rule was marked by a long period of peace and prosperity for Egypt, it is thought that subsequent male rules wanted to erase all evidence of a successful female pharaoh from the historical record. Call it an ancient case of fragile masculinity. Whatever the case, a few carvings and monuments survived to tell Hatshepsut’s story, and Thornton picks up these pieces and runs with them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Anyone interested in learning about one of the most fascinating civilization in ancient history, as well as one of the first powerful women in the world would do well to go find a copy of The Daughter of the Gods.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Daughter of the Gods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!