#2.) The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani

When I published my anthology collection, BIZARRE MESSAGING, I had no idea how to pursue the public fiction arena. But one thing stood clear: the reading and writing communities are largely confined to the internet. Having existed largely off the grid at the time, I realized I had to snap off my aversion for social media and try to find a way to establish some kind of presence. And when one looks at the reading and writing communities for the first time, one sees an endless, intermingled map of personalities–with no discernible door into the fold.

Mona Kabbani was one of the first people I approached (on Instagram) upon publishing BIZARRE MESSAGING. Shortly after, she wrote the first review for my little book (for which I’ll always be grateful, having proven that the reading community is open to completely unknown authors, and not just floor show exhibits dedicated to Stephen King praise). At the time, however, (to my mild embarrassment) I didn’t realize that Mona was embarking her own literary pursuits, juggling reviews and her edits like a circus trapeze artist twirling fire mid-air.

Since then, we’ve seen the Wattpad publication of the short story LAUREN, the release of THE BELL CHIME, and, most recently, the arrival of VANILLA (which I will most definitely be reading). Now, almost a year and a half after finding her, I’m proud to read and provide an HONEST review of Mona’s first published book, THE BELL CHIME.

Official Synopsis:

"Can you hear the bell chime?"

A girl suffering from paralyzing night terrors finds a missing poster hanging from the door of her apartment building. On that poster is a photograph of a frighteningly familiar face.

It's her.

Only, she's never seen this photo before and something about its grin scares her. How its eyes seem to follow her no matter where she finds herself in the room.

Over a series of strange events to follow--events that will make her question whether her sanity is still there or fleeting--she must discover:

What is real and what is the nightmare?

Plot Overview:

At the risk of exposing spoilers (considering its novella length), an examination of THE BELL CHIME’s structure will suffice for a plot overview.

My favorite part of THE BELL CHIME is its fearlessness in chopping itself into smaller parts that are then juggled back into the deck out of chronological order. These parts are framed within the FORWARD, INTERMISSION, END OF INTERMISSION, and AFTERWARD, wherein the author makes an expository appearance to introduce the story (as well as her initiation as a writer) and help shift the gears of its narrative meat. I often scorn authorial intervention, the addition of outside opinion in the story (which Mona doesn’t do)–however, there’s nothing wrong with BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL, especially when yielding exceeding results (which Mona does).This technique adds to the theatrical effect of the project, framing the longer sections: THE BELL CHIME, [section title withheld for preservation of effect], BEFORE THE RING, DYLAN WERNER, and THE FIRST RING.

With the juggled chronology between the parts, which now feels like a series of interconnected short stories, Mona does a great job of refocusing the camera, so to speak. Though the points of intersection are not hidden as they unravel (urging the reader to attempt connecting the dots before the author does it for us), Mona allows them to hover in the air until she ties the pieces together by the end.

Takeaways:

First off–I loved the design of the book, inside and out. The online images of the matte cover don’t quite do the physical version justice. I particularly liked the back cover, which does as well a job as introducing Mona Kabbani the author as it does the story.

Inside, the design couldn’t be more clean.

Regarding voice, each of the longer sections of the story take on their own character. As each part finds the protagonist in a different stage of her journey, her awareness of the situation takes on new proximities of clarity depending on where she stands on the timeline. For a mentally-unstable individual, the

The nuances are applied believably, as we the readers often know more about what’s happening than our protagonist.

Sentences are written with brisk confidence, with no time wasted on single ideas. I really enjoyed the fragments following the full clauses, setting a good rhythm and shading. No rambling sentences appear, the syntax is solid. This contained style lends well to the chopped nature of the narrative, and allows shifts in character perception to be seen loudly in their subtlety.

Mona’s writing takes on exceptional flourish amid action scenes, sending off electric vibes, though the generous supply of metaphors in the reflective moments provides the author’s willingness to take chances and expect success time and time again.

For such a short book, Mona couldn’t have covered more ground. I believe the content to be appropriate to general audiences. As such, at times (in the best way) the story felt like a fleshed out episode from anthology shows such as CREEPSHOW 2, ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, nhetc.

Several books and movies that THE BELL CHIME brings to mind: JACOB’S LADDER, THE MATRIX, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, FIGHT CLUB.

Amputations:

Following the FORWARD, the first scene begins with a character waking up from a dream. Though this setup is typically regarded as a cliché, it is soon proven intrinsic to the story, as the story’s protagonist (let’s just consider her largely unnamed throughout the story) is prone to night terrors/sleep paralysis. I wondered if this introductory scene could have been omitted from the story’s final version, but realized that would have taken the edge off the introduction, as the dynamics between the protagonist and her boyfriend are rolled out through how they deal with this situation. The issue of the protagonist’s sleep paralysis are confined to the very beginning of the story, and I’m happy they are treated more as an introduction to the character rather than a revisited theme throughout.

Despite all the great things I can say about the writing and organization of the BELL CHIME, occasionally wordings would arise that seemed to hit the mark less squarely than they could have. This is primarily in the verb department. These moments didn’t hinder my overall view of the book, but I did have to stop several times and think about them.

Final Rating: 4

#1.) Father of Contention by Lanie Mores

A sense of dread accompanies the prospect of reading your friends’ writing for the purpose of a review. When they bounce ideas off you, ask for feedback, or anything else that yields in pre-publication reinforcement, it’s easy–you don’t have to own any criticisms; the recipient of said criticism can happily apply the suggestions without a sense of slight. Feedback helps to avert roadblocks, see things that wouldn’t be noticed without outside eyes. For a writer (who’s honest about bettering their craft), nothing is more valuable than good feedback–save for a good review. Fortunately for me, Canadian author Lanie More’s FATHER OF CONTENTION, the first in a four-part series, is an awesome novel from start to finish–and I don’t have to concern myself with handling it with kid gloves for my first review.

***

Official Synopsis:

There was only ever meant to be one Creator. In 1972, German scientist Renner Scholz travels to Barbora Bay, Washington to continue his research in recombinant DNA technology. Only believing in things proven by science, his deeply held beliefs are challenged when he meets Milena Nowak, a psychic. After a whirlwind romance, Renner becomes obsessed with understanding Milena's unexplainable ability. Stumbling upon an exclusive occult ritual involving an evil spell that connects him to the spiritual realm where psychic abilities and power originate, he finds the answers he's been searching for...but at a cost. Compelled by the ritual, Renner pursues a new vein of research. He develops the genetic blueprint to produce psychic abilities in humans—creating a superhuman—without realizing he is the main player in a plot to destroy mankind. Milena senses that Renner has changed and a new darkness resides within him. Helplessly she watches as the man she loves transforms, becoming deceptive, volatile and both physically and mentally more powerful. Can Milena save Renner from this evil presence? Or will she become an unwilling participant in his next experiment—one of the darkest kinds?

***

Plot Overview (Warning—potential spoilers):

FATHER OF CONTENTION is broken into two parts, which are sandwiched by a prologue, an interlude, and an epilogue, written in verse and conveying the voice of a demonic presence determined to find a mortal vessel. To be honest–I’m not a huge fan of prologues because they don’t always connect to the story in a meaningful enough manner to warrant their existence. Hence, I read the prologue at the end of the first part, and appreciated the added context its presence provided, as though filling in blanks rather than setting the stage; I read the interlude and epilogue in their proper order.

Part I. covers Renner Scholz as an ethical, ambitious student determined to find success in his discipline of recombinant DNA technology as he strives to abandon brutal memories buried in his early childhood. Leaving his foster parents in Germany to continue his studies at a fictitious university in Washington state, Renner, possessing a single-minded obsession with his goals, sets on his path to acquire the academic and professional clout to inject a revolutionary impact in human health–perhaps find the cure for cancer, which ails his foster father and pushes him ever-closer toward death.

Upon arriving at his dorm, Renner is displeased to discover that, as housing is limited, he will be forced to shack up with a roommate, Paul. Paul, an arrogant slob, quickly establishes himself as a rival (being a student in the same discipline), offering mixed signals of friendship and competition during the entire span of their relationship, which extends beyond their days at the university.

It is during their time as students when Renner meets Milena Nowak, a psychic. As a scientist Renner balks at Milena’s claim to possess such powers, but after Milena provides him a reading and taps into the memories that Renner so desperately wants to hide from himself, the resolve of his doubts waver. The couple soon elope–Paul finding a way to insert himself as a witness at the court, of course.

Paul, who has marginally discussed Milena’s psychic abilities with Renner since he learns that she claims to be a clairvoyant, and has somewhat established the subject as a mainstay in their communications, invites Renner and his new wife to a ceremony hosted by a medium, claiming that the experience will explain how someone like Paul can receive such great grades with minimal effort through the reception of her spells. Renner agrees to come with Paul; after some resistance Milena agrees to attend as well. Milena watches the ceremony with dread, ultimately witnessing a dark force enter her husband (the realization of the wishes of the Demon who voices the prologue, interlude, and epilogue), which will taint his ambitions from this point forward.

During the ceremony, DMT is utilized to enhance the spiritual effects of the ritual. Once Renner has identified the chemical, he reads material professing how the properties of DMT may create a bridge to the spiritual world. Inspired by the possibilities of bridging this gap–an illuminated state of mental being–Renner concocts a plan that will test every ethical value he holds dear and threatens to corrupt his soul.

***

Part II. follows Renner’s motivations to actualize his plans. Now a successful scientist working for a prominent company (and having inherited an exuberant sum from his foster father, who has passed away), he conducts his studies at home in private, knowing full well that the discovery of his indiscretion will yield in criminal charges and institutional excommunication. Despite the risks, at every stage of his experience upon arriving on American soil–through his scientific determination, spiritual enhancement (at its own cost), and total monetary insulation, Renner’s greed never fails to simmer until his eyes literally turn black.

Milena–formerly vibrant in spirituality, full of exotic beauty, and physically ravishing, experiences a total deflation of self, experiences a total deflation of self as Renner’s star shines brighter and his eyes burn darker. Toward the beginning of her marriage to Renner she has a premonition that she refuses to accept as plausible. As a result of averting the image from her consciousness, she abandons utilizing her psychic abilities altogether. Renner accumulates all–while she dwindles until she represents little more than raw research for her husband’s eventual experiments.

***

Part I. builds up the tension gradually, almost allowing the reader to feel a sense of comfort in the setting and interpersonal situations to this point. Part II. shatters this false sense of security and pushes boundaries that can’t be repaired. Domino pieces fall into place with a surgeon’s precision–almost too conveniently at times (although I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word, as much calculation has gone into aligning the fragments), but every issue is addressed.

Takeaways:

The first thing that stands out in FATHER OF CONTENTION, clocking in at a fairly dense yet breezy 375 pages, is its focus. To accomplish this, Mores keeps a tight leash on every ingredient, ensuring that each character and event plays into the grand scheme–no red herrings, no throw away characters. It’s only a matter of time before the story answers questions plotted throughout; just when you wonder what happened with X at the beginning of the story, it explodes before you, and you can’t help but relish in such well-placed catharses.

The novel carries a neutral tone, maintaining an almost clinical view of events to match the climate in which the story takes place: the lab. And even when the story takes its dark turns, investigating the speculative nature of the occult or the horrors of domestic abuse, the spikes in tension take on an illuminated nature within the narrative’s level casing. I don’t want to spoil anything regarding these elements, but let’s say I didn’t expect to see certain things transpire with such a cold gaze.

A note on the science–while the story doesn’t dawdle into rambling theory, it does delve deep enough in the theories contained to truly captivate. I had to remind myself that my more experimental days are behind me (supposedly) when a desire to dabble in DMT bubbled up in the back of my mind. Lanie reveals in the afterward that these concepts are partially based in real studies and inflated with imagination.

Perhaps one of my favorite elements of FATHER OF CONTENTION is its insular nature–every expository detail pertains to the characters’ past experiences or the world around them. Meaning, minimal authorial intervention (when a writer injects their own perspective into the narrative, staining what could potentially stand as a successful story). Some people thrive on utilizing and ingesting authorial intervention, but in Lanie’s writing it’s simply a nonentity, and I look forward to reading the three next three books in the series.

Amputations:

I have to strain to summon a short list of criticisms for FATHER OF CONTENTION.

At times I felt that certain words were repeated too often in proximity, such as referring to Renner and Milena as “the young married couple” several times on a single page.

I mentioned earlier that some resolutions occurred somewhat conveniently. In other terms however, it can be said that Mores ties loose ends when the narrative allows the space to attend each issue simmering beneath the story.

The cover stands as a somewhat sore point for me, though it doesn’t affect the rating–the front shows a depiction of Renner while Milena’s image occupies the back. This is a sensible enough concept, but Lanie points such a clear image of the characters at the beginning of the story that the models on display don’t do their source material justice.

Final Rating: 4.5

Introducing the Duke’s Butcher Block

I’m proud to introduce the Duke’s Butcher Block, a book review series wherein I will cover (mostly, but not always) indie authors and provide an honest view on the work through my perspective as a writer. As such, I don’t claim to be the closest reader, but I’m not shy to assert that my grasp of mechanics and organization will be well-applied, and ultimately understood (by you).

I won’t let nepotism infect my judgment when considering the work ON THE TABLE. Whether acquainted with the author or not, I will investigate the consistency, layout, character development, tone, application of theme, etc. throughout the work.

What titles will I select? That’s up in the air. But I keep my finger on the pulse of the indie community as it surrounds me and choose those that receive broad attention. To be honest, my goal is a moving target. In any case, I can see my honesty drawing much ire as this endeavor fleshes out. That’s okay with me—I’m not trying to win a popularity contest. If an author or their cadre find my conclusions disagreeable, I will remind the aggrieved parties that my perspective is driven solely by objectivity.

This is the big one—personally I prefer distance between a fiction author’s worldview and the point-of-view in the stories they produce. So, I will have to address the issue of authorial intervention as a serious matter, which I believe truly distinguishes an author’s ability to show rather than tell the ideas they are trying to convey.

Regarding genres, I will be open minded, but I prefer to investigate the activities within the horror, dark fiction, and satirical veins of the writing community.

Good luck and congratulations to everyone whose books makes it ON THE TABLE—where ego can’t shelter your title from the cleaver’s cold truth. I will have my first review available by the end of the week.

—JMDIII

Review of Maldito by S.O. Bailey / General Address to the Writing Community

Caveat: there is no nepotism at play. I reached out to S.O. because he is a person I want to know more about, and in order to do that I have to read his material. In fact, the first contact I made was a direct message on Instagram showcasing a screenshot of my Amazon receipt for my purchase of Maldito. I joined the IG writing community (an unofficial entity, obviously) in October and have since kept my eyes open for anyone that I could build a rapport with in any community. I have scoured through many people, and once I followed S.O. I realized how many accounts we have in common, that we are in the same game. I’m not exactly a horror writer, but it is my native genre as far as movies go, and I believe that my themes overlap with horror in general. So, if I want to meet my peers, I have to look at horror, where everything seems to intersect.

To be honest, lately I’ve been watching more movies than reading books. This is because the mainstream publishing landscape seems to be saturated by SJW policies that either water-down and turn the project into a pamphlet rather than a creative work, or infringe on harmless trajectories that don’t fall in line with the scruples of modern Orwellian Newspeak. That’s the first thing that stood out to me in Maldito, that Bailey speaks plainly to the audience, the entire work is a blunt force excursion into the next page.

I believe movies are the best conveyor of the horror—and that’s where Maldito comes into play. From the first page, Maldito carries the spirit of a Netflix movie maybe six years ago, when you could find an eighty-minute shot to the face that left your heart pacing and mind reeling—when you could find them in abundance. I bought Maldito and read 40 of 54 pages the night I finally picked it up. Then it took a few weeks until I read the last fifteen pages. This lapse in reading wasn’t a lack of interest—I just didn’t want it to end! I can’t tell you how many books in my library I have read 75% of but haven’t finished out of fear that I won’t find anything to replace the excitement I have for that book. This is what happened with Maldito, except that I managed to finish it while confined in an airplane.

Since the book is so short, it’s hard to really dig into the plot without giving the story away. The summary is available on S.O.’s Amazon page, linked below. This review is purely reactionary. But I will say that every turn felt natural, and I did not expect the double twist at the end. The story wasn’t completely stark, which left a glimmer of hope for a happy ending. I can’t say how, but, although cathartic, the ending was not happy at all in the slightest for the characters of the story, but left a satisfying aftertaste in the mind of the reader with the final turns of Bailey’s knife.

Though I do not endeavor to become a book reviewer, the following is the breakdown I will follow I do review books (which I predict will remain in indie territory), and I’m happy to roll it out for Maldito:

Tone: The tone of the writing matched the environment of each scene. From the beginning, when the starring couple is at the tropical resort, each environment felt natural. As the story veered further off the beaten path, pardon the pun, so did the sense of comfort expressed in the writing. For the short span, this evolution in tension is very important.

Voice: As stated above, Bailey writes plainly to the audience, using the action of the plot and the horrors the characters experience rather than relying on poetic language. This directness works well for Bailey, who writes just enough to get all the necessary plot points in place, when he then seals them with confidence.

Plot and Pacing: Something that many writers struggle with is alternating backstory with the present stream of action. Bailey does not have that problem at all in this book. He always finds the best places to briefly drop expository elements that only strengthen the audience’s connection with the awful conflict.

Characters: Like many great horror stories, Maldito stars a couple on vacation. Bailey is honest about his characters and uses their weaknesses to enhance the peril they face. The marriage of the leading couple expresses an increasingly common dynamic in American culture, where the wife is the senior money earner while the husband reaches for his aspirations. In this case, the husband is an aspiring writer and the wife is a successful saleswoman. Over the course of the story, circumstance challenges the man’s masculinity, and Bailey does this fearlessly.


Thank you for reading my review of Maldito by S.O. Bailey. Though this is a book review of Bailey, it is also clearly an awesome vehicle to move my blog forward. My stints of opportunism tend to benefit the subject of my gaze, and I also want to be open about it. As this blog unfolds, I will be featuring other creatives to give my own testimony as to their development. You can always expect me to cast a burning spotlight on my peers and those I respect.This is a heavy review for 54 pages, but it’s also indicative of Bailey’s future as a writer, which is bloody and bright, regardless of how abysmal his imagination may be.

From the other side of strange,

–JMDIII

Click cover image to buy Maldito by S.O. Bailey
S.O. Bailey; the t-shirt says it all.