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Review: The New Death and others

Before I begin this review and for the sake of full disclosure, I should say that the author, James Hutchings, sent me a copy of his book in hopes I would review it. It was a concept I could get behind and I am open to authors (at least those who have a basal comprehension of what I write/like) who can stand my criticism sending me something to review. I am considering doing the same with We Shadows, once I clear it with my publisher. That said, sending me a free book does not, per se, mean I will be equally generous in what I write in a review. If anything, it makes me more scathing because I am trying to justify giving a good review. (This does not mean that you brave authors out there should not offer me books in exchange for reviews, just accept that I will lean more toward tearing apart instead of relentless fluffing up.)

Amber, who read some of the stories while resting her head on my chest, referred to this book as The New Death... of Jokes. This was not, as you may imagine, a compliment. I retorted that I was inclined to subtitle this review "The food is terrible and the portions are so small".

The book is 44 short stories, some of which involve the same allegorical figures, and 19 poems. There is ostensibly no logic to the placement of any of these, so there is no real flow from one to the next. After a few of the poems, little more than doggerel retellings of stories by famous authors, I decided to stick with the stories. I have been informed by other readers that I should have skipped the stories and stuck to the poems.

I am willing to concede that I may not be the target audience for this book, even for ninety-nine cents. On paper, it might seem I should be. I like fantasy, though not sword and sorcery, which many of the stories are. I love genre humor, but more along the lines of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, or Douglas Adams (which I gather the stories are supposed to be, but fail to come close enough to do anything but remind the reader of his weakness by comparison). I like the idea of postcard fictions or fiction so short I could have it finished in less than three minutes. Yet, pureed together in this book, I didn't care for the taste. For all its brevity, it took me weeks to actually get through because I kept groaning and putting it away so I did not throw my Kindle.

Several of the stories seem to go nowhere in particular, but are nevertheless pompous about getting there. I was infrequently drawn in to any, I was never immersed, because it feels Hutchings could not leave well enough alone when there was a "synonyms" button to abuse. Occasionally, this bad habit leads to pretty sounding words that do not mean what the author wishes them to. At other times, it seems that he does not trust the reader to reach conclusions on his own but must instead over-explain the meaning of his similes and metaphors. This is generally accomplished by the sin of telling rather than showing out of a commitment to be short instead of good. That is, except for the times when he uses analogies that sound good but mean next to nothing (e.g., "... in the flames of the campfire his face seemed to glow like a wolf in the night." Unless this is a Chernobyl wolf, wolves are not known for glowing in the night. Perhaps he means their eyes, but that isn't what he wrote). He cannot seem to make his character sound like distinct beings, rather he throws the same irrationally haughty language into every mouth, from medieval mages to boys telling campfire stories. Furthermore, his internal mythology is glaringly inconsistent at times.

This is not to say that all his stories are without charm, but the best of them end where a great story should begin. I am aware Hutchings is going for a laugh with most of the stories, not forming great literature, but it reeks of untapped potential. Going for cheap laughs (and that is the only laugh he is seeking) does not excuse literary laziness. He has some clever ideas, briefly explored, but either buries the potential under overwriting or blows his load in the first paragraph and hopes you don't mind cuddling a bit in the wet spot.

The greatest sin I can accuse Hutchings of - and one I do not imagine he would not proudly cop to - is that he is addicted to puns. There are a couple of stories that are, without hyperbole, nothing but puns - no plot, characters, theme, idea - Just pun after pun that your grandmother forwarded you in an email from her AOL account. Remarkably, in one of the entirely pun stories, he manages to contradict himself three times within four paragraphs because he honestly doesn't seem to care about what he is writing when he has the opportunity to make the reader groan. While I am not certain how copyright law applies to a collection of puns strung together to give the illusion of paragraphs, it does not seem sporting to consider that an original work. Perhaps worse, he interrupts the intermittent flow of his stories with relentless parenthetical puns, which seemed like a lack of confidence (and invited unflattering comparisons to masters of the humorous interjection and footnote: the above mentioned Pratchett and Adams).

Another criticism, though not on the writing, is that the formatting is frequently just wrong. Paragraphs will split in the middle of sentences without punctuation. Since I believe he sent me the same version that is for sale, this is a minor drawback for readers. I am used to wonky formatting (I used to use a Sony Reader 900 and Calibre to convert books, so I would sometimes run across formatting that would have made a new user go cross-eyed), but the rest of the book at least looks professional.

Overall, this book may be worth your dollar if you happen to like puns rather a lot, but I do not think it was worth much of my time.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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