Close Range Review

 

 

Close Range coverI came to this book with some unease. My first encounter with Annie Proulx’s collection subtitled “Wyoming Stories,” was the final one, “Brokeback Mountain,” in which a cowboy discovers, as an adult, that he’s gay. Uh, yeah, sure. The story was a “political” assignment by one of my English professors, and it set my expectations when, probably 15 years later, I finally picked up the book again.

Proulx starts “A Lonely Coast” late in the book this way:

“You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains?… And you might think about the people in the burning house, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.”

That seems like a fitting metaphor for the entire book. Every one of the people in these stories lives a life of nothing but tragedy, heartache, and loss. They never stop to admire a sunset or a field of wildflowers, or breathe deeply the scents of new-grown grass and the plants of the Wyoming plains. Any joy they have is fleeting, artificial, not to be trusted: it will only lead to more pain.

This sort of literary drive-by schadenfreude is not for me. It betrays a “life sucks and then you die” nihilism I simply don’t share. If this is Proulx’s world, I’m glad I don’t live in it. I don’t know why anyone would want to read about it, much less write about it.

Yes, Proulx is a master of the well-turned phrase, the concise and insightful description, but those masteries cannot overcome the miseries of these depressing and dismal stories.

The high plains of Wyoming can be a desolate place, to be sure, and ranching is a hard life. But not this desolate, and not this hard, not all the time.

Your time and money can be better spent on other books.

Damian and Mongoose Review

3-star rating

 

 

“Danny, if I find you’re a threat to my family, I’ll put a bullet between your eyes. Family is everything.”

“I understand that, Clyde. If I were in your position, I would say the same thing—and mean it.”

“You would; wouldn’t you?” He smiled as he studied me.

 

Those are the opening lines of Damian and Mongoose, Danny Williams’ memoir of his central role in taking down one of the most notorious spy rings ever to afflict the United States military. They promise a real-life spy thriller, better than anything John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, or Ken Follett could have dreamed up.

Unfortunately, the promise is not kept.

The reason is simple: Williams, who spent most of his Army career as a counter-intelligence agent, treats the memoir as if it were another debriefing with his superiors. He reports verbatim conversation after conversation, whether with Clyde Conrad, the leader of the spy ring, or any of Williams’ co-workers, superiors, or handlers. I understand that Williams wanted to use Conrad’s own words to reveal his motivations and personality, but when there’s so much dialogue, it can be hard for the average reader to process it all and separate out the important material.

The names in the title are significant, and self-assigned. Conrad’s code name, Damian, means “one who subdues or tames,” and he certainly did that to his recruits. Williams’ code-name, Mongoose, is, of course, the reference to the weasel-like animal that kills snakes.

Early on, Williams repeatedly says he considered Conrad a friend, and continued to feel that way even after he (Williams) had done the work that led to Conrad’s arrest by German authorities, his trial, conviction, and sentence to life in prison. Williams also states that he considered Conrad one of the most professional soldiers he’d ever known. For this military veteran, these statements are hard to square with what Conrad did. Williams eventually explains that while Conrad was in the Army, he did everything exactly right, and even went above and beyond what was required by regulation and procedure.

But those actions, it turned out, were so that Conrad could gain the confidence and trust of the people around him. That allowed him to later talk them into becoming spies, or at least sources of highly classified information for the Hungarian and ultimately the Soviet intelligence services. He did his work so well that NATO and German authorities later believed that if there had ever been war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s war plans would have been so compromised that the allies would have had to resort to nuclear weapons almost immediately.

Yet even after Conrad’s conviction, Williams considered him, a traitor to the United States, a friend. His explanation, that business is business and friendship is a separate thing, is unconvincing, to say the least.

Despite these flaws, this book’s look inside the worlds of espionage and counter-espionage are both fascinating and chilling. As a military officer, I was continuously cautioned against the kinds of behavior that could lead me to be compromised. The people who handled the classified documents Conrad eventually acquired and turned over—mostly relatively poorly paid enlisted personnel, it should be noted—surely received the same kinds of training and warnings, yet Conrad was so skilled he was able to overcome them.

Williams walked a fine line as he gathered the information needed to build the case against Conrad. On the one hand, he had to keep Conrad’s trust—to con the con-man, in other words—while at the same time not break any laws or do anything that would cause the investigation to fail, while retaining the confidence of his superiors, who doubted his non-standard methods of working with their target.

A more tightly woven and better-edited story would have made Damian and Mongoose a can’t-put-it-down read. I wish it had been.

Lilith’s Fall Review

4 star rating

 

 

It’s fair to say that I don’t read erotic science fiction romances very often—like almost never—but hey, it’s good to broaden your horizons, right?

Lilith's Fall coverLilith’s Fall is the first book in Susan Trombley’s Shadows in Sanctuary series. Lilith Galeron is a mild-mannered (her best friend Stacia calls her “boring”) but highly skilled computer programmer living in Dome City, a collection of large, connected domes on an unnamed planet. The society is tightly controlled by a religious leadership called the Diakonos, whose rule is enforced by police known by the Orwellian name of the Peace Keepers.

But there’s trouble in paradise and Lilith is suddenly arrested by the Peace Keepers, who wrongly allege that she’s involved with a shadowy revolutionary group called the Commemoro. She is taken to a secret prison where she’s thrown into a cell with a huge, dark, winged and horned creature from a species she’d only heard about, called the Demons. It turns out that this particular demon, or umbrose, as the race calls itself, is the duke, one of the senior leaders, of his people. Ranove is big, he’s bad, he’s built (and wearing only a thong), and the Peace Keepers expect him to do bad things to Lilith, like kill her. Maybe even eat her.

Instead, of course, after some serious initial awkwardness, Ranove and Lilith start to fall for each other. Ranove stages a bloody escape, which lets Lilith try escape, too. However, she’s foiled by the isolated location of the prison until Ranove finds her and carries her off to his people’s last redoubt in the heart of a dead volcano. There they’re protected (they think) from a seemingly similar but white-skinned race called the adurians who are their mortal enemies, and who are also allied with the Diakonos in Dome City. Once there, while Lilith tries to adjust to umbrose culture, she and Ranove consummate their relationship. Conveniently, they’re physically, but not genetically, compatible.

More adventures ensue. Lilith and Ranove are separated, come back together, and are separated again. During their final separation, Lilith discovers that Stacia and other friends were in fact part of the Commemoro, and faced with no other choice, joins them. A Commemoro attack on an adurian compound results in Ranove and Lilith being reunited, and the revolutionaries and umbrose reluctantly join forces to rescue Balfour, the umbrose’s prince, whom the adurians are holding and torturing, and to end the reign of the Diakonos. The rescue succeeds, at great cost, and Lilith and Ranove are reunited for good.

True to the conventions of erotic romance (so I’m told), the sex scenes between Lilith and Ranove hold nothing back. However, for this reader, they were not overdone and were appropriate to the relationship. Lilith and Ranove are fully-developed characters, with needs beyond the physical, and with fears and concerns, struggles and triumphs. The supporting casts of humans and umbrose play their parts well and set the stage for the series’ second book, Balfour’s Salvation.

It would be easy to project our own society’s struggles with race onto this story, or to see parts of the story as a commentary on how certain earthly religions control their believers. I can’t say whether either of these was Trombley’s intent, however. Instead, she plays up the contrast between one’s expectations about someone based on their appearance, the stories others have told or have been told about them, and who and what they really are. Ranove can be one really bad dude, but Trombley does not give him a heart of gold. Instead, she develops his concerns and motivations, so the reader can identify with him as someone fighting for a cause greater than himself… and, oh, by the way, for the love of a woman who’s very different from him.

Highly recommended for the SF romance reader. Recommended for any SF reader interested in reaching into new areas of the genre, at least so long as they’re not squeamish about sexually explicit scenes.

 

Spirit Walk Review

 

 

 

Best novel I’ve read in quite a while. And a debut novel at that.

Jay Treiber is a rare individual: a college English literature professor who can also write it, and write it well.

College English professor Kevin McNally has been struggling for decades with his guilt over an incident that happened when he was a teenager. This is the kind of subject that could lead the author and reader down a rat hole of angst, self-loathing, and neurotic navel-gazing but  Treiber avoids this trap. Instead, he chooses to have McNally seek resolution of that guilt, and forgiveness for what happened, through a skillfully interwoven series of story lines that mix McNally’s present and past.

By itself, that’s not unusual, but the story’s location and characters are. McNally comes from a line of southeastern Arizona ranch families, with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the border with Mexico, but perhaps as a way to escape his past, he left the small border town of Douglas to teach in Tucson—away, but not that far away. In telling the parallel stories of McNally’s return and of the original incident, Treiber takes the reader on journeys into worlds many have never experienced: the rugged high-desert canyons and mountains of far southeastern Arizona, far southwestern New Mexico, and the bordering lands of northern Mexico; the lives of the people who ranch and hunt on that land; and the drug smugglers who cross it.

The story revolves around McNally and Amanda Monahan, the 15 year old daughter of an area rancher. Raised in the ranch life, Mandi is no girly-girl. She’s a skilled hunter, and also the secret heart-throb of 17 year old Kevin. While the two families and other friends are out on a deer hunt, the party splits up. Mandi, hunting with Kevin and his friend Armando “Mondy” Luna, takes down a buck. Kevin wants to offer to help her field dress the animal and take it back to the family truck but she seems so well able to handle the tasks that he and Mondy leave her to chase after a crippled black jaguar known as “Old Pete,” which they’d spotted. When the hunting parties return to their parked trucks sometime later, the deer’s head and carcass are there, but Amanda is not. Neither are Kevin and Mondy. The families wait for them for a while, then start searching, not knowing that the kids are not together. No one, as it turns out, knows that Amanda has been captured by a group of drug-runners, who now face the problem of what to do with her.

The “young Kevin” story splits again and again as it follows Amanda, the druggies, the boys, and the different pieces growing search party. The “old Kevin” story line stays focused on McNally as he searches for the truth about a past he doesn’t clearly remember. Treiber weaves in and out of these bifurcating story lines like Old Pete weaving in and out of the bushes, trees, and rocky terrain, sometimes spotted but rarely seen clearly or for long.

The story lines all come together in a climactic shootout between the searchers and the druggies, but it would be a spoiler to reveal who dies. It does, however, finally clarify the real reason for McNally’s guilt, which Treiber skillfully misdirects our attention from throughout the book.

All this said, there were a few things about the book I found disappointing. Toward the end, the adult McNally goes on a peyote-fueled trip to the site of the search, led there by an old Indian friend. This was too much of a southwestern search-for-meaning-story cliché and is the least well done part of the entire book. It doesn’t even contribute much to the final resolution.

As I neared the climax of the story, I realized that the names of two of the key characters, Amanda and Armando, sounded suspiciously alike. After reaching the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if Treiber, English lit professor that he is, hadn’t tried to be oh-so-clever with these names, creating the symbolic parallelism that those professors love. The meanings of the two names are relevant: Amanda means “lovable” or “worthy of love,” and Armando means “soldier.” Both names are appropriate to their roles, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Treiber consciously chose them. Or maybe he didn’t, and their meanings and the similarities of their sounds just slipped by author and editor alike.

Finally, Treiber mixes in Spanish dialogue, which is appropriate for some of the characters, but he does not always provide a translation, and context is not always helpful. For those of us who don’t speak Spanish, this adds verisimilitude but is also a stumbling block.

In the end, these faults matter little. Treiber’s characters are finely drawn. Even the struggling adult McNally is sympathetic enough to keep the reader following him. Treiber clearly knows and loves the portion of the desert southwest the story is set in, and he places the reader right there with the characters. And no dilettante professor, he doesn’t shy away from the details of the weapons the hunters, sheriff’s deputies, and druggies use, or from the hunting—for people or game animals—that is so much a part of this area and of the story. By the end, the adult McNally’s spirit walk has led him to a place at which his spirit is recovering, if not yet fully healed.

Highly recommended.

“A Chain of Events” Review

4 star rating

 

 

I’ve known, since even before I reluctantly purchased this book in the early 2000s, that it would be a difficult read. That’s why it sat, unopened, on a bookshelf in three different houses, until now. In part, the reason might be obvious from author Joan Piper’s subtitle: “The Government Cover-up of the Black Hawk Incident and the Friendly-Fire Death of Lt. Laura Piper.” The other reasons require some up-front disclosure.

  • I am a retired Air Force officer.
  • I was a Mission Crew Commander (MCC) on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
  • On the date of the shoot-down of the two Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq—April 14, 1994—I was deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to fly missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch/Desert Calm, the counterpart to Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
  • In July 1994, when the first investigation report was released, I was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to fly OPC missions. I was in the audience at the base theater when the report was briefed to the aircrews there the evening before it was released to the public.
  • I knew slightly both of the MCCs who were on the AWACS crew the day of the shoot-down, and have since gotten to know one of the senior officers involved in the decisions on who to prosecute or not. I did not know the one AWACS officer who was ultimately court-martialed but declared innocent by the jury.

In other words, this is personal, although nowhere near as personal as it was for Piper and the other Black Hawk families.

A Chain of Events should not be seen as a definitive history of the shoot-down and subsequent investigations and the events surrounding them. It is appropriately categorized as a memoir, a personal history of the Piper family’s struggles to understand what happened to their daughter Laura and to seek “accountability” for her death. The Pipers’ fully-understandable pain over their loss (and the deaths of the other 25 people, from three other nations plus ethnic Kurds, who were on the two helicopters), which never should have happened, comes through loud and clear. The Pipers’ anger and frustration over how the various investigations into the shoot-down were handled, in particular how information was allegedly kept out of the reports or away from the investigators, decision-makers, and court-martial jury, and how other investigations were allegedly stymied by the Air Force leadership and Washington politics, also comes through.

Sometimes that anger takes an ugly turn. During Piper’s relating of the events surrounding the court-martial of Captain Jim Wang, she cites medical information revealed during the trial to suggest that he was mentally unstable. Elsewhere in this same chapter, she suggests, on the basis of flimsy evidence, that Captain Eric Wickson, the lead F-15 pilot that day and the individual likely most responsible for the 26 deaths, had Tourette Syndrome, something she was not qualified to diagnose. [My attempts to get more information from my local flight surgeon’s office on whether Tourette’s would disqualify someone from flight duties were ignored.] While such allegations reflect the depths of her anger and pain, the ad hominem attacks hurt her case, for which she has plenty of other evidence.

That aside, Piper is to be commended for having the courage to write this account. She was willing to be the public face of the American Black Hawk families, to be interviewed repeatedly by the press, and to ultimately write the book. She was uniquely placed, perhaps, to do so. Her husband Danny had key connections to people on the inside of several of the investigations, and so the Pipers were able to get access to information that others could not have gotten, and possibly to even have influence on the direction of at least the investigation led by Senator William Roth. As such, she was able to shine a light into places that might not have been revealed otherwise. But it is only a spotlight, because she did not have total access to the decision-makers. She at times speculates without proof on their motives and the forces driving them. A complete historical account would have included that information, but that was not the purpose of this book.

At several places in the book, Piper states that she did not want anyone involved in the shoot-down to go to jail; all she wanted was “accountability.” This makes me wonder what her real desires were. In other cases of undeserved death, surviving family members talk about wanting accountability or “justice.” What do those terms really mean? Are these people afraid to actually say that they want the perpetrators punished? If so, why?

Late in the book, Piper quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” The target of the quote is the leadership of the Air Force at the time. However, it is hard but fair to ask, in the context of “accountability,” if the quote does not also apply to her.

At the end of the book, Piper says she’d achieved “closure,” another popular but vague term, regarding her daughter’s death. I wonder if, almost 25 years after the incident, she still feels that way, or what “closure” means to her now.

Not only is there no happy ending to this story, there’s really no ending at all. I know of one other book on the shoot down, Army Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook’s Friendly Fire, which I have not yet read. A quick scan suggests it is an organizational psychology evaluation of the actions and decision-making around the actual shoot-down but does not address the larger issues Piper raises. My own experiences, and the story told in this book, make one thing clear: while there was a “chain of events” that led to this unnecessary tragedy, there was an even larger chain of failures—of skill, of professionalism, of integrity—at many levels and over a longer timeline than Piper discusses, which pervades and drives the entire story.

The full story has yet to be told, and it may never be, which would be a loss not only for the families of the victims but also for the United States Air Force as a whole.

In the end, despite its flaws, A Chain of Events does a service to the victims, the U.S. Air Force, and America at large for revealing what it does.

 

Children of the Thunder Review

 

 

 

Dark, dystopian, and deeply flawed. And yet….

Author John Brunner’s late 20th century England is a mess: the economy is collapsing, environmental degradation is rampant, the government is corrupt, religious fundamentalists are taking over, and a renegade general is advocating xenophobia and racism at home and nuclear war abroad. Things in the U.S. are similar, minus the general. Meanwhile, Japan and continental Europe are doing fine, or better.

Peter Levin is a freelance reporter. Few newspapers will buy his work and they are in danger of closing. Claudia Morris is an American sociologist. She made her name with a provocative book, but she now thinks she might have gotten her thesis wrong, and has come to England on sabbatical to do research and write a new book. She and Levin had met previously, and they meet up again.

Meanwhile, a baker’s dozen of just past puberty children scattered across the British Isles and in Italy have discovered that they have the power to control the people around them, and they’re wielding that power to get everything they want, including the deaths of those who threaten them.

And here’s where the first flaw shows up. Brunner tells the story of all but one of the children while Levin and Morris meet. Levin fumbles around trying to find paying work while she struggles to keep the funding for her studies coming. There’s little evidence of a connection between the Levin/Morris story line and those of the children for well over half of the book. A science fiction reader will trust the author to eventually bring parallel story lines together, and Brunner eventually does, but even then, the children seem to be of secondary interest Levin and Morris. The early portions of the book are such a disjointed mess that it’s often tempting to put the book down.

Other flaws: Written in the mid-1980s, the book seems to have been created in haste for the domestic British market, and so was not “translated” into American English for this publication. (My copy of Children is the first of three books collected into one hardback.) For someone like me who’s worked with Britons, this isn’t much of a problem, but for others, even the non-slang terms will cause American readers to stumble.

Speaking of slang, Brunner chose to create a whole new set of slang and swear words for his characters. It turns out that he did not make up the words he chose, they were terms from previous eras, some quite obscene in their original usage. This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that Levin, the children, and even the American Dr. Morris, who, by the way, is also a Jewish lesbian, swear like sailors. It’s annoying and unnecessary.

As a writer, I notice dialogue tags. Writers today are taught to use very few: said, asked, thought, maybe one or two others. Brunner, however, resorts to what are called “Tom Swifties,” after the Tom Swift adventure novels, in which each dialogue tag is overdone and accompanied by an adverb to overdo them even more. Brunner’s characters shout angrily, exclaim excitedly, growl menacingly, and so on. It’s annoying tremendously.

And yet, for all this, I kept reading. The story picks up once Levin and Morris hear about the kids. With the help of Levin’s estranged teenage daughter, who comes to live with him after her mother is killed by a plane crash in her neighborhood, they start to investigate the children. One of the children brings all but two of the others to live with him. He kills the Italian boy because he’s a potential rival. The other child (spoiler alert) is Levin’s daughter, and she’s in cahoots with the rest of them.

Levin and Morris suspect that these children were all created via artificial insemination (referred to by the British slang term “artinsem”) with sperm from a single donor, so they try to find him. It turns out (more spoilers) that Levin, who was also a sperm donor as a young man, is that man, something that’s only revealed at the end of the book, when the children show him their amoral, power-mad nature and ultimate plans to take over the world, by among other things, making Levin father more of them, including with Morris.

In true dystopian fashion, the bad guys (the kids) win, and the person we thought was the good guy (Levin) is in fact at fault for the whole mess.

It’s a tribute to Brunner’s skill as a writer that he was able to keep me interested in such a flawed work all the way to the end, but in the end the flaws drive the rating down, although to a higher score than I first thought I would give it.

My Grandfather’s Notebook… Review

3-star rating

 

 

According to the biographical notes JoeSue Ruterman provides, her grandfather, Charles Gus David Faught had an interesting early life. Born in 1873 in Lincoln, Missouri, his parents, Henry and Martha, took him and his baby sister Bell to Texas by wagon train in 1876. Charles’s mother died in an accident and her heart-broken father took Charlie and his sister Bell back to his in-laws because he didn’t feel he could raise them. Five years later, at the ripe old age of eight, Charlie joined a wagon train back to Texas to try to find his father. Henry found Charlie and they spent some time together, but Henry was rumored to be involved with a gang of bank robbers and he wanted better for his son.

Years later, Charlie had moved to Arizona and was working for the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, otherwise known as the Hashknife outfit. He continued working as an Arizona cowboy for the rest of his life. He married and divorced twice, along the way becoming a Mormon and having a total of nine children.

Charlie never went to school but taught himself to read and write. He must have also developed a great desire for learning and literature, as I’ll show below. During his adult life, he kept a notebook—or Note-Book, as he called it—in which he wrote stories, poems about his life, the lives of the people around him, and his philosophies of life, hence the full title of the book, My Grandfather’s Notebook of Western Tales, Poems and Stories in His Own Handwriting.

Given her own age, and the age and condition of the notebook, Ruterman decided to have it reproduced in a more lasting form. She chose to have the pages reproduced as-is, rather than in a more formal, type-written format, in order to capture the full experience of the notebook. This means that copies of a few pages are fragmentary, and the lines of text occasionally stray into the margins of the original paper.

Virtually all of the work in this book is in poetic form, even the stories. The fact that Charlie Faught’s education was highly informal at best shows up in a number of ways. His spelling is often non-standard—much is spelled mutch, angel is spelled angle, and so on—and his poetry is hardly refined, certainly nothing that a T.S. Eliot, say, would respect. But the work was often a first and only draft, with some minor edits and corrections squeezed in. Some of the language is, by today’s standards, quite racist, and the philosophies simple. Faith is an important part of the work, but not all of it serious, as in “An Elder’s Life,” about the life of a traveling Mormon missionary. While “Down in Oklahoma” has nothing good to say about the state, “The Willow Creek Wedding” is a romp of misunderstandings and happy endings.

Charlie Faught must have come across much more serious literature from time to time, and some of it made enough of an impression on him that he copied it, unattributed, into the notebook as well. A few examples: Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” Ben Jonson’s “Simplex Munditiis,” John Clare’s “Written in Northampton County Asylum,” and Sir Robert Ayton’s “To an Inconstant One.”

I’ve given this book a 3-star rating, but I’m not sure what that really means, or if any rating is even appropriate. My Grandfather’s Notebook… provides some insight into the life of one Arizona cowboy in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it can hardly be called a historical document. Nor is it biographical, or clearly autobiographical. It might be possible for another reader to draw more, and more insightful, conclusions about Charlie Faught the man; I found that I had to do too much work trying to translate his sometimes hard to read handwriting, work through his spelling errors, and deal with the sing-song rhythms of his poetry.

In the end, the book is exactly what Ruterman says it is: a reproduction of her grandfather’s notebook, and perhaps we shouldn’t make more of it than that.

Let’s Get Digital Review

3-star rating

 

 

I had pretty high hopes for David Gaughran’s latest edition of Let’s Get Digital. I’ve been following his blog for a while and have been impressed with his depth of knowledge about the worlds of digital publishing and marketing, so I expected to see a lot of that distilled into the book.

It was, and it wasn’t.

Gaughran spends a substantial amount of the book on the history of ebooks and independent publishing. That’s fine, especially for folks just getting into the business. It’s also good for these folks to know how the legacy publishing industry has responded to the advent of ebooks and indie publishing—badly—and the tactics and techniques they’ve used to try to keep these disruptive new technologies from upsetting their cozy, comfortable world.

Gaughran also spends plenty of time helping new, or new-to-digital, authors get comfortable with preparing their books for submission to ebook and indie publishers. Also good.

Where he falls down, in my opinion, is in the marketing area. Unlike Kristen Lamb, in Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World, Gaughran identifies the mailing list as being the most important tool for reaching new readers. (Lamb emphasizes the blog.) Fine. But he spends only part of one paragraph on how an author should go about building that mailing list! This is where the effort really falls down. I have two books published already, but marketing is my greatest challenge, so I was hoping for more and better guidance than Gaughran offers, and for new authors, the paucity of actionable information, especially for someone who has no one on their mailing list, this is a disappointment, or worse.

Gaughran sprinkles live links and references throughout the text and even dedicates a chapter to “Resources,” which was a good idea. I would have liked to have seen more, maybe, but these lists are a good start and I’m using some that he introduced me to.

Finally, Gaughran dedicates the last ten “chapters” to testimonials about the joys and wonders of being a successful indie author. I’ve never been a fan of testimonials and these did nothing to change my view. None that I read (I stopped reading them after about the first three) provided any information that could be useful to a new author, or even a not-so-new one. While some authors might find them motivating, their views will change if/when their experiences fail to live up to those of the testifiers. Reader beware!

In summary, let me emphasize that this is not a bad book; far from it! There’s plenty of good information, especially for the new author. But there could have been more.

Fancies and Goodnights Review

3-star rating

 

 

I had been looking forward to reading this collection of short stories for literally over ten years. I was first introduced to it via one of its stories, “Are You Too Late or Was I Too Early,” while taking classes for my Master’s Degree in the mid-2000s. That brief story, with its never-saw-it-coming twist ending, enchanted me. And Ray Bradbury, my all-time favorite author, wrote the introduction. How could I not enjoy the other 49 stories?

Well, it turns out that the book in total, and the individual stories, were less than I had hoped. To be clear, John Collier was a very skilled writer. Even though the stories were all written in the 1930s and 1940s (the book was first published in 1951), each one is tight and clean, not a word wasted. But they are uniformly dark, which became tiring. Virtually all of the characters are scoundrels, and if the protagonists were not done in by their own weaknesses and failings, they were defeated by antagonists who were even worse scoundrels than the protagonists.

Almost all of the stories have a twist ending, and not an O. Henry kind of twist. It became a kind of game to try to guess the actual ending. Once I realized that virtually every story was going to have that twist, I started picking out the clues Collier would leave that presaged the end. But there was little satisfaction in guessing right, or nearly so. Few endings provided a real surprise.

Oddly, there was one set of stories that did not have twist endings, and even showed a wry sense of humor missing from the others. These stories all included the Devil, and in each case, the protagonist triumphed, unlike the other stories, and Old Scratch got his comeuppance.

The stories reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the time when they were written. Racism is casual and common. Women are either harpies and dangerous, or stereotypical housewives, naïve and ignorant servants of their husbands.

And then there’s the cover (not Collier’s fault), a bizarre, bilious green dreamscape of men wearing ice skates, overcoats, and fedoras, and carrying overlong hockey sticks, that has nothing to do with any of the stories behind it. I got really tired of looking at it. What was the publisher thinking in selecting it?

I imagine that if I’d read just one or two of these stories, then had a long break from them, as if I was reading them in some magazine, I would have enjoyed them more, but 50 in a row became wearing, even when spread out over the course of several months.

John Collier was no doubt a skilled story-teller, but his work is also an acquired taste, and one that, after this full multi-course meal of it, I am not inclined to acquire.

Invasion! Review

 

 

The premise of Invasion! The Forgotten Adventures of Dolley Madison, Book One is clever enough. Dolley Madison, wife of America’s fourth President, James Madison, had another life during the War of 1812: a turbaned crusader, along with her trusty sidekick and servant girl Sukey, harrying and perplexing the invading British Army at every turn, rallying and leading American troops, turning the tide of battle after battle. Unbeknownst to historians everywhere, or forgotten by them, she was America’s secret weapon.

A clever premise, yes. In execution, not quite so much.

In his end notes, author Neil Garra reports that at one time he built war games for a certain government agency located in Maryland (likely the National Security Agency), and that around that same time he’d become fascinated with Dolley Madison and the history of the War of 1812. The Forgotten Adventures was the result. This is both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that Invasion! reads much like a video game, and has many of such games’ weaknesses. There is little in the way of character development. Dolley and Sukey spend 60 of the first 90 pages learning how to become Rangers after they fought off an attack by robbers while traveling to Fort Lafayette, near Pittsburgh. But that’s about it. From that point forward, Dolley and Sukey become the female Batman and Robin of the early 19th Century. They win every battle they enter. If they’re ever in any real danger, they emerge from the battle unscathed. If they’re captured, they’ll escape. After the first encounter or two, the reader has no reason to worry: he or she knows they’ll survive. The only question becomes where they’ll go and who they’ll defeat next.

Garra tries to add some depth to Dolley by giving her and her husband a sex life, but every episode (each no more than PG rated) feels tacked on, as if someone had told Garra that adding sex scenes would make Dolley more of a real person. They don’t. They contribute nothing important to the larger story.

The same is true for the religious elements. Like Dolley, Garra was raised a Quaker but later left the denomination. Through roughly the first half of the book, Dolley takes part in religious activities—attending a church service at Fort Lafayette, teaching or quoting long passages from the Bible, praying for forgiveness before or after killing an enemy (or many of them)—and then they largely fade from the story. As with the sex scenes, these events feel tacked on, and for a reader who doesn’t share those beliefs, they can also feel like the author is rubbing the reader’s face in them.

The book is not a complete loss, however. Garra clearly did a lot of research on the early part of the War (Invasion! ends with the attack on Fort McHenry in September of 1814), both armies, their weapons, and their leaders, the politics of the fledgling United States, and the topography and geography of the area around Washington City and Baltimore. He even uses the fact that Dolley was sometimes called the “Presidentress” rather than the “First Lady.” Garra uses these details so well that the reader can feel as if they’re in the location, watching events unfold.

Garra’s character’s dialogue is also comfortable and realistic, although this reader got tired of every character exclaiming “Huzzah!” Surely the people of the time used other exclamations too. Certain other expressions, like “gotta” and “gonna,” seemed out of place for the time as well.

In sum, Invasion! seems to be more a history of the early part of the War of 1812, with an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines laid over the top, than an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines set in the War of 1812. The difference is significant, and it left this reader disappointed.