Book Review: A Bloody Habit

It being October at the time of this writing, I decided to reread and review a fitting novel for the spooky season: A Bloody Habit by Eleanor Bourg Nelson. Set in early 1900s London, the lawyer Jack Kemp, a young English gentleman bachelor, finds himself tangled in the dark truth of vampires (while he’s reading Dracula, then a new novel). Also, there are Dominican friars who hunt vampires and occasionally play practical jokes on each other.

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Last Few Months Update

With The Mourning Company in editing and myself searching for a job, this blog has been even more quiet than usual. I’m also planning my wedding. The dog days of summer are behind us here in the Valley of the Sun and lovely September is starting to set in. Soon, I shall be able to write on the patio.

For my…fan (hi mom)… I have been mucking about with another project. It’s sci-fi, an old idea I’ve been refining since childhood, and I think will be a smoother experience than The Paladin Trilogy. Yes, yes, I have an outline for book #3 in the works, too. And a pacing problem, but that’s why we outline….To be honest, this new project probably has more commercial viability, but having a backlist never hurt anyone.

The next few months are looking at the completion of The Mourning Company edits, completion of wedding planning, finding a day job, doing Doomwalker v2 edits (yes, I know about the typos), and finishing Book #3 outline. I also have a Mandalorian helmet that is wanting of paint. Sometimes I need something to do with my hands.

This year has been a challenge. Like many others, I dance on the edge of depression. I pray for anyone in this place and I certainly need prayers as well. I, too, am sick of political ads, sick of madness and worry. It’s important to set your sights on the horizon you can see. Not a distant future, not some perfect dream, but a clear thing you want that is doable, something you can build bit by bit.

Hang in there. Sink your claws and your teeth in and don’t let go. You’re worthy of more than the yawning abyss below.

Doomwalker’s Pandemic Performance

So how did my book Doomwalker do in the pandemic, sales-wise? Well enough that I could pay for a reasonably pleasant dinner and happy hour drinks for me and my fiancé with the earnings.

It’s been slow of late, but I think part of that is my own life going…down an unexpected road, a not uncommon one these days, employment-wise…and my original marketing plans being utterly shot by lockdown (as well as my sanity). My original plan was to poke around at local bookstores, such that we have around here, and see what I could do in terms of events or networking. I was also going to be more consistent and interactive with social media.

I toyed even with commissioning character artwork as part of those marketing efforts. I still do when I’m feeling self-indulgent.

Well, the bookstore event thing has been out and then social media has just become a pit full of alternating rot and inanity that I am having trouble with. Trying to focus has been hard, but I am going to finish The Mourning Company (Paladin #2) soo, if nothing else. It appears so far that the public library system’s local author fair has gone the way of the dodo. I was looking forward to that, my first “big” author shindig.

So where does that leave the author? Sitting in her loft drinking flavored vodka and soda water…ahem…trying to finish her next book and praying for things to get better.

In marketing terms, well, well…let’s see.

  • I’m not sure social media works, especially Twitter, though writing twitter is fairly cheerful place, if inclined to spirals of one sort or another. If you are a super cool person or a famous one, it is a useful platform. I am sitting in my loft drinking flavored vodka and soda water, contemplating unemployment. My mileage there is a bit more limited.
  • Paid advertising is still mixed in results from what I can tell and is, alas, paid. See previous mention of contemplation. I also thinking some of it is on the edge of a scam at least. Other types don’t work for your genre. Caveat emptor. And read the fine print before you switch over from window shopper to emptor. I made a rule not to spend more than $20 a pop, $100 total, on marketing this first book. No proof of ROI.
  • Are people reading more during the pandemic? I’d say my book got more page reads during the initial few months. Also more hits on my Facebook page. It’s tapered off, either because everyone has snapped and opted for, I dunno, heroin, or because my book is kind of alright and boy do I need to get the edits done and get version 2 up. I have the time.

What’s the way ahead? Good question. Finish the second book, that’s for sure. I’ve got a marketing plan of sorts tied to that when it gets done and properly polished. From there, I’m not sure. I need to do social media more consistently. I really think that in-person connections would have been valuable but who knows when people will stop treating each other like lepers. If I was less of a squeaky voiced introvert, I could figure out a Youtube or Twitch thing, I guess, but that requires its own capital investment at the moment as well.

Ah, well, life goes on. Sufficient for the day is its own evil. (Also, please read my book.)

Book Review: Superego

Superego by Frank J. Fleming is an awesome, fun sci-fi thriller that lets itself go off the beaten track of the genre. The main character, Rico, is a sociopath and a highly skilled mob hitman in a galaxy populated by multiple species and governments. Dispatched to do a mysterious something at the kind-of-UN meeting meant to create an alliance to crush his now genocidal bosses, things go awry when he finds himself stopping a terrorist attack. From there, things continue to go awry, though maybe they also go a bit right, too.

First of all this book is darkly hilarious. You will laugh out loud often because of such gems as this:

“I’m going downstairs,” I said, “If there are any terrorists down there you care about, you’d better tell me now, because I shoot unclaimed terrorists.”

-Superego, Frank J. Fleming
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Envy and Wrath as Virtues

As I all too slowly wrap up the work on the Doomwalker sequel (I have a name, but announcing that and commissioning a cover Are thing I want to hold off from until I put the last period into pixels), I get ideas. The present moment lends itself to it, as it’s weirdly stressful and does what weirdly stressful present moments do: lay bare human nature to the bone. This is actually a post about writing, by the way.

I am fascinated by how how people transform their perception of outright poisonous (and classical) vices into virtues. I used to think people did this because they lacked awareness of these particular flaws of theirs, as we do, but I’m starting to doubt that.

Recently Papa John gave a tour of his ridiculous massive mansion. I don’t particularly care of itself, it’s silly, I’ve been to Hearst Castle (medieval manuscript lampshades) and am hard to impress in this fashion. He has the house he wants, good for him. The reaction was what interested me.

Envy is monstrous. The depiction of it as changing people into raging destructive beasts is very accurate. Lots of those beasts were on display in regard to that house tour. Papa John- or Jeff Bezos, or any other rich person- is a human, maybe a jerk, maybe cruel, maybe callous, I don’t know, but as much a person as anyone else. To wish everything they have, and often built themselves, torn to the ground is vicious and self-degrading. We modern men and women of the first world live better than kings, all of us. Someone worse off than you could wish the same of you and actually might. Does that seem right to you?

To the envious in this, however, their jealousy seems to them a virtue. Demanding angrily that someone else surrender everything…to them…ah, it’s often presented as ‘to the less fortunate’ or ‘to others’…is something they see as noble. They decree what’s necessary or desirable to another like tinpot tyrants based on matters of taste- not that they aren’t as ridiculous as their target, given opportunity.

The most recent Star Wars brought to light that the same dynamic is in play with wrath. Rey doesn’t have many standout personality traits, but one of the few is a deep abiding anger. This is an interesting thing to explore in a hero, a tendency that requires one to resist to be a good person, but it’s not treated that way. Her rage is presented as one of her many virtues (she has no outright flaws by the movies’ logic; even her seeming naïveté is actually proven to be the right mindset in the story). You see this online, where ‘getting angry’ is trumpeted as the correct and best solution to problems. In some circles it’s more common than others but it bleeds over everywhere.

Wrath, like envy, turns you into a destructive beast. One thing that stands out about it as a sin is that the destruction you seek to bring is that it becomes the consuming focus, even if you state that you want to build something better on the ashes. It’s not a sober or calculating thing, though some people have that tone by merit of personality (less than think they do). Broken, doomed, obsessive Captain Ahab is the result of being consumed by wrath, not apocalyptic destruction followed by heaven on Earth.

Sin makes us small. They didn’t call them the Seven Deadly Sins for fun or fashion or even control. They make us less- while wallowing in them, mistaking them outright for virtues often enough! I didn’t understand this until recently. Besides being being spiritually or philosophically interesting, it’s also something I think makes for an interesting setting or character element that can be very compelling.

It’s certainly a simple but effective set up for character development. If you’re writing a dystopia, or just a setting or culture with glaring flaws, making envy or wrath or pride to be treated like virtues instead of the obvious sins they are is a useful start. It’s an insidious thing, more so because it doesn’t seem like it should be.

If you- like me- often come up with a good setting, plot, or characters but not always at the same time, this might be a way to figure out how to combine them. People and cultures and places do not exist in vacuums and the effects they have on one another, like this twisting of vice into virtue, has impacts large and small on all of them. Thinking about may help bridge a gap in a story you are writing in an interesting and perhaps even disturbing (but interestingly) way.

Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

I’ve e watched this movie twice, which I don’t do often anymore, and I’ll probably watch it again soon. At the time of this writing, it is on Netflix. I should probably buy it.

What is The Death of Stalin about? The historical power struggle in the USSR after Stalin’s sudden death. It’s also a comedy. If you know anything about Communism in practice, this is perfect.

It’s a hilarious movie, dark witty comedy at its best. Everyone is some kind of terrible but it works. there are no heroes; there is a protagonist. I’ve known the gist of Soviet power struggles for some time and knowing makes the movie even better.

Considering the horrors being perpetrated on screen and in truth, how can this be a comedy? How could you portray these butchers (they all are, except perhaps Zhukov, depending on your definitions) in a funny way?

Because, while you may need to break a few eggs to make an omelette, communism breaks a lot of eggs and yet there’s still no omelette. The hallmark of these governments, especially the USSR, was/is still to present themselves as highly capable and competent but they were not. Witness the early scene in the movie where they discuss how they’ve killed all the good doctors. The USSR married, somehow, starry-eyed Utopianism, ambition, raw brutality, and massive incompetence to produce something so absurdly stupidly cruel it beggars belief.

The power struggle was a vicious cycle, reading rather biblically pretty much everywhere on the ladder: this bastard killed this bastard, who was killed by the next bastard, who was killed by the bastard after that…and caught in the middle of this like some sort endlessly expendable mass of McGuffins are the people of Eastern Europe. Except they weren’t set pieces, they were people. The movie portrays this very well in its bit parts, and the black sitcom at the concert, and the scenes of the NKVD arrests, and the final management of Stalin’s household, and the riot at the funeral. It’s clear where everyone stands. It’s clear why it’s horrible. It’s clear that the whole thing is absurd to the point of comedy.

The acting is magnificent. While mercifully no one attempts a Russian accent, the performances are perfect. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Kruschev portrays both fearful simpering lackey and ambitious ruthless schemer well, while not being much more competent than anyone else in my opinion. He did not fix the USSR’s slow motion collapse when he took over, or do anything to halt the decay of Russian culture that had been inflicted upon it by the USSR.

The most special thing is Jason Isaacs magnificent turn as Field Marshal Zhukov, by far the most heroic of the lot on screen and in history. Worthy of note is that he was never allowed to become one of the major players, as Zhukov was very much a Russian peasant in his goals and attitudes. The Party in his eyes was to be a servant of the people, though in truth it never was from its inception. I think it is not wrong to respect and admire Zhukov. A good man in a bad place, perhaps. That’s a sad thing. Maybe it mattered and kept some worse thing from happening.

The Death of Stalin can be found where you find movies. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor and a history lesson of a period and place too often ignored, give it a watch!

Is the ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ Genre Actually Post-Apocalyptic?

So I’ve been watching my fiancé play Fallout 76 and digging around in Fallout lore. This has led me to thinking about the ever-popular post-apocalyptic genre.

The premise is generally ‘the world after the End’. Pick your end. Nuclear war, plague, zombies, robot rebellion, purposely left vague…civilization has collapsed and the protagonist(s) must now survive. The Walking Dead, Book of Eli, The Matrix, Mad Max, and Fallout are all examples.

My issue is that the cataclysmic events are questionably apocalyptic. Traumatic and world-shattering, yes, but the world is still here. Humans are generally still there and are rebuilding, after one fashion or another.

Now, resources are scarce in these settings and the civilizations coming into power may not be pleasant, but it’s not utter chaos, though it may be close. A tribe is a culture and a method of human organization. I think that the nearest truly apocalyptic bits of fiction are ones where the world has utterly descended into a world of vicious raiders and cannibals, similar to the morbid The Road and the way it was heading in The Book of Eli.

The thing is, civilization has always been a mad desperate scramble. Rust never sleeps.

We now live in a world where roadside banditry is rare enough for occurrences to be shocking, but that is a rare thing in history. Time was that a good king was not necessarily a good man, but one strong enough to make sure the wilderness between villages was safe enough for ordinary travel.

Resources? We are in a worldwide economic crisis presently and I stood at the gas station trying to decide on which candy bar to buy out of dozens of options. It was always or often not so. And not long ago that it came to be that way.

As for health…death in childbirth is rare. Death from the infection from a small wound is rare. Viruses and bacteria that once ravaged the world are now footnotes in our minds of dirty and poor days gone by.

Through all this an genuinely horrifying plague and true famine, through wars that left nations scarred and generations decimated, we built what we have now, where even the least among is can live like relative kings in the kind of health and safety legions of personal guards and physicians couldn’t have granted to the lords of mighty empires in ages past.

So largely post-apocalyptic fiction is more ‘reset fiction’. It’s a thought experiment where creator’s imagine that human civilization has been suddenly thrown into its typical state: desperate, ragged, scavenging, savage, carving out cities and wonders bit by bit against all odds, and always fighting the encroaching rust. It’s a miracle we’re in the world we’re in, honestly.

Rust never sleeps.

Rereading Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This is such a beautiful book. Wonderful.

The beginning of the book follows immediately after The Two Towers. Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Minas Tirith, Rohan prepares to ride to war, and Aragorn meets The Grey Compant- the rangers and Elrond’s sons who have come to accompany him to the end, whatever it may hold.

It’s in this book where we see the biggest deviation from the movies. The book is not only better, it is smarter. This is obvious in two ways: the characters and the battles.

Denethor makes more sense and is far more interesting. Jackson tried to make him a cartoon villain, I guess, but he is a truly great, rightfully proud man in the book. Denethor’s story is tragic. He thought that he could withstand Sauron in a battle of wills, but he was horribly wrong. Sauron got into his head and slowly, steadily, crushed him, driving him into mad despair. As I pointed out last time, Sauron cannot be beaten by any conventional means and Denethor’s downfall makes that clear yet again.

The whole story of Denethor and Faramir is better done. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, by the way, of Christian and pagan reactions to oncoming defeat. Denethor’s reaction is Roman; he will die on his own terms, taking down all he built with him, before he loses to his enemy. For him, hope is utterly dead. He acts in pride, striving to keep control of his fate to the very end. This was wrong; hope is not dead, but a glimmering star in the depths of night. Denethor’s twisted pride is what is mean by the sin of pride and it ends in lunacy and agony and a betrayal of what he seeks to preserve.

The Gray Company is absolutely epic, another missed movie opportunity. Everything with the Paths of the Dead is, but come on. The line of grim, rugged rangers, decorated only with a star on their cloaks, riding beneath that beautiful banner…We see the Passing of the Gray Company through Gimli’s eyes, mostly, and it’s an eerie, almost dreamlike experience, full of both fear and courage.

The Dead are much more interesting in the book, too, and scarier. They seem to kill with fear, in fact, which turns one of Sauron’s greatest weapons back on him.

Eowyn! I understand Eowyn. I was Eowyn once, though none of the men I fell for compared remotely to Aragorn. I get how she is, what she wanted…and what she grew into. I hate when people accuse Tolkien of misogyny; most assuredly not! Eowyn turns away from a life of war, but she was not wrong to pursue it. She’s a great hero in her own right before any romance. She pursued glory, but I think she knew rightly why those actions are glorious. Her despair is a familiar thing (the lines said about that by Wormtongue in the movie are said by Gandalf in the book, which gives them a very different tone). Eowyn in the books has a depth I think many miss. Their lives have never been that. This deserves an essay when my brain is working properly (‘social isolating’ has done something to it).

I wonder how Tolkien knew. His world worked differently than ours.

Aragorn, of course, is incredible. I do not know if men like this walk the earth anymore, though I think they did. I think men who could be this might be about, but we are all made in part by the times we live in. Aragorn tells a joke to Merry and Pippin by the way.

Also, Aragorn’s crowning plays out very differently, in that it is told comedically. Not the ceremony itself, which is properly dignified. But we get it with asides from Ioreth, healer-woman and citizen of Minas Tirith and town chatterbox. It’s hilarious and so deeply human. Tolkien is both making fun of this kind of woman and expressing affection for her, as he did with the hobbits of the Shire. I love this scene for this lively and fun approach.

The battles and plot in general make more sense in the book than the movie. I really recommend this multi-part analysis that covers both book and movie versions of the Siege of Gondor. The changes make some of the things said in the movie not make any sense. The seizure of the Black Ships and the point of it is much better. The march to the Black Gate is also awesome.

The best part of the book is Sam and Frodo. They are coming to the end, trekking through the hellish land of Mordor. There’s a physicality to the journey. The land is harsh, water is scarce, there is little food, and the enemy is ever-present. There is nothing for it but to keep going.

And the end! All this time, you’ve known Frodo was struggling. There had been hints of Gollum’s mad lust for the Ring. But he had come all this way, utterly committed to destroying the Ring.

And he gives in. You feel Sam’s shock and despair with him when it happens, even when you know it’s coming.

He does in fact turn invisible, but the struggle between him and Gollum plays out very quickly, sans prolonged stupid invisible wrestling. Also, no dramatic over-the-cliff scene. Hollywood, man.

Well, I call it the end, but it isn’t. The falling action is all about the beautiful rise of the Fourth Age and was a wonderful thing to read on Good Friday, as I did. Ah! To march home through blooming Ithilien with the victorious army or to walk the streets of Minas Tirith in those days.

Of course, we then get the Scouring of the Shire. It’s an intensely interesting part and it really is a shame it didn’t make it into the movie. I understand why because of cinematic and time limits, but I also suspect other reasons.

The system that Saruman implements in the Shire is, I am not kidding, communism. He has officers who come out and collect ‘excess’ food, there are a ton of rules enforced by a police state, and any violation gets you thrown in jail. It’s the USSR. I don’t know how I’ve missed this in my previous re-readings.

The Scouring teaches that, while saved, the world is still broken. It gives us a chance to see the lordly nature Frodo has gained and allows us to see the hobbits as epic heroes in their own right. It also shows us what good, honest people can do if they choose true heroism over fear, even if they are small and comfortable people by nature. It teaches many other things besides. Another essay to write.

Saruman’s end interests me, as well. Saruman is an angelic being and he was originally one of the truly great. He was a force for good and is deeply ancient. He ends by spitefully ruining the Shire, petty yet terrible, incapable of standing before the might of hobbits, and dies by the hand of the man he has abused into inhumanity. It’s a pathetic end for a once-great being, a running theme for Tolkien’s works.

Of all the famous people I’d wish to meet, I really wish I could have met Tolkien. I like how he thought- this is not something one can say of great authors- and he seems to have been a genuinely likeable person who enjoyed life and pursued truth. It’s Tolkien who provided the way forward from the charnel house of the twentieth century. If you think his books shy away from that kind of horror, you need to pull your head out of the arrogant, delusional, postmodernist hole you’ve decided to stick it in.

The Lord of the Rings earns its place as a classic. I think Tolkien managed to pull off one of his goals and created an epic for our time. As derivative of it as modern fantasy is (*raises hand*), it is better in the way Casa Blanca is better than all the derivations of it. I know it’s intimidatingly large and the writing can seem hard to read in some spots, but it is well worth taking the time to read or re-read.