Book Review: Daddy’s Girl by Ben Willoughby

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Horror tales come in all shapes and sizes. They can be visions of great cosmic terror or they can be the evil wishes of a child. The story can be one of psychological torment, or one of unfathomable gruesomeness. There are some who don’t see horror as a separate genre, but as a particular effect given to a story of dark fantasy, or science fiction, or slice of life.

And whether or not we like to read stories that frighten us, or listen to them told around a campfire, many of us do. Enough so that horror has gotten its own BISAC genre code and is exceedingly profitable to publisher and writer alike.

My first foray into the realm of the horror story was by means of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Not much later came the stories of Saki. And then those two gothic adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”. From there I read Dracula and Carmilla and discovered the work of HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard’s weird fiction.

I’ve even ventured into the realm of the weird and terrible with a few tales of my own. However, there are a few writers today who write doggone good horror stories and unfortunately remain for the most part unseen. One of those writers is Ben Willoughby and I hope this review, and upcoming reviews of his work, will help to bring him a broader audience.

Mr Willoughby has five books out now in the horror genre. I’ve purchased them all and read two. (He’s writing them faster than I can read them!) Today I want to talk a bit about his novella Daddy’s Girl, which is a ghost story that is very well done.

The ghost story is perhaps the most venerable form of the supernatural horror tale. Certainly it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest within this category. The ghost story plays into our beliefs about life after death. Even today, where the Western world has moved beyond Christianity and pretty much any traditional religion, the ghost story still works. Still plays upon our imagination. I think this is because it’s primal. It taps into the core of our hopes and fears surrounding the greatest of all mysteries — death. And no matter how materialistic we’ve become, few of us want to die. Even believing in an afterlife, few of us want to end our existence here. It is what we know. We fear the unknown.

Mr Willoughby’s tale, Daddy’s Girl, plays on our emotions from two directions. The first is the child’s need for and love of his or her parents. We children may dislike our parents telling us what to do, but when they aren’t there we crave for someone to step in and take over that role. Many of us don’t ever grow out of that need for someone to watch over us. Politicians and demagogues use this to gain control. They feel our pain and tell us lies so we feel good. The bond of child to parent is ever with us.

The other bond is that of parent to child. We as parents will do anything to spare our children at the very least the hardest knocks of life. We teach them and guide them and support them. Children a visible form of eternal life. Through them we in a sense live forever.

Mr Willoughby has combined these two powerful bonds into a tale of parent-child love. The parent’s watchful eye, ever present, protecting his little girl.

I don’t want to spoil the story and so I will leave the storyline alone. Do, though, get yourself a copy of Daddy’s Girl. The book will tug your heartstrings and give you something to think about. As well as scare you into the realization your determination may be stronger than you even realize.

What I like about Ben Willoughby’s writing is that he has a simple and straightforward way to tell a story. It unfolds before us on the page and does so without a mass of purple prose. There is an economy of words in his style and to my mind that allows me the reader to participate in the story. He isn’t telling me everything. Just what I need to know. Which means he is able to paint the atmosphere and mood and generate empathy for the characters without excess verbiage. And that is the hallmark of a good writer.

I very much recommend Daddy’s Girl. I also recommend Raw Head, which I hope to review in a future post. And I look forward to reading his other offerings in the realm of terror.

Ben Willoughby is a fine example of the good things the indie revolution has to offer. If only we take a chance and are willing to read widely.

Comments are always welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Crime Fiction

My wife and I have been watching the ABC TV show Quantico on Netflix. I would have stopped watching after about the eighth episode, but my wife wanted to continue and so we did. IMO, the show continued its downward spiral into angst, bad acting, and impossibly stupid storylines right through to the season finale. How ABC could renew such a travesty on the concept of entertainment and cancel Agent Carter is beyond me. Well, actually it isn’t. A hot babe, a hunky guy, and sex (lots of sex) — and you get commercial sponsors. No wonder ABC’s line up sucks.

At the same time, I’ve been watching the Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries and CBS’s Elementary. Those are superb productions with good acting, well-drawn characters, and engaging storylines. Of which, Quantico has none. The main character in Quantico is a narcissistic slut (not just my opinion, even the characters in the story think so), the supporting characters are pathetic, and the storyline… Well, when taken all together, if the FBI is really like this — then God help America.

In watching the three shows, I got thinking about crime fiction and drama in general and which types do I prefer. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of crime stories: mystery, suspense, and thriller. Let’s take a look at each and see what defines them.

MYSTERY

Crime fiction mysteries more or less got their start with Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and were perfected by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes. Every detective since Holmes’s debut owe’s something to the Great Detective. Doyle permanently shaped the mystery. There have been many variations on the theme, but there have been no new themes.

What are the characteristics of the mystery story? At base it’s a puzzle, a riddle, to be solved. The hero or heroine must find the solution and discover who committed the crime.

The mystery is something of a cerebral form. It appeals to our wish for order and our desire to find solutions to problems. Action is often minimal. There is the sleuth, professional or amateur, interacting with the other characters in order to gain pieces of information which will hopefully lead to the solution of the problem.

Generally speaking, the sleuth is in little physical danger. Although he or she may encounter some risk as he or she gets closer to the solution and the bad guy is about to be revealed.

Examples of this category abound. Perhaps my favorite mysteries are those which feature Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. On TV there are many great series. Favorites of mine are Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Inspector George Gently, Grantchester, Elementary, Murdoch Mysteries, and Midsomer Murders.

My own Justinia Wright, PI fits neatly into this category.

SUSPENSE

The suspense novel or drama differs from the mystery in that the hero is in some kind of personal danger, often right from the beginning of the story — although he or she may not be aware of the danger, at least at the start of the story.

However, the reader (or viewer) is very much aware and that starts the suspense dynamic.

The focus in the suspense story is not on the crime, but rather on the danger the hero has inadvertently gotten himself into.

The acknowledged master of the suspense story was Cornell Woolrich. Novels such as The Bride Wore Black, Night has a Thousand Eyes, and Fright are classics of the genre.

Alfred Hitchcock was the cinematic master of the suspense story, with such classics as Rear Window (based on a Woolrich short story), North by Northwest, and Vertigo.

A good suspense story often has many elements of the “whodunit”, although very often the reader or viewer knows who the villain is. The hero very often doesn’t however and that creates the suspense.

THRILLER

The thriller is the relative newcomer on the block. Although, one could argue the thriller concept got its start in such novels as the Fu Manchu series by Sax Rohmer, where the evil genius, Fu Manchu threatens the world with his evil schemes.

In a very real sense the thriller is a suspense story that is simply set on a very grand scale. The stakes are much higher, often on a huge scale. Something is going to affect hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people — and the hero, of course, must stop the bad guy before the disaster happens. He may or may not know who the culprit is he must stop, but stop him he must. If the villain is unknown to both hero and reader/viewer, then we have elements of the mystery in our thriller.

And right from the start it’s very obvious the hero, along with those hundreds, thousands, or millions, is in danger. Mortal danger, which only gets worse as the story progresses.

The above mentioned blight on the thriller genre, Quantico, exemplifies all of the thriller tropes. The heroine, Alex Parrish, is in danger right from the start. The stakes are high, as well: buildings are blowing up and then we get the ultimate disaster threat. The villain is only revealed at the end, so we also have a healthy dash of mystery to our plot. The suspense story on steroids.

A much better example of the thriller is the movie Die Hard. Intense action. High stakes. One man against many, with scores of hostages at risk. A classic.

In the literary field, Tom Clancy was a master of the technical thriller and the stakes in his books are huge. There’s also Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.

POPULARITY

Crime fiction is the second largest genre after romance. According to Author Earnings’ May 2016 report, mysteries and thrillers/suspense account for around 230,000 sales per day on Amazon, with authors earning in the neighborhood of $375,000 per day. Apparently crime (writing) does pay!

Thrillers/suspense (and probably more the thriller) is the hot genre now. Straight mysteries less so. Lee Child and Clive Cussler are big names. Indies such as Mark Dawson and A G Riddle are pulling in big bucks selling thrillers. Apparently crime readers lean towards lots of action and big risks these days.

However, I have to say I prefer the mystery and secondarily the traditional suspense story. There’s nothing wrong with the thriller, it’s just that most thriller storylines seem a bit too fantastic for my tastes. I also tend to prefer the more sedate pace of the mystery. If I want action and adventure, I prefer the traditional action/adventure yarn. Such as those written by H. Rider Haggard or Robert E Howard.

It is, though, admittedly, a matter of personal taste. However, I find myself wondering if in another 130 years Jack Reacher will be around. I’m pretty certain Sherlock Holmes will be.

Feel free to comment on your crime fiction preferences. And until next time, happy reading!

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Book Review: Evelyn & Company by Chad Muller

Evelyn & Company

 

One of my favorite comedy reads is Evelyn & Company by Chad Muller. The humor is wacky, zany, intellectual, and virtual slapstick all rolled into one. I reviewed this book over a year ago and thought I would resurrect the review because I’ve rethought how I want to do book reviews: namely, I’m dumping the  star system of rating. I think a better approach is to simply tell you why I like the book and if I think you will like it as well. So without further ado, once again Evelyn & Company!

Comedy, I think, can be exceedingly difficult to pull off well in writing. After all, the key elements of timing and pacing are not present as they are in live performance. And then there is the very real fact not everyone thinks the same thing is humorous. Yet there are authors who’ve made comedy writing their bread and butter. Mark Twain, Robert E Howard, Oscar Wilde, Douglas Adams, and John Logsdon easily come to mind.

Some time ago (December 2014 to be exact), I stumbled upon the zany book Evelyn & Company by Chad Muller (aka CM Muller). I bought a copy and laughed my way through it.

The novel is bizarre, zany, and delightful. A crazy romp through the many facets humor has to offer us. Puns, slapstick, innuendo, juxtaposition, satire, black comedy, it’s all there in Evelyn Portobello’s mad, quixotic quest for revenge when she doesn’t get the product she bought that was advertised on the TV.

Who hasn’t purchased something and had it as often as not, not be what was advertised? The item sounded so good and in the end was so disappointing. A scenario that has happened to all of us. That is the basis for Mr Muller’s comic tale. And so the plump Ms Portobello is stiffed on her order of “Magic Morel Shake Mix” and her phone calls and letters go unanswered. Oh, the earthy deliciousness of it all!

Humor operates on many different levels and has a very individual appeal. What Evelyn & Company offers us is a smorgasbord of humor. There is something here for everyone. Some examples we may not get (there were a few I didn’t), but keep reading — for our morsel is waiting.

The story is simple. The perfect slice of life. It begins in the middle of living and in a sense goes no where — a perfect “plotless” novel — but along the way we encounter injustice, love, devotion, romance, protests, strikes, anger, happiness, crazies, fun, and laughter. Yes, lots of laughter. After all, it’s a slice of life.

Evelyn is wealthy but lives in a trailer, expends tens of thousands of dollars to get back the $19.95 she was cheated out of, and then decides to take matters into her own hands. Situational irony at its finest!

In the tradition of black comedy and social satire, Muller has given us a 21st century Candide — by the name of Evelyn & Company.

I heartily recommend this book! Preview it below!

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Book Review: Beyond The Rails by Jack Tyler

beyond the rails

 

One of the defining features of the punk genres is a protagonist on the edge of society, which allows the author plenty of room to critique said society. This aspect is particularly true in cyberpunk, the original punk genre, and perhaps less so in others.

Jack Tyler, in his short story collection, Beyond The Rails, has given us not one, but five societal misfits and placed them in the colonial frontier of an alternative history 1880s Kenya. The social critique aspect of the punk genre comes in how the white and black Kenyans get along, drawing a contrast with actual history and our own contemporary society. The critique, though, is very understated. Mr Tyler just sort of slips it in. Only the adventure is heavy handed here and that’s a good thing.

Beyond The Rails has all the trappings of steampunk, airships, high adventure, fantastical inventions, and, of course, steam power. Mr Tyler has managed to capture the essence of Firefly and at the same time given us the field of an H Rider Haggard African adventure. And who doesn’t love She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and Allen Quatermain?

There are six stories in the collection. The first three are independent and the last three actually form a novella in three parts. The first story, “The Botanist”, introduces us to the crew of the airship Kestrel and one Dr Nicholas Ellsworth. As with Firefly, the Kestrel takes on cargo and passengers for delivery beyond the end of the railroad line. And as with Firefly, the passenger we meet… Well, I won’t spoil things. If you know Firefly, you have an idea what happens. And if you don’t, you’ll just have to read the story.

I found the stories to be fun and engaging reads. They are unabashedly in the action/adventure realm, evoking the spirit of the stories I read as a kid. The focus is on the exciting story line and not so much on the characters. Which isn’t to say the crew of the Kestrel aren’t an interesting bunch of misfits — for they are. The focus, though, is on the story and not on changes or the lack thereof in the characters of the story.

As writers, we are told stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. As readers, we tend to prefer exciting and suspenseful stories (like, say, the Indiana Jones or Lara Croft yarns) or we tend to prefer stories that get into a character’s head and where the action tends to be not quite so exciting and perhaps not exciting at all (such as a Yasujiro Ozu movie or a Kazuo Ishiguro novel).

For me, from both a reading and writing perspective, it is character that matters. One of my favorite movies, Late Spring, directed by Yasujiro Ozu (1949), is very understated. There is only a minimalist story. However, the intense emotion that builds up between father and daughter is phenomenal.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good action/adventure story where the characters lean towards being stock, because I do—as long as the characters are interesting and colorful. Indiana Jones is certainly colorful, but he doesn’t change all that much even throughout the series of movies.

What Jack Tyler has given us in Beyond The Rails, is action and adventure with characters who are interesting enough to appeal to the most diehard character-driven story reader.

If you like steampunk, the stories of H Rider Haggard, Firefly, I think you’ll want to curl up with Beyond The Rails. I know I did and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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