Book Review: A Quiet Life in the Country

Superb indie writers abound. Many readers complain about the indie revolution and all the crappy books out there. Granted, there are a lot of crappy books being published. But they aren’t all indie. A very sizable portion of them come from the corporate giants on their never-ending quest for the next blockbuster.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year and last year were written by indie authors. And some of the worst books I’ve read last year and this year were published by the big corporations. In this day and age, who publishes a book is no guarantee of the book’s quality.

Last week, I reviewed indie author Agatha Frost, who writes contemporary cozy mysteries. This week, I want to take a look at cozy author T. E. Kinsey, who started out going indie and then accepted a publishing deal from Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint.

When I picked up a copy of A Quiet Life in the Country it was #1 on Amazon’s list of Bestselling Cozy Mysteries. That was on 2 July 17. As of yesterday (7 August), the book was #15. A long ride being in the top 20.

So what makes Kinsey’s 1908 aristocratic sleuth, Lady Hardcastle, so popular? To me the answer is simple: appealing characters, humor, and good storytelling.

The same combo that works for Agatha Frost, works for Mr Kinsey. In fact, it’s the same combo that pretty much works for every author or book I like.

The only downside to A Quiet Life In The Country is that the pacing tips towards the glacial. What saved the book for me was the humor. The jokes and puns and banter made the slow spots bearable.

The storyline is the same as in all mysteries. Lady Hardcastle and her servant, who is also her friend, have moved to the country after a life of adventure. And then they stumble across the body and then another.

Through a ruse they are allowed to work with the police detective. Eventually Lady Hardcastle and the detective solve the murders.

All pretty standard. Which is why character and humor are so important, as well as good storytelling — which turns the already familiar plot into something interesting.

Highly recommended! Get yourself a copy of A Quiet Life In The Country. You won’t be sorry.

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

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Review: Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

I’ll put this out front: I don’t like cozy mysteries — generally speaking.

That’s the qualifier: “generally speaking”. Exceptions abound and that is what makes life interesting. The syncopation that shakes up the rhythm of life.

And Agatha Frost has provided wonderful syncopation by creating a delightful amateur sleuth in Julia South, and a most enchanting village in Peridale.

So, if I don’t like cozies, why am I reading them in the first place? That’s a very good question and the answer, in a word, is research. Research? Yes, indeed. You see, I’m thinking of writing my own cozy mystery series and I thought I should read a few and see if I could stomach them enough to write my own.

I tried this decades ago with romance novels, found they darn near made me regurgitate, and gave up on the idea of writing the things.

To my utter surprise, Ms Frost provided me with entertaining read after entertaining read. I blew through the six novels she had published — pre-ordered the 7th, which has now been delivered to the Kindle app on my iPad. Amazon is already flying the “Bestseller” banner on the book and it’s only been out for 2 days.

What is it that Ms Frost does right? Again, in a word — characters. The Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery series is filled with interesting and entertaining characters. There is, of course, Julia herself. She is such a dear. Very likable for the most part. Like most people. Then there’s her crazy (as in unorthodox) grandmother. Dot is the perfect comic relief. We also have Julia’s ward, Jessie, and Julia’s blossoming romance with Barker, the police detective. The banter between Barker and Julia and Barker and Jessie provides lots of laughs as well.

The characters are simply wonderful and so is the humor. Lots of humor. There are also the day to day goings on of small town life and the murders and the social commentary. All are combined into a recipe guaranteed to produce a few hours of satisfying entertainment.

And the things I detest about cozies — the police being bumbling idiots, the amateur sleuth being simply brilliant, and the constant meddling of the amateur in a police investigation and not getting herself arrested — are pretty much absent from Ms Frost’s tales. And that is refreshing.

Julia is a bit more savvy than Barker on the crime solving. But then she grew up in Peridale and Barker is an outsider, a big city guy, unfamiliar with small town dynamics. So I can accept her superior puzzle solving ability.

Ms Frost’s writing style is straight forward. Nothing fancy. The dialogue is realistic and the description just right. The books are on the short side: 48,000 words or less. Which suits me just fine. I’m getting too old for ponderous tomes, where I might die before I can finish the thing.

My only gripe is that her proofreader sucks. The constant use of “her” instead of “she” is very annoying. Julia South became Julia Smith for a brief moment in one book. And the other grammatical and typographical errors that are so obvious one wonders how they got missed.

Ms Frost’s saving grace is that she writes a truly fab story. Her writing lets me be forgiving of the less than stellar proofreading. But just barely. I’m very fussy when it comes to such obvious errors in such numbers.

So what did I learn about writing cozies from my experiment?

  • Make sure the main characters are interesting, as well as the important supporting cast.
  • Give the amateur sleuth a police connection (which we also see in TV mysteries such as Grantchester and Castle, for instance).
  • Humor. Lots of humor. Doesn’t have to be rolling on the floor belly laughs. Wit, whimsy, and amusing interactions work just fine.
  • Introduce the murder early on. Second or third chapter. We are reading a murder mystery after all.
  • The pacing doesn’t have to be fast. Character, humor, and the murder can hold sufficient interest. Which is fine with me. I don’t care all that much for these full-throttle thrillers. They’re usually light on character and heavy on the action, and for me that gets boring after a while.

On the marketing side, I noticed, since this is a culinary mystery, the covers all have food on them and are brightly colored. The titles are also alliterative and have a food theme as well.

I highly recommend Agatha Frost’s Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery series. It’s a winner.

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

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Book Review: Finder, The True Story of a Private Investigator

I love private detective novels. But the biographies and autobiographies of real private detectives I find equally fascinating. I have a small collection of these books.

Finder: The True Story Of A Private Investigator is the autobiography of Marilyn Greene, co-authored with Gary Provost. In the book, Marilyn Greene relates her early interest in law enforcement and her disappointment at being turned down by the New York state police.

Sometime later she developed an interest in search and rescue and tells us how she became one of the best finders of missing persons using her air-scent trained dog. Because of limitations imposed on her work as a finder, due to her being a volunteer, she moved into licensed private investigator work.

We also get a glimpse into the personal cost of her pursuing her passion. The break up of her marriage and problems with one of her sons.

Marilyn Greene’s story generates anger at the bias and prejudice she faced being a woman in a field dominated by men, as well as heartache at what she had to go through to pursue her dream.

In one instance, she was asked by the State Police to look for a missing person. She found the body in a short period of time only to find out that the police only asked her to get the parents off their backs. She wasn’t supposed to find someone they couldn’t.

Another time she faced police hostility because her dog found the missing person, when the police dogs couldn’t.

Once, she was hired by the mother of a missing person. She discovered that the son’s best friend had killed the man because he was bullying him. It was a heartbreaking story of the victim suffering once again. This time in the legal system. Ms Greene’s point was that many real life stories do not have happy endings.

The book itself does not read like a thriller. In fact, it’s somewhat dry. Yet it’s packed with information telling us how a real private detective worked back before everyone had laptops and smart phones.

I recommend giving Finder a read. I read the book some 25 years ago researching what real PIs were like in preparation for writing my first mystery. For me, the book was fascinating and stayed with me all these years. Recently, I bought a copy and re-read it. It’s a satisfying, real life tale. Give it a read!

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

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Movie Review: The Before Trilogy

The plotless movie. The plotless novel. The plotless story. How can a movie or a work of literature have no plot? Well, the answer is simple. It can’t. All stories have a plot of some kind, because the plot is nothing more than what happens in the story.

Plots are fairly simple. They are, broadly speaking, some manner of:

  • Adventure or Quest
  • Love story
  • Puzzle
  • Seeking of Vengeance or Justice
  • Pursuit or Escape
  • Self-Discovery

What makes a story, however, is not the plot. It’s the characters. As Ray Bradbury advised writers: create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story.

Recently, my wife and I watched the movies Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. The movies were written by Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, and directed by Richard Linklater. They tell the story of Jesse and Céline who meet by accident on a train and eventually become parents of twin girls.

The movies are described as “minimalist” because nothing much outwardly happens in them. Each movie focuses on Jesse and Céline talking about life. The only movement is that in each movie the action, such as it is, takes place in the span of one day. Which means the storyline is driven by the shortness or brevity of the time factor. A standard technique used to induce suspense or a sense of urgency.

Personally, I think the movies are brilliant examples of what the “plotless” tale is all about. Which is the characters. These movies are in depth character studies. Through dialogue alone — often what isn’t said being as or more important than what is said — the writer tells a tale that is profoundly moving.

In Before Sunrise, Jesse, an American tourist in Europe, accidentally meets Céline on a train bound from Budapest to Vienna, where he will catch his flight back to the states. On a whim, Jesse asks Céline to spend the day with him before he has to catch his flight. She agrees.

The rest of the movie is nothing more than the two walking around Vienna talking and sharing little experiences together. In the course of the day, they fall in love, and promise each other to meet at the train station in six months. They also agree not to exchange any contact information.

Before Sunset picks up the story nine years later. Jesse is in Paris on the last day of a book tour. He is now married, with a son, and is an acclaimed author, having turned his one day love affair with Céline into a successful novel. Céline learns he is in Paris and shows up at the book shop where he’s giving a talk and autographing books.

After his talk, he and Celine leave the shop with the intention to get a cup of coffee and catch up on what has happened with each other. The shopkeeper reminds Jesse as he leaves he needs to be back in one hour to catch his flight. The two walk to a coffee shop and then begin walking around Paris talking about their lives. In the course of their conversation, we learn Jesse flew to Vienna to meet Céline. She, however, didn’t show because her grandmother had died. Eventually they end up at Céline’s apartment and Jesse misses his flight back to the States.

The final film in the trilogy, Before Midnight, takes place eighteen years later. Jesse and Céline are in Greece. They are now a couple with twin girls. Jesse’s son from his ex-wife flies home at the beginning of the movie. The parting of the father and son sets up one side of the conflict. On the other, Céline wants to take a new job with the French government, feeling unfulfilled in her current job.

The couple have been given a night in a hotel for a romantic evening. However, the night turns into a battle of angst and wills and agendas, climaxing with Céline saying she doesn’t love Jesse anymore and leaves.

Jesse finds Céline after a time. She wants to be alone but he asks her to listen to him and she relents. He tells a story and Céline eventually thaws. The ending of the movie is somewhat ambiguous, but we’re left with the feeling they stay together.

What I love about these movies is that through dialogue alone we learn of the hopes and fears, the dreams, and the failures of two ordinary people. How chance events can change one’s life forever. And that no matter what, we always have choices.

I think the movies should be seen close together, much like the Mad Max movies, in order to keep the story flow fresh in ones mind. They are fabulous films. A testimony to the power of character over plot.

As always, I appreciate your comments. And until next time, happy reading!

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My Notable Reads of 2016

We are three days into the new year. There are 355 days until Christmas. Just in case anyone was curious. Most of us aren’t quite yet looking in that direction. We’re still making the adjustment from 2016 to 2017, still writing 2016 half the time on whatever we need to date. So I’m going to take one more look back at 2016 before I shove off on my 2017 adventure.

For me, 2016 was a good year. Especially in the reading department. I read some really great books and stories. There are a lot of good writers out there. I mentioned a few in a previous post. Classics, new releases, traditionally published, and self-published. In fact, I was very impressed with most of the self-published books I read.

At the end of this post, I give you my list of 2016 reading material in case you want to check out some of the great reads I came across; links are included where available.

Today, I want to highlight for you what I thought were the best of the lot, the cream on the milk.

Non-Fiction

I read a lot of non-fiction in 2016. Most of it was in the form of online articles as part of my research for my books. I did, however, read two non-fiction books out of general interest in the subject matter.

The more enjoyable of the two was E.M. Maitland’s The Log of HMA R34: Journey to America and Back. This book is a day by day and sometimes hourly by hourly chronicle of the historic 1919 round trip flight of the rigid airship R34. The R34 was the first aircraft to make the difficult east to west flight across the Atlantic from Europe to America and was the first to make a complete round trip. Her flight demonstrated that trans-Atlantic commercial flight was possible.

Commodore Maitland’s style is at once informative, lively, witty, and entertaining. Making it an excellent travelogue.

The book is available for free and every airship enthusiast and armchair traveler should have a copy.

Short Stories

I love short stories. Perhaps more than novels. Even in a good novel, my interest at time lags. Especially when the author hits a dull patch of road, which inevitably happens. Sometimes even with the best of writers. Rarely does that happen, in my experience, with a short story. Even a mediocre one.

All of the short stories I read this past year were good. The ones of exceptional merit (aside from generally recognized classics) were

Wasteland” by R Entwisle

SoulWave” by RR Willica

The Garden and the Market” by Richard B Walsh

The Room that Swallows People” by G Jefferies

Cinder” by Crispian Thurlborn

Of those five excellent tales, I do want to single out “Cinder” by Crispian Thurlborn. It is an exquisitely lyrical story of terror that is replete with haunting atmosphere, incipient dread, and unrelenting suspense. It is by far one of the most well-crafted stories I’ve read in a long time.

But do check out the other 4 on the above list. They are all well-written, imaginative (especially “SoulWave”), and prove that indies can give us a story as good as any publisher or magazine editor can.

Short Story Anthologies

Anthologies are at best uneven. Even if the stories are by a single author. No one is consistently at his or her best. And that goes without saying for the 4 anthologies I read.

On the whole, they were good and are worth getting. The one I enjoyed the most was The Spike Collection by Martin Skate. Mr Skate’s hilarious slice of life vignettes are highly entertaining. A collection not to be missed.

Novels

The two dozen novels I read were a mix of speculative fiction, mysteries, humor, horror, and historical fiction.

There were two clunkers in the lot: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne, and The Time Machine by HG Wells.

The Verne novel was my third reading. The first time, when a kid, I love it. The other two reads were as an adult. The old translation was ponderous and boring. The modern translation was better, conveying some of Verne’s humor, but the story remained dull and boring.

The Wells story was my second time through. Dry as two day old toast. Endless description, little action, and the only character I cared about, Weena, the author did not. Thoroughly and hopelessly dated. The movie was better.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute was at times slow and almost dull. And then Shute uncorks the most emotionally moving conclusion I think I’ve ever read. It literally had me sobbing. Powerful is wholly inadequate to describe it.

John Wyndham’s cozy catastrophe, The Day of the Triffids, was at once a testament to the dangers inherent in our monkeying around with Mother Nature and to our penchant for creating weapons of self-destruction — as well as to our unrelenting will to survive and better our lot. A classic and deservedly so.

There were, however, a few books that were on the top of the pile. Books that were thoroughly entertaining or thought-provoking. Well crafted tales that prove the Big 5 publishers do not have a corner on giving us good books.

These indie authored gems were

Banana Sandwich by Steve Bargdill

Wasteland by Steve Bargdill

Daddy’s Girl by Ben Willoughby

Death of an Idiot Boss by Janice Croom

Bargdill’s two books are dark and gritty mainstream novels that give us plenty of food for thought. At the same time there is humor and hope. Well crafted. The Big 5 are missing out here.

Willoughby’s ghost tale is suspenseful and has a happier ending than many such tales. For those who like their terror not so dark, Daddy’s Girl fits the bill perfectly. Willoughby’s style is lean. Not excessive. He gives us just the right amount to produce the desired effects. I’m looking forward to reading more from this guy.

Death of an Idiot Boss by Janice Croom has one of the best titles I’ve come across in a long time. But the goodness doesn’t stop there. We get a hilarious, at times thought-provoking, good old-fashioned whodunit and a memorable protagonist in Kadence MacBride. Croom is a very good writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of Kadence’s adventures.

Don’t miss any of these novels. Really. Don’t miss out.

Hopefully I’ve sown a few seeds for your 2017 reading. Let me know what you’ve read. I’m always looking for a good book.

The Bibliography

Non-Fiction

The Log of HMA R34: Journey to America and Back by EM Maitland

How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen

The Journal of Submarine Commander von Forstner by Georg-Gunther Forstner

Short Stories

Curse Upon a Star” by Sylvia Heike

Goodbye, Sunshine” by Sylvia Heike

The Red Lady’s Wedding” by Deina Furth

The Otherlife” by Dot Dannenberg

The Adventure of the Fatal Glance” by August Derleth

Wasteland” by R Entwisle

The TNT Punch” by Robert E Howard

The Highway” by Ray Bradbury

Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden and the Market” by Richard B Walsh

“Test Piece” by Eric Frank Russell

Bone White” by Sarah Zama

SoulWave” by RR Willica

Confession” by Micah Castle

The Room That Swallows People” by G Jefferies

Ghost Carp” by G Jefferies

Cinder” by Crispian Thurlborn

Short Story Anthologies

Defiant, She Advanced: Legends of Future Resistance, ed. by George Donnelly

Oriental Stories: Five Complete Novelettes by Robert E Howard

The Spike Collection by Martin Skate

Den of Antiquity by Jack Taylor, et al

Novels

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Banana Sandwich by Steve Bargdill

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Wasteland by Steve Bargdill

After London, or Wild England by Richard Jefferies

Daddy’s Girl by Ben Willoughby

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Time Machine by HG Wells

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Deluge by S. Fowler Wright

The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham

Death of an Idiot Boss by Janice Croom

Beyond the Rails by Jack Tyler

Perilous Ping by William J Jackson

Killing Floor by Lee Child

Die Trying by Lee Child

China Trade by SJ Rozan

Start Right Here by Martin Skate

Concourse by SJ Rozan

This Doesn’t Happen in the Movies by Renee Pawlish

Reel Estate Rip-Off by Renee Pawlish

Mandarin Plaid by SJ Rozan

Dawn by S. Fowler Wright

Dust and Kisses by Dean Wesley Smith

 

Mincemeat Pie Update

I made my mincemeat pie using Crosse and Blackwell mincemeat. I have to say None Such brand is better. The saving grace was the brandy butter. 🙂 Brandy butter is easy to make: cream together butter, sugar, and brandy. Voila!

Until next time, happy reading!!

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TV Review: Murdoch Mysteries

murdoch-mysteries

 

Steampunk is alive well. Not only as a sub-genre of speculative fiction, but also as a lifestyle movement and a musical genre.

A few weeks ago, while looking for something to watch on Netflix streaming, I stumbled upon the retro-detective series Murdoch Mysteries. I fell in love immediately. I mean who wouldn’t love a show that features Nikola Tesla in the first episode? I’ve been binge watching ever since.

Some people might not call Murdoch Mysteries steampunk. And in a very real sense it isn’t. At least it isn’t traditional steampunk. However there are many steampunk elements that the writers incorporate in the episodes, so I call it steampunk light.

Detective William Murdoch, of Toronto Constabulary’s Fourth Station House, is an amateur inventor and a scientific sleuth worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s shoes, Inverness cape, and deerstalker hat. But Murdoch wears none of those. Just a conservative 1890s suit and Homburg, the classic hat worn by Winston Churchill, among others.

The show begins in the mid-1890s and in season six enters the new century. Numerous inventions are featured that were either invented or discussed at that time and some of them Murdoch himself invents to help him solve crimes. Also a feature of the show are the famous personalities who appear as part of the storyline; people such as Tesla, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and HG Wells.

The episodes are filled with humor and historical puns, such as when Constable Crabtree claps his hands to activate a sound activated switch (the Clapper of modern day fame), which makes the series almost a comedy were it not for the seriousness of Murdoch and the murders he’s trying to solve.

I believe the success of this series lies in the interaction of the main trio of characters: Detective Murdoch, Constable Crabtree, and Inspector Brackenreid. Murdoch is unrelentingly serious and conservative, in spite of his love of science, technology, and invention. When he invents “Silly Putty” to capture newsprint he can’t read on the inside of a wallet, Brackenreid wants to take some home for his boys because they would love the silliness of it. Murdoch rebukes him that the putty is not a toy.

Crabtree aspires to be like Murdoch, but has an imagination that enables him to see practical applications of Murdoch’s and other inventors’s inventions that they themselves don’t see or dismiss. When a microwave machine shows up in Murdoch’s office, having been used as a weapon, Crabtree envisions it could be used to bake potatoes. When told the machine would have to be the size of a room, Crabtree goes on to imagine homes being built in the future with potato baking rooms. Eventually in the course of the series, Crabtree puts his imagination to use and writes a novel.

Brackenreid is an old school cop who in the beginning has little toleration for Murdoch’s odd methods. He’s a blustering blowhard, who is really a marshmallow on the inside.

Of course no series would be complete without a love interest and that we have between Murdoch and the very progressive coroner, Doctor Julia Ogden.

The series also explores many social issues and can therefore be seen as a commentary on our own age, which in many ways isn’t much different from Murdoch’s.

As I noted above, many might not see Murdoch Mysteries as steampunk. But whatever genre you decide to call the series, the series is riotously good fun. Very highly recommended.

As always, comments are welcome and until next time — happy reading!

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Movie Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

sky-captain-and-the-world-of-tomorrow

 

This past weekend I watched a dieselpunk cult classic: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I loved it! The 1930s and 40s feel of the cinematography, the cheesy ‘tween war movie dialogue, the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne designs, the fabulous inventions, hero versus evil genius, the terrifying mechanical monsters, and let’s not forget that fabulous spaceship! Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has it all.

The movie is part noir mystery and part comic book superhero adventure. The film is a blend of the 30s and 40s acting style combined with exquisite modern special effects.

The acting and plot are typical of the old B grade movie. The stuff I grew up with in the 50s and early 60s. And perhaps that’s why I like the movie. It’s all action and adventure. No complicated plot. Simply an evil genius bent on destroying the world and our superhero who has to stop him. There are no complex characters. No one is pouring angst all over the screen. Just action with a romance subplot to keep the personal level interesting. In fact the movie isn’t all that much different from Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. It is pure entertainment. Nothing thought provoking here. Just stuff to get your adrenaline pumping.

If you have no idea what a B grade movie is, then you may think Sky Captain is ridiculous. Clearly some of the reviews I read on Rotten Tomatoes indicated to me the reviewer had no idea what the director was trying to achieve. The movie is a tribute to the movie fare that entertained millions every Saturday afternoon at the theater.

The B grade movie was not much different than the dime novel or the pulp magazine. It was cheap entertainment and movie studios cranked them out by the score.

One very popular theme of the old B movie was that of the knight-errant story from the Middle Ages. It is the story of a knight who embarks on a mission of great importance. The traditional Western is classic knight-errant stuff. A gang of bad guys takes over a town. The lone sheriff comes to the town and cleans it up. Usually by killing the bad guys. The classic movie The Magnificent Seven is the knight-errant trope. And so is Sky Captain. Only he can save the world from impending destruction.

In my opinion, Kerry Conran did an admirable job in recreating the old B movie. All the tropes are there to relive your youth — provided, of course, you’re old enough.

Otherwise, sit back and simply enjoy a Time Machine that takes you back to another world, an older and maybe better world, when a movie ticket cost 50¢ and a bag of popcorn was a quarter.

Two features of the movie I especially loved were the fabulous art deco and streamline moderne designs of the space ship’s exterior and interior and the mechanical monsters. The space ship takes you back to Buck Rogers and the monsters are straight out of the comic books I used to read. Truly fabulous stuff there.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is highly recommended. Definitely five stars.

As always comments are welcome and, until next time, happy reading!

Hindenburg III docking at the Empire State Building
Hindenburg III docking at the Empire State Building
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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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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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