Dave Freer Over at Mad Genius Club Has a Good Essay on Writing

Dave talks about what it’s like reviewing your own book for publication and feeling like the whole thing is poor.  I’m writing a book myself and I have to say I understand exactly what he’s saying.  The urge to re-write whole sections is almost overpowering.

Seeing other people pound out multiple books in a year is humbling.  I get side-tracked continuously between blogging and photography and just trying to keep my real life floating along.  Kudos to those who do all that and also create good fiction too.

A good read.

Arkhaven Comics – A Review

Vox Day is an idiosyncratic guy who will be remembered, if for no other reason, because he waged the hilarious Rabid Puppies War against the pink science fiction doofuses of WorldCon in 2015 and 2016.  But he is also the proprietor of a book publishing company, Castalia House and recently he has branched into comics with a company called Arkhaven.

Last month Arkhaven started up a comic site that publishes the various stories on-line for free at  https://www.arkhaven.com/  .  I’ve never been a comic book guy.  I did watch a few of the Marvel tv shows when I was a kid and I did bring my grandsons to watch the Marvel movies until they started getting too woke.

But there are at least a couple of comics on this site that I can appreciate.  One is Ben Garrison’s Editorial Cartoons.  Ben’s editorials are from the right and his drawings are clever.

The other that I just started following is a dark fantasy (supernatural) comic called Chicago Typewriter.  It’s very well drawn and the story so far is entertaining.

Anyway, if you have any interest in comics, check out Vox’s site.  I think he should be congratulated for jumping into a field that up till now has been more than dominated by woke publishers who have made their former readers unwelcome.  I hope this venture is a great success and Vox makes a pile of cash.  Vox is one of the few people on our side who has walked the walk and built his own platform.  Kudos to him.

Quote – The Vegetable Motif

“A costermonger, roused, is a terrible thing. I had never seen the proletariat really stirred before, and I’m bound to say it rather awed me. I mean, it gave you some idea of what it must have been like during the French Revolution

From every corner of the hall there proceeded simultaneously the sort of noise which you hear, they tell me, at one of those East End boxing places when the referee disqualifies the popular favourite and makes the quick dash for life. And then they passed beyond mere words and began to introduce the vegetable motif.

I don’t know why, but somehow I had got it into my head that the first thing thrown at Tuppy would be a potato. One gets these fancies. It was, however, as a matter of fact, a banana, and I saw in an instant that the choice had been made by wiser heads than mine. These blokes who have grown up from childhood in the knowledge of how to treat a dramatic entertainment that doesn’t please them are aware by a sort of instinct just what to do for the best, and the moment I saw that banana splash on Tuppy’s shirtfront I realized how infinitely more effective and artistic it was than any potato could have been.

Not that the potato school of thought had not also its supporters. As the proceedings warmed up, I noticed several intelligent-looking fellows who threw nothing else.

The effect on young Tuppy was rather remarkable. His eyes bulged and his hair seemed to stand up, and yet his mouth went on opening and shutting, and you could see in a dazed, automatic way he was still singing, “Sonny Boy.”

Then, coming out of his trance, he began to pull for the shore with some rapidity.   The last seen of him, he was beating a tomato to the exit by a short head.”

(from “Jeeves and the Song of Songs”

by P. G. Wodehouse)

Robert Louis Stevenson – A Book Review – Part 1 – Treasure Island

 

 

 

Even aside from his skills as a story-teller Robert Louis Stevenson is an interesting personality .and lived in interesting times.  But I think I’ll save the biographical comments for one of the later chapters of this series.  I’ll just say that if he had never written another line, Treasure Island would still be enough to ensure his place in the literary pantheon.  I’ll say right at the beginning that I consider it the finest boy’s adventure story ever written.  I guess I’ve given away my conclusion but that’s too bad.

The story is simple enough.  Jim Hawkins is an English boy living in the 1700’s whose parents’ small seaside inn is visited by a mysterious old sailor whose bad character and eccentricities disturb the serenity of the place.  And when his associates arrive to threaten him Jim and his mother are in fear of their lives.  After a desperate struggle Jim is stunned to find that he has stumbled on a treasure map from the dread pirate Flint and with the help and backing of the local squire, John Trelawney and  his friend Dr. Livesey Jim finds himself on a treasure hunt on the good ship Hispaniola.

But Trelawney unwisely picks his own crew and unknowingly allows a one-legged former pirate named Long John Silver to man the Hispaniola with himself and the rest of Captain Flint’s old crew.  And the story chronicles the struggle between Jim, his friends and the intrepid Captain Smollett against this gang of cutthroats.  But surprisingly, John Silver is by far the most interesting character and Stevenson somehow manages to make him an attractive villain.  Without a doubt he is just as evil and murderous as the rest of the buccaneers but at the same time he is intelligent and even affable in his villainy.

Throughout the story Jim becomes the means by which the good characters manage to survive the long odds stacked against them.  And it is these lucky breaks and courageous decisions that provide the pivot points to move the story along.  Stevenson has managed to keep the plot taut and the story moves along nice and briskly.  And all the characters, even the pirates are filled in very skillfully and moments of humor and pathos are well written.  This book has been made into motion pictures several times and the 1934 version with Wallace Beery as Silver is extremely faithful to the book and quite enjoyable but I would recommend letting boys read or have read to them this book.  It’s a fantastic story and will fire the imagination of any boy who hears it.

Very highly recommended matey!  Certain it is!

Side Jobs and Brief Cases – Two Short Story Collections from The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

These two books are each a group of short stories that Jim Butcher has collected.  Side Jobs was published in 2010 and Brief Cases was published in 2018.  In each case Butcher collected the stories that had been published in anthologies then added a new novella at the end.  And obviously the differences in subject matter and tone in the collections match up with the where they fit in the chronology of the Dresden Files at the time they were written.  But just as with the overall series the “feel” of the stories and especially the character of Harry himself is surprisingly consistent.  He is as always, a wise-cracking, annoying defender of the human world against the forces of the various supernatural creatures he opposes.  He battles White, Red and Black Court vampires, ghosts, sorcerers, werewolves, faeries and other folklore creatures.  Harry is always a little too lefty and feminist for my complete stamp of approval but Butcher writes a very good story and I have been reading these books for a very long time and even when some lefty cultural stance annoys me, I still read and enjoy the story.  And these stories are no exception.  Some character or some comment from Harry will annoy me but I’ll still read and enjoy each story.

The stories are self-sufficient and can be read alone without the need to jump into the next one.  And because the stories were written for various anthologies some of them have oddball plots that were picked to fit in to some overarching theme.  Like in Brief Cases there is a western story called “A Fistful of Warlocks” that was written for an anthology called “Straight Outta Tombstone.”  And likewise for other stories that had themes relating to weddings or relationships or even beer or baseball.  But even the stories that you would think would be just a throwaway Butcher puts in the work and makes the story hang together.  And in these short stories sometimes Harry isn’t even the narrator.  Thomas Raith, John Marcone, Karrin Murphy and even Molly Carpenter each narrate a story.   And especially in the case of Thomas and Marcone I think these add a lot of interest to the story because of the very different point of view of these characters from Harry.

Just as with the rest of the Dresden Files these books cannot be enjoyed unless you already have read the first few books about Harry.  But it is good to know that Jim Butcher takes the time to make even his short stories worth reading.

The One-Minute Mysteries of Inspector Gerard by Tyler James Cook – A Book Review

Full disclosure, Tyler Cook is the proprietor of the website The Portly Politico, a fellow conservative and in my opinion a fine fellow.  He and I have shared many an interesting conversation on-line about a number of different topics, political and non-political.  He’s a multi-talented fellow and a good guy.  So, I wasn’t surprised to find that he has also self-published a book and asked me to review it.  And always on the look out for something good to review, I immediately agreed and he was kind enough to send me a review copy.

“The One-Minute Mysteries of Inspector Gerard” is a short book and is made up of a number of “cases.”  The eponymous Inspector is a Sherlock Holmes-like savant who usually solves the case simultaneous with the initial narration of the crime.  But the final solution always involves logic that is a complete non sequitur to the clues.  That is the joke.

The thing that I noted was that the content of the stories reflect the various ages at which Tyler wrote them.  So, the earliest tales are very, very short and have solutions that defy any conventional logic.  They are what a teenage kid would find funny.  And as the series of stories progresses, they become more complex and the writing adds touches of noir-like characterization and other dramatic effect.

And finally, as the author enters adulthood his writing becomes mature and his story telling powers become developed.  The culmination is a story called, “Inspector Gerard and the Dead-End Job Caper.”  It is a comical piece that dramatizes Gerard’s ennui and determination to abandon crime-solving and take up a life as a fish-monger.  This story has everything.  Dramatic tension, character development, local color and timing.  Well, maybe not, but it is funny.

So here is the verdict.  Tyler Cook is a smart talented writer.  I can see that in the output of his blog.  “The One-Minute Mysteries of Inspector Gerard” is a showcase of his earliest fiction writing output.  It reflects his sense of humor applied to the mystery genre.  It is amusing but very short.  I think the takeaway from this selection is that Tyler is going to write a longer and more commercial work in the future.

Tyler has the story on Amazon and I see it’s on kindle unlimited for free I believe.  Because of its short length and the ironic nature of much of the work I wouldn’t know if many folks would be happy to pay a lot for the collection.  But I encourage readers of the Portly Politico to try it out and then lobby Tyler to spread his wings and write the comic novel that he obviously has in him.

On Killing Off Fictional Family

I’m working on a fantasy story.  And I’m at the point in the origin phase where the protagonist needs a crisis to propel him into a new and horrible life.  And I’m wavering between some deus ex machina scooping him out of his normal life or a horrible injustice killing off one or more of his family.

And the funny thing is I feel bad about killing off his kin.  I mean, they’re good people and they’ve never done anything to me and all things being equal I might need them later.  So, I’m vacillating and trying to thread the needle.  Can I just kill off his father?  But I kind of need him for later.  How about his mother?  The murder of his mother would be a great catalyst.  There’s guilt and rage and despair and hunger for revenge and all sorts of mixed emotions.  That could work well.  But it feels like a cheap trick.

I could kill off his newlywed sister.  It’s going to happen at the wedding reception anyway.  But that’s even more conflicted.  There’s the bride groom and the other sisters and then the parents won’t be distracted by one of them dying so the protagonist will be dealing with all kinds of messy emotional baggage.  Everyone will be whining for a hundred pages and I don’t need that.

I’m planning some kind of mob hit.  I’m undecided between a shotgun blast coming out of the reception or a bomb thrown through the window.  Either way it’s not ideal.  Very messy.  Definitely not the beautiful death.

So, as you can see there won’t be any easy way to write this.  All kinds of angst and messy follow-on consequences.  But let’s face it, murdered family has been a great plot device since Cain killed Abel.  I’m already trying to work my way through a father with conflicted feelings about the son whom he loves but who is responsible for the death of his wife.  That’s got all kinds of possibilities.  As I said I need the father around later and his grudging cooperation in some plot devices would add a nice amount of resistance to some scenes that would otherwise lose all tension.

So, she has to go.  But I am grateful for her part up to this point and I will give her a nice close-up scene before the finale.  She’ll get to talk to her son and they will share something personal before I finish her off.  Then she’ll upstage her oldest daughter’s wedding.  What mother could ask for more than that?

So, as you can see, for me the characters in my story take on a life of their own and I have to think carefully before I bring anyone in.  The butterfly effect is in full effect and especially when my character has a very long-life span, I have to be careful about cutting off all descendants of present characters because I might need their grandchildren or even great grandchildren at some point.

And finally, this action is meant to cut off his normal life and send him forward into a future where many of his actions are going to appear to him to be pretty evil.  To make that happen I’ll need something to disorient his moral compass.  The random brutal death of someone who symbolizes normalcy and happiness to him is just about right.  Add in a feeling that he is culpable in the death and I think I can work that into a tragic figure.  Will Shakespeare, hold my beer.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance – A Book Review

Several places where I read on-line had praised Vance’s book so I decided to read it.  I already knew basically what it was about but I guess I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.

J. D. Vance’s family came originally from Appalachia, specifically Jackson Kentucky. His maternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Middletown Ohio after WW II to let him get work in the steel factory there and his family became part of the boom economy in the industrial Mid-West that followed the war. But as that economic expansion slowly collapsed into the Rust Belt reality of the 1970s and beyond, his family more and more shared in the dislocation and finally the hopelessness of life in that blighted region.

Through the personal history of his family he presents evidence and draws conclusions about what internal and external factors led to the train wreck that is the Rust Belt.  And he tries to back up this evidence by including general information on the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the white working class and specifically Appalachian people in question.

The personal story of his family and the details of their lives is poignant and honest and draws sympathy from anyone who came from a family that is full of complicated people who struggle and succeed and fail and generally make a messy story to tell.  It’s about the love and hate and anger and fear and confusion that consumed the first decade and a half of his life.  It’s got colorful characters like his grandparents who swear and spit and brandish guns and break down doors if strangers seem to threaten their family.  It’s his mother who tried to find a middle-class identity for her small family but was too damaged to even save herself from drugs and broken marriages.

In the final analysis I think that the point the book tries to make is that the people who left Appalachia were so ill-suited to live in the modern world of nuclear families and suburban society that only the post-war boom allowed even the illusion that they had assimilated into the Mid-Western lifestyle.  Their people were shorn of the support that multi-generational family units provided to them back in the hills and were surrounded by people who had been raised in and could take of advantage of the community resources that exist in middle America.  Vance’s family was always suspicious and angry at the school system and the police and the other government entities that could provide assistance to people in need.  Their independence when stripped of the extended family support structure meant isolation and poverty and an endless string of failures that reinforced the sense of hopelessness that eventually led to drug addiction and despair.

I think it’s a pretty interesting story.  And I recognize the components that he brings up as existing in the real world.  But he does let the powers that be off the hook to a degree that I think is unrealistic.  The post-war boom was a result of government policy that encouraged the harnessing of the human capital that had been freed up by the end of World War II.  Tens of millions of enlisted men were brought back to this country and it had been so thoroughly transformed that only massive top-down control allowed for the re-integration.  Thirty years later there was no similar top-down planning to continue that existence once the earlier generation disappeared from the work place.  The corporations were allowed to shift into a globalist mindset and because those Rust Belt workers were inconvenient because they made too much money or weren’t desperate enough to work like Japanese or Chinese workers they were dismissed from the plans of industry.

Vance may slightly touch on this but his thesis is that personal responsibility and family support systems are what saved him.  When his mother’s chaotic lifestyle came close to destroying his chance at building a healthy life his grandmother stepped up and provided a stable and supportive home in which he was able to re-apply himself at school and finally prove to himself that it was possible for him escape from the cycle of failure and break through to the normal world.

Okay.  His emphasis makes sense based on his experience and world view.  I think there is another side to the present crisis and he somewhat touches on this too.  Some say he is blaming the victims.  I think that overstates it.  I think it’s an interesting book.  I know it made me reconsider some things in my past.  And the anecdotes about his grandparents and that generation of his family are fun to read.  His family is somewhat in volved in the Hatfield and McCoy feud interestingly enough.  I’m not sure that this book is for everyone but if you are interested in the dynamic that has laid waste to the Rust Belt it might be something for you to read.

Battle Ground – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Spoiler Alert.  All my reviews are spoilers.  If you wan to avoid them go down to the end and just read my recommendation.

For anyone coming to this review without any background to the Dresden Files, Battle Ground is I believe the seventeenth book of that series.  Jim Butcher has created quite a complicated and very entertaining world that centers on a Chicago that is embedded in a reality that has several kinds of vampires, two faery realms, werewolves, sasquatches, Norse mythological characters, Knights of the Cross, Fallen Angels and wizards.  And in particular Harry Dresden is the extremely conflicted and always wise-cracking Wizard of Chicago.  If you want to delve into the series, I guess it would be much more sensible and fun to start at book one but to each his own.

Battle Ground is the conclusion of the story arc begun in the previous book, Peace Talks.  And for all intents and purposes this book is taken up by the Battle of Chicago.  A really angry Titan named Ethniu has decided to destroy Chicago as a way to turn the human world against the supernatural groups that were parties to the “Unseelie Accords” that acted as a council to ensure that humans do not discover the hidden creatures all around them.

Along with her amphibious allies the Fomor who have a settlement under Lake Michigan they attack the city and with the power of the “Eye,” that Ethniu wields, they begin destroying the city and killing the population.  Standing against this systematic destruction and murder of Chicago is Harry and his allies.  I won’t say friends because many of them fear and/or hate him.  He has an Italian American mobster turned supernatural power broker named Marcone providing significant infrastructure, manpower and significant strategic support.  He has his current boss the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab the Winter Queen, providing her troops and her own very considerable magical powers.  There are Harry’s nominal brothers in arms, the White Council of Wizards that are always right at the edge of expelling him for all the unorthodox and insubordinate actions he takes.  This includes his grandfather Ebenezar McCoy who is more or less the head of the Council and who always seem on the edge of either throttling Harry or apologizing to him.  There are the Knights of the Cross who are Harry’s friends and possess power that can stand against the evil that the enemy represent but even with these allies Harry and his friends are hopelessly overmatched.

But Harry has one ace in the hole.  He has a magical resource that if he can lure the Titan to a certain spot would allow him to capture her permanently.  But in order to do that Ethniu would have to be lured in by targets that she wanted to destroy and the destruction that she would accomplish would be ruinous.  And that is what the book is about.  As Harry and his allies go block by block saving civilians and battling monsters the Titan levels the city skyscrapers on her way to confronting Mab and the other powerful leaders.  And it’s a long book, over four hundred pages and the overwhelming majority of the book is this battle.

If you’re a fan of the series, and obviously if you’re still reading at book seventeen then you are, you will like this book a lot.  Sure, there are parts of the battle that seem kind of repetitive or at least maybe overkill.  And I have never been a big fan of Harry’s romantic attachment to Karren Murphy.  For whatever reason it never seems to keep my interest.  And there are a few scenes where some of the characters sound a little too touchy feely with too much “I’m here for you,” and all that.  But there is plenty on the battle side and on the personal side of this story to satisfy fans of the books.  Some questions from Peace Talks get answered and some things that were left hanging remain that way.  Some old friends and enemies die.  Others change their relation to Harry and further complicate his life.  And some characters that do not have a major part in the action still provide a needed presence.  I always enjoy the character of Michael Carpenter.  He’s the retired Knight of the Cross who is probably the most grounded character in the series and also provides sanctuary for Harry’s young daughter when horrible things come looking for Harry.  And Harry reaches a kind of crossroads with respect to his stature in the supernatural world.  He is now a heavy hitter and has gained respect and even some wisdom.

What can I say?  You’re going to like most of this book. And there will be few things that you won’t care for.  But if you’re a Dresden fan you will have to read it.

Observations from the Gulag Archipelago Relevant to Today – Part 1 – Show Trials

Solzhenitsyn’s epic history of the Soviet Union’s war against its own people is a crippling experience for the reader.  The first ninety pages are a seemingly endless list of purges that went on from 1917 to well into the 1950’s.  The scope, the strategies and the tactics that were used to terrorize, imprison, torture and mostly murder these poor human beings is almost beyond comprehension.  In Solzhenitsyn’s own words “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible what was the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men had forgotten God; that is why all this has happened.’”

To try and understand how a government of men would choose to decimate and more than decimate its own people is very difficult.  But it is telling that in every society where radical socialism has taken hold it follows the same pattern and causes monstrous suffering.  Because this same ideology is now loose in our own society, I thought it would be useful to select specific details from the Gulag Archipelago and elaborate on how they relate to our time and place.

I’ll start off the series with the concept of show trials.  Among the many purges there was a period when a decision was made to go after engineers.  They were selected because previously they had been given a certain immunity due to their usefulness.  Because of the backwardness of pre-revolutionary Russia and because of the agricultural disruptions that occurred due to the collectivization of the farmlands, having men who could manufacture and repair and improve modern equipment like tractors and automobiles was quite important.  Sending them to the gulag was quite counterproductive.  But at a certain point logic ceased to be strong enough to prevent the next victim group from being fed into the maw of the meat grinder.

And it was quite easy to incriminate engineers.  By definition they were intellectuals, a classic category of counter-revolutionaries.  Also, most of them had studied at the universities during the czarist period so there were all kinds of associations and attachments to people and organizations that had already been condemned and consumed in the earlier purges.

But the technique that the authorities wanted to most use was to find someone innocent of any real crimes and tell him that if he would denounce himself and all his fellows of some absurdly improbable crime in a public exhibition then he would get a lighter sentence.  And so, we got the show trial.

At the trial the accused had to go through the full histrionics of denouncing himself and confess to all his crimes and accuse all of his co-conspirators.  In the best case all of the other equally innocent men would also confess to their inhuman crimes against the collective.  And finally, they would finish off by demanding their own deaths as the only fitting punishment for their atrocious crimes.  And ironically, despite the assurances that they had received of a lighter sentence, often death was awarded to them.  But either way this theater of the perverse was conducted and make-believe crimes were punished and more fodder was fed into the killing machine.

Amusingly, these trials came to an end when during the show trial against the ceramic industry the defendants as a body decided at the last minute to deny all charges.  And since the prosecution had no actual evidence to produce against them at this very public trial, they were exonerated.  It just goes to show sometimes courage is rewarded.

Currently, examples of show trials in our country are only the thinnest of ghosts of what the Stalinist regime could perpetrate.  A recent example is New York Times science writer Donald McNeil Jr.  He was denounced for the use of the black ethnic slur that shall not be repeated unless you are black.  He was on a trip with students in Peru, for some reason, and one of his students finked out another of the students for having used the black ethnic slur that shall not be repeated unless you are black (tbestsnbruyab).  When McNeil said tbestsnbruyab in the context of condemning the use of tbestsnbruyab he was reported by those present of using tbestsnbruyab.  He was condemned by his colleagues and the incident was forgotten.  But two years later the retroactive punishment for this offense became capitol and his colleagues demanded his firing.  And being the good progressive that he is, he made a statement applauding his professional lynching.  Now admittedly this is poor stuff compared to shipping him off to a labor camp or putting a bullet in his brain.  But it’s a rousing start when it occurs in the so-called land of free speech.

I expect there will be other examples of looney lefties denouncing themselves.  And I think we’ll also see that after the fact they’ll be heard caterwauling at the gates of the Emerald City claiming that they weren’t given a chance afterward to be re-educated and rehabilitated.  But it’s a funny thing.  Once you’ve been cast out into that void it’s really hard to get the “good” people to take your calls.  Contamination from bad thinking is much scarier than COVID.  They’re going to have to get back to you sometime in the future.  And that future sure isn’t tomorrow and chances are it’s never.

So, as you can see, we are only at the very beginning of the great revolution that the Russians perfected.  But I will continue this series and I’m sure we’ll use our Yankee ingenuity to innovate and who knows even show the masters a thing or two.  So, stay tuned comrades.