Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Sixth Domicile - a Dystopian novel by Courtney Ruggles

Greetings, commies!
Joining the network of Dystopian authors has opened a door to some stimulating literary connections. Say hello to Courtney Ruggles, the author of The Domicile series. The Sixth Domicile, the first book in the series, is a tale of rebellion against a tyrannical regime.

In a future ravaged by greed and war, The Domicile has emerged. A new civilization governed by clandestine Elders where citizens are united by white masks and uniform identities. To remove one’s mask, to go outside the Domicile, to show defiance, means being sent to the Meurtre, a horrifying death sentence.

My thoughts:
Any time there is an alternate Dystopian universe, the author is faced with the challenge of feeding the background information to the author without making any of the characters sound like token commentators aka "talking heads". Courtney Ruggles does a fine job creating a believable Dystopian universe while covering up the seams. As with any tyrannic totalitarian regime, there are those who support it ardently, those who tolerate it begrudgingly, and those who rebel against it.

Based from the premise of all individuals being forced to wear uniform masks, regardless of the individual features underneath, I can tell that the author must have watched Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and "Eyes Wide Shut". There is something infinitely horrifying about a static form covering human features. And yet, the characters, whose names are reduced to a combination of letters and numbers, still manage to fall in love. Developing feelings for someone without seeing his/her face is similar two two blind people falling in love. At the same time, when people are forced to wear uniforms or masks, they have to work harder to make their essence shine through. There is certain energy that artificially imposed veneers cannot contain.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Wheel's Final Turn - Monica Brinkman's metaphysical gem

I have been dying to post the review for The Wheel's Final Turn, the sequel to Monica Brinkman's metaphysical novel The Turn of the Karmic Wheel.

In The Wheel's Final Turn, the sequel to The Turn of The Karmic Wheel, Angela, Euclid, and Karman once again find themselves thrust front and center into the battle between good and evil. One man finds pleasure in torturing animals; another fights the demons of past hate crimes. From the governor's mansion to the highly competitive beauty industry to the hidden closets of memory, no one is safe from the grasp of the darkness that wants to take over the world. Can the forces of Light find the inner strength to save humanity, or will the world fall eternal victim to evil as the karmic wheel makes its final turn?

My thoughts:
I would like to comment on the author's literary style. Subtle horror, in the tradition of Southern Gothic. Brinkman's eloquent, polyphonic narrative echoes of Faulkner. The diction is both gritty and sublime. I imagine, the author has read her fair share of Latin American novels in the magical realism genre. That would explain her appreciation for sensuous micro-detail. I also see the melancholic traces of Philip Roth. If I understand the author's outlook on life correctly, evil is not always overt and in-your-face. Nor does it take over your soul overnight. It's a gradual, clandestine process, like cancer. Any one of us can become a channel of evil. Sometimes something as seemingly minor as a childhood slight or a conflict with a parent can open up a wound that will fester. There are several story lines in her novel, all being intertwined by the same sinister puppet master.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Carrie Welton - a novel of New England tomboy

Salutations to all of you, Connecticut Commies!
In a mood for some nutmeg? Today's guest of honor is a fellow Connecticut Commie and Penmore Press author Charles Monagan. His novel Carrie Welton is set in Waterbury, CT.

Eighteen-year-old Carrie Welton is restless, unhappy, and ill-suited to the conventions of nineteenth-century New England. Using her charm and a cunning scheme, she escapes the shadow of a cruel father and wanders into a thrilling series of high-wire adventures. Her travels take her all over the country, putting her in the path of Bohemian painters, poets, singers, social crusaders, opium eaters, violent gang members, and a group of female mountain climbers. 

But Carrie’s demons return to haunt her, bringing her to the edge of sanity and leading to a fateful expedition onto Longs Peak in Colorado. That’s not the end, though. Carrie, being Carrie, sends an astonishing letter back from the grave and thus engineers her final escape—forever into your heart.  

My thoughts:
What sets Carrie Welton apart is the rarely used first person omniscient narrative. Rarely do you see a novel in which the title character not being the speaker. The same narrative model was used in Jack London's The Sea-Wolf and Nabokov's Lolita. The heroine of Charles Monagan's novel, Caroline Welton, becomes the object of fascination to Frederick Kingsbury, a dutiful family man with an equally dutiful and sympathetic wife. The Kingsburys become personally invested in the emotional and social well-being of the troubled girl next door, championing her independence and artistic growth. 

Tolstoy claims that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." While there are many variables that contribute to each family's dysfunction, and there are many creative ways people can sabotage their home lives, but, leaning on my personal experience, dysfunctional families have certain "key ingredients" in common. I've seen enough dysfunctional New England families. I've seen enough tyrannical fathers who make occasional cameo appearances just to stomp their feet a few times and bark. I've seen enough oblivious wives who seek validation by throwing lavish parties. And I've seen enough lonely children who bond with animals and neighbors than they do with their own parents.

Monagan paints a vivid picture of social anxiety and PTSD before those conditions were explored and labeled. His speaker, Kingsbury, maintains an outlook that is consistent with his era. There are references to the key Civil War battles, the draft riots in New York City, the Bohemian art scene. It's such a daunting task to keep the 21st century author and the 19the century speaker separate. There are so many opportunities for slip-ups and inadvertent anachronisms, and Monagan manages to avoid them all. The most impressive feat, however, is the exquisite, unobtrusive transition from first person limited to first person omniscient.  At some point the reader realizes that Kingsbury describes events that did not happen before his very eyes. In the first half of the novel, he is in close physical proximity to his protegee.  He pays painstaking attention to her body language, her smile, her features. After Carrie moves away, he continues to chronicle her adventures from afar, imagining what her daily life might have been. He feels her from a distance. At the same time, Kingsbury's fascination is refreshingly chaste. He does not devolve into a dirty old man who becomes obsessed with the vulnerable girl next door. I admit to having feared that the story line would head in the Lolita direction, but thankfully, it did not.

Apart from being a top-notch authentic historical novel, Carrie Welton is a commendable exercise in unorthodox narrative.

Monday, May 16, 2016

We the Peeps - a political satire by Morgan Hunt

Greetings, commies!
In light of the recent political upheavals, I am delighted to review a novel by Morgan Hunt We the Peeps: a Political Caper and Wish Fulfillment

When seven ordinary citizens are unreasonably detained by the TSA, they bond over their upset with the government and decide to launch a second American Revolution. Instead of horses and artillery, they rely on media distractions, scams, and hacking. They take on green energy, deregulation, Citizens United and other issues with whimsical yet hopeful results. We the Peeps is a fun read for all who are interested in politics, civics, democracy and the American experience.

My thoughts:
Writing an effective political satire takes the right balance of factual awareness, sense of humor, contempt for humanity and healthy detachment. If the author is too passionate about a particular political movement, the work of fiction turns into a manifesto or a piece of propaganda. Fortunately, Morgan Hunt, the author of We the Peeps dodges that bullet. Intuition tells me that in her daily life she is leaning towards the left (don't ask me how I know it), she has no qualms about ridiculing the extremism of the phenomenon known as Social Justice Warriors.

If you you take wicked pleasure in trivializing and lampooning "human suffering" (aka First World Problems), this is the book for you! The novel features an ensemble cast of misfits from various walks of life, brought together by fate and united in a cause. Lovers of Sartre will instantly think of the set up of No Exit, where you have incompatible individuals trapped within one hell circle.

Like any good satirist, Hunt employs word play. The president's name is Peabody. (Peabrain is more like it!) A sensitive, ineffectual, sentimental, ethnically confused, borderline metrosexual, p-whipped (there comes the letter P again), by his philanthropic ex-fiancee Demetra, who rejects traditional family in favor of providing medical care to third world orphans.

The author resurrects many common questions that are on everyone's mind but cannot be raised in politically correct society. Does having an Algonquin great-grandmother allow you to claim Native American roots? Does a privileged Indian career woman have a right to speak on behalf of "women of color"? Can a man continue to serve as a Methodist minister even if he comes out of the closet? People massage their heritage and history to their advantage. The cover features a cute yellow baby chick, implying that in the world of social media, even puny, squeaky voices can make a lot of impact.

My only concern is that this clever book has a shelf life - like all political satires. The novel takes place in a near future, 20XX. The author makes references to political figures that are still alive and in power, like Putin. Some thinly-veiled political runners make cameo appearances, like a certain billionaire named Hrump (gee, I wonder who that is ...) Ten years from now these people could be ancient history. But that's the risk that all writers of political satire take. Their work is biting and catchy and relevant while the figures are alive and in the spotlight. The "good" news is that the problems outlined in the book are not likely to go away any time soon. Terrorism, school shootings, energy crisis are here to stay. Regardless of where you stand on the political scale, you will find We the Peeps poignant and witty.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Carousel - a comedia dell'arte fantasy - by Jennifer Renson

Morning, commies!
I am thrilled to host an award-winning YA fantasy author, Jennifer Renson. I read her fantasy novel Carousel in one gulp. 
After living in the countryside for years, Princio returns to his homeland, the tiny yet prosperous Kingdom of Lucca, upon the orders of his dying grandfather. Living alone in the annexed building next to the palace, Princio is discovered by the kingdom’s chief doll maker, Feletti, who purposely withholds his knowledge of Princio’s past in order to gain his trust and friendship. Princio believes Feletti to be a true friend until he meets Marian, a girl with a penchant for cooking and a natural curiosity, and their chance meeting in the kingdom’s carousel sets off a series of events with the potential to change everything. As Princio, Marian, and Feletti’s dark secrets begin to unfurl, their lives slowly come to light – as love hangs delicately in the balance...

My thoughts
Every fantasy realm has its roots in a particular ethnic tradition. Lord of the Rings is rooted in Norse mythology. Jennifer Renson draws her inspiration from the comedia dell'arte aesthetics. I have not seen many fantasy tales set in southern Europe, so I am delighted to a fantasy novella set in pseudo-Romanesque universe. You have Feletti, an enigmatic, pseudo-demonic doll maker/puppet master, and Marian, his creation. If you are a fan of The Nutcracker, you probably will compare Feletti to Drosselmeyer. The whole concept of a doll coming to life is archetypal and universal. (For a brief moment, I had a flashback to Ridley Scott's Bladerunner.) There is a touch of the Pygmalion myth, the creator falling in love with his own creation.

Masks are a running motif. Interestingly, it is a romantic hero who believes himself to be ugly and therefore hides his faced underneath the mask. In the western tradition, it is the female who suffers from the body dysmorphic disorder. Although, there are several timeless tales of a deformed male with a noble soul. I guess, the western world can accept a deformed hero - or one who perceives himself to be deformed - but for a woman, being anything less than doll-like is unacceptable.  Hence, the prevalence of BDD among western women.

There are references to various Christian holidays and Catholic practices. So while this is not a "Christian" or "inspirational" fantasy, it is a fantasy set in the context of Catholicism. The Pope and the Catholic church provide an esthetic backdrop. The tone is not evangelical in the least.

Overall, I adore how boldly the author flirts with the traditional fairy-tale archetypes, turning them topsy-turvy and rearranging them. The author's clean, innocent, forward "once upon a time" narrative makes the novella accessible for younger readers yet sophisticated enough for older readers. I would be delighted to see it as a graphic novel. I can only imagine what a gifted illustrator could do with all the rich imagery.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Into the Darkness of Daylight - an intelligent sci-fi gem by Lisa Gytri

Hello commies and lovers of sci-fi!
I am pleased to spotlight the author of the day, Lisa Gytri, a renaissance woman on so many levels: author, engineer, traveler and athlete. Today I am pleased to review her debut novel Into the Darkness of Daylight.

Jim Wells has always been haunted by telepathic messages from alien beings. When these beings attempt to come to Earth to harvest humans and process them into a special form of narcotics made from human emotions, Jim hijacks a ballistic missile to take them down. ​

After escaping into a network of caverns, Jim hides quietly away from humanity until he learns of another alien ship's impending arrival. On the Korean Peninsula, Jim will risk sparking a global war to thwart the imperialistic plans of his cosmic enemy.

My thoughts
There are so many novels on similar subjects, featuring aliens and caverns, written by far less skilled authors than Gytri. As a long-time co-editor of a speculative fiction e-zine, I have read my share of conspiracy flavored sci-fi of marginal quality that suggests that the author may have read some light fiction in the same genre but does not necessarily possess profound knowledge of science. Into the Darkness of Daylight showcases Gytri's multi-dimensional erudition. Her experience shines through in this eloquent, fast-paced masterpiece. An engineer and an avid traveler in real life, Gytri thinks like a scientist. Her diction is crisp, clear and poignant, visceral in certain places. Her genderless voice as a peculiar extraterrestrial quality. Her narrative moves swiftly across the globe. If you like the themes of 2001: Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you will appreciate Into the Darkness ofDaylight - a well-oiled machine (or space ship, or a missile) on so many levels.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chocolate candy with a bitter center - The Merry-Go-Round Man by John Rosenman

Greetings, commie!
A few months ago I posted an interview with John Rosenman, known for his sci-fi and fantasy novels. Today I am posting a review of his nostalgic novel The Merry-Go-Round Man.

Do you believe you can shape your future, determine your destiny? One spring day in 1954, three sixth grade boys make a bet: the one who can climb first to the top of a small green merry-go-round outside their school will be “Champ for life!” For the rest of his days he’ll be “on Easy Street!” So they engage in a “mad scramble . . . clambering over each other with murderous intent,” and eventually one of them reaches the summit and stands triumphant, lording it over the others. He is the merry-go-round man.
The Merry-Go-Round Man is a novel about three boys growing up in the so-called innocent days of the Eisenhower fifties. It’s about rites of passage, loss of innocence, sexual initiation, racism, and much more . Of the three boys, Johnny Roth is central. He possesses two transcendent gifts which are only beginning to emerge as the novel begins. One of them is the ability to box or fight, something he deeply fears. The other ability is artistic and mystical. He is a natural expressionistic painter of vast potential. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father, an Orthodox Jew, hates both of these pursuits, and his opposition tears Johnny apart.

Of the two other boys, Lee Esner grows up to be a gifted football player with what looks like a lucrative pro career ahead of him. He also has a flair for attracting beautiful girls. Is he the merry-go-round man? The third boy, Jimmy Wiggins, is black and from the ghetto. Attending an elite white school with Johnny and Lee, his naive love for a pretty white girl is destroyed by her cruel racism. Another rite of passage. Symbols such as a burning Buddhist monk make us ask whether anyone is really The Merry-Go-Man in life. 

My thoughts:
A merry-go-round is perceived as a symbol of innocence, of cloudless childhood, but in John Rosenman's novel The Merry-Go-Round Man, opening in 1950s Ohio, it becomes a symbol of competition, temptation and hidden menace. In 1950's America was on the cusp of two major movements: the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution. The three main characters - Jimmy, Johnny and Lee - all from different social circles, are products of their era. They are no strangers to the prejudices and misconceptions. They share enough universal boyish interests to stay friends, yet they had already had enough brushes with the outside world to start building invisible fortifications around themselves. I noticed that many reviewers pointed out Johnny as the most interesting character in the book, but I was particularly moved by the delicate and complicated plight of Jimmy, a black boy whose mother goes out of her way to send him to a white school. She wants to see her son succeed in the mainstream society, against all odds, but that does not prevent her from referring to him as "little nigger". I think it would be hypocritical of us to pretend that we are a "color-blind" society. We are not. And we certainly were not in 1950s. African American children who are hurled into a predominantly white environment, often find themselves ostracized by both sides. Even at the age of 12, Jimmy Wiggins already realizes his precarious social status. Same is true for Johnny, who is still being referred to as "kike". Now that's a word you don't hear much on the streets these days, but it doesn't mean that the sentiment of anti-semitism does not exist.

The author does a marvelous job of defying cliches, redefining the symbols, using them in new creative ways, and highlighting the difference between innocence and ignorance. These two concepts are often used interchangeably. Despite the seemingly idyllic setting, The Merry-Go-Round Man is not a typical piece of nostalgic Americana. It's like a chocolate candy in a pastel wrapper with a bitter center.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Unlikely alliances in H.L. Burke's fantasy novels

Greetings, comrades!
Today's guest of honor is H.L. Burke, a native of Oregon, a military wife and mother to two lovely daughters, and an indie writer of YA fantasy. The covers of her novels will certainly catch your eye. Today she joins us for a stimulating discussion about the nature of "geekdom" and working timeless universal questions into her fantasy fiction.

MJN: Tell me about your definition of "geek". You mention having an addictive personality and jumping from one fandom to another, yet the fandoms you become obsessed with are fairly prominent and mainstream. So you probably have many fellow fans who share your obsessions. I always thought that a true geek is someone who cares about a fandom that is totally obscure. 

HLB: To me that would be more a definition of “hipster” than “true geek.” I honestly find the term “true geek” to be problematic, like we're trying to deny people access to our special club because they aren't as special as we are. That's not what being a geek should be about. We should be welcoming to people who are just getting started on their fandom experience. We should be like, “Oh, you like this? Well, then you'd probably like THIS too!” and introduce them to perhaps the more obscure elements of fandom. Not “Oh, you're just a poser who only likes this stuff because it's now popular.”

I think the “true geek” idea comes from a desire to feel “special”. I even have been subject to it. When I first got into Lord of the Rings, it wasn't very mainstream. Sure, as Fantasy went, it was more well known, but pre-movies, it wasn't the sort of thing I could expect average people to have extensive knowledge of. I'd go online with my pitiful dial up connection and discuss it on forums with other fans who liked to analyze not just The Lord the Rings but the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. It was like this super secret club. Then 2001 rolls around and suddenly our little forum was flooded with a bunch of users named “IheartOrlando” and who had no idea who Tom Bombadil was. I admit, for a bit, I was annoyed. The TRUE FANS read the books … but you know what? In a few years, those who weren't “true fans” moved on to change their focus from Legolas to Will Turner, and it didn't really matter … and a lot of the fan girls who just read the books because “Omgosh, Orlando is hot!” realized that the books were awesome and they dove deeper into the lore and became “true fans.”

I like Simon Pegg's definition. Being a Geek means not having to “play it cool,” being honestly passionate about what you like. Like a casual fan might like Star Wars, but a geek will be passionate about Star Wars, learning the lore, having opinions on which bits of the expanded universe should be canon, about who directs future movies … being a geek isn't about which things get a “stamp of approval” by some “fandom council in the sky.” It's about loving something enough that you aren't afraid what others think.

MJN: Self-publishing has come a long way in the past decade. More and more authors with a track record in traditional or third-party publishing embrace that model. Some of the covers I have seen on self-published novels are catchier, slicker and more professional than those put together by in-house designers. Tell me about the cover artist you have used. Do you think it's important for the cover artist to have read the novel? 

HLB: It's cool if the cover designer can read the book first, but I don't think it is necessary. I actually contracted the cover for Call of the Waters before the book was even finished. I knew I wanted an image of the main character floating in water. I knew what the main character looked like. I gave those specifications to the artist, and she painted an image. 

When I first started out, I had no money for publishing. I had to do everything myself or find a way to trade for it. So with my first release, Dragon's Curse, I was scribbling concepts for covers, trying to figure out how to make them work, and I posted them on my personal Facebook page. A friend from my Lord of the Rings forum days (I have a lot of friends I only know online because we used to talk Tolkien together) said, “That's a cool concept. I have been working on my graphic design skills. Can I try and make something with it?”

I had no idea she even had an interest in graphic design, but she took my image and made something a lot more professional looking. She gave me the first few covers free, then eventually we agreed on a pricing system, and she's been doing my covers ever since. She doesn't have a website set up yet, and I believe I'm her only client, but her name is Jennifer White, and I can get people her email address. She doesn't do artwork, though, so if I need something like a painting, I've contracted that out to a couple of artists I've met online. I've used Mythspinner Studios a few times. Jennefer (with an e) Rogers does good work and is very quick and professional.

MJN: I am entranced by the cover for Beggar Magic. It awakens the dichotomy of the fantasy world you created, and also mirrors the dichotomy of the world we live in now. It's on my to-read list. The plot summary echoes of The Prince and the Pauper, a story of unlikely friendship between two innocents from opposing social circles. Do you think that such unlikely friendships happen in real life? Or is it wishful thinking to believe that people from different worlds can overcome the socioeconomic divide?

HLB: I can only speak from my own experience, but if you treat everyone with respect, you can end up being friends with just about anyone. Kids don't have the baggage adults have. They're generally more trusting, not worrying about things that might hold adults back from talking to strangers. They'll just run up to anyone who appears to be roughly their age and ask if they want to play, so it is more likely to happen between kids. In Beggar Magic the two halves of the society have sequestered themselves to the point where the kids don't interact, and Leilani stumbling upon Zebedy lost in the forest is sort of an intervention of fate. The two girls probably never would've met if both weren't in the habit of wandering on their own. When they do meet, though, Zebedy doesn't even see their social differences as a problem. They both love the Strains (the magical system of their world). They're both about the same age. Of course they'll be friends in her mind. With kids that's really all it takes. I think that's reflective of how young people are in the real world. Some people manage to bring that child like acceptance along with them into adulthood.

MJN: I'm a huge cat lady myself, so I was also intrigued by Thaddeus Whiskers, the story of a kitten who is spellbound to never become a grown cat. One would immediately think of Peter Pan, the boy who would "never grow up", but Thaddeus' plight is quite different. I am a persona non-grata in most "mommy groups", but I've heard some women express that desire that their children would stay babies forever. Those statements always disturbed me deeply. I didn't realize it was such a common fantasy. 

HLB: I think that's something a lot of moms say because it sounds “cute” but that they don't mean literally. Like, “You're so cute, I want to eat you up.” Hopefully they don't mean that literally either … and maybe because of the fear of time going too fast so you miss out on truly enjoying it.

With Thaddeus, the court wizard is always trying to “improve” upon him to make him an “even more perfect” pet for the princess who is honestly quite satisfied with Thaddeus as he is, which in turn leads to some unintended consequences which force Thaddeus to grow up mentally even though the poor thing is stuck as tiny for the entire book. It's more of a jab at parents/guardians who don't really listen to what kids want. There's a running theme that Princess Clarice just wants her kitten back but the grownups in her life keep trying to placate her with other things she doesn't really want. There's an innate frustration to being a child and being constantly misunderstood by well-meaning people, either because you can't quite express what you want or because Mommy insists she knows best … and sometimes Mommy does know best, but a child can relate to people making choices for them and feeling out of control of their own life … both Clarice and Thaddeus have a lot of “other people making choices for them” that end up being less than ideal.

MJN: The House of Mirrors has a distinct steampunk feel, even though it's set outside of the era one would associate with steampunk - late Victorian age. There is a similar sub-genre called gaslight. Is there a room for expansion within the steampunk/gaslight genre? Can you list any authors who have introduced new elements into the tradition to keep it dynamic? 

HLB: Nyssa is set in an alternate world. There's a little joke in there that the setting is called “New Taured” which refers to an incident some people use to argue that there are parallel worlds/dimensions that sometimes cross into ours (if you Google “Taured” you'll get the whole story. It's kind of cool), so the time frame is vague and the technology has a lot of anachronisms. I'm a terrible rebel, though, and I often write a book and then cram it into a genre/subgenre when it comes time for marketing. It's one reason I stay away from more formulaic genres, because I know I wouldn't be able to stop myself from breaking all the rules (I'm the reason we can't have nice things.).

To me, every genre should have room for expansion, otherwise it will be boring. One book that messes with expectations a bit is Dream Eater's Carnival by Leslie Anderson and David T. Allen. It's vaguely Steampunk, but there is stuff about soul stealing, alchemy, and other interesting elements … then there is Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders (author Richard Preston, Jr.) which places Steampunk tech and characters in a post-apocalyptic US (with aliens).