Saturday, June 25, 2016

Longshot Series - interview with Civil War / Irish history bestseller Keith R. Baker

Today's guest is Keith R. Baker, author of the sensational Longshot series, who achieved an impressive bestseller rank in the categories of Irish history and the American Civil War without the help of a big publisher. The hero of his series, Rob Finn, is an Irish Famine refuge with an remarkable marksmanship talent that makes him a very coveted man in a very precarious time.

MJN: The Potato Famine was a launching point for many Irish immigrants. The same tragedy that forced them to seek asylum in another country also opened up new opportunities for the select few who survived. It's very tempting to romanticize the Irish-American success story. What about the untold stories of failure? Was your protagonist's story typical or rather an exception to the rule? 

KB: As much as I try to remain true to the facts that I have uncovered during my decades of genealogical research, the greatest truth that comes forth in response to your question is that I often don't have sufficient detail to complete a life story to its ending, so some of it is imagined of necessity.  And, yes, the temptation to romanticize it always lurks at the keyboard when I write.  After all, I'd like to sell scads and scads of books, and the highly romanticized works of other authors seem to do well with the reading public.  Alas for my poor wife and family!  That is not who I am.  If anything, I tend to steer to what I perceive as the more real side of life–that which is laced with some misery, sorrow, suffering, pain and failure.  This is the stuff that the vast majority of humankind has experienced in the history of our species on this planet.  The true success stories are few when compared to the masses of lives that have passed through in anonymity, poverty, etc.  But that does not mean it is all sad.  Really heartfelt joy comes from those little things in life; especially in those moments when we love, appreciate, share and/or help other creatures we find in need.  That's my take on the experience called life, anyway.

MJN: The image of an Irish-American has evolved over the centuries. What kind of social gimmicks would an Irish person in mid-19th century resort to in order to him/herself an air of respectability in a society dominated by the Anglo-Dutch elite? 

KB: While the characters in the Longshot series don't use such things, the gimmicks you refer to were and are quite common.  The first of them would be to totally hide all traces of Irish patterns and accents of speech, followed by dressing in finery beyond the means of the wearer.  Then, since many Irish immigrants were physical laborers without the means of keeping themselves meticulously clean, they often exuded considerable body odors. Disguising these was not a matter of social politeness in those days as everybody had a bit of stink about them.  Life itself in those years had a stench to it that our modern culture in the US has sanitized away. So a person dousing themselves in some form of (especially cheap) colognes or perfumes or soaps to mask their natural aromas became known for "putting on airs".  (Most common in low-level political aspirants, labor organizers, etc.  I guess things haven't changed all that much.)

MJN: I am sure you are familiar with the Songs of the Irish Volunteer collection - an anthology of Civil War tunes reflecting the experience of the Irish soldiers who fought on both sides of the conflict. Is there a particular anthology you would recommend for your readers? 

KB: I rather assume that this link is to David Kincaid's excellent work: Songs of the Irish Union Soldier 1861-1865, is the one you have in mind.  The only thing lacking there, is that there are as many songs arising from the Irish troops engaged under the flag of the Confederacy in those same years.  The Irish soldier songs on both sides of the war were often based upon older songs and ballads from Ireland, and always had similar instrumentation and voicing to the tunes, melodies, beats, rhythyms and such from the Celtic home origins.  Among the better known Confederate songs that can be attributed to the Irish are Dixie, The Bonnie Blue Flag, and The Irish Brigade (actually a Union version and a CSA version of this last one).  I have no favorite anthology to recommend, but there are many CDs available online that have excellent and authentic collections performed on them.  Any that I have listened to work well to evoke the strong emotions or loneliness, sadness, glory and honor that the warriors of that war heard while soothing their souls from the fearsome environment surrounding them. If still available, the sound tracks from the movies, Gods and Generals and also Gettysburg, contain some wonderful renditions of the tunes from both sides.

MJN: There is often a certain naivete about highly gifted individuals. Sometimes they can fall prey to an unscrupulous individual with questionable motives. Gifted individuals often find themselves in a place where they cannot tell good from evil. 

KB: Oh dear!  So true!  To say more might be a spoiler for Longshot #3 and beyond!

MJN:  Let's talk about the covers in your series. The background remains the same, featuring a hole from a gunshot, but the foreground image changes subtly.

KB: You know, there's a bit of a story about that.  There always is when interviewing authors, no?  Hahahahahaha!  More seriously, Monica Haynes, owner of The Thatchery is the very gifted and talented designer of those two covers.  I had made (what I now think of as an amatuerish) suggestion regarding using the bullet-hole theme for the second book, and she turned it into the wonderful masterpiece that you now see.  Again, I won't spoil the third novel by revealing the title at this point, but I have NO idea what the cover will look like.  Okay ... spoiler alert ... the name Longshot will be part of the title, and thus part of the cover, on the next book.  Or so I think.  Just now.  But to be certain, we'd have to ask Monica, and she's not around here at the moment. In fact, she and I have never met face-to-face.

MJN: Clearly, your novel is very popular and very well-received. You would have no problem attracting a big publisher. Is there a reason you chose the independent route? 

KB: Two main reasons apply: First is my unbridled impatience with such things as committees and bureaucratic processes, (both of which I find traditional publishers to practice) coupled with my intense personal dislike of rejection.  My second reason being that I don't work well with others, having never mastered the art of getting along with the other children. None of these conditions are improved by my being in my seventh decade, so I could see no other way forward than the Indie route!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hellfire - a stempunk novel by Jeff Provine

Commies, today's guest is another Tirrgear Publishing author by the name Jeff Provine. He was kind enough to present me with a review copy of his roaring steampunk novel Hellfire.

Locomotive fireman, Nate Kemp, uncovers a conspiracy around the miraculous Newton’s Catalyst, a powder that makes fires burn hotter than they should—secretly releasing the fires of Hell. Now, more is beginning to slip through, and the Rail Agency tries to tuck him away in a mental institution. Nurse Ozzie Jacey helps him escape. They must warn the capital, Lake Providence, before Hell literally breaks loose.

My thoughts:
When something sounds too good to be true, chances are ... demonic forces are at work. Jeff Provine's novel with a very blunt and telling title Hellfire is an allegory for any "miracle product" that promises to solve all your problems, be it a drug that cures all ills (with a long list of potential side effects in fine print) or a new energy source.

I give Provine kudos for taking such a daring move and resurrecting a rather demoded vision of hell as a hot place filled with screams. Over the past few decades, authors and cinematographers have been leaning towards depicting hell as a cold, desolate place of emotional torment. But Provine's depiction of hell is straight out of Dante. I wonder if he partially drew his inspiration from the abandoned city of Centralia in Pennsylvania with underground coal fires burning for decades. I chuckled when I saw that Kemp's supervisor's last name was Jones. Of course! Jones was a very common Welsh name in Pennsylvania, one that a coal minor would associate with a supervisor. I also wonder if the state of Gloriana is named after a central figure in Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen". So many allusions reveal the author's erudition.

It's refreshing and endearing, like picking up a collector's item paperback with over-the-top cover art by Frank Frazetta. This is definitely not the anemic, gloomy, minimalist "artsy" speculative fiction. It's eloquent, loud, juicy in-your-face steampunk gem. I would love to see it as a graphic novel. The gorgeous cover will only whet your appetite for more.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jake for Mayor - a satire by Lou Aguilar - worthy of William Thackeray

Commies, it's election year! No way to get around it. So, prepare for a flurry of political satires to ease up the tension. Today's guest of honor is Lou Aguilar, the author of Jake for Mayor. Born a sultry Cuban, Aguilar is a radical conservative and a kindred spirit with a razor-sharp sense of humor and a grim view of humanity.
Ken Miller is having a bad run of luck. After torpedoing his career as a campaign manager, he drives through tiny Erie, Colorado, when a homeless beagle named Jake causes a series of mishaps that lands him in jail. Ken is granted bail on two conditions: that he not leave town before his trial in three weeks and—much to his chagrin—that he not let Jake out of his sight until then. Stuck in Erie as it prepares for a mayoral election, he’s drawn into the local politics by a waitress who vehemently opposes incumbent Charles Dunbar, the only candidate on the ticket. 

Unable to resist political adventure, Ken gets a brainstorm. If he can exploit the dog’s popularity among the townspeople and get them to elect Jake as a protest candidate, the publicity will put him back on top. But things don’t go exactly as planned. Ken warms to the dog, falls for the waitress, and employs her teenage son and his gang as campaign aides in a madcap battle with Mayor Dunbar … who has no intention of losing to a dog. 

My thoughts:
It's no secret that behind every egomaniac politician there is a cynical campaign manager, the snickering, finger-fumbling puppet master. In order to run a politician's campaign successfully, you have to have an incredibly thick skin and a low opinion of the human race. You have to view general audiences as superficial, fickle and gullible. You have to know which buttons to push. Meet Ken Miller, an unscrupulous cynic extraordinaire - at a tender age of thirty-two. There is no gimmick he will not use to advance his agenda - from his wholesome, non-threatening boyish good-looks, to adolescent children as "props", to a homeless beagle. Ken Miller is unabashedly candid about the irreverent nature of his motives. He zipper-down candor is refreshing and endearing.

The rule of thumb is, the more absurd and frightening the state of affairs - the more entertaining the satire. Lou Aguilar understands the formula. I will not hesitate to call him a 21st century Thackeray. An indie filmmaker in his other life, he produces a work of fiction that's cinematic in its delivery. Jake for Mayor will leave you with a profoundly gratifying, wanna-take-a-shower feeling.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Flame Eater - a slow-burning potboiler by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

I am thrilled to feature this marvelous independently published historical mystery by an established Australian (British-born) author Barbara Gaskell Denvil. The Flame Eater is set in late 15th century England, amidst aristocratic conspiracy, murder and plague.
Nicholas, now heir to the earldom, has no desire to marry his dead brother’s cast-off mistress. And Emeline has no desire to marry the brutal monster who murdered his brother, the man she loved and hoped to marry. 

This arranged marriage is a disaster, it would seem that it can’t get any worse. But it does. Fire rages through the castle and takes over the wedding night, and any hopes of reconciliation.
But not everything is as it seems. Murder and arson are destroying more than just one alliance, and the culprit is unknown.

But there are other matters to consider. It is 1484 and Richard III is England’s monarch. The king entrusts many of his lords with responsibilities in the service of their country, and Nicholas is charged with the undercover investigation into two desperately important situations, which involves travel to the south of England. 

Emeline joins with her younger sister and others of the household, determined to discover who is responsible for the disasters which have now entirely disrupted their lives. But the suspects are so many. It is therefore a group of eager but desperate women of various ages, characters and capabilities who attempt to solve the mystery. 

Meanwhile, Nicholas learns that he has a wife to admire and to adore. But is he a murderer? Is her mother? Her nurse? And will England’s political turmoil threaten their peace and cause even greater uncertainty? Life will never be the same. But perhaps that is just as well. 

My thoughts:
Some creatures have nine lives. They are not always cats. Sometimes they look convincingly human. Nicholas of Chatwyn, youngest son of a drunken earl, is one of such creatures. When we first meet him, he's a tenacious, sarcastic, self-deprecating prick with a mysterious gash across his face. To give you some perspective, in 15th century, even something as minor as an ingrown toe nail could lead to gangrene, sepsis and death. On the night of his wedding, he sustains extensive burns in a castle fire, and he makes many characteristic jokes about dying and leaving his reluctant bride Emeline a widow. Against all odds, he recovers - miraculously, without as much as a blister. More than that, he manages to persuade Emeline that she should give the idea of carnal pleasures a chance, even though she was still pining for his deceased brother Peter, her original fiance. Later, when plague rips through England, he survives the disease in a milder form, while people young and old are dropping dead around him. The reader unwittingly wonders: is this man even human? Is there something in his DNA that makes him so persuasive and resilient?

I also wanted to comment on the character of his wife Emeline. One reviewer labeled her as "whiny and clingy". There seems to be a requirement that female characters in modern historical fiction should be these men-eating Amazons. Every other historical novel I pick up references a "fiercely independent" heroine in the blurb. So I am very thankful to the author for not paying homage to those trends. It's true that Emeline Wrotham is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but her initial passivity and her subsequent attachment to her husband are side effects of what a modern psychologist would call "learned helplessness". That phenomenon refers to when a victim realizes that rolling with the punches burns fewer calories than resistance and self-advocacy. After all, Emeline had been bullied by her parents since infancy. You cannot expect "fierce independence" from a 15th century woman who was raised as a future breeding sow. Her own mother tells her that a good wife can expect her husband to stop sexual advances after she produces the two mandatory sons. That's the lot Emeline resigns herself to when she marries Nicholas. But her future holds so much more in store for her - adventure, danger and passion beyond her wildest imagination.

I must say, this novel is not a page-turner. No. You don't want to keep flipping the pages to skip onto the next steamy sex scene or a bloody battle scene. On the contrary, you want to savor every meticulously crafted sentence. When it comes to writing mystery, so many authors sacrifice the literary component for the sake of advancing the plot. It's not that those authors are not capable of crafting gorgeous prose. But very often, they opt not to showcase their refined literary skill because they don't expect their audiences to appreciate that aspect of their craft. Fortunately, Barbara Gaskell Denvil is not one of those authors who cuts corners. Her opus weighs in at 400+ pages, and there is not a gram of flab.

If you are a looking for a truly gorgeous, multi-layered novel to savor, The Flame Eater is the book for you!