Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

I’m reading Gordon Corrigan’s history of the Hundred Years’ War, A Great and Glorious Adventure. I enjoyed his history of the battle of Waterloo and this book is more of the same–lots of historical details, plenty of witty footnotes, (this being the best) and a gleefully pro-English bias.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the book’s cover:

AGAGA.jpg

From a design perspective, it’s perfectly fine. I might have gone for an older-looking font for the title and author’s name, but that’s not a big deal.

But let’s look closer at that painting on the cover:

1024px-Steuben_-_Bataille_de_Poitiers

According to Wikipedia, this is a painting by Charles de Steuben, entitled Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732. (“The Battle of Poitiers in October 732.”) It depicts the victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.

This is a fascinating battle, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Hundred Years’ War, which didn’t start until May of 1337. So what’s going on here?

Well, there was also a Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years’ War. In fact, this is the more famous Battle of Poitiers, and the Franks vs. Umayyads one is more commonly known as the Battle of Tours. I’ve written about this confusion before.

I’m thinking what happened here is that somebody searched for an image for “Battle of Poitiers,” found this, and was impressed by how sharp it looks. I can’t blame them; how were they to know there were two Battles of Poitiers?

fireMy Father’s Fire is a well-constructed and clever mystery novelette about a man uncovering dark secrets from his family’s past. If you’re already familiar with Phillip McCollum, all I need to say is that this is a classic example of his work: a fast-paced story which packs a lot of developed characters and plot into a fun and readable package. Despite the short length, there’s plenty of atmosphere, backstory, and conflict here.

If you’re new to McCollum’s work, this is the perfect introduction to his style. Check it out, and I’ll wager you’ll want to pick up his collection of 52 short stories as soon as you finish.

I was just thinking the other day about how much fun these kinds of “bite-sized” tales–what Mark Paxson calls “long short stories”–are, both for readers and writers. For readers, you can gobble them up in a single reading session. And for writers, you get the pleasure of telling a tale and seeing readers’ reactions without having to toil with little or no feedback for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

I like writing reviews. When I was a kid and my parents would take me to the movies, what I enjoyed most (besides the popcorn) was talking about the parts we liked and didn’t like afterwards.  What’s the point of watching a film, or reading a book, or any other sort of story, if not to think about it afterward?

Ever since I’ve been blogging, my reviews of thing are consistently what get the most views and generate the most discussion. I recently read an article that indicates my experience is atypical, which surprised me. (Upon reflection, I think the reason is that my other main topic was politics, and given the choice between a review and political post, most readers choose the former.)

Writing reviews is fun for me. Show me a work of fiction, and odds are I’ll review it, for no reason other than my own amusement.

That said, not every review makes an equal impact. Does J.J. Abrams lie awake at night thinking, “Berthold Gambrel didn’t like my film! How can I do better next time?” I kind of doubt it.

Gradually, (and I’m rather embarrassed at how long this took) I’ve come to realize that instead of reviewing things that millions of people already have opinions about, my time is better spent reviewing things few have even heard of.

When I review a blockbuster film, I struggle to say something that someone else hasn’t already said. Even if I succeed, it’s usually a point few people agree with or care about. But when I review an indie book, I’m one of the only ones talking about it, and so what I’m saying is instantly more interesting to readers, simply by virtue of being new.

Another aspect is that reviewing lesser-known works forces me to be a better reviewer. When I review a new indie book, I’m exploring uncharted territory. There’s no consensus for me to argue or agree with. This is quite exciting; because it forces me to operate without preconceived notions and evaluate the story as a story, without the baggage of hype and marketing and online buzz weighing me down. I think this is probably similar to the reason driving enthusiasts prefer manual transmission over automatic: there’s less getting between you and the exercise of your skill.

Given all this, it baffles me that more people don’t review indie books. I realize I’m courting disaster by saying this, because if more people did, it would remove some of the fun I get out of it. But I’m prepared to take that chance, in the interest of getting more people talking about my favorite books.

Devil and WolfHow to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I could tell you that it deals with questions like whether humans are innately good or evil, what it means to have a soul, and that it deconstructs and reimagines many classic aspects of mythology and religion.

But that makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff. Like Paradise Lost or something; one of those great works of classic literature that hardly anybody reads because it’s so intimidatingly hard to understand. The Devil and the Wolf isn’t like that. It’s a lighthearted romp—a divine comedy, one might say. Heaven and its angels and Hell and its demons have large roles to play in the story. Besides Mephistopheles, the title devil, Belial, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Lilith and other classic hellish figures appear in the story, as do angels like Gabriel, Raphael and so on. 

There are humans in the story as well, including a team of aspiring young paranormal researchers, and a truly unpleasant couple, one-half of which is the resentful employee of Mephistopheles, though despite her hatred for her boss, she doesn’t realize he’s actually an ancient prince of hell.

And then there is the other title character: JR Wolfe, a wolf transformed into a human by the powerful magic of the devil, as part of his plan to put an end to a millennia-old test devised by the forces of Heaven and Hell to evaluate human souls. This test is part of a larger cosmology that Pastore has constructed, and which I absolutely loved. It reminds me of the religions and spiritual hierarchies and planes of existence as imagined in RPGs—yes, even including the legendary Planescape: Torment.

How does Pastore manage to make a plot work with such a disparate blend of characters? Marvelously. I would never have imagined it could be done, and yet he has done it, in a manner that was incredibly organic and natural—so smooth in fact that I didn’t even see the gears of the plot moving towards the climax until it had almost arrived.

The characters are an absolute delight, from the hilarious banter between JR and Mephistopheles, to the political machinations of Hell’s denizens, to the stuffy formality of the angels. The dialogues are full of clever insults and comebacks, and JR’s unrelenting destructiveness is unfailingly hilarious.

But beyond that, there is some real meat to this story—questions of morality, humanity, and mortality are all in play here, but in a way that’s entertaining and fun to read. That’s why I wouldn’t describe it as a philosophical novel, even though it undoubtedly is. It would give you the wrong idea.

In telling someone about this book, I called it The Master and Margarita meets A Confederacy of Dunces. The parallels aren’t exact, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re not familiar with those titles, know that both are (a) extremely weird and (b) widely considered to be some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.

It’s probably not a coincidence that great things are also a bit strange. We don’t normally think of “strange” or “weird” as compliments. But then again, it’s hard to imagine praising something by saying “It’s so normal,” either. 

The Devil and the Wolf is such a strange, outlandish comic fantasy, and yet every character feels so real. They all have discernible goals, motivations, and beliefs, which makes the whole world Pastore created seem immediate and alive. There might be an occasional line which falls flat, but as a whole, it all works together delightfully well. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that I would have liked to learn a bit more about the young paranormal investigators. They are very promising characters.

The usual caveat about typos that comes with most indie books (including my own) applies here, although given its length, I was impressed by just how few there were.

How to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I still don’t know—this review doesn’t do it justice. All I know is, it’s weird, thought-provoking and a Hell (and Heaven) of a lot of fun.

A week or two ago, I saw a social media post from somebody (sadly I can’t find it now, otherwise I’d give credit) saying when they were a child, they thought the title was “Prince of Whales”, and they thought this made sense, because they had heard of the “Dolphin” of France, and assumed all royalty must command some form of sea life.

Then I thought about the post-apocalyptic video game Fallout 3, throughout which you hear the voice of a man named John Henry Eden, the acting President of the United States, giving patriotic speeches over the radio. At the end, it turns out Eden is just an advanced AI in a military bunker at Raven Rock.

Then I wondered how hard it would be for intelligence agencies (both in America and elsewhere) to build an AI that would comb social media searching for popular jokes and memes, and then re-post variants of them on a widely-seen account, carefully timed so as to distract people’s attention from real issues. 

“President John Henry Eden” from “Fallout 3”

The Machine Stops by E.M. ForsterThis story came to my attention thanks to my friend Noah’s review of it on Goodreads. The story is in the public domain, so I quickly looked it up.

“The Machine Stops” is about

Ah, you know what? No. I’m not going to say anything. Sorry, this isn’t a review. I can’t talk about any aspect of it without giving it away. Just go read it. Now. 

(more…)

41cwxxvN-bL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.

The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.

From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.

All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.

The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.

In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.

This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.

I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)

There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.

This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.