They say not to judge a book by its cover. In general, this is probably good advice. But when the author of the book is also a gifted painter who creates his own covers, I believe it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. For in this case, the cover is not just some bit of packaging a publisher slapped on the text; it is the product of the same imagination that created the world of the story.

Look at this cover! What does it evoke to you? A fantastic rock formation, perhaps? I encourage you to think for a moment about this before you read on.

It is a “Martian castle,” which is a term for the abandoned grain elevators of a terraformed Mars in the distant future Litka imagines. Most interesting to me is Litka’s description, where he says he envisions his futuristic Mars as being like Nebraska. I love this idea. 

Don’t you feel a little as if you’re gazing at it across some open plain, where the chilly breeze whips against you and the weak light of the sun–paler than on our own planet–throws blue shadows down across the barren desolation? You can almost hear the echoing horn of the train at the elevator’s base as it rolls along.

At least, I can. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up in a rural midwestern town where the biggest landmark was a grain elevator with a railway beside it. The Mars of this book is a Mars that I can easily relate to.

On to the text itself: the book’s protagonist, Gy Mons, has awakened after some 700 years of stasis in a Martian facility. While he and his wife, Keiree Tulla, had slumbered in their pods, a plague devastated the solar system, more or less wiping out colonies on Earth and the Jovian moons.

Gy soon learns that Keiree’s pod was stored elsewhere, and so she was not awakened along with his group. So he–and his genetically modified silka cat, Molly–set off to find her, at every step discovering how Mars has changed while he was in stasis.

There’s a fascinating temporal parallax that occurs for Gy as he searches his and Keiree’s old neighborhoods on Mars. For him, it feels as though it’s only been a few weeks since he’s been in these places, though in fact centuries have elapsed. If you’ve ever come back to your old hometown after being away for years, imagine that, only multiplied by 700.

This book is, obviously from the setting, sci-fi. And yet, I’d say it’s really what is often called “literary fiction.” As I read it, I kept thinking of Mark Paxson’s novella The Irrepairable Past, which is not at all sci-fi, but which also deals with someone reflecting on bittersweet memories. Both books are about something deep in the human psyche, and Keiree feels every bit as emotionally relevant and powerful as if it were set on present-day Earth.

This is why I dislike the distinction between literary and genre fiction. We write books to make people feel a certain way. Whether they are set in the distant past, the present-day, or an imagined future, is secondary to their true purpose of evoking a feeling in the reader. And Keiree does evoke many feelings. So what if these characters are living on Mars, many centuries from now? They are still people, and Litka treats them as such.

Well, except of course Molly, who is a cat. A genetically-modified one, but in ways that if anything only accentuate her fundamental “cat-ness.” Anyone who ever owned a cat will know instantly what I mean.

Keiree is a wonderful novella, and I recommend it highly. Everyone, whether they like sci-fi or not, should go visit Litka’s gorgeous vision of Mars.

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.

“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”

Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.

As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.

This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.

Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.

The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.

Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.

Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual. 

The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.

Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.

There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.

This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.

Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.

And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.

I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.

I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.

Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.

And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.

The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.

I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.

There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.

The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.

Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.

My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.

Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.

This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book. 

One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.

And now, a word about zombies. 

I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed. 

Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.

Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.

It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.

Okay, I cheated a little on my plan to broaden my reading horizons this month. This is a science fiction book, which is very much my standard fare. But it’s also a romance; trust me! And it’s something of a milestone because it’s the first book I’ve ever bought because of an ad. For years I’ve seen a link to it on the Amazon page for one of my books. So when I needed to find another romance book, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m glad I did.

The setting is Union Station, a sort of hub space station where races from all across the universe meet. (I kept picturing the Citadel presidium from the Mass Effect series.) The station is run by super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings known as the Stryx, who monitor everything and generally keep order.

The Stryx also run a dating service, which purports to be able to find the perfect match for someone due to the telepathic abilities of the intelligence. Kelly Frank, the EarthCent ambassador, who receives a gift subscription to the Stryx’s matchmaking service.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she hopes–Kelly ends up having a series of bad dates, some of which lead to bizarre adventures, but none of which result in her finding a good partner.

Much the same story holds for Joe McAllister, a former mercenary spacer turned junk dealer who has also decided to take advantage of the dating service. He too has quite a range of experiences–but he just can’t seem to find that special someone.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s still an enjoyable ride, thanks largely to Foner’s first-rate world-building. Kelly and Joe’s bad dates show us glimpses of the wider universe–and what a rich universe it is, populated by all kinds of interesting characters. There’s a royal house in need of a champion, a criminal kidnapping ring, and robot trying to pass itself off as human. Then there are the subplots involving cheating at competitive gaming, a couple of flower girls profiting off of the dating scene, and a bazaar teeming with counterfeit goods.

All of it feels so organic and interesting–not to mention really funny. It’s a lighthearted book, and each vignette ends on an amusing note. There’s plenty of conflict, but of the purely PG-rated variety. There’s nothing too dark here; it’s a romp.

Sci-fi fans should absolutely check this book out. Even if you’re not into romance, don’t worry–there’s a lot more going on here. I have only one complaint about this book, which is that the last chapter felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to see it come to a more leisurely conclusion. But hey, if your biggest complaint is that the ride ended too soon, you know it’s good.

Admittedly, I’m late to the party on this one. This book has over a thousand reviews, so it’s fairly well known, as such an enjoyable book deserves to be. Perhaps it’s proving me wrong about ads after all.

What I like best about Geoffrey Cooper’s thrillers are how they provide a window into the politics of research institutions. I’ve noted this about his earlier Brad and Karen novels, Nondisclosure and Forever, and if you enjoyed those novels as much as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Bad Medicine is more of the same.

Brad is requested–more like ordered–by the university president to chair a tenure committee at a medical research Institute in Maine. There are two candidates up for tenure: one is Mark Heller, a superstar researcher who appears to have made huge strides in cancer research, the other is Carolyn Gelman, whose work, while strong, lags behind her colleague and is unpopular with the faculty to boot.

The politics of tenure committees are bad enough, but soon, Brad finds evidence that something far more serious is going on: someone is sabotaging Gelman’s research. Beginning with the destruction of test drugs and escalating to far more serious crimes, Brad and Karen once again are drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

As usual, the pace is fast and the twists are numerous, but there are still moments for the characters to stop and catch their breath, and to sample some delicious New England cuisine, the descriptions of which are highly enjoyable.

The core of the book is the relationship between Brad and Karen, which ends up being tested in a surprising way. I liked the way this was handled, too–it makes sense that what happens would put some stress on them, but it doesn’t create needless drama or tension. Sometimes authors go too far in creating fissures in a relationship, in a way that feels forced. But that didn’t happen here.

If you enjoyed the other Brad and Karen books, you’re going to like this one. Besides being a good thriller, it’s another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain at the highest levels of medical research.  As soon as I finished it, I found myself hoping to read another one soon.

[Note: this review is based on an ARC. Bad Medicine releases today, February 17, 2021.]

I love poetry–especially rhyming, metrical poetry. I’ve learned over time to appreciate blank verse and the like, but in my heart, I’m always going to be a sucker for a good old rhyming couplet. To illustrate: while most people would probably say T.S. Eliot’s greatest work is The Waste Land, give me Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats any day.

That’s why it was such a delight to read this amusing collection of poems, about the mis-adventures of the author’s dog, Ani. All the poems are light, bubbly and amusing, and sure to make any dog lover smile as they read Ani’s antics with tennis balls, vacuum cleaners and–the pup’s ultimate nemesis–baths.

Ani’s human, Sue Vincent, has a great knack for sparkling, crisp verse and a delightful wit. In a few poems based off of Shakespeare’s works, she does a fine job in the style of the Bard. And most of all, she has a wonderfully endearing love for her dog, and one that Ani clearly reciprocates as only canines can.

Doggerel is a charming book that anyone who loves poetry and/or dogs is sure to enjoy. It’s also illustrated with pictures of the four-legged protagonist, who looks like every bit the lovable scamp portrayed in the poems.

(P.S. I am very grateful to my friend A.C. Flory for bringing this author’s work to my attention.)

This is a Regency romance. Regency romance is a super-popular genre, which is why I made it my business to find a lesser-known indie Regency romance with only a few reviews. Because that’s how we do things here at Ruined Chapel.

To be clear, this book is more in the Regency Historical sub-category, in that the characters use many modern expressions and tend to behave more in accordance with present-day attitudes, without much care for the mores of the actual Regency period.

In other words, this book has sex scenes. Don’t go in expecting Jane Austen. It’s raunchy and fast-paced. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a Regency sex comedy. 

And that’s not all. Penelope, the impulsive, stubborn heroine, moonlights as a highwayman when she’s not flirting with Lord Westfield, Duke of Burwick. There’s a subplot with smugglers and kidnappers that culminates in a violent showdown.

The book is fast-paced. Sometimes, it was so fast-paced I found It difficult to keep track of all the characters were and their motivations. It’s probably a good idea to keep notes on characters as they are introduced. Also, it has a trope that’s common in romance novels: two characters who are obviously going to end up together refusing to just admit they’re in love for no particular reason. This drives me nuts; but it’s so frequently used I guess romance readers don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to marry somebody whose attitude towards me seemed to vary by the hour, but hey; that’s just me. 

Despite this criticism, the book is enjoyable. I think I’m right in saying the author doesn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously; hence the “funny” in the subtitle. There are some over-the-top scenes of bawdy, farcical humor that are quite enjoyable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s still an entertaining tale with a bit of naughtiness to it.

On a technical note: there are a few typos throughout the book. It didn’t really bother me that much, but some readers are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

And it has to be said: I’m not normally one to read Regency romances. I’m nowhere near the target market for this book. And even I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.  Regency romance fans who like their tales to err on the silly side are sure to find it a treat.

I have to start this review with some context: I started reading this book shortly after doing some beta reading for a friend of mine. The book I was beta reading was an extremely dark, harrowing story about terrorism.  While it’s a great story, it was nice to be able to turn from that world (not to mention real life news) into this book, which is a sweet, uplifting romance.

Not that there aren’t serious moments in Second Chance Romance. The female lead, Melanie Harper, has a major tragedy in her past. Trying to forget it, she’s immersed herself in her work as a divorce attorney in Washington D.C., but has come to the small town of Sweet Gum, Virginia to convince her Aunt Phoebe to abandon her little diner and move to D.C.

While there, Melanie has a car accident and is rescued by Jackson Daughtry, a single father raising his young daughter, Rebecca, after his wife left him.

After Melanie recovers from her accident, Phoebe suffers a stroke, rendering her unable to run her business, and forcing Melanie and Jackson to work together to keep the diner running. At first, the big-city lawyer and the small-town paramedic clash, but soon–it’s a romance, after all–they begin to develop feelings for each other.

Not that it’s smooth sailing even then. Jackson and Melanie still disagree over her plan to close the diner and move her aunt to D.C. And to make matters even more difficult, Jackson’s ex-wife shows up again.

I should mention that this is a Love Inspired book, which is an imprint that publishes Christian fiction. So there are a few references to characters praying and facing struggles with their faith throughout the book. It never comes across as strident or preachy, however; and largely seemed right for the characters.

All in all, it’s a very sweet story. There are no big surprises or shocking twists, and there shouldn’t be in a book like this. It’s a feel-good book. And while it’s not the sort of thing I often read, it’s quite enjoyable. There is a place in every art form for both the Rockwell-esque and the Goya-esque. Though my own tastes skew towards the latter, I can still respect the former. 

This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to enjoy a light and uplifting romance in a pleasant small-town atmosphere.

Jane Got a Gun premiered on January 29, 2016. I had been looking forward to it since I learned of its existence, and with the film finally, finally hitting the big screen, of course I had to see it on opening day. It was a bright, unseasonably warm day for winter in Ohio, and I went to the nearby AMC for an afternoon show in a nearly-deserted theater.

I enjoyed the film from the start. It was not just good, it was surprisingly good. Then, at a certain point, about halfway through the film, the drama reached a critical point, and I can distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, no–I certainly hope they’re not going to…”

But hold up a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself, diving right in to the memories and not putting things in the right order. Like the film’s heroine Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) says at one point, “It’s hard to remember how things seemed… when you know how they actually turned out.”

Jane silhouette

***

The behind-the-scenes story of Jane Got a Gun begins in 2012, with a script by Brian Duffield, to be distributed by Relativity Media, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Natalie Portman. Michael Fassbender was cast in the role of Dan Frost, Jane’s former fiancé. However, Fassbender soon left the part, and was replaced by Joel Edgerton, who had originally been cast as the villain, John Bishop. Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were both briefly on board, before finally Ewan McGregor was cast as Bishop. In the middle of all this, Ramsay left the production less than amicably, causing more turmoil that was resolved in part thanks to the timely intercession of lawyer David Boies.

Ramsay was replaced by Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor, Edgerton and screenwriter Anthony Tambakis then re-wrote Duffield’s script, and filming finally took place in 2013. The filming itself seems to have gone smoothly–in the words of Edgerton, “We’re winning out there.”

Relativity Media had initially scheduled the film for a February 2015 release. But it was delayed, and Relativity filed for bankruptcy in mid-2015. Fortunately, there was another studio that had agreed to distribute the film, and the rights to Jane Got a Gun were released from Relativity and secured by the Weinstein Company, which scheduled the film for distribution.

The Paris premiere was scheduled for November 15, 2015, but was canceled due to the November 13 terrorist attacks. The film finally premiered in Germany in late December 2015, and in France and the United States in January 2016.

Of course, I can’t talk about a Weinstein Company film without also talking about the infamous film producer, who was then about a year away from being publicly disgraced. One of the many unsavory aspects of Harvey Weinstein’s personality that came to light after his downfall was that he would occasionally sabotage his own company’s films. I have no idea if anything like that happened with Jane Got a Gun, but the decision not to screen the film for critics can’t have helped its chances, and undoubtedly contributed to its poor showing at the box office.

It was a film dogged at every step by negativity, with only cursory promotional efforts, in a relatively unpopular genre, and hamstrung by a misleading title that makes it sound more like a fast-paced action picture than what it really is.

And after all that, it was gone as soon as it had come. It was only in theaters for about three weeks and grossed about $3 million against a $25 million budget.

As anyone who followed my blog at the time knows, I loved the movie. I wrote a glowing review. Two glowing reviews, actually, because I wrote about it again in more detail when it came out on home media. And owing, I suspect, to the scarcity of other reviews, these were some of my most-viewed posts ever.

Which speaks to the fact that a major reason it wasn’t more successful is that not many movie-goers ever knew it existed. And I’d argue that the reasons not many movie-goers knew it existed can tell us a lot about the movie business, the entertainment industry as a whole, and American culture generally.

That sounds like quite a leap, I know. (Or, as Dan Frost would say, a “very big jump, my friend.”) To begin with, let’s talk about why Jane Got a Gun is significant to me.

***

Jane
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman is probably my favorite actress, and part of the reason for that, as I’ve discussed before, is her willingness to experiment. She doesn’t let herself be typecast, but is willing to play all sorts of different roles in different kinds of movies. I respect this risk-taking. Portman films aren’t always good, but they are almost always interesting.

I also like movies that take place in remote, bleak desert settings, and the New Mexico landscapes of Jane Got a Gun are just gorgeous to my eye. While I could do without the washed-out lens filter, the sweeping vistas and extraordinary rock formations make the setting instantly compelling.

I went into Jane Got a Gun hoping to see Natalie Portman in a good old-fashioned western adventure, and as a bonus, see the always-entertaining Ewan McGregor as a villain I loved to hate. And I got all that–but the movie surprised me at the same time, even while delivering on all fronts. How is that possible?

Time for one of my Socratic movie quizzes: what’s Jane Got a Gun about?

Okay, since many of you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the cliffs-notes summary answer. It’s not the real answer, of course, but you know what I’m like. And anyway, a little plot synopsis will be handy to have as you read this.

Jane Got a Gun is about Jane Ballard, a woman who was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, escaped with the help of a man whom she married and built a new life with, only to find herself once again pursued by the gang, and forced to seek help from her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, whom she had until recently believed died in the Civil War.

Dan on Ridge
Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) gazes forlornly down from a ridge.

Ah, Dan Frost. He’s as good a place as any to start with where this movie surprised me. Previously, I knew Joel Edgerton as young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, where he has about two minutes of screen time and does nothing but stand around and hold a dirty rag.

After you watch Jane Got a Gun, it’s impossible to watch the scenes with Owen in Attack of the Clones the same way. In the scene from Star Wars, Portman and Edgerton are both unremarkable, standing vacantly with no lines or “stage business” to do. In Jane Got a Gun, every scene between the two is filled with tension–Edgerton can convey so much emotion with simply an expression, or a grunt, or a small gesture. And as Edgerton said of his co-star’s talents, “We’ve actually coined the phrase ‘The Portman’ to describe how she can say a line without saying a word, just with a look.”

This illustrates one way in which Jane Got a Gun runs contrary to modern sensibilities. Characters–especially the good characters–do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but for the most part behave with reserve and restraint. We only see Jane and Dan kiss in flashbacks–circumstances dictate they must keep their feelings controlled, and the few glimpses we see of their emotions bubbling close to the surface are moments of intense drama. Even as they prepare to fight for their lives, the couple is reminded constantly of their past.

One good example of this is the transition from Jane’s memory of a carefree afternoon with her fiancé back in Missouri to the grim present, as the sweaty, tired figure of her former lover takes a break from digging a defensive trench to check the vast desolation for any sign of the Bishop gang. Without a word being spoken, Portman’s face and the soundtrack convey the bittersweetness of remembering happier times.

Jane and Dan
Jane and Dan, in a flashback

***

I’ve lent my copy of Jane Got a Gun to a great many friends, at first just out of a sense of wanting to share something I enjoyed, and over time out of an interest in the different reactions they would have to it. Some of them have loved it as much as I do. Others thought it was just middling, still others have called it boring and bad.  One friend told me he thought it was dull, but that perhaps that was an intentional choice, to capture the slower pace of life in the 1870s. Another friend of mine, who generally hates any movie made after 1965, complained about the lens filter but said his wife called the character of Jane Ballard “just about perfect.”

I’ve seen the movie enough times that it gallops by, but at the same time I guess I can understand how some would find it slow… sort of. Well, maybe. No, not really.

Here’s the thing: if you’re used to loud, fast, big, action-packed spectacles of movies, then I guess this would seem slow. And yeah, the title does imply that’s what this film is going to be. A pulse-pounding Wild West shoot-’em-up with a female gunslinger, kind of like the 2006 film Bandidas. Maybe that’s the kind of movie Duffield’s script originally called for. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie. I like Bandidas.

But Jane Got a Gun isn’t that kind of movie. It’s mostly quiet, punctuated by a few moments of intense action. There are no over-the-top special effects or stunt-work. Because it’s not about the action scenes; not really. That’s why the title is so misleading. To say nothing of some of the posters…

(If you’ve ever wondered if people who make movie posters have to watch the movie beforehand, the answer is pretty clearly “no.”)

Jane Got a Gun is not about guns, even though there are guns in it. It’s not about Jane avenging the wrong that was done to her, although that does happen. It’s not about a frontierswoman proving herself just as adept a sharpshooter as the men, although that also happens.

Jane Got a Gun is actually about listening to other people.

***

I think 2016 will be remembered as a very significant year in history. I mean, every year is significant to a historian, since they are all part of a linked causal chain of events, but 2016 is going to be one of those dates that everyone will know, like 1776, 1865, 1939, and 1968.

2016 was the year when the American political system and the unending noise machine of modern communication combined to produce systemic shocks right to the heart of our centuries-old system of government. In 2016, all the fissures and divides across the nation were laid bare, and the repercussions are still being felt, and will be for decades; perhaps centuries to come.

2016 was the year that people shouting at each other through mass media finally, irrevocably, unforgettably, changed the landscape of American politics.

What does this have to do with Jane Got a Gun?

You know how sometimes you’ll hear about how a movie perfectly evokes the “mood” of a certain time? What pretentious critics, like me, call the “zeitgeist?” For example, how Taxi Driver supposedly captured the rebellious alienation of the 1970s.

Jane Got a Gun does the opposite of that. Jane Got a Gun is like if you captured the essential spirit of 2016, and then made something that was in every way the antithesis of it.

Jane and Dan’s relationship changes when they stop arguing and start listening. Dan’s relationship with Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond, changes when he stops making assumptions and listens to what Jane says about him. Even at the climax of the film, when Jane finally confronts John Bishop, she waits to hear what he says before bringing him to justice–and is rewarded for doing so.

It’s a quiet, old-fashioned movie, about the importance of understanding and reconciling with other people. There are villains, yes; but the real drama of Jane Got a Gun is in the relationship between Jane and Dan. It’s more of a romance than an action film, but a romance set against the backdrop of bleak and desolate frontier; a society being built in the shadow of a nation ravaged by war.

Bishop
John Bishop (Ewan McGregor)

It’s not a Civil War movie, but the recent war has clearly left its mark on the characters, in all sorts of ways, as when the aristocratic John Bishop (who clearly avoided serving on either side) jovially shows off his war souvenirs to Frost. He casually tells the former soldier, while regarding an officer’s pistol used at the battle of Shiloh: “Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ in Hebrew.” Frost, having become all too familiar with the horrors of war, grimly replies, “Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about Shiloh.”

Much of the film is about coming to terms with the after-effects of something horrible, whether it’s Jane overcoming what Bishop and his gang did to her, or Dan overcoming his suffering in a prison camp. And that’s why it’s set in the post-war West, when the country was struggling to build anew, after enduring trauma.

Jane Got a Gun is a film about healing. It’s hard to imagine a film more out of sync with the atmosphere of 2016.

***

In an interview promoting the film, Portman described it as “very American.” Indeed, I’d argue that Jane Got a Gun is possibly one of the most quintessentially American movies made since the turn of the century. It’s a Western, which is the stereotypically American genre. It’s about a pivotal period in the nation’s history–essentially, a re-founding period when the modern United States was being created.

And to quote from the production notes:

Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell-all bringing to new perspectives to the classic American Western.

Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”

Put all this together with the production difficulties, and you have a behind-the-scenes narrative that’s nearly as much of a romanticized vision of America as the classic Western genre itself. In my second blog post about the film, I wrote:

Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

There have been times when I think about these kinds of assertions and wonder, “Am I overstating this? Reading too much into it; seeing things that aren’t there?” I’ve been known to do that sometimes, so it’s certainly possible.

But then there’s this behind-the-scenes photo:

Jane Flag
Left to right: Edgerton, Portman and Tambakis. Source

***

Does Jane Got a Gun still matter? Maybe that’s the wrong question. With the exceptions of the people who made it and me, it’s not clear that Jane Got a Gun mattered much to anybody in January 2016.

Does it matter to anyone else now, five years later?

This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, ‘I’d argue that it does, because…’ or something of the sort. Certainly, it would be pretty rotten of me to lead you all the way down this particularly winding memory lane only to tell you no, it doesn’t matter.

But I can’t answer the question. It’s your call to make, dear reader; not mine. Pretentious critics–again, like me–think we can persuade people, that we can shape tastes, that we can, in some sense, tell people what to think of a film, or a book, or a painting. But we can’t. All we can really do is describe the complex, personal reactions that we have to art.

***

The really key scene in Jane Got a Gun; the one that I think is the emotional heart of it, is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, where for a moment, I was concerned the plot would go in a really stupid direction. It’s the scene where Jane walks out to Dan as he’s digging a defensive trench. Seeing him again has brought back a lot of memories for Jane, and she wants to try to smooth things over with him, on what could be their last day alive. So she says, “Why’d you change your mind to help me?”

Jane knows the answer, of course; and so does Dan: he loves her, even though he thinks she left him for another man, even though he’s probably going to die because of her–he loves her. But Dan is still furious at her, and besides which, she’s married. So he can’t say it, instead grumbling, “I dunno.”

This escalates to a tense discussion in which the two former lovers rehash their past, and all the choices that led them here, each one increasingly blaming the other, until finally Jane says, “You know what, Dan…”

I thought she was going to tell him to leave. I foresaw the most hackneyed Hollywood story imaginable: Jane tells him to get lost, Dan rides off in a huff, only to ride back in at the 11th hour and save the day.

But that didn’t happen. What happened instead is what sets Jane Got a Gun apart.

***

In an interview with Elle magazine in 2013–shortly after filming wrapped on Jane Got a GunPortman said:

The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.

One of the contemporary criticisms of Jane Got a Gun was exactly this–that Jane doesn’t single-handedly go in guns-blazing and wipe out Bishop and his gang. Jane Ballard isn’t a one-woman army, and if she were, the film would be worse for it. She fights back, but she does so in a way that makes her relatable.

She is, in other words, “a real person that we can empathize with.”

The film works, or doesn’t, to the extent that the audience is prepared to empathize with the characters. That might be true of most films, although I’d hesitate to say “all films”–there are some that pretty clearly rely solely on spectacle or nostalgia or fan service to sell themselves. That’s one reason Hollywood loves their sequels and franchises so much: it’s easier to expect audiences to continue following characters they already know.

Jane Got a Gun is a throwback to another era of filmmaking. That much is obvious just by virtue of it being a Western. Westerns used to be a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s, but have since become increasingly rare. It’s also a throwback in its self-contained nature. Even if it had been a financial success, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a “Jane Ballard” franchise.

It’s a good match for me, because I am a throwback to a different era of filmgoer. I follow movie stars more than franchises, much as audiences did at the height of classic cinema. I saw Jane Got a Gun because it had Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in it. (And after seeing it, I watched a bunch of Joel Edgerton films.)

I love the film for the cast’s expressive performances, that communicate so much in so few words. I love the haunting, melancholy soundtrack.  I love the vast, sprawling desert setting that is both harsh and beautiful. I love the tight, spare script, that takes us on a journey that is at times very dark, but ultimately uplifting. I’m not ashamed to say I think I could recite the entire film from memory, but I’ll end this retrospective by quoting just two more lines.

The first is the one that I’ve been teasing you with throughout this review. The one that encapsulates the film’s theme–the empathetic optimism that enables Jane to triumph over all the darkness in her life. The line she says after, “You know what, Dan…” The script might have gone any number of directions just then, and maybe in previous iterations, it did.

But what Jane says next is the insight that makes me come back to it again and again, that makes it a film so blatantly out of step with the cultural mood of its epoch, and so wonderfully timeless. After everything she’s suffered, all the misery she’s had to endure, Jane takes a deep breath to collect herself and says to her former lover:

You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.

To which, dear reader, I will append only these words, that Dan says to Bill Hammond at a particularly tense moment:

…and I want you to think about that with the shank of time that you’ve got left.

***

Who doesn’t love a good dystopia? To read about, I mean.

The country (maybe more of a city-state) of Deres-Thorm is a bizarre, surreal nightmare, evocative of North Korea, East Berlin, and every other totalitarian dystopia. The unsuspecting narrator, Horus Blassingame, is thrown from one bizarre obstacle to another, whether it’s from the constantly changing street and building names, the two distinct dialects, or the constant paranoia of the security forces.

The book is darkly comic, with an emphasis on the dark. There are some scenes that are not too far off of Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, the narrator remains relatively upbeat, despite the torturous conditions he often finds himself in.

It’s a very funny satire on the kinds of horrors that can occur in a Stalinist bureaucracy. I’d call it Kafkaesque, although I’ve never read Kafka, so I may be wrong. But it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’ve heard people call “Kafkaesque.” (And, well, it says so on the cover.) It also called to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with its surreal and simultaneously funny and disturbing takes on political theory.

I like the book a lot, so I don’t want the following complaints to be misconstrued as reasons not to read it. But I have to put them out there all the same.

First, the only named female character (not counting the genderless Th’pugga) is a prostitute. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I swear, so much modern fiction gives you the idea that prostitution is always and everywhere running rampant. Yes, yes, I know; “world’s oldest profession” and all that; but really.

The second point isn’t even really a criticism, but more of an observation. The most significant exchange in the book, which sums up the entire philosophy governing Deres-Thorm, is when the main antagonist, Pokska, explains that citizens are bound by the laws of their own countries while in Deres-Thorm, just as all citizens of Deres-Thorm are bound by their laws no matter where they are in the world. The logic behind this, he elaborates, is that “the citizen is the property of the State.”

This is pretty horrifying, right? It’s close to a re-formulation of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” It’s basically the central concept of totalitarianism, and the reader is not slow in seeing how it can lead to exactly the kinds of horrors depicted in this book–not to mention in real life.

But, wait. What is the state? The state is legalized violence, because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. (Don’t take my word for it, take Max Weber’s, one of the founders of modern sociology.) In governments structured as liberal democracies and constitutional republics, the people consent to authorize the state to use violence. We issue them a badge, as it were. In other, more brutal forms of government, the state doesn’t need to show the people any stinkin’ badges.

This is an important difference, and I don’t want to minimize it. But… even in liberal democracies… the state still has the authority to deprive us of our freedoms, if it has some reason to do so. Theoretically, at least, the people can hold the state accountable so that it will use its terrible powers only for good. Theoretically. But it has terrible powers, all the same…

My point is, the state kind of does own the citizen, by definition.  It can pretend it doesn’t; it can put all sorts of accountability measures and checks and balances in place–and it should, and it does. But still.

And yet, not every state is a hellish Orwellian nightmare. So the state owns the people. So what? Just because you own something doesn’t mean you’ll destroy or mistreat it. Generally the opposite, actually. The problem is when the machinery of the state is controlled by psychopaths. Which, admittedly, happens alarmingly often. And even once is too often. Obviously, the power of the state is alluring to psychopaths, with results like those seen in A True Map of the City.

What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve by any means necessary the status of the ruling class.

What we’re really trying to figure out is, “what is the root of tyrannical government?” To determine exactly how creeps like Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm.

In an early draft of this review, I had a much longer section on this question, referencing Lord Acton and Plato’s Republic and lots of other stuff like that on the origins of tyranny. But I cut that, because it was wandering too far from the topic at hand. I didn’t want to do that to you. (Again.) But I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there are lots of big ideas in this little book. Maybe some powerful mind will do a truly cogent interpretation of it, like Christopher Hitchens on Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But as of right now it only has one review on Amazon, (5 stars, of course) so I think I can safely say it needs more readers.