HarvestHarvest is a short story that packs a lot of content into few words. It tells the story of a man named Edgar, who, due to some very evil circumstances, has been given a pumpkin for a head–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As Edgar is grappling with this horrible situation, a woman named Emelia and her pet approach, and she fills Edgar in on what has brought him to this state, and what can be done about it. Emelia, speaking in a pleasant, folksy twang, helps Edgar come to terms with his plight. I won’t spoil it–like I said, it’s very short, and providing more detail would give too much away. The fun of the story is in seeing how it works out, and discovering exactly what the characters are, how they came to be that way, and, most of all, what they will do next.

I absolutely adored this story. As you all know, I love scary stories, I love pumpkins, and I love the Halloween season generally. This wonderful tale captures everything that makes it special. It’s got just the perfect blend of scares, mischievousness, and fun that the holiday is all about. You can bet I’ll be re-reading it come October.

So, since it’s a seasonal tale, why am I blogging about it now, instead of waiting until autumn? Well, I happened to stumble across this author thanks to this poignant exchange with Lorinda J. Taylor* on Twitter, and frankly, this case illustrates why I think it’s especially important to support indie authors at this time, more than ever.

There are so many people all across the world who work to create art in their spare time, even after all the daily pressures life puts upon them. Even at the best of times, it’s not easy, and these are hardly the best of times. So when I find work that I like, I think it’s important that I share it. And of course, you can surely tell from the cover alone that this would be something I like. Directly upon seeing that lovely scene, I knew I had to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Harvest is a perfect short story for anyone who loves a good Halloween atmosphere. Some may prefer to read it in season, and that is surely when it will be best enjoyed–in a pumpkin patch, on a warm October’s evening, as the sun is sinking behind the trees, I should say–but true Halloween addicts such as myself can enjoy it all year round.

*For those keeping score, this is now two wonderful authors I’ve discovered thanks to Lorinda, the other being Lindy Moone. Thank you, Lorinda!

IPanama love weird westerns. Maybe this isn’t technically a western, given that Panama is at approximately the same longitude as West Virginia, but in every other respect, it fits the bill. It’s got cowboys, ghosts, witchcraft, and plenty of good old-fashioned gunfights.

Ethan Stafford and Cooper Hexum are U.S. marshals sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to investigate the disappearances of workers in the Panama Canal Zone. Ethan has a mysterious ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and Cooper–“Coop,” as he is called–is well-versed in all manner of magic and witchcraft. Roosevelt has reason to believe supernatural forces are at work, and he is soon proven right, as Ethan and Coop discover that, in addition to a plot by Spanish invaders, a demonic entity known as “El Chivato” is building up an army of his own using the souls of workers lured into the jungle.

Ethan and Coop are outfitted with considerable weaponry to fight these threats, as well as plenty of magical amulets and talismans that Coop acquires. One of my favorite early scenes was one in which Dr. Welker, who plays “Q” to Coop and Ethan’s collective 007, outfits them with all the weaponry they’ll need for their mission, including a Browning machine gun.

In the course of their mission, the pair meet a witch named Jinx, who has been captured by the Spanish, and Billy the Kid, hiding out under a different name, along with many other interesting characters. The tension builds as El Chivato’s powers grow, until our heroes confront him and his malevolent army in a final shootout, just as any good Western should conclude.

The prose is straightforward and blunt. It reminded me a bit of Hemingway, which is exactly the right style for this sort of novel. The story is well-paced and blends elements of adventure, horror, and occasional comic relief very well.

My only gripe about the book was the number of typos. Mostly minor things–missing apostrophes or glitches like “if” for “it,” etc. There were also a few formatting issues, such as character’s thoughts sometimes being unitalicized. It was nothing that ruined the book for me, but frequent enough that I noticed. To be clear, I’m very sympathetic about this, as I know from my own experience that it’s really, really hard to put out a whole novel and catch every typo. What’s great about ebooks is that it is easy to go back and correct them.

Technical issues aside, I loved the book’s atmosphere and the way Boyack balances a classic cowboy adventure, complete with likable heroes and a cruel villain, with occult demonic elements. And he ties it all together in a way that’s very satisfying. Panama is a very fun read for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.

BBBinary Boy is a short story about a young boy named Devin, raised by two intelligent machines aboard a spaceship. All the rest of the ship’s crew, including Devin’s parents, have been killed by a virus sweeping the ship. Devin alone survived, thanks to his having been sealed away as part of his recovery from cancer.

The two machines that raise him, Ark and Rue, have vastly different personalities, but both in their way teach the young boy how to survive. He comes to view them as his parents, and to wish that he were an invincible machine, instead of a weak human.

Because of the largely disastrous outcome of the mission, Ark and Rue have opted to return the ship to earth—which Devin is dreading. When they finally near the planet, it becomes clear that Earth has fallen on… well, I’ll just say “hard times,” and leave it at that. To survive, Devin has to leave Ark and Rue behind and venture onto what is, to him, a threatening and alien world.

It’s a tight, well-written science fiction tale. All three major characters are efficiently described, and I really liked the contrast between Ark’s warm, soft personality and Rue’s pragmatic, engineering mindset.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that it ends too soon! I wanted to find out more about what Devin would do. And yes, this is book one of a series, but from reading the description of book two, I gather that it’s not a continuation of the same story. 

On the other hand, I sort of understand, because it would be challenging to continue the story given what happens to Devin in the last act. It’s full of intriguing possibilities that simultaneously beg to be explored but would be very difficult, if not downright impossible to write—at least, if it continued from Devin’s perspective.

This is a quick read that nevertheless manages to create an interesting world with strong characters. Fans of all types of sci-fi will certainly want to give it a read.

V
I think most people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, right? It usually gets assigned in high schools, and as a result, most of the familiar tropes of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state are ingrained in our culture: telescreens broadcasting propaganda, a police state violently crushing all dissent, and of course, the corruption of language to control the population’s thoughts.

Orwell didn’t invent these ideas, of course; he merely extrapolated the methods he observed being used by dictators like Hitler and Stalin into the future, resulting in one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature.

V for Vendetta reimagines what Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been like if Batman had been there.

Is that a bit flip? Maybe you think so now, but let’s look at how this film begins: we have pretty young damsel Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) walking home after curfew in a crumbling, futuristic London when she is attacked by government security agents known as “Fingermen,” who, upon finding a damsel, immediately propose to put her in distress. Already this movie is off on the wrong foot with me.

But then, the hero of the piece enters the scene: V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious terrorist or freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who rescues Evey from her attackers and then proceeds to give the following melodramatic speech:

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.

He goes on like that for a while longer, and then takes Evey to the rooftops of London to watch as Old Bailey is demolished while the 1812 Overture plays over the public address speakers.

Okay, I can accept this character is a terrorist with a flair for drama. I can even accept, although it’s logically impossible, that he managed to miraculously time his rescue of Evey so that they could be on the roof at the stroke of midnight on November 5th.

But why the 1812 Overture? Why is a piece of music written by a Russian to commemorate the Tsar’s defeat of Emperor Napoleon I’s Grande Armée being used by a man who is supposedly fighting to liberate England? Why not use something from the English Civil War? For that matter, wouldn’t he see Napoleon’s defeat as a bad thing? A victory of the Tsarist aristocracy over a People’s Army?  V is really much more like Napoleon then he is like Guy Fawkes, but that’s for later.

I know the reason the filmmakers used the 1812 Overture, of course: it’s because it’s a great piece of music, and it works well dramatically. But it feels contrived–an empty spectacle, lacking earned emotional weight. In truly great cinema, the filmmaker’s hand is invisible; the spectacle must arrive organically.

Anyway, later that day (?) Evey goes back to her job at the TV station. It’s not exactly clear to me what she does–apparently she’s some kind of assistant for a variety program hosted by Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry). She takes delivery of a bunch of boxes which prove to contain more Guy Fawkes masks, and soon after, V launches an attack on the television studio.

Meanwhile, police detective Finch (Stephen Rea) is working to figure out who attacked the Old Bailey, and from security camera footage, realizes Evey may know how to find V. He races to the television studio, but in the confusion of V’s attack, fails to capture him or Evey.

V takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message to the people, condemning the government of High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt):

[W]hile the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. 

And how did this come about? V addresses that as well:

I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

Finally, he tells the bewildered citizens his demands:

I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

And with that, V departs, leaving a bunch of captives clad in Guy Fawkes masks. A policeman attempts to stop him on his way out, but Evey distracts him. The policeman punches her, but V knocks him out and takes the unconscious Evey to his secret underground lair.

Yes, his secret underground lair, full of priceless art, luxurious furnishings, and various other trinkets which V has acquired over the years. And here we must ask: exactly how scared can you be of a government that, for all its Orwellian bluster, can’t find a flamboyantly-dressed terrorist who resides in a maze of tunnels underneath their own capital city? I mean really, this would just not happen on Big Brother’s watch.

V explains that he needs Evey to stay with him for the entire year, until next November 5th. If she leaves, she could be captured and tortured to give the government information on his whereabouts. Evey gets mad at V, and then immediately forgives him. Evey does stuff like that–her psychology is based purely on the dramatic needs of the scene she happens to be in.

V then enlists Evey’s help in a campaign of murderous revenge against various people in the government–the host of a propaganda talk-show is first on his hit-list, followed by a sick, perverted priest. Evey continues her policy of doing random things and tries to get the priest to help her, but he doesn’t, because he really is a vile, twisted monster. V kills him, but Evey runs away and back to Deitrich’s house. Deitrich welcomes her and confesses that he, too, is a subversive whose activities the government would not look kindly upon–he owns a Quran and a collection of homoerotic photos.

While all this has been going on, Finch has been pursuing his own, much better, storyline. He has been uncovering connections among V’s victims, and traced them all to an experimental facility called Larkhill, where government prisoners were subjected to cruel and ultimately lethal experiments with biological weapons. This is further confirmed when V kills a doctor who experimented on him at the facility.

Meanwhile, Deitrich, for some insane reason, does a sketch on his television show mocking Chancellor Sutler, which prompts the police to raid his house. Evey escapes momentarily, but is knocked unconscious and dragged to a prison where she is tortured and her head shaved.

While imprisoned, she finds a note hidden in a small hole in the wall. It’s from a young woman named Valerie, previously imprisoned for being a lesbian. She recounts the rise of Sutler’s fascistic party and their murder of her partner. Evey takes courage from reading Valerie’s words, and refuses to submit to her captors, even when they threaten to kill her and offer her freedom in exchange for information about V.

At last, Evey is released from her cell to find that she’s actually back in V’s subterranean bat-cave! Yes, all along, it was V torturing her, as a test of her loyalty, as well as, he claims, a way to free her from fear. By losing her fear of death, Evey is now liberated! Or something.

This is stupid. First, it makes V seem less like a freedom fighter and more like just another gangster, almost as bad as the people he’s fighting. And second, it once again forces us to consider the question of “How the Hell has the Government Not Noticed V’s Fake Prison Adjacent to His Underground Art Museum?”

Meanwhile, Finch has pretty much pieced together the mystery of Larkhill. The biological weapon being tested there was a deadly virus, which then-Secretary of Defense Adam Sutler deployed against his own population in order to induce panic. Blaming the attack on terrorists, Sutler then used the promise of restoring order to lead his party to an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the upper-management of the Larkhill program enriched themselves by controlling the distribution of the vaccine.

Finch’s faith in the government is shaken by this. (Why he ever had any faith in this blatantly corrupt horror show is less clear.) Meanwhile, V is busy setting up dominoes on the floor of his secret lair to fall into an intricate mosaic of his “V” logo. Seriously, there’s a scene like that. It’s a metaphor, I guess.

V then distributes Guy Fawkes masks all across London, inspiring the increasingly discontented populace to rise up. Sutler responds with a heightened police and military presence to fight the angry mobs.

Once again, we reach November 5th, and Evey finds V and learns his ultimate plan, which is to send a trainload of explosives rolling into Parliament.

Yes, a train. Somehow there is an un-patrolled train tunnel leading into Parliament that the supposedly intrusive police state knows nothing about. These people aren’t totalitarians, if only because “totalitarian” is derived from “total,” and their control over the public is clearly not total. This state’s power ends at the ground, and anything that goes on below that is the Wild West.

V tells Evey that it’s up to her to pull the lever that will send the bomb-filled train on its way. He says that both he and the regime he is destroying are part of an old world, and the people who outlive both will make a new world. “They deserve to make that choice,” he says. I actually liked this bit. It’s a nice illustration of the philosophical concept of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.

V heads off to confront Chancellor Sutler, who has been betrayed by the head of his secret police. V then kills them all by bringing knives to a gunfight. (Only in Hollywood, folks.) However, in a small sop to plausibility, he sustains mortal injuries in the process.

He stumbles back to the train station and dies in Evey’s arms, telling her that he had been living for revenge every day until he met her, at which point he fell in love. It’s not really clear why–there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about her. On the other hand, since V has presumably been living alone in the catacombs all this time, you can see he would have been susceptible.

Evey loads V’s body onto the train and sends it on its way. Meanwhile, a huge mob of citizens wearing Guy Fawkes masks storm the military barricades surrounding parliament. The soldiers, with their government decapitated, stand down, allowing the crowd to surround the building and watch as it is blown to pieces, again accompanied by the 1812 Overture. Finch finally catches up with Evey, and as they watch the building explode, he asks her who V was. She replies, “He was all of us.”

One big problem I have with this film is that despite the omnipresent Guy Fawkes imagery, it seems only dimly aware of who Guy Fawkes actually was. V is fighting a religious extremist government; Fawkes was a religious extremist. And he was kind of a screw-up, judging by what a catastrophe the Gunpowder Plot turned out to be for him.

The film tries to draw on a lot of historical material to give it weight, but it doesn’t understand the historical context of its own references. The 1812 Overture was one example; another is V’s repeated references to The Count of Monte Cristo. V spends the lonely hours in his base of operations watching the 1934 film adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. V identifies with the protagonist’s quest for revenge.

Here’s an interesting factoid about The Count of Monte Cristo: the protagonist is sympathetic to Napoleon, as was Dumas himself. Quite frankly, if you want an example of someone who successfully led a movement to destroy a failing government and replace it with one that was at least semi-functional, Napoleon is a much better example to follow than Fawkes.

I know my loyal readers are wise to me, and will say I only think that because I’m an unreconstructed Bonapartist. Well, it’s a fair cop. But there are other historical figures who fit much more closely to the mold of what V is trying to accomplish. Oliver Cromwell was a religious zealot and a murderous thug, but at least his revolution succeeded for a while. Another possible model would be Alexander Kerensky, who arguably did what V does at the end of the film, giving the people a choice in their future. (In Kerensky’s case, the people did not choose wisely.)

I don’t think the filmmakers ever quite made up their minds about the age-old question asked of every fictional character: what’s their motivation? V’s motives are murky: he talks a lot about symbols and ideas, and how his masks and theatrical terrorist acts symbolize some idea or other. But when we find out he’s seeking vengeance against specific people in retribution for things they did to him, he seems less like an idealist and more like somebody who’s been wronged and is looking to get back at the people who wronged him.

There’s nothing wrong with either story. Stories about idealistic freedom fighters can be good. Stories about people seeking revenge for some wrongdoing can also be good. But by trying to be both, the end result is that V seems almost as hypocritical as the government he’s trying to destroy. That idea itself could be quite interesting. “He who fights with monsters…” etc. But the film doesn’t explore that either. It suggests we’re supposed to view V as unambiguously heroic, as Evey, the on-screen proxy for the audience, does–despite the fact that she is almost certainly suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

It took me years to finally watch this movie all the way through. I’d start it, get fairly deep into it, and then get so irritated I’d have to stop. Part of it may have been the dialogue, which takes a lot of words to say a little. People frequently say things like, “Can I ask you something?” to which the other character replies, “Yes,” and then they go on. Fat like that ought to be cut from a script.

But despite this, I wouldn’t say I hate this movie. It’s not what I consider a good film, but it is interesting. It has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s weird and offbeat and a bit subversive. There is a wealth of promising material here, but it’s not utilized as well as it could have been.

And yes, I know it’s based on a graphic novel, and no, I have not read it.

HyperlinkThis book

This book…

I mean to say, folks: this book!

Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting started. Where exactly to begin is not obvious here. Normally I give a book’s genre, and then maybe an outline of the plot.

What genre is Hyperlink from Hell? I have no idea.

The story begins with a psychiatrist named Dr. Stapledon being given a manuscript to read, care of Dr. Albert Montclair, the former director of “The Haven”– the mental institution where she works. Montclair is now himself a patient, and the manuscript is by James “Jimmie” Canning, a now-missing former patient of Montclair’s.

Jimmie was a reality TV star with good looks, a photographic memory, and attention-deficit disorder. He is also believed to be the only patient ever to have escaped The Haven.

The only way of understanding what afflicts Dr. Montclair, he tells Dr. Stapledon, is to read Jimmie’s manuscript. “To get to me,” he tells her, “you must go through him.” Desperate to help her former mentor, Dr. Stapledon begins to read.

This book-within-the-book is indescribable. A surreal, impossible tale that begins with Jimmie’s apparent death at the hands of kidnappers, and his return to Earth as a ghostly presence, along with the kidnappers, with whom he embarks on a quest to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny.

If that sounds weird, just wait. What follows is a madcap chase to track down Rick, the man who has stolen Jenny away from Jimmie. But that hardly does it justice. There are wacky dream sequences and mile-a-minute references to characters from famous old television shows (Referenced with amusing variations on the names: “Logan’s Heroes,” “Battleship Galaxtica,” “Milligan’s Island,” and so on.) 

Have you ever been sick with a fever, done nothing but sit around watching TV, and then fallen asleep? This is like the dreams you have when that happens. 

There are also tons of puns, sex humor, bathroom humor, and recurring conversations with “Al”—a godlike presence who toys with Jimmie and his friends while simultaneously aiding them on their quest. Oh, and there’s also an invisible, smelly dog named Louie.

Lowbrow, crude humor rarely amuses me. Jokes relating to bodily functions are usually just stupid, in my opinion. But it works for me here. It’s a mixture of crude and sophisticated comedy, similar to Monty Python. That makes it… ah, well I hate to say “palatable,” but you see what I mean.

This book is very funny. But I would not classify it as a comedy; not at all. Jimmie’s manuscript might be a comedy—a very dark, absurd, existential comedy—but remember, it’s just the book-within-the-book. Dr. Stapledon’s experience of what for lack of a better term I’ll call the “real world” is the other part of the story. And it’s not a comedy at all.

Don’t let the cover or the fact that it has tons of humor fool you: this book is not light. It goes from weird to unsettling to downright disturbing—all the more so because the darkest elements are referenced subtly at first, almost in passing, gradually setting up the conclusion when we finally learn what went down at The Haven.

I have trouble with stories that involve violence against women, children, or animals. All three are referenced in this book. Not too graphically, or for extended periods, mind you, but when these and other grim things enter the narrative, they hit you right in the gut.

Okay, so this has violence and crude humor and an incredibly confusing plot. Anything else that might alienate readers? Actually, yes: thematically, the book addresses religion frequently—it might even be the core of the story. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-religion. In fact, it might even be pro-religion, in the sense that it’s pro-faith. But nevertheless, the way the “God” figure is portrayed and certain religious motifs are used might be a turn-off to religious readers.

Oh, and of course there’s swearing. Did I even need to mention that?

Normally, this is where I say something like, “fans of [x] will like this.” I can’t say that here, because I honestly have no idea what other books to compare this to. Other reviews compare it to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but having not read them, I don’t know how or in what way this book may be similar. The only remotely comparable book I’ve read is Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf. It was a hilarious fantasy with religious themes as well, but what makes Hyperlink different is the frenzied, sometimes almost physically exhausting pace of its weirdness.  

The closest analogue I could think of was not a book at all, but a video game: Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that sounds bizarre—how can I compare this humorous mystery novel to a military action game? Well, that’s just it: neither Spec Ops nor Hyperlink from Hell are really what they seem to be. Just as Spec Ops surprises the player by revealing that, far from being a standard military shoot-‘em-up, it’s a complex and layered examination of the psychological toll of violence, Hyperlink from Hell ultimately reveals itself to be not simply a madcap comic adventure, but a meditation on grief and coping and God and the nature of reality itself.

This book lives up to its billing as an “in(s)ane mystery” and then some. I’ve read parts of it multiple times, and there are still things that puzzle me. I discovered it thanks to Lorinda J. Taylor’s review, which I strongly suggest you read, because she does a better job analyzing certain elements than I did. 

I think everyone should buy this book and give it a try. I say that fully aware that some of you will hate it. I know I sometimes say, “This isn’t for everybody,” but that’s extra-true here. Some of you will be turned off by the crude humor. Some of you will just be like, “What the hell even is this? What does Gambrel see in this thing?” Some will make it all the way to the end and feel a bit angry, just as I did, that things didn’t resolve themselves in the way we would hope they would.

But the thing is, this book is an incredible achievement. I can’t imagine how someone could come up with and execute this idea so perfectly, and yet Moone did it. Creative people owe it to one another to be supportive, and for that reason alone, you should at least give it a try. If it seems too weird for you at first, you should probably stop, because it won’t get less weird. But if you get hooked on the ingenuity of the concept and the witty prose, as I was, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure.

You know how so many forms of entertainment seem to suffer from severe copycat syndrome? That’s because the publishing industry, like many industries, tends to play it very conservative with what they decide to send to the market. Great work is rejected all the time because publishers can’t just ask Is this a good book? but instead have to ask Will it sell enough to make us a profit? And so they’re more likely to only publish books that are similar to other books that have made a profit before.

Indie publishing is changing this, but only to the extent we’re willing to reward people who take big creative risks, and Hyperlink from Hell is about as big of a creative risk as there is. The imagination and effort it must have taken to create this book is simply staggering to contemplate, and the fact that it only has eleven reviews on Amazon (all glowing, you’ll notice) is a tragedy. Yes, it’s a twisted and surreal roller-coaster that not everyone will want to take, and from which no one will emerge emotionally unscathed, but it’s also a literary masterpiece and a daring work of creative genius—yes, I said it—that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Small PrintSmall Print is a collection of four sci-fi short stories, all premised around the ways in which advanced technology can disrupt the lives of organic life forms.

In “Data,” a skilled hacker’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds out more about his employer’s use of data than he would have liked. In “Juliet,” the subject of an experimental space exploration mission struggles to cope with the loneliness of space. In “Small Print,” a technician on a lunar base encounters a clerical error with severe consequences, and in “Shelley,” a young woman grapples with a mysterious trauma from her childhood.

All the stories are well-written and interesting. I liked “Juliet” the best—it ends with a surprise twist that makes an already powerful story even more poignant. “Shelley” was the weakest in my opinion—which is not to say that it was bad—but I just felt the ending was too abrupt, and the main character’s mother didn’t react to certain developments the way I would have expected her to, based on her earlier behavior.

“Data” was particularly hard-hitting, given how many big governments, corporations, and other large faceless entities have recently become fascinated by “big data,” it’s easy to imagine them abusing it just as they do in this story.

“Small Print” was probably the most complex and layered story in the collection. There’s a lot going on here, much of which I liked. I won’t spoil it, but space ghosts are a thing in this story, and you know that’s going to be a winner with me. However, there were other aspects that were a bit confusing—I had to read the story twice before I fully “got” it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I felt like some more fleshing out would have made it better.

I think that’s true of every story in this collection, except maybe “Juliet,” which felt quite complete. They all are promising concepts, but left me wanting more. Which is a very good thing—it’s much better to have a good concept in need of more detail than a weak concept that you try to drag out. I look forward to reading more of Scobie’s work in the future.

Twisted Tales 2These stories are ideal for when you just want something quick and light. After reading some long, emotionally-charged novels, I find it’s a perfect change of pace to read one of Drayden’s weird tales. My mother told me once that in ancient Greek drama, after the heavy tragedies were over, they would close the evening out with a slapstick comedy.* That’s kind of what this is, and it works beautifully as a break after reading a serious novel.

If you read my review of Volume One in this series, all you need to know is that this is more of the same. If there’s a difference, it’s that the first volume was more sci-fi in tone, and this one is more fantasy/horror. But that’s the only difference–otherwise, these stories exhibit the same twisted sense of humor and the same bite-sized length.

Again, these stories are very short, so I won’t review them in-depth. Half the fun is realizing what the concept of the story is, as they each usually involve combining some mundane, familiar concept with something from the world of mythology or fantasy. The stylistic parallel to the comic strip The Far Side that I noted in my review of Volume One still holds.

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll notice some people complain about the brevity of these tales. This, in my opinion, just speaks to how tough the book market is. It may not seem like much to readers, but it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to come up with four funny stories, write them all down, proofread them, and get them published. The thing only costs 99 cents, for heaven’s sakes! 99 cents for a few good chuckles is a bargain, in my opinion.

With that said, you can get a set containing Volumes One through Six of this series, also for 99 cents, if you’re really serious about maximizing the quantity of stories you get for your money. Drayden’s stories are the perfect little treat for when you want to read something to tickle your imagination, but don’t want to commit to a whole novel.

(*My mom is a classicist. I didn’t want you thinking she was actually around in Ancient Greece. 🙂 )

WTF posterAh, interminable wars waged by hegemonic powers in the Middle East! They’ve been the cause of unfathomable amounts of human suffering for centuries, but on the other hand, we’ve gotten some really good movies out of them. Lawrence of Arabia, The Beast of War, The English Patient… maybe it is home to the graveyard of empires, but it sure is good for showbiz.

All right, maybe I’m being a bit cynical and snarky here, and that’s something I try to avoid doing, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a war comedy-drama, so there’s inevitably a gallows humor quality to it.

The film follows journalist Kim Baker, (Tina Fey) who quits her desk job writing news scripts to cover the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan.  She’s embedded with the Marines, and, after initially being perceived as a bumbling civilian, gradually wins the respect of the unit and its commander, as well as veteran reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel. (Margot Robbie.)

Slowly, Baker gains the trust of important officials in the Afghan government, and, with the help of her guide and translator Fahim, (Christopher Abbott) gains a better understanding of their culture. She also starts a romantic relationship with journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) after breaking up with her stateside boyfriend. 

Ultimately, Baker is forced to use all her wits, contacts, and knowledge of Afghan politics in order to save not only her career, but her lover’s life. And she is forced to come face-to-face with the horrors of war, as she interviews a young soldier badly-wounded after an IED attack.

WTF1
This poster looks more like the kind of film I expected.

I went into this film with low expectations. I like Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, but wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than “Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan.” And that’s what it seems like at first.

But over the second half, nuances emerge. The characters show unexpected depth and nuance. As I said, I’ve always liked Fey’s comedy, but I gained new respect for her skill as a dramatic actress. As the CineMuseFilms review put it, “she nailed her part” by not playing it solely for laughs. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the commanding Marine officer, and Christopher Abbott’s performance is absolutely fantastic. His character’s friendship with Baker is one of the highlights of the film—frankly, I found it to be the real emotional core of the story, much more so than the romance thread. 

There’s one dialogue between Fahim and Baker in which he warns her that she’s becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of mortal danger. It’s a moment of real tension in their friendship, and a dramatic turning point in the film.

I mention it because addiction to the thrill of war was also the theme of the film The Hurt Locker, which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010. Personally, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a vastly superior war film compared to The Hurt Locker, and this more economical portrayal of the same basic theme is only one of many reasons why.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has humor, but never at the expense of characterization. It shows both the horror and the heroism that every war entails. It ended up being a far more thought-provoking film than I was expecting. I’m now curious to read the book on which it was based, The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.

Assassin's HeartAssassin’s Heart is a romance in a medieval fantasy setting. The protagonist, Lillie, is a woman raised from a young age to be a ruthless assassin by an organization known as the Va’Shile. When we meet her, she is undercover as a palace servant, and all the court is awaiting the naming of King’s heir—whom the Va’Shile have assigned Lillie to kill once his identity is known.

While gaining the trust of servants in order to move freely about the castle, Lillie meets a handsome young stablehand named Nef, and the two soon fall in love. Despite her brutal upbringing, Lillie finds herself increasingly distracted by her new beau, as well as questions surrounding her past that nag at her mind—questions relating to her mysterious ability to communicate telepathically with animals, which troubles even the brave and handsome Nef.

The wheels of political machinations continue to turn. Complications ensue. Soon enough, Lillie and Nef find themselves fleeing the Va’Shile and hiding out at a brothel managed by a woman named Brava. But even as their relationship deepens, Lillie and Nef are increasingly drawn into a conflict with the Va’Shile which can only be ended with a lot of death.

Assassin’s Heart is first and foremost a romance. Once we get about a quarter of the way in, it seems Lillie and Nef are sneaking off every chance they get to fulfill their, ah, romantic desires. (Sometimes their romantic desires need fulfillment 3 or 4 times a day!) And they aren’t the only ones constantly running off to the bedroom, either; there are several other romantic sub-plots as well.

But Norse does a good job of balancing the sexy interludes with character development and plot twists. The story never grinds to a halt. Other things may grind to something, but never mind that now! 

There isn’t a lot of description of the world in which the story takes place. Most of the descriptive passages are, as you might expect, about the physical attributes of the cast. Lillie and her red hair, Nef and his blue eyes, Master Jaidon and his… well, I don’t want to spoil everything!

All right, I’ll stop with the Nudge Nudge Wink Wink routine. There’s a lot of sex in this book, that’s my point. But there’s still a good story and a few other things that even those, like me, who don’t regularly read romance can find interesting.

For example, there’s a scene where Lillie is relishing finally being free from the confines of the Assassin’s Guild where she spent most of her childhood, and gets up in the middle of the night to dance in the moonlit corridors of the castle, with only statues and suits of armor for an audience. It’s very Gothic. Beautiful, but also slightly eerie, and Romantic in the artistic sense of the word, with a focus on creating a feeling rather than plot advancement. I liked it a lot.

Some of the reviews on Amazon—which are otherwise positive—bring up the issue that the characters often speak in very modern language. I admit, at first I noticed this and found it jarring. But as I kept reading, my attitude about it changed a little—because the story isn’t set in a specific time period, but just an unknown medieval-ish place, the modern phrases actually gave it a more distinct “flavor.” So, I guess it was jarring, but kind of in a good way, maybe? All told, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked this or not, but it certainly didn’t ruin the book for me.

Also, I really liked the character of Brava. I usually find prostitutes and brothels in fiction to be pretty tiresome—largely because there are so many works of fiction where I swear it feels like the entire economy is prostitution-based. But Brava worked as a character for me—her no-nonsense attitude, coupled with her dirty sense of humor, was very amusing.

This is an enjoyable romantic fantasy tale with enough non-romance plot that it will appeal to non-romance readers as well.

Shady AcresThis is a collection of short stories. If you read Mark’s other collection The Marfa Lights—and you should have, especially since this fellow said to—this will feel like picking up right where you left off.

My mini-reviews of each story:

  • Shady Acres: This story is the longest in the book, and interweaves the life stories of residents and staff at the Shady Acres retirement community. It’s a moving story, with many poignant moments, and some very funny ones as well. The “main” character does something rather dubious early on, but by the end, I felt more sympathy for him. I enjoyed this story, and would happily read more stories in this setting.
  • A Warm Body: A quick sketch of a post-apocalyptic world. I guessed the twist ahead of time, but that’s probably because I’ve played many a post-apocalypse role-playing game. It’s a quick glimpse into a grim, brutal world. Made me think a little of Harlan Ellison.
  • Gramps’s Stereo: In the afterword, Mark explains that this story was partly inspired by the film Gran Torino. That’s one of my favorite films, so maybe that’s why I liked this one so much.
  • Jeopardy: A young man returns home to his bickering parents with some surprising news. Now, here again, I guessed what the twist would be; but the story isn’t really about the twist as much as it is about the atmosphere and setting the scene. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that I could have most easily identified as the work of the same author who penned The Irrepairable Past. The tone feels very similar to me.
  • Forever: Now this one is peculiar. As explained in the afterword, it strikes many readers, including me, in a very different way than the author intended. Not to give too much away, but the protagonist’s behavior can be interpreted in a number of ways. And here’s the weird part: I was happy that the story turned out differently than I expected it to, even though it might seem more of a “conventional” ending. In other words, I was surprised by how unsurprising it was, if that makes sense. 
  • Getting Through the Night: This story is about a man caring for his young daughter after a car accident leaves her on life support. I admit, I kind of hurried through this one.  It was just too grim for me, but that’s not a criticism of the writing, which is quite good, of course. And the backstory of how Mark came up with the idea is really interesting. So it’s not that it’s a bad story; it was just…. too dark for my tastes. Your mileage may vary.
  • My First True Love: Probably the most relatable story in the whole collection—I think everybody probably has a story kind of like this one in their past. There’s a character in it named Luilu, which made me think of Leeloo from The Fifth Element, even though there’s really no connection otherwise—but still, aren’t those just fun names to say?
  • Sunbaked Sand: I view this story almost as a kind of companion piece to “Jeopardy,” but with this one, I totally did not see the “twist” coming. (By the way, calling these “twists” kind of cheapens it—it’s more like revelations about people that make us see them differently. I’m using “twist” as shorthand here.) In any case, this story is really good. It only has two characters who are in conflict for most of it, and at the end, you feel a ton of sympathy for both of them. 
  • He Slept: This story epitomizes what I consider Mark’s signature talent, which is his ability to take a minor incident from life; the sort of thing that 99 out of 100 people would scarcely think about, and expand upon it to tell a compelling story. (To be fair, “Getting Through the Night” also does this, but if I were introducing somebody to Mark’s work, I’d recommend this one.)
  • Tentacles: A haunting depiction of how abusive behavior can ruin many lives. It’s dark, it’s powerful, and it has this other sort of weird, unexplained thing going on in the background that gives it a very unique vibe. Probably my second-favorite story in the collection.
  • Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?: I think this is the shortest story in the collection, which makes it ironic that it will be the one I write the most words about. Part of it is that it’s a big departure from Mark’s typical style of melancholic literary fiction. This one is sci-fi. And it’s funny. It takes place in a world where there are things called “Information Zones” or “izzies,” which are essentially artificial intelligences that with access to all the information on the internet—and then some. And the izzies have developed personalities of their own. They’re almost like mischievous ghosts. I’m not sure exactly when Mark wrote this, but I’m pretty sure it was before the rise of things like Siri and Alexa. Yes, this story is short, but I absolutely loved it. I want to read more stories set in this world—there’s so much potential in this concept. This is one of those that you read and just shake your head and go, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”

All in all, this is a fine collection, with plenty of variety. Every story has its own unique “flavor,” and the notes at the end where Mark discusses the story-behind-the-story are quite interesting in themselves. Studying the way he draws inspiration from the most seemingly-insignificant things is a great technique for writers to cultivate. Give Shady Acres a try.