Friday, September 19, 2014

Stephen King's 'The Stand' - fantastic, yet flawed

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stephen King produced a winner here. You certainly didn't need me to confirm that. 'The Stand' is an apocalyptic/post apocalyptic road story--exactly the kind of story I dreamed about writing as a teenager back in the 1960's - just the kind of story I have an insatiable appetite for.

Too bad it was written by an icon of the Horror genre. King has to throw in plenty of those contrived horror-style frightening moments. You know - a character looks at a fluffy white cloud and starts imagining that it's a malevolent ghost or spirit come to haunt him/her, gets heart palpitations, sees eyes looking back and feels some unspeakable sense of terror and foreboding, eventually screams and runs, looking for somewhere to hide - oh, wait, it's just a puff of condensed water vapor.

As you can see, I am no fan of the horror genre. Thankfully, 'The Stand' is not predominantly horror-oriented. I'd call it a dark adventure-fantasy that sometimes verges on a morality play. We pick up the story just hours after the accidental release of a government produced biological warfare virus called super-flu (and various other names). The disease is 99.9% fatal and kills within a few days. The story gels around the experiences of a number of survivors. King introduces a large number of completely disconnected story lines, so the book seems too disjointed at first. In this 'uncut' 1141 page version he also burdens the reader with way too many irrelevant anecdotal background vignettes for many of the characters. For me these became terribly tedious.

Despite King's protestations to the contrary in an introduction written specifically for this expanded version, the added material does not improve the story or make it richer. If anything it does the opposite. This is one good book I can honestly say is NOT a 'page turner', and is anything but 'fast paced'.

The main plot lines develop at a snail's pace. We eventually realize that the story centers on one man and one woman, Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith and on two opposing quasi-human spiritual beings, the 108-year-old Mother Abigail and the apparently immortal Randall Flagg, representing the good and the evil impulses/guidance that tug at each of us.

The one common experience of all the super-flu survivors is that they are haunted by virtually identical dreams in which the two spiritual antagonists beckon. All the separate story lines converge on these two as the survivors make pilgrimage to their respective centers of power in Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The story seems wonderfully poised for a grand confrontation of these two, but it never happens. Stephen King has written elsewhere that he suffered writer's block at this point in the story. I cannot believe he would have written this much without having had a firm conclusion in mind. But apparently he did not.

Yes, the author himself seems to have lost the plot.  Or lost his courage to exercise his imagination. The ending is rather disjointed and vacuous. It dissipates much of the potential that I was envisioning. A handful of characters from the 'good' camp travel to the 'evil' camp but accomplish nothing then either die or limp back home to Boulder while the two quasi-human spiritual beings meet their demise separately and without confrontation.  What a disappointment.

So, although I give this book five stars, it's really more like 4 1/2. It's an absolutely wonderful story despite the flaws, and I highly recommend it, yet it could have been so much better.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' by Brian Aldiss - a review

Galaxies Like Grains of SandGalaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories that Aldiss wrote many years ago, recompiled and republished recently. The stories stitch together the future history of mankind from the near future through to the galaxy's demise due to a form of proton decay. It is quaintly anachronistic, referring to 'reels' of holographic 3-D cinematography, intelligent machines communicating their digital information to each other by punch card, and using the term 'island universe' for the Milky Way galaxy--a term that fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet most of the stories themselves remain imaginative and fresh for this new generation audience. Aldiss' distinctive world-view (and the primary mode of human space travel he depicts) incorporates and heavily depends on elements of eastern religious mysticism. This is sure to irk hard sci-fi fans - there is no attempt to extrapolate these imagined 'technologies' from known science concepts. I think this is Aldiss' attempt to foresee what cannot be foreseen, and so I find it a laudable enterprise. I'm not averse to finding spiritual elements in my imagined future worlds, so I enjoyed this, but I would not choose to call this science fiction. For me, it crosses the threshold into fantasy.

A few of the stories suffer from a disease started by Isaac Asimov - I call it 'board-room-itis', a malady whose symptoms are the desire to write about people sitting about facing one another in a board room discussing the action and its futuristic settings rather than boldly venturing out into the rich, colorfully envisioned world itself and showing it to the reader first-hand.

I believe Aldiss may have been the first to explore the demise of the universe as we know it. At a time when most science fiction writers were content with envisioning events of the next few tens of thousands of years, Aldiss was seeking the end-game. For this alone, I believe 'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' is a worthwhile read.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Stars align for author MaryLee MacDonald

Talk about great timing.  A week ago, MaryLee MacDonald's latest novel, Montpelier Tomorrow was released.  It's a novel about a mother/caregiver who sets aside her own goals in order to care for a son-in-law suffering from ALS.  ALS. Yes, the book was released in the very midst of the current viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze.

And now, barely a week later, and therefore just in time to add to her well-deserved publicity buzz, MaryLee has won the Jean Leiby Chapbook Award for 'The Rug Bazaar', which I assume will lead to its publication in the Florida Review.  If you can't read the small print in the image above, here's the Judge's commentary:

The Rug Bazaar is a duet of stories, both of which concern American women traveling in Turkey. Both are love stories, and both seem to fly in the face of everything you'd think a love story could be. These are independent stories, yet, as a pair, they harmonize. In music, we might call this "call and response," how one instrument follows another, and, in following, comments on the first. I'll leave it to the reader to pick the order in which these two pieces might best be read. But, surely, read them both! Much of the beauty of The Rug Bazaar is to be found in the way each story complements the other.
The award is no fluke, and it's not her first.  MaryLee earned a Masters Degree in English/Creative Writing way back in the 70's but drifted away from writing as the demands of life intervened.  Once her children were out of the house and finished with college, she returned to full-time writing.  You can read her full bio here.

Montpelier Tomorrow has debuted to high praise from readers.  As a caregiver herself, MaryLee knows her subject from the inside.  As she says,

I ... never thought that ALS would be a subject I would come to know so well.  ... Any caregiver, for any long-term debilitating disease, will recognize her or himself in these pages; but, this is not a diary, nor is it autobiographical. I hope it is, as Wordsworth said of poetry, "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

Well said, MaryLee.  As the sages declare, we make our own "luck", and I have no doubt that the 'alignment' of the ALS Ice Bucket buzz and the release of Montpelier Tomorrow was meant to be.

I look for many more good things coming from this talented author. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Following my Muse - Tweet-sized poetry

Euterpe, Muse of poetry and song, playing her flute-like reed instrument, the Aulos: as portrayed in 1892 by the Belgian artist Egide Godfried Guffens

It's been a long slow evolution - my relationship with Twitter.  I'm sure I still don't actually 'get' it.  But I've found a niche--a challenge really.  And it is this:

I love writing very short poetic couplets in a style made popular by the likes of Alexander Pope back in early 18th century England.  I call them 'Tight Rhymed Fourteener Couplets' and I've blogged about them before.  In fact, this is by far the single most viewed post of all time here on this blog.

It's called a Fourteener because each line of the couplet is made up of just fourteen syllables with seven 'feet' or 'beats' using a style called 'Iambic Heptameter.'  And I call it 'tight-rhymed' because in addition to a rhyme that links the two fourteen syllable lines at the end, each line has an internal rhyme at beats two and four.  Okay, enough technical talk.  Check the post linked to above for more description and examples.

An exciting (for me) epiphany happened about six weeks ago when I started working on a light-hearted rhyme honoring the poetic achievements of Dr. Seuss.  The project took an unexpected turn when I realized that these tight little poetic gems usually meet the 140 character limit required as a tweet.  Here is how that whimsical rhyme turned out--somewhat of an ode to Twitter:

Fed Dr. Seuss some Twitter juice.  A silly song he sung
As viral toads on spiral roads snatched Hashtags with their tongues.

As you can see in the example up top, I can usually also fit a title and my chosen hashtag, #tightrhyme14 within the Tweet.

For me this is great fun, but it's also a good way to stretch those writing muscles.  It's a serious challenge to fashion 140 characters of prose into 'Flash Fiction'.  Good flash fiction tells a complete story while leaving much territory for the reader's imagination to roam.  And, of course, the added challenge of incorporating rhyme and meter makes it quite a mind-stretching exercise.

Here's another 'Flash Fiction' Fourteener - this one in the Sci-Fi genre:

Time Travel Man--his risky plan:  "I'll kill my young self first.
"New me's that roam the quantum foam will rise from bubble burst."

Instead of telling a story, a good Fourteener couplet could be like a proverb--a self-contained gem of wisdom.  Here are a couple of examples I recently tweeted:

When fire meets wood enduring good will scatter with the smoke.
Yet light from heat we gladly greet—The truth that Sages spoke

The primal seed must yield, by need, this one empow’ring thought:
When self-aware, our thought or prayer is why the seed was wrought.

If you are looking for more of these ... well, try my six-book epic Fantasy/Sci-Fi novel series 'Ice King'.  It features one of these Fourteeners as an epigraph at the start of each of its more than 200 chapters.  An epigraph presages or comments on the content to follow.  Here's just one example from Book One: 'Out of Crystal Ice':

In pits of fire dark Lords conspire to trap a King of Snows;
But they would learn: Ice doesn't burn.  It melts, then off it flows.

Writing these little nuggets can be frustrating at times.  Imagine spending hours agonizing over a single 140 character Tweet.  But the reward, when the wording suddenly falls into place, is immeasurable--a sense of hard earned accomplishment: A mountain climbed on trails that rhymed, a lofty peak achieved ... the sudden gleam of self esteem can scarcely be believed!

Uh-oh!  Here I go again ...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review of 'Conversations among Ruins' by Matt Peters

Deep and intensely captivating from the first page, ‘Conversations among Ruins’ is a semi-autobiographical psychological thriller/drama/romance composed of two distinct parts: the deterioration of, and the redemption of Daniel Stavros.

I fell in love with part one quickly. The imagery is powerful, the narrative drive compelling, and the language wonderfully lyrical. Before moving into more detail I want to provide an example of Peters’ vibrant style:

“His uneasiness changed to anger. He stared at Gail’s raven hair and pale skin, the contrast of dark and light like chiaroscuro or a lunar eclipse. Gail had always seemed mysteriously beautiful, somehow high in the sky above him, casting shadows. But she, too, existed in darkness. He wondered how long he’d stay blinded by her silhouette.”

Daniel Stavros is a professor at a small university who has both an out of control drinking problem and a mood disorder that seems rooted in his difficult childhood and his aberrant relationship with his troubled mother, Sarah.

The tale opens in a detox ward. We learn that Daniel, though in utter denial and fiercely determined to continue his self-destructive path, is in danger of losing his job. Arriving in the institution is Mimi, young and overtly carefree daughter of a wealthy lawyer. Here begins an intense, sometimes dysfunctional romance that abets Daniel’s downward spiral.

Peters’ writing is richly descriptive. We do not just witness Daniel’s descent into utter depravity, we live it. We feel what Stavros feels. We understand his pain. Mimi is not without her own similar troubles, but hers are more in control. So she is there with him, propping him up as he descends, until at last she becomes his only link to sanity.

And then she dumps him.

Part two, though not formally identified as such, begins when Stavros’ empathetic boss hands him a key to an isolated mountain cabin during a poignant scene in which Daniel barely clings to reality.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. Part two is figurative and surreal. There is an almost Alice in Wonderland quality to the succession of scenes—a flow that feels like an amusement park ride.

Where will the ride stop? Will the roller coaster derail? Well, I can’t divulge that, of course, but I assure you, the ride is worth the price of admission.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review of 'A Walk for Sunshine', AT hike memoir

Yep, I own an autographed copy of this enjoyable Appalachian Trail hike memoir.

A Walk for SunshineA Walk for Sunshine by Jeff Alt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(4 1/2 stars, but I always round up)

Jeff Alt hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1998 for a cause near to his heart. His severely handicapped brother, unable to communicate or care for himself because of cerebral palsy, had to be institutionalized when the family could no longer care for him. The institution they finally settled on, Sunshine Inc. of Maumee, Ohio, proved to be a first class resource, and Jeff sought to help raise money to support their work.

He tirelessly worked toward a goal of raising $10,000 as he trained for his hike. He had not achieved the goal when he set out on his Appalachian Trail adventure, but by the time he finished he had raised over $15,000.

The good cause aside, this is a book written by a young man with a warm, open heart and a wonderful low-key sense of humor. Example: not long after being chased out of a pasture by an angry bull and ignominiously falling on his face in front of drive-by hecklers as he clambered over the stile and out of the field, he pulled out his lunch, which was a roast beef sandwich, and "savored every bite with symbolic pleasure."

The book seems written and edited by amateurs. There are some basic spelling and usage errors (e.g. 'stile' in the story above is spelled 'style'). This is particularly noticeable during the first third of the book - to the point that it was a bit distracting. But the writing significantly improved through the middle and the end. It is as if Alt was growing as a writer, but did not take the time to go back to the beginning and revise.

In the end the book completely won me over because of its content and personality. The story of his hike was peppered with heart warming vignettes, the humor hit its stride by the middle of the book and kept going, and the simple selfless warmth of the story teller shined through on nearly every page. It is a worthwhile read for anyone, and one of the better Appalachian Trail hike memoirs.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

'Out of Crystal Ice' released, earns high praise

'Ice King' debuts to rave reviews, contracted with a press
that asks no fees, pays royalties.  I'm singularly blessed.

Book One of the six part 'Ice King' series has hit the stands (click this link to buy it on Amazon), and the early reviews are indeed gratifying.  More on that in a bit, but first a little bit about the book and how it came to be.

'Out of Crystal Ice' is set in the far distant future, long after an apocalypse that ended Homo sapiens' rule of the planet.  Since then a long, slowly simmering dystopia has returned the descendants of humanity to the stone age, and to the brink of extinction at the hands of several post-human rivals.  It is the saga of young Adam Gale's journey from obscurity, innocence, and denial to heights he neither wanted nor could have imagined.  It's a 'coming of age' story on steroids with plenty of action and unexpected twists.

In many ways the saga of the writing of 'Ice King' has followed a similar course for its author.  The book began as the vision of an introverted, naive college kid, not yet twenty, and has matured as its author has.

The twists and turns, plot changes and text revisions were manifold.  In the 70's and 80's I was writing with pen on paper, and produced a stack of paper nine inches thick.  Then for months in the late 80's I transferred all this to floppy disks using my trusty Mac Plus with one Megabyte of memory.  When I started a family the writing nearly stalled.  Then, upon my early retirement, in 2005, and with some fresh new ideas to enhance the plot, I resumed work in earnest and have kept slogging up the mountainside ever since.

Of course there are more peaks still to climb.  To this point, unlike Adam's rise, the heights achieved by the novel are are personal ones.  Last August, shortly before my 65th birthday, I finished writing the series--the complete six-book manuscript was, at long last, down on virtual paper.  And today this announcement marks the achievement of another significant new summit - a mountain that is finally high enough that a beacon lit on its pinnacle might catch the eye of the reading public. 

The reception for 'Out of Crystal Ice' has been wonderful.  I'm eager to share with you the first four reviews it has received.  Without further elaboration, here they are:

"The spectacular frozen world created by author P.J. Wetzel in Out of Crystal Ice hurls one dangerous adventure after another at its readers as Adam Windreath Gale, the chosen one, follows the man who has kidnapped his mother and along the way finds his destiny.

"Gale and his friend, Perfid Ray, have to battle tribes of violent (yet erotic) nomads, herds of monstrous humanoid beasts, and an environment as hostile as the center of the Arctic Circle. The events that have happened to our world more than 600,000 years in our future originated with a massive volcanic eruption on an island in Indonesia. This disaster led to a new ice age and to the loss of most of humanity. Mankind has evolved into six different species who battle and often eat each other in their competition for survival: Ozyumps, Yeti, Voods, Sky Children, Irula, and humans. Adam is one of the humans and is also the Seventh Shepherd predicted in the Book of Micah 5:5. This hard world, although limited in its technology, is closer to the creator than it was before the disaster.

"Wetzel's magnificent descriptions of the world of his novel show it can be as beautiful as it is dangerous.

" 'The sun prickled through the restless air: a thin gusty wind tugged at their hair. A low layer of gray-brown haze obscured the horizon, concealing any view of the Sinking River valley. Chinook had roused the dust and grit off the plain. But above the haze, the view waxed magnificent. Fingers of shredded cloud clung to great lofty peaks: a rank of spires that elbowed one another from south around to southwest. These grand summits shone in all the glory of this bright day, festooned in a patchwork light and dark--of ragged granite and shimmering snow, of sun and shifting shade of cloud.'

"Out of Crystal Ice is a wonderful novel for readers who enjoy dystopian fiction with a spiritual side. It is Book One of Wetzel's series entitled - Ice King: The Last Messiah."

-- Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

"Adam Gale stands poised to take on his role as The Chosen One, the Seventh Shepherd, the temporal assistance needed by the spiritual creator of all things--Strongmother Dalle--to fulfill her grand plans, whatever they might be. And so ends Out of Crystal Ice, the first book of Ice King: The Last Messiah by P.J. Wetzel. It is an intriguing tale of a reluctant hero, chosen by the spirits of his past, destined to deliver Homo Phronensis from extinction.

"Adam begins as a lowly scavenger tunneling his way through the ice fields of Canada some 600,000 years in the future. He searches, for weeks on end, for grains of wheat or small animals flash frozen during the Cleansing. His is a bleak existence with the promise of only more scavenging to stave off the constant hunger he, his family and his entire village experience in the desolate, cliff-lined hamlet of Saskatoon.

"The arrival of a mysterious traveler launches this lowly scavenger on an epic, courageous journey across the barren ice of Western Canada, past the geysers of Yellowstone, through the glacial formations now dotting the Rocky Mountains and into the fulfillment of the prophesies. It's a fast-paced action-adventure story that grabs you from the beginning and joyfully pulls you along for a rollicking rollercoaster ride, or in this case a flume ride. Wetzel effectively interrupts the action just long enough to develop his characters and expound upon the philosophy and lore of the people now inhabiting this future world, and he does so with a descriptive eloquence reminiscent of literary fiction.

"My only complaint is that, as the first of six books, there is no closure. Alas, all I can do is wait for the next installment...and I do so impatiently. Please hurry!"

-- Patrick S. Lafferty - author of Anno Domina and Commuters

"Out of Crystal Ice is the first of six volumes in P.J. Wetzel’s fantasy series, Ice King: The Last Messiah. Beginning in the year 634,751 Out of Crystal Ice is the tale of a world destroyed by the now extinct Homo sapiens, and the struggle to ensure the continuance of the planet and survival of the remaining species. The fate of the world rests on an unlikely hero, a tunnel-digging youth of Saskatoone, named Adam Windreath Gale, from a class of Homo phronensis known as Scavengers. Gale embarks on a quest to save his family and the planet from the clutches of total evil that threaten to destroy them.

"From the outset, Wetzel demonstrates his mastery of language and storytelling. The ambitious tale unfolds as smoothly as the ice of Saskatoone, and brings the reader into a landscape rich with imagery and painstaking detail. One can only marvel at Wetzel’s literary abilities as he constructs a world of people and places, and conjures up an entire philosophical system within which the story is encased. With its panoply of gods, its fascinating species of creatures, and the series of complex ideas that underlie this fantasy world, the reader is treated to a story that is truly epic in scope.

"Strong characterization, lush imagery, and fast-paced plotting are only some of the treats in store for the reader. Oh, and did I mention that Wetzel is a poet? Each chapter is preceded by a lyrical epigram deftly capturing the essence and rhythm of the pages that follow.

"Out of Crystal Ice is not a tale slapped together and thrust out into the world with little forethought. It is a story that has evolved over time, much like the world that Wetzel depicts. I am not a reader of fantasy per se, but even I can appreciate the wondrous elements that will most certainly appeal to avid readers of Tolkien, Eddings, and Martin. I eagerly await the next installment of this page-turning, satisfying saga. Indeed, anyone who loves language and a tale expertly told will enjoy this remarkable debut from the mind of an exciting new storyteller."

-- Matthew Peters, author of The Brothers’ Keepers and Conversations Among Ruins


"A Promising Start to an Ambitious Series.

"In the first of a planned six book series, P.J. Wetzel sets out with the ambitious goal of telling the tale of the messiah for an Earth hundreds of thousands of years in the future. With “Out of Crystal Ice,” he has given his readers a most promising start.

"In the year 635,037 A.D., homo sapiens are extinct, replaced by six species battling for supremacy. Among these six are the changed descendants of humans, and among these humans we find our protagonist Adam. Adam lives with his family in the middle of a crushing ice age, scavenging for food and barely staying alive. He and his younger sister Lissa hear voices, which may or may not be their ancestors guiding them on. Into this sad and meager existence comes Revelstoke, an egotistical emissary bringing word that the ancient city of Rome, one of humanity’s last bastions, has fallen before the Hoards of Armageddon. But Revelstoke, it seems, needs Adam, who may very well be the long-prophesized Last Messiah favored by God.

"Wetzel’s writing is strong, at times verging on the lyrical, and he has set out to construct a vast and complex world. “Out of Crystal Ice” ends just as Adam is discovering his true self, and leaves a number of plot threads unresolved and dangling, which may frustrate some readers. But I found the book, as the first in a long series, to be quite intriguing, and I look forward to reading the rest of the tale."

-- Rob Ross, author of Juggler's Blade