Sunday, September 28, 2014

Commuters - a delicious new novel by Patrick S. Lafferty


Patrick S. Lafferty has written a first class novel. Were I to categorize it—and that is not my strong suit—I’d call it a Suspense-Thriller-Murder Mystery, or perhaps an Occult Thriller that skims the fringes of both Historical Fiction and Fantasy. But those are only labels. What matters is that this is an engaging, pulse-quickening read from start to finish.

The only difference between ‘Commuters’ and some of the New York Times best sellers that I’ve read recently is that this imaginative, meticulously crafted story is better.

The plot lines of most novels, including the best sellers, have weaknesses that trigger my very sensitive “BS” alarm—that response in me that says ‘not plausible’ or ‘far too contrived.’ ‘Commuters’ triggered this alarm in only one respect: there were too many coincidences. But in response to this, Lafferty has an ‘out’: things are not all what they seem—supernatural forces are at work here. Regardless, for me stories such as these should not be trying to emulate the messy real world. Rather, they ought to strive to heighten reality, thus practicing the time-honored storyteller's art.

I can easily picture ‘Commuters’ becoming a Hollywood blockbuster. As the theater lights dim and the curtain rises, an opening prologue depicts a scene in a king's court from the year 1106 in the southern Iberian Peninsula. It is a ceremony of human sacrifice in the inner sanctum of the aging swart-skinned Sultan of Morocco, Yusuf ibn Tashfin and presided over by his fair skinned sorceress wife Zainab ben Ishaq al-Nafzawiyya. As Yusuf plunges a dagger into the victim’s heart, Zainab invokes the jinn, and these Islamic spirit-entities made of smokeless fire bestow immortality on the aged monarch—a covenant that must be renewed yearly with further human sacrifice.

As the credits finish rolling, the scene shifts to a deteriorating suburban center-town intersection where affluent Mitchell Treadwell, driving by in his BMW, notices his teenage son standing at the busy corner. They meet nearby at the curb and exchange a few inconsequential words. We hear Davis promising to be home in just a few minutes. The camera pans back as Mitchell drives away, then it follows Davis as he pulls his car keys from his pocket and walks into a dark alley, beyond which is a parking lot. A smaller man approaches. Words are exchanged. The man is soliciting sex. Davis refuses and continues toward his car. There is a scuffle, a blunt instrument slams against Davis’ temple and the screen goes dark.

This is how I imagine a screenplay writer might re-envision the opening of the story for big screen appeal. The written word requires a different tack, and it is not until 1/3 of the way through the book that the occult element begins to surface. Instead the book begins with this simple yet captivating sentence:

“Twenty-eight years ago Mitchell Treadwell witnessed his first murder. In just a few hours he’d witness his last.”

What follows is the well-crafted and suspenseful action that surrounds and interweaves Davis’ abduction with several recent murders and a tension-filled fender-bender at an urban intersection. We are introduced to the players and the stage. Key characters, richly realized by the author, are Mitchell Treadwell, his police-woman sister-in-law Connie Wysczyzewski, Jenkins, her jerk of a partner, two city detectives named Brown and Watts who are working on three dozen cold-case homicides that they suspect may all be related, a ghetto king-pin named Willie Spence, an old African-American community pillar who everyone calls ‘Uncle Max,’ and a peculiar obsessive suburban ‘road warrior’ named Andy Walker, whose prime goal in life seems to be nothing more than to be a flawless driver during his twice daily 50-minute commute to and from a mundane job across town.

During these introductory scenes we are almost left wondering who the central protagonist is going to be. But it soon becomes starkly clear. The affluent and respected businessman, Mitchell Treadwell, has a secret life. Here’s another quote, words spoken to Treadwell by Connie:

“Sometimes you scare me, Mitch. Greek mythology. Serial killers. You know way too much about way too many things. Way too many creepy things.”

What follows is a heart-pumping page turner of the first magnitude as Mitchell seeks to learn the fate of his son—a fate that he may have inadvertently caused. I have not recently read a book that kept my attention more riveted as the deftly crafted plot unfolds and the unexpected entanglements reveal themselves. Highly recommended. Tell your friends.

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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