Classic Lit Challenge 3: All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months after my father was killed, my mother purged a ton of his books, so when I was at her house searching for something to read, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the bookshelves were as bare as a Venezuelan supermarket. All I found were a few All Quietreligious books, some non-fiction war books and…All Quiet on the Western Front.

I probably grimaced when I pulled it off the shelf. Not only because it was a boring war novel that you’re assigned in high school, but also because on the cover was John Boy from The Waltons TV show. That show bored me to death, as did the character, so I can’t dissociate the actor from the character, or the show.

Nevertheless, I took it with me. It was short enough to meet my classic challenge standard, and I love the history of Germany during the pre-WWII era. So I figured I’d just try to not look too long at John Boy on the cover and give it a try.

I was expecting Erich Maria Remarque’s classic to be boring. It wasn’t. I was also expecting it to be staid and mannered. I was wrong again. All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of Paul, a battle-hardened German soldier fighting along the western front in France during World War One. In his preface, Remarque clearly states that the book is not meant to be anti war. While it could easily be mistaken for a pacifist plea, it’s not. It’s just a detailed account of life as a soldier.

At times the writing is bawdy. He’s not adverse to throwing in a few fart jokes, of all things. In other episodes, Remarque, through the narrator, clearly relays the intense camaraderie that develops among soldiers. This falls just short of romanticization, which makes it even more effective.

One thing that kept coming back to me (which was in contrast to the thirtysomething actor on the book’s cover) was Paul’s age. He and his friends enlist just after high school. He’s 19 during the course of the book. More than once he comments on how disillusioned he and his entire generation have become because of the war, how lost they are, how much they’ve aged. This was one of the most powerful themes for me.

All Quiet on the Western Front is bursting with rich description. Unlike most modern novels, it’s not told in a traditional three-act structure. That’s because it was serialized during the 1920s. I found the episodic nature of the chapters compelling.

All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t go over too well once the Nazis came into power. It was a target of book burnings, and Remarque fled the country. The Nazis are long gone, but his book still persists.

Next up, my first failure.

Classic Lit Challenge, Episode 2: Ethan Frome

Ethan Who??

As I write this I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails — The Day The World Went Away. It fits the mood I was in when I picked up Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and the song’s constrained brutality fits the mood of the book.

I was in a “whole world went away” kind of mood when I rummaged through the stacks of books at the local protestant church’s used book pile (paperbacks for a dollar!). I’d just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand oethan fromef Darkness, still haunted by that resonating line of hers: Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing? I was desperate for another book, one that had some words and meaning that would give me something (what “thing” I couldn’t say). On a shelf full of plays I found a few dozen classics. I sifted through them, and I chose Edith Wharton’s book for only one reason. It was short. Right now I can’t sit through anything longer than 300 pages, and this paperback version was about 100.

Deal.

All I knew of Edith Wharton was that she was a highly regarded American writer from the turn of the last century, that she was rich, and that she wrote books about rich people. I expected Ethan Frome to be a novel about boring rich people and their fussy manners.

I was wrong.

It’s about poor people and their fussy manners. And their inability to set their hearts on a possible thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Ethan Frome. It’s a big story in a little book. It’s a focused narrative that mines deep emotions. It is restrained yet revealing.

The book is about the title character’s doomed, aborted love affair. Wharton does something interesting craft-wise. She opens with an unnamed narrator (who totally doesn’t matter) describing an older Ethan as a crippled man, both physically and emotionally. Eventually the narrator learns how Ethan became so wounded. Years earlier, Ethan, trapped in a loveless marriage with the shrewish Zeena, falls for her cousin Mattie, who is boarding with the Fromes to help Zeena, who is more or less a hypochondriac. Ethan falls in love with Mattie. Zeena, who only seems to love her mysterious malady, plans on sending Mattie away. Ethan grows desperate.

And then the trouble begins.

I won’t reveal what happened, but I was totally caught up in the story. Everyone is trapped in lives and a society that offer no escape. Their choices are severely constrained. Hope is hard to come by.

It fit my mood perfectly.

Ethan Frome is a book to wallow in. I don’t thing Edith Wharton thought highly of marriage, and she had no clue about struggling working class folk. but none of that mattered. She burrowed deep into the hearts of her characters. She churned a whirlpool of tension until the final shocking moments when she revealed exactly how Ethan’s body and spirit were broken.

Next in my literary challenge, another dark and stormy classic.

 

 

Read this book: Black Moon

Have you ever had a wicked bout of insomnia? It’s near dawn and you haven’t been able to sleep, no matter what you do. The world outside your bedroom is fast asleep, but not you. And slowly, you begin to hate all these lucky sleepers as your mind jumps and skitters.

Imagine if that insomnia lasted not one night, but several days — and then endlessly. What would you do? How much of your sanity would remain?

Black MoonThis is the premise of Kenneth Calhoun’s debut novel Black Moon. An unexplained insomnia plague has struck. People are becoming sleepless zombies, losing their minds as they wander the landscape. A lucky few, however, can still sleep. Only they’re targeted by the angry hordes.

Black Moon is a new take on the zombie craze that refuses to die out. It includes several zombie tropes that we all know so well by now — the ravaged landscape, the plucky heroes targeted, the dystopian gloom. The fact that these “zombies” are still alive is a fresh twist.

This strong premise, and not the characterization or plotting, is what carries this book, and it’s unfortunate. Black Moon is a good book. It could have been a great one.

Time for the breakdown. First, the good:

— As I said, the premise is strong. It taps into a nearly universal experience. Most of us have been frustrated by not being able to fall asleep. And we have also had that spacey, drunk-like feeling of being sleep deprived. Black Moon raises an interesting question: how much of our daily life is simply a valiant effort to hold back the unconscious wildness that streaks through our minds at any given moment? Our dream worlds, like our inner monologues, are free flowing and chaotic. Which is our more natural state?

— Apocalyptic books can take one of two paths: the knowledgeable official (government, scientist, etc), who works to solve the problem, or the ordinary Joe/Jane who struggles to survive. I prefer the latter. Black Moon shifted between several characters — average people all struggling to cope. This book provided no answers, and it didn’t even try to. I appreciated that.

— At around 300 pages, Black Moon is short. It is a quick and thrilling read. And Calhoun can write quality prose.

And the not so good:

— Plotting is not one of the stronger suits of Black Moon. We shift between character viewpoints, which isn’t a problem, except when the shifts jump around, leaving the reader confused as to what happened and why. You may find yourself backtracking several times, and not in a good way. Calhoun had the room to explore several scenes more fully, and for some reason, he chose not to.

— The characters were a mixed bag. Biggs is one of the POV characters. He can sleep, and he searches for his insomniac wife, Carolyn. All the while, we get their back story as a couple. While I could relate to Biggs through his interactions with his dying world, I could not relate to the wife he described. I didn’t like her at all, and didn’t care. Several of the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs, not flesh-and-blood people.

These drawbacks were not insignificant. Luckily, the premise is strong enough to counterbalance these flaws. Ultimately, Black Moon is a fun book. It’s a new take on the zombie craze that will keep you up at night as you race to finish it.

Read this book: Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis’s alt history/sci-fi mashup scores big on imagination, even if many of his characters are flat.

bitter seeds 1

Aside from the supernatural/horror/sci-fi, another thing I’m a fan of in pop culture is alternative histories. The “what if” has always fascinated me, mainly because it lets the imagination run away.

In his book Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis combines not only sci-fi, but also horror, with alternative history. Add nazis, arguably one of the best villain groups of all time, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.

bitter seeds 3The plot: in Germany, a mad scientist is creating his own band of supermen, soldiers capable of such things as turning invisible, starting fire, and predicting the future. As war looms between Germany and the rest of Europe, the British government forms a group called Milkweed to investigate these reports. Soon a covert battle ensues as the British group use warlocks to summon dark forces to battle the nazis.

It’s actually a complicated plot to explain in a few tight sentences. Our hero is Raybould Marsh, a pugnacious British secret agent who is sent to investigate the reports of these supermen. Soon he summons his college friend Will, a warlock initiated in a blood rite that allows him to communicate with beings called Eidolons. When you think of Eidolons, think Lovecraft. These mysterious beings are not kindly or benevolent. They see humans as no better than ants. They would gladly destroy us but they exist in a different plane, and can never pin us down. Blood helps them get closer. Tregillis doesn’t fully explain what the Eidolons are, but he doesn’t need to. My imagination filled the gaps just fine.

Meanwhile, the German team of superheroes is on the verge of falling apart. They were Bitter-Seeds 2created when they were just children, bought by a scientist who experimented on them (horribly, one would assume, judging from the body count) until he had his team in place. They wear batteries that are hooked to wires embedded in their skulls, which allows them to access their superpowers. This is one of Tregillis’s strengths — he employs, simple, believable technology suited for the era. Think steampunk circa 1930s.

The German story centers on two characters: Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through walls, and his sister Gretel, an enigmatic sociopath who knows the future (though she rarely reveals it). Gretel is perhaps the most compelling character. Why? She is always a mystery, always unpredictable, and always uncontrolled. She’s fascinating to watch.

The breakdown. What was good about Bitter Seeds?

–The concept was fun. Who doesn’t love watching nazis get beat?

–As mentioned above. Gretel was by far my favorite character, though Will, the aristocratic warlock, was a close second. Tregillis convincingly drew a man who grew more and more tortured, especially as the Eidolons demanded higher blood prices as the battle continued.

–The Eidolons themselves were a fantastic creation. Thoroughly dangerous, extremely powerful, callously indifferent. I want more.

–Tregillis is a skilled writer. As a writer myself, I’m always appreciative of someone who takes great care in the writing of a story.

And the not so good:

Bitter Seeds suffers from something I see a lot in fiction. I call it the running in circles plot. Maybe the writer isn’t sure what to do next. Maybe the writer needs to up his page count. But sometimes a story starts running in circles, where the characters are going back and forth (sometimes literally) and not really getting anywhere. Not much plot movement, maybe a little character development. There were several times when I could feel the story lapsing into this.

–Aside from Gretel and Will, I cared little about any of the other characters. Our hero, Marsh, was fine, but he never made the leap off the page for me. Similarly, Klaus was very one note. His whole role was to protect his sister Gretel, and that’s all he did. The Germans, especially, were largely forgettable.

Nevertheless, Bitter Seeds (which is book one in a trilogy) is inventive, imaginative and thrilling. I’m looking forward to discovering where Tregillis will take us next.

Why not Mars?

World building is an integral part of fiction. When it comes to sci-fi, Mars seems like the perfect world to build. It’s been long ignored. Now, it might get its chance chance.

Writers (myself included) are closet megalomaniacs. When you write, one of the more important, though hidden, tasks is you have to construct the fictional world your characters inhabit. This is true whether you write a true-to-life family drama or a space opera set in unexplored galaxies.

As a writer, I love that part of it. And I suspect most other writers do as well. Why? Because we get to create these worlds. We are in charge.

On that level, it’s all about the worlds. But what about literal worlds?

As a sci-fi fan, I could never figure out why Mars is always forgotten. It’s well represented in print (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for one example of many). But on film and TV, apart from a few crappy movies, Mars has been largely ignored.

Mars

And it’s right next door. You can see it, if you have a good telescope.

That may change. Spike TV, of all networks, plans to produce a TV show adapted from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars and M1_Red_MarsGreen Mars). I read these books years ago. I have some problems with the books, mostly involving pacing (slow…), but what he did brilliantly in his writing was build a world. Mars.

His books track the colonization and terraforming of Mars over centuries. He includes topics and themes such as genetic engineering and social unrest. His characters run the gamut of human nature. And he has a space elevator,which blew my young sci-fi mind when I first read about it years ago, but is now slowly turning from science fiction to science fact.

If this series comes to pass (which is always a huge question mark) and if it is done well (an even bigger question mark), it would finally give the Red Planet its due in the sci-fi world.

Let’s hope. Here’s to world building.

Read this book: The Maze Runner

Short take: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is a thrill ride that succeeds despite its lack of heart.

Maze RunnerWhen I was young I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These books were a plot maze where the reader would make a decision at a crucial plot point, and then be directed to a certain page to continue the story. Some decisions would lead to a dead end — end of story — while others would keep you going. All the books were exciting, plot-driven page turners where character (and character development) was largely irrelevant.

In many ways, The Maze Runner, another entry in the YA dystopian canon, reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s an action-packed story with characters who might as well be blank.

The story: Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no firm memories, that takes him to a place populated with tough-talking teenage boys. Thomas soon discovers that he’s trapped, as are all the boys. Every day the walls of their compound open, revealing mazes that the boys attempt to navigate. They’ve failed to find an escape, and are threatened by biomechanical monsters called Grievers that lurk in the maze. Thomas is determined to become a maze runner, convinced he can not only solve the maze, but also recover his lost memories.

First, the good:

–Reading The Maze Runner, the first in a series, is like being at a great amusement park. The book is a constant thrill ride that had me turning pages (flipping through my Kindle) at a lightning pace. Dashner excels at turning up the heat and keeping it going.

–Not only that, but Dashner expertly parcels out hints of what’s really going on. He gives us just enough to pique our interest the whole way through.

And the not-so-good:

–Thomas as a character is not relatable. He doesn’t have much of an inner life, largely because he can’t recall his past. Thomas has guts, but he has no heart. I felt the same about most of the other characters — group leaders Newt and Alby, maze-running expert Minho, and the mysterious lone girl Teresa. The only character who seemed three-dimensional was eager, bumbling Chuck. Dashner subtly showed us how desperate Chuck was for friendship. He did this through Chuck’s dialogue and actions. If only Dashner had done that with Thomas and the rest.

–I didn’t buy Thomas’s fledgling relationship with Teresa. Again, maybe it was the fact that both characters were amnesiacs; there wasn’t much to build on. Was Teresa included only to throw in a romantic subplot? If so, then it felt forced.

–While the story was thrilling, there were times when I wanted Dashner to slow down. There was little reflection. The Maze Runner would have benefited from a break in the action now and then.

But these complaints don’t doom the book — far from it.

The Maze Runner is just one among many YA dystopian novels, a trend which seems to never end. The ones I enjoyed the most — The Hunger Games series and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind — excelled because they focused on character. The Maze Runner shows that sometimes you can get away with relying solely on plot.

Read this book: Dark Matter

This moody haunted tale takes its time, but delivers a solid scare.

Dark-Matter-jacket-200x315While writing my latest supernatural work I wanted a good ghost story to read. A google search brought me to a Guardian review of Michelle Paver’s novel Dark Matter. After a few false starts I got to reading it. The woman knows how create a chilling world.

The plot: In 1937 pre-war London, bored clerk Jack Miller signs up to a months-long Arctic expedition run by rich guys Gus, Algie and Hugo. But the isolated expedition site turns out to be haunted. Jack must battle loneliness and isolation as he struggles to survive both the elements and the supernatural force.

First, the positives.

Setting: The setting of Dark Matter is great. She describes the landscape beautifully, and the particulars of the mission confidently, transporting me to the Arctic. It’s obvious that Paver has done her research.

Foreshadowing: Several of the earlier scenes involve Eriksson, a grizzled Norwegian ship captain. His demeanor alone lets us know that nothing good will come from this expedition. And, as in many great horror tales, the neophytes don’t listen to the veteran’s advice.

Mood: Paver is a wordsmith, and she uses her words to spin a claustrophobic, isolated mood. Her writing is deceptively simple. Her language and descriptions are straightforward and powerful.

Jack Miller: he’s the main character of Dark Matter, and the story is told from his point of view. While he’s not the most forthcoming narrator, he is likeable. We root for him, early on, even as he remains hidden from us.

Isaak: Jack befriends one of the huskies, a playful pup named Isaak. I’m not an animal person (I once had a hermit crab that disappeared), but the dog gives the story some much-needed humanity. Animals are powerful in fiction; I learned that in my story Always Mine. My hero Danny has one loyal companion, his dog Rocky, who plays a key role in keeping Danny sane and safe. Their relationship led to some of the strongest feedback from readers. I can see why now. At some points I was more worried for Isaak than Jack.

And the negatives.

The story doesn’t kick in until well over 100 pages. Dark Matter is only a 250 page book. Much of the first 100 pages is setting up the story. I was tempted to put it down for good several times. But once it gets going it’s on fire.

Jack Miller, the hero, is underwritten. The most glaring omission: there’s no mention of any kind of sexual/romantic aspect to his character, inner or outer. Jack is in his mid 20s. There would be some small reference to that aspect of himself, or lack of. Paver previously wrote children’s books. She seemed hesitant to write a fully formed adult.

Perspective: A major flaw is how Dark Matter is told. It’s first person — Jack’s journal entries. But he’s an unreliable narrator, not just about the events but also his own self. I would have loved to see the wider story. We do get a glimpse of it when Jack reads the journal of one of his companions, and what we see is a starkly different version of Jack. I wonder what this story would have been like if written in the 3rd person.

Dark Matter is a flawed book, and I was torn for a while as to whether it warranted a recommendation. In the end, despite these flaws, Paver succeeded in crafting a haunting, disturbed world. Hopefully she will embrace adult fiction more fully.

Interview with Indie Author Kevin Singer

This woman knows a thing or two about writing compelling characters. Dev, the lead in Madhuri Blaylock’s book The Girl (The Sanctum), is a teenage half angel/half demon powerhouse. Recently Madhuri interviewed me about my story Always Mine. It was a great experience. Check out the interview, and check out Madhuri’s book too.

MadhuriWrites

Back in January the book club at 9th & Coles Tavern in downtown Jersey City read THE GIRL and invited me to attend their discussion session. It was loads of fun hanging with Greg and the gang and was where I met fellow author and neighbor, Kevin Singer.

He’s very cool and it was fun talking about my book with another writer so when I had the chance this past March, I returned the favor and picked up his book “Always Mine”. It’s a little gem of a story and if you have a chance, I highly recommend snagging a copy and getting lost in its pages. You won’t regret it.

AlwaysMine_final

After reading “Always Mine”, I thought it would be fun to interview Kevin and see what goes on in his writer’s mind. Here’s what I discovered about Mister Singer:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’ve been in love…

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