Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

Advertisements

Before the Darkness: Thoughts on Earlier Writing

Don’t ever let them tell you life is short, Ty. Life is long and people do lots of things. Some of them good. Some of them bad. And sometimes these things catch up to people. And sometimes that takes a long time.  – Evelyn Kydd, from Then Came Darkness

The arc of a writer’s life is long, too. You have to write a lot of bad stuff (and read a lot of good stuff) before you learn how to write well.

I’ve been writing since I was seven years-old (my first story was a melodrama about a jewel heist) and I’ve shoveled my fair share of crap, including countless twisted tales during middle and high school, and three highly questionable and amateur novels I rushed to market during the infancy of the self-publishing craze right after college before I finally wrote some good stuff, The Thief Maker. I’d like to think my latest, Then Came Darkness, is good stuff, too. It laid dormant for a number of years as my favorite unpublished work, and then on a delirious whim fueled by exhaustion and inspiration while on parental leave last year, I thought to myself, “What the heck, let’s dust this off and publish this thing!” It was equal parts a lark, and a test of the new waters.

A lot has changed in the twelve years since I self-published my first bit of good stuff, The Thief Maker. In the years between that and Then Came Darkness I’ve been busy with blogging and short stories (some which have been published), and big life stuff like advancing in my corporate career, multiple trips to Europe, getting married, buying a house, and having a baby. It’s easier now than ever before to self-publish thanks in large part to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, but it’s probably ten times as hard to find an audience as it was twelve years ago (not that I was very successful then either, though the small audience I did find for The Thief Maker seemed to like it).

I was honestly lost this time around until I found the #WritingCommunity on Twitter and started making use of my neighborhood Little Free Libraries, which I have tirelessly stocked with autographed copies. The one at the end of my street has been re-stocked at least five times…so thanks, neighbors, or whoever you are out there reading Then Came Darkness!

The early reviews from fellow indie authors, book bloggers, and readers have been slow to come, but mostly positive. People seem to love the characters (which brings up a feeling of pride second only to having my actual child praised by strangers), and my favorite blurb thus far has come from C. D. Tavenor, who stated “the rising conflict and relationships between characters reminded me of one of the classics I read in high school, but this time, I was reading it for pleasure!” He also loved the cover designed by my wife (thanks, hun!)

All of this made me want to take a little trip up to my attic full of boxes which store much of my earlier writing, which as terrible as most of it is, was fun as hell as to write at the time. I fondly remember the days of middle school friends fighting over who got a character named after them, and furious scribblings in notebooks during torturously boring high school classes that got passed around like gossip. Many of the techniques used, character types birthed, and themes explored later were present there from the start: fractured non-linear timelines, unreliable narrators, feisty women, tortured men, and resourceful orphans all trying to survive personal tragedies amidst larger chaotic (often apocalyptic) events.

So here, for fun, are some delicious tidbits from all that crap I had to write then to get to where I am now. Continue reading

The Future of the Science Fiction Genre and First of Their Kind

Science fiction is a genre I have a love-hate relationship with. It so often has been co-opted by fantasy and rarely focuses on the science half anymore. Even my once beloved Star Trek, which used to explore alien lands and space exploration through the veil of politics and philosophy, has devolved into action-based space opera nonsense. Sometimes when co-opted by horror (see Alien) it can be fun as hell, but more often than not schlock. And when it’s just one of the flavors of something more satirical and speculative, ala the works of Kurt Vonnegut or Margaret Atwood in novel-form and Black Mirror in streaming serialized form, it reaches my preferred heights. Then, of course, there’s the guilty pleasure of something like Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Starship Troopers (action! satire! fascism! horror! gore!)

But it’s been a long, long time since we had something like 2001: A Space Odyssey – Kubrick’s seminal film which turned science-fiction into a religious experience. Let’s not forget though, it was based on a dry, very serious-minded short story by legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Which brings us to First of Their Kind…a novel I discovered while promoting my own during #IndieApril. I was nervous to approach it, as it was science fiction, and the last science fiction novel I read (Artemis by Andy Weir) was a huge disappointment. Thankfully, I took the gamble…

C. D. Tavenor’s debut novel, First of Their Kind, harkens back to the best work of Arthur C. Clarke. This is serious science fiction that focuses on well thought-out and researched science and its potential future applications. Continue reading

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

When in Doubt Think about Ghosts

“When in doubt, think about ghosts.”

This is what director David Lynch told actor Russ Tamblyn while shooting a key scene for the original Twin Peaks in an attempt to get the right reaction. And it worked. I vividly recalled that scene, and man, Russ Tamblyn was all kinds of spooky looking, obviously thinking about ghosts.

It’s these great little tidbits that make Room to Dream such an enjoyable, and often weird, read for fans of surrealist extraordinaire David Lynch – a man who seems like he must have had a tragic, horrible upbringing to be able to tap into such pain and darkness, yet seemingly didn’t (by any account, his or another). Here is a man who had a Norman Rockwell upbringing only to obsess over the seamy underbelly of the white picket fence world he both loved and railed against.

The semi-autobiography has alternating mirrored chapters (it is eerily its own doppelgänger) about the same events  – one from the point of view of David Lynch’s friends, family, and colleagues and then one from his point of view. It is long and rambling and very detailed. Though none of the back-stories on the productions of his films were previously unknown to me, someone who has studied and read about Lynch for decades, I especially enjoyed those walks down memory lane to Philadelphia and the Eraserhead days. The meat of the book is in those delicious little tidbits and the altered views of what happened…Lynch sometimes disagrees with (or doesn’t remember) what the others say happened. Continue reading

Find Your Thrills During Indie April

#IndieApril will be coming to a close soon, so I wanted to share with readers some of the great indie writers I discovered this year who write the type of stuff I like to read and write.

First up is Pray for the Girl by Joseph Souza, which I received an advanced review copy of in March, quickly devoured all of its twists, and wrote a full review of it at The Spin a few weeks ago.

“Souza’s novel follows many of the standard modern murder mystery tropes, but’s it’s all told from the point of view of a protagonist unlike any other…In Lucy Abbott, Souza has created an unforgettable character who is tortured, complex, and tough as nails.”

Get your copy of Pray for the Girl – on sale as of April 30th.

Next up is a stand alone short story from Jenna Moquin, Stone Storm, about a man who finds a dead body in a blizzard and then fears the killer may have snuck into his farmhouse for shelter.

“Edgar Allan Poe tales are often over-used for inspiration for far too many uninspired tales. Luckily, with Jenna Moquin’s Stone Storm we have one of the more effective uses of a classic Poe theme. I won’t mention which of his fabled short stories serves as inspiration here, as it would give too much away, but this is one of the better updates I’ve read.”

Download Stone Storm to your Kindle app for one cent less than a buck.

Lastly we have John Greco’s short story collection, Bitter Ends.

“John Greco’s short story collection, Bitter Ends, is jam-packed with quick, nasty little numbers full of cheating and murdering spouses and twisty turns of fate. If there’s a lesson to be found…it’s probably this: never agree to a prenup. While some of the stories seem more like sketches and aren’t as fleshed out as others, there are a few real stand-outs of the noir genre: Good for Nothing, We All Got What We Wanted (probably my favorite…with its Upstate New York setting), and A Marriage to Die For.

Bitter Ends is available in paperback and Kindle ebook editions.

Follow me on Goodreads where you can read full reviews of Stone Storm and Bitter Ends.

The Twisting Thrills and Complex Humanism of Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl

Where does one even begin to review a book like Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl? And how can any in-depth analysis not reveal one of its major plot twists? And believe me, there are many jaw-droppers here. Souza’s novel follows many of the standard modern murder mystery tropes, but’s it’s all told from the point of view of a protagonist unlike any other.

Lucy Abbott is a veteran of the Afghan War, both emotionally and physically scarred by her experiences and haunted by the death of a young girl she couldn’t save while stationed there. After a stint in New York City where she honed her culinary skills as a way to avoid dealing with her PTSD and other issues, she returns home to Fawn Grove, Maine to help her ailing sister only to find the once proud mill town economically devastated and tensions rising between the townies and recent influx of Afghan refugees. When a young Afghan girl (like the girl Lucy couldn’t save in the war) is found buried up to her head and stoned to death, Lucy takes on the classic role of amateur detective as a way to wrestle her own demons and find redemption, she hopes for both herself and her town.

In Lucy Abbott, Souza has created an unforgettable character who is tortured, complex, and tough as nails. Her PTSD only scratches the surface of what she’s been through and amplifies the conflicts she’s had with her own identity all her life. Continue reading

Spying on Whales Reveals the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

I’ve been on a science reading kick lately, following up last year’s reading of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (a fascinating psychological study of octopi and the people who love them) with Nick Pyenson’s enthralling Spying on Whales. Pyenson weaves a fascinating adventure tale, as he globe-hops from archaeological digs in South America to whaling stations in the arctic, in his insatiable quest to track the past, present, and future of the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth.

Clearly blessed with the spirit of an adventurer and a natural-born storyteller, Pyenson is able to revel in the scientific details without losing the lay reader. His personal thoughts on the matters are often poignant, sometimes puzzling. As a new father, I was heartbroken by his personal anecdote of his young son writing him a “I miss you” letter while he was on a mission thousands of miles away. I can’t ever imagine that kind of lengthy separation. But later in the book, he walks with his son on a beach, and his son discovers a fossil that turns out to be of a previously unknown species of whale, and the fossil gets classified under the boy’s name, providing a kind of longer view outlook on the impact of his life’s work on his family. What a memory for a child to have! What type of legacy is Pyenson leaving in his both his professional field and at home? What types of adventurers will his children become?

The center piece of the book is the vivid depiction of a sprawling archaeological dig in the Atacama Desert of Chile poetically called Cerro Ballena, where excavation of a new highway has uncovered layers upon layers of complete whale skeletons – a historic find that not even Indiana Jones could’ve imagined. In a race against time and human expansion, our fearless scientists must salvage as many fossils as they can. These chapters unfold in thrilling fashion while perfectly blending in colorful side-characters, political intrigue, science, and adventure. Continue reading

Happy 2019 and 2018 Year in Review

Well, it’s 2019.

Looking back, 2018 was the most life-changing year of my life.  Though not without its share of heartbreak and struggles, I’ll focus on the positive here.

In February, I again changed the course of my career at the company I’ve been with for almost fifteen years, this time with a promotion into a different department with new mandates.

In July, I became a father when my wife and I welcomed our bouncing, baby boy.

And in November, I published my Depression Era noir novel, Then Came Darkness.  Which, as a New Years gift to my readers will be available for free download to your Kindle from January 1st through January 5th (after which it will return to its normal Kindle edition price of $4.99.  Paperback edition is always $11.99).

Here’s a quick recap of films, books, and travel at The Spin in 2018: Continue reading

The Gruesome Thrills of Dracul

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first “adult” book I remember reading as a child, and being all about horror as a lad and having already been exposed to the Bela Lugosi and Hammer film classics, I was positively obsessed with the book…so much so that years later as a senior in high school I took a mythology and folklore class where Stoker’s tale was the primary topic for a full semester and we dissected the book journal entry by journal entry, line for line.

I always imagined a bold modern update…in the 80’s and 90’s the story would’ve been told through television news clips, emergency room visit logs, and frantic 911 calls.  Today, it would be told through tweets and vlogs.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker however, imagined something quite different, driving a stake through the heart of the 1897 classic further back into its origins and Bram Stoker’s childhood and young adulthood where the mysterious fate of his beloved nanny, Ellen Crone, becomes intertwined with that of his siblings and an evil force even more fantastic than what ended up on Bram Stoker’s pages.  The result is a fun, gruesome thrill-ride complete with the tearing apart and re-assembling of a man, among other supernatural horrors. Continue reading