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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Clint & the Gang

Took this photo at the Hollywood Wax Museum in Branson, Missouri, last summer:

classic Clint Eastwood Hollywood Wax Museum Branson, MO (c2014, KB)

classic Clint Eastwood
Hollywood Wax Museum
Branson, MO (c2013, KB)

Makes me downright nostalgic.

So does this, although the artistry is somewhat less than that performed on ol’ Clint:

classic Star Trek crew Hollywood Wax Museum Branson, MO (c2013, KB)

classic Star Trek crew
Hollywood Wax Museum
Branson, MO (c2013, KB)

Maybe Westerns and outer space, mashed together, is why I love Firefly so much, and why I can’t escape the Old West influence in my writing, whether that be space opera, modern fiction, or even medieval fantasy.

I was raised in the West and the South — I live on the cusp of the West even now — and that independence of spirit and manner of speech creeps in, even when I’m not aware. Not gonna fight it. Just gonna embrace it.

 

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Family History

Last night at the writers group, there was another new face, an older woman, as are at about half of the members, and yet another family historian writing her mother’s life story and family exploits.

c2014, KB

c2014, KB

Among the writers I know, this seems to be a trend: female writers using family history for creative nonfiction, biography, or historical fiction. They are all at least twenty years older than I, meaning the youngest is in her sixties. One seventy-something friend, Nancy, recently published the third volume of historical fiction based on her mother’s life. Kathryn, in her early sixties, is currently organizing notes about and transcribing stories told by her near-century-old mother to write a fictionalized account of her mother’s early life. The new writer, Susan, wants to take readers back to the 11th century, then follow her mother’s family to the present day.

Yet another member of the group, Marguerite, is writing true short stories about her childhood and youth; and Mary is expanding her great-grandparents’ daring romance into a novel.

Other members are writing urban fantasy, fractured fairy tales, outer space adventures, a memoir about raising a severely autistic foster son.

And then there’s me.

Yes, learning about my family history is interesting. I’d love to have the money and the time to do thorough research. But I can’t. Not yet. Still, I know enough interesting details about recent generations that I could write a few short stories, maybe a whole novel, but nothing resembling a viable fact-filled tome.

I wonder, in contrast to all the women using their mothers’ stories or family trees as springboards for literature, are there any male writers out there writing their fathers’ stories? Where are they?

 

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Autumn in Carthage

Although I’ve read several such novels since, the last time-travel book that intrigued me enough that I read every word and hated being interrupted was Michael Crichton‘s Timeline. Considering the novel was released in 1999, you can see how tough a sell time-travel stories can be. At least to this reader.

Who knows if I’d like it quite so well if I re-read it today, but it holds a special place in my history (no wordplay intended), and for good or ill has become the marker by which similar stories are measured. The same holds true for Enders’ Game, Roadmarks, and a few other speculative fiction novels. I’ll read something similar, and whether I mean to or not, comparisons are made.

Each book, however, deserves to stand on its own, and I’ll endeavor to write this review without harking back to other books I’ve known.

Readers looking for a leisurely, quiet read, Autumn in Carthage is the story for them. It is a mix of mystery, time-travel fantasy, history, and romance, and much of it takes place in the small fictional town of Carthage, Wisconsin, an enclave of old wealth hiding a powerful secret.

Jaded college professor Nathan Price is our first guide to Carthage. A strange letter arrives one day. It’s from his best friend, Jamie. And it’s dated 1692.

Against reason, against known science, somehow Jamie has traveled back in time. And Nathan is going to find out why and how, and so much more than he ever anticipated knowing.

On that premise and on the decent writing, I decided to read the book. (I liked the cover, too.)

The writing is solid, and by turns scholarly, gentle, literary, or carnal, depending on the point-of-view character for a particular scene and on the story’s events. Although the tactic might work to make characters distinct from one another, for me it makes the story uneven, and the harshness or awkwardness of some word choices made me stumble out of the story. It’s as if the story doesn’t know what it wants to be or how it wants to be told.

There are phrases or moments in the book that gave me the feeling the author was trying too hard, or was unsure of his footing. Or maybe he was just tired. There’s a particular section where the writing is lazy and emotional at once, where adjectives are more editorial than usefully descriptive; where the language is jarringly carnal (there’s that word again; it fits better than “erotic”, due to the tone of the language); and at least one paragraph of dialogue that is filled with pat cliches, as if the author was bored when he wrote it.

The plot is slow to unroll, but not without reason. This isn’t a high-octane story until the last third or so. The author takes time to introduce characters and ideas, and let the reader settle in. Autumn in Carthage is, for the most part, cerebral and intriguing.

Except when it’s not. Sometimes I was reading quirky spec-fic, sometimes an erotic romance novel. I preferred the spec-fic, especially the descriptions and histories of Flectors and Flecting (time-travelers and their abilities to detect and influence history and events).

The first few chapters held my attention better than most novels I’ve read lately, but not to the point I couldn’t put it down. I might never have finished the novel were it not for a promise to write a review, and even then I skipped chunks of story to find something that kept my attention. Events certainly did pick up near the end, when the characters visit Old Salem, and the epilogue is poignant. For me, the end saves — or, perhaps, redeems — the middle of the book.

It is written by Christopher Zenos (pseudonym for a college professor published in other realms), and on the strength of his creativity alone I’d like to read more of his work. As for Autumn in Carthage, were I assigning stars, I’d give five for the ideas, three for the writing, and three for the execution/storytelling.

 

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Bite 2.0

Remember that old saying, “Win the battle, lose the war?”

Some play the victim in order to control the situation or to look like the good guy, but they lose the trust and respect of others.

Their martyrdom is so loud that any truth they might speak or pain they might feel is lost in the narcissistic lie of their victimhood.

My momma, the queen of martyrs when I was growing up, learned this lesson late in life. Dad, the king of narcissists, learned it late, as well. Sometimes, our “need to be heard” or “need to be understood” is just a veneer of pride, a desire for our egos to be stroked and our importance to be validated.

On the flip side, ever know someone’s silence to be louder than words? ‘Cause they’re teaching YOU a lesson?

Ever “learn” that lesson? Or do you give in just to keep the peace, never actually solving the problem?

Below is the rough draft of the second stanza of an unfinished poem (the first stanza can be read here):

Pleasant and quiet,
you hide the ogre of bitterness
behind demure facade, proper courtesy.
Smiling, industrious,
you seem a modern saint,
but you’re waiting
for someone to shoulder the work,
make the decisions,
be the excuse
for whatever goes wrong.
You ask my help
then duck behind me,
the strongman to shield you, the villain you blame.

c2014, KB

As you can see, there is a bite to this poem, and that may end up being its title: “Bite”. Ideas are being pummeled and knocked about like stones in a riverbed. This morning, I wrote notes for a third and possibly fourth stanza. I’m finally telling the truth that’s been crouching behind silence, and though the people to whom it is directed may never read this poem — or, if they did, may never recognize themselves — I’m finding the words at last.

 

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“I ain’t wuth a darn at spinnin’ a yarn what wanders away from the truth”

Another entry in honor of poetry month, here’s one of my favorite poems, first encountered some time in elementary school when I memorized it for extra credit then shared it with my brother, who remembers it to this day:

A NAUTICAL EXTRAVAGANZA
by
Wallace Irwin

I stood one day by the breezy bay a-watching the ships go by,
When a tired tar said, with a shake of his head: “I wisht I could tell a lie!
“I’ve seen some sights as would jigger yer lights,
And they’ve jiggered me own, in sooth,
But I ain’t wuth a darn at spinnin’ a yarn what wanders away from the truth.

“We were out in the gig, the Rigagajig, jest a mile and a half to sea,
When Capting Snook, with a troubled look, he came and he says to me:—
“‘O Bos’n Smith, make haste forthwith and hemstich the fo’ard sail;
Accordeon pleat the dory sheet, For there’s going to be a gale.’

“I straightway did as the capting bid — No sooner the job was through
When the north wind, whoof, bounced over the roof, and, murderin’ lights, she blew!
“She blew the tars right off the spars, And the spars right off the mast,
Sails and pails and anchors and nails flew by on the wings o’ the blast.

“The galley shook as she blew our cook straight out o’ the porthole glim,
While pots and pans, kettles and cans went clatterin’ after him.
“She blew the fire from our gallant stove and the coal from our gallant bin,
She whistled apace past the capting’s face and blew the beard off his chin!

“‘O wizzel me dead!’ the capting said (And the words blew out of his mouth);
‘We’re lost, I fear, if the wind don’t veer and blow awhile from the south.’
“And wizzel me dead, no sooner he’d said them words that blew from his mouth,
Than the wind switched round with a hurricane sound and blew straight in from the south.

“We opened our eyes with a wild surprise, and never a word to say —
In changin’ her tack the wind blew back the things that she’d blew away!
“She blew the tars back onto the spars, and the spars back onto the mast;
Back flew the pails, the sails, and the nails, which into the ship stuck fast.

“And ‘fore we could look she blew back the cook straight into the galley coop;
Back dropped the pans, kettles, and cans, without even spillin’ the soup.
“She blew the fire back into the stove where it burnt in its proper place —
And all of us cheered as she blew the beard back on the capting’s face.

“There’s more o’ me tale,” said the sailor hale, “As would jigger yer lights, in sooth,
But I ain’t wuth a darn at spinnin’ a yarn what wanders away from the truth.”

Wallace Irvin (1922)

Wallace Irvin (1922)

An interesting character, ol’ Wallace. According to Wikipedia, “he created a subgenre within detective fiction, the mystery novel set in antiquity,” and he adapted some of his work for film. More of his poems can be read at Poetic Portal.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Interview: John W. Otte, author

NumbYesterday, I reviewed speculative fiction novel, Numb, the story of an assassin who feels neither physical nor emotional pain. It is the featured novel in this month’s Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour,and an excerpt of this fast-paced futuristic thriller can be read here or by clicking on the book cover image.

Today, I ask author John W. Otte a few questions about writing the book and dealing with negative reviews from readers who don’t expect his faith to be front-and-center in his fiction.

So, without further ado:

Keanan Brand: If I’m writing a short story, it maintains its general plot and characters from first draft to last. A novel, however, morphs over time until my original idea may not be recognizable in the final product. An upcoming fantasy novel, for instance, began as a short story almost twenty years ago, but readers would never know the novel was born of the short story. What sparked the idea for Numb, and how did your original vision change as the story progressed? Can that inciting idea still be recognized in the published novel?

John W. Otte: It’s funny you should mention it. I decided that I would tell Numb’s origin story on the first day of the tour. (You can find the story here.) I don’t think my vision changed all that much. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted the story to proceed. One of the curses of being an outliner, I suppose. At one point, I did have to modify the antagonist’s story a little. Without giving away too many spoilers, the antagonist’s motivation didn’t seem to be enough to me, so I had to up the stakes for him/her just a little. Once I had done that, the whole thing just gelled perfectly.

Brand: Numb is fast-paced and intriguing. I’ve read reviews of many books recently, some of which I’ve edited, and a recurring theme among non-Christian readers is their annoyance at being “duped” or “sucked in” to a story that they later find to be Christian in its themes or worldview. Some of those reviews can be vitriolic, and even contain warnings to future readers not to buy the books. Numb contains much violence — not graphic, but integral to the plot — and also many frank Christian references, from a twisted version of the faith to an almost Early Church version. Have you encountered readers uncertain about or unwilling to read a blatantly Christian novel? Or Christians unwilling to read a novel containing violence? If so, how have you handled such criticisms?

Otte: Not about Numb, at least, not yet. With my first book, Failstate, I’ve seen two reviewers on Goodreads that weren’t pleased with the fact that it was a Christian book. In one case, the person who wrote the review said he didn’t finish the book because he had a bad experience with Christians in his youth. I offered him a refund, but he turned me down since the copy he bought was for the library he worked in. The second guy was extremely angry at being “tricked” into reading a book by a pastor who wanted to preach at him. He said he was going to go through the book with a marker and black out all the religious stuff. I decided to ignore that one. And really, that’s probably the best way to handle that sort of situation. Not everyone is going to like what I write and arguing with them isn’t going to change their minds.

At some point, someone may call me on the violence in Numb. If it happens, I would probably point out that, given Crusader’s background and the nature of the Ministrix, that sort of violence would not only be acceptable but expected. Part of Crusader’s journey is trying to leave that violence behind, but that’s not easy, given how ingrained it is within him.

Brand: Given his task as assassin and his harsh faith, Crusader may be difficult to like at first, though his efficiency and skill are admirable. Did you struggle to make him likable, or did you just write him as you saw him, and hope the reader came along for the ride?

Otte: I don’t think I struggled all that much. I know that sounds cocky, but truth be told, I kind of lucked into Crusader’s temperament. I knew that people would have a hard time relating to him, so I decided to include the fact that he was a gifted artist as a way to soften him up a little. But that was really the only conscious decision I made to try to make him more relatable.

Brand: Confession: I was uncertain about his reaction to Isolda. I didn’t want a taut story to derail into squishy romance. However, you managed to keep the story going, and used the attraction and the deep feelings to propel the forward motion of the plot. How difficult was that to write, and did you consider other outcomes for Crusader and Isolda’s storyline?

Otte: When my wife saw this question, she insisted that I include the following statement: “I am not a romantic person by nature.” And as much as it pains me to admit it, there’s a lot of truth to that. I’ve always been a little clumsy and awkward around women. I still count it as a minor miracle that my wife fell in love with me. So in some ways, that made Crusader’s romance with Isolda a lot easier to write, at least from his perspective. I could just inject a lot of my own experiences into it.

As for an alternate ending for Crusader and Isolda, I don’t think so. It’s been like seven years since I wrote the book, so some of the details are hazy (I do remember that I took an extended break from writing the book toward the end of chapter five and I can even tell you what line I stopped at), but I’m pretty sure their ending never changed. Again, it’s one of the perils of being an outliner when it comes to writing. I have to know the beginning, big chunks of the middle, and the end of a story before I start writing it and I don’t deviate from my plans unless I have a really good reason to.

Brand: Numb is quite good as a standalone novel; and, as a reader, I’m good with just the one book. However, there are still characters and ideas that could be explored. Have you considered setting other stories in the same universe?

Otte: Actually, I have. A few years back, I wrote what I call a “pseudo-sequel” to Numb entitled Hive. I call it a pseudo-sequel because, while it’s set in the same universe and takes place shortly after Numb wraps up, there’s not a lot that carries over from Numb to Hive. It earned the nickname “the pregnant teenage cyborg book” at a writing conference (that’s actually a good summary of one of the characters). I need to do some work on it. I haven’t had the chance recently, but maybe in the next couple of months. We’ll have to see.

Brand: If you write it, I look forward to reading it!

For more about Numb, click here to read my review and to find a list of other bloggers reviewing the novel.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Numb

Crusader perched like a gargoyle on a second floor ledge across from the safe house’s entrance. He ignored the rain pouring down his face even though it blurred his vision. The weather didn’t matter. Neither did his posture. God created him to execute the Ministrix’s justice. Soon he would fulfill his ordained purpose.

The building across the street from him consumed his attention. It was unremarkable in its construction, a four story box made of standard terracrete. Its dull beige exterior matched that of its neighbors, making the entire block look like a row of rotten teeth. Low bushes lined the front of the building. To the untrained eye, the building would appear to be a simple apartment building or maybe an office complex. But Crusader knew better. He could see the subtle way the front entrance had been reinforced, or the forcefield emitters tucked into the windows in case of siege. No, this was no ordinary building. It was a Praesidium safe house and his prey was inside.

John W. Otte. Numb (Kindle Locations 24-31). Marcher Lord Press. Kindle Edition.

NumbI blitzed through John W. Otte‘s futuristic speculative novel, Numb, during a couple sick days earlier this month. It was at the top of the stack already, I was going to read it, ill or not, and it was the perfect reading material to distract me from the ickies.

Crusader is an assassin. Or, as some might have it, a minister of divine justice. He’s the best. Not only does he complete his assignments with brutal efficiency, he feels no pain — emotional or physical.

He serves the Ministrix, a religious governmental entity that portrays Christ as having come down from the Cross to visit vengeance on His enemies. Anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic to be punished.

All Crusader knows or remembers is his service to the Ministrix. He has never questioned the rightness of what he does.

Then he receives a strange set of orders: Kill Isolda Westin, and do it in public.

Whenever he sees her image, there are thoughts and sensations he cannot explain.

What’s so special about an obscure engineer? And why break protocol by killing her where everyone can see?

And why is he suddenly reluctant to obey?

Otte handles the action scenes and the suspense well, and I had no trouble following the story or keeping track of the characters.

I figured out — or, at least, strongly suspected — a few twists before they were revealed, and experienced that strange sense of superiority the occurs when one unravels a secret before the characters do.

And then the realization hit: I was feeling all smug because I’d out-thought a bunch of fictional individuals.

Yes, well, ahem.

Moving on.

The novel is written from an unabashed Christian point of view, but it’s not all “come to Jesus”. It shows how religion can be skewed and outright twisted to oppress and imprison, and how truth can set free. I appreciated the juxtaposition.

Crusader’s numbness being breached by a particular person reminded me of a couple characters — Nathan and Audrey — in a popular SyFy show, Haven, but Otte does not borrow from that storyline. Numb is its own entity. If there’s any story that Numb strongly resembles, it’s the story of Saul in the New Testament. A Pharisee, Saul persecuted the Early Church, harassing Christians and imprisoning them, thinking he did the will of God.

Until God Himself stood in Saul’s path and turned his life around.

I enjoyed the book, and thought the story was well told. However, I did occasionally trip over word choices or phrasing — alluring grin, for instance — or dangling pronouns, so I was pulled out of the story whenever I had to figure out who was speaking or doing something.

Were I giving a score, Numb is a strong 4 out of 5 stars.

————————-

This post is part of the CSFF Blog Tour for April. For other opinions on the novel, visit these other stops on the tour:

Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Beckie Burnham
Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Amber McCallister
Shannon McDermott
Shannon McNear
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Faye Oygard
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White

 

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When It’s Time To Go

When it’s time to go
You’ve got to let me go away and face the world
Say goodbye
Cry some tears, don’t worry
When I hit the city I’ll build you a house right down the street from mine
Have some faith in me and I’ll show you why

4Him, “When It’s Time To Go“, The Basics of Life (1992)

That song was a hit when I was younger, and — like other songs from that era — it makes me want to go on a road trip. Many of my favorite songs were first heard on the radio while I drove.

I was restless then, when this song was popular. Life hadn’t turned out as planned. I’d left college, broken up with a fiance, tunneled through a long, suicidal depression. I didn’t know what to do, where to turn. I prayed. I plodded through the days. I was determined to beat whatever grabbed at my heels to keep me down.

I never did beat it. Not completely.

But I learned contentment, gratitude, and (sometimes) peace of mind.

Life gained a measure of purpose when I was hired to work at a non-profit youth facility. Challenged, busy, I thought myself happy. But, as life is wont to do, everything changed. Long after blight struck my career, I persisted. Stubborn, I am, and prone to letting fear dictate my actions.

Yet even that, too, changed. I wearied of fear. I hungered for something more. I learned to loosen my grip. Open my hands.

Life is made of seasons. There are times to stay, and times to go.

So I did.

I left it all — house, job, parents, familiar territory — and went.

Multnomah Falls, Oregon (c2013, KB)

Multnomah Falls, Oregon
(c2013, KB)

Now another season has turned, and I’ve left again. This time, however, I’m not leaving a place but a position.

For a little over two years, I’ve been an associate editor with a small press. I’ve been stressed, challenged, educated. I’ve had to stand my ground, not wavering, knowing what I said was true even if was unpopular. Had to let go of fear and just let things be. Opposition and intimidation revealed more about the antagonists than about me, but dagnabbit, it’s hard sometimes to simply stand.

I’d realized early on that the new boss — the founding editor — was eerily like my former boss. Still, I’m stubborn, remember?

But why keep doing the same thing over and over and over?

Y’know, I’ve spent most of my working life being employed by passive-aggressives who circumvented and undermined me rather than deal with me face-to-face. I hate conflict, but I’d rather address a problem and move past it. Why wallow in it by never looking it in the eye and calling it by name?

So, I did what the other guy wouldn’t, and demanded an accounting. He gave it. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was honest.

I thanked him, gave an accounting of myself, and politely resigned.

Not sure if he was really surprised, but that side-winding demeanor returned: Hey, he didn’t mean to run me off, but, well, y’know, that was my choice.

He never did address the reasons I was leaving.

So be it.

Hanging out my freelance shingle again.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)

 

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Unspoken

I’m more prone to talking it out or keeping my mouth shut when I’m angry, and less likely to lash out or act in anger, though that has been known to happen. Generally, though, it’s a fifty-fifty split between talking it through or mulling it over.

A couple weeks ago, I left the room rather than explode. A host of things needed to be said. If they aren’t said, someone will never know what needs to be changed.

On the other hand, if I did speak, I wouldn’t have been heard. I’d have been interrupted, shouted down, accused of being the bad guy. Rather than seeing the need for change, the other person would have tried to turn the mirror around.

That’s something else I know well. There was a time I became rather adept at avoiding the dirty laundry, deafening myself to the words I didn’t want to hear, the truths I didn’t want to see, and turning the mirror back on the people who were trying to shine light.

It’s uncomfortable in its brilliance — we shut our eyes against it — but sunlight is good. It’s nature’s bleach for laundry hung out to dry.

a January afternoon in the park (c2014, KB)

a January afternoon in the park
(c2014, KB)

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in Family, Journeys, Life, Stories, Uncategorized

 

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Bite

I like poetry deep or witty, a slice of life or a contemplation, but I’ve noticed a bite in the poems I write, a tendency for incising rather than rhapsodizing.

In honor of poetry month, here’s the first stanza of an unfinished piece begun a few days ago after a meeting with a writer just starting the journey toward becoming a novelist. She complained she couldn’t write a character because that person was too unlike her. (I would argue she cannot write the character because she is very much the same.) She wants my help then resists it. I’ve been in her place — new, uncertain, proud — but I’ve had to slog my way to where I am. Though there have been mentors along the way, there have been no easy paths. She’ll learn, but she’ll need to be honest with herself to do it.

— unfinished —

Laughing and loud,
you disguise insecurity
behind a brash mask of blithe sincerity.
Wide-eyed, eager,
you seem an apt pupil,
but you’re taking my measure:
How much do I know?
How will you benefit?
How much of me can you suck away,
your vampire teeth
biting deep in my brain,
feasting on knowledge you did nothing to earn?

c2014, KB

 

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