Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

YA novel breaks into new dimension: A review of Laura Maisano’s ‘Schism’

Editor’s note: If you wish to purchase the book, please click the image of the book cover to go to Amazon. This profits both the writer and the Exile.

Unfortunately, I have no photographic evidence I’ve met a being from another dimension.

No matter. The salmon-skinned, winged Illirin Seer, Aime Nee, was out and about in Dallas, Texas, last month promoting her alter ego Laura Maisano‘s YA novel, Schism.

Schism proves a fun read about a mismatched pair of college students, Gabe Jones and Lea Huckley, who discover they are chasing down the same path (or should I say, portal?) toward an alternate dimension — the realm of the Illirin, a world connected to Earth by more than the dimensional pathways known as “thinnings.”

While Gabe is taking an art class as a way to fend off his grief over the loss of his fiancee and recover from memory loss, he meets Lea, a math student actively seeking a fourth dimension. After their accidental meeting, they not only discover the fourth dimension, they discover Gabe’s secret — he is Illirin, a winged inhabitant of the other realm, and one who suddenly and reluctantly gets great power thrust into his hands. Power that puts two worlds onto the cusp of interdimensional war.

The novel is a fast-paced fantasy, with plenty of romance, betrayal, and action.

It left me wanting to know more about the Illirin realm, however. Maisano touches on this new world in brief glimpses, which is appropriate given the protagonists only recently discovered it exists and that they both have ties to it.

Fortunately, this is the first book planned in a series. So, the glimpses are likely to evolve into fully formed sights. And the final pages of Schism also hint of Nee’s future role, outside of book promotions.

— Todd

 

Origins: Jamie Schultz on Premonitions

premonitions cover

A member of my writer’s group, the North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop, Jamie Schultz has published his first novel, Premonitions. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy and crime novel that blends modern-day thieves with magic, dark gods and cults. What could go wrong? Here’s Jamie to tell you a little bit about how he came up with this book:

She drove west, foot to the floor, trying not to look at the thing in the passenger seat.

That was the original first line of Premonitions, my new urban fantasy novel about a group of occult thieves that gets in way over their collective head. The line didn’t survive to see the finished first draft, and neither did the scene containing it, but the damage had been done, and the whole book fell out of there. You can almost see it between the words of the sentence: she’s got something terrible in the passenger seat, and she’s driving like hell to get away from something even worse.

I should back up. Premonitions is an odd sort of genre mix—a heist novel dressed up in its very finest urban fantasy gear, and probably wearing horror underwear. It’s loaded with well-meaning crooks, terrible demons, nefarious crime lords, and the very nastiest of black magic. The horror and fantasy elements were things I’d already been working with for awhile, but for the crime stuff, you can blame Charlie Huston, and Don Winslow, and Tom Piccirilli, and Elmore Leonard, and—well, let’s just say I’d been reading a lot of crime fiction at the time I started writing. I had been reading so much of the stuff, in fact, that I never actually made a conscious decision to mash that type of thing into my work. It seemed completely natural, and it was only after I’d finished that I stepped back and thought, “Dear God, what have I wrought?”

In retrospect, it seems like a good fit. Urban fantasy tends to draw lightly from each of noir and horror to begin with, lifting tropes with gleeful abandon and putting them to its own evil uses. I think I might just have cranked that dial up more than is typical, especially from the noir side. The bad guys aren’t all-powerful, and the good guys are crooks, and while the characters spread out quite a bit along the good-evil spectrum, nobody’s hat is exactly white. The characters are flawed, often frightened or desperate, and sometimes they make bad decisions.

Anyway, having steeped myself in that type of reading, that first sentence rattled loose from my keyboard. She drove west, foot to the floor, trying not to look at the thing in the passenger seat.

What next? Well, I knew that I wanted to work with a larger cast than I had in the past. There would be a central character, but instead of a lone figure, she’d be part of a group. The heist setup practically wrote itself. It just needed one more thing—motivation. Why should a reader be sympathetic to a bunch of thieves?

There are lots of ways to make this work in typical crime fiction, but with fantasy, I had a broader palette to work from. Make the main character see the future, I thought. Just glimpses. Hallucinations, really, superimposed on and indistinguishable from her regular perceptions of reality. Then make them get wildly, horribly out of control if she doesn’t keep them in check with a grotesquely expensive black market concoction. Poof, there it was: A great reason for her to need stupid amounts of money, combined with a plausible reason for her success at a difficult, illegal, and typically unhealthy occupation.

Of course, everybody knows that the heist at the center of a good heist story is doomed to go wrong… but now I’m veering off origins and on to spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

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The book is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon or at local booksellers. Check it out.

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*Editor’s note: Origins is a semi-regular feature where writers can tell my audience about how they came up with their books. I try to largely concentrate on science fiction and fantasy writers, but, if you are interested in writing a piece on your book, let me know.

 

Albert of AdelaideAlbert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To compare the story of a platypus in search of Old Australia to the allegedly deep, profound post-apocalyptic nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, it may seem,  an apples-to-watermelons comparison.

But, shave off Cormac McCarthy’s layers of pretentious faux Faulknerway prose, and humans-reduced- to-pronouns nihilism, and you have the story of a journey through the heart of darkness that is just darkness and virtually no story.

With Howard L. Anderson’s Albert of Adelaide, on the other hand, you get a journey into and out of the heart of darkness, as seen through the eyes of a platypus, Albert, escaped from the Adelaide Zoo to search for a promised land known as Old Australia. What Albert finds instead is a pyromaniacal wombat, drunken bandicoots, a militia of kangaroos (bent on preserving the purity and superiority of marsupialness over other species)and various and sundry misadventures in a barren desert settlement known as the Gates of Hell.

Unlike McCarthy’s dark, soulless novel, Anderson has achieved with Albert of Adelaide what few supposedly literary novels do—give readers a story and characters to care about, even as they are committing atrocious acts of violence, and a protagonist worth caring about, as he preserves his humanity (or would that be platypussity?). Something McCarthy’s The Road, his protagonists, fails to do.

View all my reviews

Booking Through Thursday: A Shout Out to the Great Unknown

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

This is a tough question to answer. I haven’t read any new or emerging authors this year (Yes, Yes, I know! We’re only 21 days into this fresh new year, but still . . .). I suppose I could promote my own work , but that seems a little narcissistic, doesn’t it? Besides, I have yet to complete that novel I’ve supposedly been working on for the past five years so there is no book to brag about. I haven’t published a short story since 2004. And I haven’t published any freelance work since late 2008.So self promotion doesn’t seem to be in order.

On the other hand, I did read some new fiction early last year, emerging writers Joe O’Connell and Karen Harrington, and they are certainly worth championing. New writers need all the promotion they can get these days. And I’ve read a lot of nonfiction that I’ve enjoyed by William Bradley.

Another writer traversing the nonfiction map whose work is worth looking into is Dinty W. Moore . Start with his witty Google Maps essay , though you’ve probably read it already. (If you haven’t, do.)

Plenty of writers out there deserve more attention. One of my favorites is New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. Her features, besides being great magazine profiles, delve into the quirkier side of life, like her recent Smithsonian magazine piece on donkeys in Morocco. And The Orchid Thief is a masterwork of literary journalism. Who knew orchids could be so intriguing?

Stephen Harrigan, essayist and novelist, deserves some love, too. Harrigan’s Gates of the Alamo does what a historical novel should: it takes you to a different time and place — revolutionary Texas — and gives you a feel for that time and place, and at the same time, gives you a cast of characters caught up in that time without being stick figures presliced for TV movies.

The Influence of Anxiety

When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.

Publishing News: Graphic Novel Receives Monstrous Bid

In the Sunday Books section of the Austin American-Statesman, I read a review of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by debut author Reif Larsen. According to the review, the book is a graphic novel in a similar vein as Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine. It follows the narrative “of a 12-year-old boy on a secret trek to Washington, D.C., who speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness.”

Somehow T.S.’s scientific drawings receive an award from the Smithsonian Institution, according to the review, and he’s on his way to Washington. The review applauds the artwork and narrative, except for a large section that recounts a story about his great-great-grandmother. That story, the reviewer says, falls short of T.S.’s voice. The reviewer also says the final quarter of the novel “evaporate[s] into gassy sentimentality.”

I haven’t read the novel so I can’t pass judgment on it, but the review also notes the manuscript received almost $1 million when New York Publishing houses bid on it. This bothers me. While I think writers should receive vast sums for their work, I really can’t see how such a huge bid can help publishing at a time when publishing is suffering gigantic woes.

Such a sum seems a greater risk on a debut work than, say, on a J.K. Rowling manuscript. From the description, this book is a piece of experimental fiction, rarely high-bid, bestselling work. Do the publishers expect a monstrous return on their investment?

And just in case anyone out there is interested, I’m pretty sure my novel manuscript is worth at least $1 million. Any takers?