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

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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: Karen Harrington on Sure Signs of Crazy

SSOC final cover (441x640) (2)

I don’t recall how I first discovered author Karen Harrington, although it was probably through following a link to her blog Scobberlotch. However it happened, I’m glad I did. Her first novel, Janeology, is a moving exploration of mental illness and family, and a riveting legal thriller.

Karen’s follow-up novel, Sure Signs of Crazy, a middle-grade/YA story of Sarah Nelson, surviving daughter of Janeology’s Jane Nelson, is a moving and touching story of a young girl’s quest to understand herself, her family and her relationships with her father and especially her mother.

I recently emailed Karen to tell us a bit more about her new novel:

TG: What made you write the story?

KH: I wrote this story in large part because of a letter I received from a reader of my first novel, Janeology. The letter asked questions about Jane’s daughter, Sarah, and wondered what it would be like to grow up with an infamous mother. I couldn’t get that idea out of my head! I thought, Wow, I’m now thinking about that young girl, too. That was the genesis of writing Sarah’s story. I wanted to understand how she would cope, how she would see herself in the world.

TG: You’ve mentioned the novel was originally meant to be a more adult novel, a sequel to Janeology, rather than a YA or middle-grade book. How did the change come about? Was it difficult to adjust the manuscript?

KH: This was an interesting adjustment, but one I’m quite happy about. I really thought the themes of mental illness and fears of inherited traits were darker and heavy, and, therefore, more suited to an older audience. But since that time, I’ve read many terrific books in the middle-grade category and find that there’s lots of space for stories that are realistic and depict big problems in the lives of young kids. I like that these stories sort of provide hope and an example for real-world kids to follow. That’s what I’d like readers of Sure Signs to take from Sarah’s story.

TG: Why did you choose To Kill a Mockingbird as the novel that guides Sarah?

KH: I don’t even quite remember the part of the writing process where To Kill A Mockingbird came into Sarah’s life. It just happened. Then I read a lot of biographies about Harper Lee and lit upon the fact that Lee’s mother possibly struggled with mental illness. I knew then that this book would be a huge part of Sarah’s life. She would find that connection in the characters and with the author that would allow her to know she wasn’t alone. Sarah also related to TKAM so much because like Scout Finch, she too is being raised by a single father.

TG: You have a tween’s voice down very well. Was it difficult to develop Sarah’s voice?

KH: Thank you for saying that. This might sound odd, but writing this story was so natural. Sarah came to me fully formed and I followed her. I remember days when I’d open my manuscript and think, “I can’t wait to talk to Sarah today.” So it was really like having a conversation with a young person.

TG: What are you working on currently?

KH: I’ve just finished up final edits for my next middle-grade book, Courage for Beginners, due out in August 2014. It’s another coming-of-age story that follows the life of a Texas seventh-grader during a dramatic change in the life of her family and how working on a Texas History project plants the seeds of courage in her life. An early reader told me this story is “a love letter to Texas” and I hope others see it that way, too.

—Todd

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Editor’s note: This is the first of what I hope to be a series (tentatively titled Origins) of author interviews, guest posts, etc., of recently published novels nonfiction or other creative projects. If you would like to participate, please comment below or contact me through this site.  I will follow-up with guidelines in a later post.

Copy editing conundrum 6: Shady Cliche and Stunted Emotions

Episode 6:

It’s been some time since I last posted a Copy Editing Conundrum. So, welcome new readers. Hope you enjoy, and are informed, as well as entertained. Although, technically today’s episode has less to do with copy editing, and much more to do with substantive editing, or perhaps injecting bad substances into published work like Hunter Thompson injected, well, everything, rather than pumping those substances out.

I found this cliche-ridden gem quoted in a Writer’s Digest article on what makes novels sell, and the excerpt is from a novel, or series of novels, that’s making the writer a J.K. Rowling-rich hack. (I write for money; I think writers should make money and a lot of it, but it still irks me that bad writing can make so much money and sell people on cheap emotions.) Anyhow, here’s the passage in question:

Okay, I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very  attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely. No harm can come of that.

Every line is a cliche. It reminds me  of a teenage girl’s diary, or even a prepubescent girl writing about her first crush. And yet, the character is supposed to be an adult woman, confessing her darkest erotic desires. An apparently emotionally-stunted woman. (Have you guessed the bestseller?)

This is bad writing at its finest, reveling in its shiny badness. And I’m disappointed in Writer’s Digest for providing it as an example of tension-filled writing that will make your novel sell. It may help sell, but it’s not tension-filled. It’s not remotely satisfying, at least for this reader. Is this the kind of writing modern readers want, even if it is meant as escapism? I hope not. I hope it’s a passing fancy.

My advice would be to send this passage back and tell the writer to rewrite it until a real character, a real woman with genuine desires emerges from the prose.

Of course, if the whole novel reads like this one passage, the writer could churn out a novel a month, which will make the writer’s publisher happy, as long as readers are buying. And the hack will laugh all the way to the bank.

—Todd

Pollysyllabic Spree End of Year update

New Year’ Eve 2011 update of Books Bought, Books Read (with commentary as warranted):

Books bought since Oct. 1, 2011:

  • The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (An excellent, fast-paced urban fantasy novel featuring a battle between magic and reason.)
  • Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Well-Being by Andrew Weil, M.D. (Has a good exercise routine for us old farts.)
  • Wild Cards, Volume One, edited by George R.R. Martin (A collaborative novel-in-stories about alien viruses, a foppish alien, jokers—and maybe some smoker and midnight tokers—and reluctant superheroes know as Aces. Currently reading this novel. Interesting that SF and fantasy novelists, as well as other genre novelists seem to collaborate and create. Something not often seen with “literary” fiction.)
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Who wouldn’t want to be as cool, well-fed and well traveled as Bourdain?)
  • Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Metaphase by Vonda McIntyre (third in her Starfarers series)
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-fifth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
  • The Edge of Ruin by Melinda Snodgrass (second in her Edge series)
  • Marsbound, Starbound and Earthbound by Joe Haldeman (a trilogy)
  • Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan Rosenfeld
  • World-Building: A Writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L. Gillett
  • A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty
  • Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain

In the SF Masterworks series:

  • Babel-17 by Samuel Delany (My first of Delany’s novels. A wild ride with hints of pre-cyberpunk. Also concerned with the nature of language, in this case a language that has to be understood in order to deal with a potential alien threat.)
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (looking forward to reading this after reading the original short story)
  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
  • The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Books Read:

  • The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Time keeps on slipping, slipping . . .)
  • Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Well-Being by Andrew Weil, M.D. (Has a good exercise routine for us old farts.)
  • The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (An excellent, fast-paced urban fantasy novel featuring a battle between magic and reason.)
  • Babel-17 by Samuel Delany (My first of Delany’s novels. A wild ride with hints of pre-cyberpunk. Also concerned with the nature of language, in this case a language that has to be understood in order to deal with a potential alien threat.)

 

 

Brief Review of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

I Am Legend (S.F. Masterworks)I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don’t expect Will Smith’s movie I Am Legend  (2007) if you read Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel. As with any novel-to-film adaptation, directors take poetic license: the film’s vampires, for instance, are soul-less brutes.

Though the film holds up on its own, it’s no match for the novel.

Robert Neville is the only human left in a post-apocalytic world inhabited by vampires. To survive, he locks himself in a boarded, locked and garlic-filled home at night, and stalks around a devastated Los Angeles killing the vampires by day.

While the novel has vampires—a horror staple—it works just as well as science fiction (it’s in fact part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, the books of which I’ve been trying to find and read, in part as another reading project, as well as to learn from SF masters). The vampirism, Neville discovers, is a disease, and an apparently uncurable one.

And though Neville struggles to understand the disease, it turns out (spoiler alert) he’s the legend of which the novel’s title speaks.

The novel is a dark but philosophically powerful book, ultimately humanistic in outlook, despite its ending.

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Review of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Through the eyes of protagonist William Mandella, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War gives readers a glimpse of what war in deep space and on distant planets might be like. It’s a theme taken up by countless science fiction writers — Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card, to name a few — and no telling how many SF films and tv shows.

Though set in the far future, this novel is comparable to any classic war novel. It’s gritty and unromantic. And given that Haldeman is a Vietnam vet, The Forever War is a novel as much about that war as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The war Mandella fights against an alien enemy millions of light years from Earth has a spurious beginning — its Gulf of Tonkin incident. The soldiers in Mandella’s unit fight in hostile environments against an often unseen enemy.

Because of the phenomenon of time dilation caused by light speed travel, soldiers age months while Earth ages centuries. When they return home, they find the word vastly changed, an almost completely different culture: one ravaged by overpopulation as well as wars and violence. An experience not unlike that many Vietnam vets had upon their return to the United States. Haldeman in interviews talks about the feeling the went on without him while he was overseas.

The novel, however, is more than a metaphor of Vietnam: Haldeman is prescient about such things as overpopulation, violence and more tolerance of gays.

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