News and updates about Gordon's fiction, available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, courtesy of Oghma Creative Media.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Excerpt from a work-in-progress: Slings and Arrows

I've started work on the seventh in the Snowe Agency mystery series, entitled Slings and Arrows.  All of the Snowe mysteries have started with the agents -- a client comes in to talk to them about a murder.  This one starts differently.

With the murder itself.

Here's the first bit.  See what you think.

*********************************

A clear October night.  Stars glittering in the frosty air, their cold light casting no illumination on the trees that lined Garwood Avenue.  There was no traffic, no headlights—it was an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac, and was ten past midnight on a Tuesday night, when most of the middle class working stiffs who lived in this part of Colville, New York were sound asleep.

So no one saw the disheveled man staggering his way down the sidewalk.  His face wore a petulant scowl, and he was muttering to himself.  "Goddamn bartender… lotta nerve.  My car keys, no right to take 'em… I'm fine to drive, done it before, never had a damn problem… Tomorrow gonna go raise hell with the owner, get the bitch fired…"

An anemic streetlight's livid glare set his shadow turning underneath his feet as he moved past it.  He looked down at it, watching his silhouette swing from behind him to in front of him, then stretch out, longer and longer.  Something about its silent movement was nauseating.  He hoped he wouldn't puke.  It'd been a while since he'd had enough alcohol to start him puking, and it was worse than the inevitable headache he'd have tomorrow.

His scowl deepened.  And of course Kathy would be up waiting for him.  She always was.  She'd have that disapproving frown that struck a crease in the middle of her forehead, and tell him how he needed to stop going out with his buddies, especially on a work night, one day his boss in the construction company would get sick of him showing up to work hung over, and then he'd get fired.

It was the same lecture every damn time.  He hated that lecture worse than he hated puking.

But there were no lights on in the windows of his house.  He stopped and squinted up at the living room window, wondering for a moment if maybe he'd turned into the wrong driveway.  But there it was, that stupid stained-glass window hanging of a hummingbird that Kathy had gotten at a craft fair.  Maybe when he got inside, he'd take down that ugly-ass thing, find a hammer, and smash it to bits.

He stumbled down the sidewalk, almost losing his balance and falling into the front garden when he had to negotiate a single step up.  He looked at the set of eight steps that led up to his front door, and wondered how, exactly, he was going to manage them.

It was the last thought he ever had.

The sound of the baseball bat connecting with the back of his head loud enough that the man who swung it stepped back, startled, and slipped into the shadow of the hedge where he'd been hiding. He waited for lights to come on, for the neighbors to come and investigate.  The ruinous noise of his victim's skull caving in had been nothing short of horrifying.

But five minutes passed, and no lights came on, there were no shouts of "Who's there?"

He stepped out from the shadows still holding the bat, now swinging loosely from his right hand.  He gave a quick, furtive gesture with his left, and a woman came out from behind a clump of birch trees across the street, and crossed to him.

"Done?" she said in a low whisper.

"Done."  He pointed at the victim's body, sprawled on the sidewalk.  There wasn't enough light here to see him clearly, and the woman went up and knelt next to him, placing two fingers underneath the rough line of his jaw.

After a moment, she stood, and gave a tight, jerky nod.  "Dead."  She pulled out a cloth bag that had been tucked underneath her belt, and held it out open to him.  He dropped the bat in, and she twisted the top of it and tied it shut.

The man said, "Good."  He pulled out his cellphone, tapped the Text app, and after a moment, typed in a name.  In the text box he wrote three letters:

"SPW."

The response came in seconds.  It was a thumbs-up sign.

"Okay," he whispered.  "Let's get out of here."

The woman caught his sleeve.  "You gonna be okay?"

He swallowed, nodded.  "Yeah.  I'll be okay.  You?"

She returned his nod.  "See you in a couple of days."

Minutes later, the shadowed driveway was empty.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

What I'm reading (#35)

Is it possible to hate a book solely because of the very last line?

I ask because that was my reaction to William Sleator's The Duplicate.  I picked up a copy at our local used book sale (one of the biggest in the country -- the Ithaca Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale, a quarter of a million books in a huge warehouse -- one of the high points of my year).  I've loved a lot of Sleator's other YA speculative fiction books, including House of Stairs, Interstellar Pig, Strange Attractors, and (especially) Among the Dolls, which stands out to me as one of the most brilliantly crafted YA speculative fiction books ever written.

So I was looking forward to The Duplicate.


The story itself had an interesting premise; a teenage boy finds a machine that can create a perfect copy of himself, not only physically but mentally.  The duplicate would have all of the original's knowledge and memories, not to mention personality, reactions, and insecurities.  At first, the idea seems brilliant; two identical copies would mean that each of them would only have to go to school half of the time, and one could be doing chores while the other was making out with his girlfriend.  What could go wrong, right?

The answer turns out to be "everything."  David, the main character, does not anticipate two things; (1) that the duplicate will have a mind of his own, and in fact firmly believes that he is the original David; and (2) once the duplicate is created, their experiences and memories begin to diverge, so it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pretend to be the same person.  Also, there are some serious inconveniences.  Only one of them can sleep in the bed, if indeed they can both be in the bedroom in the same time without their parents realizing.  If one is at dinner, the other has to go hungry.

And so on.

The whole thing turns into an increasingly tense drama of errors, as David gets more entangled with a duplicate who turns out not to be controllable, or even friendly.  And when the duplicate creates yet another copy, things spiral out of control.

So far, so good.  Interesting stuff, well written, and we really want the main character to win the day.

But I have this thing about books, movies, and television shows; I hate it when I feel like the creator is playing with me.  It's why the later conspiracy theory episodes of The X Files left me wanting to hurl a heavy object at the television; I felt like the writers came up with the ideas by sitting around a table, sipping scotch and saying, "Heh.  Let's do this.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."  It's why I have no patience for David Lynch movies -- Mulholland Drive made me want to kick a wall.  I don't need to have all the answers -- for cryin' in the sink, I've written whole books where the reader is left to piece things together -- but I want some closure.   And most of all, I don't want to feel like the writer is being coy with me, doing something that has as its sole goal leaving me going, "Ooh, wow, that was unexpected, I wonder what will happen next?"

And that's what happens at the end of The Duplicate.  Everything gets more or less resolved, and on the last page David is having a nice time kissing his girlfriend Angela... and then comes the last line, which reads, and I quote:

"Until the phone rang."

When I got to the end, I said, "What?" followed by an intensifier I will not include out of consideration for my more sensitive readers.  There is no hint of who might be on the phone; the resolution of the story gives you no information about anyone who might be calling, and worse, whose call might destroy the happy teenage hormone-fest that was happening beforehand.

But that's how it ends.  No sequel, no idea of what Sleator had in mind.  Did one of the duplicates survive?  Was there a third duplicate?  Is it Angela's former boyfriend, threatening to knock David's teeth out because they were sitting on the couch snogging?

No way to know.

Like I said, I don't need all the answers, nor do I need everything neatly tied up with a ribbon on top.  My favorite book of all time is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, after all, and if you know what happens at the end of that book, you'll understand why I bring it up.  But this just struck me as cheap, as a way to create a suspenseful ending that the plot didn't deserve.  At least if there was some other twist in the last chapter, it might give us enough to have at least a guess as to what was going on.

But the end of this book makes me feel like Sleator was just tired of writing, and said, "Heh.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."

Which is a crummy way to treat your readers.

So if you want to read some great Sleator -- and he has more than one really fantastic story out there -- check out some of the ones I mentioned above.  But my suggestion is to give The Duplicate a pass.  Unless you like pointless cliffhangers, which I suppose some of you may.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm reading (#34)

I first stumbled across essayist John McPhee's work because of my interest in rocks.

I was living in Washington State at the time, and took a class that gave me a rather eye-opening look at how complex the geology of the Pacific Coast is.  A friend asked if I'd read McPhee's quartet of books about the geology of the United States -- Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  I hadn't, but I did, and I was hooked.

I continued to read his work, and found that the man has a way of making damn near any subject interesting.  I mean, for pete's sake, he wrote a book called Oranges, on the citrus industry in Florida and California.  He also wrote an entire book (The Founding Fish) on people who fish for American shad.  Both are fascinating, despite my being neither an orange grower nor a fisherman.

So I proceeded to get every book I could find by McPhee.

That was how I came to read last week his book Uncommon Carriers, about people who haul freight by truck, boat, air, and train.  As with all of McPhee's books, he focuses not only on the facts of the topic, but the people -- and, in fact, spends weeks traveling all over the United States, in a tanker truck, a coal train, and a Illinois River barge.


What it brought home to me is how much goes on behind the scenes to give us the lifestyle that we middle-class folks in the United States enjoy.  Few of us, when we pick up the can of WD-40 to oil a door hinge, think of the fact that the ubiquitous and helpful spray was (1) manufactured somewhere, and (2) carried across the country in a tanker truck.  Likewise for all the other commodities we have; unless you make a deliberate and concerted effort to buy local, everything you purchase, use, or consume took a ride on some sort of freight hauler.  It was brought to you by people who spend their entire lives moving things in large quantities from one place to another.

So once again, McPhee has taken a topic that few of us give a thought to, and shown us not only the details but the human side.  If you haven't read McPhee, you should.  His insight, wry sense of humor, and interest in the human condition make anything he writes a fascinating read.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#33)

Another of my summer reads was a book given to me by a friend, who said, "This seems right in your wheelhouse."

The book was Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  And she was right.  It's a mind-blowing ride through alternate universes, with assorted kidnappings, assaults, hair's breadth escapes, all with an underlying thread of quantum physics to hold it all together.

Here's the gist, or as much as I can give you and still avoid spoilers.

Jason Dessen is a relatively unknown professor of physics at a small college, but he gave up a promising career as a researcher for his girlfriend (eventually wife) and child.  His friends chided him for his decision; Jason is brilliant, they said, and with his creative mind and knowledge of science, he could make incredible contributions to the field.

Jason, however, is content with the lot he's chosen, and his life is placid and pleasant -- until the moment he's abducted by a masked assailant who refuses to give him any information about why he's been captured, where he's being taken, or who his captors are.

Forced at knifepoint to go to an abandoned warehouse, Jason is knocked over the head and injected with... something.  When he wakes up, he's surrounded by people who know him -- but to his astonishment, they treat him as if he was the genius research physicist he almost became.


This is just the beginning, and believe me, it's only the beginning of Jason's troubles.  It's an exciting whirlwind of a book, although I have to deduct some Style Points because of Crouch's love for paragraphs made up of single sentences, often sentence fragments.  A lot of the book reads like this:
He turned. 
There they were. 
Chasing him. 
All of them. 
He ran. 
Faster and faster. 
But he could hear them. 
Catching up.
Okay, I exaggerate (slightly).  But it did begin to seem like a vocal tic after a while.  As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to avoid certain turns of phrase; my publisher still gives me grief for my love of the word "desiccated," which showed up in my book Sephirot several times (in my own defense, the book had two major scenes set in a desert).

But this seems like something an editor should have caught.

It's a little annoying.

After a while.

But that's really a small criticism, and his book is well worth reading, especially for the Gordian Knot ending, which was masterful.  So if you want a mind-bender of a read, pick up a copy of Dark Matter.

And watch out for masked assailants.

They're everywhere.

Friday, August 25, 2017

What I'm reading (#32)

Last year, while doing some research for a post on mystic (and presumed hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda for my other blog, Skeptophilia, I ran across a reference to a book I'd never heard of before -- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.  The writer of the article I was reading as background for my Castaneda post said, in essence, "If you're looking for a real exploration of the mystical beliefs of the Southwest, don't bother with Castaneda's made-up nonsense.  Read Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, which (even though it is fiction) will give you a much more authentic picture of the beliefs and culture."  (I can't give you the exact quote, because I was unable to find the reference again, but that's the gist.)

I kind of forgot about the comment for some time, but then quite by accident stumbled upon a copy of it in Autumn Leaves, a wonderful used book store in Ithaca, New York.  So I bought it.


And I'm glad I did.  Bless Me, Ultima is a combination of a mythic account of a shaman and her apprentice, and a coming-of-age story.  It is by turns poignant, funny, and heart-poundingly thrilling.  The main character, Antonio M├írez y Luna, tells the story of his relationship with the old curandera Ultima (whom Antonio's mother always refers to by the honorific "La Grande"), and how she took him under her wing and taught him what she knew about healing, nature, and life.

When things take a darker turn -- when Ultima angers a vicious and evil man named Tenorio Trementina, who vows to take revenge on her -- Antonio turns from pupil to protector, and is determined to stop Tenorio from harming the aged healer who has become his mentor and friend.  To tell you more about how this all plays out would be unfair; so I'll simply tell you to get the book.  It's that good.

So I'm glad that a chance reference, and then happening upon a used copy of the book, led me to Anaya's writing.  And the comment was right: besides being a good story, and an inspiring tale of coming-of-age, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful lens into the culture of the Southwest.  I recommend it without reservation.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New release... Sights, Signs, & Shadows!

Hi y'all... if you've enjoyed my tales of the paranormal, which have featured specters that abduct children (Signal to Noise), mechanical devices that focus psychic energy (Gears), and a man trapped in an interlocking set of alternative worlds where one misstep could mean death (Sephirot), you'll want a look at my new collection of short stories that spin more webs of magic, terror and the macabre!

Take a guided tour through the paranormal with sixteen tales of horror, humor, and the supernatural...


You’ll meet a man who’ll tell you your future if you give him a gift; pay a life-altering visit to a haunted ruin in the Central American jungle; have your photograph taken by a camera that steals time; peer into the cell of a prisoner in solitary confinement who may not be as alone as he thinks; and share the growing fear of a group of people trapped in an apartment complex during a category-5 hurricane as they realize that the storm itself might be the least of their worries.  In each story, you’ll get to know characters who are about to have their worldview turned upside down, and who are forced to navigate a landscape different than anything they ever imagined.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What I'm reading (#31)

In spring of 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult planted plastic bags full of sarin (a powerful and deadly nerve agent) at different spots in the Tokyo subway system.  Twelve people died, fifty were seriously injured, and an estimated 5,000 had temporary injury (predominantly vision problems).  The perpetrators -- all of whom survived -- were arrested, and all but one sentenced to death, along with several other leaders of the cult.  (The one that was not sentenced to death is now serving life imprisonment.)

Haruki Murakami, the author of over a dozen amazing and surreal books, took a break from his fiction writing to look at how the attack happened, and (insofar as it is possible to discern) why it happened.  The result was Underground, a gripping, intense, and sometimes difficult to read series of interviews with the survivors, and an unflinching look at the personalities and motivations of the perpetrators.

Underground is written with the sterling clarity of Murakami's other works.  It leaves you a little breathless -- both at how such random, thoughtless evil can exist in the world, and also at the selflessness and courage of the people who risked their own lives to save subway passengers stricken by the poison.  He doesn't sugar coat the facts; if you read it, prepare yourself for horrifying details of what it was like to experience being hit with nerve gas.  It's not pretty, it's not reassuring, but it is some of the best-written non-fiction I've ever read.


Crime reporting is, in a lot of ways, a paradox.  On the one hand, it gives the reader a lens into the minds of criminals, allows you some measure of understanding of how they tick.  On the other, it shows you just how far these people are from normalcy, and how unreachable and incomprehensible true sociopathy is.  It is telling that not a single one of the Aum Shinrikyo murderers has shown any remorse, and several still consider the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, as having the key to all wisdom.

It's not a comfortable read, but it is brilliantly done.  I will, however, urge you not to make the mistake I made.  I read this while on a trip to visit my publisher in Arkansas.  And I can tell you from my experience, this is not a book you want to read while stuck on public mass transportation with a bunch of strangers.

Just for what it's worth.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What I'm reading (#30)

Hi all...

It's been a long while since I've posted here -- life intruded (as it is wont to do), I was out of state for ten days after being out of the country for 11, and I've just generally been running about frantically.  I have, however, been reading, and over the next couple of weeks I'll post reviews for some of my spring and summer reads.

Also... my short story collection, Sights, Signs, and Shadows, is now available for pre-order!  It's a collection of some of my best short stories, and one novella, "Convection."  The release date is August 17, and I hope you'll get it.  There's something in it for everyone -- scary, funny, thought-provoking, and a couple that (I'm told) will make you go through an entire box of Kleenex.

Then, in October, the first of my Snowe Agency Mysteries, Poison the Well, will be released.  The detectives at Snowe Agency are a unique bunch.  Competent, forthright Bethany Hale has precognitive dreams; suave Seth Augustine is a psychometer (he can pick up psychic traces from touching objects others have handled); shy, awkward Jeff Kolnikoff has a telekinetic ability that is off the charts; home-body and family man Troy Seligman can do astral projection; and brilliant, eccentric Callista Lee is telepathic.  They're all led by the silver-haired, elegant Parsifal Snowe, who brings all of these differing personalities and skills to bear on solving a particularly bizarre murder -- the poisoning death of an unknown man at a wedding reception, in front of two hundred witnesses.  See if you can figure out the murderer before they do!

In any case, look for some book reviews soon.  I'll start with a pair of books that I read in May -- the sequels to Ransom Riggs's wonderful Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City and The Library of Souls.



Both books held to the high standards for storytelling, evocative settings, and wonderful characters that the first one did.  The trio makes for a nice arc surrounding the reluctant Peculiar Jacob Portman, and his girlfriend, Emma Bloom.  They continue their adventures around England, trying to stop the evil Wights and Hollowgasts, and rescue the beloved Miss Peregrine and her friends from their clutches.  Along the way, we meet more Peculiars, and like the first book, the next two are replete with pictures of vintage postcards, each showing a child doing something very... peculiar.


If there is one flaw in the series, however, it doesn't show up until the very end.  All along, the Peculiars have been in danger from "aging out" -- since they spend most of their time in Loops, places where the same day repeats over and over, most of them are in actuality very, very old, although they still look like children.  If they enter the real world, all the backlog of years catches up with them, and they age rapidly and die unless they can jump to another Loop.

So Jacob, who is a teenager of the 21st century, and his girlfriend Emma, who is from the 1920s, face what seems like an impossible hurdle -- if they're together, they run the risk of Emma aging in a few days to an elderly woman, and dying.

Which wouldn't be a very pleasant end to the story.

I won't give details -- what I've already said might be a bad enough spoiler -- but I thought the way Riggs handled this was too easy.  He takes the "Everything Is Fine Because Magic" route, which I thought was a cheap way to end the series.  But even that wasn't enough to spoil my enjoyment of the books, which are fun, entertaining, occasionally funny, often scary, and endlessly inventive.

In short: if you're a fan of fantasy books, read these three.  You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#29)

I'm a huge fan of Christopher Moore.  His loopy, ribald plots and brilliantly funny use of language combine to create books that keep you saying "One more chapter..." until finally, sadly, you realize that you just turned the last page.  I think Coyote Blue, The Stupidest Angel, and (especially) A Dirty Job and its sequel Secondhand Souls, rank up there amongst the funniest books I've ever read -- but combine the humor with lovable characters that you really, really want to win in the end.

I read his novel Fool a couple of years ago -- it's a retelling of the tale of Shakespeare's King Lear from the point of view of the character of Lear's Fool, Pocket.  It has the usual Moore brilliance, and although it wouldn't show up in a list of my favorites, it's certainly a great story.

So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the sequel to Fool, The Serpent of Venice.

And this one, for me, did a total face plant.


It's a mashup of a bunch of stories -- The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Poe's The Cask of Amontillado amongst them -- and once again centers on Lear's Fool as the main character.  But the plot is such a chaotic jumble that it's hard even to give a clear description of what happens.  Pocket and his sidekicks, the giant Drool and his pet monkey Jeff, get into all sorts of hijinks and meet up with a whole host of characters both real and literary, but there's no coherent storyline to give it any kind of overarching sense.

It has its moments:
Shylock repointed his twitching, accusatory digit at his daughter.  "You do not say such things in my house.  You -- you-- you-- you-- you--" 
"Run along, love," Jessica said.  "It appears that Papa's been stricken with an apoplexy of the second person."
And this exchange between the villainous Iago and his wife, Emilia:
"Thou mendacious fuckweasel," said Emilia, almost spitting it, disgusted now rather than hysterical. 
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," said Iago. 
"Methinks the lady protests just the right amount," said Emilia.  "Methinks the lady is just getting fucking started protesting." 
So Moore's gift for belly-laugh-inducing dialogue is intact; it's more that that the story really doesn't ever come together.  Compared to tours de force of humorous speculative fiction like A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls, The Serpent of Venice just kind of falls flat.

It's a shame.  It won't, of course, stop me from reading subsequent books of Christopher Moore's -- it's just that I know how much more he's capable of.  I was hoping for another twisty trip through Moore's labyrinthine mind, with hefty doses of shenanigans and heinous fuckery most foul -- and this one really didn't do it for me.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What I'm reading (#28)

I'm a real fan of books that keep you guessing, so it is no great surprise that I read A. J. Aalto's latest book, Closet Full of Bones, in a single day.  If you've read any of her Marnie Baranuik series (beginning with the hilarious and madcap thrill-ride Touched), you might be surprised when you start reading her newest release, which is dark, understated, and as intricate as a labyrinth.

The novel centers on the siblings Gillian Hearth and Frankie Farmer, who are about as opposite as sisters can be.  Gillian is cautious, thoughtful, and loyal to a fault; Frankie is flighty, irresponsible, and trusting.  This has cast Gillian in the role of protector since they were children.  Gillian has always had to watch over her sister, protect her from the consequences of her own choices, and clean up the mess when the inevitable problems happen.

When they purchase a bed-and-breakfast together, Gillian hopes that this is a sign that Frankie's troubled past is over, that she will settle down into responsible adulthood.  But the past isn't going to let them go quite yet.  Trouble crops up in the shape of a jealous former boyfriend, Travis Freeman, and the response of the sisters to this unexpected complication starts them on a long downward spiral toward tragedy.


To give away anything more about the plot would be unfair -- this is not a book that anyone should have ruined for them by spoilers.  It's a shadowy puzzle-box of a story, centering on Gillian's determination that Frankie should be saved from herself.  It's about as different from Touched and its sequels as you can get, linked only by A. J. Aalto's tight, vivid writing and brilliant skill at drawing characters.  You will be thinking about this one long after you turn the last page.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Author interview - JC Crumpton

It was my pleasure to interview JC Crumpton this week, whose chilling and captivating first novel Silence in the Garden (published by Oghma Creative Media) will hit bookstore shelves on May 25 (it's available for preorder now at the link provided!).  Enjoy this interesting perspective from a writer you're sure to hear more about.

****************************

GB: When did you first start writing?  Tell us about how you figured out you were a storyteller.
JC: It was so long ago that I cannot even remember writing the first story that I wrote for other people.  My mother tells me I was five and it was called “The Peanut with Measles.”  Even back then, I wrote dark stories…she tells me the story didn’t have a happy ending. 
 I knew pretty much from a young age that I wanted to tell stories.  I wrote stories just to entertain me and my friends.  Things like role-playing adventures, or making up stories for my teachers when we were supposed to be keeping journals (I already did that but didn’t want to share them with the school—too many secrets).  My father served 20 years in the US Navy, and I lived in places from West Coast to the East Coast and in Europe.  I experienced so many different cultures that these stories just popped up in my imagination.  And then it helped that we spent three years in Iceland—a place where the majority of people believed in elves, and they have this incredible literary history in the Icelandic Sagas…tales of love, adventure, betrayal, murder, monsters, loyalty.  I remember traveling the country and imagining all these wonderful stories that took place across the land.  Then I spent three months in Germany with my maternal grandparents. They took us to Frankenstein’s castle, to the walled city of Rothenberg, to the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, and here again I imagined what might have happened in all these magical places.  When I graduated high school, the prophecy that was written about me was that I would be writing books in a castle in Ireland.  Haven’t been yet, but I plan to.  Everyone has always known I would tell stories.
GB: Where do you get your inspiration?
JC: Where?  I cannot tell you one specific place.  Almost everywhere.  Each morning, I send my son a word of the day along with random facts and historical events that occurred on that day.  I have a new idea for a story about a man who wouldn’t did from one of the articles I sent him.  My western serial “Field of Strong Men” came to me on a drive through southeast Kansas when I wondered to myself if there were any other cowtowns in Kansas beside Wichita and Dodge City…turns out there is a whole history of the different towns that served as the destination for cattle drives up from Texas to catch trains back east.   

The idea for my debut novel Silence in the Garden first popped into my head when some friends and I would go up to Eureka Springs nearly every weekend just to soak in the vibes from all the artists and history there.  Then the mother of one friend became the manager of the Crescent Hotel.  We would wonder through the halls looking for ghosts.  My next novel, Venus:One, got its spark when talking with a friend of mine that has his Ph.D. in Biochemistry about the feasibility that humans could be the result of generations of genetic experimentation.  So, I guess my inspiration can come from anywhere and anytime…I just need to recognize it for its potential to be a story.
GB: For you, what is the hardest thing about writing? What is the most rewarding?
JC:The hardest part is finishing.  Definitely setting down the pen or pushing the keyboard away and telling myself that it is time to wrap it up.  Every time I read something of mine, I inevitably want to edit and change it. There is a quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: Art is never finished, only abandoned. 
The most rewarding? Having someone say that my work inspired them, whether it was the characters, the plot, or just one tiny thing among the words.
GB: Silence in the Garden is, at least in part, based on real historical events, although with a paranormal twist.  How much time did you put into researching the actual events you describe in the story?
JC:As I said earlier…the inspiration came to ma a long time ago.  So, I have been reading about the Crescent Hotel and Eureka Springs for over twenty years.  But the funny thing about the research is that I started writing the story before I did a single bit of digging.  When I went back to connect it to the history of the place, I learned that a lot of what I had written was pretty close to the actual events.  Maybe something was whispering in my ear?
GB: Like what?
JC: Richard Thompson, the president of the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women owned the lakeside resort the school goes to in the book.  I wrote the scene in the story, and discovered when I went down to visit it that he used to own it.  Those kinds of things strike me as more than coincidence.
GB: Do you have a preferred time and/or place to write?
JC:I actually prefer writing at night…late, when the world is quiet.  I am easily distracted…if the world is asleep and dreaming, I can work.  But that make me very tired most mornings when I get up at 6:00.
GB: What do you do when you get stuck or hit a writer’s block?  Do you have a favorite way of jarring the ideas loose?
JC: If I get stuck on a particular project, I like to work on another.  Never stop writing.  Something is bound to pop out. 
Free writing and association is one of the methods I will use to oil up the cogs in the old brain pan.  Just keep writing…you can always come back to edit.
GB:  You definitely left some openings in SITG for a sequel, especially centered around the character of Lionel Peterson – you very much give the impression that he is involved in activities far beyond what happened in this book. Are you considering turning this into the first of a series?
JC: Not originally…but when I realized Peterson had a history outside the constraints of this story, it actually became an idea for an origin story…another historical event.
GB:Tell us about your next project.
JC: I am working on more than one right now.  My next deadline is June 8, when I am to have a story turned in for an anthology.  I am also working on my first Lonford Universe novel, Venus:One.  It goes back to that idea I had talking to a friend of mine: what happens when humans find out they are the result of a genetic experiment?  Then I expanded on that and thought, what would be the social and economic impact of terra-forming Venus and making the planet Earth’s twin in more than just name?
GB: Anything else you’d like us to know?
JC: Just thank you, and I hope you enjoy Silence in the Garden.  Don’t be afraid to contact me on my Facebook author page or on my website that is currently being built if you have any questions or just want to chat about it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#27)

It's not often that I read a book which afterwards, if someone asked me "Did you like it?", my honest answer would be, "I have no idea."

That, however, would be my reaction should anyone ask me about William Least Heat-Moon's Celestial Mechanics.  It's an odd story -- about a writer named Silas Fortunato, his intensely unlikeable wife Dominique, her sister Celeste, and a peculiar neighbor named Kyzmyt whom I was never really convinced was real.

As far as what happened in the story... well, I'm not entirely sure about that, either.  Silas and his wife spend a lot of time sniping at each other (mostly her at him).  It's clear from about page 10 that she doesn't like him much, and Silas lost a good measure of my sympathy for him when for chapter after chapter he simply let her ridicule and insult and neglect him.  (And continued to try to persuade her to stay in the marriage, or at least in their house.)

Then Dominique takes off on a business trip, and sort of... vanishes.  In case you want to read it, and I actually hope some of you will, if for no other reason to see what your reaction is, I won't tell you the circumstances of her disappearance.  But I will say if you want things tied up at the end -- if you want anything tied up at the end -- don't get your hopes up too high.


I don't mind a book that's mysterious and leaves you to fill in the missing pieces; I often write that way myself.  But in addition to Celestial Mechanics feeling like an incomplete (albeit long) story, there were two other things about it that really bugged me.

One is that there are no dialogue tags.  At all.  I know this is the current fad in novel writing, but c'mon.  Especially in the first half of the book, I lost track of the number of times I had to count backwards until I found a line of dialogue that gave me a clue as to who was talking.  I know that action phrases are better than "he said" and "she said" over and over again, but giving the reader nothing but the person's mere words to go on was pretty damned frustrating, especially given the second problem...

... which was that the characters, especially the four main characters, all sort of sounded alike.  They were erudite and glib, throwing around metaphors and literary allusions and puns and symbolism in virtually every line, only occasionally coming down out of the clouds to say something practical like "What would you like for dinner?"  (When Celeste, in response to some abstruse pronouncement by Silas, said, "I have no idea what you're talking about," I nearly cheered.)

It's a problem I have with the dialogue in a lot of television shows; after about five minutes, I'm scowling and saying, "No one really talks like that."  Nobody is that continuously clever, sardonic, and intellectual, 24/7/365.  In the case of Celestial Mechanics, it kept reminding me that I was reading fiction -- the absolute last thing you want your reader to experience.

So it was a mixed bag.  It had its intriguing moments; Dominique's repeated visions of what she thinks is the ghost of a child, Kyzmyt's peculiar witches' brews/teas, Celeste's kindness when Silas is recovering from an injury (and Celeste is far and away the most sympathetic character).  It's certainly smartly, and tightly, written.

But overall?  I can't say I liked it much.  It's a strange story about strange characters, and gives the reader little to hang on to.  All in all, Celestial Mechanics didn't really work for me.  Even as a writer of speculative fiction -- often involving the paranormal -- my main reaction is that it just didn't seem rooted enough in the real world for me to figure out what it was trying to say.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What I'm reading (#26)

Being a biology teacher, I'm understandably attracted to books from my chosen field.  I've read everything I can by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, Carl Zimmer, Jerry A. Coyne, Jared Diamond, and many others, and learned a tremendous amount both about biological science and also how to explain difficult concepts in an engaging manner.

It was in that spirit that I read last week Elizabeth Kolbert's wonderful book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  I say "wonderful" because it is brilliantly written, nearly impossible to put down, and full of fascinating information (even with my background in evolutionary biology, I learned a great deal from reading it).  But if you decide to read it -- and I in no way want to discourage you from doing so -- be prepared for the fact that it's a seriously depressing book.


The premise of The Sixth Extinction is that we are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event the Earth has experienced -- the first five coming at the end of the Ordovician Period, the end of the Devonian Period, the junction between the Permian and Triassic Periods (this one the largest of all; by some estimates, 90% of life on Earth was extinguished), the late Triassic Period, and the end of the Cretaceous Period (this is the one that took out all of the dinosaurs except for the lineage that led to modern birds).  But, Kolbert shows, all of those events -- so sensationalized in kids' books on ancient life -- can obscure the fact that right here, right now, we are in the middle of another one, one in which the rate of species loss is something like 10,000 times the background rate of extinction.

The reason, of course, is us.  Some of the things we've done fall into the "how could you not have known better?" department -- overhunting, clear-cutting the rain forest, ignoring (or actively denying) the reality of climate change.  Others, such as the mere fact of our mobility causing the accidental spread of noxious exotic species, are less blameworthy.  (In fact, it's our around-the-globe-in-less-than-24-hours capabilities that seem to be what has caused the spread of chytrid fungi, currently wiping out amphibian species at a horrifying rate all over Central and South America.)

Kolbert, of course, ends with the question, "But what can we do?" and comes to the dismal conclusion of "honestly, probably not much."  Our sheer numbers preclude any serious notion of halting what we're doing to the natural world.  But knowledge is power; we owe it to ourselves at least to be cognizant of the effects our actions have.  Reading The Sixth Extinction might be painful at times, but refusing to turn our eyes that way is to ignore the reality of the world we live in.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What I'm reading (#25)

I've been known at times to get suckered by a book that has an interesting title or cover even if I know nothing else about it.

Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.  I was grabbed by both in the case of Wu Ming-Yi's The Man With the Compound Eyes, and it turned out to be a weird stream-of-consciousness story that went absolutely nowhere.  On the other hand, I absolutely loved Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which reads like an updated Catch-22 set in Pakistan under General Zia Ul-Haq.

My most recent purchase based on a title was Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, which I found in a used bookstore.  I looked at the first pages, and it seemed well written, and (of course) the title intrigued me.  So I bought it.


I was disappointed when I found out that the bookshop of the title isn't haunted in the conventional sense; it's "haunted by the spirits of long-dead authors" because its owner is such a devoted bibliophile.  I had a moment's hope that it would turn out to be a real haunting (so to speak) when a copy of Thomas Carlyle's The Speeches of Oliver Cromwell keeps vanishing and reappearing, but the explanation turns out to be have nothing to do with ghosts (literal or figurative).

On the other hand, the story is a nice, sentimental walk through 1920s nostalgia -- a genteel New York City replete with neighborhood pubs and pharmacies and tobacconists (and man, Morley's male characters do love their tobacco).  The plot line is a little on the far-fetched side -- and I won't spoil it by telling you why the Carlyle book keeps disappearing -- but actually, it's no more contrived than many a tale by my beloved Agatha Christie.  It's engagingly written and has wonderfully-drawn characters, including a female character whose forthrightness and spirit was highly unusual in books of that vintage.

In sum, it's a fun, easy-reading period piece.  Morley tells a clever tale of New York between the World Wars, not as overwrought as The Great Gatsby nor as repressed and unhappy as Ragtime.  It's a nice diversion into a simpler time, and I did enjoy it, even if I was disappointed in my quest for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What I'm reading (#24)

I have always had, for some reason, a particular fondness for non-fiction books about natural disasters.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions -- the sheer power of what the world can do is both frightening and compelling.  It also explains why if I hadn't become a high school biology teacher, my second choice would have been "tornado chaser."

So it's unsurprising that I picked up a copy of Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World a few weeks ago.  It's a mesmerizing account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the largest quakes ever to hit North America (intensity is an estimate, given the primitive technology of the time, but it's thought to have been beaten by only one earthquake in modern times -- the mind-bogglingly huge Anchorage, Alaska earthquake of 1964, which registered 9.2 on the Richter scale and lifted some parts of the coastline by twenty feet).


Winchester's book isn't just about the event itself.  It goes into the geology of the San Andreas Fault, how it is related to the movement of tectonic plates, and how we know what we know about seismic activity.  It also delves into the history of California, giving us a vivid picture of what it was like to live in those times, and includes eyewitness accounts of people who lived through the quake itself (one of them was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, who seemed to consider the whole thing somewhere between an inconvenience and a personal slight).

He takes us from the years before the quake, showing how San Francisco grew from a small agricultural settlement into a thriving city, and how the landscape changed on the day of the event (both literally and figuratively).  In some ways, San Francisco never completely recovered, and the hub of activity in California moved south to Los Angeles.  (Which is ironic, given LA's equal risk of catastrophic earthquakes.)

Whether or not you're a catastrophe-buff, however, I'd strongly recommend A Crack in the Edge of the World.  Whether you like geology, history, personal accounts, or drama, it will keep you reading.  Winchester has a smooth narrative style and has obviously done his research.  The result is a book that will make you feel like you're there witnessing the events he's writing about -- as awful as that would have been.