November 23

Banned Books in California

I’m a proponent of freedom of expression, that authors should be able to write about any topic they please. Partly because I believe in self-expression, but also because I feel that writing about all topics – especially sensitive ones – is a good way to explore them and see them from different angles. I’ll admit, not every controversial book is well-written and I can’t state that all authors have the best intentions. However, at the very least, the controversies spark conversations, and the conversations can lead to education and understanding.

So I was annoyed to see that schools in Burbank, California have decided to ban five books due to concerns over racism. The titles in question are:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Cay
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

The problem, from what I understand, stems from several white students making racists remarks to their black classmates, and when confronted about it claimed they said these things because they’d read them in these books. Understandably, the parents of the black children were upset about this and appealed to the school board to pull these titles from the required reading list.

Okay, I completely get where the parents are coming from on this. They want to protect their children. However, I feel that the problem here doesn’t lie with the content of the books, but in how the books are being taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a story about how a town deals with racism. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it works as a teachable moment. Not all innocent men go free, and the guilty aren’t always punished. In this case, an innocent young black man is convicted of a horrible crime by an all-white jury in a small southern town. It’s not encouraging racism, it’s showing the terrible results of it. Huckleberry Finn is similar in that it shows a period of history where racism was normal and accepted, and how a young man experiences it while having adventures with his friend Jim, a slave. If nothing else, this story is a satire of the attitudes of the time period and a interesting piece of history.

With this situation in the Burbank school district, it appears these messages were lost on the students or possibly not conveyed in a meaningful way. This isn’t the fault of the stories. The anti-racism messages are there. I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first three books on the list, but I did look up the other two in order to have some perspective. To me, it seems like the schools need to reassess how these books are taught. It’s obvious that the students – or at least some of them – came away from these stories with the completely wrong idea.

But even so, instead of banning the books, the schools and parents need to use this as a tool to help their children understand racism, the root causes of it, the history of it, and how we can move beyond it. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I believe that racism stems from fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different. Exposure to different ideas, different cultures, different ideas, and the ability to think critically, are some of the remedies. I know that there are other causes, but I feel these stories can be used as windows to the past, so show children how things used to be and how we can be better than we were.

I’m always anti-censorship, especially when it comes to fiction. I hope the schools in Burbank can reconsider their decision, reinstate these books, and teach them properly. Our future depends on it.

RB

 

 

 

October 28

Setting the Spooky Mood

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it’d be a good time to recommend a couple of things to get you in the mood.

First, you can grab a copy of my dark fiction collection, Dark Journeys. It’s a mix of horror, sci-fi, and speculative fiction. Perfect for reading alone in a darkened room (if you’re using an e-reader) or by candlelight (if you grab the paperback version). The stories include seductive demons, patchwork lovers, marooned astronauts, and an assortment of creepy things to haunt your dreams.

If you’re looking for something auditory, then you can listen to a couple of my podcast episodes. Last year I read one of my short stories, Consumed, for my Halloween episode. More recently, I recorded an episode about the Art of Fear. The first one will give you a few chills, while the second one will inspire.

There’s no shortage of horror-related stuff out there for the discriminating fear aficionado, and nowadays you don’t need books or movies, just read the news and you’ll be horrified.

Man reading burning newspaper
Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Stay safe, everyone!

RB

October 27

The Art of Fear

Why are horror and fear popular subjects in the art world? For centuries, we’ve continued to seek out ways to scare ourselves and we keep coming back for more. Join me as I explore the reasons behind our obsession with fear and how we explore it in our artistic output.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, Amazon, and PodBean. If you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

Or you can listen to it right here:

October 21

A Challenging Read

While I’m a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, I don’t limit my reading list to those specific genres. I feel that, as a writer, I need to expose myself to a wide variety of ideas and input. Plus, my interests are all over the place, so if you took a peek at the stack of books on my shelves you’d see everything from astronomy and biology to biographies and fiction from almost every genre.

Currently, I’m reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and it’s possibly the most challenging book of fiction I’ve read. And this is despite the fact I’ve watched the movie multiple times over the years. It’s one of my favorites.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve finished it. I’m currently a little over halfway through this beast and, while I’m loving the story, it’s so incredibly dense with details and obscurities that it’s taking me a long time to read. And don’t get me wrong – I’m loving the adventure.

Eco is an incredible storyteller, and this medieval monastery murder mystery (alliteration intended!) is well-plotted. But what’s getting me is the almost overwhelming amount of detail he’s incorporated into the story. I’m finding that I have to pause every few pages to look up architectural details he’s described, or to translate some obscure passage from an ancient book of African poetry, or simply to translate some bit of latin. All those years growing up Catholic, you’d think some of that Latin would have stuck in my head. There’s also a great deal of theology and philosophy, so a few passages require a re-read or two to make sure I’m understanding it all.

Of course, it would probably have been easier for me to read it on my Kindle so I could have the footnotes and translations readily available, but no, I bought this one in hardback. It’s a keeper and a fine additional to my unwieldily home library.

I feel like in reading this book, I’m not only being entertained, I’m being educated. My Catholic background helps a bit. I’m familiar with a lot of the ceremony, the prayers, the traditions, so I can easily relate to many aspects of the story. But Eco did so much research into obscure parts of the religion that I find myself both confounded and impressed.

I’m hoping to finish the book by the end of the month, but I don’t want to rush it. This is a book to savor, to enjoy, to relish.

Now, back to it!

RB

 

 

October 7

Outrage is Everywhere

I think we can all agree that the world can be a little nuts at times. Or maybe very nuts most of the time. Depends on your perspective.

As a fiction writer, I find it interesting to watch as people get outraged about things and cause a commotion, hoping that they can ‘take down’ whatever it is that’s offending their sensibilities. Just look at the fuss that was made over the Harry Potter books, the Captain Underpants books, and so many classic novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

The reason I bring this up is because last week was Banned Books Week here in the US. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association, along with dozens of other literary and literacy organizations. I feel awful that it slipped by me this year without me noticing. In my defense, I’ve been distracted by a lot of other things going on in the world at the moment.

I’ve written about censorship in the past, and even recorded a podcast episode about it, but Banned Books Week always reminds me that there are people in this country, and maybe in other parts of the world, who feel that just because something offends them then everyone should be offended.

It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, I make a point of reading books that get banned. It’s my small act of rebellion against censorship and to support the author. If you’re interested in learning which books are the most targeted, check out this list:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

It breaks them down by year, which is sort of fascinating to see how the tastes of the censors change annually. Books that are near the top of the list one year are absent on later lists. Weird, isn’t it? I think it just goes to show that some people look to be outraged by something. It’s not about the actual quality or content of the books, it’s just chasing whatever hits their radar at the time.

Oh, well. Some people just can’t be reached. But you and I can still support authors, buy books, write reviews and provide ratings, and even tell our friends about them. In my opinion, the more outrage there is over a work of fiction, the more likely I am to buy a copy.

RB

October 1

October is Here!

October is one of my favorite months. Not only is the weather cooling down a bit (not too much), but it also contains my favorite holiday.

I’ve been a fan of Halloween since I was a kid. My best friend at the time, Jay, lived across the street from me and we’d go to great lengths to dress up for the big night. One year I wrapped myself from head to toe in Ace bandages in order to play a scary mummy. Unfortunately, most of the treat givers thought I was an accident victim. Oh well.

Another year Jay dressed as Dracula (I think his mom made the cape, complete with starched collar) and I went as faithful Renfield. We made quite a pair. And keep in mind that we didn’t use store-bought costumes. No, we created our own and spent a good amount of time planning what we’d do each year.

Not long before I moved out of the neighborhood, I got together with a kid that lived on the next street over and we built a “haunted house” in his garage. We hung sheets to make the hallway, then set up folding tables to hold things like a bowl of eyeballs (peeled grapes), fresh brains (pink jello), and then put on masks so we could jump out and scare the other kids. It was a blast.

Maybe that’s where I got my initial love of horror and weirdness. Creating my own costumes, learning how to make fake blood and scars, reading Famous Monsters Magazine (RIP) to get ideas for the future…it all ended up being the breeding ground for my current imagination.

But Halloween is still a few weeks away and I have to be patient. I don’t dress up like I used to and, obviously, this year isn’t going to be quite the same, but I still love the day, the magic, and the monsters. Plus, this year the full moon will make an appearance. That’s awesome.

Oh, and if you’re ready to start getting in the mood, check out my short story collection, Dark Journeys. It’s a mix of dark sci-fi, horror, and speculative fiction. Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight. You still do that, right?

Dark Journeys Cover

September 21

My First Book

Do you remember the first book you read that really spoke to you, got into your head, made you want to be a writer? Or at the very least, made you a lifelong reader? I do. It was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I read it when I was nine years old. I know, sort of a heavier read for someone that age, but I made it through (using a dictionary when needed) and it lit a spark that forever changed my life.

Obviously, this isn’t a book a nine year old would pick up off the shelf at the local bookstore. No, I had an older family member who was in college and would bring me the books they were reading in class. Some were way beyond my ability to comprehend at that age, but others, like Siddhartha, resonated with me on levels I didn’t quite understand.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, it was written in the early 1920s by German author Herman Hesse, who also wrote several other fantastic novels. It tells the story of the title character, a young man who comes from a wealthy family in India. He feels empty, restless, like there is something missing inside, so he goes on a spiritual journey. He fasts, renounces all possessions, and eventually meets Gautama, the Buddha.

His path is not an easy one. There is love, loss, and reawakening. As a young man, Siddhartha’s restlessness and longing were something that appealed to me. I was getting to that age when the body and mind begin to morph into something new, so this story was relatable. And from a spiritual standpoint, I could appreciate the philosophy of Buddhism. It was distinctly different from the Catholicism I grew up in.

It’s interesting to note that while this novel is considered an “adult” book, it’s written in a very simple narrative voice, and it’s only 152 pages. Hesse did an amazing job of telling this deep, thoughtful story in a simple, unassuming manner. He didn’t need a thousand pages to get to the heart of the story. From a writer’s perspective, that’s impressive.

And this book has stuck with me over the years. The original copy went with me through middle school and high school, and I think I eventually lost it in one of my moves. I picked up another copy in my mid-twenties and it’s on the bookshelf next to my bed. I still go back and read it every few years. Partly because I love the story so much, but also as a reminder of the philosophy behind it and how it affected me all those years ago.

Is Siddhartha the best book I’ve read? No, but it is one of the most meaningful. I hope you have a book in your past that still resonates with you and I hope you still pick it up and re-read it every so often. There are millions of books out there for us to read, but only a few are special. Those are the ones we cherish.

Do you have a book that had this affect on you? If so, let me know about it.

RB

August 31

A Trick of Light

I find it interesting how two people can see the same thing but come away with different perspectives on what happened. For example, studies have shown that when investigators interview witnesses to a crime, they often end up with wildly different explanations of the event. And it’s not that the witnesses are purposely trying to cause confusion. It’s all in how they interpreted what they saw.

It’s the same when people watch movies, listen to music, read books. We all get something different from the experience. Our takeaways may be similar or decidedly different, but no two people experience the same things in the same ways. It’s personal taste.

That’s what makes us individuals. If we all reacted and felt the exact same way about the exact same things, well, I think life would be boring. Nothing to discuss, debate, or defend. It would also be the death of creativity and art.

Try this sometime: When there’s something happening, a big event, watch the faces in the crowd. Let your eyes scan across the masses, watch to see how people react. You’ll probably see a lot of similar expressions – shock, awe, fear, surprise, wonder, depending on the event, but you’ll also see outliers. For example, when there’s a wreck during an Indy 500 auto race, you’ll see some people cover their mouths in shock, some will turn away, but there will be others who smile, laugh, maybe even cheer. The variances of human nature.

Or on a smaller scale, I occasionally like to watch a movie with my partner – one that I’ve seen but she hasn’t – so I can watch her face during certain scenes to see how she reacts. Sometimes she does what I expect, but there are occasions where she reacts unexpectedly, laughing when I expect her to cringe, or cry when I thought she’d simply frown. I think it gives me a little more insight into her feelings and how she interprets the world around us.

I’m not saying that any one way is right or wrong. It’s just human nature, who we are, the culmination of our lives up to that point in time. You and I may both look at an abstract painting and I’ll see something wonderful, a display of emotion, while you may simply see paint on a canvas. We are neither right nor wrong. But it will make for some interesting discussion afterwards.

I think of this phenomenon as a trick of light. We both see something, experience something, but depending on how the light hits our eyes, I may see it much differently than you do. When it comes to creativity, we are all going to see the images differently, hear the music differently, interpret the words differently.

We have to keep that in mind when we create something. We may have an intention, but that doesn’t mean the audience will see it the same way. We can’t take offense at that. Once we complete a piece of art – song, story, painting – and release it into the world, well, it’s no longer ours. It belongs to the viewer, the reader, the listener. And how they respond to it depends on things we can’t control.

RB

August 17

Review – A Quiet Rebellion: Restitution

This is the second book in M.H. Thaung’s Numoeath trilogy, the first being Guilt. Oftentimes, the middle book of a trilogy is the weakest. Not that the stories aren’t good or well-written, but they’re usually used as a stepping stone to move the story along to the third book. I don’t think it’s done on purpose, but I find that many authors focus on the first and third books, treating the middle volume as a neglected child.

That’s not the case here. Ms. Thaung does an amazing job of keeping the story moving and weaving the various storylines together into a surprising ending. But ‘ending’ is quite the right word here. Several plot points seem to be resolved at the end of the book, but there are still more questions pending for the third book. So maybe I should refer to it as a ‘semi-resolution’.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this series is the characterization. The characters are all unique and well-rounded. There’s a bit of backstory for each of them, which helps to provide context for their actions and reactions. No one does anything out of character. I understood their views and perspectives, and that helped to immerse me in the story.

And yes, I was immersed. In the last third of the book I found myself reading faster and faster because the story was building so wonderfully. I actually had to make myself stop, back up a few pages, and reread because I was going along so fast I know I was missing some little details. And that’s not a bug…it’s a feature.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how the book ended. In a good way. As I mentioned above there is some resolution to a couple of story lines, one was completely unexpected but satisfying. However, there are still a few mysteries remaining, along with a few new questions that need to be answered. I wish I could go into more detail here, but I know I’d end up spilling a few spoilers. The story is just too damn good for me to take a chance of ruining even a small part of it for you.

However, I do have a few ideas when it comes to the unresolved questions. Ms. Thaung leaves a few breadcrumbs throughout the story in regards to the cursed beasts and their origins. Not enough to give anything away, but enough to get the attentive reader thinking…and I am!

I’m looking forward to the next – and last? – book in the series, Posterity. I’ve gotten to the point where I care about these characters – warts and all – and I’m itching to know more about this world.

I highly recommend the Numoeath trilogy for fans of fantasy, or even sci-fi. It’s well-written, well-plotted, and a great adventure.

RB

August 5

Book Recommendations – Indie and Small Press

I’ve been working my way through my constantly evolving to-be-read pile and thought I should pass along some recommendations for the books I’ve enjoyed. I try to keep things interesting by switching between traditionally published books (big publishing houses) and the indie and small-press runs. Not only does it give me more variety, but it also spreads the love – and the money – a little further. However, my recommendations will focus on books from indie and small presses.

My tastes are all over the place when it comes to genres and subject matter, so I’ve included either a blurb from the book or a personal comment to give you an idea of what the book is about. Of course, just because I like a book – or don’t like one – doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience. Regardless, if you’re looking for something new to read, check out a few of these titles (listed in no particular order).

The Moon Hunters by Anya Pavelle. A post-apocalyptic adventure novel that takes place after a world-wide pandemic. The narrative follows a young woman who is trying to escape a closed community where ideologies and politics clash. A fun, exciting, and though-provoking read.

Where Demons Dance by Emma Briedis. Historic fiction that was inspired by an actual event. This story follows several different characters in the Mormon community who are trying to solve mysteries in their own lives and which end up over-lapping into a satisfying conclusion. There’s mystery, intrigue, and drama all set in the late 1800s.

Tiny Righteous Acts by Parker Bauman. This was such a fun read. Basically, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans decides to mete out justice on those who have done her clients wrong. It’s funny, heartwarming, dramatic, and left me wanting more. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel and any spin offs.

A Quiet Rebellion: Guilt by MH Thaung. A fantastic story that blends fantasy with a bit of horror and political intrigue. While the story is well-written, I really liked the characters. They were all broken in some way, which made them very real to me. The story itself is also excellent. I read a fair-share of fantasy, but this was an original storyline, and the world-building is spot on. This novel is the first in a trilogy and I’m currently reading the second book.

Lost Inside My Mind by Dawn Olmo. This is the first poetry collection I’ve read in a long time, and it was a nice reintroduction to the art form. Ms. Olmo writes personal poetry, the topics center on herself and her life experiences, as well as her family. While this may seem to limit the relatability of the verse, it actually makes it much more intriguing. Love, loss, humor, and pain are explored honestly and passionately.

I hope you take the time to check out these titles for yourself and pick up a few copies. There’s a lot of fantastic work being done by writers who often fly under the mainstream radar. As I discover more, I’ll share them here.

RB