April 6

Review – Accusing Mr. Darcy

So here’s a fun fact for you – I’ve never listened to an audiobook. Ever. Weird, right? But I can’t make that claim any longer, not after enjoying Kelly Miller’s Accusing Mr. Darcy.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.

I’ll also admit that I’m a fan of classic literature. I still have copies of the Norton Anthology of British Literature and Norton Anthology of American Literature from when I was in college. They are worn and tattered and littered with little slips of paper that act as bookmarks for some of my favorite pieces. Sure, some of it is incredibly dated, but the poetic, romantic language has always held an attraction for me.

And that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this novel. Ms. Miller does a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm and poetry of Jane Austen, while still retaining her own voice. In my opinion, that’s not easy to do. From a writer’s perspective, I think it would be difficult to walk that fine line, to continue in the vein of the original while still being unique. I’m curious as to how long it took Miller to write this, and how many rewrites were involved.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jane Austen, she was a romantic author who penned several classic novels. Arguably the most famous is Pride and Prejudice (1813), a comedy/drama of manners set in Great Britain. It’s one of the “Great Novels” I read many years ago.

Which brings me to the next thing I liked about Accusing Mr. Darcy. Instead of rehashing the themes of the original novel, Miller takes the story in a different direction and turns it into a murder mystery. It was fun to see familiar characters in a different situation, something more grave and compelling than just a story about romance. Higher stakes and a bit more tension.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t listen to the novel alone. I actually listened to it with my partner while we were laying in bed in the evenings. We usually read at night, she with her Kindle and me with a physical book (occasionally my Kindle, but I prefer paper). My partner has also had more experience with audiobooks. There have been many mornings where she had one playing while getting ready for work. Listening together was an interesting experience for both of us and it allowed us to discuss the story together. I highly recommend the experience

It also helped that the narrator for this story, Stevie Zimmerman, was a perfect choice. Not only was her accent a perfect accompaniment, but she also handled voicing the character in a respectful manner. What I mean is, she didn’t necessarily try to create voices and act the parts, she simply rose or lowered her voice. I feel that helped to keep me involved in the story and didn’t break my immersion.

Classic, romantic-era literature may not be your ideal genre of fiction, but I think you might find Accusing Mr. Darcy to be your exception. It’s well-written, well-plotted, and a fun excursion from modern fiction. Definitely one you’ll think about after the final page.

RB

March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium
Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine
Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine
Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB

 

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

December 9

Review – The Name of the Rose

Back in the late 1980s, I saw a film titled, The Name of the Rose, and thought it was fantastic. It starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater, and told the story of murder, intrigue, and forbidden books in a medieval monastery. Connery’s character, William of Baskerville, was a sort of a Sherlock Holmes in that he paid attention to little details to discover clues. Slater played his apprentice, Adso, who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on an exciting part of his young life. Sadly, the film didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s always been one of my favorites.┬áThe movie, like so many, was based on a novel by the same name and written by first-time novelist Umberto Eco, an Italian medievalist and philosopher.

Now obviously, I was interested in reading the novel, but I hesitated. This was in part due to the fact that the book was daunting. Over five-hundred pages and filled with philosophy, theology, social and political commentary, and peppered with all sorts of references to other sources – books, art, historical events, biblical prophecy – and was apparently a difficult read. In fact, someone who had attempted to read it warned me that in order to truly understand the novel, a reader needed to be well-versed in medieval architecture, monastic life, philosophy, and fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin. I decided to pass.

But earlier this year I finally found the courage to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. Of course, I had two choices – a physical copy or an e-book. I went with the physical copy, hardbound, because I knew that if I made it through this beast, I wanted to have a trophy for my bookcase. And yes, if I chose the e-version I would have all the translations at my fingertips. But I felt that was cheating. I wanted the full experience as Eco intended.

Was it a difficult read? Yes and no. The story itself is wonderful. William and Adso arrive at the monestary to prepare for an important theological debate between religious orders. But they arrive just as a murder is discovered, and from there the story turns into a murder mystery that rivals anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. William’s character is definitely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, seeing the minute details of different situations and amazing the other monks with his discoveries.

The mystery – and additional murders – all seem to center on the monastery library, a collection said to rival and possibly surpass the great Library of Alexandria. Books from all over the known world, in all known languages, and many of them forbidden and kept hidden from all but the Abbot and head librarian. William and Adso are told at the very beginning that they are not permitted to enter the library, but they both know that’s where they will find the answers they seek.

The narrative, however, can run into dry spots. Eco was an incredibly intelligent man and the writing shows this. There are pages and pages of theological discussions about the nature of Christ, his poverty, the place of the Church in a changing society. While interesting, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. And no, it’s not necessarily pertinent to the story itself, but it does help to give perspective and background to the many characters. Additionally, with careful reading you can find little clues as to their motivations and possibly the part they may – or may not have – played in the murders.

There is also quite a bit of untranslated Greek and Latin. I did okay with the Latin. Well, I was able to discern small bits. I grew up Catholic, attended mass on a regular basis, and my great-aunt was a nun, so when the Latin was religious text, I was able to make some sense out of it. The Greek was, well, Greek to me and I ended up going online to translate it. There are also a lot of references to ancient texts and religious dogma that I wasn’t familiar with, so I kept my pad nearby for a quick Google search every few pages. I’ll admit, it definitely slowed my reading speed to a crawl, but that was okay. The book – the story – was immersive and having to do this research made the experience interactive. It’s like I was participating in the story to some degree.

I’m glad I finally found the courage to read this novel, and now that I’ve finished it, I plan to re-read it in the near future. The next time, however, I plan to do some research ahead of time to find out what tidbits I missed on my first pass. As I mentioned above, Eco peppered the novel with all sorts of meta-references, so I want to make sure I catch them all. It’s sort of like watching a well-written movie. You watch it the first time for entertainment, but then you go back and rewatch it to catch all the little things you may have missed the first time. To me, that’s good art because it warrants additional viewing, or reading.

If you enjoy murder mysteries, medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a story that blends fact with fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. But be warned, it’s an undertaking and you may want to go with the e-version to make it easier on yourself. It might also help to watch the movie, first. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Plus, Sean Connery is perfect in the role.

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

September 30

Making it Happen

I’ve been working on my next short story collection and feeling good about it. Since being in lockdown and working remote, the lack of commuting and convenience of being at home has allowed me an extra hour or so every morning to write. And yes, I’ve been taking advantage of it.

I should probably be working on my novel, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I love to write short stories. It’s in my blood, my DNA. Plus, I have so many ideas I doubt I’ll ever catch up with them all.

So far, I’ve completed – from initial to final draft – seven shorts in the course of four months. Not too bad! I have four more in various states of composure. At this rate I may be able to have my next collection published before the end of the year. At least, that’s my goal.

And the stories will be mostly science fiction, with a couple of horror pieces thrown in for good measure. The plots revolve around possession, insidious artificial intelligence, environmental catastrophe, and unnamable things that go bump in the night. And that’s not me tripping over a dog when I try to get a drink of water at one in the morning.

The other thing that’s a bit different from my previous collections is that these stories, or most of them, are much longer than I usually write. I’m talking twelve to fifteen thousand words. It feels good to write longer stories, like I’ve been building up to them with sprints and now I’m running (or writing) several mini marathons. I think it’ll end up helping me when I return to my novel draft. Writing longer form stories is new to me and I think it’s wise for me to build up to it.

I’m excited about these stories. I think it’s some of my best writing and I’m looking forward to sharing them. I’ll be sure to post updates as I get closer to the publication date.

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

August 3

Review – The Martian

Okay, okay, I know I’m late to the party with this one. The book came out in 2011 and the movie in 2015. But I have a good excuse. I have way too many books in to “to be read” pile.

And a quick note here before I discuss the book – I watched the movie, first. It’s not necessarily a controversial opinion, but I always prefer the book version of a story to the movie. Books are more descriptive, more immersive. Movie versions are often good (Harry Potter, The Shining, etc), but they still don’t give the same experience as words on a page…and having it play out in my imagination is far more fun than sitting in a theater.

At this point, I assume almost everyone has seen the movie or read the novel, or is at least familiar with the story. Basically, a group of astronauts are on Mars, there’s a sandstorm, they flee to the escape module, but one of them is hit by debris, considered dead, and left behind. Unfortunately, he’s only injured and is now stuck on the planet by himself with limited food and water and no way to get back to or contact the Earth.

Since the story is already out there, I want to instead focus on the writing, the narrative, and the way the story is structured. Basically, looking at it as a writer instead of a reader.

Andy Weir, the author, definitely did his homework with this. It’s science fiction with real science, which I adore. I mean, I love speculative and futuristic sci-fi where the writers come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for technology in the future or in alien civilizations. But when it’s real science, it makes the story more grounded for me. But Weir doesn’t overwhelm the reader with science and math. It wasn’t like reading A Brief History of Time (boy, was THAT a challenging read!). I’d describe it as conversational science and math. Like having Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining it to me.

The other thing I really loved about this book was the narrative. Weir has the protagonist, Watney, tell the story as journal entries, beginning immediately after he regains consciousness and realizes his situation. The majority of the book is written this way. It has a conversational tone, uncensored. Watney is telling his story as if writing a letter to a friend. He’s self-deprecating, cusses like…well, like an astronaut, and admits his mistakes and failings. It made his character all the more real. I could feel his frustration, his fear, and his longing.

The story switches back to NASA and follows a handful of characters there in a conventional, third-person POV. I think it was a good choice by Weir. It breaks up the narrative, changes the pacing and makes it more interesting for the reader. At least, it did for me.

The other interesting thing he did was, at several points in the second half of the book, switch to a third narrative voice. It was the omnipotent narrator describing something happening to Watney that neither he could tell us or the characters back on Earth could see or explain. These passages were brief and, again, I think were a good decision by Weir.

Of course, I’m always impressed when an author goes out of their way to research their topic. Luckily, Weir is already a nerd. He’s a programmer by trade, but has a love of physics and science. The background was already there and he used his knowledge to keep everything in the story grounded in reality. As I mentioned above, the science and math are real. Yes, it is possible to create hydrogen using chemistry and ingenuity. It’s also possible to grow potatoes in a hostile environment with just a handful of useful bacteria and a shitload of botany experience. And, well, a shitload of shit.

This was probably one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had. The story is incredibly fast paced, easy to read, and simply a fun adventure. Plus, astronauts. I’m a huge fan of the space programs, all of them, but especially NASA. Astronauts have always been heroes of mine, and I’ll admit that I teared up a few times when reference was made to their bravery and ingenuity. There’s one part where two NASA administrators are talking about a potential way to rescue Watney, but it’s extremely dangerous to the other astronauts. When one of them asks what the rescuers would think about the danger, the other admin replies, “Well, their astronauts”, insinuating that they don’t care. It’s all about the mission. To hell with the danger.

Yeah, this book could double as a NASA recruiting tool. Sign me up!

If you’ve only seen the movie, please, pick up a copy of the book. It’s so much better than the movie (not that the movie wasn’t great). I promise, you’ll enjoy the ride.

RB