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Good news!

Finally got to talk to Elder Son.  That man is a genius, and very very patient with an old Jacobite like me.  I have a new email address.  I have updated my About AJ page, and if you want to write to me, suggesting Fun Friday, recommending a book/movie/game/whatever, if you just want to talk about our passions, you can reach me at

ajclarkson-at-talwyn-dot-net

(obviously replace the “at” and “dot” with the appropriate symbols.  I flipping hate bots)

If you’ve emailed me in the last month or so, send it again, and I WILL respond (the trick is not getting me to answer emails; the trick is getting me to STOP!)

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Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley

Wow!  It’s been a whole, what, 24 hours since we last spoke!  Nevertheless, I’m back and rarin’ to go.  I have spent a quiet week so far in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  My hubby even fired up the grill yesterday and scorched some dead animal flesh.  Delicious stuff, and he got it all done and dusted before the rains hit.    Best of all, we pulled onions in the garden.  You know what that means?  Onion pancakes for lunch!  Yay!

In the meantime, a quick housekeeping note before we move on to today’s rant. Being techno-challenged, it took me a while to notice that my email addy is acting funny, and I’m not receiving emails like I should.  So if you’ve written me and I haven’t answered, it’s not that I was ignoring you; it’s that my email hates me.  I messaged Elder Son to see if he can help me get set up elsewhere.  Until then, message me in the comments and I’ll keep them private.  As soon as I get set up on a new email (waiting for help from Eldest Son), I’ll post it here and on Twitter, so keep an eye out.

Okay, enough housekeeping.  On to the subject at hand.  On the ride back home from Vandalia, I read Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley.  The back cover describes it as “a steampunk adventure with a serial killer, romance, and a few broken hearts.”  God, I hate giving bad reviews so so much.  But I have to say that this book fails on every point.  It’s steampunk only in the most marginal sense, the romance leaves me cold, and “broken hearts” is a very low play on words.

Okay, the basic plot.  It’s 1861, and we have Cara Devon, a “curious and impetuous” estranged daughter of a famous collector of antiquities.  She ran away from home at a young age (14 years old is implied, but I wasn’t clear on that) because of a terrible event (her father basically sold her to a rapist, then beat her half to death when she fled the marriage).  Now he’s dead, and she’s come back to sell off his fabulous collection.  Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the daughters of aristocrats, and murdering them in a very odd manner:  he’s stabbing keys through their hearts.  Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.  Cara makes a connection between the killer’s modus operandi and an artifact in the collection:  Nefertiti’s heart, a fist sized diamond (how is beyond me; the connection is tenuous at best).  So she starts investigating.  During this “investigation,” she comes across Viscount Nathaniel “Nate” Lyons, minor noble, crime boss, pirate and leader of pirates, you name it.  Oh, by the way, he’s dead sexy, and he’s got the hots for Cara.  Between the bouts of heavy breathing and coy flirting, the two of them manage to figure out who the serial killer is before the Queen’s Enforcers can do it.

Oh, gosh, where to start with all the wrong of this?  Okay, start at the beginning.  I feel like I was sold a pig in a poke.  The title and blurb implied that the story was going to be an adventure, like Indiana Jones, trying to find this artifact before the bad guys do.  What I got was a very spicy romance with a little suspense story running parallel.  I don’t like romance.  Yeah, I know, I’m a girl, I’m supposed to love that junk.  But I just don’t.  I’ll take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over Pretty Woman any day of the week.  If I had known this story was this romance-heavy, I wouldn’t have bought it.  The book is called “artifact hunters,” but they never really do this, beyond talking about it and occasionally reading a text).

Next.  It’s called a Steampunk story.  I’m not sure what it was, but this was not steampunk.  Oh, it had the trappings.  It had dirigibles and steam powered vehicles and clockworks here and there.  But steampunk is about more than just the props.  It’s about a  juxtaposition of modern thought and action against the structure and attitudes of the Victorian world.  This juxtaposition never happened.  Crap.  This is hard to explain.  Okay, let me give you a for instance.  At one point Cara goes to a fancy ball in London.  She decides to flaunt societal expectations (that this is a rebellious act is quite clearly stated), and wear what a modern reader would recognize as a slinky evening gown.  Fine, whatever.  Except that she wears the dress to the party and nobody notices.  There’s not a word is said, no ladies whispering behind fans, none of the men (except the love interest) ogle her, whatever.  it’s as though she were just like everybody else.

It’s a small thing, I know.  But the whole book is like this.  Everything is just a little bit off, none of the attitudes are there.  It’s like it’s the normal everyday world, only with Steampunk props added.  The props don’t even figure into the story, not in the least.  The male lead arrived once in a dirigible, but beyond that, nothing much. It made it difficult to fall into the world, to feel that I was in a different place and time.  Am I making any sense at all?

Next:  Nathaniel Lyons.  Meh.  Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of these romances to know the tropes.  But I am utterly bored by the romantic lead in this story.  We’re told he’s a dangerous dude, a pirate, feared and respected by society, blah blah blah.  We never see any of it.  And as for being feared and respected, which one is it?  Nobody seems to take any notice of him.  It’s like I said before, the reactions of the populace was modern, not Victorian, not even faux Victorian.  Same here.  He wasn’t sexy, he was pushy.  Not a turn on.

That brings us to Cara.   Oh, Lord, where do I start?  Okay, first:  rape as character background has been done to death.  I’m not saying you can’t ever use it, because, when well written, it’s very effective.  However, you have to write it well;  dazzle me.  Cara didn’t dazzle me.  She was written as angry and bitter and so averse to touch that she wouldn’t even shake hands.  But she was willing to spill every grim detail on her second meeting with the male lead, a character she said several times that she didn’t like and she didn’t trust.  Hello?  Did I miss something here?  Moreover, it’s like the third meeting when she suddenly lets him into her knickers (which they didn’t have silky panties back then, they had things like bloomers or drawers, which reached almost to the knees; do you research!).  This chick won’t let another woman shake her hand, but she’ll let this self-admitted scoundrel cut her underthings off with a knife.  After that, the two of them are going at it like bunnies; a girl with serious intimacy issues, probably PTSD, and she’s a suddenly a maniac in bed?

And because it needs to be said:  Sex in a tree?  Really?  REALLY?

Finally (i have to get to a “finally” or it’s gonna be midnight before I finish this post).  The plot.  Yes, I’m a little annoyed they promised me an adventure, and I get a soap opera.  But I’m a big girl, I can suck it up and deal. All right, they said Cara has curiosity and impetuosity.  They say it, but I never see it.  Mostly she’s angry and … well, angry.  Next, Cara’s supposed to have come back to sell her father’s collection of antiquities.  Except there’s no collection.  There’s a lot of talk about a collection, but you never see it, Cara never sees it, nobody sees it, because, if it exists at all, he’s scattered the pieces to the four winds.  “Scattered to the four winds” is kind of the opposite of a “collection,” no?

I saw the solution to who the serial killer was about half an hour before the story did, and immediately saw exactly how the last third of the book was gonna play out.  You’ve seen one Lifetime channel movie, you’ve seen them all.  The connection between the serial killer and Nefertiti’s Heart sorta worked; at least I was willing to let it slide.  I’ll give the writer credit for being a little creative with our killer’s methods, at least.  Suitably gruesome and weird and horribly appropriate.  Last:  in the very last scene, there was an implication that the Heart had some sort of mystical power.  No, not an implication, an outright statement.  Okay, if you’d started out by saying mystical things were possible, regardless of how rare, I’d be willing to roll with it.  To say it’s possible, and then they laugh it off publicly while entertaining the though privately, I’d roll with that.  But to never once utter a single sound about it through the entire book and then suddenly come out with “Oh, you and I both bled on it and now we’re bound together by its mystical power” in the last pages?  Cheat cheat cheat!  That’s not how these things are done.  I wish there was a word as good as “deus ex machina” for these sorts of situations.

And then again, I could be completely wrong.  I was so disappointed that I bought an adventure novel and got a smutty romance, that may have biased my opinion.  But I just was not happy.

Okay, I’m sure there was more I wanted to say, but I’ve been picking at this blog post all day, it’s after ten thirty and I’m no longer coherent.  So I’ll leave off here.  You know the drill.  I’ll get back to you on the email thing ASAP.  In the meantime, I’ll be back on Friday, and I expect y’all to be good while I’m gone.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Categories: books, Opinion, Review, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Doing Things The Old Way: Letter Writing

Wednesday morning and finally!!!!!  The weather here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia has gotten hot.  We had 90F (32C) heat for a brief moment this weekend, and have enjoyed temps in the 80F’s (27C-31C) since then.  My sister even turned on her air conditioner!  Why yes, now that you ask, I am exactly like a lizard in that regard:  I adore warm, nay, hot, weather.  Hot weather reminds me of the happiest moments of my childhood.  Plus, it also helps that the warmer the weather, the less my body hurts, so there’s that.

I need to apologize for failing to provide any installments of April Tyree the last two weeks.  Mea maxima culpa.  I had a temporary brain lock:  no writing was coming out, even my blog posts were an absolute struggle.  Why I had the brain lock is a long and unimpressive story, so let’s not go there.  But like I said, I think I’ve gotten past it.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, I want to ruminate a moment on a subject that should be dear to the hearts of any Steampunk, Dieselpunk or Pulp afficianado:  Doing Things the Old Way.

A letter by Jane Austen. Note the vertical writing on top of the normal horizontal writing? That is what they mean when people say they “crossed a letter.” It was done to save cost: paper was expensive, and on top of that, the number of sheets determined how much it cost to send through the post. More pages, more money. Note also the address and stuff in the middle of the left half. Again, it was cheaper (and more fun) to creatively fold the letter itself, rather than spend the extra cash for an envelope.

You know what I received the other day?  I received a letter from a dear friend, Thomas.  Not an email.  Not a cold missive that had been typed up on a computer, printed off and barely touched by human hands.  It was a proper letter, handwritten on stationery, with envelope, stamp, delivery by an actual mail carrier, the works.  And because Thomas is as passionate about his letters as I am about books, it was even closed with sealing wax.  With a signet stamp in the wax!  The stamp, in the shape of an oak leaf (the perfect symbol for Thomas), was something new, and everybody in the family just had to have a look at that tiny treasure.  I took special care not to break the wax when I opened the letter, because that stamp was worth preserving.

Thomas and I have known each other for fourteen years now, and for maybe six of those years we have carried on an off-and-on correspondence.  This is entirely by snail mail; I am not even sure the man looks at his emails, because I guarantee he doesn’t answer them (at least not with me).  I still have every letter he sent me; I save every letter like that, from Thomas or from anybody else.  I’m not quite twee enough to bundle the letters with a scented ribbon, thank goodness.  I have a beautiful mahogany box (a gift from Thomas) where I save all my correspondence; it’s stuffed to overflowing now, so pretty soon I’m going to have to get a new one.

Letter writing, proper analog letters that have never seen a keyboard or a text function, is becoming a dying art.  Heck, in some schools they’re no longer teaching elementary students how to write in cursive!  And I think that’s a terrible thing.  There’s something special about sending and receiving letters.  The main argument against writing letters is that they’re slow.  It’s slow to write one (unless you type by the Finders Keepers method, typing is faster than writing by hand), and it’s slow to send one (Thomas’s letter was written on Monday; I received it on Thursday).  And “oh they’re sloooow!” is pretty pathetic as an argument, if you ask me.  Not when you look at the arguments in favor of them.

1.  They’re permanent

You know what my little sister found a long time ago?  A bundle of letters between my mom and her first husband.  My sisters and I knew Mom had been widowed before she met our dad, but beyond that we didn’t know much more than his name — Billy — that they had met and married while both were in university, and that he had died of a genetic illness only a month or three after they were married.  Yet here were these letters, written by man I had never met, who had died before I had ever been thought of, but who loved my mother very much. HIS hands wrote those letters to my mom.  HIS thoughts were caught it the little yellowing pages.  Not some imaginary person my mom occasionally thought about:  this was a real person with real feelings.  Billy instantly became a person to me, in a way he had never been before.

To move beyond the personal, there are lots of historic periods where the only solid data historians can find are in letters people wrote to one another.  Soldiers and their families writing back and forth when they are separated have been collected and printed in book form (a perfect example:  Gone For A Soldier, by Pvt. Alfred Bellard, is the collection of letters of a young man fighting in the American Civil War).  These letters tell us something more important and more interesting than the dry “this battle started on X date, ended on Y date, Z number of casualties, blah blah, blah.  These letters tell us what it was like to stand on that front line and know that the enemy is coming, there’s very little to stop him and all he wants to do is kill you in the name of his cause.  That’s powerful stuff that you don’t get from the dry facts in your high school textbooks.

There are more than soldiers writing letters.  One of my mother’s prized possessions was a book that held a collection of letters written by the Bronte sisters.  In it they discussed their daily lives, the adventure of publishing “our little stories” (some of the most brilliant pieces of Georgian/early Victorian literature ever published) and, amazingly, even talked about their shared play worlds, Angria and Gondol (a paracosm; read more about it here, it’s fascinating).  For myself, I treasure a collection of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters (the man was obsessed with writing letters; some of his letters are longer than novels.  I shit you not.)

Every generation up to now have contributed to this body of knowledge by way of their letters.  The generation that grew up on email and internet, they’ll be the first generation since…. well, pretty much since the beginning of the written word, to NOT contribute to the group knowledge.  Email isn’t permanent, servers and clouds may still exist in a hundred years or five hundred.  But I guarantee your emails, that you dashed off in half a minute without thinking about it and sent it with the same lack of concern, those emails will not be on those servers and clouds in a century or even a decade.

 3.  They can contain more than just a letter.

Do you know what else — besides letters — is in that lovely mahogany box on top of my piano?  The dried up leaf of a palm tree.  My husband sent it to me when he was in the Navy.  It was right after we were married:  we were young and we were 4000 miles apart.  He sent me letters every day, and in them, he enclosed things that he and I, both children of Appalachia, had never seen.  Like a palm tree leaf.  Like a pinch of sand from the Pacific Ocean shore.  I sent him things, too.  A lock of our infant son’s hair.  A little swatch of green cloth from a quilt I was making.  A pressed Rose of Sharon blossom from my mother’s front yard.

And there were things that we didn’t plan to enclose in those letters, but they got in there anyway.  Like the smell of chili powder because I was dividing my attention between writing a letter and cooking supper; apparently my fingers carried some of the powder onto the letter.  Hubby loved it, said it reminded him of my cooking. For me, it was the smell of his cologne that was on every letter he sent me; he used an embarrassingly cheap brand of cologne, but on him it smelled very nice indeed.

Yeah, I’m talking a lot about smell. The sense of smell is very strongly linked to memory, according to what I’ve read.  It used to drive my husband crazy that I put a little spritz of perfume on my letters to him; he said it made him homesick.  (I don’t think it was quite hearth and home he was thinking about; like I said, we were very young and full of hormones, hehehe).

Anyway, how do you send stuff like that in an email?  A digital photo just doesn’t begin to substitute for a lock of hair.  You can’t touch a baby’s hair in a digital photo.  You can’t smell a pressed flower through the computer screen.  You can’t tell from a selfie whether that sexy guy smells of leather and cologne, or whether that beautiful woman’s skin is as silken as it looks in a picture.

And just as important as what’s inside the letter is the physical truth of the letter itself.  This isn’t some lights on a screen.  A letter is something permanent that you can hold in your hand, that is real in a way emails aren’t.  You can pull it out and look at it a thousand times, you can smell its scent and touch its creases and just experience it.  I know that sounds New Agey, but you know what I mean.  It’s real; it’s not a bunch of colored lights that can be erased from existence with just a few clicks of the mouse.

 3.  They are SO punk!

Do I even need to say that, in the time period covered by Steampunk, if you wanted to communicate across long distances, there were only three options available to you:  telegram (quick but expensive, usually only used for time-sensitive or urgent information), messenger (speed varies, not always reliable), or letters.  By the time we get into the Dieselpunk era we’ve more or less lost the telegram, but added the telephone.  But even then, much communication was still by letter, especially personal communication.

We spend a lot of time creating costumes and gadgets, pimping our accessories, our wheelchairs (hi!), our hair, to look like we stepped out of our favorite genres.  We fantasize about living those adventures and visiting those imagined times.  Why isn’t letter writing the logical next step?

Think about it:  the whole concept of -punk is that the person wearing that descriptor does not conform to the norms of his society, that he has to go his own way, for whatever reason.  I’m here writing this blog and you’re reading it because the -punk side of Steampunk and Dieselpunk strikes a nerve somewhere in your brain, right?  The entire world uses email and texting and a thousand flavors of instant messaging and that’s fine for what it is.  But does that automatically mean we have to communicate the same way?

Writing a Letter isn’t that Hard

The problem is often that, if you had the same sorts of teachers I had in school, they turned letter writing into a painful or a dull (or both) exercise.  It wasn’t about communicating your thoughts to another person; in those classes, it was about getting the date in the right hand corner, do you put the address on the left or right, do you put a comma or a colon after the salutation, and do you say, “Yours, Truly,” or “Sincerely” or something else entirely when it’s time to sign out.

Jeez, I think my breakfast is getting ready to come back up, thinking about how stressful those classes were.  Blech!  Yes, I know, it’s important to know how to do that sort of thing, and I know I’ve used it in the past, so it’s not useless information.  But they make what should be a pleasant process into a chore and who wants to do chores?  Then there are the “How to write a letter” pages online make it even fussier.  I don’t get it:  if I don’t have a dedicated stationery and a fountain pen, it’s not a real letter?  Get serious!  I’m not a bit ashamed to write a letter on a sheet of printer paper, folded over to look like a greeting card.  One of my friends writes to me only on lined loose leaf paper, the same kind you used to use in school.  Do I care that he didn’t buy an expensive cream colored stationery to talk to me? What do you think?  I am just glad to hear from him.

My parents between them taught me how to write a letter and enjoy it.  My mom showed me the folded printer paper trick.  If you’re as long winded as I tend to be (you would not believe the word count on this blog right now), the folded paper turns into two or three papers nested inside one another like a folio booklet.  She also taught me about crossing a letter (see the illustration above), and, when I did need to know the fiddly bits, she showed me how to make it all work.

With one sentence, my dad told me how to write the body of a letter.  He said, Talk to [the person to receive the letter], just as if he’s right there beside you on the soft; only instead of saying it out loud, put the words down in the letter.”  He told me that when I was eleven years old, and it still is the best advice on letter writing that I ever had.

For the record, I do have stationery that I’m using at the moment.  I keep it in a beautiful little leather folder, also given to me by Thomas (he really wanted to encourage my letter writing!).  I also have several fountain pens.  I even know how to cut and use a goose quill pen (I used to be in the SCA; it’s astonishing the disparate skills you pick up when you run with that bunch). I do not have sealing wax or a signet stamp like Thomas does and don’t think I’m not envious as hell!

I can see why a Steampunk would want to pick up the same sorts of tools as soon as possible, were he to decide to start writing letters.  The idea of fountain pens date back many centuries, but the kind we would recognize today were developed in the late 1840’s to early 1850’s, totally within the Steampunk time frame (here’s an article that shares an 1870’s article about letter writing).  A heavy stationery, with or without envelopes, liquid ink from a fountain or dip pen, the wax and seal, they convey a 19th century elegance that modern epistles just can’t match!

Now for Dieselpunks, things are much easier.  Envelopes, lots of different kinds of pens, lots of paper opportunities.  A little Google-Fu can net you letterhead from all sorts of official places (I found one that was from the desk of J. Edgar Hoover!).  The same arguments about Steampunk apply here, too.  Yes, they had the telephone, but long distance calls were expensive as heck.  If you wanted to talk to your sister on the other side of the country, a letter was the way to go.

Miscellany

Did you know you can tell stories with letters?  Go look at the original Dracula novel by Bram Stoker.  That’s called an epistolary novel, because it’s told in the form of letters going back and forth between the principal characters.  You can play games through the mail, too:  chess is famously played by correspondence.

Have you ever heard of Ghost Letters.  I’ve seen it called The Letter Game, but I know it as Ghost Letters.  Basically, the idea is that two players get together and decide on a a setting for each of them (1943, player one is in Paris, player two is in London).  Each player decides on a character, how he knows the other player, and why they have to write letters instead of just meeting in person.  Then they start writing letters back and forth to one another, IN CHARACTER, and by that they write a collaborative story between them.  One lady has made a career of writing books based on this game.  I’m not suggesting you do that, but I can recommend the game.  It’s really fun, especially if you like writing fiction.  I’ve played it a few times; it’s hard to find a partner willing and able to play along (any volunteers?  you know my email!)

Okay, this blog has gotten out of hand; sorry I went on for so long.  I have other “Old Way” ideas I might throw out from time to time.  In the meantime, you know the drill:  write, share, tweet, comment.  If you have a recommendation for Fun Friday (which is my next installment, so be here in two days!), please write me at ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  Between now and Friday I have a crapload of sewing to do, plus another crapload of writing.  Lot of work ahead of me.  So while I’m running myself ragged, ya’ll be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Dieselpunk, DIY, History, Personal, Pulp, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mercury Men

Well, it’s Wednesday again, and I have spent the first half of my week relatively wisely.  As I believe I mentioned the other day, Daughter Sarah Lydia and I spent this weekend getting materials together to make our first Steampunk costumes.  We want to make a good showing at Vandalia-Con at the end of this month (hint hint:  check it out and if you can get there, you really should attend.  It’s gonna be fun, and the money raised goes to the best of causes!).  Anyway, Sarah Lydia and I have spent the week thus far working on those costumes.  I am lucky in this regard:  being good country mamas, my granny and mother first put needle and thread in my hands when I was four years old, and I have been making my own clothes since I was eight or nine.  When my own children came along, I made sure they had the same skills (including the boys; boys need those skills as well, and my eldest, at least, is not too shabby at it!)  So knocking together a costume like this is not anything new.  I feel confident that we can put together something fun.

Sarah Lydia is going the airship pirate route:  flounced skirts, sexy peasant blouse, visible corset, piratey accessories.  She is considering wearing a sword (I still have my fencing epee, though my fighting days are way over) to complete the look, but that hasn’t been absolutely decided yet.  We’re still debating the hat.

Since I’m a good deal older, I originally decided to go with a look more in the Victorian Dowager vein:  long skirt, frilly lacy blouse with big poofy sleeves.  Since I’m hoping to pimp out my wheelchair a little, I may be less “Downton Abbey” and more “Victorian Bond Villain.”  Which would not break my heart at all!  Again, still debating the hat.  First problem: budget.  We only had a little bit of cash to spend on costumes, and we used most of it already;  I’m going to have to wing it on my outfit.  Second problem is that, after being so sick for so long, most of my hair is gone gone gone.  So I wear a headscarf.  But what hat will look good with my headscarf? Maybe skip the hat thing altogether and put together something  gear-i-fied and gadgety to go with the headscarf?  Hmmm… decisions, decisions…..

Anyway, when we’re finished making all those pesky decisions, I’ll let you know what we’ve come up, hopefully with pictures to go with it!  In the meantime, let’s talk about today’s topic:

 

The Mercury Men was a web show done for the SyFy channel’s webpage and released in 2011.  It starred Mark Tierno and Curt Wootton (hey, this guy is from my neck of the woods!  hillbillies represent, y’all!)  Both actors have had minor roles here and there (Tierno was in Day of the Dead, according to IMDB), but they’re mostly unknowns.  Both of them were in Captain Blasto which, if you recall, I wrote up here; the Mercury Men director, Christopher Preksta, was also on the Blasto team.

Anyway, the story is simple enough.  In the mid 1970’s, Edward Borman, corporate drone, is working late at the cubicle farm when trouble arrives in the form of these glow-in-the-dark Mercury Men, aka The First Men, “made of a light so dense it’s become a solid.(and they ain’t kidding; they’re simply silhouettes of light, no features whatsoever, but traceable by the intense light that glows from them all the time).  Since they’re light, no conventional weapons can harm them; our heroes use condensed light bullets that glow the way the Mercury Men do.  They just show up in his building, kill the janitor, kill a construction dude, and try to kill poor Edward the Schlub.

Edward is rescued at the last minute by Jack Yaeger, Hero At Large.  Nah, they don’t call him that, but I would have totally gone with it, if they had done.  Jack is an absolute throwback to the serial heroes of the 1930’s, right down to the jodhpurs and shiny boots. the leather jacket and aviation cap, the goggles and the way retro-cool ray gun he uses to shoot the Mercury Men.  Jack is a member of The League, a decisively vague conglomeration of heroes who defend humanity against these sorts of B-movie threats.

Dude even uses a slide rule!  God bless them, I love it!  (My dad tried to teach me to use a slide rule.  I never did understand it.  They’re wonderfully retro, but my brain rejects math the way my immune system rejects seafood)

Why are the glowy guys here?  Well, they’re using a “gravity engine” and wiring it to the steel framework of Edward place of work (a skyscraper), so they can pull the Moon down from the sky and crash it into Earth.  Wait, what?  Yeah, just roll with it.  The science in this thing is delightfully whack-a-doo, just like the cheesy movies that inspired it.  Why do they want the moon to crash into the Earth and destroy us?  Ummm… well, they have an explanation, but it’s not much more than, “because we’re the bad guys.”  Anyway, our heroes figure out what’s going on, and call for help from The League.  But, naturally the League is not in a position to help, so our guy have to figure out a solution on their own.  And I’ll not give you any more than that; you’re gonna have to watch it yourself.

My thoughts on the production?  This was FUN!  It’s shot in black and white, and the costumes remind me more of the 1930’s than the actual setting of the mid ’70’s.  Even Edward’s glasses look wonderfully retro.  And “wonderfully retro” is exactly the feel of the whole business.  The director pulled out every stop on the B-movie instrument.  Dutch angles, creative lighting, melodramatic music, you name it, they got it in there.  I want to reiterate the lighting (which is not something you often hear from me).  They did a brilliant job of playing with the lighting.  Of course there are the B-movie standards, like the face thrown into shadow except for the convenient rectangle of light across the eyes (I don’t know what that’s called; if you know, tell me in the comments).  And then there was the fact that the baddies were made of light.  As they were chasing our heroes through a darkened skyscraper, the encroaching light, moody at the best of times, was a terrifically visual signal that the bad guys were close.  There were some genuinely frightening moments, and some very sweet, lighthearted moments.  Tierno is a delight in these funny bits; he has wonderful pathos, and even his body language is perfect for the nerdy character he’s portraying.

To be fair, it’s not perfect.  I find some of the dialogue clumsy.  Maybe they did it on purpose, in imitation of the b-movie standard.  I don’t think so; I think it was just hamfisted writing.  But it’s just the occasional stumble, a bad word choice here and there (particularly on the technospeak, which, granted, is not easy at the best of times), a hair too preachy there.  Little things that, while noticeable, do not really take away from the whole.

In short, it was well done.  It has a wonderful drive-in movie feel to it, and it gave me shivers of dread on more than one occasion.  Definitely worth watching.  My biggest disappointment?  The ending sets up for a sequel, but so far, nothing.  Waaah!  Anyway, when I first went searching for this show, it was only available on Hulu.  Luckily, that has changed, and the episodes can be watched for free here, on YouTube.

And that’s it for today!  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, write.  My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net, and I can be found on Twitter and Facebook (links on my About page).  If you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, give me a shout.  I’ll be back on Friday to share fun links with you.  Until then, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Fiction Monday: When the Cat’s Away Part Three

So it’s Monday morning again, and I can’t say I’m thrilled.  My weekend was rather up and down:  good times, bad news, stressful necessities and pleasant surprises all warred for my attention.  Sometimes life can be a roller coaster, even here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.

However, that’s my problem, and nothing you need to worry about.  On the Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and New Pulp front, things are all coming up Clarkson!  I have a sparkling new sub-pile on the To Be Read Mt. Everest that lives inside my Kindle (and Amazon wish list), and that’s always a treat.  More importantly, we’re now officially less than a month out from Vandalia-Con!  I know, I know, it’s a small con in an out-of-the-way town in Appalachia.  But I am really looking forward to it.  Generally speaking, I prefer small events over large ones; small ones mean you can sit down and talk, actually interact with people, places, things, etc.  Large events become too frenetic, overwhelming and less fun, at least for me.  Seriously, if you’re within driving distance of Morgantown/Parkersburg (hi, Pittsburgh readers, I know you’re out there!), make an effort to come on down and join the fun!  It’s going to be the best kind of small event, and all the money raised is going to a terrific cause.  Fun AND altruism, together in the same Steampunk package?  How can you beat that?

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I owe you the next installment of April Tyree, Girl Detective.  Will she avoid her fate as sacrifice?  Will she free the girl, save the day and escape from the secret pyramid?  What happens next?  Well, you’re about to find out….


When the Cat’s Away…

by
AJ Clarkson

Part Three

Damn it, where was Charity Rostavitch!?  For that matter, where was the stupid exit?  The inside of this insane wooden pyramid was a maze of intersecting corridors, rooms, open chambers, secret passages.  For all I know, that crazy twit Patricia Blumenthal had smuggled in her own honest-to-goodness minotaur.  All I know was that I’d try a door, tiptoe further down the hall, turn a corner, hide in an alcove when I heard footsteps or voices, (both of which echoed so much there was no way of judging which direction it was coming from), then start the whole ridiculous mess over again.

At one point, I could hear shouts and pounding; I guess Patty and her flunkies had gone back to the chapel and found where I had wedge-jammed the door; it may have been un-openable from the inside, but a few good thumps from out here in the hall and my little jamming trick was toast.  Three loud bangs let me know they’d figured that out; the echoing bang and then voices and scurrying feet told me they’d gotten Mercedes and company out.  Which meant there were now at least seven people looking for me now, and all of them knew the layout here better than me.

Then I turned a corner.  There was only one door down this little cul-de-sac.  It had a symbol smeared on it, in a dark brownish-red substance that looked like dried blood.  The marking looked like this:  y

I recognized it.  I told you already, the weird hangs out on my side of the street; there’s money to be made in knowing how the underground magic scene works.  In this case, that mark was a warding sigil, a powerful one.  Nothing could go in or out of that door unless you either had the countersign or knew how to break the sigil.

What?  Yeah, you heard me right.  Magic is real. Well, some of it is real.  Some of it is pure hokum.  There are such things as wizards, people who do nothing but practice magic, and I’m ambivalent about those sorts.  On the one hand, wizards embrace a level of nerdiness that makes that annoying kid in your high school math class look as suave as the Dos Equis guy.  On the other hand, that much power is a whole new world of scary.  Patty — or whatever’s sub-letting her brain pan — is a practitioner.  A good one, too, if this sigil was any indication.

Most people aren’t at the wizard level of magic-slinging.  Most of us don’t bother with any of it, because magic is generally difficult, dangerous and expensive, even for the wizard nerd types.  Most spells require blood.  Or rare and/or precious minerals, objects, what have you.  Or all of the above.  And that’s in addition to you needing to know how to read and write a couple of dead languges, and to follow the recipe for a particular spell.  If you don’t get it letter perfect, well, the backlash is a world class bitch.

Yeah, I can cast a few spells.  Nothing on the level of Patty’s work, though. Or Herek-al-Hootchie, or whatever her name is, whoever is sub-letting space in Patty’ brain pan.  Luckily for me, breaking this sigil didn’t require that much magic.  I wasn’t casting a spell, technically.  I was just ruining somebody else’s work.  It’s always easier to destroy than to build.

Normally I would have used the kris knife to cut my hand.  But I already had a steady supply of blood, thanks to Patty and her crazy altar of doom.  I pressed my fingertips to the gouge Patty had cut in my forearm.  Okay, that hurt.  Bad.  I had to steady myself against the wall; my knees wanted to buckle from the pain.  I found myself panting hard, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass.  Wow.  I must be hurt worse than I thought.

Anyway, when I could stand up without falling over in a heap, I began muttering, not too loud, so Patty and her minions couldn’t hear me.  I would tell you the words to the incantation I used, but there are rules about that sort of thing.  Besides, I can barely pronounce them, much less spell them.  You think speaking German is hard on the throat, try reciting the thirteen forbidden names of the Sleeper at the Edge of Darkness.  Not fun.

I hate the feeling of magical power building up.  You ever touched an electric fence, or stuck your finger into a light bulb socket when the power’s turned on?  it doesn’t precisely hurt, not the way a cut or a burn feels.  But it’s so not nice, either.  To me, it feels like a fistful of gravel, just under your skin, rolling up your arm.  That’s sort of like what magic feels like as it builds up in your system, waiting to be released.  Only the gravel is hot (sometimes icy cold, but usually hot), and instead of following the nerve paths from your fingertip to your brain, it’s just moving in tight circles, bracelets of not-pain swirling around and around at lightning speed until you want to scream.

Those bracelets of not-pain were spinning around my hand and arm as I finished the incantation; the last syllables (I hesitate to call them words) came out in a harsh whispering rasp as I actively fought to keep from screaming.  Instead of that, however, I slammed my hand down on the sigil, daubing my blood onto the wood and smearing the blood of the sigil.  The magic crawling under my skin zinged out;  there was a whiff of scorched wood and a pop! that I felt more than I heard; that almost-sound was the wards, whatever they were, dissipating.  When I reached for the doorknob a second later, it was almost too hot to handle, a side effect of the broken ward.  I was lucky; if it had zigged intstead of zagged, it would have grounded out through my hand, and I’d be a crispy critter.

Magic is dangerous, boys and girls.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.

But whoever had laid the sigil hadn’t bothered to lock the door — idiot! — so the knob turned easily in my hand.  The room beyond was lit by a single bare light bulb dangling from a wire in the ceiling.  A single, stained mattress lay against the far wall.   On that mattress was a thin, narrow-hipped girl with blonde hair, wearing only a camisole and flower-print panties.  She was lying on her side, her back to me; I could see where the handcuffs that held her hands behind her had dug ugly, bloody gouges into the flesh of her wrists.

She was still alive; I could see her breathing.  But beyond that, nothing.  The girl didn’t move, not even a flinch, at the sound of the door opening.  “Charity?” I hissed.  No reaction.  I glanced back over my shoulder; so far nobody had noticed me.  I closed the door behind me and spoke a little louder.  “Charity?  Hey, girl, wake up!”  Still no reaction.

I didn’t have long before Patty or one of her kooky followers got the bright idea to check in here.  I knelt beside the mattress and felt her neck for a pulse; it was there, but slow, like a sleeper.  I undid the handcuffs (yeah, I carry a handcuff key with me all the time; it comes in handy at times.  Don’t judge me!) and rolled the girl over onto her back.

It was Charity Rostovitch all right; the face matched her photos.  But her eyes were wide open, staring, the pupils narrowed to the tiniest pinpricks. They were keeping her drugged.  Great.  Just great.  I shrugged out of my jacket and started forcing Charity’s arms into the sleeves.  “Charity, honey, come on, up and moving!” I said, as loud as I dared.  “Come on, girl, pull it together!”

Those bizarre pinprick eyes rolled over slowly in my direction, tried to focus, then gave up the effort.  “Mom?” she sighed.

“Nope.  I’m April.  Your mom sent me to bring you home.  You wanna go home, then you’re gonna have to make an effort and help me!”

“Sleepy,” Charity moaned, and tried to roll back over.

“No no no!  Now’s not the time for another nap, Charity,” I said.  I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up to a sitting position. I jumped up, got behind her, wedged my forearms under her arms and levered her up onto her feet.  Not easy, because A) she was taller than me, and B) her legs were as bendy as Laffy Taffy.  AND she complained the entire time, giving me half-sleeping moans of “I don’t wanna go to school!” and “five more minutes, Mom, please?”

The reason I plan to never reproduce is those cute little babies eventually turn into whiny teenagers.  Blech.

Anyway, I finally got her to stand on her own, more or less, and I braced her against me, her arm around my neck, my own tight around her waist, half holding her up.  We got a whole three steps before the doorknob rattled.  The door swung open and Patty walked in.  I stepped back in reflex; unprepared for the sudden change in momentum, Charity stumbled and reeled backward, sitting down hard on the mattress.  She nearly pulled me down with her; the backs of my heels hit the edge of the mattress and I windmilled wildly, barely managing not to sit down on top of Charity.

Patty watched this graceful drama play out without a word.  When I had finally regained my balance and turned to face her, she smiled and gave me a slow clap.  “Very entertaining, Miss Tyree,” she said.  “But now that playtime is over, shall we get on with business?”

I slid my hand behind me, where my pistol was tucked into the back waistband of my jeans.  But there was no pistol snug against the small of my back; I felt only the wrinkled cotton of my shirt. Idiot!  They must have taken my gun when they tied me to that stupid altar!

Patty must have understood my gesture, and the expression on my face. “Looking for this?” she said.  She reached into the sinus of her robe and came out with my 9mm Springfield X.D, still in its holster; it dangled from her forefinger, thrust through the trigger guard.  Clumsy.  Dangerous. And useless to me, because I still had to get past Patty, whatever was sub-letting her skull (if there really was anybody in there besides a buttload of crazy), and her kook-buddies before I could get this stoned teen home to her mom and collect my pay.  And I had no tools to do any of it; I was well and truly stuck.

I sighed heavily. “Well, shit.”

To Part Two

 


 

Well, that’s it for me for now.  What happens next?  Will they escape the pyramid?  Will Patty turn out to be even nastier than she already appears?  Will April end up a sacrifice to some dark god?  Tune in next Monday, same Pulp time, same Pulp channel!

In the meantime, you know the routine:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My email is ajwriter@ajclarkson.net if you want to ask questions, share goodies for Fun Friday, or just shoot the breeze.  I’ll be back on Wednesday to share my love for all things Punk and Pulp.  Until we see each other again, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: conventions, Pulp, short fiction, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fun Friday: Saints, Sinners, and Artificial Men

Wow, I’m cutting this one close to the wire!  Shame on me for getting caught up reading.  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’m never ashamed of getting caught up in reading!  Hi, guys, it’s Friday again, and time to have a little fun! Here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, there is much talk (from my husband) of firing up his smoker and doing a little cookout.  Problem is, it’s April and that means the weather, while beautiful now, cannot be counted on to stay pretty for more than ten minutes running. I do hope it stays pretty; Hubby has been waiting so patiently to do a cookout, and I’m hoping Daughter will bring Grandsons out to join the fun.

Okay, on to business.  What I got caught up in reading, and made me nearly miss  my deadline, were my possibilities for today’s Fun Friday installment.  I actually have an embarrassment of riches this week, and I can’t really decide which ones to share and which ones to save to another day.

Let’s start small.  You’ve heard of the Raimi Brothers, right?  Sam Raimi is a Hollywood wunderkind, directing the Spiderman movies, and being a co-creator of one of my favorites, the Evil Dead Franchise.  Well, his brother Ted (a character actor and quite charming, in my humble opinion) has started a pulpy little series on Youtube called “Deathly Spirits.”  Each video is very short, just about five minutes.  Ted Raimi is the host, playing… well, a creepy dude who lives in a creepy Edwardian house.  Raimi gets the show started, then tells a (very) brief horror story, and then wraps up by describing how to make a cocktail that (sort of) matches up with the story.   When asked, Raimi said he was inspired by the old horror anthology radio shows of yesteryear, how wonderfully moody and atmospheric they could be, and how wonderfully chilling their hosts were.  He is consciously trying to reproduce that.

There have only been two installments so far on this little series, but it has promise.  The stories he tells aren’t all that scary, but then again, he’s basically giving an audio version of a drabble.  I’m not a drinker, so I’m not qualified to comment on the cocktail recipe’s quality.  But I think the idea of pairing these two concepts is cute and clever, though not really unique.  Here’s a link so you can check it out.

Speaking of radio, that brings me to our next installment.  Maybe you’ve heard of The Saint; Val Kilmer made a pretty crappy movie of it back in 1997 (it made good money, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck).  This crappy movie was loosely based (very loosely) on a series of novels by British-American author Leslie Charteris (you can find a comprehensive list here).  The novels, unlike the movie, were pretty good.  The movie depicted The Saint as more of a freelance spy.  In the novels, he was more a thief with enlightened self-interest.  Every description I have seen compares him to Robin Hood, and not without merit.

The Saint, who is actually named Simon Templar is a thief who, with the help of certain friends and cohorts, uses his thieving and con artist skills to take down mobsters, corrupt politicians and others who prey upon the less fortunate.  He gets his nickname from his calling card, which he leaves at crime scenes:  a stick figure with a halo.

There were lots of incarnations of these novels.  There was that Kilmer movie (which I am not going to say anything more about.  I hope.). There were magazine short stories and comic books.  I remember watching the TV series incarnation, starring Roger Moore; it wasn’t bad for sixties television (no, I’m not that old; it was reruns.  Besides, the TV show was British; we didn’t get first run here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia).  But what I’m here to share with you today is my personal favorite incarnation:  the radio show.

Yes, I know, I am more than a little biased about radio.  What can I say?  I have found my niche, and I love it there.  But anyway, there were several iterations of the Saint on radio, with runs in the late forties, and early fifties.  The one I’m looking at was from 1950, and starred, of all people, Vincent Price, the King of Golden Age Horror. And he does a cracking good job playing the part; he sounds like he’s having a grand old time, which is what a character like the Saint needs.

Anyway, the Internet Archive has a collection of the recordings available to download or to stream for free, so I totally recommend you give it a listen.

My final installment is another oldie.  Would you believe my first encounter with Tintin comics was when I was a little girl?  And in German?!  True story.  My mother and father both taught at the same high school, so I spent a lot of time in that building.  One day I wandered into the library and found a copy of a Tintin comic in a hardcover library binding.  Now this is a high school library, and I was seven or eight years old; finding a comic book, something with colorful pictures in it, yeah, that was like finding the mother lode.  The fact that the whole thing was in German didn’t faze me at all; I wouldn’t stop whinging until Mom checked them out for me (there were like four volumes).

Luckily for me, I spoke enough German as a child to read the books fairly well.  Okay, fairly is overstating it, but I understood what the stories were about, and Dad was glad to fill in the blanks (all my sisters spoke at least a little German, out of self-defense; Mom and Dad spoke German when they wanted to discuss things they didn’t want small ears to hear)

ANYWAY (man I can wander off topic sometimes), I fell in love with those Tintin comics.  Now I’ve grown up, I see the flaws in the comic, but I can’t give up my affection for this series.

Who exactly is Tintin?  He’s a cub reporter, an investigative journalist who travels around the world with his little fox terrier companion, Snowy, looking for stories and finding adventure and danger.  Okay, they say he’s a reporter.  But you never actually see him reporting on anything, or even just writing anything down, so take that “reporter” thing with a big grain of salt.  What he does do is get into trouble, all kinds of trouble, from tangling with spies to science fiction to deathtraps that 60’s era Batman would respect.

Tintin is another one they made a movie of not too long ago, this time an animated venture that was visually very striking and not a bad story, too.  But the original Tintin adventures were a series of comic strips by Hergé, a Belgian artist.  They were in French, and first appeared in 1929 in a youth supplement to the Belgian paper, Le Vingtième Siècle.  At one time, it was considered one of the most popular comic strips in all of Europe.  It has been collected in comic books, and appeared in radio, theater and the movies as well as continuing as a comic strip all the way up into the 1980’s!

Fair warning:  these comic strips are not even close to being politically correct.  Especially in the earlier comics, they are brazenly racist, depicting black people as almost subhuman (Tintin in the Congo), Russians as unrepentant villains (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets), and we’re not even going to discuss how orientals are depicted.  There’s also a lot of paternalism in the books, as well as a casualness to violence against animals and people.  I’m not going to argue about this; if you can’t stand that sort of thing, don’t read it.  But if you can get past it, understand that this series is from a different time and a different world, then you might very well enjoy this series.  Rather than try to link to all of the books (there are 20-something volumes, in half a dozen languages), I’ll just give you the Goodreads listing; from there you can click your way to Amazon or the book outlet of your choice.  Give them a try:  good pulpy fun!

Okay, I should have had this posting out almost an hour ago.  Feel free to blame my daughter.  She called me just as I was getting ready to write my closing paragraph and sign off.  But I don’t feel too guilty; being almost an hour late was worth it to talk to my daughter and sing the ABC song with my grandson!  Anyway, forgive my tardiness and, well, you know the rest:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My addy is ajwiter-@-ajclarkson-dot-net.  If you have something to share for Fun Friday, give me a shout.  And until we meet again, be good.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

P.S.  Don’t forget:  Vandalia Con is in less than six weeks!  http://www.vandalia-con.org  BE THERE!!!

Categories: Classic pulp, Comic/Graphic Novels, Dieselpunk, Fun Friday, Horror, Pulp, Radio, Uncategorized, Video | 2 Comments

The Laundry Series by Charles Stross

Morning!  It’s pretty cold this morning here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I have spent most of the morning thus far cooking.  See, it gets hot here in my little valley; 90 degree heat with 70% to 80% humidity in mid-July to early August is not only not unheard of, at times it’s practically de rigeur.  The last thing I want in that kind of weather is to stand over a hot stove and heat up the house.  So I prep as much food as I can well ahead of time (like now, when the mornings are cold) so that, when that hot weather hits, all I have to do is pop something pre-prepped into the oven for thirty minutes.  NO running the stove all afternoon, no standing in the heat minding a grill, no fuss, very little muss, and I can go back to my preferred pastime of lounging on the front porch with my Kindle and a glass of lemonade.

But enough of my ongoing food fetish.  Onward, to the Punk!

So here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, it’s hard to find an expert on the pulp genre.  The only one I knew personally was my father, who was an absolute junkie of the genre.  But he’s gone, God rest his soul, so who am I to ask these strange questions.

Hey!  I’ll ask the Interwebz:  do spy novels belong in the pulp genre?  Is there a cut-off, this one belongs in the pulps, that one doesn’t?  Why?

I think some of them do.  The original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were written in the early fifties, and were firmly pulp.  Just check this book cover and tell me that doesn’t scream “pulp!!!!”  The books were high on action, light on characterization (though I have to say that Bond is a much darker, less slick character in the books than in the movies), and not afraid to titillate.  Ian Fleming’s writing style was minimalist, clipped, terse, not at all uncommon in the pulps; to me at least, the feeling was a cross between a spy story and a Sam Spade type hardboiled detective.

All that says “pulp” to me.

What confused me for a while is the fact that, while Bond is anchored in the pulps, the series has gone WAY mainstream, and has done almost since its inception.  It was a breakout hit when the series first appeared.  Then the movies, spin off novels (oh yes, there are Bond books by other authors, mostly John Gardner or Raymond Benson, though occasionally other guys contribute).  Then came the book spoofs, the send ups (Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967), affectionate send-ups of the Bond style, predated the hyperactive Austin Powers movies by nearly half a century;  by the way, James Coburn ROCKS in the lead role in these movies.  I’d watch him for days before I’d bother with Mike Myers.  (I don’t have a problem with the Austin Powers movies; I’ve seen them all and they’re cute as heck.  But ultimately, I’m underwhelmed)

But you see my confusion:  how can something so mainstream, a character so embraced by the general public, still be “one of us,” still be a pulp.  I have this thing in my mind that says that pulp is not mainstream, and shouldn’t be mainstream.  No, I’m too old to be a hipster.  I’ve just been in the pulp ghetto for so long that I’ve come to like the place.

Anyway, the point is, spy novels, some of them at least, belong to us.  And this allows me to include the works of Charles Stross on this page (the lengths I go to to justify what I wanted to do anyway!  I should be ashamed).  In fact, Stross’s Laundry Files series belongs here anyway, thanks to its Lovecraftian connection.  And boy, does it deliver.  Stross creeps me out in ways that…..

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who is Charles Stross and what is this Laundry series I’m talking about?  Charles Stross is a British author of hard science fiction.  He has a Wikipedia page here.  He has written a crap-ton of hard science fiction, most of which I’m not even gonna fool with here; there’s a bibliography on his Wikipedia page, go check them out.

What I’m singling out here on the blog is Stross’s Laundry series. How can I describe Bob Howard’s life in the Laundry?  Hmmm…. Imagine Dilbert and James Bond had a baby, and that baby grew up to use an iPhone to fight Cthulhu.

Yeah, it’s like that.  For realz.

There are five books in the Laundry series…

  • The Atrocity Archive
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocalypse Codex
  • The Rhesus Chart

and half a dozen or so short stories, most of which are available online for free (again, check the bibliography on the Wikipedia page linked above; they’re well worth the effort)

Here’s the thing:  in the Laundry series, all the stuff Lovecraft wrote about, the monsters from other dimensions, strange and dangerous races living under the sea and mating with the occasional fisherman, the magic that destroys the mind and consumes the soul?  Yeah, all that stuff is for real.  Except it ain’t magic.  It’s mathematics.  Seems that certain very high level  non-Euclidean, Fermat’s Theorem-level mathematics can open gateways between worlds. Combine that math with various material components (some wire, a few lasers, an iPhone, a severed hand, just stuff you have lying around the house).

So when Bob Howard (our hero) was in university in England, he was playing around on his computers when he (and I’m quasi-quoting the Laundry Files Wiki), “nearly landscaped Wolverhampton by accident when creating a realtime rendering algorithm that used a logical shortcut which turned out to be an open and ungrounded summoning grid. ”  The British government frowns on that sort of thing, and came for him.  He had two choices:  forcible re-education and prison, or join The Laundry.  He chose the Laundry.

The Laundry (called that because it was housed behind a laundry shop during WWII) is a very secret branch of MI5 focused specifically on occult threats.  Their job is to find the mad Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world by summoning something incredibly nasty.  They’re also tasked with finding the schlubs (like Bob) who stumble onto dangerous knowledge while dicking around on the Internet or in their math classes.

So what’s life like in the Laundry?  Well, Bob’s day-to-day really does read like a Dilbert comic strip:  cubicles, post-it notes, boring team meetings, mandatory teamwork (or whatever) classes, dealing with clueless supervisors, computer illiterate types who can’t figure out how to turn on the printer without the computer guy’s help, crap-tons of paperwork, plus executive level types who are scary as hell.  Only in this case “scary as hell” is much more than just a metaphor.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Atrocity Archives, Bob had been another cubicle slave, just marking time and hating his immediate supervisor.  But, since he had volunteered for active service, one of his supervisors tapped him for a little errand.  An “Active Service Errand” in this case means breaking into an office park, stealing somebody’s files and getting out without being spotted.  Entry level spy stuff.

From there the whole thing escalates.  In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is asked to repatriate a young, beautiful scientist who accidentally stumbled across a very dangerous mathematical formula; this seemingly coincidental encounter leads to an alternate dimension that was populated by Nazis from WWII and is now about to destroy our own dimension.  (an image you won’t forget:  the face of the moon carved to look like Der Fuhrer).  The cool thing is that Bob hooks up with the girl scientist he rescued at the beginning; she is his girlfriend and later his wife for the rest of the series.  I like this, it’s a nice change of pace from the womanizing of most other spy thrillers (yes, Bond, I’m looking at you).

The second book, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is teamed with a young woman from the underwater realms, to help supervise a megalomaniac’s attempt to find a sunken prize.  This book is very deliberately plotted to reflect a James Bond novel.  It gets kind of meta:  the characters realize they are being forced to follow a Bond novel plot and there is a science fiction-y justification for why it’s happening.  There’s even some interesting confusion as to which player is the Bond expy.  I have to confess, this is my least favorite of the series, so I have only read it the one time.

The third book, The Fuller Memorandum, concerns a mad scramble by factions inside and outside the Laundry to find a document that will give the holders control of a Nyarlathotep-type nightmare that still walks the earth.  Nobody knows who the nightmare currently is, which becomes very important.

The fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex, sees Bob helping an “outside asset” (a very scary woman called Persephone) to infiltrate an American religious movement, one whose leader has gotten rather too close to the British Prime Minister, and seems to have the sort of powers that The Laundry routinely looks for.

The fifth book, The Rhesus Chart, involves vampires as captains of industry.  This one is tough for Bob because the toxic girlfriend he had at the beginning of book one is one of the vampires and, as a member of the Laundry herself, knows way too much about how the Laundry does its work.   According to Wikipedia, at least two more books are scheduled to follow Rhesus, which is good news as far as I’m concerned.

What I like about The Laundry Files is the tone.  Yes, Bob fights tentacled freaks from the 8th Dimension, using only an iPhone and a pigeon foot on a string around his neck (long story, just trust me), all very derring do stuff.  But when he talks about it, he sounds like just one of the guys.  He’s not got a cape or a big S across his chest; he’s just a guy doing a job.  A deeply weird and terrifying job, but still just another wage slave.  He worries about spending too much money on a gadget and what is his live-in girlfriend, Mo, going to say about it.  He hates his supervisor and enjoys goading her.  He’s full of snark and the sort of random mischief that I see my computer geek sons get up to all the time.

For all the Dilbert-level office hell, there’s still plenty of action (my favorite part).  It’s cool to see just an ordinary guy go up against the forces of darkness armed only with a pigeon foot and an iPhone (no, I’m not kidding about the pigeon foot).  Stross is very good at making me believe that the danger is very very real; I have been genuinely frightened a couple times by the stories, in a Cold War paranoia kind of way.  But “Duck and Cover” isn’t going to work against Hastur any more than it would against Kruschev’s little toys.  And this is where Stross impresses me again:  he’s got me freaked out, that’s good.  But then he pits Captain Ordinary against the Forces of Darkness, and he makes me believe it when Captain Ordinary wins.

It’s one thing to throw an ordinary guy up against something terrible and writing him out of it.  Any chapped ass monkey with a keyboard can do that.  But to make me believe it, to convince me that Captain Ordinary has the wherewithal to pull it off and walk away from a battle with the Forces of Darkness?  Yeah, I am impressed.

While I was doing the brushing up for this blog, I found something interesting, something I didn’t know before.  Each book in the series thus far have been pastiches of other, more famous installments in the spy thriller genre.  The Atrocity Archive was a conscious imitation of Len Deighton‘s “Ipcress File.”  As I said before, The Jennifer Morgue imitates Ian Fleming’s Bond series.  The Fuller Memorandum is a pastiche of Anthony Price‘s books about Dr. David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler.  The Apocalypse Codex imitates the Modesty Blaise stories by Peter O’Donnell.

What’s cool is that I didn’t know this.  I don’t often read spy thrillers, and almost never wander out of the science fiction/fantasy/horror ghetto, so I never was exposed to most of these writers (though I recall my father reading them voraciously).  But — and here’s the important thing — I still enjoyed the books.  I didn’t need to recognize the pastiche to have fun with the books.  That’s what annoys me about a lot of pastiches:  you have to know the source material to get the joke and thus to appreciate the story.  Here, you didn’t.  I could read the books, enjoy the hell out of them, and be blissfully innocent of the inside joke.  Now that I know, I can go back and read Ipcress, then read Atrocity Archive again and enjoy the book on an entirely new level.

That’s cool.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about this.  Go to your favorite source of books right now and pick up The Atrocity Archive.  You’ll enjoy it.  Delicious modern day pulpy goodness.

And that’s it for me.  We just had a thunderstorm start; I hope I can get this out before the lightning ganks out internet connection.  So I gotta make this fast:  share, tweet, write, comment.  My email is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net if you wanna talk or if you wanna share some Fun Friday goodness with me.  Fun Friday is up next and I’ve got some fun stuff for you (Hence the name “Fun Friday.”)

Be good!  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught.

 

Don’t forget about Vandalia Con on May 22-24 in Parkersburg WV. Come and have some Steampunk fun and support women’s health in Appalachia!

Categories: books, Dieselpunk, Pulp, Review, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fun Friday: Vandalia Con

And it’s Friday again.  Busy week here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  I’ve had a busy week, as if you couldn’t guess.  Another doctor visit, but this one didn’t involve my guts or being sick.  No, I ordered new glasses!  Yay!  I don’t do this nearly often enough, mostly because glasses are obscenely expensive.  But it’s been five-ish years since my last exam.  Plus, I broke my glasses back in January (they’re currently being held together with black duct tape.  Thank you to my hubby for his jerry-rigging, but oh, dear heavens, I look ridiculous!).  So it seemed I was gonna have to bite the bullet.  Luckily, we have vision care on our health insurance this time, so the cost did not break the bank.  I’ll probably post a picture of me and my new specs on my Facebook page (no, I’m not posting a picture of Duct Tape Glasses!  No way I’m giving y’all blackmail material! 😀 )

I also finally got back behind the wheel of a car again.  It’s a testament to just how ill I was last year when I say my family has not let me drive since October or so.  They were too scared something bad would happen.  Yeah, it was frustrating, but they were right; I had no business behind the wheel, sick as I was.  But now I’m not sick, and I can’t depend on being chauffeured everywhere.  So I whinged and complained and argued until I got the keys to the car again.  YAY!

Finally, it’s Holy Week, for those of us practicing the Christian faith.  Maundy Thursday was yesterday, Good Friday today.  Two church services this coming Sunday.  Lots of running back and forth to church (a half hour drive one-way for me).  Busy busy busy.  But I derive a lot of comfort from church, so it’s worth it.

Okay, so I’ve mentioned VandaliaCon before.  It’s a Steampunk con in Parkersburg, WV founded by some old friends of mine.  It’s a small con — last year had an attendance of 300 — but that’s a selling point, in my humble opinion; smaller, more intimate gatherings generally are more fun, less hectic, and less intimidating to the introvert and chronically shy (like me!).

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good party.  But Vandalia is extra special:  the tagline for the con is “Saving the Mothers of Invention.”  A big point of the con is to raise money so women of Appalachia can have mammograms and cervical cancer screenings.  See, the thing is, Appalachia has a dreadful record about women’s health.  Part of it is the culture:  we mountain women just don’t talk about that, not with our families, not with our doctors, not amongst ourselves.  But most of it is about being poor.  Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, well, it ain’t playing out so well here in the trenches, not in 2015.  Lots of women don’t have the money for these exams (which are expensive, don’t kid yourself); I have fairly good insurance, and even I’m daunted by the out-of-pocket for a mammogram.   Last year, Vandalia raised  over $5,000 cash for their war chest (no pun intended).  It doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’d be surprised how far that can be stretched, and how many women it helps.  This year, they’re hoping to raise more.

So as I recall, when I last mentioned Vandalia, I said I was gonna attend this one.  I’ve never actually attended a con before, and I wanted this one to be my first.  It was gonna be epic.  Of course, then surgery happened, and doctors and prescriptions and oh, my God, do you know how much all that costs?  A crap-ton of bills pretty much told me that, in fact no, I was not gonna get to do the con thing this spring.  The disappointment, it was huge.

But this week, I got a message from a friend of mine, who goes by the name of Jan.  I met Jan around the same time I met Bret and Shelly (the founders of the con), and we were all friends together.  It helped a lot that Bret, Shelly and Jan are all genius fencers and, while I am NOT a genius fencer, I do know the basics and, before I landed in my chair, I really enjoyed the sport, regardless of how sucky I was (yeah, not kidding, fencing as in “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” fencing.  Quick tip:  don’t piss these folks off; they have sharps and know how to use them).

Jan is a wonderful person, a teacher, a photographer, a wife and mother, and just generally a kind and gentle soul (who, nevertheless, knows how to use a long pointy object to carve a big “Z” into your backside with a simple flick of the wrist.  Humans are a mass of contradictions, no?).  She and I bonded over a passion for fencing (her teaching me), sewing (me teaching her) and American Sign Language (just sharing with one another).

Gosh, I’ve wandered far afield, huh?  Anyway, Jan and I had planned to do the con together.  But then life got in my way, and I had to back out.  Until I got the message this week from Jan.  In short, she’s paying my way to Vandalia.  She’s paying my entrance fee.  I’m riding up with her.  She even changed her reservation to a wheelchair-accessible hotel room so I could bunk in with her!  All I have to do is pay for my meals and any extras I may desire.

BTW:  did I mention, she’s also paying for my daughter as well, because said daughter helps me in my day-to-day mobility and functioning?

Apparently it’s a birthday present (I turn 49 in just shy of three weeks).  How do you thank somebody for a gift like that?  No, I can’t answer that one, either, but I’m open to suggestions.  I’m getting together with this saintly woman this weekend, to do a marathon of sewing (I’m sewing a small project for her, and we’re going to see about doing some fittings and mending on her Steampunk outfit for the con).  But knocking together a blouse / smock, and taking in a few seams on some existing outfits (both things I can do in my sleep) doesn’t begin to cover it.  Gonna have to put my thinking cap on for this one.

So yeah, looks like I’ll be at Vandalia Con.  If you live in driving distance of Morgantown or Parkersburg (I’m looking at you, Pittsburgh, PA people; I’ve done that run before, it’s not that far), I STRONGLY urge you to come up to Parkersburg on May 22-24, at the Blennerhassett Hotel.  Entrance fee is only $30 (dead cheap, guys, you can’t do better than that!) and there are a ton of activities:  a concert by Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings, a tea drinking tournament, children’s activities (how cool is that?!?), competitions, classes and panels, you name it.  There’s even going to be an RC aircraft regatta!  Costumes are encouraged but by no means required.  AND!  Bonnie’s Bus will be providing on-site mammograms.  Most insurances are accepted by Bonnie’s Bus, but no woman over forty will be turned away for a lack of ability to pay.

If you like this blog, please come find me at the event.  You can’t miss me:  I’ll be the woman “of a certain age” wearing a headscarf with whatever Steampunky garb I can cobble together (cosplay is a relatively new thing for me), in a wheelchair.  I’ll have a mini-entourage (my daughter and at least one friend), probably doing sign language interpretation at the occasional class or concert (not officially or professionally; I’ll just have people with me who need the service, and I don’t know if they’ll have a licensed ‘terp on-site).  Just come up and say, “Hey, AJ!” (I’ve also been known to answer to “Junely;” how I became an adverb is anybody’s guess).

I will be taking pictures and hopefully some video, and I will definitely share those here.  I’m particularly looking forward to the airship races and the costumes.  I’ve seen pictures from last year, and OH MY GOD I”M JEALOUS OF HOW COOL EVERYBODY LOOKED!!!!!!  In the meantime, I’m trying to score a guest post or  interview with either Bret or Shelly Dusic, the founders of the feast.  Even though we’re old friends, it’s difficult, as they’re both busy busy people, and twice as busy now with the run-up to the convention.  If I can make this happen, I’ll be posting it here.

Okay, so that’s it for me today.  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment.  You can email me at ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net, if you have a suggestion for a future Fun Friday spotlight, or just want to talk about steampunk, dieselpunk or New Pulp.  Enjoy your weekend, y’all, and seriously, check out Vandalia Con; it’s gonna be epic!  Be good, y’all, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: conventions, Fun Friday, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Foundation Media: Band of Brothers

Wednesday again!  To misquote Douglas Adams, I never quite got the hand of Wednesdays.  The hours always seem to creep up on me.  Meh, oh well, onward and upward, right?  Have y’all been keeping out of mischief while I’ve been hiding out in my treetop castle here in the deep, dark jungles of Appalachia?  For myself, I’ve been cooking.  Vegan cooking!

Yeah, I know, right: vegans in Appalachia?  No such creature!  Don’t look at me; as a rule I like dead animal.  However I was playing around in the kitchen and stumbled into this bizarre combination of Jewish latke, Korean pajeon, and British bubble & squeak, and because I had no milk or eggs in the house, the thing became vegan by default.  Who says food can’t be multi-cultural, right?  😀  It tasted really good, so I played around with it a little and then sent the recipe to my son.  He and his wife are Russian Orthodox; their church takes its fasting seriously (and I mean seriously) and they’re always looking for Lent-friendly (ie meatless, dairy-less, egg-less) recipes.

But enough about my adventures in cookery!  Time to move on to Clarksonpunk business!  On Monday, we talked about nonfiction sources of information on World War II.  As I recall, I also promised that today we would talk about fictionalized accounts of real people/places/events in the war.  And so we shall.  As I said on Monday, i don’t want to get into actual pieces of proper fiction about the War (such as Saving Private Ryan).  We talk about proper fiction all the time, and, only rare does a piece of fiction become a Foundation media.

For that matter, it’s not so much that Monday’s contributions or today’s necessarily qualify as Foundation media in and of themselves.  But World War II was such a watershed event in history that it can’t be ignored as a shaper of our attitudes.  The war quite literally changed the world, for the good, for the bad, every which way, but always profoundly and permanently.  We can’t ignore that, not in our fiction.  For those of us born after the war (and that’s practically everybody I can hope to have as a reader, now my mother has passed away), it’s difficult to even try to imagine a WWII-less world.

Of course, that’s part of the fun of Dieselpunk, isn’t it?

Anyway, onward and upward!  Okay, I may have implied that I was gonna cover more than one nonfiction source today.  And so I had planned it.  But the fact is, I have a lot of things to say.  So I’m going to break it up into pieces.  There’ll be more to be had on Monday, I promise.  Now, as you can tell by the post title, we’re going to be starting with Band of Brothers. Here’s a trailer to remind you, if you’ve forgotten (though I would find that hard to fathom)

This 2001 HBO production was a 10-part miniseries following the progress of a genuine paratrooper company (E “Easy” Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) from their beginnings at jump school, through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and other battles, right through to the U.S.  capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgarten.  The miniseries, produced by Stephen Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, is based on the 1992 non-fiction account of the same subject by author and historian Stephen Ambrose.  Some of you may recall that, when this was originally released, it was huge.  Everybody was watching it, everybody was talking about it.  Well, at least until 9/11, which happened a week after the first episode; people weren’t quite as excited about it after that, having other things to discuss and think about.  HOWEVER, it was very well received, overall, and received Emmies, Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.

The ensemble cast is full of solid, reliable character actors, but nobody who jumps out at you as hugely famous, with the possible exception of Donnie Wahlberg from the Saw movies (and from New Kids on the Block, if you’re an old fogey like me and remember annoying ’80’s boy bands).  However, the cast does a really, really good job.  A funny note on the cast:  I don’t have HBO, and I seldom watch TV, so I didn’t actually see this series for the first time until just a few months ago.  When I did, the actors who caught my eye were not the leads, but rather the walk-on performances by Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg (as an American grunt carrying messages back and forth) and Scottish hearthrob James McAvoy (as a young reinforcement soldier assigned to Easy Company) before they were famous.

As I said, I did not see this series until back in the fall.  But!  I have read some of Stephen Ambrose’s work, like Citizen Soldiers and the Victors.  He does a good job describing the daily lives of soldiers, and more importantly, putting them into the context of the war at large.  It’s much easier to understand why a person makes a decision when you understand what he is experiencing, what information he may or may not have, etc. I find his books a compelling read, putting human faces to larger-than-life events.

With that said, however, it should be pointed out that Stephen Ambrose has come under no small amount of criticism.  Apparently he has been accused of plagiarizing his fellow historians, of making sloppy errors in his research, and of misrepresenting people and events in his work.  Not quite cricket for a nonfiction writer and alleged expert.  Are those accusations accurate?  Good Lord, I don’t know; my historian credentials involve the phrase, “enthusiastic amateur and full-time book gourmand.”  For our purposes, the lovers of Dieselpunk and New Pulp, the controversy isn’t that important; we’re here to get a flavor, a zeitgeist and mid-20th century paradigm, not to spot check one author’s research (yes, I know, there are those among us who do take that stuff seriously, and all props to you for it.  I can be quite the stickler myself in my fields of expertise.  But most of us are not that invested).

The truth is, don’t go to Band of Brothers, either the miniseries or the book, to get an in-depth view of the causes of the Battle of the Bulge, or the political and military impact of  D-Day.  You’re not gonna get it.  What you ARE gonna get is an intense insight into what it was like for a soldier taking part in these big events.  Your average grunt (or platoon commander, or company commander, even) doesn’t know the Big Picture; it’s not part of his job.  He sees the battle, and the war, from a very tight, very vivid perspective.

That’s what is brilliant about the book and the miniseries:  it gives a face and a heart to battles and events that we’ve all read about, but were born too late (and too lucky) to experience.  It is INTENSE.  Sometimes too intense; there were times I had to turn the show off and catch my breath, because it was just too much for me to bear.  One that jumps out to my memory is in the second episode.  The paratroopers are flying over the French coast, getting ready to jump into Normandy and start the D-Day invasion.  The men are crammed into flying sardine cans, flying death traps as the anti-aircraft start shooting.  I had nightmares after seeing this ep, dreams of being trapped in a tiny room as fire engulfs me and mine.

Here, take a look.  The part that was too much for me starts right around 2:00.

Or try this:  the liberation of a concentration camp.

Like I said, intense.  But that’s not to say the series is unrelenting heartache.  There are some really funny scenes in it (the kid imitating their commanding officer to get their company commander in trouble?  I ran it back and replayed that scene half a dozen times and laughed my butt off every time!).  There are some sweet scenes. Sad scenes.  Scenes where you want to cheer and jump and up and down.  It’s a roller coaster ride.

And it’s all TRUE!  It all happened. One of the coolest, most touching things about the miniseries is that, at the beginning of each episode, they show a series of old men talking about the real events.  Turns out these old men are the real guys, the members of Easy Company being depicted in the episode.  Moreover, the DVD set has a documentary just about and of these men, talking about their experiences in the war and talking about the making of the series.

Yes, Stephen King is right: making the truth into a movie turns it into a fiction, after a fashion; no matter how good or accurate the movie is, it’s never going to be the absolute truth.  But sometimes that’s the best way to depict the truth, in a way that lets the audience connect to it and internalize it.  And I’m telling you, check out this series if you’ve never seen it.  If you have seen it, go look at it again.  It’s worth it.

Okay, two quick announcements.  First, for those of you who may have come to Clarksonpunk via the audio drama community, I am sooooo sorry about the delays in releasing new episodes of Blackburn Gaslight Adventures or Fortuna.  See earlier blog posts about my being ill.  But I’ve been working my little fingers off, and, assuming nothing blows up between now and Monday, I’ll be turning in finished mixes to my producer starting early next week.  Yay!

Second, I have been asked by readers when I might be getting back to Fiction Monday.  I’ve been pondering that myself and I think it’s gonna start back right after Easter, how’s that sound?  I don’t know if I’ll be finishing the Fortuna short story, however; I feel I’ve lost the plot on it, and i”m not sure I can get it back.  However, I have a new Richmond and Waite story ready to roll, and I have a few other options that might be fun.  Give me a shout, tell me what sort of stories you might like to see!  I’m open to most anything.

And here’s a third announcement.  If you have a short story in the Steampunk, Dieselpunk and/or New Pulp vein, and you would be interested in sharing it, I would be happy to post it here.  I can’t pay you anything.  But the upside is that you keep all copyrights and you’ll get some exposure.  It’s a thought, right?

Aaaaaaaand…. yep, that’s it for me.  Next up:  Fun Friday, and I haven’t a clue what’s going to go up there.  Ain’t winging it fun?    In the meantime, you know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, email.  If you have a question or a contribution for Fun Friday, my email is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  Give me a shout, I’m always delighted to hear from you.  Now, go, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Dieselpunk, Foundation media, History, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Foundation Media: NonFiction Sources on WWII

Hi, guys, did you enjoy your weekend?  Mine was kind of an up and down adventure; Saturday was a truly painful disappointment, in that some plans that I was really looking forward to fell apart in a very unpleasant and disappointing way.  That sort of thing happens, of course.  On the other hand, Sunday went much better; after church, Big Sis and I went to lunch and then saw the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, on the big screen at our local movie theater (courtesy of Fathom Events who also provides periodic Rifftrax fixes).  There’s even a picture of me with a couple of my favorite objects:  my Kindle and a big serving of G.D. Ritzy’s chili cheese fries! Check it out!

me at Ritzy'sYeah, I know, I look pretty bad.  But you know I spent most of the winter extremely ill (hence all the missing blog posts, blah blahbity blah).  I am starting to gain the weight back, though, and that gorgeous bowl of chili cheese fries definitely contributed to that effort.  No, I didn’t finish the whole thing on my own; Big Sis and I split it between us.  I had to leave room for the double bacon cheeseburger right beside me and my Kindle.  Dean Winchester ain’t got a thing on old AJ!  We even had ice cream afterwards!  Nobody can say I’m not making a good faith effort to put back on the weight.  I’m not complaining, mind you, but eating 4-5 meals a day, as recommended by my doctor, ain’t quite as easy or as fun as it sounds; after a while, it starts to feel like poking food in your face is all you ever do!

So anyway, on to business.  As you may recall, I said I wanted to spend a few blog posts talking about World War II.  Today I’m going to lay some heavy duty non-fiction on you, and lots of it. As a writer, I’m a big believer in reading a wide variety of writing, in genre and out of it, fiction, non fiction, poetry, plays, you name it.  As my dad always asserted, reading is good, whether it’s War and Peace of a comic book.  When I’m working on a new setting (particularly a well-known historical one like this), I like to cram on the subject, gorging on as many historical sources as I can find, as well as reading other writers in the same genre / subgenre.

What got me started on this one was when I was first planning the Richmond and Waite stories.  Even before I started power-studying, I got into a long, fairly heated debate (heated as in intense, not angry) with fellow writers (Hi, guys at the AW Cantina!  If you are a writer, I cannot recommend the Absolute Write forums enough  )  about why Operation Sea Lion (the discussed but never executed Nazi plan to invade the UK) never happened and how might it have played out.  It took a bit of doing, but I was finally convinced that there was no way a conventional invasion (conventional as in “not involving magic, space ships, and/or zombies”) would never have worked with the situation as it historically stood at the end of the Battle of Dunkirk.  Obviously my fellow writers (special props to SLCBoston at AW; the man knows his history) knew a little more than I did.  So I started reading.

Okay, boys and girls, first we’ll start with a name:  Andrew Roberts.  Write him down, ask for him by name.  Andrew Roberts is a British historian, an expert on both the Napoleonic era and World War II.  He is the author of three books that I cannot recommend enough, if WWII is your bent:  Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, Masters and Commanders: The Military Geniuses Who Led the West to Victory in World War II, and The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.

Each of these books looks at the war from a slightly different perspective.  Hitler and Churchill looks at the political aspects of the subject, focusing, obviously, on the two primary leaders.  I must say that I agree with one of the reviewers on Goodreads; Roberts makes no secret of his admiration of Churchill, warts and all.  I don’t know that it makes for an unfair comparison between him and Hitler, but it is something to hold in mind.

Masters and Commanders looks at both military and political angles and the interplay between them.  He examines Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill again (told you he was a Churchill fan), American General George Marshall and British General Alan Brooke, and how these four complex men interacted with one another (clue:  not always smoothly, particularly with Brooke, who comes off as a bit of an ass).  I did not find this book as useful as the others.  Neither Brooke nor Marshall served any significant time as field generals during the war, instead staying behind to liaise between the field generals and the political leaders.  While I’m not knocking that, it’s an important job, I wish Roberts would do something similar with Eisenhower and Montgomery, and the rest of the ETO operational leaders.

The Storm of War is actually the one I read first.  It’s probably the best known of the three, landing on the NYT bestsellers list in 2011.  It’s a more generalized overview of the war, covering a much broader base than the other two books.  I liked it very much, but found it uneven in places; it focused in tightly on some bits, and then glossing over stuff I wanted to know more about.  But until somebody takes a Shelby-Foote-like approach to WWII (Shelby Foote is known in U.S. historical circles for writing the definitive multi-volume description of the American Civil War), this is going to be one of the best alternatives extant for a consolidated view of the war.

Want to see a little more of Andrew Roberts?  Well, I heard about Storms of War on YouTube.  After the conversation with SLCBoston, I went hunting and found a speech given by Andrew Roberts to the American Army War College (they do things like that; fascinating stuff).  The speech is called, “Why Hitler Lost the War: German Strategic Mistakes in WWII” and is really gripping stuff.  Roberts is a good speaker as well as a good writer.  You can hear him here:

I’m not going to embed any more documentaries or speeches.  But I’ll link you to some gooders.

Crap!  Every time I think I’ve got a good, FINISHED list of WWII things I want to share with you, three more items pop up that fall under, “Oh, can’t forget that!”    Sigh.  I’ll have to add the new stuff to the list and hope I remember to stick it in.  This time we talked about nonfiction; Wednesday, we’ll talk about fiction that tries to illustrate non-fiction (biographies, stuff like that).  I don’t want to get into outright fiction (as in made up stories in that setting) because I deal with that sort of thing most of the time already.

In the meantime, I’m gone, getting back to compulsive eating and reading.  Y’all have the usual marching orders:  share, comment, tweet, email (email addy is still ajwriter-at-ajclarkson.net) and send along your ideas for Fun Friday.  Until we see each other again, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Dieselpunk, Foundation media, History, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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