Saturday, April 28, 2012

As One Devil to Another: Review and Giveaway

Young, naïve, inexperienced Scardagger—on his first assignment and so lucky to have his uncle to mentor him through the traumatic process… (His Uncle Slashreap, that is. Not the other uncle, the one who recently devoured Scardagger’s cousin for his catastrophic failure).

Or so Slashreap suggests in this series of letters, originally intended for his nephew’s benefit and printed now in As One Devil to Another.


Throughout these letters transcribed by author Richard Platt, Slashreap pays not-so-subtle homage to C. S. Lewis’s original work, The Screwtape Letters. As his predecessor before him, Slashreap attempts to instruct his nephew and pupil on the proper Demonic Virtues. (Not so much temptation as distraction and confusion.) And, as his predecessor also, he lashes out against his nephew’s inept, idiotic behavior. “The moral is clear: Never allow yourself a moment of innocuous pleasure.”

Why this and not the original? The first few letters read awkwardly, while the book itself relies heavily on that “pestilential writer” Lewis’s work. And yet, As One Devil to Another answers critics in the end with strong, clear writing, as well as an interesting critique of modern culture. (It also has great cartoon illustrations, as you can see from the cover!)

Personally, I found the Slashreap’s choice of a “client” for his nephew to be intriguing—or should that be disturbing? She is young woman, an English major, pursuing her graduate degree (at Oxford University, no less), with ambitions for a university career. I happen to fit the general type, so some of Slashreap’s barbs hit very near home. And, while the nature of art, deconstruction, or academic originality may not interest every reader, Slashreap deals out loquacious advice on many contemporary questions from gender equality and social order to technology and the “Virtual World.”

Slashreap, in fact, falls just short of the original wit and thoughtfulness of The Screwtape Letters. And, the final letters reach far toward creating their own brilliant conclusion. Considering the stature of the original, that’s far indeed, and I would recommend this book to anyone who has read Lewis’s.

For more information about the book, check the publisher's site here.

[My thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me a review copy of As One Devil to Another, in exchange for my honest opinion of this book.]

#####

In addition to the review copy, Tyndale sent me a certificate for a free book giveaway for As One Devil to Another!

To enter the giveaway, simply post a link of this review on your own site before Saturday, May 12th and leave a comment here with a link back to your post. You may enter multiple times for each time you post a link on a different—not the same—website. (No more than one winner per household, no spamming, and all that. ) I will select one winner, using Random.com, and announce the results that Saturday!


Friday, April 27, 2012

Night Shot 8: Captain Nwin Again


In which (okay, we’ll come back to Jerry later)…

#####

Captain Nwin was waiting for her coffee maker to finish perking when the call came.

She answered and listened for a moment, frowning. “You what? How do you know that? He…” Captain Nwin glanced at her watch. “Yeah—on my way.”

The captain set the phone down and sighed. “That idiot.”



About half an hour later, a gray SUV pulled up beside the two police cruisers, and Captain Nwin got out. She glanced at the train station.


The rain had stopped, but puddles ran across the gravel lot, and more water dripped from the trees along its edge. Captain Nwin could see the tops of the factory towers beyond the trees, but nothing else around the old train station—only the woods, the twin tracks, and the gray walls of the station.

The three troopers were combing the area around the platform. With a sigh, Captain started toward them. They got up as the captain approached, and one of them handed her a flashlight and a cellphone.

Captain Nwin examined them briefly, and then looked around. “What else have you found?”

“Nothing,” one of the troopers answered. “Absolutely nothing,”

“You have footprints, don’t you?” Captain Nwin demanded.

He grimaced. “Sure—one pair of footprints. An average-sized man, came around the train station on that side, got up on the platform, got down on this side. We can’t track much on the gravel, but there seemed to be a struggle or something over here. Except that we’ve only got one pair of footprints coming or going. We only noticed them because Mike found the phone when we stopped by on our rounds.”

“No car?”

“No—nothing like that.”

“So you know Jerry was here last night, but you’ve no idea of what he was doing or where he went?”

All three troopers shook their heads.

“Any idea where Jerry is now?”

“Dispatch asked for a report on that address,” one of the troopers offered. “I think the patrol unit said it was normal—car with his license plate in front, a light on in one of the rooms.”

“What is this?” another trooper asked. “Not that new case you got a couple weeks ago?”

Captain Nwin didn’t answer. Slipping the flashlight and phone into her pocket, she stepped carefully around the yellow flag that marked a footprint and bent to study the ground.

They had just spread out across the parking lot when one of the troopers called the others’ attention to an old man walking toward the station. The captain straightened up to look. Then she got up, wiped off her hands, and hurried forward. “Silas!” she called.

The old man waved to her and came on. “I heard you had something happen last night,” he said as he reached her.

The captain smiled wryly.

“Another incident?” Silas asked.

“Sort of,” Captain Nwin answered. “It’s ridiculous—telling the police to investigate something that doesn’t exist.”

Doesn’t it?” Silas asked.

She shrugged and showed him the flashlight. “We find clues that something happened, and then no one remembers what it is.” She paused and Silas was silent. “Guess I’ll have to check it out anyway,” Captain Nwin finished. “Want to come along?”

(Next postNight Shot 9: Morning.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Night Shot 7: Poll

…then the shadow swept across him, and darkness fell. Jerry lay silent, motionless, as the rain fell pattering around him. The station light flickered dimly in the wind.


#####

Was Jerry dead?

No.

But will he survive? That you must decide.

I’ve posted a poll in the sidebar, and this is your chance to contribute to the story. Vote or leave a comment—what do you think should happen next? Does Jerry die, the story end, and everyone else go on as before? Or does Jerry survive and the story continue for a few more twists and turns? If you need to review the story, feel free to start back at Night Shot 1: The Beginning and follow it through.

Why am I doing this? When I started writing Night Shot, I expected to hear at least occasional feedback from you. Since I haven't heard anything, I'm quite willing to assume that you are bored by the story and want it to go away. So, now you have full license to explain what you think ought to happen to Jerry or any of the other characters. Tell me if you want the story to end, or else persuade me to keep it going.

The poll closes at midnight, Thursday, April 26th. I will post either the continuing episode or the farewell episode on that Friday, based on your response.

The fate of the story is in your hands. Choose wisely!

(P. S. I promise to heed the majority’s voice in regards to all the general details, though I claim full license in regards to the particulars.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Night Shot 6: Darkness

In which Jerry realizes what time it is…

#####

Jerry gripped his camera and turned slowly. He scanned the darkness, trying to locate the sound, but it remained—darkness.

Just a truck,” Jerry told himself. “Just a truck.”

He caught himself shivering and forced himself to shake it off. “Just a truck.” He paused, fumbling with the light meter, but he found he was still holding the flashlight. Annoyed, he flicked it off and shoved it in his pocket. As he bent forward, trying to focus, the wind gusted across the parking lot. It shook the light above the platform, and the shadows ran trembling around him.

Jerry moved closer, grumbling, as he waited for the wind to settle.

The shutter whirred—click—click—click—click.

He moved forward again and refocused. No, that still didn’t look right.

Jerry backed sideways and picked his way around the dull gleam of a puddle. He was about to kneel, when he realized he was standing in a small rivulet. For a moment, he hesitated. Then he gave up and knelt anyway, steadying the camera and focusing on the dim silhouette of the platform.

Something began beeping in his pocket—Jerry almost jumped, before he realized it was his phone.

Jerry checked his settings hastily and pushed the shutter release. His phone was still beeping loudly, like an impatient horn, but Jerry waited until the camera had finished whirring. The instant it ended, he snatched for his phone.

It snagged in his coat pocket, and when he pulled it free, he felt his flashlight fall out of his pocket and heard it bounce on the gravel. Jerry ignored it. With a quick swipe, he unlocked his phone’s screen and hit the silence button. Then he looked at the screen—as the number flashed and disappeared, he recognized it and cringed.

That was going to be big trouble—if he wasn’t already in such big trouble.

He was about to put his phone back in his pocket when he noticed the time—just past midnight. That meant it was Friday already—Friday the 13th…

He hit the power button until his phone blanked out, and then shoved it back in his pocket.

But there was nothing he could do about it now. “Except maybe go home. Maybe he should. As if he was going to find anything out by standing in the rain by the tracks. As if there was anything to find out.

Absently, he hit display on the camera and scrolled back through his photos.

He stopped, staring at one of them. Then he tilted the camera, trying to see the display better. That might just work—that might…

Forgetting everything else, he dashed back to his original position. “Right here—no, left, left, just a little more to the left. There—a little more tilt, not too much.” Jerry pressed the shutter and sat back to study the photo. “That almost did it—now if he could get the colors right.

Jerry played with his settings, studying the train station. He had almost got the white balance right, when a sudden doubt flashed through his mind. He hit display once more and scrolled back until he found the photo again.


It was hard to see on the narrow display screen, but it was there—the dark, oblong shadow in the lower corner. The Shadow.

Jerry sprang up and stared around.

He could see nothing. Only the darkness around him, and the orange, bobbing light above the empty wall of the train station.

Out of the darkness, a shadow began to move.

Jerry turned to run, but he tripped and fell, trying to cradle his camera under his arm as he rolled on the wet gravel. The gravel cut into his free hand, but he scrambled forward in desperation, blind, gasping, slithering on the loose stones.

Then the shadow swept across him, and darkness fell…

(In Night Shot 7, readers determined what happened the following week in Night Shot 8. To go back to the beginning of the story,  see Night Shot 1.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Hunger Games

In my post yesterday, I promised to tell you what I thought about The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

Before I do that, however, please understand that I haven’t read the sequels yet. There is something absurd about reviewing a book when nearly everyone else has read the sequels and I haven’t—but I’ll do it anyway. So what was the book like?

Nice story. Good writing. Okay plot. We’ll see how the other two books go before we pass judgment
.

What else do you want?

Actually, I started reading with three preconceptions—first, that if someone didn’t want to fight, no one could make them. Second, everyone really liked the books, so they were probably overhyped. And third, many of the reviewers were concerned about the lack of moral substance in the story, so they were probably overreacting.

I’ve changed my mind (mostly) on all three counts.

Yes, stuck in a situation with a certain number of homicidal maniacs, anyone will kill in order to survive. Yes, the book was very well constructed. And yet, as I said about Divergent before, this book does not appear to have any moral code, any moral authority, or any sort of basis for making a decision other than staying alive.

Further, in a book that should be about a character who has to make really, really hard decisions in order to stay alive (I assume you know the plot by now), Collins seems to work hard to keep Katniss Everdeen from that sort of thinking. Even the finale for the big fight seems based on an “oops, guess we haven’t got any choice, and it’s better to put him out of his pain…” decision, if it can be called a decision.

Oh, and they’re violent. If you don’t like violent stories, if you don’t like messy romantic entanglements, or if a lack of moral grounding upsets you, don’t bother with this book. Otherwise, it did have decent entertainment value, enough so that I will probably read the sequels.

Finally, for those of you who love the Hunger Games—no, I don’t get it. I especially don’t buy the ending to the first book. An accident in the hospital, yes. A high-speed train crash and nation-wide mourning; that I could buy. But I can’t quite handle an absolutely ruthless hope-draining government that wrings its hands over how to deal with one slightly obnoxious teenage girl.

Of course, I’m now left to speculate about the next two books until I get around to reading them:

Possibility A says that Katniss falls down a flight of stairs, breaks her neck, loses her voice, or does something similarly drastic—which might mean she finally has enough incentive to get upset and show some kind of emotional reaction. (I’d have to go through the book with a comb and a highlighter before I would be willing to believe she’s showed any so far.)

Possibility B, which is unfortunately far more likely, says that she gets stuck leading some sort of national rebellion while trying to put up with equally plausible love interests—and keep them from fighting each other. And since I know how all the other stories end when one character tells the girl that his father used to be in love with her mother… Am I right? (Don’t tell me—I’ll learn eventually how wrong I was. And if you know what’s coming, please don’t laugh!)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Books, Series, and All That

I’m worried about the First Book Syndrome.

At some point, part way through college, I discovered a fascination with similarities and patterns in literature. I’ve noticed a new trend recently—one that is either discouraging or encouraging, depending on your point of view.

...out of 4,023
I christened it “The First Book Syndrome.” It could be called even more accurately “The-Unsatisfying-Ending-in-the-First-Book-of-a-Speculative-Fiction-Series Syndrome.”

That unfortunately, is a little too long to be a proper title.
What is this all about? It’s my high literary analysis of modern speculative fiction fads, starting with Harry Potter and ending with The Hunger Games. To be honest, it really did start last spring, when I began reading Harry Potter.

The first couple books happened as the mental relief during my lunch break between the morning class I didn’t particularly enjoy and the afternoon class I rather did enjoy. Apart from all that, though, I considered the first book to be nice, light children’s reading. Nothing particularly great, nothing particularly bad. Not something I’d probably read again. I didn’t get the obsession with the stories.

Part way through the second book, I began to get it, and by the time I read the third book—after school got out—I definitely understood the obsession.

Now, I personally am not obsessed with Harry Potter. The books haven’t got any Old English, for one thing (though they do make do with Latin.) It’s just that the first book didn’t live up to the hype I had heard about the series—it certainly didn’t live up to the intensity and excitement of the other books in the series.

Then, this winter, I started reading another series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians (written by Rick Riordan). The basic gist is that the Greek gods aren’t dead—they’ve just moved to modern America. Olympus is above the Empire State Building. Just try guessing where the entrance to the Underworld is.
Does that sound disturbing? It is.

At the same time, I consider the first book in the series, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief to be an incredibly inventive story (for the first two-thirds of the story). Disturbing, yes. Corny, yes. Junior Highish, definitely. But an entertaining and amusing distortion of Greek mythology and American culture all the way up to the end. And then it flopped. Let’s just say that ‘Perseus’ Jackson and friends against Medusa works, but Percy bringing back the head of Medusa might not be such a great idea?

Actually, the first three books flopped. The characters run like mad all the way through the story, before they limp away at the end in a “oh, no, look what’s coming—hey, we made the prophecies work!” sort of way.

The last two books, however, kept the endings together better. I rather enjoyed the search for Daedelus in The Battle of the Labyrinth. Oh, and someone gets to tell Hera off—big time.

That’s followed by the Manhattan battle of the underworld in The Last Olympian. While I had to suspend a little disbelief at the denouement, I did enjoyed getting a decent wrap up to the stories—one that didn’t leave me questioning a mind-boggling let-down in suspense. (Again, much of the humor and interpersonal relationships tend to be on Junior High-type topics, so don’t bother with the series if that happens to get on your nerves.)

By the time I read Divergent (by Veronica Roth) last month, I was beginning to notice the pattern. Young girl, coming of age, doesn’t really fit in, wants to find her proper place in life. Not a particularly thrilling premise until the “proper place” turns out to include getting half-killed during her training.


And, of course, you have to include the romantic complications, along with minor problems about plots, wars, and the end of the world. (The warning above applies here also, though more so. The book includes quite a bit of violence and messy romantics. There is also an extremely awkward relationship that includes no mention of marriage.)

The pace keeps ratcheting up until the bombshells start falling at the end (semi-figuratively). Then the biggest bomb of all lands. Actually, a couple bombs fall, and they’re duds.

I do understand the need to keep the story going after the first book ends—after all it’s only the first book in a series. Insurgent, the sequel, is due out in May, so probably I’ll have to hunt up a copy sometime and figure out just what was keeping the story alive.

Still, it feels awkward to watch everything blow up, but then try to scurry around and figure out what happens next because not everything’s blown up. That, ultimately, is the First-Book Syndrome—the complications that occur when an author has to wrap up the story from book one, while continuing it on into books two, three, four, etc…

Now I have to decide whether it’s time to start worrying about the pattern.

Divergent, by the way, fits my definition of science fiction (futuristic and technology-based rather than supernatural influence.) I have been told, though, that the proper term is dystopian. Just don’t think it is fantasy. It’s not—there is not only no supernatural presence, there is apparently no moral grounding for any of the characters. Now that’s disturbing.

It’s also one of the more disturbing problems that I noticed in The Hunger Games, more so than the First-Book issue.

Oh, yeah—the Hunger Games. I read the book Thursday morning last week, so I could go watch the movie that Friday. I’ll tell you my version of The Hunger Games in my next post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Night Shot 5: Shadow Chase

…in which Jerry finds himself down a back alley with a camera and a half-dead flashlight, and he decides that his decision in the previous installment (Night Shot 4: Silas's Shop) may have been a bad idea.

#####

The darkness closed around Jerry. The rain seemed to increase as he groped his way forward, around the corner of the building. He could still see the glow of streetlight behind him, a red glare against night.

He tried to take a few more steps, remembered his flashlight, and flicked it on.

The beam wavered and nearly went out. Jerry shook it, then looped his camera strap over his neck and banged the flashlight with his free hand. It brightened briefly, and he trudged forward, squinting into the dark curtain of rain.

After a few minutes, he noticed a faint row of lights ahead of him. He realized it was the train station. He veered toward it, swinging his light back and forth until it caught on the dim gleam of the tracks.


The rain drummed on his jacket. He’d forgotten his hat, and the water was already trickling down his neck, but he hunched forward and kept on.

When he reached the station, the rain was gushing off the roof. It splashed around the building, jumping and rushing in streams beside the platform. Jerry sloshed through the puddles and climbed onto the platform. It was a little drier, though a thin current of air swept the rain back under the roof. Jerry huddled as far back as he could, trying to shake the water off, as he checked his camera.

Okay, now what?” Jerry mumbled to himself.

He looked around.

If he were smart, he’d have a plan. A plan for what? For finding the Shadow—how had he found it before?” Jerry grimaced, remembering that he hadn’t found the Shadow before. “So I start taking photos and—what? It just shows up again?

He looked around and found the best light—a lamp hanging from the side of the train station. It bobbed faintly in the wind, and its light flickered over the gravel parking lot.

Jerry leaned forward, trying to keep out of the rain as he focused his camera on the patch of light. “No—that doesn’t work.

Steadying the camera, he squirmed along the side of the building. For a moment he studied the image on his narrow screen, but it still didn’t work—he couldn’t get it to look right.

Then he realized what was wrong. In his other photos, the building had been behind the light, not in front of it.

With a sigh, Jerry tucked his camera under his jacket and started out into the rain.

He thought he’d missed the puddle this time, but he landed in the last three inches of it and splashing his pant legs with cold water. “Of course—it would do that—what else? He’d known this was a bad idea when he set out.” But he kept on.

About a dozen yards off, on the edge of the parking lot, he turned and tried again, inching forward until he could frame the gray-white side of the train station and the platform.

Now the focus was wrong. Jerry hunched forward again, trying to keep the pelting rain off his camera as he adjusted its lens. Then he paused, staring around, wondering what it was.

Next minute, he was on his feet. Something rumbled through the darkness beside him...

(Continued on Friday, April 13th, Night Shot 6: Darkness)