review of Infernal by T. Joseph Browder

Infernal

by Cy Wyss

★★★★★

Richard Farris is a seemingly ordinary man, living in Kansas with his dog Charlie. During one particularly nasty winter storm, he finds a woman in his back yard who has been shot. Nursing her back to health threatens to be the end of him as sinister bad guys from an organization only known as BanaTech show up and want to end the woman’s life. By getting in their way, Richard makes himself a target. Tragedy ensues. Months later, living another life in another state, Richard is recruited by the woman to help her hide “the Key,” a necessary cog in BanaTech’s wheels. What follows is a madcap chase through not just Richard’s Earth, but twin earths in the multiverse. The author’s impressive imagination take us through other worlds and times to an explosive showdown, which I’ll try not to give away.

I liked Infernal a lot. At times I found the theology behind the multiverse distracting, as kind of a real deus ex machina for the characters. But the character of Richard (whose surprising identity I’ll leave to you to find out) really carries the show. I can’t imagine not rooting for someone who chose to go to prison so he could stop a vicious pedophile. Richard has a complexity of character that is rare in thrillers and it was a real treat to read about Richard developing and changing throughout the book. The plot delivered plenty of action and edge-of-your-seat thrills, as well as interesting and unforeseen directions. This book was hard to put down. Pick it up! You won’t regret it.

the Indiana University Writer’s Conference was great!

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This past week, from June 4 through the 8, I had the distinct privilege of attending the Indiana University Writer’s Conference (IUWC). You can find IUWC online at http://www.iuwc.indiana.edu. This was my 5th year attending (I’ve been going since 2011, only missing 2013). Every year I’ve gotten a lot out of the conference. Like last year, this year I attended absolutely everything, which was a hectic 5 days. It started with the SFF workshop from 9-11:30 a.m., then the lunch panels from noon-12:50, then classes from 1-5 p.m., then readings during the evenings at 8. A great program! What follows are some highlights from the experience.

SFF Workshop with Wesley Chu

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This year was the first year IUWC included a genre workshop and I was enthusiastic to see it was in SFF, as I just happened to have a manuscript to submit (the first 25 pages). Wesley Chu turned out to be a fantastic leader. He spent some time engaging us in writing, as well as discussing the business side of writing (the upshot of which was that he’s had quite a bit of success in traditional publishing). The workshop was a good size, at 10 people total (including Wesley). We workshopped each other’s stories, which involved reading an excerpt aloud and then listening to commentary by the other people in the workshop. I got some decent feedback which will hopefully enable me to rewrite the first 25 pages much more dramatically and enticingly. The weather played nice and one day we even went outside and workshopped in the Beck Chapel graveyard, amidst the bugs and shadows, under the fresh breeze.

I had read Time Salvager prior to the conference and was pleased to have it autographed. One of my favorite quotes follows.

“James sat her down and then filled in the gaps with the major events that had transpired on Earth since her time, from World War III devastating the planet to the decaying plague that had rotted the planet to the ice-caps melting and eventually swallowing 14 percent of the world’s landmass. Elise was so stunned that she had to sit down and then stand up multiple times.

“‘How did you idiots let this happen?’ she demanded…”

Micromacro: The Prose Poem as the Best Nest with Amelia Martens

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The first class after the lunch panels was by Amelia Martens. It was about prose poetry. I came in not even knowing what a prose poem was, other than a free-flowing block of text that usually broke the rules of grammar. Amelia gave us plenty of time to explore our own ideas with prose poems, and also gave us copious examples of the form. So what is a prose poem? It is a piece of text that is brief, humorous, compact, and psychologically intense. It’s a subversive, hard to define form, canonized in the style of (for example) Edson. I particularly like Amelia’s prose poem about Jesus working as a TSA employee. Here’s a punchy excerpt:

“By noon they pull Jesus from the line; his eyes and beard are making people uncomfortable.”

That’s from her book, The Spoons in the Grass are there to Dig a Moat. She did a fantastic reading Sunday night which included that poem.

The Improvised, Critical Self with Walton Muyumba

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The second class (from 2-2:50 p.m.) was with Walton Muyumba, a soft-spoken, extremely eloquent faculty member of IU. In his class, we studied some examples of modern essays which comprised socio-political critiques. Walton set up a framework in which to view the texts and in which to write our own short pieces linking two socio-political viewpoints. I really appreciated his perspective, as I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced such rich interpretations of the pieces. Perhaps the methods he discussed will be helpful in future blog posts, too, should I attempt to delve into socio-political commentary (eek). Thanks Walton!

Finding the YOU in Your Story with David Crabb

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The next class (from 3-3:50 p.m.) was given by David Crabb. He is a brilliant and funny storyteller; this class was a laugh a minute. It really woke me up during a time in the afternoon when I am usually crying for either coffee or a nap (or both). I suggest you run, don’t walk, over to The Moth and listen to the stories David has up there. You could also get his book, Bad Kid, which I bought and got signed. It is a tradition for me now, to collect IUWC autographs.

The class was about storytelling, and how to tell vignettes from our own lives in such a way as to really reach an audience. I loved David’s concise forms, such as the canonical story arc: (1) setup, (2) inciting incident, (3) rising action, (4) climax, and (5) resolution. It’s an arc that will be familiar to any writer, but one that bears repeating until we all know it by heart (and then some). I liked the links between (2) and (4) David posited for a chain of stories. It was a good class.

Better Words for Better Stories with Salvatore Scibona

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Finally, occupying that difficult spot over teatime (from 4-4:50 p.m.) was Salvatore Scibona. His class looked at the micro level of a work, the actual words and sentences composing the text. I loved the adage he got from his teacher, Frank Conroy, that the problems of a story grow from the micro level of language, and what works grows from there too. In other words, if you want to fix problems in your story, focus on the words, focus on grammar and syntax, because sensory images, character, metaphor, symbolism, and all the fancy stuff of good writing grow from there. This gives me hope! All I have to do is edit, edit, edit at the word level and the work will improve. I always have issues revising; Salvatore gave a very doable approach to it.

As a bonus, I got the first couple paragraphs of my manuscript intensely studied in class. That, and the piece-by-piece critique of other works helped me understand the method. I have some of his points noted in my workbook:

  • Locate the action in the physical world,
  • use action verbs rather than being verbs,
  • trust the reader’s intelligence and knowledge (don’t teach),
  • police the perfect tenses,
  • use the active voice,
  • specify place in detail,
  • police your danglers (get the modifier close to the thing modified),
  • listen for false echoes,
  • look for comma splices (should be “.”),
  • police your commas, and
  • avoid ending on prepositions.

Those are only some of the great points Salvatore had in his class.

Overall, I learned a lot. I met a lot of people. I also met some people I’d seen before, such as Mary Anna Violi, a charming blogger from South Bend. It was great to see her and we had some fantastic dinners in beautiful Bloomington.

Thanks everyone!

review of Lunchtime Eavesdropper by Joanie Chevalier

LunchtimeEavesdropper

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Lunchtime Eavesdropper is an episode from Marlee’s life. She gets into eavesdropping on others at lunchtime, but regrets her knew habit when she overhears coworkers speaking badly of her. This “Tragic Event” leads to Marlee changing herself: her hair, her makeup, her wardrobe, and her actions. As a result she is more accepted by her mean-girl colleagues, and they even invite her clubbing with them. But is that the life she wants? What will she lose if she keeps up the new pretense?

I found Lunchtime Eavesdropper a sweet and fun read. I loved it, especially the unexpected ending. Marlee is a character; I really liked the way she was developed throughout the story, using flashbacks as well as immediate action. The character of Larry was also well-drawn. Marlee’s mom, Hazel, is also a treat. With such loveable characters, how could the story fail to be a hit? It is short and left me wanting more. But that’s a good thing—it shows the author’s prowess. Looking forward to more.

review of The Gay Detective by Kenneth Michaels

TheGayDetective

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

The Gay Detective is the story of Nick, a Chicago police detective and host of the television talk show The Gay Detective. The show is a big hit but its guests have the unfortunate habit of being murdered, as well as the director. More and more bodies pile up around the show until Nick and his partner, Norm, finally solve the case and figure out whodunit. The narrator, Nick, is a sympathetic figure who early on loses his partner. Nick seems almost too urbane at points for being a detective. Norm, on the other hand, is fairly stereotypically the fat, cynical older detective. The pair makes a nice couple (not romantic) and play off each other well.

I liked The Gay Detective a lot. I ended up reading it in one day because the prose was so smooth and easy to read. The plot isn’t overly involved but had a lot of action and carried me through the book. The supporting characters are solid, not too cardboard but not so thoroughly drawn as to detract from Nick and Norm. And, as I mentioned, Nick and Norm are a treat, they compliment each other well. All in all a good read for a cold winter’s day. Looking forward to book two!

review of Dancing with Mortality by Mark McKay

DancingWithMortality

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Dancing with Mortality is the story of Harry and Michael. When we first meet Harry, he is a grad student in Dublin, a linguist with a specialty in the Irish language. He is a part-time translator for the British intelligence service (SIS). On the opposing side there is Michael, an IRA man and the only survivor of a special ops raid during a gunrunning mission. Harry and Michael meet twice, both times fleetingly, during the first half of Dancing with Mortality. Once is simply two ships passing in the night; the second time, Harry is gunning for Michael. During the second half, their relationship is quite different.

I liked Dancing with Mortality. The pace is slow but steady and we get to see into Harry’s life in England as well as Dublin. The only problem I had with the book is that the actual action (gunfights, murders) takes place offstage and we only hear about it. This is a relatively minor complaint. The prose is eminently readable, no-nonsense and to-the-point. The characters are well drawn, even relatively minor ones. The settings and descriptions are good, some are even great, such as the descriptions of winter above the arctic circle. All in all, a good read.

review of The Writing’s On the Wall by Philip Mordue

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★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

There comes a point in any good book where the characters start to have a life of their own in my imagination and they become like friends, so I’m concerned what happens to them and where they’re going. For the Writing’s on the Wall, this point happened for me at about 40%. I wanted Detective Sergeant Victor Trimm to win and find the serial killer terrorizing his town. Trimm is a conflicted cop with a sad past and a drinking problem. His partner, DC Elizabeth Briggs is a long-suffering lady cop often tasked with covering for Trimm. Aside from the serial killer, Trimm and Briggs have organized crime (drug dealers) to wrangle as well as a kidnapped child. All the cases were interesting and I was happy to see Trimm’s solutions.

I liked the Writing’s on the Wall. The editing is impeccable and the writing is unembellished and to the point. The characters did seem to come alive, including Trimm’s obnoxious supervisor, Cash. You’ll find a good solid story here, with most of the characteristics that should be there: stolid yet colorful characters, a plot with the usual amount of twists and turns to make it interesting, and well-drawn settings. There was nothing particularly unique about this offering, but it was still a fun read and made for reasonable entertainment.

review of Contact Us by Al Macy

ContactUs

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

Contact Us is a fun story. Jake Corby is the world’s number one problem solver (according to a newspaper article written by presidential advisor Charli). He has a whopper of a problem to solve as an alien in a sphere has contacted Earth and informed us that he’s taking over. There are signs that the alien is very serious, if unbalanced. He appears as Walter Cronkite on broadcasts to Earth, using alien technology to make himself a perfect replica.

I liked Contact Us a lot. From about 10% I couldn’t put it down. You’ll find there’s a lot here. At points it reads like a dystopian fantasy. At other points, like a straight-up thriller. Yet Macy ties everything together well. The pace is good—fast, but not too frenetic. The characters are well drawn, but not to the point of slowing down the story. Jake Corby himself is a man with a past, and a sympathetic figure from the start. It kept me awake at night, just what you want from a good story.

review of the Serenity Stone Murder by Marianne Jones

SerenityStoneMurder

★★★★★

reviewed by Cy Wyss

The Serenity Stone Murder is the story of Margaret and Louise, two women of a certain age who are taking a break from their small town of Jackpine, Ontario, to head to the big city of Thunder Bay. The scenery of the book involves breathtaking views of the north shore of Lake Superior, descriptions which I appreciated. The book has a bit of a hokey feel to it, the same feel I associate with much of Canadian art and music, but it’s a feel that I very much enjoy. The murder takes place in a church garden, the same church where Margaret and Louise are attending a women’s creativity retreat. If that sounds too hokey, no problem, it was for Margaret and she spends most of the book in more universally appealing pursuits like eating out, walking around the area, and shopping in many great boutiques.

I liked the Serenity Stone Murder a lot. The pace is quick but not overwhelming and the writing is smooth and flowing, with just the right amount of description and character development. All of the main characters were idiosyncratic enough without being untrue to life. I laughed at Louise having to stay at Bubbles, a run-down hotel with a strip club, and especially at the fact Louise turned it into a decent vacation and made a friend. Louise’s dog was also a character in the book, a nice one for some comic relief at times, and seriousness at others. The final solution came about relatively quickly (I would have liked more build up), but in general this was a seamless read and a couple afternoons worth of good, wholesome entertainment. Great job.

review of A Secondhand Life by Pamela Crane

ASecondhandLife

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

A Secondhand Life is the story of Mia, who got into a car accident when she was young. The accident killed her father and had her the recipient of a heart transplant. Along with the heart transplant, however, comes some undesirable memories of a murder. Who was the donor? How did she die? Mia becomes obsessed with answering these questions and they lead her to the trail of a serial murderer. Mia risks all to catch the killer, alienating her boyfriend and neglecting her job. And who is the shadowy man following her?

I liked A Secondhand Life. It started rather slowly for my tastes, but by about 60% I was hooked. The last 40% went fast. The writing is smooth and immersive, the descriptions are compelling but not too substantial as to get in the way of the action. I did think that Mia could have predicted who the murderer was much earlier, which was in some measure annoying. Yet there were still twists at the end that had me surprised. Overall a good book, just right for a weekend’s entertainment.

review of What Doesn’t Kill Us by Nirina Stone

WhatDoesntKillUs

★★★★☆

reviewed by Cy Wyss

What Doesn’t Kill Us is the story of Lucy, both past and present. Lucy has suffered through an abusive childhood and is largely alone in college until a mysterious group solicits her for membership: the Seven. The Seven is a secret society of powerful women who take Lucy under their wing and give her all she needs: friendship, money, and growing confidence. The only thing which mars Lucy’s induction into the Seven is that the other woman who was a potential candidate disappeared. Only one of them could have been chosen, so it is “convenient” for Lucy (although no one suspects her). What happened to her? The answer shadows much of Lucy’s time in the Seven. Finally, however, that mystery is eclipsed by another deeper one. What is membership really based on? All of the members seems to have suffered trauma, but that is not enough. There is a deeper secret that binds these women, a horrifying one.

I liked What Doesn’t Kill Us. The pace is good and the flashbacks deepen the story without being intrusive. The final mystery is held close until the end and came as a near surprise to me, which is always nice in a book. The women of the Seven are interesting characters, all distinct and compelling. I wasn’t that impressed by Lucy’s erstwhile boyfriend, but that is a minor point. The book also lost a star for me because it is really more on the straight-up fiction side of things than a genre piece (most of the real estate is about Lucy’s life and times), whereas I was expecting more of an action-oriented thriller. This is a fairly minor qualm and I debated whether to even dock a star for it. In the end, the truth is, I liked What Doesn’t Kill Us and you will too.