Collateral Damage by Bob Mustin: intimacy amidst loss

Collateral-Damage-NEW-Cover-copy-2Bob Mustin was last seen in near-future Appalachia, musing on an America gone wrong. That was 2015's We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.

Mustin is now ranging over new territory. Collateral Damage and Stories, his just-published fiction collection, showcases the author's considerable talent-- for observation, for a well-turned phrase, for sensing the significance of a moment. But it's hardly a solemn affair. There's weirdness, myth, the supernatural, baseball, over-the-top stuff, keenly felt yet wry at the same time.

My favorite story was "Object of Affection," an elegy for Carlos, a star baseball player who has succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a simple idea, the memorial for a hero taken before his time, but the means by which it is delivered is anything but. The narrator performs a subtle alchemy throughout, taking the spoken memories of the star's mother and reporting them, through the ether, to the absent Carlos:

The Game. She tells me that by six you were on the diamond, slapping the ball with authority, bouncing it from the child's tee through a maze of soprano crow calls along the red dust infield and onto the grass beyond.

The result is a kind of intimacy amidst loss that is wickedly difficult for any narrative to attain, and a great pleasure to read.

The title novella is tough to get through-- not because it isn't written well, but because it is. The narrator is John, a schizophrenic freelance political journalist. Mustin takes the reader fully into John's skewed perspective and his multiple "figments," characters that pop from nowhere in a jangly soap opera gone wrong. The story, which seems to take place during the first invasion of Iraq in 1991, reads like a "No Exit" type of stage play, with John's house as the set, and with his wife, Janet, his mother, and his teenaged son, Ted, as the characters trapped in hell. "Collateral Damage" refers to that regrettable phrase conjured by the American military during the war, referring to unavoidable civilian casualties. It's an apt metaphor for the havoc wreaked by John's illness as the family battles over the possession, not of land, but of Ted.

If there is a theme to this collection, I would say it is elegy-- all of the stories except for "Collateral Damage" itself have a voice-over quality to them, with a let-me-tell-you-how-it-was storyteller anchoring the narrative. It's a look back over many years, wistful, grief-tinged, but not nostalgic. There is a sense in these stories that you shouldn't ever want to go back to the past, or have things be the way they were. Life was what it was, had its joys and sorrows, and the impulse to tell the story comes not from longing for the lost moment but from the compulsion to declare, "This was significant. It mattered. It bears remembering."

The collection ends with "The Phantom," an homage to a magic baseball that follows its possessor's life, the narrator, and almost but not quite rubs off its magic on him. Could the baseball be a metaphor for writing talent, that phantom that follows us all our lives and changes them depending on the way it bounces here or there?

Well, all I can say is, keep swinging, Bob Mustin. You hit a home run with this effort. Time to get back to the plate.


...and Breakfast with Pandora Books giveth away...

Check this out from superstar author H.L. Burke. We are participating!
 
 

 
 

Six YA Fantasy authors.
A chance to win SIX awesome YA Ebooks.

 
Kick off your Summer Reading right with these awesome titles.
Enter to win on the Rafflecopter below, or click the links to purchase the books on Amazon.com! 
 

Click on the link below to enter the giveaway:

 


Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors

 
by H. L. Burke
 
When reformed cat burglar Nyssa Glass is framed for murder, her only hope is to commit one last heist to prove her innocence. However, breaking into the "abandoned" house of an eccentric professor may very well be the last thing she ever does. 
 

The Mirror and the Mage

 
by D. W. Frauenfelder
 
Fourteen-year old Lucius Junius Brutus yearns to join the Roman army, but Lucius' father directs him to guard the dusty, grammarly scrolls of Numa Pompilius. Lucius thinks he is in for the most boring job in the world-- until he discovers the scrolls' true purpose...
 

Finding Prince Charming

 
 

by Jessica Elliott

Allegra is shocked to discover that rather than wait in a tower for her Prince Charming, she must embark on a quest to rescue him. She must face untold dangers and overcome her greatest fears. Her enchanted prince, Adrian, deals with match-making frogs, a flirtatious mermaid and an unknown enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent their happily ever after.
 

Called Warrior

 
by E. J. McCay
 
Preacher's Kid MacKenzie Bryan is called by God to be a warrior. Now she has to battle a church elder at the helm of a sex-trafficking ring.

The Firethorn Crown

by Lea Doue
 
Princess Lily, the eldest of twelve sisters and heir to a mighty kingdom, desperately seeks a break from her mother's matchmaking. Fleeing an overzealous suitor, Lily stumbles into a secret underground kingdom where she and her sisters encounter a mysterious sorcerer-prince and become entangled in a curse that threatens the safety of her family and her people.
 

The Collar and the Cavvarach  

 
by Annie Douglass Lima
 
Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is desperate to see his little sister freed. But only victory in the Krillonian Empire's most prestigious tournament will allow him to secretly arrange for Ellie's escape. As danger closes in, can Bensin save Ellie from a life of slavery and abuse?

 


Borschland colonizes Amazon

Talesofborschlandcover_promotionalBig news about the Borschland Hockey Chronicles for all fans and future fans of Sherm Reinhardt.

For those familiar with Sherm's ice hockey exploits, Breakfast with Pandora Books has just released a new Tales of Borschland anthology, Sherm Reinhardt and the Black Rose, including the first story involving Sherm Reinhardt since The Skater and the Saint

Sherm journeys to Zimroth, one of Borschland's neighboring nations, to scout a new goalie for his Te Staff hockey team, but he soon finds out why, as one Borscher puts it, "Going to Zimroth is like going back in time."

There are six other tales in the anthology, each one opening up the world of Borschland in various ways: you'll learn about the Borschic way of romance and Borschic spirituality.

There's also the origin story of the Flowering Branch which is the centerpiece of The Skater and the Saint.

And there are chilling tales as well, one about the Loflins, native people of Borschland, and about why there are no movies in Borschland.

But wait, there's more.

In celebration of the new release, for a limited time the entirety of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles (Skater in a Strange Land, The Skater and the Saint, and the Tales of Borschland anthology) will be available to read for free in the Kindle Unlimited lending library.

And here's an offer for you: anyone who reads one of these three selections and leaves a review somewhere online (e.g. Amazon, Goodreads, your blog) will be among the first to receive, absolutely free, an e-copy of the third and last installment of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, The Last Phase Shift, which with any luck will be available to give as a Christmas gift this year.

Utter fabulousness.

And if you've read this far, then you deserve further insider information, which is that the cover of the Tales of Borschland anthology shown here is actually a beta cover, and if you yourself want to or know someone who would want to design a better cover, please let us know in the comments or email us at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com.


Here's to Shelley, Myst, and H.L. Burke

12557822_1148142651892799_1635258862_oA spotlight for H.L. Burke, who is, for my money, one of the coming author-personalities in indie publishing today. She writes good books, but she's also an engaging person who's fun to follow on social media, especially if you like dragons and cats.

Burke's latest is an attractive YA steampunk novella called Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors. The title protagonist is (according to Burke) "a reformed cat burglar turned electrician's apprentice, settled into a life repairing videophones and radio-sets. However, when her past comes calling, she finds herself framed for murder and forced into one last job."

Nyssa Glass has a lot of things going for her, as does the book itself. She's smart, tech-savvy, and tender at the proper times, and Burke has presented for her in this first book of the series a worthy set piece in the elaborately wired and booby-trapped mansion where mirrors are used in an innovative way. 

I got attracted to Nyssa Glass because of my Steampunkish series, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, which is not what you'd call classic steampunk. In fact, I never intended it to be Steampunk, but it sort of fits in the genre.

Burke's take on the genre is similar. She told me in a recent email that she came to Steampunk in high school through the computer game Myst, which has "a definite steampunk aesthetic (gears, levers, goggles)... I'd keep detailed notebooks as I struggled to solve the complex problems and gather clues. I read the 'Myst Reader' which involved a young girl finding an advanced society living under the earth. A society with geothermal power and massive tunneling machines … I really wanted to live there. Well, not necessarily under the ground in D'ni, but in one of the ages Atrus wrote and settled."

Burke says she's read and likes three Steampunk novels that differ amongst themselves quite a bit, first "Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders ...[which] has a lot of Steampunk trappings, but the world is post apocalyptic and added in aliens … so not completely traditional.

"Then I read Dream Eater's Carnival, because I knew the author mainly. It had some wonderful Steampunk flair, with a circus of rogues and freaks, a heroine who had amber embedded in her arm she could use to do magic, and a carnival performer who may very well be stealing the life force of those around him...

"Finally I picked up Lady of Devices. This was by far the most traditional Steampunk I'd read yet. It had Victorian social issues and a feisty heroine who rises above social mores while still managing to be very proper. 

"So between all that, I never had a real guideline for what the genre ought to be, which probably works out for the best. You give me rules and guidelines, the urge to break, bend, and twist them becomes pathological. I tend to write my books first, then find a genre box I can sort of stuff them into rather than write to the conventions of any one particular genre."

I agree.

For Nyssa Glass, Burke makes several bends in the whatever might be considered the classic Steampunk structure:

"My characters use mostly modern speech. While I appreciate an author who can hold up 'old timey' dialogue for long periods of time, my characters tend to speak to me in whatever voice they darn well want, and I just let them.

"I cheat and use electricity … my characters have computer technology that is way too advanced for your average Steampunk setting. A lot of the story-line features strongly around a character who is a computer, in fact." 

That probably would be one of my few objections to this book as Steampunk-- that there is twenty-first century tech in it without being explained by steam and gears.

But there are a lot of stories with improbable technology that people swallow whole, including original gothic works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Not coincidentally, Burke considers Nyssa "Shelley meets Verne meets Wells, but there's also a taste of the adventure games (such as Myst) that I love so very very much. I hope people can lose themselves in it, the way teenage me longed to visit the Ages of Myst. That's my goal in this series."

I'd say that is the distinctive characteristic of Nyssa, putting the story front and center without a lot of background fuss about worlds and tech. Check out all her other books as well on her website. Dragons abound.

Some other links for the inimitable Mrs. Burke:

Website

Blog

Twitter

Facebook Author Page

Amazon Author Page 

 

Fantasy Winter Escape!

Fantasy_Winter_EscapeIt's winter... it's gray... it's cold...

It's time for a Fantasy Winter Escape!

What is a Fantasy Winter Escape? A chance to lose yourself--absolutely free-- in 16 vivid fantasy worlds and root for 16 fantasy heroes in 16 stories that excite without the bite of objectionable content. 

And by the way, one of the books included in this giveaway is The Mirror and the Mage.

All these fabulous reads will be loaded onto a brand-new seven-inch Kindle Fire that you can win just by adding your name to one of the participating indie authors' social media list-- liking a Facebook page or following a Twitter account, to name two possibilities.

This blog's social media page is Twitter @truenorthwrite.

Audience ranges from middle-grade to YA to adult, so there's something here for every reader in your family.

Here's the link to the Rafflecopter so you can enter: 

a Rafflecopter giveaway


The Staff and the Shield black tie event!

Fly-693663_1280Well, Black Tie Optional, but we here at BWP Books are pleased to announce author D.W. Frauenfelder will be reading from the newest in the Master Mage of Rome Series, The Staff and the Shield, on January 30, 7 PM at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC.

Quail Ridge Books is one of the leading independent bookstores in the US, regularly bringing the best of the best authors through its doors. It also specializes in handpicked book selections from some of the most knowledgeable staff around, and autographed books galore.

The big advantage for this date and time: no big local football or basketball games to compete with. The possible disadvantage: you never know when a "wintry weather event" will close down civilization in central North Carolina. 

The Staff and the Shield, along with the first book of the series, The Mirror and the Mage, are available at Quail Ridge now, and if you are not a Raleigh-Durham local, you can buy the book through indiebound.org. Just click on the links to the right.


"Far from the Spaceports" among Abbott's best

FarfromthespaceportsProfessionals in the traditional publishing business advise that authors should stick with the same literary genre in order to maximize their name recognition. If your debut novel is science fiction, then your tenth novel (and all the ones in between) should be as well.

I've never liked this stipulation. I've always thought that fans will follow a good author wherever he goes, if that author stays faithful to what makes his books good.

Which is why I'm pleased to report that Richard Abbott's Far from the Spaceports is vintage Richard Abbott, a splendid good read, even if it is science rather than historical fiction, the genre of his three previous novels.

Abbott's work has a characteristic flavor profile: less emphasis on plot, more on character and world development. The action is satisfying enough, but it is never earth-shaking. Abbott does not send his characters off on impossible missions that require multiple dei ex machinibus for the resolution to take place.

This is particularly gratifying for me as someone who last delved into the science fiction genre by way of the movie "Interstellar." Ugh.

The plot of FFTS orbits around a kind of interplanetary economic fraud case somewhere in the future (AD 2100? No year is given), investigated by the one and only Mitnash Thakur, a swashbuckling coding genius who works for the Economic Crime Review Board, an agency I can only hope will be created by a future, benevolent technocratic government.

Sound underwhelming? Well, maybe. It's not going to involve a lot of laser cannons, tempting fembots, and journeys to the center of a black hole.

Instead, you have Mit, who uses computer programming the way Indiana Jones uses his whip. You also have Mitnash's "persona," Slate, a fascinating AI computer who (have to use that pronoun, it's really not an it) combines some of the aspects of the HAL "2001: A Space Odyssey" computer with what can only be termed sexy geek girl partner. Slate is linked with Mit through a neurotransmitter, so "she" can practically hear his thoughts. The result is quite an intimate portrait of hand-in-bot computer sleuthing and hacking.

The world Abbott creates is no less engaging: a set of asteroids in linked orbit called the Scilly Isles, remote outposts used as a base for miners. Think Antarctic Research Station, but without the penguins, or the oxygen. 

But the real star of the show may be the hyperauthentic codespeak, which is indicative of the kind of science fiction this novel represents: a reasonable, plausible future where computers and computer hacking are by an order of magnitude more important in everyone's day-to-day life than is now true.

Here's a quick sample from a Slate communication to Mit about an enemy persona: 

"Carreg's a very recent model Sarsen, with all upgrades to date, and some custom work done just a few weeks ago. Nothing unusual that I can see, but then I can't access most of the real content across the Pebble interface. Response time is quite a bit faster than I'd expect, but erratic. He's busy doing something else in the background, I guess. There's some kind of Dust code running some kind of daemon service, can't make out what it does. And there could be anything outside his public zone."

It gets more specialized than this, but as with Shakespeare (particularly Henry V, my favorite Kenneth Branagh movie, where you start out with an unintelligible prologue and end with the stirring "band of brothers" speech), the learning curve with the vocabulary smooths out by the end, and enhances the immersion in the world.

Add to this a number of well-drawn supporting characters (including the dashing South Asian spaceship captain Parvati and her partner Maureen, and Mrs. Riley, who is more than just an old lady B&B proprietress), a non-obvious economic mystery to unravel, and an ugly little persona that hacks in to Slate, and you have a nifty and entertaining short novel with much room for further adventures, possibly the best thing the author has done to date.

In short, another bottle of Richard Abbott, perhaps this time a Pinot Noir rather than a Cabernet, but all from the same winemaker and the same literary terroir.

Bottoms up.


Quail Ridge Books has The Master Mage of Rome series!

QuailridgebookslogoBook II of the Master Mage of Rome series, The Staff and the Shield, has released at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, NC. Quail Ridge is also carrying The Mirror and the Mage, the first book of the series.

Quail Ridge Books is one of the leading independent bookstores in the nation and regularly hosts events and readings with the most sought-after authors and national personalities-- people like President Jimmy Carter. Chelsea Clinton will be the next big name on Thursday, November 12.

QRB is also one of the best places to get lost in a very carefully curated selection of excellent books and music.

If you're local, take a visit and support a local business that matters to all of us.


The Staff and the Shield releasing soon

The-Staff-and-the-Shield-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalWe are proud to announce the upcoming release of the second book in the Master Mage of Rome series, The Staff and the Shield.

The short tease:

In 500 BC, the dream of Rome is small enough to fit in the heart one youth: Lucius Junius Brutus, Master Mage of Rome. But that dream is in jeopardy. Etruscans have stolen the sacred symbols that guarantee Rome's greatness, and only a Master Mage can get them back. But the greatest challenge of all may be saving Demetria, Lucius' best friend, from an arranged marriage!

If you've already read The Mirror and the Mage, you're familiar with Lucius and Demetria and their adventures with the mysterious scrolls of Numa Pompilius and the power of the Latin language that they encode. The Staff and the Shield picks up where the first book left off, and there will be plenty of twists and turns on the way.

This historical fantasy is appropriate for 10-13 year olds and anyone who wonders about the history and mythology of the ancient Roman and Etruscan peoples.

 


The Flame Before Us: ambitious but not grand

FlamebeforeusThe Flame Before Us is Richard Abbott's third and most ambitious historical novel concerning the Bronze Age Near East.

Previously he treated Canaan (In a Milk and Honeyed Land), then Egypt (Scenes from a Life), to which culture he has a particular sensitivity. The Flame Before Us concerns a wider swath of country and peoples, including Egypt, Canaan, west Syria, and Greece.

The time is 1200 BC, and the situation is dire for the established civilizations on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A large group of marauders invades from the west, destroying Ugarit, the west Syrian metropolis, and threatening the Nile Delta itself, as well as Egyptian vassals in Canaan, including the cities of Gedjet (Gaza) and Shalem (Jerusalem).

These invaders are dubbed the "Sea Peoples" because of their preference for using ships as a means of transportation. Scholars have been divided as to where they come from, but Abbott settles on the hypothesis that they are Greeks. He goes one step farther as well and takes them for the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the legendary city of Troy, along with wagonloads of their dependents.

So, ambitious this book is, but in characteristic fashion, Abbott focuses less on sea captains with wind whipping their hair than on what we have come to know after Iraq as "collateral damage:" the ordinary people affected by these events.

To be sure, Abbott can't resist a scholar's interest in the Sea Peoples' ability to defeat conventional chariot-centered warfare. But there are actually zero eye-witness descriptions of large battles. Instead, the on-stage violence, so to speak, is always personal and jarring.

Several threads of characters, two from the sacked city of Ugarit, two from Egypt, two from Canaan, one from Greece, and one of the Ibryhim (Hebrews) form the material for Abbott's tapestry; there are so many characters, in fact, and the historical situation is so complex, that Abbott helpfully includes extensive explanatory notes at the end of the book.

But despite their number and diversity, each set of personages is distinct and vivid in its own way, and helps to create a full picture of what life must have been like in the uncertain times at the end of the Bronze Age. A surprising tenderness in the face of grief, loss, and displacement is the emotion that underpins the action.

I found myself most drawn to Hekanefer, an Egyptian scribe who is attached to a brigade of the Pharoah's provincial peacekeepers. Through vivid, often humorous letters home to his family, he confesses his thoughts about his less-than-desirable fiancée, his deployment to Canaan, and the ability of the army to deal with the invaders. Later, we see him in person, acting as a diplomat to the king of Shalem. He comes off much less the conquering colonial than a rank-and-file (if proud) Egyptian who is trying to make his way in difficult circumstances. Egypt, in Abbott's view, was never the hard-hearted place that the Israelites fled with God's help, but a civilized, tolerant country trying to head off others' political immaturity. 

Abbott's treatment of the Greek side of things is less convincing for me. His explanation that a single, charismatic war leader (named Akamunas, Agamemnon for the Iliad fans out there) was able to unite Greece and not only go after Troy, but continue on east along with large wagon trains of women and children seems unlikely to me. Even less plausible is the idea that certain of these wagon trains would "go rogue," so to speak, and take up with the conquered of Ugarit, as one of these does in this book.

Abbott anticipates this objection and gives his rationale in the notes, including ingenious interpretation of archeological finds. My own study of local peoples suggests to me that local peoples stay where they are unless some catastrophic event forces them to do so. Abbott is content to let Akamunas be the motivation.

But regardless of the true situation, history tells us that the strange and unpredictable routinely happens, and the interplay between the clan of "Sherden" Sea People wagon drivers and a brother and sister fleeing Ugarit makes for an absorbing read. Fiction explores where history might dare not to venture. 

One last thing about this excellent effort (pristinely published as an e-book, by the way), which Abbott may take as a suggestion for the future: spend more time on material culture. 

It is always a historical novelist's dilemma to figure out the level of detail at which food, clothing, tools, and the rest is described. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the movie version of which I reviewed here, is a Civil War novel that goes whole hog: every little tiny piece of anything is named and (sometimes) described. This practice creates a genuine feeling of alienation in the reader-- a distance that says, "You are seeing this story through a telescope."

Abbott's practice is to go light on technical vocabulary, not to examine too closely the kind of chair someone sits in, or the cold meat he or she consumes. This might be because Abbott is interested in keeping the narrative moving. But in a novel like this one, where the scope is necessarily large, the reader will tolerate, and I think, welcome more detail where possible. Abbott's next is rumored to be a sea-faring story-- a perfect opportunity to describe ancient gunwales and forestays, if there were such things back then.

In other words, Richard Abbott, more, more! Your public clamors for it.