Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Coming Nov. 8 in MAGA 2020 and Beyond: Exile, a Short Story



When I first heard of a pro-Trump anthology intended to show the bright side of Trump’s election, I was curious about the concept, but had no thought of contributing. For one, stories of a great future are hard to write. There is less conflict in a utopia. Typically, positive future stories tend to be science fiction, with Star Trek being probably the prime example. The appeal of Star Trek at its best comes from the sense of wonder and adventure, and the conflict, when it happens, is usually external in nature, be it hostile aliens or technical difficulties.The Federation is essentially a utopia, but the show doesn't linger on the details. If someone decided to tell a story of the greatness of life in The Federation, it would likely be a snooze fest.

Add to it the fact that I am a dystopian author, and you can see why I initially scrolled on by when the submission call came across my Facebook feed.

But then, as I suppose is the case with many speculative fiction writers, I started thinking of the “what if.”

What if a group of hardcore Trump opponents decided to separate themselves from the society, not through a secession that created two side-by-side states, but by entirely cutting themselves off? (Think the Galt’s Gulch, but populated by… let’s just say they’re not the Randian hero types). No flow of information. No knowledge whether Trump’s policies succeeded. As the first generation dies off, even stories of the past are fading. The outside might be great, or it might be an Apocalyptic wasteland where people starve in the streets. The only way to know is to leave, but there is no coming back.

What would you do?

Sure, your life isn’t great. Work is hard. Food is limited. There is no privacy. Government officials watch your every move.

So leaving is a no-brainer, then?

Well…

You have a job. A place to live. Food. Friendship. Respect. It’s not much, but it’s a life.

Do you throw it all away and venture into the unknown?

And just like that, it’s not so simple, is it?

As an immigrant whose family waited for permission to leave the Soviet Union for ten years, let me tell you: it’s really not. When that final moment comes, when you realize all you’re giving up, when you suddenly remember the little things about your life that you do like… No matter how motivated you are, the doubt will be there.

Conversely, what if you were content to stay? How would you react to someone who wanted to leave? Would you feel worried, angry, betrayed, or some combination of both? Would you try to stop them?


And so, I had enough questions in my mind to write a story of almost 6,000 words called Exile. I hope you enjoy the result.



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

DragonCon After-Action Report: The Right Geek Podcast

Last night I talked to Stephanie Souders, The Right Geek Blogger/podcaster and a life-long science fiction fan, about my experience at DragonCon. Stephanie has volunteered at DragonCon for many years, while this was my first visit, so it was interesting to compare our perspectives.

We discussed the general Con experience, from getting around to making the most of the panels to the inexplicably addictive PB&J sandwiches at the Con Suite. Since I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at two panels, I also describe my impressions from interacting with panelists and audiences who were very much outside my comfort zone in terms of political leanings. (Spoiler: it appears SJW's have not yet ruined all of the fandom, although not for lack of trying.)

Probably the most important lesson I took away from the Con, and I think it's very much applicable outside the fandom, was that people can unite and have fun together on a massive scale in spite of serious disagreements. It does not solve our current problems of being a politically and culturally divided country, but it does give me a measure of hope. Perhaps this is why the Left is working so relentlessly to divide the fandom and diminish what we have in common, but they will not succeed. 

Seeing the sheer number of people from all over the world gather to share their passion made me appreciate how small the internal squabbles really are. When it comes to fandom, fun rules. Let's give the fans what they want: great stories, full of imagination, unimpeded by demands and complaints of petty people. Let's support fellow creatives and make new friends. And most of all, let's not forget to enjoy ourselves in the process. 





Tuesday, September 5, 2017

DragonCon Mini-Highlights Reel

Happy to report that I survived my first ever DragonCon. I will do more write-up once I've had more than four hours of sleep, but for now, enjoy this highlights video, including some stills from the Cruxshadows concert. Parade video is coming separately because I went a little insane with the photos and will have to put them in a separate file.




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review: Dangerous by Milo



I bought this book on principle because I wanted to support Milo, especially after Simon and Schuster pulled it from Amazon after the latest manufactured outrage proved too much for their tender corporate feelings. (And before you ask, yes, I've seen the infamous interview that precipitated the breach of contract from S&S. Considering this is the same company that published Lena Dunham, color me unimpressed.) Be that as it may, I forked over the big bucks for the hard cover, or rather had my husband pre-order it for me for our wedding anniversary, with the full expectation of having it in my book case as a conversation piece and not much more. After all, having gotten into the habit of listening to Milo's broadcasts on Youtube while doing housework, I was very familiar with his views and could probably repeat most of his jokes verbatim.

Unlike most nonfiction from popular commentators, however, Dangerous is not simply a "best of" collection from previous speeches and blog posts. It's a combination of a personal manifesto and solid cultural analysis, complete with references and statistics, and it flows seamlessly from hilariously irreverent to deadly serious. Much as I enjoyed this book, I wish Milo would consider writing fiction because oh my does he have a way with words.

Dangerous is  divided into three parts. The first (Foreword, Preamble and Prologue) is an introduction to who Milo is, what he does, and why so many consider him dangerous. Prone as he is to exaggerations, the claim is absolutely true. Mention his name in mixed company and you're likely to encounter an equivalent of the Kingsman finale minus the pretty fireworks.

Personally I think he nails it with the following:

"I am a threat because I don't belong to anyone. I am unaffiliated."

This goes beyond identity politics, which insists on putting people in neat little boxes and proceeds to predict everything from the food they should eat to books they should read to politicians and causes they support. In addition to being impossible to classify, Milo is also immune to social and peer pressure. The fools who rejoiced at him resigning from Breitbart (where he already had essentially free hand) didn't realize that he would become even more unstoppable with private funding and self-made platform. This is one scalp not up for the taking by Social Justice Brigades, and it has to drive them insane.

The second part is eleven chapters, nine of which are titled "Why [insert a group here] Hate Me." If you believe the adage of knowing the man by his enemies, the list is impressive (or should I say fabulous?):

Progressive Left
Alt-Right
Twitter
Feminists
Black Lives Matter
The Media
Establishment Gays
Establishment Republicans
and finally...
Muslims

Some on this list hate because they should be able to control him and claim him as one of their own, but can't. Some because he is the only one pointing out the unspeakable truths in a way that's actually accessible, therefore reaching the audience most others can't. Some because he's a direct threat to their comfort and power. It's a mix-and-match kind of thing with a lot of overlap. He does not hate all of the groups back, by the way, cutting some of them more slack than I would do personally, but the nuance is not reciprocated by the other side. No matter. The haters don't win, and their attempts only result in getting him more followers and better hair products.

These chapters are useful not just as a recap of Milo's detractors, but also provide a refresher on the history and current state of each group,  and whether or not there's  hope that one or some of them would ever turn towards the light, so to speak. He has surprising amount of respect for intellectuals, considering how vocally he had been denounced by nearly every Conservative pundit. And, as he points out at the end of the Establishment Republicans chapter, "No movement has ever survived with just moderates and intellectual, and no movement has ever survived with just hellraisers. If we want to win, we need both." To which I say, Amen. In spite of the current frictions, the two sides of the pro-freedom coin need not be at odds.

There are two additional chapters dedicated to the folks who DON'T hate him: Gamergate and college kids who love free speech. If you're still unfamiliar with Gamergate, this chapter provides and excellent summary. And apparently we have Allum Bokhari of Breitbart to thank (or blame) for kickstarting Milo's career by sending him information on Gamergate. Or should we more accurately thank Zoe Quinn? Well, you get the idea.

The chapter on college tours gives me hope. The protesters and general therapy-dog-demanding whiners get all the attention, but Milo would not BE doing college tours to begin with if there weren't large groups of students eager to see and support him. Perhaps there's no need to be overly down on the new generation after all. There's a lot of free thought and bravery to be found among the current crop of college students, and they could very well fix the world we of the Gen X allowed so carelessly to slide in the wrong direction.

The third pard, Epilogue, has a title I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say, it's essentially a call to action, and a guide on how to be successful if you want to try your luck as a Milo-style Culture Warrior. While there's only one Milo, the field is wide open for ambitious copycats.
The gist of the advice is as simple as it is challenging: work hard and be fearless.

Not everyone can be hot.
Not everyone can be outrageous and funny.
Not everyone can risk denouncement and loss of employment.
But everyone can do something.
Find that something.
Then do it.

In the meantime, go read the book.

Purchase Dangerous on Amazon



Saturday, July 22, 2017

Movie Musings: Escape from L.A.


I saw Escape From L.A. in the theater back when it came out and loved it. There's always a risk in revisiting a movie or a book after many years because our preferences change and, especially when it comes to movies, the special effects can feel dated, taking away from the enjoyment.

And then, of course there is the plot: originally written as a near-future dystopia, for me as a current viewer the story is set in the past. As someone who has written a near-future dystopian novel, I know full well how some predictions work out better than others.  (Chasing Freedom is set more than two decades from now, so I suppose there's still a chance for Canada to become the Land of the Free, but I would not bet good money on it.) On the other hand, John Ringo is known for complaining that his near and not-so-near future predictions come true too soon, making some of his work seem less "out there" futuristic.

In that latter respect, Escape From L.A. is very much a mixed bag. With an obligatory disclaimer that I will not wish mass death on my fellow citizens and human beings, I have to say the idea of an earthquake breaking off L.A. from the rest of the country and having it subsequently turn into a place to house those who don’t fit into the “polite society” made me chuckle more than a little. For those unaware, California secession movement is in fact a thing, and while those of the Right might gleefully egg them on, the brain trust behind the idea is very much on the Left.

L.A. in this film, however, is not a Marxist paradise, but a place of anarchy. Gangs roam the streets, shooting random pedestrians. Debauchery abounds. A Beverly Hills "clinic" provides organ transplants to those who've had too many plastic surgeries and need new organs to survive. A charismatic leader, who looks like a reincarnated Che, provides bloody spectacles for the masses in gladiator-style arenas. Then again, the surf is great and you can still wear a fur coat, so, YAY?

The "good" part of the U.S. is not exactly paradise, right wing or otherwise. Some of the points are laughable now (a woman exiled for "being a Muslim in South Dakota" was particularly funny, all things considered). It's important to remember, though, that the movie was made at the height of a bi-partisan drive to censor songs and video games and conservative Christians, being the most vocal, got stuck with the image of hating fun. The President is clearly supposed to represent a deranged TV Evangelist who has been allowed free hand in imposing his views on the rest of the country after the Constitution has been flushed down the toilet.

In a way, Escape From L.A. is a journey to the more innocent past when religious Christians were the worst of the boogeymen. In modern times, while there are still religious groups protesting metal concerts, the fun-hating mantle has been firmly taken over by the Left. 

The Left, and not the Christians, are the ones wishing to ban red meat, fur coats, and wrong-thinking art. 

The Left, and not the Christians, speak of earthquakes as punishment to humanity for wanting a better lifestyle that includes cars and air-conditioning. 

The Left, and not the Christians, openly speaks of overturning parts of the Constitution they find inconvenient. 

The Left, and not the Christians, wish miserable death on those with whom they disagree.

I can go on...

In the end, the movie gets a pass for getting the future (now in our past) so very wrong in so many ways, for two reasons.

One, the repeating theme of "The more things change, the more they stay the same." The rebels inside the L.A. walls want to take over the country and institute their version of Paradise, with a different set of horrors from those found in the mainland U.S. Neither flavor of authoritarianism portrayed in the movie can claim high moral ground. The current threats to freedom in real life come from the Left, but there is no telling where the pendulum will swing decades from now. Although human beings do have an yearning for freedom, the free society is a fragile, easily destroyed, and in need of constant vigilance to protect it.

Two, in spite of being ridiculously over the top in its portrayal of the two-sided dystopian society, the movie is still a lot of fun, with special effects that hold up well after all these years, and has one of my favorite endings of all time. It might be technically classified as message fiction, and I don't 100% care for all the details of the message, but unlike a lot of the current Hollywood offerings that purport to have "social relevance" this one never, not for one moment, forgets its primary mission: to entertain the audience. For that alone, I recommend it to anyone who prefers their action movies a bit on the thought-provoking side. It's also a suitable movie to watch and discuss with your teens with minimal eye-rolling in response. Enjoy! 





  

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Rules for Revenge by Ian Graham



Having enjoyed Ian Graham's thriller Veil of Civility, I was happy to accept a copy of the sequel to give an honest review. Rules of Revenge picks up where the previous book left off, allowing the reader to jump back on the roller coaster and keep moving. 
 

As might be expected of a thriller series, Declan McIver did not in fact ride into the sunset after derailing a major terrorist plot by the end of Veil of Civility. In fact, he does not even get much by the way of thanks. On the contrary, now that his identity as a former IRA member is known, his days of idyllic average-Joe life are over, and his once solid marriage is barely holding together. And that's before he and some of his close friends become entangled in  ruthless power struggle that involves the upper echelons of the U.K. government. 

Declan, however, refuses to be a pawn in someone else's game, nor is he as lacking in allies and resources as it appears. His quest to clear his name and get back the life he had worked so hard to build is equal parts thriller and mystery as he is pursued across Europe by a gang of brutal thugs, evades law enforcement and tries to figure out who is responsible for his predicament. Agent Harper, his somewhat accidental partner, is an interesting character in her own right, caught in the conflict between her professional obligations and the need to serve the cause of justice once it appears the two might not necessarily coincide. 

The secondary characters are well developed, and the author conveys well the feeling of despair and betrayal a few of them feel when they find out the darker side to the system they dedicated their lives to serve. While their loss of innocence is heartbreaking to read, it's also a refreshing change of pace to not have every single character follow the "trust no one" rule 24/7.

There are several villains in this novel, some more despicable than others. In a bold choice, the author lets us know early on who the main baddies are, so rather than waiting for the Big Reveal at the end, the reader experiences a sense of dread as at several points in the story the evil seems unstoppable, with no one the wiser. I liked that the author knows the difference between an explanation and an excuse when it comes to his villains. Most people have reasons, sometimes good reasons, when committing despicable acts. However, that doesn't change the objective right and wrong, nor is a measure of sympathy become a get-out-of-consequences-free card.

As was the case with Veil of Civility, the settings themselves become part of the story. The author's ability to create a sense of place, to put the reader right into that remote village, or on the mountainside, or in a creepy abandoned building is worthy of the old-fashioned literary fare. I'm always glad to see proof that high-quality descriptive prose is not confined to the novels that torment generations of high school and college students, but can be used to entertain fans of genre fiction like yours truly.

Last but certainly not least, I appreciated that the novel provides serious, at times brutal, action without going graphic and an undertone of sexual attraction without the semi-obligatory casual hookup. While I don't demand my fiction to be clean, I do admire the care and skill that go into crafting an engaging tale without using gore and sex as crutches.

Whether you're a dedicated thriller fan or just want a palate cleanser in between epic fantasy door stoppers, this novel will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Purchase Rules for Revenge on Amazon


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Dragon Awards Post, Procrastinators' Edition

EDIT: Turns out, June 30th is the eligibility cutoff, and the vote deadline is July 24th. Good news is that you do have more time and might even squeeze a book or two into your reading schedule. Bad news? Apparently I'm an accountant who's not-so-good with numbers. Don't tell my boss. I need my day job while I'm waiting to become a famous author. 

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Let me guess: you meant to vote for Dragon Awards nominations. You just needed more time. After all, you had until June 30th, so there was no rush, right?
:Looks at the calendar:
Yeeeah, about that...

 So now you have just a couple of days to scour your Kindle trying to remember which books you read over the last year, then look up when those books were published to make sure they're eligible, and THEN decide how to classify them in the most appropriate way. Good luck with that last one if you're like me and read overwhelmingly indie/small press books. Those authors don't have the publisher forcing them to squeeze a story into a pigeonhole for the best Barnes & Noble shelf placement. They write what they write. Great for reading. A nightmare for category designations.

Fear not, my fellow procrastinators, for much of the work of finding, listing and categorizing some outstanding eligible books has already been done for you. Below I will link a few websites/blogs with nomination suggestions. You will see that many of the suggestions overlap. It's either a "great minds think alike" thing or the Russians rigged it. (Not me. Other Russians.) In any case, if you read the books and liked them, now's the time to give them some love. If you haven't, what are you doing looking at blogs? You've got some great fiction to read.

Useful sites with suggestions, in alphabetical order.

Declan Finn 📖

Happy Frogs 🐸

Injustice Gamer 🎮

Russell Newquist 📚

Speaking of all things Dragon, I will be at Dragoncon this year, and because my novel Chasing Freedom was a nominee last year I actually get a spiffy Attending Pro badge. What it means, I don't know, but it sounds like fun. Hope to see lots of you there!

Dragon Awards vote link is here. There is no cost to participate, and you know what that means: more money for books 😀   Best of luck to the contenders and as always Happy Reading!


Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review: For Steam and Country by Jon del Arroz



A couple of weeks ago, I took my 12-year-old daughter to the town library in search of something to read. When I asked the librarian in charge of the YA section to recommend something without suicide or sex, she said, without hostility but quite firmly that we were in the wrong section. Apparently those were the predominant themes of modern YA literature. (Mind you, this is the stuff offered to them as pleasure reading, in addition to the doom-and-gloom highbrow literature they're already required to read for school.) And then we wonder why so many of today's teens are A. depressed and B. avoid pleasure reading at all costs.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I report on this latest offering from a science fiction author Jon del Arroz. For Steam and Country is, as the title implies, a steampunk adventure first and foremost, but it also succeeds brilliantly as YA.

The protagonist, Zaira von Monocle, is a 16-year-old, who--shocker!--actually behaves as a normal teen, even though the circumstances of her life are anything but ordinary. Sure, she is a daughter of a great adventurer, who inherits her father's airship and goes off to far away lands and gets involved in battles that might decide the fate of her country. Yet at the same time she is subject to the same challenges and emotions as any teen. She has a secret crush on a neighbor boy who, frustratingly, only sees her as a friend. She feels sad about having lost her mother at a young age and devastated at the news that her father is presumed dead. She has a comically adorable attachment to her pet ferret (yes, there's a ferret named Toby, and he's important to the plot!). And, as most teenagers, she has her flaws: she is stubborn, occasionally rash, doesn't know her limitations while at the same time being insecure... Did I mention the "normal teen" thing? If you don't have teens of your own, just take my word for it. Zaira is true to life, perhaps more so than the cynical and too-smart-for-their-age creatures that populate modern YA fiction, especially the kind geared towards girls.

That's not to say Zaira is the only interesting character, or even the only one in whom the reader gets invested during the story. James starts out as a somewhat of an obligatory sidekick/love interest, but his story arc is separate and, while he doesn't get a lot of "screen time," is interesting in its own right. (I am in fact hoping for a spinoff because the whole Knights angle has a lot of potential that was only explored in a cursory way in this novel). Captain von Cravat is more than your garden variety Strong Female Character. The Iron Emperor is a fascinating villain who appears just long enough for us to wonder who or what exactly he is. And Toby the ferret is just begging for a whole series of his own, if he could ever be convinced to leave Zaira's side.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and the prose is just right for the type of story this is: clear without being dumbed down, with enough information on the world and the basics of technology to be interesting, but not so much that we get bored with the minutia of the steamship operations. The battles are well choreographed and descriptive in a way that we can visualize exactly what's going on while providing enough tension and excitement. There are a few twists along the way as well as some loose ends likely to be addressed in the rest of the series, but on the whole the story wraps up in a satisfying way.

I'm told that this particular take on steampunk is unusual, so I will simply recommend it to anyone who likes old-fashioned adventure free of sex, graphic violence or so-called "social commentary." It's also a great way to introduce your teenager to the joys of adventure fiction. As someone who grew up reading Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, I am glad to see that there are modern offerings in the same vein available to the new generation, even if they have to go beyond the local librarians' choices to get to it.

Purchase For Steam and Country on Amazon




Thursday, June 1, 2017

Guest Post by Matthew Quinn: Classism, "Evil Rednecks" and The Thing in the Woods

Matthew Quinn is an author friend of mine who has just come out with a new book on Amazon. Below are this thoughts on the traditional horror genre and how his work challenges some of the stereotypes of the classics. I am not personally a horror fan, but I love it when authors veer from the tired tropes and create something fresh, which is why I agreed to host Matthew's promotion on my blog. Enjoy!
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Once upon a time, I was visiting the East Cobb Borders and read from a Call of Cthulhu role-playing game manual. The manual begins a proposed gaming scenario describes how in many cases the Great Old Ones and other horrors from beyond are worshiped in rural, isolated areas. What happens if these areas become suburbanized? The book uses the phrase "supernatural Love Canal," a reference to a New York neighborhood built on top of a forgotten toxic waste dump. That scenario got my creative gears turning and soon spawned The Thing in the Woods, which takes place in the small town of Edington just south of Atlanta. Edington is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for Atlanta, much to the annoyance of Phil Davidson, owner of a local barbecue restaurant and the high priest of a cult worshiping an alien tentacle monster in the local woods.
However, this is not a book about evil "rednecks." H.P. Lovecraft, the man whose writings on Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, was  classist toward "degenerate" whites and rural folk as well as a racist toward non-whites and "ethnics" like Italians. I'm not going to look down my nose on people who live outside the big cities, the people who disproportionately serve in the military and produce much of our food. This is reflected in three of the Edington-born characters in The Thing in the Woods.
The female lead in Thing is Amber Webb. She's an Edington native, a high-school senior like Buckhead transplant and story protagonist James Daly. Instead of a being a cultureless hick, she's active in the local arts scene and the community theater, including a major role in the play Once Upon a Mattress. She has no objection to another white teenage girl dating an young Indian man from Atlanta, and when other members of her small-town girl posse believe James to be a murderer, she's open-minded enough to dig further rather than merely assume. We all know what "assume" stands for, after all. And when the cult unleashes its wrath, her initiative and sheer nerve come in handy.
Another character from Edington is Sam Dixon. Sam served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War (he explicitly references Medina Ridge, and the First Armored Division was at other battles as well). Given his references to "damned blue on blue," at times he was in danger from both the Iraqis and his own side. Since the war, he's worked at the local sheet metal plant and done well for himself. He is a devoted husband, although he and his wife are unable to have children. Although he serves Phil and the abomination in the woods, he has a very strong sense of fair play and duty toward his fellow veterans and isn't drinking the racist Kool-Aid poured by another cult member who is a bigot. It's that moral sense that propels his story arc. I am reminded of Romans 2, which states every man has the law of God written on their hearts.
Even Phil, for all his many faults, is not without his virtues. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran, a member of the Third Marine Division who saw action as a junior officer at the Battle of Con Thien. He pays his restaurant employees more than the typical wage to keep the wheels of the local economy spinning and to encourage employee loyalty. This is much like the great industrialist Henry Ford, who paid his employees more than the usual wage for the auto industry to ensure his employees could buy his cars. Phil also has members of the cult keep up properties left vacant during the recession, to ensure they don't get stripped for metal or become drug houses. Although his methods are extreme and immoral, keeping Edington a functional community in an dark time is very important to him. And he's a father and grandfather who prioritizes the welfare of family, even very distant relations like his cousin's stepdaughter, Sam's wife Brenda.
So if you like the style and concepts of H.P. Lovecraft but are tired of evil hick stereotypes, check out The Thing in the Woods


Monday, May 29, 2017

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I have to admit, after the third movie in the series I decided I was done. The plot was overly complicated, the good guys kept double crossing each other, and the ending... Let's just say a movie of that caliber did not earn such and ending and leave it at that (and no, the after-credits were not enough to provide satisfaction for what was at the time meant to be the end of the trilogy.)

I skipped the fourth. More than that, I forgot it existed and had to look up why this latest installment was billed as Number Five. When the new trailer came out, my first thought was, "Oh no, they're at it AGAIN? Meh." Still, it was a long weekend and I decided to kill a few hours by watching it on the cheap in a smaller local theater. Yes, $11 for an adult ticket is what passes for cheap nowadays. But I digress...

My husband, who saw Dead Men a few days before me, said it was actually better than the original. I'm not sure about that because the original was, well, the original. The characters, the world, the visuals--it was all new and so by default more entertaining. But this one comes close and does better than the original on a couple of fronts. Also, and this is a biggie,  we're not talking about going back to the well. This movie continues the story where #3 left off. (I hear Penelope Cruz didn't want to come back. They didn't make the character die of leukemia a la  Sarah Connor, but the script behaves as though #4 never happened, as far as I can tell.)

In the first scene, we meet young Henry, Will Turner's son, who promises to break the curse that requires his father to be forever sailing The Flying Dutchman. Fast forward nine years, and grown up Henry is getting in trouble at sea over having too much knowledge of the legends no one believes until... well, I won't spoil that one. In the meantime, Carina, the scientist obsessed with the stars she believes will lead her to her father is about to hang for witchcraft. As for Jack Sparrow, let's just say the shameless ripoff of one of the Fast and Furious movies works very well as his re-introduction scene. The three main characters are thrown together, sometimes literally, until they agree to work with each other to obtain this particular movie's McGuffin.

It is rare to see the fifth entry into any franchise that succeeds both at taking us back and introducing new characters. Henry and Carina are immediately likable as driven, passionate individuals who make a lively, forever bantering couple. Jack Sparrow is entertaining as ever as a down-and-out captain without a ship, far removed from his former glory. (There is a marvelous flashback scene, thanks to the wonders of CGI, that made me wish for a prequel. I wanted to spend the time with THAT Jack Sparrow, one less interesting and flamboyant, but more admirable. If we do see a prequel, I'll know I'm not alone.) Barbossa is seen in a new light, and Salazar, the current villain, is sufficiently murderous yet has understandable motivations. The plot is clear of unnecessary complications, and the action has near perfect balance of CGI and live action. Except for a couple of scenes that look like a setup for a new Disney attraction (you'll know of what I speak when you see them) the movie does not have the look and feel of a video game. The camera work is solid, and there is no confusion, in spite of many scenes taking place in the dark, as to who is doing what where.

And then there are all the things that are not in the movie.

No Strong Female Character. I know, it's shocking to have a woman character who is physically capable, strong-willed, and a scientist to boot to not be the dreaded SFC. Writers of books and movie scripts alike seem to have forgotten that it's possible, and yet here we have Carina as a great reminder. She is smart and educated without knowing everything or being right every time. She is brave and athletic, yet sometimes needs saving from perils she can't handle on her own. She is driven and stubborn without being hostile, and while she doesn't "need" a man, she clearly enjoys being courted even as she refuses to admit it.

No anachronistic nods to modern Hollywood conventions. The romance is sweet, in tune with the rules of the movie's world. Carina blushes at the notion that she's attracted to Henry. Henry is happy at seeing Carina's ankles. Jack Sparrow, being more worldly, makes fun of the innocent lovers, but it's good natured fun, and whatever else Sparrow is meant to be, role model isn't it. There is physical contact, sure, but not the semi-obligatory casual hookup that we'd come to expect and/or fear from most Hollywood productions, whether or not said hookups make sense in the context of the story. Also, Carina's actions are consistent with the way a woman would act in the male-dominated world. When a shop owner tells her to leave and not touch his instruments because women are not allowed inside his shop, she reacts not with righteous indignation or physical assault, but with an offer to fix his maps and to pay him extra for the item she desires. It was a small scene, but I appreciated the care that went into crafting it to feel as true as possible right before the movie veers back into the over-the top action mode.

No on-the-nose references to politics. None. No purposeful controversies during the movie's promotion. No gratuitous jabs at Evil Politician of the Day. No inane quotes that end up marring the telephone poles for decades to come *cough* Star Wars Prequels *cough*. Not even a Very Special Screening for Group X (that one is not the movie's fault, but still highly annoying). All you get is a 2hrs + break from the world events, and it's engaging enough to keep you from checking your social media feed on the phone for the duration. There was a time most if not all blockbusters would provide this oasis of entertainment to the viewers. Now, sadly, it's so rare that it merits praise, and so praise it gets. I recommend it wholeheartedly. See it in the theater. Tell your friends. Let's make it an amazing success so Hollywood gives us more of what we want: good old-fashioned entertainment.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Right Geek Chat: Dystopia, Darkness and the Real World

It was my privilege to be the very first guest on the newly launched The Right Geek show hosted by my friend, blogger and all around great gal Stephanie Souders. We discussed my novel Chasing Freedom and other related topics, including but not limited to:

- World-building through the eyes of the characters vs. the narrative style
- Creating realistic "bad guys"
- Using one's life experiences add realism to a dystopian world (OK, coming from the former USSR, I have an advantage on that one, but other authors can apply the concept in their own way)
- Classic vs modern dystopias
- Can A Handmaid's Tale happen here?
- How did "dark" come to equal "deep" and can anything be done to change this perception?

All of the above is covered in the first forty minutes or so, at which time the technology gremlins attacked and my side of the conversation became very difficult to hear. You can still figure out most of what I said from Stephanie's follow-up and responses. We were talking mostly of the current college campus environment and whether or not it indicates a fundamental shift in the mood of the country.

I want to thank Stephanie for having me over and making for a very intellectually stimulating conversation. I hope everyone tunes in for her future live broadcasts to make her new show a success.

Youtube video of the full interview is below.



Chasing Freedom is available on Amazon.

Make sure to check out Stephanie's blog for reviews and commentary.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Movie Musings: The Fate of the Furious



***Cross-posted from SuperversiveSF.com***

On one level, The Fate of the Furious is the easiest movie to review:
1. Great fun
2. Leave your brain (especially the part that understands physics) at home

And now, folks, your seat belts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!

Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.

Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.

Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.

Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.

Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.

There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: Live and Let Bite by Declan Finn

I admit, I started this book with a bit of trepidation. The Big Bad in the previous installment was so big and so bad and so near-indestructible that trying to top it could very well veer into the ridiculous (think some of the more unfortunate James Bond movies, for example). Wisely, the author didn't go that route. Oh sure, there's a worthy adversary for our favorite couple and their merry crew, but this novel is more concerned with adding more layers of plot and character development in between the 'splosions and bursts of machine gun fire. Yes, we get machine guns added to the mix this time, because, well, why not?

The story starts off... angsty, for lack of a better word. Marco and Amanda are separated, causing much brooding for them and pain for the baddies. When those two brood, the soundtrack is more death metal than country, if you get my drift. In the meantime, Merle the international man of supernatural mystery, discovers/confirms a connection between the U.N. and the vampires, both of whom, it so happens, want Marco dead at all costs. The rest of the plot revolves around our heroes facing and dealing with the new super-assassin, while trying to finally resolve their feelings for each other.

That last part, in my opinion, takes up most of the energy of the novel. Let's face it, in an ongoing series we can't be overly worried if the main characters make it through the next chapter. Finn is not entirely averse to killing someone we care about, on occasion, but he hasn't been affected by the Joss Whedon disease (looking at you, Terry Goodkind, grrr...) and let's hope he never does. So the assassin subplot becomes more of a "journey, not a destination" kind of deal. You know she will be defeated. You don't know how, or why she's on the job in the first place, or even who the heck she is. Also, did I mention 'splosions? So there's a lot of pure fun to be had along the way, but to really make us care, there has to be something else. Something beyond the heroes' survival to the next installment, and beyond the intellectual challenge of solving the fundamental mystery of the overarching plot. That leaves us with...

If you guessed, "romance," congratulations! You're in for a treat. If not, and if your reaction is, "Oh no, not that!" rest assured that it's not your usual YA drama. These are serious people, with the fate of, if not the world, at least thousands of lives on their shoulders, who cannot function at full capacity till they address what is delicately called the issues of the heart. I'll give no spoilers in this regard since I consider this particular narrative thread the most suspenseful. Suffice it to say that there is a level of progress achieved, with hints of more to come. Stay tuned and wait for the sequel.

Purchase Live and Let Bite on Amazon



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Awards and Amusements

It's that time of the year: the snow is melting, the new flowers are blooming, and the book awards season is coming into full swing. Unlike with the Oscars and other movie-oriented awards, where audiences tune in to see lavish dresses and occasional on-screen celebrity meltdowns, most of the book awards entertainment comes from--you guessed it--reading. Thus this week's roundup for your online entertainment.

First, an award that's near and dear to my heart, as I co-founded the group that runs it:

Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance 2017 Book of the Year.




The competition for this one was stiff, with the Top Two contenders vying for the lead until the final hours. In the end, Peter Grant claimed the first place with his Post-Civil War themed Western Brings the Lightning.  John Ringo/Larry Correia collaboration Monster Hunter: Grunge came in second, and John C. Wright's wildly imaginative fantasy Iron Chamber of Memory rounded up the Top Three.

For complete information on the award, full list of the finalists as well as the nature and goals of CLFA, please visit Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance website.

(I especially recommend the visit to those who had the misfortune of visiting a certain blog, where some of the commenters took it upon themselves to re-write both the nature and the history of CLFA to suit their narrative. Amusing as it was to read the conjectures, it is important for the truth to come out, and going to the source is usually the best solution. Also, please feel free to post questions in the Comments section.)

Second: The Hugo Awards finalists have been announced.

I'm happy to see John C. Wright's excellent short story from God, Robot getting the nod, even if the environment surrounding this particular award is guaranteed to keep him from winning.

The same comment applies to Jeffro Johnson and Castalia House blog, in their respective categories.

If you're looking for more analysis, here is some from Declan Finn (I think the headline provides a hint of how he feels, but you may want to read the whole thing to be sure). Jon del Arroz crunches some vote numbers, for those who are into math. And finally, since I promised amusement, John C. Wright, in the comments on Vox Popoli blog, reacts to receiving the nomination. Kind of.

Third: The Dragon Awards nominations are open.



Larry Correia provides this timely reminder as only he can. Personally, since the eligibility period for that one runs into the current year, I'm holding off a little longer. But there's no doubt that for sci-fi and fantasy fans, this is the award to watch (and for the authors, to strive to win).

I guess this is a good time to mention that I will be going to Dragoncon this year, for the first time ever, and for some reason have been accepted as an Attending Pro. Soooo, if anyone has hints and tips, or wants to meet up, please comment below. Hope to see many of you there!

Till then, as always, Happy reading!



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: Renegades: Origins by Kal Spriggs


As the title implies, this novel, while following a coherent and moderately exciting plot, is more of a collection of shorts giving us individual characters' history and insights into what makes them tick. If you like your fiction character-oriented, but shy away from the so-called "literary" works where that's ALL you get, this one is for you. Each part of the plot is told from a different POV (some characters get more than one chapter, and a couple don't get any, but that's the general structure).

There's a risk to this method of storytelling because the readers' engagement hinges on whether or not they like the characters and care what happens to them. For that reason, it took me a while to get into the story. At first glance, these characters can appear obnoxious, annoying, or both, and even though I intellectually knew they were the good guys, at least in comparison to their opponents, I honestly wouldn't have minded to see at a couple of them knocked off. I am, however, a patient reader, and was willing to give the story a chance to convince me otherwise. I'm happy I did because the characters do grow on you, and as it happens, the story as a whole gets better until, about half-way through, I was overstaying my lunch hour to finish a particular section.

One thing the author does very well is managing a large cast while never confusing the reader or making the characters seem interchangeable. The three aliens not only come from vastly different species, but have different goals, personalities and, strangely enough, considering two of them happen to be psycho killers, enough quirks and hangups to make them both entertaining and relatable. In fact, somewhere along the way, I realized that Rastar is actually what Jar-Jar Binks should've been in George Lucas were a half decent writer: funny, friendly to the point of annoyance, but with a heart and skills of a mighty warrior. In case I didn't hate the Jar-Jar character enough, now that I see the possibilities, I'm even happier that Lucas has given up his death grip on Star Wars. But I digress...

The humans are interesting as well. All of them are running, not just from their former alien jailers, but from the things they've done, or are accused of having done, and in some cases, just things that live as unending nightmares in their heads. While some of them are natural jerks, there's usually a reason for what seems to be irrational or downright immoral behavior. I won't give it away because the slow revelations of their backstories is what makes this work special, but I have to give the author credit for understanding the difference between and explanation and an excuse when it comes to the characters' more questionable actions. Redemption, or at least a second chance, is one of my favorite themes, and is very much the thread that unites both the characters and the overall story. While it's impossible, or desirable, to resolve all of the issues in what is by design an origin story, we're given hope that the characters, both human and alien, will find a satisfactory conclusion to their individual stories when all is said and done.

If you're expecting wall-to-wall action or a One Hero Does Everything type of tale (not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with those), go elsewhere. However, if you're looking to meet some interesting people and aliens in space and watch them fight for their lives while also battling their inner demons, this is your kind of story.

Purchase Renegades: Origins on Amazon

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Guest Promotion: Dating the It Guy by Krysten Lindsay Hager

Krysten Lindsay Hager is a fellow author I "met" through Clean Indie Reads Facebook group. While I don't limit myself to reading strictly clean fiction, I think it's important to give readers a variety of choices. Clean fiction, once used limited mostly to Christian publishers, it's beginning to gain traction in the mainstream. There are plenty of great stories out there without excessive violence or explicit sex, and I'm happy to do my small part to help them get read. (Full disclosure: my own novel Chasing Freedom has been accepted for listing on Clean Indie Reads website and will be linked there within the next couple of weeks).

And now, for Krysten's new offering:




Dating the It Guy by Krysten Lindsay Hager
YA contemporary romance
Published by Clean Reads

Blurb:
Emme is a sophomore in high school who starts dating, Brendon Agretti, the popular senior who happens to be a senator's son and well-known for his good looks. Emme feels out of her comfort zone in Brendon's world and it doesn't help that his picture perfect ex, Lauren seems determined to get back into his life along with every other girl who wants to be the future Mrs. Agretti. Emme is already conflicted due to the fact her last boyfriend cheated on her and her whole world is off kilter with her family issues. Life suddenly seems easier keeping Brendon away and relying on her crystals and horoscopes to guide her. Emme soon starts to realize she needs to focus less on the stars and more on her senses. Can Emme get over her insecurities and make her relationship work? Life sure is complicated when you're dating the it guy.


Short Excerpt:
“By the way, did you hear Lauren got into Senator Agretti’s old school?”
“Seriously? I wonder if she applied there because Brendon did,” I said.
Margaux snorted. “Duh, of course. Seriously, she might as well just pee on him to mark her territory.”
“Margaux, shut up,” Kylie said.
“Whatever. Anyway, the important thing is if Brendon knew she was applying there,” Margaux said. “Em, do you think he knew?”
I hoped Lauren was just trying to follow Brendon, but what if they had planned this whole thing while they were dating? What if he convinced her to apply there so they could go to college together, wear matching American flag sweaters with big scarves while drinking hot chocolate, and jump into leaf piles just like a preppy clothing catalog. At least now I didn’t have to worry about them reciting poetry to one another in South Bend, but still, what if they had made plans to go to school together?
“Don’t worry about it,” Kylie said. “She was probably trying to follow him—like she always does. She’s so pathetic.”
Kylie was trying to make me feel better, but Lauren was far from pathetic. After all, she was pretty much the “Most Likely to Succeed” poster girl. While she was out overachieving and saving the world without messing up her perfect, bouncy hair, I was trying to get through each day. I tried to push away the image of Lauren and Brendon holding hands and drinking hot chocolate under a stadium blanket.

Purchase:
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/2m5y9OC


 Follow Krysten

Bio: Besides mining her teen years and humiliating moments for her novels, ​Krysten is a also a book addict who has never met a bookstore she didn’t like. She’s worked as a journalist and writes young adult, middle grade, new adult, and adult fiction as well as humor essays. She is originally from Michigan and has lived in Portugal, South Dakota, and currently resides in southwestern Ohio where you can find her reading and writing when she’s not catching up on her favorite shows (she's addicted to American Dad to the point where she quotes episodes on a daily basis and also loves Girl Meets World). She's also a third generation Detroit Lions fan.
Krysten writes about friendship, self-esteem, fitting in, frenemies, crushes, fame, first loves, and values. She is the author of True Colors, Best Friends...Forever?, Next Door to a Star,  Landry in Like, and Competing with the Star (The Star Series: Book 2). Her debut novel, True Colors, won the Readers Favorite award for best preteen book. Krysten's work has been featured in USA Today, The Flint Journal, the Grand Haven Tribune, the Beavercreek Current, the Bellbrook Times and on Living Dayton.

Praise for Dating the It Guy:
“A sweet, endearing story—you’ll fall in love with Emme just like I did!” --Kimber Leigh Wheaton, YA/NA author

"Hager's authentic characters will resonate with readers of all ages as they are immersed in the story  - complete with teen drama and angst, but also the relationships which make it all worthwhile." --  Leslie L. McKee, book reviewer, Edits and Reviews by Leslie

Friday, March 17, 2017

Netflix Review: Downfall



Downfall is a strangely compelling film. Not only do we know the ending, and the fate of all major characters, before we start, but we also have no heroes to root for, and the villains... well, we really couldn't hate them any more, could we?

And yet, unlike so many yawn-inducing historical dramas, this one holds our rapt attention throughout, and leaves us with much food for thought afterwards. Why is that? Are we still so fascinated with all things Hitler? Do we find satisfaction in seeing evil men and their immediate enablers get their due? Does the girl-next-door character of Traudl Junge provide enough of a different perspective to make us care--something impossible to do with the more important historical figures?

I suppose all of the above are true, but there's more depth to this particular version of the well-known story. The claustrophobic setup, both in the physical location and in the sense of immediate, inevitable doom, allows us to see all the players as we perhaps had not seen them before, at least outside of obscure historical documents.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the claim that Downfall humanizes Hitler. Some would even say he is shown as sympathetic. I admit there are moments where, having been accustomed to think of him as an abstraction, a stand-in for "monster," the viewer is surprised that he is, after all, just a man. He is kind to his employees. He clearly loves Eva. He personally makes sure his dog dies a quick death rather than starve in the ruins of Berlin or be shot by a passerby. It's almost tempting, especially considering his many temper tantrums, the best of which has been turned into a Youtube sensation, to attribute the horrors he inflicted on the world to insanity.

That, however, would be a lie. After all, the movie provides us enough moments of Hitler, perfectly relaxed and coherent, casually dismissing compassion as weakness; refusing to grant mercy to his former associates and German people alike; and counting the destruction of Jews as his crowning achievement. He might be delusional in some ways, particularly in his insistence during the first half of the movie that a military victory is still possible. But he isn't insane. If anything, while most of his underlings (and his lover, for that matter) spend their remaining time drinking themselves into oblivion, Hitler doesn't as much as break his dietary restrictions. His very last meal is vegetarian, and he makes a point to thank the cook after he is finished.

Nor is Hitler alone in this duality. Martha Goebbels is at once a proud mother and a cold-blooded killer. She also is sane, at least by legal definition, choosing loyalty to her lost cause over life itself. In perhaps the best demonstration of the power that evil ideals can have over seemingly normal human beings, she methodically poisons her children in their sleep. If the future is not the way she had envisioned, then it's not worth having. In her mind, it's as simple and logical as that.

Mind you, there are a few sympathetic characters sprinkled in: a father trying to convince his last remaining child to come home from the street fighting; doctors trying to save lives in the midst of carnage; even one of Hitler's close associates risking his life in coming back to Berlin in the last-ditch attempt to convince the boss to give up on the needless destruction. And then, of course, there is our nominal protagonist Traudl Junge, a young secretary who is so clueless of her surroundings that she takes the appearance of the Goebbels children in the bunker as a sign of hope rather than a harbinger of doom. The scene when she finally understands the truth is one of the more heartbreaking moments because we realize just how very innocent she is.

Except... as the older, wiser Traudl reminds us at the conclusion of the story, youth is no excuse, and it wasn't a case of true innocence, but willful ignorance. At the age of twenty-two, this smart, poised woman went to work for one of the most evil men in history and ended up providing a measure of comfort to him in his last days. As sins go, it's a minor one, but it's easy to understand why she spent her life feeling guilty for not choosing a different path.

I think in the end, Traudl is the character who discovers the lesson of the movie, and the reason it's so fascinating to watch. Fantastical creatures, cackling hags and monsters under the bed make for great fiction because storytellers are able to distill evil to its essence. But in real life it's very likely to appear only as a middle-aged man with funny hair who loves his dog and eats his spinach. As the last line of the movie reminds us, it's possible to find out the truth. All we can hope for in our own lives is to see the truth before it's too late.

Highly recommended.

Purchase Downfall on Amazon

Traudl Junge's memoir on Amazon