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

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.

Barnes and Noble:

 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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

CLFA 2017 Book of the Year Voting is now Open!

No obnoxiously over-priced gowns. No celebrities telling you how unworthy you really are. No falling props or envelope malfunctions. Just great books by freedom-loving authors, and you decide who gets the award! My novel Chasing Freedom is among the finalists.

From Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance website:

The nominations are in and counted, and the CLFA is thrilled to present our ten finalists for the CLFA Book of the Year 2017!
Beginning in January 2017, CLFA members have been hard at work, compiling a list of our favorite 2016 releases. We ran several rounds of voting to refine the list to the top ten in the survey. For the final winner, we always open up voting to the public.
Click here and follow the big red button to vote. Good luck to all and may the best book win!