Friday, December 24, 2021

Book Review: Death Cult by Declan Finn

When I first read this book over the summer, my first impression was that the story is worth the price of admission just for the first chapter. Having skimmed it to refresh my memory in preparation for writing the review, I stand by that statement.

To quote one of my favorite Youtubers, "Allow me to explain."

At first glance, all we have is probably the most common opener in the thriller/urban fantasy genre, namely, an action scene. And it is a good one in it's own right, which is something Finn's readers have come to take for granted. However, two qualities combine to make it stand out.

First, we immediately connect with and care about the characters involved. Surprisingly many authors forget that no matter how spectacular the action, we still need to be told why we should care. Books are not movies, and descriptions of gunshots/explosions/hand-to-hand combat don't have the same immediate appeal when read as when experienced on the giant screen in surround sound. Here we have Tommy Nolan and his family, whom we'd already come to know and love from Hell Spawn, so of course we care about them being under attack. But even going into this second book in the series cold, there is immediate, visceral desire to see the family come out intact from a violent confrontation.

That brings me to the second part. I love thrillers, but too many of them suffer from the same flaw as horror movies: the characters existing in a state artificial ignorance, having never cracked opened a book or watched a movie. There are certain things that happen in those genres, and they nearly always catch the main characters by surprise.

Not so with Detective Nolan and his family. They might live in the world of urban fantasy,but they're very much grounded in reality, knowing what is likely to happen and prepared for even the most unpleasant of possibilities. Thus, the first chapter does not go the way we might expect, setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the story.

What follows is a combination of ever-escalating challenges, which Tommy and his small group of friends and colleagues meet by not simply out-fighting, but out-thinking the enemy (including figuring out who and what the enemy is). The action scenes are evenly spaced out in between the actual detective work, so the pacing never slows down enough for us to lose interest. The climax is... fiery, both literally and figuratively, and while the story does come to a satisfying resolution, the jaw-dropping last paragraph makes you run, not walk, to start on the next installment.

Tommy Nolan as a character is a joy to follow around. He is a genuinely good man with no dark past or extra emotional baggage (aside from whatever naturally comes from years of police work in a large city coupled with his recent encounters with supernatural evil). He is a family man, and a man of faith, with both of those qualities being an organic part of the character rather than something slapped on as an afterthought. It's a refreshing change, considering that the urban fantasy genre almost requires the heroes to be flawed, dark and brooding. I like those too, when they're done well and don't go overboard on darkness, but it's good, and for lack of a better word, restful to spend time with Tommy Nolan and his crew. I would recommend it both to the traditional urban fantasy fans and to those who want to an easy, fast paced read as their first introduction to the genre.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Book Review: Another Kingdom Trilogy by Andrew Klavan

 Austin Lively has all the makings of a standard YA protagonist, although I suppose being male would make him stand out. He is an all-around loser: unloved by his parents, overshadowed by his successful, better-looking brother, always ragged on by his so-called friends, and too much of a coward to confess his feelings for a girl he likes.Suddenly (yes, "suddenly" is the first word in the book) he is transported into a fantasy world, where he is taken for a hero and compelled to embark of a quest with a help of a quirky sidekick.

The twist in the above? The subject of our seemingly cookie-cutter hero's journey is a thirty-year-old failed Hollywood screenwriter, whose main (only?) admirable quality appears to be a stubborn refusal to give up on an obviously dead and buried dream of his youth. 

Andrew Klavan, an award-winning best-selling author who deserves both designations for reasons unrelated to the recent merit-allergic metrics, has made a bit of a splash about a decade ago with a number of YA adventure/action novels aimed specifically towards teen boys. Anyone who knows me at all would not be surprised that I read and liked all of them, in addition to the adult novels Mr. Klavan produced during that period.

It was, therefore, with extremely high expectations, that I started reading this particular work. You could say my expectations were subverted because I only expected an entertaining story, not a trilogy that from Book One started edging up on my list of my all-time favorites, and now is cemented into the Top Ten, if not higher.

I spent a few days trying to articulate why that is the case. The central idea and the plot are not particularly unique. The fact that the author's worldview, which aligns with mine, unabashedly comes through, certainly helps, but philosophical alignment is no guarantee of enjoyment [frowns in the direction of too many conservative filmmakers to count]. The style is at times jarring. I normally love "first person past" narration, but here it's almost like having the camera zoom in and out, from being deep inside the character's head to having him pause to either warn the reader that something important was coming, to explain an action he'd just taken, or to "speak" to the reader directly with comments like "Right?" and "Can you believe it?" Then again, some scenes are so horrific that a bit of narrative distance might be justified, just to give the reader a break.

As an aside, the violence (with more than a touch of horror) is quite intense and feels even more non-stop than it is, in part because the mental/emotional burden placed on the protagonist, both in the real world and in his excursions into the fantasy land, is arguably higher than the physical one.

That last part might be why the story lands so well, and I am surprised to see it come from an author who made a name for himself mostly in noir thrillers.Sure, his recent books have taken on more than a tinge of Christian fiction (without the flaws associated with that genre), but on the whole his characters have been consistently tough-as-nails hyper-masculine men, and even his teen protagonists were well on their way, if not there already. This is more a story of a man discovering his masculinity, or rather reclaiming it from the stifling and corrupting circumstances of his upbringing and surroundings. 

Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Austin finds his way towards something that has always been within his reach. The fact that he hits several breaking points along the way, each leading into deeper and more complete despair, provides a different kind of realism than we're used to in gritty, "manly" fiction. Our society both demands that men become more "sensitive" and "open about their feelings," yet still ruthlessly ignores, even mocks, otherwise strong men who show moments of vulnerability or need help dealing with grief or trauma. (Witness the Twitterbots' reaction to Kyle Rittenhouse crying during his trial). It is refreshing to see a story that does not shy away from the mental cost of fighting the good fight.

Last but not least, there are quite a few women who guide and/or inspire the hero to become, well, heroic. And what women they are... I'm hard-pressed to find my favorite. The beautiful and courageous Beth, the near-saintly Jane, the ever-elusive Ellen and of course the acid-tongued "squirrel-girl" Maud-- each one is crucial to the story and heroic in her own right, while being exceptionally feminine in ways that modern feminism cannot possibly appreciate. 

The villains are both banal and over the top, which rings true to life. I will leave it at that without spoilers, except to say the biggest female villain we encounter can give Atlas Shrugged's Lillian Rearden a run for her money in her utter lack of soul, in both religious and secular sense. 

The ending is perfect in being both perfectly satisfying and not entirely conclusive, at least the part that is set in the real world, and that once again rings true. But as I turned the last page, with that special happy/sad feeling that comes after an outstanding read, my first thought was--

"Good Lord, please don't let Klavan sell the movie rights."

Which considering that Hollywood was very much a part of the story, and not in a good way, was quite appropriate. 

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Keep Calm and Stay a Dittohead


As a reader, reviewer, and occasional writer of fiction, I have become familiar with the term "shocking but inevitable" when describing a plot twist or an ending. All the clues were there that the event, or something like it, would happen, and yet when it does, we still taken off guard, whether from denial or from misinterpreting the signs or from being too caught up in the flow of events to pay attention.

And so, the news or Rush's passing should have shocked no one, and it did not shock me, as such, the way Andrew Breitbart's untimely death had some years ago. How could it? We all have known for a year about his terminal illness followed the updates on the treatments, watched the hope for recovery fade, and accepted that every day Rush was on the air might be his last.

Nor should a death of a seventy-year-old who had lived a profoundly meaningful life and achieved professional, financial, and at least from the outside appearances, personal fulfillment, be considered anything but a natural course of events, to be met with a quiet nod of acknowledgement of human mortality, including our own.

And yet, I have been feeling off-kilter ever since, more than usual, which is quite something during the period of time in our history when practically nothing and no one is steady and normal in the traditional sense of the word.

I've read several tributes from people I respect, and inevitable attacks from those who only confirmed themselves to be unworthy--not even foes because that word implies a measure of honor. I've reminisced of my years as a fan going back to my first "real" job as an assistant at a printer shop, listening to the radio, fascinated by the voice I instinctively knew was different from the rest, even if my still limited English prevented complete understanding. I joked with my husband, also a fan (thanks to me), about the time we were in the audience of Rush's TV show, and he briefly appeared on camera with a dreamy smile on his face from listening to Rush describe a particularly delicious cut of steak. He received calls from a few of his students who saw him on TV, and in those days it was all in good fun, and did not get him cancelled as it would have today. Even our children, now with views of their own, not quite as in line with ours as we would have liked, shared our sense of loss. Much of their childhood was spent with the Rush show in the background, and all of them are aware of the origin of the unusually bright-colored ties in their father's closet. A period of our lives had come to a close, and knowing that millions of Rush's fans have gone through a version of the same process should make it easier t bear, and it almost does. Almost.

All of the above kept me from organizing my thoughts until now, from seeing the true source of my unease and profound sadness. I think I finally understand what it is.

What made Rush so successful is the same reason he is irreplaceable. His unique combination of wit, intellect and unshakeable conviction made him into a one-stop recharge station-slash-sanity check for many of us on the loosely defined "Right." It's not that, as Rush used to quip, he told us what to think. But he did provide consistent analysis from a certain perspective, and did it accessibly, with kindness and respect towards the listener, as a patient teacher... 

... Or as a father.

Rush Limbaugh, a man who had no children of his own, was nevertheless a great patriarch of the pro-American, pro-liberty, pro-human dignity movement. 

Much as I miss Rush, this realization gave focus to my generalized sadness, and it also gave me peace. It is not a job of a patriarch (or any leader with a large following) to "finish" his life's work or establish a singe successor, much less one biologically related. What is important for a lasting, meaningful legacy is to give those left behind both motivation and the tools to continue, while staying united in their purpose. Rush has accomplished all three, brilliantly.

Sure, we have our work cut out for us, but it keeps us from becoming complacent and relying on someone else to step up. Just like financial wealth needs upkeep, so does intellectual and spiritual legacy, and even more so because it's not something that can be stashed in a bank earning compound interest. Freedom lovers made this mistake once, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, thinking that the threat of totalitarianism had gone forever, and can not, will not make it ever again.

There will never be another Rush, but his influence can be seen in the new generation of conservative voices, now successful in their own right. The anti-elitist common sense and relatability of Sean Hannity, Mark Steyn's unfailing sense of humor, Tucker Carlson's fearless intellectualism, Mark Levin's superb analytical skills--all qualities necessary to carry on a successful movement live on present in his younger successors, just like the traits of biological parents manifest in varied manner in their  children. 

And then there is the rest of us, millions of Dittoheads, all inspired by his example, united not only in admiration for one man's accomplishments but in knowledge that success is possible, even now, as we enter what is likely to be one of the darker periods of this country's history. The iconic greeting of "Dittos, Rush!" has never meant "I agree with everything you say" but "I love your work. Please never stop." 

This is our chance to make those words ring true, as we come to terms with Rush's passing. It is the time to make sure his work never stops even if he is no longer here to do it.

Mourn the man, but celebrate his life. Build on his work, and make him proud.

Dittoheads Forever.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Smile at What Is Possible


Time flies when you're having fun... And even, as it turns out, when you aren't. My last post on this blog is dated in May of 2019, and it seems both like yesterday and a century ago.

Be that as it may, I am compelled to put my thoughts in order tonight, and my long-neglected blog seems an appropriate place to do it.

A line from a lesser-known Ayn Rand novel has been haunting me over the last few weeks, as the remnants of hope for a last-minute miracle had evaporated and the stages-of-grief about our current situation have begun to run their course.

We the Living, Rand semi-autobiographical tale of life in Soviet Russia in the early years of the glorious revolutionary regime, is not quite an "Ayn Rand book." It's philosophy is more reflective of Rand's early flirtations with Nietzsche than Objectivism, and its tone and content are unrelentingly, overwhelmingly bleak, in sharp contrast to the aggressive optimism of her iconic later works.

It is the only one of Rand's novels I don't own, and the only one I never had any desire to re-read. And yet, here it is, decades later, demanding attention with that one heartbreaking line:

She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible. 

This concept, this vision of realizing the full promise and potential of life just as it comes to an end, is, of course, not original to Rand. However, this particular turn of phrase speaks to me today, not on a personal level--my life has been blessed in more ways that I can count--but as an American.

Over the last four years, on many levels and in the manner we never could have dreamed of, we have been shown what was possible. I will not go through the list of all that has been accomplished--there are plenty of articles on the matter, and that's not really the point. Many of the achievements will turn out to be fleeting, to be reversed in mere hours and days of the new regime; some will persist in their effects; and a few might even go on, with the credit accruing to those who have done nothing to deserve it.

But the possibility of something previously unimaginable, once seen, cannot be unseen. The lie uncovered might be declared truth again, but it will never be truth to those who have witnessed the revelation. Those who have tasted clean water might be forced to go back to drinking sewage, but they will never mistake one for the other.

Unlike the doomed character in the intentionally tragic story, we seen the possible--and are still alive. 

We're still Americans, we're still proud of our country, and in the few short years we have caught a glimpse what it could be, and what it can yet become. It's OK to be angry and even depressed at the current turn of events. Take the time to work through all the feelings of frustration and disappointment, but know that you need, you must come out on the other side, stronger and more inspired than ever,

We will smile at what is still possible--and will get back to work at making it happen.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: Hell Spawn by Declan Finn

Maybe it's a result of too many Marvel  movies, but I view Hell Spawn, the first in Finn's Saint Tommy, NYPD series, as essentially a superhero origin story. In the first action scene, Detective Tom Nolan discovers an ability he can't explain; his powers unfold at various points throughout the story; and the climax has him performing feats which would not be out of place in the next comics-based blockbuster.

However, I suppose the story is more properly classified as urban fantasy since the meat of the plot centers around a police investigation of a particularly nasty serial killer, and the story, while sprinkled withe a generous dose of the other-wordly, is firmly grounded in our time and place.

In other hands, the tone of the story could have turned intolerably dark, what with the gruesome murder of a child, the unrelenting stream of violence and the general feeling of evil presence gathering ever closer to the protagonist and those near and dear to him. What makes all the difference in this case is the setting, or rather its idealized version.

Seen through the eyes of the protagonist whose life has been dedicated to serving his community, we see New York City as a home to people who are decent, loving, loyal, and doing their best to make it in a harsh and imperfect word. Early on, Tom makes a point that even the criminals he encounters and arrests as part of his duties are generally good people who simply made the wrong choices and are capable of being reformed and rehabilitated.

The author is likely to catch flak for choosing two "outsider" groups, rather than native New Yorkers, to be the focal points of entry for the Big Bad. One of those is the real-life Mexican gang known as MS-13, and the other a national organization whose name is clear to anyone paying even marginal attention. As a narrative tool, though, this setup serves a purpose of creating an image of a city under siege from the forces of darkness which cannot be defeated by conventional means.

To put it simply, New York City of this novel is a community which is capable of producing a Saint, and in desperate need of one. We don't know why or how Tom Nolan gets picked for the job, but he accepts it whole-heartedly, which in itself tells us he must be the right choice.

From the title and the clear Catholic orientation of the novel, one might expect numerous pauses for theological discussions and explanation, but that's not the case. The required information comes to us in pithy chunks, never interfering with the pace or the steadily building tension leading to the climax. Ironically, the only time the story lagged for me is during a prolonged series of fights between Tommy and a large number of ... let's just call them the bad guys, to avoid spoilers. This probably would've worked better in a movie, where we could see and appreciate the graphic, intricately choreographed brawl rather than reading the blow-by-blow description. Perhaps having been spoiled by the fast pace of the book, I did not wish to slow down for anything, not even to enjoy seeing the hordes of baddies beat up over the span of several pages.

That minor criticism aside, the final confrontation with the Big Bad was fantastic, and as should be expected from the first novel in a series of many, left us with just enough of a resolution to want more. There are questions about both the nature of the upcoming threat(s) and about the extent on Tommy's current and potential powers. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, but for now I unreservedly recommend Hell Spawn as a solid start.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

DVD Review: Outland

Some time ago, I read an article by a publisher of a sci-fi review magazine where he offered the following test to determine if a story qualifies as proper science fiction:

Can the story take a place on a bus rather than on a space ship without being fundamentally different?

Outland, an obscure movie starring Sean Connery at the low point of his career, cannot be set on a bus, but it most definitely did not need to be placed in space. It is, no pun intended, fully grounded in the traditional western genre in the theme, plot and pacing. There are even shotguns. Lots of shotguns. In a pressurized environment. All that's missing is the tumbleweeds. We do get treated to the sight of some gyrating balls of... something, but the less said of those the better.

The first part of Outland has all the promise of a Clint Eastwood flick. A stranger (Marshal O'Neil) comes to a small town (an mining space colony) administered by the corrupt (a skivvy manager and a group of "we-just-work-here" support personnel) for the wealthy (a corporate conglomerate). Then, after a brief flirting with a medical mystery, it pivots into an unabashed homage to High Noon and stays there to the extent that the viewer can predict nearly every beat. In fact there is a small twist towards the end that had me thinking, "Wait, that's not how it goes in High Noon!"As someone who believes that execution trumps originality every time, I don't offer this as a criticism but as a straightforward observation.

What is truly remarkable about the movie is just how much it is carried by the actors. Only two actors, to be precise. Sean Connery not so much steals every scene he's in as walks off with it unopposed. It was a treat for me as a fan to see him shine in a non-iconic role, making the most of a middling script and minimal character background.

Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lazarus makes a respectable showing as a hard, cynical, plain-looking woman who does not get any softer or more attractive as the story goes on. What she does get, however, is a character arc and a few tense action scenes, which is just enough to make her memorable in an otherwise forgettable supporting cast.

The tale is not so much a battle of good vs evil, although there are clearly the good and the bad guys. O'Neil is not seeking to bring down the system (it's impossible) or even to save the colonists from what appears to be a mystery epidemic (they are not presented as particularly worth saving, much like the town denizens in High Noon). He, and to some degree Dr. Lazarus as well, want something more fundamental: the ability to look in the mirror and not turn away in disgust. In this case, it means doing the right thing and paying the price even if no one knows, and if it makes no difference to the harsh, uncaring, corrupt world in which they live.

In the image-obsessed modern world, where companies no longer advertise their social responsibility instead of products, and individuals measure their self-worth in the numbers of followers or likes, the idea of wanting to achieve SELF-respect might sound foreign. And that is the reason Outland, for all its flaws, is worth watching.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hollywood In Toto Interview: Dystopian Writing For the Modern World

Last week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Paul Hair, a contributor to Hollywood In Toto website. Our discussion touched on the continuing appeal of dystopian stories, and how some of the themes in my writing differ from the common offerings of the genre.

HiT: How long did you live in the U.S.S.R. and when did you immigrate to the U.S.?
Marina Fontaine: I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. My family waited for 10 years to be allowed to leave the country, and I was 19 when it finally happened in 1987. It wasn’t easy to adjust to the new country, culture and language as an adult, but I am glad it happened this way.
I can truly appreciate what it means to be free since I have experienced the alternative first hand. It
the product book cover fontaine
also allows me to insert little details into my writing that might sound far-fetched, but come directly from my experience. HiT: Reviewers of “The Product” (Superversive Press, 2016) say there are similarities with George Orwell’s “1984.” But they also mention that it’s hopeful. Why did you make it hopeful when that’s not necessarily common with dystopian works?
Fontaine: After publishing my first novel, “Chasing Freedom,” which is set in the near-future United States and was meant to be grounded in the reality of this country, I decided to have a more traditional dystopian setting for my next project.
The society in “The Product” is further gone on the road to totalitarian rule, and more importantly, the population as a whole has no internalized understanding of the concepts of privacy, traditional family or even basic honor and empathy that we all take for granted.

Read the rest of the interview here. And when you're done, please explore the rest of the site for more author interviews, movie reviews and current cultural commentary. Enjoy!