Books and Reading: My Best Reads of 2013

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Being an English  Literature major means that I’ve begun to read some very interesting novels.

My World Lit professor this past term was very fond of European avant-garde works. We read a lot of banned books and fiction written by authors who went against convention, and in some cases, the party line, to tell their stories. I want to share a few of my favorites with you.

  1. The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov.
    • This novel features the devil in Moscow. A thinly-veiled satirical critique of the arts society in Marxist Russia due to Lenin’s rule of “creation for support of the Communist Party” which discouraged anything that wasn’t pro-Communist. This novel is a hoot: it features not only the Devil, but his comrades are a shady jester, a human- sized smart-mouthed cat, and one of the creepiest and weirdest thugs (Azazello, the fanged man in the bowler hat) that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. True to much modernist fiction, there are subplots a-plenty, including one of the writer’s account of Pontius Pilate, a black magic theater which goes awry, and a love story between a married woman (the Margarita) and an author placed in a mental asylum for “going against the grain” (the Master). Margarita will do anything to return to her lover’s side, including making a deal with the devil. A funny and insightful novel full of hidden symbols that expose the hard life for artists in Soviet Russia.
  2. We. Yevgeny Zamyatin. 
    • Thought by many scholars of European literature to be one of the precursors to dystopian fiction, and inspired other books in the genre, such as 1984 by George Orwell. I read this book for my research essay in World Lit on the advice of my instructor, one of the professors I came to admire my first term and who came to know me well enough to know that I would like this bizarre, futuristic science fiction story. We is such a critical expose of Soviet Russia that the book would not be published there until the 1960s. The story takes place in the One State, ruled by a totalitarian figure known as the Benefactor, and aided by a KGB-type secret police called Guardians. The citizens are known ciphers and given a combination of letter and numbers for names. Imagination and dreams are considered mental illness and individuality is punishable by forced lobotomization or death. The protagonist, spaceship engineer D-503, finds himself in turmoil after meeting the revolutionary woman cipher I-330, whom he is sexually obsessed with, despite her rebellious ways. I have to say this is now one of my favorite science fiction books of all time.
  3. All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque.
    • One soldiers intimate account of the horrors of World War 1, this novel was one of the first books targeted in Adolf Hitler’s book-burning campaign after he came to power. It was banned in Germany and elsewhere throughout its history of publication, sometimes for the rough interpretation of war and for language that today we would consider mild. Still, you won’t view war the same way again after reading this novel.
  4. Steppenwolf. Herman Hesse
    • A truly bizarre novel that serves as a critique of the bourgeois society. One of the many novels I read that focused on individuality and freedom of expression. Reading this novel is a treat that has to be experienced. Harry Haller calls himself The Steppenwolf, a wolf of the Steppes, a self-styled gloomy loner who is uncomfortable in society, yet suffers from intense loneliness. He believes that if he can’t find an end to his suffering before he reaches middle-age, he will commit suicide. Then he meets an oddball assortment of characters that put on a Magic Theater just for him (with the warning “Not for everybody. For madmen only”), to show him how to not take himself so seriously. Does it work? Read the novel.
  5. The Street of Crocodiles. Bruno Schulz. 
    • A  beautifully surreal, magical, and bizarrely painted portrait of childhood and memory. The ugliness of industrialization is the underlying message in this Polish masterpiece. This is not a long book, a little over one hundred pages, and if you needed to teach a lesson on what an unreliable narrator is, this is your book. Told through the eyes of a little boy, this story follows his life with his merchant father, who is dead at the end of every chapter yet alive again at the beginning of the next one. It is a tale of trauma and grief seen through the memory of a child. It is a weird, and wonderful little book.
  6. Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow. 
    • Doctorow gives us an unabashed glimpse of life in 1920s America. Early labor movements and American socialism are covered, as is the topic of race relations and the mistreatment of African Americans. Unfortunately, the film is not as good. It focuses on the racial story, but sidesteps the struggles for worker’s rights and the early feminism of characters like Emma Goldman. Nothing wrong with telling the racial story, but the other elements of the book make for a much more complete account of the complexity of the era and its subcultures, early activism and immigrant flavor in a burgeoning melting pot.
  7. Ferdydurke. Witold Gombrowicz. 
    • By far one of the strangest books I have ever read, and I’ve read a lot of strange books this past year. This is also a rare book, you might be able to get a used copy from Amazon, but you’d spend less for a new one. The plot of Ferdydurke (Polish literal translation: Thirty Door Key) is the main character’s denial of adult responsibility and the return to the devil-may-care individuality and irresponsibility of youth. The story begins when 30-year-old Joey is “abducted” by his former schoolmaster and sent back to school. He boards with a socialite family and becomes obsessed with the wealthy daughter. He has various absurd and fantastical adventures with one of his classmates. All in an attempt to deny responsibility. This book is full of funny weird prose, and plots, subplots and insanity. Two seemingly unrelated stories are tucked in, chapters 4 and 5, about  A Child in Filidor, but looking beneath the surface of them, they definitely are part of the whole. This  book wants to kick you in the ‘pupa.’ What does that mean? Read it.
  8. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. ed Mark C. Carnes. 
    • When you watch a Hollywood film that is “supposed” to be about an actual historical event such as Patton, Bonnie and Clyde, or Glory, how do you know if what’s on the screen is what really went down? This book of essays by historians, which was sort of a textbook used in my Film and American History class, explains the importance of knowing the difference between historical fact and creative license. Each essay breaks apart a historical film and tells you what really happened and what the producers added for “entertainment value.”

I recommend these books to any reader’s “to-read” list.

What good books have you read this past year?

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Looking Behind and Looking Ahead

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Graduation from SPC on May 4, 2013

I have not made a post in quite some time. I apologize. When you’re a college student/author/publisher/editor/part-time employee it’s hard to find time to blog.  I am enjoying a nice summer break, though, so I hope to be able to catch up on my posts.

First, let me catch you up on the recent past. After a grueling spring term, I graduated from St. Petersburg College with my Associates of Arts degree on May 4th. It may not seem like a very significant accomplishment to some folks, but it means the world to me. I am an older student (47…not afraid to say it) who was told in high school by a guidance counselor not to waste my time with college. I wish he could have been there as I not only proved that it wasn’t a waste, I did so by graduating summa cum laude with a 3.95 G.P.A. and by being a finalist for one of SPC’s most prestigious academic honors, the Apollo Award. I didn’t win, and that doesn’t matter. Just to be considered for it is a huge accomplishment that will no doubt have a lasting effect on my life.

Ahead lies my goal for a BA in English Literature. I’ve chosen to remain in this area and transfer to the University of South Florida—St. Petersburg campus. I’m not quite ready to move out of Tampa Bay or Florida yet. The St. Pete campus of USF is gorgeous. It sits right on Tampa Bay with lovely water views from nearly every building. I’m looking forward to starting my classes in the fall…one of which includes a literature class on the occult. Hell yes!

Now for the present and future of other aspects of my life.

This summer while I am off I have many goals. Here are a few.

  • Employment. I lost my student job at SPC, so I’ve been working on updating the resume and creating a portfolio. I hope to use it to land my next job.
  • Writing. I have lots of writing goals for this summer.
    • More Blog Posts. That’s a priority. Need to get back into writing more frequent updates and doing the writing prompts again.
    • Parker’s Pygmalion. I’ve decided to upload my Phi Theta Kappa award-winning short story to Smashwords as a free e-book. I have to start doing this indie thing soon anyway, and this is a good story to start with. If it works out, I will likely add it to Kindle on Amazon as well.
    • Kill the Crow. I’ve begun putting the stories into one document. I still need to finish writing and editing a few of the tales for the book, and get it formatted for publishing. Once  that’s done, I will upload it to Amazon…maybe Smashwords again, too.
    • Quellseek: Army of Empaths. I have people who will murder me if I don’t finish this novel,  so I’m working on it. The biggest problem I’m encountering is that the plot bunnies have tortured me with another great idea, one which I’ve started the research on already.
    • The Dragon Siblings. See above. I’ve got Phandara and T’kanyae (a.k.a. Kane Anthony) Morphyrades story starting in my head and I’ve begun a research project on it involving (fictional and real) sorcery and alchemy.  I don’t even have a title for this yet and have no clue about the scope of it, because Quellseek and that series MUST come first. The tale of Rafael Errick, Emory Atarem, Marta Sanis, Alverin Ness, and Wellynd Niles/Well-and-Truly must be brought to a close and that could take 2-3 years to tell it all. The Dragons will happen at some point, though. They’ve sort of already happened in some pre-cursor/same multiverse short stories.
  • Publishing and Editing. 
    • The Were-Traveler. Yes, I also edit and publish a speculative fiction magazine. It’s a rewarding venture I dove into like a madwoman and for the moment I’m enjoying it. Not quite ready to give it up yet. I recently posted the descriptions for up-and-coming issue themes. I’m looking forward to some of the upcoming themes. I may have to pen something myself for the Lovecraft/Poe issue. So tempting.

Life is going to be a challenge for me once school starts again in August. I have decided to attend USF full-time, which means I will have even less time for the other parts of my life than I do now.

Going to do as much this summer as possible…got to get it while the gettin’s good.

Quellseek Excerpt: from ‘A Visitor in the Night’

Excerpt from Quellseek: Army of Empaths. From the end of Chapter 9, A Visitor in the Night (Wellynd Niles, POV). Wellynd wraps up his visit to Bon Pelees Atarem, a strange stopover even for a spy. He received a visitor to his room which left him disturbed (and not a little frustrated!) and saw a curious sight in the early dawn, a person sneaking out of the keep instead of into it! In this excerpt, Wellynd ends his visit by giving Pelees a revelation. 

“Thank you for delivering your message and may all the Unnamed see you home in safety. Doralinda made you up this bundle of food for your journey.” Pelees handed him a packet wrapped in linen.

“Thank you, my lord. A fine woman, your serving lady.”

Pelees looked surprised. “You were speaking with her yesterday.”

“Yes. I was getting a bottle of ghurzin from your storehouse. She is very concerned for you, my bon. As are we all.”

Pelees looked angry. “She spoke out of turn, I fear. I shall have to chastise her.”

“Don’t. Please, my lord. She spoke only out of her worry. She suffers greatly.”

“I know,” Pelees nodded. “She was very attached to Nissen. It hurt her when he quelled my poisoning.”

Now here’s a chance for me to do some good on this visit, at last,’ Wellynd thought.

“Is that what you think, my lord? That she loved your Quell?”

Pelees screwed up his eyes, not comprehending his guest’s meaning. “She must have…the way she cried when he died.”

Wellynd Niles put his heel to his horse and started to trot away, following his other guards and Wallis who were already leaving the stable. Then he stopped and turned to regard Bon Pelees Atarem thoughtfully.

“Hmm…yet her meander was the first one to leave Blackened Falls when you were poisoned, before your Quell was even feeling the full effect of it.” He grinned. “Well…I’ve heard it said love is blind. It must be stupid as well. Beg pardon, my lord. Thank you for your hospitality. Until we meet again.”

Then Wellynd Niles spun his horse around and headed out of the stable, leaving the Bon gaping after him in confusion, before Pelees could feel the full measure of the insult and call him back to have him flogged.

© Astrid Gast - Fotolia

© Astrid Gast – Fotolia

Quellseek Excerpt: Natural Son

One handsome masculine male with nice eyes

Image courtesy of dundanim.

Excerpt from my work in progress novel, “Quellseek: Army of Empaths, Chapter 12: Natural Son:

You are lucky,” Pelees began. “You’ve not had any part in the troubles. You’ve had no Sanis or one of their knights popping out of the bushes to put a blade to your throat. You haven’t had to marry one of them to try and forge a truce.”

“Thank the Thousand! I don’t want a Quell wiping my ass,” joked Alverin. “And the truce is a gods-damned farce. You know that, right?”

“Nobody knows it more than me, brother. I wish I’d been born the bastard.”

Alverin’s smile slid into a bitter, sour frown and his eyes grew dark. “Don’t wish for such a thing. I would not wish it on my greatest foe.”

“I can think of a few foes I’d wish it on. Father should ask the king to give you his name…that’s been done before. With some of Rauling’s whelps.”

Alverin laughed. He knew Pelees was serious, but he could not stay so depressed in his brother’s company. “You love me not, brother. All I want is a quiet, simple life. I have no ambition. As a bastard, I don’t expect to be a great force in the world. I leave that to you, my Bon brother.”

Quellseek Excerpt: Quellseek Comes to Endicott

The character Rafael on the cover of “Quellseek: Army of Empaths.”

The following is an excerpt from “Quellseek: Army of Empaths,” the novel I’m in the process of writing. The excerpt is taken from the opening of the fourteenth chapter: “Quellseek Comes to Endicott” and the POV character is Toleus, the brutal Quell from the Fortress at Haverton. In this chapter, Toleus and the Seekers have arrived on Quellseek to the little village of Endicott in the Hungry Hills. The brutal practice of outing the Quell members of the village begins:

Fire was roaring on a makeshift Plentim bier, armed men were placing pokers into its hot, raging maw. People were running in all directions, screaming; men pulling their wives along by their arms, and mothers in their turn, pulling younger children or cradling infants and toddlers protectively against their breasts. Panic was slowly turning to order, though, as the villagers soon realized the entrances and exits of the town were effectively blocked, guarded by solemn men clad either in all-gray or all-black. Men with drawn swords and angry eyes.

Toleus stepped out of the chaos and shouted an order.

“Everyone under the age twenty-two stand off to one side! Do it! Now!”

It took several minutes for his order to be completely carried out. Some parents were reluctant to part with their children; or in the case of young couples, who clung to one another while being prodded with the ends of swords into the Test group, refusing to let go of each other… which was fine with Toleus…the Seekers would know that either could be tried for the others Testing.

Last into the fray of onlookers were a father, mother, and their teenage son, herded by four Seekers from the direction where the less-populated area of the village lay.

“Merchant. Had to beat down his door,” called one of the Seekers to Toleus. One of the other Seekers grabbed the boy by the scruff of his tunic and hauled him into the group of those who had not been born during the time of the last Quellseek.

“Rafael!” the woman cried.

‘Mother. Good,’ thought Toleus. ‘We’ll work on her first, when comes his Testing.’

When they were all sorted, Toleus stepped up to the fire and removed a poker from the flames, its tip glowing yellow-red and hot.

“All right, now.” Toleus said, with a menacing grin. “Who’s first?”

Quellseek Songs: Emery, Pt. 2 (Lovers In A Dangerous Time)

Bona Emery Atarem – Image by Dmitriy Kapitonenko

I’m getting ready to write Bona Emery’s second POV chapter, tentatively titled “Desean.”

She’s made the journey in safety to her brother’s keep at Blackened Falls, and is greeted by him in his study. Bon Pelees has a new Quell with him, a man called Aleros. Aleros was sent to replace Nissen, who recently died for Pelees, but Aleros has his face hidden behind a hood. Remembering her own ordeal with hooded knights, Emery becomes suspicious. Bon Pelees tries his best to ease his sister into what will surely be a shock for her: Desean never confided in her his true nature—the fact that he was Quellmade—a clone produced by the Quell Order.

Once more, Emery is forced to relive the nightmare of her captivity and Desean’s death at the hands of the five hooded and unidentified knights.  And once more, she refuses to answer the question, even when her brother asks her: “How did you manage to escape?

But that’s a question to be answered inside the pages of Quellseek, my friends.

As Emery continues to brood over Desean’s death, this song comes to my mind. It’s a song for star-crossed lovers like Emery and Desean.

Quellseek Excerpt: The Servant of the Never-Lord

© Astrid Gast - Fotolia

© Astrid Gast – Fotolia

The following is an excerpt from “Quellseek: Army of Empaths,” the novel I’m in the process of writing for NaNoWriMo this year. The excerpt is taken from the opening of the fourth chapter: “The Servant of the Never-Lord” and the POV character is Wellynd Niles, the advisor/spy of Daleen Brax, an un-lord land-holder who owns the lands neighboring Bon Pelees Atarem’s keep. In this chapter, Niles pays Bon Pelees a visit, carrying a message from his master.

“You must get there, and get there soon,” Daleen Brax had commanded him, and so here he was, before the keep gates of Bon Pelees Atarem, sealed envelope from his master safely tucked away inside his leather riding vest. Brax had not counted on the difficulty they would have getting in to see the Bon nor envisioned that they might encounter other travelers along the way.

The least you could have done for me, my kind and generous master, was to send one of your own meanders ahead of me to prepare these suspicious louts, he thought sarcastically. He waved his hand majestically at the watchtower atop the tall outer wall of the keep.

“Take your time, Atarem. Alert your serving ladies, Atarem. Niles has ridden a long, long way and is in sore need of a warm bath, hot food, and a hotter woman.”

The knight mounted next to him laughed heartily as did the other three armed guards. The hooded man in Quell robes they’d picked up along the way was still and silent.

“Maybe the Bona Atarem will attend to you. They say she’s not fond of her husband,” joked the knight.

Wellynd Niles smirked. “Not fond of him?! She’s a Sanis, man! And he’s Atarem. I’m surprised either of them have lived this past eight months without slitting the other’s throat. I don’t know what madness our majesty was suffering from when he suggested this sham of a marriage as a term of the blood-feud truce. And as for me, I’d rather bed an taiga iceman’s wife!”

“Comes down to the same thing, doesn’t it? Sanis’ sure are cold people, for all they live in the warmest clime on Esphaera.”

Niles laughed. “Ha! You’ve spoken well-and-truly, sir! My fair boyhood was spent in these parts and northern women know how to keep a man warm.”

The knight grinned. “They do at that. Perhaps those serving women will remind us of that.”

“Alas, the Bona Atarem I wouldn’t mind sharing a bed fur with is not at Blackened Falls, but Hook Harbor. Now, there is a fine woman, just come of age. But…to my dismay, my master is determined to have her.” He brushed a strand of his long, black hair out of his eyes and looked up at the watchtower again, irritated at the long wait.

“I’m sorry for your loss, sir.”

“Sir?! Do I look like a gods-damned knight to you? I’ve told you half-a-hunnerd times, call me Niles, or Wellynd, or if it suits you, one of those other endearing epithets that the rest of them use…just not to my face. That would spoil the joke on me, don’t you think?”

The knight chuckled. “It would indeed, Niles.”

“Now…” he said, looking again to the watchtower and high keep walls. “Where the hell is the sentry? Doesn’t someone see that we’re down here waiting to be let in? Don’t they have a knocker or bell or somewhat to let them know they have company?”

“We could have sent Rochester.”

Niles reached out and rubbed the head of the meander that rested  in front of him on the pommel of his horse’s saddle. The greenish-brown lizard unfurled and shook out its sheer wings.

“We couldn’t have sent him. He’s still recovering from that pellet wound. I’m just glad my stableboy was there to see him come down.”

“No idea who shot at him?”

“None. No Atarem’s around…not many left. Same for Sanis’. They’ve just about done for each other. A spy of Rauling, perhaps, but that’s a long guess. Rauling is too far off. My guess is that some of the hands were mucking about with their slings and thought he was a wild meander. Now, not a one of them has the balls to own up to it.”

Finally a man appeared along the top of the wall looking down at them.

“Who’s calling?’ he cried.

“Wellynd Niles. I bring the word of my master, Daleen Brax.”

The man turned his head as if he were speaking to someone inside the watchtower and then faced them again, this time aiming a crossbow at them.

“Well…I never.”

The knight beside Niles snorted with laughter. “Never, my friend? Never?”

“Oh ho! So we’re friends now, are we? I’m a dangerous man to call a friend, Sir Wallis.”

“I can see that,” Wallis chuckled.

Cover of “Quellseek: Army of Empaths.”