Thursday, December 28, 2017

Globalization: The Death of Culture?

A Drama-free Zone

This is a big topic, and if I wanted to invite the kind of drama that inevitably comes with the discussion of controversial issues, there's a heck of a lot I could say about it. But, while I love a healthy debate, I know that in the online world debates can turn nasty in a hurry, and I don't need all that nastiness in my life, so I'm going to steer clear of some of the more troubling facts associated with globalization's impact on culture. If you want to read more, just google it. Plenty of people have taken the time to share their thoughts on the subject.

My focus is going to be on one tiny way in which this issue has impacted my own life. And, as I said, it's tiny. Miniscule. Hardly a blip on the cultural appropriation radar. And that's where I want to keep it. Like I said, I love a good debate but hate all the drama that goes along with it. So I'm avoiding the drama.
A Transatlantic Christmas

Last week's post was about the movie Tommy and its impact on my childhood. I mentioned that I watched the movie so many times when I was very small that I almost feel like I've been to some of the locations shown, even though I've never visited England. Well, there was one scene in particular that confused me when I was growing up. I suppose it was so very English that my little American brain couldn't quite process it. Here's the scene in question:

Image result for tommy christmas scene

Wanna know what confused me so darn much? you see those paper hats they're all wearing? Do you know what those are? If you're English, of course you know what those are. If you're American you might, but then again you might not. If you're American, you may be just as confused as I was watching this movie as a tiny tyke. 

For those of you who may not know, the hats come out of Christmas crackers. What's a Christmas cracker? It's a little thing that looks like this: 

Image result for christmas crackers

If you want to read about their history, follow this link. When you pull a Christmas cracker apart it makes a popping sound and a few goodies fall out of it. They are famous for containing cheap toys, corny jokes, and paper crowns. It's the paper crowns you see in the scene from Tommy, though I've never gotten a crown that fancy from an actual Christmas cracker. One must assume those were custom made for the movie.

Okay, so I watched Tommy all my life and never understood why people were wearing paper hats in the Christmas scene. But then there was a lot I didn't understand about Tommy, so I chalked it up to typical Ken Russell weirdness. 

I reached my twenties without knowing anything about Christmas crackers. After all, the only place I had seen the little hats was in what was arguably a very strange movie, so I just assumed that was the only place they existed. Then I saw the movie Billy Elliot. I tried to get a picture of the Christmas scene from that movie, but couldn't find one. But I think you know what I'm going to say about it. If you guessed that Billy and his family are all wearing paper hats while enjoying their Christmas dinner, you'd be correct. 

So. My interest was officially piqued. What were these funny hats English people liked to wear during the holiday season? I needed to know, and because I now had access to the internet--a luxury which was unavailable when I was growing up--I was able to find out. And once I found out, I just had to order a box of crackers to open with my husband on Christmas morning. And, again, because of the internet I was able to do just that.

Wanna know something strange? Since I've started buying Christmas crackers (they've been a yearly tradition in our home for about seventeen years now) I've begun to see them everywhere. Yes, there have been a few years when I've had to order them online because I couldn't find any in the stores near my house. But sometimes I do see them. One year I bought them from Sears. Last year I got them at World Market. I actually remember one year, when I was teaching elementary school full time, one of the teachers at my school bought about three boxes of them and gave them out to her class on the last day before Christmas break. 

The Death of Cultural Identity?

So...if Americans know what Christmas crackers are and even open them during their Christmas celebrations with their families, does that mean they are no longer an English tradition? Is it weird that my very American children have opened them every year for as long as they can remember? That they look forward to reading the cheesy jokes and laughing at the lame toys? That they say they'll never wear the hats because it's just too embarrassing, but will still put them on for a least a couple of seconds while we're opening presents on Christmas morning? Is it a little sad that, by bringing this tradition into my own home, I've made it somewhat less quintessentially English than it used to be? Is it sad that my children will never watch Tommy or Billy Elliot or any other English movie which takes place at Christmastime and wonder why everyone is wearing paper crowns? Is it sad that they will never associate the paper crowns with England and English culture because they've grown so accustomed to the tradition in their own home? 

Have I committed a grave act of cultural appropriation? Is this why people are so concerned about cultural appropriation? Because if we blend all cultures together, pretty soon there will be no cultural distinctions left? 

Or should I just stop worrying, put on my paper crown, and enjoy my Christmas? 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Because Nothing Says Childhood Like Ken Russell

Yeah...I have pretty obscure taste in movies.

Never heard of Ken Russell? Not a lot of people have. Altered States is probably his most mainstream movie, and if you've ever seen it you know it's not all that mainstream. It's also not a kids' movie, and neither is anything else this director ever made. Nevertheless, he happened to direct my favorite movie of all time. One that has been my favorite since...well, since I was too young to remember. What movie is that? Why, Tommy, of course.

Image result for tommy movie

My Mother's Legacy

My mother was born in the mid fifties, so she was just the right age for Beatlemania when it took the world by storm back in 1964. But while her love of the Beatles did stand the test of time and persists to this day, they only held first place in her heart for a short time. A couple of years later Roger Daltrey's sexy voice knocked John, Paul, George, and Ringo from that pedestal in much the same way that Roger Daltrey's talents at pinball knocked Elton John from his oversized shoes in Tommy.

You should know that I believe every situation in life can be summed up by referencing a scene from Tommy.

So my mom is a lifelong fan of The Who. Which means their music provided the soundtrack of my formative years. One of my earliest memories is of me sitting on my bed looking at my bedroom window. It's nighttime, so I can see nothing outside. Only my reflection in the window pane. I'm about four years old and I know, because I can see it in the reflection, that my hair is in pig tails. To my left is a little plastic record player, the kind all kids had back in the early eighties. And what's playing on the record player? Tommy. The album, obviously, not the movie. 

Image result for tommy album

It was the first album I ever owned, and I played it all the time. I don't remember when I saw the movie for the first time, but I do know I was young. So young I didn't even know what it was about. I just knew I recognized the songs from my favorite album.

A Typical Eighties Childhood

Binge watching wasn't a thing in the eighties, but those of us who were kids back then sure didn't know that. We didn't have access to box sets of our favorite TV shows, so we binge watched movies instead. A typical summer afternoon involved spending a few hours in the pool, followed by laying our towels out on the floor so we could watch our favorite movie for the fourth or fifth time that week. Movies which our parents had recorded off of HBO, or possibly one of the other channels. If it was another channel, that was a pain because it meant we had to fast forward through the commercials. 

Favorites among me and my friends included The NeverEnding Story and Poltergeist. There was also a Cyndi Lauper concert we used to watch over and over again. In the late eighties we all fell in love with Dirty Dancing. But when my friends had all gone home and I was by myself, I watched Tommy.

Honestly, I've seen the darn movie so many times I think I have every frame memorized. 

Some Questions Answered...Well, Partially

A while back I wrote a post entitled What's Up With the Crazy Emotions I Feel Watching Early Supernatural Episodes? In it I described this feeling of nostalgia that I get when I watch the first two seasons of that show. I offered some theories as to what I was feeling, and I think I may have been right about some of it, but still felt like I hadn't uncovered all the answers yet. 

The biggest example of the problem was the penultimate episode of season two. First of all, the weather must have been pretty crappy all through the filming of that episode, because it's raining in almost every scene. But there's one scene in particular where Dean and Bobby are standing on the side of the road with a map laid out on the hood of the car. They look to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and it's raining. Not enough that you can see it on camera, but there's a large puddle on the opposite side of the road, and you can see the raindrops landing in it. 

I wanted to get a picture of the scene to show you, but couldn't find one.

Anyway, the first time I watched that scene I found it so beautiful I thought I might cry. But I also felt as though I had stood right in the spot where Dean and Bobby were standing. Which was impossible. So why did I feel that way?

Rewatching Tommy last week, after not having watched it in probably five or six years, may have provided part of the answer. You see, I watched that movie so many times as a child I almost feel like I've been to the locations depicted there. That's what happens when you combine a beloved movie with the amazing powers of a child's imagination. Though I've lived in the US all my life, and the two trips I've made across the Atlantic took me to Germany, not England, some small part of my soul grew up in the environs of Portsmouth (where the movie was filmed). Not the real Portsmouth, of course. The Portsmouth I saw when I watched Tommy (and if you've seen any Ken Russell movies, you know they rarely have anything to do with reality). But my point is, I saw that movie so many times, at such a young age, that I almost feel I've actually been to the places shown. 

And there are a few scenes...

First there's the scene where Tommy wanders off and ends up in a junk yard (again, I tried to get a picture, but couldn't find one). Well, this is not related to that beautiful scene from Supernatural, but there is a connection. Because what does Bobby do for a living? He runs a junk yard. 

Then there's the ending sequence from Tommy's Holiday Camp. This is the best picture of it I could find:

Image result for tommy's holiday camp movie scene big pinballs

Then there's this scene which we see during the song Sensation:

Image result for tommy movie scene sensation

What do all of these have in common? They are all filmed in rural locations where the ground is wet from recent rains. Just like my favorite scenes from my favorite two seasons of Supernatural.

Think I'm trying too hard to make connections which aren't really there? I wouldn't blame you for thinking that, but I know what I felt when I rewatched Tommy the other day, and I really think I'm on to something here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The 5 Best Indie Books I Read In 2017

I added the review feature to my blog a year ago in the hopes of helping out some of my fellow authors as well as getting the word out that there are some great indie books out there that readers should take a chance on. The format was for a monthly feature, which means that I've now read and reviewed twelve great indie books. Of those twelve, five really stood out as being something special, so I've decided to list them all in one post.

Number 5

Reading the blurb for this book made me hesitant to pick it up. The premise just seemed so over-the-top. But what I've discovered again and again is that it's not the premise which makes a book good or bad, it's the execution, and this is a well-executed book. I love the in-depth glimpse we get of the details of Penny's world. Not just the details of her life as a vicar, but also of her undying love for Doctor Who. If you're not a Doctor Who fan, don't be put off by all that. It doesn't detract from the plot. Even if you don't understand the numerous references, you can still follow what's going on in the story. And if you are a Doctor Who fan, then reading this book will give you a nice little surprise on almost every page.

Number 4

Smugglers and Scones by Morgan C. Talbot

This is one of those books with such a rich and beautiful setting you feel like you're really there. The descriptions of the old house, and the history that goes along with it, had me wondering if it were based on a real place. I actually googled it, if you want to know the truth. If this bed and breakfast was real, I wanted to book a room there (it's fictional, alas!). This one took me by surprise because cozy mysteries are not usually my thing, but a cozy mystery set in such a unique and intriguing location drew me right in and made me want to keep reading.

Number 3

Under Midnight Lights by Bree M. Lewandowski

This one's a sequel, so I won't say too much about it. Only that it's a romance, but it's also a beautiful story about a young dancer trying to make it in the competitive world of professional ballet.

Number 2

Under Winter Lights  by Bree M. Lewandowski

The first installment in the Under Lights Duet. It was also the first book I reviewed on my blog. It's another one that took me by surprise, because I didn't think I'd ever want to review a romance. I'm generally not one for formulaic fiction, so if the plot unfolds in too predictable a way, I'm usually turned off by it. I was far from turned off by this book. But, of course, it wasn't the romance that drew me in. It was the ballet. The descriptions are so beautiful and they made me feel like I was really there on stage with Martina as she danced. This was a book I truly did not want to put down, even after I'd turned the last page.

Number 1

Home to Roost by Chauncey Rogers

Definitely my favorite of all the indie books I've read this year, and high up on the list of my favorites in general. It's the story of a little rooster named Brad, but this is no carefree romp through the barnyard. The story is dark and it's sad and it leaves you with more questions than answers, but in a good way. The characters are so well-drawn you almost forget you're reading about a group of chickens in a hen house. I'm putting it at number one because I appreciate how the author is not afraid to drag the reader into some really dark places. That's an aspect that is missing from the other, lighter books on this list.

All right, you've got my list of the five best indie books I've discovered this year. What are you waiting for? Go read some of them! 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: December 2017

Appointed by Fate by Skye McNeil.

This is not my usual genre, so it took me a little while to get into it. When it comes to books that fall into the category of Romantic Suspense, I generally prefer the story to focus more on the suspense part and less on the romance part. But this book offered up something a little different in the romance department, and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it. 

First of all, I loved Cameron. He's the kind of rough around the edges guy I would never dream of dating in real life (I'm a nerd, I get along with fellow nerds, and I married a fellow nerd), but to sit at a safe distance and observe him in the pages of a book was quite the pleasant experience. I was totally routing for him and Joci to get together in the end.

But here's the thing...I wasn't sure if they were going to get together, and that's what I mean when I say this book offers something a little different. I know romance readers expect to get that lovely HEA at the end of the story, but honestly, that guaranteed HEA is one of the things that typically puts me off romance. I want to read a book that makes me feel invested in the characters. And once I'm invested, I want to worry about them. I want to feel that there is a real danger of things not working out in the end. That's what propels me to keep reading and find out how everything goes down. If I know it's all going to end in sunshine and rainbows no matter what happens along the way, it lessens the emotional impact of the book for me.

This book kept me guessing. Why? Because Cameron is not the only man in Joci's life, and for a good chunk of it I truly did not know which man she would end up with. I hoped it would be Cameron, but I couldn't be sure. For a while I wasn't even sure if Cameron was the one I was supposed to be routing for. That aspect of not knowing what was coming made this romance an engaging read for me.

In addition to a story that had me enthralled, I should also say that this is an impeccably well-written book. The editing is spot-on, the story never feels rushed or draggy, and the writing style did...well...what writing is supposed to do: kept me in the story without distracting me with odd sentences or contrived metaphors. This book is highly recommended for fans of Romantic Suspense as well as anyone who is tired of the same old, same old when it comes to romance in general. 

You can pick up a copy on Amazon.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Double Standards For Indie vs Traditionally Published Books?

Well...that title could open up about fifteen different cans of worms, and they are all worthy of being opened and brought out into the light. But I have a specific can I want to open today. A specific question I want to ask.

Do Indie Authors Expect Their Books to be Judged Differently Than Traditionally Published Books?

I could also word the question this way: Do Indie authors want their books to be judged differently? Ever asked that question before? Ever wondered what the answer might be?

You should know that I'm not trying to fling any accusations out there that I don't think will come back and land on me. I know this one will land on me. That's why I'm throwing it out there. 

My Story

This question goes back to one of the first critical reviews I ever got. It was three stars and the reviewer pointed out how she didn't like one of the characters and how the pace lagged at times. Another three star review for the same book stated that the backstory is revealed too slowly and that the reviewer wished more information had been given out right at the beginning because it would have made the book easier to follow in the first few chapters. I could list others, but they would all be in the same vein.

Here's the thing. I was upset that reviewers were giving my book three stars for things that had nothing to do with the quality of the book and everything to do with personal opinion. Didn't they know my book was self-published? Didn't they know it was also self-edited? Didn't they know there was a stigma attached to such things and they, as reviewers, held in their hands the power to erase that stigma by telling the world about this well-edited, grammatically correct book they had just read? How dare they dock stars for such a frivolous thing as personal opinion!?!

More Than Just My Story

This has not happened to me yet, but a common reason for a book getting a low rating from a reviewer is that the book is not the reviewer's preferred genre. So they may complain that a horror book is too scary. An erotic book has too much sex. A Christian book is too preachy. And if the authors of these books are indie authors, you will often find them complaining to their trusted colleagues that the reviewer shouldn't have picked up the book in the first place if it wasn't for them. Or at the very least their review should have made allowances for those things that make the genre what it is.

A Double Standard?

Fifty Shades of Grey was the first erotic book I ever read. Wanna know what my least favorite part of it was? The sex. Why? Because I wanted more story. I wanted to find out all about Christian's traumatic past and became increasingly frustrated every time he and Ana were in a serious conversation, and juicy details were on the cusp of coming out into the open, and then suddenly I was inundated by other types of juicy details, and other things (namely boobs and penises) came out into the open instead. And then I had to read about them having sex for the next four pages. Seriously, all I wanted was to know what happened to poor Christian when he was a kid. Couldn't the author just cut about two thirds of the sex scenes, then do a fade to black on the ones she left intact? The answer? Of course she couldn't, because her genre was erotic fiction and to write erotica you have to include a good deal of sex. 

So...had I written a review for that book, should I have glossed over the fact that I was annoyed by all the sex? Would it have been an honest review if I had written it that way? 

Of course, Fifty Shades is a bestseller that is now a popular movie series, so a few bad reviews will hardly kill the author's career. But what about a struggling indie author? When you've only got twenty or so reviews so far for your book, a handful of critical ones can look really bad. Should readers take that into account when reviewing them, and give star ratings based on objective things like grammar and writing style, as opposed to expressing their subjective, though honest, opinions of the story itself? 

I'd love to hear some other opinions on this, so feel free to drop your two cents into the comment section.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Question of Identity

If you're interested in the backstory of this post, I will direct you to a couple of posts I wrote which relate to this topic. You can read the history of my search for a career, and with it, my identity here and here.

Something you should know going in to this post. I'm one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason. I also believe in God. That's wavered over the years, but never really changed. Even in my moments of deepest doubt, the closest I've ever come to walking away from my belief in God was the day I thought to myself, "Maybe God's trying to tell me he doesn't exist." So, faith's not going anywhere any time soon. And considering that I'm now thirty-eight years old, it's probably a safe bet that it's not going anywhere ever.

If Everything Happens For a Reason

When you believe everything happens for a reason, you spend your life in constant search of your "purpose." If you're a Christian, you might read The Purpose Driven Life. I certainly did, though my commentary on the pros and cons of that book are beyond the scope of this blog post. And if you have any religious beliefs at all, even if you're what they call "spiritual, but not religious", you probably spend a lot of time wondering how you can use your calling to serve God.

Well, that's me. Like I said, those beliefs have wavered from time to time, but never gone away completely. And now that I'm near the middle point of my life, I think I can safely conclude that I'll always feel this way. And what do I feel? I feel that God made me the way I am and he gave me certain interests and talents and abilities and he wants me to use those talents out in the world. No, I don't think I'm some kind of "chosen one". I think God feels this way about everyone, myself included.

When God Doesn't Make Sense

When we providential types encounter hardships, it wounds us deeply because we wonder how God could allow this to happen. And sometimes we can't even fathom why God would allow these things to happen. Here's my story.

If you read the posts I linked to above, you know I used to direct a church choir. And after what I've just told you, you've probably figured out that I viewed that choir as my purpose. My calling. Here's a little more of the backstory.

I was thirteen when I decided to study music in college. At the time, my career goal was to direct a high school band. Well, I went on to grow and change and my goals changed with me. I set my sights on church choir for a number of reasons, but there's one that's pertinent to this topic. I wanted to direct church choir because I believed God had given me a love of music and wanted me to take that talent and give it back to him. So I did. I took my musical knowledge and I used it in church. Then I lost that job.

Afterward, my life spiraled out of control. I had lost my purpose. Worse. I'd been rejected by God himself. I had no idea where to go after that, so I kind of bumbled around and tried different things, all the while looking for that "calling". The one I thought I'd found when I took the church job. Well, I had obviously been mistaken about that calling, so I needed to find another. If God didn't want me working in the church, I needed to figure out where he did want me.

Well, a few years later I thought I'd found it when I got a job teaching music in a Christian school. And, though I won't tell the story because it's long, the circumstances that led to that teaching position were, indirectly and after quite a few forks in the road, the result of me losing the choir job. I was so excited. Providence was at work again! Now, surely, I was on the path God intended.

Then I lost the teaching job (basically, I was very shy, which made parents feel I was unapproachable, and since this was a private school and the parents paid the bills as well as our salaries, keeping the them happy was everything). So I was derailed from my path once again.

So, again, I had that feeling that God had rejected me. I shook my angry fists at heaven and demanded to know why he gave me a love for music if he didn't want me using it. I even wrote this poem about it:

A man picked up some clay one day
And held it in his hand
And he sculpted a little songbird
The fairest in the land

He gave his songbird wings of gold
And eyes of sapphire blue
In all the world no one had seen
A bird of such a hue

And he loved his little bird so much
He kept it in a cage
Protecting it from evil things
From envy, lust, and rage

But the bird wondered, "Why did you make me
If you won't let me fly
And must I stay here always
A prisoner until I die?"

At Christmastime the man declared,
"A gift I'll give my bird!
A singing voice the likes of which
The world has never heard.

And then my bird will sing to me
All pretty in its cage
A lovely song to bring me joy
When I reach old age."

And he loved his little bird so much
He kept it locked away
And brought it out to sing to him
For an hour every day

But the bird kept on wondering
About so many things
But mainly what the purpose was
Of a bird that cannot sing

And the bird became so lonely
Sitting there on the shelf
While the man never let it sing
For anyone but himself

And as the songbird sat alone
Its colors began to dim
And the man didn't know why his bird
No longer sang for him

And he loved his little bird so much
He let it fly away
So others could enjoy its song
Each and every day

But the bird never stopped wondering
About the one who'd loved it so long
So it returned just once a day
To sing the man a song

And so I sat. And I wondered. And I asked, "Why?" And no answers came.

An Earlier Calling

I think being a writer was my first real career goal. I'd written little picture book stories from the time I was old enough to hold a crayon. I wrote a poem, the first of many, when I was nine. I made various attempts at writing full length novels throughout my childhood, and finally managed to finish one when I was twelve. Poetry was my therapy as I dealt with all that teen angst during my high school years. And then...I stopped writing. I don't know why. It just didn't seem important any more. Music was my career. I needed to focus on that. 

But then, of course, the writing came back and took center stage in my life. And it's got me this my calling? Is this my purpose? 

A Lifetime of Experiences

I've explained my musical frustrations to you. I've had other frustrations as well. Other hobbies and interests that could have turned into careers but just never did. One of those is dance. I think I've blogged about this in the past as well, but basically I didn't discover my love of dance until I was in my twenties, and didn't start to get serious about it until my thirties. And two years ago, at the age of thirty-six, I signed up for my first ballet class. That's right, I started taking ballet at the age when most ballerinas retire. What was I thinking?

Well, I certainly wasn't going to go pro. You have to train your entire life for something like that and, like I said, most dancers my age are retired. But I thought I could at least get good at it. 

What I discovered is that ballet requires our bodies to move in such unnatural ways that if you haven't studied from a young age, there are things you'll probably never do. It's less to do with being too old than with not having spent years training your joints to go in all those convoluted directions. And while I, courtesy of the fact that I teach Yoga, have a fair degree of flexibility, there are things which ballet requires of me that my body will likely never do.

I became pretty depressed about all this for a while. After all, what was the purpose of studying ballet if I was never going to move across the stage with all the grace and poise of a professional? 

An Aha! Moment

I had become so discouraged about the whole ballet thing that I took about six months off. Just didn't go to class because after all, what was the point? But I can't go too long without dance before I start to feel that tug on my heart, and I finally felt it this week. I went back to ballet, and while I wasn't performing any better than I had been for the past year, I enjoyed myself. Even learned a couple of new things. And something occurred to me.

What if what God made thirty-eight years ago was not a dancer? Not a musician. Not an actress or a filmmaker or any of those other things I've tried to be over the years. What if what God made was a writer? And all those other things? They're just fodder for stories. Opportunities for me to follow the time honored advice of writing what I know, while constantly expanding that list of Things I Know. 

Could it be? Have I found what I was meant to do all along? Or is this another seat on the merry-go-round? Another stopping point on the journey that is my life.

We'll see. But in the meantime, I'm going to dance. And I'm going to sing. And at the end of the day, I'm going to write about it. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Redeeming Damien: How 70s Cinema Altered Our Perception of a Name

How a Decade Defined a Name

Two iconic movies about the devil came out of the 1970s. Both featured a character named Damien. While most of the world remembers the Damien from The Omen, I turn more toward the Damien in The Exorcist. I wish more people would do the same, and so I want to spend a few minutes redeeming that name. 

How Damien Has Affected Me

If you're familiar with my books, you may know that I named the main character in Primogénito Damian. Why did I change the spelling? Long story which I won't get into here. I just want to talk about the name in general. But I will tell you that I had just finished reading The Exorcist when I started writing Primogénito and had fallen madly in love with Father Karras, whose first name is Damien. Madly in love with a priest, you say? A little creepy, you say? Maybe, but he's such a great character (much more so in the book than in the movie) that I couldn't help myself. And that death scene ever. The one in the book, not the movie. I mean, okay, the scene in the movie is pretty great, but you don't know nearly as much about Father Karras in the movie, so his death doesn't have the same depth of meaning it has in the book. 

Anyway...long story short...I named the main character of my second book after my favorite character from my favorite horror movie/book. Just with a small spelling change.

What's In a Name?

Like most people who came of age later than 1976, I first heard the name Damien when I watched The Omen. And, like most people from my generation and the generation that came right before mine, I quickly came to associate the name with the devil. After all, it was the only place I'd heard the name, so of course I formed that association. Who wouldn't? 

Yes, I'd seen The Exorcist as well, but the Damien in that movie goes by Father Karras most of the time. His first name is only mentioned occasionally, and I, being a child when I watched it, was not able to figure out what they were saying. But now I know. His name is Damien, and that is significant.

Long before Damien was the name of the Antichrist, there was a Saint Damian (spelled the way I spelled it in my book...yay!) who is revered by the Catholic Church as a Christian martyr. But he's far from being the most famous carrier of that name whose picture graces the walls of the Catholic Hall of Fame. There is another who came later and who, I believe, was the inspiration for the character of the same name in The Exorcist.

I won't give you the whole history of Saint Damien of Molokai, often known simply as Father Damien. If you're interested, you can read more about him here. The short version is that he was a Belgian priest who went to work at a leper colony in Hawaii and stayed there until he finally died of the disease sixteen years later. 

I have no doubt that this Damien inspired the character of Father Karras in The Exorcist. In fact, if you read the book, he is even mentioned by Father Merrin in a scene close to the end. And what inevitably happens at the end of The Exorcist? Father Karras finds himself possessed by the same demon who had possessed Regan, much as the real Father Damien found himself infected by the same disease which afflicted those he had come to serve. 

But the meaning goes even deeper. The ending of The Exorcist is a beautiful depiction of what Jesus was talking about in John 15:13 when he said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." A popular controversy surrounding The Exorcist is the debate over whether Christians should watch it. Billy Graham is famous for warning that "The devil is in every frame of this film." Well, maybe. There certainly is a whole lot of the devil in that film, but there's God as well. And in the end, God wins. No, it's not a happy ending with sunshine and rainbows and everyone going back to their perfect lives, but it's a satisfying ending. The devil is defeated. But what happens to Father Karras is even more significant. A lot of this is left out of the movie, but the book delves deeply into the doubt and the fear and the disillusionment he's grappling with. In the end it is  strongly implied that, through death, he finally receives the answers he's been seeking. He finally finds peace. So you see, it is a happy ending after all. And it's all because of a man named Damien.

Does My Damian Measure Up? I dare give out spoilers about my book? Hmm...maybe not, but I'll say that I believe my Damian does absolutely measure up to the standard set by those who have gone before. Much like his namesake in The Exorcist, Damian Fuentes must grapple with evil forces which threaten to harm the people he cares about. In order to defeat that evil, he must invite it into himself. He also has to make a pretty profound sacrifice toward the end. So I think I chose his name wisely. I think he wears it well.

So let's remember all the good Damiens in the world and just forget about that pesky little devil-child (but by all means watch The Omen because it's a great movie, regardless of the harm it's done to what was once a beautiful and meaningful name). 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: November 2017

A Bargain in Silver by Josie Jaffrey.

I never would have thought I'd be choosing a vampire romance to feature on my blog, but this one captured my attention and I decided to give it a chance.

Okay, so we've all heard of the vampire romance and we've all heard of the zombie apocalypse. Have you ever seen the two combined into one story? That's what this book does, and that unique premise was what made me decide to read it. It sounds over-the-top and unrealistic, but the execution of the story is handled well enough that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And when the details of said zombie/vampire apocalypse start rolling in...well, that's when I got hooked.

I've said it over and over, but I'll say it again here. Nine times out of ten, it's the world building that sells me on a story. The world of A Bargain in Silver is so well-drawn and so intricate that I wanted to keep reading just to find out more juicy details. What are the weepers? Are the Silver really vampires? Why are Drew's eyes different from those of the other Silver? All through the book, these little tidbits of world-building are expertly woven into the framework of the story, making it a truly fascinating read.

The ending was satisfying. I've also said in the past that romance is not my usual genre. I don't typically go for fiction that is too formulaic because I like to be surprised. Well, this ending managed to surprise me. Not because it was any kind of "trick" ending, but because of the world-building details I've already mentioned. Things that are kept sort-of mysterious throughout the story are explained at the end and everything falls into place nicely. There was one tiny detail that may have been a small plot hole, but since it comes at the very end I won't give it away. And since this is the first book in a series, I'm hopeful that in subsequent volumes, this small inconsistency will be adequately explained and will not present any problems. 

So, yeah...a vampire romance featured on my website. Who knew? But this is one that I think is well worth the time it takes to read it, so if you're curious about it, please head on over to Amazon and check it out.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Is The Exorcist Still the Scariest Movie Ever Made?

There are two answers to that question.

The first is: It depends on how you define "scary".

And the second is: Yes. It is. It absolutely is.

How do you define scary?

I have a rule by which I evaluate all horror movies. It can really be boiled down to one question. How soon do they let you see the monster? In my book, the longer you have to wait to see the monster, the scarier the movie. 

Take the Halloween franchise. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes the official title of the first slasher movie, Halloween, coming out in 1978, was really the one that ushered in the slasher movie obsession that was to come. I was a kid in the 80s, so I remember slasher movies well, and the format of all of those that came after borrowed heavily from Halloween. 

Here's the thing: Yes, in Halloween we do see the monster in the very first scene, but the monster is just a man. Actually, when we first see him, he's a six year old boy. Nothing menacing about that, except that he just brutally murdered his sister with a knife. Then he goes away for a time and no one else gets killed for...well...a good chunk of the movie. For me, it's the fact that the audience has to wait so dang long for the next person to die that makes Halloween scary. Because you're almost lulled into believing that it's not going to happen. That Michael Myers is just misunderstood. But you know it's a slasher movie, and you can't have a slasher movie without some good slashing, so you're expecting someone to die any minute. The tension builds to unbearable proportions. Every time someone goes off alone you're sure this is the moment. Only it's not. So the suspense grows a little more. And a little more. Until by the end you're absolutely terrified for the poor hapless teenagers in this film. 

One thing to note about Halloween: Once Michael begins his killing spree, he only murders three people. And he murders them by either stabbing or strangling them. Remember that fact because it will be important later.

Then comes Halloween II. Ah, Halloween II. What can I say about the movie that confirmed for me my theory that all sequels are crap and filmmakers just shouldn't try? Well, first of all there is no gradual build-up of tension this time. Michael Myers begins killing right away. By the end he's killed something like eleven people (yes, I counted). And he kills them in over-the-top, ridiculous ways. Burning in a hot tub. Exsanguination via an IV tube. The list goes on. And it's not scary. Not at all. Why? Because it's not gore that makes a movie scary. It's not the shock value. It's the story. It's characters that you've come to care about, so when their lives are in danger you feel afraid right there with them. 

So, back to The Exorcist. There is very little gore in this movie. And while there is some shock value (if modern audiences aren't shocked by a twelve year old girl masturbating with a crucifix, then I worry about society), the purpose of the movie is not to shock. It's to scare. And how does it scare? With story. With a plot that develops slowly enough that by the end you're so invested in the characters that the fact that they may all be killed by the devil absolutely terrifies you. I don't know what people mean when they say this isn't scary by modern standards. That the movie earned its reputation from the fact that 1973 audiences had never seen that type of thing on the screen before, but today's viewers would find it quite mild. I don't know what standards other people use to evaluate the fright value of a horror movie, but The Exorcist lives up to all of mine, and then some.

The Only Movie That Consistently Scares Me

Horror buff that I am, I've seen a lot of scary movies. And most of them scare me the first time around. But then I can go back and watch them and be relatively unfazed. Not so with The Exorcist. That movie scares the pants off of me every dadgum time I see it, and it never gets easier to watch. And I know I've seen it at least five times, probably more (I saw it first when I was eight, and honestly don't remember how many times I watched it during my childhood). 

Why is it so scary? Well, there's all the criteria I mentioned above. There's also the fact that it's a child who gets possessed by the devil, and there are few things a movie can throw at me that are more terrifying than an evil child. I also find the whole medical investigation into Regan's issues pretty frightening. I mean, think about it, here are these people who are convinced there's a rational explanation for what's going on, so they happily spend time with this little girl who also happens to be the devil and are all the while totally oblivious to the danger they've put themselves in. No, none of the doctors die, but that only makes it scarier. That gradual build-up of tension, remember? That's important. A horror movie can't horrify without tension. 
Also, for those of us who come from a Judeo-Christian background, the fact that this story is told from a Catholic point of view adds volumes to the creep factor. Why? Because what the movie shows us is a picture of the devil that looks a whole lot like the one we've all been taught to believe in. And for me personally, because I've hung on to my religious beliefs as an adult, there's just something about The Exorcist, some element of truth to the evil being depicted there, that kicks my body right on into fight or flight mode. Basically, the conclusion I've drawn is that, if the devil is real, he looks a heck of a lot like the thing that possesses Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think The Exorcist is still the scariest movie ever made? Or are you in the camp that says it doesn't terrify by today's standards? I'd love to hear the criteria you use to evaluate a horror movie, so please pop in and leave a comment. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Remember When I Said I Made a Movie?

I've lamented about my misadventures with cameras in a couple of posts recently. Last week I discussed my latest experience trying to upload a movie I made to my blog. Well, today I actually succeeded in uploading it and I'm very excited, as well as a little terrified, to share it with you.

Some disclaimers before you watch it:

1. I've learned a heck of a lot about lighting and camera settings since I made this movie. Basically all I knew how to do on the camera at the time was change the f-stop. I'm much more knowledgeable now, so if I ever try again (and I hope to eventually, if I ever get a new video camera), the cinematography will be much better.

2. I'm aware that the plot is clichéd at best and nonexistent at worst. I wasn't writing to win an Academy Award. I was writing to create a script which could be easily made into a movie with only two actors who also happened to double as the director and the sound guy.

3. Yes, I'm faking an accent in this movie. I like learning how to do accents, and this particular one was a recently acquired skill that I was dying to try out. I'm open to critiques as long as they are limited to tips on how to improve my pronunciation, but if you make fun of me on my own website, I will be deleting the comment. What can I say? I'm sensitive about these things. We all have our limits, right?

Okay, here's the movie. It's a horror movie, so I figured a couple of weeks before Halloween would be an appropriate time to share.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Remember When I Said Cameras Hate Me?

Rather than recount all the many, many details of this journey, I will refer you to my previous post, entitled Why Do Cameras Hate Me? if you are interested in learning the rest of this story. Today I only want to talk (complain?) about my adventures with computer software.

The World's Worst Computer Virus

Yeah, I left this little detail out of that earlier post. After I made that movie, the one I called "my first real movie", I lost all the digital files I had saved on my computer to Cryptowall. If you've not heard of Cryptowall, it's the granddaddy of computer viruses. Basically it infects your computer and encrypts all of your files so that even the most sophisticated decryption software would not be able to open them. Then you receive a message that you have a certain amount of time to pay money to the creators of the virus so that they can give you the code to unlock your files. Well, I didn't pay the money, so I lost all my files. The good news is, it was a new computer, so I hadn't saved much on it yet. But I did lose my movie.

Well, lose my movie is a bit of an exaggeration.  I lost the files on my computer, but I had, thankfully, burned it onto a dvd. Unfortunately, that was all I had done with it. I never backed up the file on a flash drive or on another computer.

The Problem With Dvds

So I have the movie on dvd, which is great because that means I can watch it whenever I want (I don't watch it very often), but if I want to put it back onto my computer, that means I need dvd-ripping software. No worries. Handbrake is a free and trustworthy dvd-ripper. So I downloaded Handbrake. Problem solved, right? Not so fast, mister.

I had decided that I was...finally...ready to share my little movie with the world, so I made plans to embed it in a post right here on this blog. I loaded the dvd into my computer, opened the file in Handbrake, and started ripping. Success! My movie was saved on my hard drive. Now I could upload it to my blog, right? Again I say, not so fast, mister.

The Problem With Video Files

I tried uploading it and Blogger told me the file was too big. Well, I'm nothing if not tenacious, so I looked up how to shrink a video file in Handbrake. And what did I find? A webpage telling me how to do it. So I followed the directions, saved the movie on my hard drive a second time, and tried uploading it to Blogger again. Again, the file was too big. So I looked up more information on video compression. I found another, more detailed, page explaining a slightly longer process with quite a few more steps. Surely this was it. I was on the cusp! I was going to share my movie with the world. So I followed the directions and began the ripping process and for some reason, my computer shut down in the middle of it. Thinking it was a fluke, I rebooted my computer and tried again. Again, the stupid computer shut down before it finished compressing my video. Why? Not being a computer expert, I have no idea. But it resulted in me not having any file of my movie that I can share on Blogger.

Maybe God is trying to tell me that my filmmaking skills are not ready for public consumption? Or that I'm just not supposed to be a filmmaker? Or maybe these obstacles are there to test my resolve so if I ever succeed at this I'll know I did it because I really wanted it. Who knows? At the moment it's darn frustrating. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: October 2017

Forbidden by F. Stone

I put off reviewing this book for a long time because I knew Islam played a large part in the story and I was worried about promoting a book that could potentially have controversial content. I finally was able to put aside my fears in that regard when I read some of the reviews and discovered that this book deals with the religion in a very fair manner, so I decided to take the plunge.

The story is engaging and the pace is well-balanced. Fast enough to hold the reader's interest but slow enough to give you time to get to know the characters. The romance is believable and the suspense is palpable. I applaud the author for pulling off both of these things.

However, this book will unfortunately be another four star read for me. The main issue is the typos. I've said in the past that I can often look past these, but when there are so many that they start to distract from the story, I can't ignore them. This book had at least a couple of typos per chapter, and I can't write an honest review without mentioning them. 

I was also left hungry for a little more detail. Considering that this book takes place in a part of the world I have never visited, within a culture I know very little about, I was hoping to be taken on a beautiful journey into another world. I wanted more vivid descriptions, more explanations of Muslim teachings, more history of the area. I wanted to feel like I was right there with the characters, and I didn't feel that reading this book. 

That being said, I did enjoy it and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting, suspenseful read. Check it out on Amazon.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Literary Analysis of My Own Book, Part 3

For the past few weeks I've been analyzing conflict in my books. Last week I looked at Primogénito and the week before I examined Amelia's Children.

This week we'll look at conflict in Road to Yesterday.

Man vs. Man
Road to Yesterday is different from my other books in that there is no villain. So the Man vs. Man conflict primarily happens between the siblings themselves. Put simply, pretty much everyone experiences conflict with Vi. 

Vi is Kim's older sister and goes through life with a down to earth, practical, take charge attitude. When balanced with a little flexibility, this can be a virtue, but in Vi it is not balanced with anything. She wants what she wants and she gets what she wants and she's unwilling to listen to anyone else's side of the story. So, naturally, she gets into it with the other characters more than a few times.

First with Kim because Kim is her younger sister and Vi feels she has the right to boss her around as she sees fit. Kim doesn't like it, but she goes along with it because she knows arguing with Vi is an exercise in futility. 

Vi also has some deep-seated resentment for her brother Alex, so when he shows up unannounced and ends up taking a road trip with her and Kim, the tension becomes nearly unbearable. These two definitely have some issues to work out.

Then there's Kyle. The oldest brother. Having roughly the same personality as Vi, the two of them butt heads more than a few times over the course of the story. And Kyle harbors the same resentment toward Alex that Vi does (as a result of a misunderstanding going back ten years which ultimately gets resolved by the end of the book), so those two argue a good bit as well.

Man vs. Nature
I suppose time would be considered a force of nature with which the characters in this book must contend. Time is an issue for them both because the main story involves time travel, but also because there's the sense that time is running out. Alex has been transported ten years into the future only to find that his older self is dying. The story that follows is his attempt, along with his sisters and his older brother, to figure out what's happening to him and how he can be saved. The characters don't know if he's going to die, and they don't know how long they have, but they do know that his body is steadily shutting down and anything done must be done soon. 

Man vs. Self
Alex struggles a lot in this book. Not only does he have to grapple with the fact that he may be dying, but he also struggles with his role in the family. Remember that misunderstanding I mentioned? Well, that has made the others view him as something of a black sheep, and Alex feels an overwhelming need to prove them wrong. 

Man vs. Society
I don't think this comes into play here. Not really. I'm racking my brain trying to think of some societal issue these characters face, and can't come up with one. Yes, they've dealt with their fair share of hardships, but it's more a matter of life throwing them curve balls than society forcing ideals upon them.

Maybe Kyle's attitude toward church fits the mold, but that's barely a plot point in the book. It gets mentioned once, very close to the end, and does not really affect the story. It's in there more as a way give a little insight into Kyle's personality than to make any kind of social statement. But who knows? Maybe it counts. 

Thank you for joining me these past few weeks as I walked through the inner workings of my books. I'm all done now, so next week I'll be switching gears and bringing you another book of the month post.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Literary Analysis of My Own Book, Part 2

In last week's post I discussed conflict in literature and took a look at Amelia's Children through that analytical lens. This week I'll be analyzing the various conflicts in Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy.

I won't recap the four types of conflict I'll be discussing, since I already laid all that out last week. Let's just get directly into the book.

Man vs. Man
Just like in Amelia's Children, the majority of the Man vs. Man conflict in Primogénito comes toward the end of the story. Again, I won't give away any spoilers, but the whole book is about Damian trying to free himself and the people he cares about from the dark magic wielded by his grandfather and uncles. So, naturally, there's a big showdown at the end where he faces off against the bad guys. Jenn, his wife, and Ashley, his best friend's wife, get in on this action too, as does his father, Leo. It's a big, long, violent sequence of scenes involving lots of fighting and more than a little bloodshed. 

Man vs. Nature
I still have the same question as last week: Do the natural workings of one's own body qualify as nature? If so, then Jenn's pregnancy fits into this category. It gives the story a sense of urgency since everything must be accomplished before the baby arrives (because the baby is one of the people Damian is trying to save). 

The cold plays a fairly large role in this book. Not to the degree that it alters the course of events, but in the sense that it provides an obstacle which the protagonists must overcome. 

Man vs. Self
What character doesn't face this conflict in Primogénito? First there's Damian, who's survived a traumatic event in his past and has worked hard to move on and find his "new normal". When Ashley shows up at his door begging him to help her save her husband, Nick, from and illness she believes is the result of the magic Damian's family practices, it sends Damian down a very dark road. He has to confront his worst memories, his sense of himself, his feelings about his wife, and his feelings about his family, all while working himself to exhaustion trying to help his friend. 

Next we have Ashley. She struggles with the same traumatic memories as Damian, but while Damian was the victim of what happened to them in the past, Ashley was merely a witness. So she feels unable to seek support and comfort because Damian deserves those things and, in her mind, she doesn't. What she suffers is a form of survivor's guilt. Though Damian did not die, still he bore the brunt of the traumatic experience while Ashley walked away relative unscathed. Physically at least. 

Ashley is also discovering she harbors romantic feelings for Damian. These feelings cause her unspeakable guilt and torment because she's happily married to Nick and Damian is happily married to Jenn. She doesn't want to do anything to destroy the lives the four of them have built for themselves, but nonetheless the feelings are there.

Then we have Jenn. As Damian's wife, her primary conflict stems from her love for Damian and her fear that if he gets involved with his family again after so many years away he will end up hurt. She's also at least somewhat aware of Ashley's feelings for Damian, so some jealousy comes into play. Then Jenn gets pregnant and she is consumed with fear of what will happen if Damian's grandfather finds out about the baby.

Leo is not a POV character in this book, but he is probably the most tragic. As Damian's father, he grew up in the Fuentes family, but tried to leave as a young man. Things did not work out so well for him, but through it all his one goal has been to protect his son. Leo feels everything Damian suffers, almost as though he were going through it himself. And on top of that, he feels unbearable guilt for not saving Damian from the clutches of his family. 

Man vs. Society
Not a lot of this in Primogénito. With this book I set out to write an intense character-driven drama with one heck of a creepy mystery thrown in for fun. I was not thinking to make a social statement. Then one reviewer pointed out that Damian's struggle to reclaim his virility and not be defined by his victim status is an example of him trying to live up to society's definition of manhood. I was not thinking that when I wrote it. I felt that the high ideals to which Damian holds himself are self-inflicted and not something being imposed upon him from the outside. But hey, maybe he feels that way because his worldview, including his idea of what it means to be a man, has been influenced by the world in which he grew up. It's a new way of looking at things. I didn't mean to put it in there, but I kind of like it.

Okay, so I've now analyzed conflict in two of my books. I'm having so much fun, I think I'll continue, so stay tuned for next week's look at Road to Yesterday.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Literary Analysis of My Own Book

Not sure where I got the idea to do this, but I thought it would be fun. So here goes.

Conflict in Literature

We've all taken college English classes, right? Or if we haven't been to college, we've at least taken high school English. At some point we've discussed conflict in literature, and we've learned that there are several types. Here are the four generally accepted types of conflict we find in stories:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Self
Man vs. Society

Other conflicts are sometimes tacked onto this list, including Man vs. Machine and Man vs. God. The point, however, is that in all stories, there is conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. No one wants to read this account of the mother who is preparing lunch for her children: All the dishes she needs are clean. All the ingredients she needs are readily available. The children come when called and eat without complaining. They even offer to help wash up afterward. Sure, we'd all like to live through that situation, but we don't want to read about it. Or, if we do read about it, we hope that maybe right after that idyllic scene the Christmas tree will catch on fire or the nearest city will be wiped out by an atomic bomb. Something. Give us something. Without conflict, fiction is, let's face it, boring.

I thought it would be fun to analyze the various conflicts in my own books. 

Conflict in Amelia's Children

Man vs. Man
David is the character who primarily experiences this. I can't say much about it, though, because Amelia's Children is a murder mystery and the majority of the Man vs. Man conflict occurs during the final showdown between David and the killer, who shall not be identified on this website. Sorry. No spoilers here.

Man vs. Nature
Not a heck of a lot of this conflict in Amelia's Children. In fact, looking at my writing as a whole, I've not really made nature an adversary in any of my books. At least not to the degree where it has any real impact on the story. I suppose Amelia bleeding to death in the woods during the prologue might fit, because bleeding is a natural process? Hmm...not sure about that one.

Darkness plays a fairly active role in the book, though. The most climactic scenes all take place in the country at night. So darkness is sometimes a hindrance to characters as they try to accomplish the tasks that must be done. But most often the darkness just serves to make them afraid, which is more in line with...

Man vs. Self
Sarah is the main one who lets her fear get the better of her, and the darkness of the countryside at night feeds that fear in several scenes. 

Since Sarah is the narrator, she's the one whose internal monologue we see as we read the book. So we know every difficult choice, every question, every doubt she experiences. And she has a lot of doubt. Doubt about her future, now that she's failed to make a career as an actress. Doubt about her relationship with David, since he's going home to Atlanta at some point and she's stuck in Laurel Hill. Doubt about how to handle herself in the face of a traumatic situation. 

In the opening chapters, Sarah is overcome with curiosity about David and his possible connection to Amelia Davis's murder. She wants to get closer to him. She wants to learn more. But as she begins to learn more, things start to get more and more dangerous and she questions whether she wants to continue. In the end her curiosity, and the conviction that helping David is the right thing to do, wins out over her fears.

David also deals with some Man vs. Self conflict as he questions whether he will ever have the answers he seeks. More than once he thinks about giving up, but Sarah persuades him to keep going.

Man vs. Society
I suppose Sarah experiences some Man vs. Society conflict. First in her struggles to become an actress and her inability to live up to the expectations of the film industry. Then her disagreements with her parents about career, religion, etc. Her feelings of being out of place in her hometown. All of these could be examples of Sarah's struggle against the society in which she lives. Of course, because all of these struggles are primarily internal, they could also be examples of Man vs. Self. Who knows? Maybe they're both.

So there it is. A little analysis of my book, Amelia's Children. I may go on to analyze my other books in coming weeks, so stay tuned.