Ten Best Characters from Books I’ve Read

The criteria for this is very simple: someone from a book that I still remember to this day, no matter how long, or short, ago I came across them. They are memorable. Every once in awhile, I’ll recall something about them while doing something else or I’ll make a reference to them or simply take inspiration. Such as:

10. Tom Sawyer. He was my first literary hero, the character that spurred my lifelong love of fiction and reading. Tom was everything I was not: brave and defiant and ever willing to break the rules and try something new and a great friend and fearless protector. And he tormented his little brother, Sid, with an almost genius capacity for mayhem, some of which I tried on my own little brother.

9. Scout. She was the center of To Kill a Mockingbird, the one who watched the world and all its currents and storms flowing hard and fast right through the center of her life. She met everything with a calm and thoughtful gaze, learning from it, enduring it. And showed us how to take everyone, from the different to the wounded, on their own terms.

8. Breq. The ancillary in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, she was human then AI and a battleship then human again, or partially human, but, whatever the form, she was loyal to her friends and family, so to speak, and fought for her commander and her empire, even when she knew it was wrong. Indeed, she was responsible for correcting a lot of those wrongs; well, as best as they could be. Just considering all of the devastating and traumatic changes she went through as she changed form and purpose is mind blowing.

7. Mai. The bride of an arranged marriage to the Qin commander, Anji, she is, at first, docile and subservient, but she turns into a tiger. As she adjusts to the very dangerous world of the Hundred, she rises from a simple household member to admired confidant and a fighter in her own right. Half the fun of the Crossroads Trilogy is watching her development.

6. Maris. While out searching for her dog, Maris finds the stone that transports her to the Great Land, where she teams up with talking bugs and squirrels and a particularly brave ant to defeat the evil creatures taking over. I first read Shelia Moon’s Knee Deep in Thunder when I was 12 or 13, and it’s stayed with me, especially the last scene of the book, where Maris watches the boy walk away.

5. Chrisjen Avasarala. The foul mouthed, ruthless, downright murderous UN Secretary of Earth, she gave no quarter nor asked for any in her single-minded devotion to protecting Earth from Belters and Martians and revolutionaries and the proto-molecule. Constantly exasperated by James Holden and his optimistic humanism, she often found her plans undone and was often in serious danger, but you don’t mess with her. You just don’t.

4. Bob Lee ‘the Nailer’ Swagger. The protagonist of practically every single Stephen Hunter book, he is a former Vietnam-era sniper who earned his nickname from his mutant-like accuracy, the able to drive nails with a bullet. After amassing a rather astonishing kill record, he leaves the Army for an Arkansas farm and just wants to be left alone. But, of course, people just gotta bother him. To their detriment.

3. Schaffa Guardian. The Guardian responsible for Damaya’s training in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and introduced in the first book, The First Season, Schaffa is a cruel and demanding task master. But, it soon becomes clear that Schaffa is a compassionate and empathic trainer, forced to extreme methods because the Fifth Season is rapidly approaching and Damaya has to be ready. Reminds me very much of the character Patrick Foley in the Australian movie The Earthling.

2. Chad Buford. He is the main character of a book I loved since I was 13, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr, published in 1903.  Yes, execrable title, but it was the first book to sell a million copies in the United States. Orphaned in the hills of Kentucky shortly before the Civil War, Chad is adopted by a mountain family and then, through an odd series of events, ends up the protege of a wealthy Kentucky planter. When the Civil War starts, Chad makes a decision that goes against his family and friends and culture, and is the main reason I admire him. Very racist novel, though. Very racist.

1. Half-cocked Jack. So named because of an unfortunate childhood accident, he is a pirate and adventurer and a mercenary and a reaver and thief, and exactly the guy you want on your side in a fight. He is one of many unforgettable characters in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, appearing in the first novel, Quicksilver, and remaining alive through the rest of them, although I have no idea how. I guess Stephenson liked him, too.

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God is the Library

When I was six-years-old, I was lying on top of our storm shelter in the backyard of our house in Lawton, OK, watching the thunderheads build. If you’ve ever lived in Oklahoma then you know the terrific storms we get, and these clouds were monstrous and bright with the sun outlining their edges in silver and I immediately knew God existed. I’ve believed in God ever since.

Not continuously. I was a black flag anarchist/atheist in my teenage years, hating the world and everything in it. If you’d had the childhood I did, you’d probably be the same. The problem with that: you eventually end up a completely shriveled hate bag, devoid of humor and humanity. Unless you look up. I did, and I saw those thunderheads again and there was God, looking at me.

God is mercy and grace. I am not.

And while most of the churches I attended focused on how you acted and the impossibility of ever pleasing God, there were a few that were different. They taught from the original languages and, turns out, much of what the King James says is a bit off message. Because God is mercy and grace, not rage and punishment. The churches don’t really want you to know that. Cuts into the collection plate, doncha know.

So I got curious about this God of mercy and grace. Not what He could do for me and what He expected from me, but who He, Himself, is. I wanted to know His nature. I wanted to know His name. And it took me a good sixty years plus, but I finally discovered what He is.

God is the library.

I don’t mean some random building or a collection of books; He is THE library. Itself. He is all of the knowing, all of the understanding, all of the subtleties, the underlying principles, everything properly shelved; not only that, He is the impetus, the source of all the actions or the inactions of the universe, the One who wrote and invoked the books. He is a library so vast that we have barely scratched the number of volumes available, or what they say. But we’re trying.

Just take a quick overview of what we’ve found out in the last thirty years or so – the way the blood and the breath work; the particles racing to and fro across the galaxy; the medicines and observations and theories and forces and drifts and the causes and effects of many, many things. Each time we stumble across something, scientists proclaim they have found the Answer, but, two seconds later, there’s dozens more questions. And we discover levels of existence of which we had no prior clue. Our operating principles have to be discarded and rewritten.

All science does is read the next paragraph. And every time we do, we reveal more of Him. These are the volumes of God. They are endless.

We will never get to the end of them.

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The Rufe’s Basement

I went to my 50th high school reunion just a bit ago. I wasn’t going to attend because my closest friends wouldn’t be there. Tom died decades ago; Don decades after that, and I found out the day before the reunion that Drew had also died. Turns out I’m the last man standing. Should have started a tontine.

But a relentless campaign at almost the felony level by one of the organizers forced my surrender. And I’m glad, because it turned out great, just great. I got to say something to someone I’ve wanted to say for fifty years. You know who you are. I reforged a friendship with someone I’d abandoned years ago, Carol. And I was completely surprised by someone else, Barbara. 

There were 405 of us in that class, and only about 100 showed up. Out of that 405, 88 have already died. That gives us a mortality rate of about 22%. Not looking good for the home team.

I’m not going to show you any pictures because it would look like outtakes from the Night of the Living Dead. Not going into specifics because we only knew each other, and you know only each other, and you don’t want to hear boring stories of glory days. But I did realize something; I don’t want to go back and do it all over. Oh no, not at all. I had some really bad times in high school. But I do want to go to the Rufe’s basement.

The Rufe’s lived across the street from my apartment complex. The Rufe’s daughter periodically rounded up all the orphans living there and herded us into the basement. It became our hangout, our sanctuary. Home. Mrs. Rufe fussed over us and fed us and Mr. Rufe teased us and was always there to listen and it was a family. It’s why I love That 70s Show so much. It was just like that. 

I had two other safe havens: Don’s house and the Willingboro Karate Club, and I moved between all three of them seeking shelter from the storm (enough with the song references!).  I guess I had a rather traumatic childhood and adolescence, and it was the Rufe’s, Don, and Forrest who helped me survive it.

But as much as I would really like going back to the Rufe’s basement, the current owners would probably call the police. And I’m not really sure what that would accomplish, anyway. No doubt, it’s now filled with old furniture and our wall carvings have been plastered over, so what’s to see? Somebody’s old stash hidden behind the water heater?

No. I think what I really want, what everyone wants, is the sense of it, the peace and satisfaction of it. It was a place where all your crazy friends did crazy things and you just wished the night would go on forever. Man, I miss that. You do, too. All of you had a place like that. It might have even been your home. And we all want to go back.

And. you know, you may think I’m crazy, but that next morning when I was sitting on my brother’s porch sipping his really sucky coffee thinking about all this, I heard a word, probably in my mind but I’d like to think it was whispered in my ear: “Wait.” Just have to wait. In whatever method and at whatever time, we’re all going back to the Rufe’s basement. Don, Drew, and Tom are all there now, warming the place up.

So Jane, George, Butch, Bob, Jayne, Selina, Karen, Wash, Kathy, Carol, Marie, Kevin? I’ll see you all there. Got dibs on the big couch.

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Death by Logon.

I have a couple of ongoing prescriptions with the VA. To refill them, I can either mail in a refill request, and they will mail the medicines back, or I can drive 40-something miles to my nearest VA facility and ask for a refill … which they will then mail to me. Apparently, the VA is convinced every one of us troops enlisted circa the Spanish American war and needs to maintain its services at a technical level we can understand.

Our generation invented the computer, ya know.

Anyway, I was perusing the forty or fifty thermal printed sheets of instructions and warnings and side effects that come with every prescription these days because, Lord Knows, we can’t figure out that taking an entire bottle of digitalis with a half quart of vodka might be detrimental, when I noted there was an option to the Post Office refill system: refill online. Really? You mean, there’s a 21st century solution? My goodness, what’s next, bandages and drugs instead of leeches and poultices?

So I go to the recommended VA website which is very happy that I am there and asks me to login with my VA credentials, which I can’t remember. No problem, hit ‘forgot username’ and that very much pleased the site and they said, Great! In order to retrieve it, use your DS Logon.

Oh. No.

For those of you uninitiated in the ways of military administration, the DS Logon is the single most complicated, irrational, incomprehensible and downright evil means ever devised for accessing military sites, especially those containing personal or personnel information. Like your pay and benefits. DS stands for “Defense Self-Service ” which already clues you about the overthinking involved. The DoD is so terrified someone will gain unauthorized access to a veteran’s information that they make it nigh on impossible to do so. It’s easier to break into Ft. Knox than log into your own account. 

First, there’s the user name. Which you would think would be easy, but there’s lots of people who have served in the military and there’s lots of similarity in names. In my unfortunate case, my Dad and I both served and I am named after him, the only separation of our two identities being “Jr.” Which DS Logon does not recognize. When I first established my account, you have no idea how long it took me to convince the Pentagon computer system I wasn’t some nefarious Nazi spy trying to obtain information on a WW2 veteran who died 20 years ago. Ve vill get back that Luger you took during the Battle of the Bulge, American! Finally, it compared the differences in our service numbers, which I had to provide from his old records and relented. Then it asked for a password.

Oh. No.

The DS Logon password is a cruel and hateful string of nonsensical letters numbers symbols whathaveyou that bear no logic nor ability to memorize. It’s akin to the symbols you see above a cartoon character’s head to simulate profanity. The password has to be sixteen characters long, cannot contain a recognizable word or sequence, and must have some capital letters and the aforementioned numbers and symbols. And you have to type it out twice before it gets accepted. And it changes every six months.

Guess how long it’s been since I’ve logged on?

So, yeah, password expired, so I have to log on with the old one to get a new one. Fortunately, I wrote the old one down and entered it … and got rejected. Several times, almost to the ‘permanent lockout’ point, so I said ‘figidabowdit’ and hit ‘forgot password.’ 

First thing DS wanted, my username, So I provided it. “Wait a minute … that’s the name of a WW2 veteran who passed 20 years ago! Are you a Nazi spy?”

Oh, Lordy. A few iterations later, it finally went, “Oh, THAT D Krauss. Alright, let’s answer your security questions.”

Oh, Lordy.

DS security questions are not the conventional ones you expect, like your Mom’s maiden name and the name of your first pet. Oh no. They’re along the lines of, “What is the compression ratio of a rebuilt 1967 Dodge Charger?” “Who was the first member of the Moldavan royal family?” and “What was your Dad’s third assignment after his first release from active duty?” So there are real answers to these questions, not ones you just type in, and DS knows. It knows. So, after some research, I was able to answer the ones they asked me. And, glory hallelujah, I got to change my password.

Except the nonsensical sixteen characters I selected were suspiciously close to a previous password I used about seven years ago, so no go. Since they are all nonsensical, there is no way to know what you used before, so I changed my mental algorithm to something never used before and came up with a series that passed muster. Immediately wrote it down because it’s not possible to memorize. So I’m in.

Great! VA says. What took you so long? Whatever, you can now access the VA site. Which I did. Great! Good to see you! To verify you are who you say you are, use your DS Logon to proceed.

Grumble, grumble, grumble, there. First use of new password.

Good, great! Do you want to see your prescriptions? You do? Well, use your DS Logon to access it!

Nonsensical symbols floating above my head like a cartoon character, then logged on again with only one mishap that caused the US to go into Defcon 3 and threatened me with a drone strike if I got the password wrong again. So I was real careful.

So you want us to renew your prescriptions? Great! Guess what you have to do?

Five. More. Times. Before I got the renewal confirmed. Expecting a drone strike at any moment.

Next time, I’m just driving over there.

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Ten Best Trilogies I’ve Read, so Far

I love trilogies, stories so big they need three novels to complete. Which is the big difference between a series and a trilogy- the story ends. Or, at least, ends one thing to start another. A series goes on and on, usually centered around a couple of characters. And while some series start out as trilogies and can be safely so regarded until the fourth or so book shows up, I make the distinction thusly: the story ends with the third book. That particular story, anyway. Thus:

10. The Tripods trilogy, by John Christopher. The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire. I read this when I was a kid because, well, it’s a kid’s story. Intrepid Will Parker and his friends defy their Capping Ceremony, mandatory at age 13, and escape to the White Mountains, ahead of the alien Tripods. Sort of pre-Hunger Games, but with aliens.

9. The Arthurian Saga, by Mary Stewart. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment. I have mentioned The Crystal Cave at other locations, but the entire trilogy is a masterpiece. The story of Arthur as told through Merlin’s eyes, this is the best modernization of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that I’ve seen. I think this was the base for that extraordinary Excalibur movie, but don’t quote me. And, yes, Stewart has written a few other novels on the theme, making this more series than trilogy, but the original three are complete in themselves.

8. The Crossroads Trilogy, by Kate Elliott. Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, Traitor’s Gate. I’ve mentioned this trilogy in other locations because it remains one of my favorites. In the world of the Hundreds, the Guardian gods have withdrawn, leaving the eagle-riding reeves as the only authority as an unknown, murderous horde begins its march through the lands. The bride-to be, Mai, remains one of my favorite literary characters 

7. The Karla Trilogy, by John le Carre. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People. Yes, the character George Smiley makes this more series than anything except these three books are considered a separate story and you do not need to read any of the other Smiley books to understand it, although you should. George Smiley in battle with his main KGB nemesis, Karla, and it took three dedicated books to resolve it. 

6. The Maddaddam Trilogy, by Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; MaddAddam. Yes, it’s Atwood, and everybody’s all agog with The Handmaid’s Tale, but this is superior. In the wake of a pandemic, environmental disaster, and mad scientist bioengineering, Toby, one of the last humans, must convey an oral history of the world to the Crakers, human offshoots that are taking our place.

5. The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie. Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy. This has gone on to be a series, but the first three books stand alone. Breq, now a common soldier who was once the starship Justice of Toren, seeks revenge against the Lord of the Radch, who betrayed her. A soldier who was once a starship: mindblowing.

4. The Riverworld Trilogy, by  Philip Jose Farmer. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Fabulous Riverboat, The Dark Design. Yes, I know, I know, this is no longer a trilogy but a series but, as far as I am concerned, it stopped with the third book, in which it feels very much like Farmer had grown tired of the story and simply wished to dispense with it. Despite that, this remains among my favorites. All of humanity wakes up one day alongside a world-girdling river and must figure out why. They woke up, I mean, not why the river girdles the world.

3. The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; The Broken Kingdoms; The Kingdom of Gods. Stunning. Just stunning. A world where the gods are slaves. 

2. The Inhibitor Trilogy, by Alastair Reynolds. Revelation Space; Redemption Ark; Absolution Gap. About page 75, you’ll be going, “WTF?” But, stick with it, because this is another mind-blowing saga. Dan Sylveste teams up with the cyborg crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity to discover what happened to the Amarantin civilization. Before it happens again.

1. The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson. Quicksilver; The Confusion; The System of the World. What an epic, jaw-dropping story. From the Stuart Restoration through 1714 London, Daniel Waterhouse pursues the rational in a world transforming from the superstitious to the scientific. Everyone is in this story, from Isaac Newton to Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, as well as the seemingly immortal Enoch Root. And let’s not forget Half-Cocked Jack, who manages to save the world from time to time without realizing it.

There you go. Odd that most of these trilogies are speculative fiction. I’m guessing that’s due to all the time necessary to world-build before you can get into the story itself, which tends to make the first book of a trilogy somewhat pedestrian. But stay with it; you’ll be rewarded.

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Well, THAT was fun …

The other day I was on Twitter and some guy posted a tweet saying that indie books were rubbish and he hadn’t come across a decent one yet so I replied, yeah, I had the same problem and, see image above. Because the guy was being sarcastic and meant exactly the opposite.

Should probably work on his sarcasm but that’s fine, I shouldn’t have been so direct because, Holy Hannah, the “Twitter writing community” just exploded. No, not over the initializing tweet which apparently the “Twitter writing community” understood as sarcasm because they know the guy– I don’t. Silly me — but, instead, that I agreed with it.

It was like criticizing the Politburo. And the response was very North Korean. 

Accused of creating a false issue to get publicity, that I thought I was better than everyone else, that I was an asshole … well, I am, but that’s reserved for my wife to point out. I haven’t seen a reaction like this since I told the head cheerleader her hair dye looked weird. It is an 8th grade world.

So what exactly is the problem here?

Well, it’s two fold: the demand for support, and Twitter as a writer’s group.

Twitter. As a writer’s group. Oh, please.

You want a writer’s group, go to Facebook, or better yet Backspace.org, which was, for years, the best writer’s group on the web when Karen Dionne  was running it. Or go to your local library ‘cause they usually have a writer’s work group of some kind but, Lord, not Twitter.

Twitter is the devil. And the devil cares nothing for your feelings.

But the “Twitter writers’ community” sure does, and thou shalt not criticize! Thou shalt support and nurture and encourage and ohmigod, I can’t stand it. What are these people going to do when they finally release their opus magnus into the wild and readers get ‘aholt’ of it and start ripping it to pieces? 

Well, they’ll pout and cry and accuse readers of being assholes. Because they are making the same mistake every starry eyed with-dreams-and-visions bestseller wannabe makes: if their support group likes it, then it must be good.

Got news for you, cupcake. 

There is a vast, unbridgeable difference between your support group and the reading public. The reading public demands a scrupulously scrubbed manuscript, copy edited and developmentally edited and rewritten a hundred, a thousand times, until it is logically and semantically tight and readable. And that’s before they decide if your story is any good or not. Trad publishers offer such products. Well, mostly, with exceptions (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown). Unfortunately, many indie writers do not. Far too many.

Because they confuse nurture and support with good writing.

Writing is anarchy. It is a Visigoth invasion, slash and burn, and you have no friends here. That is, if you actually intend to publish your 1000 page elf orc saga, or do you simply tweet about how much you wrote today and, ooo, I have this new character! and the rest of the Twitter writing community is all ‘you go, you go!’ If that’s it, then you’ve found a home. But when you add a cover and upload to Amazon, your lovely bunch of friends on Twitter aren’t going with you. You walk this plank alone.

And far too many of you indies are leaping off that plank with a deflated duck float and the inability to swim, because your Mom and your friends and the Twitter writing community urged ‘you go, you go!’ But your book is so unreadable I can’t get past the first page without turning it into a frisbee.

I have encountered far more of these unreadable indies than ones I could actually finish, at about a 3:1 ratio, to the point I don’t read an indie book anymore unless it has been vetted, like through Indies United Publishing.

Of which I am a member, because I need vetting, too. All of us do.

Highly recommend you join.

And highly recommend you stop relying on Twitter for your writing support. Find some asshole to review your drafts, someone with impossibly high standards who will brutalize it and make you cry, questioning your career choice.

Gold comes out of a crucible.

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Top 10 Thrillers I’ve Read So Far

I have a rather broad definition of a thriller. It’s any exciting, violent, conflictive combative story that doesn’t involve the supernatural or science fiction. In other words, pretty much everything that isn’t romance or a mystery or literary fiction. It includes police procedurals and serial killer stories and spy stories. Techno thrillers and war stories are subgenres but still thrillers. So yes, this means I have a wide-ranging selection to choose from. Such as these:

10. Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The ultimate nuclear thriller written in 1962, an arming code transmission accidentally jams and ends up sending a B-52 to drop nukes on Moscow. Every attempt to stop the bombing fails, and the President of the United States has to make a series of terrifying decisions. The flayed bull metaphor throughout the book is an apt description. This was made into a very decent, and quite stark, movie with Henry Fonda.

9. The Comedians, by Graham Greene. Mr. Brown inherits his mother’s hotel in Port-au-Prince and takes a ship there, meeting a few characters on board who will all figure prominently in the upcoming events.  The story of ex-pats in Haiti is overwhelmed by the horror of the Duvalier regime and the actions of its secret police, the Ton Ton Macoutes. Prepare to have your hair curled.

8. The Little Drummer Girl, by John le Carre. A Mossad agent recruits a young English actress to infiltrate a terrorist group and find out the leader’s identity. Then things get out of hand. Classic le Carre, where nothing is what it seems.

7. The Fifth Horseman, by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Libyan terrorists plant a hydrogen bomb in New York City and demand Israel vacate all Arab lands or they’ll detonate it. Published in 1980, it feels very current.

6. Child 44, by Tom Robb Smith. The first book in a series, it’s the only one I have read. This is supposedly about a Russian police officer’s search for a serial killer who preys on children, but it isn’t. It’s about something far more terrifying: the Russian justice system, which does not believe in fact or logic but in its own infallibility.

5. Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow. The first of his Kindle County novels, Turow weaves a police and courtroom procedural into one story. Rusty Sabich, deputy prosecutor of Kindle County, becomes the lead attorney investigating the murder of his colleague and former lover, Carolyn. Until he becomes the lead suspect.

4. The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth. A German journalist investigating the suicide of a Holocaust survivor stumbles across a secret organization providing new identities and protection to former SS officers. It’s The Boys From Brazil without the science fiction aspects.

3. The Charm School, by Nelson DeMIlle. What really happened to the MIAs of the Vietnam War? Well, they’re in Russia, helping a new generation of KGB agents to perfect their Americanisms. So they can blend in better. Because they have things to do here.

2. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. French intelligence must stop an assassination plot directed at Charles de Gaulle. Problem is, no one has any idea who the assassin, nicknamed the Jackal, is. This was turned into a very decent movie starring Edward Fox in 1973. Please don’t confuse it with that awful Bruce Willis movie called The Jackal.

1. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. The grand poobah of the serial killer novel, this is probably the best book of the type, although Red Dragon, the forerunner to this novel, gives it quite the run for its money. FBI Agent Clarissa Starling seeks the assistance of convicted serial killer Hannibal Lector to identify another serial killer called Buffalo Bill, because he skins his humps. 

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Top 10 post-Apocalyptic Books I’ve Read So Far

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I consider post-apocalyptic books as a subgenre of science fiction. After all, some fairly science fiction things have to happen before the world goes apocalyptic: meteor strikes, nuclear war, zombies. But it’s such a specific category that I see it as a stand-alone so I usually don’t include them in a listing of favorite science fiction books. If I did, it’s all post-apoc all the time because, man, do I love ‘em. They appeal to my anarchist heart.

I don’t include dystopian novels because they are standard scifi. Face it, just about every scifi novel is dystopian to some degree, benign or no. I suppose that’s enough of a separate category to warrant its own list … we’ll see.

Without further ado, and in order of my regard:

10. Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. This is the grandaddy of the post-apoc genre, the one that more or less started it all, if you ignore anything Wells and Verne did. Published in 1949 which is, wow, even before I was born, it is the virus-destroys-the-world type, and still holds up extremely well. It has one of the best endings of any novel in the genre, heck, of any novel in any genre.

9. On the Beach, by Nevil Shute. Published in 1957, this is the first Australian contribution to this list. The American Navy submarine, Scorpion, which has survived a nuclear war joins the Australian Navy because Australia is about the last untouched place on earth. But not for long. This has one of the bleakest endings in all of literature, so be warned.

8. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know if this is post-apocalypse or straight up horror because this is one terrifying novel, far more than the terrifying movie made from it. The world-ending event appears to be some kind of environmental issue but McCarthy doesn’t dwell on it; he’d rather spend his time scaring the bejesus out of you.

7. I am Legend, by Richard Matheson. Forget the silly Will Smith movie, this is a classic and rather stark vampire apocalypse novel published in 1954 that turns out downright poetic. Well, vampire-like apocalypse : these vampires are created by a virus, not a bite on the neck, but they certainly take on most of the characteristics such as sunlight avoidance and the need for human blood. Until they become something else. Incidentally, there is actually a pretty good movie version of this. No, not Omega Man, which is good in itself, but the Vincent Price movie The Last Man on Earth. Vampires as beatniks. Too cool.  

6, Tomorrow, When the War Began, by John Marsden. The second Aussie contribution to this list, it is essentially Red Dawn in the outback. A kids’ book, to be sure, but one brutally written with no punches pulled and quite hair- raising in places. It is the first book of a series that becomes increasingly more hair-raising. Wolverines! … er, Dingos?

5. Damnation Alley, by Roger Zelazny. Probably more scifi than post-apoc, this is Balto after WW3. The world is a radioactive wasteland and Hell Tanner – yep, that’s his name- is given a choice: spend the rest of his life in prison or run a plague serum from LA to Boston. Easy peasey, right? Well, no, not with giant sandworms infesting the deserts … wait a minute, giant sandworms infesting the desert? A rather dreadful movie was made from this, but don’t watch it. Just don’t.

4. A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison. A rather excellent movie was made from this more novella-than-novel, but the source material is simply superior. Another post-WW3 radioactive hellhole, with ESP dogs. 

3. The Stand, by Stephen King. Yeah, I know, I frequently rail against the master but give him his due, this is a masterpiece. It gets a bit odd towards the end and it is obvious King has no clue about religion, or maybe he does, but you expect a flaw or two in so massive a tome. And Randall Flagg, man, what a villain. Ignore all the film/TV adaptations, which actually aren’t that bad, and stay with the novel.

2. Full Circle, by Bruce Ariss. Very little known and almost impossible to find, this is a stunning take on the world after nukes. I snagged it out of a Bookmobile in 1968 or 1969 and it has remained with me. After the War of the Poisoned Lightning, American Indians reclaim the land and restore it. Then the white people show back up, from under a lake, as the T.O.A.D. people. I forgot what the acronym stands for, but it doesn’t bode well. Incidentally I lived in Monterey at the same time that Ariss was managing Cannery Row and I wished I had known that because I would have loved to talk to him about this.

1. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. The best post-apoc novel, hands down, and one I still remember scenes from quite vividly. It is, as best as I can figure, the first novel that shows the effects of nuclear war on the average schlub. Safety tip, don’t loot gold and silver from your local jewelry store. They could be radioactive. 

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Homophonia

I’ve read about five or six books recently that appalled. Just appalled [NOTE: for private reasons, I’m not going to name those books so don’t bother asking]. What was so appalling? Besides the individual issues, all of them suffered from some of the worst editing I have ever seen. It looks very much like the only editing they underwent was the automatic checks that Word does as you’re going along. All of these books suffered fatal homophone errors and, no, that’s not some kind of sexual communication device. For example, ‘taught’ for ‘taut,’ which really changes the meaning of the phrase ‘taught face.’ All of them dropped critical words mid-sentence, like ‘not,’ turning what was supposed to be a negation into a positive. So someone who was ‘not’ killed was actually killed? What?

Okay, fine, editing errors, transcription errors, typos, yeah, I know those happen, even in the most scrupulously edited of books. I expect a few errors of different types in anything that’s published, especially now that much of the publishing process is automated. But when you run into five or six fatal homophone errors and numerous dropped words in the same book and you’re only halfway through it, already having suffered through incomprehensible dialogue and simply ridiculous plot points that defy all logic (even the logic built within the novel), then you start to suspect something else is going on. And there is.

Self-publishing.

Man, I’ve got my nerve, don’t I, calling out self-publishing, or its ootsy cutsie synonym ‘indie’ publishing, which sounds like a word that sophomore girls squeal, all campy and kicky and cool, hey, I’m an indie, isn’t that neat? Well, a lot of what’s coming out of ‘indie’ publishing is about on par with the sensibilities of silly sophomore girls who decorate their room with unicorns. It is unserious. It is unprofessional. It is appalling.

And this, of course, was the prediction when traditional publishing gave way to the self published: the necessary gatekeepers are bypassed, allowing a hoard of Visigoths to pour into the sacred city. Gatekeepers kept the city whole, ensuring that only the best of writers and stories went through the crucible of scrutiny to emerge as fully formed novel on the other side, a novel of which both gatekeeper and author could be proud, having maybe one or two homophones at best within its covers and at least a tacit understanding that the novel was the best it could be, selected for its excellence, its provocativeness, its importance, whether you ended up liking the novel or not.

That is the myth the publishing industry promoted, anyway, and still promotes, that they are all Maxwell Perkins looking for the next Thomas Wolfe, and the novels they have blessed into bookstores are all Look Homeward, Angel. And myth that is, because the Max Perkins type of editor died out with Max Perkins, and what replaced him is Jordan Belfort, with the bottom line and best seller list the only two factors applied to the selection of and subsequent publishing of books. How else do you explain Dan Brown?

All of this is, of course, reader driven, and the change in editors’ selections has occurred because readers have changed. They want Brown, not Wolfe, so the publishing industry shifted accordingly. After all, editors have to buy groceries, too. And whether it’s a diminishing of standard public education requirements or social interests or even something like switching from phonetics to whole word strategies (it’s difficult to read Wolfe if you’re reading pictograms) to blame for this, the trads are focused now on tropes and popular themes. We’ve got grrl power and crushings of patriarchies and urban/suburban fantasy and eeevil white people stories to publish, people! 

Which leaves out writers who write like Wolfe. Or look like Wolfe. Or don’t look like Margaret Atwood, or who don’t write what Dan Brown writes. Publishing has its eye on best sellers, millions of books bought through designated outlets and they don’t have time in this hurry-up mixed up world to deal with nuanced themes. Or themes that don’t poll well.

Which led to self-publishing, which is about the only way a lot of authors can bypass the Bryn Mawr graduates managing the slush pile and get their work before the public. Fine, well and good; if there’s anything Jurassic Park taught us, life finds a way. All those authors who do not have the currently accepted genetic structure and/or who choose topics dimly viewed by Bryn Mawr graduates now have an outlet for publishing their work. But with great power goes great responsibility, and you indie writers must ensure your product is as professional as ones available through traditional publishing.

And I don’t mean book covers and binding; I mean content. The book has to be readable. That means your grandmother is not your editor, unless your grandmother happens to work for MacMillan… is MacMillan still around? Whatever, you get the point. And I don’t mean copyediting. Word will copy edit as you go along. I mean content, logic, continuity, character- and-plot-development types of editing, ensuring that your female elvish werewolf story makes sense, holds together, and follows along believable lines to the conclusion. Your grandmother is not going to tell you that. Nor is your best friend. They’re going to be supportive.

The last thing you need as an author is someone to be supportive.

No, I don’t mean the spouse keeping the kids away from your attic room while you hammer out the last battle between the elvish werewolves and the MAGA orcs. I refer to those well meaning relatives who are encouraging our little muffin to write that story and, yes, dear, it’s wonderful, go ahead and load it up on Amazon and you’re going to be a world famous author! Why, I’ll bet you get a Netflix deal! 

And then guys like me get aholt of it, read maybe one page, toss it across the room and then write you a half-star review that will make you cry.

There is no crying in publishing.

And if you want to keep from crying then, by God, you had best upload the most professional, scrutinized, hammered, scrubbed, critiqued and excellent piece of writing possible, or brace yourself for the avalanche. This is the real world.

Best bring your A game.

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Ten Books that Scared Me

Image result for terrified simpsons

These are not necessarily horror novels or monster ghost stories. At least one of them is non-fiction, and the rest are all over the genre pallet. With, yeah, a couple of ghost stories thrown in, but it doesn’t have to be horror to be scary. Real life is scary enough.

Now, it has been awhile since anything truly scared me. Amused me, annoyed me, appalled me, yeah, I get a lot of that these days but not really scared. C’mon, I used to live in New Jersey. So a lot of these are going to be older titles. And not the usual suspects like The Exorcist, and other well knowns which I have probably touched on somewhere.

Without further ado, and in no particular order:

10. The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. Published in 1796, this is a lurid and downright terrifying story of soul corruption by His Satanic Majesty himself. Some of the imagery is downright hair-raising and you’ll be amazed that a novel so old could be so graphic. When the monk Ambrosio finally gets his long overdue comeuppance, whoa.

9. St Leon, by William Godwin. Another 18th Century gothic novel written by one of my favorite characters in history, Mary Shelley’s father. This novel extols the horrors of immortality and the Philosopher’s Stone. Believe me, you don’t want to possess either.

8. Treblinka, by Jean-Francois Steiner. I actually read this sometime in the mid 60’s when it was serialized or excerpted in the Saturday Evening Post (May 1967). This was my first exposure to the graphic horrors of the Holocaust. Sure, I knew about it; my Dad’s WW2 unit was the first American one to discover a concentration camp, Ohrdruf. He never really talked about it but, when he died, I discovered some photographs he had taken shortly after his unit breached the gate. I’ve since given those to the Holocaust Museum. Many people consider this a fiction novel because of its style. 

7. No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. This novel is actually more frightening to a subset of readers, those in law enforcement. Not a lot scares these people; I mean, when you’ve been to crime scenes and autopsies you learn pretty fast how awful people are to each other. But there’s always been a sense of ‘cops and robbers,’ good guys and bad guys who know that they’re good guys and bad guys and follow a set of unwritten rules so things don’t get too out of hand. A set of Old Men rules. But now we have the Joker, those people who simply want to watch the world burn, like Anton Chigurh, the soulless, black hearted hitman of this novel. He is a monster. We’re still not ready for these monsters.

6. Jaws, by Peter Benchley. Speaking of monsters, the Great White Shark in this novel is one you could actually encounter. Indeed, it’s based on an actual shark attack in 1916, the Matawan Man-Eater, which happened not too far from where I lived in NJ. I didn’t really think about sharks before this book; had one surface near my rowboat in the bay outside Long Beach once. But, after reading this? Oookay.

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Rather tame by today’s standards, but this tale of a dark carnival that trades in souls made my thirteen-year-old hair stand on end.

4. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. If you still hold onto the fiction that children are naturally good and loving, then you need to read this classic story of English school boys stranded on an island with no adult supervision. The speed with which civilization breaks down and the boys fall into barbarism is a cautionary tale. It takes centuries to build civilization, just one night to lose it.

3. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. On the other end from stranded schoolboys are schoolboys deliberately left to their own devices when society no longer maintains any kind of standards. When bullies and criminals realize they can do anything they want with little consequence, life gets scary. Right?

2. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre, by Allen Drury. Somewhat turgid and paranoid as all get out, this is one of three sequels to Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, two of which sequels are alternates to each other. Don’t ask. The last part of this book is one of the most frightening depictions of a Soviet takeover of the United States, and well worth enduring the rest of the novel.

1. The 900 Days, by Harrison E. Salisbury. I actually read this in a Reader’s Digest condensed book in the 60’s, and it shook me up. This is a graphic telling of the siege of Leningrad. Between the Nazis and the Stalinists, the citizens really didn’t know who to fear most. The description of what’s found when the snowbanks melt off the sidewalk will curl your hair.

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