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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Can You Hear Me Now?

The other day I got a really cheerful Email from TruConnect saying ‘Hi D### Krauss, let’s stay connected because we’ve noticed you haven’t been using your service and we don’t want you to be disconnected so how ‘bout you call someone or text someone or just surf the ‘net?’  I am not D### Krauss and have no idea what TruConnect is, but it was readily apparent that TruConnect had presumed my email address was that of their customer, D###. I can understand that. D### has a full first name that, when shortened, matches my Email, but it’s probably on a different platform. So I replied to TruConnect that they had mistaken me for another and that they should probably check the Email address again.

I then got another Email from Customer Care  saying ‘hello D### and thanks for contacting us and that your account is active and here’s your phone number so be sure you text, call, or surf to keep it from being disconnected. If further assistance is needed, here’s Customer Care’s phone number.’ It was signed by J###. I said okay, let’s try this again: I’m still not D### Krauss and I have never applied for a TruConnect phone and since you seem to have D###’s phone number, why don’t you give him a call and get his real Email? Just a thought. And I signed it, Not D### Krauss.

So I got a third Email from them apologizing for the inconvenience and that they are happy to help but they needed additional information to locate the account, such as full name, account number and/or the TruConnect phone number. Which they had just sent me. This Email was signed by a different person, E###. At this point, I began to suspect aliens, but TruConnect turns out to be something worse: government. 

It’s the Obama phone.

Which explains a lot. Being a government entity, their levels of competence and clarity are somewhat subdued. Everything is template and bot and if something is off then the templates and bots will respond relentlessly until you either (a) admit you are D### Krauss and immediately start using their service or (b) give up. I chose (b). I have many decades of dealing with government entities and that has always proven to be the best option. 

Time goes by and nothing and I presume that either the real D### Krauss has gotten in touch with them asking why his phone doesn’t work or the statute of limitations has been reached and the bots have moved on. Then I got a big Email from TruConnect with headers and superscripts urging D### to use the service because we see you haven’t been so c’mon, man! At this point I’m really starting to worry about D###, so I let them know that I’m not he (yes, I know, dangerous to assume pronouns, especially when dealing with the government) and would you please check the Email again? Give D### a call, ya know? You’ve got the number. To which E### replies with an apology about my receiving these Emails and giving me instructions on how to block them.

Typical government. They cause the problem, but want me to fix it.

A few weeks go by and I figure we’re done. But no. ANOTHER Email begging me to do SOMETHING with the phone, anything, at least once a month, please D###, please! replete with a big clickable button that is guaranteed to keep my TruConnect service active! Now there is no way in hell I am going to click that button. One of those new IRS agents will come a’knockin’ lookin’ for my Obamaphone. Which I don’t have. Then why did you press the button? Ah, because I was doing D### a favor?

Come with us, sir. 

So I replied with another EMail reminding them I am still not D###, still don’t have a TruConnect phone, and I am about to use them as material for a blog post about incompetent customer service and I will send them the link when it’s done.

Here you go, TruConnect.

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Ack Nowledge Mints, Part Deux

I give up. Despite railing against this trend before, it looks like fiction novel Acknowledgements are here to stay, as ubiquitous as mold in the basement. Just about every recently published novel has one.

Which baffles me, because a fiction novel springs fully armoured from the forehead of the author. It’s not a scholarly treatise, a dissertation, a biography, anything else that requires a ton of research at obscure scholastic libraries with even more obscure holdings that only specialists can access, so, yeah, acknowledge those people. And, yeah, there are some fiction novels that require extensive research and should include an Acknowledgement of the scholars who helped the author get the fabrics and customs of Georgian society correct. But that’s not the kind of Acknowledgements I’m finding. They’re more a summary of the Greatness That is Me, and how the leedle peeple helped me achieve this wondrousness. Let them eat cake.

It’s like the lord of the manor thanking the peasants for their taxes and their daughters. 

And because the quality and biliousness of these Acknowledgements vary from book to book, as a service to the literary community I am providing a standardized generic fiction Acknowledgements section that can be used in any manner of fiction novel, from romance to fantasy. Feel free to copy and adjust as necessary:

My Humble Acknowledgements:

I can’t thank everyone enough for all of the support and encouragement given me while I spent days and days and nights servicing my undeniable muse, resulting in this wonderful novel about werewolf elf women at war with the male oppressors of the orc kingdoms. I have no doubt this book will advance world peace. Or at least result in a Netflix series and everyone everywhere proclaiming the genius that is me. 

To do this meant I had to ignore a lot of things that I was responsible for, like employment and my family. I want to thank the kids for taking after-school jobs to pay the bills, doing the hard work around the house that always needs doing, and for going without meat and most vegetables while I pursued this necessary and extremely important vision. I will make it up to you when I get back from the world tour. Before I start the next novel in the series, of course.

My parents were instrumental in my success because they birthed me. If it hadn’t been for their giving up those selfish dreams of world travel and a paid off mortgage, then I would never have gotten the specialized attention from the numerous experts they consulted to help me understand that I am a creative and unique individual deserving of everyone’s attention. I would never have been able to write this important novel, which is so very different from every other novel written in the last ten years, at least, according to my agent. And my agent should know; she represents at least three other authors with Netflix series that sort of sound like mine but aren’t. Mine’s unique. And original.

And where would I be without the teachers who taught me how to read and write and the rules of English which are quaint and, really, shouldn’t be followed anymore because they’re so restrictive. And racist. That I had the privilege of attending public school like every other child in my neighborhood and learned the same things they did freed me to pursue my single-minded intent to be a world-famous author. Thank you, public servants, for doing this work. Thank you, grocers and baristas who fed me and kept me motivated and allowed me to use free wifi to find story ideas. Not that I got my ideas from anyone else. My book is unique. It is.

My writer’s circle was instrumental in this novel’s development, what with all the encouragement and support and urging from those members who got me and understood my vision. The others, the ones who said my novel was downright unreadable? What you gotta say now? 

And, finally, I want to especially thank my spouse because you’re supposed to do that in Acknowledgements, because we’re still married after all these years spent apart in the same house while I perfected this life changing novel. There is no doubt my spouse will benefit materially when the Netflix series comes online and can always bask in the glow of my celebrity at all the various conferences and TV shows I’ll have to attend. Where I’ll probably meet someone else and divorce and remarry a few times but, hey, that’s the lifestyle, ain’t it? 

Think I’ll put on my smoking jacket and light up a pipe.

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The Top 10 Books I Hated

This is a different list from the one preceding because these are books I actually finished. Very difficult list to put together, let me tell you, because I rarely finish a book I dislike (see below). Going the distance in these various cases was a function of forcing my way through, either because I had to read it for a class or something or because I maintained expectations all the way to the end. Here, then, in no particular order:

10. Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. I was rather bewildered when I got to the end of it because the book was downright incomprehensible. If I had not seen the Omar Sharif movie, I’d have no idea what was going on, which is saying something because the movie has its own degree of incomprehensibility. I stayed with it because I kept expecting it to turn into the movie and it didn’t. I later found out that I was reading a bad translation, and that a much better translation is now available. I may have to give this another go, then. 

9. Cujo, by Stephen King. Funny how King keeps showing up on my lists of books I didn’t enjoy. I read this expecting something King-like to happen, a psychic kid or a vampire, but a rabid dog as metaphor for punishment of your sins? Oh, please. And now I hear he’s writing a sequel. Oh, please, no.

8. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Terribly written, embarrassingly so, and so obviously a polemic against the Catholic Church that one wonders how it got published. Which I guess is the reason it was published.

7. Practically everything from Dan Simmons. The Terror, Summer of Night, Drood. Yeah, yeah, I know, Hyperion, which I will read one day. And no doubt will get added to this list. Or I will eat crow.

6. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Yes, I know, classic and loved, the absurdities of war and the people who run them. But I’ve got a bit of a problem with this dismissive, smug attitude towards a war that was nothing but godawful and hell on earth and devastating and whose effects still ripple through these days. Ya know, it wasn’t some war for oil or national corporations, it was for the very survival of humanity. And yes, I have no doubt that numerous absurd and downright funny things happened in its course. My dad told me a couple of funny stories about his 9-month trip to Berlin on top of a tank. But to treat the entire thing as just an object of your amusement? No.

5. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Revisionist crap.  

4. Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom. I saw the movie and ran across the book thereafter and grabbed it with delight and, pitched it across the room with contempt. What a load of unadulterated crap. The title character generates no sympathy or even much interest. Whoever did the screenplay did a much greater service than this POC, and I don’t mean point of contact.

3. The Hobbit, by J R R Tolkien. What? Heresy! But, no, I did not like this novel at all. Not only is it turgid beyond belief, but it is kid’s book turgid. And, yes, yes, I know, it was written as a kid’s book, but no kid on earth would stand for this long-winded convoluted word mess. Its saving grace, of course, is the introduction of Golem and Gandalf but, really, not the best of the group.

2. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. A very long novel about a guy who simply needs to be slapped around for an hour or so. Good Lord, is Ignatius J Reilly obnoxious. Why anyone thinks he is a compelling character, I just can’t say. This is not social commentary as much as a cautionary tale. Which I didn’t need to read.

1. The Firm, by John Grisham. This isn’t a bad novel, it’s just not that good, and overhyped novels and authors irritate me beyond belief. If you can’t live up to your own press, then don’t expect me to bolster your efforts. Besides, I read Scott Turow before I read Grisham and Turow is light years ahead. Grisham is a Turow wannabe. And this novel is a good story wannabe.

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The Top 10 Books I Tossed Across the Room

These are books that didn’t make it past my self-imposed fifty-page rule, sometimes not even past the first paragraph, before turning it into a Frisbee. Not the top ten books that I hated…hmm, sounds like another list… because I’d have to finish them before deciding if they qualify. I might actually like these books, if I can ever bring myself to restart them. Dunno. Not too inclined to take another spoonful of something that was so wretched on first taste.

I’m sure you have your own version of a fifty-page rule because most of you know that most stories don’t get started for awhile. There are exceptions: ‘Call me Ishmael,’ for example, but that’s due to a compelling opening line which Melville followed with a rather compelling situation. Not every book can start that way so you gotta be fair. But if you’re not at least interested by page fifty, then it’s tossable.

There is a category of books tossable almost within the first sentence: the self-published nightmares that are flooding the bookways. You know to what I refer, books that have apparently not been edited nor critiqued by anyone other than the author’s mother, who told her what a great story it was so she bought a $20 cover and threw it up on Amazon and waits to be proclaimed the next Charlotte Bronte. I don’t include any of those. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Without further ado:

10. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I realize what heresy I speak here, given the immense popularity of this book, but I could not get past the first ten pages, let alone fifty. It was long ago when I tried so I don’t remember much of what I read nor specifically what irritated me, only that I sadi “Oh, brother!” quite a bit. I think that’s due to every single fantasy trope, dressed in Capital Letters, showing up every other sentence or so. I am willing to give this another shot, but not right now. 

9. The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King. This book convinced me that King had decided to stop writing and merely trade on his name, certain his byline was enough to assure best seller lists. I’ve read elsewhere that the good man, himself, regards it as his worst effort, so there is redemption. 

8. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. What a load of pretentious dreck, apparent by page 25 or so. And yes, I fully understand that Pynchon-worship is a mark of heightened intellectual capacity and sophistication, and those who do not like his works are just a bunch of bourgeoise shopkeepers. Okay.

7. Space, by James Michener. I loved Michener’s Centennial, regard it as one of my favorite big books, but this one … oh Lord. Actually got to about page 100 or so before I tossed it. It is so formulaic Michener that I suspect he wrote it in his sleep. 

6. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. I didn’t make it past ten pages. Felt like I was back in middle school.

5. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. This is a YA book, quite brutal, and filled with so much unbelievable teenage superiority and angst that I felt like I was back in high school. Shudder.

4. The Tank Lords, David Drake. I love space opera and space military stories and Drake is the Stephen King of the genre, at least based on his production. But I could not get into this, at all. Made it to about page fifty. I think. Didn’t like the characters, didn’t like the world building.

3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. I know, I know, this is supposed to be the self-published wunderbuch but I stopped right after Howey killed a character that I really liked. I didn’t like any of the remaining characters, so why bother? Add to that an absolutely baffling world with very few hints of what the devil was going on and, well, frisbee. Admittedly, I went back months later and finished a great majority of the story, although, given the way this book /story/series is published, I have no idea whether I actually finished it or not. Still didn’t like it that much, but I have a better idea of the story and well, okay, it ain’t that bad. But I’m not going back.

2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. No further comments necessary.

1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I actually liked this until about page 100, and by then it was so tedious I just put it down and never went back. So not so much a frisbee as a doorstop. I’d be willing to pick it up again one day, if I can remember where I left it.

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Top Ten Best Fantasy Books I’ve Read So Far

I classify ‘fantasy’ in a fairly broad way, summarized by ‘swords and sorcery;’ you know, mythical lands, wizards and goddesses, brawny barbarians, Game of Thrones. But not necessarily all swords and mythical ages; they can be set in contemporary times, can even have scifi and horror mixed in, but the main characteristic is a nonexistent world that may or may not be human but is definitely not alien in the scifi sense. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty loose but it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.

(Caveat: A lot of my favorite horror or scifi or what-have-you novels could have easily ended up on this list, but I figure if I’ve already placed it under some other heading somewhere else, then it’s cheating to round out another list with something already spoken of. This way I get to have 40 or 50 top ten book favorites, which I guess is cheating, too, but in a good way).

The fantasy books that didn’t make this list could, instead, make my list of Books Tossed Across Rooms … hmm, make a note. Those include lots of best sellers and big names and award winners, lots of which are just crap.  Everything is a Capital Letter or has the Chosen One of the Mysterious Race in the Land of Humbug with Gifts of Humbuggery… you know what I mean. All trope, all checklist, the orphan abused boy or girl who has Powers that will Save the Kingdom. Spare me.

But not these. These are good uns.

10. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. An oldie but a goodie, this remains for me the best fictional treatment of the Arthurian legend ever, which is kind of a nothing statement because aren’t all King Arthur treatments fiction? At least we think they are. Told from Merlin’s perspective, this is the story of Merlin’s youth as the despised illegitimate child of a king and a Celtic princess, and how he discovers the crystal caves where his power develops. First of a four-book series that Stewart wrote covering Arthur.

9. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I know, I know, cheesy writing with female characters right out of a Vallejo painting, but this is still a rousing tale of swashbuckled derring-do and one of those books and series that made me love reading. John Carter, adventurer of Earth becomes, through some odd meditation, an adventurer on Mars, where he fights for every teenage boys’ wildest fantasy, the Princess Deja Thoris. If you can ignore the last thirty years of Martian science, then this is a lot of fun.

8. The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock. Consensus is that this is not fantasy, its scifi, far future scifi at that, and it’s not even one novel but three: An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands, and The End of All Songs. But, to quote the old shibboleth, magic is just technology we do not understand, and Jherek Carnelian, who lives at the end of time, has powerful tech indistinguishable from sorcery. When a time accident throws him into contact with 19th Century beauty, Amelia Underwood, he pursues her across the centuries with devastating and hilarious results. This is not for the faint hearted because those end of time denizens have lost all sense of a moral compass.

7. The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. Another one easily classified as scifi, and another first book of a series, called The Book of the New Sun, it is set on the planet Urth …hmm. Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers, is banished for violating the overriding principle of his guild: never show mercy.  

6. The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance. Actually a series of related stories more than a novel, and also the first book of the Dying Earth series, these are tales of wizards and warriors at the end of the sun’s cycle. Sort of like the end of time, except it’s merely the end of the earth. There’s only a few thousand people left by then and all of them are desperate to improve their wizardry so they can dominate everyone else, and the occasional alien who shows up. This book was published in 1950 and had a lot of influence on the creators of Dungeons and Dragons. 

5. The Black Company, by Glenn Cook. The Black Company is a mercenary unit consisting of warriors, tech, mech, and wizards, who fight the enemies of the Lady, who may, or may not, be someone worth fighting for. Rollicking adventure that at times is downright hilarious, this is a combination swords and space opera. This is the first of a series, too, all of the follow-on books well worth reading.

4. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. This is Harry Potter for grownups, a very dark, downright terrifying version of the magical world versus us poor muggles. Quentin is a sad sack loser whose innate magical ability gains him an application to study at Brakebills academy of magic. What makes this fantasy instead of standard horror is the existence of a Narnia-like world that turns out more Mordor than anything. There’s a pretty good Netflix series based on it.

3. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. A single-handed revival of the entire fantasy genre, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards are the best troupe of lying, thieving, conning conniving lovable blaggards to have slung a sword or stiletto or magical potion since the Grey Mouser. The insults alone are worth the read. 

2. Shadow Gate, by Kate Elliott- still my favorite book of her Crossroads trilogy, which I read out of order and grateful that I did because I don’t think I would have got past the first book, Spirit Gate, because it’s fairly standard stuff. But once you get through the first novel of world-building, holy hannah, this is great stuff. Eagle-reeves and Guardians and a horror overtaking the Hundred. And then there’s Mai. 

1. The Fifth Season, by N K Jemisin. The first book of the Broken Earth trilogy and the first Jemisin I read and one that blew me away and turned me into a Jemisin fan. The Stillness is a land ironically named, because it is anything but, threatened by periodic life-ending cataclysms that have to be contained by properly trained mutants called Orogenes. But if an Orogene gets away from the cruelty of the Guardians, then things shake up. Literally.

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Where I Get my Books

I have somewhere between 500- 600 books. I don’t think that’s excessive because those are acquisitions over a 60 year period, if you count the Dr. Seuss I had when I was a kid. I’ve probably lost or tossed an equal number in that same time period, including those same Dr. Seuss which, boy, do I regret now. Five hundred to six hundred is probably the average number of books the average reader has at any given moment. I don‘t have anything to base that on other than my own and friends’ experiences. If you’re up in the 1000 book plus arena then wow, you are a book god and where do you put it all? I have an 1800 square foot house and stack books on top of dresser drawers. Which isn’t good for them. I’d buy more bookshelves but furniture acquisition is exclusively a wife province, and she thinks end tables are far more important. I have enough end tables to complement ten or twenty couches. Maybe I should stack the books there.

I used to buy books on the recommendation of hype/bestseller lists/advertisements, which is all basically hype. After getting burned on a few of those titles (I’m looking at you, Chesapeake), I stopped doing that. I buy/acquire books that (a) have some special interest to me or (b) I know I’ll read again. Or want to read again. Those fall into three general categories:

A. Nostalgia- these are books from my youth or address subjects from my youth and/or lifelong wanderings. A good example is the dreadfully titled The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr, an egregiously racist book about the Civil War written around 1910 that I read when I was in the hospital for a kidney ailment when I was 12 or 13. In 1910. Kidding, it was 1967 or 1968. At the time, the story of a southern orphan who defies his friends and culture to join the Union Army was quite compelling. Today, meh, not so much. All that egregious racism is a bit of a turnoff. But I still read it from time to time. Books set in LA- lower Alabama- or south Jersey are in the same category. Any place, actually, that I have memories of, fond or otherwise. Like anything by Richard Russo.

B. Non-fiction- usually histories, but I do have a couple of Steven Pinker’s because the brain, man, and some physics books because, the universe, man. Associated with those are historical fiction books about the period of interest, like all these Neal Stephenson’s that I have. Nothing like historical fiction to humanize history, although some non-fiction histories are compelling stories in their own right. I also buy books about books.

C. Anthologies- science fiction and fantasy, mostly, but short stories, too, if they cover a period or place of interest. These are collections of the stories I devoured in the 70s and 80s and if I run across a Gardner Dozois or Robert Silverberg compilation somewhere I snatch it right up, first edition, book club edition, reprint, don’t care, I want the stories they carry. I do have some more recent anthologies like ones that Neil Clarke puts out but those are of secondary interest to the classics. I don’t know what it is but newer scifi stories leave me a little cold. They feel like ‘been there, done that,’ although some are pretty good. But I’d rather read Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain for the hundredth time than anything by Ken Liu.

So where do I buy my books? No, not Amazon, not even Barnes and Noble. That’s because they don’t present a challenge. They’re sure things; if you don’t see what you want on the shelf, then ask for it and, presto, book sent to you. How boring. I treat book buying as a treasure hunt, the joy of stumbling across a remembered book or an intriguing story never hoid of before. That’s fun, that’s the rush of book collecting. I look for those hidden nuggets here: 

A. Thrift stores. Yeah, I’m cheap, because spending $30 for a brand new hyped book that the Bryn Mawr graduates living on the west side of New York rave about is like buying a new end table. Besides, you can find out-of-print and first and second editions of some excellent books there. I once found a signed copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization in a Goodwill. A first edition. Man. 

B. Used book stores. Specifically, one, Blue Plate Books in Winchester, VA which I am not allowed to enter because I spend all the end table money there and walk out with about 10-15 books that I now have to find a place to stack. The owner, Pat Saine, has exquisite taste and you are going to find gems here, pure gems. 

C. Yard sales. Meh. Not so much. I’m not a yard sale guy but occasionally am dragooned into driving the van and providing labor for the transfer of end tables from a yard sale back to my house. And if I’ve got to muscle end tables into the living room then, by God, I’m getting a couple of books at the same yard sale to stack on them.

I once went to a book auction, specifically Larry McMurtry’s Last Book Sale in August 2012. I’ve got a fairly detailed blog post about it, if you’re interested. The Last Book Sale | (dustyskull.com)

These are great places for older books and has-beens, so how do I get briefed on new releases and what’s happening now? Best seller lists? God no.

The library, of course.

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Deflating the Expanse

About two minutes into season 6 of The Expanse, rumored to be the last and final and never will it come this way again (maybe), I thought, “Did they change writers or something?” Because, about two minutes into it, I thought I was watching the introduction of a 1980s-type cheesy scifi series, with ootzy cutzy precocious kids and darling alien animals cavorting around a near-Eden because, if there’s anything Babylon 5 and Star Trek Next Generation taught us, the future is bright, I gotta wear shades. But, about forty minutes later, I knew what happened: they didn’t change writers, the writers are just tired of it.

How else do you explain such a superficial, out of character, and ultimately dissatisfying end to what I consider the best TV series in all of TV history? And just exactly like other recent epic great series (Lost, Game of Thrones) the last season turns out a sore disappointment.

What’s with you guys?

If you haven’t watched Season 6 yet, then stop reading this, just stop. Because I’m not going to spare you.

 Let’s start with the ootzy cutzy kids. Since they’ve been on Laconia for more than five minutes, I’m sure they’ve been told at least once that (a) this is an alien world (b) the evolution is different than ours and (c) we don’t understand everything that’s here yet, so be careful. Indeed, Mom and Dad say as much when weepy little girl in-desperate-need-of-a-smacking-around tells them she fed earth food to a local animal, killing it. Then the puppies restore it to life. Sinister looking puppies, at that. Something she doesn’t tell her parents. But they’ll find out soon enough.

And what kind of crazy parents let their kids meander through an alien landscape of different evolution and chemical base and unknown puppies? Thinking Child Protective Services needs to get involved here.

So, okay, endure that for a few minutes and, whew, now we’re back into the main story. In which James Holden does something so incredibly stupid that it could only be a plot device. I don’t have any further explanation for his disarming the missile. Even Naomi tells him how stupid that was. Because, really, if your choice is doing the one thing that will so disable and disorganize the Free Navy that they will instantly and immediately no longer be a threat and the war is over and thousands, if not millions, will be saved, or spare your girlfriend’s feelings, what would you do? 

If you say “spare your girlfriend’s feelings,” please stay out of any job or position where fates are in your hands.

And how is it we got into that situation to begin with? I mean, if we were in downtown Mayberry and James and Marco happened to run into each other, that’s one thing, but we’re not in Mayberry, we’re out past the Belt. Awful lot of space out there. Them running into each other is an amazingly fortuitous circumstance.  

As are the Ring Entities. 

And I’m guessing Amos swallowed some wuss pills and is now in touch with his inner little girl. The producers needed him to ‘evolve,’ I suppose, into an early 21st Century ideal man as envisioned by Hollywood and woke culture, instead of remaining the brutalized sociopath seeking redemption that has made him one of the most intriguing and heroic characters in the entire show. I thought revisionism only applied to the past, but, apparently, one can impose present standards on future behaviors, even if it’s at odds with the character that you spent five seasons building. 

Indeed, about the only two characters that remain true to themselves are Drummer and Avasarala. Thank God. Drummer quickly became my favorite character after Detective Miller, and Avasarala, well, she has my undying love. So I’m happy about that.

And I’m happy about other things. The rail gun assault was magnificent (although, personally, I’da just blown Medina Station and the rail gun to bits but, yeah, okay, reasons) and Bobby was badass and humanity is still the collective bag of crapheads they will always be, no matter what miracles are offered. But this was a letdown. Too much left unresolved. Too hurried.

Too tired of it.

If there’s one gigantic piece of evidence that everyone is just tired of this, it’s laying further explanations at the feet of the written source material. Yeah, we know, there’s short stories and remaining novels and the books do this and the books do that but that’s cheating. Media remains within media and you don’t get to reference source material as your escape plan. If you can’t resolve it in your show, then you can’t. But it’s a copout to smugly raise an eyebrow and nod at other info.

So, it ends. Not with a bang. But a whimper.

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The B Team is in Charge

My passport expired. So did my wife’s. Being a savvy computer-literate American, I dutifully downloaded the requisite Department of State forms, filled them out as pdfs, printed them, and then researched methods to obtain requisite passport photos.

I could upload a photo off my phone into some template and then print out the photos, but I didn’t have any photo paper and didn’t want to buy any. No need. All my photos are in the cloud. 

An internet search disclosed the following stores provided on-demand passport photos: Costco, WalGreens, Wal Mart, UPS, CVS, and the US Postal Service…oops, no, USPS used to provide photos but no longer. They will provide a properly addressed envelope to ensure your properly filled out and assembled documents, along with a check, will go to the proper office. The envelope’s free; you still have to pay the postage. Okay, so, get the photos, go to USPS, get the envelope, drop in documents, mail it, mission complete.

The saga begins.

We went to see Spiderman: No Way Home (epic. Just epic) and figured afterwards stop by the local Costco, get the photos. Walked up to the photo desk, “Hi. Like to get some passport photos.”

The guy running the counter looked at us like we’d ordered morphine. “We don’t do passport photos. Haven’t since last February.” And then glared at me like I had ordered morphine.

“According to your website, you do.”

“You believe everything you read on a website?”

Well, no, but one assumes a service offered on a company’s website is one actually provided by said company owning the website. One assumes.

Walgreens was across the street so off we hied. The 8th grade girls running the place assured us they did offer passport photos so one of them snapped pictures of us on a Kodak Instamatic (that’s what it looked like) and uploaded the results to a nifty looking combination-photo-processor and printer. The 8th graders entered their code and entered their code and entered their code and the nifty printer-processor promptly crashed. With no way to make it uncrash. We laughed.

We went to WalMart.

As you know, the electronics section of WalMart is as far from the front doors as possible so, after a thirty minute hike, we got back there. Mind you, this is now about eight in the evening which, of course, makes no difference to the number of customers but has a deleterious effect on the number of Walmart employees manning counters and cash registers. So you can imagine our relief at seeing not one but two persons behind the electronics/passport photo counter: two bearded millennials, one of whom may not actually be of a sex normally associated with beard growing, wearing matching black shirts and pants like members of a cult. “Passport photos, please!” I beamed. My wife beamed, too.

“Oh!” Beard #1 was sorrowful. “We’re contractors, not employees. So we don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“A manager will be here shortly,” Beard #2 replied and then both Beards hied to another section of the counter where they played grabass for about the next ten minutes. I concluded Walmart had contracted them as employee stand-ins.

About fifteen minutes later, a person dressed in WalMart regalia slipped behind the counter and immediately got into a very loud and somewhat intense argument in Spanish with a patron, the gist of which is the patron did not believe a correct discount had been applied and had a much-slapped receipt in hand to prove it. While this was going on, a line formed behind the patron because Lord knows it is a rare sight to find an actual WalMart employee manning a counter after 8 pm. When patron’s complaints were disposed (not to the patron’s satisfaction), the employee began waiting on the line.

My wife can be assertive at times and spoke up at that point, advising the employee we had been waiting for passport photos for, oh, say, twenty minutes. He looked at us and said, “I don’t do those.” Pause. “No one here tonight does those.” The contractors ceased their grabassing for a moment to give us a big smile, then back to grabassing.

We left. Not in the best of moods.

The next day, we went to UPS. UPS, c’mon, it’s UPS. What could go wrong?

No printer paper, that’s what. And no idea when printer paper would be available. But, they were willing to sell me printer paper so I could print my own. That is, if they had any printer paper. Which they didn’t.

CVS, the last great hope.

The first CVS we attempted also did not have printer paper. I’m guessing all the printer paper destined for the Shenandoah Valley is on a ship container off the California coast. But this CVS did have something no other store had: someone willing to help. The manager called around to the other CVS’s until he found one that not only had printer paper but a photo processor that worked, codes and all. It was clear across town, and we tore through badly timed lights, drunk pedestrians, and drivers who obviously had no idea there were other cars on the road and made it. We made it. Got our photos. Hallelujah.

So, warned by the preceding experience, I called the USPS. Or tried to. Apparently, there are several 800 numbers with a required series of public service announcements beseeching you in English and Spanish to watch out for that COVID before you reach a menu that lets you call your local post office, except as soon as I tapped “6,” the designated menu number to retrieve said local phone number, it hung up on me. So I searched the internet for someone who had thoughtfully posted the local number, found it, dialed it… disconnected. Another search for USPS passport offices and, on the fourth menu page, found a local number. Called it. It rang. Someone answered.

“Hi, do I need an appointment to bring in my passport paperwork?”

“Do you have everything?”

“Forms filled out but not signed, old passports, check not filled out. Even got the photos, which, let me tell you, was no easy task.”

“Then you don’t need an appointment. Just come in anytime between 9-5 to pick up the pre-addressed envelope.”


So we went between 9-5, no appointment in hand. Our passport office is located out of sight of the main Post Office lobby in an obscure back room set around several corners as far away as is architecturally possible. I’m guessing this is a dexterity, stamina, and logic test to see if you qualify for a passport or not. The four-ton door is another test. I walk in. “Hi, I’m here for a passport envelope!”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“You said I didn’t need one.”

“That may be so in your case, but your showing up here interrupts others who have an appointment so I cannot serve you until the others with appointments are served first.”

“So I needed an appointment?”

“No. You didn’t. You’ll have to wait until those who have an appointment waiting outside the door and who come in one at a time are done.”

“There’s no one waiting outside.” Which was true when I walked in. Apparently they were having trouble with the door and the logic test.

“Fine. Here’s your envelope. I will write on the inside flap everything that needs to go into it. It is already pre-addressed. The fee changed fifteen minutes ago to $160 each, which is different than what it says on the website so good thing you came in, even though you don’t have an appointment because they would have rejected your application.”

“Are there other reasons they will reject our applications?”

“None that you’re allowed to know.”


Out the door past the now long line of waiting passport patrons. “You don’t need an appointment” I said to them, “it’s enough that you found your way here.” 

Out to the lobby where, in full view of numerous persons very interested in our old passports, we checked and triple checked and readied the photos for stapling to our applications with four, no more than, and no less than, staples at precisely marked locations with the stapler I had cleverly brought along… but didn’t check if it had staples in it. Borrowed a stapler from a  suspicious clerk, shooed the patrons interested in our old passports away, and then ready to sign. My wife has a purse that doubles as a sleeping bag, but no pens inside it. Paper clips, a translation of Thucydides, playing cards and a portable life raft (in case of flood), but no pens. Black ink only. I had one in the truck, though, went out, got it, shooed away the patrons who were busily copying down our identifying data, signed, stuffed requisite items into envelope, brought envelope with correct check made out to Department of State and our dates of birth, names of great-grandparents, DNA samples, and all the places we had lived over the last forty years listed in the memo block, sealed it in front of the suspicious clerk, paid for it, and sent it off. 

We should get our new passports sometime in the next two months.

Or, more likely, a rejection. Staples were the wrong size, doncha know.

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The Authors I Always Read

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, which isn’t really all that far back. The earliest memory I have is probably my 4th birthday; I got cupcakes instead of a regular cake and I was not happy about that. I mean, how do you blow out the candles on ten-to-fifteen cupcakes scattered around a kitchen table? It was a rip-off.

But I do remember always having books, from Dr. Seuss to the Happy Hollisters to Doc Savage and beyond. Marvel Comics taught me to read. Or rather, my next-door neighbor did. He was a few years older and a Marvel fanatic and every Saturday back in 1962 we raced up the road to Carl’s Drug store and I’d buy two Marvels and a pack of bubble gum (with the baseball cards inside) for a grand total of 25 cents (my weekly allowance) and then race back home to see what Mr. Fantastic and the Avengers were doing. “What’s that word?” “What’s this word?” and he had me sound it out. By first grade, I was reading at a second grade level. By second, at fifth, and so on. Moms, give your kids comic books.

And yeah, I know, I’ve told this story a thousand times before and do so again to make this point: we lifelong readers develop lifelong attachments to certain authors. I am no exception. These are writers who have proven themselves excellent word slingers. While the list changes every decade or so (or as I find writers I never read before), whenever I stumble across some previously unread book of theirs I reflexively pick it up, even if the plot is somewhat dubious. Based on previous experience, I’m willing to give it a shot.  

In no particular order:

Kate Elliot. I ran across her when I picked up the wrong book, Shadow Gate, the second novel of her Crossroads Trilogy, and it blew me away. I didn’t know what was going on because, second book of a trilogy, but who cared? It was magnificent. So, of course, I grabbed the first book, Spirit Gate, and was not so impressed, which goes to show, you can’t judge a trilogy by its first book. You know why: it’s all character introduction and world building and a lot of that can get tedious. The story usually doesn’t start until the second book and, man, did it. She introduced one of my favorite and memorable characters, Mai, the future princess and queen and badass.

Alastair Reynolds. Probably the best hard-science far-future scifi author out there, although he has tried his hand at a few near-Earth stories, with mixed results. But even his so-called bombs, such as the novel Pushing Ice, are cuts above other authors’ best efforts. Reynolds does not explain his tech or science, but you get enough information from the story and context that you can puzzle out his thinking, even when he writes crazy timelines involving hundreds of thousands of years.

N. K. Jemisin. The best fantasy writer working today, bar none, hands down. Her world-building  and plot lines will melt your brains. Often, I don’t get past the first books of most trilogies because they don’t convince me their world is viable. With hers, first sentence of the first book hooks me completely. You have got to read The Broken Earth trilogy. And the Inheritance trilogy. And everything else.

Stephen Hunter. Yeah, yeah, a sparse action writer who can leave you a little frustrated with plot resolutions, but he’s created one of my favorite literary characters: Bob Lee Swagger, aka Bob the Nailer. No, that’s not a sexual reference; Bob earned the nickname for his extraordinary and rather prolific sniping during the Vietnam War. Long after the fall of Saigon, he is still relying on those sniper skills to get him out of trouble.

Scott Lynch. Gentlemen bastards. What more is there to say?

Mary Doria Russell. She has written two of the greatest scifi books ever, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God. Since then, well, she’s had some misses, but I still read everything she does because of those first two. She is definitely all over the place, from Italy in WW2 to the Old West, but that makes me like her even more. She is not typecast. 

Neal Stephenson. Oh, c’mon, the guy is a one-man library, his topics ranging from the Restoration to the cyber future and even alien societies. And he’s going to write everything he knows about the particular topic of the moment so, pack a lunch. He has created one of my other favorite literary characters, Half-cocked Jack and, yes, that is a sexual reference. 

Richard Russo. See? It’s not all scifi and horror. Russo usually writes about places and characters of the Great White North, upstate New York and Vermont and nearbys. I lived up there for a few years and remember it rather fondly, so I’m drawn to his books, like Empire Falls.  I know those people. 

Ann Leckie. Her Imperial Radch is probably the best ongoing scifi series on the market right now and you must scoot yourself over to your nearest book source, be that library or store, and grab the first one. And then the second. And keep going. A starship that is a person. Wow.

These authors are still living and producing, at least, as far as I know. Maybe I’ll do another list of my goto authors no longer with us. We’ll see.

Posted in Merry Marvel Marching Society, Reading itself | Comments Off on The Authors I Always Read