Ghosts of Childhood

“Make the crooked straight, make the straight to flow.  Gather water, fire, and light.  Bring the world to a single point.”

~ DENG MING-DAO

I’m engaged in a titanic, solitary struggle right now, a fight for a large part of who I am.  You see, I’m 69 years old, and since the age of nine, back in 1958, I have been writing to entertain others.  I have been trying to drive this new page as if I don’t have a care in the world, but the astute among you have already seen the chinks in the armor, and to try to ignore this or gloss it over would be dishonest.  I do not intend to be dishonest.

I’m no psychologist, but I have a suspicion that my burning need to write is rooted in a less-than-ideal childhood.  While I certainly didn’t miss meals or live chained up in a shed or a child-labor sweatshop, I was shunted around from relative to relative until I ended up being raised primarily by my great-grandmother, who as nearly as I could tell had neither patience nor use for children.  I was whipped with a switch on bare legs for the slightest of infractions, and constantly reminded that I was worthless and stupid.  Discovering that I was good at writing, I set about proving her wrong.  Now she is long-dead, gone on to her final reward, and perhaps my subconscious, feeling that I have proven myself to someone who will never know about it, is ready to move on.

That’s my theory, anyway.  But I want to be a writer.  That’s the one thing that I have been since childhood, and it is such a huge part of me that I have no desire to give it up, hence this website, among a number of other things.  I have no patience with braggarts, and yet a month ago I reposted a review I received on the Good, Bad, Bizarre website (now defunct) extolling the virtues of Beyond the Rails.  That was done mostly for me, to prove that I could do it, and I’m going to do it again in the hope of reminding myself in public that I am a quality writer, and still have something to say.  This one is of the second installment of Beyond the Rails, and is by C. William Perkins, who spins a pretty wicked yarn himself in his Lorna Lockheed stories.  He was a reviewer for Steampunk Reviews dot-com, which also seems to have gone under, but his review lives on at Goodreads, and it thrills me to tears to repeat it here:

“Beyond the Rails II: Soldier of the Crown is a fantastic return to form for indie author Jack Tyler. Following once again the crew of the airship Kestrel in 1880’s colonial Kenya, these six new stories are a welcome continuation, further building the world, developing the characters and shaking up the status quo.

We pick up not long after the events of the last book and Tyler continues to succeed in his episodic, almost TV Season like approach to storytelling.  The memories of “last season’s finale” are still fresh as he picks up a new adventure with the Kestrel crew.  Only Captain Monroe, the American cowboy Smith, and the young tagalong botanist Dr. Ellsworth remain to keep the ship aloft and take on new missions.  Even in her absence though, the prodigious pilot Patience Hobbs leaves a noticeable impression on the others, like a daughter who has run away from home and might not come back this time.  Though Tyler never lets us forget her, he uses the break wisely to let the others stand out and prove their worth.  Monroe languishes over keeping the Kestrel in the air and on mission, and Smith with his Peacemaker and rugged Clint Eastwood charm always entertains.

Previous Prussian engineer Gunther has vanished between seasons like an actor who asked for more money in the offseason and didn’t get it.  I thought he more than earned his keep but I can’t say as I missed him for long, so maybe it was for the best.  Ellsworth covers for him in the engine room until he’s replaced but still can’t find time to be as interesting as the rest of the cast.  As for Hobbs, I won’t spoil what Tyler does with her, but he makes sure we don’t forget about her and he definitely uses the absence to enhance the story.  In fact, the first couple tales she sits out are easily some of Tyler’s best crafted stories.

The first is a quick jumpstart, sucking you back to the audacious African frontier with Tyler’s usual sense of mystery and danger.  This time it’s reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as they find themselves trapped with a family of mad scientists.  The third story (one of my favorites) takes a break from the action when one of their passengers lures them into his international treasure hunt, evoking a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel.  Tyler plays with a lot of fun but familiar tropes: the daring escape, the interrogation of a bad guy high in the air, the race-against-the-clock chase to save a life, or the framed-for-murder mystery.  Each is familiar to anyone who has seen an action movie in the last forty years, but Tyler handles each one with poise, using the various scenes to illuminate his characters, build suspense, or tease us into second guessing our own expectations.

Tyler’s writing was good before, but his straightforward and direct style is even sharper this time.  His extensive research makes me wonder once again about the kind life he’s lived.  His maritime vocabulary and proficiency with the mechanics of the ship’s boiler suggest he could quite possibly build his own airship and tour us across Kenya himself if he felt like it.  Unlike a lot of steampunk, he keeps one foot firmly grounded in real life and doesn’t get swept up in fanciful genre indulgences.  I wouldn’t call this hard science-fiction just yet, but his “steampunk-light” approach retains the kind of gravitas and depth that we all first fell in love with during 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in 80 Days, where one good premise is enough to inspire awe rather than a slew of improbable gadgets and pedantic mad scientists.  Not to say he doesn’t dip his toes into some darkly ominous human experiments, but when he does he stops short of gratuity to make sure his characters and their experience come first.  To say it works is an understatement.  I loved it and it’s a high standard for others in the genre to live up to.

His guest stars once again are so compelling that he fools me almost every time into thinking they’re about to join the cast.  The underrated Chang Wei, the treasure hunting Eric Hafner, or the Maasai priestess Darweshi all prove to be as fully realized as the main cast.  Recurring characters like Governor General Sanderson or the barman Faraji are equally delightful.  I look for them every time we return to port.

As the Kestrel rises above Mombasa, you really feel like you’ve joined their crew.  Part of that comes with time, having simply had more exposure to the characters after twelve stories total, but their interactions really do feel more authentic and “in the moment” this time.  And that’s what makes these stories so compelling.  Like Star Trek or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, you really want to be a part of this family and you wonder what they’re up to between scenes.  Part of that comes as a result of Tyler’s story-craft.  For each main plot, there are little digressions, mini-episodes, or scenes that stand on their own, like a meal at the bar, or the negotiation of a new fare, or an innocuous walk through the market before being mugged.  Or even just the denouement after the dust has settled where they discuss the mundane practicalities of refueling, restocking and how they’ll find their next paid gig.  When each story ends, the most satisfying element is the excitement of wondering what mayhem and misadventure is lurking behind the horizon.

I’m sure Tyler’s next novel Stingaree will be his best work yet, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little bummed that it’s causing a delay in Beyond the Rails III.  A reveal at the end ties together a handful of previously disconnected loose ends going all the way back to the opening story in book one.  A new arrangement with Kenya’s Governor General in the second story, for example, creates an interesting subplot early on, but it never really comes to fruition.  Either he set it up to throw us off (which actually worked on me since I kept waiting for it to backfire), or he’s still getting to his big payoff.  Little narrative references along the way suggest that while Tyler likes each story or episode to appear unique and independent that he still wants to make sure we’re following the breadcrumbs.  He’s building to something and I want to know what it is, and that might be the best compliment I can give above all the rest, is that he’s got me hooked.  As a reviewer, he’s turned me into a fan, and now like the rest of you, I have to wait for more.

Conclusion:  5 out of 5 stars.  I usually save this for the kind of professional-level books you find in a book store, but if I could find anything like this from a traditional publisher, I’d buy it for sure.  Tyler succeeds in taking us along for another African airship adventure and like the season finale to your favorite guilty pleasure, you can’t wait till next year to see what’s going to happen.”

Well, Mr. Perkins, at least you didn’t have to wait for Beyond the Rails III!  This was my second “epic” review, and is the kind of stroking my subconscious needs to regain its interest in the written word.  And I so much want it to!  I have been asked by the new Scribblers’ Den to provide an introduction and maybe a story for their new anthology coming this fall.  I’m going to pitch into this with all the energy I can bring to it, and maybe that will be the kick-start I need to get back on the Rails, so to speak.  If it is, I plan to “dance with the girl I brought,” and begin work on Beyond the Rails IV.  After that, there is The Darklighters spinoff I set up in BtR III, so maybe I’ll have enough in this familiar universe to keep me engaged.

I can’t pretend to know what’s going to happen down the road, but I know what I want to happen, and am going to bend every effort to bringing it about.  Wish me luck, and watch for results; I’m not going down without a fight!

Daily Double: My First Major Review

This is my second post today, and I don’t advise getting used to it, but I want to put a lot of material on here during the first week, and I want this to be circulated.  I’m posting verbatim my first major review, and one of my favorites of all time.  It appeared on the review site Good, Bad, Bizarre on May 13th, 2014, a site that has since ceased operation.  What makes it so great from my point of view is the fact that the reviewer, H.C. Dallas, who refers to herself in the plural, doesn’t like steampunk!  Or at least she didn’t until she read mine.  It’s a rare and wonderful thing for a writer to be able to change someone’s long-held opinion about an entire genre, and I was on top of the world when I read this.  To this day, when I get down on myself for not being the writer I am in my fantasies, I can come back and read this, and I am on top of the world again.

          I don’t know why you’ve stopped reviewing, H.C.  I hope it’s nothing more sinister than personal preference, but should you chance to read this, know that you touched a life, and more than once have kept a writer writing.  You have my eternal gratitude and best wishes for a long and happy life.

          So with no further waffling, I present Good, Bad, Bizarre’s take on Beyond the Rails.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

          Today we have a review for a genre that we have been avoiding until now:  Steampunk.  Why have we avoided it?  Well, a couple of bad experiences with the genre, via books that we will not name, had previously soured us to Steampunk in all its forms.  One book was so awful — a mishmash of Sci-Fi, Victorian history, and (surprise!) magic — that we could not even finish it.  We were hurled from one setting to another, had technology and then magic shoved in our faces, and when the talking lobsters appeared… well, we just threw in the towel (and, if you read any of our other reviews, you will know that this is quite unusual — usually we love the strange and bizarre, but in this case it did not love us back).  If this is Steampunk, we thought, then clearly it’s overrated.  We have not picked up another Steampunk book… until this day.
That’s why we’re glad that we had the chance to review this book.  Because, before now, we quite literally did not know what we were missing.  It just goes to show that when you give something a second chance, it can surprise you.  So let’s take a look into things, shall we?
                                 SUMMARY
Title: Beyond the Rails
Author: Jack Tyler
Genres: Steampunk, Action & Adventure, Western-ish
          The book is comprised of several adventures — more like short stories — which center on the plucky crew of an “airship” — that is, a dirigible.  It takes place in the 1880s (according to the preface) in a region of Kenya, Africa, which is being colonized by the British.  The railroads in the area only reach a certain distance into the African frontier; after that, everything is “beyond the rails,” and only accessible by air.  That’s where our crew and their airship come in, for they have the one thing that everyone needs: mobility.  This means that they need to be ready for anything — and everything — that they can encounter, both inside civilization and out.
          The book starts out with a sequence of interrelated short stories, which read very much like classic “penny dreadful” or adventure tales, complete with dastardly villains who receive their comeuppance by Our Heroes by the end.  Each story also serves the purpose of letting us get to know a member of the crew a little better, as we get to see them act alone and interact together.  By the end, the book changes gears and moves into a connected narrative, with each chapter starting to add to a larger plot.  Unfortunately that plot ends in mid-swing — but the fortunate thing about this is that this also means that there is more to come in future installments.
Throughout the book, we were struck by the author’s writing.  It does a wonderful job of relating the stories in what we would describe as a “verisimilitude” way — that is, it does feel as though these people are from the late nineteenth century, with their mannerisms, niceties, and ways of looking at the world.  It also flows wonderfully, providing ample description, and has mastered the ability to both trust the reader’s judgment — there’s a lot of subtlety in these pages — while still providing ample amounts of description and oddities for our brains to gnaw on.
                               THE GOOD…
1) Vibes: Rudyard Kipling, Indiana Jones, and Cowboys & Indians
          Not having had much experience with Steampunk, we can’t rightfully say if most of the genre features these sorts of things or not; but right away, the moment the story begins, we found ourselves having a “Western Adventure” kind of vibe.  Instead of the American southwest, it was the African frontier.  Instead of Cowboys and Indians, it was the Airship Crew and the Africans.  Each chapter was a complete story of its own, so we kept experiencing new adventures with every turn of the page.  There was a rough-and-tumble, get-yer-guns-ready, we’re-riding-(flying)-into-town sort of feeling in these tales, and we enjoyed the blend of safari story and Wild West.
          Whether or not this is common to Steampunk, we can say one thing about the presence of Western-style genre within this book: it was awesome.  Setting the tale in Africa added so many layers and so much room for adventure; it was quite the brilliant move.  Add to this the fact that most of the characters were not American (there is one person from the USA), then it also becomes a British Cowboy story.  Throw in some colonialist themes and there’s Rudyard Kipling waiting in the background, too.  Add a dash (a small dash) of magic, and bigger countries’ struggles (English and Prussian strain), and suddenly Indiana Jones is dancing around.  In short, anyone who loves the old-fashioned adventure tale will love this book.
2) Great cast
          The cast of characters was very flavorful and unique.  Each character both embodied a stereotype and possessed his own unique flair, which really allowed us to picture them in our mind.  The Captain of the airship, Clinton Monroe, is a no-nonsense man of action, and takes good care of his crew like a father-figure.  David Smith, the American cowboy, has found a home-away-from-home in Africa’s savanna.  Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth, is a prissy, highly educated, somewhat out of his element newcomer to the crew, and despite his rough patches still has a good heart.  And there are others, too (Of course, our favorite has to be Patience Hobbs, who we will discuss below.)
          The thing about each of these characters is that we’re given time to spend with each of them.  They are each given a portion of the story to themselves, and we get to follow them around, get a feel for them as individuals, and see a little about what makes them tick.  This is a wonderful way to become invested in their fates throughout the story.  We really liked how different they all were, and yet how they all functioned together as a single unit: the intrepid crew of the airship Kestrel.
3) Portrayal of women
          Right from the start, this story makes no bones about it: Patience Hobbs is a frontier woman, and such women don’t scare easily.  She comes from fine breeding and had a high education in England, but truth be told she’s now working with the boys and can keep up with them easily.  Patience forms one of the core characters in the narrative.  She is the airship pilot, and this is only one of her formidable list of skills.  She steers the ship through crises.  She kicks the butt of an assassin.  In short, she rocks.  She’s not the only woman here, either.  There are others of equal importance, skill, and complexity.
          The thing we enjoyed the most, however, was that these women were both strong… and feminine.  This is not a story of a woman who had to give up being female in order to be taken seriously.  Patience is allowed to show a softer, more feminine side: she sticks up for those who need a helping hand (like Ellsworth), and she in general acts more like a tough woman than a man’s man, and nobody holds this against her or thinks that she’s below them because of it.  Another character, Cynthia Blackwell, also travels from being weak and dependent into a fuller, able-bodied individual, and she also does not lose touch with her femininity.
          Oh, and did we mention this book passes the Bechdel Test?  By our estimation, Patience Hobbs and another female character, Cynthia Blackwell, have an entire conversation about airship flight, what it means to travel, and how this is affecting them, personally.  And they only mention “boys” in an abstract sense, just once, and it relates more toward describing their own feelings, personalities, and character arcs.  How awesome is that?
4) Saves the magic… until later
          One thing we first thought about this story was that it took its time.  Aside from the presence of the dirigible, at first it read nothing like a Steampunk story at all.  It was taking place in the late 1800s, to be sure, but plenty of stories take place at that time without being Steampunk.  We kept reading page after page, feeling quite at home, getting to know the characters, cheering the Heroes and booing the Villains.  It was all good fun, through-and-through… with one exception, which was caused entirely by us and our own attitude.
          You see, we were subconsciously dreading and waiting for when the talking lobsters would appear.  Given our previous exposure to this genre, we were worried that things would take a sudden left turn and leave us stranded, wondering, confused by the sudden influx of unfamiliar tropes and obscure clichés that would make our head spin.  After all, this was Steampunk, and in our case we were “once bitten and twice shy.”  Surely there would be talking lobsters, yes?
          But that terrible moment never came to pass.  Instead, the book handled the eventual introduction of magic (!) and super-science (!) with a great deal of finesse and subtlety.  By the time the first hints of magic appeared on the page, we were so engrossed with the characters that we were not confused by it — in fact, if anything, we were thrilled.  It made sense, given the context of everything that had happened previously, and it added new flavor to the story.  The characters who encountered it had normal human reactions — “Holy carpets! Real magic!” — and didn’t just shrug it off like no big deal.  Once it arrived, it also didn’t take over the story, instead remaining exactly where it should be: in the periphery, so that we could continue to focus on the characters.  Just like how Indiana Jones can have the Ark of the Covenant raining Holy Fire onto the Nazi heathens, so also could witch doctors in the savanna have magic at their beck and call.  Makes sense, no?
          It takes about one half of the way through the book before magic is brought into the picture.  And super-science — or at least its 1800’s equivalent — only appeared about three-fourths of the way into the book.  We suppose that the sequel would have these things in much larger proportions, but truth is we wouldn’t mind that very much.  We were permitted to learn the characters and the normal world’s customs before we went running off into the great wild unknown of sorcery and science, which is good enough for us.
5) World building
          Given everything that we just said above, we would also like to take a brief moment to mention the verisimilitude and “feel” of the book.  We don’t know how accurate these stories are to real life with dirigibles on the African frontier in the late-nineteenth century.  In fact, although we’re fairly sure that there were no blimps in Africa at the time (were there?), we can’t say for certain that there weren’t.  We only know what feels real and what doesn’t, and this book definitely falls into the former category.
          We truly felt as though we were adventuring on a blimp in sub-Saharan Africa.  We felt the heat.  We met the people.  We thrilled at the danger.  We listened to the people speaking in other languages.  We concerned ourselves over the impact of a far-off European war on this growing colony and the people there.  And, if we ever read a history textbook on the time period and learn that there were no dirigibles in Kenya, we will be sorely disappointed.
                                THE BAD…
1) Incomplete ending
          Despite all the awesomeness in this book, it does end on an unfinished note.  Again, some people will like this, and we (kind of) can’t begrudge it, because it means that there will definitely be more stories in the future.  All the same, we like when a book ends with a completed plot, not halfway through the major arc of the next book.  It sounds good and it ends on an intriguing note, but a cliffhanger is still a cliffhanger.  Arg!  We’re not rock climbers, so we’ve got to mention this. 😦
2) Character blitz
          Now, in this case it was a lesser form of character blitz.  The story does a good job of delegating each character’s role when they are first introduced — one is the captain, one is the pilot, another is the customer, one is the engineer, etc — and it also does a good job of focusing on only a couple of important characters in each chapter of the book (remember, as we said above, each chapter helps flesh out one of the airship’s crewmen).  Still, when they were first introduced, we had a little trouble telling them apart.  Only a few more pages into the story, this was solved (mostly by ignoring the characters who hadn’t been fully introduced yet).  But we still had that initial moment of confusion.  It’s a credit that the confusion only lasted so long, though.
                              THE BIZARRE…
1) Dirigibles… er, we mean blimps… uh, actually make that “airships”
          The story concerns a lot of dirigibles, as one can guess (hey, the title is “Beyond the Rails,” and only dirigibles — or “airships” — can really travel that far).  The characters actually go into detail explaining how these massive contraptions work, which is awesome.  A large part of the plot concerns them and how they fly, the mechanics of how travel like this affects the characters, and so forth.  This must have been the result of a lot of research and it was fascinating for us, given that blimps aren’t really things that we know (or think) that much about.  We’re definitely noticing the Goodyear blimp next time it hovers around our house.
                          …AND THE VERDICT:
This book is GOOD.
          We have to say, this book single-handedly convinced us to reconsider our dislike of Steampunk.  This is a feat all by itself.  And with that, we can’t say that it’s anything but Good, even though it has plenty of Bizarreness everywhere — which, of course, just adds flavor to the whole shebang.
          This book would satisfy a whole range of people, so we’re just going to list the two most important below:
          First, those who are fans of Steampunk — which is a no-brainer — but also those who would like to give Steampunk a try.  As we said before, we personally are unfamiliar with this genre and had, in fact, originally sworn off it because of a bad experience.  Now we think that perhaps the problem was that we had been introduced too quickly to something that was too deep inside the genre’s tropes — kind of like throwing The Watchmen at someone who has never read graphic novels before — and as a result were just left dazed and confused.  By contrast, this book does an excellent job of introducing the reader more slowly into the world of the Steampunk genre, making for a much smoother reading experience for those who have doubts.  So, Steampunk virgins, this one’s for you!
          And second, those who are fans of the good ol’ adventure story.  It’s very much like a Robert Louis Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling tale.  If you enjoy intrepid explorers braving the unknown, then that is exactly what we have here.  It’s a swashbuckling, “let’s go see what’s out there” sort of tale, and boy, it brought back memories of reading the good old stuff.
          Of course, we would also recommend this to fans of Westerns — we’re seriously not kidding about that whole “frontier” vibe — and to those who like reading about strong heroines who are not unfeminized (that’s us!), and even to children ages 12 and up (If they’ve read Treasure Island or The Jungle Book, this should be on their list.).  Basically, anybody who just wants to enjoy a rousing old-fashioned adventurer’s tale, look no further because it’s here.
          And, best news of all, according to the author’s blog, he’s also already hard at work on the sequel, and has the eighth “short story / next chapter” posted online as a free sample. We hope this means that it will be done soon, so we can continue the adventure.  In a single book we’ve gone from hating Steampunk to giving it a second chance, so we have big expectations for the upcoming sequel.
    Like what you’ve read?  Buy it here!
And that’s the way it was back in the spring of ’14.  This wasn’t my first review, but it was my first epic review, and it saddened me greatly when this site went under, but a shortened version (to fit within the size limit) can still be read on Amazon.com, right next to the five-star review!
Okay, back to my XBox…