Book Review – Shades of Survival by Robyn Watts

Let’s talk zombies. They’re the perennial bogeymen of the apocalypse, an unstoppable force that devours everything in its path, moaning disease on two legs – provided the legs haven’t rotted off anyway. The first pop-culture zombie invasion started way back in 1919 in a largely-forgotten French silent movie called J’accuse that featured romance and the rising dead of World War I. The big daddy of zombie movies, though, still has to be Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie Romero himself said was inspired by Christmas shoppers.

I would argue that zombie can also represent the crushing weight of day-to-day life in the modern world. They’re the constant siren-song of social media and “making it big” and keeping your head above water when most people are quite happy to stand on your shoulders to keep their own heads above water. The burdenous ennui of Godot wrapped in rotting flesh and waiting to gleefully eat your ass. Not in that way, either, ya pervs. The bad way. With teeth and blood and screaming.

In literature, the big name in zombie books has to be Brooks’ World War Z. The comic rendition of The Walking Dead was good, but World War Z was on a whole other level. World War Z had the temerity to reimagine the zombie hordes and giving us a worldwide look at how the whole planet dealt with the dead rising. Now, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: There are some similarities between World War Z and Shades of Survival, but there are important differences, too. In a genre that’s been kicking around for over a hundred years – at least in film and probably in lit, too – there’s going to be some cross-pollination going on. It’s inevitable and understandable. But each new interpretation brings the creator’s voice to the moaning, grumbling hordes of Wal-Mart shoppers at Christmastime.

So, what are the similarities? Well, for starters Shades of Survival has a similar theory of rolling out its massive, world-ending tale in bite-sized chunks rather than following a straight narrative. They’re both large tales told in vignettes. Apocalyptic amuse-bouche. There are major differences, too. Shades keeps the narrative tightly focused on one person rather than the entire planet and is told in a series of letters written by one woman as she watches first the world then her world collapse around her. Like all good stories, it has moments of levity and moments of sheer terror. It also spends a goodly deal of time taking a hard look at the living, uninfected people who still inhabit the world and just how they fall to their animal natures. Almost as if virus mutated and while it tuned the vast majority of people into nigh-unstoppable killing machines, it turned the some of the rest into massive assholes.

There’s a disconnectedness to Shades of Survival as well. As our protagonist is recounting her life post-zombie, she’s looking back through time. This kind of creates a gnawing sense that no matter how things might look in the short term, nothing good will come of this tale. In a way, it’s almost like reading Anne Frank’s diary; you just know there’s no way this will end well. And just like young Anne’s diary, you’ve got an intimate, front-row view of the end of everything.

“Hollywood shows us their idea of survival in an end of the world, apocalyptic scenario. But what would it really be like? How would you actually cope and survive? Shades of survival is a journal-type account of one person’s desperate attempt at surviving the apocalypse. Dealing with the dead walking, the living attacking, periods, and lack of hair dye. They come across different types of people, dealing with different situations and learning that Hollywood can only glamourize what would, and ultimately does, drive the average person crazy.”

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Book Review – Ego Trip by Eric Malikyte

Years ago, I had a buddy at an old job who actually had a set of Google Glasses. Remember those? Eyeglasses with a HUD that could display extra information like emails and videos and stuff like that. They were kind of a trip and, in their own way, kind of disruptive. This guy would be walking and talking and would suddenly stop what he was doing, fiddle with his glasses, and then move on like nothing had happened. And that was primarily for email and meeting notifications.

Google had some cool designs for Google Glass including adapting them so they could do little things like identify parts of the car you were working on give you and exploded – no pun intended – view of the bomb you were defusing. They were intended to be less virtual reality – which is tremendously immersive – and more augmented reality, meaning they dropped a layer of reality over the top of the layer of reality you were experiencing during normal day-to-day activities. Pokémon Go did the exact same thing a few years later by layering tiny monster eggs over your phone’s camera. While less immersive than Google Glass, Pokémon Go did have more than a few people step into traffic or get mugged because they were focused more on the augmented part of reality than the rapidly approaching car or knife-wielding maniac parts of reality.

Point being, even sticking parts of virtual reality on top of reality can change what we perceive as real.

Now, imagine what it’s going to be like when you don’t have to don a bulky headset to play Drunken Bar Fight (a fun game that I highly recommend) or wear glasses to see different things. Stuff a chip in the side of your head that can directly interface with your brain and suddenly you can experience all sorts of wacky realities. You could be the star of a show, the smartest person in the world, or the savior of the human race. It could all be a game. Realities on top of realities on top of realities that would all seem just as real as stepping on a Lego.

And that’s the heart of Eric Malikyte’s latest work, Ego Trip. This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed one of Malikyte’s books. He’s dipped his toes in the monster-ridden wasteland of Mars and cuddled with Lovecraft’s demons and always delivers a cracking good story. This time around, he’s left the monster-monsters behind and focused on the human-monsters that we all love to believe we aren’t. Instead of Mars or the frozen end of the world, we get a tour of a dystopian country run more by corporate greed than political greed. So, you know, less sci-fi than functional modern-day reality.

In a way, Ego Trip is about two guys who desperately want out of their lives. They’re both ground down by the day-to-day activities of trying to keep their heads above water. One keeps his head barely above the water intentionally, the other sticks his neck as far out as he can. One plays a game of good-guy/bad-guy, the other plays a similar, if augmented-reality-driven, version of the same thing.

This is what makes good sci-fi. The best science fiction is always about people. Sure, technology can abound and the world can be remade to fit the story, but at the end of the day good sci-fi is always about the people involved. And Malikyte is good at creating people. Especially people who have no qualms about exploiting the technology in their neon-drenched wonderlands. And as the crushing blows of that exploitation slowly dawn on you, the general sense of foreboding evolves first into malaise then to shock then to the general notion that maybe hunting Pokémon on your phone was only the beginning of how weird, wonderful, and wicked the future is going to become.

Paul Anderson Fou’s life is about to change. This rather boring fast-food worker has been offered a chance of a lifetime. Dynamo, a mysterious girl–the only one who’s ever willingly talked to him–has gifted him the key to his dreams of MMO stardom, a chance to dig himself out of his successful brother’s basement, to make something of himself.

But, as bodies start piling up all over Neo Rackham, attracting the attention of a relentless detective with a cybernetic eye, Paul’s life is certain to become far more complicated than he ever dreamed.

The price for fame is high.

And some deals are too good to be true.

Paul is about to find that out the hard way.

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Book Review – Shadows and Relics by L.L. Gray

No matter what happens, I will always think the Urban Fantasy genre is worthy of respect. Building a sci-fi or fantasy world whole cloth is a blast, no doubt about it. But taking our world and adding elements to it – bizarre and extraordinary elements – and making it feel real takes a deft brush. Now, granted, New Orleans has always had a touch of the bizarre and extraordinary, but not to the extent of leprechauns owning bars. At least not last time I was there. Again, granted, I was pretty drunk but I’m fairly certain I’d recognize a leprechaun behind a bar.

So, let’s take New Orleans. The city of vampires and voodoo, absinthe and witchery. The only place I’ve ever been that came stocked with a leather store and a voodoo store. The perfect setting for some explosive entertainment involving magic, werewolves, and fae magic. Now, drop a smart-talking tough with just enough street sense to know when she’s in over her head into the milieu, stir gently, and wait for the fireworks.

I’ve never been into rehashing plots. If you want to know the plot of the story, look below for a synopsis and then buy the book and read it. Trust me, L.L. can tell you the story better than I can. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the elements of the story: Deception, intrigue, and adventure. A lot of urban fantasy focuses primarily on the latter. There’s nothing wrong with a good adventure, but a linear plot can get tedious. Go here, fight these folks. Go over there, fight those folks. It’s the literary equivalent of an 80s Schwarzenegger movie. Entertaining, amusing, a serious drain on the national popcorn reserves, but ultimately just a tale of large people beating each other up. Now, drop some deception and intrigue into the mix and you’ve got yourself the makings of a serious ass-kicking cocktail.

And, while the writing is top-notch and the characters fun, it’s the change in the blueprint that really breathes life into Gray’s story. A simple task that gets well out of hand and various threads that all get woven together into a neat tapestry of magic, mystery, and a surprisingly relatable villain.

And let’s not forget Meridiana.

So, if you’re into strong female characters with karambits (they’re fun knives, I highly recommend them), some less-than-common magical folk, and an overall fun story that will keep you guess, pick up a copy of Shadows and Relics. And for this trip to New Orleans, you can leave the stakes behind. Although some steaks might come in handy.

A dark ritual. Werewolves on my trail. A single chance to uncover the truth…

Cameron Blaze is my name, living on the edge is my game. Acquiring an ancient artifact? Sure, I like old stuff. Procuring a precious? I’ve got some sticky fingers right here. I will do pretty much anything to make rent and will enjoy the hell out of the ride as I go.

When werewolves turn up in New Orleans for the first time in living memory, I was curious. When they start to disrupt my business, I was annoyed. But when they come at me? I’m ready to open a can of whoop-the-wolf, no matter the consequences.

Adding to my canine conundrum, ghosts are disappearing from the New Orleans cemeteries and rumors of dark rituals are floating around the seedy underbelly of my city. To top it off, a powerful and mysterious relic has gone missing. A relic that, by all accounts, has the power to tear the veil that separates this world from the next to shreds.

With time running out and lives on the line, will I be able to find this ancient relic before all hell is set loose on my city?

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Book Review – The Unseen World by Patricia Correll

The urban fantasy world is rife with stories of young people with untapped potential. Frankly, it’s a trope I really enjoy, so I can’t diss anyone who makes use of it. Besides, even the Good Book (not Starship Troopers, the other one) said there is nothing new under the sun. And, let’s face it, that book was written a long, long time ago and has been riffed on a lot over the years. So, you’ve got a fairy classic story that harkens way back in time, what do you do with it?

Aye, that’s rub.

Now, excuse me if I get pedantic here – I write urban fantasy and love to think I’m smarter than I really am, so I do tend to prattle on – but the execution of a good story relies less on a brand new idea than how well you take something and make it yours. Thus, young person with untapped potential: We’ve already established I’m down with that. What about magic? Cool, let’s do magic and have some cool rules for it. Now, what about some underlying mythology? Japan. Hell, yeah; I’m in like Flynn. With all that, maybe we’re moving closer to fantasy than urban fantasy, but it’s all good since The Unseen World is a great read either way.

And that’s where we wind up with Patricia Correll’s cool and fun “The Unseen World”. Rather than being lazy and setting the whole thing in Sheboygan, WI, Correll drops her story into mediaeval Japan. Which teleports us from traditional urban fantasy into something exciting and new. And, from my limited understanding of Japanese tradition and rules – cobbled together from samurai movies and a lifetime of martial arts – she nails it. And, I’d love to point out, the Japanese have an absolute lock on freaky monsters. Werewolves, vampires, fey? Pshaw. Overdone and oversaturated. Give me some Tengu. Give me some Kappa. Give me some cat cat yōkai. Give me a literal eternal emperor. Give me a bittersweet ending, the flickering flame of love that dies out, and characters that rise to the occasion and even try to shirk their destiny. That’s what makes a fun story.

There’s nothing normal or boring here. Once you open the book, you’re in for the long haul. You’re dropped into a world that isn’t always pretty and surrounded by people who aren’t always pretty. A world that feels like you can reach right out and touch it. And don’t forget to bow to the nakayama; they’re on your side.

Sanami is teenage girl living in a tiny village in a remote province of the Tensho Empire. While her father is unknown and her mother abusive, she’s found a safe place with some kindly neighbors. Sanami is content with her quiet life and with her upcoming marriage to her childhood sweetheart. But an unforeseen obstacle to the wedding sends Sanami to the capitol, to beg the immortal Emperor’s help. While there she meets the onmyouji, servants and advisors to His Majesty. Part sorcerer, part medium, part fortune teller, the Sasugawa onmyouji clan is one of the most powerful and feared families in the empire. They recognize her as one of their own,­ a surprise made stranger by the fact that onmyodo powers belong almost exclusively to the males of the clan. She agrees to stay in the capitol for one year while the onmyouji try to figure out why she is what she is, and what role she is meant to play.

Over the course of this year Sanami is introduced to a world of spirits and magic that she never dreamed existed. But when she discovers the purpose for which the gods have chosen her, she wonders if she will ever be strong enough to fulfill her destiny.

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Book Review – Until Death Do Us Part by James Fuller

Horrorotica is hardly a new thing. It’s been done ever since humans realized sex with the mysterious was a kinky, fun way to spend an evening. Recent spates of it in the erotica world have tried to pretend that they invented something new and exciting – sex with Bigfoot, pounded in the ass by various things, kinky alien abductions involving high tech sex. Okay, that last one may be new. Not sure. I’ll be writing it, though, so back off.

Anyway, sex with stuff. The problem with most of those books is they wind up being nothing more than cheap word porn or, in the case of the Bigfoot book, Sasquatch raping underage girls. No story beyond what was bolted on the increasingly tedious and cringe-inducing sex scenes. If that’s your bag, go with it. Let your freak flag fly. I’m planning on wring alien abduction erotica, so I’m not one to judge. But, for me, I want a story to go with the wild cryptid nookie.

Now, if you read some of the reviews of Fuller’s Until Death Do Us Part, you’ll see a lot of people mentioning the erotica portion of it. I guess that’s a normal thing. Horror and sex go together like peanut butter and ladies. Traditional horror movies make use of sex on a regular basis. A pair of teens go into the wilderness, fuck each others’ brains out, and are immediately killed by an axe-wielding maniac. Kind of a morality play at work there: Enjoyable sex equals death. To that extent, the spate of various horrorotica books are a breath of fresh air because no one dies just because they had sex and enjoyed it. It was just nookie, not an affront to a vengeful god who smote his creation.

But that’s other people’s opinion of Until Death Do Us Part. In my opinion, the sex scenes were less important than the core of the story which is a welcome twist. They show that the characters still have some humanity left even after they’ve embraced their personal monsters. Anyway, bottom line, there is some sex in this story. There’s also a lot of violence, blood, and muscle cars. In other words, this book has everything.

Now that we’ve got the 800lb gorilla in the room out of the way, let’s talk about the story. This is a raw story. A literary version of cracked teeth with exposed nerves, full of untamed fury and wild, explosive power. Lots of people write antiheroes these days, but Fuller fills Conner with a single-minded intensity that almost makes him difficult to like. Which, frankly, is exactly what we’re supposed to do with an antihero. They’re not supposed to be likeable. They’re supposed to be huge jackasses who accidentally do the right thing – often for all the wrong reasons. And that’s what we get with Conner; a guy who’d set the world on fire to get what he wants and then light a cigarette off the glowing embers of civilization. And woe unto any vampires that get in his way because Conner has zero fucks left to give.

This is not a long book. It’s really more of an introduction to the rest of the series, but it has an intensity that leaves you wanting more. Fortunately, Fuller is a prolific writer, so there are more books to finish off this story as well as a whole whack of others. If you like your stories dark, kind of twisted, and filled with enough grit to sand down rock maple, he’s your guy.

A very enjoyable read about some less-than-savory goings on. Highly recommended.

Plus, hey, it’s got some sexy scenes in between the explosions and bloodshed.

What was supposed to be a lustful night of passion and sinful, sexual thrill turned bloody in a way he could never have imagined, revealing a predator that plagued the night and feasted on the living…

Fuelled by the bleakest of hope and the haunting images of the past, Conner cleaves a path of retribution through the midnight world of vampires; dangling his morals and life in the balance to retain what little he has left of his former self, praying each step will bring him closer to finding ‘her’ and the one that took everything from him…

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Book Review – Disappearing the Dead by KJ Sutherland

Let me preface this by saying two things:

  • I’m not a legal thriller afficionado
  • I really enjoyed this book

So, like I said, not a legal thriller afficionado. Like everyone else in ’93, I saw The Pelican Brief. Unlike everyone else, I wondered what the big deal about the story was. It was required watching, though, so I dutifully paid my $5 (back in my day…) and watched it. Bored me to tears. Made a gajillion dollars, but bored me to tears

Back in July, KJ Sutherland reached out to me on Twitter asking me to review her novel Disappearing The Dead. Like the dumbass I was, I said, “Sure, and I can have a review ready to go when it drops.” Okay, so I’m finally getting to the review part because I’m an insanely slow reader. Some folks would take this as a sign of something or other, but mostly it’s because if I promise to review a book, I’m gonna read every damned word in that book, even if it kills me. That’s because I don’t believe in leaving reviews on books that I just skimmed. Also, I’m lazy.

Anyway, now that I’m nearly a month late, I’m finally getting to the review.

So, TL;DR, it’s a good book.

I really enjoyed the way Sutherland wove all the various bits of militaria in with the legal aspects of a story about a murder and dismemberment, a missing pilot, and the Air Force’s unending desire to keep the lid on a story that wouldn’t shine a positive light on them. The legal world, from what I understand of it, has its own traditions and peccadillos about how it handles the world. The military also has its own traditions and peccadillos about it handles things. So, when those two worlds collide, you get some interesting fireworks. The primary difference between the two worlds is who is pulling the strings in the background. In the civilian world, money talks. In the military world, the top brass talks. In both cases, listening is usually the best bet.

Enter Paul Bennett, a civilian prosecutor who joins the military and promptly gets dumped onto a case defending a suspect. Two different skillsets, but Bennett adapts and attacks his new role with a zeal that irks his superiors. Irked top brass is not a pretty sight. Nor is irking top brass a task to take lightly. Thus, the gist of the story.

So, I don’t know what afficionados of legal thrillers look for in a story, but I can say this is a cracking good story. Entertaining and tense with well developed characters and a story with enough bobs and weaves to be reminiscent of a fight with Tyson. Also, like a fight with Tyson, it ends with vicious right hook you never saw coming but, in retrospect, should have expected.

It would have been easy to pull a rabbit out of the hat and say something like, “Surprise! It was a dream all along!” but Sutherland is a better storyteller than that and drops subtle breadcrumbs throughout the story so the ending, while unexpected, doesn’t come out of the wild blue yonder (my little nod to the USAF).

All told, pick up a copy and enter a world Sutherland has richly detailed with bits not only of the legal profession, but the insular world of the military as well. You won’t be disappointed.


When Paul Bennett joined the US Air Force as its Chief Counsel in Germany, he believed he had found the solution to a family crisis. The military moved the Bennetts into a German villa, paid his son’s medical bills, and assigned Paul to trials in scenic locations across Europe.

Then, as Congress is investigating the failed rescue operation of a missing fighter pilot, the severed limbs of a Turkish bride wash up in a German vineyard. The Brass is determined to put the husband, Kale, behind bars and expects Paul, who has since been assigned as Kale’s defense lawyer, to help put him there. But Paul refuses to be bullied by his superiors. To him, it’s a matter of professional ethics. To the military establishment, it’s political dynamite. And their reaction is as swift as it is devastating.

Now, Paul must rescue his client and himself from the clutches of military injustice. But first, he’ll need to uncover the connection between his client’s case and the disappearance of a Gulf War fighter pilot.”

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Book Review – Fear of the Dark by Leigh Grissom

There’s a certain joy to a well-crafted short story. It takes a deft hand to tell a tale in only a handful of pages without seeming like you’re hustling too much. Doubly so with horror tales. While it’s certainly possible to follow the route of “She went to sleep and found the monsters were dead and they ate her. The end” that doesn’t leave much satisfaction behind. Unless you’re into bed monsters eating little girls. In which case, you might want to talk to someone because that’s a pretty weird fetish. Not that I’m kink-shaming, mind you, just saying. It’s weird.

Horror, as a genre, is extremely broad. Gore, ghosts, goblins gobbling goobers, gabby gadabouts getting grabbed, galas going gaga. As long as it starts with ‘G’, you’re usually all good. The slow burn psychological stuff is, IMHO, the hardest to pull off in a short story and that’s where Leigh Grissom’s Fear of the Dark excels. There isn’t much in the way of monsters eating little girls, so you’ll have to fulfill your weird kinks somewhere else. What is there, is a short collection of unsettling stories. These aren’t pull your hair out and start praising the Elder Gods in the desperate hope that the teeth won’t come for you (they will, but that’s another story). These are the kinds of stories that leave you feeling vaguely paranoid and generally worried. Slow, creeping kinds of things that sneak up on you when you look in the mirror or trek out to the witch’s cabin for poker and California cheeseburgers. (Simpsons reference. Look it up.)

At about 45 pages or so, Fear of the Dark is a quick read. Perfect for those nights when you’re already tired but want to have messed up dreams.

Want to be unnerved, but don’t have much time?
Take a quick journey through three tales that will make you wonder, make you shiver, and make you avoid your own reflection. Buckle up and hang on as Leigh Grissom, author of The Eden Evolution Series, takes a side trip through the darker parts of her mind in her triumphant return to writing short stories.

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Book Review – Time Lies by Rowena Tisdale

Back when I was in college, I did competitive speaking. One of the events was after dinner speaking, which was a humorous speech about a serious topic. I won every now and then, but the big goal was always winning at the United States Airforce Academy tournament because there was a) a big dinner event for an awards ceremony and b) the winner got to deliver his or her speech at the dinner. I never won that one, but a buddy of mine did. His speech was on the unforeseen aspects of time travel and one of the better zingers was: “Imagine waking up in the future. Everything is strange, nothing makes any sense, and you have trouble understanding even the simplest things that regular people take for granted. Those of you in a sorority, you’ll understand.”

Well, I thought it was funny.

Rowena Tisdale is a romance author with a couple of books under her belt. Her latest, Time Lies, is one of a very few romance stories I’ve read. To date, my experience with the genre has been Romancing the Stone and L.A. Story, a couple of beta reads, and that one weird-ass book of Bigfoot erotica. In short, it’s not a genre I’m usually drawn to. Surprisingly, especially to me, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Time Lies is a time travel romance, one of the many subgenres of romance, and that was part of what drew me to it. Tisdale manages to take my friend’s warnings about time travel and put them in human terms and without zinging all the sorority sisters out there. In short, you’ve got a man who got zapped out of time into the world of a self-entitled woman who has everything except someone to share it all with. Star-crossed or time-tossed or chronologically-challenged romance ensues as our heroine slowly realizes who she is once you get past the tough exterior and our hero has a hidden superpower that brings out the best in almost everyone around him. Such is the tale of Shannon and Azariah

Okay, so that’s basis of the story. Man falls through time, finds woman, and they both fall in love even though they know the whole thing could be doomed by the whims of Chronos. Like most plots, it’s straightforward and it’s up to the talented pen of the author to breathe life into it. And that’s where Tisdale’s skill really shines through. It’s a wild premise and Tisdale not only treats it with respect but she wields a deft and subtle hand showing how each of the characters changes throughout the tale. Seriously, look at Shannon and Azariah at the end and contrast them to the beginning and the changes become obvious, but they’re very quiet through the story. If you pay attention, even Shannon’s language changes a bit through the story as more and more of Azariah rubs off on her. Ditto the other direction. So that, in my opinion, is the magic of the story. Sure, some people will dig the steamy sex scenes, but I loved the way Tisdale wove a tale that was slightly to the left of normal and made the whole thing seem real. That was beautiful.

Even if you’re not necessarily into the romance genre, this is a book that sucks you in and makes the outlandish seem real and intriguing at the same time. I heartily enjoyed it and I heartily recommend it.

Shannon Kellogg is a spoiled heiress. She’s shallow and self-centered, but after her third divorce, she vows to become a better person. Practicing kindness and empathy is her prescription for self-improvement.

As if on cue, a young man with a strange accent, dressed as a colonial cosplayer appears in her yard during a thunderstorm. He’s lost and confused, and something about him tugs at her heart. She sees an opportunity on her path to change, and decides to help him.

It turns out to be more of a challenge than she anticipated. Azariah Scott was unwillingly tossed through time and the only way to help him is to send him back to 1750. She doesn’t know how to honor her commitment to him; despite his belief she’s a witch, she doesn’t believe in magic.

As they work together to find a gateway to the past, love blossoms, and Shannon comes to regret her promise.

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Guest Post: Research and the Author

My version of research usually involves thinking things up and then pretending they’re true. Since I work predominantly in the urban fantasy, horror, and sci-fi realms, that approach works fine for me. Were I to, say, switch to historical fiction, it might not work so well. Fortunately for everyone, UK author Lyssa Medana is here to teach us how to take a more disciplined and realistic approach to research. So, pads and pencils, everyone; class is now in session. -EL

What is Research?

Not everyone uses glasses for research, but if I don’t have mine on everything is just blurred squiggles.

Research is a tricky thing. You may think that you are just strolling along, admiring the flowers in the neighbours’ garden and enjoying a sunny afternoon. However, three years later, when you need to describe a sunny suburban garden, you have that memory. You have already researched the flowers in a sunny suburban garden. You didn’t realise that you were researching. You thought you were just enjoying yourself.

Or you could be knitting or working on a crossword with a YouTube documentary running in the background. The gremlins have led you to a surprisingly entertaining video on medieval food. Six months later, when you are describing a medieval feast, a memory prods you. You may not be able to remember the details, but you know enough to start you off.

Or there’s the more traditional methods. This involves visiting libraries and bookshops to find books and papers on the subject. Or perhaps it involves visiting an area so that you work out the atmosphere and the layout of roads and buildings. And there is the wonderful time spent reading and watching things that aren’t exactly about the subject but are vaguely background material. That background material can point you in the right direction when you are looking, for example, for what sort of saddle was used in tenth century France, or when sugar reached Europe.

Why Research?

The main reason to research your material is so that you don’t look like an idiot. No matter how obscure, no matter how arcane, if you get a detail wrong there will be some kind soul out there that will helpfully correct the tiny, tiny detail and post it absolutely everywhere. They will make a meme and share it in places you never knew existed. It will haunt you.

And, to be fair, it is also to help your readers. I remember reading a book set in an alternative London around 1900. It was a cracking book, which I really enjoyed, but I ended up feeling a little let down. At one point the heroine served a breakfast that was sausage gravy and biscuits. Most of the readers here will enjoy the thought and recognise that as a good and substantial breakfast. To me, and any other Brit, it sounds weird. I have no idea what sausage gravy even looks like. To me, biscuits are things like chocolate chip cookies and Oreos. The thought of that lot with any sort of gravy first thing in the morning is not inviting. It’s normal in all sorts of places, but not in any sort of London, not without an in depth re-writing of history.

The reason I mention the biscuits and sausage gravy is that it is the first thing I remember when I think of that book and that is such a shame as it was a great story. It was a minor detail that was easily overlooked and yet had such an impact on me and lessened my enjoyment. I haven’t followed up any of the sequels yet, as that silly, simple detail took off some of the shine.

How to Research

Now that’s a library. Ours in NM just have terrible fluorescent lighting.

This will vary from writer to writer. Despite all these notes, I don’t spend hours and hours poring over research material before writing. Sometimes I don’t really bother much at all. If you are writing a little flash fiction as a writing exercise, you do not usually need to spend much time on the background. The research is to keep your ears and eyes open. It’s remembering situations and conversations that you have had or overheard. That sort of research is ongoing as you slot details away in your memory.

Other background research can be reading and browsing around a particular subject. If you want to write a swashbuckling tale set in late eighteenth century France and the French Revolution, you can settle down with a snack, a drink and a comfy chair to enjoy some background research. For this period I would start by re-reading some of the Scarlet Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy (which are great fun and possibly less than accurate) or watch some of the Sharpe episodes with Sean Bean (also great fun but no idea of the accuracy). Depending on the detail I needed, I might look at some YouTube videos of re-enactments of the Napoleonic Wars. The amazing people who take part in the re-enactments can be fanatical about authentic detail and will discuss the implications with anyone standing still long enough.

The next part depends on your style of writing. If you are a writer that has a meticulous outline of the story, then sorting out the research is easier for you. You will know the settings and locations and will be able to check contemporary maps (urban planning can do far more damage to a road system than two world wars and a few revolutions), buildings, clothing and food. You can make notes in a methodical manner, informed by background reading, and be ready to go. If, however, you are a pantser like me, you will find yourself breaking off in the middle of writing a tense confrontation to quickly check what canned soups were available in 1893. But as you have still done the background reading, you know that not only were canned soups available in 1893, but where to start looking for ideas.

However you go about it, the first general sweep over the background will let you know of websites, books, papers, videos and people who are able to help you with the fine details and give you a chance to make notes of the information that you need. I also suggest that after you have finished the first draft, go over some of the background information and any notes again before starting to edit.

I’ve used historical examples but contemporary settings need the same care. I have never been to New York City. If I want to set an adventure there, I really ought to visit. Getting the indefinable feel of the place can make all the difference if you want to add atmosphere. If I can’t make it in person, I can still get a small feel for the place. I can use online maps to see how roads and buildings are laid out. I can check out Facebook pages, blogs, podcasts, contemporary films and tv programmes for more information. I can check house and rent prices from realtors, the cost of tickets to the theatre by looking on maps, finding the theatre and checking their website, and I can even find the cost of a subway ticket ($2.75 at time of typing which sounds like a bargain to me). You don’t need these huge swathes of detail, but they can build up a background and add colour. All you need to do is get a sense of the wider setting and then know that there are more resources than just the library if you need them.

When to Walk Away.

Flowers are always good. Unfortunately, I live in a desert and our flowers hate people.

Earlier, I mentioned the biscuits with sausage gravy. It took a little of the shine from the story, but that story was still an epic story. It had great characters, interesting twists and great pace. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, I think that a great story with a weird breakfast is much better than a poor story that centres around the availability of sausages and savoury scones in late nineteenth century London. If the research gets in the way of the story, junk the research.

Authors write to entertain. Readers want to be entertained with tense confrontations, romance, daring deeds, excitement and horror. They aren’t concerned with the nature of the dyes in Fay Wray’s dress as she is swept up by King Kong. They want to get to the action!

I like to think of research as the shapewear of fiction. It isn’t particularly attractive by itself and you don’t need to see it, but it helps the story look more alluring, keeping the curves of excitement in just the right place.

Where to Research

I hate to admit it, but I’ve learned more than I can to think about from YouTube. Install a toilet, change the fan on a Dodge Caliber, completely rebuild a laptop, etc.

Apart from the obvious resources of keeping your eyes open, long rambling conversations with strangers and anecdotes from family, here are a few places that I pick up information.

Wikipedia – My personal opinion (and there are many differing opinions on this) is that Wikipedia is good enough for fiction. It’s not just the content of the articles, but also the wonderful list of references at the end that can lead you to all sorts of interesting places. Wikipedia isn’t just a list of articles. If you scroll down the front page and keep your eye on the left hand side bar, you can see a list of related sites. Wikisource and Wikibooks are free books and documents which are always a temptation. There is the Wiktionary and also Wiki Commons with some amazing pictures. To take an example from above, I checked for images of New York and I found some wonderful pictures to get a sense of the place, together with a variety of maps of different dates.

Project Gutenberg – This is the most amazing resource of free ebooks. Most are old books and out of copyright, but contemporary travel accounts of, for example, nineteenth century Greece, are great background. There are also cookbooks.

Libraries – If you head to a central library, they often have an archive of old newspapers and magazines. I can, and have, spent hours enjoying the adverts and advice mixed in with the news and opinions. Their reference section is usually reliable and the librarians are amazingly helpful.

Going Official – Local and national governments have all sorts of bits of information tucked away. This can range from street plans to records. It can also have details like the opening times of public parks and contacts for local history groups.

Company Records – that’s where I’ve found information on the history of aluminium smelting and the timeline for tinned tomatoes. It’s always worth checking to see if there are insights there and quite often there are snippets and insights that give an extra polish to some detail.

YouTube – I’ve already mentioned that re-enactment videos are a great source of background. Did you know that a lot of universities have their own YouTube Channels, including Yale. You can dip into all sorts of lectures for free. Many big museums and art galleries have channels as well. Away from the academic channels, I strongly suggest reading and watching a variety of sources as some YouTube channels are more reliable than others. There are some really great and trustworthy sources, but also some that are seriously misleading.

Facebook and other social media – Speaking of reliable, you can find all sorts of local history groups, interest groups, hobbies and schools on social media. I do not suggest that you take advice on there for anything concerning health, wealth or religion.

And here’s a tip if you are struggling – if you need to know a detail but aren’t sure, go on somewhere like Reddit or Quora and post the question. Then change to a different account and confidently post an absolutely, definitely, completely wrong answer. Then go make yourself a beverage of your choice and come back in about five minutes. You will find there at least fourteen pages of hotly disputed facts, some serious feuds, a few off colour jokes, a reference to Hitler and, in amongst the wreckage, the correct answer.

Have fun writing.

I would love to hear your reaction to this, and if you know any great places for information, it would be wonderful if you could share.

Lyssa Medana is a wife and mother who loves telling stories. You can find her on her blog, Always Another Chapter and she would love to hear from you.

You can also find Lyssa on Facebook, so drop her a line and say, “Hi!”

Book Review – Revived by Barbara Avon

There’s an old Biblical saying that goes the wages of sin is death. The underlying interpretation wasn’t necessarily that if you sinned, you died physically, although that has been known to happen from time to time. Rather, the message was really about spiritual death; the loss of ourselves in our undying quest for gratification. I guess you could say it stands to reason that every little bad thing we do clings to us like a desperate, needy girlfriend with a drinking problem and a violent temper. Hooked into that theory is a message of atonement: Y’all done fucked up and need to fix it.

Years ago, I read a story about the Hellbound train where the passengers weren’t necessarily being dragged to Hell for eternal punishment because, let’s face it, that’s a dumb idea and a complete waste of resources. Rather, the passengers got to experience every little bad thing they did from the perspective of the recipient of those actions. A little experience goes a long way, especially when you get to see things through someone else’s eyes. Personally, I like to think my atonement will be brief, but I like to think a lot of things that aren’t necessarily true.

So, this leads us to the latest afterlife mindscrew from Barbara Avon. Recall, last year I did a review of her Owl Motel, which follows similar patterns. You die and – guess what! – all the bad shit you did in life is waiting for you on the other side. In the case of Revived, all the bad shit you did in life comes back to visit you after you come back to life after being dead for a while. That’s right; some things you simple can’t escape. Just like that clingy girlfriend, there are some things you can’t escape by simply dying. Some things require the afterlife equivalent of steel brushes and bags of lye. But, let’s be honest, you weren’t really using those top layers of skin anyway.

There’s a lingering scent of terror throughout the whole of Revived. It’s not necessarily a tale of punishment and redemption – in fact it could be argued that the main character never achieves redemption. Revived is a look back on a life that our main character thought was, at the very least justifiable, if not actually okay only to closely examine just how nasty it really was.

Like many good authors, Avon has latched onto a tale as old as time itself – the notion that there must be atonement – and used it to springboard into a modern, terrifying ale. Revived doesn’t pull punches. It gets in your face and shrieks at you like a coked-up banshee. It’s one hell of a ride and I loved every page of it. Even if you kick the morality subtext to the curb, there’s still a river of unexplored misery snaking through here and the kick in the gut that comes with exploring that misery.

If you’re looking for a story that doesn’t flinch at exposing the ugly, this is a good one. Well written, well paced, generally superb. Just don’t expect to let it slide off you because it’s going to hang out with for a while whether you want the company or not.

Escaping through the woods, he remembered the way he had disturbed tree branches and how the snow had fallen in clumps on his head as if God was smiting him for his sin.

Steven Gold was a man who turned heads. Men in suits wanted to be him. Women wanted to know him. Little old ladies wished to adopt him to fill the void of missing grandsons. His surname suited him. He lived an idyllic life with his wife of eleven years, Cassie, an artist whose passion for life was so deep, she blocked out the childhood memories that were the cause of her anxiety. On a rainy night, a celebratory dinner proved fateful when Steven was struck by a car. He died for a full 60 seconds. When they revived him, his sins followed him back. Set in 1994, “Revived” is a haunting psychological horror that reminds us that being sorry for our sins, does not free us from damnation, and that not even the ones we love the most can save us. He should have stayed dead. Some disturbing scenes.

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