In this romance/recent history novel, a philosopher and two former musicians (both Jewish, one a clergyperson, one DEFINITELY not) meet, practically at a bar! They waltz through life in Mexico, Israel, and Philadelphia from the end of the '60's until the twenty-first century. The men bond. The woman chooses. The earth takes another spin, blissfully ignorant to one of seven billion dramas for which it sets the stage.
They inspire our creations, the creations of madmen. They
fire the embers of our weak imaginations and make us soar over the nullities of
our lives to speak with gods. Leonardo da Vinci, “the Conqueror,” longed to
copy them. Thousands of our best young artists and designers struggle to
illustrate them. And in Forged in Flame, five
authors tell their stories: here there be Dragons.
This slim anthology of five novellas explores dragons as
they might have appeared in mythology, how they might have interacted, even
mated, with humanity, and how the innate madness of these creations might fire
the madness of inventors. Thirty-one year old Samuel Mayo is first, with a
short appropriately titled “First Flight.” This novella might be targeted at
the middle grade reader, with young teen-aged protagonists and a villain who
must steal an unnatural power source. The “flight” refers to the boy’s
invention and the demon dragon that must steal the power-generator to wreak
havoc on a post-apocalyptic Earth. We leap back to the wonders of a medieval
landscape, with a peaceable kingdom besieged on all sides – except from the
North, the land of the mystical creatures who would leave the kingdom to its
fate. But then the Dragon Kingdom learns that it has scales in the game. The massive,
peaceful giants weigh in on the side of harmony. This novella is written by a
fantasy writer, Brian Collier, who has always made writing his profession.
Eric White, another writer who struggles to create his
fantasy world out of a schedule committed to earning a living another way,
brings us a medieval aquascape, rather than a landscape. In “Birth Pains,” a
girl reprises Mary by bearing without the benefit of a man, but she carries
triplets – triplet dragons, that is. Even when she seems like a girl in
trouble, used by a boy whose reputation she has sworn to protect, two heroes
arise to bring her to the place where she can make this miraculous birth. One
is her devoted grandmother, and another is a sea warrior who makes Admiral
Peary go weak at the knees. In “Golden
Legacy” by 22-year-old author Jana Boskey, a man of decidedly paranormal blood
– half dragon, half “Faerie” – is hunted by an Assassin, a teenaged girl who
knows nothing but pursuit of people with paranormal abilities. There is an
ongoing struggle of life and death here; Boskey’s genius is to make the supremely
powerful dragon legend hover between life and death at the point of a dagger
wielded by a teen-aged girl.
In “Heart of Steel,” Caitlyn McColl brings us the mind of
the insatiable inventor, whose quest for truth transforms into a lust for
revenge when he finds his beloved apparently murdered. The remarkable genius
who brings forth cyborg creatures of every description brings a great dragon
automaton to life to seek revenge. The identity of the killer, and the nature
of the crime, twist the plot into a psychological pretzel. The final story, from D. Robert Pease, author
of the two Noah Zarc novels, brings us full-circle in the lore of dragons. In
“A Chink in the Armor,” the dragon seeks the greatest warrior on Earth to
confront and to test the mettle of in battle. Humanity has found that it has
come upon an enemy that it cannot overcome. In the words of Blue Oyster Cult,
“History shows again and again how Nature points out the folly of men!”
Forged in Flame is
my first exposure to dragons since the Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring
Cycle operas. I was mightily impressed by the scope of the works contained
herein, from the geeklike to the epic. The writers and editors who compiled this
volume have done a marvelous job! There is one flaw, that borders on the
serious: it is not OK to miss homophones in the editing process. A writer can
be excused (barely) for using “vile” when he means “vial,” but a publisher had
better keep such mistakes out of their product if it is to make a name for
itself as a quality publisher. This fault is severe enough to lose half a mark
in my book. If I could break a star, this would reduce my rating from 5 to 4.5
stars, but in a whole-star system, I give this collection five stars and a
resume for a copy editor.
What a pleasure it was to read about the initiative that my FB friend and colleague Dianne Borsenick has taken to establish this new press! I certainly plan on submitting my chapbook to them, and I encourage you all to surf over there.
The proverb goes, "Better to have a bird in the hand than two in the bush." Of course, if you love birds, the literal wisdom of the proverb is debatable, but the meaning is clear. If you have something now, take it, and leave the future to take care of the future. But is this good advice for novelists?
As you know, I have been "selling" 3 Through History as an ebook for a few months now, and have the following rollicking results: 8 sales, 4 that weren't free for reviewers, and one review (bless your heart, it was a five-star). I have been a little slack about my platform - most of you were wondering when my next literary fiction review was going to go up - but I have been more aggressive about finding reviewers. Still, not very good results. But last Friday, I got an email from a boutique publisher with almost no budget that wants to add my novel to their literary offerings. Rejoice! Party! Beer for everyone!
Then I opened my email yesterday, and got the big surprise that an agency that represents a lot of literary fiction and gets such novels published by the Big Six New York Publishers, wanted my manuscript! So at this moment, I sit and puzzle, wondering whether to sign the contract that the boutique house is going to send me, or roll the dice. Very large dice, but dice nevertheless.
Dear reader, what would you do? Have you ever been in a Bird-In-The-Hand situation (or live in Bird-In-Hand, PA) and made your choice? How did it turn out?
Ever need to revisit a time in your life that lives just out
of the edge of imagination, in the haze of half-recalled images, song lyrics
with ellipses at each end, and fragrances that blend together like the Tempera
paint of out-of-control kindergarteners? You know the one – you are trying to
tell the story to yourself and remember that it was more than the classes you
cut, or job you lost, or the girl who dumped you? Several strategies come to
mind, and fortunately for me, as a novelist and a book reviewer, most of them
The Pursuit of Cool, a
new novel by Robb Skidmore(TMIK Press, 2012), could be counted as a
coming-of-age story about three kids who bond as suite mates as freshmen in
college. By the same logic, you would call The
Grapes of Wrath a travel journal. The place of the novel is AnyPrepTown,
USA, but the time? It is SO ‘80’s, SO Reagan, SO age of greed, and SO tinged
with the dissatisfaction that living a life dictated by what your image should
be rather than who you are that it just might define the decade.
You remember the ‘80’s, right? Remember those big-hair
rock-pop bands that MTV sold us? I thought so. But do you remember all the
alt-music that came from bands with names like Siouxsie and the Banshees or the
lyrical but almost painfully dark Bauhaus? No, I thought you might have
forgotten them. I began the novel riding on memory lane, in that happy
storytelling mode of “Oh, yeah, I remember where I was when I heard that.” At
first, I found myself hating but envying
the beach-bum gorgeous Ian Lacoss, identifying with the brilliant but socially
maladroit Charles Boyd, and riding the narrative wave with the inner monologue
of lead protagonist Lance Rally as they make their way through their first
years of collegiate liberation from parental control. Soon, however, I was
buried under the cultural references. I found that it was easier to read The Pursuit of Cool with my computer
open, Goodsearch.com on one tab and Youtube on another, in order to do quick
lookups. In fact, the book owns “cool:” defining it, bringing it into your
eyes, ears, and even your nose, and piercing you with it if you allow.
The narrator hovers over Lance like a thought translator who
has a point-of view only slightly more in-the-know than Lance himself. I am
reminded of the role of Nick Calloway from The Great Gatsby. Nick’s “truth”
about Gatsby changes – he assets that Gatsby is a landed scion one moment and a
self-made man in another – based on Calloway’s own evolving sense of reality.
Lance asserts, through his narrator, an evolving sense of reality that shows a
young man totally unprepared to confront a life that offers him his own
independent choices. Through the first
two-plus years of his college career, every interaction is about what his image
is. This obsession with looking suave, sexy, caring, sympathetic, resilient –
in a word, “cool” – is Lance’s way of confronting girls, friends, classes,
alcohol, everything. Since his family gave him only one option of how to be in
college – high GPA, Honors/Awards, Internships and all those other
prerequisites to the Top 10 MBA, it is not surprising that Lance is left to his
own devices when his path veers off the Gordon Gekko indenture.
Weighing in at 410 pages, The Pursuit of Cool did get slow for me by around page 300, because
this is not a plot-driven novel. In fact, by following the three boys becoming
men and reacting to growing up with all things Reagan, the book is a long essay
on the nature of “cool,” and whether such a thing is really attainable after
all. For me, the essay was too long. I would have preferred to part with some
of the exhaustive, encyclopedic cultural references in order to get to the
point: how do the three characters deal with the disillusionment of trying to
live someone else’s life? That having been said, Skidmore does a commendable
job at underscoring the existential question of an important period of American
history through the prism of the coming-of-age novel.
Every now and then, a reader finds an author who consciously
strives to write A Novel of Great Significance. When a writer makes that
powerful and audacious claim, a deep and powerful matrix of setting, time,
mood, and human verity must be found within the pages. It doesn’t hurt to
unearth a nearly unused literary structure, one which was born (and perhaps
died) in the arms of Pushkin. Nor does it hurt the author to have functioned at
the top level of his art for over two decades. . Unholyland, by Aidan
Andrew Dun, is an epic poem made up of approximately 250 sonnets of a form
unused since Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Speaking with a level of lyricism
that bears comparison to Onegin, Unholyland depicts forbidden love and a millennium-old
legacy against the backdrop of one of the most intractable scenarios in human
history, the Israel-Palestine conundrum.
For those who have encountered Onegin
mainly through Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera, a brief review of plot might
serve. Set in Tsarist Russia, the archetypal novel in verse follows the
dissolute title character, a wealthy twentysomething heritor of the Russian
equivalent of a grand Southern plantation, where slaves are replaced with
serfs. Onegin befriends a poet, Lensky, not yet twenty, who links Onegin to two
sisters, one of whom falls desperately in love with Onegin, but whose passions
are rebuffed coldly. Onegin and Lensky stumble over each other’s intentions at
a country ball that parodies the social schedules of the idle Russian rich.
Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. Through further mishap, the duel comes off,
and Onegin slays Lensky.
Onegin drifts around the world, never
able to overcome his guilt. He winds up in Moscow, where he encounters the
younger sister. She is now married to an elderly prince.Onegin tries to undo
what he had done by spurning her years ago. The girl, now a woman even more beautiful
than she had been as a youth, now spurns Onegin to remain true to her husband,
while blaming him for the loss of their one opportunity.
Mr. Dun assures me that the saga of Unholyland
continues, so that full plot comparisons are premature. To understand what Dun
is attempting, it is important to see why Onegin towers over much of
nineteenth-century literature, and why the setting of Unholyland provides
an epochal parallel.
The character of Onegin represents the
beginning of the end of the idle rich. The historical fact of the French
Revolution and the upheavals in Europe that paused bloodily in 1848 certainly
impacted all the nineteenth century novelists, especially the Russians (think
Chekhov and his play The Cherry Orchard). Onegin’s desolation at the end
of the novel represents the inherent purposelessness of wealth qua
wealth, and Lensky’s martyrdom strikes me as the temporary subjugation of the
will of the people that Karl Marx was already writing about. The girl, who we
see later as a fully developed woman Tatyana, represents the truth and fidelity
of the common man – a prototype for Marxian thought that would define the
Dun’s leading character, Moshe Rambam
is the greightieth-great-grandson of the leading rabbi Rav Moshe Ben Maimon,
known to history as Maimonides. There is no more famous figure in Jewish
history than Maimonides, so the reader is warned against projecting any
preconceived notions on his descendant. Moshe (usually called Moss in the
novel) is a dreadlocked, pot-smoking, slingshot-rapping youth, about to be
forced into his obligatory two years of military service. He crosses
effortlessly into Palestinian youth culture, where oppression and poverty are
the métier. This creates a paradox that seems more befitting of Lensky in the
Russian novel-in-verse than of Onegin, but Dun’s vision of Israel reveals
itself not as an old, crumbling estate that will fall of its own weight, but
rather, an oppressor that will be just as liberated as the oppressed when the
state of oppression ends. Rambam’s
slightly older Palestinian best friend Rayyan never turns against Rambam, but
the tension from Rayyan’s people’s occupation by the Rambam’s people grips this
reader as a second skin while reading – a shadow of foreboding. Still, the image
of a scion of power reaching out and trying to blend with the powerless is
almost a trope, having featured prominently since Victor Hugo’s fluid use of
power and poverty in Les Misèrables.
The critical three-day period occurs on
the first days of the Hebrew month of Nisan, on the Passover festival, in which
Jews commemorate the Exodus from slavery to freedom. Dun leaves the Biblical
reference more or less unexploited; he’s an artist, not a demagogue, but the
irony is not lost on the reader. Moss, as Moshe is known colloquially
throughout the book (except when he faces certain death at a Palestinian
nightclub, where his fluency in Arabic and his Mediterranean features allow him
to pass as Musa), is nearly killed as he crosses over to Palestine, and is rescued
by Rayyan’s sister. In any other setting, and in less inspired hands, what
follows would not be exceptional. Girl saves boy. Girl heals boy. Girl falls in
love with other boy. First boy is set up to meet second girl. They fall in
love. Will they live happily ever after?
But nothing is certain, not even love, under the shadow of occupation. I
will make two further literary references, and in these two references, the
detectives among you will find a spoiler. Therefore, I will not annotate these:
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (cited by Moss Rambam in the text) and
John Singleton’s 1991 drama Boyz in the Hood.
The structure of the sonnets that
comprise this novel and Pushkin’s work is three quatrains with contrasting
rhyme schemes ABAB, CCDD, EFFE, and a concluding rhymed couplet. Unlike
Pushkin, who stuck strictly to iambic pentameter in Russian, Dun allows for
excellent bleedthrough of the “slingshot hip-hop” resistance culture of the
West Bank. Liberating the stanzas of the strict rhythmic leg-irons allows the
poetry to dance when this is called for, such as in the following description
of Jalila, the sixteen-year-old leader of the Slingshot Hip-Hop movement:
When I first heard her in Shatila
I realized she was a healer,
a poet and a peacemaker,
a woman and an earthshaker.
She’s what the Arab world’s waiting for…
I feel a shift from the first couplet
(itself a pivot from the more classical verse that preceeds it) to the second
couplet, which calls forth Jimi Hendrix to this reader. The actual raps are Dun’s
imagination of the English translation over the Palestinian background music.
This flexibility might have been unacceptable in Pushkin’s time, but it is
mandatory in ours.
Dun ranges from the rough graphics of
the above quatrain to verses that sound more like the Song of Songs, like this
description of the heroine Jalila:
To some she brings velvet fruition,
to some, disastrous attrition,
the wearing down of all their dreams.
Or how about this couplet, and its
simile across three thousand years:
Nazareth: Mobile phones, like ears of barley,
buzz with life in her underbelly.
I was captured by Dun’s lyricism from
the first page, but never more so than at the first idyll between Moss and
Jalilah. I quote the sonnet in its entirety, and an analog from the Song of
The atmospheric garden pleases;
it’s like being on another planet.
Here’s a waterfall that freezes;
here’s a fruiting pomegranate
where – through the dark – a nightingale
sang last night its lyric tale.
Ah! Here they are, sharing a joke
it seems, by a Palestinian oak.
Jalilah wears her black-fringed headshawl,
Moss has let his dreads hang loose.
Dove-calls seem to plead and seduce.
Now they wander by the waterfall
talking where a rainbow – over ferns –
makes a promise, while cool silver churns.
And Song of Songs Chapter 4: 10-17 (tr.
10: My beloved raised his voice and said to
me, “Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away;
11: For behold, the winter has assed, the
rain is over and gone.
12. The blossoms have appeared in the land,
the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in
13. The fig tree has put forth its green
figs, and the vines with their tiny grapes have given forth their fragrance;
arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.
14. My dove, in the clefts of the rock, in
the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely.
15. Seize for us the foxes, the little foxes,
who destroy the vineyards, for our vineyards are with tiny grapes.”
16. My beloved is mine, and I am his, who
grazes among the roses.
17. Until the sun spreads, and the shadows
flee, go around; liken yourself, my beloved, to a gazelle or to a fawn of the
hinds, on distant mountains.
I found that the more intense the plot became, the less
tight the poetry. By Chapter 7 (out of eight), I found myself given a green
light to speed through, and this disappointed me. Dun’s poetic forces surge
back in time to create a dramatic climax, right when it is needed. Even on the very last page, Dun gives us a
plot twist in verse. I would imagine that, as the author of a novel in verse
that was premiered at Royal Albert Hall, Dun is well in control of the
theatrical elements in his writing.
Unholyland is not for the passive reader. This is
not simple art. It’s not even an uncluttered story of young love. It’s not a
one-sided political screed; not any apologetic for either side. Dun calls out
the British, the Turks, and the Zionists, and (do NOT read a comparison or edit
out this parenthetical note!!!) the Nazis without equating anyone to anyone
else This is dangerous, challenging reading; don’t look here for a right or a
wrong. There is an ample, excellently
documented preface and good enough endnotes to establish Dun’s own point of
view. In the end, the art will have to stand on its own. This reviewer believes
that it will do just that, long after the inevitable firestorm disappears like
sand in a flash flood.