Free ARC of an Awesome Anthology!

Who wants a FREE BOOK? Get the awesome anthology SECRET STAIRS before it goes on sale to the public! Click here to get your FREE copy.

SecretStairsCoverInspired by the spookiest of urban legends, thirty-four authors spin tales that range from science fiction to fantasy, horror to mystery.

You mustn’t talk about the stairs.
There they stand, surrounded by nothing but forest, pristine as the day they were built. No sign remains of any other structure around them, no ruins of long forgotten buildings. They look… wrong. They feel wrong. Bad things happen if you get too close. Horrible things.
Never tell anyone about the stairs!

In return for your FREE Advance Review Copy (ARC), just read it before March 4 and leave a review.

My contribution to this awesome collection of stories is entitled CAJUN RAY. Weird things are happening in the woods just outside a small southern town, and local law enforcement find something bone-chillingly wrong when they investigate.

Get the free ARC copy through @booksproutapp before it goes on sale to the public!

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Ilsa J. Bick: Award-Winning Author or Renaissance Woman?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a talk by another successful, well-known author. My local library does these events as a fundraiser, so it was a low-key evening full of wonderful gems of writerly wisdom. This time it was Community Conversations: Ilsa J. Bick. What has she written? Well, most recently, award-winning YA apocalyptic thrillers and sophisticated horror for older teens including Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, The Sin-Eater’s Confession,  the Ashes trilogy, White Space, and The Dickens Mirror. But before Ilsa settled into YA, she wrote Star Trek, Mechwarrior, and Battletech, among others.

IlsaBick

First and foremost, Ilsa is simply one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. (That says a lot, because I’ve met a lot of people, including astronauts. Trust me, astronauts have an interesting job and that does not necessarily make them interesting people.) Her bio should be titled “True Renaissance Woman” because she is also a well-traveled child psychiatrist, a former forensic psychiatrist at a women’s prison, a trained psychoanalyst, a surgery intern, a film scholar, and a former Air Force major. Fortunately for those of us who love to read, she discovered her passion for writing.

At her Community Conversation, Ilsa was introduced as one of the “most underrated YA authors writing today.” Her cinematic style of storytelling appeals to fans from 12 to 88 years old, proof that a story with a young adult protagonist can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

As a psychiatrist with a love of film, she wrote scholarly papers analyzing movies such as Alien, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, and television shows The X-Files, and Star Trek. It’s no wonder I feel some kind of kinship with this woman—our favorite cinematic and televised entertainment align very nicely. I even like to analyze themes and symbolism in movies, though I wouldn’t call my dabbling in it “scholarly.” Her favorite author is Stephen King. I agree completely that he’s such a good storyteller, even when he’s bad, he’s better than lots of others.

Ilsa_Me

Me with Ilsa. She is welcome to Captain Kirk. I’ll take Mr. Spock any day.

Ilsa explained that she got her start writing fan fiction. In fact, she’s likely the biggest fan of William Shatner’s chest on the planet. Okay, not exactly… She’s the world’s biggest fan of Captain James T. Kirk’s shirtless escapades on Star Trek. In her words, “That’s some serious beefcake!” Ilsa shared a hilarious story about an opportunity to actually meet Shatner in person. It didn’t go quite as she had hoped, but neither did it dampen her enthusiasm for that magnificent chest. We can agree to disagree about the attractiveness or desirability of Kirk/Shatner’s chest because I was always, and forever shall be, a Spock girl.

When Ilsa’s husband challenged her to write for “real,” she found a contest for Star Trek fiction calling for short stories of 7,000 words or less. With a 10-day deadline, most writers would have reluctantly passed up the opportunity. Not Ilsa. She wrote her story, submitted it, and won the grand prize, enough money to buy a refrigerator. That appliance, she says, still holds great sentimental value and is one of her dearest possessions.

She continued to enter contests and learned that she had to have a deadline, had to write fast, and had to get out of her own way. Ilsa won so often, she soon became ineligible for contests, so she turned to writing for magazines for hire. When her writing had gotten a little too edgy and dark for Star Trek, she began writing Young Adult fiction. She was trying to write a mystery that was going nowhere when she brainstormed a YA novel. She finished the paranormal mystery in a mere eight weeks and has been admired by a growing fandom ever since it was published.

Ilsa offered several pieces of advice for writers learning the craft.

  • Don’t be reluctant to enter contests.
  • When you are writing genre fiction, you must read widely in that genre, analyzing the structure of the story to find the points where the plot lunges forward and where it slows slightly.
  • Learn to weave in a secondary plot that can allow the reader to get to know your characters a little better.
  • Attend workshops taught by pros who make a living at writing. Anyone who makes their living by teaching workshops—not writing—won’t have the same insights and or the same passion for the craft.
  • Learn to outline. The one time she didn’t begin a novel from an outline, the manuscript ended up at 1,000 pages because she had no clear idea where it was headed.
  • Do your research! Don’t make egregious mistakes that will turn off readers who know something about what you are writing.
  • Lie with authority.

How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.

Warm Bodies

Image_square_webby Susan

2013, Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich. Written by Jonathan Levine, adapted from Isaac Marion’s novel. Directed by Jonathan Levine.

Yet another Zombie movie? Well, why not? The proliferation of books, movies, and television fare featuring slow-moving, mindless, cannibalistic, dead humans in recent years has given us a few gems along the way. The first zombie movie I ever saw was probably 1932’s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. No, I am NOT that old, but I did like to stay up late and watch old movies on TV as a kid. The second one was probably Night of the Living Dead (1968), which I was not allowed to see when it was first released in theaters. (We can thank my dear, ultra-conservative parents for that.)

There have been a lot of zombie movies since those early, creepy, black and white, nightmare-inducing introductions to the concept, some better than others. The thing about this genre, though, seems to be that it is difficult to come up with anything original to actually do with a group of slow-moving, mindless, cannibalistic, dead humans. They must be shot in the head to be destroyed, surviving a bite from one will inevitably make you one of them, and they have an insatiable hunger for human brains. Oh, and let’s don’t forget the biggie – it’s all a metaphor for the loss of our humanity, society turning into a bunch of grunting, shuffling, brainless consumers wreaking havoc and destruction on the world.

It’s all pretty grim stuff. Sometimes too grim and repetitive. This is why my favorite examples of the genre are the humorous ones: Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg) and Zombieland (Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg) are both clever, well-written, well-acted, and smart. They found a way to take the zombie clichés and remake them into something fresh and funny while still using them to comment on the state of our humanity.

Warm Bodies is not a horror movie, it’s a clever, well-written, well-acted, smart, funny, romantic zombie movie. Wait – did I say romantic? Yes, I did. And not only romantic, but also narrated from the zombie’s point of view. Make that a teenage zombie’s point of view. You think it’s hard being an awkward guy trying to talk to a pretty girl? Try being a shuffling zombie who can only grunt incoherently! “…they’ll eat anything with a heartbeat. I mean, I will too, but at least I’m conflicted about it…”

Warm Bodies

This one actually gives us two types of zombies, the familiar ones who still resemble humans and the “bonies” who have lost every last shred of their humanity. The remaining humans, living behind a giant wall in fear of the plague-infected brain-eaters, make no distinction between them. It’s us against them, a zombie is a zombie is a zombie and they must all be eliminated before the human race is extinct.

Julie, the pretty teenage girl, has discovered something that the other humans haven’t had the time or opportunity to realize: as long as a trace of humanity remains, there is hope for the individual. Unfortunately for our two teenage leads, it’s a Romeo and Juliet scenario. Her father doesn’t want to believe, he only wants to kill zombies. Can Julie convince him before it’s too late? Is there really any hope for the walking dead or are they all destined to become one of the bonies?

Warm Bodies has a lot of heart. It must have because it was easy to root for the zombies.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving plus a box of Milk Duds and some Twizzlers

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Image_square_webby Susan

 2012, Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

For whatever reason, I can never recall the actual title of this movie. I keep calling it Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. I don’t know why, I guess it just sounds cooler to be a slayer than a hunter. Would Buffy have been as popular or successful if she had only hunted the undead without bothering to kill them? Never mind…

I admit it: I was drawn to this movie not by the strange hybrid it represents between historical drama and gory horror flick, but by the name TIM BURTON associated with it. I generally find Tim Burton’s weirdness very entertaining, especially when Johnny Depp is involved. Alas, Burton was producer not director and Depp had already made his vampirical debut as a sympathetic bloodsucker in the excellent Dark Shadows.

Honest Abe the Vampire Slayer is unique and quite bizarre, but I’m unsure about its entertainment value. While it was an interesting mash-up of genres, using vampirism as a metaphor for the evils of slavery is simply too heavy-handed and off the wall to make much sense. In fact, it makes more sense that, if vampires do exist, they sparkle in the sunshine and drink only the blood of wild animals. That Abe Lincoln had the time to become an axe-wielding superhero-vampire-killer by night as he whiled away his time as a store-clerk-law-student by day is just a little too ludicrous, even for such a preposterous film. I was never able to successfully “get into the zone” and temporarily suspend my disbelief while watching this movie; I had to compensate by constantly telling myself that the action was all taking place in a parallel universe where Abe Lincoln fought a clandestine war with the undead for decades before it erupted into the War to Establish a Country Just for Vampires.

With that said, there were some interesting and mildly entertaining aspects to be found. The iconic image of Abraham Lincoln in his stove-pipe hat wielding an axe like a modern-day superhero bent on defeating evil is almost enough to justify the entire project. It was a waaaay cool tricked out axe, by the way. The most memorable scene for me was the one where Lincoln and the vampire he was chasing were caught up in a horse stampede. I’ve never seen anything quite like that done with CG – it was very impressive and exciting. The climactic train-crossing-a-burning-bridge scene was also very well done, though it felt much more familiar.

All in all, watching the movie felt like reading a graphic novel. If I had wanted to read a graphic novel, I would not have spent my money on seeing a movie in a theater. There was some great artistic effort put into it, but the characters (other than Lincoln) were far too two-dimensional. Once or twice I even found myself hoping that one of Abe’s close associates would be defeated by the vampires just to liven things up. The vampires were quite gruesome both when they were killing and being killed, but it just came across as more yawn-worthy than scary.

I’m not sure how he managed to pull it off, but Benjamin Walker’s performance was very good. He made a believable and sympathetic Lincoln even as he aged from a naïve backwoods boy into a troubled and distressed president plagued by an army of the undead.

The bottom line: The premise had great promise but the execution lacked substance. The tone was too serious for such a ridiculous take on the personal life of Lincoln and the execution too ridiculous for the true horrors of the Civil War. Let’s hope Pride and Prejudice and Zombies translates to the big screen much better than this did. If it doesn’t, someone please drive a stake through its heart now (or blow its brains out, whichever is appropriate for zombies) and save us all from it.

One serving of popcornRating: Single Serving

Trollhunter

by CosmicTwin3

2010, Norwegian with English subtitles. Directed by André Øvredal, stars Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg and Knut Nærum. Original title: Trolljegeren.

“Why problem make when you no problem have you don’t want to make?” The ultimate government cover up?

Filmed with hand-held and sometimes shaky cameras, this is the story of three college students who set out to do a bit of investigative journalism and end up discovering a terrifying truth. Does that remind you of some other movie – The Blair Witch Project, perhaps? I’m wondering when Blair Witch became a genre all its own when I wasn’t looking. No matter – back to the review…

It seems there is a wild bear problem and the three intrepid students are determined to get to the bottom of it. When they arrive to interview the government-sanctioned and licensed legal bear hunters, there is some controversy about a mysterious hunter with questionable credentials. Who is this guy and why is he so weird? Recognizing a potentially interesting story when they see one (or perhaps just hoping for something less mundane than bear hunting) the trio begins stalking the mystery man to find out just what he’s up to. His beat up old camper and bizarrely outfitted truck offer no explanation for his nocturnal forays into the wild.

The kids are persistent and refuse to give up their pursuit of The Truth, whatever that may be. When they follow the mysterious hunter into the woods one dark night, they find out the awful, horrific reality as they come face-to-face with – a troll. Trolls are big, mean, and scary. Really big, really mean, and really scary. The three students, appropriately freaked out, get a crash course in troll-ology from the Trollhunter. Turns out that not only is he the only government-sanctioned and licensed trollhunter in Norway, it is a super-secret, classified job because the government denies the existence of trolls. When one gets out of hand, the trollhunter is sent to kill the rogue monster and wipe out all traces of its existence. The government then provides a more or less plausible explanation, complete with manufactured evidence. It’s a nasty business – literally – with ravenous randomly rampaging trolls exploding or turning to stone, depending on various factors.

How can all the various types of trolls – and there are many – be kept out of sight and limited to remote areas? More importantly, what has happened to cause a “troll outbreak” that has made the lone trollhunter exhausted, irritable, and more frustrated than usual about the red tape and paperwork associated with his government job? Can the three neophyte journalists keep up with all the action and remain unscathed? Why does it matter if any of them is Christian? What begins as a freaky adventure with a “You’re not going to believe this!” quality gradually develops into a harrowing struggle for survival. Along the way we are treated to some truly inspired storytelling and absolutely mind-boggling special effects that elevate what might otherwise be just another B-grade monster movie to an absorbing visual spectacle.

The filming style is a direct descendant of Blair Witch, but is neither as annoying nor tedious as that one was because the shaky camerawork is not done to excess. The moments of absurdity and humor sprinkled into the mix feel completely natural, as does the crew’s initial bewilderment and then growing terror. Woven into the narrative are some priceless references to fairy tale images of trolls, particularly a sequence involving a bridge and some goats. I’m sure I must have missed some Norwegian culture-specific in-jokes, but I don’t care. The realism of the CGI trolls is reason enough to recommend this one, but the story is also original and well told. Come for the trolls, get a kick out of the whole package.

The rights to this movie have been bought by Hollywood and an American remake is in the works. I don’t know how they could improve on the original, but I confess that I would like to see it without having to read subtitles. I don’t ordinarily mind subtitles, but this time it detracted a tiny bit from the total absorption in the movie I could have experienced otherwise. Also, it would have been even better in a theater instead of at home on Blu-ray, but we must make do with what is available. If the remake doesn’t go overboard on the special effects, keeps the action in Norway where it belongs, and delivers just as fresh and entertaining performances from the main characters, it could have potential. My advice is to see the Norwegian version first. Then you’ll have a leg up on all those poor unfortunates who won’t realize that the American version is an imitation of an original.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving (plus a handful of M&Ms)