Book Review—Before You Leap

[Before You Leap Cover]In many ways, Before You Leap is a book I admire. I’ll mention two. The author has a way of describing things that, frankly, is bound to make me work harder as a writer. And indeed, he has taken to heart the notion that it’s better to start in the middle of things, leaving the reader in a dizzying confusion of places and events that—ever so slowly—become more apparent as you wend your way through a pulse-pounding maze of violent emotion. It’s a technique I’ve used myself, and it’s very effective in the mystery thriller genre. The other thing is, the characters ring true to me—especially Greg. Although after finishing this book, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that he is more than a little disturbed.

Regarding the plot, I felt the story was a little convoluted and could have benefited from some simplification. Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem dealing with characters whose motives are mysterious and who consistently act in ways that deceive. But there were a few times when I found myself wishing for more of a straight line as Greg is forced to confront his painful past.

Overall, I liked Before You Leap and recommend it to fans of the genre. It’s a solid piece of work and definitely worth exploring.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Synopsis
Peace of mind is all Greg Cole has wanted since the murder of his twin sister, Scarlett. 

In his new sun-soaked Florida life, he thought he had found it. But when Scarlett’s killer is released early from prison with a cast-iron alibi, Greg realizes that his past is about to explode into his present, with terrifying consequences.

To expose the truth he must open up old wounds. As a talk therapist, Greg knows all about dark secrets, but when a childhood friendship comes to the fore and the police turn their spotlight on him, the thought of analyzing his own psyche is a disturbing prospect. How far can he trust his own memories?

With his life coming apart at the seams, and his grip on reality beginning to unravel, Greg must face the ghosts of his past if he hopes to prove his innocence and live to see another day.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Seven

[I’m A Young Girl 2]
Photo courtesy of stephane via Creative Commons

For seven weeks, I will be posting chapters from my new satirical novel Chainsaw Honeymoon.

Blurb
Ruby Navarro, a bright, funny fourteen-year-old who loves horror movies, is on a mission to get her parents back together. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need her two best friends, her dog, an arrogant student filmmaker, and a computer-generated, chainsaw-wielding killer. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Seven

Several long, hot days had passed. Dad and I had kept our distance, with me in my bedroom working on my machinima and Dad at the dealership all day. At night, he stayed in his home office editing his own personal, from-the-heart Gigli. Both Claire and Diego had advised me to give him time. I wasn’t sure an eternity could fix this.

“You insulted his movie,” Claire had said. “That was pretty harsh.”

Diego had disagreed. “He’s a guy. He’ll get over it. Move on.”

After walking the dog in the morning, I found Dad sitting in the breakfast nook, slurping coffee and reading the Sports section. Though he’d shaven, he looked like a dug-up corpse, wearing the suit he’d been buried in. I did my best to act nonchalant and started some raisin toast, but anyone with half a brain could have told you I was faking, because—unlike television actors who usually indicate nonchalance by whistling a non-existent tune—I hung my head and swung my arms like a caveman. Weird, right?

“Morning, baby,” he said.

Wait, was he being pleasant?

“Hey, Dad.”

Feeling like someone had rolled a huge boulder off me, I straightened his tie for him. He smiled and patted my head.

“Didn’t you get any sleep?” I said. Vague grunt. “Dad, I’ve been thinking. And I have a plan.”

I noticed he was back to ignoring me and pinched his arm. “Dad!”

“Ow! What?”

“You need to call Matt.”

“My brother? Why?”

“He can help you.”

He put down the paper, rinsed his cup in the sink, and mimed looking for his car keys, even though they were lying right in front of him on the counter. No matter, I was fired up.

“Dad, stop pretending you don’t know what I’m saying. It’s very annoying. You need to call Matt now. He’s a filmmaker. He can totally get your project back on track.”

“I’d rather swallow razor blades.”

I knew he and Matt were not on the best of terms, but I soldiered on.

“Come on, what better person to fix your movie?” Oops.

“Hey, I can fix my own movie, thank you very much. I have to go to work.”

He leaned down awkwardly, pecked me on the forehead, and walked out, pointing at my elbow.

“You might want to have that wart looked at.”

“It’s not a wart!” I said, covering my elbow self-consciously. “Anyways, you’ll think about it?”

When the door slammed, I turned back to my toast and noticed a shiny butcher knife lying on the counter.

“That reminds me…”

* * *

Stacey sat at her computer, updating a formula in an Excel pivot table, though her mind was elsewhere. Since launching the new campaign, Viper Leather Goods’ sales had shot up in a number of major markets, in spite of the soft economy. That should have made her happy, yet she felt empty and stared out the window at nothing. Her head hurt. She examined her left hand and noticed a faint depression where her wedding band had once been.

“I have a cure for that,” someone said.

She looked up and saw Warren smiling at her. Lately, he had been putting the pressure on, and she was beginning to feel claustrophobic.

“I can’t tell you how much I want to see my ring on your finger,” he said.

“Oh, Warren. I’m still trying to figure it out. Besides, I can’t wear it yet.”

“You could wear it on another finger,” he said, taking a seat on the corner of her desk and wiping a spot off his Bruno Magli tassel loafer with his thumb. “You’ve been alone too long, Stacey. It’s time to act. Oh, and I need that forecast by COB today.”

He left as quickly as he had come in. It always amazed her how easily he could glide between personal and business, as if he saw no distinction. Perhaps for him there was none.

She got out the diamond ring, as she had dozens of times over the last few days, and tried to see her future in the brilliant facets.

* * *

Rick Van Loon surveyed the lush landscape of his showroom floor. In addition to his injured eye and fingers, he was now wearing a cervical collar. He noticed an unusual number of beautiful women looking at cars. So many to choose from, he thought with pointed frustration. Why couldn’t I have been born with eight arms?

Alan trudged in and continued past Gina.

“Hey, good morning,” she said. “You look…great.”

“Yeah, I feel great.” He indicated Rick with a tilt of his head. “Another date?”

“Kickboxer.” She smiled bitterly and snatched the handset from her buzzing desk phone. “Lexus of Santa Monica. How may I direct your call?”

Alan recognized the jazz vocalist from Catalina’s across the room, checking out a convertible. She was wearing a pink suit and carrying a matching Michael Kors bag. She met his eyes and smiled. His first instinct was to run. The last thing he needed was some romantic entanglement. Scanning the showroom, he saw that the other salespeople were engaged. Manning up, he straightened his tie and walked deliberately toward her, his hand extended warmly.

“Hi, I’m Alan Navarro.”

“Laraine Moody.”

He noticed she had large hands, and there was something unusual about her speaking voice.

“This is a very nice vehicle,” he said. “Would you like to get in?”

“Sure.”

He opened the door for her and waited as she made herself comfortable behind the steering wheel. Then, he plopped in next to her as she fiddled with the stereo. When he saw her Adam’s apple, he realized she was transgender.

“You don’t want this sound system,” he said. “I know a guy. He’ll build you the sweetest little after-market setup.”

“Do you remember me?”

“Catalina’s, right? I love your voice. Thanks for the beer, by the way.”

Resting a hand on his knee, she turned the dial to the jazz station 88.1. Ella Fitzgerald’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” poured from the speakers.

“Please don’t,” he said.

The words got under his skin and clawed at his veins. They reached around his heart and ripped it out whole, still beating. Alan was weeping uncontrollably now, mouthing the words to the song. Laraine snapped the radio off, her mouth falling open.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“They say they can’t, but they can!” he said, wiping his eyes with the heels of his hands. “They can take it away!”

“I know what you mean.”

“I never wanted her to go. I thought we were happy.”

“You give and give.”

“She wanted to stay at home with a baby. But everyone has to work, right?”

“Why should you bear the whole burden?”

“It’s not fair!”

By this time, a crowd of salespeople and customers had gathered. Gina watched from her desk, dumbstruck, as Alan poured his heart out to a customer. The next thing Alan knew, Rick was standing outside the passenger door, his hands on his waist. Alan looked up at him miserably. He and Laraine exited the vehicle, and Alan allowed himself to be led away by Rick and Gina.

“I hope everything works out,” Laraine said.

Another salesman took charge and deftly directed her toward a pricey SUV she wasn’t interested in.

Rick poured a cup of coffee from his ultra-expensive machine that heated the water to one hundred eighty degrees, the same as Starbucks extra-hot. He felt exhilarated, and wished he could chicken-walk across the showroom floor. Alan Navarro—the man who could make him feel like a schmuck with a single, off-handed remark—had messed up big. He smiled with phony sympathy that dripped like 30W motor oil as he handed the cup to his star salesman, who was now sitting in Rick’s office, a broken man.

“What the hell happened out there?” he said. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know. Take some time off, get therapy, whatever. Forget about the sales contest. There’ll be other contests.”

“Lots of contests,” Alan said, unable to feel his legs.

As he wobbled to his feet and dragged himself to the door, he watched Gina and the other sales people pretending to be busy. They’ll be talking about this for weeks, he thought.

Rick was practically salivating as he stood to deliver the coup de grâce.

“Alan, before you go,” he said, “I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you think you might give me Stacey’s cell number? I’d like to call her up for a cup of coffee. You know, just a casual thing.”

His cheeks burning, Alan confronted the evil that was Rick. For a second, he thought he had heard wrong. Yet there Rick was, standing in front of him and smiling, holding a pen and a notepad.

“I’ll get your coffee, Rick.”

Alan marched stiffly to the credenza and, grabbing the steaming pot of fresh-brewed java, poured it down Rick’s pants as his boss screamed in ear-splitting agony.

“Aieeeeee! You crazy— You’re fired! Do you hear me? Fired! Oh, and I’ll press charges, buddy! You bet I will! Gina!

Gina dropped her poppy seed bagel and ran into Rick’s office. Everyone in the showroom—including Laraine—watched as Alan stormed out. Seeing him this way made the bruises on her own body hurt again, and she realized today wasn’t a good day to buy a car.

* * *

A Sammy Day messenger, who was ripped and wore tight red shorts, knocked on Alan’s door, which set off a yapping dog alarm. Sammy Day Courier Service’s motto was “What’re You Worried? You’ll get it.” When he didn’t get an answer, he tried his special knock. Still nothing. As he grabbed a white plastic envelope and leaned it against the door, a tall man holding a Shih Tzu answered, looking about as presentable as Evil Ash in Army of Darkness.

“Mr. Navarro?” the messenger said, a little afraid.

“Hey.”

Alan hadn’t been expecting a package. Freeing up a hand, he took it. It was from the law offices of O’Brien, O’Brien & Wang. He didn’t like the look of it. After signing, he was about to close the door when he thought of something.

“Hey,” he said. “Got a few minutes?”

“Um, I have other deliveries.”

“No-no-no, this isn’t anything… I want to show you something I’m working on. I could use an outside opinion.”

“I dunno, man…”

“It’s a movie.”

The messenger’s eyes brightened. “A movie? Interesting.”

“I made brownies.”

“Ooh, I love brownies!”

Sitting at Alan’s computer, the Sammy Day driver, whose nametag read Carl, picked at a hangnail as Alan’s hot mess of a home movie finished. He pounded down another brownie and drained his glass of milk. Then, he rubbed at the imaginary pain at the back of his neck. Being a successful salesman, Alan was very good at body language and sensed what was coming. Ed was sitting at attention next to him, and he gave the dog a quick pat.

“I would never pay to see this,” Carl said, picking the last chocolate crumbs off his plate with a wet pinky.

“Why not?”

“Boy, where do I start? There’s no arc. Where’s your three-act structure? And who am I supposed to be following?”

Alan was getting steamed. Clearly, this rube was missing the point.

“Are you an idiot? There’s no arc. These are my home movies!”

Never one to take crap off his three older brothers or anybody else, Carl pinned Alan against the wall with a furry forearm. The dog ran around in circles, barking.

“Who are you calling an idiot?” he said. “I’ve got a year of film school.”

“Sorry,” Alan said. “I’m a little tense. How about another brownie?”

Carl released him. “You got any real movies?”

* * *

Ruby here. I’d been hanging out with Claire and Diego at the Beverly Center. I know, I know! Old and cheesy, right? Well, I still liked it. When I walked into the apartment with my bags, I found Dad and some messenger dude sitting on the living room sofa with Ed on his lap, immersed in Casablanca. And of course, it had to be the scene where Rick puts Ilsa on the plane. I never cared much for romantic movies, but Dad loved them and used to always make me watch them with him when I was little. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat through The End of the Affair.

Anyways, I didn’t know what was happening, but these two doofs were crying like little girls and hadn’t seen me come in. Dad offered his new movie buddy a tissue. By the time Rick said, “Here’s looking at you kid,” they were holding each other and bawling like babies. Well, I couldn’t take it anymore and broke up the party.

“What’s going on?” I said.

Both of them turned crimson and got to their feet in a hurry. Dad fumbled for the remote and switched to ESPN while the other dude looked for the exit.

“I gotta go,” he said, handing me his used tissue.

Clumsily grabbing his bag, he gave me the guy nod and headed out the door. When I looked at my father, my mouth hanging open like it had come off its hinges, he smiled awkwardly.

“I’m, uh, I’m just going to call Matt,” he said.

* * *

At Starbucks, Matt Navarro, a twenty-two-year-old film student from the Pink School, sat at a table next to the windows, staring into space. He was slightly built, with straight shoulder-length hair he had dyed jet black, like some emo late-bloomer. He tended to wear it in a man-bun, which today was tucked under a gray slouchy beanie. Though he had an imposing unibrow, his brown eyes were warm. Gently, he laid his phone on the table and sighed deeply, marveling at how one phone call could change your life.

Carrying two macchiatos, Phoebe Conklin came over and, sitting next to him, got her laptop out of her backpack. She was twenty-one, smart and pretty, with natural black hair, blue eyes, and creamy, pale skin. She was taller than Matt and, from the looks of her, definitely could have done better.

“Matt, here’s the latest budget,” she said, facing her laptop toward him. “I don’t think I can cut any more—”

“This movie’s gonna happen, Phoebe,” he said, ignoring the screen.

“Well, yeah, eventually. We’ll find the additional funds.”

“No. I mean it’s happening now.”

He stared at her with a kind of crazed excitement that made her uncomfortable. Then, his eyes got huge, and he took her hand.

“I’m so friggin’ happy!” he said.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Ramirez.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Six

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

Free fiction has an expiration date—and this one has definitely come and gone. Please feel free to explore this site for more great stories.

Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Five

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

Free fiction has an expiration date—and this one has definitely come and gone. Please feel free to explore this site for more great stories.

Book Review—The Woman in Black

[The Woman in Black Cover]I am jaded. Having read great American horror such as Hell House, I always expect the worst when I pick up a new book about the paranormal—“the worst” being a good thing as it pertains to sheer, violent, depraved mayhem. Not that The Woman in Black is new. I saw the movie last year and finally decided to read the source material. And to be honest, the film’s director, James Watkins, did ratchet up the horror angle, doing some things that went beyond the book.

At the heart of it, this novel is a ghost story in the best sense—a good, old-fashioned fireside tale meant to chill rather than repulse. And the writing is splendid—something lacking in a lot of the horror fiction I’ve read by less-skilled writers. The author, Susan Hill, has a way of describing dark things that leaves the very walls dripping with dread. And her depiction of an older Arthur Kipps reflecting on his haughtier younger self is first-rate and absolutely rings true.

Don’t expect to be terrified by The Woman in Black. That’s just not how it’s done when you’re writing exceptional literary fiction. But if you enjoy a really well-written book that perfectly captures a time and place as dense and cloying as the fog surrounding Eel Marsh House, then you will enjoy this story immensely.

You can find this review at Amazon US.

Synopsis
The classic ghost story from the author of The Mist in the Mirror: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town. Now a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

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Free Fiction—CHAINSAW HONEYMOON Chapter Four

[Rotting Peach] Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo via Creative Commons

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Movie Review—‘Arrival’

[Arrival Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

Arrival’ (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Drama | Mystery | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Paramount Pictures
PG-13
Log Line: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Boy, did I need to see this! 2016 was a tough year for many reasons, both generally and personally. It’s not often I watch a movie twice in a row, but after seeing ‘Arrival’ the first time the other night, I couldn’t wait to put it on again. I’ve always been a huge Amy Adams fan—two of my favorite movies of hers being ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Julie & Julia.’ She’s one of those rare actors who can exhibit both vulnerability and strength at the same time and break your heart in the process. And as a professor of linguistics trying to solve an impossible mystery, she is at the top of her game.

I won’t recount the story here—you can watch the trailer for that. But I will point out a few things I felt made this film—nominated for eight Academy Awards at the time of this writing—brilliant. First off, the writing. The story by Ted Chiang is filled with a profound sense of human longing—a longing to connect with something bigger. Many people interpret this as a search for God in our lives, and I happen to believe that. But I think, in general, people want to feel a part of something outside ourselves. Something that gives life meaning and us a purpose. The screenplay, based on that story, captures this feeling beautifully and reinforces it throughout so that by the time you arrive at the end, you can see.

The direction and cinematography were perfect for this kind of storytelling. Everything that happens is seen through Louise’s eyes, and we unravel the mystery with her. As if things weren’t difficult enough trying to decipher an alien language, she is always surrounded by strangers—army personnel and CIA operatives—whose purpose she can’t fathom and who seem to be in opposition to what she’s trying to accomplish. Inside the massive floating spacecraft, we lose our sense of direction. And the playing with time itself throughout is hypnotic.

Of course, any good movie has lots of conflict, which in this case is presented in the form of people’s paranoia about the aliens. The armies of the world all want to know what the aliens’ purpose is in coming here and, judging from their actions, they are all on a hair trigger. The director Denis Villeneuve captures this intense struggle with simplicity and clarity. And to balance things out—because not everyone in the military can be bad—we have the character of Colonel Weber, who is just trying to understand. Oh, and that soundtrack! Pay attention to the horns every time we see the aliens.

In the wrong hands, ‘Arrival’ could have turned into ‘Independence Day.’ Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed! No doubt, I will see it again.

You can find this review at IMDb. Now, check out this featurette.

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