November Highlights

Gather by Duchess Flux
Photo courtesy of Duchess Flux

Well, we’re in holidays. Are you looking forward to eating some fabulous holiday food as much as me? I’ve already lost ten pounds so I can gain it all back—and more. Yeah, the holidays.

Writing

Currently, I am doing rewrites on Book Two in the Sarah Greene Mysteries series per notes from my editor. I hope to send the manuscript to the copyeditor by Thanksgiving. I had planned on having the book out by Christmas, but I think January is more likely.

In the meantime, here is a sneak peek of the cover for House of the Shrieking Woman. Let me know what you think.

HSW Sneak Peek

Events

The book signing in Burbank went pretty well. I am in the middle of trying to schedule future ones, and I am now expanding to Vroman’s Bookstore. Be sure to check out my Facebook page for news on future events.

Recommended Reading and Viewing

The Little Stranger Cover

If you’re looking for something creepy that isn’t exactly a ghost story, be sure to check out The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It’s a wonderfully written novel about a stately home infested with an evil you cannot quite put a name to. You can read my review here.

Ringu Cover

And if, like me, you are a fan of J-horror, check out the Ringu collection on Blu-ray, available now at Amazon. I’ve been waiting for these movies to be available again, and now they are. Each is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. Prepare to be terrified.

Until next time…

Book Review—Reprobation

Book Review—Reprobation Twitter Post

There are a lot of crime thrillers out there about cops and serial killers. The ones I find the most fascinating are those that take place in worlds I am unfamiliar with. In the case of Reprobation by Catherine Fearns, the setting is present-day Liverpool, England. And to shake things up even more, the author has added a Calvinist nun into the mix.

Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about Calvinism when I cracked open this book. The substance of this Protestant faith, which began in the sixteenth century, is centered on the idea of predestination; that is, some of us are born to go to heaven and others to the eternal fires of hell. No matter how you choose to live your life, God has already decided. Taken to the extreme, you could rob banks for a living but, if you are one of “the elect,” you are still going to heaven, no questions asked. But there’s a problem.

No one actually knows who will and who won’t be saved.

Someone out there, though, might be trying to find the answer. Unfortunately, their quest requires murdering people. And it’s up to DI Darren Swift, nun and lecturer Dr. Helen Hope, and a troubled Norwegian death metal musician to discover the truth, possibly at their peril. For Helen, what she finds along the way will test her already tenuous faith. Reprobation is a gripping thriller, one that may cause you to question your own beliefs in God, destiny, and what it means to be human.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description

Are you one of the elect?

Dr. Helen Hope is a lecturer in eschatology – the study of death, judgement, and the destiny of humankind. She is also a Calvinist nun, her life devoted to atoning for a secret crime.

When a body is found crucified on a Liverpool beach, she forms an unlikely alliance with suspect Mikko Kristensen, lead guitarist in death metal band Total Depravity. Together, they go on the trail of a rogue geneticist who they believe holds the key – not just to the murder, but to something much darker.

Also on the trail is cynical Scouse detective Darren Swift. In his first murder case, he must confront his own lack of faith as a series of horrific crimes drag the city of two cathedrals to the gates of hell.

Science meets religious belief in this gripping murder mystery.

Where to Buy

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More Reviews

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Three Things I Learned from The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger Cover

The first thing I’ll say about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is, if you’re looking for a straight-up ghost story, this isn’t the book for you. If on the other hand, you’re in the mood for a wonderfully written novel about a stately home infested with an evil you cannot quite put a name to, then, by all means, grab the book.

As readers, we come in with expectations. And I’m no different. I was expecting a ghost story. But making my way through Dr. Faraday’s narrative as he told of a house taking a terrible toll on the family living there, I came to appreciate the author’s approach. There are three things in particular I admire.

There Are Many Sources of Evil

Usually, stories of the paranormal have at their heart a ghostly presence that is typically vengeful, or they involve a demonic entity. What Sarah Waters has done is to introduce another kind of evil—something unnamed and possibly born from a person’s emotions—hate and envy, for example.

Make no mistake, though. Such a thing comes into being just as deadly. And those emotions embodied in an invisible entity can kill or, at best, drive a person mad. Unfortunately, at least one of the family suffers the latter fate.

Medicine Can’t Cure Everything

When Faraday decides to help the Ayres family, he applies everything he knows about medicine and science. He is diligent and caring. And he’s lonely. Just as there are things in Hundreds Hall he cannot cure—as much as he wants to—there are things in himself he cannot confront. And perhaps, the melding of these two poignant truths bring together the greatest tragedy.

In the End, It All Comes Down to Class

The Little Stranger is very much about post-war England and about how the well-to-do families of the former empire are no longer able to sustain themselves. Collectively, their wealth had been chipped away for a long time, much as their land was, with, as in the case of the Ayres family, vast tracts being converted to affordable housing for the masses.

Faraday is keenly aware of his station. His mother was a maid in Hundreds Hall and, even though he carries the title of Doctor, he doesn’t feel he commands the respect he deserves. Added to that, the National Health Service is coming, potentially eroding his income and position even further.

Everything in England is changing. And perhaps, Hundreds Hall is meant to disintegrate, along with a privileged way of life. Don’t expect answers from this book. In the end, there are only more questions. And you may be mulling them over for a long time after.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description

“The #1 book of 2009…Several sleepless nights are guaranteed.”—Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly

One postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country physician, is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once impressive and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners—mother, son, and daughter—are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become intimately entwined with his.

Where to Buy

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Three Things I Learned from ‘The Dead Don’t Die’

The Dead Dont Die Poster

I’ve been a fan of Jim Jarmusch since forever. What I love most about his movies is, he doesn’t waste time and money. His stories are lean, character-driven pieces that get to the point quickly. Films like ‘Stranger Than Paradise,’ ‘Down by Law,’ and ‘Broken Flowers.’ No boring backstory, no big government conspiracy. Just people dealing with everyday shit they have no control over.

Warning—Spoilers Ahead

Not Every Zombie Story Has to Be the Apocalypse

The Dead Don’t Die’ is the director’s latest film, and it’s a hoot. We’ve got Bill Murray as the police chief of a small town who, by his own admission, should’ve retired two years ago. Adam Driver as an officer, who seems to be the only person in Centerville that seems to know they are all in a Jim Jarmusch movie. And other wonderful actors like Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Tilda Swinton, and Selena Gomez.

The script is smart and low key. Lines are repeated by different characters, giving the film an almost Sartre vibe where everyone is caught up in an existential nightmare that won’t end. Here’s an example, which each character varies a little:

What the heck was it, a wild animal? Several wild animals?

Oh, and there’s the dead. Yeah, they’re coming out of the ground like in the original ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ with at least one of them reeking of cheap chardonnay.

When the Dead Start Rising, That’s When You Know Who Your Friends Are

As things go from bad to worse, people act out in different ways. Hermit Bob keeps an eye on the proceedings from a distance, making comments like this gem:

Cliff and little Ronnie. Warriors. Among the dead. Zombies. Remnants of the materialist people.

Officer Mindy continues to freak out with each new horror. Meanwhile, Hank and Bobby have banded together to try and save the hardware store—and themselves. And good ol’ Farmer Frank goes it alone with his gun and deep-seated prejudices as he discovers all his cows and chickens have vanished. Tilda Swinton, who is always mesmerizing, is perhaps the only one who confronts the danger head-on, using a razor-sharp Katana to behead the invaders.

And some are just clueless, like the three out-of-town hipsters staying at the local motel. For some reason, Cliff and Ronnie have decided they are from Cleveland.

If You’re Going to Die, You Might as Well Have a Good Theme Song

Just so you know, everyone—and I mean everyone—in this thing dies at the end. I think Officer Ronnie said it best:

If you ask me, this whole thing is going to end badly.

Well, okay, maybe not Hermit Bob. I mean, someone has to survive to tell the story, right? But here’s the thing. If you’re going to make a movie about zombies taking over a small, peaceful town and ripping everyone to pieces, then you’d better have a good theme song.

And this movie does. The song “The Dead Don’t Die,” written and performed by Sturgill Simpson, is perfect. In fact, for those who might be squeamish about seeing so much blood and guts, you might want to purchase the tune so you can at least feel you were a part of the experience.

Fun fact: According to the credits, someone got hired as a zombie movement consultant. What a country.

Movie Details

The Greatest Zombie Cast Ever Disassembled

The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits
Rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for language

October Highlights

Waiting - London Session 2010 by Davide Gabino
Photo courtesy of Davide Gabino.

Well, Halloween is almost here. Whew! Hard to believe the year is almost over. I genuinely hope you’ve had a happy and productive year so far. Here’s what happening with me…

Writing

I published The Girl in the Mirror on June 1st, and it has been selected as a quarter finalist in the Booklife Prize competition. This is the first book in a new supernatural suspense series called Sarah Greene Mysteries. If you’re a horror fan who likes ghost stories, you might want to check it out. You can read a free sample here.

Speaking of which, I just turned in my draft for Book Two in the series, House of the Shrieking Woman. It should be out in the next few months—I’ll keep you posted.

Events

I’m doing another book signing at Barnes & Noble in Burbank CA on Sunday, October 20th from 2—4 pm. The address is 731 N San Fernando Blvd, Burbank, CA 91502. So, if you happen to be in the area, please stop by and pick up a free zombie button. And yes, there will be candy. Sign up on Facebook here.

Recommended Reading and Viewing

Forgotten Bones Cover

I love reading, and I also love recommending books, movies, and TV shows. If you enjoy police procedurals with ghosts, pick up a copy of Forgotten Bones by Vivian Barz. It’s a story you won’t soon forget. You can read my review here.

Marianne Poster

And if you like horror with witches, check out ‘Marianne’ on Netflix. It is seriously scary and perfect for Halloween. Not suitable for kids, though.

Happy Halloween!

The Truth about Plotters and Pantsers

Stardust Memories
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

When I started writing fiction seriously, I pretty much began the process by staring down the blank page and typing words. I didn’t produce a complex outline or write detailed backstories about my principle characters. I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pantser. I knew this when I used to write screenplays. I was always taught to create the outline, define the characters—and only then, begin with FADE IN. I tried this once, and I got so frustrated, I gave up and banged out the damn thing. Take THAT, mother!

Defining the Terms
For those of you who might be new to the discussion, let’s first explain the terms. I am quoting the from a post I found over at “The Write Practice.” For my money, these comments work pretty well as definitions.

Plotters, having planned out their novel ahead of time, know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust writer’s block. It’s harder to get stuck when you know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly.

Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. If they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it.

I will say that if you read the article, you’ll notice the author is biased in favor of plotters. And I say, bully for her. Because, in the end, whether you are a plotter or a panster—if you’re a good writer—it doesn’t matter. Let me give you an example.

At the risk of bringing up Woody Allen, I would like to talk about that beautiful and funny opening scene in his 1980 film Stardust Memories. The whole thing was heavily influenced by the opening to Fellini’s 8-1/2, by the way. Even some of the shots are nearly identical. Never mind.

In this scene, the main character, Sandy Bates, finds himself on a train. He is surrounded by humorless passengers who look like they’re on their way to a mortician’s convention. He happens to look out the window and sees another train across the way, filled with well-dressed passengers drinking champagne and laughing gaily as they show each other their trophies. One woman blows him a kiss. Realizing he must be on the wrong train, he tries to get off, but it’s no use. At the end of the scene, Sandy’s train has arrived at a landfill. But so has the other train.

Now, I’m not saying plotters are humorless, and pantsers are happy-go-lucky folks who like to socialize with a drink in their hand (wink wink). It’s just that if you are a professional writer, you’re getting to your destination despite the How. By the way, that girl blowing the kiss? Sharon Stone.

The Problem with Labeling
I don’t like being labeled. No one does. So, whoever came up with these labels for writers must own a labeling machine company. My main problem is that calling someone a pantser vs. a plotter seems to imply that pantsers don’t care about the plot. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care, but we just haven’t figured it out yet. With each new book, we are on a road of discovery. And trying to lay it all out in advance isn’t much fun. It’s like eating your vegetables. We want dessert!

Another problem with labeling is that it encourages people to take sides, which is never a good thing. Need proof? How about the HUAC hearings in the late 1940s which led to the Hollywood blacklist. Yeah, that went really well; it practically tore the country apart. Fun times, people.

Finally, what if you’re a writer who is somewhere in the middle? I’ve adjusted my writing process to accommodate a short synopsis and a timeline, so I don’t trip myself up by getting dates wrong and such. I still don’t consider myself a plotter, because I don’t follow an outline. So, what does that make me, a hybrid? Sounds kind of SciFi-ish, don’t you think? Folks, to deal with the hybrid problem, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ban these nutjobs from ever using Amazon KDP again.

Okay, so here it is. When I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I have a general idea of where I am going, and I let my characters tell me where they need to go next. If that sounds a little new-agey, I get it. But it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times a character has surprised me by disobeying me. Come on—I’M the writer! And guess what—the story was better for it. I’m not sure those kinds of discoveries would happen if I forced myself to outline. And as far as plot, I can assure you, there is one.

Wrap-Up
So, whether you like to write copious outlines with detailed scene descriptions—or you’d rather put on your shoes, go outside, and see where the road takes you—I applaud you. Over the years, I’ve read many wonderful books by plotters and panters. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference in terms of quality. They were both excellent. Why? Because the authors did the hard work.

Look, the point of writing is not to feel bad about yourself. Writers do that enough already. We should celebrate who we are and be professional writers. I don’t know, maybe out there somewhere there’s a plotter who wishes she were a pantser. Sure. And maybe unicorns are real.

Book Review—Forgotten Bones

Forgotten Bones Cover 

Forgotten Bones is a ghost thriller with heart. Vivian Barz has created characters that resonate wonderfully and, like any accomplished author, puts them in the center of hell in the guise of a remote farming community in California.

The double protagonist is comprised of Susan, the ambitious young cop, and Eric, an emotionally broken academic. Of the two, I found Eric to be more interesting. He is newly arrived after a painful separation and also happens to be schizophrenic. Together, these two give the reader something new and fresh as they attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the decades-old death of a boy found buried in a shallow grave.

Of course, in stories like this, there is never just one body. And as the count rises and the FBI becomes more involved, Susan finds herself getting frustrated since it appears she is being shut out. And Eric. He would be thrilled to leave everything to the police if it weren’t for the fact that the ghost of that strange boy is plaguing him. Or is it that he’s going crazy?

For those who enjoy police procedurals, ghosts, fear, and surprise, this book is for you.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
An unlikely pair teams up to investigate a brutal murder in a haunting thriller that walks the line between reality and impossibility.

When small-town police officers discover the grave of a young boy, they’re quick to pin the crime on a convicted criminal who lives nearby. But when it comes to murder, Officer Susan Marlan never trusts a simple explanation, so she’s just getting started.

Meanwhile, college professor Eric Evans hallucinates a young boy in overalls: a symptom of his schizophrenia—or so he thinks. But when more bodies turn up, Eric has more visions, and they mirror details of the murder case. As the investigation continues, the police stick with their original conclusion, but Susan’s instincts tell her something is off. The higher-ups keep stonewalling her, and the FBI’s closing in.

Desperate for answers, Susan goes rogue and turns to Eric for help. Together they take an unorthodox approach to the case as the evidence keeps getting stranger. With Eric’s hallucinations intensifying and the body count rising, can the pair separate truth from illusion long enough to catch a monster?

Where to Buy
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Book Review—Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

Daemon Voices Cover

So, I’ll start by saying that I have not read His Dark Materials, though the trilogy is now sitting on my ever-expanding reading pile. Nor have I read anything else of Philip Pullman’s. I decided to purchase Daemon Voices because, like any good writer, I am trying to get better at my craft. And I thought Mr. Pullman might be able to help. Well, he has—and brilliantly.

This collection of essays is rich with storytelling examples taken from literature, art, and science. A former teacher, the author knows how to engage the reader without talking down. My only criticism is that he tends to go off on a tangent from time to time about his lack of belief in God or Satan, as though that has anything to do with the task at hand.

That said, I consider this book a must-read for any author who wishes to better understand the difference between story and plot, fantasy and reality in fiction, and why anything beginning with “once upon a time” immediately captures our imagination. Well done, Mr. Pullman.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
From the internationally best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a spellbinding journey into the secrets of his art—the narratives that have shaped his vision, his experience of writing, and the keys to mastering the art of storytelling.

One of the most highly acclaimed and best-selling authors of our time now gives us a book that charts the history of his own enchantment with story—from his own books to those of Blake, Milton, Dickens, and the Brothers Grimm, among others—and delves into the role of story in education, religion, and science. At once personal and wide-ranging, Daemon Voices is both a revelation of the writing mind and the methods of a great contemporary master, and a fascinating exploration of storytelling itself.

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Book Review—The Weight of Ink

The Weight of Ink Cover

Let the truth be ash. This is one of several themes that run through The Weight of Ink, a magnificent work of historical fiction. Though I would like to write pages and pages about this compelling story, they wouldn’t suffice. Let me just say that I fell in love with Ester Velasquez and her struggle to develop her mind and spirit in a world that demanded “decent” women only marry and raise families. Likewise, my heart broke for Helen Watt, whose life had become a perpetual plague of silent mourning over love lost, the yawning void to be filled with Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink is brimming with theology, philosophy, and matters of the heart. It demands of the reader that, like Ester, you question, even when the wisdom of the ages in the form of a learned blind rabbi is ever present to teach you the meaning of God and suffering. This magnificent book didn’t shake my faith but made it stronger. Because I can see in these tortured characters the spirit of love that drenches the book’s pages in indelible ink and laughs at Ester’s bitter refrain, let the truth be ash.

This story, whatever it proves to be, belongs to all of us. If you choose to read this book, then the story can belong to you, too.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

When Helen is summoned by a former student to view a cache of newly discovered seventeenth-century Jewish documents, she enlists the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

Electrifying and ambitious, The Weight of Ink is about women separated by centuries—and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

Where to Buy
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Three Things I Learned from ‘The Rite’

The Rite Poster

The Rite’ is a wonderfully produced movie from 2011 starring Anthony Hopkins, perhaps the only actor alive today who could drop you simply by leveling his trademarked death-stare. I saw the film a few years ago, then recently read the nonfiction book that has to do with real-life exorcist Father Gary Thomas. In that work, the journalist Matt Baglio faithfully records what happens to the Northern California priest as he attends a series of exorcisms in Italy as part of his training. If you are interested in what happens during these rituals, I suggest you take a look at that book.

But I’m here to talk about the movie, which was suggested by the book. After watching it again, three things struck me that I’d like to share.

There’s Plenty of Evil in the World
When the main character, Michael Kovak, first meets Father Lucas, the exorcist he is to observe, he encounters a young woman who has been suffering from demonic possession for a long time. It turns out her predicament is not her fault. She was raped by her father and is now carrying his child.

We read about stuff like this all the time, and what it demonstrates is, as humans, we don’t need demons making us do bad things; we are perfectly capable of being evil all by ourselves. Nevertheless, when a tragedy like this occurs, it can open the door to something even worse. As proof, you can check out the scene where the poor girl coughs up black oxide nails.

Demons Are Real—and They Have Names
In 1973, ‘The Exorcist’ showed us that demonic possession is real and that the entities doing the possessing have names. Apparently, they also have ranks. Now, as a reminder, these creatures are pure spirit; that is, they never walked the earth, and they are as old as time itself. They’re also smart, so good luck engaging in wordplay with them.

As a matter of fact, this is precisely what the young seminarian does against the priest’s orders—he tries parrying with the demon possessing the girl. Big mistake. As a result, the beast begins toying with him, getting under the young man’s skin.

Without Faith, You Are Lost
Here’s something interesting that was hinted at in the movie but is prominent in the book: many Catholic priests do not believe in the devil which, when you stop to think about it, is messed up. Have these people not read the New Testament? Anyway, just because these are modern times, that doesn’t mean the old truths don’t apply.

What’s interesting about Michael is, on the surface, it’s not so much about his lack of faith in God as it is about his refusal to believe in evil during these exorcisms. It’s almost as if it’s the demon’s mission is to prove to Michael that he exists. And of course, once the seminarian can accept that, he can then be confident in the belief that God exists.

Wrap-Up
I am a huge fan of this movie. I’ve said often that my all-time favorite horror movie is ‘The Exorcist.’ But this film is a close second. It’s intelligently written and beautifully acted and directed. And it doesn’t hurt that it was shot in Italy. If you enjoy horror that makes you think, watch ‘The Rite.’

Movie Details
American seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donaghue) travels to Italy to take an exorcism course.

Director: Mikael Håfström
Writers: Michael Petroni, Matt Baglio (book)
Stars: Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Ciarán Hinds