Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

Rating: 5 out of 5

It’s nice when you find an author whose work you adore. When this happens, you gleefully anticipate each coming release, and dive into every volume without the “I hope this doesn’t suck” feeling that can come about when opening a virtual unknown.

Luckily for me, I’ve found a couple new favorites over the last few months. At the top of that list is David Dalglish, he of the half-orc series I’ve been raving about on this site (and others) since I first opened “Weight of Blood”. Now from mister Dalglish, comes “A Dance of Cloaks”, a prequel of sorts to his best-selling series. (Which, by the way, you need not read in order to enjoy this tome. It works perfectly as a stand-alone.)

This novel is in many ways a wondrous oddity – as most of the author’s books are. It is set in a fantasy world, and yet the story it tells is real world appropriate. In fact, I would hasten to call this a fantasy novel at all. A more befitting description would go as follows:

A Dance of Cloaks is what you would get if Mario Puzo #1) knew how to write, and #2) constructed The Godfather to take place in a land of swords, spears, and magic rather than New York and Sicily.”

The plot follows a standard gangland trope: young child, son of powerful mafia (in this case, thief guild) boss is groomed to take over a position he’s not sure he wants; inner turmoil, scheming, and conflict ensue. In this case, the son is Aaron Felhorn, whose father, Thren, is the legendary (and brutal) leader of the Spider Guild.

Again, as with gangland tales, there is a war going between the different Thief Guilds and the Trifect (this world’s version of the corporate elite). The war is fought the way urban gang wars always are – through subterfuge, theft, and plain, old-fashioned assassination. The fighting has stretched out for years, draining the resources of all involved. And now Thren, being the brutally efficient power-mongerer that he is, has come up with a sweeping plan to end this conflict once and for all and win himself (and his eventual successor) a legacy that will be whispered about for centuries.

There are many plot twists in this book, as to be expected, and a ton of characters, each with plans and schemes of their own. It forms a convoluted mess of intrigue and double-dealings, all of which are satisfying in the end. It’s difficult to write from so many viewpoints, remain true to their makeup, and keep the reader invested, but Dalglish pulls it off big time here. Each character has a distinct voice, and their actions make sense to their construction.

However, with all that said, this book is much, much more than a straight-ahead tale of gangs and duplicitous characters. The emotional depth is amazing, and for this we have two characters to thank – little Aaron, and his teacher, an old man named Robert Haern.

The interplay between these two is so well done. Haern is a man who’s trained many men, including the king, himself. He is brought in by Thren to inspire the greatness that being the heir of the Spider Guild leader requires. His instructional method is minimalistic and intellectual, and he immediately draws in the quiet and reclusive Aaron, who is the type of son who will do anything just to please his father. Their interplay is so convincing that, even though they have a very short time together in the beginning and Aaron becomes immediately attached to this strange old man, it is completely believable. Haern is the first person that treats the younger Felhorn as an equal, after all, and the only one that listens. Think back to your own childhoods. When was the first time you felt a strong connection to a parental figure? Most likely, it will be a circumstance much like one I just described.

Thren gets more than he bargained for, though, because Haern shows Aaron how to think – and any time a youngster learns the power of their own mind, they’re going to go off and try to find their way on their own. Thren wants his son cold, hard, and merciless. What the old teacher gives him is a child who makes his own opinions and develops his own sense of right and wrong.

This is where the story moves from intriguing to heartbreaking. There are two main points here – one unique to Aaron, the other not. The first point is the loss of childhood. Aaron is forced to grow up way too quick, made to observe and take part in vicious acts that no thirteen-year-old (or younger: he commits the murder of a member of his own family at age 8) should ever have to. In doing this, he is stripped of his innocence and made to become a man before his time. He ends up handling it quite well, but there is a subversive sadness that flows beneath the words, telling us how unfortunate it is that this bright and solitary child has had the weight of such horrors thrust upon his shoulders.

The second theme, and one that I found just as interesting, was the running premise of how dangerous family can be when it’s rife with dysfunction. Every character – and I mean every one – has daddy issues of one sort or another. It intrigued me greatly, and demonstrated the consistency of the author. All of his books are, deep down, tales of overcoming circumstances that aren’t the characters’ fault, be it from abuse, rape, neglect, arrogance, or abandonment (or all of the above) by their parental figures. It helps make the circumstances real, make them matter, and draws you closer to the characters than most books. For example, Stephen King is one of my favorite writers of all time. Of all his books, the only one whose emotional weight I still feel today is Bag of Bones. When it comes to Dalglish, I now have two novels that will stick with me forever. That’s an achievement, folks. A HUGE one.

A Dance of Cloaks is a wonderful book. It can be rough to read at times, and confusing at others, but in the end, you realize that all the confusion, all the clutter, had a purpose, and that purpose pays off. In fact, this is my favorite work by the author, and fully deserves its perfect score. The only other book I’ve given that to recently was Cost of Betrayal, again by Mr. Dalglish. Now, Cost is still the slightly better book, but being as gut-wrenching and painful as it is, it isn’t something I’ll read over and over. This one, however, I will be, which is why I say favorite.

Go out and buy this book, folks. Go out and make this author a huge success. His talent for storytelling is, to me, second-to-none. You won’t find many better than this, and once you reach the end, you’ll shudder with anticipation for the second book to come out.

Yes, it gets one huge recommendation from this reviewer.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 50/50 (5/5)

Purchase A Dance of Cloaks in the following formats:



Ebook for Kindle

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Hollowland by Amanda Hocking

Rating: 4.8 out of 5

I love horror. In the past, I would read nothing but. It encapsulated my every reading and viewing experience for years. There was just something about how much these works, when done well, could be so emotionally and intellectually viable, that made them so appealing.

In this regard, I’ve only had one complaint – the dearth of female contributors to the genre. Truth be told, I adore the feminine perspective, but their presence has been lacking. Sure, we have Anne Rice, but she hasn’t written anything that’s appealed to me since Memnoch the Devil. And then we have Stephanie Meyer…but to put her works of paranormal teenage lust under the horror umbrella is severely misguided. And that’s about it.

But then recently I discovered Amanda Hocking, and I think I’m in love.

Now, most of Hocking’s books definitely fall into the paranormal romance/young adult category, which doesn’t necessarily interest me. However, I received her newest novel, Hollowland, as a review copy, and I have to tell you…this is horror done just about perfectly.

Hollowland is the story of Remy, a nineteen-year-old survivor of the zombie apocalypse. The novel throws you right into the action; at the beginning, the quarantine she is living in (somewhere in the Nevada desert) falls under attack by the hungry undead. She escapes, along with a thirteen-year-old girl named Harlow. Remy’s younger brother Max, who also lived there, had been evacuated when the invasion began. Remy, as his only surviving family member, takes it upon herself to find him once more.

Just as with most apocalyptic novels, this one is a journey. Remy and Harlow head north, in search of Max. Along the way they meet up with Blue, a not-quite-doctor, and Lazlo, a young man who’d been in one of those pop-punk bands (think Blink-182) before the world they all knew collapsed into man-eating madness. Remy also, in one of the quirkier aspects of the book, discovers a lioness hooked up to a trailer. Remy saves the lion and it becomes another travel companion – one that is, since animals are immune to the virus that has destroyed modern civilization, indispensible when it comes to helping her small pride survive the various attacks that occur.

So this odd group heads north, encounters zombies, fights zombies, gain new travel companions, watch some of those new companions die, and eventually reach the quarantine. And that’s about it for the plot. It’s basic, as far as zombie tale goes. But that’s not what I found so likeable about it.

The characters are brilliant – Remy in particular. She’s morose and unfriendly, an individual who’s bound to her duty and responsibility, and who’s also been understandably tainted by her experiences following the end of the world. She carries herself with a quiet strength that is beautiful and haunting at the same time. Harlow, her companion, is still young and often a bit more sensible than her protector. She is prone to outbursts of immaturity, and she holds a longing for some sort of normality that causes her to perhaps look past certain aspects of the people they meet, aspects that could prove dangerous, in the anticipation they could perhaps give her a safer, less hectic existence. Combine the two of them, and a somewhat depressing theme washes over the words that I find rare when considering the subgenre of apocalyptic zombie fiction. These are no more than children we have here, and the text doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’ve lost their childhoods. In fact, this is in some ways the main point – that the girls are girls and they (especially Remy) lament the fact they’ve had to become women quickly. As I said, this is something I appreciate, a practical facet of storytelling that many who’ve written end-of-the-world tales (this side of McCarthy) tend to ignore.

And this is only one of the many themes presented within. Just as with the best horror, the monsters are simply part of the story, and the true moral is told with them as a backdrop. In fact, often it is the people, themselves, who are the real monsters. From the messianic zealot they meet (aptly named Korech, meaningful for those of you who remember Waco, Texas) to the violent marauders that populate one of the towns they come across, it ends up being regular old un-infected humans who beget some of the worst malevolence found within. And when you combine these ill-meaning actions with the sometimes selfish actions of Remy and her crew, you can see how those shades of gray filter into the characters, making every decision difficult. This adds to the hard-line feel that Remy, in particular, encapsulates. She is a woman on a mission, after all. How much of herself is she willing to sacrifice?

The answer, come the end of the book, is everything. And it’s beautiful.

I found very few flaws with this novel. It’s told in first-person, which isn’t my favorite viewpoint (though I have used it in the past, myself), but for this it works. It allows us to see the world through Remy’s jaded eyes, to feel her dissatisfaction and doubt, to understand how much she simply wants to be the teenager she is. In fact, come the final pages, it is only through her giving in to her humanity, when she finally allows herself to live rather than simply survive, that she is able to follow through with the hardest choice she’s made in her life. In that moment I cried out for her, wishing I could dive into the page and change her mind.

Hollowland is a fast read. I completed it in about four hours of engrossed reading. It’s simple in structure but complex in emotion. Author Hocking doesn’t shy away from gore (it’s there in abundance, of course, being a book about dead folks that eat people), but the violence of the piece doesn’t overwhelm the reader. It has everything a horror novel should have, and is entirely captivating. In other words, Hollowland is a rare treat, like a fine wine we know we should savor but can’t help consuming at a rapid pace because, well, it’s just so good. Hollowland might not redefine the genre, but it just may change the fact that women have been so sparse. This is something I hope to happen, because, well, it needs to.

Amanda Hocking is a master storyteller. She knows how to reel in her reader and keep them glued to her words. Anyone who has any interest at all in reading a well-told story needs to read this. It’s fantastic, horrific, and strangely beautiful. Once you reach the open ending, you’ll hope the writer decides to continue with Remy’s tale, because you’ll want to see these wonderfully fleshed-out characters carry out their journey to its conclusion.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 8

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)

Purchase Hollowland in the Kindle Store, or in paperback.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview With Author Noah Mullette-Gillman


The following interview with Noah Mullette-Gillman was conducted via email over the span of two days. It is more of a conversation than an interview, and it was truly an interesting and informative experience. If you would like more information about Noah, his work, and his views, please visit his website. If you would like to check out his book, The White Hairs, please visit its Amazon product page.


Journal of Always: Hello, Noah, and welcome to the Journal! I'd like to start things off by asking about your background and what started you off on your journey as a writer?

Noah Mullette-Gillman: Robert, thank you for inviting me.

I was born in a wonderful town in northern New Jersey called Montclair. Growing up, my grandmother’s house was across the street. My town was green and full of trees, but also had all of the advantages of civilization: book stores, video arcades, malls, many friends’ houses only yards away, everything I could want.

When I was a little boy, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her that I would be an artist.


“Because I draw such beautiful pictures!”

Now, you may think that this means that I changed my mind along the way, but in my opinion nothing could be farther from the truth. The skills that I gained drawing as a little boy are the same skills I have used when singing, acting, writing lyrics, writing poems, writing comic books, writing screen-plays, and now writing novels. My growth in any of these disciplines has all added together to help me become the artist that I am today.

If anyone is skeptical of this point, I suggest they read the first few pages of The White Hairs, and first imagine it was written by a singer, then once more and imagine that it was written by a visual artist. You can clearly see the DNA of my development in my work.

In my acknowledgments I thanked several musicians whose work has been particularly inspirational to me. I did not simply mean that it gave me creative fuel, but that in fact I learned my craft, in large part, from them!

I owe more to The Cure than to any single novelist. That’s the truth!

But all along, throughout my development I knew that “one day” writing novels would be the pinnacle of my work. Even when I was on stage on Boston singing with one of my bands, I believed that “one day” my mind would have developed to the point where I would be capable of doing the sort of projects I am now undertaking.

This was always the plan.

JOA: I agree with you wholeheartedly - art in all forms have symbiotic relationships with each other. I, myself was a musician, and thought that would be my life. But over the years that plan...shifted. Do I regret this turn of events? Absolutely not. It was naive of me, and I love where I am today. Add to that the fact I'm a much better writer than I ever was a musician.

But music is still extremely important to me. It fuels my love of literature, because in many ways the best music is nothing but, well, musical poetry. It means something. So for you, and your mentioning of The Cure (love Robert Smith, by the way), what is it in particular about their music, or the music you listen to in general, that inspires you?

NMG: The split between literature and music is a modern invention. For most of history, they were a single whole. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written to be SUNG! Once upon a time, there were storytellers who would memorize these stories/songs. They would know the whole thing, every page, every word by heart.

I don’t know when or why the single art form became split. I think the blame has to be laid upon the proliferation of books.

I can’t remember which Greek it was who expressed concern over the spread of the written word. Maybe Homer? He commented that he was worried man would lose his natural powers of memory if he could simply look down at a sheet of paper to remember what came next. It has certainly happened.

More, I think that the nature of writing has changed. We no longer have the need to write stories that would perform well when told out loud. When I lived in Boston I used to spend every Monday night at a club called the “Lizard Lounge.” A group of us would bring poetry and we would read it accompanied by a jazz band. To be clear – we would not arrange things with the band ahead of time. They didn’t know what we were going to bring them. They improvised around our work. This, in turn, led to us writing spoken-word poetry that had the right spaces and meters so that it would work well when read out loud. More than that, so that it would give the band something that they could work with.

To me, the Cure will always first of all mean the song; “Plainsong,” the first song on the album Disintegration. Yes, they have a lot of other wonderful music, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That seems to me to be the essence. I spent high school with the lyrics to that song written down on a piece of paper above my bed.

You could feel the swirl of emotion and weather coming together in the beginning, well before the lyrics started. The lyrics then arrived sparse and incomplete. It begins in the middle of a conversation. We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know who the ‘I’ and ‘she’ are.
But we can feel it. The music tells our hearts how the characters' bodies feel. We hear their chests moving. We feel the ache. We know that even as the conversation is mundane, that the feelings are powerful, overwhelming.

Then, while maintaining that simplicity of dialogue, the conversation becomes more profound. Listening to the song teaches me how to sing, how to beat my heart, how to allow emotion to find itself from where it has been frozen in my chest and incarnate itself in the world.

Where else, outside of this song, could I learn so well how to create art, or how to be human?

Can I ask you how music has influenced your writing?

JOA: For myself, music has always been a necessary hedonistic indulgence. I'm an overly emotional individual, and I've spent much of my life trying to push that down during waking hours, which I think is a symptom of the hidden Puritanical elements that still exist today in the northeast. We are hard, we are cold, we are logical and driven. But that's all a facade, isn't it? And it's also the reason so many children grow up confused, not understanding how to deal with those emotions. After all, their parents don't, so why should they?

But music was what allowed me (and others throughout history) to finally take hold of those emotions and make them real, make them meaty. When I was young and angry, of course I gravitated toward the heavier, angrier music. When I grew up a bit, but still wanted to hold on to that Puritanical logic, I fell in love with Rush, because they were the perfect mix between intellect and invention. And as I got older still, my tastes have merged. Now, any song that strikes an emotional chord in me, I love. It could be the most mundane pop song ever written, and yet if in the bridge the music dips and the singer's voice cracks even the slightest bit, I'm enthralled.

And of course, with me being so addicted to emotions, both experiencing them and observing them in others, I can honestly say that music has directly affected the way I write. My major purpose is to give my characters that emotional experience, to run them through the gambit and hopefully make the reader feel what they feel. I'm not sure if I've accomplished that yet, but it's my end goal. And I have music to thank for that, because without it, I'd be a shell of the expressive soul I am now...and almost definitely not an author.

Well, in a way I just explained part of my purpose as a writer. What about you, Noah? What do you want to get across to the readers? Do you want to enlighten, simply entertain? I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, but which way do you lean more?

NMG: My work isn’t agenda motivated. The point isn’t to “say” something. However, my work isn’t meant to be light escapism either. Part of the creative act, for me, is to create big and exciting ideas. This is actually the easy part for me. I have tons of ideas written down in my notebook, and even a slew of unfinished novels in which all I had was the big idea, but I feel like that’s only half of the equation.

To have a story worth bringing into the world, I feel that I need to also accomplish something on a deeper level. Reading my book needs to allow my audience an opportunity to make their lives better. There needs to be a struggle and accomplishment on the psychological plane. NOT because I want to make the world a better place or have some sort of influence on my readers, but I believe that the only stories that really matter to people are the ones that operate on this level!

In some of my other interviews I’ve spoken a little on what I see as the difference between “Fantasy” and “Mythology.” I think that fantasy’s job is to entertain. Mythology has a deeper responsibility. Usually, people think of mythology as being ancient, starring Zeus or maybe Baphomet. But I think the more important difference between the two is that in the case of one everything that happens only occurs at the surface level – everything is essentially what it appears to be. A dragon is a fire-breathing monster. In a work of mythology a dragon is a representation of a construct in the psyche. It still has to be entertaining, but it has the potential to grab and involve the reader in a much more visceral way, even without their necessarily understanding why, as their subconscious - which does understand the world of symbols - responds to the action.

Think about Star Wars. I would call that mythology. You could write a book about the hidden meanings. Why did Luke have to travel to a swamp planet to learn about The Force? Then why did Yoda put him in a situation, in the cave, where he would battle what appeared to be Darth Vader – only to discover his own face on the dark lord’s corpse?

Think about Star Trek. As brilliant as the original series may have been, I think that a phaser was a phaser. A star-ship was a star-ship. Unless I have missed something, I think you can take those stories at more-or-less face value. And they never meant as much to me as the first Star Wars movies did!

So, to answer your question – I believe that my audience will be more entertained when I offer the opportunity for them to use my work to find some sort of forward progress in their lives. To my mind, it is a necessary component to the sorts of stories that I want to tell.

JOA: The White Hairs, your first book, is a novella packed with commentary on spirituality that seems to promote an inclusive philosophy when it comes to different systems of beliefs. How does this aspect of your writing equate with your own personal beliefs?

NMG: Inclusive….exclusive….Hmm… I’m not sure if the story is either to be honest. I neither tried to stay neutral in the Christianity/Budhism/Hindu/Druidry/Judaism/Muslim/Asartu/Olympian debate, nor to take a side. I believe I stepped entirely around it!

We encounter two belief systems in The White Hairs. The first is that of the white haired creatures themselves. They have ceremonies where the leave their bodies astrally. This involves a world view that holds that giants came before and gave them most of their knowledge. It involves a strong belief that there is no afterlife whatsoever, that when one dies that is the end. They base this on their ability to see astral bodies, souls, and not seeing any anything remain after death.

Later in the book, Farshoul meets an old human man. The old man believes that when he dies his soul will go up on the mountains and be reunited with the souls of his ancestors, but I really don’t say any more than that about his beliefs.

Is this inclusive? I don’t know. Perhaps in the same sense that Star Wars is religiously inclusive.
The White Hairs is not a religious work.

Myself, I am not a member of any religion and have never been. I was raised by Astrologers; my mother, my father, and my grandmother across the street. Obviously, astrology is not a religion. We celebrated Christmas because of Santa Claus. We did not go to Church, although I was christened as a baby. In many ways, I think that I have more in common with religious minds than atheistic ones. The concept of a purely mechanistic universe is contrary to my physical observations.

I am a serious thinker. I do have a degree in Philosophy, and rather than being afraid of or hesitant to consider metaphysical issues, I’m drawn greedily to them. I love thinking hard! And so, I am actively working on the problems which religions attempt to solve. So far, I believe that I have three maxims. You could say that they are my beliefs:

#1 The world is on purpose.

#2 It loves me.

#3 I do not believe in any deity who is less emotionally mature than I am.

Number one is related to my experience of life. I see signs, I see patterns. I am aware enough to be certain that “Life” is intentional - has intentions and plans of its own - even more, has a sense of humor!

Number two is entirely experiential. My own life has been hard more than it has been easy. My manner, and my way, and my undying optimism usually lead people to think I have lived a charmed life, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Still, throughout it all, I am aware experientially of the love of the Universe, taken as a totality. Some might call it “God’s love.” I do not.

Number three is an indictment of the stories we find in the old books. The idea that any being could exist for billions of years and still behave like a spoiled and selfish child is ridiculous at its face. No, I don’t believe in a God who would create people so that he could test them and then punish some for not loving him enough. That’s silly. I don’t believe in a God who has created the universe simply for his own sake. Neither do I believe, as the Buddhists do, that the goal of our many incarnations is to cease to exist simply to stop the pain… That strikes me as chillingly dark, and turns existence pointless.

If there is something like a “God” in charge, that being would be generous and kind well beyond the dreams of Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa. He would be selfless and would have no motivation beyond helping us all to grow and become better than we are. Even if he were less than that a few billion years old, I believe that simply having all of that time to think would have straightened him out.

You might consider that Farshoul’s difficult journey did turn out to be for his profit at the end. As terrible as his loss was, he was only put through it so that he could grow. That might be my own belief system creeping in. Throughout all of my travails, what keeps me going is a hard-worn faith that this will all turn out to be for the best. Life has made me suffer, simply to give me the abilities I will need later on.

JOA: You see, answers like these are why I wanted to interview you.

I like (and agree with) your three points. Of most interest to me is number three, however. It has long been my standing as a man raised Roman-Catholic that the God of the bible is nothing more than an abusive father figure. What kind of deity, with the power of the cosmos at its hands, would require servitude or worship? I much prefer the "Conversations With God" point of view - though even that version, when you think about it, is entirely anchored in humanity. How could it not be?

Which is why it bothers me to see the "new" rise of dogmatic belief in this country and around the world. What do you feel are the reasons for this? Why are so many now turning to restrictive guidelines and theocratic fanaticism?

NMG: We are at a turning point in history now. So many of the structures which worked for the last few centuries or more don’t work anymore. We are at a point now when an intelligent and spiritually awake person is likely to find the Bible wanting.

So much of the fanaticism that we see now is a desperate attempt to hold onto a dead paradigm. The Bible doesn’t make sense. A modern mind that actually applies itself to it will not react to these stories the way that someone did a few centuries ago.

I remember in college sitting down and reading the first few pages of the Bible. It says, clear as day, that there are other gods! It says that there were giants! As far as I could tell, it didn’t have very much in common with the Christianity I was familiar with. Perhaps it is impossible for a modern mind to accept that everyone on earth is descended from two people who lived together in a garden, had a couple of kids. One of their sons murdered the other and THEN MOVED AWAY TO THE CITY! In an earlier age, when no one could read, and no one was taught critical thinking, maybe not as many people realized how little sense this made. But it’s all falling apart now.

A couple of hundred years ago, in our culture, ‘Christian’ was a synonym for ‘good.’ But now, in 2010, I find it impossible to hear the words ‘Catholic Priest’ without them also summoning up the words ‘child abuse.’ I don’t say this to be cruel. It is a fact of history.

Vast sections of the stories in the Bible are older than Jewish culture. We can read the Babylonian and Egyptian texts and see for ourselves that most of Jesus’ story was lifted from Osiris, and from even Zeus himself! That leaves us with the choice to either conclude that the Devil is trying to trick us, or that the Bible is just a bunch of old stories collected as best they could by some Jewish scholars and applied to the newest state religion.

The limitations in compassion, empathy, and humanity which we see in the Bible are best excused as being the limits of humanity at that time in history. When the story of Job was written, a brilliant man did his best to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Now, the interesting question to me is, if we accept that the author of Job was simply a brilliant man, does that mean that the universe is random and barren? The conversation at this point seems to be limited to the choices of “Religious” and “Atheist;” with Agnostic there for people who simply haven’t made up their minds. I don’t personally find that I fit in any of these categories. I am not a member of a religion. I do not believe in a mechanistic random universe, and I am not an Agnostic. I am actually quite clear about what I do believe, as limited and humble as that is.

But what if there is something really there that we are missing out on? Yes, the Bible is broken, but does that mean the Universe is random and mechanical? I think that, now that so many of us are free of the control of the religions that tell us what to think, we finally have the opportunity to have real and personal relationships with the beyond.

This is an important part of what I did in The White Hairs. Farshoul is told that he cannot leave his body anymore, so he goes off and does it all alone. This is akin to finding Eternity outside of the bounds of any church, and religion. In only the second scene of my book, he does something like leaving his church. Yes, he suffers because of it. He doesn’t have the protections that the rules and structure of White Hair society would have given him, but he also sees things, like the Giants, that his people don’t anymore.

I am a spiritual person who finds all religions wanting. Whatever spiritual progress I make in this life, I have to do alone. This is EXACTLY like Farshoul.

Robert, you were raised Roman Catholic. The most ferociously atheistic people I know were all raised Catholic. I understand that it can be a rough passage. Where do you find yourself spiritually/religiously at this point in your life? And what effect do you feel it has had on your own writing?

JOA: It's funny, really. For a long time, I considered myself an atheist. I just couldn't understand how hypocritical the concept of religion was. The picking and choosing of which rules and regulations to follow was a large part of it. How could you use Leviticus to decry homosexuality and then ignore all of the other hateful and imposing aphorisms? Just because those particular rules don't fit with what you want to accomplish?

Over the years, however, I realized that I never was an atheist, though I gave that belief (or lack thereof) lip service. In truth, I've always been fascinated with the fantastic, and atheism is by definition limiting in that regard. How can I think to write about such magical, out-of-this world occurrences and completely disregard the possibility that there is something much larger than ourselves out there? I couldn't. So therefore, I redefined myself by holding on to the things I do believe in, such as cosmic consciousness, reincarnation, and the glory of possibilities. And I think this is definitely reflected in my own writing. I want the reader to think, more than anything. I don't care what religion you are, but dammit, open your mind! You might like what you find there.

In that way, Noah, I really do envy your work. As any who've read the review would know, I adored the story of The White Hairs. The way you weave your ideas of spirituality into it and make it clear while at the same time being ambiguous is fantastic. So what do you have coming next? Are you sticking in genre (which is a funny question, because I don't even know what genre TWH fits into), or moving on to something different?

Robert, that’s very kind of you to say. No, I don’t know what genre the White Hairs is either. I spoke to a newspaper reporter last week and she asked me if The White Hairs was Fantasy or Sci-Fi. I told her that it must not be Fantasy, because I don’t have elves or dwarves, but I didn’t know if I could call it Sci-Fi either because I don’t have space-ships and laser-guns!

Which is one reason I think it was a mixed choice to have made this my first book. I think that it’s a good beginning for those who do read it, but that it may be a little more difficult to find readers for The White Hairs because no one goes online saying to themselves; “Ah! I'm really in the mood for a well-written story about creatures sort of like Yeti who leave the world traveling astrally, something that will help me work through my own sense of loss over the years and concerns about life after death!”

I think that a less-well written, but more expected book would have had an easier time finding initial readers.

I am almost finished writing the next novel that I’m going to release. In one sense it is very different than The White Hairs. It’s horror/sci-fi. I’m actually dying to tell you all about it, but I think I should wait just a little longer until it’s all ready. (Ask me again in a few weeks!) I will say that it deals with the fall of civilization, and then also life in the post-apocalyptic world. However, it isn’t about zombies, or angels, or a nuclear war, or any device that you’ve seen before. I really think I’ve come up with something new!

That said, in order to be satisfied with my work I need it to have depth. I need to battle my demons on the page. The next book will give you just as much to chew on about the nature of life as The White Hairs, but I hope it will also have an easier time grabbing readers than my first book has had so far.

You mention that you were never an atheist. I have been trying for years to articulate an argument in my mind that suggests that there may not actually be such a thing as atheists – rather that there is simply a large portion of the population who believe that “God”/the Universe/Life doesn’t care. I think that the way we humans relate to the world is to anthropomorphize everything. We are wired to get angry at the car when it won’t start. We are thankful when things go our way, and then angry at ___ when it doesn’t. Even if someone intellectually believes in a mechanistic world, I don’t think anyone actually lives as though it were an impersonal and random place. I don’t think humans are capable. Of course, whether we can then draw a conclusion as to the nature of the universe or simply the nature of humans is another question.

You know, I wrote a zombie story once. It was a cowboy-zombie movie called The Green Sunset. I moved out to L.A. to try and sell it, and it almost looked like it could sell a few times, although it never ended up happening. You’ve written a book about Zombies (The Fall.) In what ways do you think that work was influenced by your own deeper beliefs, or was it primarily intended as entertainment? For the record, my zombie story actually was, but of course the master of the genre, George Romero, is famous for using zombies to tell stories with as much deep psychological meaning as a good Thor and Loki story!

JOA: First off, now that I think about it for a bit, you can classify your book by simply placing it beneath the all-encompassing "speculative fiction" umbrella. Because really, specfic can be about pretty much anything.

As for The Fall, the story is definitely influenced by my convictions, and my life experience. I wanted to populate a world with real people who have real problems and reveal how every single one of them is flawed in some intrinsic way. Also, my belief that there is no such thing as pure good or pure evil is something I felt the need to present. Even the bad guys in the book aren't completely bad (or at least didn't start out that way), and the "heroes" are all damaged. They make poor decisions, they act selfishly. Just like we all do and have, at one time or another.

In fact, the whole series is nothing but one huge allegory for the things in life that concern me - racism and bigotry against differing sects of people being foremost in my mind. There wasn't much of that in the first book, but starting with book two, it's there, and it cannot be ignored. This is a direct reflection of one of the most maddening statements I've heard, which has been spreading like wildfire through society - "Racism in America is dead." I've worked blue-collar jobs for going on twenty years now. I can tell you from first-hand experience that racism is surely not dead in this country. I see it every day. It might not be as in-your-face blatant as it was in the past, but it's still there. Be it through the snide comments said on the sly, ignoring an individual for a promotion or an easier job, or simply not inviting those of differing ethnicities out for a beer after a long work day, it's there. Sure, we've made strides. Great strides. But that doesn't mean the work is done. And I fear that the more people who proclaim racism to be dead could potentially damage all the work we've done over the years. It will never be dead. Proposition 8 is proof of this. As long as there are people who are different than others, it will exist. We simply have to work, work, work at it, and never, ever forget how bad it's been.

Do you agree?

NMG: For much of my life, I never considered race a big issue. I grew up in New Jersey. My school was about 50% white and 50% black - completely integrated! When I was a freshman in high school, my family moved to upstate New York, an area with probably about 96% white people. For the first time I heard kids telling jokes using the "N-word." It was shocking to me. My college experience was also mostly white.

But it wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles that I saw real racism. L.A. is an incredibly segmented society. The Blacks stay in their part of town. the Hispanics in theirs. The Whites are in the north. Heck, until I moved to L.A., I had thought of Hispanics as White! It was all very strange for me to discover that many of them didn't!

No, racism is not dead and I think that it is playing a big role in current events in our country. If you want to understand the Tea-Party you can't do it without looking at race. If you want to understand the war that the richest people in the country seem to be waging against the rest of us, you have to understand that large role that race plays in that.

What racism has done is become taboo. We cannot talk about it. There are rules about which races are allowed to use which words...and a large portion of the country afraid of what the explosion in population among the poor and uneducated classes/races means to the country.

I think it all points to the larger issue that we in the U.S. do not feel like we are a "people." We do not feel that the good of us all is linked to the good of every one of us. We are divided by race, by education, by geography, even by political party - as if that were a football team and not a discussion about how to run the country.

I will always remember a conversation I had with an older gentleman in a bar in Boston. he asked me if I was a Red Sox or a Yankees fan. Now, I don't personally care about sports. I have no opinion. I asked him; "Do you like the Red Sox because you think they're better, or because they're from your town?" He admitted it was because they were from his town.... I think that a lot of what goes on politically can be traced similarly. There are places who see the Republicans as their "home team" despite the fact that every Republican policy is against the self-interest of the people living there....

I wonder if our country is simply too large? Or if our perspective is too small? We need to re-imagine the world.

JOA: Like Agent Starling says in Silence of the Lambs, "We covet what we see every day." Perhaps this gets to the root of the problem. For as small as the world has become, what with the internet and one thousand cable channels, things are also becoming horribly segmented. I don't know if folks are simply not going outside of their comfort zones. And honestly, I'm really not sure if they ever have. On a personal level I feel I must integrate myself into everything in order to have a balanced view of the world. I want to know about different religions, governments, and social principles. It does me no good to segregate myself from that which makes me uncomfortable. It doesn't make me a better person. And I wouldn't be able to have conversations such as this if I did that, either.

This has been a wonderful interview experience, Noah. I would like to thank you for that. And I would like to close things out with one final question. Based upon the multitude of subjects we've covered here, what is your wish for the direction we, as a people, will eventually take? Realistically, what kind of understanding about life, spirituality, and community to you hope everyday folks will eventually achieve?

NMG: I've really enjoyed this. You know, when I started my own interview series a couple of months ago at one of my biggest motivations was to try and create a format that allowed for more depth than online author interviews usually enjoy - but I think you've gone well beyond what I accomplished! Bravo!

As far as your final question: I'd like to see people start enjoying thinking. As simple as that sounds, it's a rare trait. So many people are not in habit of serious concentration, of in-depth consideration. We aren't taught to be any better than intellectually shallow. I think that when we learn to be greedy for serious intellectualism, then anything will become possible.

Thank you for chatting with me over these last few days, Noah. And be sure to let me know when the next novel is finished. It would be an honor for me to take a look at it.

NMG: It's been a pleasure, and don't be surprised if I take you up on that offer in the not-so-distant future!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: The Book of Biff 5: Split Personality by Chris Hallbeck

Rating: 4 out of 5

Well, here I am today taking a break from completely over- analyzing books in order to bring you a review of this oddity sent to me by author and illustrator Chris Hallbeck. Heck, I'm even going to eschew my normal rating system because, well, it doesn't work for this sort of product.

The Book of Biff 5: Split Personality is a compilation of one-panel comics with a complimentary line of text in the spirit of Gary Larson's The Far Side. Each panel stars Biff, the main character, who either has really long eyebrows or is some sort of human/alien/cockroach hybrid. The scenes paints different pictures of the things Biff does each day - everything from sleeping beside a giant air horn to his troubles landing a rocket ship.

The comics themselves are very well drawn, and are quite simple in design. But they work for what they're meant to do - entertain, humor, and every one in a while make you cringe.

There are 142 of these panels. Not every one of them worked for me, but that's to be expected. I don't think there's ever been a comic strip drawn that has captured every reader every time. What I might find "eh" someone else might think is brilliant. However, I did find a good 80% of them to be on the mark (and do what comic strips are best at, which is reflect society in a satirical way)

The only real problem I have with this, however, is the format. I was sent (and hence read) this collection on my Kindle. It seems like a strange choice. Out of curiosity, I downloaded the sample to my laptop, and sure enough, the illustrations are all originally in color. They are much sharper and tell a better story that way.

In fact, I feel this would be much better suited as a coffee table or bathroom (paper) book. Perhaps I'm simply pining for outdated conventions here, but it did seem a tad weird to me.

I can't hold that against the work, however, because it is good, and it is funny. Just a gripe on my own part.

It's still worth the money.

Buy the Kindle version now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Closing My Eyes Helps Me To See Clearly by Kipp Poe Speicher

Rating: 1.2 out of 5

When folks send work for me to consider reviewing, I usually read the first bit of the sample to decide if I’d like to carry on with it. Most of the time, my initial assumption based on the text is correct and I enjoy the experience. Other times (and these are in the minority), I’m dead wrong.

Closing My Eyes Helps Me See Clearly, which is a compilation of two short stories by Kipp Poe Speicher, is the latter.

The first short story, which I assume is the title piece, is the tale of a man who wakes in a dream world that is falling apart. It begins with a description of the world told through the eyes of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which is what drew me into the piece to begin with. It then moves along to the viewpoint a man who watches a little girl being run over. He goes to help her, only to find that no one seems to care.

The story progresses, and eventually ends, and we discover that everything happening up to that point is a dream and what is actually occurring is the end of our universe. It doesn’t really have a plot…more of a stream-of-consciousness like prose, which I do appreciate at times. However, I feel the author’s ability wasn’t up to the challenge and I came away feeling a bit blech about it. Not always a good sign when trying to lure someone in with a short story – though I feel, with a good deal of work, this could be turned into a piece of some power.

Then came the second tale, and I actually wished for that blech feeling to return.

Gas For Grass, the aforementioned second story, begins with a dream that is nothing but a graphic description of a sexual act, and moves on, once the main character wakes up, to become the most disgusting and pointless revenge fantasy I’ve ever read. There is absolutely no purpose to the story, other than to describe the ways one person can do horrendous things to another for no reason whatsoever. There is not a single redeeming quality. It has nothing to say, no theme, and if the author wanted to construct a disturbing allegory on the state of the world, he failed. It’s simply disgusting, bigoted, and, as I said before, pointless.

Now, all of this would be well and good, with both stories, if they were written well. Then, at least, there would be something positive to take from the second one. But they aren’t. The author has no concept of sentence structure or punctuation, no sense of dialogue, no sense of building a proper arc. As far as ideas, as I said, the first story shows great potential. I wish the author would’ve stuck with that tone and decided to expand on it rather than add the second story, because it drives the rating way, way down.

Do you agree with me? Find out for yourselves.

Closing My Eyes Helps Me To See Clearly

Plot - 6

Characters - 4

Voice - 6

Execution - 3

Personal Enjoyment – 5

Overall – 24/50

Gas For Grass

Plot - 0

Characters - 0

Voice - 0

Execution - 0

Personal Enjoyment - 0

Overall – 0/50

Combined Overall – 24/100 (1.2/5)

Purchase Closing My Eyes Helps Me to See Clearly for the Amazon Kindle

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Pale Boundaries by Scott Cleveland

Rating: 4.8 out of 5

Diving into an excellent work of science fiction can be like swimming through a sea of red tape; it’s muddled, sometimes it can tie you down and be more than a little confusing, and yet, once you put everything together, you finally know the answer and the effort it took to get through becomes worth it.

This was my experience reading “Pale Boundaries” by Scott Cleveland.

In truth, this is the first science fiction novel I’ve read since my high-school love of the Cyberpunk micro-genre. At times I found it difficult to keep everything in order – the technical terms tripped me up occasionally and I found myself backtracking constantly, trying to stay the course and understand all that was going on – and because of this, a book whose length I can usually complete in four days took me a little over a week. Now this is not a complaint, mind you; in fact, the act of staying with a book longer than usual struck me as a cathartic experience. By the time I reached the end, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the mind that created the work.

“Pale Boundaries” is the story of Terson Reilly, a young pilot existing on a backwater planet called Algran Asta. The story follows his adventures – from his arrest on his home planet for smuggling Militia weapons, to his relocation to a gorgeous, sun-splashed world named Nivea, where pregnancy laws and environmental controls are draconian, at best. Along the way he works through the guilt of watching his friend back home die a gruesome death, finds love (with a refreshingly strong and intractable woman named Virene), begins a relationship with his probation officer, Malaan Bragg, a noble man whose ignorance of his own society’s corruption will lead him down a rather depressing path, and encounters conflict when he and Virene try and rescue the pilots of a downed shuttle, only to discover that not everything within Nivean society is exactly what it seems.

Terson, himself, is a wonderful character. He is young and brash, following a common trope among science fiction heroes, and yet he is imminently faulted and damaged. He’s prone to violent outbursts, wears his guilt like a designer suit, and is untrusting. His is a grand journey of self-discovery, awakening, loss, self-destruction, and revenge. The many scenes between he and Virene are beautifully portrayed, looping together their naiveté with their not-so-innocent animal passions for each other, bring about a sense of reality and crunchiness to the characters. If we’ve been lucky, we know the lust and dedication for each other they feel…and quite honestly, this is the sort of pragmatic relationship I’ve found lacking in many novels I’ve read recently.

Another character I found fascinating is Halsor Tennison (Hal for short), the facto leader of The Family, a criminal organization that operates out of Nivia’s other large continent. The Family is, as we find out, the real reason behind Nivea’s strict ruling guidelines, which all come about as a way to keep their pockets overflowing through illegal shipping of technology and goods and help to hold down a society of people who also inhabit the Beta Continent – an Asian/Japanese-like culture called the Minzoku. Hal and The Family are constantly at odds with the rulers of these other peoples. He is without a doubt the villain of the piece, and yet his character is fleshed out with as much caring and intensity as Terson’s. In fact, more often than not, you can’t tell he’s the baddie, at all. When he falls in love with the niece of the Minzoku ruler, Dayuki, we admire and root for their relationship as much as we root for Terson and Virene. In fact, it can be said that Hal and Terson are meant to be played against each other in a literary sense; they are mirror images of each other, each possessing strengths and faults that the other doesn’t, which suggests that, had their circumstances been reversed, they might have become each other.

The plot of this book is convoluted in the best of ways. It’s rife with deception and backward dealing, and none of the characters are privy to what the others are doing, which makes for an intriguing read. It also has emotional threads that are surprisingly strong. When Terson suffers the greatest loss of his life, my heart dropped along with his. I saw him give up, and said, “I’m right there with you, brother. I’d have done the same thing.” There is also an exploration of power and culture that makes this much more than a technological thriller. Author Cleveland disperses throughout the text little clues as to why humans have traversed space at all, why Earth is no longer their home, and it made perfect sense. The author has an insight into human behavior that allows him to create this fantastic world and make it, in every way, believable.

In this regard (and many others), this is a great book. I’ve said many times that genre fiction allows us to ingest real and potent problems under the guise of something strange and otherworldly, and Pale Boundaries accomplishes this in spades. From presenting the idea of environmental protection and its drawbacks when the fanaticism involved outlives its practicality to the dangers (both for the suppressed and the suppressors) of xenophobia, it yanks you into the world it’s created and forces you to think about your own world. The examination of mob culture and how much sway they have on our everyday lives is also an interesting thread. All one has to do is look at the history of their own country (no matter where in the world they live) and wonder how much of their society’s success and failure has been the result of the suppression and hegemony of some clandestine group. After all, conspiracy theories don’t exist in a vacuum.

In all, I loved this book. Along with being a fantastic read, it is also the most well refined self-published novel I’ve ever read. The structure is near perfect, and there are scant errors or typos, which is rare in this new world of publishing. Actually, when I look back on it, I don’t understand why this book wasn’t picked up by a publishing house. With a near-flawless construction and a potent (and concise) storyline, I would figure it would attract the attention of at least someone in the industry. I emailed the author to see if he’d ever sent the book out to agents or publishers, and he replied that yes, he had many times without a single bite. This strikes me as both odd and disheartening. If a work as brilliant as this can slip through the cracks, it doesn’t gather much confidence in the decision makers who put out books for the mainstream to read.

(As a side note, though, I feel I must mention the one problem I did have with the book. Although it is well-constructed and near perfect, I reached the end realizing that very few of the plot threads had been resolved, and there is another book due out in 2012 that will continue Terson Reilly’s adventures. This, I feel, should have been known from the start. Unfortunately, it could turn off readers, and this is something that I would find a very, very large disappointment. So please, Mister Cleveland, tell us it’s the first book in a series from the getgo. For this, I dock you (gasp!) one point in execution.)

So go out and purchase this book. It’s a dense read, but well worth it. And perhaps you’ll come out on the other side the same way I did; mystified, impressed, and feeling more than a little enlightened.

Plot - 9

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)

Purchase Pale boundaries in:



Ebook for Kindle

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Yours truly has been granted a guest blog on Amanda Hocking's site, "My Blood Approves". Along with the article I wrote, there is also a giveaway, as well. All you must do to win a copy of "The Fall" is write a comment after the post that includes your email address.

Good luck, everyone!


Feeding the Beast - Why we need monsters in our lives