Month: March 2019

How do they do it?

Let me tell you a secret about spy and secret agent-thrillers… but don’t tell anyone.  They’re pretty much all the same, only separated by era.

So in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they were all about lone wolves foiling the Russians deep behind enemy lines.  In the eighties and nineties, about how technology could be exploited in the best way against pretty much the same people, plus china.  Nowadays, it’s all about teamwork and special forces guys (or ex-special forces guys) coming together to demolish drug dealers or terrorists.

What do you mean, everyone knows this already?

Drat.

All right… I’ll try to tell you something you didn’t know, then.  Even though they might all be built to a similar formula, books in that genre are massively entertaining, and keep people not only turning pages, but buying more books.

Case in point, Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, actually written by Grant Blackwood (I assume that this is the case, even though Clancy was still alive when this one was published).

Tom Clancy Dead or Alive - Grant Blackwood

It follows the standard formula to the letter–a formula, I might add that Clancy had an important role in creating.  Ex-special forces guys and a clandestine government agency find out where the head honcho of a terrorist organization (a Bin Laden type) is, and move to take him down, racing against the clock because the man has set several terrorist attacks agains the US in motion.

You kinda know how it’s going to end, but you still don’t stop reading.

As a science fiction writer, this embarrasses me.  Why?  Because, even though science fiction has all of space and time to play with, too much of the modern stuff is boring, navel-gazing, literary tripe.  Characters take center stage to the point where they become whiny and neurotic (also, if a character doesn’t have at least five reasons for people to be prejudiced against them, it seems that they can’t play a starring role), pushing aside the setting and situation, which is what makes SF compelling in the first place.

It’s gotten to the point where I steer clear of a lot of new science fiction until I see reviews from people I trust that tell me what I need to know.  If the book is described as “uplifting”, “human”, or “beautiful”, all sorts of alarms start flashing.

Fortunately, even the most disposable and interchangeable of spy thrillers guarantees a fun read, so there’s always something on the shelf to take your mind off the anguish that is modern literature in other genres.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station: Death, and he guarantees that you won’t be bored by it.

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Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.

Ice Station: Death – Launched. Thoughts on My First Horror Book.

I’m mostly known as a science fiction writer, and with good reason.  Of the seven books I’ve published, no less than five are SF (the remainder are a comic fantasy and a thriller), so creature horror is not necessarily something readers would associate me with.

Until now.

Ice-Station-Death-ebook-cover

Yes, it’s a creature book in the classic mold but updated to today’s world, a far cry from something like Outside or Siege.  It’s called Ice Station: Death, and you can buy the ebook here (will let everyone know when the paperback comes out).

So what was this experience like?  To put it simply, I had a blast.  Writing monsters isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside.  You need to research (your creatures need to be biologically viable and behave in believable ways), create a credible backstory for where they came from and how come no one noticed them before and also create characters that your readers will care about.  If your protagonists are wooden cutouts, it won’t make a difference to anyone if they’re in mortal peril.

In that sense, it’s a lot like writing SF, and very different from writing a mainstream book.  When you’re writing about things that aren’t real, or aren’t real yet, you actually have to be more careful of being exact than when you’re writing about real life–at least that’s been my experience.

It’s also nice to write a book where the tension has to come to a boil relatively early in the process and then not let off.  So the action is utterly relentless, and you never know who’s going to be left standing at the end of it…

Readers and reviewers will decide whether I succeeded in creating a good book or not but, as an author, I love this one, and hope everyone here will, too.

If you do read it, drop us a line here and let us know what you thought!

 

Interview with Christopher Schmitz, Author of Wolf of the Tesseract

We’ve got something a little different today, and hopefully the start of a new series here on Classically Educated: an author interview.  Joining us is Christopher Schmitz, author of Wolf of the Tesseract.

Christopher D Schmitz

CE: Tell us a bit about yourself outside of the writing world. Who is Christopher, what inspires him, what makes him tick.

CS: I’ve always been a storyteller (actually a reader, first) and love tabletop gaming. Besides reading comics, I also was a GM and did lots of RPG gaming for superhero games in high school and run gaming clubs for kids, locally, now as part of my youth work job (youth work is where my college degrees are.) I also enjoy music and have been known bring my bagpipes abroad (though I’m probably a better guitarist than I am piper).

 

CE: What drove you to begin writing?

CS: As a kid I always loved stories, and we got two TV stations if there was good weather, so I had to make up my own. In elementary school I wrote stories and even had a comic book I drew for classmates. I still have them. They were awful, but it was formative. I’ve always had an inner drive to create and self-identified as a story-teller. I grew up in the 1980s and had exposure to new and great stories of the era in comics, cartoons (He-Man and Thundercats!) and fiction was really coming into its own with new waves of fantasy and sci-fi.

 

CE: Which writers do you admire most? Are there any books you’d like to recommend to our readers (and for Classically Educated to review)?

CS: I’ve always been a Tolkien fiend, though I recognize that he’d probably never be published today with the changes to how we publish and consume stories nowadays. Recently I’ve gotten into Robert Jordan and Jim Butcher. I’m also a fan of Timothy Zahn and really like what James SA Corey is doing. Classically, I love Heinlen, Orwell, and have a soft spot for John Wyndham. I really think I need to put Herbert’s Dune on my list. Maybe I’ll eventually get around to it but I’ve only watched it as a movie and it’s probably a failing in me as a person.

 

CE: Tell us about your first publication – a lot of aspiring writers never make it that far, so inspiration is always welcome.

CS: I wanted to write in a shared universe—I was a Star Wars fiend for many years and had read every novel up through the Thrawn Duology. I even wrote most of a book (some of those elements were refurbished for my Dekker’s Dozen space opera series,) and it led me on a quest to discover how to get into the publishing world. In the early days of the internet companies still listed information on how to get in touch with them and I even got a hold of someone at Lucas’s companies who explained that writing in their shared universe was by invitation. I was nineteen at the time and she told me, “Successfully publish something original and get noticed—then people will come to you.” I started writing my original-concept fantasy series, The Kakos Realm. Of course, I did everything wrong to begin with and sketched out a 7 book story arc, writing mythopoeic notes like diet-tolkien. It was picked up by a small publisher that eventually sold to someone else who bought it to shutter the place. I got my rights back, wrote more, and released it as an indie title later. I learned a lot along the way and launched my blog several years ago with the express intent of sharing wisdom I gleaned from making wrong choices or getting good advice from fellow authors. Being an author is a long-term plan. It’s not something you can do to get rich, but every year I’ve done better than the last—and chiefly because I’m finding better and better resources to equip myself with.

Wolf of the Tesseract by Christopher Schmitz

CE: What inspired you to write Wolf of the Tesseract? Was it something you experienced? Something you read? A love of wolves?

CS: Wolf of the Tesseract is something I wrote specifically for the YA and up crowd. I wrote it as something of an homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. Of course, I threw in healthy doses of tropes found in the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats era cartoons (both of which got short-lived post-2000 reboots that were amazing and were dropped in idiotic moves reminiscent of the Firefly cancellation.) Anyway, I also added lycan/werewolves to the mix; as a teen I played a lot of World of Darkness stuff and have always loved the themes. After the first book was picked up by a traditional publisher and then went indie when my contract expired and I also released a sequel and a prequel comic book which I bring to the many comic cons that I attend as a guest or vendor. People can get that comic book for free as a digital download (plus other books) by joining my mailing list.

 

Thanks Christopher! Hope some of our readers will check out your books and sign up for the mailing list.  It does sound like something the eclectic crowd here would enjoy!

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.