Thursday, April 26, 2007

My Brother's Keeper

My Brother's Keeper by Lorrieann Russell
(iUniverse / 0-595-20642-5 / November 2001 / 540 pages / $25.95)

We do things the old-fashioned way here at iUniverse Book Reviews. We don't need no stinking pdf's. We read real books like real men. We like 'em big, heavy, and long. We live to read 500-page, heavily-researched, carefully constructed books like My Brother's Keeper. We don't care if it was released back in 2001 and we don't care if it looks like a rerun of The Traitor's Wife, either. We readers here at the iU corral care only that this book is butt-kickin' good! You will see this critter on a store shelf somewhere in a couple of years. As far as we know, that's a done deal, not a wish upon a star. Get it now before they change the cover designed by Miss Lorrieann herself. The sequel's already out and you better read that one, too.

The copy editor's name is displayed right in the front of this book, and that notation should be filed in the George Bush Department. Say what? The proofreading of the book is clearly its weakest link, somewhat like The Decider in The White House. Although the concept may not have crossed the author's mind when she wrote this big, fat jewel, especially considering the date of its release, the story will scare you silly with its allegorical connections with the modern theocracy Bush has created.

The tale of historical fiction is set in Scotland in the early 1600's. Deeply set behind the scenes so ably conjured in the novel is a king who has given his blessing to the powers of the church. The local bishop of Stonehaven revels in the terror his band of witch hunters brings down on the local citizenry. Edward, The Duke of Stonehaven, has been living in denial for years while the injustice, terror, and torture has permeated his segment of the kingdom. The duke enjoys a pleasant lifestyle within the walls of Drumoak Castle, at least until the men in black hoods turn their focus on the residents of Stonehaven. The main storyline surrounds a young man who had been orphaned at an early age, raised by his older brother and the brother's wife until the age of twelve. At that time, young William Fylbrigge was brought to Drumoak Castle to continue his education into life by Edward and his staff. The story opens with William's marriage to Edward's daughter, but the plot thickens rapidly from that point. Here are a few clues. William was raised until he was twelve by his new bride's older sister. His older brother is a greedy turd, and William's nickname for his brother's wife is
the dragon. Remember, the dragon raised him as his mom. Did she, now? The plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens.

What we have here is an obvious comparison with Susan Higginbotham's
The Traitor's Wife, Anne Rice's The Witching Hour (and her continuing stories of The Mayfair Witches), and Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. There are clear elements of all of these quality works within the story of My Brother's Keeper. Ms. Rice writes from the perspective of the witches not as villains. So does Ms. Russell. Mr. Miller's play is completely centered around the legendary events in Salem in 1692, about ninety years past the fictional novel set in Scotland. Ms. Higginbotham filled in the unknown parts of a true story of the British Royal Family. My Brother's Keeper is certainly no better than these works, but it deserves a nearly equal, prominent location on your bookshelf. The prequel to this book is on the way from a traditional publisher. My Brother's Keeper and its sequel, In the Wake of Ashes, are scheduled for re-release at some undisclosed date in the future. Remember, you read it here first at iUniverse Book Reviews!

Lorrieann Russell is also a graphic-artist computer-nerd. She has created representations of many characters and scenes from her novels. You can visit this link to see many of Lorrieann's artistic depictions. She has created not only her own covers, but she does covers for other authors as well.

See also: Interview with Lorrieann Russell
Review of the sequel, In the Wake of Ashes

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Interview with the Author


We're going to try to start a new series of posts here at iUniverse Book Reviews. We're calling the series Interview with the Author in honor of my favorite author of fiction novels. The we I refer to is composed of Tabitha and whoever requests an interview. In this case it happens to be the only Texas author reviewed on this site. You can call me a copycat for adding this new feature. Many others in the POD blog force have already been offering author interviews. You can also call me the Al Past International Fan Club, but hey, he was the first volunteer so he gets the first worm.

Al Past

Author of Distant Cousin and Distant Cousin: Repatriation

Al Past resides in the small town of Beeville, TX, south of San Antonio, and he is currently writing the third novel in the series, due out later this year.

Tabitha: What inspired you to write Distant Cousin?

Al Past: Several things. (1) It was a story I’d been mulling over for 20 years. Suppose some people who were taken from here long ago managed to come back? What then? I couldn’t get that out of my mind. (2) As a teacher of writing, I wondered if I could create a story that I myself could stand. In other words, I could dish it out, but could I take it? (3) I retired from teaching and finally had the time. (4) The immediate inspiration was a friend, a world-class harpsichordist and prize-winning author, Rebecca Pechefsky, who urged me to quit dithering and just start, to take it one chapter at a time. She was right. It turned out to be wonderful fun.

Tabitha: Is there a particular, actual person who inspired your lead character?

Al Past: Yes, many of the characters are composites of different people I know. The lead character, for example, was inspired in part by a young mathematician & astronomer of my acquaintance.

Tabitha: When I read Distant Cousin, images of a blockbuster movie such as Close Encounters rampaged through my head. Have you envisioned what a movie version would look like?

Al Past: I have, yes. I can see the scenes that take place at the Olympic Games on the screen clearly. West Texas is quite scenic too, and there’s a fair amount of action. It’s also why the main character isn’t a six-foot guy with bulging muscles. It needed to be an attractive, vulnerable person that people would be drawn to. That worked nicely, better than I had hoped.

Tabitha: Did you consider other publishers before you selected iUniverse?

Al Past: Yes, I did. An article in the New York Times mentioned iUniverse and several other POD outfits, and I checked them all out.

Tabitha: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?

Al Past: Generally good. They do what they say they’ll do and they produce a handsome, durable product. It’s pricey, but I’m happier than I would be with one of those cheaper, pocket-sized paperbacks that soon split and spill their pages. The face on the cover of Distant Cousin should have been more obvious, but since I sent iUniverse the original picture, they had no way to recompose it even if they had wished to. The only way to see how it was going to look was to print it, and then it was too late to change it. Another thing: thank heavens I can write well enough to not absolutely need an editor! An experienced book editor probably could have honed it somewhat, and iUniverse could have provided that service, but it would have cost me over $4000!

Tabitha: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?

Al Past: It depends on what your goals are. My original intent was just to get the book into the hands of friends and maybe their friends and see how it went over. POD was the way to go for that. I succeeded! But if your goals are to make big money and/or get famous, then you need to make a more concerted effort, because iUniverse will give you guidance but you’ll have to do it all yourself. I’m a writer, not a marketer or businessperson. I believe there are lots of people out there who would love the Distant Cousin series, and I will work on getting it to them, but I’m not going to sell the farm in the attempt. Others might.

Tabitha: Tell us about the faces that have been carefully integrated into the book covers. Whose face is it? How do the faces key into your intentions for the focus of the books?

Al Past: The face belongs to a young friend of mine who comes from nearly pure Czech stock who very graciously allowed me to use her image. Since the main character’s ancestors came from Eastern Europe, the classic lines of her face were perfect. The idea of superimposing the face over a galaxy was to suggest that the heroine was (1) a very attractive young woman, and (2) that she came from outside our solar system. The face printed more faintly than I had hoped, however, with the result that a lot of people miss it. When it’s pointed out, they think it’s a wonderful, subtle trick...but it wasn’t. It was a mistake. As a consequence, I overcorrected slightly with the face on Distant Cousin: Repatriation. The face on volume three, Distant Cousin: Reincarnation, will be superimposed over a picture of Earth taken from space, to emphasize that Earth is now her home. I can only pray that it will appear obvious yet at the same time subliminal.

Tabitha: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?

Al Past: For me, literature starts with the biggies: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, in that order. If I were to list the next rank it would soon get out of hand! I also like foreign writers, usually in translation: Andrea Camilleri, Horacio Quiroga, Umberto Eco, Giancarlo Carofiglio...but there’s no point in listing names. I read widely, but seldom by genre, although I do have a love for sea stories (C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, etc.). For recreational reading, I like Robert Parker, Robert Tanenbaum, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, and many others. Shoot, I even read “chick lit” and history, and about music. I guess I’m omni-literate....

Tabitha: What have you been reading lately?

Al Past: A variety of miscellaneous works, like Cuba and Its Music, by Ned Sublette. I liked one recent novel so much I bought a second copy to lend out in case it didn’t come back. I read it twice, in fact: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Urrea.

Tabitha: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?

Al Past: I have a BA in English and a PhD in linguistics. That’s one reason the main character’s language, not heard on Earth for thousands of years, is from the Indo-European language family. There’s no reason the language couldn’t have been Indian, African, or Semitic, except that I don’t know much about those languages.

Tabitha: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?

Al Past: I mainly taught freshman English composition for 30 years. The one thing I harped on over and over was that it was the writer’s duty to write for the reader, to write to be easily understood. My students were not headed for careers as professors of literature. They were going to need to be able to communicate clearly for business, technical, or the most utilitarian of purposes. I respect authors who have more complex, artistic strategies, but frankly I seldom read them any more. My books are supposed to be fun. They’re entertainment. People shouldn’t have to work to enjoy them. I think I have used a few semi-colons, though, and I apologize to Kurt Vonnegut for that.

Tabitha: I found a photo of you with a large, antique musical instrument on another website. What would you like to tell us about your musical hobby?

Al Past: I’ve played trumpet since fourth grade. For a while I considered music as a career. I made spending money while in high school playing in dance bands and the like. It’s a tough way to make a living, however, and anyway I mostly preferred baroque music. There are more professional poets in the world today than baroque trumpet players. In that picture, I was holding a piccolo trumpet (actually a modern version of an early trumpet), rehearsing some Vivaldi for a student/faculty recital.

Tabitha: What’s next for Al Past, the writer?

Al Past: I’m currently in the final stages of volume three of the Distant Cousin series, Distant Cousin: Reincarnation, which should be out this year (2007), perhaps this summer or certainly this fall. People love the story and the characters (as do I), and they wanted more. After that, who knows? My second daughter wants me to write a mystery novel containing a Puerto Rican disc jockey in Corpus Christi, Texas. I don’t know about that, but I’ve enjoyed the writing I’ve done so far.

Tabitha: Do you have any final remarks to address to your readers or our audience?

Al Past: Well, speaking as a struggling POD author, first I’d like to thank you and the other legitimate reviewers of POD titles. You folks work a lot harder than most people appreciate (for little or no pay!), but you provide a terrific, much-needed service for the world. Bravo! We know that the digital age has been a great boon to indie musicians, film people, would-be journalists, and others, enabling them to get together despite the 800 pound gorillas of the major companies which control most of what is put before the public in traditional ways. I would remind everyone that the one way that never fails to work is word of mouth: if you try a book and like it, tell someone! Give it as a gift! Hell, even contact the author with a pat on the back! The POD phenomenon will be what we all make it. My vote is to make it the great voice of freedom and diversity.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Coming Soon

The next review will be of Lorrieann Russell's My Brother's Keeper, a novel of historical fiction falling within the genre next door to The Traitor's Wife. There will probably be a lot of similarity to Ms. Higginbotham's successful masterpiece uncovered as I dive deeper into the plot. Both are large, seemingly well researched stories about the events of an earlier period. The main difference is that The Traitor's Wife has the advantage of surrounding a true story of the British Royal Family, while My Brother's Keeper does not. In other words, Susan has a gaggle of obsessors nipping at her heels and Lorrieann lacks this marketing advantage. What I expect to discover is that Lorrieann deserves the same level of attention that Susan has already received. These two books accurately represent the reason I undertook this project. They are proof that some POD authors deserve to be called simply authors.

I have a lot more information up my sleeve about Lorrieann that I may reveal at a later time. My Brother's Keeper was originally released by Xlibris, but quality issues drove her to iUniverse. As I have said before, if you are going to spend a gazillion bucks and hours creating and marketing your masterpiece, why submit it to less than the best?
She is a graphic artist and she has created not only her book covers, but many renderings of her books' characters, just as she has imagined them to look. I may have to post one or more of these artistic works, or at least provide links to them. I haven't decided yet. As far as Lorrieann goes, there is much more to come. Remember, you read it here first.

I am pleased to see the family of POD reviewers developing, and I am equally pleased to see the subjects of some of my early reviews popping up on the other sites, too. Susan Higginbotham, Lyda Phillips, Tim Phelan, and Guntis Goncarovs have recently been reviewed on other sites. When is someone going to discover Al Past and some of the other notables?

Some sites seem to be introducing interviews with authors. I assume these have been accomplished utilizing simple email transactions. Do the authors and readers want to see more of these? I'll join up if authors or readers request it in the comments. Does anyone wish to be interviewed? Should the family of reviewers begin to interview each other, or is that a little too much from the redundant Department of Redundancy?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

My Back Pages

Bob Dylan released a song named My Back Pages on his Another Side album back in '64. Many of us have become familiar with the memorable refrain, "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now." I thought I would offer a little personal anecdote about my early compositions, how they matured along with me, and the relevance of it all to the POD phenomenon we participate in today.

I just pulled out my LP copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan to verify the exact title of the tune I wanted to reference. Slipped inside the shrink wrap on the front cover is a pencil drawing of the Bob I always liked best, the one posed on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited. I showed it to my wife and made a comment about how she did not know that I used to be an artist. It wasn't long after 1964 that I ceased making pencil drawings of Dylan and Donald Duck (another favorite) and began writing in a spiral notebook. I traded in my pencil for a ballpoint pen because I hate the way pencil lead smears on your hand, and I rarely planned to erase or change anything I wrote, anyway. I still don't erase or change much of my compositions, preferring instead to have a certain mood come over me in which the words just flow like The Blues Brothers on a mission from God. I have never been prolific, and I never shall be. My compositions derive from special, brief bursts of lighthearted energy. I have no interest whatsoever in writing fiction or developing plots and characters. I just want to tell readers my stories in a manner that closely resembles the writing I most enjoy reading.

When I first began writing, I thought my compositions were truly magical. I thought that surely they must appeal to anyone with enough intelligence to become interested in my style. I was writing in a very special style that was truly unique to me. Who wouldn't enjoy reading my work? I was humorous, entertaining, joyful, and imaginative. I was all the things on paper that I never was in real life. I was so much older then. I knew it all. I was so certain that I did. I knew that one day my work would be published and I would become the acclaimed author that I had always thought I deserved to be.

All I had to do was wait for iUniverse to be founded so I would never have to deplete my bank account and use up all my precious garage space just to be self-published. There has been nothing mentioned up to this point in my story that could not be explained by a dump-truck-load of naivete. The problem is that it would take another forty years of maturity on my part to clearly perceive how naive I really was.

I completed my first book in about 1972. It was never published. It was unpublishable. It was so obtuse in nature that you had to be me to even understand it. It was a very bad book. The concept was brilliant. Remember, I said that, not some reader. The material deserved to see the light of day, but the actual product didn't. Even I knew it. I knew it so well that I did not even release the story to iU as my first book. This story was so special to me that I knew I wanted to practice first, so I released my second composition to a small audience as a series of articles and stories that dribbled into the public consciousness over a period of ten years. Even then, I knew I would one day re-edit the whole project into one cohesive book. As soon as I discovered iUniverse, I began that process. Close to a year later, Plastic Ozone Daydream was released on 12/30/00. My second book was written, edited, and released about sixteen months after Daydream, but its content was far more straightforward in a strictly nonfiction sense. The short version is that Ker-Splash arrived from the shallow water of my brain, but Daydream was a great white shark of imagination! If you happen to be into classic Corvettes, I promise you that Daydream will take you so far into deep space you will wave at Spock as you pass The Enterprise!

This brings us to my third book, The Last Horizon. On Amazon Horizon appears to have been whipped out in five months after Ker-Splash. The truth is more like thirty years! I always knew that one day I would take the time to completely rewrite and re-edit that first terrible book. It was a story I just had to tell. Since the late Sixties, I have been living my life in a pattern I discovered that has enriched my ability to understand modern American social behavior. I discovered what would become my own personal theory of personality. Of course I became a psychology major in college, and of course I enjoyed my psych and sociology courses far more than any other of my classes. Why not? I had formed my own theory of personality long before I took the course, Theories of Personality. I was home. This is who I was meant to be!

Believe it or not, the point of this post is not to hawk my books or tell you my life story. The point is to show you how naive we as authors can all be concerning our own work. Yes, I still think highly of my own books, and yes, I feel as if I have composed my books with a level of quality that even I would enjoy reading. Have I spent a little time editing my books? The second one didn't get a whole lot of time, but it didn't really need it, either. The others deserved the time and they got it. Why do I support iUniverse with my own wallet, as well as through the reviews on this blog? As a corporate, publishing partner, the company does its part. The corporate officers may not care grasshopper spit if an author's book sells well or not, and they certainly do not care why a particular iU book sells or not. They do, however, produce a quality product. As the computer nerds of old use to say, garbage in, garbage out, and that about says it all as far as iU books are concerned. If you give them a carefully edited and proofread manuscript, they will print you a professional-looking book. If you want the cover to be something other than a variation of some other iU book's cover, you have to give them the raw material. If you don't, you will probably see the same photo that has been used on your book's cover also on someone else's cover. You have to give a lot of your personal time and energy to the project or the computer nerds' refrain will apply to your book.

I think Bob was trying to say that he had recently matured at a time after he had thought he already knew all there was to know. That's exactly the way I felt when I began to edit The Corvette Chronicles into Plastic Ozone Daydream. I felt that way again when it was time to totally rewrite The Witch-Mortal Seeking into The Last Horizon, leaving a stinky title in the wastebasket along with the incoherent composition style. You know, I still cannot get through more than a little of Tarantula. I still have my copy from The Sixties. It's probably the only book more than two years old on my entire shelf that is still unread! Do you know why? It was just a contractual obligation that Bob got himself into at a time when both his brain and his marketability were both as hot as a lit stick of dynamite, but he really didn't have the free time to properly complete the project. Bob was totally allergic to punctuation when he wrote Tarantula! That incoherent wad of nonsense still outsells all of my books put together, even after forty years. The moral of this story is: Unless your name is Robert Zimmerman, you better write, rewrite, edit, and proofread the grasshopper's knees out of that iUniverse book you plan to show to the public. Otherwise, you're just embarrassing yourself.