Sunday, February 28, 2010

Distant Cousin: Regeneration

Distant Cousin: Regeneration
by Al Past

(CreateSpace / 1-448-69856-1 / 978-1-448-69856-1 / September 2009 / 306 pages / $12.95 / Kindle $5 / B&N $9.32 / B&N e-book $3.57)

Dr. Al Past spreads his literary wings outward to encompass the details of more characters in Distant Cousin (4): Regeneration. Like many later sequels in a series, this chapter of the saga of Barbie from Outer Space broadens its context. Ana Darcy and Matt Mendez are still the stars, but the page count of DC4 covers a lot of terrain inhabited by their teenage kids, one of the kids’ friends, and an ex-Navy Seal who is sort of Ana’s personal bodyguard. Many new family members and others are included, too, in this new volume, but probably the most interesting is daughter Clio’s pet caracal, essentially an African bobcat. Regeneration is paced much like DC1 and DC3, somewhat slowly and emotionally involving, as opposed to action-packed like the shortest of the series, Distant Cousin: Repatriation. Unfortunately, I think this fourth book could have used just a little more of the taut excitement of DC2.

Plot details should always be held to a minimal level in reviews. Anyone who plans to read Regeneration is most likely already familiar with the characters and storyline. Ana and Matt are a number of years older, the babies are now teenagers, and they have all settled down into a routine in recent years. The kids are stronger participants now, leading to questions concerning whatever special abilities they may have inherited from their Thoman mom. Characters introduced in the previous books develop new relationships and new villains carry the plot into new dark alleys, adventures, and exotic locations.

Regeneration wobbles back and forth a little in its lack of a headlong rush to its final conclusion. The good news is that the adventures of Anna Darcy and Matt Mendez are still quite satisfying as the author takes his professionalism in editing and proofreading to a new level. The show-don’t-tell dialogue is particularly adept throughout, subtly placing the reader squarely among the characters, however, I felt that the Spanish dialect followed by English translations in parentheses just bogged down the storyline, as did the detailed descriptions of food at every meal. Yes, I am being quite critical, but only because the other Distant Cousin books are so emotionally gripping. Regeneration to me was like a roller coaster that was a fun ride, but that first hill that defines the speed of the coaster just wasn’t quite high enough. The villains could have been a little more sneakily tenacious and Ana could have stretched my heartstrings a little tauter. DC4 gets an A in show-don’t-tell, but its plot momentum leaves a bit to be desired. There is no doubt that I thoroughly enjoyed this fourth Ana Darcy adventure from beginning to end. It just lacks the wow-factor so prevalent in the first three books of Al Past’s Distant Cousin Series. What more can you really ask of a third sequel?

See also: Al Past's Website
The BNN Review of Regeneration
Reviews of DC1, DC2, & DC3
Al Past's Smashwords Page

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cloyne Court

Cloyne Court by Dodie Katague
(Three Clover Press / 0-981-95533-9 / 978-0-981-95533-9 / December 2009 / 328 pages / $15.95 / Amazon $11.48)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Cloyne Court is billed as a kind of real-life Animal House – a nostalgic memoir-novel about a rollicking all-gender-and-orientation cooperative residential house in Berkeley in the late 1970s, after the flower-power generation had moved on to something resembling an adult life practically everywhere else. Derek Marsdon has just turned 18, a college student, commuting from his family home and wrestling with incomprehensible academic courses – and much else besides.

Spurred by an impulse and the advice of an odd and witchy old woman he sees on the train going home one day, he decides to move into a college residence – and thereby takes the first steps onto the necessary path of becoming something a little more than a teenager. Cloyne Court is, as I interpreted it, not so much an account of four years of carefree pranks, debauchery and substance abuse with a little academic enrichment squeezed in between – but a rambling account of how a young man first encounters the larger world, that world outside the shelter of a family. Going to college, joining the military, or generally moving out into the world of work on our own is the time when most of us are establishing an identity of our own, something beyond just being a son or a daughter, an extension of our parents. This is where we first encounter straight-on a lot of things: all the pitfalls of sexuality and sexual attraction, of responsibility for ourselves, of coping with a bureaucracy which (if we let it!) would control our adult lives, and the randomness of fate. We encounter people very, very different from ourselves on a great many levels, we first cope with love and unrequited devotion, acquire junk furniture with a strange history, taste adult beverages, and get caught up in a student demonstration when all we really needed to do was turn in some necessary paperwork. All these things happen, not to mention that strange camaraderie that arises when you spend a great deal of time with other individuals in an odd environment, where everyone knows the rituals and the place, as well as the importance of seemingly inconsequential things.

Derek wanders through those undergraduate years, feeling some of the pains and disappointments – but always with a steady and observant eye, and a whole heart. One senses that he came through as a complete and secure adult – and that the author had an unerring eye and no little sympathy for those years – which now and again, may have been rather embarrassing for the adults who emerged from the antics of their college years, especially if they now have near-adult children of their own. There is something about those first years which keeps a hold on us for the rest of our adult lives, sometimes making us wince, and sometimes brushed with the golden highlights of nostalgia, something which the writer has caught very well.

See also: Celia's BNN Review
Dodie Katague's Website
Dodie Katague's Authors Den Page

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nero's Concert

Nero’s Concert
by Don Westenhaver

(Xlibris / 1-441-50109-6 / 978-1-441-50109-7 / February 2009 / 312 pages / $19.99 / Kindle $2.00)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

A Nero: Any bloody-minded man, relentless tyrant, or evil-doer of extraordinary cruelty; from the depraved and infamous Roman Emperor C. Claudius Nero. – Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable

Almost twenty-one centuries after the Great Fire of Rome, most people believe that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In reality, Nero—who ruled as Emperor between AD 54 and AD 68—played a lyre, and the fiddle as we know it had yet to be invented. Even the historian Tacitus discounts the rumor that Nero sang and played his lyre while enjoying the six-day spectacle of his city on fire. But the fiddling myth lives on.

Nobody knows whether the fire was accident or arson. Disgruntled Romans said Nero started it for reasons of insanity or to clear away land for a new palace. Nero blamed and persecuted Christians to direct the public’s antagonism away from himself. Don Westenhaver’s well researched novel Nero’s Concert provides readers with a what-might-have-happened scenario for the calamitous days of July, 64 AD and their aftermath.

In Nero’s Concert, Nero does not start the fire. He asks his close friend Rusticus to investigate in hopes of proving Christians are responsible. Nero doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Tensions mount and the friendship between Nero and Rusticus becomes strained. Subsequently, Rusticus’ life and safety are jeopardized when Nero turns to Tigellinus, the sadistic prefect of the Praetorian Guard, for more appropriate conclusions and when Rusticus falls in love with a Christian.

In addition to Nero and Tigellinus, Westenhaver’s novel includes Seneca, Poppaea, St. Peter and other historical characters. Rusticus, who is wholly fictional, attends to both his duty and his heart, making him a wonderfully level-headed protagonist for a story about a chaotic city with an erratic Emperor.

When Camilia, a nurse helping the injured during the fire, tells a Tribune she’s found a murdered senator among the dead, the Tribune says he will take her information to Rusticus rather than Tigellinus.

“I don’t know Tigellinus obviously,” says Camilia, “but his reputation is that he punishes those who bring bad news.”

“Yes,” the Tribune responds. “Whereas Rusticus seems quite different—analytical and professional. Somewhat distant rather than friendly. But I worked with him on the fire and he was fair to everyone.”

Through the novel’s wide window into the past, readers see the workings of the Roman hierarchy via Rusticus’ investigation and his interactions with Seneca, Nero and Tigellinus. As Camilia and Rusticus spend time together, readers learn about daily life and about the horrors of being a Christian at a time when such beliefs are likely to lead to imprisonment, torture and death. The author has taken great care in his presentation of facts about Rome’s rulers, buildings and people. An author’s note at the end of the novel supplies additional details.

While Westenhaver’s writing is highly readable, his modern-day words and phrases add a disruptive casualness that doesn’t fit the time or place. When Thaddeus calls out to Rusticus with the words “Hey, boss,” the reality of Rome within the novel crumbles a bit. So, too, when Nero’s efforts to improve his image are referred to as “public relations,” an individual is called “your guy,” a parade is called a “big deal,” and sexual encounters are described as “getting laid.” Personal taste may dictate whether or not this is distracting.

The research behind the story gets in the way of the story occasionally when the primary plot line is diverted into travelogue-style moments around the city and a vacation trip Rusticus and Camilia take to the Bay of Naples. Likewise, a visit with an imprisoned St. Peter strays past its intended purpose into a monologue about Christianity. Such information does provide interesting facts and insights into the characters and the times, but at the expense of the novel’s pacing. Some readers may skim these sections while others may enjoy the additional atmosphere. On balance, Nero’s Concert is an engaging love story as well as an entertaining and informative account of a time that lives in our consciousness as myth more than fact. Readers will come away from the novel knowing that, in all likelihood, Nero neither played a violin nor fiddled around while Rome burned.

See also: Malcolm's Good Reads Review
Malcolm's Round Table Review
The Author's Smashwords Page
Review of The Red Turtle Project

Friday, February 12, 2010

Trailerable Cruisers and Runabouts

The Boat Buyer’s Guide to Trailerable Cruisers and Runabouts By Ed McKnew
(International Marine McGraw-Hill / 0-071-47355-6 / 978-0-071-47355-2 / April 2006 / 384 pages / $24.95)

Ed McKnew has been producing his Boat Buyer’s Guide series for many years. He had a successful career as a yacht broker in an area full of boat dealers south of Houston TX near the Gulf before he set up his American Marine Publishing operation in Traverse City MI to publish an annual CD-ROM of all the categories of boats. Until this year, McGraw-Hill has been publishing paperback versions of Ed’s CD in segmented form. According to his website, this 2006 edition is to be the last of the print versions. The big CD version will continue to be sold for $70 directly from the website. The other sections from 2006 still available in print form are Motor Yachts and Trawlers, Sportfishing Boats, and Trailerable Fishing Boats. Since I have spent the last year developing the only book that seems even remotely to be a competitor to this one, I have thoroughly read Trailerable Cruisers and Runabouts and here is my report.

Ed McKnew claims his books were initially compiled for boat brokers and dealers to use as a reference for price valuations of used boats of recent years, and that most certainly is a strongly applicable statement. This book should have a lesser appeal to individual retail boat buyers; however, for anyone planning to drop ten grand (or far more) on a used boat, what’s another $24.95? There is very little else out there that offers even similar information to that contained in Ed’s book. Any potential boat buyer could get a look at a lot of brands and compare price values and other details, model against model. This is not a book to read cover-to-cover, although I just did. The only straight text in the book is contained in the introductory pages. The remainder is composed of individual boat models, two to a page, with a 1 ½” x 2 ½” photo, a photo or line drawing of similar size showing the seating layout from above, a few minimal specifications, a basic price chart for the production years up through 2004, and a short descriptive paragraph of each one. What you see is what you get, page after page.

As a buyer’s guide for retail boat shoppers, I could make a lot of noise about the lack of certain complete information and the consistent emphasis on certain elements. For example, I could care less about the draft up and down, water capacity, or deadrise that is stated for every boat in this book. Performance figures are often quoted for engine options not reflected in the price chart, too. The photos are too small to discern very much detail. Certain issues are mentioned repeatedly in quite an unnecessary manner, such as the choice of standard or sport seating in a runabout. Newsflash, dude, they all have it! You can buy practically every runabout being produced with either jump seats or a large bench in the stern. Fortunately for Mr. McKnew, he makes no incorrect claims about his book. If you think of boats as product, as any dealer does, this book makes perfectly good sense.

Anyone considering buying a boat and entering the recreational boating hobby should purchase one or several appropriate books beforehand. Knowledge before you buy is always a good thing. Beginners should read the books for Dummies or Idiots, whichever style suits you best. I have read a number from both and I personally prefer the Dummies Series. If you want to get into the depth of boat design or seriously compare specific models, then the Sorensen’s Guides are for you. Ker-Splash 2: The High Performance Powerboat Book schools the novice buyer with an ocean of data while seasoned hobbyists swim its entertaining waters. If you want to get into specific valuations or details as described above, Trailerable Cruisers and Runabouts is for you.

Special note to Amazon & McGraw-Hill: This book is not 384 pages covering more than 600 boats. Sportboats are listed as a category on the cover, but there is no Sportboat section in this book. The book is 312 pages long covering 555 boats in four categories. Since I love boats, I liked the book anyway, but this is a detail that potential buyers should know beforehand. I intend no animosity toward the author, publisher, or retailer over this issue. Someone just made a little boo-boo.

See also: Ed McKnew's Website
All the Books in This Series

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Shades of Gray

Amaranthine: Shades of Gray
by Joleene Naylor

(CreateSpace / 1-449-51181-3 / 978-1-449-51181-4 / September 2009 / 246 pages / $11.00 / Kindle $1.99)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Katalina is having trouble getting over the sudden, violent, unexplained death of her lover Patrick. Perhaps that explains why she is willing to take the risk of responding to a mysterious phone call from a man who says he knows who killed Patrick. She agrees to meet him after sundown at an abandoned shack outside town. Certainly, she would have been better off if she had listened to her friend Sarah and stayed away, because Katalina’s meeting launches her into the middle of a violent power struggle between vampire covens. Her only chance at survival is the man who summoned her, Jorick, who takes on the role of her protector when things are at their darkest.

Shades of Gray is a paranormal romance with intermittent scenes of graphic violence. One thing that puzzled me about the book was the title itself. It is not a memorable title (there are many listed on Amazon with the same title), and it suggests a moral ambiguity that just isn’t there. The vampires in this book are vicious and amoral, with one exception, and that exception doesn’t seem “gray” to me. He is clearly meant to be the good guy. However, the strongest reservation I had about this book was the lack of a compelling plot. The coven wars, which are revealed to the reader primarily through third-hand accounts, seemed to be only a vehicle to string together scenes of Katalina and Jorick hiding out in motel rooms and falling in love between scenes of violence. I found Jorick to be an interesting character, but what he saw in the dim-witted and easily manipulated Katalina was as much a mystery to me as it was to all of his vampire enemies.

One of the most singular things about the book was the early introduction of a vampire family: a husband and wife, a small child, and a vampire infant—but these characters were not in the book long enough to make a difference, and I felt that this was a missed opportunity.

I enjoyed Ms. Naylor’s style of prose, which is vibrant and full of precise imagery. The book itself is well edited, with only minor and rare snafus such as inverted quotations or typos. There is humor, eroticism, lush vocabulary, and great potential here, but what I was craving was a plot that made logical sense and provided original ideas that had not already been used by Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer.

Editor's Note: This book is advertised on the author's website as the first book in the Amaranthine Series, but this name is not listed at Amazon or anywhere else except on the cover (before the title).

See also: Joleene Naylor's Website

Joleene' Authors Den Page

Saturday, February 06, 2010

On Wings of Gentle Power

On Wings of Gentle Power
Poetry by Barry D. Yelton
Photographs by Dr. Al Past

(Strider Nolan Publishing, Inc. / 1-932-04570-8 / 978-1-932-04570-3 / November 2009 / 110 pages / $9.95 / B&N $8.95)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

In life, sometimes we take a sip that is too hot and we burn ourselves. Other times, it is just right – a nectar that warms our bones and soothes our nerves.

It isn't easy to review a book of poetry because each poem offers a different image. On Wings of Gentle Power, I discovered a theme whispering through the poems that was like a welcome mug of hot chocolate or coffee running toward empty – an ode for mortality and life's downward spiral reminding us that after all the hard times and the good times we are on our way out. No one beats the conclusion to life.

On page 11, Al Past's photo of a small town with a wide street stretching toward the horizon was a metaphor for life, and the poem on that page ends when "a flop-eared hound sums it all up with one huge sigh". That sigh could have been mine.

Later, in "This is No Boy Scout Trail" I read, "The first backpack is always the toughest. They say it gets easier. Today seems to go on forever until finally I can only walk a hundred feet at a time…."

Reading that poem stirred memories when I backpacked into The Sierras. I want to go back and do it again. But the friends I hiked those trails with are no longer here – they've moved on. Only through these words was I able to return for a moment and like the hound, I sighed again.

I understood when in "Cante Libre" on page 80, "There is no greater freedom than that found in the mountains where no alarm intrudes or schedule inhibits."

We lost something when we left the wilderness to grow crops, tend herds of cattle and sheep, and build cities of concrete interrupted by endless alarm clocks and buzzing cell phones and the hum of tires and grumble of internal combustion engines.

On Wings of Gentle Power reminded me of the long, hard road already traveled and of the few miles left before walking into the endless night, and near the end, in "The Last One" the final stanza says, "The house was quiet, just the old man and me. I nodded yes and he nodded, too. The last of his family, the rest all gone and he alone just waiting for the final reunion."

My mother was 89 when she said she was ready. Her hands were twisted and gnarled and her face was etched deeply with a freeway-map of life. Her friends gone—my father and brother, too, and her memories heavy with grief at their loss—so heavy that she didn't want to carry the burden another mile, another step. She wanted to go.

Through poetry like this, we may capture the past and hold onto it a little longer. Too bad, we can't take those words with us when we leave.

See also: Scarecrow in Gray review
Barry Yelton's website

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Whipping Out the Big Guns or...

The Ten Most Valuable Lessons I Learned Over the Past Year Preparing a Very Complicated Book Project for Submission to CreateSpace

My biggest fear over the past year has been that one day I would suddenly realize that I had shot myself in the foot this time, that I had simply bitten off more than I could chew, that Ker-Splash 2 would never make it to the boat show. (Photo courtesy Al Past.)

My mammoth book project entitled Ker-Splash 2: The High Performance Powerboat Book has been submitted to CS after a year of very intense preparation. When I say mammoth, I mean 400 7”x10” pages, 152,000 words, 135 photographs, three tables, and an extensive glossary, bibliography and index, and a 95 MB file size. When I say intense, I mean ten hours or more a day for most of the days from early ’09 until February 2010. If I can set up Ker-Splash 2 for CreateSpace, I can set up any book for that medium; however, I never intend to do it again. My next book is going to be half the size and without pictures! Of course Sean Connery said Never Say Never Again….

10. You can set up an ISBN at CS long before your book is ready. You can then go into Cover Creator and begin work on the cover. I developed several cover variations for K-2 before the text was even half completed. Make notes to yourself about each of the component choices you made in CC so you can go back and recreate it at any time. You need to do this because certain procedures, such as changing the format size of the book, will require you to start over in Cover Creator. Your ISBN stays with your book from then onward. If you had created more than one ISBN for more than one cover design, you can simply delete the unwanted ISBN as your project develops.

9. The file size limitation at CS is 100 MB. It took almost exactly two hours to upload my 95 MB book using a cable connection. This was a lot quicker than the all-nighter it took back in 2000 to upload Daydream with its 35 photos to iUniverse with a phone line!

8. I utilized a lot of tricks to stuff 135 photos into 95 MB. Photoshop Elements allowed me cut the JPG quality down to 10 from 12 on a few piggy-sized files. I also used PE to expand some of the less than 300 dpi shots up to 300 and I dropped many monsters down to 300 from as high as 900. The largest photo I began with was 203 MB! The smallest was an Instamatic slide from 1966 that I had scanned with my slide scanner at 1800 dpi. I used Picasa to crop all my photos and perform minimal modifications on a few of them.

7. I kept a running file folder of all my selected and prepped photos. I numbered all the photos within parentheses at the beginning of the name so that they would constantly line up in the order they would appear throughout the book. Of course these numbers had to be manually reshuffled repeatedly throughout the process, but this plan was worth the trouble! I could not only see at a glance the book’s photo layout this way, but the procedure easily led to #6 next.

6. I knew from the beginning that the file for this book would be huge, and that I would need smaller versions for several reasons. I created a Word page of my Table of Contents and all the subsections therein and tracked the placement of the photos throughout the book with their respective numbers on this page. I created a second Word page of all my captions with their corresponding photo numbers. I did all this while continuing to compose the book in a Word document without photos.

5. I created what I called a mock-up, a sort of dress rehearsal document for the book. I created a mock-up folder of all the photos with the same numbers, too. After each photo had been selected, cropped, and prepped into its B&W 5.75-inch width in 300 dpi, I made a copycat version that was only two-inches wide. I then inserted the copycat into place in the mockup text file, clicked the tiny photo and had Word blow it up to 5.75-inches wide. What this produced was an 8 MB Word document that was easy to work with, and would be the foundation for my future Kindle and Smashwords versions. I am therefore creating a 95 MB document that will be converted to a PDF and sent to CS, but I am also creating a smaller Word version that can be developed into an e-book. After I completed the writing of the text, I just plugged in my captions with large photos in one version and small photos in the other.

4. Before I got deeply onto the project, I was more frightened of what might happen with the PDF conversion than with any other step in the process. This was, of course, because I had had the least experience with this particular process. My fears were totally unfounded. I downloaded the free Open Office software and the learning curve was only a few minutes. It worked like clockwork with no problems at all. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

3. Word has been making me want to take a brick to my computer over a particular issue with Kindle and Smashwords formatting, but I found the solution during this past year. Kindle automatically indents your paragraphs even if you don’t, but it does not like the line spaces between paragraphs that are so compatible with Smashwords. If you format a book with the Smashwords Meatgrinder with line spaces, the home boys will love it, but Kindle will add additional line spaces if you submit the same formatting to DTP. The trick is to turn on the show paragraph marks and delete all the extra ones before sending the document to Kindle.

2. Word has reeeaaaaallly made me mad over a second issue. The nature of my writing is like that of a magazine columnist whose work is constantly edited and altered in the process of its creation, as well as moved about in its placement within the final product. There were at least eight places in the final version of Ker-Splash 2 in which Word just refused to move a particular Paragraph #2 up to the line just below Paragraph #1. I would fix it and Word would move it right back where Word wanted it! The secret is that many of those times that my composition had been edited or moved about, I was moving Size 12 TNR in Normal mode into a spot previously occupied by 14 Bold in Heading 4 mode (or some other such mismatch). In my toolbar, the text that was jumping around was shown as TNR 12, but Word had buried secret code in my document. The solution is similar to the posting on this blog that I do all the time. Cut and paste the jumping-bean paragraph into WordPad and then copy and paste it right back. As soon as you do, you will probably see a lot of big, bold text that you had never intended to be there! Just highlight it, turn it back into TNR 12 in Normal, and you’re done! The Wicked Witch is Dead!

1. Lloyd Lofthouse, a member of our review team, has discussed at IAG the many ways he has tightened up the formatting of his book that was first published by iUniverse. I agree in principle with everything he has said about iU utilizing a somewhat standardized format, but in detail we must each make our own personal decisions. His advice was to clamp down the size of an iU book and re-release it at CS. I am sure that concept applies to many authors, but not to me. My interest was in making the interior look just a bit more professional, and a little more like the types of nonfiction car and motorcycle books I was emulating. I had already tightened down my last iU book just to keep the retail price down as much as possible. If anything, in my opinion, Timeline came out a wee bit overcrowded, but I would still do the same thing to keep the price down to its whopping $21.95. (I actually loosened that one back up again in a later Kindle edition.) I have a little more price leeway to work with than does Lloyd with his fiction novels, but as I said, the principle is the same.

You can reduce any line spaces you want down to 8 instead of 12. You can condense letter spacing wherever necessary, too. You can use different font sizes, if appropriate, in certain parts of the document. I left all my major text in TNR 12, but the photo captions were put in 10 and the photo credits in 8. The corporate contact addresses were changed to 10 and the extensive Acknowledgements went to 11. Parts of K-2 are centered, parts are left aligned, and parts are justified. As I said, Lloyd wanted to reduce the cost and retail price of his book. I wanted mine to look less like a POD novel. The technical formatting procedures were the same. I found online an outstanding guide in PDF form for the book creation process. It’s called Build Your Book, by Walton Mendelson, published by One-Off Press in Prescott AZ in 2009. It’s a quick, free, 1.8 MB download. Mr. Mendelson’s instructions helped me a lot with my project, particularly in the latter stages of the CreateSpace process. Google it, or download it from the link above if you are already signed up at CS. I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Stunt Road

Stunt Road by Gregory Mose
(Pays d’Oc Press / 0-615-30663-2 / 978-0-615-30663-6 / July 2009 / 306 pages / Amazon $14.00 / B&N $12.60 / Smashwords $3.99 / Kindle $.99)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Stunt Road is a novel – almost a roman-a-clef – which examines a fairly simple and straightforward experience, what I called the ‘Oh-s**t!’ event. At the top of a steep, snowy mountain, a small child casually makes a snowball and starts it rolling. He then watches in absolute horror as the snowball gets bigger and bigger as it rolls down the mountainside, gathering mass and density. When it reaches the bottom of the mountain, it swiftly derails a train, bounds across a highway, sending automobiles and trucks flying every which way, and finally smashes into the outskirts of a city below, wrecking houses and heading toward downtown, still getting bigger and even more destructive. Less imaginative people might call it a narrative of unintended consequences, most of them very, very bad, especially for the relatively innocent person who set the snowball to rolling.

In Stunt Road the snowball is started off on its journey of destruction by Peter McFadden, once a designer of computer generated imagery, now unemployed and reduced to living in his increasingly resentful girlfriend’s condo. He can’t seem to find a job in the field that he loves. His oldest and dearest friends – Diego the movie director, Emily the math teacher and former girlfriend he has never gotten over, and Susan, his oldest friend and now psychologist – are worried about him. They are also relieved, when a chance encounter at an upscale party affords him a challenge that might lead to gainful employment. Peter must create from whole cloth a system to tell fortunes, make it all up, every detail: a pinch of astrology, a touch of Scientology, a scoop of pseudo-science, a sprinkling of practical psychology and there it is: Horokinetics. Before Peter’s disbelieving eyes, the snowball is halfway down the mountain, having become Hollywood’s next big spiritual fad. His innocent and seemingly harmless invention is taken up all too efficiently by a manipulative guru who becomes the public face of his fortune-telling, fortune-generating machine, a corporate mogul whose connections and motivations Peter can only guess at. And there is not a damned thing that he can do to redeem himself, except to watch the destruction, and wonder if he could have done anything else.

Although a large part of the interest in Stunt Road is the path of the snowball downhill – that is, the marketing of Horokinetics, and how a little invention can be induced to become a major fad – for me, the physical setting of Stunt Road was a major charm. I grew up in Southern California, and was quite familiar with many of the locales: Topanga Canyon, the suburban San Fernando Valley – both the well-to-do, and the not-so-well-to-do parts, and those stretches of chaparral and dirt roads which reach back into the hills – where you can indeed go horseback riding among the live oaks and mountain laurel, and think that you are the only person around for miles.

The author is a more than competent storyteller; the plot unfolds in a straight line, more or less. My only criticism would be that the various characters are not as individual in their speech and actions: I needed to refresh my memory now and again of which character was which, and what was their relationship to Peter. If anything, though, reading this account should disabuse anyone from putting any credence in any popularly reported spiritual fad.

See also: The Author's Website
Celia's BNN Review