R. I. P. Elijah E. Cummings

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

America lost a great man today with the death of Representative Elijah E. Cummings from Maryland at the age of 68.

Mr. Cummings, a brilliant orator, was a tireless advocate for social justice, and he spoke for the causes of the poor and the left-behind in the United States of America. Among his causes were fights for health care and justice for all Americans, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

He spoke of the need for civility in the government but also the absolute necessity for the government to serve the people’s needs. He battled for justice and against injustice. He advocated for the defense of democracy. He was a tireless American patriot.

He will be missed.

He was a great American.

R. I. P. Elijah E. Cummings

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The Courtesan’s Avenger by Kate M. Colby: Themes in a Series

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I would like to welcome author Kate M. Colby to my blog.  In this post, she discusses the issue of themes in a series of novels. Kate is an excellent writer, one I am proud to know. I respect her abilities and writing, and I have used her previous novel The Cogsmith’s Daughter (Desertera #1) in two of my college English literature classes.  So, welcome Kate please as she discusses Themes in a Series:

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 What makes a good book series? Most readers would say a captivating world, strong characters, and an overarching mission or journey. I absolutely agree … but I think there’s something missing there. Theme.

While books can (and should) offer escape and entertainment, they have the ability to do so much more than that. Fiction allows authors the opportunity to explore topics that matter to them on neutral ground, to expose and evaluate unsavory aspects of society, to celebrate all that makes up this wonderful and crazy human experience. As someone who blended sociology and English in university, this is exactly what I try to do in my fiction.

The world of my Desertera series is a steampunk wasteland. It’s about as far from reality as I could run. But the themes within the world really hit home with me, and have with several of my readers, too. My first novel, The Cogsmith’s Daughter, is a revenge tale. When Aya, my protagonist, was a young girl, the king had her father executed for treason. Therefore, at first opportunity, Aya joins a plot to avenge her father’s death and trap the king into a crime, thus bringing about his execution.

If I’ve done my job as a writer, the readers should be on Aya’s side. They should seethe with anger and root for her to succeed in orchestrating the king’s execution. They should identify with Aya’s quest for self-redemption, love, and the reclaiming of her sexuality. They should be appalled at the social injustices in the world, the stratification of class and wealth, and the hypocritical palace politics – all things that can be found in reality.

When I set out to write the sequel, The Courtesan’s Avenger, I wanted to tackle a lot of these same themes. Class struggle remains a central issue, along with love and sexuality, friendship, and self-discovery. However, I knew I had a responsibility to address the other side of revenge: justice.

I had to face the ugly truth of the morality I had exalted. As much as I respect Aya and her mission, revenge isn’t healthy. Even if it is “justified,” it can turn a good person evil, blind them to their own wrongdoings, and pose troubling moral questions for a society. After all, if Aya can (essentially) murder and (definitely) commit crimes to avenge her father, what’s to stop the other citizens from doing the same to address their own grievances?

Enter Dellwyn and The Courtesan’s Avenger. When one of Dellwyn’s fellow courtesans is murdered, she doesn’t desire revenge or any sort of payback. She wants justice. Her whole goal in finding the killer is to submit them to the authorities and the judgment of law. She doesn’t take justice into her own hands, doesn’t commit any crimes, and even condemns Aya’s actions from the first novel. Dellwyn has seen how Aya’s quest for revenge created rifts in their world, and she refuses to do the same.

This is all a longwinded way of saying that theme, just as much as characters and setting and plot, is a central part of writing a book series. As an author, you have the opportunity to highlight the wrongs and praise the good you see in society. You can help readers gain empathy for the corrupt, question their sense of right and wrong, or just consider an issue they’d never thought about before.

Readers, you have the greatest blessing of all. You get to pick and choose what to take with you. Every book, no matter how thematically driven, leaves a piece of itself with us. Pride and Prejudice encourages us not to judge others too harshly and be open to love, The Girl on the Train reminds us to take responsibility for our actions, and The Picture of Dorian Gray condemns vanity, self-indulgence, and moral duplicity. At least, that’s what I get from those three – your interpretations could be entirely different! You can take the author’s message at face value, mine for deeper meaning, discover something the author didn’t know was there, or ignore it all completely. That’s the beauty of theme.

So, fellow writers, have the courage to experiment and make theme a central part of your series. It’s not just for stand-alone literary fiction novels. And, fellow readers, examine everything the author presents and take whatever it is you need. Every possible meaning lurks between those pages, and you can have whichever one you like.

Happy reading!

Author bio:

Kate M. Colby is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction. Her first series, Desertera, consists of steampunk fantasy novels with themes of socio-economic disparity, self-empowerment, romance, and revenge. She lives in the United States with her husband and furry children.

 

Book links:

The Cogsmith’s Daughter (Desertera #1) – http://books2read.com/the-cogsmiths-daughter

The Courtesan’s Avenger (Desertera #2) – http://books2read.com/the-courtesans-avenger

Social links:

Website – http://www.katemcolby.com

Goodreads – http://www.goodreads.com/katemcolby

Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/authorkatemcolby

Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/katemcolby    

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Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Curse of the Werewolf

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The decade of the 1960s saw the production of many horror films, some fairly standard offerings and some innovative. In 1961, Hammer Studios continued the re-imagining of classic horror characters, which they had begun with The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, in the release of The Curse of the Werewolf. 

Movie audiences in 1961 were still very aware of the image of Universal Studios’ The Wolfman and its assorted sequels with Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, the unfortunate and reluctant lycanthrope. Talbot, a good man, was cursed to become a killing monster after having been bitten by a werewolf while attempting, unsuccessfully, to save a girl from its attack. This cinematic image was one that would be very difficult to alter for the horror viewing audience.

While not making viewers forget Lon Chaney Jr. and Larry Talbot, The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher, did establish new cinematic territory in this often overlooked, but important, film. This film, unlike its Universal predecessors, which were made primarily in black and white and influenced heavily by German Expressionism, is shot in color and features an almost blond werewolf in an extremely effective makeup and, for the time, a great deal of blood.

The star of this film, in his first movie, is Oliver Reed, who would go on to have a long and productive career as a film actor. Set in 18th Century Spain, the film bases its lycanthropy  on the juxtaposition of two events: Leon is the result of a peasant girl being raped, and he is born on Christmas Day, which was considered a very unlucky event. Leon is raised by a kindly man, but when puberty hits, besides the normal changes in his body, he becomes literally a monster.  What would Freud have to say about that?

Just as religion plays a part in his curse, so does it in his death. His step-father, a kindly man becomes the agent of his release. His step-father has a silver bullet made from a cross.  He shoots Leon with it, while his step-son is in the form of the monster; thus, he  destroys the werewolf and release’s Leon’s soul, but it also fills his step-father with deep grief.

Like the previous Hammer productions, this film continues with its exploration of sex and violence, going further than that which had been seen in the Universal films. While tame in sexual depictions by our contemporary standards, it was shocking to many audiences of the time.

From a critical perspective, this film also introduces an element of class critique. The young woman who is raped at the beginning of the film comes from abject poverty at the lowest level of the class structure, and the man who puts her in the cell, setting up the circumstances for the attack, is a Marques, a Spanish nobleman. Clearly, the film indicts the abuse of power and the class inequity of that time. If this were an academic paper, I would focus heavily on the class critique, but I simply wanted to draw attention to it briefly in this post.

The Curse of the Werewolf was another successful entry in Hammer Studios’ new cycle of horror films, although unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, it would not generate a run of sequels. On its own, however, it rates as a film of importance in the horror genre.

Overall, if you have not seen this film, I give it a very strong recommendation.

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Classroom Trials!

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I frequently end some of my college classes with courtroom trials, and this semester I was able to incorporate this activity into both a traditional day and an evening non-traditional First Year Writing class.  In both classes, held at different schools–Lehigh University and the Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College, the students conducted criminal trials of characters from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

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https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror-literatur

From having my students perform this exercise over many years of teaching, I have found that it gives the students a dynamic path into understanding the text. By having them produce, what I name a living paper, they gain a very deep comprehension of many aspects of the book; among them are theme, motif, character development, and social critique.

I serve as the judge, while students are prosecutors, defense, characters, and, in the traditional class, jurors.  Because the class size is smaller in the non-traditional class, I had various people from the Wescoe School act as jurors.  To the guest jurors–thank you! You did an excellent job in judging the charges.

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The traditional class was conducting their trial against the Creature, while the non-traditional class was trying Victor Frankenstein.

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http://eng10frankenwiki.wikispaces.com/franken+pics

Both classes performed lively and informed events.  In both, the prosecutors presented a list of potential criminal charges, and the defense challenged them.  I made the final decision and eliminated some so that we would have a manageable number of charges to handle in a short time. These are not law classes, so the jury judged on who did the better job of making and supporting arguments not on issues of jurisprudence.  I was deeply impressed with both classes and the effort they invested in their respective projects. They did excellent work, and they all seemed to enjoy the project. I am convinced that adding a creative component to a class almost always adds to students’ comprehension of the material being learned.

In both classes, the decisions on the charges were split.  Both defendants were found guilty on some charges and not guilty on others.  I find it interesting that in all the years I have done similar trials, there has never been one with a unanimous sweep either for the prosecution or the defense.  While the verdicts were split, my opinion on my students’ work is definitive–they did an excellent job!

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The Cogsmith’s Daughter by Kate M. Colby: A Review

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I read The Cogsmith’s Daughter by Kate M. Colby, and I loved this book. Ms. Colby’s novel is a combination of steampunk, dystopia, and social critique. Her antagonist, Aya Cogsmith, is a well-drawn and rich character, full of the strengths and weaknesses of a human being. We see fully developed characters in this novel, in addition to careful plotting and a well-thought out world that not only shows the characteristics of steampunk but also illustrates the problems with class and privilege in our society.

The pacing of the story moves quickly, and the plot holds together very effectively. At no point did I think–that wouldn’t have happened; rather, I was delighted with the deftness of hand that Ms. Colby used in crafting this excellent tale. In many ways, I was reminded of the novels of Charles Dickens as well as contemporary authors.

Ms. Colby has a singular authorial voice and uses it to enrich herthemes in this novel but never at the cost of the pleasure of reading this book. I give this book my high recommendation. Read it, and enjoy the time you spend in its world!

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Samuel Sadlowski—Hidden Grief

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In Maledicus Investigative Paranormal Society Book I, my horror novel, the protagonist Roosevelt Franklin, along with two very close friends formed a ghost hunting group. In a previous post, I gave some background information on Roosevelt, and I will give more in the future, but I want to turn my attention in this and future posts to his friends.

In today’s post, I will speak about Samuel Sadlowski, a retired homicide detective. Sam, as he prefers to be called, is a short, stout, balding man. In his youth, he kept in excellent physical shape, but in his older years, he has let his physical well-being deteriorate. He eats as much junk food as he can, and loves to drink beer. His seeming self-destructive physical choices are, in some ways, a reflection of his inner turmoil.

Like the other two men in the ghost-hunting group, he has had someone very close to him die, and it has had huge impact on his life. Sam’s son, Josh committed suicide when he was 16, and Sam never found a reason why the boy did it. Despite being an experienced homicide detective, Sam never discovered anything, any kind of clue, which pointed to a rational for this terrible action.

Of course, like others who had been friends or family of a suicide, Sam blames himself for his son’s death. He thinks that there must have been some indicator of a problem that he should have seen. So, Sam carries this grief and blame deep in his soul, and it drives him to try to find answers to the question: is there life after death?

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Roosevelt’s and Sam’s friendship originated in the cauldron of the Vietnam War, when Roosevelt served as a 2nd Lieutenant and Sam was a Sergeant in his unit. The central experience of the war for them was the Tet Offensive, a massive attack launched by the North Vietnamese on the South, in an attempt to take the country. The two men fought together and saved each others’ lives several times.

Even though they came from vastly different backgrounds, Roosevelt from old upper-class and Sam from the working-class, their friendship was bonded in an unbreakable forge of life’s greatest perils. And they maintained that friendship over the course of many decades.

In another post about Sam, I will write about his hidden love of art.

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(Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh 1889)