The War of the End of the World

I finished the first of the really big books I have on my list The War of the End of the World. I read it on the Kindle, but the hardback edition has 576 pages – so it isn’t the longest book in the world, but it’s long enough.

There was a ten-day setback in there when I misplaced my Kindle. I couldn’t find it for over a week and it was driving me crazy. The thing goes with me where ever I go, so I can get a little reading done in the small drips and dregs of time that are sometimes allotted to me – and that’s risky. I’ve come close to losing it twice – leaving it on a train once and on the roof of my car another time (where it fell off along a Frisco road) – but each time a good Samaritan found it, looked me up and contacted me.

This time I was pretty sure I had not left it someplace… but you never know. It turned out it was in the garage where I set it down in a dark, little-used corner when I went back there to get something.

Finding it made me happy and let me finish the book.


Call Me Ishmael

Misplacing your portable electronic reading device is a first-world problem. The conflict at the heart of The War of the End of the World is not.

The novel is based on true events at the end of the nineteenth century in a dried up, impoverished, and forgotten stretch of worthless desert in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, after a horrible drought that kills a good part of the population appeared a wandering preacher, Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor”), who went from village to village, collecting a rag-tag group of followers, repairing churches and spreading the word of God.

He eventually gained thousands of converts, and they settled on an old farmstead named Canudos – transforming it into something of a religious commune. At its peak, more that thirty thousand people called Canudos home – making it the second-largest city in Bahia. This attracted the attention of the newly-minted Republic of Brazil which did not agree with the teachings of The Counselor. The central government began sending military expeditions and then…. Well, let’s just say, things do not turn out well.

For anybody.

The book, by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is a vast kaleidoscope of characters – all pulled into the firestorm of disaster that is the War of Canudos.

It was more than a little confusing at first (about half the male characters seem to have the name João or Antônio) and I put together a little crib sheet listing everybody and their relationship to the story. After a few hundred pages that wasn’t necessary – the list stops growing as fast and the denizens of the pages become burned into the reader’s mind sufficiently.

The theme of the book is the danger and the tragic results of fanaticism. Every character sees the world in an inflexible view – and pays for that in spades. The Counselor is a man of great power and wisdom and is able to attract a huge following – converting the most evil of bandits and incorrigible criminals into paragons of religious virtue and conviction. Yet, he can’t understand the implications of what he has done and the horror that will inevitably befall the faithful.

The central government does not see a religious settlement – they see foreign spies and secret plots – because that is all they are able to see. The wealthy landowners only see land and cattle thieves and can’t comprehend anything else.

It is a sad story with results that are beyond appalling.

That’s the first question that a reader must answer, “Why was Canudos destroyed?” But the answer, when you think about it, is, “How could it not?”

And that’s the mark of a mature work of fiction – the ying-yang pull of hope and the inevitable doom. You only wish that some of these people that you have spent so much time with… even some of the evil ones… are able to find some sort of justice, some closure, some comforting balm in the midst of their endless suffering and hopeless struggle.

And some do.

But it is only temporary.

Harry Potter and the Too Many Pages

My kids have a history with the Harry Potter books. They were just the right age… Well, Nick was at first. He read the first three or so – I remember going to the bookstore in Mesquite at midnight and picking up the books as they were released, so he could start in the next morning. He would devour them.

Nick reading Harry Potter.

Nick reading Harry Potter. Is this the first one?

As the years went by, the books came out while we were out of town, in the middle of summer vacation. Once, we knew we would be in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I reserved a copy at a bookstore there and Nick and I (he was old enough to stay up now – I don’t know which book it was) went down to pick it up. I remember the night – there was some serious nerdery going on in that bookstore – kids in costume, groups, organized events. I also remember one girl that had a friend in St. Louis. Since midnight there was an hour earlier, her friend was reading her the first chapter over her cell phone while she waited.

Nick sort of grew out of the books. He says he hasn’t read the last two. Lee took over… catching up and reading the rest as they came out. We learned the last book would come out while we were driving through West Texas so we reseved a copy in Amarillo. Back in the hotel, he went down to the lobby and stayed up all night (he has always been a night owl) – reading the thing. He said some strange people came into the hotel after three AM, but they left him alone. He finished the whole book about the time we left in the morning.

I had read the first book, gobbled it down quickly not long after it came out but never read any of the others. I saw… some of the films… maybe three of them. I sort of put them out of my mind as the years went by. I thought about reading them – but the massive size and the time it would require put me off.

But now that they are available as ebooks – I decided to read them on my Kindle. Somehow, the invisible digital bytes hiding inside the tiny tablet seemed less onerous than lugging around giant paper tomes and over four thousand pages of the US edition. So I charged through all seven, one after another. It took a few weeks – I have been busy, but with the Kindle I can carry it with me and grab spare minutes here and there. I liked to take it with me on my bicycle and stop to read when I wanted to take a bit of a rest.

So… what did I think about the beloved series?

First, the experience of reading this much in one gulp is overwhelming. I’ve said before that I have to be careful about what I’m reading because it has such a strong effect on my writing. I was pretty much unable to write any fiction while wallowing in the world of Harry Potter. I did squeeze out a couple mediocre tales of children or teens that didn’t fit in anywhere – lonely, confused, and abandoned… not my usual fare.

But it was an interesting experience – being immersed in J. K. Rowling’s world.

Unfortunately, reading like that does show the flaws in the books pretty starkly. Without a gap between the books the repetitive nature of the first six is obvious and tiring. It’s really the same story told six times. The last one breaks the chain… it is a fully realized grown-up novel.

Also, her overuse of creaky literary crutches – hackneyed plot devices – stuck out. The Harry Potter series is the home of the Hallowed MacGuffin. If you don’t know what a MacGuffin is… read this. Every book revolves around some object (or person), sometimes referred to in the title, that have all the characters dancing around like puppets on strings. But, in the end, that object (or person) really has nothing to do with the actual story at all. That makes it a MacGuffin. The later books have multiple MacGuffins.

There’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin, of course. You could not have detective stories without them. Hitchcock loved them. The Maltese Falcon is the classic MacGuffin… and there’s no better story than that. But Harry Potter overused them – and when you read all the books and they keep hitting you one after another… a bit much.

She also likes to have all her characters stand around at the end of the books and speak directly about what was really going on – giving out plenty of information that was crudely, cruelly and sometimes arbitrarily withheld from the reader up until then.

And then there’s the Pensieve. Every writer struggles with backstory and point of view. In the Harry Potter books the point of view is held tightly to the hero (with the exception of a prolog or afterward here or there) and she needed a way to bring in information that wasn’t otherwise available to Harry, either by time, space, or the needs of the plot.

So, invent a Pensieve – basically a big bucket – and whenever you need to bring in information that Harry isn’t privy to, have the hero stick his head into the bucket – he falls in, and exactly what you need to have the story go forward (and nothing more) is delivered… by magic.

I shouldn’t complain – it works – but it’s a bit obvious, awkward, and lazy.

Still, though, after all the creaky prose and obvious plot devices it is one hell of a story. Especially when it’s read in one enormous gulp – like a professional eater and a mountain of hot dogs – the world of Harry Potter is irresistible and addictive. You can’t stop reading.

There is plenty there to strike a chord, plenty more to think about. It’s easy to see how it has sold so many copies and become such a touchstone for so many people of several different generations.

I’m just glad I’m done so I can get back to my own pitiful little world.


I had a little money left over on an gift card and began to choose some Kindle books. I picked up a couple of short story selections, Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock and Volt, by Alan Heathcock. Pretty much by a flip of the coin, I read Volt first.

Volt has eight semi-connected longish short stories. Right off the bat, the description of a farmer accidentally killing his son while tilling a field resonated with me. I’m a father and have spent a little time on a tractor seat bouncing in the heat and dust, watching a mile-distant fence line slowly, inexorably approach.  That awful scene was enough to justify the price of the book and the time to read it. I thought that first story could have ended after those two pages.

It didn’t though, as the father, destroyed by the accident and jolted by a near miss with a freight train – runs away. And runs and runs and runs – putting Forest Gump to shame. He ends up wiping his life away and building a new one, of sorts. It’s a journey worthy of Odysseus, and likewise, he finds that home is not what it used to be. Too much water under the bridge.

The stories are all small-town Gothic. They are set in the hopeless wide-spot-in-the-road of Krafton… an imaginary town. Trust me as one who knows – there are a lot of Kraftons out there. One hell of a lot. These are forgotten hamlets where everyone with any ambition or brains left town long ago – leaving the impression that the remaining conscripts – imprisoned by tradition, lack of imagination, and ennui – exist simply to work their way back down the evolutionary chain. There is even a Biblical Flood – though plenty of unworthy survive.

There is one hopeful character, Sheriff Helen Farraley, a plump middle-aged former grocery store manager pressed into service to combat evil no mortal should have to face. Her decisions seem insane, until you try to see her world through those eyes.

At the end of the finely crafted book, I felt I knew the doomed citizens of Krafton, and hoped somehow, someday they find the redemption that they deserve, even if they don’t see it or don’t chose it for themselves.

Now, on to Knockemstiff.

New York Times Review – Stories of Small-Town Strife

‘Volt’ writer Alan Heathcock’s internal duality fuels his gripping prose and creates his epic stories

‘Volt’: Stories for Mourning, After A Nameless Loss

BOOK REVIEW: Alan Heathcock


The Best American Noir of the Century

The Kindle is like crack. Every day I get an email with the “Deal of the Day,” and every day I need to figure out how I am going to resist. It isn’t the money – these books go from ninety nine cents up to, say four bucks. It isn’t the space, either. My Kindle can hold a small library in its memory and what it won’t hold Amazon will store out in the clouds. It’s simply time. There are too many books and life is too short and time is running out too fast.

Sometimes, though, I can’t resist. I buy and I read.

One temptation given in to was a big book that came in for a one-day sale… I think it was $1.99 or so.

I love big, thick anthologies of short stories. Especially with time so short and life so mixed-up and confusing, the ability to scrape up a few spare minutes and read a whole story – complete in and of itself – no remembering galaxies of characters, confused clusters of settings, and subtle plot threads that weave and waft through the delicate tapestry of a novel… one shot, simple, fast, powerful. Give me a tome with twenty or thirty or more of these miniature jewels and I’m a happy camper.

The buck ninety-nine deal came in over the ether for purchase of the Best American Noir of the Century. Couldn’t resist – hit the “buy with one click” button and it was mine.

Reading it took a little longer. It had 39 stories, so it took a few days to plow through. The stories covered about 83 years and were in chronological order. Noir isn’t really a genre, more like an attitude, and you could feel how the stories changed over time.

The book is 800 pages… which made me glad that it was only some bits stored in the Kindle memory. That’s a lot lighter.

There is a lot of criticism of this anthology… mostly concerning the meaning of the term Noir. A lot of folks take Noir to be a hardboiled detective novel. They are disappointed because, although there are some classics in the collection, it takes a broader view of Noir and includes some stories with supernatural elements and other borderline tales.

That’s fine with me. I was surprised to find that I liked some of the more offbeat, longer, and modern riffs. I recommend the anthology highly… it’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Like any group of thirty nine tales, the offerings can be a little uneven. Some folks will like stories I didn’t… but here are a few that stood out in my mind:

Harlan Ellison: 1993: Mefisto in Onyx – Harlan Ellison, not surprisingly, comes up with a loose, weird, caterwauling tale that isn’t what it seems to be and then it turns out not to be that either. Surprising and entertaining.

Ed Gorman: 1995: Out There in the Darkness – Inspired the book and film, “The Poker Club.” The opposite of Mefisto in Onyx… a tale of four ordinary guys, folks you know and love trapped in a cycle of escalating violence.

Elmore Leonard: 2002: When The Women Come Out to Dance – Fantastic tale about a relationship between two women that turns out to be the opposite of what it seems.

Christopher Coake: 2003: All Through the House – One of the best stories I’ve read in a while. A unique structure, told in a series of short, clear scenes in reverse chronological order. Despite it descending into the past, every new section brings an unknown revelation. At the end, you are left devastated by what you know will come to destroy the innocent doomed characters.

Steve Fisher: 1938 You’ll Always Remember Me – Probably my favorite of the older works. A classic Noir.

Joyce Carol Oates: 1997: Faithless – A dark tale that, not surprisingly, reads like the best literature.

Oh, and there is a lot more, famous authors: James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke. Each story is prefaced with a biography of the author – these can be as great a revelation as the fiction.

It makes me want to read more from some of these folks. Thats more like heroin.

My 99 Cent Manifesto



I am in the home stretch of finishing up the editing and conversion of my book of short stories that I will put out as a Kindle ebook. I’ve been in the stretch run for a while. I’m struggling now with the cover… but mostly I struggle with the fear that putting something out there generates. Nothing to do but plug ahead as best as I can.

I have been thinking a lot about price points – about what I’ll charge for my book when I get it out.

First of all, isn’t it amazing that I’m even getting to decide this? Unpublished, unknown, talentless, loser writers didn’t used to have input on these decisions. The publisher decides.

But publishing, as we know it, is dead. It doesn’t know it yet – though it has a strong suspicion.

The Publishing Industry. I hate it when groups like Publishing call themselves an Industry. (Music Industry, Movie Industry, Television Industry) I’ve worked in Industry and Publishing is not an Industry (Book Printing is an Industry, but you have to go to China to find it). Industry isn’t art – it isn’t creative (not in the usual sense of creativity) Industry is a world of huge heavy smelly machines – a world of maintenance and statistics – it’s a world of hardhats, steel toed shoes, and flame resistant uniforms.

When a group like Publishers call themselves an Industry… they are dead. They have killed themselves. It is only a matter of time. The only thing left is momentum.

Underwood Typewriter

Underwood Typewriter

So I get to write whatever crap I feel like. And you get to read it. That’s not Industry – that’s the future. The question I have left is, “How Much Do I Charge.”

That’s a tough question. The head swims. To decide, the only way is to break it down, make a few options and choose between them. Eliminate the bottom choices, one by one. OK, that works.

The price points of ebooks don’t take long to figure out. They are:

  •  Really Expensive
  • Ten Bucks
  • Two Ninety Nine
  • Ninety Nine Cents
  • Free

The top choice, Really Expensive, is easy to eliminate. I’m nobody. I’m not selling a textbook or legal reference full of knowledge that is extremely valuable to an extremely small group. So, Really Expensive is out.



Now, we are down to the affordable options. Why not free? This is my first ebook – all I’m really interested in is getting it out there. The idea is to get as many readers as possible, and then try and keep them. I have more books (already have enough short stories for another volume, and a novel is not inconceivable – I have a killer first sentence) in the pipeline, and a free teaser would help me spread the word.

Free is tempting, but I don’t think I’ll go that way. There is a question of value. A book is a relationship between an author and a reader. That relationship should/must have some value for it to be real and useful. Free is throwing propaganda leaflets from a bomber’s bay, free is a blog, free is a mimeographed sheet stapled to a telephone pole. These are all good things, important things, but that’s not what I want this time around.

What I want is terribly nebulous but it I feel it has to involve a transfer of value for it to truly occur.

That leaves ten, two ninety nine, and ninety nine cents.

Ten is tempting. That’s what I think an ebook should cost. That’s what I am happy paying for an established author, for something I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For the hours of enjoyment that a good book gives, ten dollars is a fantastic bargain. It even provides a nice return for the author.

But ten dollars is still a lot of money. Especially in this day of terrible tribulations and looming financial collapse a ten dollar purchase is a tough call (or at least it should be). I’m not established, I’m no sure thing, I’m not very good.

Ten dollars is too much.

Now we are down to two options. Two ninety-nine. Or ninety-nine cents.

Two ninety-nine is a great option. That’s the price (more or less) that Amazon kicks the author’s royalty up to 70 percent. My return on a book sold at that point is twice what it would be at only a few cents less. It’s not a lot of money. I feel sure that this is what I’ll charge for my second book, if I live that long.

Three bucks – a hamburger… a drink at happy hour in a bar… a bag of chips… or so. It is an odd amount of money… sort of in between.

Still, two ninety-nine… that’s not an impulse purchase. You have to think about it. It might not be much of a thought, but it is one.

And ninety-nine cents? What’s that? That’s nothing. Click on that link and it’s yours. Don’t even think about it. If it turns out to be crap – so what? You’re only out ninety-nine cents. Less than a dollar. You won’t miss a dollar. You can’t hardly buy anything with a dollar anymore.

Ninety-nine cents. The more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s something, it’s a transfer of value, but otherwise… it’s like a gift from me to you.

It’s like a cheap lottery ticket. Maybe it will be good, maybe not. But if it hits, you’ve got a lot of entertainment for not a lot of money. If it misses, so what? There is even the enjoyment of the momentary fantasy that you’ve found a bargain, something cool that nobody else has. That’s worth ninety-nine cents, right?


Call Me Ishmael

I have always loved Kafka. His writing has been a huge influence on how I live my life (God help me). During his life, he published almost nothing. When he died, his final request was to have all his work destroyed (thank goodness, Max Brod decided to ignore his good friend’s dying wish). If Kafka was living in today’s times would he be pumping out ninety-nine cent ebooks? I like to think so. Would anyone be reading them? Probably not.

So there it is. Ninety-nine cents.

I like it.

Stay tuned.

The Sound of his Horn – by Sarban

The lurid cover art from The Sound of his Horn by Saban

The lurid cover art from The Sound of his Horn by Saban

I finished Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck and wanted something light and easy to read – so I looked through my collection of pulp ebooks and came up with Sarban’s The Sound of his Horn. This was an odd bit of fiction that I had found recommended here and there across the interwebs.

It’s an interesting amalgam – told as a story-within-a-story… it has time-travel science-fiction aspects, alternate history, a possibly unreliable narrator (one of my favorite literary devices), themes akin to a reverse Island of Dr. Moreau, a bit of an unlikely love story, while at the heart it is a “Most Dangerous Game” tale on steroids.

What’s odd about the book is that it is told in a slightly archaic, literary style (I had to use the dictionary quite a bit as I read) but the story is full of lurid, shocking elements that would be at home in the most modern trashy paperback. In the story, the protagonist finds himself thrown a hundred years into a future where the Germans have won World War II. A Teutonic lord rules a massive forested estate where his decadent guests hunt half-naked women costumed as deer or birds. They are captured alive by the hunt and served as after-dinner entertainment trussed up and delivered under giant silver serving-domes.

See what I mean. And that is not the worst of it, by any means.

I really don’t know if I’ve read anything as strangely sophisticated and sleazy at the same time.

In summary – it’s a short novel and more than entertaining enough. It’s well worth reading – if that’s the sort of thing you want. It’ll stretch your mind more than a bit. You can get an ebook copy here or here.

The author, who chose the pen name of Sarban, was John William Wall, a British Diplomat for over thirty years and a published writer for about two. Other than The Sound of his Horn he has a couple collections of fantasy short stories (some ebooks here). He must have been an interesting man, a combination of a sharp mind and a sordid imagination.