Review of “The Canonical Order” by T.R. Kurtz

Canonical Order CoverI joined a group on Goodreads with the subject of espionage. Within this group, T.R. Kurtz offered a free electronic copy of “The Canonical Order” in exchange for an honest review. I took Mr. Kurtz up on the offer and within a few days I received a copy of the book on Kindle. I read the book, and enjoyed it a lot. I had email exchanges with him and gave him a much more detailed review. I do hope it helped him in some small way on his publishing journey. It is fun to correspond with writers who are at different stages of the process, and I would like to congratulate Mr. Kurtz on completing and publishing a very decent military thriller. I hope he continues, and I look forward to reading his next work. I published the review below on Amazon and Goodreads, giving The Canonical Order” 4 out 5 stars.

Overall I was impressed with this book. The author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics is excellent. I saw nothing that seemed incorrect or out of line.I think the writing of the action scenes is excellent, particularly those taking place at the conclusion of the book. I enjoyed the final action scenes the most. There was a lot of really gripping tension at the conclusion of the book, along with a few clever twists at the end. The story is interesting and comes to a very believable ending.

The weakness of this book had to do with the premise that the protagonist is a member of a military organization that supports the Catholic Church. I think this notion is what differentiates “The Canonical Order”. I think it has to be fleshed out more to fulfill its potential . Please don’t get me wrong, this is a very enjoyable and well-written thriller.

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The Critique Group

The writers’ group I recently joined had its first critique night since I joined.  The way this worked was that you uploaded a 2500-word maximum of something you wanted critiqued by members of the group. You needed to do this about a week before the meeting. Anyone who paid dues for the year was free to submit something. You didn’t have to submit a first chapter, but you needed to add an introduction if you submitted something that was not a first chapter to put it into context. There was neither pressure to submit anything, nor pressure not to submit anything. If you were willing to critique someone else’s work, you could email the leader of the group and state your preferences for what you wanted to critique. The group had an informative, entertaining and very well-done video available of a puppet telling you how to critique something. I listened to the puppet since this was to be my first experience with a critique group. The group leader would form the groups based on common interests as best he could.

I chose to submit a chapter from the middle of the novel that had some action involved. Since I have never written any action scenes, I wanted to test myself to see what I had done. I spent a good deal of time polishing my manuscript before submitting it. I volunteered to read things in the thriller and science fiction genres, but said I would read anything except poetry for which I have no talent whatsoever.

Within about four days of the meeting I received my reviewing assignment and spent time giving it a decent review. It was science fiction, and it was really good. Very intimidating! I wished I had written it. The submission was a first chapter of a novel at the conceptual stages, and it did everything a first chapter is supposed to do. I had to look pretty hard to find things that could be improved. I was pretty effusive with my praise. The chapter deserved it. I also tried to offer a few suggestions and found a few typos. I was assigned to a group of three people. Only one of them made a submission.

I was a bit intimidated by the process, since I had the sneaky feeling that I was probably the least experienced writer in the room. When the groups formed, I found out I was correct. The piece that I reviewed was from a science fiction writer who actually makes his living by writing. He had published about 17 novels on Amazon. He really knew what he was doing. The other member of the group was a full-time editor. I was out of my league.

The critique went well. I learned a lot in the process, and I have to say the other members of the group were very helpful and supportive. I could not have asked for more. Each had constructive comments, and I was surprised how different each of the participants saw the work.

All in all it was a very valuable experience. I felt supported and valued, which was probably the most important part of the process. I felt I had something to contribute to the group, and I felt like I could hold my own in a group of writers who had far more experience than myself.

If you are looking for a little friendly support and hoping to network a bit, look around your geographic area for a writing group. I was very surprised how many there were within a reasonable driving distance. I have learned a lot from this group in the short time I have been associated with them, and I hope to continue working with them. They are a group of very decent people with a lot of knowledge about the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

 

 

Review of Zack Bagans’ Halloween Special

 

I have some guilty pleasures that I hate to admit, and watching travel shows has been one of them. Hence my interest in the Travel Channel. As I recall, the Travel Channel used to be a place for travel shows. That seems to have changed over the years. Travel Channel morphed into the Poker Channel, and it rode on the interest in televised poker matches. Now it seems heavy on “paranormal investigations” with some very light travel thrown in as the investigators visit numerous sights reputed to be haunted. One show that seems to have lasted for a very long time is “Ghost Adventures” led by Zack Bagans and a host of other paranormal investigators accompanied by  a plethora of electronic gadgets.

On Halloween,  after all of the trick-or-treaters had completed their rounds, I parked on the sofa to channel surf, and settled in on Zack Bagans’ Halloween Special filmed in Zack’s own museum in Las Vegas. Who knows, I may place a paranormal investigator in one of my hoped-for novels, so I wanted to tune into this apparent cultural phenomenon. It was supposedly a live ghost hunting episode in the “Haunted Museum” in Las Vegas where Zack has accumulated a number of objects and exhibits that have been the source of huge paranormal activity as a result of some past incident or violence surrounding the object. Because of the supposed dangers involved in this investigation, Zack had assembled emergency paramedics, a few witches he was acquainted with through his travels, a rabbi, some other paranormal investigators he knew. If things really got tough, he had an exorcist on hand. I hadn’t heard of Zack’s museum, but the internet told me he was asking $44 a head to tour his museum. Reviews were generally very positive despite the steep price. It seems most of the guides had some sort of paranormal experience during their work at Zack’s museum. There were a few skeptics expressing themselves in the reviews I read, but most reviews were glowingly positive.  We tuned in.

Zack and his team arrived at the museum with a police escort. The crowd of onlookers cheered wildly. The high point of the show was to be the opening of something called the Dybbuk Box that was promoted as  the most possessed object on the planet. It had something to do with the Holocaust  Hence the presence of the rabbi. There was also a witch in the basement doing various incantations all night. A second witch entered the cellar later in the show. One witch was dressed in black and the other witch was dressed in white. It looked like a conflict between witches was brewing. Peggy, the creepy haunted doll was taken out of her case. A haunted mirror was uncovered. A Ouija board was used by some investigators. Electronic contraptions were spinning and sparking. Incantations were heard from the witches in the basement. Much going on here. The principals of the show said they felt chills and sometimes acted strangely. The investigators often claimed they heard strange noises. The Dybbuk Box was touched and never opened. Zack decided it was just too dangerous. The rabbi was not very concerned with anything and seemed to disappear from view. Nothing happened with the witches. Peggy the creepy doll did not do anything. Paramedics remained outside the museum.

In my own humble opinion, absolutely nothing happened during this show, but Zack and his investigators claimed they got real good evidence for future analysis. I can’t say I enjoyed the show, but I did watch it in its entirety, and felt pretty stupid when I finally went to bed. I didn’t get it, but I got a lot of laughs out of it. I can’t argue with someone who has had a successful show for so long, and operates a museum that costs $44 a person to get in. It is not my cup of tea, but Zack must be doing something right. I may even watch another episode of Ghost Adventures, if the spirit moves me. Saying I didn’t like the show might attract negative entities or put a curse on me, and I don’t have the phone number of my local exorcist.

Writing Groups

I went to my first writing group meeting two months ago and to my second writing group meeting one month ago. I can’t say I am hooked yet, but I will go to my third meeting this coming month. I am new to the novel writing process and had no idea what to expect.  I know I need some type of feedback and perhaps a healthy dose of encouragement since my writing has stalled somewhere between the first draft and the second draft. Here’s what happened in the group.

The first meeting took place in an upstairs room at a bar in a small town about a half-hour drive from my home. It started promptly at 7:00 p.m. but I underestimated the drive time and arrived shortly after the meeting started. The group seemed very friendly and welcoming and I made a very short introduction and then sat down and listened to the main speaker, a successful full-time science-fiction writer who talked about his own struggles and his writing process. He knew what he was doing. The talk was engaging, and generated a lively question and answer period. It was an enjoyable night, and a great change of pace for me. I have learned that writing can be a very lonely endeavor, and meeting a group with similar struggles is encouraging.

Whenever I attend a presentation, I try to pick out one or two “take-aways” from the meeting. In this case, I was a little surprised that my major “take-away” was the use of noise-cancelling headphones. The presenter  actually wrote a lot in a local Wegman’s to avoid the distractions of home and family. He used noise cancelling headphones to screen out ambient noise and listen to some music appropriate to his writing. The headphones also served to send a message to passers-by that he was engaged in serious work and was not to be disturbed. It worked! A second successful full-time writer in the group echoed the value of noise-cancelling headphones.

As a very low-tech aspiring writer, I had no idea of the value of noise-cancelling headphones and went out and bought a pair. Good ones are not cheap, but they do screen out ambient noise. I downloaded a free one-hour sounds of a rainstorm, which seems to work really well for me. I haven’t figured out which type of music to listen to, but for now the rainstorm is doing a great job for me as I write this blog and do the associated work in trying to build an audience. The novel is still stalled, but the engines are starting to run a little bit despite the constant sounds of a rainstorm.

The second meeting I attended was much the same structure. This time, I arrived early enough to have dinner with the group before 7:00 p.m. which helped to meet people in a more informal setting. The invited speaker was a publicist, and talked about the world of publishing and marketing books. To me, this is a very depressing message. Writing your book is one thing, marketing it is almost a full-time job, particularly if you are not facile with the wonderful world of social media. My “take-away” from this meeting was that you need to get familiar with social media early on because there is a steep learning curve to master the nuances of various platforms. So I will try to keep up with this blog, partly to learn the process and make my inevitable mistakes before I am involved in any book launch.

Next month is a critique session where the members submit work for critique. That should be highly entertaining but intimidating at the same time. These people appear to be very good writers.

 

Stay tuned.

 

 

“Hawaii” by James Michener: Books Matter

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11.43.12 AMThis isn’t a book review, but rather a personal story of how one book influenced my life and continues to exert a huge influence on me to this day.

Over 40 years ago I bought a copy of a book in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, “Hawaii” by James Michener. I was a young Naval officer then, and was about to make a trip From San Francisco to Hawaii on an aircraft carrier on the way to Vietnam, and the book looked like a good thing to read along the way. No television or internet in those days at sea. Unfortunately, the trip to Hawaii turned out to be a “bad trip” to use a term from the 60’s. In a period of 5 days a lot of things happened from the mildly unpleasant to the really terrible. The mildly unpleasant: I learned you can get very seasick even on such a large ship as an aircraft carrier, I broke my leg. Then the really terrible: a plane crash on the ship, large fire, man overboard, several deaths. Bad stuff to be a part of for a 22-year old kid. I looked back on what helped me get through that and it was certainly a lot of prayers, and a very good book “Hawaii” by James Michener. Each night, his book put me in another place for a short time, and since then I read many of his other books. Prayers and “Hawaii” got me through some tough times.

Fast forward a few years. The school at which I started my teaching career gave James Michener an honorary degree. I had the privilege to shake his hand and thank him for what “Hawaii” did for me. I told him it was a real “coming of age” for me. I did get a small smile from him. He liked what I said, and he moved on to shake the hand of the next person in a very long line on a very hot day. I felt like I met Babe Ruth that day.

My daughter recently got married at the James Michener Museum. My daughter and her husband chose this James Michener Museum for reasons of their own, and it turned out to be a lovely venue. They knew nothing of my connection with this book. In addition they were going to Hawaii for their honeymoon. I couldn’t help telling this story at their wedding and giving them a copy of the book “Hawaii” as a small, but very sentimental wedding gift. The coincidences and the connections still kept coming. The edition I bought had an introduction from Steve Berry, a thriller writer my wife and I both met several years ago at Thrillerfest in New York City. Steve Berry helped me put together a pitch for the novel I am in the process of writing today. He wrote a damned good introduction to one of my favorite books of all time.

“Hawaii” will keep a reader going for a while. It is over 1,000 pages long and full of very small print. If you have a love for the sea, as I do, go to a bookstore and read Michener’s first sentence. His words are magnificent. Better yet, buy a copy and have a really great read.

Review of “Murder as a Fine Art” by David Morrell

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Author: David Morrell

 

Publication Date: May, 2013

 

Publisher:  Mulholland Books

 

ISBN: 978-0-316-21679-1

 

Agent: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

Source of Book: I borrowed this book from my local public library. I had never read any of David Morrell’s works, and was impressed by his presentations at Thrillerfest. He is best known for his debut novel “First Blood” in which he introduced the character Rambo.

Blurb: Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir, “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to the ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprints for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In “Murder as a Fine Art”, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

(Source of Blurb: Inside dust cover jacket)

Review:  “Murder as a Fine Art” shows a true master at work. David Morrell, author of “First Blood”, which introduced the Rambo character, is a scholar as well as an author. This book is as much of a learning experience as it is a thriller. Morrell teaches us a lot about Victorian England, and this was, for me, the best part of the book. In addition, Morrel uses a complex story structure, writing a good bit of it in third person omniscient point of view, seldom used currently, but widely used in Victorian times. He intersperses this with some first person point of view using a strong female character via excerpts from her diary. I learned a great deal about Victorian England, as well as a lot about the craft of writing.

I was a little less impressed with the plot, however. Morrell starts his first chapter with a very vivid description of several murders including the killing of a small infant. The book certainly has a dark side to it. The story eventually explains the psychological reasons behind this. I found it intriguing that the protagonist was an opium-addled author who outwits a much younger and stronger villain, but towards the end of the book, the cleverness of the protagonist and the ease with which he eventually defeats the villain were a little too much for me. Please do not get me wrong, this is a very good thriller, just a little too much cleverness and too much psychology for my taste.

If you have the stomach to get by the description of the gruesome murders in the first chapter, this is an entertaining, well-written thriller. The real strength of “Murder as a Fine Art” is the rich detail of the setting, Victorian England. The book is incredibly well-researched, and Morrell’s use of third-person omniscient point of view is a great example of a master writer at work. If you like your thrillers laced with a great deal of very pleasurable education, and you have an interest in Victorian England, you will enjoy this thoroughly.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Link to Author’s Website:  www.davidmorrell.net

Purchase Link:  Murder as a Fine Art

Review of “The New Spymasters” by Stephen Grey

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Author:  Stephen Grey

Publication Date: July 14, 2015

Publisher: St. Martin’s

ISBN: 978-0-3123-7922-3

Agent: Not known

Source of Book: I obtained this book by scanning the shelves at my local library.

 

 

Blurb: The old world of spying-dead-letter boxes, microfilm cameras, an enemy reporting to the Moscow Center, and a hint of sexual blackmail is history. The spymaster’s technique has changed and the enemy has, too. He or she now frequently comes from a culture far removed from Western understanding and is part of a less well-organized group. The new enemy is constantly evolving and prepared to kill the innocent. In the face of this new threat, the spymasters of the world shunned human intelligence as the primary way to glean clandestine information and replaced it with an obsession that focuses on the technical methods of spying ranging from the use of high-definition satellite photography to the global interception of communications. However, this obsession with technology has failed, most spectacularly, with the devastation of the 9/11 attacks. In this searing modern history of espionage, Stephen Grey takes us from the CIA’s Cold War legends, to the agents who betrayed the IRA, through to the spooks inside Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Techniques and technologies have evolved, but the old motivations for betrayal-patriotism, greed, revenge, compromise-endure. Based on years of research and interviews with hundreds of secret sources, Stephen Grey’s The New Spymasters is an up-to-date exposé that shows how spycraft’s human factor is once again being used to combat the world’s deadliest enemies.

(Source of Blurb: Macmillian Publishers)

Review:  “The New Spymasters”,  a non-fiction book by Stephen Grey published in 2015, was challenging to read, but highly informative, and very wide-ranging. Case studies were presented in readable, but rich detail. The author tried to draw together some overarching themes, including the conflict between technological intelligence and human intelligence gathering, and the difficulties inherent in each as well as ethical conflicts. The differences and conflicts between obtaining information and covert action are clearly described and illustrated. For an aspiring author searching for plotlines and conflicts to make a story richer, this book provides a wealth of possibilities. Spying is not easy, and it is not glamorous, and “The New Spymasters” pulls no punches. These stories are all very real and very well documented.

The book starts with a glossary in the front.  I imagine that was a signal from the author that this was going to be a difficult read. I found the glossary useful, especially the names and abbreviations of the intelligence services of many foreign countries.  The author is not afraid of complexity, and the glossary is helpful. “The New Spymasters tells the story of spying from the British Empire up to Afghanistan and al-Queda. It takes a case approach, focusing on a famous spying episode in each chapter, including Sidney Reilly, Kim Philby, the IRA, Andrew Antoniades, as well as several post 9-11 spying successes and failures, probing deeply into what is known about each episode. The book highlights the evolution of the spying business, and is quite clear about the difficulties involved in spying on an organization such as al-Queda.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Link to Author’s Website:  http://www.stephengrey.com/

Purchase Link:  https://www.amazon.com/new-spymasters-Inside-espionage-global/dp/0670917400