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On Bad Endings

Watching Arsenal's championship run in the Premier League completely unravel in the closing weeks of the season (capped yesterday by a 3-0 loss at home to Brighton) [5/20 Edit: followed up with a 1-0 loss to Nottingham bleepin' Forest] brings to mind a certain kind of book. One where the story's enchanting beginning and middle becomes sullied by a lousy ending. There's not that many out there. Usually, a bad ending just tags along behind a badly written story. But every now and then, an otherwise brilliant tale falls flat because the author just can't quite "stick the landing," so to speak. 

Stephen King's The Stand, for some reason, stands out as an example for me. I remember reading it in ninth or tenth grade (despite my not being much of a reader back then and the book weighing as much as a cinder block). It had me hooked—for more than a thousand pages. Interesting characters. Intense conflict. A dark, paranormal build-up. And then … plop. I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, King took deus ex machina to a level even a teenager couldn't swallow. Which, to me, left a pall over an otherwise entertaining epic.

So what makes for a good ending to a story? I think there are three main requisites. First, the main arcs—plot and character—have to land on solid ground. Are the conflicts the protagonists faced resolved (whether for good or ill)? Have they been changed (for better or worse)? Have events reached a natural (i.e., organic) conclusion? If not (if, for example, the story concludes with the Hand of the Almighty swooping down to detonate a nuclear bomb, killing off a quarter of the main characters, leaving two others free to return home and start a family), then the ending's going to feel shaky, rushed, unsatisfying. And an otherwise solid story will sink.

Second, does the ending deliver what was promised at the beginning? Note, this doesn't mean a predictable conclusion (in fact, many times, just the opposite). Rather, this requisite is, in large part, tied to the story's genre. If the reader bought a romance, she or he is almost assuredly expecting some kind of a romantic attachment to have been formed by the time the main characters reach the end. If it's a mystery, there needs to be an intelligent solution to the crime. Epic fantasy had darn well better deliver an action-packed, dramatic "big fight." 

And finally, are all the loose ends tied off? This one is probably the easiest to fall short on. Have all the problems the author raised either been resolved or else left in a purposeful place of stasis that suggests a likely conclusion. Did Checkhov's gun ever go off?

What all three requisites have in common is that they all embody, in some fashion, the fulfillment of the author's implicit promise(s) to the reader. One of the most important promises being: a solid, satisfying conclusion at the end of the story.

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Definition of the Day

 Asyndeton: (noun) omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses (as in "I came, I saw, I conquered")


- Merriam Webster Dictionary

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Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A solid 17 on a d20 roll.

Whatever boundaries separate fantasy novels from movies from video games from role-playing games are delightfully blurred in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.


A bard (who doesn't really play much music in the movie), a barbarian, a somewhat hapless sorcerer, a shape-shifter, and (for a time) a paladin, are on a quest to retrieve a magical stone that will resurrect a lost loved one. In true D&D fashion, the only way to break into the magically sealed vault that holds the stone is to retrieve another lost artifact (a helmet), which is hard to get to and well guarded, but it can be used to ... well, you get the idea. The movie has all the classic tropes of a D&D game (specifically, a heist adventure), and all the free-reeling fun of a good RPG session. 


There's complications, plot twists, pieces of luck (both good and bad), and, of course, lots of swords and sorcery. It's funny (but thankfully, unlike a lot of modern movies, the humor isn't entirely sardonic). It's fast-paced. It's got plenty of action. Blend that all together with just the right touch of character arcs, workmanlike acting (no one takes their role too seriously, and that really works in this movie) and you get something unique: an RPG movie that can hold together as a movie while still keeping the feel of an RPG game. 


Grab your favorite set of dice, crack open a beer, and enjoy it!

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Book Review: Murder Your Employer

The Hogwarts of Homicide

Aside from the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I've never been much of a fan for mysteries. The handful of mystery novels I've read always felt like I was working through a crossword puzzle (instead of enjoying a story). So it was very much an impulse purchase when, as I was looking through a new Barnes & Noble that had just opened, I picked up Rupert Holmes' Murder Your Employer. I'm glad the store placed it where it did.


Set in the 1950's, the book follows three protagonists, Cliff Iverson, an engineer and all-around likable guy, Gemma Lindley, a young British woman who lost her father to illness, and Doris Maye, a Hollywood maven facing the twilight of her career. The three of them, it turns out, all have one thing in common: they each work for a boss that is utterly, completely, irredeemably awful. These bosses aren't just bad to work for, they're bad for society. Each of whom, in their own way, engrandizes themselves while impoverishing (and sometimes endangering) others. Holmes does a wonderful job of making the reader, like the protagonists, wish their bosses were dead.


As it turns out, there's a school for people like Cliff, Gemma, and Doris. The McMaster Conservatory located in ... well, no one (except the faculty) knows exactly where this pristine, Victorian campus is. Because the students are always brought there under sedation. At McMaster, pupils who wish to "delete" (the euphemism for murder) undersirable targets, take classes to hone their skills in the finer aspects of getting away with murder. There's a code, of sorts, and the course work is quite rigorous. The campus is, of course, bucolic--with dormitories, "labs," athletic fields, gorgeous parks, a quaint pub, and even a chapel (with a serving cleric!). Think of McMaster as a Hogwarts of Homicide. If this all seems a little much for the premise of a mystery novel, it is. But Holmes layers it in manageable pieces and serves it out with clever prose and vignettes, so suspending one's disbelief becomes a delight. The author also, quite wisely, doesn't endeavor to string an entire novel around the school, but instead breaks the book into halves.


The second half of the book follows Cliff, Gemma, and Doris as they return to the real world to work through their "theses" (that is, the actual murder of their respective targets). You'll find yourself cheering them on as three separate "mysteries" are slowly laid out through the point of view of the persons attempting to commit the crimes. The endings are not at all predictable, with plenty of twists and complications to keep the reader on his or her toes. 


Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. It may be a tad long (there are a couple of points in the first half that drag a bit). And the premise is absolutely ludicrous. But Holmes makes it work with masterful pacing, relatable characters, some fine wordsmithing, and a genuine sense of fun that's suffused throughout the book. Recommended.

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Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock Gets an Award

I'm pleased to announce that Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock took 2nd place in the Historical Fantasy category of the 2023 Spring BookFest awards.

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It's his day--so buy him a drink.

Happy International Bagpipe Day! A whole day when we celebrate pipes, piping, and pipers. So make sure you hug a piper today—better yet, buy them a drink. The following is from Nationaltoday.com (I don't vouch for the veracity, especially the claim that Nero played the bagpipes while Rome burned—we all know he played a fiddle, because that's the kind of thing a fiddler would do). Anyway, enjoy the day!



International Bagpipe Day is held annually on March 10. Can you believe that bagpipes date back to 400 B.C., and are thought to have originated from Egypt, with the first players known as pipers of Thebes? Bagpipes are distinct and unique musical instruments that hold a special place in certain parts of Europe, such as Scotland and Ireland.


A bagpipe is a type of woodwind instrument that consists of several parts including the air supply blowpipe, the bag, the chanter, the chanter reed, and the drone or drones. The chanter is the melody pipe that can be played by the piper, whereas the drone or drones provide a constant note. It has a long and rich history that dates back to ancient Rome and Egypt.

In the early part of the second millennium, clear evidence of bagpipes began to appear frequently in Western European art and iconography. They were also popular subjects for carvers of wooden choir stalls throughout Europe in the late 15th century and early 16th century.

Andy Letcher and Cassandre Balosso-Bardin co-founded International Bagpipe Day with the International Bagpipe Organization and the Bagpipe Society. Since 1986, the Bagpipe Society has been actively involved in bringing together new bagpipe players in order to preserve the history and practice of bagpipes. Cassandre came up with the idea of organizing a bagpipe conference as part of his efforts to promote the diversity of bagpipes to a wider audience.

The First International Bagpipe Conference, which gathered musicians and instrument makers from all over Europe, launched International Bagpipe Day worldwide. Thousands of pipers around the world now celebrate the day every year, with many local pipers organizing events in places such as Harvard (U.S.), Glasgow (U.K.), Haninge (Sweden), Minsk (Belarus), Iran, and Nigeria.


1. Varied in materials of construction
They were traditionally made from whole animal skin, often a sheep's skin, but in modern times, are usually made with artificial fabric such as Gore-Tex.

2. It was loved by a Roman Emperor
The ancient Roman emperor Nero was a notorious piper, who is said to have played the bagpipes as Rome burned

3. Once an instrument of warfare
They were originally used to scare off enemies on the battlefield, and are the only known musical instrument in history to have been used in war.

4. It is popular in the U.S.
These days, bagpiping has become so popular that there are more bagpipe bands in the U.S. than there are in Scotland.

5. It is symbolic
Over the years, the bagpipe has become a symbol of mourning for fallen heroes, especially firefighters and policemen.


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Review: Cocaine Bear

The title's better than the movie ...

There are three ingredients to make a "cult classic" movie: (1) an absurd premise; (2) a low budget; and (3) actors who aren't entirely sure what they're supposed to be doing. Cocaine Bear has two of the three. And that's the problem.


The central premise of the movie is pretty ludicrous. In the mid-80's, a drug dealer throws a duffel bag of cocaine out of an airplane over a southern forest and a wandering bear gets into it. Apparently, this actually happened in real life (which is why the movie has alternatively proclaimed it is "based on" or "inspired by" a true story--the latter being more accurate). Whereas the real bear dropped dead, the Cocaine Bear bear develops a nose for coke, takes on super powers, and goes on a seemingly endless, drug-fueled bloody bender. No one is spared (least of all, the audience). There's more horror than humor here. Park rangers, drug dealers, European hikers ... they all come to learn, in grisly fashion, that bears and cocaine just don't mix.


Oh, there's some half-hearted attempts to string together a number of plot threads: something about a couple of kids who played hookie, a drug dealer's son seeking his redemption, some love interests. They're all paltry and spread way too thin. And the only chemistry on the screen is the drugs. Nothing in any of the storylines really matter, and the actors all act accordingly.


But, then, that's not why you're going to see this movie, right? You want to see a bear on cocaine, right? 


Alas, the star of the show is not as cool as she could have been. The bear scenes (almost all of which are CGI) come off as pretty boring. There's no shock, no awe, and not very much to laugh at.


This could have been a funny movie. But it isn't.


It's not a particularly good horror movie, either. There's no real suspense, no dark, lurking menace. And WAY too many half-baked plot lines that never come together. 


So that leaves a "cult classic," which, I think, is what the producers were aiming for. Cocaine Bear has its absurd premise and more than ample meandering acting. The problem, though, is that with a $35 Million production budget, you can't really pretend it's been filmed on the cheap. Which is part of the fun of the old cult classics. Basically, the movie's overdosed.


Wait for the video.



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Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock

A would-be lawyer, a deadly captain, and a fortune-teller are on the hunt for a magical lock of hair along the 18th century Atlantic coast. Wildness and hilarity ensue.


With a mix of Patrick O'Brian, Susanna Clarke, and Terry Pratchett, Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock is historical fantasy at its best.


Get a copy today:

Yonder & Far (on Amazon)


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Quote of the Day

"Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors." 


- The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

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Music in Writing

It sounds worse than it looks

One of the understated joys of parenthood is when your children lovingly mock you in the form of a Pokémon card. 


I've been an off-and-on piper for almost fifteen years and consider myself solidly mediocre (as the picture here evidences, I'm just good enough to play a tune in church on St. Andrew's Sunday--but only if the church is big with lot of echoes and the congregation is especially charitable). The bagpipes are actually the fourth instrument I've picked up since childhood. My mom very much encouraged my learning classical music when I was growing up (though I like to think she came around to jazz and rock later on). Whatever the style, music was very much a thing in the Lucas house of the 70's and 80's. 


I bring this up because music often comes up in writing, especially in the fantasy genre. Perhaps it's because Tolkien wove so many songs into The Hobbit, or perhaps it's because music was one of the few forms of entertainment widely available in pre-industrial societies, or perhaps a lot of fantasy authors are simply frustrated bass guitarists (okay, so no one is ever a frustrated bass guitarist, but you get the idea). But having characters sing a song--and then writing out the song's verses--is very much a thing in fantasy fiction, almost a trope.


I was looking back over some of my stuff and realized I've done it a few times myself. My very first novel (a long, middle-grade animal fantasy) has about five different songs the characters sing at various points along their journey. The Mountain has one, too. Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock has a chapter that weaves in and out of a character singing a lament (the lyrics are very loosely based on an Oscar Wilde poem). It's not something I really set out to include, but it does seem to pop up from time to time in what I'm writing.


Music in prose a bit tricky, though. Sometimes the songs that come up in fantasy novels can come off a little flat (pardon the pun). To be honest (and, please Tolkien fans, this is meant as no disrespect, so hold on to your pitchforks and torches), I pretty much glanced past most of the tunes Tolkien ever put in his books (I mean, I could kind of get a feel for the goblin songs in The Hobbit, but it was a little hard to catch the tune of "O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly the valley is jolly! ha! ha!"). In fact, I'll go so far as to say that fashioning music into prose more often ends up as a distraction than an enhancement of the story.


And yet ... music is an important part of life. For a lot of people, music resonates with something deeper, even something divine. So it's only natural that if a writer is crafting a fantasy world, she or he would want to weave music into it in some way. How does one pull it off so that readers are humming to themselves, and not just flipping past pages? 


Two things, I think, can help a song in a novel truly sing. First and foremost, the music has to serve the story, not the other way around. Is recounting twelve verses of metered rhyme doing anything to propel the narrative, a conflict, a character arc, in any way? Is it foreshadowing something? Does it serve any purpose in the novel? If the honest answer is not really, then it probably needs to stay out. Second (and perhaps more challenging), is it actually musical? Often what's described in a fantasy novel as a character or a group singing a song comes across as a character or a group reciting a poem. There is a different beat and meter for spoken poetry than sung music (the latter must generally be shorter and punchier than the former). One trick I've found that makes a song in a story more likely to work: sing what you've written. Yeah, that's right, author. You want your reader to read your song? Sing it to them. Whether it's a tune you've made up or one you've heard somewhere, it doesn't matter. Sing your song. What this trick does is it puts what you've written to the musical test--if it can't be sung, it's not a song.


If your story needs a song in it, and if what you've written fits the bill of a singable song, then your reader will be less tempted to breeze past the singing parts, and might just try to sing along with you.


- Matt

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