Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Real Horror Story

Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings by Michelle Knight
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a horrifying memoir. Michelle Knight had a traumatic childhood that included abuse, neglect and molestation, and she ran away from home when she was 15, during which time she slept under a bridge and briefly worked for a drug dealer. In 2002, when she was 21, she was kidnapped by a Cleveland bus driver named Ariel Castro and then held captive in his house for almost 11 years. While she was imprisoned, she was frequently raped, beaten, starved and abused.

During those hellish years, Castro kidnapped two other girls, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, and also kept them chained in the house. Michelle often begged Castro to let her go so she could see her son again (on the day she was kidnapped, she had been on her way to court to see if she could regain custody of her son, Joey) and Castro would often beat her if she started crying. With three kidnapped girls in the house, he said he wanted them all to be a happy family. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This warped dude had kidnapped me, beat me, and raped me every day -- and he expected us to be a family? I knew he wasn't just sick; he was a total psycho. He was living in his own fantasy world -- and I had to find a way out of it."

The women would sometimes talk about trying to escape, but Castro had rigged the house with elaborate locks and alarms, and he frequently carried a gun and threatened to kill them if they disobeyed him.

"He kept his gun on his hip most of the time, but to be honest with you, he didn't really have to. By 2008 we were trained. After years of being in prison a crazy thing starts to happen: the locks move from off of your wrists and your ankles and up to your brain ... After you've been raped, humiliated, beaten, and chained for so long, you get into the habit of doing what you're told. Your spirit starts crumbling. You start not to be able to imagine anything different. And it feels like your captor is all-seeing and all-knowing."

In May 2013, Amanda noticed that an inner door was left unlocked and she called out to a neighbor, who broke a hole in the storm door so she could crawl out. She was able to call 911 and police soon rescued Michelle and Gina. Castro was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

"Some of what he said in court made me furious. He talked about his porn addiction and how he was abused when he was a kid. I had heard it all before. Plenty of people get abused, but they don't go out and kidnap three women. I didn't feel sorry for him; I was still angry."

One month into Castro's sentence, he was found dead in his cell, hanging by a bed sheet. It was ruled a suicide. "What a punk! I wanted him to sit in his cell and rot away a little bit at a time for the rest of his life, just like he forced me to do. 'He couldn't even deal with one month of the torture that he put us through,'" Michelle later told Gina.

"Finding Me" is plainly written and the style could be immature, but it was so engrossing that I finished it in just two sittings. However, the book is so disturbing that parts of it made me ill. I would not recommend it to sensitive readers. If you were upset by Emma Donoghue's novel "Room," about a 5-year-old boy and his mother who are held captive in a small shed, then you should avoid Michelle's memoir, because it is a real horror story.

Critical Success - An interview with Robert Bevan

Today's guest is Robert Bevan, author of the Caverns and Creatures series.

How did you hook up with DeadPixel Publications?
The founder, Robert Brumm, emailed me out of the blue one day. As it says on our website, www.deadpixelpublications.com, we're just a bunch of people with day jobs, trying to make a go at this writing thing.

What made you want to write Critical Failures?
I was writing another book at the time... a different sort of story altogether. I was getting near the end of it, and I had lost a lot of my motivation, because it sucked. The premise behind Critical Failures just popped into my head one day, and I knew it had a lot more potential than what I was currently working on. So I hurried through to the end of the shitty book I was writing, even though I knew I wasn't going to publish it, and got to work on Critical Failures. I think it's good for an aspiring writer to bash out one steaming pile of crap novel before they write something they intend to publish. You learn from your mistakes, and there's some discipline involved as well. A whole lot of work for seemingly zero reward. That's a feeling all aspiring novelists should come to terms with.

How many stories are in the Caverns and Creatures series so far?
As of this interview, there are two novels and twelve short stories. After I wrote Critical Failures, I wrote Cave of the Kobolds just for fun. Writing a full-length novel is exhausting, so before delving into CF2, I thought a little mini-adventure might be fun to write. And I could price it cheaply. Maybe someone who wasn't willing to shell out five bucks for a novel by an unknown author might be willing to risk a dollar to see what the guy can do. Or I could give it away for free.

That turned out to be an effective strategy. Sales of both books went up considerably. So I wrote another short story, and another, and so on. I stopped myself at six, so that I could put them together in a bundle for the savvy shopper. After writing Critical Failures II, I wrote six more shorts. My plan is to stick to this 1:6 ratio throughout the entire series. It's great for marketing. More titles = more exposure. And the shorts are really fun to write.

Are the characters based on people you know?
Maybe Julian, though I wasn't conscious of it when I first wrote him. But in the group I used to play with when I started the C&C series, there was a guy who had never played before. His name also started with "J", and he's Jewish. I'd say there's a lot of me in Tim and Cooper. Dave was added because the party needed a cleric and the author needed a punching bag.

Who would you cast in a Critical Failures movie?
Ha! You've interviewed a lot of authors, so it probably comes as no surprise that I've actually put a bit of thought into this already. Cooper's easy. Danny McBride. Tim? Maybe Jason Bateman. Julian... I don't know. Someone a bit younger. Off the top of my head, Michael Cera. Jonah Hill might make a nice Dave.

Is there a Critical Failures III in the works?
You bet your ass there is! I'm currently 26,000 words in, and this might be the best one of the bunch.

Are you currently a D&D player?
I haven't played in about a year. I live in South Korea. It's difficult to get a group together. Plus, I've got that pesky day job, and a family. Between that and actually getting some writing done, it's hard to make time for anything else.

Favorite D&D campaign setting?
No group I've ever played in has actually used any of the campaign settings. We've always just made up our own as we went along.

Favorite D&D magic item?
For practical purposes, I'd have to go with the Bag of Holding. It's great for a disorganized person like myself. It's better than a quiver when you've got to shoot a shitload of arrows, or you could smuggle your undead army into a city if you like.

For a game-wrecker, my choice would have to be the Deck of Many Things. If your group ever gets bored with a campaign and wants to start from scratch, I recommend wrapping it up with a Deck of Many Things. Some players are just going to flat out die. Others are going to become stupidly powerful, and then die. But, depending on what you're all drinking, it's going to be a hilarious final night of the campaign.

Who is your favorite author?
Douglas Adams. He turned me on to comedy, and really got me into reading.

What is your favorite book of all time?
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The whole series really. No other book has ever made me laugh to the point of not being able to breathe before.

What are you reading now?
I'm reading through a list of some of my fellow DeadPixel authors' work.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Not really. I just started writing one day because I had an idea that I thought would make a good story. As it turned out, that idea turned into my aforementioned shitty first novel, which I didn't publish. And then inspiration struck for Critical Failures.

So I guess that if I wanted to sound like a total douchebag, I could say that Critical Failures made me want to be a writer.

What do you have coming down the pipeline?
I ate some fish last night that might have been a little off.

Any advice for aspiring writers?
It's the same generic advice that any author worth their salt will give you. Read a lot. Write a lot. Seriously, just hammer out some words. Finish what you start, even if it's crap. If you're just starting out, don't worry that you're writing crap. Just finish it. The psychological victory of completing a novel-length work, even if it's a lousy one, lets you know that you're capable of such a feat.

Also, don't publish crap because you feel entitled to some recognition for all the hard work you put in. Put that shit in a drawer and get to work on the next book. Like any skill, you become better through practice.

Critical Failures and Critical Failures II

Critical FailuresCritical Failures by Robert Bevan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Tim, Dave, Cooper, and Julian play a game of Caverns and Creatures with a new Cavern Master, they get more than they bargained for. Trapped in the game world in the bodies of their characters, can they survive long enough to make it back to the real world and settle the pompous Cavern Master's hash?

Back in the day, around the time the oceans drank Atlantis, I played a fair bit of Dungeons and Dragons. Sadly, I recognize a lot of what goes on in this book.

Critical Failures tells the story of what many a Dungeon Master would like to do to disruptive characters, i.e. throw them into the game world and teach them a lesson. The cast isn't quite the bunch of gamer stereotypes I thought it might be but some of them are present, like the noob and the disruptive loudmouth. More than once, I empathized with Mordred the Cavern Master.

The story is full of humor and actually has some good adventure-y bits. I think you probably need to have gamed in order to fully appreciate a lot of it. The humor ranges from Python-esque to dick and fart jokes, crossing from one side of the humor spectrum to the other.

The story ends unexpectedly, not exactly a cliffhanger but not what I expected. Luckily, I got this and the sequel for 99 cents each so I'm be attacking the second one directly.

If you've ever spent nights drinking Mountain Dew and covered in nerd sweat and Cheetoh dust around a gaming table, this is the book for your. Four out of five stars!

Critical Failures II: Fail HarderCritical Failures II: Fail Harder by Robert Bevan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Trapped in the world of Creatures and Caverns, Tim, Dave, Cooper, and Julian struggle to find their way home, meeting a community of individuals also accosted by Mordred along the way. But what has happened to Katherine and Chaz?

The gang from Critical Failures is back in a second outing, continuing their quest to escape the world of Creatures and Caverns and settle Mordred's hash.

The humor of the first book is in full effect in the sequel. The D&D in-jokes continue, as does the bodily function humor. In addition, the boys have matured a bit, both in experience level and character-wise.

The story is a direct continuation and deals with another group of displaced C&C players, making a go of it in a fantasy world after being banished there by Mordred.

I thought the vampire subplot was very well done. My favorite part of the book, other than the masterwork wooden stake carved in the shape of a penis, was the excellent use of the Bag of Holding.

If I had to pick something to gripe about, it was that the humor was wearing a little thin by the end. However, since I just finished the first book, I imagine I was suffering from overload. Wait, I have something else to gripe about: Where is the next book?

If you're a D&D gamer with a sense of humor, you won't want to miss this. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews

The Crimson Campaign

The Crimson Campaign (The Powder Mage, #2)The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tamas is lost behind enemy lines and presumed dead. Taniel Two-Shot is wasting his life away in mala dens. And Adamat is hunting for his missing wife. Not only that, Kresimir lives and is looking for the man who shot him in the eye...

So yeah. This was pretty great. As much as I loved the first volume, Promise of Blood, this book slightly surpassed it.

The Crimson Campaign is everything the second book in a trilogy should be. The danger is ramped up to 11 and beyond, the characters continue to evolve, and the principles find themselves in even greater danger by the end of the book.

From the early goings, The Crimson Campaign grabs the reader by the short and curlies and won't let go. Tamas soon finds himself on the run from the Kez army with a comparatively small force. Taniel, once he emerges from his mala haze, finds himself opposed by his own army. Adamat takes a tremendous beating in the course of finding his missing family.

Brian McClellan is a cheeky little hamster. The shifts in viewpoint come at the perfect dramatic times, forcing me to read well past my bedtime and compelling me to forego housework as well. Hell, it Tamas showed up on my doorstep, I'd leave my white collar life behind and ride with him to hell and back.

For me, one of the measures of a good writer is to make me care about something I previously considered mind-meltingly boring. P.G. Wodehouse did it with golf and Brian McClellan did it here with military tactics. While we're told Tamas is a military genius, this book and the previous one do a phenomenal job showing him in action.

I know I've been gushing but I still don't feel like I've done this book justice. It deliviers the goods on all levels: action, intrigue, character development, even a bit of humor. Not only that, the books are coming out in timely fashion. In these days, it's rare to wrap up a fantasy trilogy in a decade and it looks like McClellan is going to do three books in three years.

The Crimson Campaign. Go buy it! Five out of five stars.

View all my reviews