Review: The Book of Helen

I got a kindle copy of The Book of Helen for free in exchange for a review.

Remember Helen of Troy? She has lived to a ripe old age, her husband Menelaus died of natural causes. Her step-children are all interested in showing her the door, one way or another. Her only option is to fly to Rhodes, only Rhodes’ Queen Ployoxo has other ideas for her.

Being a historian, I’m wary of “historical novels,” mainly because so many are either BS, or they try too hard to be “authentic.” The Book of Helen doesn’t have this problem. Sure, it has various and sundry elements of Greek life, but they’re implemented casually and effortlessly. It might be in a historical setting, but it doesn’t try to ram all of their studies down your throat.

There are parts of this book that read like a Greek myth version of The West Wing (the early years, when it was about strategy and process, and not about slant). Helen is a political genius, almost a savant, and can manage crowd, and is basically “the hostess with the mostess” on steroids. The resulting style feels very much like Mary Stewart meets Clare Booth Luce. The Book of Helen retells the story of the original Troy incident with little to no interference from deities, and no magic. If there is a god involved anywhere, the meddling is implied, with just a hint of an explanation. When Paris meets Helen, she assumes that the story of discord’s apple is merely a pickup line.  On the other hand, like Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women, Antonetti has a nice, crisp way of addressing the character traits and social tactics of other women. And let’s throw in flashbacks reminiscent of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where the stories are told in interrogation-style fashion.

From a historical point of view, it’s nice that someone remembers that Helen was of Sparta, as in “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” Yes, she does know how to shoot arrows at people. Sparta and its society also acts as a major plot point.

One of the more interesting elements in the story revolves around Helen’s servant, Pythia, a slave who becomes Helen’s scribe.  The relationship between the two of them is very much like a Doctor Who companion, or Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes — while Helen is a political and social genius for the big picture, almost bordering on the savant, she has blind spots about comment sense matters that Pythia must smack her upside the head over. The interplay has some fun elements to it, and adds a lot of the charm to this book.

Also, this has some nice themes along with it: grief, envy, hard work, a sideways pro-life message if you want to read into it that way.  This is also the first time I’ve seen someone turn the concept of bella figura into a working concept in fiction (a concept that basically says that it is not enough to do good, one must also look good while doing it).

Now, why is this review not a 5/5?  Let’s discuss.

So, everyone knows the entire story of the Illiad and the Odyssey?  Yes? Good, because there is almost no back story or explanation for what’s going on here at the beginning. Menelaus is dead on page one, and if you don’t know the original Homer, you’re going to be a little lost for a few chapters. The backstory will be filled in, you just need to hang in there.

There is too much talking at times, and not enough action. I also wanted more physical descriptions. Does Helen now have grey hair, or is it still blonde? I caught implications that she was either going grey, but had enough blonde still left over to hide any grey; she’s “still as beautiful as ever,” but has she aged gracefully like Erin Grey, or did she not age at all? No idea.

And the speeches just kept going. Maybe if they were broken up a little more and turned into something like discussions, and not Dostoevsky monologues …it still would have been too much talking, but it wouldn’t have been a blizzard of words. There were moments my eyes crossed. Chapter six is the first time the reader will come across it, but if you slog through it, I promise that the rest of the book will be worth the time.

By the end, I wanted more. I wanted more of the story, more of the people, more time with the various and sundry characters, just more. There’s a sequel too The Book of Helenplanned, called The Book of Penelope.

If and/or when it comes out, I will be reading it.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Pius Rules for Writers

I was recently asked what rules, as I reader, I wish writers would follow. I came up with a few.

Rule #1: Don’t preach at me. Tell the damn story…

I think this is self explanatory. Heck, even Star Trek IV, which is straight up “save the whales,” did a fairly good job of this. It was mostly a character driven comedy: let’s take all of our characters as fish and through them so far out of the water they’re in a different planet, and watch the fun start. Even the whales that must be saved for the sake of all of Earth are little more than MacGuffin devices, there for the story to happen.

But 2012? Or The Day After Tomorrow? Or Avatar? Kill me now.

Serious, I went out of my way to make A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller about the history of a Church, complete with philosophy, and it somehow still managed to be less preachy than any of these “climate change” films.

Rule #2: Don’t make up your own history, claim that you’ve done your research, and then NOT share your research.

You are not Dan Brown. I don’t tolerate it FROM Dan Brown, and I will waterboard the next schmuck who does that. Anyone want to test that threat? I’m a freaking historian. I know when you’re lying, you morons!!!!!

No, seriously, there was a novel that spent most of the time dealing with a question of “Did Pontius Pilot fake the resurrection???? Gasp!”  The answer was no. But at the end of a book where I wanted to feed it through a paper shredder because of how crappy the history was, his conclusion? “I did my homework. But I won’t tell you what I made up, so do your own homework.”

NO. That is NOT how this works, you douche bag. At least give us a list of authors where you got your BS history, because the only thing I saw in that novel that was even remotely historically accurate was that there was a Roman Empire, and a Pontius Pilate.

Heck, I took my own works cited page for my own novel into an entire post on my own blog, not to mention making it a five page author note at the back of the book. It’s not hard, people. Really, it’s not.

Rule #3: If you have an action sequence, HAVE an action sequence.

I don’t need a blow-by-blow fight, but I need something. If your concept of a “fight” is “they fell to the roof and struggled with each other until they fell off,” I will hurt you. Jack Higgins did that, and after that, I knew his Sean Dillion series was doomed. I was writing like that when I was 16, for God’s sake. And I think I did it better then. I do it much better now. It was just lazy.

In fact, how about details, hmm? A page that is nothing but dialogue — and most of that a few words a sentence — is boring and hard to track. At least give me a sense of what they’re doing. Give me dialogue tags. Pretend that we might want to know who’s saying what to whom.

Granted, I tend to go overboard in the other direction, what what do I know?

Rule #4: If you have a chapter, it has to be more than a paragraph long.

If you only have snippets from a mad serial killer, we might forgive you if this is done for a handful of chapters. If it’s your entire novel, you should be beaten to death with the hard copy…. I’m looking at you, James Patterson, your books are twice as long as they need to be because the chapter number is half a page, you put a little text under it, and do it again for the next chapter. STOP. IT.

Rule #5: Vampires only sparkle IF THEY’RE ON FIRE.

I shouldn’t need to explain this by now. And if I have to … here, read my books. You’re welcome.

Rule #6: Fantasy authors, please, for the love of God, if you’re going to have a system of magic set in a modern environment, please explain where magic comes from.

Ahem: Dear Madam Rowling, where do wizards get their powers FROM? Why do they actually need wands? Why can some spells not require any wands?  A paragraph over your 7 novels would have been fine to explain any of this. I’m certain that no one would have minded if you stole a few lines of dialogue from Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire.

Rule #7: Stop giving me stupid villains. Just stop. Please.

Rule #7b: Stop giving me insipid heroes. Just … don’t.

Rule #7c: In fact, Stephen King, just stop writing entirely.

Rule #8: While we’re at it, SOMEONE HAVE AN ORIGINAL IDEA.

I don’t care if you’ve been a bestseller for 20 years, stop pumping out books like they’re an obligation. I’m looking at you King … Higgins … Patterson … Pat Cornwell … I mean, please, Nora Roberts does consistently better and original ideas than you twits, and she’s a ROMANCE NOVELIST.  Gah!

Rule #9: Stop with the utterly dark nonsense.

I’m tired of the same dystopian universes, the same miserable outlooks on humanity, and the same anti-heroes. Snake Plisskin only works once. Twice if you make him into a Metal Gear character. After that I’M BORED. You can give me an anti-hero if he’s well-developed, likable, smart. You can stop giving me the same depressing, dark, amoral character who actually HAS no character development.  Even my book Codename: Winterborn, which has been compared to Escape from New York, went out of its way to describe how society works, how people live, how there’s an economy. I never want to see another Escape from New York or Terminator universe unless they’re in the Escape from New York or the Terminator universe.

Rule #10: Stop, stop STOP making professional soldiers into sociopathic Redshirt canon fodder while the plucky hero WITH ZERO COMBAT EXPERIENCE gets out alive.

Thank you.

Review: Stealing Jenny

Jenny Callahan has has five children, with another one due in a week. She and her husband have no money problems, only the issues that come with five children. They’re in a nice, loving relationship, where their biggest problem is her mother-in-law.

Then Jenny gets kidnapped by a total psycho who wants her child for herself, and we’re off to the races.

Stealing Jenny is actually not a bad thriller.  It’s tightly written, nice and tense, complete with character studies, personal histories, and one of the better bad guys I’ve seen in a while.  There isn’t a single car chase or fight scene, but the story doesn’t suffer, even though it decidedly lacks the action usually stuffed into the standard thriller.

I like this one for several reasons. It has a nice, well-developed family, with its own quirks, personality traits, and history. We see a neat character arc in Jenny’s relationship with her high school love, the development as the antagonist and how she got that way, and even the detective has her own distinctive voice.

The villain also has her own character arc of evil.

Now, one of the things you have to understand is that in my household, my father always had a soft spot for David Mahmet.  We would never keep one of his films, but we always appreciated them. He always loved House of Games because the lead (Joe Mantegna) was an unrepentant bastard right up to the end. It’s not something we see much anymore.

Which leads to the primary antagonist, Denise.  As noted, Denise has kidnapped Jenny for the sole purpose of stealing her unborn child. Unable to conceive, instead of adopting, Denise figures, quite simply, that Jenny has more than her “fair share” of children, and Denise *deserves* the one Jenny is carrying.

Is Denise insane? Maybe. Is she creepy as Hell? Yup. She is also stone cold evil. Nothing matters but herself. When kidnapping Jenny, she tied Jenny’s toddler to a sign post with a dog collar and leash, and I half expected her to kill him if she heard him crying for a few more seconds. She’s not violent, there are no schemes to take over the world, though diabolical is a mild description for this creature from the black lagoon. Total nut job? Maybe. Evil? Hell yes. I’ve seen vampires that were less of a blood-sucking monster than Denise.

There is no touchy-feely ending at the end of the book. Is there a moral to the story? I guess you can read one into it — most of the reviews online refer to it as a “pro-life” novel, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s not preachy or pushy, or particularly loud in its beliefs. The family is Catholic, but they’re not saints, and when faced with an implacable evil, they must all come together or fail miserably.  Is there forgiveness and redemption?  After a fashion.

At the end of the day, this was a solid thriller, up there with anything written by Jeffery Deaver or Lee Child.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

Review of Amy Lynn

A lot of Amy Lynn feels like a coming of age story, where we watch Amy Lynn go from 12 to 20 over the course of the novel. Along the way, almost every other character is fleshed out with their own backstories, usually with snippets and inserts that look like they were lifted out of newspaper clippings — though they don’t interrupt the narrative flow.

When the book opens, Amy is practically running the family farm single-handedly — running both the kitchen and chores on the farm. Yes, she’s very much 12 going on 40. Before the book even opens, she has already lost both her older bother and her mother. Usually, this would make set the tone for a depressing, maudlin journey that I’d rather have root canal than read. However, Amy Lynn manages to avoid ever falling into that trap, and dodges the usual cliches. That the book avoids a depression-inducing tone is a cute trick, considering that it covers rape, prostitution, sex slavery, drug use, and two counts of mass murder. Not bad for a coming of age novel, huh? It helps that a lot of this is off-screen, and never delved into with any of the gruesome details.

But, then again, anyone who can write a coming of age novel that I can read without making me desire to take a power tool to my brain already has my support.

In almost any other context, Amy might come off as a bit of a Mary Sue — almost totally perfect in every way. Thankfully, she’s not that perfect (after all, she is a teenager for most of the book). As for the rest of her skill sets, she has a perfectly good reason for it. For anyone who ever saw the original tv show The Avengers (with no relation to Marvel comics), imagine Amy Lynn as the creation of a Southern Emma Peel. Amy is essentially trained by Rambo, and the fight scenes are reminiscent of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.

Amy Lynn has one problem. Well, it has two. The first problem is editing. I know that Jack July had Amy Lynn edited by professionals. I would ask for a partial refund, since there are a lot of strange punctuation errors and capitalization issues here and there. I’ll blame that on the professionals. The second problem? It’s too short.

At the end of the day, Amy Lynn is as promised: thoroughly charming. It’s very much To Kill a Mockingbird for a modern audience.

It’s definitely a book for anyone who enjoys characters with deep and abiding faith. It’s a book recommended for adults … and for adults to read before giving it to their kids. Like with much YA fiction, there is dark content and R-rated language. It’s a great book, but it depends on the audience.

Review: Tears of Paradox


My novel, A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller  discussed the war on God, waged by your standard, everyday elitist schmucks who are more concerned with their own whims, and their own political power, than any right given to faith, the faithful, or respect for God.

Heck, in book 2, I give them what they want, and I literally put the Pope on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, the Pope is against things like abortion, women priests, birth prevention (sorry, “birth control”), and other horrible, horrible stances [read: sarcasm].As part of the Pope’s defense, I chronicled a small sample of what the world has been doing lately in its war on God.Tears of Paradox is what happens if that war is lost.

The Storms of Transformation are here, bringing upheaval, division and isolation. As the nation fundamentally transforms, small-town America is caught in the whirlwind.
Jason married the girl next door. He and Michelle dreamed of raising their children among family and friends in their idyllic, peaceful hometown. But then the Storms begin. Friendships disintegrate, fathers and sons become enemies, and trust is a thing of the past. The old ways have become what those in power term evil. What used to be evil is now the law. The evil brings with it a creeping darkness, gradually overshadowing the town’s inhabitants and turning their lives upside-down.
The Storms force pregnant Michelle to hide alone in a basement, far from home. Jason remains in town, living a lie as he tries to conceal the truth from the authorities. But will their own flesh-and-blood betray them? The town keeps many secrets. How did such a thing ever come to pass?

We’ve got a two-tier story going on here. It’ll throw some at first, especially since they take place at two different points in time. Both points of view are from a married couple, Jason and Michelle. Michelle narrates a point in the future, where — as James Clavell once put it — they have won. Jason narrates a tale of love and personal redemption, leading up to the dystopia that Michelle talks of. After the first chapter, you catch on rather quickly. But it takes some time to adapt.The two narratives compliment each other perfectly, each offering commentary on the other. It’s a nice balancing act that I don’t see that often — attempted but failed on Lost, mostly perfected on Arrow — and it works, once you see what Madam Bova is doing.

The sad thing here is that there’s nothing that novel about this dystopia. Easily 90% of it is just the reasonable and rational conclusion of current insanity. When exactly do we get to the point where private citizens are forced to keep Christmas lights indoors because atheists can’t be bothered teaching their children about religion? Healthcare has already been expanded to include abortion, so what’s the next logical step in the progression? Conscience laws have been under attack for years, how long until they’re gone completely?

A lot of people use the term “slippery slope” to be dismissive. Tears Of Paradox shows us that it’s more than some political talking point. It also shows us that the slope doesn’t need to be all that slippery, because we’re already halfway down the incline. It’s what happens when good people stop fighting, because evil doesn’t sleep, doesn’t rest, and doesn’t stop.

Tears of Paradox is also a journey about running on faith when there’s nothing left to run on. Faith, a lot of prayer, knowing when to talk away, when to run, and when to fight.When I was in college, I good a course on the philosophy of literature. Most of it consisted of traditional Catholic books — Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Bernanos, Gabriel Marcel, Endo, a few others. At the end of the day, Daniella Bova belongs with all of them. For those who are overly well-read in Catholic literature, imagine if Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins was instead written by Graham Greene, with Percy coming in after to make it less suicide-inducing.

At the end of the day, Tears of Paradox is a work of literature, but don’t hold that against it.

Signal Boost: Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

Amazon: Drown The Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide To Writing Beyond The Rules

Drown the Cat is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems.

Drawing on fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. Drown the Cat gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Whether your interest lies in novels or screenwriting, Drown the Cat shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

Drown The Cat hits the points that every new writer should learn in their journey, most importantly encouraging writers to be themselves. It’s very easy to read, and well organized and formatted. There are some standard writing points in there, but this encourages you to stretch your mind more than follow everyone else in the field. You can read some of Dario’s thoughts over on the Hugo-nominated Castalia House blog.

If you don’t know who Dario Ciriello is, it’s a shame. He is one of the best editors in science fiction and fantasy, and very few have heard of him. If you can hire him, do it, you won’t regret it. He’s edited Doug Sharp’s Channel Zilch, which is one of the most unique and innovative science fiction works of our time, as well as Bonnie Randall’s Divinity and the Python, of which is a great work of horror/romance fiction every writer could and should read as a study in how to write characters readers connect with. He’s got his own fiction as well, of which I equally hail. Bottom line is, if you want to improve your fiction fast as a new writer, you should listen to his writing advice.

“Manly men with brains,” masculinity and writing

In a writing context, what exactly defines being “manly”? Really, I’m starting to wonder. It’s a word that’s been tossed around a lot lately: there is talk about emasculating women in SFWA; a writer’s group I’m a part of lamented the death of the “manly male” characters like Dirk Pitt in popular novels. Even a review of one of my novels — A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller — referred to it as “a book for manly men with brains.” Huh? Really? Interesting Though on the other hand, I’ve been praised for my female characters, both in private and in public. So … I wonder what goes on here.

Both were alien concepts to me, namely because I never considered either while I wrote it, the characters weren’t “strong women” or “manly men,” the characters just … were. They’re characters. I write up their biographies — which, for me, is basically winding up the toys — and letting them wander wherever they want to go. But then again, let’s face it, how many writers evaluate their own stuff like their readers? William Shakespeare would probably fail a course on his own plays, considering what people have seen in his own work that he, in all honesty, probably hadn’t seen himself when he wrote it.

But I’m certain that the easy definition of manliness also includes a willingness to draw a line, hold it, and be willing to defend it, and fight back.  Few men have ever been pushed around and been considered “manly.”  Then again, the ultimate Man, Jesus, did instruct us to go the extra mile when someone’s walking all over us, but a “manly male” could take that and make it into “You want to shanghai me into carrying your stuff for a mile? I’ll do it for two. Hah, you wuss.”

And … what do you do with men on an emotional level? What feelings does one express? How does one express them? That sort of thing.

Since I mentioned the Bard, Shakespeare has also had some thoughts on manliness, particularly in MacBeth. After MacDuff is informed that his family has been slaughtered, he is told to take it like a man; MacDuff replies that he must also “feel it as a man.” So, I guess a man actually can be “in touch with his feelings” – feelings of loss, of love, of filial devotion, as well as rage and homicidal intent.

Manly? Or too much leather?

Even in the Facebook conversation that started this post mourned for a manly character who fights, gets laid, saves the girl, smokes, drinks, but is also educated….
Educated? Huh. Really? Does that mean James Bond, perfect psychopath, count? Spider Robinson once noted Robert Mitchum as a perfect example of manliness, but I never saw the man as more than a moving block of wood. Neither of them are the sort of man you find in Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride.
Looking at all of the “manly” characters I can think of, the best I can come up with is being vaguely detached. At least the ability to be detached. Looking at men who are manly without being He-Man exaggerated, what is there? Bond, Montoya, Batman, Tony Stark, all exude “I don’t give a f—,” either about the opinions of others, or perhaps the law. Captain America, Thor, Superman, all stand for something, defying what others think or feel. They are in touch with their own feelings – honor, patriotism, ethics.
This has the correct level of self-possessed spirit that says “Yes, I can act independently if abandoned.” Sure, a manly fellow can fit in with society, any Band of Brothers sentiment relies on a variety of emotional connections, but he is not attached at the hip to society write large.
But all things in balance, please. Even “sociopaths” who kill in the military can feel the loss of a friend, feel sad over the loss of a civilian, et al. They love who they love, and if you mess with them or theirs … well, let’s just say that they don’t love you. James Bond shows an unnatural level of detachment, caring about … nothing, really. At the end of the day, attempts to give James Bond depth fail because he only cares about his job – not any woman he sleeps with, and his sense of patriotism only seems to go only as deep as it is his day job to defend the country. If one day, someone ever writes a book where Bond’s failure leads to mass casualties, I suspect his biggest response will be to shrug and treat it like an unsuccessful chess match.
So, does being a man entail sociopathy? Heck, one of the Superversive Roundtable discussions brought up that “male” and “sociopath” weren’t all that far off.
Well, let’s break that down a bit. In John Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky, two men say that they’re sociopaths because killing doesn’t bother them, and they don’t see the enemy as people. I don’t find that too strange, since if I’m being shot at, I’d see the threat, not a person. Little definitions like this lead some people to say that a sociopath is defined as someone who merely scares the psychologist. And now that sociopaths come in flavors (high/low-functioning, genetic, situational), sure, maybe being a man does involve that on some level, the same way that Autism Spectrum Disorder has been expanded to cover people who were once merely a-holes.

Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbach, is frequently described as a “high-functioning sociopath,” but is not usually considered manly because he borders on being a thinking machine. Yet Martin Freeman’s Watson, in the first episode, shoots a serial killer with no remorse, and it didn’t faze him one little bit. Psychology has gotten to the point where many would see Watson as a sociopath, so let’s not get too carried away with that label.

Heck, Kevin Anderson, the hero of my co-authored novel Codename: Winterborn, has a lot of similar characteristics to all of these “manly” qualities mentioned: rage, love, filial devotion, will stand up for what he believes in, up to and including killing people, will let no one push him around unless he wants to be pushed around … and one review (who gave it 5-stars) slapped a label on Kevin as a simple psycho.

Is he crazed and damaged in Codename: Winterborn?  Oh, you betcha.  But just calling him a psycho because he has no problem killing people might simplify things just a little too much. Heck, he had no problem killing people before the book started.

And let’s face it, the term “sociopath” is so overused, it’s become meaningless.

At the end of the day, for a literary character to be manly, yes, he can have feelings – in fact, he must – but he must also have the right ones, and in the proper degree, otherwise, he becomes a caricature.