BattleofClontarf1014

When I have trouble working on my longer, more involved work, I sometimes sit down and try to write short fiction. Usually trying to find a style of writing I don’t normally practice. Earlier this year I completed a piece entitled “In The Eyes of the Emerald King” which is a sort of historical fiction story chronicling a battle waged by an Irish king going by the name of Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid who upon his death in November of 862 was referred to as “king of all Ireland.” There is a lament for this man listed in The Fragmentary Annals which reads;

There is much sorrow everywhere;
there is a great misfortune among the Irish.
Red wine has been spilled down the valley;
the only King of Ireland has been slain.

This story tells the story of his encounter with a fictional Norse warlord named Brynjar Asmundsson. Máel had numerous encounters with viking raiders but the battle described here is (to my knowledge anyway) entirely fictional. Details of his early life and familial squabbles are historically factual however although his characterization is also a creation of my own devising, as historical records that hew towards fact as opposed to hyperbole seem to be lacking.

Anyhow, seeing how today is my birthday and I’ve received several wonderful gifts I am presenting this story as a gift to the world, because I’m feeling generous and honestly I like the story. It’s not like my usual work and I hope people enjoy it.

Cheers!


In The Eyes of the Emerald King
By J. Goodson Dodd

The King stood on a grassy hill that overlooked the sea. Blue waves crashed against white sand and the fine, grey, salty mist splashed his face as he looked out across the sea. His mind was a tempest to rival the raging of the waves. His rule was in contention. There were those who sought to usurp his reign as rí hÉrenn uil, “King of All Ireland.” Blood had been spilled to earn the title. He had taken the life of his brother, Flann, and taken even more land by force following the death of Niall Caille mac Áeda.

The dreamscape of his mind was awash with red fire. The Norsemen who so often plagued his lands and pillaged his treasures had amassed in grand numbers to take the isle in its entirety. Vikings, brandishing stolen swords and shouting war cries in foreign tongues stormed the beach below and beat out a pounding rhythm against their shields as they fell into a tight formation. The Norsemen were warriors, true. But the men of Ireland had a fury in their veins that the Viking intruders could never match. This was their land, and they had fought Saxons and Welshmen and all manner of attackers to protect it.

King Mael was a warrior born, unafraid of battle or the possibility of death. He had come to prominence years earlier, gaining fame after striking down his own cousin to protect the kingship of the lands of Mide, which he would later take for himself. He knew how to fight and would lead the vanguard against the invaders on this day. He had experience fighting the Norsemen. He had two years past defeated Thorgest, also called Turges or Turgesius, a violent Viking raider. Mael, not yet the King, had taken Thorgest captive and in a show of dominance that spread his legend far and wide, drowned the bastard in Lough Owel.

The man leading the raiders today was unknown to him. He was a burly man, with pale hair the color of rough ash and a beard that hung low to his belly. He looked a fearsome sight, his pock-marked face wet and flecked with sand. He bellowed in his native tongue and the men he gathered shouted back, a cacophonous symphony of impending violence. King Mael knew that sound well. He had faced it down enough times that it no longer turned his guts to fluttering sparrows but instead burned the blood in his veins and pushed him forward to war.

He turned on his heels and approached his own men, an assemblage of tested warriors who had fought behind the shield wall many times over. It took strength to fight in a shield wall. Courage. It was not a common thing to find men who could count the number of times they had stood in a shield wall on both hands. Those who had were lucky if they had both hands. The wall was a proving ground for young warriors. Those that lived were made stronger and those who did not suffered a harsh end. It had taken time for the men of Ireland to adapt to the shield wall. They preferred a more frantic attack, to keep the minds of their enemies scattered. The wall was structure, solid and impregnable if manned by hearty warriors. It was logical. Mael spat into the dirt. Logic did not win wars, tactics did. Courage did.

He could see the Norsemen building their shield wall. They kept their left flank to the beach so that Mael’s men could not circle around to that side and break through that exposed area. The right flank curved to provide protection on the opposite end. It was a strong wall. Their leader stood at the fore of the wall and beat his shield with the pommel of his sword.

“We will drive a wedge through their wall,” Mael said. “Break them in the middle and penetrate outward. Let them know what sort the men of Ireland are.”

The captain of his warriors nodded in approval. He was a tall man, lean and dark, sporting a face crisscrossed with scars from fights long past. He barked orders at his men who lined up and brandished their axes and short-swords, eager to draw blood from their Norse enemies. Every one of them was a hardened warrior. Each man in the ranks had faced Viking steel before. It would be foolish to say that they did not fear their opponents, that they did not have to ready themselves for the oncoming carnage. A few men vomited, their half-digested breakfast splattering upon their boots and leather armor. A few prayed, but not all. Every man  had a ritual, and though there was some overlap they were often undertaken in solitude, independent of the man beside him.

“These men,” the King shouted to his men with the thundering authority of the crown in his voice, “wish to take our land! Our home! Will you let them?”

There was no intelligible reply. The men roared, a fiery rage of defiance echoing and crashing back against the sound of breaking waves. The King did not allow a smile to cross his face. He was proud. Proud of the Irishmen who had assembled before him, ready to fight and die to repel the foreign bastards who dared to insult the beauty of his kingdom. Mael had fought to become rí hÉrenn uil. The whole of the land belonged to him and he would be damned before he saw any fraction of it under the thrall of Norse usurpers.

The King drew his own sword, a short steel blade with a keen edge sharp enough to shatter lesser weapons. “Cuimhnigh I gconai,” he shouted. “Nil ach braon beag fola ort!” Always remember. It is only a little blood. That was always Mael’s cry, always his creed, and his men took it to heart.

The Irish raged forth, shouting and howling like banshees, the noise of their fury rising over the sound of crashing waves. The Norsemen held fast and stood their ground, bracing for the impact of the attack against their shield wall. They dug their feet and locked their shields, ready to repel the onslaught. Mael let loose another blood-curdling scream of righteous fury and from his rear a pair of men rushed forward, ahead of their king. One stopped mid-sprint and knelt, exposing his back to the other. The second stepped up the man’s spine, and the kneeling man stood, launching his ally into the air and over the front ranks of the shield wall. He came crashing down, slashing with a short sword in each hand, drawing blood as he tore at the Norsemen from inside their own ranks.

There was panic now, as men in the front rank turned to face the danger to their rear. And it was in their panic that Mael found his victory. His men crashed against the shield wall, shattering it inward and raining violence down upon them. Men in the viking rear rank rushed forward to repel the attack but such actions were folly, as the glorious Irish trod over the bodies of fallen Norsemen to drive them back toward their fleet. The fighting spread outward, expanding rings of violence leaving a trail of spilled crimson lifeblood in its wake, staining the sand beneath the battling warriors into a swampy muck of rust colored drudgery.

Mael scanned the crowd for his enemy.As he had made an example of Thorgest he would do the same for this new would-be usurper. He would take his sword and take his life. For a viking warrior there is no greater shame than to die without a sword in hand, for they could not reach the halls of Valhalla and feast with their fallen comrades if they did not die a warrior’s death. Mael had no intention of giving this man a warrior’s death. He had not earned it. He was a slithering eel who sought to take what was not his own and for that he would be punished and humiliated.

He finally caught a glimpse of his foe from across the field of battle. The King locked eyes with the man and turned to face him. He stalked across the beach, stepping over fallen vikings, his boots sloshing through blood-rich mud. “Who is it that dares to face King Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid?” he shouted at the viking, teeth gritted and anger flaring in his eyes. “Who is it that came here to die this day?”

“Brynjar Asmundsson,” the man called back. “And I still breathe! My men still fight!”

Mael laughed.“They will soon be lost souls wandering without purpose after death,” he shouted. “Or slaves to plow my fields and reap my corn and they will all remember the day King Mael laid low Brynjar Asmundsson, the worthless whore who thought he was strong enough to defeat the men of Ireland.”

“The men of Ireland are worthless dogs,” Asmundsson replied. “who should have been drowned as pups.”

They stood a swords breadth apart now, staring each other down and waiting for someone to make the first move. The fighting around them scattered and the men fell into groups. The norsemen fell back against the shoreline, watching as their leader stared down the Irish King. The Irishmen backed away as well, forming a semicircle behind Mael and cheering him on in bursts of shouted gaelic.

The viking moved first. He lept forward, slashing with his sword, hoping to cleave his enemy’s head in two like a ripe melon. Mael stepped aside and let the sword swoop where he had stood moments earlier. He did not block, he did not counterattack. He waited. The norseman cried out and swung again, a wide arcing attack meant to spill Mael’s guts and leave them steaming on the wet mud below. Again Mael sidestepped the attack, choosing not to counterstrike but allow Brynjar to tire himself. The Norseman carried a heavy sword, long and encumbering. Mael’s sword was light and swift, with a keen edge. He did not fear to pair it against the blade of his enemy but he would wait for his moment.

“Why do you not fight, you coward?” the viking spat.

Mael remained silent and again dodged the Norseman’s attack. He did not rise to the position of High King by talking. He did it by winning. By going for the kill. The viking was afraid. Mael could sense it in the wild manner of the man’s attack, the desperation in every swing. Mael was far from desperate, he was relishing the moment.

At long last Brynjar did something unexpected. He dropped his sword and lunged at Mael, grabbing at the King’s throat and tossing him into the muck. Mael lost grip of his sword and found himself for once on the defensive as the viking warlord rained thunderous closed fists against the side of his head. The Irish King drove a knee upward, hoping to catch his enemy in a vulnerable area but the blow simply glanced off the man’s thigh.

The viking grabbed Mael’s head from the sides and jammed his thumbs into the sockets of the King’s eyes.Mael wrenched his head free and drove his elbow repeatedly into the side of his attacker’s face. Bone cracked on bone and Brynjar Asmundsson spat blood and teeth into the mud as he stumbled to his feet. He staggered toward his sword as Mael found his footing. As he knelt to retrieve his weapon the Irish king leapt through the air and crashed down upon the man’s back, sending him face first into the mud and blood. Mael reached for the Norseman’s fallen sword, but the viking kicked out with both feet, driving the heel of his boots into the King’s stomach and doubling him over. With a mighty cry Brynjar rushed forward, tackling Mael and tumbling them both into the muck. They rolled and they tussled, fighting and clawing each other with violent ferocity, a primal battle not unlike two wild predators sparring for dominance.

Brynjar Admundsson found his feet but his opponent swept his legs from under him with a swift kick of his legs, and the viking warlord crashed against the beach onto his back with a resounding sloppy thud. Mael stood and took hold of the Norseman’s leg, raising it vertically as the man lie on his back. Standing above the man’s head and still holding fast to his leg, the King cried out and kicked forth driving the heel of his boot against his opponent’s knee, the sound of bone shattering muffled by the warlord’s screams of pain and anguish. The crowd of Irishmen cheered, for their King was victorious and their enemy had been felled. Brynjar Admundsson crawled through the mud, desperately grabbing for the hilt of his sword, knowing that there was no outcome but death in his future but refusing to be denied a warrior’s defeat.

King Mael arrived at the weapon first and grasped it by the hilt. He raised it high and in a smooth motion flung the blade into the ocean, watching as it sunk beneath the waves. Brynjar Admundsson cursed the Irish King under his breath and rolled onto his back, staring into the grim, grey sky that lingered overhead like an all-enveloping cloak of despair.

Mael grabbed the man by the scruff of his hair and pulled him to his knees, resting the invader on the shattered leg and causing him to cry out in pain. From his belt he drew a small dagger and held it to the viking’s throat.

“Slán go fóill,” he whispered to his enemy. “An nì a thig leis a’ghaoith, falbhaidh e leis an uisge.”

What comes with the wind goes with the water.

The King slit the Norseman’s throat and stood back as the blood spurted from the wound. The warlord fell in a heap at Mael’s feet and the man’s warriors watched as their leader died a terrible death. He died without a sword and would never join his ancestors in Valhalla.

“Go now,” the King shouted. “And never return.”

He turned and faced his men, who knelt and parted as he passed. Behind him, the few remaining Norse invaders trudged toward their boats, looking over their shoulders at their fallen leader lying in the dirt. Mael could have had them all killed, or enslaved, but he let them go. Let them sail far and wide to tell the tale of how King Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid spilled blood to preserve his kingdom, of the grisly and humiliating defeat of Brynjar Asmundsson and of the glory of Irish victory.

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In October of 2013, I posted this review of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s new series Velvet on my website Comics Con Queso;

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting are a powerhouse team. Their work on Captain America is the best the character is likely ever going to see for the foreseeable future. You can thank Ed Brubaker personally for revitalizing the character to the point where he wasn’t a joke to the majority of the comic buying public. It is also a testament to his work that the next film will be drawing largely from his lore. The reason his Marvel work resonated so much is because Ed Brubaker knows how to play with convention and genre tropes, respectfully, while turning them on their ear and defying expectations.

Brubaker’s work with Velvet is more of what we have come to expect from him. Character work and atmosphere. Plot and mood. Much like his other creator-owned work, such as Fatale, Incognito, orCriminal, the world that we are dropped into feels fully realized and developed. Like stories have been being told about these characters for years and the blood and sweat has been spilled over them before we ever crack the page. It doesn’t come off as inaccessible, because we fill in gaps in our knowledge fairly quickly with pertinent details of the who and general back-story, but the book feels very much like the middle of a longer story with fully realized characters and that works very much to its advantage.

Velvet is a period piece, set in the 1970s with flashbacks to the sixties and all of it feels like a James Bond novel filtered through the lens of a grungy late-seventies film renaissance aesthetic. Like if Coppola directed You Only Live Twice. Steve Epting’s art is vibrant while being simultaneously moody and portrays the eras of the narrative with equal distinction and clarity.

Personally, I think this is his best work since he launched Criminal a few years ago. It is a well plotted, tightly-paced, impeccably drawn espionage genre yarn that resembles nothing else on the rack. Brubaker knows how to write a spy thriller, he did it quite well on his Captain America run, but freed from the reigns of Marvel’s editorial hands, he can truly let loose and keep us guessing from month to month. The only guess we can be confident in making is that each issue will be better than the last.

In the lead-up to writing One Fate For Failure, I decided to engage myself in an attempt to read and watch different entries in the spy genre to help see what sort of story I truly wanted to craft. One of the things I did was revisit Velvet, still in publication at Image Comics. The story is still ongoing but I pulled the first two collected editions off of the shelf to see what I could learn from a more accomplished storyteller working in the genre I had chosen.

Ed Brubaker knows how to put together one hell of a potboiler. I can’t think of many other writers working in the comics industry who have as firm a command of interlocking and complex narrative construction as he does. Looking at his work on things like Sleeper, Fatale, and even his run on Captain America, it is easy to see that Brubaker knows how to work with and around the tropes of the genre he is dealing with to present a story that is equal parts familiar and refreshing. He does it with the noir tale in his latest series The Fade Out, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

Velvet feels very much like a love letter to sixties spy-drama. It oozes the careful intricacy of a John LeCarre novel with the sense of adventure that comes from the world of the James Bond films. Epting’s depictions of the characters and the action is not overly saturated lending a quality of articulated realism to the proceedings. Brubaker’s choice to craft a fictional spy service with the X-operatives of the Arc-1 office gives the reader a hint that he is telling a story on an heightened level of reality, allowing for him to operate with a different set of rules than other writers working in the genre.

As a character, Velvet Templeton is uniformly interesting because we see her at various stages in her life as we flash back to her time as an active field agent in the fifties apart from the goings-on in the A plot. The idea of the veteran agent is an interesting one, especially the way that it is presented here with her story kicking off after spending years behind a desk. The idea of the seasoned agent is one that is ripe for examination but one that I have not personally encountered often, mainly because the narratives these stories tend to follow require the abilities of a younger protagonist.

The narrative here is one that relies on a common trope of the spy genre, that of the internal mole. It was the driving force of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a myriad of other entries in the spy thriller oeuvre. The key to making it work so well here is getting the reader invested in the characters and Brubaker’s careful peeling back of the layers in the mystery, each time giving us deeper insight into the people that populate the world he has created, does exactly that.

I do not hesitate to recommend the series because as hopeful as I was upon reading the first issue, subsequent chapters have more than exceeded my expectations.

Associated Links:

Velvet_12Buy Velvet vol. 1 on Amazon
Buy Velvet vol. 2 on Amazon
Velvet on Comixology

I listen to a lot of music while I write, which is sometimes as much a hindrance as it is a help. Sometimes I actually spend more time trying to find a song to set my mood than I do typing the scene in question. But for this novel I put together a playlist that I thought encompassed my mood while putting this book for those interested.

Citizen CIA – Dropkick Murphys
Youth Without Youth – Metric
Cherry Bomb – The Runaways
Proof – Paramore
The Devil in Stitches – Bad Religion
Plain Sailing Weather – Frank Turner
Dark Places – Gaslight Anthem
Timshel – Mumford & Sons
Work Song – Hozier
Satisfaction – Rolling Stones
Bad Reputation – Joan Jett
Going to Hell – The Pretty Reckless
Amen – Halestorm

Dan-Mumford-Jaws

I have a deep affinity for a lot of different types of storytelling. I am a teacher of literature, so I appreciate the classics. I have a bit more of an affinity for American literature, but I can still appreciate other bits of writing from around the world. I admit I have my biases as well, as I would rather willingly burn my hand on a hibachi grill than read something by the Bronte sisters. This wide-ranging appreciation for stories reaches beyond literature as well. I didn’t pop out of the womb with an appreciation for the written word, after all. My love of stories is tied to the world of literature and the world of film in equal measure, but certain pieces of cinema have influenced me more than others and my enthusiasm for certain genres and films waxes and wanes depending on my place in life at the time I am introduced to them. For example, my appreciation for the guerrilla craft of fellow Texan Robert Rodriguez has been steadily reduced over the years while my love for his cohort Quentin Tarantino has only grown as I have come to better understand the love letters he is composing with each of his new films.

But there is one thing that hasn’t changed from the moment I first saw it until today, and that is my absolute undying love for Steven Spielberg’s classic fin-flick Jaws. I remember being enamored with this film from a very early age. I can say I was a fan of the movie at least from the time I was six years old because I remember watching a copy of the film my father had taped off of HBO and hearing somewhere that Jurassic Park, a film which would become my new obsession from ages 7-10 and intermittently beyond that was made my the same guy.

I remember being so taken by Jaws that I sought out and enjoyed the sequels as well. Looking back on them now, I know that they are, for the most part, absolute garbage. But to a young kid discovering the world of movies and figuring out on his own what was entertaining, they were immune to criticism. I didn’t realize how stupid the idea of a shark following a family from New England to Jamaica out of some sort of internalized need for revenge actually sounded. I just thought the scene where the shark chewed his way through a small one-man submersible and then chased the fleeing scientist through the ruins of a sunken ship was awesome.

As the years went on and I transitioned from being transfixed by stories to wanting to tell them myself, I began to become more critically minded. I started asking questions like “why do I enjoy this film so much?”, “What works so well about this scene?”, “What does this movie do differently?” and so on and so forth. With most movies I found myself discovering that the construction was somehow lacking, either in the script or the directing or the acting. Some element about whatever I was watching didn’t seem to measure up in the end. But not with Jaws.

I don’t think there are many films more perfectly constructed than Jaws. I know that the seventies produced a myriad of films that redefined how movies were made, but I don’t think any of them truly have had the lasting effect on the way we tell stories or the way we consume them the way that Jaws has. The film was adapted from the book by Peter Benchley (which I of course have read and will get into a little later on), the rights to which were purchased by producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown prior even to the novel’s release. This would happen again to another Spielberg production, Jurassic Park. The film is a landmark in the world of Hollywood for ushering in the idea of the summer blockbuster and a testament to the fact that, at one time, the blockbuster could be handled with deft artistry and a commitment to quality storytelling.

Had the film been a straight adaptation of Benchley’s novel, I would probably not be singing its praises here. A Rolling Stone review of the book said that “None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting” and that the author likely viewed the shark as his favorite character. The film adaptation does not garner this complaint from me, or anyone truly, as the character work on display in the film is one of the many elements that make it so endlessly re-watchable. Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody is a deeply written character, flawed and human, but infinitely likable in his own blue-collar way and we want, as an audience, to see him overcome his fears and anxieties to conquer the shark at the end of the day. Richard Dreyfuss puts in a turn as Matt Hooper that salvages the character from the relentlessly unlikable portrayal of the character from the original novel and turns him into one of the more charming, affable supporting characters in the history of cinema. He becomes a prototype for characters cut from the same cloth that will crop up in the stories that swim in the wake of this film for decades to come. And of course we have Quint, the archetypal grizzled and determined fisherman who is done in by his own hubris in a manner that hearkens back to Melville’s Captain Ahab.

The characters in the film are the base of a pyramid filled with reasons why this movie works so well. If we didn’t want to see them succeed the rest of the story would fall apart entirely. It is part of why the novel failed to interest me in the same way the movie did. The film also wisely structures the story in a way that keeps our heroes on their voyage, isolated for the entirety of their quest once they set out on the Orca, as opposed to the daily sojourns portrayed within the pages of the novel.

As we move up the pyramid, other craft elements of the piece begin to become more clear. The writing and the portrayal of these characters is top notch but the construction of the narrative is also key. It is well documented that Spielberg’s decision to keep the shark largely unseen until late in the film was the work of happenstance and bad luck when trying to get the animatronic rig to function, but that setback also allowed the film to breathe and build upon itself in a way that other films do not get. How many people have tried to ape the success of Jaws but failed to hit the same bar? The numbers are too high to calculate. But looking at films that try to play the same game, it is clear that they don’t have the same melding of actor-to-character-to-script magic that came together with Jaws. Spielberg may have been a young director but he made very deliberate choices that hold the film together and make it special. From his insistence on shooting in open water to the dedication of ensuring that while they were shooting there was not a single other boat in sight to portray the sense of isolation that was encroaching on his characters, Spielberg showed himself to be a director with clear vision from very early on, even if he did seem like a madman to most.

Jaws is celebrating its forty year anniversary this week and in those forty years, it has not diminished in any way. Modern special effects work cannot replicate what Spielberg and company achieved when constructing “Bruce,” their shark puppet that for so long was the standard bearer in practical effects. No modern blockbuster has the same level of expert craft and dedication to being so intricately put together as Jaws. In 2015, the blockbuster has become a dumb cacophony of chaos while Jaws stands as a slow burn that leads to the explosion of a powder keg. The payoff in Jaws feels all the more special because it is earned, thoroughly.

I have discussed Jaws at length many, many times in the time since I realized I wanted to be a storyteller, whether it was when I still aspired to be a screenwriter/filmmaker or even now as a novelist. Jaws is so perfectly constructed that I hold it as the high water mark that I one day wish I could hit. It is the perfect mesh of visceral entertainment and craftmanship. I do not believe for a moment that I would understand or appreciate storytelling on the level I do today if I weren’t introduced to Jaws at such an early age. I knew I was seeing something special and it took me years to try to deconstruct why.

I can’t think of another single film that has influenced me more. I truly doubt that another will be made in my lifetime.

sfw

Does anybody really expect James Bond movies to be authentic? Do we as an audience look at those films and think it is, in any way, the manner that the British secret service operates? Of course not. That isn’t why we watch those movies or read those novels. It’s a heightened look at a particular world filtered through the lens of a specific genre. That does not invalidate the stories or their ability to entertain.

One of the things I have struggled with in regard to finishing One Fate For Failure has been striking the right chord when it comes to tone. How realistic do I want to be while telling this story. Our central protagonist is a CIA operative, specifically a Specialized Skills Officer (SSO) working within the Special Activities Division/Special Operations Group (SAD/SOG). This is a real position within the real world. I’ve done a lot of research to figure out what sort of person, realistically, would be in this position.

The sources I’ve found indicate that people in this field are internally recruited from various military backgrounds, particularly special forces, and the maximum age for agents of this type is 35 years old. An article from 2003 in Time Magazine stated that recruits were expected to have five years of military service.

This gave me a rough idea of who Maddie would be and what phase of her career she would be in. Now, from what I have researched regarding females in special forces, simply being involved in SAD/SOG would make Maddie a rare breed of individual. The Pentagon only dropped restrictions on females in combat positions in 2013, meaning that in 2015 she would still not have the requisite 5 years of experience to be recruited to SAD/SOG. This is where the concept of real world vs. entertainment starts to come in to play.

I began writing this novel as a complete flip of the tropes found in the James Bond novels and films, complete with the opening action sequence among other more recognizable aspects. Our central character always had to be female in order for the story to work. That clashes with the world we actually live in. Does that invalidate the book? I would like to hope not.

I am also a civilian with no military experience, so all that I have to go on when writing this is what I have researched and what I have seen portrayed in other forms of media. Therefore you will have to forgive me if you feel like I have done a disservice to the actual service these men and women perform. This is a heightened reality that I am writing, and while some of the stylistic choices of my novel fall closer to Tom Clancy than Ian Fleming, I do not pretend to have operational knowledge of how special forces or clandestine operations actually work. This is an adventure story, pure and simple.

I write this so that people do not get the wrong impression about the book. While I strive for realism in whatever way I can, this is ultimately a fantasy/wish-fulfillment sort of narrative and a deconstruction of a particular genre. I hope that everyone will appreciate it for what it is.

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By now you’ve probably heard the good news that my forthcoming novel is expected to be available for purchase somewhere around November of this year. At least I hope you’ve heard because I’m trying to get everyone excited for this project, as I’ve been working on it off and on for close to three years now. But some people may not be on board with the idea yet. As such, I wanted to tease you guys with a snippet from the first chapter of the book. I don’t want to spoil how the chapter ends, because its a huge part of what propels the narrative for the rest of the novel. This is a teaser, one which I hope leaves you wanting to read more.

Anyway, enjoy this sneak preview at One Fate For Failure.

-J


CHAPTER ONE

I hate Mexico. Well, I hate the part of Mexico I always find myself in. I never wind up in the part of Mexico with the sparkling, crystal clear water and pristine white sand beaches, with resort lodging and expertly crafted margaritas delivered by handsome young men with impeccable tans. I always wind up in the part of Mexico that could easily be mistaken for the desert planet that Luke Skywalker so desperately wanted to escape from in the original Star Wars. Similarly, I usually find myself in a bar also resembling the one from the original Star Wars, complete with a frightening array of hairy locals who may or may not be of human origin. The chances of a bar fight ending in a severed limb is also a possibility.

So as I sat in one of those bars, nursing a glass of warm beer that had been watered down beyond all measure of comprehension, I promised myself that I would at some point visit Mexico on different terms and find some enjoyment during my stay there. That wasn’t going to happen this time, as I felt my skin crawl as the gaze of every person in the bar washing over me while I sipped on what the bartender had the nerve to call beer. I couldn’t blame them, I wasn’t exactly fitting in. My New England complexion contrasted heavily with the locals and I knew that I stuck out like a Lilly Pulitzer sundress at a tractor pull.

I knew that several people in the bar were trying to figure out how much ransom money they could score off my pretty little head and I also knew that the only reason nobody had already tried to pull a snatch and grab was because of the man seated immediately to my right. Rick Gardner Helmsley was six feet tall and built like living marble. He was on his second glass of watered down beer and he looked like the very definition of a man with whom you did not lightly mess. Nobody in the bar knew it but he also kept a Sig Sauer P227 in a rig underneath the light fishing shirt that he wore over a sweaty white tee. Of course I kept a Glock 31 inside the Kate Spade handbag I had laying on its side on the table. By the time he skinned his piece I could have popped off six rounds but I said nothing because how he liked to carry his weapon was none of my business. Rick was a professional and he didn’t need me cramping his style and although he would never admit it, having a female tell him where to shove his gun would embarrass and emasculate him and because I liked working with him I didn’t care to rub him the wrong way. I’m not saying my way is better, I’m just saying that if he wasn’t afraid to carry a purse he wouldn’t have to worry about the muzzle of his handgun getting caught in his shirt, that’s all.

So while everyone in the bar was watching us, we were watching the two men at the bar who were either too stupid or too brave to keep the volume level of their conversation down. They were talking at length about the gringo they had tagged and that their boss was promising them a big bonus for bringing him in. Only in a cantina so dirty that cockroaches would hesitate to touch the floor would two men discussing a kidnapping in broad daylight not seem out of place. Especially considering that the gringo in question was an American diplomat and the pretty white girl tepidly sipping on terrible cerveza next to the aggressive looking man whose eyes were seemingly always hidden under the brim of a ragged old baseball cap were operatives from the CIA’s Special Activities Division.

Our presence in this little bar in a town not too far away from Ciudad Juarez was the end result of several months of hard work by agents working south of the border, delivering actionable intelligence at the direction of the NCS. Over the last few years a new cartel had risen to prominence and more than any other criminal organization in recent memory had started to cause trouble for American interests on both sides of the border. Several intelligence missions were carried out by CIA and NCS operatives, gathering information about the new cartel and putting together a profile on what would become a major focus for the Special Activities Division.

What we had learned about Los Escorpiones filled several hard drives. The cartel had been the brainchild of Sergio Argueta, a former member of Mexico’s Federal Police who had utilized everything he learned during his time wearing a badge to evade capture and arrest. He had become a recluse and confirmed sightings of the man were few and far between. While he was considered a high profile target of opportunity, the likelihood of anyone working on Operation Alamo coming within spitting distance of the man was close to zero. The PAG boys were doing what they could to turn the tide with Argueta. I didn’t have the aptitude for PAG work. I was SOG through and through. Where the Political Action Group division worked to play political mind games the Special Operations Group, which included myself and Mr. Helmsley, were the company’s equivalent of “boots on the ground.” Of course, my boots usually had at least a three inch heel, but that’s neither here nor there.

“Maddie,” Rick said in a hushed tone.

“Yeah,” I replied, sipping my beer.

“I think the fat one is about to make contact with Espinoza.”

Santiago Espinoza was the guy we were hoping to come within spitting distance of. When Argueta went all Obi-Wan to hide in the desert like a hermit he handed day-to-day operations of Los Escorpiones to Santiago Espinoza, a career criminal who had earned the nickname of “El Lobazno,” or “The Wolverine” because of his tendency to utilize edged weapons to intimidate and more than occasionally eviscerate his enemies. It was Espinoza who was behind the kidnapping of the American diplomat these two bozos were talking about in plain sight, a man named Paul Quesada, who had been down in Mexico settling some sort of trade dispute. Of course, now El Lobazno was looking to trade Mr. Quesada back to the US for a substantial amount of money. The only thing is, after months of keeping tabs on Los Escorpiones, the United States government wasn’t willing to lose money hand over fist every time they grew bold enough to snatch an American citizen prominent enough to warrant a ransom.

That’s where myself and Rick came into play. The stated objective of Operation Alamo was to retrieve Mr. Quesada and take action that would dissuade Los Escorpiones from committing acts that directly interfered with American interests in Mexico. Anyone considered associated with Los Escorpiones was marked as a target of opportunity.

“Él quiere a su encuentro para que podamos tomar algo para Héctor,” the larger of the two men said loud enough for me to hear. “Él dice que trae el camión .”

“They’re meeting someone,” I said to Rick. “They’re supposed to bring a truck.”

“They might be moving Quesada,” Rick said. “We need to stay on them.”

“We can’t go in solo,” I said. “And what was the point of bringing twelve guys from SOF if we aren’t going to use them?”

“I never said we’d go in solo. We tail them, we reconnoiter, then we make a plan.”

“If we get there and they are moving him we can take him on the road,” I said. “A lot better option than getting boxed in somewhere.”

“That was my thinking.”

The two men pushed off of their stools and made a straight line for the front door. I cocked an eye at Rick and he nodded. I stood first, grabbing my handbag. Rick stood slowly and unfolded a couple of bills to drop on the table. While his eyes were cast down and his attention not on me, one of the locals approached and grabbed me by the crook of my arm. Not strongly enough to hurt but firmly enough that I would have to put in some effort to break free.

“You should come with me chica,” he said. “I promise you haven’t seen the city like I can show you.”

Rick looked up and measured the situation, he saw that the man holding me was making a display of the revolver shoved in his belt. I indicated to Rick the two men who had circled behind him. He caught my meaning and I saw him loosen up. The man holding my arm smiled.

It was premature.

I stamped my heel down on his foot and spun, smashing my forearm directly into his throat. He dropped my other arm and I did a quick pivot and slammed my now free elbow directly into his nose. I felt the crack of cartilage and felt a dribble of blood splatter onto my arm. I turned to see that Rick had already incapacitated the two men behind him and dropped them to the ground. I didn’t see how, but based on the clearly broken leg of one of the men writhing on the floor I could make some educated guesses.

He stepped over them and picked up the bills he had previously dropped on the table and put them in his wallet. “Poor service,” he said to the waiter who stared at him as he made his way to the exit.

The heat of the Mexican sunlight hit me like a tidal wave as we exited the cantina and stepped onto the sidewalk. The air was hot and dusty. My throat immediately begged for a sip of water and I pulled a bottle from my handbag. I smuggled in a few bottles from the other side of the border so I wouldn’t have to worry about drinking the glorified laxative they had running through the pipes here.

I spied the two men hopping into a box truck half a block down. Rick rushed to the opposite side of the street and climbed into the cab of the rust-covered pickup truck we had selected as our ride during the operation and turned the engine over. It was inconspicuous enough. It blended in the way I could never hope to. Rick pulled a u-turn in the middle of the street and I hopped in with him.

Rick and I had worked together more than a few times. We were both in SOG but I was designated Specialized Skills Officer and he was a Paramilitary Operations Officer. I often joked that no matter what you did you couldn’t wash off the smell of POO. My humor is childish and asinine. Rick’s humor is nonexistent. I think that is why we work so well together. There are plenty of other operatives involved in Operation Alamo, twelve guys pulled from SOF for starters, and a backup squad of men hand selected from DEVGRU if things started to head in a particular direction. I hoped things didn’t devolve that far.

Rick was ex-Delta and I was Naval Intelligence. We were as different as two people could be, but we had a mutual respect that made us gel in ways that lots of people wished they could. There were plenty of people in the intelligence community who didn’t care for me much at all for one reason or another. I couldn’t tell you why. Well, I could but I won’t because it’s crass and I don’t have the stomach for it. I come from a family that was always big on being proper. My parents were New England blue blood through and through. Cape Cod in the summer type of folks. They raised me to have manners and be respectful like a lady should. Then they died in a boating accident like the worst kind of east coast cliché and in my adolescence discovered a lot of things about myself while rebelling to manage my grief.

I went through all of that with a therapist. It took me a long time to come to terms with it. My parents death shook me. I was sixteen when they died. It was hard. I acted out, changed everything about myself. Went from pretty dresses and bows in my hair to ripped blue jeans and cigarettes in bathrooms. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t hate the person my parents raised me to be and learned to embrace that part of myself. Of course by then I had already been through basic training and was a few years into my career with the Navy. The person that came out the other side was a strange amalgamation of two worlds that was distinctive enough to catch the attention of certain people within the Company.

Two years in and I’ve been working in conjunction with Rick a few times now. The intelligence community is large and sprawling and yet somehow we wind up working the same gigs time after time. Somebody must have noticed a pattern that yielded the appropriate results and sought to replicate them. I didn’t mind.

“If we get there and we have to move fast you might not have time to change,” Rick said, his eyes locked on the rear bumper of the box truck a few car lengths ahead of us. “That going to be a problem?”

“I can strap a vest on top of this,” I said. “It won’t look cute but it’ll do the job.”

“You think you can manage an op in unfamiliar terrain wearing those?” He indicated toward my shoes, a pair of wedges that gave me the extra height I liked so as not to appear like a pixie. I’m not diminutive per se, but next to Rick I look like a child so if I’m not in field gear I usually put myself in some sort of heel so I look more like his peer and less like his child.

“They’re called wedges and I look cute in them,” I said. “I’ve got a pair of running shoes in the back of the truck. Again, it won’t look cute…”

“But it’ll work,” he finished for me. He had heard me say it enough times to know when it was coming. I wasn’t one of those military girls who lose all touch with their femininity the first chance they got. I had gone through that phase in high school so now I prided myself in my appearance. I knew how to dress to turn heads and enjoyed doing so. I wouldn’t have chosen a sundress that was so low cut for this little excursion otherwise.

The box truck took a turn off of the main road once we were outside of town and passed through the gate of a villa that looked especially well maintained for the area. It was a red brick structure that stood out from the surrounding sandscape, and its lawn was a lush garden green. The fence was chain link with razor wire at the top and I could see at least six men walking the perimeter. They were armed with MP-5 submachine guns although at least one looked like he was rocking a Benelli shotgun.

After several hours watching the compound we worked out that they weren’t planning on moving the hostage anytime soon. The waiting game had started.

“Call in Daniel and his guys,” Rick said. “We’re going to need them.”

“We can’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Think about it,” I said. “This place is maybe ten minutes away from a city center. If we go in hot the local cops will be here guns blazing before we can get close to the target.”

“I count six men on the outside,” Rick said coldly. “You think we can manage to sneak by?”

“I think we need to spook them out,” I said.

Rick nodded. He was right there with me. He pulled out a compact phone from his pocket and dialed out. “Six,” he said. “I need you to make a home call to patient number four. He needs a refill on his prescription.”

We had established early on a code for identifying targets within Los Escorpiones. Some genius had established that we would refer to them through medical terminology. Every target had a numerical designation as on a patient roster and the actions to be taken against them were referred to by medical procedures; a surgery implied a quick and efficient strike that didn’t make a lot of noise, an amputation was any operation that removed a player from action temporarily, by detaining them or otherwise incapacitating them, and if someone phoned in a prescription refill like Rick had just done the medicine being delivered was intended to be a harrying strike, a show of force to disrupt operations and make a lot of noise.

By calling in a prescription refill on “Patient Four,” Nick and I hoped that the commotion would be enough to reduce the numbers at the villa we were observing down to a skeleton crew allowing us to slip in and hopefully abscond with our missing diplomat. All we had to do was sit and wait for the boom.

Signing with Fabian Rangel Jr at Third Planet

Signing with Fabian Rangel Jr at Third Planet

Back in January of last year I did a signing at my old haunt Third Planet comics in Houston and met a guy named Fabian Rangel Jr. Now, Fabian is an up and coming writer who has done work for Dark Horse comics among others and is currently writing the book Space Riders which may very well be one of the most interesting sci-fi pulp comics of the last decade. He is a cool dude all around and a huge fan of Jurassic Park, so when it came time to record the Pop and Schlock episode about Jurassic World he was the easy choice for a special guest.

That episode is live now and it truly is a fun one. You should all check it out and be sure to check out Fabian’s work as well.

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jurassicworldmovie

I was six years old, with my seventh birthday on the horizon in a short two months, when Jurassic Park roared its way into theaters on June 11th, 1993. My brother would be turning two that weekend. So much time has passed and yet I can still remember so much about that time of my life with vivid clarity. I remember leaving the theater with a new favorite movie. I remember going to the local Wal-mart, one which I still go to though it has been over-hauled multiple times, and getting every Jurassic Park action figure, vehicle and dinosaur I could get my hands on. I devoured that film. It became almost an obsession. I immediately decided upon a career path that would find me as a paleontologist, digging for bones in the arid Montana desert. I picked up a paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s novel and powered my way through it, asking my parents to explain some of the more technical jargon. Jurassic Park was a milestone in my young life and the original film still stands in my personal favorite film top-three alongside Spielberg’s other summer opus, Jaws, and Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas (which only true manly men could possibly appreciate.)

In the lead-up to the release of Jurassic World, practically twenty-two years to the day since seeing Spielberg’s Jurassic Park on screen, I slowly started to reconcile the part of myself that was obsessed with the original film with the person I have become today. I obviously did not follow through with my paleontology career path, although I have many times visited the paleontology hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with a childlike feeling of awe and wonder. But I still love Jurassic Park, and the part of me that can embrace the fun that such a movie brings out in a young kid is still alive and well within my soul. This is evidenced by the fact that I have spent plenty of time assembling and playing around with the recent LEGO Jurassic World sets and video game. Something about a theme park filled with dinosaurs simply tickles the interior of my soul.

But as I’ve grown and matured in ways that don’t relate to my appreciation for block-based building sets and video games, I have taken the time to look at Jurassic Park as a film and tried to utilize my adult understanding of narrative structure, tropes and schemes, genre conventions and critical analysis into an organized treatise on why, despite its flaws, Jurassic World is not nearly the vapid, cash-grab sequel that many reviewers have pegged it as. If anything, the DNA of its construction is much closer in spirit to the 1993 original than either of the two previous sequels.

Critics have not been overly kind to Colin Trevorrow’s sequel. Devin Faraci of BirthMoviesDeath wrote that the film is “a generic bore” and that “If the script for Jurassic World wasn’t so terrible the movie itself might be a fascinating failure.” Drew Dietsch at CHUD remarked that the film is “a remake that has deluded itself into thinking it’s a sequel.” An overabundance of writers have wrung their hands about the film, complaining about a lack of new ideas or lamenting that the ideas presented in the film are either uninspired or out of place. I feel like this is part of the learned culture of immediately dismissing sequels. It is easy to immediately write off sequels. Generally speaking they seem like a bad idea most of the time. We get flashes of brilliance from time to time, whenever someone like Christopher Nolan comes along with something like The Dark Knight to evolve the story they started with their original installment or when James Cameron brought something new to the table with Aliens. Still, there is a lot that has to go through a person’s mind in order to greet the fourth entry in any franchise without some measure of skepticism.

But in a world where the fifth entry of the Fast and Furious franchise came out of nowhere to redefine the series and wind up being the best installment of them all, is it really so hard to go in with an open mind when viewing something like Jurassic World, a film that, by all accounts, seems to be a labor of love by filmmakers who truly embraced the original Jurassic Park as a modern classic?

Some critics were able to look at the film objectively and recognize that it works quite well, with Drew McWeeny of HitFix saying that Jurassic World “may be the best entire movie in the series.”
McWeeny is quick to point out that while other installments of the franchise might feature stronger individual moments, overall Jurassic World is the most firmly put together of all the films and I would argue the same, mainly because this film is the first since the original to embrace the tone of its own internalized world-building.

The Lost World is not a terrible film, in fact I have come to appreciate it more and more over the years on repeat viewings. The scene where the Tyrannosaurs knock the accordion trailer over the cliff is one of Spielberg’s finest action set pieces. This goes back to McWeeny stating that other films may have stronger individual scenes but don’t come together as a whole as well as Jurassic World does. Part of what The Lost World stumbles with is the tone that it wants to strike. Spielberg wants to play out a thrilling survival trek on film but the seriousness of the peril is undercut when you get a scene as ludicrous as the one where a velociraptor is defeated by the power of teenage gymnastics. Jurassic Park III, while a fun jaunt, also suffers from tone issues as well as the infamous “Alan!” scene.

Jurassic World is very much aware of what sort of beast it is. Colin Trevorrow wisely embraces the b-movie quality that has always been the baseline DNA of the franchise. Jurassic Park had the same blending of spellbound awe and creature chaos that is prevalent in Jurassic World. Jurassic World simply suffers by virtue of being beholden to Jurassic Park to exist in any way, both within the context of the film itself and as a summer blockbuster. The meta-commentary of corporate driven initiatives resulting in a demand for bigger, bolder forms of entertainment operates on several levels. Of course this is the natural course the park would take within the context of the narrative. It just makes sense. It would turn into a branded park the way Six Flags or Disney have. Of course companies would love to see their brand sponsoring exhibits. It just makes sense. But as I have made clear, we are twenty-two years removed from the original Jurassic Park, and as such nobody in the audience is truly going to be happy with the same old thing. That’s why we have a genetically engineered dinosaur that creeps into true “movie monster” territory and a villain who wants to use raptors for military purposes because he never watched Aliens and doesn’t understand how terrible an idea it really is. The writers of this film truly delivered a film that works organically within the cinematic world presented in the previous film while giving the corporate overlords at Universal Studios a film that is very much what the movie is actively speaking against. This film is a mobius strip of cinematic commentary.

Jurassic Park III established the pack dynamics of the raptors in such a way that Chris Pratt’s character being able to assert dominance and train them feels believable. The original novel by Michael Crichton had Hammond and Wu speaking about genetic modification as the endgame for In-Gen, so why are people pushing back regarding this film? Objectively speaking, this is just as able a film as Jurassic Park was, simply with the stumbling block of not having done it first. It is a strong film, one that has a few flaws, but ultimately a strong film. This isn’t even qualified in a “yeah, but…” way that I spoke about when talking about Avengers : Age of Ultron. This is a film that is good in its own right with regard to the genre conventions it is playing in. Saying otherwise really just comes off as petty.

In all honesty, this is one of the most competently constructed movies of the year. I stand by that statement and hope that others can recognize where this film succeeds where others have failed so drastically. Let us hope that the trend continues with the inevitable fifth film.

ProgressGood news everyone, after several delays and setbacks, ONE FATE FOR FAILURE, the novel I’ve been working on since 2013 is on track for a release later this fall.

In One Fate for Failure we follow Madeline McCallister, a CIA special operations division agent who makes a rough call during an operation south of the American border and deals with the repercussions of her actions when she returns home. The narrative is a blend of classic Ian Fleming pulp spy entertainment and modern action thriller in the vein of Greg Rucka.

Be sure to check back for updates as we get closer to the tentative release date, which is a tentative November 20th, 2015.

furyrdI have long held an appreciation for the Mad Max series. The Road Warrior is as good a piece of post-apocalyptic storytelling as we are ever going to get and it truly sets a standard for the genre. I personally love the original Mad Max as an example of low-budget, exploitation cinema with a dedication to telling its narrative in the most economic way possible.

All of that has culminated with Fury Road, which may be the most interesting film we get this year. Meredith was able to wrangle writer Casey Gilly from Comic Book Resources to come onto the show to discuss the film with us and the episode is live now. Go ahead and give it a listen when you have the chance.

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