On Remembrance Day, in honour of all who served: Chapter 1, free

Today, November 11, 2014, is Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans’ Day in the US, Armistice Day in the UK. It’s a day recognized under many names in countries around the world, marking the end of the First World War, called the “defining calamity of the 20th century.”

That calamity, which took millions of lives and changed the perception of war, began 100 years ago.

In honour of all who served, I offer the first chapter of Army of Worn Soles, the true story of a Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army just in time to face Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1941.

Chapter 1:Prisoner of War

Kharkiv, October 1941
Maurice put the bottle on the ground beside him and took off his uniform shirt. He spread it on the smoothest piece of ground he could find, then laid the bottle near the officer’s insignia on the collar and pushed down. He rolled the bottle over tattered, light-brown material until the lice cracked under the glass. Back and forth, twice, three times. He felt a dull satisfaction at his first pathetic victory in more than half a year.
The effort was exhausting. His stomach ached and his throat burned with thirst.
He slumped back until he leaned against the barracks. Men in grey uniforms stood or walked across the cobbled courtyard of the ancient castle. One came toward him, a slim man with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He stopped in front of Maurice and leaned down.
“Maurice? Is it you?”
Breathing required effort. So did looking up. Maurice had not eaten in days, but he still trusted his sight. He knew the man with the light-brown hair and hazel eyes, even in a Wehrmacht uniform. 
“Maurice?” the young man said again. “What are you doing here?”
He couldn’t swallow. His mouth held no moisture. “Dying. I’m starving to death.” Maurice closed his eyes and hung his head.
Bohdan crouched beside him. “You got drafted?”
Maurice made the effort to look up at his old friend. “The Red Army made me a lieutenant. What the hell are you doing here, and in a German uniform, Bohdan?”
“The Germans kicked the Russians out, something we couldn’t do. Why shouldn’t I join the winning side? And it’s ‘Daniel’ now, not Bohdan.” He looked around to make sure no one noticed him, a Wehrmacht officer, talking to a prisoner of war. “I’m glad you survived, that you were captured instead of killed. The Germans killed a lot of Red soldiers.”
“I know. I was there.”
Bohdan looked around again. “How did you get here?”
“Like you said, we were captured, the whole army, outside Kharkiv. They brought us here.”
Bohdan shook his head. “Are you all right? I’ll see if I can bring you anything, but I have to be careful.”
Maurice looked into his friend’s eyes. “Get me out of here.”
“Set a prisoner free? Are you crazy?”
“Bohdan—sorry, Daniel, you’re my best friend. Or you were. If I ever meant anything to you, get me out.”
Daniel—Bohdan, looked left and right again. “I cannot let Red soldiers go,” he whispered.
Maurice took a dry breath. His strength was almost gone. “You’re an officer in a victorious army. You have the power. You can get me out, me and my boys.
Daniel shook his head and stood. “Stalin’s going to surrender within six months, and then all the prisoners will be freed. Hitler has promised freedom for all nations. We’ll all be free. Ukraine will be free.”
Maurice looked at the ground between his splayed legs. He could no longer lift his head. “I can’t wait six months. I can’t wait two days. If you wait, you’ll find a corpse. We’ll all be dead. You have to get us out now.”
Daniel hesitated. He looked around the camp again, but no one paid attention. “So the Reds made you an officer, did they? Where are your men? All dead?”
Somewhere, Maurice found the strength to stand up again. He staggered to the barracks door, went in and called his odalenye, the unit he commanded. “Step over here, boys.”
Daniel followed Maurice inside, and Maurice wondered if Daniel wasn’t breaking some regulation by entering prisoners’ quarters unaccompanied by at least one guard.
Daniel scanned the room, taking in the defeated, injured and starving men. No one threatened him. They did not even move. Maurice realized when they saw Daniel, they saw their captor.
Daniel stepped out of the barracks and waited outside the door. “I’ll see what I can do, Maurice. But you’re on the wrong fucking side.”
Maurice picked up the bottle and returned to crushing the lice out of his uniform shirt. It was the only thing he could do to reduce his misery.
He thought about the last time he had seen Bohdan, before he became Daniel.
It was in the gymnasium, the pre-university school in Peremyshl. What used to be Poland. What a long, strange, twisted path my life has followed. 
For more from Army of Worn Soles, click the cover image at the top of this blog.
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Independent novel review: An Unlikely Goddess by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

Unlike most independent authors, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, known on Twitter as @Moha_Doha, eschews genre writing. Her novels include elements of romance, but they do not follow the conventional girl-meets-boy story.

An Unlikely Goddess is mainstream literature, and you can even look at it as part of the stream of books about the Indian immigrant experience, along with Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje. 

The story

The novel follows Sita from her birth in India. Her mother, Mythili, and the whole family are bitterly disappointed that her first born child is a girl. “What if he leaves me?” is her first thought after seeing her daughter. Mythili’s sister-in-law, Priya, drops the new-born on the hospital floor.

Sita’s life doesn’t get better after that. Her parents, Mythili and Sundar, never fail to remind Sita of how much she disappoints them throughout her life. This gets worse after Mythili gives birth to a boy, Manoj. 

When Mythili is still a young child, the family emigrates to Florida, of all places, where Sundar gets a perpetually temporary job as a researcher in a university. But Sundar never manages to get a promotion or even a permanent position, so he is never able to afford much of a lifestyle. He and his family can only look enviously at the success and socio-economic climb of other Indian immigrants as they move to large suburban homes and buy expensive cars.

What I liked

Characterization is the main strength of An Unlikely Goddess. Not only do we see the action through Sita’s eyes, Rajakumar’s prose enables us to experience an entire world through Sita — especially her conflicted feelings toward her parents.

The secondary characters are also well-developed, and they grow believably, too. Mythili gradually becomes aware of the subservience she’d been socialized to accept, and begins to develop some independence from her husband. Sundar goes through several stages of anger and resentment, blaming his family for his own career failures, but finally begins to mellow and even accept his daughter’s untraditional desires.

The only weak part is the last love interest, Richard. He’s just too good to be true — but then, after everything that the author has put her main character through, she deserves a really great guy.

Professional style

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a prolific and professional independent author. An Unlikely Goddess is her eighth book, and her bibliography includes novels, story collections, anthologies and non-fiction.

An Unlikely Goddess is well written, well edited and has a professionally designed cover. The author’s style is clean and easy to read. Rajakumar is another independent author who reinforces the point that the commercial publishers have no monopoly on quality.


Find An Unlikely Goddess on Amazon

All about Tween literature: EMBLAZON launches

Emblazon is a new group of authors who write for readers aged 11 to 14 has just launched a new blog dedicated to the art and science of writing for this special audience.

“Some call them upper middle grade; others call them low young adult. They’re somewhere in the middle and can lean either way. We call them Tweens,” the group states on its About page.

The members will post about some aspect of reading and writing literature for Tweens on the first three Wednesdays of every month. “The fourth Wednesday is your turn. That’s when we host a monthly feature called Tween the Weekends.
As part of the launch, Emblazon is giving away signed paperback and e-book copies of stories by member authors for Liking the books and authors. Check out their Launch Giveaway page for details.

Good luck to the Emblazoners in their drive to “write stories on the hearts of children.”

Make an appointment to visit their blog every Wednesday at emblazoners.com.

Update: One Shade takes a major step

 Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved by Reinis Ivanovs

One Shade of Red is now in front of its editor!

I have promised to keep you faithful readers apprised of my progress in publishing my second novel. So there it is: now with editor Gary Henry, author of American Goddesses and What Happened to Jory, member of Independent Authors International, literary critic (Honest Indie Book Reviews), editor and communications professional.

February is a month when we think of romance, eros, love … mostly because of the greeting-card industry’s major success in manufacturing a reaon to buy greeting cards.

And I’ve helped perpetuate it (not that the greeting card industry needs my help in this), at least for one person: my editor. On February 1, I began sending the third draft of my new novel, One Shade of Red, to Gary, in batches of five chapters so as not to clog up his email server.
(Gary, I hope you enjoy the story even as you apply your manifold skills to making it better. And I hope that some of the content doesn’t distract you too much.)

Regular readers of Written Words know that One Shade of Red is my spoof of the incomprehensible best-seller, Fifty Shades of Gray. It was inspired by the thought, “I can write something sexy much better than this!”

Here’s the concept: Fifty Shades of Gray features the woman’s ultimate fantasy male — Christian Gray is immensely wealthy, beautiful, only 27 years old (how many 27-year-olds with that much money are there?), and he has a deep, dark, secret problem for the regular-girl heroine to fix. The heroine is so naive and good down to the toes of her sensible shoes that she’s a virgin at 22, yet has no problem achieving orgasm the first time she has sex.

One Shade of Red turns that completely upside-down. The narrator-protagonist is a young virgin male, Damian Serr. He’s 20, and for those of you who scoff at that idea for being just as unbelievable as a 22-year-old virgin in urban North America in the 21st century, the reason is that Damian has been dating the girl next door since they were both children. And the girl-next-door, Kristen ( ;)) is a very religious girl who resists Damian’s efforts to move their physical relationship past the junior-high level.

Christian Gray is what women want. We already
know what men want.
Image source:
Image copyright Some rights reserved by grumlinas

 The heroine of the story is Alexis Rosse, a beautiful young financial wizard. She has achieved immense wealth by the age of 30 in a much more believable way than Christian Gray: she inherited it from her late husband. Alexis is voluptuous and sexually voracious. And the major difference from Christian Gray: she has nothing wrong with her. There is nothing to fix.

What more could a man want than that?

The process

Because I don’t believe that the first draft of anything is ever fit for anyone else to see, I spent the past month and a half re-writing and editing what started as my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2012 project.

When I finished writing the first draft, I realized that, in terms of erotic writing, One Shade went much further than EL James had in Fifty Shades. I can be quite descriptive (especially when it comes to something I really like). I showed my prime editor, my wife, Roxanne, some of my second draft. She declared: “It’s porn. Good porn, but it’s still porn.”

That’s a label I want to stay away from. I have no problems with porn, per se, but having that label hung on me may just limit the novel’s success where I don’t want it to.

Fifty Shades is about as
risque as
this 1930s pin-up.
Image source:
Appletree Days blog

 So, I went through the manuscript again, scaling down the description, making the sex scenes less graphic. What I was trying for was something as graphic, as explicit as Fifty Shades, but more honest, more realistic, without, as I said, straying into the porn field.

It’s a shame, though, to throw out some of those very hot passages. Hmmm … maybe there’s something I can do to salvage them? Recycle and repurpose?

What do you think?

Speaking of pin-ups, I couldn’t resist this one. Should
I try to work this scene into the novel?
Source and copyright: Some rights reserved by grumlinas

Independent book review: Sketches from the Spanish Mustang

By Benjamin X. Wretlind

5 stars

Benjamin X. Wretlind’s beautiful, haunting and, to a writer, mind-blowing Sketches from the Spanish Mustang is literature of the highest kind.

Sketches from the Spanish Mustang is a novel in disguise as a cycle of stories set in the town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, where the Spanish Mustang is one of a row of cheap casinos and bars on the main street. Each story in the cycle focuses on a character who is irrevocably damaged, close to shattering — and some do shatter in the telling of their tales. Linking them all together is The Artist, who sits across the street from the Spanish Mustang, drawing the people she sees in her sketchbook. When she fills the book, she hopes to achieve some kind of release or redemption, we learn.

Sketches from the Spanish Mustang crosses any number of literary boundaries. It meets the requirements for “contemporary urban fantasy,” as ghosts, demons and perhaps the spirit of Death, itself feature prominently. On the other hand, it also qualifies as mainstream literature, because these fantasy genre devices could be interpreted as manifestations of delusion.

No, wait. They can’t be. No, this is fantasy.

Unless ghosts and demons are objectively real …

The plot

The first Sketch is The Five Fortunes of Fulano. Fulano is a migrant worker from Mexico who is brought into Colorado by human smugglers for some unspecified but clearly horrible employment. Misfortune strands him in the desert, where he meets a demon, or perhaps it’s the spirit of Death. He strikes a deal, and his sacrifice is enough to make you weep.

Nathan is a good, if boring man who discovers his wife is cheating on him. This story gets close to black humour, but it’s not for the squeamish.

The story of Mighty Chief Dan Chappose, I have to admit, made me cringe a little because the character is an alcoholic Native American. But Wretlind skirts the problem of stereotyping with a story so layered, sensitive and realistic that we see deeper than the stereotypes and ethnicity to a person haunted by history, family and ghosts of every definition.

It’s not all gloomy, though; Betty and Veronica are two habitual gamblers with their own spots at the slot machines, feeding in quarters or dollars or whatever you put into slot machines these days, arguing about their systems for eventually winning. Josh and Brandon are two teenagers scheming to get booze at the Mustang even though they’re underage:

“All he had to do was stroll in, sit down and spend a little of the allowance he’d been given last week. Nickel machines would be fine, Brandon had told him. The idea was to see if the waitress would give him a drink without asking for identification. They’d rehearsed what to say and how to say it, made sure their seventeen-year-old facial stubble was grown out enough and trimmed appropriately and reviewed the case files of the rumors at the high school—kids who’d pulled off the impossible, kids who managed to get free drinks without being accosted.”

Writing chops

While each Sketch is a separate story — Wretlind published a number of them separately as short stories — the author weaves them together skilfully. Each Sketch separated by a chapter about the Artist or the Town of Cripple Creek, which is a character in itself.

The different characters cross paths and interact; Carolyn is the waitress that Josh and Brandon ask for drinks; her boss is the man sleeping with Nathan’s wife, and so on. While the characters are leads in their own stories, they’re also supporting cast in each others’, even though they don’t know it.

Wretlind crosses that artificial border between fantasy and literature, between dream and reality. (Let’s face it: by definition, any fiction is a fantasy, anyway.) By weaving together the different stories of these solid, flawed, sympathetic and realistic characters, including the town of Cripple Creek itself, the author demonstrates not only the social ties that link all of humanity, but sketches a picture in itself of the invisible energy that links all of us.

And it’s that energy that ties all these disparate stories together and makes this book well worth reading.


A professional, artistic style

As a writer, Wretlind is a professional artist. His writing is lean, without any excess. Yet, he also manages to be descriptive, and I appreciate this kind of writing.

Only a handful of people walked up and down the sidewalks in front of the casinos. Most were inside, looking for that one chance at supposed financial freedom that had hitherto evaded them. An older couple—maybe in their mid-sixties—sat on a bench almost directly across from her. Their faces were locked in perpetual frowns; cigarettes dangled from shaky hands. The man wore a leather jacket, festooned with embroidered motorcycle festivals of the past: Sturgis, Daytona, Lone Star Bike Week. His white beard hung to his chest, contrasting the dark jacket and the even darker Greek fisherman’s hat which no doubt covered a receding hairline. He suddenly guffawed at something the woman said and patted her thigh. His smile quickly returned to a frown. With her skinny jeans and rhinestone-speckled denim jacket, the two would make a good subject to sketch . . . but not today.

At the same time, Wretlind avoids the mistakes many new writers make. There are no information dumps; he describes the characters, but we learn their back stories as we read the tale. We don’t have to read page after page about relationships or history or the structure of arcane brotherhoods. The personal is universal; the specific is general. We put together the big picture by focusing on details.

Just like in life!

You can find Sketches from the Spanish Mustang on Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, the Kobo bookstore, Diesel, the Sony Reader Store,  and other major retailers.
And also be sure to look up Ben Wretlind’s own blog, Drippings from the Mind of Me.