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No. 1

I pulled the door open.

Gil pushed it back shut, careful not to disturb the yellow caution tape as he did. He was always doing stuff like this.

“You can’t go in there,” he said — putting himself between me and the door. I could tell his attention was still divided between me and that caution tape.

We were standing next to the lockers. We’d been friends for a long time. I wondered if that was why he didn’t have any other friends. It was Thursday. I made a mental note to ask my therapist about that.

“It’s just the gym,” I told him.

“It’s not just the gym,” he said, lowing his voice. “It’s a crime scene.” He glanced over my shoulder before looking back at me. “Someone set a fire during first period. They announced it over the speaker… wait—” he stopped, his voice getting progressively slower, like a toy running out of its battery.

“Jessica,” he said in that tone.

“Gil,” I said in that tone.

“Where were you during first period?”

“You think I set the fire?”

“No…no…” he said slowly, not quite taking his eyes off of me.

“I’m working on a case, Gil.”

“Uh huh,” he said, still watching me. “But, ya know, between us… anything I should know about?”

I leaned in close to him. “Just between us?”

He closed his eyes. “Jessica…,” he said.

I smiled.

“Yes, I did it,” I said. “But I had to. To solve a bigger case.” And with that, while his eyes were still shut, I slipped under his arm and pushed the door open, pulling a little bit of caution tape as I slipped inside.

REVIEW: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

REVIEW: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

What if Scooby Doo was real? Like really real.

Well, Edgar Cantero wrote that story.

And not only is it hilarious, there’s not a boring page in the entire book.

By the end of Meddling Kids, I was left wondering what had just happened. And, more specifically–as a writer–how Cantero managed to pull it off.

It’s the story of a group of kids, now in their twenties, who’d gotten a little off track in life. They had shared trauma. And it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

But now, the one thing they couldn’t run from was their past. And so their paths converge again, some reluctantly, and they come together to face what they’d been running from for the last decade or so.

Except, whatever they thought it was…it was worse.

(You know how it goes.)

One of my favorite parts was the narrative devices he used. For Cantero, nothing is off limits. Even the page he’s writing on. From time to time, he switches from a standard paragraph format to a rapid-fire movie script. And, it worked. It worked so well.

But, I think, my favorite part is when he switches to the dog’s pov. Just randomly, there’s a new character in the scene. And he’s a little…off. Until you realize, oh, it’s the dog. And he’s talking now. Okay.

It’s that kind of book. And he’s one of those special few authors who can pull it off.

I read this in print, and also listened to it in audio. If you get it on audio, the narrator (Kyla Garcia @KylaVictoria) does a wonderful job.

Meddling Kids

by Edgar Cantero (@punkahoy)

Whenever I find a great writer, I start reading all of their stuff. After Meddling Kids, I picked up Cantero’s 2019 release, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

It’s about a set of twins that share the same, single body. And they solve crimes. Naturally.

In some ways, it’s classic noir like Dashiel Hammett. But in other ways, it’s, well, just a completely irreverent, out of control, story.

Cantero is a character writer through and through. And his characters are a constant smattering of cliches-used-right with never ending pop culture references.

In that way, it really doesn’t matter what genre he’s writing in. Good writing is good writing.

Conclusion

Edgar Cantero is a top-shelf writer. Quite rare. No denying that.

But Meddling Kids and This Body are both R-rated–or maybe even a little beyond. Lots of swearing. And…occassionally a little bit of mature content. So, trigger warning.

REVIEW: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

REVIEW: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Gwenda Bond is a wordsmith.

But not the kind of pretentious literary-journal MFA type. (No offense to you pretentious literary-journal MFA types out there. You do you.)

No, she’s the kind of wordsmith that makes you soak in the setting tangibly, with just a line or two.

I rarely underline in fiction books. But in this one, I just couldn’t help it.

And I’ll be honest, of the three official Stranger Things novels, I thought I’d like this one the least.

It was the farthest removed from the story (Dr Martin Brenner was the only character, other than Eleven’s mother, who showed up in the novel).

But almost immediately, I loved all the good ones and hated (in the best way) all the bad ones.

Take Dr Brenner for example. In the show, he’s sadistic. But his sadism is more by implication. The Duffer brothers don’t spend a ton of time allowing us to feel how much we hate him.

Bond, on the other hand, establishes in the first few lines what a self-absorbed masochist he really is.

As a reader, I immediately hated him on a guttural level. And it was good.

On the other hand, the shell of the character who was Eleven’s mother in the show (Terry Ives), is quite a lovable protagonist in the book.

And so are her group of friends.

But more than that, Bond did a phenomenal job of teasing the world to come. With the hints of the coming demogorgons and the Upsidedown.

This is what really clinched it for me. It wasn’t a removed or alternate story. It was the story.

The Amazon reviews have this at a 4 out of 5 stars.

But that’s wrong. This book is a solid 5 out of 5. Easy.

And that’s just based on the storytelling. If you’re a fan of the show (me), then it’s a no-brainer. Gwenda Bond killed it.

Suspicious Minds

by Gwenda Bond (@Gwenda)

The first official Stranger Things book.
I also read the other two in the series: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher and Runaway Max by Brenna Yovanoff.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Hopper’s backstory. It’s after he got back from Vietnam, but before Sara died and he moved back to Hawkins. It takes place in 1977-era New York City, and he’s a detective.

It’s a good story. And I enjoyed it.

But the more it went on, the more I found myself forgetting this was the same Jim Hopper I knew from the show.

If it wasn’t for this–that the character of Hopper was just a little bit too different–this would be an excellent book.

But still, the book (and story) was really great.

Runaway Max is the third Stranger Things official novel.

While this is meant to be the backstory of Max, it’s really the story of Max. The first couple of chapters pick up a month or so before Max and her family move to Hawkins.

The plotline of the novel follows the plotline of Stranger Things Season 2, just from Max’s point of view.

The primary difference is that Runaway Max has a lot of flashbacks.

I feel like “flashbacks” is a dirty word (perhaps because they’re so often done poorly), but Brenna Yovanoff did these well.

On the whole, the book is written for a younger audience, and it feels like it. It’s hard to tell if I didn’t like the story as much, or the writing direction.

But still, not bad.

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of good stories, Suspicious Minds is for you.

And if you’re a die-hard Stranger Things fan, and have already read Suspicious Minds, then pick up Darkness on the Edge of Town, or maybe Runaway Max.Or, better yet, get Worlds Turned Upside Down: The Official Behind-the-Scenes Companion.

The (Real) Golden Chair

The (Real) Golden Chair


In my novel, The Golden Chair, the story centers around an Ashanti legend of a great, lost treasure: the Golden Chair. 

Or, rather, the Golden Stool as it was historically called.

The story goes: the Ashanti people — who were a massive presence in West Africa several centuries back — had a sacred holy object. And the British, back when colonialism was cool, felt it would be a good idea to nip in and grab it.

And, as a result, chaos ensued.

So what’s the story? Why did the Ashanti Empire care so much about a chair? And why did the British want it?

The chair, for the Ashanti, represented royalty.

And it wasn’t just a representation. They thought of the chair itself as being holy. The legend is that it never touched the ground. When it was brought before the king, it was carried on a pillow. And then, it sat next to the king on its own throne.

But more than that, it’s said that the chair descended from heaven and landed on the lap of the first Ashanti king.

So, needless to say, the chair was a very special thing to the Ashanti.

This was why, when the British tried to take it, the whole affair resulted in the Yaa Asantewaa War (or the War of the Golden Stool) in the summer of 1900.

It’s clear what this object meant to the Ashanti, but why did the British care about it?

To understand that, we need to first understand the relationship the British had with the Ashanti.

In the early 1890s, the British tried repeatedly to woo the Ashanti into becoming a protectorate, or dependent state. This is where the British would officially ‘own’ this territory, but its local inhabitants would still be able to govern themselves. It’s pretty similar to how the modern mafia works. The area is “protected” from any outside bad guys. But inside, those being “protected,” had to pay their new overlords for the privilege.

The newly named King, Prempeh I (who was either 16 or 18 at the time), didn’t want any of it. And he kept declining Britain’s offers.

(The great scramble in all of this, by the way, was the gold. Ghana — also called the Gold Coast — was well endowed with gold. And for a country with eyes on world domination, more gold was always helpful. But it wasn’t just the British, France and Germany also had their eyes on Ghana.)

The situation was precarious for the Ashanti, too. And they decided to negotiate. But ultimately, through a series of miss-communications (which can only happen in a pre-phone and pre-internet world) and the ever-hungry desire for the British to lock down this lucrative state…the negotiations failed and the British invaded.

But this wasn’t the first time the British and the then-inhabitants of Ghana had been at war with one another. It had been happening, on and off, since around 1800.

But by the end of the 1800s, the Ashanti and the British had a tenuous peace treaty in place. It wasn’t strong, but it was holding.

Until, that is, Frederick Hodgson showed up.

Get the novel here.

Hodgson was an official spokesman for the British and the Queen. And upon arriving at ‘another one of their territories,’ he made, what he assumed, was a small but important demand.

He ordered for the Golden Chair to be brought to him so that he could sit on it.

The Ashanti had been accommodating and respectful to Hodgson, but this was too far. And when they refused to bring him the chair, he ordered his own men to search for it.

Hodgson knew the chair was special, but he underestimated how sacred it was. What he didn’t understand is that its holiness ascended whatever treaty or relationship the Ashanti had with the British.

After a century of fighting and repression, the Ashanti had had enough. And they began attacking and killing the soldiers searching for their holy object.

The soldiers, small in number and not prepared for any kind battle, retreated. Most of them died, but Hodgson escaped.

Shortly after, the British returned in force, this time ready to fight. And this is what became the War of the Golden Stool.

The following year, while the war continued to rage on (and costs continued to mount), David Lloyd George, a British politician who went on to be influential in mobilizing British resources to defeat the Germans in the First World War, told Parliament that Hodgson’s desire for the Golden Chair was akin to a quest for the Holy Grail.

Ultimately, the war was ended, and about a thousand British — and we’re not sure how many Ashanti — died in the process. And the British Parliament was a bit embarrassed by the entire thing.

It was thought that the golden chair was gone for good. But in 1921 a few laborers stumbled upon it and accidentally desecrated it. As a result, the Ashanti sentenced them to death, but the British stepped in and exiled them instead.

And that was it.

The holiness of the golden chair — the chief sacred piece of the Ashanti empire — was gone. Because of a careless group of workers, the mighty golden chair was reduced to just another ordinary chair.

And while the chair was still around physically, after the blunder in 1921, the holy object that so many had died for, was gone.

Stranger Things as a Novel

Stranger Things as a Novel

I can’t remember hearing anyone talk badly about Stranger Things. It is a fantastic story.

But why is it so good?

There are a few reason. But I believe one of key reasons is how well it follows the classic hero’s journey plot structure.

This post is a look at just how well Stranger Things follows this pattern.

As a quick bit of context, the hero’s journey begins in the ‘ordinary world,’ with a call (and refusal) to adventure. Then, around the 25% mark, the story switches to the ‘special world.’ The adventure begins. From here, the rest of the story is spent on a series of attempts and failures until the final conclusion.

A note: it’s usually the ‘hero’ that goes from the ordinary to special world. But in this case, there are five different story lines, which means five different heroes, or protagonists.

Before we get into how the series as a whole breaks down, here’s a quick look at the core motivation for each protagonist:

Hopper: Wants the truth
Eleven: Wants true friends (love)
Mike: Wants to take care of his friends (which includes Eleven)
Joyce: Wants to find her son, Will
Nancy: Wants to find her friend, Barb

And one more note, for clarity: There are other key characters, like Jonathan, the rest of the party (Dustin, Lucas, and Will), and Steve. And while each has their own character-arc, they are not protagonists. They are important, but they are still supporting characters. We know this, because at the very end, it is the protagonist(s) who cause the resolution. More on that at the end.

So here’s a look at how Stranger Things (season 1) breaks down:

Episode 1: The ordinary world

This is the setting, where we figure out what’s what and get introduced to all of the characters. In short, this is the ‘ordinary world’ that will soon be disrupted. Included here is all of the foreshadowing (i.e. Will disappearing; Eleven escaping, etc.).

Episode 2: The inciting incident

We’re still in the ordinary world, which is to say that none of the heroes have decided to go on their journey yet. But something else important happens here. There is when the inciting incident (the key moment that eventually pushes them into their journey) happens.

So what is it?

Mike and his friends discover Eleven. Eleven finds people who might become her friends. Joyce gets the call from who she believes is her son. Hopper finds his friend (Benny) dead. And Barb goes missing (the audience knows this, but Nancy, the fifth protagonist, doesn’t yet).

In each case, the protagonists can still turn and reject the call into the special world.

Episode 3: The special world

Sequence three, or around the 25% mark, is where the story actually gets moving. They’ve embarked on their journey.

Hopper gets into the lab (and realizes they’re showing him fake video footage). Joyce is now 100% convinced Will is alive and talking to her. Mike has decided to keep Eleven in his basement. Eleven has decided to stay and become vulnerable to her new friends. And Nancy realizes that Barb is missing.

In all five storylines, the thing that propels them forward is now in place (i.e. Hopper’s investigation of the lab; Joyce’s quest to find her son; Nancy’s quest to prove didn’t run away; Mike and his friend’s quest to understand and know Eleven; and Eleven’s desire to find people who love her).

Episode 4: Leading up to the change

At the very middle of a story is the midpoint: the moment where everything changes. In this sequence (episode), that reveal is being set up.

In this episode Hopper finds Will’s body and cuts him open to realize it’s a fake. The conspiracy is real. Nancy realizes that the man with no face is real when Jonathan confirms it. Joyce gets even crazier with her Christmas lights, deciphering actual messages from Will. Mike hears Will’s voice on the radio that Eleven is holding, proving to him that Will is still alive. And Eleven is able to help Mike by making the bully wet his pants in front of everyone.

By the end of this episode, everything is different. Everyone understands their true quest:

Hopper began believing the crime was small, but learned it was a conspiracy. Joyce’s knew her son was missing, but now knows, supernaturally, that he’s still alive. Mike wanted to find Will and begins making room for Eleven in the party. Eleven finds out that people don’t just want her for her powers. And Nancy’s belief that Barb didn’t run away becomes a belief that Barb was taken by the monster.

Episode 5: The new quest

The heroes now realizes their true objective, and they begin pursuing it in earnest…but there’s still a major failure before they find success at the end.

Hopper breaks into the lab, but gets caught and drugged. Mike and the party go looking for the gate, but Eleven—scared of what might happen—leads them away from it. Eleven’s new friends turn against her. Nancy (and Jonathan) actually do find the Upside Down, but Nancy gets lost in it.

At the end of this sequence, Mike’s friends are divided. Eleven is on her own (again). Hopper realizes the conspiracy extends to the federal government. Joyce finally has a true ally (Hopper) in finding Will. And Nancy, it appears, might be stuck in the Upside Down forever.

Episode 6: The final piece of information

The 5/8th point is a pinch point. This is where we get the last twist before the hero enters the final battle. It often happens just before the end of sequence five (from above).

Nancy gets out of the Upside Down. But she’s pretty scared. She went up against it, and it beat her. She’s not sure if she’ll be able to do it again. After Mike yelled at Eleven, she runs away, and so he (and Dustin) go looking for her, but they get into trouble with the bullies. Eleven couldn’t quite fit in, and she ended up driving away those she tried to love. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce track down Eleven’s mom, which turns out to be a dead-end.

In the story, this is point of desperation which forces the protagonist to do the ultimate thing: throw all caution to the wind and go after the villain…even if it means death. That’s what we see unfolding in sequence (episode) seven.

Episode 7: The beginning of the end

This is the final no-turning-back moment. Where everyone faces their demon and a final resolution (for better or worse) happens. And in the case of Stranger Things, all of the storylines pretty much share the same screen time (or close to it), blending a lot of the protagonists journeys together.

Mike’s party reunites and officially goes on the run from the authorities. Eleven flips the van, violently showing the ‘bad men,’ that she won’t go back without a fight. Shortly after, Hopper gets everyone together and they discover how to create an isolation chamber so that Eleven can properly communicate with the Upside Down. Hopper and Joyce go to the lab and are captured once more. Nancy (and Jonathan) get their ‘monster hunting’ supplies again, set a trap to lure the monster toward them.

Sequence seven ends with each protagonist committed and ready for their final attack.

Episode 8: The climax and resolution

Here everything comes together and is wrapped up.

Hopper cuts a deal with the lab, which allows him and Joyce room to find Will—which they do (a win). Meanwhile, Nancy (and Jonathan) trap the monster in a bear trap and Nancy shoots it with Jonathan’s dad’s gun. Also meanwhile, Mike sees the ‘bad men’ coming and gets Eleven (who is weak now) and ‘the party’ to safety. Except…the monster (who escaped from Nancy) found them. Eleven summons the last of her energy kills the monster, saving her friends.

A note on the resolution: As mentioned above, it’s the hero that must bring about the conclusion. This is ultimately how we know who the protagonist is (i.e. who the story is about). This is also how we know that the secondary (though still important) characters, like Jonathan, the rest of the party, and Steve, are not the protagonists.

Stranger Things is great for a lot of reasons. It’s nostalgic to the max. The acting is superb. But, ultimately, I believe, it’s their use of these things combined with solid storytelling that makes it so great. When it was announced that Season three was pushed back because it wasn’t ready, I was okay with that. They have a lot to get right. And, my prediction (here in April of 2019), is that they will.

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