Guest post: Charlie Holmberg on Aqua Notes

Homegrown in Salt Lake City, Charlie Holmberg was raised a Trekkie with three sisters who also have boy names. She writes fantasy novels and does freelance editing on the side. She's a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukelele, and owns too many pairs of glasses. Her first novel, The Paper Magician, is now available. Follow her on Twitter for Read more

Talk like a pirate, win a book

So this Friday, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now that's something I can really get behind. I love pirates. From The Black Swan to The Sea Hawk, from Raphael Sabatini to William Goldman, from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp, I dig them all. And not just the fictional ones: I've seen Blackbeard's cannon and Black Sam Read more

A Tale of Two Curls

Sometimes a song inspires a book. Sometimes a book inspires a song. And sometimes--okay, this is the only time I'm aware of this happening--a song inspires a book which inspires a song. There are two wonderful songs out there that share a title with my upcoming novel. Don't ask me to pick a favorite, because I can't. But I can tell Read more

A Radical Notion on Internet Misogyny

My friend, director Lexi Alexander (Punisher: War Zone and Green Street Hooligans, among others) has recently come under fire for her pro-file-sharing stance. You can read her argument, which is more nuanced than my simple summary (she's mainly against the criminalization of file-sharing), at this link. Needless to say, there's been some controversy. So much, in fact, that she's Read more

Out today: Wickedly Dangerous by Deborah Blake

One of the perks of my job is that I get asked to give blurbs to upcoming books, which means I also get to read them long before they come out. Usually such requests come from editors, or agents, or writers I've met at conferences, but occasionally they come from good friends who also happen to be good writers. Read more

Alice Vs Selene: Blank Slate Against Vivid Character

Posted on by Alex in movies, Underworld | Leave a comment
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Alice (Milla Jovovich) posing in Resident Evil: Retribution.

Recently I binge-watched all five (so far) Resident Evil films. I saw the first film back on its theatrical run in 2002, and wasn’t that impressed, so I didn’t keep up with the series. But after stumbling across the first three for $2 each at Frugal Muse, I thought I’d give it a shot.

You see, every time I read about the Underworld series and its hero, Selene (who I’ve written about here and here), someone always compares her to Resident Evil’s Alice (Milla Jovovich, which thanks to the commentary tracks I now know how to pronounce).  It made me curious to see how similar they really were.

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Alice in Resident Evil: Extinction, the third and (IMO) best of the series.

The answer: not much. Both are female characters who lead an action/horror franchise (that interestingly are led by a husband-and-wife director-and-star team), but the resemblance stops there.

Where Selene has a history (hundreds of years of it, in fact), Alice is a blank. Literally at first: in the initial film she wakes up naked (something that happens to her a lot) with no memory. Details are gradually filled in, but they never coalesce into an actual consistent character. It’s impossible to imagine what she’s thinking for the most part–well, except for “Run!’ and “AHH! Zombies!”–and when she shows emotion, it’s generic, never in a specific, Alice-y way.

Further, the RE movies objectify Alice in a way the Underworld films never do to Selene. Both Kate Beckinsale, who plays Selene, and Milla Jovovich are attractive women, but for the most part, the camera never leers at Selene. She is first and foremost a character, and while she does dress in skin-tight black leather, she never poses in it. Alice poses a lot (see the picture at the top of this post). And while Selene is shown naked twice in four films, Alice is five for five.

Alice wakes up naked and disoriented at the start of the first film. This happens to her at least once in every film.

Alice wakes up naked and disoriented at the start of the first Resident Evil. This happens to her at least once in every film.

One explanation may be that the RE films are based on video games, not known for their subtlety of character. Another could be that Kate Beckinsale is simply a better actress that Milla Jovovich (Milla is much more entertaining when she’s goofing as herself on the commentary tracks). But whatever the reason, only the shallowest perusal could equate these two characters.

Still, there’s a fair bit of fun to be had in the Resident Evil movies. While the first film is pretty standard zombies-in-a-haunted-house fare, the second and third–Apocalypse and Extinction–have their own visual identities, possibly due to new directors (Paul W.S. Anderson, a.k.a. Mr. Milla Jovovich, wrote all five films but didn’t direct the second and third). Apocalypse takes place in the urban environment of Raccoon City, while Extinction occurs mostly in the open, brightly-lit desert. And Apocalypse has Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine, who blasts Milla off the screen in the sexy-tough-girl department (she returns, to much less effect, in Retribution).

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Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine.

But there’s no substance to the Resident Evil films, ultimately; they’re all flash and image. Whereas I stand by my assertion that the Underworld series represents the total inversion of the hero and damsel-in-distress tropes.

What are your thoughts on either series, or both?

 

 

 

 

Do We Just Not Want Heroes?

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 25 Comments

SPOILER ALERT for Man of Steel.  And, for that matter, for Superman II.

I remember, back in the 90s, seeing a promo for the TV show E.R., then starring everyone’s favorite bachelor, George Clooney. Over footage of Clooney carrying an unconscious woman into the emergency room, a grave voice announced, “Tonight on E.R., a hero falls.”

I remember thinking then, as I do now: who would want to watch that?

Lately my sons and I have been watching Star Trek TOS, them for the first time, me for the gazillionth. And I’ve grown to appreciate all over the primal appeal of telling a self-contained story in 50 minutes (fewer commercials back then). Further, there’s something incredibly pleasurable in watching characters you admire try to do the right thing whatever the circumstances. They’re not perfect–I wouldn’t want to work for Kirk, and Spock is one step from an emotional breakdown way too often–but they are heroes.

We don’t get that much anymore.

Even Superman, the quintessential modern hero, is now little more than a flawed character who, in Man of Steel, not only kills General Zod with his bare hands, but allows the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Metropolis. This ain’t Superman, pal: this is just another alien-visits-earth movie disguised as a Superman flick, written and directed by people who, for whatever reason, don’t see Superman as a hero.* They let the villain, Zod, determine the kind of character Superman is going to be, instead of having Superman define himself. Superman becomes a killer because Zod makes him.

 

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Because he can’t think of anything else to do, Superman has to kill Zod. That’s not super, man.

Why is that?  I mean, I know the world sucks right now, and there simply aren’t many real-world heroes, especially in positions of power. But have we totally lost the ability to even conceive of one?  Can we not accept a Superman who (as he did in Superman II) finds a way to outsmart General Zod rather than snap his neck? Can we not imagine a Superman who is a super man?**

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Not only does Superman trick Zod, he tricks Lex Luthor into helping him.

I write a lot of stories, and not all of them have a hero: many feature a protagonist, which is a different thing. But what I don’t do, and never want to, is to take a legitimately heroic figure and de-heroicize him (or her; for me, “hero” is genderless). That doesn’t mean you can’t make him or her flawed, and interesting, and even dark; it means that, at the end of the day, they fight against their flaws with the same drive, and with the same success, as they do battling the villain.

I mean, I’m unashamed to say I like heroes. I like Indiana Jones, who always seems to be working at the absolute limit of his abilities. I like Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, a boy who’s neither a fool nor a coward. I like Huckleberry Finn. I like Selene in the Underworld series. I like Philip Marlowe, going down those mean streets and trying not to turn mean himself. I like John McClane in the first Die Hard movie (he’s a caricature in all the subsequent films). I like Captain America, particularly in the films. I like Atticus Finch.

I could keep going, but the point is, these characters are heroes. Superman should be in their company, but as David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder have given him to us, he’s not. He’s in the company of Walter White, Tony Soprano, Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me, Rayland Givens from Justified. And while I enjoy all those characters, they’re not heroes. And neither, alas, now, is Superman.

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*You want to see the true nature of director Zack Snyder’s soul? Watch his pet project Sucker Punch, if you can. I only made it about twenty minutes. And this is the guy they’re trusting with Wonder Woman.

**One of my favorite bits from Superman II is, as Superman rescues a boy from Niagara Falls, someone in the crowd exclaims, “He’s such a nice man!” No one would say that about the character in Man of Steel.

[An addendum about Superman II: the fate of the three Kryptonian villains is rather ambiguous in the final version, but scenes exist that show them, as well as Luthor, being arrested and taken away by law enforcement officers in special snow vehicles (see image below; you can find these scenes as special features on the “Richard Donner Cut” version). In addition, the overall tone of the scene implies they are not killed, but simply placed in some sort of confinement (it’s not a natural ice structure, remember, it’s the Fortress of Solitude).  Superman II was completed in chaos, and the fact that it holds together at all is a tribute both to the skill of the two respective directors, and truthfully, to sheer dumb luck.]

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New Firefly Witch collection on the way

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A new Firefly Witch collection, Sight for Sore Eyes, will be available shortly.  Kelly Crimi designed the cover, which is my favorite in the series so far.

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Watch for the release announcement, coming soon!

New Writer’s Day Video

Posted on by Alex in biography, fantasy literature, fiction, Firefly Witch, Pagan, Reunion, series, Seventies, short stories, tennessee, video trailer, witchcraft, writing | 1 Comment

It’s been a while since I posted here; life’s been a bit overwhelming. But now I’ve got something new to share.

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Over the past weekend I attended a combined reunion of my old college newspaper staff and fraternity.  It gave me the chance to go around Martin, TN and shoot some video of the real locations that inspired those in my Firefly Witch stories.  I hope you enjoy this little three-minute tour.

 

 

Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I’d put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions.

Why, if I’m such a fan of the series, wasn’t I there opening night? Mainly because of the history of genre threequels.

The litany of sucky third films in SF/Fantasy franchises is legendary: Superman III, Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Men in Black 3, The Dark Knight Rises. Each of them built on the artistic and commercial success of the previous two films by coming up with shallow, convoluted and ultimately awful continuations. It doesn’t seem to matter if new creative blood came in, or if the same hands continued the series. Something about third films just spells disaster.

Underworld: Awakening isn’t a classic, but it’s a lot better than the mainstream reviewers (who also hated the others) would have you believe. It’s short (89 minutes according to the blu-ray box), and the absence of Scott Speedman’s Michael as a major character throws the story askew. Director Len Wiseman has been replaced by  Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein , two Swedes who apparently directed on alternate days (hey, whatever works).

But it preserves the most crucial thing about the first two films: Selene is the template for the total gender reversal of the male action hero. All those Hollywood nabobs who can’t seem to get a handle on how to approach Wonder Woman need look no farther than here.

I first wrote about this in an earlier blog post, but in Underworld: Awakening the ideas are developed in surprisingly new ways. Selene discovers that she’s a mother: Eve (India Eisley), her twelve-year-old daughter, was born while the humans had Selene in suspended animation. For Selene to suddenly be confronted with motherhood is a fairly brilliant step, and it’s handled very well. It allows her to be even more vicious than before, because now it’s not just her own life she’s fighting to preserve.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

And it doesn’t come at the expense of her character. Selene still occupies the role in the narrative that has traditionally belonged to male characters. She has agency, self-determination and the defining decisions in the plot. She saves and rescues both female and male characters, the latter filling the traditional “girl” role. Nowhere is that more clear than in a brief scene where Selene tells the handsome, studly young vampire David (Theo James) that she’s leaving with Eve to continue the fight elsewhere. He begs, “Take me with you,” a line that’s so traditionally a woman’s that it should jar us out of the moment. But because Selene has been established so well, and is handled so consistently, it passes seamlessly, and only later do you realize how extraordinary it really is.

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In the Underworld universe, the damsels in distress have five o’clock shadow.

As long as this continues–as long as Underworld continues its trend of total gender reversal without making that the whole point of the story, and thus going from entertainment to didacticism–I’ll continue being a fan. And I’ll continue pointing to it as the least likely, but most accomplished, feminist action series around.

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

I’ll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such.

In Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company’s come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they’re born fully adult and live only four years.

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Joe Turkel as Tyrell.

Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.

Deckard: Memories. You’re talking about memories.

This is established through the character of Rachel, a replicant who believes she’s a human being.

Now, flash forward to the end of the film, to Roy Batty’s famous speech (written by actor Rutger Hauer).

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Rutger Hauer as Batty.

Batty: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.

This is justly considered one of the highlights of SF cinema, and one of the great bits of cinema dialogue, period.  It points up the tragedy of the replicants, doomed to short and terrible lives.

Except…

Tyrell says they give the Nexus 6 memory cushions.

Roy Batty is a Nexus 6.

So…what if these memories never really happened?  

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Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) and Deckard (Harrison Ford).

In Deckard’s briefing, Bryant says about Batty, “Combat model. Optimum self-sufficiency.”  What better memories to implant in a replicant destined for combat than thoughts of other battles he’s won, or at least survived.  What if Batty has never seen actual combat, but only believes he has?  And that reinforces the parallel stories of Deckard and Batty, especially given what Deckard finds out about himself when he sees Gaff’s final gift outside his apartment.

I have no idea if anyone else has ever noticed this, but it struck me this morning.  Any obsessive Blade Runner fans out there?  Leave your two cents in the comments.

 

 

High Hopes: is talent finite?

Posted on by Alex in Bruce Springsteen, creativity, fans, Horror Films, John Carpenter, music, old people, pop culture, release date, tennessee | 11 Comments

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This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.

But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.

I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.

And yet…

His last album, 2012′s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).

And now we get High Hopes.

Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.

Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?

My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.

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Filmmaker John Carpenter. Does he have any mojo left?

And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?

So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in “production order,” meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Here, then, are some observations.

1) William Shatner hits the ground running as Kirk.

It takes most actors a while to find their characters. Leonard Nimoy doesn’t really nail Spock until several episodes in, which is understandable since no one had ever quite done a character like that before. But Shatner is the Kirk we know and love from his first episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

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The most surprising thing I noticed this time through the first season is how often Kirk loses his temper in a crisis. It’s never an explosion of violent anger, but he snaps at his people a lot. To his credit, he also (usually) immediately apologizes, but for the first time I got the sense that serving with Kirk might not be that much fun.

2)  The Enterprise was not always terribly thought out.

In “The Enemy Within,” Mr. Sulu and his team are stuck on a planet’s surface by a transporter malfunction, in danger of freezing to death. Subsequent episodes reveal that the Enterprise has a fleet of shuttlecraft (they first show up in “The Galileo Seven”), yet apparently at this point no one had thought of them, because simply flying down and picking them up is never mentioned as an option.

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3) Hi-def does the show no real favors.

We watched the episodes on blu-ray, which includes the option for new CGI effects shots. I’m ambivalent about them; they don’t bother me, and they let “modern” viewers (like my son) get into the show without the jarringly grainy, old-school effects. But the non-effects shots are not tweaked. Wrinkles on the paper bridge screen inserts jump out at you, there are obvious stray threads on the costumes, and you can occasionally see Kirk’s command chair shake when someone walks nearby on the bridge.

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This is supposed to be Kirk and Khan. How bad was TV reception back then?

But by far the most egregious thing are the stuntmen. In many fight scenes, Shatner and company are replaced in long shots by professionals; in the 1960s, when TVs were smaller and broadcast signals were analog, this probably wasn’t too noticeable.  But on big-screen TVs, in 1080p, there’s simply no missing it.

And finally,

4) The crew of the Enterprise are adults.

This may seem obvious, but I’m not talking about biological age. There’s an inherent maturity to the characters, in their responses and dilemmas, that marks them as grown-ups. Each of them has chosen their career in Starfleet because they believe in what they do, and want to do it to the best of their abilities. There are few slackers in Roddenberry’s Trek, no corruption in high places, and even when characters disagree and lose their tempers, they do so as adults. Even Kirk’s notorious way with the ladies isn’t depicted as anything immature; he simply likes women and is willing to spend time with them, but only when his job allows. In the whole first season, he has only one real romance; the cliche womanizing Kirk doesn’t show up until much later in the series. Contrast this with the immature, entitled “bro” Kirk of JJ Abrams’ films, who may chronologically be an adult but displays the emotional life of a seventeen-year-old.

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I’m glad my son wants to watch Star Trek; I’m looking forward to starting season 2 with him. It’ll be interesting to see if his opinions match mine (his favorites from season 1 are “Shore Leave” and “The Devil in the Dark,” both respectable choices).

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Posted on by Alex in anthology, eBook sale, Firefly Witch, short stories, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don’t do as well as they’d like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn’t do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don’t bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what he did do well, he did so well that no one minded what he couldn’t do. As critic Robin Wood famously said, “who cares who killed Owen Taylor?”*

My problem has always been writing on demand.

By that, I mean responding when someone says, “Write a story about dogs,” or, “Write a story set in Montana.” My own skills don’t work that way; I need time to puzzle over ideas and let them develop organically. I have no problem writing about dogs, or Montana, or even dogs in Montana. But I need time to work my way into it on my own.

Which is why, whenever I get asked to contribute to an anthology, I try to do it. Because the only way over these sticking points is through them.

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When the editors of My Bloody Valentine said they needed a story a) of about 15,000 words, b) about love, and c) with the opening words, “Love hurts,” I was intrigued, and a little intimidated. When they told me how quickly they needed it, I was a lot intimidated.

Beyond the problems I mentioned above, there was a third issue: I’d never written anything that clocked in at 15,000 words. My short stories average between 3-7K words, and my novels at around 90K. 50K is novella territory, new ground for me. As Stephen King says, the novella is “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”

But the folks doing the anthology were the same one who publish my “Firefly Witch” stories, so I felt I owed them an honest shot. And I decided that I’d make this a Firefly Witch story as well, so that at least I’d be working with characters I knew.

I thought about the stories I’d written about these characters, and what aspects of them I hadn’t explored so far. I realized I’d often mentioned that Tanna taught college, but hadn’t really shown her functioning as a teacher. With that as a starting point, I wrote about an investigation into a haunting that doesn’t go as planned, and as I wrote, the rest of the characters filled out the plot and gave me plenty of material to work with. It was a near thing–I think I hit the deadline on the day, and my word count was just…barely…15K, but it worked. The editors liked it and picked it for the anthology.

And you can read that story, “Tantrabobus,” along with seven other stories from a variety of writers and genres, in the ebook anthology My Bloody Valentine, available now from Story Vault. You can get it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. for only $2.99 for a limited time. And if you do pick it up, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice!

*for the record, it’s a plot point from The Big Sleep, and it’s never really clear.  The only explanation that even works is that Taylor committed suicide, which makes about as much sense in context as it does right here.

Help fund Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae

Posted on by Alex in faeries, folk music, fundraiser, Hum and the Shiver, music, tennessee, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing, writers | 2 Comments

One of the best perks about being a writer is that you get to meet other artists. Most of them are fellow writers, but I’m lucky enough to also count visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians among my friends. I’ve connected with many of them through art, either theirs or mine, as well as through social gatherings like conventions and workshops.

And sometimes, these connections turn into something you never expected.

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In May of 2013, I first met the members of the band Tuatha Dea. Having written two novels about the Tufa, a race of musicians descended from Old World faeries and currently living in Appalachia, you can imagine my surprise at finding a band named after the fae (known in some circles as the “Tuatha De Danaan,” a.k.a. the “Children of Dana”), based in Appalachia (Gatlinburg, TN, to be precise), who perform the kind of Celtic-influenced music I always imagined my Tufa might play. There’s luck, then there’s serendipity, then there’s just plain astounding coincidence. I think meeting this band was a little bit of all three.

But that’s not the best thing. After reading my books, they came to me with an astounding proposition: they wanted to do an EP of original songs based on my Tufa series, titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to hear what this band–and they’re a great band–might do with this idea. So I gave the project my blessing. And I have no stake in this; the band is doing it entirely independently. I’m like everyone else, just waiting to hear what they come up with.

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And this is where you can help. To finance the CD, they’re running an IndieGoGo campaign. As with all such crowd funding, any amount is helpful. So if you like my novels, and you ever wondered what a modern Tufa band might sound like, then please consider helping Tuatha Dea get this project off the ground.

You can find out more about the project here. Watch the video, learn about the band, and consider helping out.

Oh, and you should definitely go to ReverbNation and check out their music. In fact, the song “Hypocritical Mass,” that you can stream from this site, might just turn up in a future Tufa novel….

And here’s a rough live version of their song, “The Hum and the Shiver,” that will be on the CD.