Guest Post: For Dystopia Use Real World Institutions by Jordan Thomas Smith

Jackson Operative - Jordan Thomas Smith

Today I host author Jordan Thomas Smith, whose forthcoming novel, Jackson Operative, releases in May. Today he’s here to talk about stumbling across familiar brands in dystopian stories.

When you’re reading a story set in the future it’s a great dizzying pleasure to be in a world you’ve never seen before. The shock and fear of the new technology and the new society create a thrilling, addictive sensation. As an aspiring author of futuristic fiction I try to think of ways to heighten this sensation for the readers, to try to give them as much dizzying sensation as possible. One way to do this is by featuring in a dystopian story some futuristic versions of current real world institutions or brand names. In the film Minority Report (an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel “The Minority Report”) we see Tom Cruise as the protagonist driving in a futuristic version of a Lexus, shopping at a future version of a Gap store and seeing future versions of ads for Guinness – personalized with his name since retinal scanners that he walks by can identify him moments before the ad plays.

The use of real world brand names enhances the dystopian feeling created in a story because it makes it so much more real. Brands like Lexus, The Gap and Guinness are ones many of us have interacted with, maybe purchased. Seeing that these real brands may very well continue to exist into the future and the way they might look then suddenly links us to the future, puts it in understandable and familiar terms. It also forces us to confront how things will change from the way they are now, and this is more jarring than when you’re presented with some made up brand or institution. Hearing about a futuristic soft drink company that never existed could be kind of interesting. Seeing an ad for Coca Cola in the future though, now that’s interesting. Coca-Cola is perhaps the most ubiquitous brands in the world, with a rich and complicated history. The use of a Coca-Cola ad on a massive outdoor advertising screen in the film Bladerunner (also based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) pulls you forward into the world of that film. You’re many hundreds of years from now at a time with human-like androids, flying cars and Mars-colonization, but there’s something you totally recognize right in front of you.

While seeing our known brand names in dystopian stories can be strangely enthralling, perhaps a far more portentous idea is the future versions of government agencies. Probably even hearing this sentence causes the hairs on most people’s necks to stand up as they imagine a future CIA or FBI that wants to spy on what every single person does. Indeed, some would say the revelations by Edward Snowden about what the NSA was doing to collect information from social networks was like something out of George Orwell’s darkest daydreams. Notice though that in 1984 Orwell was writing about the idea of a new, fictional government that had sovereignty over both England and America. He didn’t choose to make his book about a future version of the actual British Government. We also see some kind of new imagined government as what is ruling society in Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Children Of Men, V For Vendetta (at least a new form of government seems implied), The Hunger Games, Divergent, and several other dystopian stories as well. In fact, I have trouble thinking of an example of a dystopian story that writes about a future version of our actual real world current government. The novel and film of Minority Report is one of the few examples I can think of where the implication is that the government in the story is a continuation of our current US government. Surely there must be other examples, but it seems far more common for dystopian authors to write about a fictional government.

Why not explore the idea of conveying a future version of our current real government? Why not take advantage of how it makes reader’s hairs stick up on the back of their neck when they think about a future version of the CIA? In my own novel (in the final stages of revision) I wanted to write about the way the Federal Government’s Medicare Department might deal with the issues surrounding genetic engineering services if such services are available. Would Medicare (or perhaps also Medicaid) pay for genetic engineering sometimes? Should Medicare do so if it was necessary to ‘fix’ an unborn child so they wouldn’t have a congential disease? Should Medicare pay for any family to make their kids simply less disease prone? What if Medicare can pay for genetic engineering for all kids which makes them smarter?

Without getting too much into these or other particular questions in dystopian stories, framing those questions in terms of a real societal institution makes them much closer to the reader. Why separate the reader from the characters by placing the characters in a new government with entirely new brand name consumer goods? Why not use the shared cultural and institutional frameworks we already have in place to speak to the readers? Getting back to brand names, I think Walmart, Starbucks, Apple and Google are surely great candidates for being featured in dystopian stories, as each seems a little dystopian already (and I say this as someone who has bought from or used those each of those companies many times).

Thanks, Jordan! You can add his book, Jackson Operative, to your TBR list on Goodreads or look for it on Amazon at the end of May. He also blogs about an array of similar topics to this one on his website.

Tell us, what ways would you like to see real world businesses or government or other public institutions conveyed in dystopia?

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Review: Futurity by Michael Bunker

Futurity by Michael BunkerTitle: Futurity
Author: Michael Bunker
Genre(s): Adult Science Fiction
How To Purchase: Kindle | Kobo

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Everyone wants to travel to the past. Not Malcolm. He wants to go into the future… and he’s just found out that Dr. Paulsen, Professor of Optics at Rochester-Finney University has figured out how to do it. Malcolm is a third year physics student and a gamer. He’s about to get more than he ever bargained for and he’s going to take you along for the ride.

I really liked Futurity, really, really a lot. It was something I’d been craving for awhile–a science fiction grounded in real science–so I was happy to find it in my pile of Bookbub bargains. There was so much of it to like: The only slightly fictional science unfolded amid an interesting plot and likable main character.

At times, protagonist Malcolm reminded me of myself, the young and eager physics student who wants to unlock all the mysteries of the universe. (Yes, I was all those things ten years ago, believe it or not.) At other times, his cheerful density–college age guys, so clueless when dealing with their girlfriends, *rolls eyes and smiles*–was frustrating but completely endearing.

I completely agreed with Malcolm’s interest in the future. When spending lazy nights talking over time travel with my physics friends, I’d look forward to the future, not the past, as many others do. The future is where the interesting stuff happens! The past is, well, the past. Before you ask, yes, Part II was my favorite Back to the Future movie. So I enjoyed the time spent on developing “the pinnacle of technology” that Malcolm travels to in the end.

While I enjoyed the culmination of the story, the heavy-handed morality lesson got under my skin. It’s been done … and done … and done … to compare our society of people disconnected by technology to the collapses of other empires. I would have liked to see the book end on a different note than “and so the world’s gonna end cause we don’t ‘see’ each other any more.'” I will, however, admit that it was done in a surprising and unique way.

I sat down and read this book in one session, which is something I don’t do much any more. It helps that it was short. The author himself notes that it evolved from a short story to a short novel. If you like science fiction and time travel stories, you’ll like Futurity. Just steel yourself for the lecture at the end.

Have you added my forthcoming release, Guarding Angel, to your Goodreads to-be-read list? You can also find me on Twitter and Pinterest.

Review: The Well of Being by Jean-Pierre Weill

The Well of Being: A Children's Book for AdultsTitle: The Well of Being: A Children’s Book for Adults
Author: Jean-Pierre Weill
Genre(s): Adult Non-Fiction Picture Book
How To Purchase: Amazon

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of The Well of Being in exchange for an honest review.

The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults is an illustrated inquiry into the pursuit of happiness, and what it means to be radically alive in our daily moments. This adult picture book takes its reader on a quest for well‐being and self‐acceptance, following the story of a wondering everyman. The projective tale summons the reader’s inner child as a complimentary vehicle to drive the plot through bold reflection and earnest doubt. Assisted by cosmic perspective, the faceless protagonist sets out to retrieve the deep self-comfort and inner wellness lost along life’s way.

I like quirky and strange things. The Well of Being isn’t strange, but it is an off-the-beaten-path kind of book, one that defies a simple description.

The content is an exploration of a certain philosophical view, illustrated by watercolor paintings that are quiet and emotionally evocative. I reviewed the book on .pdf on my tablet, so it loses something that would be there when the reader holds a hard copy in his or her hands. The pictures are meant to being as thought-inspiring as the words, and I felt that the author/illustrator accomplished this goal.

At the very beginning, the book explains that this is “a teaching of Ramchal, the 18th Century Italian philosopher and mystic.” At the end, further information is given on symbology in the paintings and Ramchal’s teaching. But this is a primer, something to resonate with the soul, something to pique one’s interest in finding inner peace, an offering to learn more.

The only small complaint I have is that it is, as many religion-based books, male-centric. The “representation of you” is clearly a masculine figure, as it wears a suit and tie and top hat. At the end, the book claims that the figure is androgynous, representing “Everyman and also Everywoman.” If it weren’t for the specific note, I might not even mention it, but the pictures clearly don’t represent “Everywoman.” The philosophy itself, of course, is for everyone, and I wouldn’t dispute that at all.

The book is moving in a quiet way. For some, it might awaken a desire to explore one’s inner self. For others, it might seem silly and pointless. For still others, like myself, it reminded me that life is, indeed a spiritual pursuit, and that perhaps I can find solace from busyness by remembering that more often. If any of this review or the book description has interested you, I would suggest picking up a copy of The Well of Being: A Children’s Book for Adults. The art alone is beautiful, despite the hefty price-tag. Self-published illustrated books aren’t cheap to produce, and it was courageous of the author to produce it despite how expensive it is.

Have you added my forthcoming release, Guarding Angel, to your Goodreads to-be-read list? You can also find me on Twitter and Pinterest.

Twitter, Pinterest, and How I Decide to Review a Book

S. L. Saboviec on Twitter S. L. Saboviec on Pinterest

I’m deviating for a blog post from my reviews because 1) I’m behind on reading because I’ve been so exhausted from my first trimester that I was too tired to open a book and read and 2) because I feel compelled to give some opinions on social media. That’s right. I’m going to say stuff that thousands of people have already said, only in my own words and emphatically. Hold onto your hats, people.

Oh, yes, I’m in my second trimester now (17w4d when this blog post goes up), so my energy is coming back. Thank you for asking.

Because I liberally post links to my Twitter and Pinterest profiles all over my blog, I assume that some authors who are requesting reviews click on the links and follow me. That is more the impetus for the post, but there’s nothing like beating around the bush in an introduction, is there? So I wanted to share my rationale for following or not following people, mostly because I want you to understand that you following me or not following me or me following you or not following you has nothing to do with whether or not I accept reviewing your book.

As I have said on multiple occasions, I only accept a small percentage of the review requests I get. It’s not because I’m a princess (or maybe it is; I guess you can judge that). It’s because I really don’t have much time to devote to reading, though I love it. I’ve accepted some books and not enjoyed them, not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t for me. So I’ve honed my process: Every review request I receive gets a perusal of the summary and first chapter of the book. Assuming you’re polite, are asking about a genre I’m interested in, address me as though I’m not on a mass email list (even “Proprietor of Magic & Mayhem Book Review Blog” is better than “Dear Reviewer,” by the way), and follow my review request guidelines, summary and first chapter are the only criteria I use to decide if I’m going to review it or not. This should not be a surprise, since I make it pretty clear in my Review Policy.

When I decide to follow you on Twitter, it’s because I’ve decided you seem interesting. Maybe you tweet pictures of your cat or funny things you think of throughout the day or interesting articles or heart-wrenching bite-sized stories about your struggles writing or links once in awhile to goofy articles. What you do NOT do is one or more of the following things on this non-inclusive list:

  • Tweet a link to buy your book / artwork / etsy store every hour.
  • Tweet quotes from your book every hour.
  • Tweet quotes from Mark Twain and the Dalai Lama every hour. (I follow the Dalai Lama myself. I don’t need your quotes from him.)
  • Tell me every time you got a five-star review on amazon. Note: “Top 100 Amazon Reviewer gave my book 5 star, AWESOME!” is cool. If you do it, like, one time. Because that’s an announcement. Not spam.
  • Retweet other people’s boring-ass articles about … yawn.
  • Never talk to anyone. (Someone who joined Twitter last week is OK. Someone with 10k followers … What’s up with you, Little Miss Thang?)
  • Only tweet @’s that go like this: “Thanks so much for following me.” “Bless you, I like your name, too.” “Awesome, thanks for the follow; would you be interested in reading my book?” I don’t understand how people think this is acceptable social interaction, especially when it’s a run of 25 tweets at once.
  • List of tweets includes a once a day status update brought to you by everyone’s favorite spam factory, justunfollow.com.
  • Tweet #writingtip/#pubtips. I know that this is probably not on many people’s pet peeve lists, but seriously, I can’t handle it. 99% of the time, it’s exceedingly generic and condescending. I don’t follow Stephen King, but if I did and he tweeted writing tips, I’d probably unfollow him.
  • After I follow you, you send me a DM with a link to or request for following you elsewhere (mainly FaceBook). I will let “Hi, hope we can become friends!” pass, usually, but that’s really lame and not the greatest first impression. (50 DKP minus for any DM that includes “brought to you by justunfollow”: See above.)

Basically, as long as you don’t act like a robot, but instead post stuff about your opinions on life–i.e. making you seem like you have a personality–then I’ll probably follow you. What is most surprising to me is the sheer number of people that use Twitter like a spammy bulletin board. Hootsuite was a great invention, but so was the gun. Let’s use both of them wisely, people.

Since I’m perpetually behind on book review requests, if I follow you, you shouldn’t take that to assume I’m going to review your book. (I hate to create false hope. I WILL CRUSH YOUR DREAMS INSTEAD! Just kidding. No, wait, that’s probably true.) It just means that you seemed like an interesting person to follow. And maybe we can be friends. But I still might not have time for your book unless we become super-extra best friends.

Pinterest is a different animal. I have a very specific curated set of boards (which have been neglected because of the baby. Yes, I will blame everything on the baby now). If your Pinterest boards don’t fall into those categories (angels, demons, fantasy, the color red, books/reading, and interesting/exotic places), I won’t follow them. I will follow individuals boards, I try to look at every person who follows me, and I usually follow back if your boards are within my sphere of interest. The same stuff I just said about Twitter applies here, except that I’m more behind on following people on Pinterest usually than I am on Twitter.

One final note about Twitter and Pinterest: While I try to tweet a link to my review of your book a few times the week I post it and pin it on my blog’s Pinterest board, I don’t always do that in a timely manner. This also has nothing to do with you. For some reason, I keep forgetting to set up the auto-tweets in HootSuite. It’s a terrible excuse, but just know that if you don’t get tweeted/pinned right away, it’s me, not you. (It’s the baby.)

So, now that you know all that about me, have you added my forthcoming release, Guarding Angel, to your Goodreads to-be-read list? You can also find me on Twitter and Pinterest. See you around!

Review: Cowards and Killers by Dennis Liggio

Cowards and Killers Cover ArtTitle: Cowards and Killers
Author: Dennis Liggio
Genre(s): Adult Urban Fantasy
How To Purchase: Kindle

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Note: I received a free copy of Cowards and Killers in exchange for an honest review.

Michael has died, but a mysterious voice on the phone has kept him in the world. They have a simple deal for him: kill and they’ll stop his soul from going to Hell. In a suit that conceals his identity and with a black gun that never runs out of bullets, he becomes their agent. He doesn’t want to be their assassin, but he has no choice if he wants to survive. However, he is not alone in this trap; other agents are trapped in this same dilemma. They all receive calls and must kill their targets before the timer winds down. Together with another agent, he plots to rebel against the voice. But can they really do much against their fate when the voice holds all the cards? With each kill, their humanity is slipping away. Is there a way to escape this dilemma, or do all roads lead to Hell?

I liked Cowards and Killers. I was compelled to keep reading and annoyed at my general sleepiness (recall: I’m pregnant) when trying to get through the ending the night I finished it. Enough of a mystery exist around the origin of the Voice on the phone and the killings that I wanted to keep reading, to unravel the mystery, to understand what was happening.

The problem was that this book was a little long. I think it would have been better as a longer short story or maybe short novella. Intriguing ideas bound the book together, but the actual story-telling left something to be desired.

The beginning was linear without much weaving of plot threads. Much of the middle was talking, explanation, discussion of which agents could be trusted and who couldn’t. The climax was explosive and satisfying, the ending intriguing, but the wrap-up left something to be desired. The explanation we receive on who is doing the killers and who is orchestrating the events at the end is 80% complete, but there are holes. The “big reveal” at the end as to Michael’s history and previous life left me scratching my head, since I never clued in throughout the book that we needed a big reveal. Even the mysterious informational benefactor that appears in the last 25% is left as a deus ex machina to pull together bits of the plot but not ever give a full explanation (although it’s completely obvious from his name as to who he is and what faction he represents).

I have a lot of complaints, it seems, but I still liked the book. As I said, the ideas are strong and unique, but I feel that Mr. Liggio needs to work on his storytelling. Bring the exciting parts on camera rather than telling us about them, get multiple plotlines going at once, and ensure that each bread crumb being dropped gives us a tad more than the last bread crumb. If you like heaven/hell urban fantasies, you’ll probably like this one.

Have you added my forthcoming release, Guarding Angel, to your Goodreads to-be-read list? You can also find me on Twitter and Pinterest.

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Part 3 of 3)

Note: This is the final installment of a three part series reviewing New York Times Bestselling Author Gillian Flynn’s current releases.

Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnTitle: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Adult Contemporary
How To Purchase: Kindle | Hardcover (Amazon) | Kobo

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.

Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media–as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents–the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter–but is he really a killer?

As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

There’s little more I can say about Gone Girl that hasn’t already been said. I was engaged from the first page, and as the story unfolded, I was more and more awestruck with the tight weaving of the tale. I won’t spoiler anything in my review, but let me just say that I loved and hated both main characters multiple times as the novel progressed. Even now that I’m finished, I love and hate both of them.

Certain people are unhappy with the world. It’s like they’re born hating their very existence, perplexed why they’re here, and angry that they are being asked to live. This is who I think the book is about: Someone whose soul was tainted before they proceeded to this earth. That, quite frankly, is fascinating to me and always has been. And I will never get enough of books and movies and television shows about those kinds of people.

Before reading this, I had heard the term “unreliable narrator” applied to the book. That’s not precisely what we’re dealing with, at least not the Holden Caulfield definition. Instead, it’s unreliable storytelling, secrets within secrets, lies by omission and painting reality a certain way, all for a reason. And that reason is to make you feel about the characters. And that’s what makes me love it.

While I like speculative fiction, I like dark, thinking books more. This one definitely fills both those criteria. After I read this, I decided I was going to pick up Gillian Flynn’s other two books and devour them as quickly as this one, though I posted my reviews in the order she published them. That was my fabulous Christmas break 2013–and there’s no question in my mind as to why she’s a New York Times Bestselling Author.

Find me on Twitter and Pinterest.

Review: The Foul Mouth and the Fanged Lady by Richard Raley

The Foul Mouth and the Fanged Lady by Richard RaleyTitle: The Foul Mouth and the Fanged Lady (King Henry Tapes #1)
Author: Richard Raley
Genre(s): Adult Fantasy
How To Purchase: Kindle | Kobo

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

King Henry Price is fourteen, he loves everything he’s not supposed to and hates everything he’s supposed to. One day after his usual hour of detention he comes home to find an enigmatic woman named Ceinwyn Dale sitting in his kitchen, telling his parents lies about a special reform school. What she tells King Henry is different, she tells him he’s a mancer, a Geomancer to be exact, that he’s special, one in million maybe. She sure ain’t a fairy giant and King Henry sure as hell ain’t Harry Potter, but why not? Got to be better than the life he’s already got.

King Henry Price is twenty-two, a recent graduate of the Asylum as an Artificer. With the special ability to create lasting items of the Mancy, he’s spurned the Artificer’s Guild and struck out on his own to found an Artificer workshop looking to do things his way. One night, a vampire baroness claiming she’s named Anne Boleyn walks into his shop, telling King Henry he’s going to help her, and she’s not taking ‘no’ for an answer. King Henry is pretty sure the whole name thing is just a joke, but only pretty sure…

Boy, did I ever like The Foul Mouth and the Fanged Lady. A few months back, I went on a Bookbub binge, and this was one of the cheap or free purchases I had sitting around on my Kobo. Sometimes they turn out all right–especially since Bookbub is known for its quality–and sometimes they don’t. This one, well, they did a good job. (I’ve decided that in 2014 I want to make my way through all my Bookbub books, so you’ll see more reviews that reference Bookbub.)

Poor fourteen-year-old King Henry and his foul mouth. He’s such a little shithead that I couldn’t help loving him. The kid doesn’t have much chance not getting picked on in a world in our times when his mother thought it would be cool to actually name him King Henry. Then again, he doesn’t do himself any favors. The story is told from the perspective of an older King Henry, who is wise (ha!) in the ways of the world and is reflecting on getting dragged off to a magic school whether he wanted to or not. The way the book is written has some more intricacies, but I will leave it to you to find out. Suffice it to say that it’s an entertaining and interesting way of relating a story.

The TVTropes.org term for an element that threatens the reader’s suspension of disbelief is “lampshade hanging,” which Mr. Raley does marvelously. Sparkly vampires and Harry Potter are handled in such an entertaining way that I felt like, yeah, vampires really are blood creatures that wear our bodies as a disguise and Hogwarts has nothing on the real magic school where artificers study their natural craft.

I also wanted to call out the world-building. This is one of those worlds I can’t help but believe exists in another universe (or does it exist in ours and I’m just not aware?). I see in my head Mr. Raley’s writing desk, the walls covered in sticky notes that explain the magic and keep track of all the little idiosyncrasies of the artificers–yet none of it is heavy-handed. It’s casual, without being confusing. Informative, without being an info-dump. It is very well done.

A few grammatical errors spoiled the fun (note the comma splice in the first sentence of the description, sad face), but I was so enamored of King Henry’s exploits that I just didn’t care. And I don’t think I need to comment on the cover. I get the vision now that I’ve read the book, but it is an eyesore that almost stopped me from trying the book out.

If you have a special place in your heart for a foul-mouthed but likeable kid telling it like it is while he’s trying to find his way in this confusing world of magic, you’ll love The Foul Mouth and the Fanged Lady. I can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series and see what new mischief King Henry has gotten himself into.

Find me on Twitter and Pinterest.