Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Cyber Monday Sale for "Enoch's Device"!

In the wake of Black Monday, the Kindle version of Enoch’s Device will be on sale starting today, through Cyber Monday, and lasting the entire week! You can purchase it here.

Nearly a thousand years after the birth of Christ, when all Europe fears that the world will soon end, an Irish monk, Brother Ciarán, discovers an ominous warning hidden in the illuminations of a religious tome. The cryptic prophecy speaks of Enoch’s device, an angelic weapon with the power to prevent the coming apocalypse.
Pursued by Frankish soldiers and supernatural forces, Ciarán and his freethinking mentor, Brother Dónall, journey to the heart of France in search of the device. There, they rescue the Lady Alais from a heretic-hunting bishop who insists mankind must suffer for its sins. Together the trio races across Europe to locate the device, which has left clues of its passage through history. But time is running out, and if they don’t find it soon, all that they love could perish at the End of Days.
Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past.
Stephen Reynolds of SPR called “Enoch's Device is a wonderfully imagined, vividly described, alternately lyrical and violent romp of a novel that should give lovers of historical fantasy just the kind of fix they're looking for.”
Marty Shaw of Reader Views wrote: “If you enjoy tales of magic and adventure that are perfectly blended with reality and history, ‘Enoch’s Device’ by Joseph Finley will be an exciting read for you.”

And Cate Peace of Indie Books R Us summed it up: "All in all, a refreshing twist on the religious thriller, and one that will have you turning pages from cover to cover as fast as you can."

Now is a great time to pick up a copy – and if you’ve already read it and enjoyed it, please tell a friend!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I wrote this two years ago, but I'm reposting it every Thanksgiving for tradition's sake. I've also included my menu for this year's Thanksgiving at the end of this article.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have some beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part of the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!

Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. There, his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned to the New World with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.

But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth, where the Patuxet lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2014 Menu Update: For two years now I've prepared a multi-course meal for Thanksgiving, and this year will be no exception! (Each course will also be paired with a wine or cocktail :)

Course One: Whipped ricotta salad

Course Two: Baked littleneck clams, corn cakes, and fried lobster tail with horseradish crème fraiche sauce

Course Three: Pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto

Course Four: Grilled venison sausage with a pear and celery root puree

Course Five: Turkey two ways (roasted and smoked) with twice-baked sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, whipped potatoes, and sausage dressing

Course Six: Pumpkin pie shots, banana cream pie shots, and caramel apple trifles

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke, who journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Black Sails" Will Be Back Soon!

I missed this when it came out last month, but Starz has started promoting the new season of Black Sails, the amazingly well-crafted "prequel" to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Last season was intense (and far superior to NBC's Crossbones in my view), with Captain Flint and Long John Silver barely surviving an attack by a Spanish Man O' War, and now their long-sought treasure is in sight. The new season premiers on January 24, so if we can survive the holidays, it looks like there will be some fantastic historical fiction on Starz beginning next year!

Billy Bones has to be back, right? . . .
Unless whoever was "Billy Bones" in Treasure Island stole his identity!
Photo courtesy of Starz.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Void in “Interstellar”

I’ve had very little time to write or blog this week, but I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar. While I’ve avoided talking about any of the plot twists, there are some minor spoilers, so venture on at your own risk.

To begin, I wish I had time to write a more thorough review, but I don’t. If you’re looking for one, here are four reviews (from Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and The Book Smugglers) that are generally consistent with my own feelings about the film. Also, let me briefly say that the movie is visually stunning and well-acted by Matthew McConaughy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Cane, and others. 

That said, I had two issues with Interstellar as large as the black hole at the center of the film. The first is the overly convenient plot that contains holes large enough to fly the Nostromo through. The world is dying for reasons only hinted at in the film. Whether due to overpopulation, climate change, or who knows, earth is ridden by violent dust storms and losing its capacity to grow food. Let’s just call it the Dust Apocalypse. During the Dust Apocalypse, science has become verboten, the Lunar Landings have officially been deemed a hoax designed to bankrupt the Soviet Union, and NASA has gone underground. Fortunately, a nearby corn farmer (McConaughy’s character) happens to live nearby. Also, before the Dust Apocalypse, he was a really good astronaut. Suffice it to say, he soon discovers secret NASA and they just happen to have a spacecraft that’s ready to travel interstellar through a wormhole near Saturn to find a new world for mankind.  

I can overlook certain things for the sake of plot, but I still scratch my head about this stuff. Who spends a gazillion dollars on an interstellar spacecraft without having a pilot, unless they intentionally built the secret NASA lab near McConaughy’s cornfield hoping he’d decide to leave his family and don his old spacesuit? It’s as if the rebels of Star Wars had built their secret base on Tatooine, hoping that Luke Skywalker might stumble onto it one day while taking his speeder for a joy ride.

Second, Interstellar is about saving the human race and going boldly where (almost) no man has gone before, but it’s virtually devoid of any notion or mention of religion or spirituality. Apparently, that died in the Dust Apocalypse, but I think the movie is emptier because of it. Contrast this with Contact, another film starring McCounaghy, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. That movie is filled with spiritual themes that concern the interplay (or conflict) between science and religion, and I found Contact to be a much more fulfilling tale. The absence of any talk of God or spirituality, when the whole point of the film is surviving extinction and exploring the great beyond, makes Interstellar a bit hollow in my view. There’s not even a hint of extraterrestrial life beyond the wormhole. Nothing but mankind trying to save itself, all alone in the universe. That’s not a future I want to believe in.

But this is just my short take. If you’ve seen the film, let me know—how did you feel about Interstellar?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction

The other day, I happened across a gorgeous compilation of tales by H.P. Lovecraft in my local Barnes & Noble. The book, whose cover features Cthulhu’s writhing tentacles in all their texturized glory, is titled The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, with an introduction by famous comic book author Alan Moore. Despite its hefty price tag, I snatched up the tome. And having brought it home, it has literally allowed me to rediscover vintage fantasy fiction.

I couldn't pass this one up!
This rediscovery wasn’t due so much to Lovecraft’s tales, though I am anxious to dig into my new book. Rather, it was the effort it took to find space for this huge tome on my bookshelf. After moving a few dozen volumes around, I ended up reorganizing a second set of shelves that had become the dumpster ground for old paperbacks. In doing so, I unearthed my original copies of the Conan novels by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter. While the original Conan tales were published in pulp fiction magazines during the early 1930s, Conan (#1) (the first of several compilations of those stories) came out in 1983, so it’s probably been 30 years since I first cracked its cover. I found myself opening that cover once again, and reading the book over a cold and breezy weekend. Here are a few of my observations.  

Still love this old cover.
First was the introduction on Robert E. Howard written by L. Sprague de Camp. The most surprising thing about Howard was how briefly he lived. He wrote prolifically during his twenties (from 1927 to 1936), and by his late twenties he was earning more money than any other writer in his home of Cross Plains, Texas. At age thirty, he took his own life.

According to de Camp, Howard was a bit like the characters he created: six feet tall and over 200 pounds, an accomplished boxer and horseman. He was brilliant, introverted and, as de Camp writes, “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” Perhaps not surpassingly, he was also a pen pal of H.P. Lovecraft. Conan the Barbarian was Howard’s favorite character, though he created other memorable ones in the genre de Camp calls “heroic fantasy,” such as Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane. Most interesting to me was that after World War II, Howard’s stories and heroic fantasy in general fell out of favor and almost disappeared. That is until 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. As we all know, Tolkien’s trilogy revived the genre and gave rise to the new era of fantasy fiction we are living in today. 

Robert E. Howard
Second was Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age, where he describes the history of the world he had built for Conan’s adventures. Interestingly, even though Conan was modeled on a Gaelic or Irish warrior, Howard chose to invent a pseudo-history for his stories because he feared that trying to use a historically-accurate setting would require too much time-consuming research. (As a writer of historical fantasy, I feel his pain!) As far as world building goes, the essay is a hot mess. Howard has taken disparate concepts from mythology and more recent history and literally blended them together. For example, he talks about the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, and goes on to describe their wars with the “savages” of that age – none other than the Picts! (While the Picts gave the Romans trouble in Late Antiquity, these painted Scots lived eons after the legendary Atlantis.) Throw in some concepts from Norse mythology, such as the Vanir of Vanaheim and Æsir of Asgard (who were gods in mythology, but are mere people like the Swedes and Danes in Conan’s time), add in a race named after the mythical river Styx and the “empire of Zimbabwe,” and welcome to the Hyborian world. To be fair, Howard was not a scholar like Tolkien and did not have access to all the historical resources we have today (imagine a world without Wikipedia – ye gads!). What he did have was a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Outline of Mythology published in 1913, and he apparently mined it for all it was worth.    

Finally, there are the stories themselves. This book consists of seven loosely connected short stories that all begin in the medias res with Conan pursued by wolves or guardsmen, or in the middle of a plan to steal some treasure. The young Conan of this book is a wandering adventurer, working as a thief in most of these tales, who inevitably finds himself alone in some haunted ruin or sorcerer’s lair, only to be confronted by a monster or some supernatural foe. As a barbarian, he can neither read nor write, so he solves problems with brute force. Let’s just say, there are no puzzle-like plots to be deciphered in his tales. This does not mean, however, that the stories are without mystery or twists. In fact, one of the best stories in the book, “The Tower of the Elephant,” featured an unexpected twist that most certainly was influenced by Howard’s friend, H.P. Lovecraft. Another tale, “The God in the Bowl,” begins as a murder mystery, but don’t expect Conan to play the role of Sherlock Holmes.

Many of the stories seem cliché, but that’s because I’m reading them in 2014 instead of the 1930s. Back then they were “original” adventure tales, and since they predated most forms of entertainment available today, they were probably damn entertaining. Imagine a time nearly fifty years before we met Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, or even Josie Wales and James Bond. Stories like Conan’s were among the most rollicking adventure tales around. This is just one reason why they are true classics, and I’m glad I rediscovered them.