It's 2018...but I don't see hover cars, colonies on Mars, or any of the other super-sweet stuff we were supposed to have by now. So I'm a little disappointed.
But we do have self-driving cars on the horizon, so at least there's still a chance we will all be enslaved by machines in the near future. Maybe Skynet will still become aware and try to kill us all. Or maybe we'll be enslaved by machines and get plugged into the matrix.
I had planned to post this just after Christmas while I had a few days to recuperate from the trip, but I just didn't have the time to put it all together. So here it is a week or two late. Beginning with the second eBook I started and finished on my Christmas vacation...
Speaking of Christmas, here's the present I received from my amazingly talented daughter, Emeli. It's hanging on my wall in my new cubicle at work (I'll have to show the new less-sweatshoppy digs one of these days).
I did a little reading while I was on my Christmas vacation, finishing one ebook that I'd been reading forever, a physical book that I'd been reading for a week or so before the vacation, and a couple of other books that I read in their entirety on the trip.
Didn't Get Frazzled
When the author of Didn't Get Frazzled, David Z Hirsch (a pseudonym), contacted me, I was still trying to get through Last Burial Night (mentioned below) and had lost most of my enthusiasm for ebooks. This request was a little different from many of the authors' requests I receive - Didn't Get Frazzled was published at least a year before I was approached, so either the outstanding quality of my book reviews has become common knowledge, or there's some random algorithm out there that keeps putting me on the radar of authors selling their books through Amazon. Either way I finally had a chance to read this ebook while on vacation and am happy to report that it was an enjoyable and enlightening read.
When I was approached by Dave (as he will henceforth be known) and offered a chance to read and review Didn't Get Frazzled a few months ago, his initial request contained these comments:
I have noticed from your Amazon reviews that you enjoy humorous novels. I have written a novel that you may enjoy called Didn't Get Frazzled, described as "unflaggingly funny" by Kirkus Reviews and "the best fictional portrayal of med school since ER" by BlueInk Review (starred review).
*INDIES Book of the Year Award Finalist (humor category) and 2017 International Book Awards Readers' Favorite Bronze Medal Winner in the Fiction - Humor/Comedy genre*
There are several comedic moments in Didn't Get Frazzled, but none that made me guffaw embarrassingly in front of anyone else, so I don't know that I would classify this as a "humorous" novel. I can think of many other complimentary adjectives to use, but I wouldn't put "funny" at the top of the list.
I don't know if the following excerpt is more "funny" or "touching," but I enjoyed it either way.
Rotating next through the pediatric emergency service, I met Santa Claus. Turns out, off-season Santa worked as a pediatrician. He called himself Dr. Joseph Goldberger, trimmed the beard, traded in the red coat for a button-down shirt and goofy tie, and covered it with a white jacket, pockets stuffed with pens and lollipops. He fooled none of us. How the press never knew I have no idea, but the man himself put little effort into concealing the obvious."
"Now, Olivia, are you going to be a good little girl?" Dr. Goldberger rested his hand on Olivia's diminutive shoulder.
The doctor angled toward her and continued in a stage whisper, "You don't want coal in your stocking, do you?"
Olivia's eyes lit up. She gasped in an adorably unsubtle way that only a young child can bestow. "Mommy, is he --" She mouthed the name.
Olivia's mommy embraced her daughter's excitement. "I don't know, honey. I guess you'd better be a good girl just in case."
Wide-eyed, the little girl covered her mouth, and for the rest of the visit, Dr. Goldberger treated what I presumed to be the best behaved three-year-old in the history of emergency medicine.
Didn't Get Frazzled was, for me anyway, an eye-opener about the rigors of becoming a doctor for those of us not in the medical profession. I've been aware of all the extra schooling required of those training for medical careers, but I wasn't really aware of how much more is involved than just endless, rigorous schooling. The massive time commitments of med students to accompany more experienced medical practitioners (not always full-MDs, surprisingly) as they perform their rounds, surgeries, examinations, etc is impressive. I thought the effort to get a B.S. was plenty - I can't imagine putting in all the extra time it takes to become an M.D. The book concludes with the protagonist's graduation from medical school, but does briefly mention the post-school requirements for becoming an M.D.
Here's an excerpt that provides a glimpse into the life of a med student, Seth, Didn't Get Frazzled's primary protagonist.
I remember when I realized how things had changed for me, how warped things had become. Halfway through anatomy last year, I walked into the lab and noticed this treasure chest of spare limbs. I remember thinking, 'Oh cool, we're starting extremities today.' Almost an hour passed before it hit me: 'Holy crap, there is a bin piled up with dead body parts.' Like something you might see on Halloween except actual, once-living limbs, severed from torsos. And what had I done? I ran over and searched for the best specimen -- not too fat, not too thin -- the optimal sinewy consistency to dissect out the vessels, muscles, and nerves. I rummaged through the bin as if I were selecting the perfect melon."
"At least you recognized the problem."
"Did I though? I decided to share my revelation with the group, and when I did, they all blew it off. 'Yeah, so, we're surrounded by dead bodies, what do a few extra limbs matter?' I didn't have an answer for that, because they were right. Once you've shifted your expectations that far over to the macabre, what real difference does a heap of severed limbs in a chest make? None. We were all long past being horrified. So you may be right. It's too late for me."
In addition to laying out the rigors of medical training for non-doctors like me, the book is also an interesting look into how difficult it is to maintain a social life, romantic or even platonic - with anyone who isn't going through these same experiences with you.
Here's a really brief moment near the end of Seth's relationship.
"I strained not to lash back at her. She liked to call me bitter. This was her new thing. My new thing was to view her as selfish and duplicitous, but at least I only insinuated it. April and I glared at each other from across the table. I had a feeling this might be our last night together."
I was never a big fan of ER, so I don't know if there was a lot of funny or medical school related storylines in its many episodes, but as I read Didn't Get Frazzled I often pictured the characters in a medical show I did watch: Scrubs. Many times I found myself hearkening back to the difficulties those young doctors-to-be struggled through, as I read Didn't Get Frazzled. But above all else, this is a book full of great stories (with names changes to protect the actual participants, no doubt). Here's a scene between the young doctor-in-training, Seth, and a veteran Nurse, Donna, that is a good example of the kind of doctor Seth is on the way to becoming.
"Donna, what's going on?"
"That lady out there is crazy. She thinks we're all partying it up in here when all we've been doing is working our asses off to help their children. You know, her son's up next, but I have half a mind to skip her the rest of the afternoon."
On another day, I might have let it go and waited out the last half-hour of my shift, but the thought of even one more suffering child consumed me with an impulsive fury.
"You wouldn't be skipping her -- you'd be skipping her son."
Donna swung toward me, her fiery eyes blazing into mine. "I know that, but who's going to go out there and talk to her?"
"I'm up for a new patient."
She placed her arms on her hips. "You really think she's going to let some white-boy medical student talk sense into her?"
Donna twisted her lips until she released a belly laugh. "Okay, Seth, you go right ahead." She passed me the clipboard.
I skimmed the page. Travon Taylor, chief complaint: sore throat. Donna tugged me by the arm and pointed though the glass at a woman shifting from one leg to the other while glaring at the TV. Near her, a five-year-old boy slumped at an odd angle in a chair.
"Good luck. Be sure the door locks behind you."
I passed her the clipboard and stepped through the waiting area until I faced the boy's mother. She ignored me.
"Hello, Mrs. Taylor. I'm Seth Levine, a medical student." I said this with as much effervescence as I would conjure, but she kept her gaze fixed on the TV screen, even when she responded.
"Oh great, another completely useless person who can't help me."
"Well, I'm a medical student, so I'm more of a mostly useless person who will at least try to help you."
That got her attention. Followed by a sneer. She stared back at the TV. I squatted until eye-level with her son.
"Hi, Travon. I'm Seth. How are you feeling?"
"My throat hurts." A glob of saliva dribbled out of his mouth.
"Tra-von, you wipe your mouth. See, he keep on drooling. How do I know he don't have no stroke? You people stay back in there and don't do nothing. I been here for hours, and I ain't heard nothing from nobody."
Now that I had her attention again, I stood to face her. "That sounds very frustrating."
"Frustrating! Are you touched in the head? You damn right it's frustrating. My child'll be dead before a doctor see him. Will you be happy then?"
"I wouldn't be happy."
Mrs. Taylor scanned the other moms in the crowd, but no one collaborated this time. I decided to keep talking before anyone did.
"Let me go see how long the wait is."
"Fine, you do that. You go back in there and leave the rest of us out here with our sick children who don't nobody wanna help.""
[jumping ahead a couple of pages...]
"The three of us joked around like old friends until Dr. Goldberger returned with a prescription. Mrs. Taylor thanked him and gave me a bear hug. Travon shared his infectious spittle with me one last time, and the two of them exited the room. Before I could do the same, Dr. Goldberger closed the door, trapping both of us inside. I stood motionless, drawing up the last of my emotional reserves to prepare for whatever he had in store.
"Excellent work today."
I smiled. "Thank you."
He rubbed his white beard and stared at me while I anticipated an "except" or "however" to temper his compliment. "Do you know why I said you did excellent work today?""
"Because, um, I knew the bacterial causes of otitis media?"
He shook his head in cheerful bemusement. "I expected you to know that. You're nearing the end of your pediatrics block, you should know all the facts by now, but even if you didn't, you could always learn them later. No, you did excellent work today because you helped that little boy, more than anyone else here. I made the diagnosis and prescribed the antibiotic, but that was the easy part. Calming the mother down so we could provide proper care for her son -- that was the hard part.
"From what the nurses told me, she was so agitated and upset she may have left before her son got the care he needed. You kept her here and you kept her calm, and you did it with empathy. This is something we can't teach, something that's either a part of you or it isn't. And the most impressive part is you didn't get frazzled. Many people would have become angry or defensive. They would have taken her abusive behavior personally or been more concerned with themselves instead of having the wherewithal to do what was needed to help that little boy." He laid his hand on my shoulder. "You did a good thing today."
I wanted to respond, but the words lodged in my throat. A stinging fire flashed into my eyes. I used all my remaining strength not to cry in front of my attending.
"That's a skill which takes years to perfect, and many never do. You're well on your way, Seth. You're going to be an excellent physician.""
"Yeah, that was me, Mr. Didn't-get-frazzled. "
Warning: Didn't Get Frazzled is not a book for children. There is no shortage of profanity or sexual content, which makes me a little sad. I would have loved to share this book with my own kids, one of whom has expressed an interest in the psychiatric medical field (the training for which does get a mention in the book). But until they're adults and have brains that are no longer being mis-shaped by the world around them, Didn't Get Frazzled won't be a book I feel comfortable sharing with either of them.
Above all else, let me assure you this is a well-written book. The author is not only grammatically proficient, he knows how to tell a coherent story with a real beginning, middle, and end. He also does good job of developing the book's protagonist, Seth; you'll feel very well acquainted with Seth by the book's end. Many of the other characters in the book are a little less-developed and sometimes confusingly vague, but they serve their primary purpose of fleshing out the story, even if they dissipate and are forgotten as they move off stage. Also, unlike Last Burial Night (below), I have many, many unused quotes from Didn't Get Frazzled that I found thought-provoking and share-worthy.
The Sea People
For those of you familiar withe Change/Emberverse novels of SM Stirling, you will notice a couple of differences in The Sea People from the previous books in the series: 1) None of the action in the story takes place in the mainland United States/Montival-proper. At least not in the same time/universe. And 2) One of the primary characters in the story, Pip (there are six or seven real primary characters), was created by an author other than Steve Stirling. Pip is from The Change anthology of guest-authored stories set in the Emberverse universe (barely mentioned last year during my year of failures to talk about what I was reading). 1
Pip, the borrowed Australian princess, is a great character. She dresses like Alex from A Clockwork Orange (the movie version of him, anyway - I don't remember if the book version of the character had the same wardrobe) has and interesting assortment of armaments - a heavy-headed cane (another Alex reference), a wrist rocket slingshot, and a set of large knives, and her speech patterns and observations of the various Montivalian faux-Irish/Scotsmen's attire, accents, and customs is well done from a non-American perspective. Which is interesting, because Steve Stirling is an American, so the well-roundedness of her character must have come through a lot of research. I think there was even usage of droogs (another A Clockwork Orange shout out) a couple of times in the story, but I didn't note it and can't find it now.
Here are a couple of Pip's scenes (not the most descriptive, but the best I could find, flipping through the book).
Deor jerked upright from where he had been leaning against the wall that separated them from Wilde's chambers.
"What?" Thora said.
Pip and Toa waited wordless, Deor looked shaken, his narrow clever race staring and beaded with more sweat than the cool spring night could account for.
"Something has been unsheathed," he said. "A weapon, malignant as Tyrfing. Quickly! We must stop it. The time of testing approaches."
Pip ghosted to the door and looked out through a narrow crack, holding a hand out with fingers spread to check the others until she'd made sure of the way, they didn't have any lights on inside, so the opening would be darkness within darkness, and her eyes perceived the dimly lit hallway as bright. A tall horse-faced man was shambling out of Wilde's rooms.
Weapon? she thought. What weapon?
Then there was a glint of steel in his right hand, held down by the side of his leg. She blinked in surprise, yes, that was an inconspicuous location but surely she should have seen it at once? It wasn't as if she was a virgin with respect to matters concerning sharp, pointy-stabby things.
"Man with a knife, heading downstairs," Pip murmured.
"You follow him, l'll take this side," Toa said, climbing out the window above the alley, tossing his shovel onto something that made a dull thug
This one's a little less Pip-ish, but shows a a glimpse of the cross-dimensional weirdness of the story.
Catapults and crossbows she understood intuitively, but apparently it had translated.
Thora tucked the weapon into the belt over her shirtwaist, and checked that it was ready to her hand under the loose thigh-length jacket that completed the outfit. Pip made certain that she could get to her kukris quickly, and pulled a few more ball-bearings out into the palm of her hand.
Constance Hawberk had been looking at them with growing puzzlement. "Thank . . . you again, all of you. And you, Miss Balwyn. I've never met anyone like you, but I'm glad I did."
"You're very welcome. Just doing my bit," Pip said, feeling a little guilty as they filed out into the corridor.
"Now for Wilde," Deor said as the door closed and locked behind them and something heavy was drawn up against it. "Vance isn't important anymore - and Wilde is another step towards Prince John."
"Why couldn't I hit the bastard?" Toa said plaintively.
Deor shrugged with a wry smile. "Because we are in a story, my friend, a story about things that once happened. Happened in another place that no amount of physical travel could find, or inconceivably long ago, or both. And the . . . forgive me, l must use a term from my art . . . the narrative structure of this story had Vance using this-"
He moved the knife slightly.
"-to kill the young lady and her lather. When we disrupted that, it pushed back to restore events to the original . . . plot."
Toa looked slightly alarmed. "This . . . you-know-who bugger . . . he was doing it?"
"Not directly," Deor said. "Not yet. For that Power to do so would rip the fabric of this story apart, and this story is very important to It; one source of Its strength. No, what has happened here is that we have . . . written ourselves is the only way l can put it . . . into the story and are turning it towards our own purposes, a little at least. And the story itself is fighting us. Events try to reshape themselves towards the original ending"
As I briefly mentioned above, much of this story takes place in multiple alternate universes (jumping across different centuries, but always in a bizzare version of the US of A) filled with creepy monsters - some unbelievable and magical and many just monstrously evil. I'm not entirely sure if these alternate universes are supposed to be real (similar to the Long Earth books by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter or Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves) or if they're just some weird drug-induced dream sequence in Prince John's head...I suspect the former, though. Either way, the departure from real-world (okay, I admit that the basic premise of the change makes the whole series a departure from the "real world") could possibly make the book less-readable for some. I read everything, so the quality of the author's writing is more important to me than the setting/mechanics of the author's imagined unverse. Steve Stirling is definitely a skilled writer with a head full of knowledge that lends weight to his words - a lifelong student of history in general and specifically military history. His battle scenes are very detailed and a pleasure to read. Here's an excerpt from one of the great naval battles in the book.
Naysmith stiffened. "What the devil?" she said, looking at the latex message from the kite-observer and then through her own glass. "They're not opening out into line! They're all heading straight for us! That's suicide."
She turned to the signaler. "Flanking ships advance. Captain Edwards, take in sail. lf they're willing to stick their heads into a sack, we'll oblige them."
Sea-Leopard heeled under the recoil of her broadside of twenty-four-pounder catapults. The roundshot slashed out, invisible except as blurred streaks, and the Korean warship coming in on the port quarter seemed to stagger in the water. Orlaith could hear the crunching sound of the cast-steel globes racking into the timbers of the enemy ship. Splinters flew skyward amid screams. At least it wasn't napalm shell or firebolt; two more of the enemy ships burned like torches not far behind them and sent the black slanting pillars of their funeral pyres into the sky, but this one was too close to risk setting it afire. Pumps were jetting water over the Sea Leopard's decks anyway, and down the thin sheet metal that guarded the wooden hull. Special squads waited with the foam-gear that could extinguish chemical fire.
More screams of pain and mortal terror came from the waist of the Korean craft, where several of the heavy metal balls smashed through the gunwales and went through ranks of men kneeling behind them. Men too tightly packed to dodge even if they'd had time.
What flew skyward from those impacts wasn't splinters, except from a few of the polearms the soldiers carried. It was parts of men, and if you looked closely you could see that they splashed as much as breaking.
"For what we are about to receive . . ." some Christian with a sense of humor said.
The metallic twangs from the enemy ship were fewer in number; six, she thought. And subtly different, probably because the engineering tradition behind their design was. Natural law set the limits for what the students of the mechanic arts could do, but styles differed from nation to nation within those bounds. The massive fabric of the ship shuddered a bit, and something flashed by overhead too fast to see. Bits fell - severed ends of rope, and a block-and-tackle that caught in the netting overhead. Shouts sounded harsh as orders were barked and the topmen cleared the rigging above, with their clasp knives in their teeth.
Then the frigate's broadside cut loose again, she could see in her mind the crews longing up and down at the handles of the cocking mechanisms below, and the grunts as the shot were levered into the troughs. The enemy ship was only a few hundred yards away now, within long bowshot, and there was an explosion of spray and splinters as the heavy metal struck at the waterline. The bow jerked down as water flooded in, rammed home by the forward momentum of the ship. Then the thick stay-lines that held the foremast in place and transmitted the force of the wind to the hull snapped, writhing across the deck like thigh-thick whips with bone-cracking force.
The tall mast was a composite, smaller timbers fitted and bound together with shrunk-on hoops, not a single trunk like the Sea Leopard's Sitka spruce sparage. It was nearly as strong, but when it failed . . . as its writhing bend showed it was about to do . . .
"Duck!" Orlaith shouted crisply, petty officers were echoing it all the way down the hundreds of feet of deck.
She suited action to words by knocking down her visor and going to one knee with her shield up.
The enemy ship's mast shattered like one of the fabled bombs of the ancient world. The huge strain on the length of it turned into energy in motion as splinters and chunks scythed outward.
If I wasn't so distracted by the good stuff on TV, the silly games on my tablet and computer, the web sites I'm forever trying to update, the Android class I was taking that I just finished mid-December, and all the other demands on my time, I would have easily finished this book in a day, maybe two, instead of dragging it out over a couple of weeks.
Last Burial Night
I started reading Last Burial Night in August of 2017. The author, Osaze Ehigiator, hadn't yet released the book on Amazon and was hoping to get some positive spin for his book's release. I was reading another physical book at the time I started Last Burial Night, Thrawn or maybe The Lincoln Myth, so I didn't jump right into reading it. Also, as I've mentioned a time or two, I'm not a huge fan of the eBook medium, so reading Last Burial Night wasn't really a priority. Any time that I'm reading and enjoying a real book, it's not likely I'll spend much time reading an eBook. And the biggest factor for the long time it took to finish reading Last Burial Night - it just wasn't that well-written. I think I finished reading four physical books and at least one other eBook since I began reading Last Burial Night. So it pretty much required me being on a vacation without any of the books on my reading shelf to get all the way though it.
Last Burial Night is a difficult story to define. Even the actual time/location of the events in the story is kind of indefinable. I couldn't tell if the author was creating a completely fictitious universe to play in (though one with no significant differences in technology from our present-day universe) or if only the characters and events of the story were intended to be fictitious. I just couldn't tell. Everything seemed to be intentionally vague. I did see clues throughout the text that I made assumptions based upon, but they were really just guesses. Among the many confusing clues are references to Jews, Gentiles, India, Africa, English, the Fifth Amendment, and the "Savanna South and the Eastern Jungle". Sometimes I think the setting is somehow America. other times it sounds like Africa or some island nation (Madagascar?) near Africa. I just couldn't tell.
Our province enjoyed a culture of excess before the storm. We were the only true superpower, considering wealth, power, and influence. We coughed, and the entire world quivered. We had conquered space, land, and ocean.
Maximo's real name was Erick Gomez. AL D Loco named him Maximo because of his huge body frame and fierce look. He had African, Latino, and Native American blood - super mixed genes. He was also from a family of bootleggers and had some outlaws in his blood, just like my granddad
As for dominant themes in the story, discrimination/race relations figured big in the story, but I was never sure what race any of the characters actually were. Again, there were clues, but no answers.
According to them, mountaineers - often called "M" for short - blame us for all their troubles because of the expulsion of their fathers from their God-given promised land.
I think it's better to judge people by class than skin color. But when the majority from any particular group behaves...
Those are simple facts," I said. "It applies to all ethnicities. No hoodlum gets respect, no matter his ethnicity. That's class and economics, not race."
Many people don't want to hear it from a person or group they consider as oppressors and especially not from the so-called 'winning race.' A few of my mom's friends don't like their children or anyone around them using it, period. They say it reminds them of plantation history, which is still very recent in their recollections. Same reason they don't order plantation salad in restaurants."
They also said you guys can't jump either, but you jump higher than a kangaroo.
The most interesting aspect of the story, for me, anyway, was the asteroid making en route to impact the Earth. I was expecting more of a Lucifer's Hammer type story (or Deep Impact, if you're a movie person) - complete with all the running around and panicking as the time to impact ticks down, followed by the details on how the survivors manage to survive in the madness that follows. Sadly, the event that should have been the focus of the story was little more than a plot mechanism to get the central character into his own little Hunger Games/Maze Runner type survival situation. And that might have been enough to carry the story, if not for the bigger flaws in the novel.
Bigger flaw #1: The dialogue between characters never sounds real. The word usage is all wrong, the tone of the dialogue goes from too formal to Napoleon Dynamite (there are several occurrences of "Dang"). There are way too many examples of seventeen year-old Drew explaining everything from botany, animal physiology, and jungle survival skills to the other, older, characters. And there's often just unending streams of dialogue with no clear indication of who's speaking or what's happening beyond the endless speaking. The stage is never set.
Bigger flaw #2: Grammatical and typographical errors abound.
The odd grammar is more prevalent than the small number of typographical errors I saw. Verb tenses jump back and forth between present and past - sometimes within the same sentence. All these oddities led me to believe that the author doesn't speak English as his first language. For me, the irregular writing/grammar was the biggest distraction and made the story almost unreadable.
Bigger flaw #3: The characters - even Drew, the star of the story - are two-dimensional. There's no real effort to get inside the heads of any of them or to explain who they are.
I noted a million things about the book that took me out of the story and made it very difficult to finish, but there weren't really any examples of things that I really found interesting. So I guess...the gist of all this rambling that you probably shouldn't plunk down any of your hard-earned cash for this book. At least not if you enjoy well-written/edited prose.
The Rooster Bar
Jon Grisham books are hard to sum up. Not because they are overly complex or incomprehensible, but mainly, I guess, because I don't want to give anything away. I could share excerpts from the story, but none really stand out much more than any other. They're all good. This is a typical John Grisham story; complete with lawyers, FBI agents, deep-pocketed crooks, and, of course, at least one agenda item of the left - the perils of being an immigrant.
I picked my copy of The Rooster Bar from the Science Fiction Book Club because it was a couple of bucks cheaper than Costco and because they seemed to have turned over a new leaf in regard to miniaturizing their books. Big mistake. The last several Sci-Fi genre books I've purchased from the SFBC have all been full-sized, but The Rooster Bar was scaled down to about 3/4 of the normal size (as were all the SFBC books in the old days).
One thing that was a little different in this John Grisham novel - and often amusing - was the email correspondence between the drop-out law school students and the loan officers servicing their school loans.
Todd said, "I guess we need to stay away from the criminal courts."
"Oh, yes. Those days are over. No more hustling the poor and oppressed."
"What about our pending cases? We can't just drop these people."
Mark said, "That's exactly what we'll do. We can't close these cases because we can't risk going back to court. Again, those days are over. Starting now, don't take any phone calls from a client or
anyone else for that matter. Let's use prepaid cell phones to keep in touch and ignore all other calls."
Zola said, "I'm already carrying two phones. Now a third?"
"Yes, and we have to monitor all of them to see who's looking for us," Mark said.
"And my days as a hospital vulture are over?" she asked and managed a smile.
"You weren't very good at it," Todd said.
"Thanks. I hated every minute of it."
A manager walked over and said, "Hey, Todd, you're on tonight. We're shorthanded and need you now."
"Be there in a sec," Todd said and waved the guy off. When he was gone, Todd asked, "So, gang, what's next?"
"We go after Swift Bank," Mark said.
"And dig a deeper hole," Zola replied, but it was not a question.
MORGANA NASH AT NowAssist sent Mark an e-mail that read,
Dear Mark: I have just been informed by the administration at Foggy Bottom Law School that you have been placed on withdrawal status. I called the law school and was informed that you have not been to class this semester. This is very troubling.
Please contact me immediately.
Last installment Jan. 13, 2014: $32,500; total principal/interest: $266,000.
Sincerely, Morgana Nash, Public Sector Representative
Late that night, and after several more beers, Mark responded,
Dear Ms. Nash: Last week my therapist had me admitted to a private psychiatric hospital in rural Maryland. I'm not supposed to use the Internet but these clowns around here are not too sharp. Would you please stop hounding me? According to one shrink here I'm borderline suicidal. A bit more abuse from you and I could go over the edge. Please, please, leave me alone!!
LOVE, Mark Frazier
Rex Wagner of Scholar Support Partners e-mailed Todd:
Dear Mr. Lucero: I have been informed by your law school that you are now officially considered "Withdrawn." I called the law school and was told that you have not attended a single class this semester, your last before graduation. Why would any sane student drop out of law school during his last semester? If you are not in school I can only assume you are working somewhere, probably in a bar. Employment of any nature while not enrolled in school triggers either the need for a repayment plan or, in the absence of one, default. Default, as I'm sure you know, means a lawsuit filed against you by the Department of Education. Please contact me immediately.
Last installment; $32,500, Jan. 13, 2014; total due: $195,000
Sincerely, Rex Wagner, Senior Loan Counselor
While Mark was typing his response to Morgana Nash, Todd fired off one to his loan counselor.
Dear SS Counselor Wagner; You hit the nail on the head with that sanity question. Nothing is sane about my world these days, most especially my insurmountable debts. 0kay, the fix is in. Jig's up. I dropped out because I hate the law school, hate the law, etc. I'm currently earning about $200 a week, cash, tending bar. So let's say that's $800 a month, tax-free because I haven't filled out those forms yet. To maintain my impoverished lifestyle, I need about $500 a month for food, rent, things like that. And you should see where I'm living and what I'm eating. Analyzing these figures, I suppose I could agree to a repayment plan of something like $200 a month, beginning in six months. I know you'll hit the "Interest" button as soon as possible and kick in the 5 percent per annum. Five percent of $195,000 is about $9,750 a year. Let's just round it to $10,000 in interest. Under my proposed repayment scheme, I can swing about a fourth of that each year. You loan sharks will then add the interest in arrears to the ballooning principal, and hit that with another 5 percent per year. The math gets a bit bewildering, but my spreadsheet says that in ten years I will owe almost $400,000. And this does not include all the little secret fees and add-ons and other illegalitles that SSP has been caught padding onto the student loans it handles. (I've read the lawsuits and, boy, would I love to file one myself. You and your company should be ashamed - piling hidden fees onto the backs of students already drowning in debt.)
So, are you willing to accept my offer of $200 a month? Beginning in six months, of course.
Your pal, Todd Lucero
Evidently, Mr. Wagner was working late, or, as Todd imaqined, was sitting in his recliner, in nothing but his boxers, watching porn and monitoring his e-mails. Within minutes he replied.
Dear Todd: The answer is no. Your offer is ridiculous. I find it hard to believe that a person as clever as you will spend the next ten years mixing drinks. There are plenty of good jobs out there, law related and otherwise, and if you'll get off your butt you can find one. Then we can have a serious conversation about repayment.
Sincerely, Rex Wagner. Senior Loan Counselor
To which Todd immediately replied,
Dear SS: Great. I withdraw my offer. T.L.
Zola's correspondence was slightly more professional. Tildy Carver at LoanAid wrote,
Dear Zola Maal; I have been informed that you have withdrawn from law school. Such a dramatic action presents several issues and we must discuss them at once. Please call or e-mail me as soon as possible.
Tildy Carver, Senior Loan Adviser
Last installment, January 13, 2014: $32,500; total principal and interest: $191,000
Zola was almost asleep. She responded,
Dear Ms. Carver: After the suicide of my friend in January, I found it impossible to continue with my studies. So I decided to take a gap semester instead, with the possible plan of resuming law school in a year or so. I will contact you later.
Sincerely, Zola Maal
I don't know how many of John Grisham's Fictional books have been based on actual events, but the actual story he read that led to this novel's creation is identified in the Author's Note.
As usual, I played fast and loose with reality, especially the legal stuff. Laws, courthouses, procedures, statutes, firms, judges and their courtrooms, lawyers and their habits, all have been fictionalized at will to suit the story.
Mark Twain said he moved entire states and cities to fit his narrative. Such is the license given to novelists, or simply assumed by them.
Alan Swanson guided me through the streets of D.C. Bobby Moak, a tort specialist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, once again reviewed the manuscript. Jennifer Hulvey at the University of Virgina School of Law walked me through the complex world of student lending. Thanks to all. They are not to be blamed for my mistakes.
The question all writers hate is: "Where do you get your ideas?" With this story the answer is simple. I read an article in the September 2014 edition of The Atlantic titled "The Law School Scam." It's a fine investigative piece by Paul Campos. By the end of it, I was inspired and knew I had my next novel.
Thank you, Mr. Campos.
I wasn't familiar with the events from the September 2014 story in The Atlantic, so, for me, this book wasn't just a fictionalized re-telling of those events. Even if it had been a familiar story to me, I'm still all-in for new John Grisham books because of the way he develops and humanizes his characters, suspensfully lays out the twists and turns of the story, and then wraps everything up in a neat little bow by the story's conclusion - sure, a sequel could be written, but there's no need for it. We know how the story ends and that's good enough.
More Douglas Adams Dr Who fun
I received an email from Barnes and Noble soon after finishing City of Death about another James Goss-polished Douglas Adams Dr Who script-turned-novel to be published in March. This one features characters familiar to anyone who has read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the nefarious Krikkitmen. Here's what I know - this was apparently a "long-lost" story that was never turned into a Dr Who episode, featuring the Doctor and the same companion from City of Death, Romana. It is based on extensive notes and what sounds like a rough outlie for a story found in Douglas's archive.
Here's the description from the email - or possible the web site. As I mentioned, it sounds an awful lot like a familiar scene in THHGTTG...
Intergalactic war? That's just not cricket ... or is it?
The Doctor promised Romana the end of the universe, so she's less than impressed when what she gets is a cricket match. But play is soon interrupted by eleven figures in white uniforms and peaked skull helmets, wielding bat-shaped weapons that fire lethal bolts of light into the screaming crowd.
The Krikkitmen are back.
Millions of years ago, the people of Krikkit learned they were not alone in the universe, and promptly launched a xenophobic crusade to wipe out all other life-forms. After a long and bloody conflict, the Time Lords imprisoned Krikkit within an envelope of Slow Time, a prison that could only be opened with the Wicket Gate key, a device that resembles - to human eyes, at least - an oversized set of cricket stumps...
From Earth to Gallifrey, from Bethselamin to Devalin, from Krikkit to Mareeve II to the far edge of infinity, the Doctor and Romana are tugged into a pan-galactic conga with fate as they rush to stop the Krikkitmen gaining all five pieces of the key. If they fail, the entire cosmos faces a fiery retribution that will leave nothing but ashes...
I plan on buying this one before it hits the discount rack, in anticipation of James Goss doing another stellar job of penning a book with Douglas Adams's voice. I wish Goss had been chosen to continue the Hitchhiker's series, instead of Eoin Colfer.
1 Those of you lucky enough to have read the books in the original Thieves' World anthology will be familiar with the shared-universe concept of The Change. I really need to go into depth about Thieves' World and my favorite character, Shadowspawn, one of these days...