Greetings! Welcome to the Chateau!


Within its corridors you will find insight into the books I have written, the books I am writing and the books I am thinking about writing.

It is also a place where I can offer insights into my favorite authors and - in the case of my game Conqueror: Fields of Victory - I can explain my rules and offer new variants.

Scroll down or check the sidebar for my latest posts.

Standalone books:

Battle Officer Wolf

Scorpion's Pass

The Man of Destiny Series:

A Man of Destiny

Rise of the Alliance

Fall of the Commonwealth

The Imperial Rebellion

Wargaming:

Conqueror: Fields of Victory, Revised Edition


A new year and a new review: North and South miniseries

Happy New Year!  Hopefully you didn't over-indulge last night.  We passed the evening quietly, which suited my mood after watching Michigan State's toothless offense give away yet another winnable game.

But let us move to happier topics.

One of my Christmas gifts was the complete North and South miniseries trilogy on DVD.  This sprawling epic can't be contained in a single review, and besides, I haven't finished re-watching all of them.  So today we will concentrate on the first entry, North and South (sometimes called North and South Book I).

Before digging in, it's worth recalling that this film is very much a creature of its time, when the "big three" networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) dominated the popular culture.  It's strange to read about shows "dominating" ratings these days with only a couple of million or so viewers out of a global audience, but the marketplace has gotten a lot more fragmented.  Back in the 1980s, however, you could have 60 million people watching a given show each week.

The advertising revenue generated by reaching such a vast population was considerable, and thus the networks would pull out all the stops to generate what they called "a major television event."

North and South was such an event.  Running over six consecutive nights, it had a cast of - well, if not thousands - dozens at least.  It was a hodge-podge of emerging talent (notably Patrick Swayze), contemporary network television stars (such as Inga Swenson and Robert Guillaume from "Benson") as well as tons of cameos from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Johnny Cash and Gene Kelly, to name but a few.

It's based on the book of the same name by John Jakes which I never bothered to read.  The plot has numerous twists and turns but we can summarize simply by saying it is a sprawling drama about the fates of two families - one from the north, one the south - in the two decades before the Civil War. 

At the heart of the tale are two men, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) who meet as cadets at West Point.  They will forge their lifelong friendship through the harsh hazing and discipline of the U.S. Military Academy and later on the battlefields of the Mexican War.

The families are set up as mirrors of each other, with the Mains being aristocratic planters in South Carolina while the Hazards are foundry owners in bustling Pennsylvania.  Each character is an archetype from the era. 

George's older brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes before he became Will Riker of Star Trek fame), is an unscrupulous businessman run by his ambitious wife.  George's younger sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley before the weight gain) is a fanatical abolitionist.  Rounding out the brood is youngest brother Billy, (John Stockwell), who will follow George to West Point when he's old enough.  Inga Swenson plays the matriarch who tries to keep everyone from turning on each other.

Meanwhile, south of the Mason-Dixon line there is Orry's father Tillett (Mitchell Ryan) and his wife Clarissa (Jean Simmons) plus their children: the afore-mentioned Orry and two daughters, Brett and Ashton

Brett is the baby of the brood, and the "good" sister, played by none other than Genie Francis, who was a household name when soap operas were still a culture touchstone (her character's wedding on General Hospital still holds the record for daytime viewership).  Brett's older sister Ashton (Terri Garber) is the wild child of the family, consumed by malice, lust and ambition.

The interactions of these two tumultuous families will keep things moving for 12 hours of serious melodrama.

And I do mean drama.  Everything about the show is dramatic, much of it due to the classic television tropes that were at their zenith.  Some might say they date the show, but everything is a product of its time and it's best to savor the closeup-before-cutaway transitions that drive the pacing.

Who could forget David Carradine's utterly over-the-top portrayal of a sadistic southern plantation owner whose chief delights are whipping slaves and beating his wife?  Kirstie Alley throws caution to the wind as her character literally turns into a raving lunatic.

Passion!  Violence!  Intrigue!  Betrayal!  It's all there, larger than life set on a historical stage that while not entirely accurate, helps elevate the show beyond the lurid plot lines of Dynasty and Dallas, it's contemporaries on the tube.

Some might wonder why a guy would watch this, given the soapyness, but there's tons of righteous action and made-for-tv violence.   All the chewing on scenery makes the inevitable fight sequences that much more satisfying when the time for talk is finally over.

Yeah, sometimes the historical situations or figures feel contrived, and there's something wonderfully awkward about how the characters try to work an American History lesson into their dialogue ("not all Southerners support slavery, you know"), but at least the costuming is great.

An undisputed strength is Bill Conti's theme and score, which rises to the occasion.  You may not know Bill Conti's name, but odds are you know his music. There is also excellent ambient music, much of it using instruments of the time.

Though it may seem a minor detail, I have to admit the title sequence to the show is outstanding, especially backed with Conti's soaring theme.  The line drawings of the characters and scenes have the look of actual sketches from the period.  Usually when binge-watching a show, I fast-forward over the credits, but not here.

In short North and South represents the television miniseries geared for a big audience at its zenith.   To bring relative unknowns onto the small screen with seasoned regulars and peppered with Hollywood legends playing bit parts just for fun and attention is something we simply don't see any more.

As to the story itself, it grows on you.  There is a level of cheesiness to the thing, but that only adds to its charm.  The fact is that there are some clunky moments but also great performances here, and it's easy to understand why so many careers took off after this series aired.


A fresh look at Beren and Luthien

I think J.R.R. Tolkien is unique in having more of his work published after his death than it was while he was alive.  This is due to the incredible labors of his son, Christopher, who has finally rested from his work.

The last three efforts of the younger Tolkien were not so much new material, but a consolidation of the three "Great Tales" of the Middle Earth mythos: The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.

I just finished reading the middle work (Beren and Luthien) and it is excellent, though not in the conventional way.

All three of these stories go back to the very beginning of the elder Tolkien's writing career, some portions being written while he was still in the army during the Great War.  As such they have a rawness that his later, more familiar work, lacks.

In the case of Beren and Luthien, the germ of the story is the romance between Tolkien and his young wife.  One day, while on convalescent leave, the pair chanced to enter a woodland glade and there Edith Tolkien danced for a while in the grass.  Her husband carried it with him for the rest of his life and fiction fans will know that is how Beren first became enamored of the elf-princess Luthien Tinuviel.

Decades later, their gravestones would carry the inscription of "Beren" and "Luthien" as the tale met its real-life completion.

This book explains that and other details and carries the story forward not just on its own, but through the decades that followed as its author continually revised it.  Some new parts were added but other ones disappeared without any explanation.

One of these was Tivaldo, Prince of Cats, a marvelous villain and servant of Morgoth.  I've seen some reviewers express disappointment that so much of the content of this book has been released before, but the passages with Tivaldo and his feline minions are worth the price of admission alone.  It's humbling to see just how creative this guy was.

That said, much of the material has been published before, but never in a single, stand-alone volume, and never organized so seamlessly.  This isn't like the earlier studies with extensive footnotes and variant passages.  Christopher has taken great care to make the transitions between different sources flow seamlessly.

The effect is less a scholarly study and more like a gather of lore masters, each offering their tradition on how a great legend should go.  One finishes, leans back from circle and takes a drink while another comes forward.  "This is how our people remember the tale," he says and then offers his variation.

The upshot is that if you think this is a mere pastiche of The Silmarillion, you are very, very wrong.  There are passages of intense detail here that have either never before been published or were buried in the volume the other materials provided to the public.

In fact, this book also makes a good introduction to The Silmarillion, since it carries a brief summary of the world and then gets into the action.  Long-time Tolkien readers may not appreciate how much more accessible this approach is to a younger generation.

One final note: for all the 'girl power' nonsense of our age, I can't think of a modern heroine who approaches the stature and character of Luthien Tinuviel.  She alone manages to humble Morgoth on his dark throne, yet she doesn't do it by acting like Turin in a skirt. 

What Tolkien has done is create a uniquely feminine hero - vulnerable and loving - but also powerful enough to alter the course of history.

She doesn't toss balrogs aside or cross blades with orc-chiefs (she never even carries a weapon) but instead uses the enchantment of her voice and dance to awe and confuse her adversaries.  Beren provides the muscle, but she provides the heart and inner strength and together they achieve the impossible.


Shutdown for the holidays

I'm not following the news closely, but apparently the federal government is in "shutdown mode."  It's hard to tell because this is an extended holiday weekend.  The president was kind enough to give us Monday off, Tuesday is Christmas so I don't think anyone will notice until Wednesday morning.

All in all, it's as good a time for a political pie fight as any, and it helps illustrate the fact that our government is a lot more complex and sprawling than people realize.

The postal service seems unaffected, and that's the part most people deal with.  Same with the entitlement programs, which are on a financial autopilot.

It's interesting that the state of Michigan (where I used to work) doesn't have this ability to shut odd parts down while leaving the rest intact.  This is because that state's constitution requires it to operate on an annual cycle, so if that gets messed up, everything grinds to a halt. 

Back in before the present constitution was adopted (in 1963), there were payless paydays for state employees because the budget was botched (and revenues fell short).  Again, other than a hiccup a few years back (which was exaggerated for political effect), our term-limited amateurs in Lansing seem to be able to handle the annual appropriation thing much better than the long-serving "professionals" in Washington.

Maybe there's a lesson there.

At any rate, I hope everyone can take a break from current events and simply enjoy the season.  The kids are old enough that the old excitement is gone and we mostly relish time away from work and school, making cookies and catching up with old friends.

Merry Christmas!

 


Happy Thanksgiving Deadline!

When I started my newest project, one of the goals was for a quick turnaround.  An unexpected military deployment (to a class, nothing serious) threw that into doubt, but I'm still hoping that I can get the rough draft completed over Thanksgiving weekend.

And for that I'm thankful.

I'm also grateful for the continued interest and reviews posted by my readers.  Last year saw a surge in sales and while the volume has fallen, there continues to be a steady drip of sales, which is nice.

Not bad considering my marketing budget is essentially $0.00.

I'm looking forward to spending the day relaxing with family and taking a break from the hassles of the world.  I hope you and yours are able to do the same and enjoy a safe and happy Thanksgiving.


Veterans Day 2018 and a third-generation bugler

This morning I got up - and as I've done every year since 1991 - played "Taps" at precisely 11 a.m. to mark the end of World War I.

For 17 of those years I've been uniform, carrying on a family tradition of sorts.

I've played "Taps" at the funerals of both of my grandfathers, rendering them final military honors for their service during World War II.

I will likely play it for my father, who was a reservist during the 1960s. 

My father's grandfather was a bugler during the Great War, seeing combat duty in France and later serving in the Army of Occupation.  He wrote an account of his military service and I was interested to see that he and I visited some of the same places in Europe during our military careers. 

People today have lost much of their sense of history.  Ours is a generation with an obsessive compulsion about the present and the near-future.  We forget the past and ignore the future.

But the past continues to shape our future and it's crucial to look back to where we came from to have an idea of where we might go.

In a lot of ways, we're still working out the problems that emerged a century ago.  The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting chaos in the middle east, the legacy of colonialism in Africa and even the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in China are still driving events.

Three generations after my great-grandfather marched in the victory parade for the War to End All Wars, they're still with us. 


The futures we didn't get

My latest project on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is moving at a crawl. 

Actually, that's not true - the pace is a crawl, but it's moving in fits and starts.  A week ago I cranked out more than 3,ooo words in a single evening.  Since then:  nothing.

I admit, part of that was Halloween, which takes up extra time.  A week from now I might have written 10,000 words.  It's hard to say.

What makes this project different from the others is that it isn't escapist.  It doesn't take place in outer space or on another planet.  It's based on real-life experience.

On the one hand, that makes it easier to write because I know how it's going to end.  I know pretty much everything that I want to happen.

Which is also the problem, because I can't really surprise myself with character development or some new plot twist that reveals itself to me as I write.  That makes it inherently less creative.  My imagining is operating under constraints I haven't faced before.

I imagine this is one of the things that bedevils the writers of historical fiction.  You have to get the details right or the thing won't work. 

The plus side of this is that you don't have to think of everything - reality did that for you.  In a sense, my new book is historical fiction, it's just that the "history" was only eight years ago.

Still, looking at 2010 vs today, it's an interesting contrast.  I don't think the world changed that much in eight years, but my understanding of it has.

One big difference is the oil industry.  Back then people seriously believed that the world supply of oil was past its peak and we would be facing ever-greater shortages.  I actually reached out to a web site called The Oil Drum which was dedicated to tracking this.  Many of its commenters were petroleum engineers and industry specialists who pondered how to adapt to the coming scarcity.

It turned out that they were wrong.  The Oil Drum itself shut down in 2013.  The link above goes it its archive. 

But in 2010, theirs was a popular view and national policy was being made in accordance with it.

All of which to say is that certain futures can change remarkably fast, leaving us to look back only a few years later wondering "what were we thinking?"


Misty watercolor memories

I don't get into political questions on this blog, but I need to say a few words about memories.

Last week I started getting back to work on my new project, a novel about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

One of the cool things about this project is that I have ton of documentary evidence to help flesh things out, including photos.

Now I tend to have a pretty good memory and can rattle off details about historical events, statistics and drop accurate quotations with uncanny accuracy, but my personal memories are not nearly as clear.  As I've gone back to review some of the material for my book, I'm finding that things didn't always line up the way I remember.

Let's start with something really simple:  Did the Media Operations Center have a white board?  What did it look like?

I couldn't remember.  I worked there for many days, spending hours staring at the front of the room, but what did it actually look like?  I wasn't sure.  Happily, I have a photo to help me.

Here's another one.  I went on a recon flight while I was there.  It was a huge deal, something I meticulously documented and a story I love to tell.  I flew with the Army National Guard, in fact, which makes it even more unique since the Army doesn't have a lot of fixed wing aircraft.

The question was, which state owned the plane I flew in?  I couldn't remember.  Was it Mississippi or Alabama?  Turns out it was Mississippi, but my first guess was Alabama. 

This was a major event in my life and it took place only eight years ago.  Turns out, I had some pretty huge holes in my memory, and I don't think I'm unique.  Flying over the largest oil spill in American history is pretty noteworthy.  It's the kind of thing that sticks with you.

And yet I got stuff wrong.  As a student of history, I love first-person accounts, but without documentation, they're little more than impressions.  I'm now a lot more cautious about my recollections.


Leaving Facebook

Today I put a notice on my Facebook page that I'll be leaving the platform soon.  I haven't posted there in what seems like forever, so a few of my friends replied that they thought I'd already left.

The reasons for leaving are many:

  • The interface keeps changing and it hasn't worked well on any of my computers for years.
  • My feed was erratic at best and people would drop in and out of it.
  • Friends would disappear and have to be re-added.  This may have been a deliberate experiment.
  • The constant political debates and virtue-signalling caused people to go crazy.

But the biggest reason was that I was the product, and I was giving me away for free.

As an author, I took particular umbrage that everything I did and posted was immediately being turned around and sold without a penny of it going to me.

So I'm done.  I'll leave the notice up for a bit so everyone who still wants to talk to me knows where I can be found, but I'm outta there.

When Facebook first emerged, it seemed like a good thing.  It was easy to track down old friends and distant family.  In retrospect, it would have been better if there was a straight-up fee and then total privacy.  Instead the "free" side of it came at the total commodification of everything you shared.

We also know that the feeds are manipulated.  Facebook's ownership has strong political views and isn't shy about shutting down people who disagree with them.  In a magazine or newspaper, I'm fine with that, but Facebook has too much control over information for me to be comfortable with that arrangement. 

I've always been able to look past someone's politics, but social media is increasingly making that the only thing that count.  So I'm leaving.

I'll continue to post things here and welcome any and all to leave comments or email.

It's kind of funny, but having a blog is now almost retro.  I'm cool with that.


Jerry Roe, R.I.P.

Last week there were a number of high-profile funerals, but the death of a once-towering figure in state politics was completely overlooked.

Jerry Roe was the executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 1969 to 1979, a time of great upheaval.  This was the era when both parties were undergoing major changes.  The Democrats were shifting from working-class party made up of rural farmers and industrial workers to its current top-down coalition while the GOP was losing its "country club" old-school Yankee flavor.

Jerry was a moderate Republican, of the Gerald Ford and (specifically) William Milliken variety - low taxes, less regulation and agnostic on social issues.  This stance brought him a lot of grief over the years, something he freely acknowledged, but nothing would budge him. 

I met him in the summer of 1998, when I stumbled upon a campaign for state representative that he was advising.  I was underemployed at the time and without any real direction.  I'd dabbled in politics and figured I'd try my hand at the campaign game.

I had no idea who he was, and my first impression was that he was a cantankerous old coot with a keen mind and a way with the ladies.  He styled himself The Silver Fox.  My nickname for him was The Viagra Viking, and he regaled me with tales of his various exploits over whiskey and cigars. 

He was a keen student of political history and I never got tired of talking to him and tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge.  I believe he visited every presidential grave and - when prompted - would describe them in detail.

As it turned out, our candidate lost, but Jerry introduced me to a number of people over the summer and into the fall and in January 1999, I landed my first "real" job with a decent salary, health benefits etc.   I was now a paid political hack.

I kept in close contact with him during the decade that followed since political knowledge was essential to my career advancement.  In addition to advising various campaigns and chasing women, he taught government classes at Lansing Community College and he was (not surprisingly) enormously popular with the students there.  I can imagine that his lectures were unique.

During those years I met my wife, married her and we started our family.  He was happy for me, but warned me that I had to make a decision:  family or career.  "If you stay in politics, you're going to get divorced.  That's just how it works."

I said I wasn't willing to do that.  He said that was fine, but I needed to find another line of work.  I didn't believe him, but ultimately he was right.  Trying to be an engaged husband and father is fiendishly difficult in the political world.  Candidates can sometimes pull it off, but staffers are always "on the clock" and the holidays everyone else enjoys are consumed with parades, booths and door-to-door.

I wasn't willing to do that and naturally that put me at a disadvantage against those who were.  When I got canned, he expressed sympathy but gave me a knowing look and I laughed.  He told me so.

I saw Jerry less often after I got out of politics.  We'd chat on the phone from time to time and get together, but between my family, day job, military career and writing, I didn't have a lot of time.  Plus, he was still Mr. Republican and I was now A Man of No Party, so I was less inclined to agree with him as I used to be.  I was tired of the whole filthy enterprise, but it was his life's blood.

When I wrote the Man of Destiny series, Jerry was the inspiration for Maxim Darius.  Truth be told, there's also a lot of him in Jermah Macro as well, particularly the womanizing element.  The scenes where Darius explains things to Peer Graff are based on similar conversations we used to have.

Over the last few years, Jerry suffered a series of health problems, including a heart attack that almost killed him.  He wasn't expected to pull through but did, and marveled at his good luck.  A couple of years ago I tried to get in touch with him but he was undergoing an episode of dementia, and I was told to stay away.

Happily, he recovered and I was able to sit down and chat with him this spring with the obligatory glass of scotch (no cigars, thankfully).  I gave him autographed copies of my books, and showed him the dedication, which he loved. 

I'm told that a memorial will be held in November, but not even a death notice has gone out.  Someone updated his Wikipedia page (he was always proud that he was important enough to have a Wikipedia entry), but that's all I've seen.

Hopefully he'll do well in the Final Caucus.  Rest in Peace, Jerry. 


Conqueror Revised Edition is now available

Yes, it's finally finished!  I'm sure there are a few errors here and there and don't ask me why it ended up showing up as two separate publications - one on the Kindle and one in paperback, but the new improved Conqueror is now available for purchase.

All manner of fantasy/historical gaming goodness awaits at a quite reasonable price.

I call it a revision, but I could also say it's expanded, since it includes almost twice as much content.  There are pages of sample armies and units so you can dig right in and get playing.

I've also revised and simplified the unit/character creation system for those who want to make their own armies.

Magic got a thorough review, and the spells are much more focused and effective.  The same goes for magic items - no easy choices here, no obvious "best values."

Basically, like every other product, customer feedback and continued research has resulted in clear improvement.  Go grab your copy and get playing!