Review: “The Ashes of Hope and Hunger”

It’s been quite a while since I did an honest-to-goodness book review, but it’s great to be back! And what better way to get back into the habit than by talking about a series that over the past year has become one of my very favorites. And by a fellow indie author, no less!

On Tuesday, March 23, watch for the release of The Ashes of Hope and Hunger, book two in The Weight of Stars and Suns saga. This galaxy-spanning series by Dawn C. Jonckowski brings together a little of something I love with a little of something I’ve grown to respect–science fiction and romance–and does so in a beautifully artistic, fully-immersive, and wholly captivating way that I just can’t get enough of. Picture a high-concept sci-fi adventure in the vein of Star Trek (more on those exact parallels in a minute!) with a star-crossed (sometimes literally) love story worthy of The Princess Bride. I’ve always been a sucker for spacemen (and women) and starships in a book, but over the past few years I’ve read some extremely powerful and well-written romance novels that have made me reconsider my earlier reticence toward the genre. While I’m not specifically going to call The Ashes of Hope and Hunger or its originator “romance” novels, the relationships between the characters and the essential love story of the protagonists (and others involved as well) is central to the plot and literally spans worlds. So before the release, I’d love to share some of my thoughts with you and tell you about why you should start this awesome series–or just pick up the next book!

Pre-Order The Ashes of Hope and Hunger Now

Firstly, a brief recap: in The Weight of Stars and Suns, we were introduced to the planet Tav, where an alien civilization thrives under dozens of suns. Over a hundred years before, a colony ship from Earth crashed on the planet and, faced with the probability of no rescue, the survivors were forced to integrate into Tavarian society. This eventually became a classist arrangement, where humans were subjugated as slaves to their new home’s original residents and many plotted resistance against their masters through the generations. The story begins with the chance meeting of Dameia, crown princess of Tav, and the rebel human Hyam, and the development of a forbidden romance between them that threatened both of their lives–compounded by the problem of Tav’s suns slowly beginning to die out. Faced with revolution within and extinction without, both sides are thrown into chaos by the arrival of the forces of the Global Alliance: a human-run galaxy-spanning empire who’s finally managed to send rescue to Tav, and is none too happy about the situation they find. In a painful choice, Dameia elects to take those of her people who want to go, as well as the surviving humans, and escape to Earth with Hyam, understanding that she will never see her people or her world again.

Get Your Copy of The Weight of Stars and Suns

The Ashes of Hope and Hunger picks up not long after this, with Hyam, Dameia, and the other human and Tavarian survivors attempting to adjust to a world that’s strange and new to all of them alike. While some, such as the former healer Xanth, manage to find positions to fill their lives and give themselves purpose and meaning, others like our two protagonists struggle to cope with being the center of attention on Earth, somewhere they’ve never felt at home. Meanwhile, the intrepid Captain Kate Woolsey, hero of the Global Alliance, finds the goodwill she earned in the Tav mission down the drain as she’s given a series of orders she doesn’t agree with–including a new colony mission that could be a death trap for the Tav survivors. While Hyam, Dameia, Xanth, and others bravely volunteer for the mission, Woolsey knows it’s wrong–and this time, she’s ready to act as she openly defies the Global Alliance and she, along with the others, begins a revolution of their own.

Light-years away on the Global Alliance world Vepo, alien Arba has become the latest wife of Katuu, the last fertile male on the planet following a plague disaster caused by the Alliance’s negligence. Arba is deeply unhappy, but knows it is her duty to carry Katuu’s child and assure the future of her race–but the arrival of Woolsey, Dameia, Hyam, and the others throws everyone’s plans out the window. Not to mention the fact that her secret interstellar pen-pal, for whom she harbors a secret longing, is actually Xanth. Forbidden romance flares anew, made even more dangerous by Veporian palace intrigues and the politics of harboring fugitives from the Alliance. All the while, back on Earth a new faction called the Defiance is moving against the Global Alliance and sending all its resources to aid the Vepo mission. But will it all be for nothing, since distance breeds indifference and fear is stronger than hope?

I really don’t want to give too much more away about either story (because you really should read them both!), but I’d be remiss to call this a review without talking at least a little about the content of the latest book. To me, The Weight of Stars and Suns was a welcome addition to the sci-fi pantheon of literature, with its easily identifiable and sympathetic characters and truly universal stakes of love, home, belonging, and justice. Nowhere is this more on display than in the romance between purple-skinned Tavarian Dameia and the roguish renegade human Hyam. Despite the differences in their stations, I 100 percent buy into their romance from the very beginning because neither of them are content to accept the roles assigned to them, and each believes they were meant for more in their lives. What they find in each other is an acknowledgement of their secret desires and self-worth, which to me should be the basis for every romance. Major props to Jonckowski for handling this relationship in an organic, engrossing way that never felt over the top or sappy to me. It was fun, sweet, and overall fulfilling to see these two lovers find each other and continue to pursue their destinies–always together–in The Ashes of Hope and Hunger. Not to mention the fact that we now have the new Xanth/Arba romance to occupy us as well! Just like the Hyam/Dameia pairing, these two aliens finding each other across the vastness of the universe provides a compelling emotional hook to lead readers through the story on the edge of their seat. A good helping of politics and overcoming emotional trauma definitely helps as well. This couple is, I have to say, pretty adorable and I think other readers will think so as well. Whereas the Hyam/Dameia relationship is built on mutual strength of personalities, the Xanth/Arba romance is forged in the opposite way–two people in need of definition finding themselves in each other. It’s an intriguing dynamic to be sure!

In addition, I admire Jonckowski’s fully-imagined universe of places, things, and characters that set the scene for this series, with some familiar but still great concepts re-skinned in new and relevant ways. The Global Alliance–think the United Federation of Planets with less democracy and more bureaucracy–comes off as a well-intentioned but bloated organization that has expanded so far that it’s lost sight of the reason it exists: ostensibly, to take care of those under its purview. Indeed, it’s heartbreaking to see a situation like Vepo–again, a completely and fascinatingly original alien civilization and culture portrayed in vivid detail by Jonckowski here–get so out of hand and not earn any kind of interest from the caretakers responsible (however indirectly) for the situation. Promoted from her side character status in book one, Captain Woolsey really steals the show in book two: she’s a hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader who’s tough and yet sympathetic in all the right ways, and while you may doubt her people skills, you’ll never doubt her strength and integrity–I was pleasingly reminded of one of my favorite Star Trek captains, the intensely underrated Kathryn Janeway of Voyager. And if there’s a Janeway, there’s also a Gabriel Lorca in the form of new anti-hero captain Lucy Armstrong-LeValle of the Defiance: I’m always glad to see more strong female characters in a series, and Lucy has the conviction and tragic backstory that promise to make her an important player going forward–though I wish I had seen just a bit more of her in this particular book. But there’s always book three to look forward to!

In summary, I can’t recommend this series enough to lovers of sci-fi, romance, and high adventure, and note how The Ashes of Hope and Hunger is the perfect follow-up to The Weight of Stars and Suns. It expands on the incredibly deep universe established in the first book by adding new players and tensions while expanding the roles of old favorites in new and unforeseen ways–not to mention the fact that it all ends with a cliffhanger that’s sure to stun you. Again, no spoilers! Plus, you’ve got to love that beautiful cover design. It truly does say cosmic adventure in all the right ways.

Reserve Your Copy

Make sure you pre-order your copy of The Ashes of Hope and Hunger today, or find it on Amazon and KDP on March 23 when it’s available for purchase the old-fashioned way! Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that there’s currently a very special giveaway going on for a prize package of The Weight of Stars and Suns series swag, including a novelty t-shirt, a hardback book version, and much more. Support our indie authors and sign up now!

Enter the Giveaway Now

Until then, may you find peace and love wherever in the universe you might be.


New Year, New Beginning: 3 Goals for 2021

Hey everyone! I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad 2020 is over and that we can now get onto the business of making 2021 a better year than the last one. And while I know the light at the end of the tunnel might feel far away right now (and maybe it is, I don’t know), I know I’ve got a lot of goals for this new year and I’m going to try my best to make some meaningful progress in writing and life. In terms of my personal life, I’m thrilled by the prospect of only having another year or so to go in grad school! This spring I’ll be working on a dual thesis requirement, so it’s going to be busy. Fortunately one of those will be wrapping up in April, and after that things should be a bit more free. However, I also have a few big goals I’d like to meet in 2021 and I thought I’d share them with you here. If you read to the last one I bet you’ll be just as excited as I am!

So, without further ado, here are my three big goals for 2021:

#1: Redo My Website

This one is the more procedural to-do, but I’ve known for quite a while that my current WordPress site is in desperate need of an aesthetic upgrade. I slapped it together in a hurry years ago because I wanted to make sure I had an author website, and after that I didn’t really do too much with it except posting blog updates and writing notes every now and then. So at some point before the end of the year, I plan on giving this site the visual and design update it deserves. Stay tuned for a new face for my writing endeavors in 2021!

#2: Better Market The Showstopper

In case you may have missed it, I relaunched my first novel, The Showstopper, in October 2020 after a self-publishing process that took nearly six years and three editions. With some snazzy new cover art, a professionally built and edited interior, and some minor plot fixes, I’m proud to say this novel of mine is ready for the big time! You can get your paperback or ebook copy on Amazon, and if you’re interested in a signed copy, well, I can make that happen too. Just ask!


All that said, my overall sales numbers so far haven’t been where I’d like them to be, so I’m going to make some big moves in 2021 to get the word out about this novel that I’m so very proud of and I want to share with the world! This will include some really cool giveaways I’ve got planned, so make sure you’re following this site and my social media accounts (Kyle Robertson, Novelist on Facebook and @krobnovelist on Twitter and Instagram) for the latest info. Looking forward to seeing what kinds of fun stuff I can come up with for my book baby!


Yep, that’s right: I put this one in all caps because I’m that pumped and serious about it. You heard it here first, I’ve got another novel coming! I always have a bunch of projects flying around in my brain (so many ideas, so little time!), but since I’m mostly finished with The Showstopper and nearly finished with my creative writing MFA thesis, The Road to Ithaca, I needed some new fun story to occupy my time. I put out a poll on Twitter about which of my most developed story ideas my audience was interested in hearing, and the results were loud and clear: sci-fi/horror or high fantasy were the people’s choices! As much as I love my sci-fi/horror novel idea, I don’t think it’s to a point where I’m comfortable diving into it as of yet, and even though it did score the highest in my audience poll, high fantasy was pretty up there, too. So I think that’s what I’m going to go with! Hopefully no one’s too mad at me for bucking the results a little.

So what is this mysterious new project, you may ask? For now, I’m calling it A Saga of Sinew and Steel. Imagine Lord of the Rings and The Terminator had a baby and it grew up to marry Thor: Ragnarok. Yeah, it’s sort of like that.

The story kind of straddles the line between sci-fi and high fantasy, taking place in a fantasy world called Ixtal. Hundreds of years before the events of the story, Ixtal was a thriving world filled with humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, and all kinds of beings living in a harmonious and advanced society, but the rise of living machines bent on annihilating all the “organics” has turned it into a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland where the few survivors hide in underground bunkers, scratching out a meager living and conducting futile guerrilla raids against the dominant machines. Told from a number of different perspectives, the story follows the survivors, the machines, and some unaligned with either group as they gradually unravel a conspiracy that’s made puppets out of every one of them, as well as grapple with a mind-altering truth: this world is not all there is.

That’s all I’m prepared to say right now, but I hope this little teaser has grabbed your interest! I’ll be posting about my progress throughout the year, as my modest goal is to have a refined draft ready to submit to beta-readers by the end of 2021. If I can get further than that and actually publish, great! But I’m trying to keep my goals doable this year and I think I’ve succeeded in constructing them that way.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you all are safe and well in these trying times. We’ll get through this together!

“The Showstopper” is Coming Soon!

Get your copy now!


The day has finally arrived, and I couldn’t be more excited: my very first novel, The Showstopper, is going live once again on Amazon!

When I started my publishing journey way back in 2014, I self-published my book with only cursory edits and cover art slapped together from free templates. I was and still am proud of all the work I did to get there, but as I’ve matured as a writer over the years and grown in my knowledge of the book business, marketing, and self-publishing, I decided I needed to give this work of fantastic fun the TLC it deserved. I pulled the title off Amazon early this year to do a number of things: edit the work again myself, and then with a professional editor, as well as getting new cover art and design work to make it look like an actual, honest to goodness novel. And I’m proud to say, thanks for the support of many people whom I couldn’t have done this without, I’ve succeeded.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with my work and haven’t heard me talk about this before, The Showstopper is a historical fiction thriller. It’s my take on the superhero genre with a heavy dose of Phantom of the Opera along with inspirations like BatmanThe Great Gatsby, and the noir-style detective movies of Humphrey Bogart and company. If you like action, adventure, fantasy, and intrigue all in a dark historical setting, this is the book for you!

But don’t take only my description for it: here’s the actual back cover blurb.

New York, 1922: the economy is booming, the days are short, and the nights are long and filled with every kind of entertainment imaginable. But all is not well in this dazzling, decadent world. A masked criminal is stalking the streets and haunting the theaters, leaving chaos in his wake. No stage production is safe from his deviously brilliant methods of sabotage.

In the opinion of janitor Tom Wilkins, the snobbish actors and businessmen around him are getting exactly what they deserve at the hands of the mysterious vigilante. But a chance encounter will soon plunge him into a deadly game of cat and mouse against a madman bent on total destruction.

Caught in the whirlwind along with a beautiful actress, a refined theater owner, and a rookie police officer, Wilkins will have to use all his skills to expose the mastermind behind the curtain pulling all of their strings, before the curtain falls on Broadway–and his own life–forever.

As I mentioned before, one of the primary reasons I pulled the book off the market was my recognition that in order to really catch people’s attention, I also needed a better and more refined cover design. And thanks to one of my good writer friends who’s also an awesome graphic designer, I now have the art this story deserves. Check out the brand-new cover!

Excited yet? I hope so! I’ve put almost eight years of work into this book from the first word on the page to now, and it’s safe to say it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written. In addition to wanting to give my friends and fans enjoyment, I also want to show other self-published authors out there that if you’re willing to do what it takes to make your book stand out in a crowded field, the reward of knowing you’ve done a job well is worth all the work.

Get The Showstopper now on Amazon

In keeping with the spirit of Halloween, The Showstopper‘s official release date is October 31: it’ll be available in print and ebook form at that time for any and all readers! However, in these trying times of social distance and quarantines, I know a lot of us are looking for community, and I wanted to do my part to help out. To that end, I’ll be hosting, via Zoom, a virtual release party for The Showstopper on Thursday, October 29, just a few days before the book officially launches. You’ll be able to hear me talk about the genesis of the novel and my inspirations, read some passages from the story itself ahead of the release, and ask my any questions you’d like!

And the best part is, I won’t be doing it alone.

Because one of my greatest passions is championing the work of self-published authors through my #indieavengers hashtag, I’ve invited some indie authors I’ve come to know from the writing community whose work I love and who as people I deeply respect to join in the fun! Guest readers for the evening will include:

Skye McDonald

Author of the Anti-Belle romance series

Dawn C. Jonckowski

Author of The Weight of Suns and Stars

Katelyn Uhrich

Co-founder of #indieavengers and author of The Essence Chronicles

Brianna Bennett

Author of the upcoming novel Faerest

K.C. Hamby

Author of The Chosen Series

With an all-star lineup of amazing authors like this, I hope you’ll join me in supporting them, us, and all our indie authors at The Showstopper release party on Thursday, October 29 at 8 p.m. EST. All attendees will receive a link to the Zoom event after registering, as well as first notice when The Showstopper officially goes on sale. In the meantime, here’s a special playlist of songs I put together to help get you in the mood!

I hope to see you all at the party! It’s going to be a great time and I can’t wait to share this piece of myself with all of you.

Get your copy on Amazon

Review: “Surge” by Kelsey L. Connors

It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper review of something I’ve read or watched, but I’m going to dive back into it, if briefly, to deliver you a look at an awesome sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian/YA/alt-history/about a million other potential genres book written by Kelsey L. Connors: Surge! I may have reviewed this story before way back on this blog, but with a slick new look (including the brilliant cover you see above) and a new home in self-publishing, let’s take a glance at what makes this story tick.

Here’s the back-cover blurb from the book’s Amazon page:

Chicago in 1922. The city is ruled by a tyrannical energy company called The Corporation.

Sixteen-year-old Evelyn O’Donnell’s family is in shambles when a rogue vehicle mysteriously kills her father. But she suspects something much more sinister in his death, something linked to the rebellion that nearly leveled the city so many years ago. And her karate lessons won’t be enough to defend her and her brother when The Corp comes to collect the children of the apocalypse.

Penniless but determined, she meets her brother’s friend: the charming and mischievous Black Jack Player, Dante Malachi. Discovering a unique power within her, Evelyn and her new accomplice plot to sting the city’s speakeasies and avenge her father’s death.

But as the duo join the razzle-dazzle of Chicago’s underworld; Evelyn discovers her father had tried to protect her from the dark truth about this city and her past. Evelyn knows she will have to do everything in her power if she ever hopes of reaching their shared dream of a life free from poverty and oppression.

Even if it means joining the mob.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed once you actually read the book for real.

As the blurb kind of hints, this is an alternative history story set in a dystopian version of Prohibition-era Chicago (hilariously in the exact same year as my slightly more traditional historical fiction work in progress, The Showstopper) that’s kind of like someone crossed Sucker Punch with 28 Days Later. It’s got elements of steampunk, zombie survival horror, and some good old-fashioned 20s-style swing. The city is a police state, with little to no idea of the status of the outside world, after an energy catastrophe called the “Surge” changed history and gave The Corp the power to completely take over. Citizens like main character Evelyn live their lives by their time cards, always in fear of the Bulls, corporate enforcers with retro-style ray guns. I’ve read some pretty wild alternative histories, but the thing that makes the world of Surge stand out are the little details that show the novel’s connection to the period it’s based on, marrying the past and the alternative past in a way that’s elegant for fans of the 20s and cool for everyone otherwise. For example, “Bulls” comes from the name of railroad guards in the 1920s whose job it was to patrol train cars for vagrants and hitchhikers, not to mention the fact that the dialogue and details are littered with accurate 20s slang: “doll,” “jive,” and so forth. It’s the connections and hints like that that makes the otherwise alien setting believable and appealing.

The two main characters of Surge, Evelyn and Dante, also play a huge part in really selling the story. They’re both fiercely independent and with a renegade, rule-breaking streak that gets them into all kinds of really entertaining trouble. Evelyn and Dante’s relationship is one of those great antagonistic, but eventually beneficial partnerships between people who have more in common than they’d like to admit, and the romantic tension is unsurprising but totally makes sense. It’s also super entertaining to watch them drive each other crazy as you see their relationship bloom and watch them go from sniping at each other passive-aggressively to trusting each other with their lives. Evelyn is a model for female fiction characters everywhere: independent, assertive, and entertaining while still being human and flawed. Fans of brooding bad boys will also love Dante, whose wisecracks and cool, practical confidence are a perfect counterpoint to Evelyn’s occasional hot-headed stubbornness while maintaining his own slow-burning attitude problems under the surface. Together, the duo really works to carry the story and I have no trouble believing they make a great team.

Surge straddles a ton of different genres, and there’s really something in it for any fiction reader. Like zombie apocalypses? There’s drooling, rabid energy vampires swarming all over the place! Into fantasy? Magical electricity-based superpowers! If you want historical fiction, I’ve already explained why this book is a 20s-lover’s paradise. Not to mention there’s action and adventure galore, with a dash of romance and a new spin on the dystopian societies that make lots of YA so popular these days. I definitely had trouble putting the book down and taking a break, and overall the story flows so well that it makes the novel a very quick read.

If I have any one criticism of Surge, it’s that there’s almost too much going on for its own good at times, and at a select few points you can almost see the story buckling under its own weight. Between Evelyn’s discovery that she and Dante have supernatural abilities, the revelation that her unassuming father was actually a key figure in the rebellion against The Corporation, running from sludge-spewing zombies, joining the mob, and fleeing Corp minions left and right, the book poses a lot more questions about the characters and the world they live in than it ends up answering. Certain inconvenient plot threads, like Evelyn’s easy-going brother Ezekiel, feel like they’re brushed aside in favor of keeping the story moving when I almost wish I as a reader had more time to breathe and absorb everything. This is far from a knock against the story, to be clear–I have it on good authority that there will be more installments in this series in the future–but I do wish that some of the elements at play here, including why The Corp is experimenting on people, how Evelyn and Dante have powers, and what happens to the people around them–who sometimes feel like plot devices and window dressing for the main focus on Evelyn and Dante–were explored and explained a little more in this first installment. Outside of the literally faceless, omnipresent oppression of The Corp, there’s also little in the way of a direct antagonist for our heroes–not something every book needs, but something I always look for and wished this book made more use of at times. But as you can see, there’s plenty of high-stakes jeopardy going on to keep you glued to your seat, and on the edge of it until the very end.

My Rating: 4/5

If you’re a fan of the 1920s and some deliciously twisted dystopian sci-fi/fantasy, I highly recommend giving Surge a read. The nonstop action, winning main character pairing, and original blend of genres and ideas from across the literary spectrum makes this a book you don’t want to miss. I personally can’t wait for the next installment in the series!

In Defense of the Octopus: A Meditation on Animals in Fiction

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Okay, this is kind of a random and weird one. Are you ready?

So I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, the classic series by Rod Serling from the 1960s, and naturally as a longtime devotee I’ve been devouring the remake by CBS that started last year featuring writing genius Jordan Peele (sometimes to my delight, and others my disappointment). However, last night I watched a new episode that rubbed me the wrong way and got me thinking about an intriguing subject: how animals are portrayed in Hollywood in general, and not always in a good way.

This particular episode, “8”, wasn’t even a particularly strong entry in the series. Not only was star Joel McHale’s comedic talents completely wasted on this dry, more horror-themed story, but I found the “villain” of the piece a bit problematic. Said villain wasn’t human: it was an octopus. And this particular octopus was no ordinary cephalopod. Apparently the scientist characters had been secretly searching for this particular breed of octopus to exploit it for the company they work for due to its unique abilities of camouflage, genetic variation, and so forth. Of course, the creature ends up being much smarter than its captors and sneaks out of its tank, slowly offing them one by one in increasingly gory ways, eventually somehow learning how to operate a cell phone and human computers and escaping back into the ocean with a genetic formula to create an army of super-octopuses that can climb onto land and kill all humans.

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

Look, I’m always a fan of a good creature feature, and it was kind of satisfying in a twisted sort of way to see these stupid scientists underestimate their eight-armed captive and get what was coming to them. However, besides the obvious, glaring factual inaccuracies of the piece, including the reality that an octopus can’t live for long out of water (this one was walking around on dry land for like half an hour!) and they definitely don’t seek to murder people, I took a bit of issue with the overall message of the story: in that an evil animal is out to destroy humanity and dominate the world.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, right: in pretty much every other movie ever made. When you think about it, animals are villainized a lot in Hollywood: Cujo made us all terrified of rabid dogs, an unfortunate but very real fact of life. Jaws gave us all shark phobia, including me: I’m still a little nervous about going in the ocean after that movie scarred me as a child. And countless other films about monstrous bugs, spiders, snakes, and various animals have scared the pants off us time and time again. But are we doing the animals, and ourselves, a disservice?

Don’t get me wrong: the classic conflict of man vs. nature is at the heart of many great stories, including my guilty pleasure film franchise, Godzilla. However, there’s a big difference here: Godzilla is a giant, radioactive, fire-breathing lizard. Obviously not something that can happen in real life. Some of the other films I’ve mentioned, including the recent Twilight Zone episode, are using very real creatures in ways they would never, ever behave, and putting fear into us to no adequately explored reason. I know not everyone may share my fascination, but honestly, I think octopuses are so cool and interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by animals, and the more bizarre, the better: I’m one of those people who will watch spiders or slugs go about their business rather than step on them because they’re just so different. So naturally, I felt a little defensive about this evil octopus as portrayed in “8.” Why not some kind of weird alien creature? This is The Twilight Zone, after all. All I can think is that someone, somewhere, in the writers room decided arbitrarily that octopuses are creepy and would make for a good horror creature. And that’s my problem.

Why an octopus, of all things? Or for that matter, why a shark, or a spider, or a snake, or any of these villainous animals in the last century of movies? The only answer I can come up with goes back to a simple principle, one we’re becoming all too familiar with in the world today: things that are different scare people. All we have to do is turn on the news to see how skin color, religion, or any number of factors can translate into irrational, unfounded hatred of our fellow man. How much easier is it to hate and feel revulsion toward a gelatinous, boneless creature from the deep sea with eight arms and no real face to speak of? I know a lot of people who are afraid of snakes especially, and while I’m not trying to deny that any or all of these animals can be dangerous given the right circumstances (and would I want to find a giant spider in my bed? Hell no), none of them are actively out to get us or have hatred in their hearts toward humans–at least, as far as we know.

I’ll give you another example. Everyone can agree monkeys are cute, right? Or at least entertaining. We love monkeys because they remind us of ourselves: we can more easily ascribe human behaviors to what we see from them. But suddenly, take away a few arms and legs, or add a couple limbs and eyes, and our compassion gets a lot shakier. Do you have second thoughts about pouring water on an anthill or swatting that spider on the wall? Would you do the same if a monkey happened to swing in your window?

My point here is that I don’t think it’s fair to villainize any animal, from an octopus to an ape, for the purposes of entertainment and clearly slot them into narratives they don’t have any need to be in. “8” would have worked entirely fine if the creature in question was some sort of bizarre alien, but instead, we have an extremely negative and stomach-turningly creepy portrayal of an amazing animal that never did anything to anyone. It’s a microcosm of our fear and loathing toward things that are different than us, and it does harm because entertainment shouldn’t be about cheap thrills: it should be about raising each other up and understanding ourselves and the world we live in. Especially from a series like The Twilight Zone, which has a long history of incisive social commentary and a moral justice imperative, blatant fear-mongering of that which is different like this falls flat and seems to be contrary to the very basis the show was founded on.

Come on, guys. We deserve better. Leave the poor octopus alone, already.

How Teaching Changed My Life

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Today I thought I’d talk about something that’s become very near and dear to my heart over the last few years: teaching. More and more I’m discovering that I have a passion for teaching and helping others learn, whether it’s in an academic or physical sense, and I get a huge satisfaction from working with others and imparting some kind of lessons or wisdom to them. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be an aspiring teacher one day, I probably would have thought you were crazy. I would have told you I’d never have the patience to be a good teacher and that it was too unfulfilling and time-consuming to be dealing with a bunch of snot-nosed kids who’d never listen to you and just make your life miserable. But of course, I’ve discovered my thinking was very wrong. How? Let me explain.

My first steps toward teaching came when I moved back home to the Philadelphia area in 2018 from an extended stay in New York. Because I was back in my hometown, I had the chance to resume a lot of activities that I had to put on hiatus: namely, my karate training. I’m currently a second-degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, and have been training for going on 11 years in my local karate studio (having stuck with it on and off through college and my years away). Perhaps I’ll delve more into my martial arts career in some future post, but for the time being I’ll just focus on the renewed responsibility I had when I returned. In our studio, as is tradition in most other martial arts institutions, becoming a Black Belt carries with it certain responsibilities and expectations, including that you help pass along your knowledge to younger, less experienced students who are working their way toward Black Belt rank. I was reluctant to do so at first for all the reasons I already explained, but when an opening for an assistant instructor opened up in one of our classes (taught by the very Master under whom I’d trained for years prior to my moving away), I took the opportunity because I felt it would be the one that would be the most manageable and least likely to irritate me.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) always roses and sunshine. Sometimes I go home frustrated, wondering whether I got through to any students at all, annoyed at them for not paying attention, and wanting to pull my hair out. But more often than not–a surprising amount of the time, really–I found I actually enjoyed helping my students learn night after night. There’s something intensely satisfying about seeing someone picking something up that you’ve tried to help them learn and eventually performing well on their own while you look on and have the pleasure of knowing that you’re responsible for helping them get there. While I don’t think any one person can take credit for teaching someone something, I definitely feel that way. Plus, while the kids I work with in karate classes are mainly on the younger side, between 8 and 14 years old, it’s actually surprising how much they understand. I thought when I initially started teaching that I wouldn’t be able to relate to my young students or talk to them on a level they could understand, but kids are smarter than you think they are most of the time and can pick up on things I never thought possible. Since that time, I’ve grown to take teaching opportunities in karate whenever I can get them, frequently assisting with classes and maybe even hoping to run my own someday. I’ve even got my first official mentee (another Black Belt privilege), and I really can’t tell you how great it feels to have someone looking up to you and asking you to help them out with things, knowing that you care about what happens to them and want to see them succeed as much as they do.

In terms of academics, I got bitten by the teaching bug in my first semester of graduate school, when I took a class called Rhetoric and Composition. Basically it was a class about how to teach an introductory college-level English class, and involved writing syllabi, coming up with assignments, grading systems, how to engage students with activities, and teaching tactics. All of which, I was shocked to find, I didn’t think were tedious and boring at all: I actually loved them! It was perhaps just a natural extension of the positive experience I’ve had with Tang Soo Do teaching, but I was suddenly possessed by the desire to be in a classroom, teaching students much like myself about how to write and tell stories. I don’t think I’d be willing to be a public school teacher, or even a private one, who has to work with middle or high-school-aged kids: I’m not sure a lot of them are really ready to learn or have an adult conversation of the kind that I’d like to have with people. But college students…there’s a possibility. Or even better, being a guest graduate school professor who maybe teaches a special class every other semester on a topic of my own interest? While I know it’s difficult to make a living solely as an adjunct professor, I’d love to do it while supplemented by other income–perhaps a day job in marketing or maybe even as a writer. And with my MFA/MA degree, I think I may just be able to do it!

So what’s next for me in teaching? Like I said, I’d love to perhaps be an adjunct guest professor for a grad school program in a low-pressure kind of academic environment. As for karate, I have a bit more ambitious dreams. In another 10 years there’s a real possibility, if I keep up with my training, that I might be able to earn the rank of Master, and as such be able to open my own karate studio. Again, if you told me I’d be thinking about starting my own business, especially a gym for physical activity, five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But again, if I’m able to supplement that income with other things like academics or writing, maybe it could work.

Whatever the outcome, I’m excited to see what the future holds now that I feel I’ve discovered one of my true passions in life: educating others.

Back on the Road with “The Road to Ithaca”

It’s over! It’s done!

As of the end of last week, my first-ever novel, The Showstopper, is through its edits and off to be checked out by an actual proofreader. It’s just another step on my quest to republish the novel this fall with a sharp new look and some updates that will not only keep it fresh, but will also be far more polished than it was the first time I published it as an inexperienced college graduate over five years ago. Very much looking forward to getting it back looking as professional as possible…but also to having a much-needed break from that novel.

However, there’s no rest for the weary, so I’m on to another project this weekend: my long-on-hold adult contemporary novel, The Road to Ithaca. And this time, it’s especially important because as of the end of this month, I’m starting my creative writing MFA thesis course. It’s only one of two theses I’ll be responsible for (I also have an MA in publishing one to do at some point), but I thought now that I’m done with The Showstopper, it’s time to go back to the novel I’ve been working on for most of my grad school program and that I’ve basically ignored for over a year now.

So what is The Road to Ithaca, you may ask? Here’s my summary so far:

“Odysseus Wyatt Turner–Wyatt to his friends, of which there aren’t many–is lost at sea, stuck at a dead-end job with no prospects and no future. But that’s about to change when he gets a letter from far-off Ithaca, New York, informing him that his estranged father has died and left him something in his will. Wyatt knows he has to act fast, or risk having whatever that something is yanked away by the rest of his no-good, selfish, greedy family.

His solution: enlist a motley crew consisting of his aloof ex-girlfriend and surfer-bro buddy on a wacky road trip across the country to claim what’s rightfully his. They’ll face many obstacles on their sometimes perilous, sometimes hilarious, and always ridiculous journey through the heart of America, including a grudge-bearing gang of women bikers who want Wyatt’s inheritance for themselves. But Wyatt will find the biggest thing standing in the way of his moving forward might just be himself.”

This is a story that was born out of a lot of different things and ideas. First and foremost, I love The Odyssey. The classic Greek adventure myth is one of my favorite stories of all time, and of course it’s archetypical: we see the same ideas used in uncountable stories the world over. I was fascinated by Greek myths when I was a child, but especially so this one, with its battles with cyclopses, ensnaring by witches or islands of mellow stoners, shipwrecks, homecomings, revenge, and justice. I also love a lot of the spin-off stories that have come out of it over the years, especially the Coen Brother’s Depression-era odyssey O Brother, Where Art Thou? Because of this, I’d always wanted to write a story that was my own unique take on The Odyssey, and a trip to Sicily a few years ago on a school retreat reignited my desire to do something with the idea.

In addition, people who know me well know that at times, I struggle with depression. My feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness have come and gone over the years, sometimes worse than others. I have my good days and bad days, as many other people do, and the support of my family, friends, and the other people in my life who care about me really help. However, at one particular time in my life a few years ago, I was for many reasons at the end of my rope. I was stuck in a deep depression, feeling hurt and angry much of the time, and I lashed out at the people I loved, driving away some friends and even family. Since that time I’ve worked hard to be a better person and tried to make amends, but I felt that my “quarter-life crisis” was an experience shared by many other millennials of my generation. Frequently, people my age feel lost in the tumultuous and confusing modern world, and often when we leave college and are confronted by the realities of our situation, our lives take turns we never thought they would–and not always for good. While I’m on a much better path now and am feeling happier than I have in a long time, I still remember my dark days and know that there’s many other young 20-somethings out there feeling the same way I was. I also know that most fiction that’s hot today is either catered toward teens and younger kids, or toward adults who are maybe 30 or older. The 20-somethings are a long-forgotten demographic who don’t seem to have a ton of people representing them (aside from the vague “new adult” genre that’s failed to take off in any meaningful way, industry-wise) and that’s something I resolved to do with my story. Even though many of my grad school classmates encouraged me to rewrite the story as a young adult novel so it would be more popular, I stuck to my idea, as I really do believe I can speak to this group of people and let them know they’re not alone in the world.

I also was very conscious of making my story another Percy Jackson or similar fantasy story, as The Odyssey is ripe with magical elements and monsters that could never happen or exist in real life. Besides, I’ve always felt the most dangerous monsters are the ones inside ourselves and that we create out of fear, anger, or regret. Because of this, my retelling contains no fantasy elements of any kind. While some of the adventures and misadventures of my characters may be trippy, weird, or otherwise out there, all the fantastical elements of the Homer myth have been replaced by more believable, real-life counterparts. Instead of sirens singing ships to their doom, I’ve created a casino scene in Las Vegas where the addictive nature of gambling is explored. Instead of a cyclops, I placed a one-eyed biker gang leader in the position of my primary antagonist–though you’ll hopefully find “Polly” just as compelling a character as Wyatt.

Finally, I want to challenge my audience with Wyatt’s character, and I don’t want him to be an easily likable guy. Identifiable, definitely, but likable? Not at first, for sure. Like me years ago, Wyatt is stuck in a rut in his life and doesn’t know how to get out of it. Because of this, he’s aloof, irritable, and sarcastic toward pretty much everyone around him. It’s obvious that he’s smart, and deep down that he wants other people to care about him, but he pushes them away at every opportunity because of the hurt he believes he’s suffered at the world’s hands. While some of that hurt is absolutely real, a great portion of it, as I’ve said before, actually comes from his own insecurities and fears, and his overcoming them is what this story is all about. Of course, there’s a fine line between creating a difficult but still solid main character that people want to like and root for, and creating someone whose bitterness seems to defy the logic of the story and make the audience not care about his problems. That’s the struggle I’m having as I try to reach a happy medium of depicting the stunted person Wyatt is and the brilliant, caring person he could potentially become. But let’s remember, Odysseus was far from perfect himself: he was stuck up, self-centered, and hopelessly brash and vain. Yet he made it home, and Wyatt will too–although what he finds, I can’t tell you just yet.

If you follow me on social media, stay tuned for some further sneak peaks of The Road to Ithaca as I start in on my second draft over the next few months. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me (including applying a year’s worth of beta-reading comments and edits to the manuscript), but I’m confident I can reach my destination and I hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me!

A “Horrifying” Short Story Idea

For those of you who’ve followed me a while, you’ve probably gathered that one of my favorite genres of literature (and film for that matter) to consume is horror. I’m a huge Stephen King devotee (I’ve read pretty much every book he’s ever written), am fascinated by the work of Lovecraft and other proto-horror writers, and find good thriller storylines with bizarre twists and scary monsters super entertaining. Because of this, I’ve always wanted to write a good horror story, and recently I think I’ve come up with a great idea for one: a short story, no less!

In fairness, I’ve been down this road before. This winter, while I was on a trip to Morocco with a graduate school class and writing retreat, the desert scenes and eye-opening living conditions I encountered gave me the idea for the short fiction piece that eventually became my “submission” for the retreat. It was set on a desert-like alien planet, where human colonists are about to unjustly execute a man for a crime he supposedly committed, but when they do, the alien dust (which turns out to be remnants of a long-dead civilization and still conscious, having infiltrated the bodies of all the colonists), brings the dead man back to life under its control and proceeds to kill them all for the injustice they perpetrated. It was a bit horror-esque, but mostly sci-fi, and while I still like the story (and hope to do more with it at some point), I thought I could still do better.

Fast-forward to this past week, when I’ve been re-watching one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Twilight Zone. If you’ve never seen any of this classic series, I highly recommend it: some of the best inspirations for my fiction have come from the darkly comic moral lessons the show teaches its flawed and self-absorbed characters. In particular, one episode features a woman at a bus depot who becomes convinced a doppelgänger, perhaps from a parallel universe, is trying to steal her life. For those in the know, this episode prompted Jordan Peele (a huge Twilight Zone fan himself and host of the show’s recent revival) to make his film Us, featuring a similar storyline about people’s “evil twins” trying to take over their lives and kill them off.

I’m also a big Doctor Who fan, and my favorite episode of all time also gave me a lot of inspiration for this. In this Peter Capaldi story, the Doctor becomes convinced that no one is ever truly alone: that there are creatures, unseen and unknown, that stalk every living being in the universe and only allow themselves to be seen by those who won’t be believed. It’s the reason for people talking out loud or feeling watched when they know they’re alone, or find objects mysteriously moved despite never having touched them–or, most unsettlingly, the common dream many people seem to have had of a hand grabbing them from under the bed. I know I’ve had that dream, and every time I think about this episode it sends shivers up my spine.

Bearing all of this in mind (and of course knowing I have about a million other writing projects I probably need to work on before this one), I’ve jotted down a rough plot summary of the story itself that I wanted to share with all of you! I’m using a female main character because I’d like to start writing more of them in my stories, and decided to go for a college setting to possibly appeal to a younger demographic as well as iron out some potential story issues.

“Alex Barnes, shy college freshman, is convinced by her much more outgoing roommate Nadia Chaudhry to go to a house party hosted by popular football team player Oliver Mack. When there, Alex awkwardly tries to blend in, but Oliver notices her and chats a bit, showing interest in her but backing off when he sees she’s uncomfortable. Alex does like Oliver and feels ashamed at her awkwardness and drinks more, but ends up getting sick very quickly and passes out in the bathroom.

The next day, she walks home to her dorm room and Nadia congratulates her on letting loose during the party, including taking Oliver into a bedroom for sex of her own volition. Alex denies it ever happened, but can’t remember anything from after she went to the bathroom. Alex goes to see Oliver and at first accuses him of taking advantage of her, but Oliver insists she was the instigator of the encounter and that the experience was incredible. He admits, though, that he was drunk and he’d like to get to know her better, but Alex leaves, disturbed. After some investigating, another person at the party shows her cell phone video of her taking Oliver upstairs, but Alex instinctively knows it’s not her. She starts to notice small things in her everyday life that are wrong: talking to herself when she’s alone, feeling watched, objects moving when she didn’t remember touching them, people’s deja-vu upon seeing her, being in different places at different times, and most of all, remembers a “nightmare” from when she was a child about another her hiding in her closet.

Alex tells Nadia and Oliver about the odd occurrences, but they both explain them away. She finally agrees to go out to another party with Oliver, but walks outside for some air and finds herself locked out of the house. When she finally manages to get someone to let her back in, everyone is awkward around her and Oliver is furious, insisting that she made out with another guy in front of everyone and humiliated him. He angrily breaks things off with Alex and leaves. Distraught and feeling as though her life is being stolen, Alex leaves Nadia at the party and runs into the woods, where she is finally confronted by her doppelgänger. The other Alex explains that all people have a “shadow” that follows them their entire lives who, like her, is an “anti-them” opposite in every way: she is confident, worldly, and assertive where Alex is meek, modest, and sheltered. She can’t explain what she is or where she comes from, but she hides in plain sight just like others of her kind do throughout their counterparts’ lives, managing to really live only when the situation provides it, such as when Alex was drunk or otherwise absent. However, Alex’s double says she’s tired of watching Alex make a mess of things and miss out on all the opportunities she could have. She brutally murders Alex and takes her place.

Back in the dorm room, Nadia is getting ready to go to bed when Alex’s doppelgänger walks in, still covered in Alex’s blood. Nadia begins to question her, but Alex’s double seduces her, saying she’s now been freed to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants.”

Creepy, right? I hope you see how all the inspirations I talked about sort of play into this, but I like to think I’ve given it my own unique spin. And yes, I did kill off my MC at the end. I’m that kind of writer.

Anyway, I’d love to know if people would actually read this and like the idea! I’m thinking this would be a short story rather than a novel, but looking at my notes I feel it might be a long short story. Of course it’ll probably be a while before I get around to this one, but for now it’s a fun one to think about for the future.

How I Try to Include Diversity in My Writing

If you watch the news, read the paper, or pay pretty much any attention to the world at all today, you’ll know that diversity is one of the biggest issues we face as a world community: how to address it, respect it, and most of all, represent it properly in writing. One need look no further than the last few months to find a multitude for stories about representations of diverse people gone bad in publishing, from Barnes and Noble’s disastrous diversity book covers for classics to the misfires of hotly-debated novels like American Dirt. The conversation about which people can write what stories and whether people of different races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities can accurately depict the struggles of others at all seems to be in question. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I have any earth-shaking insights on how to deal with it all. But I figured now might be a good time for me to talk about how I approach adding some needed diversity to my own work.

I’ll admit it: as a straight white male, there’s a lot I’m sure I don’t understand about other peoples and cultures. I like to think that I’m more open-minded than most, and that traveling the world pretty extensively has given me some insight that others might not have and made me a better and more understanding person. But nobody’s perfect, and I’m always terribly self-conscious in my writing, worrying about whether I’m representing my black, Asian, female, or other groups of characters fairly and accurately. It really does keep me up at night sometimes. However, I do believe that deep down, with all their cultural and other background differences aside, people are basically the same everywhere you go and that you should always follow the golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. People have the same basic desires, wants, and needs, and will respond positively to other people treating them well. While I’m not trying to deny that there’s probably a vast gulf of difference between how I live my everyday life and how, for example, someone in Japan does, not to mention how each of us perceives the world we live in, values systems, etcetera, all in all I like to believe that people are people and I try to focus on the ways we’re alike rather than the ways we’re different.

When I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, I’ll admit that diversity in my story wasn’t very high on my list of considerations. It takes place in New York City during the 1920s, and while New York was of course a city full of all different kinds of people, even at that time, I had a very clear idea of who my characters were and what the story would look like. As such, the furthest I got into diversity was discussing the plight of Irish immigrants during that time period, and as a descendant of those immigrants myself and having grown up on stories about them, I figured that was pretty non-controversial. However, afterward I was painfully aware that, country of origin aside, pretty much all the characters were white, and only one of them was a woman (who I felt could have probably played a much more fleshed-out and important role in the story had I given it a bit more thought). I’m definitely my own worst critic, but I think going forward from that, aiming to better myself and do more in my next work was a reasonable goal.

Enter Camp Ferguson, the first novel in my YA series. Unlike The Showstopper, I always tell people Camp Ferguson is more character-driven than plot-driven, and I had the personalities of all the different characters worked on in my head for years before I found a story to give them a home in. This is how I construct most characters I write about, and I didn’t even consider what their physical appearances might be like until well after I started writing the book. I quickly realized that pretty much all the characters, once again, were white. I don’t really know why. Maybe because that’s my identity, I’m just kind of hard-wired to imagine people that way when I read about them unless I’m told otherwise? In Harry Potter, I’m fairly certain nobody ever discussed the color of Hermoine Granger’s skin, for example. J.K. Rowling claims she was meant to be a black character, and despite her history of diversity revisionism I honestly I don’t know if there’s any textual evidence to refute that. I just always kind of imagined her as white, and Emma Watson’s portrayal in the movies just solidified it. I may be wrong about that, but I’m just trying to give an example of this kind of cultural lens bias that I think a lot of writers struggle with.

So anyway, I took a step back and looked at my Camp Ferguson characters again. Did they really all have to be white? Of course not. And in that case, could this character here be black? Sure, no reason why not. Could this other character be gay? Yeah, I could work that in. And so on and so on until I felt I had a pretty diverse cast of characters on a wide range of spectrums. I’m working in future books to include depictions (sensitive, of course) of those with developmental disabilities and other differences, as well as writing more female characters (still something that keeps me up at night). Having diverse representations of characters in my writing is really important to me, and representing them in a fair, accurate, and sensitive way is key. Sure sensitivity and beta readers and other outside help can be useful to that end, but it all starts with making sure the way YOU write your story is mindful of including diverse characters.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that you could make an argument that by not assigning a whole lot of importance to the identities of my characters, I risk having my representations be of poorer quality and making diverse characters more “token” representations of whole groups of people than actual, realistic people themselves. I think that’s a fair and valid point, but I would counter with the same argument as I’ve already stated about people in real life: a person’s identity, whatever it may be, is not all that they are, and at their core most people are more alike than different. I think it would be a different conversation if the focus of the story were about exploring that character’s identity, but in Camp Ferguson, that’s not really the case. It’s mostly just about a group of kids together having a good time. I’ve worked very hard to give each of my characters their own personality traits and distinctive voice: their physical appearance or other lifestyle choices are just another thing about them that can make them stand out from the crowd and make them feel like unique, fully-formed people.

That’s also not to say I don’t think more deeply about diversity issues in my writing, either. In the sequel to The Showstopper I have on the back burner, I’d be very much getting into some thorny historical issues of representation. The novel would take place in New Orleans in the 1930s, and in such a diverse community I don’t think I could even set a story there believably without talking about issues of race and inequality, especially in the case of black Americans during that time period. I definitely don’t feel comfortable writing about that until I do some major background research, and that’s more of a task than I’m feeling up to at the moment. In addition, one of the new characters I’d like to introduce is a bisexual female character who’s also a Secret Service agent. Pushing the believability envelope for a female Secret Service member is pretty big on its own, but how do I depict and out and proud bi woman in the 1930s? Can I even do that? I love this character I’ve built up in my head (think the female version of Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who), but I’m not sure if she can believably fit into this narrative I’m trying to create. Thus the reason why this particular work is shelved until such time as I’m more comfortable in my ability to tackle these problems.

I really hope I haven’t managed to sound totally ignorant in the course of this article: I don’t think I have, but one can never be totally sure when writing about the experiences of people who aren’t like you, as I’ve said. What I’d love is for this post to spark a constructive conversation about diversity in fiction, or at the very least for other writers to talk about how they approach fitting diverse characters into their books and whether my method has merit or needs work. If you’ve got ideas, I’d very much like to hear them. No one should ever stop learning.

The Best Book to Movie Adaptations to Watch in Quarantine (Plus a Bonus!)

Since a lot of us continue to be largely stuck in our homes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and if you’re anything like me, the printed page and the computer/TV screen are turning out to be the main source of entertainment on a daily basis. As some of you may know, along with my developing writing skills I consider myself a bit of a film buff. Because this is a writing blog, though, I decided I’d challenge myself when making recommendations–which actually didn’t end up being that much of a challenge. There’s just so many great movies that have been made from books!

I know the “popular” opinion is that movies are always worse than the books they came from for various subjective reasons, but I personally don’t find that to be true. In many cases, films (and I took a whole grad school class recently that drives this point home) actually offer opportunities to expand on elements of the books they come from, or summarize and contract less important details the audience may not need to sit through. Here are just a few of my quarantine recommendations, in no particular order, for your viewing pleasure!

#1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption has been, and continues to be, my favorite movie of all time: maybe not the best adaptation ever (though it is pretty darn good), but just a great, great film. If you’re not in the know, you might be shocked to learn this relatively uplifting movie about a man unjustly imprisoned and seeking escape while trying to make the prison he’s incarcerated in a better place is source from a Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Yes, Stephen King writes things that aren’t horror! Of course not all of the story is good–there’s definitely some cringe-worthy parts detailing the dark, awful realities of life in a corrupt prison system–but overall the moral of the story is that hope conquers fear, and that’s a feel-good lesson we all could use right now.

Plus, Morgan Freeman’s crack about his nickname Red being “maybe because I’m Irish” has to be the greatest book to movie inside joke ever (the character Red in King’s short story is a white Irishman, and Morgan Freeman is, well, not).

#2: The Shining (1980)

Okay, NOW it’s time for a classic King horror story. Historically, Stephen King’s horror books haven’t made great movies (I refer you to the lackluster It and the downright awful Pet Sematary, among many others), but Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, one of King’s best novels, is the exception to the rule–probably because of the liberties it takes with its source material. King is famously critical of Kubrick’s movie version for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that the film alters the character of Jack Torrance from a deeply flawed but relatable man driven insane by forces beyond his control to a psychopathic, willing participant in the mayhem (and when he’s played by Jack Nicholson, come on, what did you expect?).

However, regardless of how you feel about the novel or the differences between the versions, the movie is, like many Kubrick projects, a work of art. It might be the best horror movie ever made. It’s got just the right balance of the gruesome and the psychological scares and every bit of the filmmaking goes toward the singular goal of making you jump when you least expect it, and that’s the hallmark of great creative work. In this case you kind of have to divorce the different stories in your mind, but it’s well worth it.

#3: Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

If you like high fantasy (and you’ve got, like, a LOT of time on your hands), it doesn’t get any better than this. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the greatest example of book-to-film adaptations that has been or will ever be. Led by a fantastic all-star cast, spanning incredible vitas and epic battle scenes as well as heartfelt character moments, and cutting all the unneeded jargon of Tolkien’s works (great as they are) for pure, unadulterated spectacle, Lord of the Rings is well worth you time if you want to make an investment in this time of quarantine.

#4: Arrival (2016)

In this movie, an extremely high-concept sci-fi story is brought a bit down to earth and turned from a meditation on a bunch of cool ideas without a whole lot of narrative tension into a gripping and compelling story of alien visitation/invasion (I’m not going to tell you which one it is!). Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” which examines a bunch of scientists attempting to communicate with aliens who don’t perceive time the same way we do and really gets at that universal barrier: language. How would we actually even begin to communicate with another race that is unlike us in pretty much every way possible? And then, add on the movie’s dilemma of what the military will do when they decide those aliens are a threat to our way of life.

Much as I like the original story, Chiang’s short lacks any real dramatic hook to pull me in, and if you’re not a mathematician like him a lot of the concepts might go over your head. Arrival brings it all together in a nice, neat, easily-digestible and meaningful package that still is a welcome relief from the usual “let’s go fight some aliens” sci-fi movie.

#5: The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Speaking of grounded, this is about as real as it gets: a rogue Russian submarine captain barreling toward the United States with a cargo hold full of nuclear missiles. The Hunt for Red October, based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, is the first appearance of Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan (played here by Alec Baldwin) on the big screen, and it doesn’t disappoint. For those who find Clancy’s novels a bit dry and overstuffed with military-speak, the movie version distills it all down to pure, uncut drama and action, with suspense, gunfights, submarine combat, and political intrigue all adding up to an awesomely entertaining movie.

Not to mention the legendary Sean Connery plays Captain Marco Ramius, who may or may not be trying to defect from his home country–his Russian accent is pretty bad, but I promise the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

BONUS: The Expanse (2015-present)

I was on purpose trying to avoid including things that aren’t movies in this list, though there are many TV shows out there based on books that are pretty great (see Hulu’s Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere adaptations for reference on this), I had to mention at least one if you’re looking for a longer series to really sink your teeth into: the sci-fi epic The Expanse. Yes, it’s based on a long-running book series that’s like Game of Thrones in space, and honestly I can’t tell whether the show or the books are better most of the time. The series takes place in a retro-tech future where humanity is spread out across the solar system and political intrigue has the powers of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt in a state of cold war. All it takes is one spark–a police investigation that stumbles onto a conspiracy of universal proportions–to light the fire of a war that will change the lives of all the characters involved.

I’m telling you, check this show out, like, right now. Even if you’re not that into sci-fi, if you like hard-core character drama and bizarre space fight scenes, this is the series for you.