The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

How does an Investigation Man find a murderer in Hell? That question alone drew me into this novel following Thomas Fool, an information man (i.e. detective) for Hell. And the ride was really quite wonderful.

We’re introduced to Fool as he welcomes a delegation of four angels from Heaven, who have come for the regular Elevations in which souls are taken to Heaven. Unfortunately, he has to split his time between escorting them places and investigating a new murder, where a demon is devouring the souls of humans rather than just killing them. Fool tours all of Hell in his search for the culprit and we as readers are shown all the horrors of a Hell that has evolved from the Hell we normally think of.

Devil's Detective book cover

Hell is a very chaotic place and as the reader, you are really left floundering trying to figure out just what is going on, especially in the first few chapters. How the society is set up and how people and punishments for sins are decided are never fully explained. But once you kind of get your bearings and get used to the fact you aren’t going to know everything, then it gets a whole lot better. Unsworth parses out the necessary information for understanding Hell and its workings in such a way that you can really let go and enjoy the story.

 

Now, this novel falls in the realm of Horror for sure and that’s apparent. But it is also equally a mystery novel, which I don’t have as much experience in reading. With that being said, I found myself suspecting the actual murderer early on and then confirming it long before Fool did, which was cool in one sense but also a bit of a letdown in another. I wanted to be left guessing a little longer and needing to go back and see all the hints and clues I missed along the way. But maybe that’s just my personal preference.

My favorite aspects of the novel revolved around Thomas Fool and his character development. The word “fool” is used repeatedly by the author as a way to show how little Fool knows. And once Fool has actually started to get the hang of investigating, it shows his lack of confidence in himself. Fool as a character experiences growth throughout the novel, going from kind of an annoying character to one that is inspiring and a leader. It’s really intriguing watching this guy who starts out wanting to just fly under the radar and not be noticed to a true detective trying to find answers and eventually to a leader of both humans and demons.

In some aspects, this story really blew my mind and in others, I was a little less than impressed. But for a first novel, all in all I enjoyed it. And by the time I got to the end of the book and saw the big reveal, I was definitely taken by surprise and will request the second book through my local library.

I give it a solid 3.5/5 stars.

30th Anniversary of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program

This past weekend, we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. I can say without a doubt that the constant support and good will of the program (which now employs me), I would not be the man, writer, and educator I am today. It was such a pleasure to see everyone over the weekend, particularly the alumni and family members. I’m proud to be an Ervin Scholar and even more proud of the program and the changes it is making on campus, in St. Louis, and in the world. I even had the honor of being asked to be one of the alumni speakers at our celebration banquet on Saturday. Just to show how much I love this program and the difference it’s made for me, I’ve decided to post my speech below. Enjoy!

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honor to be asked to speak here tonight on a stage where so many inspiring alumni have stood before. I’ve had the pleasure to reconnect with so many alumni this weekend and meet so many more. I want to tell you a little bit about my story and how the Ervin Program has made everything I am possible.  

I was raised in Versailles, Missouri, yes it is pronounced that way, in a single parent, low-income household. My mom worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known to make sure we had everything we ever needed and I could just enjoy being a kid.

So when I entered WashU and the Ervin Program, I knew I had to make her proud, had to be successful. I planned to major in Biology on the pre-med track. I was going to be a doctor. How many of us can say we started out that way too? And I made it through the first semester only to discover the joy of writing that I had only dabbled in and, to my surprise, a love for English which I said I’d never study again after high school. So I decided I’d double major in Biology and English with a minor in creative writing, still pre-med. Great idea right? Everyone at WashU does it.

It wasn’t until about halfway through second semester, after spending more time on my English and Writing courses and even less on bio and chemistry, that I realized it just wasn’t going to work.

You see I had discovered this passion for writing but I was supposed to become a doctor. Where did I go from there? What should I do?

Well, I did what most people would do. I asked for advice. I asked my friends here at WashU and back home, my girlfriend (now wife). But the most important conversation I had was with Laura Stephenson, then assistant director of the program. I remember sitting with her at an event and she offered me some very simple advice that I have since offered to other undergraduates. She said to do what made me happy, do what I was passionate about and not only would my family support me, but the Ervin Program would still be there as well.

You see, I knew what my heart was telling me to do and what everyone else was telling me but in that moment, I needed to hear it from someone who had been through all of this before, someone who had the wisdom to speak to what others had done, and the willingness to see me succeed not because of any familial or social obligation but because they genuinely just wanted me to succeed. And Laura was there for me. That bit of advice started me on the path that led to my career in writing. So Laura, thank you.

My second and most cherished memory of my time with the Ervin program is a conversation I had with Dean McLeod about six months before he passed away. It was my second year of college and I was at an Ervin breakfast. We were sitting together and he asked me how my writing was going. In all honesty, I didn’t even know he knew I was writing. I told him it was going okay but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of it or make enough money to support a family one day. And he gave me some profound advice that still resonates.

He said if I was passionate about writing, then I should keep writing. I should write every chance I got and hold on to my passion and if I did that, then the money would find me. And he was right.

I kept writing and kept writing and when the time came for me to leave WashU, I continued writing and got my MFA. Now I have the wonderful joy of both writing and teaching other young writers here at WashU. That’s all possible in no small part because the Ervin Program supported me in all that I did. If it weren’t for Ervin, who knows where I, a first generation, low income kid at WashU, would have ended up.

I should also say that when I graduated, the Ervin Program hired me on as a staff member and its been one of the most rewarding experiences of my journey as an Ervin Scholar. Every day I get to hang out with Ervin Scholars for hours, get to offer them the advice that was given to me by upperclassmen and the staff. I can share the advice that Laura and Dean McLeod gave to me when I was an unsure student. Honestly, I can say that working with the Ervin Program isn’t a job for me. It’s living with my Ervin family , something truly indescribable.

And here’s the thing for all the alumni in the room, you can have the same experience. I challenge you all to get reconnected with the program beyond this weekend that only happens once every five years and get involved with the undergraduates. Meet an undergrad, share your story with them, and stay connected when you get back home. They will reach out to you with questions and seek the same advice we all needed at their age and you have the opportunity, the privilege and the responsibility to be there for them. That’s what living the legacy of the Ervin Program means.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and memories with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening.”

New Semester, New Year

Welcome back to the blog. I’ve been quiet for quite a while and there really isn’t much excuse for that. It’s been a little hectic with family life and work but really a great summer. I finished the first draft on a new short story and have begun working on a science fantasy project. I’m excited to see where that is going to take me, as I explore topics of diversity, racial hatred, and compassion.

The spring also brought some great opportunities and challenges. I taught my first course, Fantasy Writing, at my alma mater of Washington University in St. Louis. I will say this. There are times in life when you start something new and it fits. You realize that this is what God built you to do. It just fits your skin perfectly and you can’t imagine giving it up and doing anything else. That was and is teaching for me. I spent a couple months planning out this course. Each week I would stress over my powerpoint slides and my lecture notes. But the moment I stood in front of the class, the world slowed down. Time became this arbitrary medium that no longer affected us. For those two and a half hours with those ten students, all that mattered was the words on the pages and the information I was imparting to them. We all learned something new each and every class period. It was intoxicating, this feeling of having the students’ complete attention as I shared my passions with them. With that feeling firmly rooted in me now, I can never imagine doing anything else. I love teaching. I must teach, to maintain that feeling.

I can happily say that as of today, I will be teaching again this coming spring. It looks like I will be teaching a Horror Writing Course and once more, I find myself stressing over the syllabus, wondering if this story is better here or there. But the benefit of having a semester under my belt already is that I know I can do this. I know what is to come when I finally step in front of this new batch of students. And I can’t wait.

A New Year with New Opportunities

Happy New Year! I know I’ve been MIA for a few months, but I promise I’ve been around. It’s been quite busy but I’ll do my best to get a few more posts going.

Right now, life has been consumed by a few different areas of my life but these have led to some great opportunities. The first and most important, although the one that doesn’t get enough attention, has been my family life. Having two children in the house is way different than having just the one. But I love my two boys and wife with all my heart and we are having a great time together. My oldest has started soccer lessons and I couldn’t be more proud. My youngest is four months old now and growing like a weed. Already he’s bigger than his older brother was at that age. Being a good father for them is my number one priority and I’m meeting the challenge every day with every fiber of my being.

The second area has been my work life. The scholarship program is doing great and we are preparing for our 30th Anniversary in the Fall. We are also reading through scholarships now and preparing to select our Class of 2021 scholars. This blows my mind. I graduated from the program in 2013 and that seems so long ago. I can tell you when I graduated, I didn’t see myself being the Program Coordinator four years later, helping select scholars, plan all the events, and mentoring scholars so they can achieve more. I also just got asked by a student to write a letter of recommendation, the first of many I’m sure I will write throughout my life.

The last area has been my writing career (and one that technically this website should fall under). I’ve divided that into two different areas. The first is my actual writing. I’m finishing up the second draft of my second novel. Really enjoying it but I have the itch to start something completely new. I’ve got an idea for a science fantasy novel and really want to get started on it. I need to spend some more time sending out queries to agents and hopefully that will get done in the next few weeks/month. The second is my teaching career. I’ve been prepping to teach my first course, Fantasy Writing, and am super excited. Next Monday is my first class and it can’t get here fast enough.

That’s it for now. I’ll be in touch again soon!

The Year of the Novel

novel1, noun: a long written story usually about imaginary characters and events

novel2, adjective: new and different from what has been known before

I just celebrated my 26th birthday over the weekend and had a great time. My wife threw me the greatest surprise birthday party with some of my best friends here in St. Louis.

For most people, turning 26 means they’re on the downhill to 30. The idea that they haven’t achieved anything yet can be paralyzing and draining on their confidence and self esteem. I have no such fear though. I’ve already found my soulmate and started my family. I’ve completed my bachelor’s degree and finished my MFA. I’ve written my first novel, Sentinel’s Soul, and begun the process of publishing. I’m working on a sequel, with another novel idea just waiting for its turn. And I’ll be teaching my first class in the spring.

While celebrating with some friends, someone asked me what I wanted to dedicate my year to? The idea being that you would focus on whatever concept for the following year and see where God led you. And as a writer, the idea of the novel was tossed out.

1445496548706590349Mind = Blown.

This works on multiple levels for me at this stage of my life. First, the noun definition of the novel. In the coming year, I hope to complete my second novel (that’s right, you heard me, complete it) and start on my third novel. I also hope to find an agent for my first novel. But in addition to all of this, I’m hoping to spend some time reading some really great novels. (Any suggestions in the fantasy/scifi/urban fantasy realm?) I’ve been a student for almost 20 years of my life and it’s high time I started reading what I want to read rather than the assigned readings, although I’ll be doing my fair share of those since I’ll be the one assigning readings in class.

The second definition, novel as an adjective meaning ‘new and different from what has been known before‘, is equally profound. As I move into this next year of life, I’m looking forward to many new and exciting developments. As I said, I’m hoping to get an agent for Sentinel’s Soul. But I’m also hoping to enjoy teaching undergraduates this year and start building my credentials there. I’m nervous but also excited, as this will be the first chance I’ve gotten to really use the degree I worked so hard on attaining. In my personal life, I just want to keep raising my boys well and continue being a good husband. But I want to do so in a way that is exciting and fulfilling. And I’m always up for new friends and experiences.

So this is the Year of the Novel in all of its multi-faceted meaning. I’m excited to share it with you and look forward to my next birthday.

Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat

prince-lestatIt’s been a little while since I did a book review. I’ve read several novels over the past couple months. My second son was also born and work got crazy busy with the start of the semester. But things have finally started to calm down a little and I was able to finish Anne Rice’s newest Vampire Chronicles novel, Prince Lestat.

I grew up reading the Vampire Chronicles. In fact, I believe Anne Rice’s Louis and Lestat were the first vampire novels I had the joy of reading as a kid (read as 6th grade). While it might not have been the most appropriate reading material for a 6th Grader, I enjoyed these novels so very much. The intricacy of the stories, the emotional states of the characters, the brutality with which they drank from the evildoer. All great stuff that sucked me right in.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, Prince Lestat was a little different than the other Vampire Chronicles, at least for me. It was told in this rolling, POV hopping format that was unlike the other Chronicles I had read. Of the ones I had read, they always stuck to either Louis’ or Lestat’s (Or whoever’s biography the book focused on) POV, with slight shifts every once in a while. And I never read Queen of the Damned (which I need to do now, as a lot of the info plays into this book) so it may be written in this fashion. And while it was different, it wasn’t unsettling, just worth noting.

What did take a little getting used to was that when we were in Lestat’s POV, everything was written in first person. He was telling us the story. Everyone else’s POV was written in the third person. The first time this happened, I was a little confused. But once I got used to the form, it was fine. It also helped that Rice had headed each chapter with the name of whomever’s POV we were going to be in.

This book was a little slow getting into. We are bouncing around all over, with no idea who the Voice is or what he wants, and meeting several characters we’d never even heard of before. I almost set the novel down a couple times for this reason alone. But I trusted Anne enough to pull off a great story in the end. This trust only comes from many books of successful storytelling before, a fine example for the rest of us writers. Once you have dedicated readers, you can experiment a bit more and try new things. And boy, did it all come together in the end.

I’d say I devoured the last 150-200 pages. The pacing picked up. I was once again locked into the mysterious, brooding, thoughtful immortal mindset that encapsulates these vampires, some of whom have been alive for six thousand years. And when the ending rolled around, I was left satisfied.

The resolution was a little underwhelming. I would have liked something a bit more exciting. But it wasn’t disappointing. Definitely worth a read and I will be reading her next novel, Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis. I’ll give it a shot.

All in all, I’d give Prince Lestat a 3/5 stars for taking me back to some of my favorite characters, but also for being a little slow to get into and having a somewhat underwhelming ending.

Writing Advice #1

I recently received an email from a Buzzfeed Article titled “33 Essential Tips for Aspiring Writers“. I found a lot of the advice to be quite good and it sparked an idea. Over the next many posts, I’d like to take a piece of advice from the Buzzfeed Article and expand on it with a bit of my own advice. Hope it helps some people out.

01. As Kandinsky says, “Everything starts with a dot.” Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it.

-Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art

I think this is a great piece of advice and very well placed as the first piece of advice on the page. Also, with today being Novmber 1st, it’s the beginning of NaNoWriMo and many writers are taking part in the challenge.

So many young writers that I talk to have great ideas for stories and novels but don’t know where to start. They ask me “Where would you start?”

And I find this question to be one I struggle with myself. The answer is quite clear here in this bit of advice. It doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you do start. (Although I have a few good ideas that can get the creative juices flowing.) You can’t get any writing done until you sit your butt in your chair and start somewhere, anywhere.

A bit of life experience from my life:

When I started graduate school, I had a very vague idea of a story. But I had no idea where to start with it. So I started in the middle of a fight scene. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t able to explain everything I wanted to. The important part was that I had started. I made progress and once I started writing, there was no stopping me. Later, when I went back to do revisions, I realized where I started wasn’t really my start point but three chapters later. And that was okay, because without having started and made it all the way through the first draft was I able to see where I actually needed to start.

So, like I said, it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you do start. In the end, that’s the most important lesson.

But, young writers do ask “Where would you start?” And I do have a bit of advice on that.

  1. Start with something that gets your blood pumping. For me, it’s a bit of action, some fight scene or point of tension. For you, it might be a bit of romance. Or a coffee shop in Paris. Whatever it might be, if it gets you pumped about writing, then that’s where you should start and remember you can always change it later. That’s the joy of writing.
  2. Start with a character sheet/POV writing. Sometimes, when starting a new project, it can be helpful just to write for a little while in the head of your POV character. Once again, it gets those creative juices flowing, gets you in the mindset of your character, and when you are ready start writing material for the story, you’ll be off and going.
  3. Outline, outline, outline. I can’t stress this enough but put some thought into an outline. It doesn’t matter if you change it later. It’s totally fine. But if you feel like you’ve got the gist of the story on paper in an outline, you’ll be more inclined to start writing it.

Those are just a few bits of advice. Any thoughts from you, readers? I’d love to hear any suggestions on where you like to start writing at.