Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

fire in the dawn cover

Justin Fike contacted me in the summer of 2009. It had been a little while since he’d graduated from Brown University and he was trying to decide whether or not to commit to being a writer. He had a book in process, but the vision was huge. It might end up being a trilogy, he thought, and it seemed like a lot of work. Could he really make it as a writer?

I did five coaching sessions with Justin (he’s given me permission to share that publicly) and he did decide to push on. Some time later, he asked me if I’d write a letter of recommendation for the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Oxford University. I felt a little under-qualified, but I did it. Justin got in, graduated… time went on… he still hadn’t finished that book.

Justin and I have been in touch ever since. In 2016, we met again at a conference in Thailand, and decided to write a series of action-adventure/comedy books called the Stetson Jeff Adventures. Our main character is a cross between any Chuck Norris character (he really only plays one guy, right?) and Forrest Gump, three books have been published and several more are drafted as I write this.

But that story he was working on in 2009 still wasn’t done, until this weekend Justin finally published Fire in the Dawn, the first book in his Twin Skies Trilogy.

I give you all this background just to say that sometimes people with huge ideas and lots of talent can take a LONG time to get that book out. This in itself commands my respect.

I have learned a lot from Justin about story beats: the aspect of writing that involves keeping the reader engaged, tools and techniques to make you want to turn the page. Justin is whiz-bang at this, and I have a feeling that by the time we’re done with 9 Stetson Jeff books and he finishes the rest of his Trilogy, he’s going to be at a level we’d have to call masterful. So here is my review:

Fire in the Dawn is set in a fantasy world similar to Medieval Japan. Justin taps into a deep knowledge and understanding of cultures to construct a world that feels real, with a political landscape that has treachery on every side. There are social and racial themes throughout that keeps you guessing about how his main character will be able to accomplish his goals, and intriguing alliances. Like any good fantasy story, there’s a bit of magic thrown in that refers to the power of qi but some deeper magic too.

All told, if you’re a reader of lots of fantasy lit, you’re going to love what Fike has done with the genre. He’s gotten away from the trolls, orcs, dragons and wizards, and done something exceptional, fresh, and exciting.  And if you’re not into the fantasy genre, that’s okay– Fire in the Dawn has a literary quality that’s appealing to a broader-than-fantasy-readers audience in a way that’s similar to how I experienced George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Justin’s work isn’t as gory and doesn’t have the perverse sexual violence of Martin’s Game of Thrones, nor does it have the same immense complexity of a cast of characters of hundreds you have to track, so it’s definitely lighter reading in several ways. The comparison is being made strictly based on the fact that it’s literary. Fike’s world has plenty of depth and texture to explore, and a certain amount of intrigue. He keeps the action moving, so you never bog down with lengthy explanations of the world. The first few chapters you may find yourself wondering what is going on, and where you are, so it will be helpful to refer to the map!  I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy.

Also, check out that sweet cover art. Top notch professional work!

Justin’s promoting Fire in the Dawn on Amazon for free at the moment, but the promotion ends today, so get it now!

Also, if you’d like to check out the work that Justin and I have done together, here’s the link to The Stetson Jeff Adventures, Volume 1, which includes “Beatdown in Bangkok”, “Mayhem in Marrakesh”, and “Pandemonium in Paradise” plus a bonus short story, “A Very Stetson Christmas”, available in paperback and as an e-book.

Review: S.S.B.’s “Wild Edges”

I’m about to take some road trips; I have some speeches to give and seminars to lead. Shiny Shiny Black’s new album, Wild Edges, is going with me. (If only they could come play live at my speaking gigs.)

One of the best things about taking a road trip is finger food. Crackers are a good place to start: I always liked Ritz crackers or Wheat Thins. My problem is that I just keep eating them until I’ve eaten a whole sleeve, or a whole box. They’re just kind of there in your lap and you keep on munching. That’s the snare drum on this album, it just keeps popping into your mouth and you can’t get enough. You’re going to eat the whole box, and you know it when you turn the key in the ignition, before you back out of the garage. You can’t help yourself.

Shiny Shiny Black’s entire sound for not only this album, but the previous one (Travelers) as well, majors on this guitar that I want to call twangy though it’s nowhere near country-western. Among the tags SSB uses on their own website (how they define their own sound) are labels like Rockabilly and Americana. The guitar sounds very rockabilly indeed, but I think of that genre as being a bit faster-paced. Now, when this guitar comes in on track one (Gone) it’s like putting a thick slice of garlic venison summer sausage on your snare drum-Ritz cracker. I mean, they just go together, and you can just keep eating that until you’ve eaten all the salami, too. That might sound like something you’d get tired of, but it’s only five songs (plus a bonus track) so it doesn’t get old before it’s over.

Other than the snappy drum and clean reverberating guitar, there’s not a ton of instrumentation on the album; at least not in any sort of prominent way. There’s a bit of Hammond organ, which I really like, maybe a touch of banjo. But my favorite part of the mix is Amber’s voice (blended other female voices, Nate tells me) backing vocals. They’re mixed in perfectly: the harmony is tight, her voice is as smooth as ever, and the volume level is perfect too. Your ear’s going to enjoy that vocal and the organ here and there like a Starbuck’s Frappucchino: when you’re listening to an album that feels like it’s precisely designed for a road trip in the car, you need something that eats up time, but keeps you awake, too. That’s what the touch of organ and the backup vocals do for this album: they are the caffeine. They make you listen closely, just the way caffeine helps you watch the road.

In  simple yet poetic language, the lyrics give you the dynamic tension between wanting to always be away and a hunger for home. This is the perfect album for a “third-culture kid”. It’s said that children whose parents are from one culture, and who are raised in a different culture, are most at home in airports. They have a sort of perpetual wanderlust. Lyrically this album should appeal to everyone who has been raised in different cultures than they inhabit, left home, made peace with those cultures, and somehow found their way back home. Or, at least, people who have made a nest inside of different cultures that fits them, like one of those Russian nesting dolls. The track “Hallelujah” speaks of finding something good out of a wacky culture.  Overall, the first five tracks take you away from home and bring you full circle back. The bonus, a nod to making music while raising children, teaching them to shoot for the stars, gives us a reminder that no matter how road weary, how much we’ve found our home, there’s always something new to wonder about.

There’s one change I think I would have preferred: I would have used that soft Hammond organ on track six instead of the guitar. They could get a sound that’s a little less percussive than the arpeggio plucking of guitar strings, and capitalize on the fact that the organ was there in the first place. It would have been cohesive and a bit softer.

Nate Butler has been around a bunch of different musical styles. I wouldn’t say he’s played everything, (I don’t remember seeing him in a tux playing William Tell’s Overture on the timpani, though I’m sure he could do it) but for those who remember his Frequency Theater days, and who may have missed SSB’s first album, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel. The Butlers haven’t. In fact, Nate, especially, has taken a lot of back roads to get on this Interstate, or Intergalactic highway, steered his semi straight, and he’s going to get that million miles behind him. What I’m saying is, he’s found his truck, or his route, or his Millenium Falcon, and they’re in hyper-drive. They are cruising. SSB says this is their best effort yet. I’m not sure it’s better than Travelers, but that was a really great album, more songs, which equates naturally to perhaps more depth and variety. Lyrically, Wild Edges has every bit as much depth as you can cram into an EP. I’m also a fan of simple, non-esoteric lyrics, and they’ve nailed that.  This sophomore album is so consistent with the debut, it’s clear they’ve not only found the niche (Americana) but developed a trucking brand. Shiny, Shiny Black, y’all: not a product of luck; rather, a product of sweat, high polish, spit-shine, time, and drive.

Why you should buy this album: If you are a blue-blooded American, there’s a good chance you take a road trip now and then. You need this album for your next road trip. “The best place I’ve ever been is on the road.” If you don’t have “Travelers” you should pick that up for your road trip, too.

Here’s where you can preorder the album, a whole variety of stuff, including tickets to the album release show, signed drumsticks and other whatnots. Available through September 23. This is not a Kickstarter– the album is happening no matter what, so they’re using a different service, but similar.

Here is the band’s website.

Album release party info for people in the Goshen, IN, area (or willing to drive or fly in, I’m sure you’re welcome!) is available at this facebook link.

I was not compensated by SSB to write this review, although I was of course given a pre-release copy of the CD.