I hope you’re having a wonderful October, however that looks in your part of the world. At the moment here we have 70F weather and blue skies, so that’s pretty nice.
I thought I’d share a pivotal scene from Under Review with you, but first a quick announcement: you can get both Campus Confidential and Foreign Exchange, plus about 50 other books, for free right now in the Mystery and Thriller Giveaway on Bookfunnel. Link here.
And now for the excerpt from Under Review! But first, a little background. It took me a while to get started on Under Review, in part because I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be “about.” I don’t mean on the plot level, although the plot took a MAJOR turn from where I had initially intended it to go. I mean more on a thematic level. I don’t normally start off my books with any kind of a clear theme, but normally there has to be one percolating away subconsciously for a book to get started.
Plus, the sudden expansion of the war in Ukraine from a frozen civil war in one corner of the country to a full-scale war that captured international attention meant I had to figure out what to do with that, since it’s been a recurring theme in these books since the beginning, especially in the side-quest books with Dima (link to a free copy of Summer Break, the first of the Dima novellas set in the Donbass, here).
Things haven’t really resolved much vis-a-vis Ukraine since then, so it might take me a little while to write the last of the Dima novellas and get it and Under Review ready for release. In the meantime, though, I discovered that the themes of extremism, radicalization, and the dangers of ideals and ideology running through the book. I also carried on the plotline started in Total Immersionof Rowena being bad at heart.
This chapter contains all of that. It’s a discussion between Mel and Rowena about their various work woes, which morphs into an open acknowledgement of how close they are to becoming completely radicalized extremists. Rowena is also tormented by her emotional response to a recent article by Dima that could potentially put her in danger. So all in all, it’s a pretty heavy chapter, but might be of interest to those who want the “deeper meaning” of the book and the series.
Oh, and the line about “fucking corporate enlightenment and Zen you can buy at the dollar store” was first uttered in real life by someone very similar to Mel. I instantly knew she needed to say it in the book, and got permission to use it.
“Let me guess,” Mel said when I hauled myself into the Jeep. “Karen caught you.”
“Jeez, how’d you know?”
We both laughed. “Normally you go around with this, what’s the word I’m looking for, beatific expression on your face,” she said. “But right now you look like you want to chew nails so’s you can spit them out as bullets.”
“That is about how I feel,” I agreed. I outlined my conversation with Karen, dwelling at length about her warnings about the potential negative effect my injury would have on my candidacy for the tenure-track job, should it appear.
“Yeah, well, you know how these motherfuckers roll,” said Mel. “They want to work you death, and they get really pissed if you get cancer or something and interfere with their plans.”
“And what pisses me off most of all is that I got this injury here,” I said. “At Crimson. Doing my job. It’s a workplace injury. At least the first time, it was. And you could argue that the second time it was too. It certainly happened while I was here at Crimson. Saving, I should mention, Crimson’s ass from what could have turned into a really nasty incident. And now Karen is hinting that it could be grounds for termination! They talk about how we’re all one big caring family. And I guess some of the people here do care about us people. It’s just that most of them care about us more as commodities.”
“Yeah,” said Mel. “And instead of trying to help us out, they try to tell us we have to help ourselves by getting their fucking corporate enlightenment and Zen you can buy at the dollar store. They keep trying to get us to ‘have a good attitude’ and ‘think positive,’ and look what the result is.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Although maybe they’re right to push us towards meditation. Maybe we’re in the same situation as people in medieval China or whatever, forced to rely on mind control for our medical care because it’s the only thing we’ve got.”
“Also true,” I said.
“And hey, it’s cheap—at least if you avoid all the hucksters and shysters trying to sell you your soul back at $200 dollars a private session.”
“Man the barricades,” I said. “Oops. I meant…um, woman the barricades? What is it we’re supposed to be doing, anyway?”
“Nothing,” said Mel. “Abso-fucking-lutely nothing. We can’t even sit around looking pretty without getting shit for it.”
“We need to stop this conversation before we become radicalized beyond redemption,” I said.
“It sure makes you realize how people can become fucking jihadists and shit, don’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It does. Not that that’s helping my peace of mind right now.”
“Oh? There’s more than Karen and her bullshit eating you up right now?”
I told her about the article about Kavboyets and Security Solutions, and the (true) rumor going around that I was, or at least had been, involved with its author.
“Oooooooh shit,” said Mel. “The college isn’t going to be happy about that.”
“No,” I agreed. “One might be tempted to point out that if they didn’t want to get bad press for crawling into bed with Security Solutions, they shouldn’t have done it. But I doubt that argument will hold much weight with them.”
“Fuck to the no,” said Mel. “They’ll just shoot the shit out of the messenger.”
“And I’m afraid…I’m afraid…I’m afraid they’ll blame me for it, even though I had nothing to do with the article at all, and I’ll get in trouble for it. That would certainly be grounds for termination. And…I’m afraid of Kavboyets,” I admitted, my voice hardly above a whisper, barely audible against the rushing of the air through the open windows. The Jeep, most inconveniently for a vehicle in Georgia, didn’t have AC.
“I’m afraid they’ll take up their vendetta against Dima again, and they’ll go after him, and his mom…and me,” I said, looking down at the door handle because I was too frightened and ashamed by the words I was uttering to look Mel or even my own reflection in the face. “I’m afraid they’ll track me all the way here, and go after me to stop him. And…I’m angry. At Dima. I’m angry at him for putting me in this position. Again. And I’m angry at myself for being such a coward.”
“Mmmm.” Mel was silent for a moment as she pulled through an intersection. “Was that a bone of contention between you?” she asked once we were through. “You didn’t want him putting you at risk?”
“No,” I said. “I was always so proud of him, and—let’s be honest—so proud of myself for standing by him. I felt like we were both doing something important, something worth fighting for…worth dying for, if it came down to it. When they—the guys from Kavboyets—were holding that gun to my head, all I felt was rage. I swore to myself that this was a blood feud now, and I would show them they hadn’t stopped me, I would make them pay.
“But…I don’t know…I’m so tired. I’m tired of fighting noble rearguard actions that can’t be won. I don’t want any more blood feuds, or brave fights, or…anything like that. I just, for once, want things to be pleasant and easy. Or at least, I want a husband who loves me, and a couple of kids who are, you know, just normal, nice kids, and a house that’s a normal, nice house, and a job that isn’t always full of gut-wrenching misery and pays enough that I don’t have to calculate every single purchase to the penny every time I go to the grocery store. Is that too much to ask?”
“It shouldn’t be,” said Mel. “But somehow it is.”
“I know. And, you know, it makes me sick sometimes when I think about it. And the worst part is that Dima, and Alex, and my brother John—they all sold their souls for money in one way or another. They all signed up for things that involved doing really, really bad stuff that now they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives, because they needed the money. And still none of them can really support a family. Not on just their paycheck. I mean, Dima’s all about truth and justice now, but when he was younger, he was in OMON. If you know what that is.”
“Russian riot police, right?” said Mel.
“Right. Not nice guys at all. And he did it mainly for the money. Alex and John both did ROTC, which we think is so great, but a lot of Russians consider to be horrible blood money. And they all ended up with way too much blood on their hands to ever wash clean. And they’re still broke, or at least, not rich.”
“Yeah,” said Mel. “It fucking sucks. Believe me, I know. Every day, I ask myself what it was all for, and if this fucking guilt will ever go away, and why the fuck I’m not at least bathing in one of those fucking golden bathtubs they supposedly found in Saddam’s palaces when they ‘liberated’ them. I mean, if I had to go in and wreck the shit out of Iraq, I should at least get something out of it other than a TBI and PTSD, right?”
“I don’t think you singlehandedly wrecked the shit out Iraq,” I said. “I think it was a group effort.”
“Yeah, and I don’t think you’re a coward,” said Mel. “I think you’re just asking some fucking important questions, like what the fuck we’re all doing here, and what kind of consequences our actions have, and whether it’s worth it. And if you ask me, Dima should have asked you before writing that article. It’s not just his life on the line there.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But he always has to do what he thinks is right, regardless of what it does to the rest of us.”
“You know how it is with men,” said Mel. “They want 110% from you, while only giving back 10% in return. And as the words are coming out of my mouth, that sounds like extremism even to me.”
“Like I said, getting radicalized is so easy,” I said. “As is getting co-opted by the totalitarian state. And a lot of the time, that seems like the only two options.”
“We need to make some better fucking options,” said Mel.
“Yeah,” I said. “We should get right on that.”
This book is meant to be the nadir of Rowena’s story arc, and it’s pretty dark in spots. And as it turns out, the people in her life do put her in a lot of danger. But, since this is fiction, rest assured that she and those around her do start a climb up towards redemption, and the book ends on a potentially very hopeful note. At least I think so.
Whether you’re being co-opted by the totalitarian state, radicalized into an extremist, or just consumed by self-doubt, I hope you have a pleasant weekend with plenty of time for reading 🙂 Here’s that link again for the book giveaway.