Friday, October 31, 2008

What Being Married Has Taught Me

I've been married to Lisa for only 3 years now, but in that time I've learned valuable lessons to help keep our marriage happy, safe -- and me alive. Some of these are obvious; others took getting hitched to discover. All of these are unique to me, so others might have a different list. And of course, given another 3 years, I'm sure it will change.

For now tho, here are the top 10 things a stupid husband can be made to learn:

10) Flowers are nice on special occasions, but go over a lot better on ordinary days when she's not expecting them.

09) No, she's not always right. But that doesn't mean you need to point it out whenever she's wrong.

08) You don't really need to say something appropriate when she's feeling blue. Sometimes just being a shoulder to cry on is better than words.

07) You may hate her parents. Hell, *she* might hate them, too. But don't ever intimate that your own parents are any better.

06) No matter the clothes you wear, the gifts you give, or how you look in the buff -- sometimes just engaging her in deep, meaningful conversation is the biggest turn on.

05) Just because she's an independent minded, free spirited, modern day woman doesn't mean you can't hold the door open for her or pay the check at a restaurant (even if you have a joint back account). Sometimes it's the sentiment that matters most.

04) No matter how loud the argument, or egregious the infraction, saying: "I'm sorry, I was stupid. You were right" doesn't actually make things all better. But it sure does go a long way.

03) Sometimes the best date nights are spent at home on a rainy day, snuggled up together on the couch, eating leftovers, and watching a movie "for free".

02) Despite popular belief, women don't actually want to marry their fathers. So don't act like hers.

01) Because nothing says "I love you" better than . . . keeping the checkbook balanced and the accounts debt-free.

Naturally this list might read a lot different once we have kids. :)

Or will it?

What I've Learned In 2 Years

A little while ago I wrote a series of blog entries titled "On Writing" (so titled after the amazing Stephen King "how-to" book of the same name), in which I mentioned my writing habits and schedule. You can find them here: part 1, part 2, part 3. In it, I mentioned that I only started writing seriously--i.e., with a mind towards publishing--two years ago. Even though it hasn't been a long time at all in writerly years, there's already a noticeable difference in my perception of the business. This outlook is, of course, ever evolving, but I thought it'd be interesting to examine what I've learned thus far.

If I could coalesce it all into one salient observation, it would be on account of discipline. And what does this mean exactly? Well simple:

Before 2006, I thought writing followed a formula of: 10% discipline, and 90% creative talent.

2 years later, I realize this is utterly simplistic, let alone wrong. Writing well enough to publish takes, in my opinion, about: 20% discipline, 10% creativity -- and 70% stubbornness!

If you notice, there's a pretty interesting paradigm shift at work here. Before I knew anything at all about the business, I held a rather romanticized view of writing fiction. I assumed that talent was everything. That good ideas and good natural writing ability was the most important thing to it, and how you went about the actual mechanics of writing was secondary. In other words, if you had the talent, that's all you needed. The stories would all but write themselves.

Boy, how stupid was I?

These days, while I'm still no more publishable than I was 2 years ago, I've learned that talent amounts for squat if you don't have the discipline and tenacity to see your work through. And it's not just through my own writing that I've learned this lesson, but through listening to other writers and their journeys as well.

The wittiest, most popular, most prolific writers out there all have the same thing in common -- and that is that they were rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times before one of their pieces sold, or before they started selling regularly. Because that's the key right there; not just selling something once, but being able to keep on selling.

These weren't writers who just emerged out of the blue one day with the Hugo award-winning novel under their arms -- they actually *sucked* at some point. Which is not to say they did not possess innate talent (because, of course, talent is sorta necessary if you want to be successful, no?), but that they did not yet possess the discipline to make that talent shine.

The true test of a new writer, therefore, is how much knocking about he can take until pay dirt is reached. Can he withstand the countless rejections, withering critiques, and constant nitpicking and still keep on writing day-in and day-out? The new writer has to be able to eat shit and keep on smiling, because the dream is too big to give up on.

So after learning all this, and spending even just 2 years with my nose to the grindstone, I have come to this one saving conclusion: That all writers are stubborn assholes.

And it would do me well to emulate them their assholery. :)

Argh! San Diego - I'm So Jealous!!!

I've written here before about how jealous I am of West Coast people, especially you SoCal types. You get all the cool conventions, writing workshops, and concerts! Not to mention you're much closer to Hawaii and East Asia than I am (shorter plane ride). San Diego in particular seems to be absurdly blessed in this regard, and to boot has some of the best beaches and nicest weather in the continental U.S. Guess it makes up for all the earthquake and fire insurance, eh?

Anyway, as if I needed yet another reason to be green with envy at San Diego people, I've discovered this really cool bookstore I wish I could visit. It's a genre bookshop catering exclusively to Sci Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, and some Horror books. It's called Mysterious Galaxy, and is located in the Kearny Mesa section of San Diego. I found out about the store through one of the hosts of AISP's podcasts, Sam Wynns, who works there. She seems like a really cool person who has done a lot to promote the store's advocacy of children's reading and learning programs. In addition to its wonderful genre offerings, Mysterious Galaxy also promotes juvenile and young adult fiction. The store seems to be pretty active with author readings, signings, and promotions. Wow! If I resided in the area, I would so live at this place!

Speaking of which, Lisa was talking about a Nurse Practitioner conference she may be attending in San Diego next year. It's tentative now, as there are always a dozen of these conferences going on around the country for her profession, and she doesn't always get the freedom to choose. But it's possible that we may be in the San Diego area sometime in May of next year. If we are, you can bet I'm scoping Mysterious Galaxy out while I'm there!

Check out the store if you're in the area, or visit the website I linked to above if you're not. Also, check out the Adventures in SciFi Publishing site for cool reviews, news, interviews, and podcasts in the SF field.

Don't Misconfuse Me

Just thought I'd clarify something peculiar with me for some folk. All throughout my life, but especially starting in high school, I've always been called "quiet." Fine, I admit, I am very quiet. I keep to myself, always have. But what I don't like is when people mistake my need for solitude with being shy or even unfriendly.


Just because I don't grin like an idiot at every person I meet or go out of my way to introduce myself does not make me shy. And just because I can't *stand* making small talk and asking you about things I really don't care about (hey, how bout them Giants?) doesn't mean I'm some uncaring bastard who doesn't like making friends.

I like friends. I have a bunch, and they're all cool people. Most of my friends are folks who, for one reason or another, have been able to instantly look past my quietude and see that I'm actually a decent person. So they don't see me as cold at all. But even most of my friends think of me as shy. I don't get it. I'm actually the opposite of shy. I'll stand in your face and tell you off if you cross me, and I've always surprised people with my public speaking ability. Just because I don't talk doesn't mean I don't know how to, or to do so LOUDLY. There's few things I'm afraid of in this world, and other people's opinions are not on that list.

I'm usually not one to strike up a conversation. But if you talk to me, I will converse back. I'm never rude like truly socially inept people are. When I'm by myself, I'm actually lost in furious thought. What I mean is, there are a thousand things going on in my head at any given time. Quite often, if you see me sitting down staring off into space -- I'm not ignoring you. I'm working on two separate story ideas; or revising my grocery list; or pondering the thought of growing old; or marveling at why kids are so care free and full of life (and why can't we be more like them?)

You see, sometimes I have so much to think about that I actually *forget* there are other people around me. If you're not speaking to me directly, my brain switches to another gear and entertains itself. :)

Anyway, now you know. There was no particular reason for me to write all this, just that I noticed on the elevator ride up to the office that people fidget and shift around me when trying to come up with something--ANYTHING--to talk about. And I just want to say: relax, man. Why can't you just stand still and enjoy the elevator ride in peace?

Are people so afraid to be left alone with their own thoughts?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fun With 80s Music Videos

Ha-ha, this is too funny! People with way too much time on their hands have gone back and retro'd popular music videos from the 80s. It's all over YouTube, but one of my personal favorites is the treatment that was done to the vid for "Take On Me" by the 80s band, a-ha. You've got to see this to fully appreciate the genius on display here!

This first video is the original version, with the original track.

The next is the same video, but using a different recorded track and lyrics. It's a "literal video," meaning someone made up words to go along with the exact images appearing in the video, to hilarious effect. It aired on Attack of the Show, so it's not like I discovered this or anything. :)

"This guy's gonna get an ass full of pipe wrench!"

LOL! I'm sorry, but that part just killed it for me. Who comes up with this stuff?

Seriously, WTF?

Because Hollywood can't seem to come up with actual new ideas these days, more news that TPTB are not content to leave my cherished 80s memories intact. The Hollywood Reporter revealed today details to remake the 1985 cult hit, The Last Dragon. Originally conceived and produced by Motown head honcho extraordinaire, Berry Gordy, the film was about a young martial artist living in Harlem who seeks ultimate harmony with his art by obtaining the title of "The Last Dragon." Standing in his way to obtaining this coveted goal is Sho'nuff, the self-proclaimed "Shogun of Harlem," played by the late Julius Carry. It's camp, to be sure, but it was a good, fun flick for its time.

The Reporter also announced that Sam Jackson was in likely talks to portray the character of Sho'nuff this time around, with no word yet on who would play the lead. I hope like the original they get an unknown, real martial artist. Because this will be a modern update, I'm sure they'll eventually go with a mixed martial artist. I'm plenty sick of the whole MMA craze that has been sweeping the nation as of late, but this is the way things are today so I can't complain too loudly. I'd rather they'd get a gong-fu practitioner, though I'd settle for the ubiquitous Taekwondo since it is flashier on film. Capoeira would be ideal, imo, and would more easily incorporate into Brazilian jujitsu if they plan to go the MMA route.

I'm not so sure how happy I am to see Sam in the role. Although, on second thought, I guess he really is the best candidate for what is essentially a loud-mouthed, over-the-top caricature (on purpose). I just wish they left the movie alone to begin with. It's a cult classic for a reason--i.e., it doesn't NEED to be remade!

This update is set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Motown Records' founding, with Berry Gordy's son, Kerry, onboard as one of the producers, and RZA co-producing. Well, at least we know the music will be tight!

I leave you now with a clip of the campy, but oh so fantastic, nostalgia that is one of my favorite 80s movies, The Last Dragon:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fraggle Rock, Redux

Earlier in the month, I wrote this entry on (among other things) the 80s Jim Henson show, "Fraggle Rock." Some of you may know the show (click on the link if you want to see the intro video again). Anyway, at work today, one of my co-workers shared a video "parody" done on Adult Swim.

I swear, I was in SO much pain trying not to laugh out loud at my desk. I thought I was going to piss myself! The video is, naturally, tons more funny if you've seen even just a few minutes of the show. But even if you haven't, the humor is pretty straight-forward.

Heh, heh . . . damn, I'm still feeling the residule giggly effects of this. Adult Swim is AWESOME!

*EDIT* I removed the video because the sourcing was causing some buggy issues with the page. So if you want to see it, go directly to it by clicking here.

Follow Me!

Added and/or rearranged a few things on my sidebar, including a new "Followers" gadget near the top. As you can see, I only have 1 follower as of now, and he's pretty lonely over there. Won't you do the charitable things and keep him company?

Seriously, all my friends out there with blogs of their own, show me some love and add yourself to my list of followers by clicking on the "Follow This Blog" link on the right sidebar. This way you'll be updated whenever I update. It's a win-win world!

And think of how appreciative I'll be! It goes without saying that I'll return the favor. Pay it forward. :)

Book Review: The Accidental Time Machine

I know, I know: I just reviewed a book--how is this possible? Well, two things:

1) I often read two books at a time (one at home before I go to sleep; the other on the subway); and

2) This latest book was just so good I couldn't put it down!

I started reading The Accidental Time Machine shortly after finishing John Scalzi's The Last Colony, and it has been a non-stop adventure ever since. This book is seriously fun, reminding me of Joe Haldeman's equally enjoyable and brief novel, Camouflage, which I'd read late last year.

The Accidental Time Machine is typical Haldeman wit and effortless prose. I mean, seriously, this man has an economy with plot and structure that simply makes me weep with envy. But enough gushing, let's get to the meat and potatoes of the book itself.

The Accidental Time Machine is a simple tale about a boy and his time machine. The boy in this case is Matt Fuller, failed grad student and mediocre lab assistant to a quantum physicist at MIT (where Haldeman himself teaches writing). One day, while working on a calibrator for a graviton generator, Matt inadvertently pushes the shoe-box sized machine's "reset" button and--poof! The calibrator vanishes. It returns 1 second later, none the worse for wear. Unable to believe his eyes, he pushes the button again. Just as before, the device vanishes, returning this time 12 seconds later. Some scientific extrapolation and simple math later, Matt determines that the machine is vanishing into the future and returning to the present at intervals increasing by the factor of 12. Each time he pushes the reset button, the machine disappears further and further into the future, but never the past (since this is theoretically impossible in today's physics).

After a series of calculated experiments, Matt finally musters the courage to take the trip himself by way of a Faraday Cage. When he arrives in the near future, however, he is mistakenly fingered for murder by the cops. What follows is a series of events by which Matt repeatedly travels to a more distant and stranger future than the previous to escape random mishaps, along the way getting into one scrape after another. His journeys eventually take him to a million years in the future, where reality is far stranger than any movie or book could have ever prepared him for. Can Matt eventually arrive at a time where the science and the means to send him back to the past exists?

The premise is intriguing enough to have you turning the page to read more, and you find yourself sucked into each new dilemma Matt encounters in the future. The inventiveness of each future scenario shows why Haldeman is such a master at the craft. His wit and knack for writing strong, believable scenarios only makes this book even easier to read. This is one super-slick adventure yarn!

At only 260 pages long, this was one of the shortest sci-fi novels I've read in a while. But do not mistake brevity for sparsity--the science in this book is seriously hardcore at times, delving into string theory and quantum mechanics with easy fluidity. Sometimes making you have to stop to re-read certain passages. But even then you'll find yourself quickly speeding along after Matt and his time exploits. The pace of this book simply does not allow one to tarry overlong in any one chapter. Or time period, for that matter.

I highly recommend this to sci-fi readers needing a quick and fun, yet intelligent, read. I also think this book would make a great starter novel for the beginner reader in the genre, or to one usually put-off by most other sci-fi offerings on the market.

Take my word for it: you WILL enjoy this book!

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Oh Apocalypse, How I Love Thee!

I don't know what it says about me, but for some reason I just absolutely adore post-apocalyptic sci-fi! I like it in the books I read (A Canticle For Leibowitz; The Dark Tower series), the movies and tv shows I watch (I Am Legend; Jericho), and especially in the games I play (Resident Evil; Gears of War). Especially if there are zombies or mutated beings involved! I'm not much of a fan of horror, but if you throw in just enough good ole fashioned sci-fi apocalyptica into the mix, you've got me sold!

Hence why I immediately snatched up this game, Fallout 3, today. I try to keep ignorant of all the overhyped games that release in a given financial quarter, because I got tired of burning myself out on all the trailers, screencaps, and backstage vids months before the games are even released. So this came as a pleasant surprise when I found out a game dealing with both a post-nuclear fallout society AND mutated beasties with a jonesing need to go splat under heavy-ordinance artillery was coming out today. I mean, HELLO! Where do I sign up?

Fallout 3 is an action RPG game for the PC, Xbox 360, and the PlayStation 3. I play all my games on either the 360 or PS3, and I got this one on the former. I don't own a beefed-up enough gaming PC to support these types of games properly.

Anywho, Fallout 3 is about you, the player, who lives in a giant underground bunker metropolis called Vault 101. Because the good ol U.S. of A. ended up on the bad side of the nuclear arms race during the 1950s or 60s, most of society has been blowed up into one big irradiated mess. Told from birth that Vault 101 is your home for pretty much the rest of your life, it comes as a shock one day when you wake up to klaxons blaring and discover that your father has busted out of Dodge and left the vault door open. The Powers That Be are none too pleased about this, and task you with the job of retrieving your pops and dragging him back (for reasons unknown).

Once on the surface, the world is a shocking mess to someone who's been sheltered from the horrors of the nuke war. But you learn quickly that, although 90% of the country has gone to hell literally, there are still enough baddies and monsters running about to make you happy you're packing heat. As well, there are isolated pockets of human survivors trying to rebuild some of what's been lost.

Since this is an action Role Playing Game, you'll have to manage complex rosters of stats along with your gunnin, but I've been told the system in place to do all this is rather intuitive and much fun to finesse. That's a relief. There's nothing I hate more than an RPG that needs an encyclopedia of instructions just to learn how to place one foot in front of the other.

What I'm liking about this game so far is the 1950s feel to it. Just like with last year's excellent Bioshock, I'm in love with the 40s and 50s music to be found on the radio stations in this game. The setting is the future as imagined by the popular culture of the 50s and 60s. It makes for a rather unique level design, I must say. All the locations are gorgeously produced. Hell, just check out this trailer and see for yourself:

I've never played any of the previous Fallout games, but I've read that you don't need to in order to enjoy this current offering. Hooray! Unfortunately I'm not going to have much time to play over the next couple of weeks as I'm busy with writing odds and ends, but sometime around Thanksgiving I shall be ready to get my Mad Max jones on proper!

I'll keep ya'll updated when I do.

Pride Goeth Before A Fall

A while back on my MySpace blog, I posted this rant on why I've always viewed ethnic pride with suspicion, to put it mildly.

Well, it seems some studies bear my suspicions out, though through a different tangent than the one I had chosen to focus on in that post.

I scoped this article out on the feed today. In it, the author talks about a study which links group pride with insecurity. Imagine that.

"The new study reveals how two types of pride are related to a person's good feelings about one social group or another to which they belong. These good feelings could come from being a Los Angeles Lakers fan (when they win), a war veteran, a member of a particular ethnic group or a sorority gal or fraternity brother. But while authentic pride is linked with real confidence in your group, hubristic pride is a false arrogance that belies insecurities about one's group."

I think there's some validity to the study, especially the delineation between authentic pride for one's team/ethnic group, and the more damaging boastful kind of pride that I'm against. Unfortunately, more people fall into the latter than the former category in my experience.

The angry Yankees fan screaming loudly that the "Red Sox SUCKS!" is really not so different from the black man screaming "Black power!" and "KILL WHITEY!" all the time. Both individuals have serious issues of self-doubt to work through. And when you lump them all together in a large group of similarly-minded individuals . . . well now you're just asking for trouble.

Like Gandhi, I believe in quiet humility and hard work to speak of one's actions, not boastful shouts.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: Crystal Rain

Back in July I won a few prizes at the KGB Fantastic Fiction raffle, which auctioned off various items and services provided by participating SF authors and editors. One of the prizes was a signed, hardcover edition of Tobias Buckell's debut novel, Crystal Rain. As I had been eyeing his sophomore title in the same universe, Ragamuffin, around the same time, this win came at an opportune moment for me to become acquainted with the earlier book in this loosely-connected series.

I'm not usually a fan of steampunk-leaning sci-fi, except when the world-building of the novel supports the dated technology in use. In other words, if there is a reasonable explanation for the presence of floating dirigibles and steam-powered locomotives in the world I'm being introduced to--and if that explanation is grounded in good, ol' fashioned, SF'nal traditions (whether fantastical or not)--then I'm all onboard as an open-minded reader.

Luckily, such is the case here with Cyrstal Rain. What's more, Buckell paints his set-back world of Nanagada in the rich, warm colors of Caribbean culture and patois that immediately sets the novel apart from similar steampunk sci-fi novels of this ilk. As someone who's family is from the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, by way of my father), who grew up in the South Bronx surrounded by other Caribbean nationals, and who is married to a girl from Kingston, the flavor of the novel was like a nostalgic trip back through my childhood and early adult life. In the writing workshops I've attended, there was a tendency of criticism towards writing dialogue with thick accents and ethnic affectations. Usually, this criticism hailed from the more, shall we say, "Anglo-Saxon" elements in the classroom, where the sense is one of unease and cultural vulnerability whenever a new writer attempts to infuse his narratives with color and multicultural flavor. Since I come from a Dominican father and Anglo mother, you can see why "multicultural" is the one theme I'm most comfortable using.

But I can see why some readers might have a problem with the characters in Buckell's world speaking in the manner that they do. For someone not used to the Caribbean's different patois and its cultures, this can be offsetting enough to make the earlier passages hard going. But I for one did not have this problem. I was amazed at first, then delighted, and finally awestruck by how well the islands-tinted dialogue actually works within the narrative. And I'm confident that more open-minded and sophisticated readers will leave with the same impression.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg of what this novel offers by way of cultural immersion. This is the very first sci-fi novel I myself have read which blends cherished staples of the genre (such as air chases, conflicts between rival alien races, and forbidden advanced technology) with authentic Caribbean characters and sensibilities. The people of Nanagada farm the land in the traditions of their Earth ancestors, they have an affinity for the sea in much the same way as their Caribbean counterparts, and even celebrate Carnival in much the same fashion as it has been done here for centuries. Drawing from his own background, Buckell is one of the few *real* voices from this corner of the globe to make his presence known in the genre, and I thank him for it.

So, now, how is the book itself, you might be wondering? Well, to get it out of the way early: it was damn FANTASTIC!

Crystal Rain takes place in an unspecified distant future where humanity has encountered hostile alien races as they colonize and expand outward into space. The actual narrative itself, however, is set on the distant colony world of Nanagada--a planet that has been terraformed for human habitation. This attracts settlers from the area of the Caribbean back on Earth, who utilize the low-tech tools and practices of their forefathers to till the land and reap the oceans of its bounties. At some point in the past, however, hostilities between the Teotl and the Loa boil over, dragging humanity (who ally with the Loa) into the conflict. The battle is brought near Nanagada by way of a wormhole called "The Spindle" by locals, threatening to overtake humanity's colonies and even Earth itself. At some point in the past, the Old Fathers (enhanced and technologically advanced humans) made their stand at Nanagada and closed off the wormhole by way of a huge graviton bomb. Unfortunately, the EMP resulting from the blast knocked out all advanced technologies in and around Nanagada, stranding the few Old Fathers, Loa, and Teotl left on the wrong side of the wormhole, and plunging the poor farmers of Nanagada into a pre-industrial society.

By the time we join the narrative, several centuries have passed since this cataclysm, and Nanagandans are only just beginning to re-learn the secrets and technology lost with the Old Fathers. Enter John deBrun, a mysterious man found unconscious on the beach nearly three decades prior, who can remember his name but nothing else about his past. He is slightly less dark than the Caribbean-descended Nanagadans who find him, and speaks with a strange "northern" sounding accent. John is haunted by intense nightmares and visions that leave him with a burning desire to rediscover the memories he has lost. In the meantime, he settles in nearby Brungstun and eventually starts a family.

Until one day war breaks out between John's adopted people and the hordes of Teotl-allied "Aztecas" (cloned human stock) from over the Wicked High Mountains. For centuries the Teotl have been forced to live tech-less and all but powerless on their side of the mountains, festering and dreaming of the day they would get their revenge on the Loa and take over all of Nanagada. The Azteca, indoctrinated in the ancient pre-Colombian practices of Pan-American cultures, are bloodthirsty and ruthless, who seek only to amass many prisoners to satisfy their ritualistic ceremonies and please the bloodlust of their "gods", the Teotl.

When Azteca forces come streaming through the guarded Mafolie Pass one day and take over towns and villages on their way towards Capitol City, John deBrun is caught off guard. Separated from his wife and son, John must figure out some way of stopping the armies and rescuing his family. Along the way, a mysterious figure from John's past arrives and demands that his old friend take him to a buried technological wonder left behind by the Old Fathers. John is the key to its secrets, the only man on Nanagada who can awaken this potential weapon and use it to fight back the savage invaders. Unfortunately, the Teotl are aware of John's potential as well, and set in motion their own scheme to track him down and use his knowledge for their own design.

Crystal Rain is one of those tales that is slow to take off due to the various character view-points that must first be established and allowed to develop for the sake of an effective narrative. For the most part, these POV chapters work well, weaving disparate threads throughout the novel until they form an entertaining and cohesive tapestry that really ignites halfway through the narrative.

Clearly evident is Buckell's own development as a writer. He starts off a little shaky and wet-behind-the-ears in the first few chapters as he discovers his voice, but eventually transitions to an authoritative, richly-nuanced narrator with plenty of nifty tools at his disposal that hooks the reader and leaves him begging for more. The most effective of these tools is the slow leaking away of background exposition so that it doesn't come across as one massive infodump. As well, the technique of the amnesiac protagonist is one that has been done to death before, but Buckell ingeniously uses this crutch to sync fluidly with his slow info reveals, assuring that the reader learns the history and political scenarios of this strange, almost fantasy-like world at about the same pace that John himself learns more about his secretive past. It works beautifully in the end!

Speaking of which, I must point out that when the answers finally do arrive--especially regarding the true purpose of the technological wonder buried in the north--the more sci-fictional aspects of the story really come into the play, much to the enjoyment of this reader. If I thought the steampunkian aspects of the first half of the novel were well-done, if a tad cumbersome (Airship battles are not quite as much fun as they might sound), then the science-fictional reveals that come in the latter half more than make up for this. In fact, the second half is SO good and so enjoyable in what is revealed about the bigger picture universe Buckell has waiting in the curtains, that I am at a loss for why his name is not more recognizable than it is in the genre field. I can only imagine it is due to his relative "newbie" status on the SF stage, and not due to lack of accolades and appreciation from his peers and readers, which he has received aplenty for this first effort.

Crystal Rain is, by the author's own admission, his dedicated inclusion to the beloved oeuvre that is the Steampunk sub genre. I hear that his next book, Ragamuffin, is his ode to Space Opera. Since S.O. is my own personal fave, to say I'm bouncing off the walls excited to read this book is a criminal understatement!

Crystal Rain came as a big surprise to me, and I cannot sing its praises loud enough. I'm only taking away a few points for the uneven tone of the first few chapters, which in all honesty is just evidence of the author's initial stab at a novel, and no indication of any sense of ineptitude as a great storyteller overall. In fact, when you read the latter chapters and then reread the opening ones, the details actually makes MORE sense and fit better than one originally remembers. I have yet to write my own first novel, but when I do, I can only dream of achieving even a quarter of the proficiency Buckell has displayed here with his debut. Definitely a name to watch for in the future, and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing the next two novels (already purchased!) in this series.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Movie Night

Had a movie night with Lisa yesterday (about time!). She's been so busy with work these past few months that I've honestly been watching a lot less movies than I normally do. It might be hard to believe, but we usually catch at least two movies a week, sometimes more. Living in NYC (and not having any kids) makes this very easy to do. :)

Anyway, I'm not going to write the standard review for both. I'll just provide my general impressions.

We went to see Lakeview Terrace and The Secret Life of Bees.

Lakeview Terrace was okay, but nothing spectacular. Sam Jackson was, as always, the man, but ultimately the movie fell flat with its ending. I also found some of the plotting very deliberate and artificial. Going off on tangents early on with various secondary characters just to have them appear later on for contrived results, that sort of thing. And I have my issues with the resolution that came straight out of your typical stupid Hollywood thriller.

The film did have a bit of an edge, however, with its discourse on race relations and, in particular, interracial marriage (gah, I HATE that phrase). But ultimately it did not hit these themes hard enough. And since the movie delves into your by-the-numbers thriller halfway through, it all gets swept under the rug of a crazy Sam Jackson performance anyway. Although I will admit that Jackson was more restrained in this role than he's been in a while. I can see a nuanced sophistication developing to his acting, although he does seem to gleefully channel the angry black-man role he's been cultivating ever since Die Hard III. In the end, I'd only recommend this as a rental or a movie channel selection.

The Secret Life of Bees, on the other hand, was VERY good. I'm *still* thinking about this movie a day later. I'll get what was wrong with it out of the the way early, though -- at times, it was just TOO saccharine. You know, the type of movie that tries so hard to coax the tears from your eyes and is way too eager to gain critical acclaim? In other words, "Oscar bait." Oscar bait is fine once in a while. In fact, this is that time of year when such movies worm their way out of the woodwork. But when the movie is too self-aware of its supposed importance, it can come across as disingenuous to its viewers. This is a little of the feeling I got when watching it.

However, emotional artifice aside, I can't deny that it really is a damn fine motion picture. Like Crash a few years ago, it does go over the top with the tear-jerking moments (there were many sniffles and choked sobs in my theater). But because the story was so well crafted, and the performances so well delivered by all involved (kudos to Paul Bettany, btw), you kind of have to forgive it these faults for the sake of the whole.

I've never read the book, but I can definitely discern the film's literary roots. It's the classic tale of adolescent self-discovery set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights-era south. I admit, not the most original of premises, but the movie still works despite its cliches.

I would end up writing a book here if I praised each actor individually, so I'll just say that they all pulled off brilliant portrayals. That said, Alicia Keys was the weakest; Sophie Okenedo and Queen Latifah were the strongest. And Dakota Fanning was Dakota Fanning. Nothing special with her performance, but at the same time it wasn't weak or by-the-numbers. She really is an impressive actress, despite the flak she receives for being an artificial by-product of her parents' ambitions. Yes, she's that precocious Hollywood child actress that the media loves to poke fun at, with the huge eyes hiding a wisdom beyond her years . . . yadda, yadda. But I won't take away from the tremendous job she does here. This is her movie, and she shines.

That being said, if there were any acting awards to hand out for this film next year, I would place my bets on Okenedo or Latifah. Although, I'm fairly confident neither will get a Globe or an Oscar. But I'm sure an Image award is a foregone conclusion for one of the two. I think Okenedo did the better job, but she had less scenes than Latifah. So it's a toss-up.

Lisa loved it more than I did. This is, of course, one of those movies tailor-made for feminine sensibilities. I'm sure Oprah already whored out the cast on her show multiple times by now (amirite?) Which is not to say a man can't and shouldn't enjoy this movie. I certainly did. I never felt like crying (and I have on other movies, so it's not because I'm some cold-hearted bastard), but I would definitely buy this on DVD when it's available. I'd also highly recommend it to everyone.

So, there you go. Go out and see it! :)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

So Many Levels Of Awesome!

It's no secret that I'm a huge geek when it comes to reading sci-fi. Yet, up until now, I've never listened to any of the books on audio. So METAtropolis comes as the perfect junction, then. It's got cool, exclusive novellas written by some of the best up and coming SF names in the field: Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, and John Scalzi. It was edited by Scalzi himself, and it makes perfect sense that he would tap the shoulders of his own personal friends in the biz to help put this project together. Lucky for us, it just so happens that these people are excellent writers to begin with!

But that's not all this audio anthology has going for it. If you are into sci-fi at all, then these writers are likely already recognizable to you. But if you're a big fan of the tv show Battlestar Gallactica, and of audio books in general, then you have even more reason to scream like a little girl at her best friend's slumber party. For three actors from the show lend their voices to the dramatic presentation of some of these tales: Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh), Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Felix Gaeta), and my personal favorite (yum!) -- Kandyse McClure (Lt. Anastasia Dualla). These three are awesome at their jobs, giving me quite the pleasant surprise. Since this is my first audio book, I was highly impressed by the quality of their narration. Just goes to show that a good actor can utilize his/her skills to full effect regardless of the medium.

Equally impressive are the recordings from the actual professional audio book narrators well-known in the industry. Scott Brick and Stephan Rudnicki go above and beyond the call of duty here. Because of them, I may have to check out some of their more notable audio book works, like Dune and Ender's Game.

But to me, Michael Hogan stole the show. His versatile reading of Jay Lake's novella to start off the anthology was simply too amazing for words. It sent goosebumps down my arms hearing his distinctive voice switch between male and female characters, as well as gender-neutral narrative quick-speak, with fluid ease. What a true professional!

So, if you're into seriously good sci-fi with a tinge of the apocalyptic and the gritty human side of societal change, then you might do yourself good to check this out. The entire "book" runs slightly over 9 hours long, making it an excellent companion to take along with you on long drives. METAtropolis is available through and, I think, Apple's iTunes store. The price is comparable to that of a new hardcover, but for me it was well worth the money. If it weren't illegal to do so, I'd burn this puppy to CDs and pass it around to all my friends. Foregoing this option, though, I'll settle for just spreading the word around to ya'll instead!

If you're not sure about paying the full price, Audible gives you the option to download and listen to the first of the novellas -- Jay Lake's "In the Forests of the Night" -- absolutely free. As this just happens to be the story Michael Hogan narrates, I highly recommend this course of action for those unsure of making the full commitment.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (For Me)

For those who know me, I've survived some pretty miraculous mishaps over the course of my life. I once drank a cup of half-diluted Clorox bleach when I was 6 because I thought it was water. Thankfully it did not agree with me (snark!) and my stomach rejected it almost before the liquid struck bottom.

But the worst thing that ever happened to me, injury-wise, was a pretty harrowing street crash on my bike that I was lucky enough to escape alive, let alone walking.

I was 14 and over the summer had taken to riding the mean ol' streets of the Bronx on my mountain trail bike. It was usually the three of us: me, my brother, and our friend, Alex. Typical of teenagers, we never thought anything could ever happen to us. Even back in the early 90s when the Bronx was a far more dangerous, drug-infested den of iniquity than it is today.

Anyway, one day Alex and I decided to take a short cut down this extremely steep hill near my block. We’d done it many times before. Nothing to it. The trick was to wait at the crest for the traffic light to change green at the bottom of the hill. Or for the intersecting traffic light to turn yellow. Once either of the two occurred (depending on how adventurous we were feeling that day), we would lean forward on our handle bars and race as fast as we could down the hill.

Now this hill was AT LEAST at a 30-degree incline. Seriously steep. Even fit people needed to pause for breath when climbing it up to our street. So needless to say going down it on a two-wheeler with absolutely no breaks was nothing short of idiotic, all told.

This time, however, I got a little more adventurous that I should have been. On this day, I thought I was DA MAN! I thought: you know what? Forget caution. I didn't feel like stopping at the crest of the hill for the light to change. So when we arrived at the end of the block, I kept on going.

Down, down, down the hill of death.

I heard Alex gasp in surprise behind me, but he wisely stayed behind. Meanwhile, halfway down my short path to perdition, it dawned on me that I was not going to make the light. It was already turning red!

No sweat, I thought. The intersecting street rarely had traffic. And sure enough, I did not see the front end of a car waiting at the box. So I relaxed and enjoyed the roller coaster ride down.

Of course, there was a car. And it was going fast. Why wouldn't it? As a driver, you’d like to believe that there aren't crazy 14 year-olds barreling down steep hills towards you at close to mach 3 with no brakes. I mean, a kid so retarded wouldn't be let out of the house unsupervised, yes?

So I’m sure it came as a shock to poor Mr. Taxi Cab Driver--who innocently believed he had the green light and, therefore, did not slow down as he approached the intersection -- to find a blur of metal and blue jeans come slamming into his front right wheel assembly like a drug-addled bat out of hell. I’m sure to him, unlike the neighborhood kids playing touch football nearby, it was NOT a funny sight to see said blur go cartwheeling several turns over the hood of his Lincoln Continental to land half a block down the street, bounce a couple times on the hard concrete, and come scraping to a halt before the entrance of an abandoned parking lot.

“HOLY SHIT!!!” I remember one of the kids yelling. I swear, that still rings in my ears to this day. I can hear it clearly as if it just happened.

So I laid there as people came running over to me. It was like the world had come to a stop. I wasn't in any pain, oddly. I just lay there willing myself to believe everything was okay. The taxi cab driver was the first to reach me somehow. He was petrified, thinking he had killed me. Or, at the very least, turned me into a paraplegic. I remember trying to get up to assure him and everyone else that I was okay, but people started grabbing me and telling me to stay down while they called an ambulance.

Suddenly I thought of my grandmother, and how angry she would be that I disobeyed her by going down that hill in the first place. I immediately reiterated to everyone that I was okay and that an ambulance wasn't necessary. The cab driver offered to drive me to the hospital himself – he was so scared! I felt bad for him, so I said it was my fault and not to worry. I was fine. In retrospect, he was very kind in a city known for its hit-and-runs.

Eventually Alex showed up and just couldn't believe I was still breathing.

“Man, I thought you had died!” he yelled at me. I could see he was extremely relieved.

I was shaken up myself, no denying it. I went to the bushes where I had seen my bike land while I was still bouncing across the pavement (no joke). The bike was twisted into a pretzel. The front wheel was mangled and turned completely inward into the chassis itself. The handle bars had broken off.

So picture it: Me limping up the hill, numerous scrapes and open wounds across my face and palms, and holding the bashed-in remains of a mountain bike in both arms. The kids playing touch football stared at me the whole way up, with something halfway between fright and awe mixed on their open-mouthed faces.

When I came home, my grandmother made a big fuss over me. Shamelessly, I lied to her. Since I rarely did so, I was almost always believed. I told her I had crashed into a parked car while coming really fast out of the park to cross the street. I did not want to tell her the real cause.

And my war wounds? The only thing I came away with were the aforementioned scrapes and a bruised knee. The knee got swollen and made it hard to walk for the next three days, but I did so without assistance. And I still had to go to school. I never missed a day in my life.

So there you go, yet another incident where I almost died. I still see the hill every now and then when I take the long way home from work. It’s still ridiculously steep and terribly dangerous. I shake my head now, knowing I shouldn't have been able to walk away from that crash. Not going as fast as I was down that decline. To this day all my friends think I have bones made of titanium. It’s true I've never broken a bone before (knock on wood), but I’m more apt to think it was just blind luck.

Or perhaps there is such a thing as divine intervention after all?

Now *there’s* a thought!

We're Suffering From A Cult Of Personality Disorder

I think people are entirely too obsessed with the lives of celebrities. And it's not just an American thing, but world wide. Pick a country, and I'll show you the huge, vampiric industries that have grown up around their native pop stars and actors for the sole purpose of disseminating to the masses every tiny detail of these people's existence. It's truly a mind-boggling phenomenon.

Although we live in a world with entirely more important things to worry about, for some reason folks just can't seem to get enough of what the Royals are up to in jolly ol' England, or what some Bollywood starlet was seen doing with a married man in Mumbai -- or who Angelina Jolie is giving birth to this week.

I guess the reasons are obvious, though. People like to be distracted. And what better distraction than to get into the sordid affairs and gossip of someone *else's* life? But not just anyone. It has to be someone whom all your friends and neighbors know, or else no one will give a damn. Enter the entertainment industry, tailor-made to supply the recognizable faces everyone needs to pin their hopes and dreams upon, but even better to see crash and burn. To remind us that, hey, even the shiniest of angels must eventually take a header into the muck and despair that is normal life for everyone else.

I guess this is why soap operas never go out of fashion. It's like a car wreck for some folks; you wince when you see it, but once you've seen it you can't tear yourself away. Broken marriages, betrayed friendships, tragedies in the family -- so entertaining when they're not happening to you!

But honestly, must we consume so much of this crap? How many shows (TMZ), tv channels (E!), tabloids (The Sun), and magazines (People) must we be inundated with? Whenever I scan through the tv, every other channel these days seems to have some ditsy half-a-man with glistening teeth and frosted tips expounding breathlessly about the latest "hook-up" between so-and-so heartthrob and missy-pissy diva as if my very existence depended on knowing this information.

It doesn't.

And you know, the more and more this world seems to be heading into the wastebasket, the more these entertainment venues ramp up the salacious details. If you need a more obvious example of having the wool pulled over your eyes than that, you need to get out more. It's like a doctor giving the kid a lollipop in the hopes he'll forget that you just poked him in the arm with a foot long needle. In this day and age of global terrorism, collapsing real estate markets, and the dismantling of the global economy, I don't need a Ryan Seacrest popping up and saying -- oh, hey, guess who's been seen jay-walking across Sunset Blvd?

Seriously, get away from me, dude.

But hey, I guess it's a good thing people are distracted. After all, we can't have the masses getting disgruntled and unruly if they decided to focus more on, say, who's running this country or--god forbid--what the mega conglomerates are doing to our planet. That would be a disaster.

So let us ponder instead: Is Tom Cruise really insane, or does he just have a giddy, child-like affinity for over plush sofas? Personally, I think he enjoys good domestically woven upholstery. Or at least his feet do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guess It's A Virgo Thing

Cindy questioned my "virgo"ness when I admitted that I don't have much of a passion in showing off pics of myself. I have to say, it's a hard thing to do for someone used to being by himself and away from the center of attention.

But, as I mentioned before, I was cleaning out my grandma's house this weekend and came across some old pics I haven't seen in ages. So now I get to torture you with *gasp* MORE baby pics!

The one above was taken when I was just 1 years old. My mother was already pregnant with my brother, Jose (aka Joseph), but couldn't pass up the opportunity to take me to Woolworth's (remember that store?) and get this portrait taken. It's one of my grandma's favorites. She had this one framed, but something must have happened to it. I found it hidden in a dusty pile of books.

This was another Woolworth's portrait taken just before Easter when I was 5 years old. That's my brother, Jose, in the dark brown shirt. He's 4 here. There was a time when we would be mistaken for twins, but by this point our individual facial features had begun to take form.

This one is my personal favorite, although it is rather blurry. I'm on the left, my middle brother is on the far right, and my baby brother is in the middle. So from left to right it's: Me, Eric, and Jose. This was one of the last pics taken just before Eric passed away. I like it because he looks so happy here, hanging out with his bros. I miss him a lot, even all these many years later. He died tragically when he fell out of our 6th floor apartment window shortly after my 4th birthday. My mother was never the same after that night, and neither were me or my remaining brother.

Sorry about that. Didn't mean to get so sentimental. But I guess this is what happens when you go digging through memories; you have to expect the happy with the sad.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This Is Getting Annoying

I live in the South Bronx, one of the poorest demographics in the U.S. We have more people living on welfare, per capita, than any other place in the nation I believe. I *know* this, but it was something I just placed in the back of my head. I never criticized people for taking government handouts, because, hell, my mother was on welfare herself. It's how she was able to raise us all on her own.

But I don't know, the older I get the more indignant I've become over the situation. Nowhere is it more frustrating than at the supermarket, where recently things have been getting way out of hand. It used to be that I would see someone use foodstamps at the grocery store twice maybe three times in a week. But lately, it's been EVERY SINGLE TIME I go to the checkout counter. It's getting to the point where *I'm* the one who gets funny looks now when I pull out cash. Like as if greenbacks are the new foodstamps. And of course, they no longer even use foodstamps anymore. Now it's an actual plastic card with the word "BENEFITS" embossed on the upper right corner. So now these people pretend like as if they have debit cards, and not what it actually is--a handout from the good ol' taxpayers of NYC. In other words, me!

God, I'm sounding like a Republican now. Listen to me go.

But why does this bother me so? Well because these people, for being poor, end up buying two to three shopping carts worth of food. Yikes! How 'bout you save some food for the rest of us poor hungry working stiffs here, huh? For someone who's supposed to be living a meager subsistence on the the government's generosity, some of these people sure do take full advantage of the situation.

At the cashier, this becomes a problem because the girl has to ring up and bag all these items herself, then spend an extra 5 minutes filling out a special form for BENEFITS cards and then waiting for the customer to swipe the card through and enter a code. Meanwhile I'm stuck there with my 6 or 7 items for like 15 minutes, just wanting to go home already. I swear, it happens every single time now. Some hugely obese woman is standing there arguing with the cashier over the sales price for the deluxe, gargantuan box of Fruit Loops. Argh!

The worst, however, is when an able-bodied man pulls out the card. I just want to smack the punk. Go get a job, you lazy bastard. Why the hell am I paying for you to live, and then to add insult to injury I have to wait in line behind you, too? Back when my mother was on welfare, she was never this arrogant with it. It was also with a quiet sense of shame that she pulled out the roll of "color money" as we used to call it. And the cashiers were always so rude to us back then. Not anymore. It's become such a common sight that no one even blinks now when the card comes out.

Nowadays, these people have such attitudes. I heard one woman even have the nerve to be talking to her friend and cursing out "the white man" and this country, meanwhile using taxpayer's money sanctioned by said government to stuff her fat face and those of her illegitimate brats. Nice going there, moms. Show that true patriotic spirit for the mean, bad country that feeds you and allows your family to live.

Gotta love it.

Anyway, let me stop now. Sorry I had to take you down this ugly road, folks. Just wanted to get it off my chest.

I promise to play nicer next time. :-)

Mark Wahlberg Responds

Last week I included a video clip of an SNL skit called "Mark Wahlberg Talks To Animals," where Andy Samberg impersonates the actor and his distinctive acting style. Well, Marky Mark was none too happy and blasted the show for being unfunny, among other things. Well, duh! SNL has never really been all that funny. But it has its moments. I thought the skit was pretty hilarious myself, but whatever.

Anyway, apparently Mark is in on the joke, too. For he showed up on this past weekend's SNL to set matters right. Check it out for yourself. I'm posting the original skit first, followed by the *real* Mark Wahlberg's reaction on the set of the show.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Don't Be Fooled

Was cleaning out my grandmother's house over the weekend (the house I grew up in) and came across some old pics from high school. OMG, what a blast from the past! I forgot I had these hidden there, or else I would have confiscated them sooner. :)

Anyway, this photo is perhaps one of the very few "glamor" pics I've ever had done. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm not one for taking pictures. I'm more likely to be the one taking the photo rather than being in one. But that being said, this was one of Lisa's favorites taken of me in senior year when the school's photographer came around to take our yearbook photos. Lisa had a smaller copy of this one that I had given to her when we went off to college. Her friends would stop by her dorm and tell her that her BF looked like a model.

Haha, looks like the photographer did his job well and fooled them all! But of course I was still flattered despite not thinking the pic was all that accurate.

Oh well, decided to post it here to embarrass myself. Looking at it now, I can't believe I was ever that young and unaware of what the world had in store for me.

I kinda miss those carefree days.

Great, now I sound like an old man. I better stop while I can.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Day For Reviews

I'm not sure how many people sift through my sometimes long-winded review posts here, but just a quick heads up that today you get both a book AND film review (scroll further down). And I would also like to note that, beyond some necessary, though brief, descriptions to give the reader a sense of the piece that is being reviewed, I try my best not to provide blatant spoilers of the main plot or twists therein.

So feel free to read on, my timid readers. I don't write these to exercise my fingers.

Movie Review: The Duchess

Caught a showing of "The Duchess" yesterday at Union Square with my friend, Cin. Although this wouldn't normally have been my choice, I do enjoy period pieces from time to time. And, as well, I do so much enjoy Keira Knightley! :)

As a whole, I really liked this movie. From what I would assume is a rather loose telling, "The Duchess" is based on the real life late-18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish. In addition to being an outspoken political champion of the Whig party in England at the time, the Duchess became notorious in history for her rather sordid personal affairs. Not so much her own, but those of her husband, William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. At a time when women of high society were valued more for their fertility and familial standing than for their conversation, Georgiana's marriage to the Duke is a loveless one. His only concern for her is the production of a male heir to carry on the family name.

Needless to say, the relationship between husband and wife quickly devolves into a union that is marriage in name only, with the Duke seeking his amorous trysts elsewhere most often than not. When Georgiana discovers her husband's dalliance she is naturally stunned, but chooses to turn a blind eye to the infraction and the many more which soon follow. Eventually the Duchess finds her own true love, but when the price of her illicit entanglements with a young up-and rising politico becomes too high to pay, she's forced to make a decision between love and duty that is in eerie alignment with the tragic modern day tale of Georgiana's famed descendant, Diana Princess of Wales.

Keira Knightley does an excellent job here of delivering a performance both lively and nuanced, conveying a wide range of emotions with deft mastery belying her young age. I think she's an actress who is truly beginning to shine in better and better roles as she ages. She was excellent in last year's "Atonement," and I can only hope this is a trend which continues.

Ralph Fiennes plays the cold yet flawed Duke to perfection, never going overboard with the material or the aristocratic affectation, but still able to somehow insert a humanity and--dare I say it--likability to a character that is very hard to connect with for modern audiences. I'm not much of a fan of his work, but Fiennes delivers big time here.

The supporting characters are typically proficient for the tasks of a lavish, expensive period piece. Save for the role of Georgiana's lover, played here by Dominic Cooper. Cin was very vocal about the man, providing in her uniquely feminine opinion that the actor was simply not "dashing" enough to believably play the role of male seducer. While not having the same perspective myself, I do admit that Cooper seemed oddly displaced amidst the likes of Knightley and Fiennes.

The story itself is serviceable and not utterly predictable the way a wholly fictional script would have been with the same premise. The fact that the movie is based on actual historical events is what makes this film shine, in my opinion. It gives that extra ounce of legitimacy that serves the narrative well even when the details dissolve into a soggy and insipid mess by the middle of the third act. Coupled with a rather abrupt ending, "The Duchess" doesn't quite deliver a well-rounded evening's entertainment, but I daresay it was worth the price of admission anyway.

As far as recent period pieces of this ilk go, "The Duchess" does not quite deliver the way Knightley's own version of "Pride and Prejudice" did a few years ago, but is a step above such uninspiring films as "Marie Antoinette" or the lavishly dull "Elizabeth: The Golden Age."

Rating: 7/10

Book Review: The Last Colony

John Scalzi is a fun writer to read. His narratives are always easy to breeze through, without much of the overwriting and weighty exposition that drags down many other sci-fi action stories. The Last Colony, being the third and final of the main books in his Old Man's War series, is no exception. It's light, extremely well-written and crafted, and most importantly: darn good fun to read. This was a page-turner for me in the truest sense of the phrase. In fact, I found myself consciously slowing myself down so as to savor the flavor of Scalzi's distinctive wit and prolong the reading experience.

In TLC, Scalzi returns to the first-person POV as well as his protagonist from the first novel -- John Perry. After disappearing from the stage at the end of the first novel, Perry returns in the closing act of the trilogy now married to Jane Sagan and raising their adoptive daughter, Zoe Boutin -- two characters who figured prominently in the middle novel, The Ghost Brigades. But before the newly settled family can adapt to the idyllic life on one of the Colonial Union's several colony worlds, John and Jane are approached to lead an ambitious colonizing project on a newly discovered planet.

Retired from active military service, but itching for the sense of adventure and exploration they've been missing, the couple jumps at the opportunity. Accompanied by Zoe and the child's ferocious Obin bodyguards, the family sets out for the colony world of Roanoke . . . only to discover that they are unwitting pawns in a secret Colonial Union plot to establish humanity's dominance over all other races in the galaxy.

Although the description sounds heavy, the novel for the most part is lightweight and fun, filled with the characteristically wry humor that colors many of Scalzi's key characters in his OMW novels. There are moments of intense drama, action, and gore, but strangely these occurrences are few and muted in comparison to the earlier novels in the series. Some of this is due to the nature of the plot itself -- after all, neither John nor Jane are kickass "space marines" anymore. Unlike the previous novels, the settings in TLC do not weave through myriad interstellar battlefields and gory alien firefights against enemies as bizarre as they are varied. This novel is the more political of the three, dealing mostly with diplomacy and negotiation as John and Jane lead their colony out from one life-threatening dilemma to another.

In fact, this was my one gripe when I came to the end of the novel in particular. Events build up and come to such a head by the third act, expanding to a scope and breadth truly deserving of the series, only to be snatched back at the last minute before any serious bloodshed and conflict can take place. So instead of a colossal space or land battle as the earlier portions of the novel seemed to be hinting at, we get a resolution that is too neatly tied up in a diplomatic bow that, while staying true to the theme of "words speaking louder than actions," does not necessarily make for a satisfying capper to what has been an action/military SF series up to this point.

But perhaps this was the message Scalzi wanted to bring across? After all, this book is more about being "human" in the truest sense of the word, and eschews the idea that mankind is only at its best and most innovative when it is engaged in conflict against opposing factions. The epilogue chapter certainly seems to hammer this message home in a manner I have to admit I did find satisfying.

So, yes, it's a bit on the anti-climactic side, but I won't fault the author as having betrayed the characters and their personalities with this pacifistic theme of "anti-war." It does in fact fit with the narrative when you examine it closely, and in that sense Scalzi did a brilliant job.

Those wishing to continue reading in the Old Man's War universe can rejoice at the news that Scalzi has recently released Zoe's Tale -- a side-story starring the couple's daughter during roughly the same time frame as TLC -- to rave reviews. A note at the end of the novel also mentions that, while he doubts he'll return to the Perry family in future works, Scalzi hasn't ruled out the possibility of writing more novels in the OMW milieu should the need and opportunity arise.

I, for one, would love to book a return trip there someday, if only to enjoy Scalzi's amazing gift for telling thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted sci-fi tales that both grip and excite the reader.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why I Like McCain

I'm doing something a little different today. Since my support for Obama is pretty obvious if you've read my previous posts, I've decided to take a step back and point out the good--rather than the awful bad n ugly--about "that other guy."

To be fair, I've never disliked McCain. Before this year, he was my favorite Republican. Actually, hell, even after this year he's still my favorite Republican. But back when he was running against Bush, I was *really* pulling for him (duh!) to win the GOP primary. I liked McCain back then because he was the more intelligent of the two, and because he was more likely to work across party lines than behind them. This is still true today. Unlike when Bush went up against Gore or Kerry, this election is different in that I honestly feel both candidates are intelligent and competent enough for the job. With Bush, it was frustrating because he was decidedly not.

I told Lisa a few months back that it was funny, but that I wouldn't be so upset if McCain did win the presidency. I mean, it would be a kick to the gut, but not nearly as bad as when Bush won (both times). If McCain were to win, I would be disappointed, but I wouldn't feel like exchanging my citizenship with Canada afterwards.

The problem with McCain is that I disagree with most of his policies. But at the same time, I'm also cynical enough to know that the president is really just the figurehead for other politicians' policies. So whether he's president or not, the country would still get run in pretty much the same way. Let's be real here.

But McCain is more level-headed than people give him credit for. I've been pretty impressed by his refusal to let his base dictate how to treat Obama. For better or for worse, a lesser politician would have gone for the jugular and made this a much bloodier campaign than it needed to be. It's true that the mudslinging from McCain's camp has been brutal, but I do get the sense that McCain himself has done a lot to mitigate the rabid lunacy of large portions of his base. He engages in fierce attacks of his own, to be sure, but only those he truly believes in. He doesn't let others browbeat him into a particular strategy, even when that strategy might be a winning one.

So, while this post isn't an announcement of my switching party sides, nor an endorsement of McCain's policies, I can admit that I do like the guy and think he could make a good president. In other words, I would feel safe with him in charge. And although it funny to poke fun of his age, I really don't believe he'd croak while in office. I mean, his mother is in her 90s and still coherent.

So, here's to a jolly good fellow in John McCain! He'd make a pretty cool Democrat, I think. Because, let's face it, he so wants to be one. :-)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Writing (pt. 3)

I'm lazy. There, I admitted it. Lazy, but dedicated. How is this possible, you ask? Surely one cannot be both these things at the same time.

Let me explain.

I loathe the more formal machinations of writing. Outlines, note-taking, color-coded index cards -- these are not for me. In college, almost all of my research papers were done on the fly with hardly any advanced preparation. I cited stuff just because it was required, and manhandled the information into a reasonable discourse on paper because I knew what needed to be done to get the good grade. And it worked.

So when it comes to my fiction, I'm reluctant to whip out the plotline bullet points. Luckily for me I've been sticking to only short stories as I learn the ropes to crafting better narratives. Short stories have more leeway when it comes to formal research. Generally speaking, if you have to do too much book nosing to pull out your 5k - 7.5k short -- you're probably over thinking things a bit. I'm one to talk, though, since I still haven't mastered brevity (as evidenced by these blog entries!)

So, no outlines for me. It's simply too much effort for short stories, I'm afraid.

Okay, I'm lying. Sorry about that. I have done outlines for my stories before. Mostly thanks to several writing classes I signed up for last year. I learned how to do them and do them well. Only thing is, my stories sucked as much, if not worse, than they did before the classes. If anything, they were only more plotted now. Not a big improvement.

However, the experience did come in handy in teaching me a tool I'll most likely use in the future when I start my novel. I foresee that, when that time comes, I will have to resort to the outline or die writing the never-ending novel. I know the way I write; it would not be pretty. I need to be reigned in. In this light, I'm confident the outline will be my best friend when I start my novel. Heck, I'm already partially writing the outline in my head for the space-opera novel I'm envisioning.

But for now I'll wallow in my laziness when it comes to my short tales. I don't plan, I just dive into the stories using a general idea as my anchor. The thing is, once I start writing, a dogged determination takes over me. I don't stop until it's done. I don't get writer's block *knock on wood*, but I do encounter snags and whirls in the course of writing a typical short story that would have defeated the old me. Part of what I've been doing these past two years is disciplining myself to always work through these obstacles no matter what. To the benefit or detriment of my work.

Such are the trials of learning, eh?

However, the best time for me in the writing process is the beginning. I *love* staring at a blank screen. It's like pristine snow, or a virgin canvas. Just waiting to be imprinted. Sitting at the keyboard, my mind is awash with numerous possibilities on how to begin a given story. I'm usually giddy with anticipation.

As for the ideas themselves, there is no rhyme or reason as to where they come from. I take inspiration from anything and everything. All writers do. Dreams are not the most obvious place to get them, despite what you might think. Although I once did get a gnarly idea for a weird alien species when I was doped up on Vicodin after getting my wisdom teeth pulled. The dreams I had that night were wild and frightening. But when I woke up, I immediately went to the computer and started typing away. My story "Ascending the Sending Road" was the result.

Usually, though, I get the best ideas from watching tv or movies. It's not that I'm plagiarizing these shows and films, but that some remark or gesture will spur my mind off on a tangent that almost always has nothing to do with the source. And usually with a sci-fi or fantastical bent. Oddly enough, books don't always have this same effect on me. Yet video games do. Go figure.

Once I get an idea, I work out the logistics of the story in my head. The best time for this is either in the shower or on the subway on my way to and from work. I usually read on the train, but not when I'm working on a story. Once I'm in that mode, any book I'm reading is placed on hold so that I can use the spare time to worry away at my own creation. Once I work at it enough to smooth away the most obvious snags, I set to actually translating my thoughts onto paper.

Taking Stephen King's advice to heart, I lock myself away from the world when I write. No coffee shops or window nooks for me -- too many distractions! I work tirelessly and nonstop the minute my fingers hit the keys. I enter a trance mode where I neither hear nor see anything beyond the screen in front of me. 3 or 4 hours later I sit back and take a breather. That's literally how I write. It's crazy, but there's a saneness there for me that I just can't explain. If I could sit in the middle of a white-washed room with nothing but a chair, a desk, and my PC, this would be ideal. No windows, no music, no television, no phones. Just me and the world I'm creating.

I like my methods. They work for me. A more cynical David might say that it's clearly not working at all, because I have yet to write anything worth publishing. But luckily I give myself more of a break than that. You get enough chances to prove yourself an asshole in life to other people without convincing your own self of the fact, too.

No, I know I suck because of inexperience and lack of polish. But that's okay; I'm REAL stubborn. I don't give up easily, and I know that the only way to get better is to keep going at it.

That right there is probably the single best resource I have at my disposal:


Which One Of These Is Not Like The Other?

Seriously, what's wrong with this picture? Or, another way of asking it: which one of these hugs doesn't look creepy and lifeless?

Anyway, as everyone knows, the 3rd and final (thank God!) of the presidential debates was last night. As I predicted, yet again no one candidate faltered much, although McCain is clearly the loser for not doing enough to stamp down the Obama express steamrolling through this nation.

Let me just make it clear, however, that just because Obama is leading by double-digits in the national polls doesn't mean that I honestly believe he has this election locked down. Never underestimate the conservative right. The magnitude of their Sith Lord-like brainwashing abilities is on the order of several hundred Palpatines. If Obama were a white man I would feel safe with this lead. The fact that he's not, and that people in general are notorious liars when it comes to polls, makes me still nervous as hell about November.

But, now that the debates are over, I think it's allowable to have at least some modicum of faith in the intelligence of the average American voter. Not a lot, but just a little.

Anyway, last night's debate was a fine one. Obama weathered a lot of McCain's rather obvious attempts to attack his character, so much so that I think the strategy backfired in McCain's face more than a few times. Obama was the candidate most interested in discussing the issues last night, and I think this is what many Americans took away from the debate.

And speaking of backfiring, I'll leave you with a rather humorous tidbit taken (and slightly edited) from last night's discourse. The snarkery on display in the edited comments is just your typical YouTube humor, but the source material is unaltered. Click to see the 1-minute clip for yourself, and pay particular attention to the thought bubbles and McCain's expression:

Heh, heh. McCain looks like a deer caught in the headlights. It must be offsetting to have someone actually defend himself against faulty accusations. Something McCain's probably not used to encountering from his base.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whoa! Now That's Hardcore, Man!

Strange bit of news I came across today. Looks like my favorite sci-fi author, 61 years old Alan Dean Foster, set the record in the Arizona State "100% RAW Powerlifting" event back in August, for bench pressing 250 lbs in his weight and age division.

Holy crap! This man kicks ass!

Asked about the milestone, Foster replied: "I call it: Revenge of the Nerds."

How funny is that?

On Writing (pt. 2)

As far as my writing schedule goes, I try to keep as few set-in-stone rules as possible, which are:

1) Once I start a story, I write consecutive days until it's done. Under no circumstances do I take a day off. Since these are short stories, we're only talking 4 to 10 days here.

2) I work around any obstacle preventing me from writing that day. If Lisa and I have a movie date planned that evening, I write in the morning and afternoon. If a family get-together is scheduled during the afternoon, I write when I get home later that night -- no matter how late.

3) Birthdays and major holidays are no excuse not to write. I've written on both occasions -- my latest birthday and last Christmas being the most recent example.

Other than this, I'm surprisingly fluid in my guidelines. As someone who works full-time, it's not a big revelation to say that the most difficult part is making the time to write. My typical daily schedule when I'm *not* in the middle of a story is this:

6:30 a.m -- Wake up.
8:30-4:30 -- At the office, doing the daily grind.
5:30 -- Come home from work.
5:45-7:00 -- Work out (4-mile jog and/or weight training)
7:00-8:00 -- Prepare and serve dinner.
8:00-9:00 -- Eat dinner and spend time with Lisa.
9:00-11:00 -- Either continue spending time with Lisa (watching tv), or surf the Internet.
11:00-12:00 -- Fall asleep reading.

When I *am* in the middle of writing, the only thing that changes from the above schedule is that the prime 2-hour block between 9 and 11 are used solely for writing. This is when I go into hermit mode and no one hears a peep out of me until I emerge from my den 2 (sometimes 3) hours later looking bleary-eyed and confused.

The rather late dinner time is due to the fact that I have to work out immediately after coming home from work. This is the only time in the day I have for this, otherwise I would have to quit working out. And that's never happening. The few times I've skipped a workout are when I'm in the middle of writing a particular thorny scene and *NEED* to get on it right away when I get home. So yes, my workouts are very important . . . but not more important than my writing.

I very rarely, if ever, get any video game time in during the week. Only the weekend, where it competes with my writing time. Usually, however, I put the games on hold until I finish a story and am in the process of mentally preparing the next one.

Weekends I tend to write/edit 4 - 5 hours a day, each day. Same on my days off. These sessions usually happen late at night; the later the better. Don't know why, but my creativity is severely limited in the morning and slightly less so in the afternoons. I've been known to start writing at 11 at night and continue until around 3 in the morning. Some of my best stories/scenes were written during this time frame, despite the fact that I like my sleep. But weekends are fluid, and usually I have two time periods within which to write. I try my best to write from 1 - 4 in the afternoon. If I miss out on this time, or if I use it to play video games instead, then my next bloc is the 11 - whenever bloc already mentioned.

However, I don't want to give the impression that I write ALL the time. If I did, using the aforementioned rules and schedule, I would have written several novels by this point. The thing is, I usually take anywhere from two weeks to two months off between stories. I'm certainly capable of writing more frequently than this -- I once wrote 4 stories in the month of February alone -- but I've learned that faster does not equate to better. So nowadays I try to pace myself and wait for the truly good story ideas to develop first before rushing off like a mad man to write them down.

In part 3 of this entry, I'll discuss how exactly I do just that (i.e., synopsis, outline, plotline -- or a lack thereof!)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Writing (pt. 1)

Cindy asked me about my writing routine, but I thought I'd first talk about how I got to my current predicament regarding my writing.

As I mentioned once before, I've been fascinated with reading ever since I learned to read. In class, it was all I wanted to do. Forget math, forget history or science . . . I just wanted to read! I think I was attracted to the passiveness of the process. You simply sit back and immerse yourself in another world. No writing down answers to questions, no notes, no complex arithmetic. . . . just you and the words on the page. Simple.

It was natural for me, then, than I translated reading really great stories to wanting to write them myself. It's been my ambition ever since 1st grade to be a writer of entertaining fiction, although my life choices haven't always reflected this passion.

I scribbled the odd story here and there as a child, but it was in high school that I really got serious, dabbling in sci-fi and fantasy shorts. I wrote about 10 or 11 stories by the time graduation came around, then continued writing in college. My tales of alien races and mystical ninjas weren't always received well by the snobbish and too-serious instructors of the various writing workshops I attended while enrolled, and this probably did a lot to damper my enthusiasm.

I wrote 16 short stories during college--all of them trash. By the time I graduated, reality hit hard and I fell out of writing for a while. A full-time job took up all my time and energy, and every story I attempted in the 8 years since college always fell apart halfway through. After some time, I simply gave up on my dream.

But then a life-changing event three years ago turned things around for me. I don't feel like talking about it right now because, honestly, it's a long story. But suffice to say that I learned a toughness and determination about me that I had suspected was always there, but never really tested out. After this event (and getting married later that year) I started to take stock of my life. I mean real intense, navel-gazing stuff here. It became clear that I needed to stop the BS and follow what had always been my dream. To write!

But how? I had no formal training, and it had been years since I wrote anything creatively. Well, I thought, there was no better school than practice. I figured if I chained myself to a schedule and simply wrote something--anything--every day of every week, that I would get better simply through sheer determination. I've never been one who's short on ideas for stories, so the real struggle was the mechanical process of writing a good narrative. Outlining, world-building, plotting; these sorts of things.

And I'm still learning today. I suspect I'll keep on learning until the day my fingers die and break off.

But in the course of two years, I've gotten marginally better at it. I'm only just now starting to gain confidence in my finished work, polishing and tweaking here, yet still forcing myself to write new stuff along the way. I've written 21 whole short stories in this time; a few good ones, but most of them bad learning experiments. Although, I guess if I learned something, it can't be all that bad, huh?

I've sold one story, and got rejected on another. The sold short will see publication in the beginning of 2009. The rejected story--one I was extremely proud of, too!--was a casualty of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest this past summer. Unfortunately for me, these were the only two places I've sent anything to. I know that in order to be published, I need to do a lot better than that. And I am trying to change this, slow going as it may be. This year I've been carefully taking it one step at a time as I examine my weaknesses and shortcomings and try to figure out how to take my writing to the next level.

In part 2 of this entry, I'll discuss just what my process is for writing what I write, and of the daily regimen I keep. It promises to be boring, so be forewarned! This will probably only interest other struggling writers. :-)

I'm Definitely Not In This For The Money

Charles N. Brown, publisher and EIC of Locus Magazine, recently gave his annual "pep talk" speech to this year's winner's of the L. Ron Hubbard's 'Writers of the Future' contest at the annual awards ceremony in Los Angeles. As usual, he pointed out to the winners that this would be the crowning achievement in their writing careers, and that they should really quit now since it was all downhill from here.

Heh, heh, it's surprising how some people actually fall for that line. I mean, some of the winners are actually fooled into believing that they've accomplished something big, rather than taking it all with a huge grain of salt and appreciating their win for what it really is--a small baby step down the long, treacherous path of SF writerdom.

But what surprised me the most is when Mr. Brown went on to detail just how poorly SF writers are paid. Now, I wasn't there at the ceremony, but accounts reveal that some in attendance were horrified by the bleak but frank picture he painted. Some were downright crestfallen, and a few even expressed doubt they could ever make a living writing in this field.

And to that I say: good riddance! And also, who the hell are these people? What fantasy world do they live in where this *isn't* already common knowledge? I mean, who doesn't already know that a beginner sci-fi writer's earnings doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this day and age? Anyone in it to strike it rich better search elsewhere.

I guess it has to do with age. I'm of the age where, while I'm not quite long in the tooth, I'm at least old enough to not have unrealistic sensibilities about the state of the field I've chosen to try and break into. I don't set unreasonable goals like planning to quit my job and write full time, which is good. Because the less of such stupid notions I have inside my head the least likely I'll be disappointed later on when this dream never materializes.

The way I see it, I'm perfectly happy to pay my dues and scrape out a few novels and some short stories while still holding down a 9 to 5 job. Forcing myself to find the time in the day after work, and through the fatigue and gloom from a long day on the job, has taught me discipline I never knew I had. When I was younger, I thought being a full-time writer was the only way one could write.

Boy was I wrong!

While it would be great if one day I'm successful enough to afford to quit my job, I don't count on it. In the meantime I plan to work my normal job for the pay and benefits. And on the side, I will write and write as much as I can. Heck, I'm amazed at how prolific I am writing only an hour or two each night as it is. So how exactly is working a full-time job hampering this? If anything it makes me that more tenacious to get my writing career off the ground.

Point is, Mr. Brown's speech has no spell over me. When revealed that writers get paid pocket change (a typical short story in today's market can sell anywhere from $15 to $400), I laugh. Because, as of right now, I write for free. Any money I make off of sales will only be a bonus. That's how I choose to see it.

Put it this way: I write expecting nothing I complete will sale. This way, at best I'm proven wrong; at worst I'm proven right! It's a win-win situation in that light then, right?

And yes, in case it wasn't obvious, I'm being decidedly tongue-in-cheek here. Of course I would love to quit my job and live on a million-dollar Hollywood movie option buy-out (hello Richard Morgan!).

But until that day I live in the city of Realsburgh--population: one, apparently.

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro. Now, before 2017 ...