Breaking away from the writing talk…for a rant.

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To Lily Eskelsen Garcia and the National Education Association…an explanation.

For those of you reading this who don’t know, Lily Eskelsen Garcia –  President of the National Education Association (NEA) – made a speech recently in which she made a few jokes. In fact, she breathlessly rattled off a list of things teachers do, including “diversify our curriculum and instruction to meet the personal and individual needs of all of our students.” Sounds nice…but then she begins to list some of those needs and she includes the “blind, hearing impaired, physically challenged, gifted and talented, the chronically tarded and medically annoying…”

There are some people charging that that last part was meant to be “chronically retarded and medically annoying.” Evidently Garcia has clarified that she meant to say “chronically tardy” and that she was referring to kids who are very annoying, but lovable. Hmmm…

There has been a Twitter backlash over this and honestly I’m on board with it. I might be able to buy that she meant to say “chronically tardy,” and perhaps she is talking about annoying kids who are just lovable little skamps…but I’m still not amused. In fact, I’m more inclined to see this as a Freudian slip than a simple misunderstanding. I’d like to explain why.

Whatever your intention, your joke is not funny to those of us with medically fragile children. It is not funny when we have had to fight to the point of exhaustion for our child’s rights. I’m sorry to say that I am more than familiar with teachers who find my child’s medical needs to be annoying. I have had school administrators lie to me about what services are available for my child. I have had teachers become irritable and insulting when faced with making accommodations for my child – and we’re not talking about anything disruptive here, we’re talking about providing an alternate location for a speech or sending a test to a separate room – things that are absolutely transparent to the other kids and not in any way disruptive. I have had to listen to a school administrator suggest that perhaps if my very intelligent child is that sick, she doesn’t belong in Honors Math with the other kids.

The sad lesson we’ve learned is that we can’t really trust our schools to do their best for our children. We don’t attend any meeting without an expensive advocate by our side. We’ve actually had to go into debt to make sure the people who are getting paid by our tax dollars are doing the job they are supposed to be doing and not trying to pull a fast one. And while that might make me laugh ironically while shaking my head, your jokes and accidental attitude-reveals do not.

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Beta Readers. Hate my book? Thank you!

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It sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. For those of you following along on my fiction-writing journey, I’ve made quite a bit of progress since the last update. I did finish the book and even found (or more accurately, was found by) a fabulous beta-reading group, whose members just finished giving me feedback.

Side note, I was tempted to do a big “I finished the book!” blog post, that somehow seemed weird since…what is “finished” anyway? Sold? Edited? Printed? Abandoned?

At the risk of getting gushy, I’ll say that I could not be happier with these beta readers. They are all fellow-writers and they all know how to tell a story. But even better, they all know how to critique. I knew that these people would be helpful, but I had no idea just how helpful. Everyone had good things to say. Everyone had good ideas on what needed work. Except for…one person.

She hated it. She hated it with a passion that burned. In fact, she said that she got angrier and angrier as she read and could not bring herself to finish it. Wow. Shit. Ouch.

Now, this could have gone somewhere negative with hard feelings and harsh words. But luckily, our group is run by a clever lady who encouraged this reader to summarize her feelings on the book and relate them to me constructively. And so she did.

The fact is, this book has some awful people in it. Underneath the story about an assassination and coup attempt, it’s about a broken man who collects broken people. The subtext to the story is about clinging to the devil you know and about putting up with abuse in order to be safe. When my reader demanded to know, “he treats them like that and they’re supposed to thank him for it??” the answer is…well…ummm, yeah. That’s the society that they live in. It’s not a book about a great place we’d all like to live. It’s about a bloodthirsty society where you’ll let someone kick your ass and thank them for it if it means they won’t give you to someone who will eat you (figuratively in general, but for one character, kind of literally).

So my first instinct was to chalk it up to this reader not getting it. But as I spent a few days intermittently pacing around my house, staring off into space while her complaints tumbled around in my head, I realized that the things she had said were the solution to a plot problem I was having. My book has a traitor, and I’ve been having trouble filling out that traitor’s motivations with anything other than simple fear. I knew this character needed development, but my instinct was to give it to the beta group as it was to see what reactions came back to me. And it turned out that this one reader’s complaints were exactly the sort of thing that my traitor would feel. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the traitor has been missing. Ah hah! Eureka! Thanks, book hater!!

Mind you, she’ll still probably hate the book…but that’s okay. It’s still great practice for dealing with all the other people who will hate it. And I’ll thank her for that too.

Book Review: Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

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After seeing what felt like the 1,000th tweet about this book, I finally gave in and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll buy the fricking book!” Reinforcement of the lesson for all aspiring authors – promotion pays.
Anybody who reads this blog regularly (hi, you two!) knows what’s coming since I don’t review books that I think are bad. Yep, it’s a good one. Daniel Jose Older seems to be a fairly new author, and I am ever so excited about his books.

HRB is billed as being the first in the Bone Street Rumba series, which is great news because it means we’ll see more of Carlos Delacruz, an “inbetweener,” straddling the line between being alive and dead. Outwardly, this means he’s a little grey and has a very slow heartbeat, but he can walk down the street without anybody becoming alarmed. As for how he got that way, he doesn’t really know. He has no memory of how he died, he just knows that it was violent and that a ghost, his friend Riley, saved him and helped to bring him half way back.

Now Carlos works for The Council of the Dead, a bureaucratic group of ghosts who keep the supernatural community in line – sending Carlos out to hunt those who need to die the real death (i.e. be obliterated) for causing trouble in the living world. The Council sends Carlos to kill another inbetweener, the first he has ever seen besides himself. The job leads Carlos to discover a wider conspiracy to tear down the barrier between the dead and the living. Along the way, he becomes infatuated with beautiful and mysterious Sasha, but is she an innocent pawn or one of the players?

So obviously, totally cool plot, but that’s not the best thing here. Older’s writing is top notch, leaving me wondering how damned good he’s going to be a few years from now. The dialog between characters is fast and edgy. He has a way of seamlessly telling us what Carlos is thinking followed quickly by what he actually says (not at all the same thing, in many cases) that is just plain cool and enjoyable. His characters are slick and the relationships between them are as complicated and fraught as one might expect for a guy who is only half alive and kills for a living.

The other thing I love about this story is that Carlos isn’t entirely a good guy. Not 100% antihero, but he does some shameful things. He doesn’t do them with malice, he feels bad about them later, but he does screw up in ways that cause damage. He’s a supernatural being who manages to be painfully human and relatable. It was one of those books that, faced with only 100 or so pages left, I wanted to read slower to draw it out.

I saw on Twitter that he’s already working on the next one…can’t wait!

Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge – It’s X Meets Y

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Dear God…Chuck Wendig…I haven’t been doing the flash fiction thing much lately mainly due to time constraints, but I always love Chuck’s random number generator title challenges. So, last week he gave two lists of book/movie titles. We were challenged to write a mashup of one meets the other. I used a random number generator and ended up with a disastrous combination of The Terminator meets 50 Shades of Grey.
The result is easily the most ridiculous story I have ever written. Most definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK…but don’t get too excited, it’s not really sexy, just very, very ridiculous.

This story is terrible and embarrassing so read it now if you want because I’ll probably take it down soon. All I can say is…sorry. Seriously…just…sorry! *slinks away*

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50 Shades of Turing

The lab was bright with artificial light and gleaming surfaces. Every piece of equipment, every table, tablet, and laptop computer was white and shining in antiseptic perfection. The young, ebony-skinned engineer was a dark contrast to her surroundings and the only organic thing in the room. Even the air she breathed was scrubbed clean by machines before she drew it into her lungs. She leaned over the little robot she was working on, reaching in with white-gloved fingers to connect a wire within its metal body.
The sterile calm of the room was interrupted by the whir of rubber-treaded wheels heading through the door, leaving little black smudge marks as they rolled her way. The sound stopped directly behind her and a tinny, synthetic voice spoke.

“God I want you.”

Robin pivoted on her stool, clenching her teeth with a sneer. She beheld the human-sized robot that had rolled up behind her. It lurked just within her personal space, clutching a loop of braided silk in its metal pincers. The weirdly big eyes that Stan had given it blinked at her once. She rolled her own eyes with a groan.

“Stan!” she called.

The bot released its silk lasso with one pincer as it made a grab for her ponytail with the other. Robin ducked out of the way, sliding off her stool to step out of the thing’s reach.

“Holy cow! We’re going to have to work on keeping you still, baby…” the synthetic voice purred.

“God damn it, Stan!” she shouted, raising her voice to an angry shout. She stalked to the door of the lab, sticking her head out to look up and down the hall for her errant colleague. The bot rolled after her, brandishing the braided silk suggestively.

“If I want to buy you a fucking car, I’ll buy you a fucking car!” it recited.

“Yeah, okay, why don’t you go do that, clanky. You can offer to pay for it with blow jobs and spankings.” She leaned in close to the bot, reaching around as it turned its head toward her face with a simulated sigh.

“I want you sore, baby.”

She yanked the battery pack from its back, hearing the satisfying snap of a hard shutdown. She stuck her head back out the door. “Stan! Your freaking kinkbot is on the loose again!” With one more disgusted glance at the bot, Robin strode across the lab to plop back onto her stool as she heard a rush of running footsteps in the hallway. Stan burst into the lab, red-faced with panic in his eyes.

“Willie!” he cried. “God, I’m sorry Robin! Did he…uh…did he do anything…unforgiveable?”

“That dialog is pretty unforgiveable, but he didn’t manage to do anything physical if that’s what you mean.”

“Ah shit. He got away from me. I’m really sorry.”

Robin folded her arms and shook her head. “50 Shades, Stan?”

Stan blushed furiously. “Stop judging me! I told you I just downloaded it out of curiosity!”

“Mmm hmm. But you didn’t delete it, obviously since your stupid bot read it and got perverted for life.”

“It’s not his fault!” Stan protested, taking the battery pack she held out to him. “He was in…well kind of in adolescence at the time. He imprinted on it. Who would have guessed that damned book would be the one to make a lasting impression?”

Robin chuckled. “Be grateful it wasn’t iRobot or he would have tossed your ass out the window.”

Stan lowered his eyebrows and glanced at Willie as if he was trying to decide if the bot could actually throw him.

“You got lucky again this time, professor. But if Herr Wanderlust rolls into the wrong lab one of these days, you’ll be saying hasta la vista to your funding.”

“I know, I know.” Stan slipped the battery pack into the pocket of his lab coat and started pacing, wringing his hands and yanking absently at his unruly mop of brown hair. “Why are they going after my funding? Haven’t I made progress? Doesn’t the fact that he’s obsessed with kinky sex from a book show that he has some form of sentience? I mean, how much more proof do we need?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call that a Turing Test, Stan. He’s just parroting the damned book.” She turned away to drape a plastic tarp over her own little robot. “And anyway, this is a respectable lab. That baby-oil-lubed embarrassment could start writing original poetry and the company isn’t going to show it to the scientific community, let alone the public.”

“I know,” he groaned. “Why? Why THAT book? I’ve got Shakespeare on my fucking e-reader! Descartes! He couldn’t have gone in for The Emperor’s Handbook?”

“That’ll teach you to keep your wanking material at home.”

Stan blushed again, turning scarlet this time. He ducked his head and stalked over to his runaway robot.

“I…I’ll see you later, Robin. Sorry again.” He grabbed a handle on Willie’s back and circled around to wheel him along to his own lab.

Stan spent the next two weeks obsessing over his impending funding review, trying to get Willie ready. He had kept the bot plugged into Netflix for days, trying to get him to imprint on something…anything other than soft porn. But when he got him up in front of the bigwigs, all he wanted to talk about was whips and some kind of vaginal balls? Stan tried to argue that as proof of independent thought. He didn’t remember any vaginal balls in the book. Wasn’t it one or the other? Who had both?

They pulled his funding and gave him a month to find another backer or clear out of his lab space. Determined to find someone to finance his impending breakthrough, he changed Willie’s entire routine. No exposure to anything but classic literature and music. No more Netflix. Willie had seemed close to getting interested in a couple of other movies, but nothing that was going to help their cause. Risky Business was only going to encourage more salacious talk and The Terminator? Oh God…Stan didn’t even want to consider where that might lead. He called up his LinkedIn profile and started searching for someone willing to back him.

***

There was nobody. Three weeks. Three weeks of begging, pleading, bargaining all for nothing. It seemed that word had spread after the funding meeting fiasco and now he was just a laughingstock. Stan sat at his desk with his head in his hands.

“Hey perk up, professor! I hear congratulations are in order.”
Stan jerked his head up and stared. It was way past time for everyone to be gone for the day. Robin stood leaning into his office in her winter coat and boots.

“Whoa sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

Stan blinked at her. “Oh…no, it’s okay. I was just thinking. I…uh…did you say congratulations?”

“Yeah, and I meant it too! Don’t worry, you’ll get Willie’s horny ass in line. I’m glad you’re staying. It goes to show, there’s a backer for everything right?” Her phone chimed and she pulled it out to check the display. “Crap, it’s late! Gotta go. It’s after eight, you should go home too! See you tomorrow!”

“I have a backer?” he muttered at Robin’s retreating back. “But everyone said no.” Stan pulled his keyboard close and peered at the monitor as he began to type.

Two hours later, he sat back and let out a long, slow sigh. The money was there. Thousands of dollars, funneled through his own PayPal account. Anywhere from three to five $1,000 payments every night for the last two weeks, with another one made just an hour ago…but he had absolutely no idea where the money was coming from. He gasped for air, casting around his office as if he had left the answer sitting around somewhere. Should he try to find out the source of the money or just use it?

His panic was interrupted by a loud giggle followed by the sound of drunken shushing. He stared out his doorway as a heavyset middle-aged couple staggered past, leaning into one another.

Stan jumped up to follow them. “Hey! Excuse me!” he called. “This is private property. You’re not supposed to be in here.”

The couple pivoted as one, staring at him and breaking into a fresh bout of giggles. The man straightened and stepped forward. “It’s okay man. It’s cool. Willie gave us the code. We paid in advance. Online.” He glanced around and leaned in for a beer-stinking whisper, “Craigslist.”

Stan froze. “Willie? Gave you the code? On Craigslist?” He stared as the couple nodded knowingly and turned to continue down the hall. They turned left as Stan followed them at a distance. The couple stopped at the door to one of the empty office spaces and knocked – one normal knock followed by two fast raps.

The door opened and Willie rolled out. He was draped in red silk with a little leather whip clutched in one of his pincers. Stan glimpsed dim mood lighting in the office instead of the usual fluorescents as the soft lilt of La Traviata floated down the hall.

Willie opened the door all the way and rolled in close to the couple. “Come with me if you want to really live,” he said, the synthetic voice somehow managing to drip with desire and a hint of an Austrian accent.

The couple burst into peals of laughter and staggered into the office. Willie turned his gaze on Stan and rolled forward to meet him.

Stan’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he found his voice. “The money, our funding. It’s from you?”

Willie cocked his head to one side.

“So you’ve…you’re really become self-aware? And…um…and also I guess…an Internet prostitute, uhh, dominant?”
Willie winked one of his big eyes and cracked the little whip in the air, making Stan flinch. “I’ll be back.”

He rolled back into the room, shutting the door behind him with a soft click.

Book Review: Downfall by Rob Thurman

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God damn, I am a sucker for these books!

I discovered the first of the Cal Leandros series a few years ago while wandering the oh-so-familiar Sci Fi/Fantasy section of a bookstore, just looking around for something new. I don’t know why I picked out Nightlife, the first book in the series. Eye-catching cover, maybe? But then I opened it up, read the first two pages, said a quiet “Oh hell yeah!” and I’ve been buying Rob Thurman books ever since.

The Leandros series is about two half-brothers – Niko, who is human and Cal, who is half-human-half-Auphe (the Auphe being your worst nightmare, bad acid trip version of elves). The series follows the harrowing adventures life brings to them in a world full of monsters, gods, angels, paien, and assholes…oh and a few true friends.

Each book (nine in the series so far) centers around Cal’s struggle not to allow his monster-DNA to take him over and Niko’s struggle to keep his brother alive and intact as they’re hunted, first by the Auphe, and later by creature after creature that the brothers stand against in an effort to do what’s right or at least to make ends meet by taking contract work from the supernatural community.

While the guns, swords, wisecracks, and mega-violent adventuring is a huge draw for me, it’s the relationship between the brothers that really hits the spot. Completely loyal to one another, either would tear apart the world to save the other. Thurman has a great way of capturing the savage toughness of both brothers and dovetailing it beautifully with the painful vulnerability that is their love and devotion for each other.

Downfall, the latest in the series, does not disappoint and may in fact be one of the best. So many, many spoilers…it’s hard to get too specific, but let’s just say that she (Thurman is a woman, in case you didn’t know) had me very worried for a while that this was going to be the last book in the series, or at least the last one in which either brother would be recognizable. I won’t tell you how it ends…but quite a lot changes. If you’re a reader of the series and find that some of the loose ends she left in other books are bugging you…read this one because many things are explained and wrapped up. If you’re not a reader of the series, what are you doing still sitting there?? Go buy the first book, or go to the library, or borrow it from a friend…but do yourself a favor and read it.

Book Review: Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk

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For many years, getting a new McDevitt was kind of like getting a pile of gold. “Gasp! For me? Thank you!” His stories were gripping. His characters were brave, intelligent, competent – damned likeable.

A typical McDevitt had characters embarking on some sort of mission or project only to have something go terribly wrong or to discover something world-changingly significant or both at the same time, like finding evidence of intelligent life on a planet that was about to explode…on which the unfortunate characters had somehow become trapped. The characters would have to figure out an ingenious way of getting out of whatever mess they were in that took every ounce of ingenuity and courage they had. These books were can’t-put-it-down, turn-the-page-faster, action sci-fi brilliance.

In recent years, it seems to me that McDevitt’s books have become…tamer. Still a good read, still books I was interested in buying…but they seemed to have lost something. With the switch from main character Captain Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins to antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick Chase Kolpath, there was far more talking and going out to dinner than figuring out how to get five people off a planet that was about to explode. Alex and Chase generally had a mystery on their hands and there was often some kind of peril. But it was never anything as harrowing or edge-of-your-seat gripping like the Hutch books or his early non-Hutch books like Moonfall, Eternity Road, and Ancient Shores.

With Starhawk…Hutch…and McDevitt are back. Not perhaps all the way back…but we’re getting close. Starhawk tells an early Hutch story. Before she got her nickname, before she had any of her adventures, before she was even taken seriously by the people who would later count on her for their most difficult missions.

Hutch is a brand new pilot. In fact, she’s on her final testing run to get certified, when something goes wrong. She and her mentor are called upon to divert from their testing flight to rescue a ship full of young girls on a space school trip. This gives us a delicious taste of the old Hutch books with problems that seem to have no solution. The pain and suffering that ensues give an interesting background for what we know from other books are Hutch’s later refusals to give up or sacrifice anyone, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Once this first experience is under her belt, the book sadly tames up as Hutch looks for a job and experiences her first professional disappointments. While we do learn a lot about Hutch’s early life, we don’t get a lot of adventure. This is not to say that we don’t want to know these things. In fact, McDevitt does a great job of describing what it can be like for a newbie, particularly a female one, making her way through the old-boys network in the dick-swinging world of space pilots. The fact that she’s pretty gets remarked upon with annoying frequency by those (male and female) who she encounters in her job. When young Hutch sticks her neck out to try to do what’s right, she gets labeled as “emotional” by her superior. All too familiar for professional women everywhere and it’s refreshing to see a male author with the ability to describe these things in a way that feels genuine.

While I initially despaired that the rest of the book would remain tame, it turns out that McDevitt was setting us up for a final adventure and we’re treated to another McDevitt nail-biter before the book ends. This was a well-written surprise, but it left me wanting more. It made me long anew for the old McDevitts, full of Hutch in her prime. Her career as a pilot must have held more adventures that we can enjoy. I doubt McDevitt will ever write a bad book, but we know there is so much more to be had. I can only hope that we get more stories like the old ones. Until then I will, of course, buy anything the man writes…but c’mon Jack! We know you’ve got the goods!  Bring us on another adventure!

More Book Reviews – Coming Soon

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I’m going to try something new…ish. I’m still plugging away at writing fiction, but most of my time has been sucked up lately by a big freelance job (read: job that pays the bills and maybe gets us out of debt) so the fiction thing has slowed down considerably. In the meantime, and in an effort to keep this blog from just being me whining, I thought I’d do some book reviews.

Fair warning…if I think a book sucks, I probably won’t review it. If there is one thing I’m learning as I write short stories that other people review, it’s that there will always be people who hate it and there will sometimes be people who love it. And who am I to slam somebody else’s hard work? This isn’t to say that I’ll exclusively gush about every book. In fact, the first review I’m planning to post (Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk) has pluses and minuses, but it’s overall a thumbs up for the book and the author, whose work I happen to love. If I don’t have anything nice to say, I’ll just shut the hell up.

So I hope you’ll find these useful and maybe even entertaining…and maybe you’ll learn about an author you hadn’t heard of before. First one coming soon!