Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Dragon Awards Post, Procrastinators' Edition

Let me guess: you meant to vote for Dragon Awards nominations. You just needed more time. After all, you had until June 30th, so there was no rush, right?
:Looks at the calendar:
Yeeeah, about that...

 So now you have just a couple of days to scour your Kindle trying to remember which books you read over the last year, then look up when those books were published to make sure they're eligible, and THEN decide how to classify them in the most appropriate way. Good luck with that last one if you're like me and read overwhelmingly indie/small press books. Those authors don't have the publisher forcing them to squeeze a story into a pigeonhole for the best Barnes & Noble shelf placement. They write what they write. Great for reading. A nightmare for category designations.

Fear not, my fellow procrastinators, for much of the work of finding, listing and categorizing some outstanding eligible books has already been done for you. Below I will link a few websites/blogs with nomination suggestions. You will see that many of the suggestions overlap. It's either a "great minds think alike" thing or the Russians rigged it. (Not me. Other Russians.) In any case, if you read the books and liked them, now's the time to give them some love. If you haven't, what are you doing looking at blogs? You've got some great fiction to read.

Useful sites with suggestions, in alphabetical order.

Declan Finn 📖  

Happy Frogs 🐸

Injustice Gamer 🎮

Russell Newquist 📚

Speaking of all things Dragon, I will be at Dragoncon this year, and because my novel Chasing Freedom was a nominee last year I actually get a spiffy Attending Pro badge. What it means, I don't know, but it sounds like fun. Hope to see lots of you there!

Dragon Awards vote link is here. There is no cost to participate, and you know what that means: more money for books 😀   Best of luck to the contenders and as always Happy Reading!


Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review: For Steam and Country by Jon del Arroz



A couple of weeks ago, I took my 12-year-old daughter to the town library in search of something to read. When I asked the librarian in charge of the YA section to recommend something without suicide or sex, she said, without hostility but quite firmly that we were in the wrong section. Apparently those were the predominant themes of modern YA literature. (Mind you, this is the stuff offered to them as pleasure reading, in addition to the doom-and-gloom highbrow literature they're already required to read for school.) And then we wonder why so many of today's teens are A. depressed and B. avoid pleasure reading at all costs.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I report on this latest offering from a science fiction author Jon del Arroz. For Steam and Country is, as the title implies, a steampunk adventure first and foremost, but it also succeeds brilliantly as YA.

The protagonist, Zaira von Monocle, is a 16-year-old, who--shocker!--actually behaves as a normal teen, even though the circumstances of her life are anything but ordinary. Sure, she is a daughter of a great adventurer, who inherits her father's airship and goes off to far away lands and gets involved in battles that might decide the fate of her country. Yet at the same time she is subject to the same challenges and emotions as any teen. She has a secret crush on a neighbor boy who, frustratingly, only sees her as a friend. She feels sad about having lost her mother at a young age and devastated at the news that her father is presumed dead. She has a comically adorable attachment to her pet ferret (yes, there's a ferret named Toby, and he's important to the plot!). And, as most teenagers, she has her flaws: she is stubborn, occasionally rash, doesn't know her limitations while at the same time being insecure... Did I mention the "normal teen" thing? If you don't have teens of your own, just take my word for it. Zaira is true to life, perhaps more so than the cynical and too-smart-for-their-age creatures that populate modern YA fiction, especially the kind geared towards girls.

That's not to say Zaira is the only interesting character, or even the only one in whom the reader gets invested during the story. James starts out as a somewhat of an obligatory sidekick/love interest, but his story arc is separate and, while he doesn't get a lot of "screen time," is interesting in its own right. (I am in fact hoping for a spinoff because the whole Knights angle has a lot of potential that was only explored in a cursory way in this novel). Captain von Cravat is more than your garden variety Strong Female Character. The Iron Emperor is a fascinating villain who appears just long enough for us to wonder who or what exactly he is. And Toby the ferret is just begging for a whole series of his own, if he could ever be convinced to leave Zaira's side.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and the prose is just right for the type of story this is: clear without being dumbed down, with enough information on the world and the basics of technology to be interesting, but not so much that we get bored with the minutia of the steamship operations. The battles are well choreographed and descriptive in a way that we can visualize exactly what's going on while providing enough tension and excitement. There are a few twists along the way as well as some loose ends likely to be addressed in the rest of the series, but on the whole the story wraps up in a satisfying way.

I'm told that this particular take on steampunk is unusual, so I will simply recommend it to anyone who likes old-fashioned adventure free of sex, graphic violence or so-called "social commentary." It's also a great way to introduce your teenager to the joys of adventure fiction. As someone who grew up reading Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, I am glad to see that there are modern offerings in the same vein available to the new generation, even if they have to go beyond the local librarians' choices to get to it.

Purchase For Steam and Country on Amazon




Thursday, June 1, 2017

Guest Post by Matthew Quinn: Classism, "Evil Rednecks" and The Thing in the Woods

Matthew Quinn is an author friend of mine who has just come out with a new book on Amazon. Below are this thoughts on the traditional horror genre and how his work challenges some of the stereotypes of the classics. I am not personally a horror fan, but I love it when authors veer from the tired tropes and create something fresh, which is why I agreed to host Matthew's promotion on my blog. Enjoy!
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Once upon a time, I was visiting the East Cobb Borders and read from a Call of Cthulhu role-playing game manual. The manual begins a proposed gaming scenario describes how in many cases the Great Old Ones and other horrors from beyond are worshiped in rural, isolated areas. What happens if these areas become suburbanized? The book uses the phrase "supernatural Love Canal," a reference to a New York neighborhood built on top of a forgotten toxic waste dump. That scenario got my creative gears turning and soon spawned The Thing in the Woods, which takes place in the small town of Edington just south of Atlanta. Edington is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for Atlanta, much to the annoyance of Phil Davidson, owner of a local barbecue restaurant and the high priest of a cult worshiping an alien tentacle monster in the local woods.
However, this is not a book about evil "rednecks." H.P. Lovecraft, the man whose writings on Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, was  classist toward "degenerate" whites and rural folk as well as a racist toward non-whites and "ethnics" like Italians. I'm not going to look down my nose on people who live outside the big cities, the people who disproportionately serve in the military and produce much of our food. This is reflected in three of the Edington-born characters in The Thing in the Woods.
The female lead in Thing is Amber Webb. She's an Edington native, a high-school senior like Buckhead transplant and story protagonist James Daly. Instead of a being a cultureless hick, she's active in the local arts scene and the community theater, including a major role in the play Once Upon a Mattress. She has no objection to another white teenage girl dating an young Indian man from Atlanta, and when other members of her small-town girl posse believe James to be a murderer, she's open-minded enough to dig further rather than merely assume. We all know what "assume" stands for, after all. And when the cult unleashes its wrath, her initiative and sheer nerve come in handy.
Another character from Edington is Sam Dixon. Sam served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War (he explicitly references Medina Ridge, and the First Armored Division was at other battles as well). Given his references to "damned blue on blue," at times he was in danger from both the Iraqis and his own side. Since the war, he's worked at the local sheet metal plant and done well for himself. He is a devoted husband, although he and his wife are unable to have children. Although he serves Phil and the abomination in the woods, he has a very strong sense of fair play and duty toward his fellow veterans and isn't drinking the racist Kool-Aid poured by another cult member who is a bigot. It's that moral sense that propels his story arc. I am reminded of Romans 2, which states every man has the law of God written on their hearts.
Even Phil, for all his many faults, is not without his virtues. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran, a member of the Third Marine Division who saw action as a junior officer at the Battle of Con Thien. He pays his restaurant employees more than the typical wage to keep the wheels of the local economy spinning and to encourage employee loyalty. This is much like the great industrialist Henry Ford, who paid his employees more than the usual wage for the auto industry to ensure his employees could buy his cars. Phil also has members of the cult keep up properties left vacant during the recession, to ensure they don't get stripped for metal or become drug houses. Although his methods are extreme and immoral, keeping Edington a functional community in an dark time is very important to him. And he's a father and grandfather who prioritizes the welfare of family, even very distant relations like his cousin's stepdaughter, Sam's wife Brenda.
So if you like the style and concepts of H.P. Lovecraft but are tired of evil hick stereotypes, check out The Thing in the Woods


Monday, May 29, 2017

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I have to admit, after the third movie in the series I decided I was done. The plot was overly complicated, the good guys kept double crossing each other, and the ending... Let's just say a movie of that caliber did not earn such and ending and leave it at that (and no, the after-credits were not enough to provide satisfaction for what was at the time meant to be the end of the trilogy.)

I skipped the fourth. More than that, I forgot it existed and had to look up why this latest installment was billed as Number Five. When the new trailer came out, my first thought was, "Oh no, they're at it AGAIN? Meh." Still, it was a long weekend and I decided to kill a few hours by watching it on the cheap in a smaller local theater. Yes, $11 for an adult ticket is what passes for cheap nowadays. But I digress...

My husband, who saw Dead Men a few days before me, said it was actually better than the original. I'm not sure about that because the original was, well, the original. The characters, the world, the visuals--it was all new and so by default more entertaining. But this one comes close and does better than the original on a couple of fronts. Also, and this is a biggie,  we're not talking about going back to the well. This movie continues the story where #3 left off. (I hear Penelope Cruz didn't want to come back. They didn't make the character die of leukemia a la  Sarah Connor, but the script behaves as though #4 never happened, as far as I can tell.)

In the first scene, we meet young Henry, Will Turner's son, who promises to break the curse that requires his father to be forever sailing The Flying Dutchman. Fast forward nine years, and grown up Henry is getting in trouble at sea over having too much knowledge of the legends no one believes until... well, I won't spoil that one. In the meantime, Carina, the scientist obsessed with the stars she believes will lead her to her father is about to hang for witchcraft. As for Jack Sparrow, let's just say the shameless ripoff of one of the Fast and Furious movies works very well as his re-introduction scene. The three main characters are thrown together, sometimes literally, until they agree to work with each other to obtain this particular movie's McGuffin.

It is rare to see the fifth entry into any franchise that succeeds both at taking us back and introducing new characters. Henry and Carina are immediately likable as driven, passionate individuals who make a lively, forever bantering couple. Jack Sparrow is entertaining as ever as a down-and-out captain without a ship, far removed from his former glory. (There is a marvelous flashback scene, thanks to the wonders of CGI, that made me wish for a prequel. I wanted to spend the time with THAT Jack Sparrow, one less interesting and flamboyant, but more admirable. If we do see a prequel, I'll know I'm not alone.) Barbossa is seen in a new light, and Salazar, the current villain, is sufficiently murderous yet has understandable motivations. The plot is clear of unnecessary complications, and the action has near perfect balance of CGI and live action. Except for a couple of scenes that look like a setup for a new Disney attraction (you'll know of what I speak when you see them) the movie does not have the look and feel of a video game. The camera work is solid, and there is no confusion, in spite of many scenes taking place in the dark, as to who is doing what where.

And then there are all the things that are not in the movie.

No Strong Female Character. I know, it's shocking to have a woman character who is physically capable, strong-willed, and a scientist to boot to not be the dreaded SFC. Writers of books and movie scripts alike seem to have forgotten that it's possible, and yet here we have Carina as a great reminder. She is smart and educated without knowing everything or being right every time. She is brave and athletic, yet sometimes needs saving from perils she can't handle on her own. She is driven and stubborn without being hostile, and while she doesn't "need" a man, she clearly enjoys being courted even as she refuses to admit it.

No anachronistic nods to modern Hollywood conventions. The romance is sweet, in tune with the rules of the movie's world. Carina blushes at the notion that she's attracted to Henry. Henry is happy at seeing Carina's ankles. Jack Sparrow, being more worldly, makes fun of the innocent lovers, but it's good natured fun, and whatever else Sparrow is meant to be, role model isn't it. There is physical contact, sure, but not the semi-obligatory casual hookup that we'd come to expect and/or fear from most Hollywood productions, whether or not said hookups make sense in the context of the story. Also, Carina's actions are consistent with the way a woman would act in the male-dominated world. When a shop owner tells her to leave and not touch his instruments because women are not allowed inside his shop, she reacts not with righteous indignation or physical assault, but with an offer to fix his maps and to pay him extra for the item she desires. It was a small scene, but I appreciated the care that went into crafting it to feel as true as possible right before the movie veers back into the over-the top action mode.

No on-the-nose references to politics. None. No purposeful controversies during the movie's promotion. No gratuitous jabs at Evil Politician of the Day. No inane quotes that end up marring the telephone poles for decades to come *cough* Star Wars Prequels *cough*. Not even a Very Special Screening for Group X (that one is not the movie's fault, but still highly annoying). All you get is a 2hrs + break from the world events, and it's engaging enough to keep you from checking your social media feed on the phone for the duration. There was a time most if not all blockbusters would provide this oasis of entertainment to the viewers. Now, sadly, it's so rare that it merits praise, and so praise it gets. I recommend it wholeheartedly. See it in the theater. Tell your friends. Let's make it an amazing success so Hollywood gives us more of what we want: good old-fashioned entertainment.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Right Geek Chat: Dystopia, Darkness and the Real World

It was my privilege to be the very first guest on the newly launched The Right Geek show hosted by my friend, blogger and all around great gal Stephanie Souders. We discussed my novel Chasing Freedom and other related topics, including but not limited to:

- World-building through the eyes of the characters vs. the narrative style
- Creating realistic "bad guys"
- Using one's life experiences add realism to a dystopian world (OK, coming from the former USSR, I have an advantage on that one, but other authors can apply the concept in their own way)
- Classic vs modern dystopias
- Can A Handmaid's Tale happen here?
- How did "dark" come to equal "deep" and can anything be done to change this perception?

All of the above is covered in the first forty minutes or so, at which time the technology gremlins attacked and my side of the conversation became very difficult to hear. You can still figure out most of what I said from Stephanie's follow-up and responses. We were talking mostly of the current college campus environment and whether or not it indicates a fundamental shift in the mood of the country.

I want to thank Stephanie for having me over and making for a very intellectually stimulating conversation. I hope everyone tunes in for her future live broadcasts to make her new show a success.

Youtube video of the full interview is below.



Chasing Freedom is available on Amazon.

Make sure to check out Stephanie's blog for reviews and commentary.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Movie Musings: The Fate of the Furious



***Cross-posted from SuperversiveSF.com***

On one level, The Fate of the Furious is the easiest movie to review:
1. Great fun
2. Leave your brain (especially the part that understands physics) at home

And now, folks, your seat belts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!

Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.

Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.

Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.

Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.

Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.

There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: Live and Let Bite by Declan Finn

I admit, I started this book with a bit of trepidation. The Big Bad in the previous installment was so big and so bad and so near-indestructible that trying to top it could very well veer into the ridiculous (think some of the more unfortunate James Bond movies, for example). Wisely, the author didn't go that route. Oh sure, there's a worthy adversary for our favorite couple and their merry crew, but this novel is more concerned with adding more layers of plot and character development in between the 'splosions and bursts of machine gun fire. Yes, we get machine guns added to the mix this time, because, well, why not?

The story starts off... angsty, for lack of a better word. Marco and Amanda are separated, causing much brooding for them and pain for the baddies. When those two brood, the soundtrack is more death metal than country, if you get my drift. In the meantime, Merle the international man of supernatural mystery, discovers/confirms a connection between the U.N. and the vampires, both of whom, it so happens, want Marco dead at all costs. The rest of the plot revolves around our heroes facing and dealing with the new super-assassin, while trying to finally resolve their feelings for each other.

That last part, in my opinion, takes up most of the energy of the novel. Let's face it, in an ongoing series we can't be overly worried if the main characters make it through the next chapter. Finn is not entirely averse to killing someone we care about, on occasion, but he hasn't been affected by the Joss Whedon disease (looking at you, Terry Goodkind, grrr...) and let's hope he never does. So the assassin subplot becomes more of a "journey, not a destination" kind of deal. You know she will be defeated. You don't know how, or why she's on the job in the first place, or even who the heck she is. Also, did I mention 'splosions? So there's a lot of pure fun to be had along the way, but to really make us care, there has to be something else. Something beyond the heroes' survival to the next installment, and beyond the intellectual challenge of solving the fundamental mystery of the overarching plot. That leaves us with...

If you guessed, "romance," congratulations! You're in for a treat. If not, and if your reaction is, "Oh no, not that!" rest assured that it's not your usual YA drama. These are serious people, with the fate of, if not the world, at least thousands of lives on their shoulders, who cannot function at full capacity till they address what is delicately called the issues of the heart. I'll give no spoilers in this regard since I consider this particular narrative thread the most suspenseful. Suffice it to say that there is a level of progress achieved, with hints of more to come. Stay tuned and wait for the sequel.

Purchase Live and Let Bite on Amazon