Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy 2018! Looking Behind and Planning Ahead.

Putting a certain scientist of outstanding pomposity aside, there is always a special feeling that comes with ushering in a New Year. Unlike personal milestones, such as a birthday or an anniversary, this one is universally understood across generations and cultures. Even for those, like myself, whose religious New Year does not coincide with a secular December 31st celebration, the date is still significant.

It is always useful, after all, to take time to assess where you've been and plan where you want to go. Doing it with a glass of bubbly in your hand, and sharing the experience with millions around the world, is as good a way as any.

As a woman of a certain age, I am surprised and gratified that 2017 was a year of challenges and learning.

My first-ever visit to Dragoncon, covered in detail in this podcast, and also in my guest post at Uprising Review was more than an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. I also showed me that perhaps I'm not as much of an introvert as I always thought. I didn't mind the crowds. (OK, I wasn't happy about standing online for 2hrs trying and failing to get into the Alton Brown show, but nevertheless...). I loved chatting with strangers in the Con Suite and taking photos with cosplayers. I even enjoyed every introvert's nightmare: participating in a panel. But of course one of the highlights of the visit was randomly running into John Ringo outside one of the host hotels. And yes, I shook his hand and told him I was a fan and he was gracious enough to chat. On the whole, the Dragoncon experience is hard to describe except that now I fully understand why people come year after year for decades.

In terms of creative news, writing for and helping put together the Superversive Press anthology MAGA 2020 and Beyond was the biggest event of my year. As one of the editors for the project, I got to work with both new an experienced writers, and my interactions with them were both positive and rewarding. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I might be doing more editing in the future should an opportunity present itself. The SQUEEE moment, of course, came when I lucked into editing the Foreword by one of my favorite celebrities (if that's the proper word): Milo Yainnopoulos. In light of the current controversy, I am happy to report he delivered a very clean copy and took all the edits 😀

There were other interesting new experiences, included but not limited to: finally visiting Washington, D.C. and taking tour of the White House (hey, my Congressman turned out to be good for SOMETHING!); getting yelled at in a convenience store parking lot for wearing a MAGA hat; getting blocked on Twitter by a Senior Editor at National Review; and being a guest on an L.A. broadcast radio show The Writer's Block.

Plans for 2018? A this point in my life, I'm not too much of a planner because life has a way of changing things. However, I have already booked my next Dragoncon trip, and as for my other goals... More writing, challenging myself, and making new friends on- off-line.

Happy, healthy and prosperous 2018 to all my readers, and thanks for sticking around!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Review: The Last Jedi

First, some background:

1. My familiarity with the Star Wars Universe begins and ends with the movies. I have not read any of the books and so am entirely indifferent to any deviation from the beloved Extended Universe canon.
2. I disliked both the Prequels and The Force Awakens, the former for just being drek and the latter for the missed opportunities which in the end made it more disappointing.
3. I skipped Rogue One entirely because of the super-obnoxious pre-release behavior by those involved with the movie. I heard the movie itself was very good, and I might see it someday as a library rental.
4. I was reluctant to be disappointed again, and pay $20 plus food for the privilege, but decided to give the Star Wars series one last try. Part of me was hoping this would be the time to give up and move on with my life since quite frankly I'm burned out on the endless Hollywood reboots and sequels.

Unfortunately for my wallet, I will not be giving up on the series quite yet. In fact (excluding Rogue One, which I haven't seen and thus cannot judge) this is my favorite of the new crop of Star Wars movies.

The new entry had a long way to go, as far as I was concerned, to make up for the artistic brain fart that was TFA, and the list of accomplishments is rather impressive. Mind you, these are MY pet peeves from TFA that have been addressed. YMMV.

1. Finn in TFA existed only to a) provide stunt casting, by director's own admission and b) make Rey look even more of a Mary Sue than she already was. It's almost like the writers said "Let's have a black character because we must, but he can't be too interesting or accomplish much because Rey must be the hero at all times." In the sequel, he comes onto his own, stops being Rey's comic-relief sidekick, and fully, voluntarily, accepts his identity as "Rebel scum" rather than being pulled along by forces not of his choosing. The caper subplot gets a resounding Meh on the whole, but it's worth it for giving Finn a character arc and potentially a love interest who isn't Rey, which again goes with him becoming his own man.

2. Poe, much like Finn was not allowed any character development in TFA (and having since enjoyed Oscar Isaac's performance in The Promise, I became extra annoyed at the waste of talent the more I thought about it). Aside from setting in motion a couple of plot points, he really had no reason to be there. Again, in the sequel he gets a full character arc, growing from a brash "flyboy" to a mature leader. My only complaint is that the character as written (someone brave and skilled but hotheaded, with much to learn from his elders) was better suited for a younger actor.

3. Rey, who was a May Sue to end all Mary Sues, and an unlikable one at that, has become someone different. Still stubborn and occasionally obnoxious, but... vulnerable, willing to ask for help, open to making human connections (she may or may not be falling for Finn, but the fact that the possibility exists is refreshing). Also, the writers go at least through a nominal demonstration that yes, she actually is very good with the staff and it might explain her previously unbelievable skill with the light saber. A small thing, but something I appreciated. And, not to go all spoiler-y, but she does make a mistake, and a big one. Still a Mary Sue? Perhaps, but not in a dumb, in-your-face manner of the previous movie.

4. Kylo Ren is not longer a pathetic youngster to be dismissed. More on him later.

Now that I got TFA out of the way, what of the new developments? Let me cover the highlights so as not to give too many spoilers.

The biggest "shoot-me-now" moments for me were with the new CGI creatures. They're beyond silly and don't add anything to the story except some lame comic relief. I get the merchandising part, I really do, and none of this compares to the travesty that was Jar Jar, but it made and overly long move seem even longer.

The over-abundance of women leaders, while taken to ridiculous heights with the new commanding officer sporting pink hair and a long evening gown, was not, for ME, entirely out of place. In a Rebellion that is both long-running and constantly facing superior forces, it might stand to reason that it's mostly women who'd made it to an old age. Or at least that's the symbolism I'm seeing in this setup, perhaps not intended by the writers. In times of war, men run towards the enemy, and women carry on so the civilization, and hope, survives. Societies decimated by war can and do end up with a matriarchy of sorts. It so happens, I grew up in one of those, so it just might be my perspective.

And now, the most important question of all. Did Luke as a character get ruined?


I can't say any more without spoilers, but while his fate is sad, the manner in which it's handled is neither overly depressing nor nihilistic. In a way, the character comes full circle, and it feels right.

Back to Kylo Ren.

He is, intentionally or not, a Millennial villain. Having gotten over the worship of his grandfather, he is intent on obliterating the past as a way to a better future. If this sounds disturbingly familiar, it's probably because you've been paying attention to real-life news over the last few years.

I have to admit to laughing inappropriately during a big scene (you'll know it when you see it) because at some point I looked at Kylo Ren and thought, "Now he will scream helplessly at the sky."

And he did.

And I giggled.

It broke the mood of a truly poignant scene, but I couldn't help it. This was one of those moments where art and real life met, and quite possibly I was the only one with that reaction. That's the thing about art. It has layers. I can't say, though, that this was my favorite scene.

That honor belongs to the very end of the movie, and this is why I think it's worth seeing.

There are forces at work, in our own time and place, who would do away with heroes and legends, who say we've outgrown the need, and the key to success and progress lies in leaving those behind or, better yet, destroying them altogether.

The closing scene responds to this attitude with a quiet but determined rebuke. And in that alone, it recaptures something the old Star Wars had and the series just might, belatedly, recapture again: a sense of wonder, hope, and the future that's worth fighting for.

Go see it, and make up your own mind.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Movie Review: Silenced

As regular readers might remember from my several posts on the culture war and censorship, I consider free speech one of the most important issues of our time. Aside from it being a basic human right enshrined  most prominently in our Bill of Rights, it is also a pragmatic necessity for our civilization's survival, for one simple reason.

You can't solve a problem you can't name.

And boy oh boy do we have a boatload of Problems-That-Cannot-Be-Named.

Oh, we're all aware they exist. We whisper of them amongst the like-minded, looking over our collective shoulders. We discuss them in closed Facebook groups and on Discord chats, forever fretting about spies and suspensions. But for the most part, we have all agreed that some things are just off-limits out in the open, at least if you want to keep whatever it is that's precious to you. For some, it's a job; for others, family harmony; for still others, long-term friendships. The reasons are valid, and sometimes even admirable, but the consequences of such decisions slowly accumulated over the last decade or more to bring us to one undeniable fact.

We are all Silenced.

And now, thanks to the efforts of Mike Cernovich, Loren Feldman and many dedicated supporters who'd provided the funds, we have a chance to explore the magnitude of the problem and possible solutions.

The documentary introduces a collection of speakers from different walks of life and of wildly varying respectability/fame/notoriety. They are clips rather than complete interviews, giving an overall effect of unfiltered, unedited expression, even though the choice and placement of different clips is anything but accidental. At first, the format is jarring as we jump from one person to the next with little time to digest the content. However, but at some point the pattern emerges, and we begin to see that each participant is telling an important part of the story, much as all the pieces of a kaleidoscope create a picture.

Allan Dershowitz gets a much-deserved top billing, in part because he is perhaps the most mainstream name in the group, but mostly because he's got all the best lines (sorry, Milo!). I wish some of those thoughts could be put on T-shirts and worn on college campuses, although part of me worries about the violence or at least expulsions and firings that might result.

Other contributors range from famous to unknown, sympathetic to "cross-the-street-to-avoid," highly intellectual to plain spoken. Some tell stories of having been censored or disemployed, while others simply explain their personal views on the importance free expression. More importantly, we see the cost of both soft and hard censorship, not just in political discussions and entertainment, but in areas that affect us on a daily basis (medical research is a particularly stark, yet unsurprising, example).

Different races, religions, sexual orientations and political ideologies are represented, not because someone in the back room was checking off diversity boxes but because freedom of speech is just that important. Some of the participants would likely not wish to be in the same building with each other, and yet here they all are, getting (virtually) together to speak up for the one thing on which they happen to agree.

Free speech is precious.

It is rare.

And we, who have been blessed with it, dare not lose it.

Let us be Silenced no more.

Silenced is available on Amazon (free with Prime).

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Writer's Block Radio Show Interview

On December 7th, I had the privilege of being interviewed on The Writer's Block Radio Show. The show is unique in that the hosts take time to read the books and so are able to discuss them in depth. In my case, Jim chose to read The Product and Bobbi took Chasing Freedom. We talked about my choice of dystopia as a preferred writing genre, the different characters and concepts in my books and of course the ups and downs of the creative process.

It was my first time being interviewed by hosts I didn't know personally through online interaction, and it was a pleasure meeting both Jim Christina and Bobbi Bell. It was an all-around fun experience, even though we spent a while discussing some rather heavy topics. Those who heard my interviews in other venues will still hear plenty of new material because many of the questions were really interesting and different. I hope my answers would prove interesting as well. Enjoy!

Oh and of course: BUY MY BOOKS :) 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Cadain's Watch by Daniella Bova

I must admit I approached this book with trepidation, for two reasons.

My first and most obvious thought was, "Hey, a dystopian novel set in the near-future U.S., told mostly from the points of view of several characters from the resistance movement? That sounds an awful lot like my own novel. How could I possibly enjoy it without constantly making comparisons, for better or worse?"

The second source of hesitation came from the presence of a Christian Angel as a character. I've seen some discussions as to the difficulty of writing real-world (rather than imaginary) religions, in particular Christianity, into fiction. After all, having an all-powerful God explicitly on the side of the heroes removes much of the suspense in the outcome, at least on the macro level. The story can still be great, mind you, but generally speaking it's not what I prefer to read.

That said, I was somewhat familiar with Daniella Bova's writings from a couple of her published short stories, so I decided to give her full-length novel a try.

As it turned out, in spite of superficial similarities of the premise, this novel is nothing like mine, and it's a good thing. If nothing else, it answers the common complaint that nowadays we have too many dystopias, and they're all alike.

Well, not this one.

A few things immediately stand out, before you even get to the supernatural element. The main characters are older, and they have families. It's understandable why most dystopias focus on the young and the unattached. It's hard to rebel against the government, no matter how oppressive, when you have family to feed, and when said government can come after your wife and kids if you step out of line. On the other hand, in reality, people will more readily fight and die for their loved ones than for an idea, and this is the approach this author takes. Yes, there are some characters who join the resistance because it's the right thing to do, but for the most part, it's a timeless tale of hard men in hard times fighting to protect their wives and kids.

Not that women are entirely absent from the story. They also, for the most part, serve the timeless role as protectors, nurturers and teachers, and thus the keepers of civilization in a broken world. At least such are the women on the side of the Light. Some of the main villains are also women, but only nominally so, for by the time we meet them, they have lost all right to be called human, let alone members of the fair sex.

As for the Angel Cadain, he serves as an occasional narrator for the story, both to fill in the blanks in the overall picture and to show us the thoughts and actions of some of the non-POV characters. For that I am grateful because let's face it, there are some heads where you as a reader will not want to spend any time. Does it break the traditional narrative structure? Does it nevertheless make for a more readable story? Yes to both.

To answer my original concern, while Cadain does put the finger on the scales, as it were, to encourage, guide and occasionally outright help the heroes, the actual work is all done by men, and as a result not everything works the way it's planned, not every battle won, and not every heartache avoided. And so, nail-biting suspense scenes abound, even in this setup.

On a side note, while reading this novel, especially the parts with the supernatural element, I was reminded of an article by one of the Jewish scholars on the story of Passover. The miracle of the Parting of the Red Sea is one of the great examples of Divine help given to the righteous. However, some scholars claim that Moses had to first walk into the Red Sea and keep walking until the water was all the way up to his nose, and only then, once he--as a man--had gone as far as he could, did the Miracle occur to take him and the rest of the Jews safely across.

And that's the reason why the novel works on this level. The men fight, struggle and suffer, but there is hope and help available to pull them through, and the reason it doesn't feel like an easy way out is because none of it, not a single action or decision or sacrifice is easy. Every victory comes at a price, and all of it is earned.

Is it a flawless story? No, not really, although for the most part my criticisms are subjective. The pace is slow, and only in part because the author tends to the wordy, but also the writing on the whole is more literary than common to the genre. It's very much "a journey, not a destination" kind of read, and frankly your enjoyment will hinge on how much you like spending time with the characters. To me, the protagonists, both male and female, are easy to like, in spite (because?) of the guys acting like real-life blue collar Americans, complete with love of smokes, whiskey and colorful language. Which reminds me: this is not your typical Christian fiction. There's foul language, occasionally cringe-inducing violence and many scenes and references that are downright disturbing. That is a feature, not a bug, because a dystopia should disturb, even though this one unlike many others also gives you a large measure of hope.

 All in all, it's not "light" reading by any definition, but it's worth your time and emotional investment. Recommended.

Purchase Cadain's Watch on Amazon

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Release and a Giveaway: MAGA 2020 is Live; Chasing Freedom Free with Purchase

After many months on hard work, the much-anticipated anthology MAGA 2020 and Beyond is available in e-book and paperback versions. This is truly a one-of-a-kind anthology, full of optimistic stories of the future as well as essays by some of the more intriguing thinkers of our day.

Much as I love reading (and creating) dystopian stories, perhaps the time has come to switch gears. Cautionary tales serve their purpose, but if all you are is scared of the future, it's not by itself enough as a motivation to make it better. Occasionally, inspiration is required. I think one of the drawbacks of  a conservative cultural movement is that we, as a rule, are good at pointing out all that is wrong, but not so good at offering a compelling, exciting alternative.

MAGA 2020 and Beyond offers a solid sampling of positive speculative fiction themed around the consequences of Donald Trump's Presidency. I hope it inspires many more works that show us optimistic visions of the future, not only in terms of technological progress but in the way we organize our society and live our day-to-day lives.

That having been said, not every dystopian tale is meant to only scare and depress. My Dragon Awards-nominated dystopian novel Chasing Freedom is a good example of a dystopia that is more uplifting and optimistic than is the norm for the genre. And for a limited time, you can grab an e-copy for free by taking advantage of this promotional deal from Superversive Press.

Purchase MAGA2020 and Beyond on Amazon

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Concert Report: Otherwise/10 Years/Red

Over the last couple of years, I've made an effort to see as many of my favorite bands in concert as possible. Now is a great time to be a music lover because with the economics of music distribution being what it is, most bands make their money not from CD sales or iTunes downloads, but from tours. So for those of us who enjoy smaller bands, seeing them live is not only possible but essential. We get a great experience, and our favorite musicians make enough dough to pay for those fancy tour buses. Win-win.

Red, an Christian alternative metal band who had long been on my must-see list, was the headliner and the main draw for me, although the fans standing on line waiting for the doors to open seemed to be equally split between all three performers. And in truth, all of them were very much worth seeing.

Otherwise, the first act of the show, did what most openers are meant to do, namely warm up the crowd for the bigger acts. I was less familiar with their songs (Soldiers is probably the one best known to regular listeners of SiriusXM Octane station), but enjoyed the performance nevertheless just because of their high energy level and interacting with the crowd.

10 Years is, in my opinion, a somewhat under-rated band, and they definitely are worth seeing live. Most of their songs sound fairly sedate when played on the radio, in part because of the smooth vocals of the lead singer. Their live sound is much harder, which helps drive home the often edgy and disturbing lyrics that tackle subjects ranging from drug use to suicide to the dark side of the entertainment industry. (Listening to Beautiful in light of the latest revelations regarding Hollywood was a somewhat surreal experience.)

Finally, the headliner performance by Red was nothing short of amazing, especially considering the small size of the venue that did not allow for much in terms of pyrotechnics. I appreciated the balance between covering the old-time favorites like Feed the Machine, Faceless and Release the Panic along with a substantial sampling from their new album Gone. This band, as many of the type, is huge on audience interaction. If you know the lyrics of their popular songs, chances are pretty good that in a small venue you'll get to sing a line or two into the live microphone.

And now comes the real reason I decided to blog about going to a concert. After it was over, my husband and I went to the garage to get out car, and right there, standing on line with the claim ticket, was Adrian Patrick, the lead singer from Otherwise. He was gracious enough to pose for pictures (as you will see in my slide show) before loading his toddler in the car and driving off with his family. While the prima donnas like Bruce Springsteen think nothing of dissing the fans who pay hard-earned money to see them, there are many hard working up-and-coming musicians out there who appreciate each and every fan and go an extra mile to make them happy. It's definitely something to consider the next time you think of how to spend whatever time and money you have allocated towards entertainment.

I hope you check out these bands' albums, or better yet, take your time to see them on tour.
Maybe my little slide show will serve to convince you. Enjoy.