Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Irrational Fears

When I was a child growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York in the shadow of the Queenboro Bridge, I was terrified of army ants and one that seemed viable to the young me despite my very urban surroundings. I was reminded of this last night as I watched the movie San Andreas on television last night with my daughter and wife.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading and animals. I spent hours reading. Back in the late 70s/early 80s every supermarket had some kind of encyclopedia tie in. Each month or week a new volume would come out and I would eagerly await it's arrival. The one I was most obsessed with was The Funk And Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia. I read them from cover to cover, imagining myself an intrepid explorer finding these animals. (I was also obsessed with atlases, but that's another blog entry.) When you think about the natural world, it's a terrifying place. Especially to a kid that grew up in a blue collar neighborhood of Queens, New York. And my hot button animal that terrified me? Army ants. I was genuinely terrified of being slowly and painfully consumed and stripped to the bone by millions of ants. It kept me up at night in a way that I cannot express in words. Completely and totally irrational, right? Not to the five or six or seven year old me though and I was faced with something similar last night.

My wife turned on San Andreas, the Rock-fueled disaster film about an earthquake destroying much of California. I didn't really watch and was starting to fall asleep anyway. I'm not so into disaster porn anymore and think that the 1974 movie Earthquake already did this better with really bad special effects and Charlton Heston telling the earthquake to get its filthy paws off of him. As we were watching, there was a scene where the Hoover Dam collapses and kills a man, among others. My daughter was sort of freaked out about this.

She started asking questions about disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes because she is a lot like me and has an active imagination, the kind of imagination that can put herself in the middle of an earthquake. To most of us, this is absurd, but to an eight year old with an active imagination, it's very real. So we had a very brief and quiet conversation about it so we didn't distract my wife who was watching the movie. (My wife has a practical mind that finds this line of thought absurd.)

I explained to my daughter that we don't get a lot of tornadoes because there are too many hills around us and they need mostly flat surroundings. I know this isn't scientifically accurate, but for the moment it was what I needed to say. Then I explains that occasionally we may get an earthquake, nothing like the movie would probably happen where we live (Syracuse) and the worse we would feel would be like a big truck driving by the house. I told her about the last earthquake I remember a few years back and that's exactly what it felt like. She seemed satisfied with this and went to sleep.

But as I sit here today, I wonder if that's how we're somehow we're wired as some kind of survival mechanism. Or is it some gene that I passed down to my daughter. I still have some irrational fears as a 43 year old man. When I hear a noise outside, I assume one of three things: zombies, Bigfoot or a baby kaiju. I am terrified of moths. Seriously. When my son says there's a monster behind me, I take that seriously. And I'm terrified of being eaten alive. These are irrational fears. I'm old enough to recognize that and maybe that makes them infinitely more irrational than my fear of army ants. Is it hardwired? Is it learned? Is it the product of an overactive imagination? I don't know.

And just so you know, I will will obliterate any sign of ants in my life to this day.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: An Ember In The Ashes

I haven't been doing many long form reviews lately, instead choosing to do book reviews on a smaller scale in my monthly reviews, but I thought this one deserved a longform. (They'll be a few more of these as I have about 4 ARCs that I need to work through in the coming weeks!) As always, spoilers abound. 

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir is one of those books that I was interested in but was a little worried about it because it looked and sounded a lot like another YA fantasy that I had high hopes for and just fizzled for me, but it came up in my library queue and I thought I'd give it a shot. And I'm glad I did. This book was phenomenal on so many levels that it's clearly going to wind up in my Best of list at the end of the year.

There was so much I liked about this book and, as I read, realized it shared with my own writing. Great characters, well thought out but not overly complex worldbuilding (I mean that as a compliment and I'll get to that in a minute) and a snappy plot that keeps things small within the larger story. 

One of the things I've noticed about YA fantasy is the desire to kind of make everything about these giant stakes, this does that but on a vastly smaller scale, so to speak. As much as the competition between the Masks to be the next Emperor is a driving force of the narrative, the reason everything happens in this story is because Laia wants to rescue her brother. This is the engine that makes the story move and it's well done. Laia doesn't want to topple and empire, she wants to live her life and when that is thrown into chaos with the capture of her brother, she makes desperate agreements with the rebellion, a group she's never really wanted a part of. And Elias just wants to leave the empire. He wants no part of it, even though he is integral to it in every way. It's a huge way this story works. As epic as the stakes are in what is happening, that's actually secondary to what's happening. In the smaller story, Tahir makes it about the character's motivations not the world shaking events that surround them. It was actually somewhat refreshing. 

The characters make this book move. Laia and Elias are great characters. Hurt, wounded and damaged, they figure out what they need to do to survive the brutality of their existence. Elias's mother, the Commandant, is chillingly rendered and his best friend, Helene, is a young adult version of Brienne of Tarth but Tahir has the skill not to just make her a shade of that great character but breathe a whole other life into her. Elias's antagonists, the twins Marcus and Zac, are thinly made, almost caricatures, though I wished there was a little more Zac as I feel he was underused in the story. Many of the background characters in the Elias thread are stock characters, almost necessary in a cast this size, but they work well, filling the roles they need to fill when they do. 

In the Laia thread, from the moment we meet them, the members of the Rebellion are all menace. As a reader, you aren't to trust them from moment one and that is a real strength. The idea that the rebels aren't these righteous warriors of truth has been put forth before, but is often ignored. Tahir does a great job with it. Laia's interactions with the Commandant are cringe worthy and I mean that in the nicest way possible and the mystery of Cook has me wondering if that's a question that will ever get answered. 

The romantic elements were well done, though the Keenan/Laia pairing seemed forced at times. The tension between Elias and Helene is just taut and well written. It's not so much a love triangle as it is a love dodecahedron, so to speak. And it doesn't get in the way of the story.

The world building is sound and simple. I don't mean this in a bad way. Fantasy writers have a million different directions to go in when building a world, some create vast histories of their worlds and can tell you who ruled an empire three thousand years ago then will make sure you know that they know that which then distracts from the story. Others are sparse, concentrating on the action within their book then they wind up with dozens of inconsistencies and holes that can also distract from the story.  There's a balance and Tahir nails it. Others still fill their world up with complicated names and ideas that can confuse the heck out of a reader or hit us with the Our Elves Are Better trope too many times. Tahir doesn't do this, instead calling her people Martials and Scholars and Mariners. Makes sense right? The history is there, but it's not relevant to the story, so we don't need to know it.  She tells us what we needed to know about the Empire and the Blackcliff school, which were important to the story, without sounding infodumpy. It's really well done and I liked it.

The one aspect of the book that really struck me was the relationship between the commandant of the Blackcliff school and Elias. (SPOILER: She's his mother.) I love a well done, complex child-parent relationship, especially in a fantasy book. I love writing them and think that when I get back into a rewrite on my SCIONS book, I'm going to make the parental issues with the book more apparent. That being said, the thing that struck me about this the most was that is was a son and mother. It's just not one you see a lot of in YA fantasy. The Commandant is just terrific. She's chilling and cold and amazingly diabolical. The chapter when she finally explains herself to Elias is just some of the best writing I've ever read in this genre or any other.

My only complaint, and this is strickly a personal thing and it has no bearing on the quality of this book, is that I wish it were 3rd person close and not 1st person. Seriously. That's my only gripe. And it's just a me not you thing.

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is one of those rare books that can sate both the YA fan and the epic fantasy fan in me. It does what it does incredibly well and is a joy to read. It's intense and unputdownable. It's definitely going to be on my Best of 2016 list. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The History Of John: June 17, 1994

We Muricans love fallen idols. We love when the people we love, especially celebrities of any sort, fall from grace in an epic fashion and no celebrity ever had a greater fall from grace than Orrenthal James Simpson. OJ was a cultural icon that crossed barriers that few had ever done before. And his epic fall (you all know how I love the word epic and what it implies) changed our society forever and ushered in this day and age of reality television.

Now, I'm not going to go into every detail of what happened, just the events of June 17, 1994 for me and what I remember. The day the OJ and his friend Al Cowlings fled the police in his white Bronco. An event watched by millions live on television all over the country. It was riveting and something you couldn't turn away from. I know, because I was one of the people that couldn't turn away from it. For years, if asked, I could tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. I remembered it vividly. Most people my age could as well. It became on of the hallmarks of our generation, a single shared event that any of us could bond over in a moment.

We don't have many moments like that anymore. Information is so immediate and accessible in this day and age, it's hard to express the "I remember it..." story. Today, we live tweet events as they happen. And I recognize the irony of me talking about live tweeting something. If there was such a thing as Twitter when I got married, I'd have live tweeted it.

As I remembered that night for years, I was at Club 37 in North Syracuse, New York. Club 37, for those of you that don't know, was a dance club located along a main drag in a suburb a few miles north of the city of Syracuse. Friday nights was Ladies Night, maybe, and my friends and I would go their often. It was a typical club with a large dance floor, lots of black lights, crappy carpeting, thumping music and a balcony that overlooked the dance floor. Club 37 was also notorious because it was where professional wrestler Shawn Michaels got his ass kicked by a couple of US Marines. Seriously, look it up.

I had gone to Club 37 with my friend Brian with our friends Andy and Steve in tow. I have vivid memories of watching the Knicks and Rockets on the TV in the lounge area. I was still pining for a girl that had just broken up with me, so I was kind of standoffish, watching the game. Well, they kept going to the OJ chase and eventually the dance floor emptied and we were all watching OJ. For twenty plus years, this was as I remembered June 17, 1994: watching it on TV while some dance music thumped in the background.

My group of friends was amorphous at the time, as most groups of friends are. We moved in and out of different circles, depending on what was going on, where we were going and who wanted to go. But there was also a separation between my groups that was pretty clear and I have different memories of each. If I was at the center, Brett and Brian would always be around me. Looking back on it, my relationship with the two was very different. Not in a bad way, but Brett and I were always partners, in a way, more Captain American and Iron Man. I always felt like Brian's sidekick, very Batman and (Fat) Robin. Again, not in a negative way, just from my perspective that was the way I always felt. People came in and out of our lives and we into their's, as a duo or alone, as such groups of friends frequently do. The flow chart would be astounding. But Brett and Brian were more often than not separate from one another. They brought out two different parts of me and got different versions of me. Our groups bled together more often than not. With Brett it was my oldest friends: Adam, Nickerson, Finochs...with Brian it was Andy and Steve. For example, Steve crossed over to the Brett side when he started dating our friend Nickerson, who is almost part of a third group that blurred the lines between both of these groups. (For those not in the know, Nickerson is a woman and as I write more of these oral histories, you'll hear more about her.) These complex relationships are things I try to duplicate in my writing. Groups of friends are often not as clear cut and simple as they are in fiction. Maybe one of these days I'll do a long form on that with a flow chart. But that's not the purpose of this piece. I remember being at Club 37 with the Brian side of my friend flow chart that night. At least that's the way I remember it.

Then, this past year FX played their The People vs. OJ Simpson, which was a riveting show. My friend Sharon sent me a message on Facebook saying that she remembered being at Hungry Chuck's with me and Brett celebrating his 21st birthday. She was Brett's girlfriend at the time and the two of them were inseparable. Hungry Chucks was a dive in the basement of the building that wasn't air conditioned. (A few years ago they moved Chuck's upstairs and now it's a nice bar. It's not the same. It's closed now.) And I loved it. This sent me into a tizzy, sending messages on Facebook and my phone. I followed some leads and shook some trees to find out if I misremembered it.

I came to a conclusion: I didn't misremember it. Sharon was correct that she was at Chuck's with Brett, but my location was still in flux. I've confirmed it, with Brett even remembering the detail of yelling "Run OJ, run" as they watched on the big screen TV at Chuck's, which is the most Brett thing ever. It makes complete sense that Brett and I would've been together for his 21st birthday. But I know I was at Club 37. Now, why was I at Club 37 and not out celebrating my best friend's 21st birthday? It makes no sense.  This became a vastly more interesting question and I tried to figure it out. I narrowed down my varying theories to one of three;

  1. Brian and crew went to Club 37 then met up with Brett and crew. Plausible, though I don't remember it that way. This was pre-cell phone 1994. That level of coordination would be unprecedented, especially knowing us as a group. 
  2. I had gone to Club 37 in pursuit of my ex. This would fit my personality and the emotions I would've been feeling at the time. Having asked her, she doesn't remember if we'd hung out or seen each other that night. It's plausible, though she doesn't remember being there that night. 
  3. Brettand I were in a snit. Yes, guys can get into snits and we all know what most of those were about. With apologies to Sharon, who will likely read this, our group of friends weren't crazy about her at this time. This was no reflection on her. It wouldn't of mattered who Brett was with, we would've had a problem with them. We were still young enough then that we still lived by the code of "bros before hoes." (I was 21 and such misogynistic code has been mostly written out of my program by now.) The reality is that we were all subconsciously jealous that Brett had found someone to love him and we hadn't. 
With apologies (on many levels) to Sharon, I was at Club 37 that night. The reasons being? I'm still not sure. Of the scenarios listed above, I'm thinking it's a combination of 2 and 3. Twenty-two years is a long time and I can't say with any certainty which story is completely correct.

1994 was the start of a pretty dark time for me. 21-23 weren't good years. I was broke, directionless and maybe even borderline depressed. I had made every mistake that someone with boundless opportunities could make and instead of rising, I dug deeper with an almost deliberate intent. Thinking about it now, I wonder if my suddenly hazy memory of that time is directly linked to the way I feel about that time in my life. There are things I vividly remember about that time in my life and things that I've effectively blocked out. (Nothing too terrible in the grand scheme of the world, mostly white person problems, but you get my drift.) The spring/summer of 1994 was particularly difficult, coming off the end of my first real relationship. I was immature and reeling from it. It was not a good time, though there were good times in there and the vast majority of them were because of friends like Brett and Brian.

Time moves on. I always try to live by a credo of never looking back, but sometimes it's hard to ignore the real pull of nostalgia. As much as I lament my life back then, there was a lot that happened that formed me into who I am today. There are a load of stories, good and bad, to tell and this Oral History series is part of that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Month In Review: May 2016

Come what May, thank goodness April was over. May was definitely a better month than April and I gained back some productivity and a slight nudge in a newish direction for me and my writing. So, here's what I did:

WRITING: After the disaster that was April, I found a pretty good groove in May. I finished the first draft of THE FALCON AND THE CROW and I'm very happy with it. But more on that in a minute. I finished that up and then dove into a rewrite of THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JABLONSKY. And I discovered that LABORS was better than I thought.

The story made a lot more sense than I remember and only needed a few tweaks and cuts along the way. I blogged a little bit about some major changes I contemplated making to the story but decided against because of the fundamental changes it would make to the story. In the end, I told the story I wanted to tell and wound up coming up with a great narrative concept for another project. I was so happy with the rewrite that I decided to just send two "Aw, what the hell" queries out into the world. I don't know if LABORS is completely indicative of me as a writer, but who knows what'll happen.

After finishing LABORS, I reengaged FALCON and I'll be honest, it's good. Really good. I'm cruising through a revision because it doesn't need a major rewrite. It needed some fixes here, mostly continuity for the "McGuffin" and a few other tweaks here and there, then I'm going to work on a synopsis and the query letter to see what it can do in the world.

As for what's next, I'm kind of grasping right now. I had a great conversation with someone I trust a great deal about my writing and it has me thinking about what I do. I need to think about what is going to make my writing stand apart from everything else, make it distinctive. It was a great point that should've been made to me years ago, but that's a gripe for another time. For my next project I have to think distinct, which has me questioning my YA fantasy I was contemplating and has me thinking of how to make it distinct. Or do I try another project to see what makes sense.

READING: Another slowish month of reading. I finished four books and I'm in the process of reading two more. It was a pretty good month. I'm moving through DRAGONS OF WINTER'S NIGHT slower than I want and I can see the flaws in it as much as I can the things I loved. But I'll get to that in a separate entry. (Plus, we did a massive housecleaning and I have no idea where my wife put the book.) I'm about half way done with AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and adoring it. It's really good. I have a stack of library books out that I'm going to tackle for June. I'm aiming for at least six books this month. So, here's what I've read:

  • The Iron Trial: I'm all for putting your own spin on an idea, especially when it comes to genre. I mean I put my eggs in the "YA Game of Thrones" basket from day one. But there are two things that drive me crazy: someone trying to hitch to a trend where you can tell the author didn't really read the inspiration and one where they are so in love with the inspiration they make minimal changes. The Iron Trial is the latter and it ruined the book for me. It had some nice moments but the twist was obvious,but I wonder if that was more of a middle reader thing than bad writing. It uses the tropes all wrong and felt rote and formulaic. 
  • Better Days and Other Stories: A Firefly comic collection. Very good. Nice to be among friends. 
  • Birthright Volumes 1 & 2: A fantastic graphic novel that taps into some great and timely things right now in a lot of ways. It seems like returned missing children is a hot topic in pop culture right now and this plays right into it as a little boy goes missing in the park while playing ball with his father. His family falls apart and just as they reach the tipping point a grizzled man in armor and carrying a kingdom's arsenal with him is detained by police, claiming to be the missing boy having returned after growing up the Chosen One in a fantasy kingdom. The PTSD portal story is another story that's gaining traction and this one starts off this way before veering in a different, satisfying direction that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I was, giving some great insight into some of my own writing. (Related to directly to my rant about "distinct.")
WATCHING: All over the place this month, but here's a sampling of things I watched:
  • Game of Thrones: Wow, seem to be gaining back some of their first few seasons form this season. I mean the Tower of Joy, Coldhands, Hodor....poor, sweet Hodor. 
  • NBA Playoffs: Steph Curry....just remember, a clown sports commentator that once tried to get people on Twitter to get me fired compare him to Carrot Top. And Fox Sports 1 pays him 6 millions dollars a year to do this. I can do the same for 2% of that. Call me.
  • Castle Series Finale: I adored this show, but the final season was lazy, rehashing old plots and turning the best comedy flavored crime procedural since Moonlighting into a conspiracy thoery mess. The finale was a disaster with a trick ending that tried to do one thing but did something else and failed miserably at it. 
  • The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?: Wanted to be Jodoroesky's Dune but it wasn't. Still enjoyable. I'm all for more Kevin Smith talking movies. 
  • A League of their Own: The second best baseball movie ever made. Fight me about it, Field of Dreams people, I'm ready. 
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire: The last of the Potter movies I actually watched and pretty much the EMPIRE of the series. I forget how well done these movies are. They are the best book to movie adaptations I can think of. I'm going to do a blog post on this at some point...I may even reread the books. There are a lot of parallels between Rowling and Martin that deserve some conversation.
  • Rick and Morty: I have a blog post in my about things that I love mostly because I feel like I could've written them. This is one of those things. 
What's in store for June? End of the school year and I've adopted a motto from HAMILTON, I'm going to write like I'm running out of time. I'm also going to read. Lift some weights in earnest. Ride my bike with my daughter and try not to kill myself doing it. Blog a little bit more. Read some books.

What about you?