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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Year in Reading



So this time around, I set goals at the beginning of the year. I wanted to be more picky about what I read--read more good stuff, not just what I feel obligated to. Less long books, less mediocre books, more newer books, more "try before you buy", and learning when to walk away. So how did I do? 

Favorites


Of course you're going to see John Scalzi and John Green on this list, so let's get The Collapsing Empire and Turtles All the Way Down out of the way off the bat. We can add Eliza and Her Monsters in that list because it seems to be cut from the same cloth.

Except for Scalzi, no science fiction books flipped my cookie this year. But for fantasy, I discovered Ella Enchanted and The Shamer's Daughter. They weren't super-fantastic life-changing "now I know what it's all for", but it's always nice to find high fantasy "swords and sorcery" that's not imitating J.R.R. Tolkien or full of jargon or needs the twelve other books to be read first.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal was by far the funniest book I read, and maybe the most meaningful. If you're going to make me understand Christ and Christian mythology, you're going to have to put that dog medicine in some peanut butter. And Lamb is both chunky and creamy. ... this got weird.

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart gave me the same good memoir feelings that Lindsey Stirling and Felicia Day gave me. And she's had a rougher life (although I'm not trying to rank anyone's pain). I'm amazed she writes with the same panache and positivity in her videos. 

The Hatorade 


These are the books at which I whip my hair back and forth. ("No, sir, I do not whip my hair back and forth at you, sir, but I whip my hair, sir.") I looked through my list and noted the ones that gave me a pit in my stomach.

I was not a fan of Scrappy Little Nobody. Anna Kendrick promoted the shit out of it on Twitter, and while we all love this pixie-like sass-master, there just wasn't anything inside to care about. I still resent her for pushing out a book when nothing's happened in her life. It's not an age thing: Hannah Hart and Lindsey Stirling put out memoirs of way more substance and gravity. Lesson: don't write a life story if your life isn't that interesting.

Wizard's Bane was just badly written. Good concept, poorly executed, probably written by a neckbeard raffling off some wish fulfillment. Kingdom Keepers was the same way--the literary version of those Disney direct-to-video sequels. It felt like some putz churned out 80,000 words of garbage so it could connect with a bunch of Disney Parks merchandising.

The rest were female-oriented YA--like All the Bright Places, 13 Treasures, This is Where It Ends, and The Selection. Their biggest flaws were the teenage cliches and bad takes on "issues", capitalizing on keywords for the back cover copy. Hot take junk like suicide, gothic mansions, and "how do I know if I'm in love?" 

Other


I think Geek Love was the longest book I finished in 2017, but I read most of it in 2016. The same thing happened to The Elven. Technically I finished it in 2018, but it was January 3rd. Officially I can't count it as a 2017 book, but I read 97% of it in that year, and it took about 18-19 hours. Since I had to stare at it on my "currently reading" widget for three months, I think of it as a 2017 book. Fata Morgana was pretty long too.

This year I left twelve books in the dust. I consider that an accomplishment. I'm a bit of a completionist and have a bad habit of finishing things I start, even if they're not good or it's not fun. That's a habit I need to break. I need to bring joy back into my life, both in reading and writing. And if it's a drudge, then why am I doing it?

And of all the books I left unfinished, I don't regret a single one. I've got plenty of stuff on my to-read, I'm not going to waste my time on books that don't deliver on their promise. 

Conclusion


This year I want to read shorter books. I need to be more discerning about the length of things I read. I hate saying that about books--because something's long doesn't make it bad. But I want to read more books this year--different and varied authors. And that's hard to do when you're stuck in one book for three weeks. I need to learn how to tell good stories quickly and sharply. I think that's the way the industry is going, giving shrinking attention spans.

I completed 36 books in 2017. This year, I set a reading goal, my first one, for 40. Quite doable, I've done it before, but my "totals" are declining each year. Can't keep letting that happen.

All the 2017 Reviews
January - February
March - April
May - June
July - August
September - October
November - December

Monday, January 15, 2018

Should I Reup my Duotrope Subscription? (a.k.a. The Year in Writing)

Right now, I'm thinking no. Just from a cost-benefit analysis, it's not worth it. The subscription costs $50. I sent out twenty-five submissions and got only one acceptance. It seems like response times are getting longer, guidelines are harder to find, and more frequently I need to poke editors to find out where they're at. The whole process is annoying (not to mention my workplace blocks half the sites behind their proxy for no goddamn good reason).

Not to mention, I'm not writing many short stories. I never have been. Never been interested. I thought they were a way to fill a resume, but no one seems to care. I only completed one this year. Not to say I haven't been writing some short fiction, but they either died on the table or... ahem, aren't appropriate for general audiences... or specific audiences... in fact, they're oriented to quite a limited, devoted audience, if you know what I mean. Like that even publishing it on Amazon could get me banned. Ahem.

If I did something like take a class or join a writing club, something that lets me work on short story craft, I might come back. Definitely not closing the door on short stories. But I need a bigger stable to make it worthwhile. Plus I'd rather write novels than short stories any day of the week. I would be happier if I could complete three first drafts for novels this year than ten finished short stories.

That was the final nail in the coffin for realizing it wasn't worth it. I get more pleasure writing novels anyway and this year has been all about increasing joy. Getting that happy feeling from writing because that's been damn hard to do (and because otherwise, what's the point?).



This year consisted of climbing back up from my pit of despair. All I wanted to do was get back to writing a thousand words a day and do that consistently. I think I'm just about there. My next novel, I've been working on since the beginning of October and now have more than 50,000 words (of a hopeful 90,000). I don't always get a thousand a day, but it's something. And half the battle is getting butt in seat and not watching YouTube videos.

Others have relayed the same despair (like John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton) so I don't feel alone. 2017's not been kind to creativity. But still, I feel like I did better in 2017 than 2016. No new completions to speak of, but I've been keeping the chain going, making a new link every day.

I hate it when it comes to Christmas card writing time and I realize that I can't write "I got an agent this year" or "three book contract" or "look for XYZ on shelves this season!" I feel like I've down my family and myself, that I'm not accomplishing goals. But the road is long and if I can't reach the destination, I might as well enjoy the walk.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Crochet and the Human Experience

Sometimes I get down on the human experience -- centuries of bloodshed and hate, bigotry and oppression. And it seems like it's never going to end. 2017 and we're still debating whether or not a sexual predator should or should not be in a position of leadership.

And then I discover something unbelievable, like crochet. You can build things both pretty and practical, like bags, potholders, sweaters, and toys. And it's all just one long string, just knotted and looped in weird ways. If you pull the end of it, it'll all unravel. How can you make something that's so fragile and hearty at the same time?

And this was invented by little old French ladies in the 1500s. That's f***ing engineering for you. How did they figure out how to do this? Where do you get from staring at this piece of string and think "I bet if I put a bunch of knots in it, it becomes a hoodie." I mean, you're not just talking how to construct it, but construct it in such a way that varies the pattern, the design, and volume.


And the instructions are so simple, they created simple shorthand directions to duplicate results. So someone can invent a crochet pattern and everyone can copy it. It's like a 3-D printer from the Renaissance. It's as improbable as beer being invented. Who knew to combine grains, hops, and other junk and let it ferment? How many people were poisoned before they found something that worked?

There's even a Crochet Guild of America. How's that for awesome? I've always wanted to belong to a guild. I'm imagining an armored paladin with a shield cozy. Do their lances look like big crochet needles?

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Books I Read: November - December 2017

 
Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza lives with a sitcom family of annoying siblings and health-nut parents who just "don't get it". They don't get computers, they don't get the Internet. They think the way to live life is out of doors, socializing face to face. And that's not the only place to find friends and success. Especially for severe introverts like Eliza.

Eliza is just a high schooler who writes a webcomic. A damn successful one. From the sound of it, it's on par with Penny Arcade and xkcd in terms of popularity, but more dramatic (and made in manga style with space-existential elements). But on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog, and Eliza's anonymity keeps her creative. Then she meets a new student, accidentally defending him against some bullies, and learns he's the premiere fan fiction writer for her comic.

This is a story about two people who find each other and bond through the thing they both like. It's like a John Green/Rainbow Rowell hybrid, which is high praise. I loved it. This is a great cozy romance for people with social anxiety. And a much needed contrast to "The Selection". In here, people are a little broken. They don't follow predictable stereotypes. They make bad decisions, decisions that hurt people, not Hallmark-movie pulled punches. I heartily recommend reading it.


Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
(unfinished)

It took very little time for me to realize I did not want to continue this book. The killer was that all characters are douchebags or toadies right from the start. It's not a story about superheroes, it's more like the "assistant to a diva" you see in so many cookie-cutter films and shows. It's a trite way to provide conflict between females without any violence (or gravitas). And they're always the same--a beleaguered assistant, a jerkass boss, and the fiancee straight out of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me".

The superhero doesn't even have real powers. She's a Black Widow-like gymnast, but only concerned about training and publicity. She's less concerned about the demon cupcakes she's fending off than getting good shots of it for Instagram.

Then the big conflict in the first act is that she gets a zit and how is she going to go to her party looking like that and what's her assistant going to do about it? I don't remember clogged pores playing a big role in the Dark Phoenix saga or Batman: Hush (although maybe that's why he had the bandages). I wanted a superhero story, not another "The Devil Wears Prada" knock-off.


Night Shift by Stephen King
(reread)

I couldn't sleep one night and this was the only thing around. I didn't feel like starting a whole new novel when I was about to get one from the library. Maybe it was because I'd finished Danse Macabre recently that I'd gotten a taste for the King. It's certainly better than "Just After Sunset".

Officially this is a re-read, but it had been so long ago, jumbled with other short stories from different collections, and totally out of order, that it felt fresh. I liked the majority of the stories and was able to skip the bad ones. But those weren't many (mostly the Salem's Lot tie-ins) Could be useful in a study of the short story, except that it's from 1960-1970s sensibilities, so I don't know how useful it is for learning how to break in now.


Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
(unfinished)

I love going into a book with no expectations, but it rarely happens. There's no almost no way you can look at a book without reading the summary. Thus you gain a little foreknowledge of its content (or at least what the marketing wants you to believe). So you already know the setup going in. But then you still have to get through the setup the novel provides. So really, you're waiting for the book to start while you already know how it starts. But I digress.

This book is not for me. I'm sure it's a great book, but it has content I care not one whit about. I first noticed when it was talking about the beauty of Europe and architecture and quaint little apartments and bistros and bars. Maybe I'm a fuddy duddy patriot who rarely gets past his own front door, let alone to another state for a vacation, but I have zero-to-no interest in architecture and antiques. Just because it's old doesn't mean it has value. It's clear the author doesn't think that way, and that's great for her. Every page reads like a love letter to old Europe, like it's some fairy tale land. But that's not for me.

The main character is an American girl studying art in Prague and I'm immediately reminded of Tithe by Holly Black (which I also didn't finish) and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (which I regretfully did). I've seen this before too, and it smells of entitlement. I resent for those going into passion majors, like art history, because then they complain there's no jobs for them, when they should have taken classes in something that can translate to a paying job. And of course, the first plot point is boy troubles.

But the style is damn poetic. It uses similes I've never heard of. It's worth reading for the writing technique, even if the plot isn't especially compelling. It's worth sampling the first few chapters alone just to see the way Taylor writes. That alone can interest a reader. I kept going to see if there was maybe something else valuable.

Then the "Beauty & the Beast" stuff starts. The main girl is connected to the demon world in some way--her adopted dad and all his friends are demons, but he keeps a King Triton-esque wrap on her activities (the dad even looks like the Beast™). Then an angel soldier starts waging jihad on them, and he's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen... She can't stop thinking about him, has butterflies in her stomach... even though he unleashed the fire of God on everyone she knows. Someone here is in love with the idea of being in love, like Bella in Twilight. This star-crossed romance is also not my thing. I needed less attention on the relationshippy-ness and more on her family.

Now don't take this to mean I don't or can't read books intended for female audiences. I loved "Eleanor & Park" and "Ella Enchanted". I think the big stopping point was that this book lacked a character to identify with, which is totally not the book's fault. I'm a 36-year-old straight white male computer programmer with two kids and a mortgage. There's no cushion shaped for my butt in these pages. It could be fine for my daughter... when she turns sixteen.


Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn

It's hard to read a book like this in a time like 2017, but it's necessary. Christ, how naive we were back then, when "ethics in journalism" was all we had to worry about from the alt-right. But I'm getting off track.

GamerGate was a phenomenon filled with false information, fake news, lies, damned lies, statistics, and damned lying statistics. But in 2014, we had no precedent for this kind of thing. This was the shining premiere of famed Men's Rights Activists Toby Fair and Actual Lee. But after the Kotaku posts and Reddit threads, there's a person at the end of the computer, and this is her story how a bunch of assholes made a her life miserable by publishing personal information and online harassment.

Only half the book is really the tale of GamerGate from Zoe Quinn's perspective. The other half is what can we do about it--what's wrong with the current state of online bullying and what the police and congress can't or don't do about it (meaning they're woefully behind the times). I would rather have a book on the whole GamerGate scenario, dissecting the truth and laying it out in narrative non-fiction. But I can't judge the book based on what I wanted, only what it is.

And I guess it depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for Zoe Quinn's side of the story, it's here. If you're looking for information on how you can further the cause of stopping online harassment and bullying, it's here. But the two tastes don't taste great together. It's not a memoir, it's more of an advocacy book. But it's all difficult to get through (because it's so disgusting to read about) and given everything that's happening in the world today, it's hard to give such things serious thought with nuclear war and white supremacy on the horizon.

Zoe Quinn's a surprisingly good writer for being an engineer/coder (but then again, so am I). I'd only recommend this book if you're at all interested in GamerGate (maybe you are, having been a front-of-the-caution-tape witness), but not if bigger political issues flip your cookie.


The Shamer's Signet by Lene Kaaberbøl

A little slumpier than the first, but I don't mind giving three heaping stars to it. It doesn't feel like much in the world has changed. It's not like great advancements in the personal life or life of the world change greatly in this book. No huge revelations, no new characters. Even the old characters aren't seen much or developed upon. In other words, this is not "The Empire Strikes Back". It more feels like an addendum or sequel, rather than the continued story of Shamers.

That being said it's still a good book. This time you get a POV of her older brother (technical note: the book switches back and forth between Dina and Davin and I had trouble discerning whose POV was which, until I noticed their names at the beginning of each chapter). He acts like a typical hothead-fighter, wanting-to-prove-his-warrior-mettle, like Wart from "Sword in the Stone" or Taran from "The Black Cauldron". But Dina's got the biggest story arc and you feel more for her.

There's more action and less world-building/plot development. I get the sense the author didn't plan for a series, unless she's setting up some real far-reaching dominoes. Still, I recommend it and will be reading more in the series. Plus it's fun to write that O with the slash through it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

I Just Got It

Oh my God. I just got it.

Alien Nation = "alienation"


How did it take me this long to get it?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Ways In Which A Christmas Carol Ends Badly


Tiny Tim dies of his disease anyway. Scrooge's good tidings come too little too late for the long suffering boy. What is he suffering from anyway? Rickets? Tuberculosis? Renal failure? It's not like modern medicine's been invented. Ain't no such thing as antibiotics yet. "Tiny Tim, who did NOT die..." Everyone dies, Dickens, just a matter of when.

Scrooge becomes like Marley anyway -- a wandering ghost with chains and lockboxes and safes strapped to him. A lifetime of greed and covetousness doesn't make up for a few years of charity at the end of your life. The Powers That Be can't ignore the years of suffering of the citizens gouged and foreclosed on before Ebeneezer got his "epiphany".

Scrooge is committed to a mental institution. He wakes up one day with a total shift of personality, claiming that he can see ghosts and they showed him the future and events of the present he shouldn't be able to view. How would you react? This goes one of two ways. If he proves it by revealing knowledge of Bob Cratchit and Nephew Fred's house, having never set foot in either, they burn him at the stake as a witch. Otherwise, he's just thrown in the loony bin (which is an awful awful place during this time period). Who signs the papers? His investors. Scrooge must have compatriots and associates in the financial industry. Once they see him trickling money out of his pockets with no ROI, they're going to put a stopper in that right quick.

Scrooge never leaves his nephew Fred alone. He becomes an uninvited guest, trying to make up for years of neglect in a few years. He and his wife start to resent him. Resent turns to hate. They eventually spurn Scrooge, and he goes right back to a bitter old man, finding his well wishes don't stop people from hating him.

Bob Cratchit, while he now works for a more hospitable employer, never gets out of the financial situation he's in. He's still a clerk (not terribly skilled labor) with five children. His children all grow up to have similarly dull lives, married to spouses without means. Tiny Tim, who may or may not have permanent effects of his illness that required constant home care, is still smaller than average due to malnutrition and must rely on welfare of the state (which I don't think exists in this time period). They're all one toothache away from the streets.

Scrooge dies in poverty, having given away his vast fortune.

Scrooge finds the grave-robbers he saw in the vision from the Ghost of Christmas Future and kicks their ass. He has them arrested and sent to jail. This is the happiest ending I could think of.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Straight White Male's Unnecessary Reaction to "Cat Person"

Not the kind of Cat Person we're referring to, just a thinly veiled excuse to put this up
Here it is. The short story that everyone's talking about lately. Mark your calendars. It's a momentous occasion when a short story raises anyone's hackles. Actually, it's a momentous occasion when someone reads a short story. This one doesn't even have any robots or murder in it. But it does have sex and female perspective, which seems common with a lot of short stories that garner controversy ("The Yellow Wallpaper", "The Story of an Hour", "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall", "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?")

Short summary: Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, goes on a date with Robert, a thirty-six year old socially awkward hipster she meets at a movie theater. They text a bit, she wonders what he's thinking, how her actions are interpreted, how to interpret his, etc. Typical overanalyzing & overthinking. They have bad sex one night. Margot doesn't know how to tell him she's not interested. He texts her repeatedly with questions. She doesn't answer. He calls her a whore. Story ends.

Also not the cat person we're talking about, thank God
THE GUY

Thankfully, I am not one of the men who sees himself in the Robert. Except maybe the sex. He's having trouble keeping it up because he's nervous -- this doesn't happen to him very often (the having of the sex). And all his knowledge comes from porno, which involves dirty talk and frequent position-switching and rough stuff. It all looks great on film but doesn't translate in real life (because when you have sex in real life, it's not for a viewing audience, it's for yourself).


The guy reminds me of the WoW griefer in South Park's "Make Love, Not Warcraft". Slumped shoulders means he spends a lot of time on the computer. He demonstrates little ability to interact socially, especially with women, but he's great on text. These are things I do have in common. When I was dating my wife, she fell in love with me more via AIM chat, not so much in real life. I was more talkative and funnier in text, because then I could gather my thoughts and didn't have to worry about timing or body language. That's why video chat has never and will never take off.

But as you see, I grew out of it. No way does our sympatico personalities excuse his behavior. This is what I was like fifteen years ago, not now. Not at the same age Robert's at. Speaking as a thirty-six year old, having sex with a twenty-year-old sounds gross to me. I'm not one of those older men who's like "ooh, young virginal flesh, yum, yum." There's so much porno dedicated to "eighteen and horny", but they just look small, confused, and inexperienced. Too young looking and I'm like "that's too close to my daughter".

(Irrelevant side note: I'm still mystified by how Gianna Michaels and Faye Reagan are the same age. Genetic diversity is amazing. And you can tell by looking which one shows up under "MILF" tags and which one shows in "pretty young teens")

Also thinly veiled excuse
The reason the story is reaching so many people is that it's so real. Like those other stories I mentioned, this is a modern "horror" story in disguise. In fact, it's being mistaken as an essay or feature (because it's in The New Yorker). I could totally believe this happened in real life. Especially the ending. I read psycho-texts like this on Imgur all the time (usually funny posts when they get a wrong number and keep obliviously texting and getting angrier). Some guy feels entitled after a few dates, gets ignored, and gets resentful. He's lived a crappy average life, been given every opportunity and failed at it. Rather than blame themselves, they blame feminism or gold-diggers.

THE GIRL

Margot seems to be trying to convince herself that she likes this guy. Is she really so devoid of prospects as a twenty-year-old co-ed? (Not according to the websites I visit late at night 😼 ) Maybe there's a subtlety here that I can't wrap my head around, that of casual encounters. Might be something after my time or I'm incapable of grokking it.

But my point is more of the relationship takes place in Margot's head than real life. She fills in the blanks when his reactions are confusing or off-putting, instead of taking them at face value. She fills the gaps with what she wants to happen. Even when having sex, she turns herself on by thinking of what he's thinking. This is a classic mistake of believing there's more complexity in the room than there is. That's the whole point of the story -- trying to figure out who Robert is through incomplete information. That's why the story ends when she gets it.

Oversimplified, but still largely true
Thankfully, at the end of it all, she's not scarred by the experience. And even as it's going on, she's thinking how she's going to look back at it and laugh. Sadly, this is a best case scenario for the presented circumstances.

Here's a pro-tip. If you are dating a man, and you're getting a vibe that he's like a skittish bear or a horse that needs to be calmed down, that's a red flag. You want a human being, not a pet.

I question why Margot does not end this cleanly. Should we be more focused on her reluctance to give him any sort of response? I won't say this is a character flaw because, in today's society, it's understandable. Every time a woman goes on a date with someone she doesn't know well, she's entering the lion's den. She jokes about whether or not he's going to murder her, but it's only half a joke. That's something men still need to grok about women. Women have a lot more to lose on the dating scene.

She gives herself two options -- either a cut-and-dried rejection via text or an Irish exit. Let's take a look at that golden oldie from 1996, up forty-two big notches to number eleven "Popular" by Nada Surf
Don't put off breaking up when you know you want to. Prolonging the situation only makes it worse. Tell him honestly, simply, kindly, but firmly. Don't make a big production, don't make up an elaborate story. This will help you avoid a big tear-jerking scene. If you want to date other people, say so. Be prepared for the boy to feel hurt and rejected. Even if you've gone together for only a short time and haven't been too serious, there's still a feeling of rejection when someone says she prefers the company of others to your exclusive company. But if you're honest and direct and avoid making a flowery emotional speech when you break the news, the boy will respect you for your frankness and, honestly, he'll appreciate the kind of straightfoward manner in which you told him your decision, unless he's a real jerk or a crybaby.
Timeless wisdom from the age of Nirvana.

THE SEX

Women have the right to change their mind at any time. It would be better if they do it sooner than later, but still... Impolite or not, no one has any obligation to continue an activity they don't want to. I can understand why you wouldn't want to lead someone on then stop.


But there's a difference when it comes to something as intimate as sex.

People are dancing around the consent factor in the sex scene. Margot could have said no at any time, but didn't. This makes people confused as to whether or not the sex was consensual. It can be argued what makes refusal or negative consent, but you have to do something if you're not under any threat. You have to make some kind of flag that says any reasonable person would understand as "I want to stop". (Assuming that you can. If you do not have the ability to do so, like if you're unconscious, it's an automatic no.) Enthusiastic consent is a great idea, but it's not legally binding. She may have been drunk, but that doesn't mean you lose your volition (as court cases involving "Girls Gone Wild" have proven).

And you can't tell a guy after he's taken his shirt off that you don't want to have sex anymore. That'll destroy him. That's when Margot's turning point occurs. Even Ann Landers would agree with me there. Pro-tip: fake a sudden sickness. Say you drank so much you're sick, or the dinner turned on you.

Possible casting for "Cat Person: The Movie"
CONCLUSION

Someone needs to write a story from the cat's point of view.