Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Skullcrack City

book cover for Skullcrack CityLife as a corporate drone was killing S.P. Doyle, so he decided to bring down the whole corrupt system from the inside. But after discovering something monstrous in the bank's files, he was framed for murder and trapped inside a conspiracy beyond reason.

Now Doyle's doing his best to survive against a nightmare cabal of crooked conglomerates, DNA-doped mutants, drug-addled freak show celebs, experimental surgeons, depraved doomsday cults, and the ultra-bad mojo of a full-blown Hexadrine habit. Joined by his pet turtle Deckard, and Dara, a beautiful missionary with a murderous past, Doyle must find a way to save humankind and fight the terrible truth at the heart of...SKULLCRACK CITY

It's been five years since I read We Live Inside You, JRJ's second collection of short stories. I'd forgotten how much he can get under your skin—I won't go any further with that metaphor. He has this wonderful ability to get you to care about his characters (with exceptions of course), be silent witness to their suffering, and re-assure them that they're still human no matter what.

One could say that Skullcrack City is an outgrowth of "The League of Zeroes," the opening short story in JRJ's first short story collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse. But while the body modification elements of "The League of Zeroes" factor into Skullcrack City (it's not a novel for the squeamish), the novel is so much bigger. "The League of Zeroes" is actually the origin story for Buddy the Brain, a minor character in the novel—the two doctors from the novel appear in a limited fashion in the short story.

JRJ's writing style shifts fluidly in Skullcrack City as the protagonist, S.P. Doyle, changes. The Doyle we meet in the Prologue struck me as sinister. He hardly seemed like the guy we were supposed to be rooting for. But then the story proper starts and we meet the Hex-addicted Doyle. The guy is a total mess, spiraling out of control with paranoid fantasies, and it shows up in the narrative. You're not sure what's real and what's hallucination as one sentence runs head on into the next. And just when you think he can't go any further, he crashes as his paranoid fears are confirmed. But we're only a third of the way through the book.

In the middle third, the Hex is purged from his system, but Doyle struggles like a newly hatched chick as his body returns to normal and he awkwardly tries to grow into the would-be hero role. The narrative slows down to a manageable pace with periods of introspection, letting the reader catch their breath. But it's also punctuated by episodes of violence to prevent reader complacency and prod Doyle out of episodes of navel gazing.

In the final third, Doyle is forced to adapt or die. His struggle to survive forces him to shed the awkward persona and stand for something. As certainty of purpose kicks in, a calm settles over Doyle. There's a sense of purpose now. As the world teeters on the edge of insanity and terrible monstrosities, it is Doyle who's now the rational one. We recognize the guy from the Prologue as the story has come full circle.

While this is standalone novel that eliminates any chance of sequels, I'd still like to make a request for more JRJ novels. Please.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 vs TV Show

Book cover for Walking Dead Compendium #1I have never been a fan of zombie fiction, but several years ago, a friend of mine—who is very much into both horror and comics—highly recommended The Walking Dead TV show. My wife and I binge watched season one just before season two came out, and we loved it. Now I knew from watching Talking Dead that the show differed from the comic in several ways, most notably the absence of the Dixon brothers from the comics. But I wondered in what other ways the two differed, so I decided to check out the source material.

Wow, I had no idea.

Sure, the TV show hits on the main places and events (Rick waking up in the hospital, the camp outside Atlanta, Hershel's Farm, the prison, Woodbury), but the nature of these places, how they're encountered, and the events that play out there are very different.

More drastically though are the differences in the characters. Except for Maggie, Hershel's kids are completely different people. No Beth. Tyrese shows up much earlier, but with a daughter and her boyfriend. No Sasha. And there are characters in the comic that don't exist on the show, though none of them are memorable enough to be missed.

But I'm not just talking about the absence of characters from one world to the other, the characters that exist in both worlds are different. Nearly every character shows some degree of difference, some more than others. I think it's really noticeable with the female characters. If you liked Carol in the TV show, her version in the comics is completely unrecognizable. You probably won't like her, too obsessed with how others perceive her. Lori seems to nag Rick all of the time. Michonne is underdeveloped. Maggie and Glen are ok, but still inferior to their TV versions. Except for Andrea, and to a lesser extent Tyreese, I found that I preferred the TV show version of the characters over the comic. And that goes double for the primary villain here in volume 1: the Governor.

The TV version of the Governor was a far more complex character than the comic version. On the TV show, the Governor is out to woo newcomers and attempts to be a gracious host. He seems to be wrestling with caring for the people of Woodbury while doing terrible things to hold onto power and keeping his secrets hidden. Not so the comic version. The latter was just a maniacal sadist with sick hobbies. Demonstrating why he was such a charismatic figure to the inhabitants of Woodbury, the true source of his strength, seemed more of an afterthought.

So I give the producers of the TV show credit for recognizing the potential here, and I give Kirkman credit for being humble enough to work with other writers as they rearranged and revised the characters and events of his beloved work. I can see why the fans of the comic, who were there from the beginning, don't like what the show has done. However, I'm glad that I watched the show first. Not too sure I need to keep reading the comic.

A slightly shorter version of this review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Visit from Red Fox

On cloudy days during the week, we sometimes get a visit from a red fox that lives in the neighborhood. He/She usually just trots past my office window and is gone before I can get my camera or my phone. Four weeks ago, I finally got my chance.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

Those first five photos were taken with an Olympus Camedia C-3020, a 16-year-old digital camera with a resolution of 3.2 Megapixels and a 3X zoom lens. The next four photos were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini with a 5 Megapixel resolution. However, the zoom sucks. I think the pictures are grainier, the color more washed out.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

That last picture should've been the money shot, but it's blurry. My wife got me a zoom lens attachment for the S3 Mini, but I haven't tried it out yet. It's going to require me to remove my phone's armor—it triples the phone's thickness—in order to attach it.

Anyway, the fox is one of the more interesting critters we have the pleasure of sharing our yard with. The moles, chipmunks, and squirrels don't think so, and I'm not sure my cats will be too keen when they find out.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time

Book cover for Dreams Before the Start of TimeIn a near-future London, Millie Dack places her hand on her belly to feel her baby kick, resolute in her decision to be a single parent. Across town, her closest friend—a hungover Toni Munroe—steps into the shower and places her hand on a medic console. The diagnosis is devastating.

In this stunning, bittersweet family saga, Millie and Toni experience the aftershocks of human progress as their children and grandchildren embrace new ways of making babies. When infertility is a thing of the past, a man can create a child without a woman, a woman can create a child without a man, and artificial wombs eliminate the struggles of pregnancy. But what does it mean to be a parent? A child? A family?

Through a series of interconnected vignettes that spans five generations and three continents, this emotionally taut story explores the anxieties that arise when the science of fertility claims to deliver all the answers.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Anne Charnock takes a look at how scientific advances lead to the technological cure for infertility and birth defects. With the introduction of the artificial womb and genetic engineering, anyone can become the parent of a healthy baby. But rather than dwell on the tech itself, Charnock chooses to write about the impact of these developments on the very definition of family.

The novel follows a pair of families across five generations and is told through a series of vignettes. Each one is a snapshot into a character's life when familial decisions are made or pivotal character development is revealed. There are arguments across generations regarding the nature of relationships and reproductive choices. There are contrasting scenes where sperm donors are forced to confront the fruits of their offerings. There are passages where genetic tinkering beyond curing maladies is debated. But all of it is coaxed in the language of everyday life.

While Charnock's characters treat these choices as eyebrow raising, we don't get to see the public's reaction to the technology's development. The whole of society is largely kept in the background, but every now and then there are hints and passing mentions of rules and regulations meant to maintain reproductive integrity. Again, this is all kept in the family as it were. I don't know if this is an American vs. European cultural difference, but I believe that there would be a raging wildfire of debate in the States over this development along the lines of the decades-long argument over reproductive rights.

But that's not the point of this work: Charnock is here to focus on the impact on families. She plots a course straight down the middle, neither praising nor condemning choices. Pros and cons to the choices her characters make are deftly shown and presented without judgement. That is left up to the reader to make. Some characters only have one or two opportunities have their stories told before retreating to the background, but other characters in the spotlight refer to them and how they've fared.

Pacing may come as a surprise to some readers. There is no dramatic rise and fall. Instead, the book moves steadily through the characters lives like a river, the occasional dramatic point emphasized like rocks in the riverbed. One generation after the next, families go on. They change just as a river meanders through different terrains, but on it goes.

We've already seen how the definition of family has changed over the last several decades, Charnock suggests that it will continue to evolve as science comes to a greater understanding of how human reproduction works. All in all, there's plenty of food for thought on how it could all play out in Dreams Before the Start of Time. If you're looking for a book that makes you contemplate how breakthrough technologies could affect our lives, then this is the book for you.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Started a New Writing Course

This was originally posted on my Launchpad blog on February 14th. I felt that it deserved to be resurrected from the abyss.

Two years ago, I purchased two courses (at discount) from the Great Courses, a site that sells collegiate level lecture series on DVD. No, you won’t get college credit, but you will learn something.

Sadly, they’ve sat on a shelf waiting for me since I purchased. Not exactly a rousing endorsement. I won’t bother you with my excuses why I haven’t watched them. None of them has anything to do with the products themselves.

Anyway, I finally started one of them today: “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft.” The course consists of 24 lectures taught by Professor Brooks Landon, Ph.D. of the University of Iowa. I bought it because I know there’s room for improvement in my creative writing, especially since I spent my college days writing lab reports and engineering feasibility studies.

After watching the first lecture, I have to say that Professor Landon seems like an excellent choice to teach the class. He definitely struck me as passionate about the craft of writing, even after 30+ years teaching the subject. He kept what could easily be a dry subject—sentence structure—interesting. There were even a few instances where I had a chuckle. Hopefully, it continues all the way through.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Back to Blogger

I had a blog on Blogger back before Google bought them. It was called "The Dedly Blog." But instead of letting Google host it, I had it point to a directory on my web server. I don't recall the specifics, but that function went away in 2010. So I brought all the old files in house. That was a mistake. All of the xml and style sheet settings. Ugh. What a mess. After a while, I gave up trying to re-format it. I save all the old content. Maybe I can import them.

In 2010 I published my first novel, Armistice Day. Since marketing is a necessary evil, a self-hosted blog wasn't enough, and my social media skills were are lacking. Fortunately Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords all have a spot on author pages for adding a RSS feed. My webhost didn't offer that tech and wasn't friendly to third party software. So I started another blog on WordPress and made that the source of my RSS feed.

Fast forward to 2016. SiteLock, a new security partner for my webhost (Fatcow) starts sending me alerts that I have malware on my site. Unless I pay for their service—which ain't cheap—they don't do anything about it. So I resort to Fatcow tech service. They told me where the bad files were (in the WordPress directory), and I deleted them. Since then, I've received several alerts from SiteLock, accompanied with threats of shutting down my website, but tech service couldn't find them. Coincidentally, WordPress updates happened shortly thereafter.

WordPress is also partnered with FatCow, so I'm caught in the middle between two Fatcow partners butting heads. When I went to login to the WordPress control panel today to correct the latest complaint, I couldn't establish a secure connection, and Firefox freaked out. I'm tired of this bullshit, so I just FTP'd in and deleted all of the WordPress files.

And now I'm back at Blogger. Why? Too lazy to look elsewhere, and I know it works. Well, mostly. They did have a blogroll hiccup last year that was a pain in the ass to fix. If someone wants to try and convince me there's a better (free) blogger service out there, go ahead. I have to move my website anyway as Fatcow's rates have gone up. They were $99/yr as recently as 2010, but since then they've gone up steadily. This summer's renewal will cost me $179.40 if I want to stay.

Ok, I've blathered on long enough. I've got to reset those RSS feeds and start customizing the look of this place.