Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writing in color & S.A. Hunt

I've been rolling this post around in my head for days because I'm not sure how to say it properly. I've decided to just say it because I think it needs saying.

I'm reading Malus Domestica by S.A. Hunt and really enjoying it. According to my kindle I'm exactly halfway through it. It's a horror novel, it says so right on the cover. It's reminiscent of early Stephen King to me... along the lines of say, Pet Semetary. It's not the same kind of scary, yet. But it's building nicely. I'm really enjoying it.

While I'd always assumed that Malus Domestica meant something along the lines of Ordinary Evil or Evil in the Home or something like that I was quite wrong... humorously wrong in fact. In fact it means Orchard Apple. I'm not even kidding. The Mal in Malus isn't bad at all! Apples are about as pure and wholesome as... well... as apple pie! What could be wrong with an apple? Nothing! (Please don't ask Snow White how she feels about apples. Her opinion is biased by the lone interaction with a witch and an apple. How often could that POSSIBLY come up?)

I'm not here to talk about apples though. I'm here to talk about reading. I've been reading for years, over 40 years and I read several different ways. I read for entertainment. I read to learn new things. I read as a writer to see what I like and don't like in a story. That's part of what I'm going to talk about here. First some background about me.

See that? That's me according to my DNA. What do those places have in common? White. I'm incredibly white. If I'm not careful on a sunny day you can see straight through my skin to the muscles underneath.

Why does this matter? Because I read a lot of books. I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and adventure fiction, a LOT. Those books are primarily written by white guys for white guys and tend to be populated, oddly enough, by more white guys. Even fantasy settings. Elves? Check. Dwarves? Check. Owl headed monsters leaping from closets? Well, sometimes. White people? Oh hell yeah! They're like EVERYWHERE! Just relax gentle reader. As foreign as these fantasy and science fiction worlds may be you may rest assured you will always feel at home as a 99% white guy because everywhere you look will be tons of other people JUST LIKE YOU!

As a white reader I don't even notice. Honestly. I don't. I don't pay any attention. The default for me is "white guy protagonist." I'm not saying it to be proud of it or anything I'm just saying that's my reading world and I am mostly not even aware of it. It just happens.

So, when I pick up a book and it has a person of color in it I notice. I don't object or recoil and throw the book down but I notice. That's a recent thing and it's because I've started writing. Want to read my book? Cool. Go get it and read it. I'll wait here. But about people of color in books. Sometimes they're there to die as in the "black guy dies first" trope. Sometimes they're the "magic negro." Sometimes they're sort of a side character we don't really get to know but the author wanted to be inclusive and diverse so (s)he made sure to have a non-white person in there. A lot of times diversity for the sake of diversity, in books, doesn't work. Either the writer doesn't know what they're doing, or they're trying too hard, or sometimes it's just a weird sort of "I don't know anybody who is from India so I'll make them like Raj from Big Bang Theory" kind of thing going on. It's jarring.

Which is what made me nervous when I saw that S.A. Hunt had included multiple races and was using not just a token person from each race he wanted to include, but actually had a black father & son as main characters. There's a "Juan" whose country of origin I don't know so won't guess, but i'm pretty sure I know. There's women all over the place, well written ones too. That's another thing, sometimes men write women badly.

I'm happy to say S. A. Hunt writes both really well. I was afraid he was going to botch it or get preachy with things or go too far but he didn't. He's hit exactly the right tone. Now, I'm saying this as white guy. You've seen my DNA so you know. But my point is. Here, here's an example. The point of view character here is a young black boy. Something S.A. Hunt is not, according to his author profile on amazon at least. But he handles the casual day-to-day racism that I KNOW really exists because I see it. And he doesn't go into what's going on in the boy's head as a result. He doesn't try to guess is he hurt, resentful, angry, what? He puts it there and moves on. Because that's what life is like on the daily for people of color.

Racism is bad. We can all agree on that. And when someone says "racist" or "racism" I think lynch mobs. I think throwing people out of a diner or off a bus. But that's not all there is to it. There's this here. There's the ignoring them unless forced not to. That's a big deal. It's a daily, constant, "You don't matter" that they deal with and it never goes away. How would that feel to be treated like that day after day after day? What would that do? Here's a thought experiment. Ignore your kid for say, a week. Like unless they demand your attention don't pay them any at all... you're already thinking, "WTF is wrong with you Rich?" Exactly. That's exactly my point and it's exactly what happens and it's insidious.

In another place in the book there's a group of white people discussing the new neighbors and one of them casually drops the N-word. Nobody blinks they just go on as if he'd said "cabbages are green." Why? Because it was just them. Nobody was hurt by it... It happens all the time. It's casual. It's made okay because nobody else heard it. It's there. I see both of these things constantly in real life.

S.A. Hunt has written a really enjoyable book that is a supernatural horror thriller that has characters in it I really enjoy and like. I didn't mention the handicapped man who doesn't define himself by his handicap... mainly because I strongly suspect he'd take his leg off and beat me with it then put it back on and walk off. I didn't mention him because it's not WHO he is. He's not a HANDICAPPED man. The other characters aren't a BLACK family. They are not defined by their adjective as so many authors do. There's a man who has a prosthetic leg. There's a family that is also black.

So, what I'm saying is if you're writing, include some "other" in there. Something besides white men or white folks. And if you're wondering how? Do it like S.A. Hunt does because he does it really well, and does the interactions between them really well. I can't say enough good things about it.

Without being a screed or preachy manifesto it's made me think and that's what good fiction does. This is really good fiction.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Book Review: Earth Alone by Daniel Arenson

Earth Alone by Daniel Arenson was... you know, I don't know HOW I found it. I suspect it was on promo or something in some mailing list of discounted books or something. I'd never heard of Daniel Arenson before which is odd because he's written a LOT of books, and they're the kind I like. But somehow I kept not reading him.

Until now.

Earth Alone is the first in a series, maybe a trilogy. I should have looked before reviewing I guess but I just finished reading it and was excited to come tell you about it. Oops. I just broke the fourth wall. Please excuse me. I'm excited.

Earth Alone is military science-fiction if you had to shelve it that's where you'd put it. You'd be limiting the readership too much though. Listen. I know all about military sci-fi. It often starts with, here's the arc:

1) Meet the protagonist & see him in normal environment/home. Nice guy. Likable. Maybe a bit artistic/sensitive.
3) Bootcamp is hard, a series of examples of how hard it is and how overwhelming and "I just wanna go home, I miss... stuff."
4) Things start coming together, the company/platoon/whatever starts gelling and getting less haggard feeling.
5) Death. Someone dies. Not an important character but one that's been added in there, perhaps after the story was written because all boot camp stories need this person to die. You can literally remove them from the story and it doesn't change in any way. It just serves the purpose Coulton's Death did in The Avengers and brings the team even closer together. "We're doing this for DEAD GUY!!!"
6) Graduation. Everything's golden.
7) Off to war. OMG - it's horrible. I hate this. Thank Glob for all that training! this is what we trained for people! Our protagonist turns out to be a great leader of men but denies it and says he was just doing what had to be done.
8) Much death but remains of the troop go on to bigger things.

That happens in ALL boot camp stories. It's THE story arc and I felt like this book was doing the same thing. Hitting all the same beats as Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card - read the book, ignore the movie) Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein - read the book, ignore the movie), and countless others that've gone before.

You know why it happens this way? Because it works. The death scene that is always there and that I always see coming even if I don't know who it's going to be... it's there and it is the *click*. It's the moment the hero goes from the person he was when we met him to the person he is going to be in the end. It's a transformative death, the chrysalis moment where he changes and the death is a punctuation mark, an exclamation point when done correctly, and a comma when done incorrectly (I'm looking at you Madonna's baseball movie A League of Their Own... nobody even knew who that character WAS! You knew the beat, but you did it wrong.)

This book hit all those beats, and you know it's going to. It's that kind of book. And it did it exceptionally well. To the point where I finished the last of the book (Beats 6-8 above) in Taco Johns eating their super nachos and drinking a giant tea and crying. Literally wiping my eyes with a napkin and sniffling crying as I read it. I cried from happiness and joy and sadness and pride. It was outstanding. I cried unashamedly and kept reading right there in public with a napkin in one hand as I blotted my eyes with it one at a time so I didn't have to stop reading. At one point I thought I was going to choke on my churro as I tried to swallow it and found that being "choked up with emotion" is more than a figure of speech. My throat rebelled against the idea of swallowing at that moment.

The characters are good. I liked them. There's one, a tiny girl, who has a story she tells about two times too often but, it's there to make a point so Arenson beats us over the head with it, the characters too. I get it. I went to boot camp and the mouthiness these characters had... and the punishments they were given... that part was unrealistic to me. They had quite a few more smart-assed remarks than I thought they should have. That bugged me some. But it didn't take away from how much I liked the characters, the story, or the book itself.

Listen, it's not A Tale of Two Cities, or The Stand (seriously, one of the best books ever written) but it's really really good. I read it on my kindle and on the last page when it offered to sell me the next in the series I clicked BUY NOW without a moment's hesitation. I won't read it next though. I'm wrung out. I need something lighter.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Batman: The Killing Joke (movie)

 (Ignore the quality of this picture.
I took it with my cell phone to send it to a friend)
Batman: The Killing Joke was a really great graphic novel/comic and I've looked forward to the movie adaptation of it for a long time. I was thrilled to hear it'd be the voices from Batman: The Animated Series, my favorite Batman, by the way. If you're an Amazon Prime member you can watch it for free. It's included with Prime. 

I liked little things, like the TO in STORAGE blinking off and on so the sign next to Batman read "Gotham's rage." It was a nice touch, and something akin to what a frame in a comic would do. It was subtle, but it was there. That's one of the things about animated movies that I like. There aren't any accidents. Everything is drawn and done on purpose so something like this... it's intentional. I appreciate those touches. 

Just one bad scene... I liked it. I really liked parts of it. I was good with the Batgirl part right up until the scene under the gargoyle. That felt forced, but it wasn't the scene. The ambiguity at the end wasn't the one I expected from the comic, or the one I wanted. I'd spent the whole movie wondering how they'd do it and then they did it by NOT doing it. Still, I liked it and will watch it again. Probably skipping the Batgirl bits completely.

The scenes at the Fun-house were just as I remembered them, almost shot for shot (in my memory) from the source material right up until the ending... the ending was different and not what I had expected or really wanted I guess. I still have the ending from the comic in my head as the best ending and if you haven't read the comic yet watch the movie first and THEN read the comic I think in this case. There's something great about a comic. Looking at the panels and seeing the details.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Book Review: Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks and Straights by Masha du Toit is set in South Africa and is the story of an adopted big sister trying to protect her "special" little brother. I use the quotation marks here on purpose because he's special for a reason and that'll come clear.

Crooks & StraightsThe setting is one I don't see often enough. I really enjoyed the feel of the novel for being set in Cape Town, I think it was Cape Town, suddenly I think that's where the author is from lol. It doesn't matter because it's not our world or our town. Magic works and there are magical creatures, and djinn you can summon in a cup of tea, a magical mafia-esque underground, and hints of a totalitarian regime of purists (non-magical folk, AKA muggles in the Potterverse) growing in power. I suspect we'll get more into them in the second book.

Which brings me to my only real complaint, it ended too soon. I realized I was already 98% of the way through the book and there wasn't any resolution happening. It never DID happen. In a story arc type thing we closed the book because it was over around the time where Luke gets on the Millenium Falcon for the first time to leave Tatooine. Yeah, not kidding. WAY too soon. All set up, beautiful set up, interesting set up, great world building set up but then YOINK! The waiter takes the salad plates and presents the bill with no meal or dessert.

That being said, do I recommend Crooks and Straights? I don't know. I do like the setting and the characters, except the Dad. I thought he was a little hollow and underwhelming. He mostly got bossed around by the women and did whatever they told him to do whether it's his wife, the hired help, old woman down the road, or the daughter. He was there, but only barely. I don't remember his name even... Kesel maybe?

Yes. Get the book. I liked the story so far. I liked the setting. I want Masha du Toit to write more stuff and I'm a supporter of indie authors and it's worth the money. But get it knowing you'll want to get the next one because you're not really buying Book 1 so much as Part 1.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Father's Day

It's Father's Day, or close enough so as to count. If I were closer I'd be taking him out to eat today because I work tomorrow. (No, the picture on the right is neither me, nor my dad. It's a father/son I've known since the dad was the age of the son and it makes me smile whenever I see it. It's one of my favorite pictures in the world.)

I was talking to someone recently about something we'd been talking about doing, the mechanic's test at work. Evidently it's in three parts and takes from 6-8 hours to complete and MANY people don't pass it the first time.  The other person said they didn't want to fail it and have everyone know they'd failed. I said they'd do fine and the real question is how long do we have to wait after passing to become a mechanic and what kind of training is involved, and what if we hate it do we really have two months to say we didn't want it?

They asked, "You're already thinking of what you'll do if you pass?"

I said, "Um. It could happen. I've passed things by accident before."

The thing is, the idea of NOT passing it hadn't really crossed my mind as a serious thought. The same of the Pharmacy Tech Certification Test thing I had to take. A lot of people take it more than once. I toyed with the idea of what if I didn't pass it, but it never really felt real that I might not. I'm not a super genius. I really am not. But I am confident I can do what I set my mind to do.

I saw that growing up. Both my parents, from my point of view, seemed to make up their mind they were going to do something and they just did it. I'd never seen my dad roof a house before but then he did it. Chop down/up trees after a hurricane? Did it. Build just about anything? Yup. This was even before YouTube so he wasn't learning it on the sly by watching videos online. It was just a thing. Once you decided to do something you found out how to do it and then you did it.

If I had one thing to kvetch about growing up it would be that I was inadequately prepared for failure. It just wasn't something that came up an awful lot. It wasn't an option that was on the table. My parents, to my eyes, didn't fail and they did impossible things all the time. What's that? Want to go to Germany and be teachers? Okay. So, they did and we went to another country, half way around the world.

I'm sure there were times when they weren't as fabulously successful as they appeared and I probably never knew about the times that things didn't go the way they were supposed to, but the lesson I learned from watching him just DO stuff was that the expectation was, once you make up your mind to do something you'd better, by God, do it. Learn it, do it. In that order. There's not a lot of room in there for Mess up and start over or do it again. All that won't fit between the comma after "Learn it," and the words "do it."

So, this Father's Day I'm celebrating the confidence and expectation of success I got from both my parents. Not in a "You will be the best or you're a failure!" way, but in an "Of course you can do it if you want to. You just have to figure out how first and then do it," way. The expectation that we kids were capable of whatever we wanted to learn how to do and then DO, has turned out to be valuable to me in life.

The confidence in my abilities is good, but that first step is the important part so many people don't have. TONS of people believe they can do anything but not as many realize, "learn how" is the first part. Maybe it's because my parents were both teachers. They valued learning and reading and competence. Today I still have those values and I know where they came from. My parents. They believed in me before I did.

Thanks Dad. Thanks Mom.

Happy Father's Day, and eat something good for you! :P

And, since I know he'll see this because Mom will share it with him...