Some Books I’ve Read Recently

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These include Amazon Affiliate links, so don’t be shocked if a couple of pennies come my way if you decide any of these books are interesting.

Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero.

I was surprised to discover that this was a bestseller, since I had not heard of it before it turned up on a “What to read now that you’ve finished watching STRANGER THINGS” list. The author is from Spain and while English is his second language, he brings a beautiful fluidity and a welcome playfulness to the book. Well, mostly welcome. He experiments with the language, and not every experiment is a success, but I was still pleased by it.

Plot: Thirteen years before the events of the book, in 1979, four teenagers (plus one dog) were amateur detectives in their rural Oregon town, uncovering real estate swindles and smugglers in true Scooby-Doo style. Then, during their last mystery, they uncovered actual Lovecraftian evil (and the youngest teen read from the Necronomicon). They awakened something dangerous in their sleepy little mountain town, and at the same time utterly destroyed their own lives.

Now, as twenty-something screwups, they’re determined to return to the scene of their last mystery and solve it for real, in the hopes of putting the madness behind them.

This was fun, and light-hearted, but not as funny as I’d hoped. It quickly turns into a Lovecraftian thriller with a decidedly easy touch. Recommended.

The Hike, by Drew Magary.
This was a fun and funny contemporary fantasy that mixed fairy tale story structure, Stephen King(ish) frights, and some point-and-click video game plotting. That sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it really really does.

Plot: The protagonist, Ben, is a husband and father who has gone out of town on a business trip, but decides to spend the free hour before his meeting taking a brief hike through the woods near the hotel. Except that he gets lost, then he gets chased, and things begin to get really weird. He’s attacked by a giant cricket, captured by a friendly giant that wants to eat him, and finds support–moral and otherwise–from a talking crab.

What keeps the story from being meaningless fluff is that Ben himself is so engaging. A man who seems to be a short-tempered everyman at first quickly begins to show his flaws. Ben has a lot of damage, and he’s not managing it well in his real life. On this mythical hike, he starts to come apart and then puts himself back together again.

The book is funny, breezy, and at the same time, emotionally powerful. And I loved the ending.

The Outsider by Stephen King

What an odd book. For the first 200 pages, it’s a murder mystery. There’s a horrific crime, compelling evidence against an unlikely suspect who has an iron-clad alibi, and an investigation that circles around and around collecting conflicting evidence.

Has the suspect orchestrated the perfect crime? Will the cops crack his perfect alibi?

And just as I became convinced that King was going to give us a straight mystery this time, the story makes a u-turn toward the supernatural, when the characters realize they can’t pick apart either evidence or the alibi, and begin to recognize that Something Else must be going on. From there, it pivots to a King-ish members-of-the-community-come-together-to-fight-evil plot, and on those terms it works well. The ending was a little soft, but overall, a terrific book.

Also, it’s apparently a pseudo-sequel to a set of books I haven’t read, but while that’s obvious in the way the characters talk about their past experiences, it’s not a deal-breaker for the story here.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

This one is a thriller and coming of age story without a supernatural element, but it might be my favorite of the bunch. Lansdale seems to specialize in mid-twentieth century east Texas poor folk, when they’re caught up in crime or supernatural evil. (He also wrote some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series)

Voice. Voice is an important part of any book, and Lansdale has the voice of his characters down. For all the time they spend solving mysteries and fleeing from those who want to rob and/or kill them, the real appeal here is the way the narrator draws you in.

A fantastic book. Highly recommended.


Looking these over again, I realize I’ve they were a string of white dude authors. That’s an old, bad habit, and when I finish the book I’m currently reading, I’ll find a way to mix things up a bit.

Slapstick and New Fiction: Sharing Some Personal Stuff Here Instead of on Social

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My Saturday was supposed to be fun. I was going to finish up my day’s writing, then pop over to the Summerfest celebration, which is basically the weekend when our local chamber of commerce rounds up food trucks, a beer garden, and some local musicians/cover bands. Not tremendously fun, but it’s outdoors and the beers are excellent. I’d planned to try some overpriced food truck treats, buy a fancy red ale from a nearby microbrew, and read in the shade for a few hours.

Hey, my wife was going to be away until the evening, so I could have all the fun. But did I have fun?

First, before I got within 100 yards of a fancy beer, I fell. I had no excuse; my foot landed half on the edge of the sidewalk and half off, which threw off my balance and, like a lumbering ox, I toppled over onto the sidewalk and scraped the hell out of my leg. (And laughed at my own clumsiness)

Second, once I arrived at Summerfest, one of the hot dogs I’d picked as my food truck dinner (not that fancy, maybe, but lines are also a consideration and they were more like big brats than supermarket dogs from a pack) came apart as I was eating it and smeared mustard down the front of my shirt. I hate being a fat guy with food on my shirt, but by then I was already in the beer garden, beer in front of me, with tickets for two more in my pocket. Sunk costs came be tremendously powerful.

Also, this was the first time I’ve ever had a hot dog “Seattle style,” which apparently means sauerkraut and cream cheese. (Verdict: surprisingly good)

Third, when there was only two fingers of beer left in my cup, a strong breeze ruffled the thin plastic table cloth and toppled the cup into my lap. For the rest of the night, I was sporting a soaked crotch. Worse, some splashed onto the bag holding my library books. (Luckily nothing was damaged.) Still, wet pants in the front. wtf, natural elements?

Later that night, when I had arrived safely at home, I couldn’t figure out why my left leg was aching. Sure, I’d fallen and scraped my calf, but that was just a little thing, right?

Then my wife reminded me that I’m old now, and I don’t just bounce back from a little tumble, even one that had me sitting on my ass laughing at my own stupidity.

That’s what I get for trying to have fun. But I know what you’re thinking: What about new fiction?

Well, the new novel I’m writing has been surprisingly challenging. I make progress every day, but it’s been unusually slow.

A few weeks ago I had revisited the mystery/crime thriller I wrote last year, and I’d thought it was unsalvageable garbage. Earlier this week, I realized how to fix it, just by moving a few lines of dialog around. Hmf. So, look for that before the end of the year, if the WIP doesn’t do me in.

I have another big fat fantasy that’s still making the rounds at publishers, but none have bitten so far. That doesn’t look hopeful at this point, but it only takes one.

Finally, I have a new Twenty Palaces novella to write, once I square away a few other things. The story is coming together in little bits and pieces while I work on other projects, and I’m hopeful that I’ll have a rough draft done before the end of the year. However, with a balky WIP and other projects crowding for my attention, that might be too optimistic.

So there you go: a one-man slapstick routine and a bunch of fiction. That pretty much sums up where things are for me.

Dodging Both Rock and Hard Place: the Uncompromising Hero

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I watched MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT last week, then rewatched BLACK PANTHER a few days later, and I was struck by the similarities. Both are about good men in a situation where other people expect them to be ruthless if they want to succeed. Both refuse but succeed anyway, partly through a circle of incredibly competent friends, and partly through their own awesomeness.

Exceedingly minor spoilers for both films.

“You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.”

To me, that’s the central line in THE BLACK PANTHER. T’challa is a good man who readily accepts the self-serving policies that have been handed down to him. Yes, black people around the world are oppressed, but Wakanda stands apart. That’s how it’s always been. They don’t liberate. They don’t conquer. They live happily and prosperously inside their secret country, minding their own bees wax. In fact, the first action scene in the film is a sequence where The Black Panther interrupts a rescue mission for the needs of the Wakandan state.

It’s Nakia who speaks up for doing the right thing, and W’Kabi who repeats the self-serving conventional wisdom. T’challa is ready to follow that tradition without even considering what it really means, right up to the point that he has to save someone’s life.

So, where T’challa talks and talks about doing what’s best for the country–what keeps them safe–but the first time he’s faced with the choice between helping and keeping his national secret, he helps. He doesn’t even consider his options first. It’s just “Here’s a person I know who has been hurt. We will help.” When questioned by his friends, he can’t even come up with a justification. It’s not a carefully thought out decision. It’s just him listening to his “good heart.”

Obviously, Killmonger is the other extreme. He wants to use the power and resources of Wakanda to kill and conquer. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” For him, nothing has value except power: not the lives of the enemies he’s recorded in the scars on his body. Not the girlfriend who helps him on his heists, and not the Wakandan traditions that put him on the throne.

If Killmonger had not blown off The Black Panther’s call for a resumption of their trial by combat, the climax of that film might have gone very differently. The Dora Milaje would have been honor bound to stay out of the fight, and Shuri, Nakia, and Ross’s attempt to stop the shipments of weapons would have failed. That’s a much better chance at victory, but Killmonger couldn’t honor the local tradition because he doesn’t care about doing the right thing.

With MI:FALLOUT, Ethan Hunt is continually put into situations where the expedient thing is to sacrifice someone else for sake of the mission. It’s pretty much the entire plot, front to back.

But because this is a movie, the protagonist can be as clever/fast/tough/resourceful as he needs to be to make it all work out. The real thrills come from seeing how effectively the movie makes you think he has to “go there”, then lets him be the hero instead.

The biggest difference between MI:F and TBP is that T’challa wields incredible power and authority. When he decides to do the good but not expedient thing, he only has to give the order, then endure the astonished expressions of his pals. For Ethan Hunt, he’s surrounded by enemies and allies he can’t trust (plus a couple of real friends, obviously). The stakes are much higher than “Our culture will have to open up to the world” so the tension is greater.

Fact: I enjoyed them both. The only thing I hope they do with the second Black Panther flick is to make T’challa as smart as he is in the comics. I want to see him win not because he used a clever karate move. I want him to show off his brains, too.

And, just to say in passing, that earlier this week I rewatched both Jack Reacher films, and as I said on Twitter, Christopher McQuarrie is a severely underrated writer/director. No matter how frantic or desperate the movie gets, it never feels like the story is skimming over something important. Great stuff.

Randomness for 7/31

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1) The Legend of John Arthur, the Toughest Man in America.

2) Don’t Feed The Trolls and Other Hideous Lies.

3) What the Data Says About Producing Low-Budget Horror Movies.

4) Raising the barre: how science is saving ballet dancers.

5) What Happened When I Tried To Talk To My Twitter Abusers.

6) Ten Changes Made in the Lord of the Rings Novelization.

7) A ‘beer sommelier’ explains how pouring a beer the wrong way can give you a stomach ache. Video

Why You Should Go See BLINDSPOTTING

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Would it seem incongruous is I said these two different things about BLINDSPOTTING:

1) It’s a film about gentrification.
2) The last 30 minutes have more tension and intensity than any thriller or action movie I’ve seen in the past year.

Typically, when I see a movie in the theater, I don’t bother doing any more than a tweet about it. For example:

or maybe:

But this film feels too complicated for a simple tweet. It’s like a buddy comedy where the funny bits are suddenly cut short by the very real possibility of tragedy. It’s a coming-of-age story for two characters who are already grown men. It’s social and political commentary hung on a frame work of friendship and dumb choices and being unable to erase your past.

Anyway, see this movie as soon as you can, if you can. It’s funny and sad and thrilling and extraordinarily vital.

The New Iron Fist Trailer is Fine When It Needs to be Great.

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Here’s the first trailer for S2 of Iron Fist, and if I’m being honest, I don’t love it.

It’s not terrible, not like the trailers for S1 (“Where did he learn martial arts?”) but S1 was so terrible that I wanted this to blow me out of the water.

It doesn’t. It’s a competently staged fight with an interesting viewpoint trick, it’s clear that the filmmakers know how to show Finn Jones fighting, but the visuals aren’t interesting. The location isn’t unusual. The enemies are, what, a few muggers?

That’s not going to wash away the bad feelings from S1.

I’ve heard that the fight footage they showed at SDCC was exceptional, and that everyone who saw it is really hopeful about this new season. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/holy-crap-iron-first-season-two-actually-looks-really-1827712069

It’d be nice if that extra footage was online right now.

Yeah, I know Iron Fist is problematic, but he was pretty new when I first got into comics at that impressionable age, so he was all over the comics. I have a soft spot for the character, and I want to see him done well. With luck, that extra footage will make its way online and we can all be impressed.

Randomness for 6/30

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1. No more snitch tagging on Twitter.

2. Body positivity became a marketing scheme, and it became a scam.

3. The Japanese engineers improve the binder clip.

4. What Makes People the Most Happy: An analysis of the way people answer the question “What made you happy in the last 24 hours?”

5. This Rolling Stone profile of Johnny Depp is beyond fucked up.

6. Lionel Messi walks better than most players run.

7. Amsterdam drained a canal and posted a picture of everything they found in it.

The SPFBO Bump(?): Contests and Book Sales

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A little over a week ago, the final results of the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off) competition came in. In case you didn’t know, The Way into Chaos was a finalist, but in the end I landed squarely in the middle. Sixth place, in fact.

Sixth isn’t so terrible, although the structure of the contest means that my book was certainly not the sixth best of all 300. (If you already know know how SPFBO works, skip the next paragraph.)

SPFBO is pretty straight forward: They have ten blogger-reviewers and 300 self-published fantasy novels to split between them. Each reviewer picks one finalist from their allotment of 30. Then each reviewer rates each finalist, and the books are ranked according to the average of their reviews.

When TWiC was made a finalist back in November, there were a number of people who thought another book deserved the spot. Readers’ tastes are idiosyncratic–mine certainly is–so the idea of a “best” book doesn’t really fit.

Anyway, SPFBO was founded by bestselling author Mark Lawrence. Here’s what he had to say about it:

From:

Mission statement:
The SPFBO exists to shine a light on self-published fantasy. It exists to find excellent books that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It exists to help readers select, from the enormous range of options, books that have a better chance of entertaining them than a random choice, thereby increasing reader faith in finding a quality self-published read.

If you read the rest of that page, you can see Mark is up front about the idea of a “best” book. The most we can hope for is an intersubjective consensus, of sorts.

My question is this: Did readers “find” my book when it was named as a finalist? By which I mean: Did I get a bump in sales from SPFBO?

To simplify things, I’m only going to look at Kindle sales. I do list the books on B&N and Kobo and the rest, and there is an overpriced POD edition (which is redundant, but that’s how it works) that I plan to cancel soon, but all together they make up about one-tenth the sales on Kindle, and the trends match, so I’m going to simplify things by only talking about the Kindle store.

Let’s look first at the historical trends. Keep in mind that these are only sales of The Way into Chaos. The other books in the series are not included.

The Way into Chaos Kindle sales

Sales for The Way into Chaos under Kindle’s “Historical” tab

(Stupid Preview, putting a box around that one piece of text for no reason I can see.)

By way of explanation: The Way into Chaos was the first book of a trilogy, and I released book 2 and book 3 approximately 30 days apart, which I’d been told was a good strategy for ebook sales. Besides, all the books were finished because I had Kickstarter backers to please, so why wait? “Key/Egg” refers to A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, the pacifist urban fantasy that I delivered as a stretch goal.

You can’t see the bar graph for the month that the SPFBO finalists were announced because I sold fewer than two dozen copies that month. There was a very slight uptick in sales for Nov and Dec 2017, but the numbers were small enough that they could have been statistical noise.

That’s not what I’d call a bump.

What about the announcement of the winning book, which included cover art for all the finalists and their rankings?

The Way into Chaos sales covering winner announcement

The Way into Chaos sales covering winner announcement

That didn’t do it, either. I think you can see why I’m only posting numbers for book one in the series. I’d hoped that a bump in sales for the start of the trilogy would have carried over to books two and three, but there was no bump, and therefore no carry.

I imagine that Rob J. Hayes, who won the top spot with Where Loyalties Lie, saw a noticeable sales bump. I’d be curious to see what effect the contest had for him.┬áReaders (including me) respond much more strongly to enthusiastic reviews than they do to mediocre ones.

And TWiC received a number of middling reviews: one reviewer doesn’t like books with fighting and politics. Another did the “No, really!” snark thing, but no one snarks on a book they genuinely enjoy. And all that goes back to what I wrote at the top, which is that the bloggers’ responses were very personal, just like in any contest.

Also of interest is this take, from an author who did not make the finals but feels he got tremendous value from it. For him, the real benefit came from the community that has sprung up around the contest.

Which is great for him, but that community is on Facebook, and I walked away from FB years ago for all the reasons that people do. I still have a (friendless) account because some readers want to follow me there and I need an account to maintain a page, but I rarely look at it. Joining a Facebook community wouldn’t make sense for me.

Besides, my life already has too much social media in it. What I need to be doing is cutting back, not adding more.

I post this not to complain or criticize. The book has already sold quite well, and hitting 7858 units sold in the first six months–only counting the Kindle–is pretty good. In fact, it’s better than some books released by traditional publishers. For comparison, in its first six months, The Twisted Path only sold 1,957 copies. That’s not terrible, but it was also a long-awaited sequel to my most popular series. So TWiC has done pretty well.

The reason I post all of this is to put as much information into the world as possible. Nihil veritas erubescit.

Anyway, SPFBO 2018 is already running and full up on submissions. But while it’s too late to enter, it’s a good time to follow along, find some great new books to read, and maybe join a new community. If you’re on Facebook, that is.

[Update] Author Rob J Hayes, who claimed the top spot in SPFBO 2017, had this to say on reddit:

It’s hard to say exactly what effect SPFBO has had on sales of Where Loyalties Lie because it was only released a couple of weeks before the blog off started last year. Since then its sales have been steady most months with large bumps both when it was announced as a finalist, and an even larger bump just recently when it won.

So there is a bump! Maybe I didn’t get one because a) I didn’t place high enough or b) I wasn’t part of the Facebook community or c) both.

Also, lol at “willing to put in the work”

Young Men in Groups

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I noticed this a couple of weeks ago and I tried to put off a response until my interest in it fell away. It hasn’t. Therefore:

It started with this tweet from Chuck Wendig:

If you click on that and read the whole thread, skip the rest of this paragraph. But basically, there are a bunch of right wing Star Wars fans who have decided the movie series has to be one of the many fronts in the culture war, and they imagine they have the power to tank a movie’s box office through shitposting.

And then there’s the guys who think that targeted harassment against the women who star in these movies–harassment that causes them to shut down their social media–is some kind of victory for men. Especially if the women are not white women.

It reminds me of something I read a very long time ago and never forgot. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten the source, but it stuck with me: it’s that the most dangerous people you are likely to meet on the street are young men traveling in groups.

As a writer of thriller/action/violence and such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for good books on the subject. They’re surprisingly rare. (I can recommend (with affiliate links) two good ones, if you’re interested. One. Two.) But you can usually find a worthwhile nugget or two in any book.

The reason young men in groups are especially dangerous, according to this long-forgotten author, is that to the men in the group, the victim almost doesn’t matter. The victim is beside the point. The real reason the men in the group want to do violence is to impress the other members. They want to prove themselves. To push things a little farther.

In the book, the technique the author proposed to head off the confrontation was to look one member of the group in the eye–not the one directly in front of you, but one standing back a little–and say something like “You know this is wrong.” Basically, to shame them into breaking the cycle of competition so they would move on.

It seems to me that part (not all, but part) of what’s going on in these RW hate campaigns is a similar dynamic. It was certainly the case with GooberGate, where young men were competing to be the most outrageous shit head, and for all the notoriety that went with it. The victim didn’t matter to them except as a trophy to show off to their friends. What mattered was attention from others in your group.

And when you’re online, a victim can’t look someone in the eye and shame them. That has to happen in real life, because that online connection will never be as strong as the connection to their group.

For example, check out this article about an incel who left the online incel community. Is it body dimorphism for him to believe he’s too ugly to ever get a girlfriend? He looks like a perfectly normal guy, but maybe he doesn’t feel like one. He says he didn’t approve of violent talk in those incel communities, but he thought they were dark humor.

I’m glad to say that Mr. Former Incel had a chance to meet people in real life who looked him in the eye and made him realize he already knew it was wrong. Instead of chiding other incels who fantasized about violence, he walked away.

There will always be a certain percentage of any particular group of abusers who are psychopaths or sadists. They hurt people because they like it and they can’t be shamed into changing. But the people around them, who see that viciousness as a kind of strength, emulate them so they can feel strong, too. Those followers can be cut away, but it’s not easy. And I have no idea how it can be done in online spaces.