Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Wave

Just a quick one, as I'm heading off early today for a day-quest to Houston.  This book is one I read with one of my tutoring students - a singular memoir, from a singular event.

 by Sonali Deraniyagala

On the morning of December 26, 2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived. In this brave and searingly frank memoir, she describes those first horrifying moments and her long journey since. She has written an engrossing, unsentimental, beautifully poised account: as she struggles through the first months following the tragedy, furiously clenched against a reality that she cannot face and cannot deny; and then, over the ensuing years, as she emerges reluctantly, slowly allowing her memory to take her back through the rich and joyous life she’s mourning, from her family’s home in London, to the birth of her children, to the year she met her English husband at Cambridge, to her childhood in Colombo; all the while learning the difficult balance between the almost unbearable reminders of her loss and the need to keep her family, somehow, still alive within her.

Y'know, I finished this book over a year ago, but I think I'm only just now understanding it.  The light bulb came on when I read Film Crit Hulk's essay on Gamergate.  Here is the relevant quote (de-capitalized for your reading convenience):

One of the first things we are taught in writing is that good stories are about character arcs.  People start as these flawed, incomplete persons. And through the story they make choices, learn lessons and become better people along the way, thus completing an arc.

True, yes?

And you would expect that from this book, even though it's nonfiction and the 'character' is a real person.  Because when you read the premise – here is the story of a woman who lost her husband, parents, and both children in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004- you settle in expecting the only narrative we've ever been given about these kinds of tragedies.  Hope. Resilience. Healing. Human connection. Learning to grieve and then move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.

Well, this isn't that.  This is the story of a woman who, from the moment she's pulled from the water to the very end of the book (six years later), makes very little effort for herself and none at all for anyone else. She doesn't help look for her family. She doesn't console any of the other survivors, in those awful first hours afterwards. She just sits there, sullen and passive, and then lies there, angry and suicidal, and when she finally does rouse herself again, months afterward, it's mostly to harass and abuse the family who is now living in her parents' house.  Yes, there is progress, and yes, there are milestones, but no gratitude for the people who have helped her, and no remorse for the way she's treated them.

Here's Film Crit Hulk again, from the same essay:

Meanwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky isn't about the arc of the character, but instead the arc of the audience. Our main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), goes along her way trying to keep the best of her enthusiasm, and people constantly tell her to be more world-weary. To protect herself. To not be so trusting. But instead of Poppy changing, we do. We the audience. ... We are the ones who grow. We are the ones who see things differently and change our perspective. And the effect is quite profound.

And here I think is the Big Idea.  If the character changes, we can think "yes, well done" and finish the book and pick up another.  But when the character remains a fixed object, WE are the ones who have to move in their orbit – and we are rarely obliging. We don't tend to like being challenged, especially by our entertainment.

And this is a challenging book.  If you're thoughtful about it, you might very well finish with some excellent questions.  Why do we treat the bereaved as though they owe us something for our sympathy?  Why SHOULD someone have to be the picture of grace and gratitude when their whole life is gone?  How would this story be different if the author didn't have the luxury of lying in bed for months at a time, being cared for by relatives and keeping a house she can no longer bear to live in?

Like I said, it's a singular book, and while I can't say I enjoyed the act of reading it, it's been paying dividends ever since.

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My favorite bit:

I kept going back to Yala, obsessively, over the next months. I scavenged the debris of the hotel. I searched, dug about, scratched my arms on rusted metal. I pounced on fragments of plastic, did this come from one of our toys? Is this Malli's sock? What I really wanted was to find Crazy Crow, the big glove puppet with unruly black feathers that we had given Malli for Christmas, the day before the wave. When he tore open the wrapping and saw it, how he'd lit up.
I never did find Crazy Crow. I stopped searching the day I found the shirt Vik wore on our last evening, Christmas night. It was a lime-green cotton shirt. I remembered him fussing that he didn't want to wear it, it had long sleeves, which he didn't like. Steve rolled up the sleeves for him. "There, that looks smart." When I found the shirt, it was under a spiky bush, half-buried in sand. I pulled it out, not knowing what this piece of tattered yellowing fabric was. I dusted off the sand. Those parts of the shirt that had not been bleached by salt water and sun were still bright green. One of the sleeves was still rolled up.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Of Lions and Dragons and Raunchy Grammarians

My weekend. Let me show it to you.

See, as I've blogged before, I belong to a family who kicks ass.  And busts bricks.  And has probably spent more time in sweaty, spangly lion-pants than I've spent in all my non-couch-based activities combined.

Some of the aforementioned lions.
(My sister's not allowed to be the back half anymore, cuz she's married now.)EDIT: My sister has an open relationship with the front halves,
and she is comfortable with that. 
Anyway, so this past weekend was the annual Lunar New Year celebration, which is basically what you would get if a medieval feast, a Shanghai street party, and Kung Fu Hustle had a three-hour throwdown in front of 400 people.  With more slammin' beats and less property damage.

Well, slightly less property damage.
And it's just so damn cool, y'all.  Schools from as far away as Florida and Colorado come to show off their hard work, and there's fabulous novelties every year.  This time, we had top-hatted tai chi (way to put on the ritz, Mom!), ninja turtles, improv-weapons dueling, and - wait for it - a country western steampunk martial arts bar brawlBe still, my throbbing loins.

And be less shitty, my pathetic phone camera.
And it's just so great, because like... you know, if the DFW Writers Workshop are my second family, these guys are my second in-laws - and it is so fantastic to see another kind of community, another kind of artistry, another kind hard work paying off in sweat and splendor. So basically, if you didn't get to see it in person, go check out Laurel Houston's photo album right this picosecond - she is a phenomenal photographer (and a barefoot ninja herself!)

And speaking of which, there on the left is one of my actual in-laws:
the sweatiest and most splendid of them all.
Anyway, there was food, fun, and forms long into the night - and the next morning, I had the singular pleasure of getting up to go see some of my very favorite people, the North Texas Romance Writers of America.  It was only my second visit, but I tell you what: I'm gonna have to stop going soon, cuz every time I do, I enjoy it all the more - and it's already so good that I can't hardly stand it.

Like, it doesn't surprise me that they collaborate and support each other, because hey - we're writers; we're supposed to do that.  But I am just amazed at how organized they are as they go about it!  Everybody who has a book published gets a giant pencil.  The people who write and/or edit the most pages in a month get their names read out.  There's a segment for people to announce news, and not just writing-related news, but baby-gets-to-go-home-from-the-hospital news.  There are events and get-togethers and contests to see how much you know about other members.

And at the risk of divulging the Secrets of the Order, there is a tiara.

And the more I think about it, the more essential that seems.  Sure, there's the fun external stuff - candies and pencils and sparkly jewelry and all - but underneath that is a systematic way of including, recognizing, and caring about people.  Which seems massively important in a way I hadn't thought about before, because, like... y'know, we're so trained to respond to every "how are you doing?" with a "pretty good, and you?"  Sometimes it's just terribly hard to feel like you have permission to talk about yourself in any significant way.  So the more deliberate, explicit systems and places and rituals we have for doing that, the more genuine connections I think we can make - and I must be slow on the uptake, because from everything I've seen, NTRWA figured that out a long time ago.

Anyway, one of their rituals involves a presentation from a guest speaker - and on Saturday, that was me!  The NTRWA members and a few super-dedicated members of my traveling fan-posse came out to see the world-premiere presentation of The Comma Sutra.

I knew I was in good hands when the title screen went up and one member
immediately gasped, "that would make SUCH a great book cover!"
Here to help make sense of the joke is the class description:

Does your writing lack a certain...variety? Does your manuscript suffer from premature exclamations, heavy or abnormally frequent periods, or have difficulty maintaining even a semi-colon? Don't suffer in silence! You too can enjoy the satisfaction and self-confidence that comes with knowing how to please your critique partner. In this class, we'll practice the ins and outs of good punctuation (and yes, it WILL be raunchy.) Join us, won't you, as we embark on a journey of true textual healing.

And like, seriously y'all.  This class should have come with a diploma, a tattoo, and an apology.  The things these brave men and women endured in the name of honing their writing craft... well, let's just say that analogies were made which can never be un-made, and noble grammatical precepts harnessed to truly sordid imagery.

In fairness, some of the jokes pretty much wrote themselves.
Needless to say, I was super nervous about presenting this (because it's just so hard to know how dirty is too dirty, and how much bad xeno-erotica is too much bad xeno-erotica.)  But we had great questions and discussions, and I for one had an amazing time.

"Well then," you might say, "that's the lions and raunchy grammarians, but where are the dragons?"

So glad you asked: they are right over here, at the Kingdoms of Evil podcast!  Dieselpunk dragons, build-a-bear dragons, cake dragons - dragons for everyone!  This is the second part of the conversation I had with my notorious Red Sofa compadres, 'Evil' Dan Bensen and 'Rogue' Dan Koboldt (the first part is here, in all its seagull-stunning glory).

And here is a nice blacklight dragon to round out the set.
I've done the Evil podcast a couple of times now, and it's just such a thrill - because y'know, usually when you have a good chat with somebody, it's only between the two of you.  You can rave and gush about your super-cool friend all day long, but nobody except your mutual acquaintances are really going to get it.  Here, though, is permanent, audible proof that I am a fun person who hangs out with fun people, and evidence to help the rest of y'all understand that these guys are exactly as awesome as I've been telling you.  (I even made Evil Dan help me write exo-erotic example sentences for the Comma Sutra presentation.  Now THAT'S friendship in action.)

Anyway, so if there were going to be a single unifying thesis statement for all three of these marvelous weekend-things, it would probably be this: one of the coolest things about getting older is getting to participate in new social spheres - not just the ones you move between on a daily/weekly basis, but also the ones that reach out and include you every now and again, for special occasions.  It's a great reminder that the world is full of wonderful people, even when you don't see them on the regular, and that there are more places for you than you can ever fill at one time.  That is a pretty damn happy feeling.

The precise function of the melted chocolate remains elusive.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Crimson Son

Ahh, you guys.  THAT was a time.  That was a weekend!

I mean, I've been to cons before.  ConDFW isn't the biggest, or the weirdest, or the wildest.  But I tell you what: to date, it's the only time I've gotten to watch an author axe-kick an editor.

In this corner, Tae Kwon Do (Russ Linton). In this corner, also Tae Kwon Do (Adrian Simmons).
Behind them, Krav Maga, Bartitsu, and Tai Chi, respectively.
For more on the cathartic beauty of the Literary UFC panel, see Russ Linton's Dealing With Rejection Through Physical Violence.  For more on Russ Linton... hang out here for a sec.

See, I have to post this big-ass disclaimer here, because I need you to know a couple of things before we get into the book review.  The thing is, I know Russ. I like Russ. I liked him pretty good even before he ninja-name-dropped our way out of a parking garage and co-ran the Shootout at the Obscure Genre Corral with me this weekend.  (NOW I think he's just fucking fabulous.)

And one of the reasons I like him so dang much is because he posted this wonderful review of One Night in Sixes.  In our world, reviews are gold - and a review that highlights the specially wonderful parts of a book while also being honest about its "watch out for" and "you might not like this if" features is mithril-coated vibranium starmetal.

But that's what he did for me - and by gum, that's what I'm gonna do for him!  So here in all its fully-disclosed glory is my review of Crimson Son.

Crimson Son
by Russ Linton

His mother kidnapped, his superhero father absent, powerless Spencer Harrington faces a world of weaponized humans to prove himself and find the truth. Nineteen-year-old Spencer is the son of the Crimson Mask, the world's most powerful Augment. Since witnessing his mother's abduction by a psychotic super villain two years ago, he's been confined to his father's arctic bunker. When the "Icehole" comes under attack from a rampaging robot, Spencer launches into his father's dangerous world of weaponized human beings known as Augments. With no superpowers of his own save a multi-tool, a quick wit and a boatload of emotional trauma, Spencer seeks to uncover his mother's fate and confront his absentee superhero father. As he stumbles through a web of conspiracies and top secret facilities, he rallies a team of everyday people and cast-off Augments. But Spencer soon discovers that the Black Beetle isn't his only enemy, nor his worst.

I think I tweeted about this book once by saying something along the lines of "because when the Black Beetle invades your ice-hole, you grab your multi-tool and GTFO." And if your first reaction to that is "I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm up for it!" then boy, have I got a book for you.

For me, this is my first foray into superhero fiction (though I keep meaning to lay hands on Landon Porter's Descendants series).  At first, I was a little leery: the Spider-Man movies have covered my RDA of angsty super-white-boys until about 2025 - and we all know there is no angst like teen angst.

In this case, it's coming from Spencer Harrington, the powerless son of the world's greatest hero (well, almost-powerless: that boy can shake off traumatic brain injuries like most of us can walk off a charley-horse.) But we start out here with an intriguing premise: what's it like to be one of the Aunt Mays and Mary Janes of the super-verse?  What kind of life can you have when you're every villain's dream hostage – and how do you avoid resenting the super-spouse or -parent whose need to protect you has basically turned you into their prisoner?

And yes, there is teen angst, and a few moments of willful buttheadery (I imagine living in permanent solitary at the North Pole doesn't really help the whole social-skills thing), and one or two terrible decisions. But as great as it is to ask the question, "how can a normal kid hold his own in a super-powered world?", I'm even more delighted with the author's answer: "by making friends, using his heart and skill, and relying on the help of good people – supers and not-so-much – to get the job done."  Think Big Hero 6, if Baymax were a giant homicidal bug-mech named Cuddles.

But as much as I like what's here in the story, I almost appreciate it more for what's missing.  There's no love interest, for one thing (which isn't to say there's no leading lady - and let me say here that I am SO THIRSTY for more stories like this, where guys and gals can have a rock-solid friendship, Captain-America-and-Black-Widow-style, without all the will-they/won't-they business!)  No DBZ-esque "I will defeat you with the power of my rage" special-snowflakery.  And apart from a lamentably vapid fat lady and one villain's penchant for Alec-Baldwin levels of petulant cruelty, no 'types', either.  The characters feel like real people – and more than that, they treat each other like real people.  Nobody is the axis of the universe, here. Nobody is unimportant.

So if you're wondering what the trade-off is for all the gorgeous comic artwork you don't get in a novel, I think that's it right there. Sure, there's still building explosions and car crashes and narrow escapes and super-gadgetry and possibly even a cape – but there's also that deeper stuff that characterizes (what I consider) the very best superhero stories, like The Incredibles and Watchmen. We have time to meditate on what happens to these super-people when they're used up and broken, and to the regular people who have to live in their shadow.  We have room to consider what separates a good parent from a good-intentioned one, and how to let go of somebody you shouldn't have had to lose in the first place, and why we keep wanting what we can't have. We have a super-verse where the heroes don't all wear spandex, and the villains aren't all bad people.

As it happens, this is a first novel, with some of the challenges that first novels have: I feel like it could be about 10% leaner, and I encourage you to give it 50 pages to really hit its stride.  But boy, if this is what a first novel can be - if this guy can pack this much action and drama and humor and heart into a freaking debut - then you definitely want to be caught up and ready before he drops his second.  I'll save you a spot in line.

Buy at Barnes & NobleAdd to GoodreadsOrder From Amazon

My favorite bit:

I turn to the door. No keypad, not even a handle on this side. The seam around the door is so tight, I don't think a piece of paper could slip between it and the frame. Outside, Dad is playing ass-puppet for an Augment, and Emily is doing a good job as an Exorcist stand-in. In here, I've got no tools, no battle armor, and no underappreciated minions on my side.

I slump against the door. "We're fucked."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Review: The Transformation of Lawrence Croft

What's this?  Two blog posts in one week?  Have I gone mad?!

No - but I am going to ConDFW this weekend!  And to celebrate, I thought I would post the thematically-appropriate first entry in what will hopefully be a weekly feature: book reviews!  (See, all that about me going to read more wasn't just hot air.)

This is one I picked up at the last local con, from an author named Mark Finn, who absolutely floored me at his reading.  Around here, he's Kind of a Big Deal - and that was before we found out this week that he's been tapped to write for Conan. Seriously, seriously check this out.

The Transformation of Lawrence Croft
by Mark Finn

MagicCon is an ordinary fantasy/science fiction convention. Three days of comic books, anime, and X-Files jokes, which is exactly what Larry Croft and his friends D.J. McGuiness, Fred "The Turk" Terkington, and Burt Vaughn, are looking for. Unfortunately for Larry, a long-forgotten Roman god named Stercutus is primed to make a comeback, and this particular god's sphere of influence really stinks. What follows is a picaresque mash-up of Urban Fantasy and Fandom as worlds collide, friendships are forged, and confusion abounds in a city of secret magic and a sub-culture that Wants To Believe.

The first time I interacted with Mark Finn, we were both on a panel at a local sci-fi/fantasy convention. I was saying something about having gotten into fandom back in the heady days of AOL and dial-up modems and Sailor Moon e-zines.  He looked at me with a pained expression, rubbed his forehead, and said "Kid, you're makin' my tumors throb."

I tell you this because you need to understand one vital fact about this book: it could not have been written by anyone but a world-class geek, someone who has lived and loved the con scene for literally decades... and there truly is no school like the old school.

Yes, there are jokes and stereotypes large and small (and like the con-goers Finn pokes fun at, trending towards large.)  Yes, the four main characters are, with one happy exception, socially regressive nerdbros.  But it's comedy of the "King of the Hill" varietal: a loving, exquisite, self-deprecating send-up of the neighborhood, as only a local could write it. (And to be clear, that's a small n – the Neighborhood here is something else entirely).  It's Clerks nerd-banter with Bill and Ted comradery and Galaxy Quest-level misunderstandings. It's absolutely funny, but the humor doesn't come at the expense of heart.

I'm sure if I looked hard enough, I could find some nits to pick.  There are plenty of characters to keep track of, which was right up my alley, but may give some readers a mental CPU spike.  The group of women introduced near the end veer a little close to the Sex and the City school of cattery for my taste (though the fan-snubbing author-celebrity-vampire Jane Callow is an unvarnished delight). And I might wish that the narrative cast its aspersions with a little less omniscience: I'm okay with someone being a sloppy sadsack disaster - delighted, in fact! - but to me it's better when that's just one character's take, rather than the judgment of the universe at large. (Because then we-the-reader can take a page from the Book of the Dude.)

Regardless: it's no exaggeration to say that this is hands-down the most fun book I've read in at LEAST a year, and I will absolutely recommend it to anyone who has ever rules-lawyered their way out of a critical hit, worn their favorite Star Trek shirt a few too many days in a row, or smelled day-three con-funk and lived to tell the tale.  Don't miss this book - and if you're heading to the con this weekend, don't miss Mark either!

Buy at Barnes & NobleAdd to GoodreadsOrder From Amazon

My favorite bit:

"Okay, oh Wizened Sage, who do gamers not like?" said Burt.

"Well, they can't afford to not like anybody, can they?" muttered Turk.

D.J. peered at the ceiling in concentration.  "Oh, I guess if you had to pick someone they didn't like, it would probably be the cosplayers and, uh, maybe the fanfic writers." The metaphor was falling apart, but as an intellectual riddle, it beat watching the hotel television.

"So, basically," said Burt slowly, "what you're saying is, the difference between a geek and a nerd is anyone who eats more paste than you two?"

"Yeah... hey, fuck you, man!"

Monday, February 9, 2015

Getting the Medicine Show on the Road

Y'know, it's really remarkable how much you can get done when your brain is not actively sabotaging you. I'll probably blog about that sometime.

For now, count your notches and set your watches, cuz Medicine for the Dead is coming out in less than two months!

(I know, right?  Holy mackerel.)

So here's what's happening.  Are you ready?  Are you stoked?

Well, first the news: the book has gone to print, and launches are booked!  The US launch will be Saturday, March 28th at 3:00PM at the Hurst Barnes & Noble (same one as last time), and the UK launch will be at Dysprosium in London, at some point during Easter weekend - will keep you posted on that one. In both cases, there will be goodies and prizes and books, and a grand time to be had by all!

"Sure," you say, "But what can I do between now and then?"

So glad you asked!

1. Put it on your radar! That can mean pre-ordering the book, requesting it from your local library, and/or adding it to your Goodreads "want to read" list.  Basically, everything you do to tell the world "hey, I want this" makes it that much more of a hot commodity, and makes YOU more of my actual favorite person. (And if you have Netgalley privileges, feel free to skip the queue.)

2. Catch up on the story! If you haven't read One Night in Sixes, you're gonna want to do that first - and here to help you is a handy-dandy Goodreads giveaway.  Go! Click! Win!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

One Night in Sixes by Arianne "Tex" Thompson

One Night in Sixes

by Arianne "Tex" Thompson

Giveaway ends February 15, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win
But it's not all about what you can do for me, natch.  Let me tell you what I can do for you.

See, I've learned a thing or two from last year.  This time, I'm not just out to drop a book on the world.  THIS time, I'm opening up a whole toy-store of cool stuff: sneak previews, deleted scenes, easter eggs, giveaways, hopefully some neat-o merch, and more that I can't even tell you about yet!  Some of it will go live here on the blog, but as everyone knows: if you wanna get into the club, you gotta be on the list.  

So do yourself a favor and sign up for the mailing list! I'll aim to send it out about once a month - a little more often here during launch season.  Here's a free sample to entice you:

What is that, and what does it have to do with anything?  Sign up and find out!

(To be clear: that link will sign you up for the readers edition - all things fun and fictional about Sixes, Medicine for the Dead, and future works.  For the writers newsletter - everything about writing classes, resources, and events - click the black "For Writers!" button on the sidebar above.)

Oh!  And in the meantime, come find me this weekend at ConDFW!  Full schedule is below the cut.  It's been a long, cold winter about six weeks of below-70 temperatures, and I'm jazzed to get back out into the world and see some fresh, fun faces!