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The True Story Behind FALLING and the Girl With Broken Wings Series

April 30th, 2016 No comments

A.K.A., a Long-Ass Post on How I Wrote and Published My First Book

Girl With Broken Wings series

Worth all the tribulations? Definitely!

I am, right now, putting the finishing touches on FLYING, the fifth and final book in my paranormal series, Girl With Broken Wings. This is kind of a big deal for me. Not just finishing another book – which is awesome – but putting this series to bed. When I started writing the first book in the series, FALLING seven years ago, finishing it felt so hard. That was the beginning of my journey within the world of Girl With Broken Wings and my journey into publishing as well. As I gear up to complete the series, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic about those early days. If you’ve ever been curious about how the GWBW series started or about evolution as a writer and self-published author…well, here are a lot of honest words about it.

FALLING into FALLING

I mostly wrote FALLING by accident. At the time – this was back yonder in 2009 — I was actually struggling to write another book. As a writer, I had floundered for years with trying to complete a full novel. Looking back on it now, my problem was really obvious. I would get inspired by a scene in my head, start writing, and then pray to the universe that the story would just somehow work. This is known as the “seat-of-the-pants” writing method. Some writers (pantsers) do well with this method and somehow manage to cobble together something worth reading. I am not one of them. Too often, my characters would just lurch blindly from one crisis to another or spend scenes just shooting the breeze with each other, because I couldn’t think of what to do with them. My plots would either run out of steam or just hit a wall and combust.

This is exactly what was happening with my novel. I was stuck. So was my plot, my characters, and basically everything related to the book. At the time, I was watching a lot of my favorite show, Supernatural. (The most supernatural thing about the show these days is that it is somehow still on.) One episode in particular captured my attention, and from the seed GWBW would eventually be born. The Supernatural episode that changed my life was Episode Four of Season Four (Metamorphosis). In the episode our hunky heroes Sam and Dean come across a man named Jack. Jack has kind of a big problem. He is a pretty decent normal guy…who (through no fault of his own) just happens to be turning into a Rugaru, a creature who is irresistibly drawn to feeding on human flesh.

Dean, at this point in the series, is the bad ass, straight-up killa’ of the pair. He’s all for blasting Jack’s brains out. Sensitive Sam sees Jack’s humanity and wants to try and find a way to save him. Seeing any similarities between this conundrum and another set of vigilante brothers who have to decide if a certain someone is too dangerous to live?  Yeah, that episode really got to me. I wondered what it would be like to be Jack; to try and fight against terrible urges to hurt others. I also liked the difficult choice Sam and Dean had to make. Could Jack be saved, or by sparing him, were they putting other innocent people at risk? Yummy, yummy tension!

Several months after watching that episode of Supernatural, I had one of those wonderful moments when a scene just flashes through my brain. I saw a girl in a hotel room trying desperately to control her urge to drain the life out of her trusting brother who was sleeping in the next bed. (Here’s another Supernatural influence — Sam and Dean travel the country fighting evil and end up sharing a lot of hotel rooms.) I was fixated on this scene, on the girl’s struggle and the brother’s slumbering innocence. Since I was getting absolutely nowhere with my work in progress, my fingers started typing, and what came out ended up being the prologue to FALLING.

FALLING is Born…and Then I Have to Edit A Lot

As soon as that first scene was down in pixels on my computer screen, I had to know how Maya got into that room. (Fun fact: Maya’s original name was Misha before my sister forced me to change it.)  How had she been turned into an energy-sucking creature? Writing FALLING became about answering that question. It was rocky. It was messy, but the words kept coming. The scenes piled up. Somehow, I managed to do something I had never done before – I made it to the end.

Because I was a pantser, the book’s plot had more holes than a colander, but I knew I had something special. How? Because I absolutely loved the characters of Maya, Gabe, and Tarren. Each of them felt real to me, and I cared deeply about their mission. Even as I was writing that first book, I started to understand Tarren’s deep internal struggles and Gabe’s desperate optimism. I began to fill out their backstories and discovered that Tarren had quite a few skeletons in his closet (some of which will finally come out in FLYING).

I had to work that book to the bone, scrubbing and scrubbing, to get it into decent shape. It took me over a year just to edit (compared to the roughly three or four months it takes me to edit a full novel now). Looking back on my files, I realize that I eventually went through ten separate drafts of the book! Compare that to the four drafts that will take me through FLYING (first draft, first edit, beta edits, grammar/final polish). This terribly long and arduous process along with the fear of repeating it all over again when I started on LANDING is what finally helped me shift from being a pantser to an outliner.

It’s ALLLLIVE…but Unloved

In 2010, I completed what I considered to be the final draft of FALLING. It was still early days for the Kindle and, more importantly, for Amazon allowing authors to self-publish their works. At the time, self-publishing had an incredibly bad reputation. It was considered by many, including myself, to be the last refuge of the author who wasn’t good enough to get an agent and a traditional publisher. In my view, self-publishing meant epic failure.

So, for over a year, I worked to get an agent. I sent out dozens of carefully crafted query letters and attended writing conferences. The first chapters of FALLING won top pick from an agent at one of the conferences. I got a cool certificate. That agent, along with two others showed a lot of interest in the book. Here’s the problem though, the pitching process is SLOOOOOOW. If an agent likes your query, you might hear back from her in a month or two requesting the first few chapters. Now, wait another two months or so, and she might request the full manuscript. Only a very small percentage of authors get this far. When/if you do, most agents request exclusive rights to consider your work, which means you don’t continue to query other agents. I got to this stage three times. In one instance, the agent declined. In another, the agent informed me that she had taken on as many new authors as she can handle. (I realize that this is basically the agent equivalent of the “I’ve decided that I’m not really ready to date anyone new right now and just want to work on myself,” classic dating rejection.) In one instance, I waited four months until the agent came back and told me she was leaving her job.

It was extremely frustrating and disheartening. Each time an agent requested my full manuscript for consideration, I felt like I was on the brink of achieving my one true dream in life, only to get that terrible NO and have to start all over again. In the year that this process was going on, I felt paralyzed. Should I start on the next book in the series? Maya, Tarren, and Gabe were chattering non-stop in my head wanting me to continue their story. But if no agent loved my book, then wouldn’t it be smarter to write something totally new that I could pitch?

Self-Publishing to the Rescue

At the same time I was bogged down in agent-pitching limbo, something curious was happening in Kindle World. Some of those loser self-published authors were actually selling a few books. Okay, not a few books. A lot of books. Amanda Hocking was one of the first self-published authors to sell a million copies of her books. This was also the time that a handful of brave traditionally published mid-list authors decided to experiment with self-publishing. A lot of authors were writing about their journey, and as I read more about their experiences, my mind began to change.

I realized something really important. I had put my writing on hold for an entire year waiting for an agent to tell me that FALLING was worth publishing. I had given them all of the power just because I was afraid that self-publishing was a cop-out. I asked myself one simple question: Do you believe FALLING is worth reading?

The answer was yes, and so the path forward was obvious. I wasn’t going to wait any longer for someone else’s approval. I was going to put FALLING into the world and let the readers decide if it was worthy. I doubt FALLING will ever top any best-selling lists, but since I published it in 2011, it has been downloaded over 10,000 times, reached the top ten ranking in Amazon’s New Adult book category several times, and generated some amazing and heartwarming fan mail. (Which I love getting and always respond to, by the way!)

The decision to self-publish also meant that I could write LANDING, RISING, LEAPING, and finally now FLYING. I could tell the story of Maya, Tarren, and Gabe.

I had that first epiphany of Maya struggling not to kill Gabe in the hotel room in early 2009. Now, seven years later, I am about to say goodbye to these characters for good. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve grown significantly as a storyteller, as a craftsman, and as a person. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. Don’t worry, this is only the beginning. Saying goodbye to Maya, Tarren, and Gabe will be hard, but there are many story paths yet to walk, and I hope you will walk them with me.

Book Review of The Rosie Project

April 24th, 2016 No comments

Cover -- The Rosie ProjectDating is awkward, messy, and most damning of all – inefficient. Don Tillman is not a man who likes to waste his time. See: his stringently mapped out daily schedule which provides no room for deviation. Don jumps to the natural conclusion that rather than waste him time dating from an unknown pool of women, he will simply design an extensive scientifically valid survey that will efficiently filter out women who do not possess the characteristics of an ideal life partner.

Thus starts to Wife Project.

Author Graeme Simsion does the literary world a solid by bringing Don Tillman to life. We readers spend the story looking out through Don’s highly organized, logical, and entirely socially inept perspective. See: Don calmly explaining why his high-tech cycling jacket is far superior to the sports coats required at a fancy restaurant and should thus be accepted.

Simsion presents us with a fresh worldview from the mind of an individual with Asperger’s but never turns Don into a stereotype. He is simply Don, and it didn’t take long for me as a reader to begin cheering him on, groaning when he failed to pick up an obvious social cue, and watching with great curiosity as he navigated a world where people again and again failed to act logically.

When a young bartender (not barmaid) named Rosie comes into the picture, Don quickly dismisses her as a wife candidate, but something intrigues him about her. Without quite knowing why, Don agrees to lend her his expertise as a genetics professor as they search for Rosie’s biological father.

The Father Project soon usurps Don’s concentration from the Wife Project as he and Rosie find themselves fibbing, slinging drinks, and jetting across the world to solve the mystery. Don begins to notice that the barmaid possesses some likable qualities.

The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy turned on its head. Don is just about the least sexy knight in shining armor that you can imagine, but the chemistry between him and Rosy is real. Simsion is an extremely talented author who manages to mine great humor from his main characters without ever denigrating them.

If you’re like me, you’ll quickly fall head over heels for The Rosie Project.

Difficult Choices – Why You Can Only Find Some Books On Amazon

April 10th, 2016 No comments
Unlocked handcuffs

Time to break my books out of Amazon exclusivity! Photo credit: Insulinde via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

As an author, I naturally want my ebooks to be available in as many places as possible. I want to put them on Amazon of course, but also in the Apple bookstore, Kobo, BarnesandNoble.com. Heck, if I could, I would dress up in a pink tutu and magically sprinkle print copies of my books onto every bookshelf in the world – The Book Fairy! (You know, if breaking into strangers’ houses wasn’t considered such a social faux paus).

Despite my personal preferences, you may have noticed in the past that only Falling, the first book in my Girl With Broken Wings series, was available on platforms outside of Amazon. The rest of the books were trapped, Rapunzel-like, exclusively on the giant retailer. Several readers have asked about this, so I’m going to lift the curtain of the publishing world and explain why authors face so much pressure to publish exclusively through Amazon…and why I’ve decided to buck the trend.

A Little Note About Amazon

Amazon is by far the largest book seller in the world; and not by a small margin. Barnes and Noble – one of the last remaining chain book sellers, is like a cute little smart car compared to Amazon’s growling monster truck.

Don’t think Amazon is a courteous, polite driver in that monster truck. No, it is all about rolling over the competition with its huge tires and selling power. Amazon knows that it benefits when books are only available on Amazon.com. It also knows it has a ton of leverage, because it can offer authors access to more readers than any other book selling platform.

Is Amazon – engines growling – going to use this leverage?

Uh, yeah.

KDP Select

Amazon wants exclusivity. Amazon has reader leverage to offer authors. What does it do?

Answer: It builds a program called KDP Select. In a nutshell, the job of KDP Select is to entice authors with all sorts of special privileges in order to convince them to publish exclusively on Amazon. Authors who sign on the dotted line (okay, it’s really just a super easy box that they click) agree to keep their books exclusively on Amazon in exchange for some pretty sweet perks.

What’s so awesome about KDP Select that so many authors would be willing to turn a cold shoulder to all their less cool publishing friends like Kobo, iTunes, and Nook? Lots of stuff, it turns out. KDP Select members can run special promotions on their books not available to other authors and set their books for free, which regular authors aren’t allowed to do on Amazon.

(Note: You may have noticed that, as of this writing, both Falling and Employment Interview with a Vampire are free on Amazon. Yep, there’s a super sneaky, complicated way of making this happen. Let’s just say that I am an author ninja!)

Probably the biggest benefit of going steady with Amazon is that signing up for KDP Select allows an author to enroll their ebooks into the Kindle Unlimited Program. This is Amazon’s book subscription service that lets readers borrow an endless supply of participating books. Emphasis on the word participating. Things may be different for Lee Child or Stephen King, but for us smaller authors, the only way to get into the program is to agree to go exclusive with Amazon.

This is a hard choice for authors. The Kindle Unlimited program offers authors the opportunity to earn more money, oftentimes more than what we can earn on all the smaller book selling platforms combined.

On the other hand, we also want to offer our books to readers across the spectrum. We know that some readers only own Nooks and that others shop through the iTunes store or through Kobo. Seems kind of mean to cut them out or force them to download a Kindle app or purchase a more expensive print book off of Amazon.

Breaking Out

So, what choice did I make? Weren’t you reading the beginning of this blog post? I went for the money, of course! I signed up almost all of my books exclusively with Amazon for the better part of two years. I kept Falling out of KDP Select, because it was already free on Amazon. This led, inevitably, to readers finding Falling on different book selling platforms and then getting justifiably ticked off when all of the rest of the books in the series were on Amazon.

I was never comfortable keeping all of my books on Amazon, but the extra income was…how shall I say, too good to refuse. However, over time, scammers learned how to manipulate the way Amazon paid out royalties on books in the Kindle Unlimited program. It’s this whole big, complicated story, but the bottom line is that legitimate authors started earning less and less. Amazon has promised to fix the system and filter out the spammers, but to me, this was as good a time as any to jump ship and go wide.

Yes, this means losing money, at least in the short term, but my hope is that with a little elbow grease and hard work, I can introduce my books to readers on all the different platforms. Regardless, it feels good to break my books out of the Amazon tower. To be clear, my books are all still for sale on Amazon, but they are no longer participating in the Amazon Unlimited Program.

And…drum roll….all of my books in my Girl With Broken Wings series and The Vampire’s Housekeeper Chronicles are available on:

I’m sorry it took me so long!

Sad Endings Make Me Sad, and Other Profound Thoughts

March 31st, 2016 No comments
sad woman

This was pretty much me for the rest of the day after I read the Red Wedding chapter in A Storm of Swords. Photo via Visualhunt.com

I just finished reading a really good book series. As per my usual, I fell right into the story, heart and soul. So when one of the main characters died valiantly saving many innocents from a dire threat and another character was permanently maimed, it felt like I’d lost two dear friends in one fell swoop.

It actually hurt me in my soul.

I definitely had some bad flashbacks to previous reading-related trauma, like the Red Wedding scene in the Song of Ice and Fire series. My favorite character was treacherously murdered in that scene. I remember desperately trying to hold myself together after finishing that chapter and then tearing up as I drove home. (Note to self: Maybe stick to playing Candy Crush at the public car wash.)

That night after completing this latest book series, I lay in bed feeling the loss of those characters. I started thinking about books that end in tragedy and came to this profound conclusion:

Sad Endings Make Me Sad

Sad books don’t sit well with me. It feels like I’ve put in all this time and effort, invited characters into my life, and then the author sucker punches me and skips away laughing at the end.

Happy endings are so much more satisfying. Yep, I clearly see the double sexual meaning in that last sentence, but I can’t figure out a good way around it. Let’s ignore that and move on. I enjoy books that end on a good note, because even after I turn the last page, I can still imagine my favorite characters alive and well living in their new happy circumstances. It’s like knowing your best friend from high school is happily married with two adorable kids just like she always wanted. You two haven’t spoken in years, but it just feels good to know that she’s out in the world doing well.

Sad Endings Are More Powerful

As I lay in bed fretting over the loss of my favorite character instead of, you know, actually going to sleep, it made me realize that tragic endings are usually far more powerful than happy endings. It hurts the reader to lose a character, and it also hurts the other characters in the book as well as the fabric of the story’s universe. It’s like a festering wound that makes the story stick with me.

A happy ending lets me close the book (metaphorically since I read everything on a Kindle), sigh contentedly, and then move onto the next book.

Choosing an Ending

All of these considerations are more relevant than ever as I put the finishing touches on Flying, the last book in the Girl With Broken Wings series. My characters inhabit a very dangerous world that has become ever more perilous at the start of Flying.

When I was originally sketching out the book, I grappled with how I wanted it to end. I could see both an ending of supreme tragedy and an ending of unity and second chances. (Trying so hard not to create spoilers!) Even as I started writing, I wasn’t sure who was going to survive and who was not.

Regardless of the final outcome, Flying is a very dark story. Tarren, Maya, and Gabe each face dire challenges, and no one comes out of the book unscathed. Tragedy has a purpose. It is a sculpting force. It can break survivors, or it can make them stronger and fuel heroic acts.

Not every character will make it to the end of Flying, and the ones who do will bear new scars. Tragedy is hard on characters and readers, but it also gives a story a profound edge, maybe makes us a little more appreciative of the light.

As for whether the book ends in tragedy or joy…you’re just going to have to find out for yourself. (You knew I was going to say that, right?)

Why You Need to Care About What’s Going on in America’s Most Violent and Hopeless Neighborhoods; My Review of Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

March 18th, 2016 No comments

Cover -- Ghettoside by Jill LeovyI picked up Ghettoside, because I wanted to try and understand why crime was so rampant in certain neighborhoods across the country. Was it poverty? Gangs? Drugs?

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy took me across the the train tracks and into the living rooms within the ghetto as well as inside the police station where detectives work unrelentingly to solve the black-on-black murders that almost never make the news.

Leovy tackles the tragic statistics of black-on-black murder head on and digs into the causes that have turned small enclaves in Los Angeles into festering dens of gang activity, crime, suspicion of the police, and a heavy sense that the rest of the outside world doesn’t care.

Leovy’s greatest talent is her ability to humanize those who call the ghetto home and those who try to make it a little safer by putting murderers behind bars. We meet dedicated detectives, kids who join gangs for the protection they provide, prostitutes who risk their lives to testify in court, and broken-hearted parents who lose their children.

I couldn’t stop reading Ghettoside. Every page pulled me deeper and deeper into a place within my own country (actually, my own state of California) that I know so little about. The primary story of the murder of a black police detective’s son drives the plot forward, but truly Leovy’s deft portraits of the people who live and serve in the ghetto that stuck with me long after the last page.

This book was enlightening. I walked away with a much greater sympathy for the people trapped in the ghetto, incredible respect for the officers who serve these areas, and a better understanding of the highly complex problem of violence that requires the attention of a nation to fix.

Ready Player One Review: A Must-Read For Anyone Who Grew Up In The 80’s, Loves Videogame Culture, Or Who Always Roots For The Underdog.

February 10th, 2016 1 comment

Book cover, Ready Player OneThe world is a crappy place in 2044. People are starving. Indentured servitude is a thing. Murders are so common they barely make the news. The one escape is the Oasis, a massive virtual reality world teeming with possibility. Within the Oasis, a clever avatar can gain power, prestige, and just about any ability they can imagine.

In the real world, Wade Watts is a chubby, shy, and impoverished orphan trapped in “the stacks.” In the Oasis, however, he is Parzival, dedicated Gunter. Both Wade and Parzival have one singular purpose in life. They will find Halliday’s egg.

Five years in, most people assume that Halliday’s egg is a fantasy. When co-creator of the Oasis, James Halliday died, he hid the egg somewhere within the Oasis, trapped behind three gates that can only be opened with three keys. The one who finds the egg, earns Halliday’s massive fortune, and – even more valuable – control of the Oasis. For five years the first key remained hidden, that is until an avatar’s name finally hit the scoreboard. That name was Parzival.

When Wade discovers the first key to the gate, the race is on to find Halliday’s egg. Wade will have to use all of his cunning not to mention his encyclopedic memory of 80’s pop culture to stay ahead of his fellow gunters, as well as Innovative Online Industries, a merciless business enterprise that is willing to find the egg (and take control of the Oasis) at any cost.

Ready Player One was a constant and enjoyable adrenaline rush. Author Ernest Cline does a fantastic job of creating a believable and fantastic world, where reality and fantasy merge so deeply that the line is hard to distinguish. The Oasis springs vividly from the MMORPGs today, and is kind of like World of Warcraft mixed with Second Life mixed with Cline’s own imagination. The fact that these kids of the future are steeped in 80s trivia just adds to the fun. The clash of past and future works in dazzling fashion.

The exciting plot and engaging characters of Ready Player One is worth the read on its own. Wade is a sympathetic character, and it won’t take you long to start seriously rooting for him to somehow outsmart the well-moneyed and malicious IOI. However, there is a lot more to this novel if you want to dig deep. Cline challenges us to consider the risk of giving into the siren’s call of technology as a cure-all and of ignoring the decline of our real world in the process.

A must-read for anyone who grew up in the 80’s, loves videogame culture, or who always roots for the underdog.

I’ve Just Realized That I’m A Total Review Hypocrite

February 4th, 2016 1 comment
Embarrassed baby

Total review hypocrite here, nothing to see! Photo credit: Mandajuice via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Trying to get reviews for my books is kind of the bane of my existence. Reviews are more important than most readers realize. They help give an ebook credibility. Think about the last time you scrolled through a list of books on Amazon. Your eyes scanned the title and the book cover…and the star rating. You probably looked at the number of reviews too. It’s hard to miss, since the book’s rating is right at the top of each book’s page.

Reviews are also important, because many of the best advertising opportunities for authors only accept books with a certain star rating (usually at least 3.5 stars) and a minimum number of reviews, (anything from 10 reviews to 50). This is the reason you’ve probably noticed that most indie books, (including mine), conclude with a slightly desperate request from the author for their readers to leave a review.

<<< Want to write a review, but not really sure how? Here’s my quick and easy guide to writing an awesome book review>>>

But Writing a Review Is Hard…

Here’s the rub…writing reviews more than kind of sucks. At least for me. I always feel like I have to be thoughtful, clever, and insightful in my reviews, but what I really want to do is just start reading the next book in my list. Writing a review seems like homework, and once I’ve got that thought in my head, it gets lodged there. Writing a review becomes just about the last thing I want to do, along with cleaning the grout in my bathroom and clipping my bunny’s nails (which he treats with the same amount of hysterics as if I were giving him a live autopsy).

Manning Up….er, Womaning Up

But I know that reviews are incredibly important, so my goal this year is to write a review for every book I read. I’ve come up with a fail-proof system for accomplishing this – I simply won’t start a new book until I’ve written and posted a review for the previous one.

Imagine how smug and self-congratulatory I felt after making this resolution. Yeah, J Bennett’s getting serious this year. Helping authors. Doing her part. A hero? No, no, well, maybe a little.

Then, this morning, a realization hit me with the gentle tap of an aluminum baseball bat. I am a total review hypocrite.

Books Aren’t the Only Things That Deserve Reviews

This whole time, I’ve been patting myself on the back just for writing a handful of book reviews, as if books are the only things in the world that need reviews. All around me, every day I consume media, use products, and patronize businesses that live or die in a big part on reviews. Have I written a positive review of the CrossFit gym where I’ve been a dedicated member for over two years? What about the brilliantly made podcasts that I gobble up like the last chocolate cupcakes on the planet? Or any of the myriad things that find their way to my Amazon cart?

I never once considered writing reviews for any of them.

Shame on me.

My rating and review might convince another person to try out a product, business, or media that I love. That person could then become a loyal fan and continue the positive cycle.

My new challenge to myself is to be an equal-opportunity reviewer, to support all the things I really like, whether it be a book, my dentist, or the new headlamp I just bought on Amazon. I encourage you to consider posting more positive reviews as well and give a little boost to the businesses and products that have served you well.

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Book Review of The Book Thief

January 28th, 2016 No comments

Cover of The Book ThiefDeath has a lot on his plate, especially in the 1940s as Europe erupts into war. And yet, every once in a while, Death gets distracted. One of those distractions is Liesel Meminger, a young girl who lives with foster parents in a small town outside of Munich. Liesel is a strong-willed girl who discovers the beauty and the power of words after her caring foster father, Hans, decides to teach her to read. Liesel is also a thief. Her first stolen treasure is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, snatched from the snow besides her brother’s grave.

As Liesel grows, reads, plays soccer, collects laundry, and avoids kissing her best friend, Rudy, the guns of war begin to erupt all over Germany. A promise Hans made many years ago leads him and Liesel to keep a very dark and dangerous secret, one that could save a life or put theirs in jeopardy.

Author Markus Zusak has woven a rich tapestry of words, images, and social commentary all bundled together into a few years of Liesel’s life. His ability to create complex characters and force them onto morale precipices in such a dangerous and uncertain time keeps The Book Thief moving at a good pace.

However, Zusak has a tendency to get drunk on his own words, swooning into melodramatic cascades of contemplation and constantly interrupting the story with special asides – some of which add substantially to the story and others that are as annoying as flies landing on the page.

Still, I can’t help but give this book five stars for the brilliant cast of characters Zusak created, for the intimate German town he built, and for ringing a good many tears out of me at the end.

How The Movie Ant-Man Kinda Sent Me Into A Spiral Of Despair

January 17th, 2016 1 comment
I just want to ruin your PB&J sandwich. Don't send me into battle against my will! Photo credit: Thomas Shahan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I just want to ruin your PB&J sandwich. Don’t send me into battle against my will! Photo credit: Thomas Shahan via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Ant-Man. Dude gets small. The premise seemed simple enough. Given that it was a superhero movie, there was no notion that I wasn’t going to get around to eventually seeing it. In my typical six-months-behind-the-curb-of-pretty-much-everything fashion, I finally saw the movie last weekend, even though it hit theaters in July of 2015.

My friends said it was okay. Amusing. Not as good as Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, but worth seeing. I believed them. I watched the movie. I spiraled into an ever deepening hole of despair.

Take One on Ant-Man – The Non-Hyperbolic, Normal Person’s Rendition

Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is just your average hottie thief (not robber!) with a Robin Hood complex looking for a second chance after a prison stint. Too bad his ex-wife won’t let him hang with their daughter, and – oh yeah – she’s dating a cop.

Fortunately, it just so happens an eccentric rich scientist named Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas) needs a guy with Scott’s unique talents to stop his power-mad protégé from recreating his too-dangerous-for-the-world shrinking technology. (Peter, debauched, wreck-of-a human-being from House of Cards graduates into a lamb-slaughtering, mad scientist for this role). Why, out of all the people in the world – including Black Widow, Captain America, and Samuel L. Jackson – does Pym choose Scott?

Stop asking stupid questions!

I suppose you also want to know why Pym doesn’t just give Scott a ring and ask, “Hey, I’ve got a bad-ass suit that shrinks and an army of ants to control. You in?” This, instead of paying a woman to talk up his massive safe to some dude who talks to other dudes who just happen to eventually talk to Scott’s adorable, hilarious, and utterly scene-stealing roommate (played by Michael Pena), who then mentions it to Scott who just so happens to shortly thereafter arrive at a key personal crisis that launches him back into his old criminal ways. Pym then allows Scott to steal his previously stated extremely dangerous, seemingly irreplaceable, and oddly perfectly fitting suit and just try it on wily nily. No worries that Scott could up and die or kill someone or simply run away with the precious suit.

Well, the answer to that is…STOP ASKING STUPID QUESTIONS. It was all part of Pym’s brilliant plan to recruit Scott, train him in the uses of the suit, and inadvertently set up a tepid romance between Scott and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily) which possesses all the tension of a wet noodle.

Oh, and one other thing. In no actual relation to the technology surrounding the suit, Pym has also – just as a hobby – discovered a way to mind control ants to do his bidding. Can he control other things that might be additionally useful for Scott’s mission, like hornets, black widows (not the kind in skin-tight body suits) and mosquitoes carrying loads of dysentery?

What did I say about asking stupid questions? The movie is called Ant-Man. ANTS! The guy controls ants. Okay, so cue the training montage. Failures. Everyone is all frustrated because Scott keeps running his handsome face into doors. But then, poof, he gets it. He’s ready to go.

What follows is sometimes massive but usually very tiny fighting and lots of ants getting fried in the quest to help Scott.

Yep…here we go.

Take Two on Ant-Man – My Horrified Viewing of Unnecessary Ant Slaughter

If you are of a certain generation, then Ant-Man will not have been your first introduction to ant violence. That’s right, I’m talking about Antie from Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I consider it my pre-Mufasa Mufasa moment. At least in Antie’s case, he was killed protecting one of the kids from a scorpion.

In the case of Ant-Man…well, the dude straight up mind rapes ants all over the place and makes them put their little ant lives on the line to help him in his quest. Ants die. The ants were totally minding their own business, doing their thing of getting in everyone’s way and ruining picnics, when Scott up and enslaved them.

For all its silliness and the fact that I was completely aware that all the ants were CGI (I promise I’m not writing this from an anti-ant violence picket line of one in front of Marvel studios), Ant-Man made me think of how easily we dismiss insects. By “dismiss,” I mean squash them and swat them and squish them. If someone leaves their dog out in the cold, the internet is up in arms, but we kill bugs without remorse, without even a thought.

Couldn’t Scott have, I don’t know, shrunk a motorcycle and grappling hook and pretty much done all the same stuff the ants did for him? Look at Yellowjacket. Yeah, he be crazy and not at all a friend to lambs, but at least the dude realized – hey, instead of inventing a way to force ants to do my bidding maybe I just add an awesome jet pack to the suit and lasers. Cause we all know lasers make everything better.

I’m even thinking Ant-Man could keep his name without the ants, because he still gets small. Makes a certain kind of sense if you like doofy, completely un-intimidating superhero names.

So, Ant-Man, how about not killing lots of CGI ants in your next movie? I’ll let you keep the almost-painful-to-watch romance with the if-being-annoying-was-an-Olympic-sport-she’d-get-the-gold Hope. Be a hero. Free the ants!

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Book Review of Dreamland By Sam Quinones

January 14th, 2016 No comments

Cover of Dreamland

Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars

Last year, I started seeing news stories popping up about middle class kids in the middle of the country dying of heroin overdoses. It didn’t make any sense. I always associated heroin with crime-infested urban areas in the 70s.  How could it possibly be ending up in the veins of cheerleaders, football players, and college kids who grew up on Main Street?

Dreamland gave me the answer. Author Sam Quinones, a veteran journalist, dug into this story and what he found was both fascinating and depressing. Dreamland takes readers down a peculiar journey were two potent forces – big pharma and a novel new take on drug dealing – inadvertently collide. The results created a massive plague of addiction and death across the country. People got hooked on OxyContin and then switched to the potent, readily available, and cheap black tar heroin which was streaming across the border from a single small county in Mexico.

Throughout the book, Quinones gives readers a series of heartbreaking vignettes. We meet the confused and devastated parents of dead kids, young Mexicans for whom heroin dealing represents the only path out of poverty, and the small circle of police officers, drug rehab workers, coroners, and judges who fought to bring a voice to this mostly silent plague.

Dreamland was fascinating in the same way of an oncoming train wreck. I wanted to look away…but somehow I just couldn’t. Quinones is a masterful storyteller who follows a complex, sometimes bizarre web of people and circumstances. This isn’t just a book about junkies, dealers, and the people trying to stop them. It’s a book about circumstances. Quinones links the heroin epidemic to the decay of middle America, to the privilege and boredom of today’s youth, to the masterful and manipulative marketing campaign of Purdue Pharma, and a legacy of shame and embarrassment that kept parents from speaking out about their children’s problems.

Dreamland answered my questions about why kids were dying of heroin overdoses in America and gave me so much more to think about. If you can excuse the inappropriate pun, I was hooked from start to finish. I saw an ugly side of America, but one we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

(Note: Links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.)