At the Queen’s Command: A Review

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I have been slacking on the blogging, but I’m back for a bit, with (surprise!) a nerdy-as-hell book review

Also, I just talked a bit about this particular book in my last Best Author You’ve Never Read post. So if you feel cheated, its justified. But you’re here reading, so your umbrage must have stayed on the shelf.

I digress. You can read the previous post for all of my gushing about Michael Stackpole; At The Queen’s Command is a nifty beginning to a series that’s long on captivating ideas, but a bit short on character development. I’ll endeavor to not bore you with plot summations, as ever.

The setting is essentially the mid to late 1700’s in a land called Mystria (i.e. America), a rough and rugged colony of the naval powerhouse of Norisle (i.e. England) located across a rather expansive ocean. A good chunk of the setting can be easily paralleled with the chafing of the American colonies beneath the British boot-heel, with just a few minor differences (Dragons, magical guns, zombies, nothing too major). Don’t forget the Shedashee (i.e. Native Americans), the shamanistic indigs that play a vital guidance role…and also have green skin.

The setting is very intriguing, and Stackpole delves deep into magical theory (in this work and in the next voume) almost to the point of aridity. It’s Martian-level scientific detail, except its completely made up and fantastic. Needless to say, it can be a bit hard to follow at times. The utilization of the magic, however, is the fantasy-focused area where this book shines. It’s not rampant or overpowering. Guns are fired with a type of fire-magic used to ignite the powder to supply the force that moves the lead. Everything else, including the laborious reloading task, feels very realistic and true to a historical setting. That’s the beauty of magic in the world Stackpole’s created: it supplements daily activities; it doesn’t run the world.

I mentioned character development earlier, and that’s where this one gets a bit shaky. Some of the characters are captivating, from the bible-thumping frontiersman Makepeace Bone (with a name like that, he’s gotta be awesome) and the aptly-named Nathaniel Woods (cuz he’s a woodsman) to the conflicted, somewhat naive Norisler Owen Strake who bumbles through and then falls in love with the new colonies. These three examples, and most of the other enjoyable characters, are Mystrians (i.e. Americans, at least at heart) and maybe its my own prejudice, but I found the vast majority of the Norisle (British) characters to be a bit myopic. It’s clear who we’re supposed to root for and like best in the prose, but I always like characters that have more going on than simple caricature, and I just couldn’t find much beneath the surface for the Norisle contingent, even the esteemed Prince Vladimir.

Overall, this is one for the nerds. If you like nifty alternate history ideas injected with a bit of magic, give this one a swing. The way he chooses to take the wyrm/dragon aspects are unique in a plot device we’ve probably all seen beaten to death in the genre. The arch-villain is cold, calculating, yet has the special kind of evil you can almost understand.

I’d say this one gets gets a solid 4-out-of-5 crates of tea. Floating in the Boston harbor. It has nothing to do with the book, but still…Take that, you limey Brits. Go Team America.

Signing off

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The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 7: Michael Stackpole

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Looks like he’s going to a convention. Which he probably is.

I have a thing for licensed fiction. There’s something about crafting a well-written story within an already defined and structured universe that makes it seem like more than half of your work is done for you, its true. And yes, the fan-boy rocks do occasionally fly. But I imagine contributing a piece to a much larger canon still feels worthwhile, and may even be more satisfying if its a license you love.

Michael Stackpole has made a career out of this. And a very lucrative career at that.

A life-long RPG nerd, my first contact with Mr. Stackpole came in the form of the beloved Rogue Squadron series, a set of four incredibly fun novels featuring Wedge Antilles (Please remember him from the first movies. If you don’t I’ll feel old) and the elite pilot team interspersed through out the trilogy, the literary canon, and several memorable video game titles. At the time of their release (mid-late 1990’s) Star Wars was hitting a bit of a renaissance with the much-anticipated release of volumes 1-3. We all know how that went. No need to walk across that particular bed of shattered dreams here.

We’re on the cusp of yet another Star Wars theatrical renaissance here in 2015, and it looks like the results might be a bit better this time around. My only hope (rimshot) is some of the top-notch Star Wars books may get an injection of interest, and Stackpole’s name should be at the top of the list. Hence, this recommendation. He’s also written books in Battletech, World of Warcraft and Shadowrun settings as well, all very fantastic and good reads.

He’s not just a nerd putting words on paper, however. Stackpole has a talent for developing interesting and in-depth characters, or in many cases accurately expanding upon characters you already know. Three main reasons you should check out both Stackpole’s licensed work and his original inventions, both graphic and prose:51gl85BSDeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_513176

  1. Characters – Hands down he creates or expands on some of the best protagonists and antagonists in science fiction history. Even fan favorites liked Wedge Antilles take on a life of their own in Stackpole’s narrative. They feel real, flawed, and interesting without sacrificing any of the cool we love so dearly.
  2. Fantastic Detail – This guy can paint a picture with his words. A key asset for any science fiction writer, he manages to create and describe unique settings and established ones with equal precision. The galaxy far, far away in Rogue Squadron  and the fantastic pseudo-America from Crown Colonies both feel equally real and tangible
  3. Fun – The plots aren’t overly complicated, the twists and turns aren’t exactly hidden or unexpected. He lets the characters come to the forefront and drive the story, and takes the reader along with them. Sometimes, that simple, straightforward text is just what we need for a 350-page vacation from the real world.

I like Stackpole a lot. Between Rogue Squadron and Battletech he wrote some of the coolest stories I read as a burgeoning sci-fi nerd. I’m a bit older now and realize his books don’t exactly stack up to Gatsby or War & Peace, but that’s ok. He’s an enjoyable read when you want to spend some time away from reality.

Signing Off.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Review

17026_413852478709121_1163712783_nNeil Gaiman is a master craftsman. Somehow he has an ability to take words and shape them into strings of ideas that make you feel whole and empty all in the same breath. And he has the bloody nerve to make it feel effortless and easy. I sometimes hate him when I read his work, but love the work itself. Then I get over it and read the next one. Which led me to The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

It’s a shorter work, less than 200 pages all told. According to an afterword it started as a short story but mutated into a novella as he wrote it (Do you see why I occasionally hate this guy?). The brevity gives this novel an intensity that was not present in his more renowned work. Sandman and American Gods are fairly long works with very determinate paces, but with Ocean he manages the time well, and focuses on the emotions tied into the prose rather than mythological references or backstory.

The tight, focused narrative keeps a reader on the edge of their seat, and since its Gaiman the mythological and fantastic play a role, but a small one, definitively ancillary to the experience of the protagonist. Terrifying in parts, heartwarming in others, the pay-off at the end of the book seemed a little anti-climactic, but even that may have been intentional. The joy of Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly in the journey, and experiencing a small, fantastic glimpse into the life of a little boy.

I won’t bore you with plot summary, but there is an element of Science Fiction and Fantasy that Neil Gaiman handles in typically (and infuriatingly) precise fashion. Some of the more magical characters in Ocean can essentially “cut” pieces of time out of reality and sew them back together, essentially eliminating events from universal consciousness. Most other writers would see this as a cheap, Deus ex-level of cheat, especially when the climax includes an “It was all a dream” element. Gaiman takes you through every painstaking part of the memory, and then cuts it out. I wanted to feel cheated and cheapened, but the way he handles it wouldn’t allow me to. Remember how I said empty and whole in the opening paragraph? That’s exactly how you feel when you’ve read this book.

Fucking Neil Gaiman. If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll really appreciate this book, and find it immensely quotable. Even if you hate books (in which case why the hell are you reading this?) he has some great prose moments in this story:

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.”

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than than that. They just were.”

“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”

I particularly like that last one. I could list more but…you’ll have to read the book. Ha.

Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quiet yet moving short fiction piece that everyone, not just Gaiman fans, will enjoy. If you were ever a little kid (and I hope you were, at some point) , you’ll be able to relate to the emotional turmoil and desire for escape present on every single page.

I give this book 2-out-of-2 middle fingers straight up in the air. Because seriously Neil, fuck you. Stop making it look so easy. The rest of us are developing a complex.

Signing off.

Opining in the Octagon, September 2015: Holly “Hype-Check” Holm vs. Ronda Rousey

OI’m a big MMA fan, so occasionally (at least once per month) I’ll give you all my opinion on a big story in the UFC or Mixed Martial Arts world. And you’ll read it. Because I said so.

September 2015: Can Holly Holm be the Hype-Check challenger for the merciless juggernaut that is Ronda Rousey?

I think she has a chance. There’s a precedent for this in the UFC, when a dominant champion seems to be tearing through a weight-class only to get hype-checked by a seemingly innocuous challenger:

  1. Matt Serra knocked out George St. Pierre (who used to be a fighter, I swear it) at UFC 69 to win the welterweight title. Serra was just supposed to be another can for the GSP train to eat and discard, but the french-canadian champ looked like he was going through the motions, and a shot to the chin put him down, and put the belt around a chubby, undersized Long Island native’s waist. St. Pierre would get the belt back, and pummel Serra in their rematch at UFC 83, but Serra is still the only loss he suffered while holding the welterweight title.

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    Even he couldn’t believe it happened. And he was there.

  2. This one wasn’t for a title, but when Mauricio “Shogun” Rua made the move to the UFC from Pride FC, he was supposed to roll through the light heavyweight division and get  a shot at then-champion Rampage Jackson. The problem was he had to go through Forrest Griffin to get there. Griffin made a statement for all UFC fighters, and started his own climb to the top of the division by slapping on a rear naked choke at the end of the third round. Rua looked unprepared to take on the hard-charging Griffin, and got stung for his overconfidence. His UFC career never quite matched the success he had in Pride.

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    The beginning of the end for Shogun Rua.

  3. Back in March, Anthony Pettis had a lot going for him: He was the first UFC athlete on a Wheaties box, won the lightweight title by being the only person on the planet (at the time) who could beat Benson Henderson, and had defended the title against a game Gilbert Melendez three months earlier. Then he ran into Rafael Dos Anjos, who pushed him around the cage for 25 minutes, busted his eye, and won a unanimous decision to take the lightweight title. Pettis didn’t look cocky, but he did look human. Time will tell if this was a hype-check, or a changing of the guard.

    DALLAS, TX - MARCH 14:  Rafael dos Anjos, top fights with Anthony Pettis in the Lightweight Title bout during the UFC 185 event at American Airlines Center on March 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    The theme for the fight. Busted eye came later.

Ronda Rousey may have more going on than any of the aforementioned upsetees (It’s a term). She’s thinking about starring in her own autobiographical movie, is waging a futile but entertaining war of words with Floyd Mayweather, and can’t get away from the speculation about a super-fight with Cyborg Justino in the future. Rather than throw Miesha Tate back into the meat grinder to see if she can last 60 seconds this time, the UFC decided to make Holly Holm, a relative MMA unknown, the next victim while we all wait for Cyborg to figure out the right diet plan to make 135 lbs.082115-UFC-Ronda-Holm-PI-SW.vadapt.620.high.0

But, in my humble opinion, Holm isn’t just another victim, to paraphrase a pro wrestling legend. She’s a hunter herself, just with different stripes. She might be the most decorated boxer and kick-boxer in the UFC (man or woman) and is undeniably the female fighter with the best boxing pedigree in the sport. Her boxing record of 33 wins (9 KOs, 23 decisions), 2 losses, and 3 draws is incredible on its own, and coupled with 18 championships in 3 weight classes, its downright stellar. She also won an amateur kickboxing title in 2001, and has a litany of other awards for her boxing achievements.hi-res-b80dad6585ea1ade385842a3175670c8_crop_north

Her young MMA career is less extensive but just as impressive, with 9 wins (6 KOs, 3 decisions) and no losses spread across several different promotions, with two decision wins against UFC competition.

Wow. Two UFC fights. And both were decisions. Why in the hell do I think this woman, impressive as she is, can survive against the most dominant athlete in the world?d01_jd_05apr_holm2-640x430

It’s the reading between the lines of each win, adding up the sum of her career, and seeing her fighting style that has me (and several others with way more knowledge than me) smelling an upset. Holm is dangerous with her hands and her feet, as some of her MMA knockouts came from head kicks, leg kicks, and body kicks. She’s also patient, as evidenced by the decision-heavy boxing record. If she was a berserker-rage type boxer, Rousey would chew her up, lock in an armbar, and spit her out, probably in less than a minute. But Holly Holm is a stalker, content to pick and chose her strikes, keeping her range extended with her feet, and then moving in for the kill when she smells blood.0039_workout_Ronda_Rousey.0.0

Rousey has been improving her striking game, evidenced by two very quick TKOs in her last three fights. Against Correia her striking looked good but still technically a bit shaky. Hands were dropped, people. I saw. If she gets Holm on the ground, it’s probably a done deal. But Judo (Rousey’s main discipline), especially in a sans-gi, skin-heavy environment like the UFC, does require getting up-close and personal to a clinch position before initiating a throw. Holm has the experience and skill to keep Ronda out of range, and the striking finesse to punish her if she does get in close. And The Preacher’s Daughter (Holm’s rather wordy nickname) is not someone Rousey wants to stand with.index

With some headlines and articles intimating fans are getting bored with shelling out the money for a Pya-Per-View then watching Ronda Rousey win in less than a minute, and professional athletes like Lolo Jones stating they could make the magic 60-second mark, you might be tempted to turn away from UFC 193 in two months. Hell, if the fight lasts 14 seconds, you can catch nearly the whole thing on ESPN the next week. This fight, at the very least, will be worth the money. It won’t be over in 30 seconds. It won’t be over in the first round. These are my bold predictions.

At least I can’t be wrong for two months.

Signing off.

The Mongoliad Book Three (And the Mongoliad Trilogy): A Review

51sIKH0vrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ok, so I may have come down a bit hard on the ol’ Mongoliad boys with the last review. The third volume basically made-up for some of the screw-ups in the second and re-captured some of the majesty that made the first volume so enjoyable.

First a quick re-cap – Seven uber-nerds (I’m assuming), with varying degrees of commercial writing renown, set embark on a journey to write an epic historical fiction trilogy about the conflict between Christian Europe and the Mongol horde. That might be a captivating book on its own, but its actually what Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, and Cooper Moo set out to do. And they succeeded.

Book three again had several different plot lines featuring divergent characters, but in this volume at least two of the groups wound up reuniting (they started off together, but lets ignore that for now). We got the story from the Mongol point of view, plenty of grim solider dialogue from multiple crews of Christian military orders, and some political intrigue in the form of a sede vacante in Rome. Are they all related? Tangentially yes. How? I don’t know, but they are. Good lord people, seven of them wrote it. Lets cut some slack where slack is due.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much plot re-hash, since you should read the damn things yourselves. The vast majority of the plot lines were wrapped up in typical medieval fiction style (“She rode off down the road, not knowing what lie ahead.” or “The party was reunited and there was much rejoicing.” or more definitely, “They died.”) but the endings felt natural. A few story lines from the preceding two volumes were cast aside and forgotten, but you didn’t miss them too much.

I had a bone to pick with the Rome setting and the papal intrigue in the last volume, and while still definitely the weakest setting, some of the issues I had were resolved. It felt like the authors embraced some of the absurdity in the base idea, and moments within the narrative were pure comedy. My favorite line (paraphrasing) “They had just elected a madman to be the next pope, and now they had to decide what to do about it.” has got to be a candidate for funniest lines of prose anywhere. Or maybe it’s funny because I was raised Catholic.

As a whole, this trilogy was entertaining to read, if a it sluggish in the second volume. I’d recommend it to any fan of historical fiction with the slightest bit of fantasy (no real magic, just some inexplicable happenings here and there) will enjoy this one. The combat and action sequences are smooth and fluid, the settings are vibrant, and the martial characters reveal a softer side after (or before) all the blood and killing that bridges the gap between the bloody battles.

The trilogy overall gets 4 out of 5 spirit poles. And that’s not a euphemism. Or referencing priest from Poland.

The Mongoliad itself is much bigger than the three books I’ve reviewed here. It’s actually set in the “Foreworld” setting, an alternate-historical, fan-driven universe that mirrors our own but apparently brings some cultures into conflict that may never have intersected in real life. The Mongoliad Cycle, as its referred, spawned from one of the author’s (Neal Stephenson) dissatisfaction with the authenticity of his sword-fighting scenes. So he gathered up some medieval fighting geeks, studied some sword-play, and then they all contributed to writing some stories. Maybe the coolest origin story for a book ever.

The project was originally serialized on a fan-contribution website, and the Subutai Corporation (Creators of Foreworld) even recognize some fan fiction as “side-quests” for their larger publishing endeavors. I wanted to look at the three Mongoliad books as strictly prose, but the origins and motivations behind the story are almost as interesting as the prose.

If you want to learn more, check out the Wikipedia page, since I am lazy.

The Mongoliad Book Two: A Review (And a brief discussion of The Empire Strikes Back)

13665175There was a little bit of space between reading volume one and two in this rather interesting series written by 7 authors: Greg Bear (Arguably the most famous), Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Massey, Cooper Moo).

I found the disjointed yet inter-weaving storylines from the first volume to be compelling and interesting. It’s very clear in volume two the same approach continued: assign a writer (or two) to a certain setting or character group and let them write that part. I applaud the unique approach, as I’ve always been curious about author collaborations and how well they actually work. The first volume ( and you can read that review here) seemed to have its proverbial shit together, as the characters were somewhat disjointed but still had an overarching theme in common (Mongols vs. Christendom, or really everyone else on the Asian-European landmass).

In book two, we get a few new characters and a new setting: Rome. A crazy priest, his somewhat savage boy companion (Get your minds out of the gutter) another binder-child girl (Binders are essentially tribal messengers…you’ll have to read it or be a history professor to understand), and a plethora of imprisoned cardinals struggling to elect a new pope.

Some of the novelty of the divergent storylines wore off in volume two. Its a comparatively short work when put next to volumes one and three, and the new papal/Roman environment felt underdeveloped. The old favorites are back (at least the ones that didn’t die), and the Shield-Brethren Knights are still trying to both distract and take down the entire Mongol dynasty with just a handful of well-armored Christians.

And the strength of book two, much like one, still lies in the martial description. Its very clear these folks did their homework, both historically and aesthetically, and the combat scenes feel alive and fluid. A fair portion of this book is dedicated to the Mongol version of gladiator combat, as well as militaristic skirmishes between Mongols and Knights. Some of the smoothest and most understandable descriptions I’ve seen since reading Dan Abnett are in these two books, and the historical accuracy is a cherry on top of that bloody cake.

The pleasant surprise of the first volume was the decidedly more intriguing story of the internal political struggle in Mongol capital, with a side of longing romanticism. Gansukh the steppe warrior struggles to save the Khagan (the BIG Khan) from his dependence on alcohol, and also kind of has a thing for a Chinese slave/etiquette teacher named Lian. The in-depth look at court politics, subterfuge, and social conflict provided an interesting counterpoint to the heavy-handed action movie that was the knights’ portion of the storyline. The interweaving continues in book two, with Lian and Gansukh getting bolder (and naughtier) with their affair.

The new cast of characters in Rome is where volume two struggles. The whole thing, setting, plot evolution, etc. just happens too fast, and it isn’t clear how it ties into the narrative from book one. Every time a chapter started for the Rome setting, I groaned (figuratively). I honestly believe keeping this entire storyline out of the book would’ve been an improvement. Maybe they’ll change my mind in book three (which is currently underway…no change yet).

The middle book, to me, can sometimes make or break a series. When a reader (or viewer) starts to experience a work of literature or media that they know has three parts, the expectation is simple: Volume one I meet the characters, and Volume three is the exciting conclusion. So…where do we get the meat of the story? In volume two. Its why Empire is so clearly the best Star Wars in the trilogy (and if you disagree, hold up two fingers. Great. Now shove them in your eye sockets.) Unfortunately for the Mongoliad, volume two is quite weak. What started off with promise out of the gate is now limping toward the finish line. At the end of the day I am reading the third volume, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

I’d say Mongoliad Book Two gets a 4 out of 7 superfluous authors, since the book has seven. In all honesty the attempt to write a series with a septuple-headed writer is commendable on its own. I struggle with having just one person arguing amongst himself, I couldn’t imagine seven. Although I may have at least that many personalities in my head when I’m writing.

Ahem.

Signing Off.

The Stand – A Review

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I’ve never been a big Stephen King fan. There I said it. Easily one of the most successful writer’s of all time, I just couldn’t get into the stuff he wrote. I like monsters. I like psychological thrillers. I like horror. But somehow, I never really liked Stephen King. I tried. I read Thinner, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and none of it really grabbed me. I started The Dark Tower and got into it a bit, but still managed to put it down and not pick it back up again.

So why subject myself to 1200 pages of him? I couldn’t tell you. Reading The Stand has always felt like a rite of passage as a reader. Like you weren’t in the “It” crowd (pun intended) until you’d plodded through the density that is The Stand. And I did it. Lord knows it wasn’t the easiest thing to hack through, but I found I enjoyed it more than any King book I’d tried. And now, for my (slightly) informed opinion:

This book,as you can probably tell, is a bit tough to get through. It’s long, slow in places, and cuts some corners inexplicably while laboring intensely in other places where it felt unnatural. That being said, the length of the book is ambitious, and the middle section is exciting and interesting enough to almost stand on its own. Once Captain Trips starts mowing folks down, the prose really comes into its own. Things get exciting, the post-apocalyptic piece starts kicking in, and the pages start turning.

The characters are hit and miss for me. Stu Redman definitely felt like a well-developed good ol’ boy from East Texas. Frannie’s giggle fits and semi-demurity painted her as a perfect New England college ingenue with a kind heart and sharp wit. Larry Underwood was a bit bizarre, the emerging pop icon who struggles to believe that he’s not a complete asshole, but it felt real enough. And Nick Andros was believable and strong, and even though he was mute the disability never over-shadowed the character. So all the folks on the “good” side were likable and relatable for the most part.

The folks on the “bad” side were somewhat less impressive. Lloyd being the best example, he enters the story as a drug-addled homicidal maniac. Somehow magic makes him “better” and he becomes a consigliere to a demon (-ish thing). Same thing with Harold and Nadine. They seemed to be either inexplicably bad or inexplicably good, and relied on external influences to determine their actions. Harold flirted with relatability, as did Nadine, until they were ripped from the ranks of the “good” people by supernatural forces.

Some spoilers below.

That may define my biggest issue with the entirety of the book. I could not buy the supernatural elements, as it felt like the author couldn’t decide what role the “magic” elements should play. The intrigue of a drifter archetype and a centenarian African-American ultra-grandma becoming holy (and unholy) lodestones for the surviving population had me hooked for a few hundred pages, but the execution was lacking. It felt like King couldn’t decide if he wanted supernatural forces to be incredibly prevalent and tangible, or unseen and more subtle. The flu came about through strictly scientific means, with no innuendo that it may have been a part of unnatural machinations.

Randall Flag is a bit of a mystery. He runs the gamut of being a spooky, haunting but grounded character to some kind of possessed or straight-up demonic entity. I read the whole thing and I’m still not sure. I’m not convinced King knows either. I bought the seeing through or possessing (kind of) animals, or the Third Eye granting him some form of remote viewing ability. All these things aren’t active abilities that physically change the world or the environment. It’s subtle magic that grants information and that’s it. Perfect. Mother Abigail had a less-direct form of Special Sight, and that worked too. I’m with you, Steve.

And then, at the climax, which you’ve actually built up to masterfully and had me on the edge of my seat, suddenly he can cast Chain Lightning. And you lost me. I’m probably complaining more than I should because I firmly believe well-crafted villains, and to a lesser extent anti-heroes and anti-villains, are the most interesting characters in a book, and there just aren’t any in The Stand. Harold is too whiny, and lets himself be controlled by outside forces. Same with Nadine and Lloyd. Randall is all over the place, part weird vagabond and part demonic antagonist, and none of it is very compelling.

I’m about done ranting and raving about the bad parts. The beginning dragged a bit for me, and the ending was…something. But the middle portion (which adds up to about an 800-page book on its own) is incredibly strong. Once the handful of main protagonists start working their way toward Boulder, and then when they get there, the story gets good. It’s people living together, interacting, and trying to re-form a society in a very real and authentic way. The wonky, back-and-forth supernatural forces take a bit of a back seat to the “good” characters just being human. And that’s where the strength of this novel lies. I love elements of the divine,mythical, or metaphysical in stuff I read. In fact, I often prefer it. But here, it just wasn’t executed well.

Overall, I’d give The Stand 3.5 long-ass walks out of 5. Because lord there was a ton of walking. Not quite Lord of the Rings but damn close.

And now, I’m done. Signing Off.

From the Editor’s Desk: Adverbial Traps

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Once more, I’ll endeavor to go some of my (somewhat) informed opinion, this time regarding -ly adverbs. I recently elucidated a bit about the pitfalls of using these lovely (see what I did there) adverbs in conjunction with dialogue. He said rudely. She remarked kindly. They laughed loudly. On the surface it seems like these -ly modifiers help the reader to understand how an action is happening. But I say trusting your writing is more important than definitively (I am on a roll) telling your reader how things are happening.

Outside the realm of dialogue, the old -ly’s are much more acceptable. He moved silently. He grabbed it quickly. She moved gracefully. Here they can make things a bit more clear when describing an action. And sometimes you can’t avoid them. But what you can avoid is letting them stand on their own, or using them as an easy out:

-He moved silently, like a olive-drab panther, barely making a noise in the brush.

-He grabbed it so quickly it was in his hands in the space of a blink.

-She moved with precision and grace, every inch the archetype of a ballerina.

The three sentences above probably feel am little more descriptive than the simple   -ly sentences. These are quick simple fixes, but on occasion and -ly adverb isn’t necessary. If you simply (Somebody stop me) say He sat, in the right context, surrounded by effective description, it can be more powerful than any adverbial modifier in existence, and makes the reader feel more involved in the story.

The crux of the argument is the same argument against over-describing a characters physical attributes. You want the reader to have a personal experience when he reads your work. Taking him or her by the hand and describing, to a T, the exact and complete physical appearance of your character, I,or any other reader, can’t allow our imaginations to stretch out. The same applies to the -ly adverbs. A little physical description is good, helps create an image for the reader. Like a coloring book you supply the lines, and let the reader fill in the color. Again, same concept with the -ly words.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Trust your writing. Give the readers some credit. Most of us are smart enough not to ruin your narrative if you let us fill in some of the blanks.

Once more, this is my opinion, for what its worth. Take it. leave it. But there it is.

Signing Off.

From the Editor’s Desk: On Dialogue

Rather than bore you with grammatical nuances, today I just want to look at something purely stylistic. Dialogue, arguably, is the most important piece of character development in any lengthy work of fiction (or non-fiction for that matter). Inarguably it’s in the top three. It can sharply illuminate a personality by magnifying how that character interacts with others, or in certain cases his or her self. Graphic novels and comic books rely heavily on verbal interaction between characters, and us prose-hucksters can learn a thing or two from the pages of Marvel, DC, and the like.

I’ll climb down from my pulpit in a minute, but in a society that’s increasingly more obsessed with immediacy and the now-now-now, there may be a reason for the renaissance of graphic novels, comic books, and image-heavy amalgamations of art and prose. Dialogue is the fastest way an author can move a story. Stylistically, linguistically, bouncing words off of characters propels a story faster than anything else.

To keep your dialogue compelling, there’s a few guidelines to follow. I will (un-modestly) share 3 key things to keep in mind when figuring out what your characters want to say:

1) Accents – use ’em at your peril – One of the hardest things to do with dialogue as a writer is make written words sound organic and authentic, like someone’s really talking. We may be tempted to add an accent or dialectic conventions to a speaker. It’s been done, both poorly and effectively, but be wary: the fastest way to turn your character into a caricature is through hokey accents. You’ve probably read Harry Potter. Hagrid, Fleur, and Viktor Krum are all examples of poor dialogue execution, and characters (at least in the prose) marred by a stylistic choice.

To me, a less-is-more approach works the best to embody accents. Maybe throw in an “’em” instead of a them, or an “ain’t” here or there. This works way more effectively than the full-on Transylvania or John Wayne treatment. Some of the most successful authors (Stephen King, Dan Abnett) will have another character react to their speech (leaving off –r sounds or turning -a’s into –o’s) which, to me, is a much more effective way to portray an accent than directly in the dialogue. Food for thought.

2) Contractions – embrace them – I’m sure it’s advice you’ve heard before, but most human beings include a lot of contractions when they talk. Would you tell someone you “can not make it to their party”? No, you’d say “I can’t make it.” When a person reads your work, they’re imagining someone talking when they see those magical quotation marks. If there’s no contractions in between them, it feels like they’re reading someone trying to make dialogue rather than listening to a conversation.

Use this to your advantage Sci-Fi or Fantasy writers! You’ll notice famous (or infamous) aliens, robots, etc. never used contractions. Mr. Spock, Data the Android, countless computerized voices, they all avoided shortening word combinations. It makes them feel less human, cold, which was precisely the point with most of these characters.

3) Identifiers – avoid them, or keep it simple – Identifiers are the literary equivalent of a necessary evil. The “he said” “she said” of the literary world. Context is a much better medium for indicating who is speaking. Trust the readers to intelligently determine the course of a scene with your description and pacing. In a two-character conversation they’re entirely unnecessary. The ping-pong back and forth dialogue feels snappy and natural. With a group of three or more, however, identifiers sometimes feel necessary, and they are.

Try to stick to simple “he said” or “she said” and don’t fall into an adverbial trap of adding “slyly, quietly, or loudly”. It’ll be much more effective to let your description of the scene describe how things are said, rather than relying on the oft-dreaded -ly.

Thank you for once more listening to me opine on writing. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, it’s all simple experience speaking from a lifetime of reading and a critical eye.

If you have any questions about writing or editing, feel free to reach out. Complaints…go ahead and write them down. And then throw them in the trash can.

Signing off.

From the Editor’s Desk: The Perils of Punctuation

2b5b8f2abf53c88f9e068be4216433e93c9191f3115b0005f73ae3c26c0b06deOh punctuation, she is a harsh mistress indeed. A great equalizer, because all writers and authors are subject to the same stolid rules, no matter how successful or renowned they might be. There’s a bit of stylistic wiggle room, if you’re brave, but mostly their guidelines blanket anyone who traffics in the written word. Early on we all learn about commas, periods, periods, parentheses, colons, semi-colons, and the like. We all know the basics, where they go, and what they mean. The trouble is making them align properly in tricky situations like dialogue, and how to tweak and adjust to help the reader’s ride through your prose go easy and smooth.

I’ll endeavor to address some of the issues I’ve seen more commonly, and some that I just want to address. I’m writing. You’re reading. If you want my somewhat informed opinion on any other matters of grammar, please let me know:

1) Commas, and The Oxford Comma: When you list a group of three or more things in a row, you may or may not include a comma preceding the final and (i.e The crowd was loud, raucous, boisterous, and foul-smelling). I’m not going to spark the debate. I’m not going to climb up on a soap box. The Oxford comma is listed as “optional” so that’s what it is. I choose to use it, you may not. Why is it the Oxford comma? Because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.

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Oxford or not, commas can be excellent pacing devices in your writing. Don’t make the mistake of running sentences on and on, or of smattering commas around willy-nilly. That will turn a reader off faster than poor spelling (or maybe just as fast). But if you’re trying to create suspense, focus in on a particular moment in the prose, or slow down the pace, don’t shy away from using commas to control the speed of your writing. It can be surprisingly effective.

2) Dialogue Punctuation: While it seems straightforward and grammatically established, properly (or even better, effectively) punctuating dialogue is a key component for any kind of writing. You must clearly depict which character is speaking, or the reader may get frustrated and confused.

The easiest way for me to break it down is into three key details (hooray, another list):

a. Treat anything the speaker says as a sentence on its own, contained within the quotations. Capitalize when you start, even if you have description or an identifier preceding the dialogue, and place all punctuation within the quotes (as long as its pertinent to what’s being said), even if you’re ending the sentence with a quotation. It’s permissible to have quotation marks hanging outside of the last period. That’s English for you.

– Felix stood up and proudly stated, “Poor bloody infantry is a state of mind.”

b. The commas make a stunning return. If you precede a line of dialogue with an identifier (as seen above), you must separate it with a comma from the text of the dialogue. If you choose to divide or pause in the middle of the dialogue, close with a comma, and then re-open with a comma. No need for a period or capitalization on the second half unless it completes a thought:

– “I don’t understand,” he said, eyebrows furrowed in confusion, “why you think a rubber chicken is ineffective for self-defense.”

Now here’s a wrinkle: If you close the sentence with a modifier outside of the quotation, then you close the quotation with a comma, even though it closes a thought:

-“I can’t believe he hit me with a rubber chicken,” he said

c. Always start a new paragraph when a new character starts speaking. This is the one I see go wrong the least…but when it goes wrong it is very noticeable. This is the easiest way to differentiate among a group of people speaking to each other, and like most punctuation it sounds simple but can be very tricky if you introduce interruptions or clipped speech.

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3) Dashes, Hyphens, and Italics: Less punctuation and more stylistic, dashes and hyphens are commonly used in prose writing to indicate sudden stops (M-Dash), describe ranges (N-Dash), and helps us make fun combo-words…like combo-word (hyphen). Some standard guidelines (WordPress is not a punctuation tool, so use your imagination):

Hyphens – Connect compund words (like-minded)

N-Dash – Describes ranges (July-October)

M-Dash – Can be used like commas to separate a unique idea from the main clause of a sentence:

“Utilizing a rubber chicken—rather than mace or nunchaku—is a safer alternative.”

– Sets an inserted thought or clause apart the main clause:

“The tall man swung the rubber chicken—was he a ninja?—and the masked man stopped and stared.

– Shows when dialogue is interrupted:

“I swung the rubber chicken with all my–”

“Wait, did you say rubber chicken?”

Similar to hyphens and dashes, Italics can serve a mutlitude of purposes for an author. They can delineate internal monologue from external action, can serve as exclamation in dialogue without the use of an exclamation point, and serve to identify a “story within a story” when a character reads a letter or a journal entry, for example. But don’t over do it, or the italics will lose their power, and the reader will get annoyed. Trust me. I’ve been there.

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Punctuation matters, and not just to keep people from thinking you’re a cannibal. Keep that in mind fellow writing enthusiasts. It seems easy and standardized, but the tricksy English language has twists and turns it can take a life time to master. Just don’t make any of the big errors. Because those are distracting. And a distracted reader is not a reader for very long.

Signing Off.