The Best Egoboo Is Also The Saddest

There are support websites for women who've given birth to still-born children or children who die shortly after birth.  One of those recently featured a moving post about giving birth to Death.

Many of the comments wrote about picturing Death as a person.  And on of those comments said this:
"I have difficulty thinking of death as a person, but when I do it tends to be of the unwanted houseguest, or, when I'm very lucky, of the main character in a short story (Death and the Ugly Woman by Bruce Arthurs) I read long ago." [slightly edited to avoid spoilers]

I'm just... I don't know what to say.  "Death and the Ugly Woman" has always been the story of mine that people remember, and thank me for writing, and still ask about after nearly thirty years.  I've always regretted that no one's seen fit to reprint it.  (That's why it will be the lead story of the upcoming collecton.)  But something like this takes it to a whole other level.


Dalek In Disguise

Oh, sure, they may tell you they're just a little rubber fingertip thingie to help you page thru stacks of papers faster, but that's what the Daleks want you to think!

John Scalzi at Poisoned Pen

John Scalzi, with an able assist from Sam Sykes, delivers a crazed rant during his appearance Saturday at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ.

I've been following John's blog, Whatever, for years, and even sold him a story for the issue of SUBTERRANEAN MAGAZINE he guest-edited back in 2006, but it was the first time I've met him in person.  Very much like his online persona: outgoing, level-headed, able to laugh at himself, and frighteningly quick-witted.

The Poisoned Pen is a mostly-mystery bookstore that hosts frequent author signings and events, and has well-stocked shelves and knowledgable employees.  If it wasn't a 60-mile round trip from home, I'd get there a lot more frequently.


The Brave Free Books -- May 2013

Being a semi-regular review of various e-books I've gotten for free.

The Emperor's Knife, Mazarkis Williams
The Written, Ben Galley
The Dirty Parts of the Bible - A Novel, Sam Torode

Two fantasy novels, one mainstream novel set in 1930's Hobo America.

Mazarkis Williams' The Emperor's Knife sets up some intriguing situations, with interesting characters, against some fairly standard fantasy backgrounds: A decadent empire where the royalty have little connection or empathy with common citizens, a Mongol-ish society of plains-dwelling horsemen, a barren desert complete with buried cities.

When young Prince Sarmin's father dies, his oldest brother Beyon becomes the new Cerani Emperor.  To prevent possible power struggles or revolt, all other siblings, even the youngest infant, are slain by Eyul, an assassin tasked with being the Emperor's Knife, the only person able to slay those of royal blood without damnation.  But Sarmin survives, secretly kept in a tower room for nearly twenty years as a last-resort backup if Beyon fathers no new heir.

The empire is also troubled by a strange plague, the Pattern, where geometric marks appear on victims' skins, eventually driving them to agonizing death or into violent madness.  And the marks have begun to appear on the Emperor's own skin.  Court intrigues from several different directions ensue.  A young woman from the plains is negotiated to marry into the Empire, to be Sarmin's bride, causing further complications.  The woman, Mesema, has her own secret; she can sometimes see the Pattern in the movements of grass in the wind or shifting desert sands.

Multiple characters in multiple locations sometimes make it slightly difficult to keep track of all the plot threads from chapter to chapter. (Perhaps that should be called Game-Of-Thrones Syndrome?)  I sometimes had to pause at a chapter's beginning to remind myself of who this chapter's main characters were, and what their situation had been in earlier chapters.  But well-written enough to keep wanting to know what happened next.  Overall a satisfying read.

I read Emperor's Knife free as one of Barnes & Noble's Free NOOK Fridays offerings.  Current price: Barnes & Noble Nook $9.99, Amazon Kindle $11.06.

- - - - -

Ben Galley's The Written is graced by a spectacularly striking cover.  Rather than trying to dummy up a cover himself, as a lot of self-published writers do, he went to a crowdsourcing site,  Crowdspring, where he was able to offer a precis of his book and have a number of designers submit book cover proposals.  The one he accepted, by designer Mikael Westman and artist Claudia West, really stands out from the crowd of self-published books and would be no surprise coming from any leading publisher.  For $200, Ben Galley got more than his money's worth, and he's used the same team to do the covers for further books in this fantasy series; I believe that's called "branding". Smart move on Ben's part.

Unfortunately, the cover is the best thing about the book.  The MacGuffin of the novel is yet another Evil Book of Evil Evilness.  (See my review of the film Equinox.)  The protagonist is yet another bad-ass warrior-mage.  The background is yet another generic fantasy landscape, with dragons, AND vampires, AND werewolves. 

Other writers have all done that before, and better.  Much better.  The characters, even the main character, feel stereotyped and flat; their personalities seem painted on, rather than arising from inside.  One thing I noticed about Galley's writing is that he tends to over-write his scenes.  A character comes into a room.  He walks over here.  He walks over there.  He picks something up.  He puts something down.  He sits down.  He stands up again.  Et bloody cetera.  Very little of which advances the plot or reveals character.  My fingers kept itching for a red pencil as I read the first few chapters.

Full disclosure:  I didn't get beyond the first three chapters.  I looked at some of the reviews on Goodreads, and a lot of people gave high praise to the book.  (Rule of thumb for ratings on Goodreads: Deduct at least one star to adjust for irrational exuberance.)  I might have liked the book better, and possibly kept on reading, if I was forty or fifty years younger and hadn't, essentially, read books just like it a hundred times before.  For some people, it might be fresh and interesting material; to me, it's just stale.

Read free as author's promotion.  Current prices: $3.99 Amazon Kindle

- - - - -

Sam Torode's The Dirty Parts of the Bible - A Novel was my favorite of the three books. 

Like The Written, TDPOTB has a very professional cover.  Torode has an advantage in that regard; he's a professional book designer in his normal life.  This even carries over to the interior design, with an old-etching-style illo at the head of each chapter.  He also uses red-colored text on occasion, but I didn't feel it added anything that italics wouldn't have done just as well.

Tobias is the son of a preacher in 1930's Michigan, caught between the demands of a strict father and the raging hormones of young adulthood.  When his father loses his church and is blinded in a freak accident, it's up to Tobias to return to estranged family in Texas and recover a hidden stash of cash his father had concealed on a brother's farm before moving the family to Michigan.

Things get complicated when Tobias loses all his travelling money in his first-ever encounter with a prostitute.  Tobias ends up travelling by rail with Craw, a black hobo and  loquacious dispenser of dubious wisdom.

Adventures ensue.  Tobias learns some lessons from the school of (literally) hard knocks, and falls for a young woman whose last three boyfriends all died, reputedly because of an Indian curse.

The book is breezy and easy and fast-moving.  It's a picaresque bildungsroman set in 1930's small-town America and the rail-riding hobo subculture.  It's fun and funny.  Tobias is the narator of the story, and his "voice" is wonderful.  Some reviewers complained the ending came too quickly.  I felt a bit that way myself, but mostly because I wanted  to read more about Tobias and Craw.

(Note: The book is inspired by the Biblical story of Tobias and the Angel.)

Read free as author's promotion.  Current prices: $2.99 Amazon Kindle


Tribal Gathering

Last Sunday, Hilde and I spent the afternoon at the Phoenix Tribal Gathering, a rather small event mixing Pagan, New Age and Celtic enthusiasms, held at the Irish Cultural Center near downtown Phoenix. 

Hance Park
The ICC is part of  Margaret Hance Park; when the section of I-10 that runs through the actual city of Phoenix was finally completed, the section between 7th Avenue and 7th Street was made a sunken area with the freeway going thru a half-mile-long tunnel.  The topside of those tunnels couldn't support the weight of full multi-story buildings like surrounding areas, so the major chunk of it was landscaped and turned into Hance Park; besides the general park area, it also includes the Japanese Gardens and the Irish Cultural Center.

The ICC is a nice looking building, even if it's not an authentic stone building; the stone facing (which is probably fauxstone) is a passable imitiation.  It would probably look more authentic in overcast weather with a light drizzle.  Get some ivy growing up the walls, even better.

Burton Barr Library
There's quite a contrast between the ICC and the ultra-modern Burton Barr Library (the central Phoenix branch) across the street.

(I guess the reward for spending one's life as a political hack is to have a park or public building named after you.  Meh.)

We have quite a few contacts in Pagan, etc., circles, so we caught up with some friends, browsed the crafts contest entries, listened to a little music, and browsed the various vender booths.  One booth was not only offering massages, they had a new puppy with them.  Massage therapy and pet therapy in one!  (I took advantage, since my shoulder was starting to ache by that point in the day.)

I also had a Tarot reading done.  I'm a pretty thorough skeptic, but Hilde's more open to that sort of thing and urged me to have the reading done.  Very interesting results.  I don't believe in Tarot as prediction or prescription, but I think they can help trigger lines of thought that may help reach decisions that had been treading water before.  So the results seem to have helped firm up some decisions I'd already been considering, about how to deal with the consequences of breaking my arm last December.  It's a pretty distant possibility that I'll go back to the status quo I had before the accident, so I need to figure out in what direction I want to go and try to take steps toward those goals.   I'll probably say more about that in another post.

But it was good to get out of the house for a little while and not have it just be for a doctor's appointment.


Fragments -- BLAZE O'GLORY

I've been cleaning out my office, and came across a stack of old papers and notes with notes and ideas for and fragments of old stories or movie scripts.

I've mentioned that when I was trying to sell movie scripts in the early 1990's, several actual scripts were "dumbed down" stories that went nowhere when I tried to market them.  Those were the script ideas good enough to actually write.   I had more that never got beyond rough notes or outlines.

This, I think, is the worst of those.


High Concept: Showgirls meet Indiana Jones
  • Stripper/dancer Blaze O'Glory becomes privy to vital info.
  • The Hero-figure, government agent, arrives, bonds with Blaze, succumbs to surprise attack by gunmen; it's up to Blaze to get the info to safety (with a Yoda-type character).
  • Bad guys in pursuit; skin-of-teeth escapes.
  • Blaze finds out what the info is: widescale corruption in government, including Hero's own agency; turning over info to hero's agency will only see info used for blackmail/influence. (Does Hero know this?)
  • Blaze is now marked for death; she's also pissed off.
  • Blaze loses closest friend to killers; even more pissed off.  More chases and escapes.
  • Blaze takes info to "radical" alternative paper, but the editor is a burnt-out sell-out, sells info back to government and gives them Blaze's location.
  • Showdown with armed agents; Blaze under siege.
  • Hero brought from hospital to talk her out -- where are his loyalties?
  • Blaze "dies" in final conflagration; info destroyed, no one wins; crippled Hero sent to desk job.
  • Finale -- corridor of agency, 2 years later -- Hero sees girl who looks/doesn't look like Blaze -- hair color, glasses, breast reduction? -- turn her in or not? finally gives her leeway -- last scene as she hacks into agency files.
Wow.  That kinda... stinks.  Did I really want to write crappy movies?  No, but there were times when low-budget action thrillers seemed to be the only type of scripts companies were buying from neophyte screenwriters.  Even with my ST:TNG episode as a professional credit, it was hard to get scripts looked at.

Since I didn't go on to turn these notes into an actual script, maybe I did have enough self-respect to not sink that low.

Besides, there's probably a real stripper somewhere named Blaze O'Glory.

(A quick Google search reveals a 1930 movie already had the title BLAZE O'GLORY.  A soldier is placed on trial for murder, interspersed with song and dance numbers.  I'm not making that last part up.  However, the author of the original short story -- "The Long Shot" -- that the movie was based on, Thomas Boyd, appears to have been pretty interesting.  I may see if I can get some of his books thru InterLibrary Loan.)


Blue Mondays

The TNT network has cancelled Monday Mornings, its David E. Kelley-produced medical drama.

I'm sad.  Monday Mornings was, like a lot of Kelley's shows, quirky and funny and dramatic.  (Sometimes over-dramatic.)  And it had both Alfred Molina and Ving Rhames starring in it!  How could it possibly fail?

Maybe because TNT only greenlighted a puny six episodes.  I remember when the minimum order for a tv show would be thirteen episodes.  It never built enough of a following because TNT didn't give it time to build a following.  If you give a show a short season, you have to promote it heavily.  TNT didn't do that either.  The show was sort of like a meteor:  It came, it glowed brilliantly for a few seconds, and then it was gone.

Hopefully even the half-a-sandwich season it had will show up on DVD or Netflix eventually.  Give it a watch if you get a chance.


This & That -- Links, etc.

I'm going to try and make "This & That", briefly noting things of interest I've come across on the Net or elsewhere, a semi-regular feature here.

(photo from townhall.com)
Solar Impulse, the completely-solar-powered plane attempting to cross the United States, landed in Phoenix at the end of the first leg of its trip.  This is cool, even if I couldn't help noting to Hilde that a hundred and ten years ago the Wright brothers leading-edge flying machine looked like something that might come apart in a strong wind, and the leading-edge of aviation technology today still looks like something that might come apart in a strong wind.

I stumbled across a book-review/book-commentary blog with a difference: Notes To My Muses, by mystery author Jane Isenberg.  For her 70th birthday several years ago, Jane decided to start a blog of love letters to some of her favorite authors.  Witty, chatty, and perceptive.  Except for Michael Chabon's alternate-history The Yiddish Policemens' Union and one or two others, not much in the sf/fantasy line; most of the works she writes about are literary or mystery works.  (Another Travis McGee fan, yay!)  I loved her opening remark to John Updike: "I first encountered your work in The New Yorker in the early Sixties, but I got married anyway." 

In a less positive light, B&N's Nook Apps is offering a "game" called PUNCH A NERD!  The object is to "Punch-A-Nerd! Have some fun, punch a nerd and see how far he flies! This light hearted game is FREE and is a fun way to pass the time."  As a long-time nerd whose old school days occasionally featured being punched for, well, being a nerd, that doesn't sound like much fun to me.   (And a Google search reveals there are multiple "Punch A Nerd" games available from different developers.  Wait a minute, aren't programmers supposed to be nerds themselves?  Thanks a lot, you traitors!)

From 2011,  Allan Guthrie's Ten Rules To Write Noir.

Texas Library Will Have No Books.  Cue "Illiterate Texans" joke in three, two, one....   The article says the all-electronic library will look something like an Apple Store.  God, I hope not.  The glass-and-steel-cube style of Apple Stores is cold and offputting.  (I used to do security in an upscale office/shopping development that featured an Apple store.  I have stories....)  A traditional library is more than just checking books in and out; I wonder if there'll be actual librarians on site to assist the public with research and questions?


Word of the Day: Scomm

I've learned a new word: "Scomm". The traditional meaning is "buffoon", which would be useful, but that's not where I saw it, or how it seemed to be used. Over on Yahoo! News, an article on how the dead Boston terrorist's body is still sitting in a funeral home's chiller, unable to find a cemetery willing to accept and bury him, has been producing some of the most vicious and ugly comments I've ever seen.  Considering that "ugly" tends to be the default mode for Yahoo! commenters, that's saying something. Essentially, it's a post-mortem lynch mob there. I posted a comment that this behavior was unseemly and un-American. One reply included the remark "Scomm goes back to scomland."

If the guy replying to me was actually using that in the obscure meaning of "buffoon", I don't think that was accurate. "Buffoon" is not how I would describe someone who killed multiple people, maimed and wounded dozens of others, engaged police in intrense firefights in public streets, managed to get an entire city to shut down for 24 hours (at an estimated minimum economic cost of a quarter-billion dollars), and triggered a national spasm of the ugliest side of Ugly-Americanism since 9/11 (that he's been able to continue even after his death). I would not call that guy a buffoon; I would call him a Very Successful Terrorist.

My responder might have simply been misspelling "scum", rather than using an obscure word. He didn't know how to spell "Christian" properly, either. (Somewhere, some poor guy named Christien is having the nagging feeling that people are saying nasty remarks about him on the Internet.)

But "scomm", that's a useful word. I'll remember it.


My Grumpy Afternoon

Hilde and I went to Best Buy yesterday afternoon.  Best Buy is one of those stores that keep showing up on lists of "Major Chains That Will Probably Go Out of Business Soon."  I used to shop there fairly often, but their selection isn't as good as it used to be and their customer service likewise has gone downhill.

But we needed to go there, because  we were shopping for an e-reader, specifically an Amazon Kindle.

I don't like to shop with Amazon. I don't like their predatory business practices or their monopolistic aspirations.  I don't like that they saddled the Kindle with a proprietary format.  But we're trying to find an ebook reader that Hilde can use and the Kindle appeared to be the only one on the market with a "Voice Command" capability.

Hilde's had severe rheumatoid arthritis for forty-five years.  Besides the damage to the rest of her body; her hands and fingers have grown twisted and weak.  On top of that, over the last ten or so years she's developed a bad "essential tremor" in her hands and forearms, a shaking that can get so extreme I've seen her shake a soda straw out of a water bottle. She has, on a good day, maybe 5% of a normal person's use of her hands.  She can't use a keyboard, or a touch pad, or a mouse.  (Ever wondered why I show up on the Internet so much, but she doesn't at all?  That's why.)

She's able to turn pages in a book, sometimes using the edge of her palm, but even that's growing more difficult for her. 

Eventually, Hilde won't even be able to turn pages in a book by herself.  So we've been trying to find if there's an e-reader on the market that will turn pages and other tasks by voice commands.  And the Kindle seemed to be the only one with any kind of "Voice Command" listed as a feature.

But I couldn't find much actual information online about the Kindle's Voice Command, so I wanted to try it out before we spent the money on it.  And Best Buy appeared to be the only place where one could actually handle and try out a Kindle before buying.

I'd come across some online accounts of people who'd gone to Best Buy back around 2011 to do a hands-on with the Kindles there, only to find that the display models were all locked in demonstration mode, with only limited functions available.  Since that's friggin' stupid, I figured Best Buy might have freed up the Kindles' functions by now.  So I called up the closest Best Buy and asked.

"Are your Kindles locked in demonstration mode?"
"No, they're not."

You know how this story's going to end, don't you?  Not quite yet, though.  Because when we went to the closest Best Buy, their wi-fi network wasn't working.  (An electronics store that can't keep a wi-fi network up and operating.  Ponder that thought for a moment.)  And they said the Kindle needed wi-fi to use the Voice Commands. 

Wait, what?  There aren't any printed circuits between the microphone and the processor chip?  It has to broadcast your voice an entire inch or two to the rest of the machine?

Years ago, I came up with Geek Rule #1: Whatever can be done with a computer, must be done with a computer.   I think the 2013 version may be: Whatever can be done via wi-fi, must be done via wi-fi.

So, no Kindle try-out there.  Back in the car and off to the second closest Best Buy.  And of course you know what we were told there:

"All our Kindles are locked in demonstration mode, so we can't show you that feature."

That was a waste of about an hour and a half and a gallon of gas.  Frustrating.

If a customer calls with a question you don't know the answer to, answering "I don't know" is acceptable customer service.  Answering "I don't know, may I put you on hold while I get someone who does?" is even more acceptable.  Making Shit Up off the top of your head is NOT acceptable customer service.

No wonder Best Buy is going down the tubes.  I'd thought about shopping there for a new keyboard after looking at the Kindle, but after hearing the Kindle's were locked in demo after all, we left without looking at anything else.

To top it off, after getting home, I did some more searching online and finally found a better description of what the Kindle's Voice Commands actually does:  It takes the command options off various menus and reads them out loud to you.  It's actually an accessibility feature for visually-impaired or blind users, not for people with impaired dexterity or unable to use their hands at all.

So there don't seem to be any hands-free options available for e-readers.   I find that not only frustrating, but perplexing.  I can tell my smartphone to make a phone call; I can tell it to make a Google search.  But I can't tell my e-book apps to "Turn Page" or "Go Back" or "Go To [page ___, or Chapter ___ ]".  The closest thing I found was an app for people with reading-comprehension problems that highlights a few lines at a time and moves the highlighted area slowly down the pages; but that's still not voice-operated, you just start it with a button push and stop it with another.

I would think there'd be a market for a hands-free e-reader, and not just for people with disabilities.  Cookbooks, craft instructions (knitting patterns?), car repair manuals, other activities where your hands are in use and/or greasy or soiled; a hands-free option would be great for those kinds of books.

What?  "There's always Dragon," I hear someone saying.  The only online article  I could find about trying to do that with a Kindle is this one from all the way back in 2009, and it still requires being able to use the mouse a lot.  I couldn't find anything that said you could use Dragon with a Nook, and several spots that said you couldn't.  And Hilde's tried to use Dragon before, and found the learning curve dreadfully frustrating and steep.  (She may give it another try, after some dental implants are completed at the end of this month and her regular speaking mannerisms are back.)

In the meantime, it looks like we wait until someone comes out with an actual hands-free reader.  *grump*


Old Stories

[long post warning]

As reported previously, I seem to have started writing fiction again -- completed fiction! -- in recent months, after a long dry spell since 2006.  Besides wanting to send those new stories out to markets, I thought some of the old unsold stories might be worth trying again as well.

So I spent a couple of hours the other night consolidating all my old story manuscripts into one location.  They were scattered over several old computers and a small stack of diskettes.   They now reside on a key drive; I'll get the files copied over into my current computer, then copy again onto a second key drive that will go into the safe-deposit box at the bank.  (Should I go to Google Docs and store them on the cloud as well?  I'll think about that.)

Yeah, yeah, this is all stuff I should have done years ago. 

I had a short period of distress when I couldn't find the diskette that contained the majority of the short stories.  All I found was a diskette labelled with the title of one story, "The Spearsister".  I thought I might end up having to retype almost everything into the computer.  (Whenever I finish a story, I print out a hardcopy and put it in a file cabinet.  I'm not totally irresponsible.)

But when I put that single diskette in the old drive, all the missing stories were included on it.  *whew*  (The one story that wasn't on that diskette?  "The Spearsister")

Ye Olde Mitac, RIP
I also found out that my 20-year-old old brick-shaped/brick-weight Mitac laptop (with a mind-boggling forty megabytes of memory!  Whoo-hoo!), the machine I wrote a lot of my fiction and scripts on when I was more prolific, would no longer power up.  (It still turned on as of a few years ago.)  Anyone need a doorstop?

Speaking of scripts: After selling the "Clues" script to ST:TNG in 1990, I tried to follow up on that success by writing and trying to sell movie scripts.  (Why not try for a television career?  Because it's almost mandatory to live in the LA area if you're a TV writer; giving up the security--  and health insurance-- of my Postal Service job and jumping naked into the shark-infested waters of freelance scriptwriting was too big a risk, even if Hilde had been willing-- she wasn't-- to live in LA.  It's possible, if rather more difficult, to try and sell movie scripts from a non-LA location, while still keeping your day job.)

[more below the break: Writing movie scripts; a sad, mad, bad Postal Service story; Wesley Crusher Gets Horny; and  a little bit more]