Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Books I Read: July - August 2014

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I would love to see this as a documentary. The book itself gets a little long. But it's comprehensive, that's for sure. Like a Beethoven symphony, it covers all the possible ideas.

Now for those people who think this book will help with their introversion, well... the best thing the author does is tell you that your introversion is normal. You are not abnormal, you just have a different way of thinking. There are strengths and faults to introversion, just as there are strengths and faults to extroversion. The problem is that some time after WWII, society got in its head that a forceful personality was more desirable than someone who got things done with integrity and character. That's not to say it has no good advice -- it does. And it wraps up with a great summary.  Plus the anecdotes it uses are spot-on, plus the data points are valuable and easy to understand.

I would say, or at least I wish, that this book was read by extroverts, especially bosses and managers, so that they can better understand their employees and why they might not be thriving in an environment full of open spaces and pods and wasteful small talk.

Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Imagine the writing of Hunter S. Thompson with the art of R. Crumb in a setting from Neuromancer. It's rich with societal satire and world-building. The art is so beautiful I wish the artist had filled in the background with more detail so I could read them. I can't believe he poured in this much world into the art.  It's a tragedy I only spend a few seconds reading the words and moving onto the next panel.

And the writing is great. It's a blend of different genres -- mystery, empathy, horror, science fiction. Despite the fact that the protagonist is a creatively-swearing, chain-smoking, opinionated loudmouth, you can't help but root for him because he gets the job done. Despite being so resentful of the state of the earth, he cares about keeping people in power, setting society on a proper course, and keeping the truth at front and center. And the story does all this with a healthy sense of tongue-in-cheek. If Transmetropolitan was a meal, it would be the entire menu of a fancy restaurant.  Appetizers, soup, dessert, and all.

My one regret is that I keep confusing Warren Ellis with Frank Miller. It's the double L's.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

This isn't the best Rainbow Rowell I've read. It poses an intriguing question, but the way the story renders isn't very intense. The stakes aren't very high, because there's really only one conflict taking place. One plate in the air. There's not a rival trying to take her husband or the wife undergoing depression or a mental mother. It's really about being caught between career and family. It's a classic question, an important question, but the journey taken doesn't include too many obstacles or rising action.

I wanted to know more about her job. She's a TV writer, trying to get four episodes of a cherished sitcom written in a hurry. In order to do so, she has to skip Christmas with her family in Nebraska, to the chagrin of the SAHD. Through it all, she examines her relationship, how she and he got there, why they fell in love, and realizes that, while she hasn't made it all about her, she's made it none about him. The book doesn't end with any conclusions or wrapping the loose ends (which is another facet of my rating), just a promise to try to make things better.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Angsty, mysterious, dogged -- all the things I like in a YA novel. Our female protagonist is dealing with the death of a friend, delivering pizzas, living with her SAH father, and the onset of graduation. But all these details are methodically revealed throughout the novel through frequent flashbacks, scene changes, and memories.

The style of this book takes some bold risks, doing lots of things they say not to do. 97% of the novel is the main protagonist, but there are scenes from the antagonist girl, the dead boy, even an inanimate building. (And I get yelled at for one head-hopping scene in my novel.) The scenes aren't extraneous, but they do jar one.

But that's the thing. This is a novel for the short attention span. Scenes are short, change time and setting often, to the point where you start to forget what the main timeline is and where we left the protagonist. And it's not like a mystery novel where someone investigates clues. They're just doled out methodically in a sort of flashback history that led to the downfall of these teenagers.

But my favorite aspect is that the novel raises questions, which is what good books do. The title refers to what happens when one chooses to turn a blind eye to events.  The "first they came for the Jews, but I said nothing..." problem.  The book appeals to the "jaded person in a shitty high school situation" plot, which I'm a sucker for.

Trouble by Non Pratt

Not the best first act -- it takes a long time to get to the primary conflict of the novel.  The main character spends her time snogging, smoking, and drinking in the park after school. They gossip about who likes who, who kissed who, but it's all among her incestuous group of friends. So her difficulty is no surprise. The other main character is just blah. It's not a super-serious book, and yet it misses any plot twists or character-changing events. It all seems to be one middling line, not very up-and-down.

I guess I'm disappointed because it's not the novel I thought it would be. I'm not saying I wanted "16 and Pregnant", but it reminds me too much of The Casual Vacancy. Maybe this is the way English novels are written, in a soap opera-y style where no one is very likable.

It's also very British. I wished I had gotten it as an eBook so I could look up some of the terms and slang being used. I'd probably still bring it to a desert island with me, but it'd be at the bottom of the pile.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Why is it every time I read a "classic" book, I end up regretting it. Yeah, it's got a lot of material, a lot of questions and issues to analyze, but in the end, the trip just isn't worth it. I've gotten more out of the shorter trips that used this one as inspiration. The book barely focuses on the main character, the man from Mars. It leaves out crucial pieces of backstory, like how he grew up on Mars with the actual frickin' Martians.  No, no one seems to care that there's actual extraterrestrial life.  We just care about the night nurse with Florence Nightingale syndrome and a journalist who's not good at his job.

At least not compared to Jubal Harshaw.  Hoo, boy, they should have a novel about him.  He's like a proto-Spider Jerusalem. Sharp talking, indulgent, and crushing any enemies with the law they hide behind. I loved watching him give idiots the business, hammering them down with clever legalese. And he takes a large part of the first half, so that I thought it was going to be a legal thriller, like Fuzzy Nation.

And like most reviewers said, the second half is a total tonal shift. No more Jubal Harshaw. No more trying to stay hidden.  No more learning about two different cultures. It becomes satirical and touchy-feely. The first scene of the second half is that Valentine Michael Smith and his girl are trying to learn about human culture... by being in a carnival sideshow.

And this eventually leads to Smith gaining followers of his "god is everywhere, love everyone" Martian philosophy, which turns into a religion, and into a cult, and so on. No more legal thriller. There's a lot of "explanations" which are just the author giving strawman arguments with himself. In fact, there was a lot of that in Starship Troopers too -- essays disguised as fiction. Except this time it's not about cool militarism and civics, it's about free love. Damn hippies.

One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal by Alice Domurat Dreger

The book has an axe to grind, that is true, but the subject matter is grotesquely interesting. The (lengthy) introduction promises it's going to be more of an examination of all freaks, but it really focuses on conjoined twins. Through a historical study on subjects like Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, disastrous attempts at separating twins, plus accounts from existing paired humans, Dreger is trying to say that we shouldn't try to fix what isn't broken. All these people say that they wouldn't separate if they had the choice. The medical industry sees pathology where the "freaks" find normalcy.

It makes some very good points and I agree with the author. Except there's one part where it really loses me. Where, if it was cut, it would have improved my rating/review. She tries to compare pregnancy to having a conjoined twin. She uses lines like "this entity is dependent on the other for food and oxygen supply. Eventually, through societal pressure and the dominant's personal desires for independence, she decides to make the separation." This, I feel, is deceitful, manipulating the reader through withholding information.

I don't think anyone can deny that pregnancy is a natural part of life, with the end goal being TO SEPARATE and become an independent entity, capable of making more offspring.  Conjoined twins, while it may be natural, isn't the typical end state, and doesn't behoove propagation of the species. The fact that it often results in biological and reproductive problems for both parties emphasizes this fact. This attempt at melodramatic appeal, by saying that reproduction is just as normal as conjoinment, is misrepresentation to prove a point.

But if you can get past that fact, it's one of the better non-fiction books I've read. If you've got to do some kind of high school research project you could do worse than this source.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Keeping You Informed On the Real Business of Getting Published

Well, here's what's going on lately. The cover got finalized after seven revisions. You know me, I believe there are only two ways to attract a reader to a book -- word of mouth and the cover. Especially for small presses. It's about the only way to advertise what the book is about. Ironic that you have to use an image to promote text (but there's a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words).

I started getting cover art mockups a few weeks ago. The first was just a simple picture of a mermaid. I said, well this doesn't illustrate what the book is really about. It just looks like so many other mermaid romance novels, and that's not what I want to communicate.

Then the artist tried an image of a futuristic city by the water. It looked way too Utopian, so the artist tried to fix it by making it sepia-toned. I said that's better, but doesn't include the mermaid. Then there was a few mockups of a mermaid in a great barrier reef-like place, with the sepia-toned futuristic city in the upper corner. I was surprised that it actually looked like my temporary version.

But of course we couldn't use that. The top image is from Stargate:Atlantis promotional/concept art, and the bottom, I don't know where its from. Copyright issues abound. But I expect more out of a publishing company. Surely they know how important cover art is. I wasn't that fond of the mermaid being included -- too supermodel, too Norwegian. I wanted something more girl-next-door so that she's more relatable (relatability is crucial in fantasy).

Then the editor jumped in. At this point, there were seven mockups back and forth, and I wasn't satisfied with any of them. They all reeked of photoshop and stock images. And whoever the cover artist was never responded to my comments. Just kept putting up a different version of the art. The editor emailed me and said that she considered the covers "exceptional" and that they cannot "work miracles" because they cannot create original illustrations. But they basically said that they were going to approve the current version of the cover art, whether I thumbs-upped it or not. That's a little different from what I was expecting based on assurance from my promotions specialist, that their "art department produces some spectacular stuff".

I was pretty peeved, but I can't squeeze blood from a stone. The cover was, in all honesty, pretty good compared to other designs I've seen from the same house. It's certainly could be worse.

On Aug. 30 (Wednesday), I got a automated notice from Delphi that the "Manuscript Galley" was uploaded (meaning it was uploaded the day before). I got no notice about a due date or that the galley needed approval. On the same day, I get a Google Alert that Merm-8 is listed on Manic Readers with a release date of Sept 5. I assume this is a good thing. Again, nothing about galley approval, so I assume that everything is still proceeding as normal.

The next day, on Sept 1st, I get a message from the galley editor that she needs to have final approval for release on Thurs (Sept. 4) Later that day, I get a message from the head editor that the release date will have to be pushed back because they need approval seven days before the release date. So not only did I not get information that the galley was ready within seven days, but the this was on Labor Day weekend. So basically I had two days to read an entire novel, my entire novel, of which I am the worst person in the world to check for mistakes. I told the head editor as such. She replied that she had misspoken about the seven days.

But then I get CC'd on another email warning me to approve the galley or risk the release getting pushed back, and a reply to it saying it had already been pushed back "due to the author not making galley corrections" in a timely manner. It seemed like either communications were being made without me being included or people not doing things when they should have been done. I'm a little miffed that I seem to be being blamed for the release date being pushed. I'm lucky that, so far, I haven't given out an exact release date, and I still don't know when the new one will be.

But I do anticipate Merm-8 being released before the month is out. So pay attention to your RSS feeds, constant readers/true believers (hey, I never realized that rhymes!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)

This movie is really more about exploration than a man vs. man conflict. As a result, this analysis will not be up to its usual standard, as was this movie.

Motivation: Greed. Pure and simple. We don't get much of Rourke's backstory, except that he's a soldier of fortune, and must have a pretty good history in the military. He wants the money he'll get for selling off Kida as a power source to the highest bidder. It's a big gamble, especially when the Great War is going on above the ocean. You'd think he could make a fair shake on the lost civilization, especially one where the girls glow blue. But I guess you can't come back empty-handed.

Character Strengths: I always thought Rourke evoked the image of a rough rider or sheriff from old Westerns (aided by James Garner's commanding drawl). He's a square-jawed, Patton-esque leader. One wonders how he got to this point of being a hired goon. He's composed and pragmatic, but ruthless.

Evilness: Like a lot of villains that live in this setting, Rourke is a byproduct of the mounting militarism and imperialism that causes the Great War, He isn't interested in expanding humanity's understanding of culture or history. In fact, he will go to great lengths to destroy it so he can harvest as much wealth and power as possible. Other examples include Clayton, Percival McLeach, and Governor Ratcliffe.

Tools: Guns, lots of guns. And the lucky few soldiers that escaped the sub. If he didn't end up with the stormtroopers he did (DisneyWiki says half the two hundred man crew went down in the Leviathan attack), the climax would be a lot shorter.

Complement to the Hero: Frail and nerdy vs. strong and stubborn. I personally think this is one of the biggest flaws of Rourke, that the dichotomy is too on the nose, too cliche. The character is one we've seen dozens of times before, particularly other Disney movies.

Fatal Flaw: Rourke has no focus other than completing the mission, a common flaw among military types. He thinks his superior American military firepower will prevail against ancient flying hovereels with lasers. When his hot-air balloon gets punctured, he tosses Helga, his best asset, off the basket so he can continue rising to victory. Never a good idea to betray your allies in a pinch, especially when most of the important ones have already betrayed you. This proves my point as with her last breath, she curses Zoidberg.

Method of Defeat/Death: As the strangely WWI-esque firefight erupts, our hero decides he's a match for a well-trained green beret. As his beautiful balloon burns, Rourke axe-identally punctures the glass tank with Kida inside. This gives Milo a shard of glass, infused with Kida juice, that he uses to slice Rourke's arm. The blue spreads, turning him into a glowy, blue, crystal Colossus. Why it does this, and how Milo knew it would happen, I have no idea.

Final Rating: Two stars

The Evil Queen (Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why Is There Always a Fashion Girl?

Why does there always have to be a "fashion girl" in every poorly developed marketing plan aimed at young females?  I don't think they have any idea who girls are these days.  I feel like they're just following tradition.  I have two daughters.  I've seen a lot of birthday parties.  I've seen them and their friends play.  I've NEVER seen them doing anything close to designing outfits or matching clothes or sewing or anything like what they think.  Sometimes they put on princess dresses, but that's it.  And that's not what I'd call coordinating outfits.

Claudia in The Babysitter's Club.  Jade from Bratz (and probably a ton of others).  Prize Popple.  Stella from Winx Club.  Rachel from Animorphs.  Clawdeen from Monster High.  Rosetta from Disney Fairies.  They have all these personality quirks to distinguish themselves, but I can't tell one fresh-faced white or semi-white teen from another.

I've got a Lego Friends book, where the five friends try to get Andrea ready "for a show"... for the one song she wrote.  Everyone makes posters or food.  And of course, the fashion girl makes her an outfit.  And says things like "it's so you" and "you look and sound great."  In "Barbie: I Can Be... A Rock Star", there's, of course, one of her friends who makes her outfit.  Can you tell me which scene they make the outfits in School of Rock, This is Spinal Tap, A Hard Day's Night, or Walk the Line?  Or did that end up on the cutting room floor?

There's a few aversions -- Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she was meant to be an antagonist.  The Fashion Club in Daria, also meant as a oppugnant.  And every once in a while, a girl in a sitcom, usually on ABC Family or The Disney Channel, makes some comment about "those orange pants with a blue shirt?  As if."  But these are one-shots or well-developed characters -- they had some thought put into them.  More than some stuffed shirt marketing team.

The one exception to this is Rarity, from MLP:FiM.  She designs and sews dresses, she's obsessed with how people look, but it's more than just "this is a thing females do apparently".  She's determined to make people happy, even above what she knows is better.  There's a whole episode where she's caught between using her expertise and pleasing her audience.

Also, she's the only creative person in the lot.  Most fashionistas are also obsessed with shopping and shoes and matching and combining outfits.  Rarity is actually trying to channel creativity into her designs.  She makes her stuff.  She doesn't rely on the creativity of others.  Somehow, Lauren Faust was able to turn this memo from corporate into a full-fledged character whose ambition revolves around fashion.

But all the rest of you?  For shame.  Shame for not understanding what girls like, how to appeal to them, for not taking five minutes to talk to a girl to actually find out what they like.