New Features here at MR&HBI!

First, allow me to call your attention to the episode immediately before this one. You might notice the little icon is a camera. “huh,” you might be saying to yourself, “I don’t remember seeing that one before.” Very observant, Buckaroo! It’s for a new category, Photography, that I added. “But,” the even more observant amongst you might say, “There are already a handful of episodes in that category.” Right again, Wisenstein! I recategorized a couple episodes that were under The Great Adventure and found a couple in Idle Chit-Chat that were better filed under the new category. I expect there are plenty more; the trick is finding them.

The icon is actually my camera sitting on an opened unabridged dictionary. That may seem staged, but that’s actually where we keep the camera these days. Yes, we have an unabridged dictionary open on a stand at all times. No, that does not make us geeks.

Second, way down at the bottom of the sidebar, there’s a section called Other Muddled Stats (or something like that). That’s a wordpress widget I made that counts all the words in all the episodes, and keeps a tally of how many comments there have been as well. I plan to add other stats as well next time I have the hood open. Perhaps the number of times I’ve said “You don’t have to thank me,” or the number of times I’ve blamed the Chinese for things. (Hm… haven’t done that in a while…) Anything you’d like to know? The number of letters typed? Words in comments? Most prolific commenters? If it’s on these pages, I can count it.

The WordPress plugin itself is hand-crafted by yours truly. I started by downloading a different word-counting plugin, but it counted the words on every page load and didn’t have a sidebar widget. All it was was a database query and a loop. My version only counts when the relevant value changes – it only counts words when a new episode is posted, for instance. Once I tidy it up I’ll be adding it to the WordPress repository, so others can also gather useless stats about their blogs. It’s all about sharing the love.

Your Vote is Needed!

Harlean Carpenter (who is a fiction) has a photo entered in a contest at Pinup Lifestyle. It’s a pretty cool picture. The winner is decided by public vote, and while there is some pretty strong competition, it’s realistic to think she has a shot. I (who is less of a fiction but not entirely real) took the picture, and I think it’s easily the best photo not taken in a professional studio with real photography lights.

The theme of this month’s contest is circus/carnival (or something like that). Some of the entries aren’t really on-theme, but a few really do capture the theme in a pinup style.

The thing is, judging by last month’s winner, it’s not always the best that wins. It’s the one that gets the most votes. Don’t let this injustice happen again! Pop on over to Pinup Lifestyle, vote for my fictitious friend, and then hang out a while to look at the other excellent photos (borderline safe for work).


Jailbait Zombie

This was another in the pile of freebies I got at the World Fantasy Convention last fall. I pulled it out of the ‘to read’ pile when I was in the mood for some light reading, and light reading is what I got. That said, just because you don’t plan to win the Nobel Prize for Literature doesn’t mean you can abandon sense when writing a story. Even a story called Jailbait Zombie.

What do you expect from a book with a title like that, combined with a cover that has a silhouette of a slender female in a graveyard, carrying handcuffs? You expect a pulpy romp with some racy bits, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, a feeling that you’re on an amusement park ride and the conductor is having a wonderful time. There’s some of that here, but I get the feeling that our guide in this weird world, Mario Acevedo, pulled his punches. This is not the sort of narrative that benefits from subtlety.

The protagonist, Felix Gomez, is a vampire. He’s a newbie, quite naïve about many elements in the vampire world, yet for some reason he’s an enforcer – it’s like hiring a 12-year-old on a bike to be a sheriff’s deputy. Anyway, we join Felix as he’s being treated for a zombie bite. Apparently he and his buddy have already cornered the zombie in a construction site; we were not treated to that action. Another vampire comes along, is an asshole, burns himself to death, and that’s it for that character. Huh.

Gomez is charged with finding out who is behind the zombies, and while he’s at it, find the source of some crazy psychic disturbances in rural Colorado. There are some interesting parts as he does his detective work — strange things happen, he gets mixed up with some unsavory characters, some of those characters disappear, and he winds up in the company of a young, distraught, dying girl who wants to become a vampire, and who also happens to have some amazing psychic mojo.

There is chasing, vampire mayhem, zombie dismemberment, tough scrapes, old friendships renewed, and quite a bit of good storytelling. It just seems that at key moments the author could go a little farther. Like with the sex. There’s sex in there, but it’s not visceral. It seems wedged in to allow the publisher to check off ‘racy’ on the marketing form. There’s not enough passion to it, no sweat and desperation and futility and hope. It’s just mechanics. Pulp fiction can’t be afraid of making a mess.

How would you react to watching someone you really don’t like burn to death? Probably a really weird mix of conflicting emotions, right? His screams making your hair stand on end even as some dark thing inside you prevents you from helping? The stench of his flesh turning your stomach. The reminder that even if you’re a vampire you’re not immortal. Seems like a great chance to really get inside the head of the main character. Only, in Jailbait Zombie this scene seems to be constructed only to demonstrate that our main man has no feelings at all — which makes him a lot less interesting. We learn soon after — and several times after that — that Gomez is guilt-ridden over something he did in the past, and that’s a start, but the author flashes back to that one event over and over, while passing up fresh opportunities right in the narrative flow.

There is, however, one totally awesome plot twist. “Wow!” I said when I read it. “Never saw that coming!” I’m willing to forgive a lot for a good surprise like that.

My biggest gripe from a storytelling standpoint is the complete idiocy of the mysterious organization that sent Gomez on his mission. Am I to believe that they simply forgot to tell him the crucial information that made his job harder and led to disaster, or is it that they chose to withhold that information? Either way, Gomez’s bosses (I forget what their mysterious cabal was named) are repeatedly guilty of being really bad at their jobs. Bad enough that I simply couldn’t accept that they would ever be bosses.

Maybe that becomes clearer as the series progresses.

Ah, yes, the series. The main reason I’m writing this review is so I can discuss series with all of you. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Remember how I said it seemed like a significant chunk of action had already happened when I started the story? That’s because for all practical purposes, this book began on chapter two. Whither the erstwhile chapter one? At the end of the previous book. And guess what happens at the end of this book? Yep, Everything is wrapped up, Gomez relaxes, and then we are treated to chapter one of the next book. It’s like they dropped the proofs at the printer’s and got the covers in the wrong places when they put everything back together.

Sure, the cliffhanger has been a staple of series since the dawn of time (I imagine Homer wrapping up an evening of oration with Odysseus in some terrible bind), but if you’re going to put chapter one in the previous book, at least have the decency to mark it as such and also put it in the next book, as chapter one, where it belongs. There were enough flashbacks in this thing without also having to explain what had just happened before the story started. (Homer’s hypothetical cliffhangers would have occurred within a story told over episodes; no one in the audience thought they were going to hear the end of the Odyssey that night, and he could count on people being up to speed when he began his next performance.)

This is not to be confused with the honest “here’s the first chapter of the next book” sections that many series use. Those pages come after the current episode has been wrapped up and the reader already knows that what they are reading belongs to the next story. And if anyone picks up the second book without reading the first, they get to read the whole thing. The last two books I read that were parts of series did an excellent job making sure the covers of each volume contained an entire story. I consider it a contract with the publisher that I will get an entire story between the covers of a book unless otherwise noted.

None of those gimmicks are going to work anyway, unless we’re already nearly sold on reading the second volume based on the power of the first.

You may have already heard me rant about books marketed as a series when in fact there’s only one story that spans all the volumes. It is a series of one, split into many pieces. This is especially common in high fantasy, where “epic” now means “no pretense whatsoever at putting a complete story between the covers of each volume.” To me it also means “wait until all the volumes are published before you start reading.” Only then can you read a full, satisfying story from beginning to end (and you know ahead of time what you’re getting into).

Done properly a series is a good thing, giving a skilled writer an easy sell on subsequent books, and giving a reader a chance to explore more deeply characters that develop over an extended time. Everybody wins. Just make sure that within the series each episode can stand on its own.

Back, then, to Jailbait Zombie. It wasn’t bad, misplaced covers aside. It could have been better. It needs to more fully embrace what it is to really shine, and it needs fewer really stupid people in it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

When is a Plant not a Plant?

You’re probably aware that the US government is spending huge amounts of money to support production of biofuel. What they tell you is that this fuel will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and that it is better for the environment. It turns out, at least the way that biofuel is produced now, that neither claim is true. It takes more energy to produce the biofuel than it produces, and our topsoil is taking a beating. Add on top of that the finite amount of water that we’re pulling from wells across the midwest and ask yourself the question: would you rather run out of oil or run out of farmland?

Granted there are many plants that are much better candidates for creating biofuel than corn, the main crop used now, and even corn production could be made more efficient and less destructive to the soil. Still, perhaps it’s time to step back and look at the actual problem we are trying to solve. A better solution just might present itself.

What we are trying to do is make solar energy portable. Plants do that using photosynthesis — they put some carbon dioxide and some water next to each other and wait for a photon to whack the system just right, and out comes an energetic molecule, and some nice free oxygen to boot. It’s a pretty slick system. What we are doing now is using plants as solar collectors. We set them out in the sun, give them access to (lots of) water and carbon dioxide, and later we chop them down and collect the energy. Of course, the form of the energy isn’t quite right (sugars aren’t good fuel), so we have to process the result, using up some of the energy we collected.

The goal, then, is to turn sunshine into gasoline, alcohol, or some other handy hydrocarbon.

Flash back to when you were in grade school science class, watching a movie about how plants work. We zoom down into the animated land beneath the surface of the leaf where the magic is happening. A little wizard is hard at work, gathering the ingredients, then… at the critical moment he gawps at the camera, eyes round, and pulls a screen in front of his workbench. “We don’t know what happens back there,” the narrator says in his happy-narrator voice, “but what comes out is…” (I don’t remember exactly what comes out. ATP? You can look it up.)

Bumblebees. Photosynthesis. Great mysteries when we were kids, but not anymore. (Did no one mention to you that bumblebees can fly now? They have tiny horizontal tornadoes raging just above their wings. Sometimes the explanation is even cooler than the mystery.) Anyway, photosynthesis. Somehow, films made before DNA had been discovered still have us convinced that some things are unknown. I’m no photosyntholigist, but I only have to glance at wikipedia to know that the process is pretty well-understood today.

So I ask you: Do we really need the plant? We know how that stuff works, and we can reproduce it. Can we not create a solid-state device that captures solar energy and puts out an energetic molecule – the exact molecule we want as an end product? We could use such a device to create fuels with absolutely no impurities (no sulfur, for instance), and no net carbon footprint. The system does not have to be very efficient to easily outdistance existing plant-based methods, and it would use land that has much less value in terms of ongoing human prosperity. Farms could go back to growing food.

Picture a gas station on the highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Behind it there is an array of dark panes stretched over the desert floor. From the array a pipe leads to a holding tank which holds the highest-quality gasoline money can buy. And the cost to the dealer is fixed – he just has to pay to maintain the system.

There would be environmental impact, of course. Vast tracts of desert would be shaded, and somewhat cooler as a result of energy being removed from the system. Although our machine would use a lot less water than a living plant, (or perhaps another source of hydrogen?), there would still be some demand. Overall, though, I think environmentalists would see it as a lesser evil.

I’ve been kicking this idea around for years, now, but apparently I haven’t ever written about it here. The plan is filed under get-poor-quick, but man, if anybody got something like this working, they could become some kind of ridiculously wealthy. As well they should.


An Odd Preposition

I noticed this on a bottle of Listerine recently:

“Do not use in children under 12 years of age.”

Do you use Listerine in your children? What about in the other adults in your household? I imagine the writer pondered the correct preposition to employ, and finally settled on ‘in’. Personally, I don’t use Listerine in anything other than my own mouth.


Amazon Ink

One of the cool things about attending a writing convention is the big pile of free reading material one comes away with. Writers and publishers pay to put their work in the hands of influential readers, hoping to generate buzz. Some are worthy of notice, others… not so much. Amazon Ink by Lori Devoti was in my pile of goodies from last Autumn’s World Fantasy Convention, and it looked promising. My sweetie got to it before I did, and enjoyed it. So, with expectations high, I picked it up.

The Amazons in question are straight from the Ancient Greeks, a tribe of fierce and magically adept women. They have lived among humanity since the ancient times, secreting themselves in out-of-the-way places (like Wisconsin). They live a long, long time, and perhaps that’s why they’re still using swords while the rest of the world has moved on to more lethal technology. They keep to themselves and while they have a lot of rules, there is one that tops all the others: No boys allowed.

Melanippe’s first child was a son, but that was a long time ago. She has not forgotten what happened to him. She no longer lives with the rest of the Amazons. She has gone into de facto exile in the city.

Mel has a reasonably comfortable life there, raising her teenage daughter — who knows nothing of her heritage. Mel’s not looking forward to that discussion. Melanippe herself is an artisan, a skilled tattoo artist, able to apply the traditional markings to young amazons. These markings are more than decoration, they are deeply personal and bind power and kinship among the clans. Mel’s also been dabbling in sorcery on the side, and she’s been getting pretty good at it.

She’s going to need all her skill now. Someone’s killing young Amazons and leaving them on her doorstep, with their tattoos carefully cut off. Whoever is doing it knows who they are. Melanippe must juggle a teenage daughter who is a ticking time bomb, cops who think she knows more about the deaths of the young women than she’s letting on, a mother and grandmother who are not shy about providing their opinions, and on top of everything else she must deal with a lot of very angry women with swords.

In a way this story is thematically kindred to The Delicate Dependency — a superspecies of humanity, a tiny minority, has been living among us for thousands of years, but now they are coming to realize that technology is fundamentally upsetting the balance between the races. Mere mortals can use machines and science to undermine the innate superiority of the few. In the case of the vampire story, they were dependent on humanity for sustenance; in Amazon Ink the main thing they need from mortals is sperm. Melanippe’s position as an exile has allowed her to straddle the two societies and see clearly that the time has come for change, even while most of her peers are content to live tucked away from prying eyes.

There’s romance (single mom, not even 100 years old yet, very fit, seeks…), plenty of mystery, and some great plots twists, all hung on a well-drafted framework of Amazon society. Some obstacles succumb to brute force, while others require wit and craft. As the story progresses you begin to sense that something else is going on, something no one has recognized. Some people don’t quite fit in the world as it’s being painted by the narrator. Some twists I saw coming from far away, while others snuck up on me. Overall it was a lot of fun to read. My expectations were high going in, and I was not disappointed.

This book is set up to the the first in a series, but Ms. Devoti went about it the right way — putting a full and complete story between the covers. There are still unresolved issues at the end, but that’s how real life works. I’m interested to find what comes next for this four-generation all-female family and the odd assortment of characters that have become attached to it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You really should. It’s a good book.

A little help?

I’m getting the sweet-o-meter reinstalled. The old one broke and there was confusion about versions and so forth and in the end I decided to go with another plugin that seems to be more actively maintained. This one is fancier, but the creator really didn’t imagine all the different ways people might want to customize something like this. As a result I’ve been tinkering under the hood.

To get things right I need to see what it looks like when someone besides me has voted for an episode. Can someone out there click the “sweet” button at the top of this episode? Thanks!