I’m really not sure what to make of “Bellman & Black”. I picked it up on the advice of Orson Scott Card, and he was everything he said it would be. It’s an epic tale, in that it covers the lifespan of its main character, William Bellman, a young man blessed with a singular focus of mind. At a young age he, in a moment of competitive energy, makes the impossible shot with his sling and kills a rook. He goes on to achieve amazing things. It seems as though everything he touches turns golden, and he’s by no means stingey with his success–he lifts those around him at the same time.

Yet into every life a little rain must fall, and William Bellman’s comes in a sudden, brief deluge of Job-like proportions. From this point onward the story takes on more the shade of tragedy, though a gentle one, as ultimately he brings harm only to himself. In the end his attempts to micro-manage his world and avoid such loss again, no matter how well-intentioned, can be judged as much by the opportunities missed as by the success achieved.

The ending is somewhat nebulous and unsatisfying, but I’m not certain that wasn’t Setterfield’s point. William Bellman himself was somewhat nebulous and unsatisfying, and for those who knew him best, it’s as if he never lived. The man was a genius at business, certainly (and I found these parts of the book particularly interesting), but in many ways he is the embodiment of Thoreau’s fear of reaching life to find he had not lived. It is the tragedy of a man who was in no way unlikable, and yet could have been so much more.

The book is well written–almost hauntingly so. Fans of Setterfield’s first novel, “The Thirteenth Tale”, seem to struggle with it, but I had no previous experience/baggage coming in, so I appreciate “Bellman & Black” on its own merits. It’s a novel that grabs hold of your mind and leaves its fingerprints everywhere. It’s not one I care to read again, most likely; sometimes the author’s job is to discomfit and disgruntle the reader, and Setterfield is willing to be unliked for it. “Here’s a really good guy,” she seems to say, “but because of his flaws you don’t want to be him.”

It’s not an easy book to get out of one’s mind. I see shades of Bellman in myself and in people I know. It would be an easier book if Bellman were less a good person. But it’s not an easy book, and while the ending may be unsatisfying, it could not have been otherwise and still remained true.

Do I recommend you read this book? Yes. And no. If you want to be entertained, this is not your book. If you want to be made to think, you might want to consider this one. If you want to be made to feel something…unsettling…this is your book. Ultimately I must give my kudos to Setterfield for the courage to write it.

A few years ago, prior to her entering eighth grade, Maya Van Wagenen’s father unearthed a copy of a 1950′s guide to teenage popularity he’d picked up somewhere and passed it on to her. She thought the book was quaint, but interesting. She discussed it with her mother, who suggested she try applying it during her next year of school. Maya, considering herself on the bottom rung of the popularity scale in her school, decided to give it a try. She was also an aspiring writer, and thought it might be a good resource for writing. Even though much of the advice in Betty Cornell’s guide seemed outdated, she decided to take a section per month and apply it to see if she became popular. The result is her book, “Popular: A Memoir”.

The results were not what she expected. There were ups and downs, failures and successes, but in the end she had to concede that the book had worked. When her family moved to another state after that school year she had to admit she had achieved popularity. But her views of what constituted popularity had changed, and she concluded that while Betty Cornell’s sense of fashion was no longer in vogue, much of her advice was accurate and still very relevant.

Van Wagenen’s memoir covers a fair bit more than just her experience with Betty Cornell’s book, but also paints a portrait of an eighth-grade girl struggling to come into her own in a rather tough school and area. I got this book in the hope that it might offer some insight and advice for my daughter, but decided I should read it first just to make sure I knew what I was getting her in for. My daughter is not obsessed with clothing and appearances, and I’d prefer she stay that way, and yet Betty Cornell’s book seems to devote considerable ink to those topics. I was also a little hesitant after finding Van Wagenen’s frank descriptions of puberty and discussion topics in her health class, but ultimately decided it was probably nothing my daughter hadn’t already heard or would soon hear.

What I did not expect was candid insight into the fourteen-year-old mind. I’ve never been a teenage girl (duh!), so this was a bit of an eye-opener for me. There are a fair number of similarities between Maya and my daughter.

Ultimately I green-lighted the book for my daughter. The fact that her dad was reading this caught her attention, and she was already asking to read it before I got very far into it. Just how much she’ll pick up and take to heart remains to be seen. I think Van Wagenen was more obsessed with popularity than my daughter is. She seems largely content with her level of social interaction/status, but I do hope she’ll pick up some of Van Wagenen’s example of reaching out to those who are left out, as well as her willingness to talk to kids of all perceived social levels.

I found this to be an interesting and potentially helpful book. Ms. Van Wagenen is a good writer; he prose is clear and descriptive, and she has a clear voice that fits who she appears to be. I think she has great potential as a writer. I’ll have to check back in a few years and see if she’s written any more.

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Thom on July 24th, 2014

It’s not hard to see that promises have declined in importance over the years. It used to be that is someone gave their word you could safely assume it would be done if at all possible. This was emphasized to me again in reading C. S. Forester’s “Mr. Midshipman Hornblower”. In it a young Lt. Hornblower of His Majesty’s Royal Navy is captured by the Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars and sent to a prison near Ferrol, Spain. After a time he is granted two hours of freedom each day in which he is free to go and do what he wishes, provided he gives his word to return at the end of the time.

At one point, while he is out on one of his daily walks, he witnesses a battle off-shore as a British frigate pursues a Spanish privateer in a fierce gale toward the Spanish shore. The privateer, hoping to escape, takes a serious risk trying to find the very narrow harbor surrounded by treacherous rocks. A single shift of the wind puts the privateer onto the rocks, dismasting the ship and killing many of the crew. By this point many of the locals have turned out to watch, including the prison’s commandant. Lt. Hornblower conceives of a plan to rescue the rest of the crew, but will require the help of some local fishermen. He asks the commandant to be allowed to go and gives his word to return when the job is done. The commandant grants his request.

Hornblower and his volunteer crew succed in rescuing most of the ship’s crew, but are too tired from rowing out to the ship to try and return to shore just then and decide to set a storm anchor and allow the boat to drift until the wind calms or until they’re sufficiently rested. When the sun comes up the next morning they find themselves practically next to the British Frigate and are quickly captured.

Once the British crew determines who he is he goes to the captain and pleads on behalf of his volunteer sailors to be returned to their homes, citing British Naval Law that evidently had rules against taking prisoners of rescue crews, including those of enemy nations. The captain agrees that the Spanish sailors will be returned, and then offers Hornblower a place among his own crew.

With great reluctance and dismay, Hornblower informs the captain that he must go back, too, because he gave his word he would. The frigate captain, aware of the importance of one’s honor, does not argue with him, but simply offers to support him no matter what he decides to do. In the end Hornblower goes back to Spain with the volunteer rescuers and returns to Ferrol prison.

Of course, this being adventure fiction, the Spanish Admiralty are so impressed that hornblower would rescue his enemy’s men at his own great peril, then return to prison in order to keep his word when his escape was all but certain, that they grant him his freedom. The jaded, modern man in me suspects that it would be more realistic had Hornblower rotted in the prison until the war ended. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.

But it’s hard to imagine such an incident playing out in this manner today. For one thing military prisoners have a duty to escape, I believe, but even so, few men today would keep their word under similar circumstances. I’m not sure I would.

People can say what they will about our modern liberation from the restrictive cultural traditions of the past, but I’ll argue in many ways we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Honesty and integrity are examples. It used to be that lawyers and contracts, if used at all in agreements, were a formality. The real deal was struck when both parties gave their verbal word. Once spoken, neither would seriously consider breaking their promise. Their honor and reputation meant too much to them.

Would that we had managed to retain that today. We have lost far more in our so-called advancement than we are willing to admit, I fear.

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I reviewed the first book in this series late last year. My son brought the sequel, “Wednesdays in the Tower”, home from the library last week, so I grabbed it when he was finished. This book picks up after the previous one, with Celie, Rolf, Bran, and Lilah, now safely with their parents again, continuing with their lives in a magic castle that regularly rearranges itself. Only now the castle has given Celie a griffon egg and wants her to hatch it and raise it–without anyone else knowing about it. Meanwhile the castle is starting to behave strangely, and no one, not even Celie, knows what it means.

Some of the magic of the first book is gone, but I couldn’t really expect anything less. The fun aspects of the castle can’t be new and interesting now–we know how it works and a lot of what it can do. Instead most of our wonder comes from experiencing raising a griffon through Celie’s eyes. It’s still a lot of fun, though clearly children will enjoy this more than adults. I enjoyed it, and I know my son did.

In this book George is setting up a third book, if not a longer series. Whereas the first book was a free-standing story, this one ends with the situation only getting worse. But clearly the stage has been set for the resolution to be exciting and interesting. I won’t say this book raises the stakes and/or gets darker, because the last book, in spite of the whimsical beginning, got pretty serious and intense. This book doesn’t actually hit that level again, but the potential is clearly there for things to get exciting and intense.

The book is aimed at the middle-grade audience and, all things considered, this isn’t anything they can’t handle. It’s less intense than Harry Potter or Brandon Mull’s Beyonders or Fablehaven series. Whether George maintains this lighter tone remains to be seen.

Thom on July 22nd, 2014

I recently learned of a new reality series coming out soon, entitled “Marriage At First Sight.” The concept is just that: three couples get married having never met or known anything about each other previously. Their first view of one another is at the altar. After my initial reaction of, “well, who in their right minds would let a reality TV producer choose their mate?!”, I decided I’m at least mildly interested in seeing how this one turns out.

My exposure to the show is from an interview a news program did with one of the couples involved, along with a few of the panel of marriage experts who did the picking. I’m not sure why they picked this couple; were they the most dramatic of the pairings or the least? They certainly set the stage for their being lots of conflict. The woman is not pleased by her husband’s appearance, and sorta freaks out and refuses to let him touch her. She finds out he’s still living with his parents. His employment (I forget what it is) doesn’t excite her. He seems like a pretty patient fellow who understands she’s going to freak out at first, but it does seem like he’s trying to move things along faster than she is comfortable with.

We learn nothing else of the two other couples, although they do seem from the clips to be happier about things.

I’m curious as to how everything goes. The main couple do at least seem willing to try and build a relationship from ground zero, to give this marriage a try. I’ve long felt that arranged marriages can work, so long as the two people involved are mature, willing to be open-minded, can communicate, and are willing to give as well as take. It maybe a coincidence, but my brother is starring in a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” right now, playing a man in an arranged marriage that’s endured for over twenty years. During that time they never really stopped to wonder if they actually love each other. When they do think about it they realize that they do, and much of that comes from the things they’ve weathered together.

In some ways my own marriage could be considered a border-line arranged marriage. True, we did arrange it ourselves, but other than a lot of email, online chats, and a few weeks of actual contact, though hardly in normal situations, we hadn’t interacted in person. But in some ways I’m not sure it mattered. We’re both so different from who we were back then. Life has taken us in very different directions than what we would have guessed. Like Tevye and Golde, it’s what we’ve been through together that binds us together as much as whatever love and attraction we may have begun with. It was that common core of values that drew us together, and the success of applying those values to everything we’ve been through since that holds us together.

I’m sure we all have known marriages that leave us scratching our heads as to what could have possessed the couple to get married in the first place, let alone what keeps them together. Everyone is different. Every marriage is different. What works for them….well, works for them. They probably can look at us and wonder how we manage to hold it together, too.

I’d like to hope the end result of “Marriage At First Sight” is an acknowledgement that pretty much any couple can make it work if they’re willing to work at it. The question is whether or not, in this age of “soul mates” and “me first”, people really have what it takes. Far too many couples seem to tie the knot ignorant that the norm in life is for knots to work themselves undone if not continually tightened. Marriage takes work and requires ongoing investment.

This reality series has the opportunity to make some important statements about relationships. Or it can go for the easy drama and sensationalism and miss a terrific chance to make a difference.

Thom on July 21st, 2014

A friend turned me on to this movie many, many moons ago, but it’s not gone out of favor with me. This scene is a good part of the reason. The rest, well: Virginia Madsen with a cello, and the nerdy guy gets the girl. What more could a geek want? Oh yeah, and explosions when the computer takes over. Can’t beat that. I’ve always thought the cinematography was top-notch, too.

That led me to this. It’s a song from the movie, but the video is a remastered version with a video completely unrelated to the movie:

And back to the movie, one of my other favorite moments. The cinematography especially:


Thom on July 18th, 2014

Out: Let’s form a club!

In: Let’s create a website!

I’m beginning to wonder if, as a society, we’ve never really made it off the playground. I remember as a kid how we would form clubs for the sole purpose of annoying someone else. We didn’t like so-n-so? Well, we’d form a really cool club and make them jealous! They’d see how awesome our club was and beg to join. And then we would have the distinct pleasure of telling them, “NO!” Or at least that was supposed to be how it worked, but I don’t recall it ever working. Far too often the person excluded wouldn’t even notice.

We’re more sophisticated now. We make websites, and we don’t exclude the people we don’t like. We just bombard them with posts reminding them just how stupid they are.

That’s how I’ve come to feel about the website io9.com. It’s a site dedicated to science, science fiction and fantasy, and pop culture. I have learned–and continue to learn–a great deal. Those writers who maintain a higher editorial standard can be quite interesting and enlightening. They cast a bigger net across the web than I can and have located some pretty interesting stuff. I can keep up on all the latest shows–without the investment of time and brain-cells to actually watch them.

But only if I’m willing to be regularly reminded that I’m not really welcome there. There are certain people they don’t care much for there, and regularly make their prejudices known:

  • People of religion, even if they don’t actually hold the anti-science views the posters claim they do. Religion is just wrong-wrong-wrong, and the cause of every known problem.
  • Purists. If you really think the latest incarnation of a favorite work is straying too far from its source material, TOO BAD! You’re just stupid.
  • Anyone who has ever made a mistake, mis-learned something, or inadvertently absorbed mainline thought that is incorrect.

On the other hand, it’s very clear the “cool kids” are anyone who:

  • Thinks you can never have too much sex in your entertainment or science
  • Finds pithy ways of disparaging religion
  • Admires their own cleverness for believing all the “in” things
  • Thinks swearing in prose is an intrinsic good
  • Believe change for the sake of change is an intrinsic good
  • Questions authority, unless it’s their own

Like I said, I used to enjoy this website, but it’s becoming increasingly clear I don’t really belong there. It’s a “Cool Kids Only” club, and I’ve never been cool. I’d go read Popular Mechanics instead, except their scope is much more limited. I like exposure to pop culture and tapping into the cool-hunters’ finds. I could just do without the attitude. But I forget that I live in an era where “attitude” is considered not only a positive, but an essential.

Oh, how I would like to strangle the person who invented “attitude”.

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Thom on July 17th, 2014

Last night, in spite of a case of writing block, I reached a significant milestone. I’ve reached the half-way point to my goal of 120,000 words for my novel. Granted, that goal is a bit arbitrary (it’s how many words my last novel came in at). My instincts tell me I’m more than half way through the material I have to cover. But more importantly, I’ve regained the ground I lost when I tossed out my first draft and started over, taking less than half the time it took to write the throw-away first draft.

I still miss a day or two here and there, but I’m writing much more steadily. My daily word count has increased notably since I stopped checking Facebook first before writing during lunch. And in general, I think I’m enjoying the book a bit more on this pass. I’m not sure I’m giving as much attention to my sub-plots as I should, but I’m not going to stress over that one too much. That’s what revision is for.

I think I’m homing in on a writing approach that works for me. I think it’s important for me to have a plan before I start writing. Several times I’ve felt like I might be stuck, but thought back to my plan and remembered where I could go next. But I don’t think it’s helpful for me to create a highly-detailed outline. My creative mind tends to curl up in the back seat and go to sleep if it senses I’ve left it no room in which to be creative. Knowing where I need to go, but not necessarily how to get there, gives my creativity enough of a challenge to keep its interest up.

Not being so committed to an outline also allows me to change things more easily when I get a better idea. There’s not so heavy an investment in the outline, so I feel less obligated to defend it. It’s easier to “kill your darlings” when they’re really only “minor acquaintances”. And hopefully it helps the story feel more real when I allow it to grow out of what’s come before it rather than an arbitrary path.

I’m also starting to learn how to increase tension. At least twice in recent experience I’ve asked myself, “How can I turn up the heat on my protagonist?” The results have been satisfying. I may yet learn how to be really mean to my characters. I’ve got some things brewing now for my protagonist that were never in the original outline that will be…actually kind of fun to put him through! Just yesterday I tried to drown him. I enjoyed it more than he did, obviously.

I admit I’m still tempted to drop this novel and go work on something else. But that desire is decreasing at the moment. I’ve come to the conclusion that even though I don’t have much choice but to chop my writing up into one-hour blocks each weekday, it’s not the best approach. I tend to focus on my work (which is a good thing) up until lunch time, then shift gears quickly into writing, write for an hour, and then shift gears immediately back to work. I fire up my laptop while I gobble my lunch and then start writing where I left off before. That’s fine for the current scene, but I’ve found I don’t spend enough time thinking ahead, so my writing tends to feel a little lifeless. I’m composing a scene rather than contemplating where that scene fits in relation to what’s gone before and what I think is coming up. It’s like an assembly line.

So I’ve been trying to find some other parts of my day to devote to big-picture thinking. Do I like where things are heading? Is the story going somewhere, or am I just marking time? Is there something I can do to heighten the tension? Are my main players all behaving like they should? Knowing what they know, what should my side-characters be doing?

I’m still working on finding a consistent time, but even inconsistent thinking time is paying dividends. The drowning scene was a direct outgrowth of that. It occurred to me that my protagonist will have incurred enough ill-will from the bad guys that they’d start looking for ways to kill him. That made me realize that they would be watching for opportunities, which in turn made me realize I had just the opportunity coming up, and it was originally intended to be an unimportant scene. What began as an insignificant side-trip suddenly ended with him nearly dying. Awesome stuff!

So clearly I shouldn’t over-think things up front. I still could do more work on characters and setting before I start, but the plot can be a lot more vague. I probably do better having a general idea of where to go, then letting the setting, the characters, and the plot as it’s written drive where to go next. At the same time, I do need to spend more time doing a little forward scouting to see if there isn’t a more exciting route forward as things move toward the general goals.

But in any case, I’m still writing, still making progress, and still enjoying what I’m doing. And I’ve hit a major milestone. Yay me!

Thom on July 16th, 2014

I think this happens every year. The weather enters a long, hot stretch and I lose all motivation. Rather than whine about stuff I’ll instead invoke a little cold and snow to break the monotony. Take it away, Piano Guys!

On another note, in poking around for this song and getting sidetracked to another (a Christmas song, in which one of the Piano Guys’ daughters sang a short solo), I noticed that for a particular video 293 people gave it a thumbs down out of close to 2.9 million views, while 38,000+ gave it a thumbs up. The comments section was lively, as expected, with most people thinking the girl was adorable, her voice angelic, etc. One person felt the girl ruined the song. Someone else asked why they felt that way.

A few observations:

- Some people couldn’t understand how 0.01% of viewers could bring themselves to dislike the video. Seriously? It’s impossible to conceive that one person in 10,000 might not like something? I’ll bet you’d find a higher percentage of people who don’t like chocolate!

- Kudos to the person who didn’t jump on the person who dared to run contrary to the trend, but instead asked for more detail. This is how we’ll solve problems, not by dog-piling.

- I don’t think it’s at all unfair to say what the commentor said. I can see arguments both for and against adding the girl at the end. It has little to do with the girl, but with the creative vision of the piece. I thought she was cute and her voice charming. I don’t think the piece would be any worse without her, and with as little a portion as she was given, I’m not sure she improved it significantly, either. But the Piano Guys are free to stick to their vision, and we’re free to like or dislike it. No one’s world was significantly impacted by the choice, really.

-That said, I’m always a bit amazed/dismayed at the number of people who feel the need to comment on things like this. I can understand people wanting to express their appreciation for a piece of music. But when people don’t like something do they really feel incomplete until they’ve registered that dislike? Is there anything wrong with not commenting and risking being thought neutral?

I can understand somewhat with news and opinion articles, political commentary, etc. There’s always that hope that you might convince someone to look at things differently. But music? Music is such a personal thing anyhow, what point is there in arguing over it? Do we really need to try and talk people out of being Doors fans or liking Justin Bieber? Does their enjoyment of a particular performer or song take anything away from us?

- Just a quick PSA: Freedom of Speech does not constitute obligation. It’s okay to remain silent.

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I met Charlie in person at this year’s LTUE when we were doing podcasts together for The Authors’ Think Tank. He had released a new self-published novel, and he gave me a signed copy. I picked up a lot of books that weekend, and “The Crystal Bridge” went into the queue. I hadn’t intended for it to take so long to get to it, but…well, Brandon Sanderson happened.

Fortunately for everyone “The Crystal Bridge” isn’t Sandersonian in length; it’s a fairly quick read at just under 300 pages. It’s also YA.

So where do  I start? First of all, if I were unable to have so cool a name as Thom Stratton as a writer, I would want to be Charlie Pulsipher. That has got to be one of the coolest, most memorable names going. But I’m me, and that’s good for me–once I actually write something.

As for “The Crystal Bridge”, I enjoyed it. I’ll admit it got off to a rough start, and I nearly set it aside. But I hung in for a little while longer, and it began to draw me in. Once he hits his stride you realize the depth of his imagination and the scope of the tale he wants to tell. I’m not so sure this is YA, frankly, or else it’s YA for smarter kids.

The story centers primarily around three characters: Kaden, Aren, and James. Kaden and Aren are teenagers who end up in the same school, but are meeting for the first time. Kaden recently gained the ability to teleport to other worlds or dimensions. Aren is able to read people’s feelings and memories. James is a bright bio-geneticist hired by a mysterious and rather ominous research company. All three of them are connected, though we don’t learn how until the end of the first book. Yes, this is the beginning of a series, or perhaps more appropriately, a serial. The way this book just ends in the middle of a key moment is more like an old weekly radio play.

Pulsipher is playing his cards pretty close to his chest, too. There is a lot he’s not revealing, and the reader can tell. He seems to strike a decent balance, however, of giving you enough of a flow to keep you wanting more without getting frustrated. Somehow the three stories are connected, and there are a few others, as well, woven into the narrative. An ancient and deep evil is breaking free of its imprisonment, and the Universe will suffer if it can’t be stopped. Somehow the three (and others) are key to fighting and defeating this evil. But don’t expect to find out how too soon.

The book does suffer from some of the common drawbacks of self-publishing; it could use better copy-editing, and the beginning is a bit confusing and choppy. But as I said, once I got into the novel a ways (about 30 pages) it got significantly better and I had no trouble continuing. I wanted to see where this all was going.

There’s no second book yet, unfortunately. The ending of this one will leave you wanting to pick up the next and continue reading. It feels like you should be able to.


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