Books as Entertainment? Or Thought-Provoking Stimulus?

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Here is an age-old debate: should you read a book that is mindless entertainment or choose one that stimulates your thoughts and gets you thinking? 

I say — both! 

Well, there certainly are some that can do both very well. A few that I’ve read lately include the books in Hugh Howey’s WOOL series and Peter Cawdron’s new sci-fi thriller “Little Green Men.” 

 

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I just finished LGM and I’ll tell anyone who is looking for a great book to read to pick it up. Cawdron invokes Philip K. Dick and Michael Crichton with misdirections and head-fakes, all while telling a compelling action story. In the end, the kicker is a fantastic one and leaves the reader’s head spinning most of the book. Is it smart and thoughtful? Yes. Is it action-packed? Yes again. 

A book can be both. 

But, maybe you want to just be entertained. Perfectly fine as well. I love Lee Child and his Jack Reacher books. I doubt you would be able to find a lot of people who would say Child has an ulterior motive or agenda to the books, other than to entertain the crap out of people. Mission accomplished, sir. 

Maybe you want to have the boundaries of what you know pushed and to think about things in a new way. Maybe even to feel. Totally fine as well. John Green’s works like Looking for Alaska or The Fault in Our Stars (both terrific) are great books that or even some Neil Gaiman as well. 

Not to say that the thoughtful books don’t have action and the entertaining books don’t make you feel, but the balance between the two is a fine line that is difficult to balance. I’ll go for a lot of different types of books and it really just depends on my mood when I start reading, but you really can’t go wrong either way. 

Just read!

 

Favorite Childhood Books — Homer Price

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I’ve decided to take a look at some of my favorite books of my childhood. My desire to write stemmed from so many wonderful books I devoured in my formative years. I think I’ll make this a recurring series — I mean, I read so many books there is probably no end in sight. 

For the first, I want to take a look at Homer Price.

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Homer is a boy, presumably 12 or so, who lives in Centerburg, Ohio. The book is actually a collection of vignettes or short stories about Homer and the different situations he finds himself in. I absolutely fell in love with the two Homer Price books when I was about his age and still remember them fondly to this day. 

The author, Robert McCloskey, wrote both Homer Price and a sequel Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price. The first was published in 1943 and the latter in the early 50’s. McCloskey was also twice a Caldecott Award winner, most famously for the 1942 winner Make Way for Ducklings.

I suppose Homer’s stories really may have propelled me into science fiction and fantasy. Homer was always inventing and innovating and somehow became embroiled in new and fantastic situations. A few of the stories from the book, include “The Case of the Cosmic Comic,” and “The Doughnuts.” The second story is one that really sticks in my mind as Homer has to contend with an unstoppable doughnut-making machine in his uncle’s diner. 

Ultimately, I don’t have a perfect memory of the book, but I do remember my feelings and the joy I got out of reading it. It is an amazing set of stories from American small town life in the 40’s and 50’s. Homer was inventive and smart — a great role model for any boy. There was also African-American characters who always treated well and a regular part of the Ohio community where Homer lives. 

I recently purchased a copy for my nine-year-old daughter’s bookshelf, where it and Centerburg Tales sit today. She’s got some great adventures ahead of her when she finally dives into the terrific books, and in that way, I’m jealous. 

As a matter of fact, I may sneak in her room and grab it for myself while I’m thinking about it. 

Writing is Writing, Right?

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At age 34, I’ve had three definite careers in my life. Not jobs — had a ton of those, but careers. At the time I was in each one, I thought I would do them for the rest of my life. Obviously, I changed my mind, whether my choice or force.

I started off with the plan of working radio at Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, IL, just south of Chicago. The radio station on campus actually has a 35,000 Watt tower, so we reached well into Chicago. I worked there throughout college and a year afterwards. 

Then came newspaper. My wife and I moved to Southern Illinois, the land of few radio stations. I got a job quickly at the local newspaper as the sports editor and toiled there for over six years. Good job, but the pay wasn’t what the family needed and I always wanted to teach, so….

Then I got a degree to teach. Since 2007, I’ve been teaching high school social studies and have loved it. 

All three — definite careers. And now I’ve got a fourth. Writing books. 

But, as I’ve learned, I’ve been writing all along. In some careers, more than others, but the writing has never really stopped. 

When I was in college, learning the broadcasting trade, one of my professors told us that being a broadcaster was “writing in your mind.” He said all good broadcasters are good writers. The writing simply takes place in your mind and then out through your mouth for the audience to hear. 

Obviously, when I worked in newspaper, I wrote. I wrote a lot. Between baseball, football and volleyball stories for the sports pages, feature stories on 93-year-old harness racers and guys that make shelves out of wrought iron and even the occasional news story about taxes and school boards, I was constantly writing.

Even teaching takes writing. A lot like broadcasting, when you are lecturing or preparing lesson plans, there is a lot that takes place “in your mind,” but there is certainly tests and worksheets to write and other parts of the job that take a writer’s touch.

Now that I’m also writing books, it kind of brings it all together. The experience of writing in my mind, so I can prepare the story before I put it on paper — the varied stories I had at the newspaper that have given me a broader perspective on life, and the organization it took in teaching to form it all together.

In each job, writing was essential, but each piece alone wasn’t enough to get my writing career as an author kickstarted. I am thankful for each step along the way and know that without each piece, the stories I tell today would be just a little more empty. 

Finish Their Story

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When I was in the final days of writing my novel, Dead Sleep, I found myself struggling. I knew almost exactly what I needed to write — the tone, the setting, the ending for my characters. Only problem was that I couldn’t sit down at my keyboard and actually do it. 

When one of my beta readers called me on it, I realized I didn’t want my characters’ stories to end. My protagonist, Jackson — him and I were so similar and here I was ending his story in the book. Would that end mine as well? Would this be it? One book and then I’m done writing? What about the other characters — Kristina, Doug and Donnie? What about them? 

I didn’t want to finish because at least in my mind, their stories would go on forever. Once I put it on paper, it was finite. There was an end. 

I really struggled with it. I had gotten used to these characters and had grown along with them. I remember a number of times when I was creating them and their back-stories, that I physically teared up and became emotional for the things I was doing to them. How could I put an end to their adventures? 

What my beta-reader told me was I was doing them more of a disservice by allowing it to linger. Those characters would never meet the public if I never finished their story. They could never spark the imagination of another person like they did for me. And besides, wouldn’t I want to finish to give them the ending they really deserve and then start in on their next story? 

After a few weeks of pecking at the final few pages, I knocked it out in just a couple days at that point. I published and I couldn’t be happier. 

I won’t say I’m over it though. Each story I sit down to write is difficult because their lives are infinite in my mind, stretching across the universe with any number of different scenarios. The trick is to figure out which of those scenarios work and commit. 

Commit to your characters and their story will come. Just make sure that it gets put on paper and finished. 

DUST — A Review (Finally)

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I read DUST

over the weekend. In spite of my birthday and my daughter’s birthday party consuming valuable reading time with family and friends over, I managed to squeeze the book in whenever I could. It was excellent. The following is my review of DUST:

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I haven’t looked forward to the release of a book so much since the final Harry Potter novel back

in 2007. I’ve certainly loved many books since then, but none have been as eagerly anticipated by me since Deathly Hallows. Looking back, I preordered DUST for Kindle on the day Hugh announced the release date back in May.

I was anxious and scared. We’ve all been burned by hype. George Lucas has burned us all with Star Wars and Indiana Jones, building tension for years, only to disappoint even the most ardent of fans. I trusted Hugh, but at the same time, there was a nagging fear in my mind that the overnight success of WOOL would somehow affect DUST and the ending to the saga.
I am happy to report — the wait was worth it. DUST lives up to the hype and exceeds it in my mind.
I didn’t go out looking for any spoilers to the story and avoided even the “spoiler-free” reviews this last week before DUST finally hit the Kindle store because I wanted to experience all the joy of discovery first hand.

I remember Hugh teasing us occasionally on Facebook and Twitter with news of “killer” chapters and blood flowing in the silo. Of course, those who have already read WOOL and SHIFT expected no less, but Hugh set us up well in this one. Sure, there were some surprises here and there in the first half of the novel, but it wasn’t until about halfway through that I felt Hugh’s first suckerpunch to the reader. I was devastated, but had to continue. In many ways, I was compelled to finish, just as Juliette and Donald felt compelled to finish their respective journeys in their silos.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just leave it with this — in a book that had so many expectations, Hugh Howey delivered. He masterfully wove a tale about multiple silos over the course of hundreds of years, all while keeping it grounded from the perspective of Juliette and Donald.
In my first review for WOOL, I compared Howey to Isaac Asimov. Foundation will forever be a book that I will return to and now it is safe to say that the Silo Saga is the same way. Congrats Hugh and well done
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WOOL and Foundation

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WOOL and Foundation

So, when I read Hugh Howey’s WOOL Omnibus, I was struck at how Asimovian it was. The tone, the characters, the expandibility of the universe — there was a lot that connected me back to the Science Fiction Master himself, Isaac Asimov.
When I was a kid, I devoured books, but it wasn’t until I read Foundation that something just clicked for me. I loved it. Let me say that another way. If I was stranded on a desert island and I only had one book to read, I might take the Foundation Trilogy Omnibus hardback I had when I was in junior high.
I probably started reading them right about the time that Asimov passed away, although I’m sure I didn’t know that for a few years.
Asimov had a way of capturing the reader and pulling them into the story. There was always a certain humanity about all of his tales, whether they took place in a robotics lab, on a distant planet where humans had adapted to live apart from one another, or tens of thousands of years in the distant future in the heart of a galactic empire.
I felt the same way about Howey’s WOOL. At it’s heart, its a tale of what humanity does to preserve and live even when the odds are against it. In fact, I found that in Asimov’s stories, particularly in the Hari Seldon tales, the future was guaranteed. It will happen, it is just a matter of how humanity reacts to it. In fact, humanity has done it all to themselves in many ways.
And so Howey mirrors the same themes in WOOL. The characters drive the story, but the background is established by events out of their control. Their future is seemingly set already and it is only through extraordinary means that they can change their destiny.
Another link to Foundation for me was the interconnectedness. By the time Asimov had died, he’d linked his early robot stories like Robots of Dawn to his later Foundation books. In spite of several decades separating the writing of those books, Asimov pieced together a logical conclusion. Then, when he was gone, his estate allowed three authors to write in the Foundation universe.
Hugh has connected his first, brief, WOOL story to four other parts in the Omnibus — then to three stories in SHIFT, a prequel, and now tomorrow in DUST. Hugh is also allowing fans to write in his world, (including yours truly) and thankfully it isn’t after his death.
After I’d read WOOL, the first review I wrote compared it to Foundation. I can’t find that review today, but I stand by it. I was poking around and found Howey’s Top 10 books of all time and wasn’t surprised at all to find Foundation listed at #4. It clearly left a huge impression on Hugh.
And…just like Asimov took 30 years off between Foundation novels at one point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see WOOL stories from their founder again decades later.

The Joy of Discovery

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So yesterday I was driving home after dinner out with my daughter. She’s in fourth grade and is reading Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban currently. She blazed through all the Percy Jackson books at the tail end of last school year and is a voracious reader. 

Anyway, as we’re pulling into the driveway, I hear a gasp from the backseat. I had to look around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally hit something and then she said it. 

“Daddy, Sirius Black was friends with Harry’s Dad! I can’t believe it!”

I read Azkaban probably back in 1999 or 2000. I starting reading the series when Chamber of Secrets was in hardback, so it was probably shortly after it was released. Suddenly, I was transported 14 years into the past. To a time when I first read the book or any other book where a plot detail startled me and derailed my train of thought. 

I was jealous of my daughter. She experienced a wonderful thing — discovery. That moment when you learn something for the first time and it just bowls you over. Like the end of The Sixth Sense, but in a book. I wish I could go back and re-read J.K. Rowling’s fantastic HP series with fresh eyes and discover all the twists and turns for myself once again. 

Ultimately, I think that’s what I look for in a book. What can the author do to surprise me? I’ve read so many things that it is a rare thing to discover something new and unexpected along the journey. 

I think that’s also what I do as a writer — how to incorporate my own twists and turns into my plots to keep the readers engaged and guessing along the way. 

As the night went on, my daughter talked to me about her suspicions as to who Sirius Black really is (She thinks he is disguised as the Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher). I just told her — you are going to have to keep reading — as I smirked, knowing the answer would shock and surprise her, just as it did me when I read years ago.