A Tribute To the Christmas Nougat

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Halloween has come and gone, just like my sleep the day that Stranger Things 2 dropped on Netflix. In America, certain holidays are celebrated with sugar. Massive, gigantic amounts of sugar in the form of candy.

We start in February with Valentine’s Day. Everybody wants a SWEET-heart, right? The candy industry floods stores with red and pink wrapped treats for the first two months of the calendar year and the only way to swoon your prospective love is with heart-shaped chocolate.

Then…Easter. Holy smokes does that bunny love candy. Cadbury eggs are my guilty pleasure, but each has their own including some weirdos who claim to like Peeps. What color do those stores switch to for the Resurrection of Jesus? Pastels. LOADS of pastels.

There is a general lull in between Easter and Halloween, but because of Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day, the candy aisle generally has a star-spangled look during the summer.

Then…Halloween. The candy holiday of all candy holidays. What’s the color? ORANGE. You don’t like it? TOOOOOO BAD. Halloween will take over half of Wal-Mart each year for months at a time from costumes to pumpkins to candy to anything else you need for a two-hour stretch that kids knock on strangers’ doors for free candy.

Thanksgiving gets a pass on the candy front — it’s mostly a savory holiday with the turkey and dressing. Besides, stores have to prep for CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR’S. I think if the candy companies could get away with it, they’d take the candy they didn’t sell at Halloween, slap a red and green label on it and re-sell it in December. Regardless, Christmas candy has its own special flavor, and one of those is the point of this blog post today.

The Christmas Nougat. 

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Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?

I love this thing. First off, let’s look at the design. Striped along the outer edges. White and red. Red and white. Immediately it evokes feelings of candy canes, and with good reason. The inner portion is a white field, much like the snowy fields that many picture when they think of winter and the holiday season. Finally, the tree. Just look at that magnificent green little tree. And it would be SO easy for the candy makers to simply make the tree trunk green as well, but if you look closely it is brown, as it ought to be. Is the tree artificial or a real tree? Much like Schrödinger’s Cat, it exists in both states and is a perfect representation of the season for people who get their tree at Hobby Lobby or from nature.

Then, we unwrap the candy.

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Just…wow. 

It comes off clean. Whatever Brach’s has done to the consistency and texture of the candy, if the product is fresh and at the right temperature, it won’t stick. Best of all, it’s ready to eat. Small enough to pop right into your mouth, it goes from being semi-hard to soft thanks to the saliva working through your mouth. The peppermint flavor rushes through and takes you towards Christmas, even if the holiday is two months away. It transforms in your mouth to something not quite akin to chewing gum. Right when you are content, the candy is dissolved and gone. Ready for another one.

Eventually the bag is gone, and then the holiday season as well. On to Valentine’s Day and another year away from the Christmas Nougat. I’ll love you while you’re here, and miss you when you’re gone.

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MARTHA (or the problem with making your universe smaller)

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I would tell you to stop reading if you haven’t seen Batman v Superman, but that would be pointless. If you haven’t seen it by now, the chances of you deciding to watch it are slim. So buckle up — I’m ‘about to spoil a key plot detail from perhaps the most disappointing superhero movie of the last two decades.

So in BvS, the audience is geared up for some superfight between the hero alter-egos of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. All through the TWO AND A HALF HOUR (THREEEEE!! if you watch the Ultimate Cut) of this dark and dreary movie we are told that this is the fight to end all fights. Somehow the audience was expected to buy into some punk Lex Luthor and how he manipulated two of the greatest superheroes on Earth to fight each other, specifically Superman.

But that isn’t the worst part.

Martha.

Now, I’m not opposed to the name Martha. In fact, I have a Martha in my life and my mother-in-law is a wonderful person (honest!). But when these two DC titans are engaging in some fisticuffs, Superman tells Batman not to let “Martha” die. Of course, Martha is Clark’s mother, but in a weird twist………Bruce Wayne’s mother was ALSO NAMED MARTHA. It makes him stop the fight and the entire movie hinges on the moment when Batman is shook by a name.

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Pretty much.

It’s lame, but ultimately what it does kinda makes it worse. Instead of giving the characters outside issues to affect their fight, it actually shrinks their universe and draws us back to their past. And when that happens, it hampers storytelling. It starts getting into an almost unspoken prequel territory (I’ll save my prequel talk for another day), and restricts the options for what the characters can do.

In a way, this is what fans want…up until the point it happens. For instance: Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy. Fans need to know: is she a Skywalker? Is she secretly Han and Leia’s daughter? Is she Emperor Palpatine’s long-lost daughter? Is she Lobot’s neice? Is she R2-D2’s mechanic’s dogwalker’s friend?

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She’s handing this to her father…or a complete stranger…

Or how about Finn? He’s black, so OF COURSE he has to be Lando’s long-lost son.

Why do we do this? Ultimately we like to have connections and meaning to something new. As a teacher, we get a new crop of 8th graders each year coming up as freshmen. Often we try to figure out who they are by older siblings, parents, what school did they come from — we try to peg these students as one thing before they’ve even had a chance to show us who they really are.

We like comfortable. Sure thing. But what challenges us and allows growth is fresh and foreign situations. What if Rey isn’t related to ANY character from the previous eight movies? Fine. We’ll get a lot more story and a widening of a vast universe that we already know and love. But perhaps the folks at Lucasfilm have added her to a family tree from a character we already know. That’s fine, too, but the problem will continue. If we really value fresh content and new stories from Hollywood, we need to push for that same freshness and creativity in our familiar franchises.

It’s the same reason that the Transformers are now embedded into the lore of Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. It’s the same reason we’re making sequels of movies like Blade Runner and Alien. It’s the same reason that Disney is making “live-action” remakes of the films that were already near perfect in the first place (looking at you, Beauty and the Beast).

We need to demand originality, but not from the entire movie. We need to demand originality within the movie. The script, the characters, their mothers. With Justice League coming soon (a week and a half away), I’d like to see that DC has learned from their first few movies, but I’ll withhold judgment until I see it.

Until then…I’ll be looking forward to Thanksgiving at Martha’s house.

 

Big Sci-Fi Giveaway!

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OK. See that picture up above? All you have to do is click it, enter in a few details and BAM, you’ll get FOUR free sci-fi books in your inbox. If you happen to be one of five lucky winners, you’ll also get ebooks for all the books pictured. And one lucky winner gets a prize package that will include over 17 (!) signed physical books sent to your house. So…what’re you waiting for?! Get clicking!

An Introduction to Agent Smith

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Next month I’ll be releasing my new novel, co-written with my brother Paul. The novel revolves around a secret government organization called The Utility Company (think X-Files, Fringe) and the lead agent there named Agent Smith. I’ll have more about that book down the road, including a synopsis and cover reveal, but for now, I want to introduce you to Agent Smith.

A couple weeks ago, Paul said to me, “Hey, we should do an Agent Smith story for Christmas revolving around the Elf on a Shelf.” (or something…I really only half pay attention). I pretty much said, “eh” but the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t shake it. I drafted the opening and then tagged Paul. He wrote some and then it was on. Within four days we had a legit story that we both loved. It’s a good introduction to the Utility Company and Agent Smith, and is a good old fashioned holiday yarn with at least twelve days of Christmas “Easter” Eggs.

Here’s the cover (click to go to it on Amazon):

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On a side note, you’ll notice an emblem in the star on top of the tree. It’s the logo for the Utility Company, which Adam Hall graciously allowed me to utilize for this short story cover. The cover for the full length novel, Blink, is a fantastic work by Adam Hall and I’ll unveil that in the next few weeks.

Until then, please check out Agent Smith’s Christmas Eve adventures at the Utility Company.

PULP-O-MIZER!

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You have got to check this site out.

The Pulp-O-Mizer lets you create a Pulp Magazine cover with the aid of dozens of templates, backgrounds, characters, and fonts. There are a few limits, but most are in your imagination. I got around to playing with it a little bit ago and quickly designed a fun, quirky cover for my first contact story, Contact Window. Behold!

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If you click on the cover, it’ll take you to the Pulp-O-Mizer site where you too can play around and have fun. If the alternate cover interests you, check out Contact Window here:

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DOUBLE Book Review – Revolution & My Sweet Satan

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Today – in my first blog post in over a month (more on that later) – I’ll be giving you a DOUBLE REVIEW. That’s right – two reviews in one blog post. Good for you both books are by Australian author extraordinaire Peter Cawdron.

Cawdron has had the book My Sweet Satan on Pre-Order for about a month now and it is just releasing this week. But, while we were all waiting for that book to drop, he snuck in another short story: Revolution.

revIn Revolution, Cawdron paints a picture of a world similar to our own, but with technology advanced a bit. Alexander Hopkins is getting home on a red-eye flight from Russia when that world slams into him with all the force Homeland Security can muster.

The breadth of the story is short, so I’ll keep my review brief as well, but you want to catch each word in this tale as Cawdron once again showcases why he is one of the best indie writers around. The pace of the story is at first lazy and perhaps a bit deliberate – much like the landing of a 747 after a 10-hour trip. Once Alexander is on the ground, however, the action picks up and you find yourself whipped around from one place to the next in a desperate attempt to survive and figure out what is happening.

While the beginning of the story starts with lethargy, the ending is sudden and abrupt, stopping too soon for my taste. I wanted more, but isn’t that the mark of a great story?

Now…on to My Sweet Satan.

I’ll include my Amazon review in a moment, but I’ll first say I was hesitant to read this book. I am a fan of Peter’s and consider myself to be a friend as well. While I’ve read his work, he’s also read and critiqued mine and we both share a fantastic editor. But…that title. Say I’m reading it and my wife asks what I’m reading. How do I explain it? It’s hard to explain the title unless you’ve read the entire book, which is perhaps my greatest criticism of it.

The book is tremendous. A fantastic achievement and my only concern for Peter is that less potential readers will pick it up just because a title like that might scare them away.

mssPerhaps though, this is the ultimate test. Will someone read a book even with a potentially incendiary title? Will they bother to see if the text inside is worth the price of the three words on the front cover? Ultimately, the answer for me was yes.

With a title like that, it was a little difficult for me to want to read this book. Peter Cawdron has made a title that is very provocative, but if the reader can just get past it — get to the heart of the story — they will realize that Satan has very little to do with this tale at all.

I love Peter Cawdron’s work. I just adore it. I have been a huge fan of his previous books and was instantly drawn into the narrative he created in MSS. While I admit the title took me aback, it turns out the title, and the message from the stray moon of Saturn, are both a little deceiving. Deception is a key concept of this book, starting with our protagonist, Jasmine, or Jazz for short.

Jazz wakes up out of stasis, but is missing 20+ years of her life. Now an astronaut headed for Saturn, all she remembers is being 19 and living outside of Atlanta. Her crewmates may or may not have secrets of their own, but the biggest secret seemingly is: What is Bestla? (besides a moon orbiting Saturn.)

In the process of a re-self-discovery, we are seeing the world through Jazz’s eyes, crisp and clear at times, but vague and confused at others. She is smart, but the years of college and learning to be an astronaut are gaps in her memory. She doesn’t know what to do all the time and turns to the only one she believes she can trust — the ship’s AI, Jason.

I’ll say this about Jason — he may be the best character I’ve seen in a long time. I loved what Cawdron did in creating a character that feels totally real, but is not only fictional, but also doesn’t have a body to call his own. The evolution of Jason was fantastic and I would love to see more of him in a future book if Mr. Cawdron ever decides to revisit his MSS Universe.

The story is well told, well-paced, and one I would recommend highly.

Maybe We Should Stop Comparing Books to Music and Instead Look To A Different Industry

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First off — I apologize for the ridiculously long blog title. However, I needed to write it down somewhere and the title seemed as good a place as anywhere else. 

Oftentimes the book industry — particularly those associated with it, like authors, editors, and readers — have a habit of referring to the early days of digital music when Napster allowed me to listen to literally anything I wanted. The music industry wasn’t prepared and suffered for a while. Thanks to iTunes, they have been able to survive, but the new digital age has provided new opportunities for independent artists and bands. 

I would argue that the latter aspect, while an important part of today’s music scene, was really always a part. The digital nature of the Internet has just allowed those bands to receive more exposure. Where does a lot of that exposure come from? 

YouTube. 

A band or singer writes a song, films themselves singing it (perhaps with some crazy and wacky props) and it goes up on YouTube with a viral hit a prayer away. We’ve seen this happen over and over. Sometimes this is an artist already signed to a contract like Psy from South Korea or OK Go. What about Rebbecca Black of the Friday fame (and I know just by mentioning it, that song is playing incessantly in your heads)? Let’s get away from the professionals and semi-professionals…what about the Mom and Dad who filmed themselves lip-syncing to Frozen’s “Love is an Open Door,” while their daughter sat oblivious in the backseat? (15 million hits on that sucker, by the way.)

All of these benefited from the nature of YouTube — where a person or small group can record themselves (possibly on a very tight budget) doing what they do best and putting it out there for the world to see. This is more analogous to the modern state of publishing today, I believe. 

Let’s take a look at John and Hank Green. They were not the first to have a vlog, but their Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube has been the force behind a lot of successful projects. (Last time I counted, between the two of them, the Greens had an interest in over a dozen YouTube channels from their normal twice-a-week vlog, a video game channel, educational science and history channels, the pioneering Brain Scoop among many others). Hank Green is also the originator of Vidcon, which just wrapped up in Anaheim, California. 

According to their website: 

VidCon is for people who love online video. Independent creators, enablers, viewers and supporters of all kinds. The ways that we entertain, educate, share, and communicate are being revolutionized. The creators attending and on-stage at VidCon are central to that revolution. The best part is, we’re having the time of our lives doing it.

Sounds a lot like the Independent writing and publishing community to me. In just a short time, I have written and published a few novels and a handful of short stories. Along the way I have made friends — from fellow authors, bloggers, editors, and even those who prefer to just read. The independent author with a negative outlook on their craft is rare and those who refuse to cooperate are even rarer in my experience. (In fact, in the last few days, I’ve written a blurb promoting a fellow author’s new space opera, and helped to beta-read another friend’s final installment in a four-part science fiction novel — neither one I would have done if those friends hadn’t shown their kindness to me on previous occasions. We lift up each other’s successes; by doing so, our own work may benefit, but it may not. We do it because we love this stuff. 

John and Hank have been in the mainstream news a lot lately because John is also the author of the Young Adult hit, The Fault in Our Stars. The press had difficulty understanding how John and Hank built their online community, affectionately known as “Nerdfighters,” which I will profess to being. These companies want to build these “genuine” communities like the Nerdfighters, but they don’t understand the time, the patience, and the hard work that goes into it. Also the “genuine” part. 

Now…I can’t help think of my friend Hugh Howey here as well. (Yes, this is a rare instance where we get to compare, not contrast Hugh and John Green.) After I had been following the Vlogbrothers for a couple years, I found myself getting into the books on my Kindle, notably WOOL. I wasn’t the only one. Greatness seemed to be thrust upon Hugh to a certain extant, but as far as I can tell, along the way he has been nothing but gracious and receptive to his multitude of fans, interacting with them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (!), even his own website, where he responded to tons of fan responses to a blog post earlier today. He has genuinely built an online community where his fans will follow and read just about anything he writes (even love stories from Europe!).

So why do authors compare their books to the music industry? I guess since we write the book and put it on Amazon for people to purchase, just like a band might record an album and put it on iTunes. However, I would argue we shouldn’t compare it to music — but rather to the YouTube phenomena. 

Maybe we can make the following comparisons:

Hardback books are like Hollywood Movies. Not all hardbacks sell great, but they are the best the book industry can put out there. Hardbacks are usually only manufactured with a significant investment and Hollywood movies are much the same. Some books don’t sell even in hardback and some movies are unseen as well (John Carter, Lone Ranger, etc…). 

Paperback books are like television shows. Paperback books are everywhere and the number of television channels seems to increase each day as well. You can find just about anything in paperback and TV offers so many niche shows. Some do well…some don’t. 

Independently published books are like YouTube videos. Indie authors put their heart and soul into their books, but there is still a bit of luck that gets that book to chart and rocket up the charts. Even quality books can languish without the “right” group of people finding that book and reading it. Same goes for YouTube videos. You can watch a dozen videos and maybe one will have the legs to go viral. Why does a video of a cat playing the piano become a worldwide sensation? Why does Fifty Shades of Grey do the same? Some questions will never be answered. 

Now…fellow indie authors, I am not saying this to mean anything negative about your books or the craft of writing. In fact, I honestly believe some of the most inventive, most creative, most compelling stories being created on film are shown on YouTube first. There is a reason why those previously mentioned Hollywood movies and TV shows are clamoring for YouTube hits as well. Hollywood is mining YouTube for their next stars and Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has millions of subscribers. In fact, Fallon’s bits are specifically designed to have a viral factor most nights. 

There is an appeal to YouTube, just as there is more and more of an appeal of Indie Publishing. It’s cool. It is the cutting edge place to be. Where else can you find Amish Science Fiction stories? Where else can you get an American writing just like Neil Gaiman? If the publishing industry continued to exist as it did 50 years ago, you wouldn’t get traditionally-published books by Ernie Lindsey, Ann Christy, Stefan Bolz, Michael Bunker, Jason Gurley, or even me. But because of digital innovations from YouTube as well as Amazon, we are getting the best content we ever have. 

Now, I’m not hip-deep in the world of visual media as I am with books right now, so I don’t know if this is true, but from the outside it appears as though the movies, TV, and online content each have their own place and can coexist. If this is true for them, why can’t it be true for hardbacks, paperbacks, and indie published books as well?

 

 

 

We can go down the list and find dozens of