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12.30.2011

Desert Places

Blake Crouch's Desert Places was gripping. I read this story in an afternoon--the perfect way to spend a few hours during the long holiday break.

Crouch wastes no time in plunging the protagonist into a chilling, life-threatening scenario. There's a body on his property, covered in his own blood, and if he doesn't follow instructions, the evidence will be turned over to the Charlotte Police Department.

Crouch's plotting is meticulous. I found the details believable, and I was really impressed with how quickly things devolve for Andy Thomas.

Thomas is a likable, interesting character. His virtues are apparent. He has a fine-tuned sense of right and wrong, and his love for his mother seems genuine. He's a good guy. But he also has a dark side, and his flaws are abundantly apparent as well. He does some pretty deplorable things to stay alive, and Crouch's handling of a fundamental philosophical question (where is the line between the things we do for self preservation and true evil intent?) will probably shock a lot of readers.

Orson Thomas and Luther Kite? Jeez--those guys are sick. After reading this book, it makes me think twice about the true intentions of every interaction I have. I played golf with a stranger yesterday, and I'm glad he didn't drug my Gatorade and hack me to bits in a remote mountain cabin. That was nice. I mean, after reading this book I sure won't drink anything given to me by someone I'm not familiar with, and I see no good reason to stop and help others when their cars break down on the side of those deserted country roads...

It's a sprawling, fast-paced story that I enjoyed from start to finish. I'm very glad to have encountered Crouch's fiction, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work in the near future.

12.28.2011

Resolutions for 2012

We've spent the day cleaning, and we'll spend the night painting. 2011 was a rough year for us financially, though a good one overall for our little family. Between medical testing for Lyla and Jeanne and a number of appliance replacements (the fridge and the dishwasher being the largest), we were hit harder than expected. We made some good moves, not the least of which was buying a Prius and paying it off quickly. Jeanne went from filling up that old Jetta once a week to gassing up the Prius once a month. She switched schools, going from a forty-mile daily commute to a six-mile round trip. For the sake of her sanity and her productivity, it was a very nice move with Duval County Public Schools.

I always hear folks claim that it's trite to make resolutions at the beginning of the year, but I don't subscribe to that. I like setting goals, and the start of the new year is as arbitrary as any other time to think about that sort of thing. With that in mind, I'd like to do the following:

  • Spend more time camping and fishing. We've had a very warm winter here in Northeast Florida. If that trend holds up through January, we're definitely taking Lyla tent camping at some of the local state parks. Florida does a great job in providing its citizens access to the great outdoors, and Lyla's big enough now to where we don't have to stay in a cabin.
  • Write more and sell more. I'm going to deliver a novel to my agent in a few weeks. We'll try the traditional route with that book. But I'm going to bring out another collection of short stories in 2012, as well as a collection of novellas and a number of stand-alone novellas. I do hope to more actively promote my writing, in addition to placing stories with magazines and journals that I admire. I've got five short stories currently under contract to be published in 2012, and I like that those stories funnel readers to my website and my offerings on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
  • Run more road races. I ran the Jacksonville Last Gasp 5K (on a genuine XC course at Jacksonville University) race on Monday and had a blast. I'm running the Gate, and I might run the VyStar 5K this weekend. Lyla ran a half mile fun run on Monday and had a great time, so I think we'll be trying to do more of that. In addition to running more road races, I'm going to bump my weekly mileage as well.
  • Eat better. This is a big one for us. More grilled foods, and more vegetables. We do a fine job of eating well overall, but with a little one and busy lives in general, we cop out sometimes to processed foods. I'm off from the college until early May, and so I'll be cooking a lot at home. That means lots of prep. and lots of better eating.
  • Family hugs. We have about three a day. I'd like to see that number approach at least five...
  • More movies and dates with my wife. I see some matinees by myself, but I'd like to get back to having a sitter look after Lyla and going to the movies a few times a week with Jeanne. We used to see one each week, and I miss that time together.
  • More volunteering. When Lyla hits four, I'm going to be doing a lot of coaching, but until then I'd like to devote some hours to stuff we can do as a family to improve life here in Jacksonville.
  • More blogging. I'd like to get back to a fairly regular schedule with posting content here. I've read six books since December 16, so it's not like I don't at least have some opinions on books and stories that struck a chord with me!
For the foreseeable future, my days will look like this: mornings with Lyla. Writing and running in the afternoon. Evenings with Lyla and Jeanne. Occasional golf and fishing.

The college e-mail is down for maintenance, and when it comes back up, I'll likely check it sporadically. Drop a comment here if you need to contact me...

I hope 2011 was a good year for you. Here's to a great one in 2012!

12.17.2011

Blake Crouch's RUN

Run is the best new story I've read in 2011. I liked it so much that I immediately purchased Fully Loaded and bought some print copies of the novel for my homies for Christmas.

The Colcloughs are stuck. They have a hell of a proposition--get north or get dead. And they pull together in a way that I find simply redemptive.

Crouch is a fine writer. Those scenes in Wyoming in which the family has to deal with the mountain are both harrowing and well written. Take it from a guy that's questioned himself on the side of the Grand Canyon--those fears are real, and Crouch brings them to life in a way that makes your knuckles go white.

It's the protagonist's drive to keep his family in tact, and his ability to understand the situation in the minute and the second that it's happening, that makes this a believable narrative. I loved the observational detail in this story, and I thought that the framing technique worked out really well.

Crouch did a fine job with this story. Very highly reccommended...

12.07.2011

Ania Ahlborn's Seed

Ania Ahlborn is a very good writer. Seed takes off with a flash and the pace never lets up. Ahlborn draws round characters, which makes the third act all the more crushing when the story runs its course. Aimee and Abigail and Charlie represent a great little family--filled with innocence and hope and a genuine caring for one another that touches the reader.

Then there's Jack Winter. He knows things are wrong, and he knows things are happening, and he does nothing at all to change the course of his family's fate.

I don't get it.

I liked the writing and, in places, the story is quite unsettling. That's about the best compliment I can pay a writer of dark fiction, as it's so rare nowadays to feel uncomfortable while reading.

But I just didn't buy it in the case of Seed. Sure, the plot works for the novel. In that sense, Jack's decision to leave his home at the most inopportune time serves the story.

But it doesn't ring true for what a father would do to protect his family. In this case, I grew frustrated with the novel. I kept wondering why Jack was "trying to buy some more time" before he finally did something to protect his loved ones.

And, to her credit, Ahlborn pulls no punches in the final act. The horrific realization that takes place in those final pages is crushing. Part of what she is doing with this piece is writing about the nature of evil, and how it can corrupt even the most innocent among us (Am I right, chief?). And I'm no puritan--I don't need a happy ending to enjoy a text.

But the manner in which Jack allowed things to happen felt false to me. It just didn't feel like an authentic fatherly reaction.

As I said, Ahlborn is a very good writer, and I'm looking forward to her next work. Seed is well worth horror fans' time.

But it got under my skin at times (probably a sign of a good piece, really) because it didn't feel authentic.

12.05.2011

Life, On the Other Side

Sometimes, it takes a long time for a story to take a breath. Many years ago, I was driving into Pendleton with some friends after an evening of playing hoops out at Mission. It was cold and dark, and we were on one of those hundreds of winding country roads that cut through the wheat fields on their way into town.

I was with a couple of friends, and we were chatting and laughing and having a great old time until we came around a sharp curve and had to slam on the breaks.

There had been an accident--it looked like some un-fenced livestock had wandered into the road. There was an overturned truck and what looked like some ravaged carcasses there. An ambulance was just arriving, and a visibly shaken law enforcement officer held us distant from the accident site.

"You'll have to find another way into town," he told us. "This way's closed. You'll have to turn around and find another way in."

We did as we were told, covering the last few miles in somber quiet.

More years have passed since that winter day than I'd lived up to that point in my life. That's a strange reality for me, since I can still so clearly see the interaction in my mind.

Time is a thief, to be sure...

But something else happened that day, and it happened almost instantly. Even as we were heading back into town, I began mulling over the different postulates on why Pendleton might be cut off. I had already begun writing (although I didn't know it then, and wouldn't realize it until a good fifteen years later) "Life, On the Other Side."

I would like to thank the good people at Weber: The Contemporary West for publishing my story. The first readers and editors Michael Wutz and Kristin Jackson offered some great suggestions on making this piece stronger.

If you'd like to read it, scroll down on the PDF to page 52...

12.01.2011

Welcome to Jacksonville, Mr. Kahn!

Forty-eight hours after the most tumultuous day in the history of the Jacksonville Jaguars, I feel very good about the changes that took place on Tuesday.

My initial reactions were par for the course up here in Duval County: shock, sadness, confusion, fear and anger. Why would Wayne sell the team now? Why would he can Jack and extend Gene?

Who is our new owner, and what are his intentions for the big cats?

The new owner is Mr. Shahid Kahn. He's a self-made billionaire, a University of Illinois graduate who has a degree in engineering and a proven track record in philanthropic giving. He's a passionate sports fan, a huge Illini backer and a businessman that has eagerly pursued an NFL team for years.

I'm thrilled about the change. I say that now, better knowing his intentions for the team, his background in the world of business, and his impressive financial resources.

I'm thrilled to hear that he is purchasing a home in town, and that his statements to the press have been, to the letter, pro-Jacksonville. He sounds like a Northern Floridian already, and I'm excited to see what he has in store for the team.

It's on us now to fill the seats. We haven't had any games blacked out in years (in comparison, it's been years since Tampa Bay had one on television locally), but we need to really stuff that joint.

The Jags need to do their part also. They suck. They're terrible, and they need to get better quickly. Stop dropping passes. Stop allowing sacks. Stop throwing for eighty yards in a game.

The Jags need to play some football.

The staff needs to improve. I'm interested in seeing Coach Tucker's approach to game planning. He's already shuffled his staff and let a bunch of unproductive players go.

Change, in this case, was sorely needed. I'm invigorated by the possibilities of what could happen next (and yes, I'm an optimist).

I thank Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver for their immeasurable contributions to our community. Their vision in bringing the NFL to Jacksonville, to staging a Super Bowl in our town, and to making the Jags into one of the great success stories in professional sports will always mark them as true pioneers.

But I'm now thrilled to have Shahid Kahn running the team. I'm thrilled to have him and his wife, Ann Carlson Kahn, in our city--making a difference in a place that seems to improve on a monthly basis but also still has a long way to go in some areas.

Welcome to Jacksonville, Mr. and Mrs. Kahn. It's good to have you here!

Go Jags, baby!