Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith makes an abrupt departure from his usual fare in the hyper-violent Red State (2011). A film that skewers both fringe religious zealots and the government agencies tasked with monitoring them, Red State is an effective commentary on the nature of how religion has been co-opted by a select few to champion hatred and violence against others.

Smith's steady hand in direction keeps the pace moving here. His writing is vulgar (I had to turn it off after my daughter asked what the main characters were saying), but so authentic. I loved the interaction between the boys as they negotiated their rendezvous, and was shocked and very saddened when their fates grew clearer.

In just a short time I grew an affinity for them, and that's the mark of a good writer.

Michael Park is spellbinding as the hateful Abin Cooper (that opening monologue is priceless!). He preaches fire and brimstone sermons inside his compound (there are a number of references to the botched ATF siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco), where a small congregation of family members listen in starry eyed wonder. 

They stockpile weapons and murder folks whose lifestyles they disapprove of.

John Goodman plays special agent Joe Keenan. It's his job to neutralize the Cooper family, and when things spin out of control, he's left holding the bag. Goodman does a nice job here, and in the third act we get an interesting glimpse into what life might be like behind the scenes in some of these government agencies. 

I won't give too much away, but the rapture sequence was a really nice, surreal touch. Overall, I enjoyed the film. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a look (B+)...  


Gaming the System

Pretty interesting article here about the nature of online reviews. It's pretty amazing how much time and effort goes into the business of e-commerce. 

I enjoy maintaining a web journal in part because I have a small forum to offer my views on books and movies I enjoy. It's a treat to scroll through old posts and see a tangible record of the creative works that have touched me over the years.

I don't have a lot of reviews on Amazon, but I'm making a concerted effort to offer more of them. And I'll be honest--I typically stick to the old adage that if you don't have anything nice to say, you should just keep your mouth shut.

But my reticence in offering negative criticism is kind of mitigated by practices like the one mentioned in that article. I mean, how legitimate can a product review be if there are businesses out there stuffing the ballot box?

I sometimes hear a radio advertisement about a company whose sole purpose is to bolster cyber reputations. Wow. I mean, there's a local advertising agency that offers 3,000 "likes" in the first month or clients get their money back.

Strange times, folks. Strange times indeed...


The Ultimate Anthology: "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss"

Kij Johnson's award-winning tale "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" is one of the more heart-warming pieces I've encountered in recent years. The story has so much to recommend it: Johnson's rhythmic, succinct prose style; its beautiful treatment of the nature of companionship and personal healing; that final element of paying a life-saving favor forward.

I offered my students extra credit for writing on this story years ago in a literature class at the college. To this day, no story that I've taught has created such an emotional and positive response.

To date:

"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" ~ Kij Johnson

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" ~ Stephen King

"Voluntary Committal" ~ Joe Hill

"The Pear Shaped Man" ~ George R.R. Martin

"The Small Assassin" ~ Ray Bradbury

"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" ~ Peter S. Beagle


Herein Do Not Fail

Those words in the title of this post appeared on the jury summons I received in the mail two weeks ago. Pretty impressive phrase, and it certainly worked yesterday, as over two hundred citizens showed up for jury selection at Jacksonville's sizable courthouse.

They were selecting fifty-three juries for twenty-five judges. We were herded into a huge room and shown a video that stated that America is one of only a handful of countries in the world that allows for citizen-judged decisions in both criminal and civil trials. We've been conducting such trials for over two hundred years, and that's a pretty impressive legacy.

I learned a lot about the justice system yesterday. It was actually kind of strange, as a I felt like I'd hooked a left right into a Perry Mason episode. We had a folksy, Southern judge who regaled us with little anecdotes throughout his lengthy instructions and (I kid you not) nodded off occasionally during voir dire (speaking the truth).

We had a long-winded session with the plaintiff's attorneys. They were roundly ridiculed for taking too long by the judge. We had a short session with the defendant's attorneys. The arguments, even during jury selection, were taking shape right before us.

Eighteen citizens were selected for questioning, and from that pool, seven would form the jury. We provided our biographies, discussed our beliefs and backgrounds, and then we were dismissed while both sides made their challenges.

I was not selected for jury duty, and I'm actually thankful for that. This trial was going to be an emotional one, and there was a lot at stake. I have no problem doing my civic duty in the interest of fairness, but the subject of this particular trial was one that would be hard for me to wrestle with objectively. We were charged with using our "intellect and conscience" in our stewardship of the verdict. Those are fine standards to apply in a case like the one were being considered for, and I'm confident that the citizens that were selected to serve throughout the rest of the week will be fair in their deliberations.

One of the most shocking aspects of the experience was the infrequent parade of prisoners, shackled together, that walked through the halls of the courthouse. I think they were being arraigned in batches. The hallway in front of the jury waiting area would periodically fill up with folks, and the prisoners would march by, shouting curse words and other affectionate greetings at their loved ones. Some folks would hold up toddlers, presumably for a glimpse at their brothers or fathers (I saw only a total of three female prisoners the whole day, and only a single woman with tears in her eyes showed up for that group).

One vocal fellow f-bombed his fellow prisoners about a dozen times, and I watched the sixty-plus-year-old woman next to me look about ready to faint. She'd been reading her Bible at the time.

One thing that became glaringly apparent was the caste system (developed out of the social elements of a culture over time) at work in the courthouse. I can't imagine a more important social institution that could (based on my tiny sample size, admittedly--it was my first time as a potential juror) be more segregated.

Perhaps it's just Duval County, but it's eye opening to see so many black defendants being represented by so many white attorneys, in front of white judges, while being escorted by black jailers.

Jury duty, on the whole, was a big, long wait. Our group watched as, over and over, juries were dismissed as the parties settled. The jurors slapped five and laughed in the hallways, thankful to be free for the afternoon.

But there was a bit of a cloud that hung over our little group. Even when they dismissed eleven of us, those sent home were subdued in the hallway. We all just left, knowing that the hardest part for those selected was still ahead, and that they had a very important responsibility in front of them for the rest of the week...


The Forecast Calls for Pain

Tragedy changes people.

It binds families closer together; sometimes, it drives them further apart. It can be a wake-up call for positive growth, or it can push a person down dark paths of anger and depression.

For Vivian Bowles, tragedy has created a sense of focus.

Bowles has never been the same since losing her daughter in a hit-and-run accident. Her marriage died, her business crumbled, and she tumbled into a deep well of sorrow and despair.

She sustained herself by channeling her grief into a singular mission: finding and punishing the person responsible for her daughter’s death.

Her quest for answers has taken her from Florida to Colorado, where she plans to teach Sheldon and Terri James a hard lesson in personal loss.

Things are about to get very cold in Colorado…

Frozen, a 20,000-word novella that explores the depths of human suffering and the power of a mother's love, will be available for purchase in February 0f 2012.


The Ultimate Anthology: "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut"

Any solid speculative anthology should contain a tale or two by Stephen King. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" takes one of those slots in my collection.

What's not to like about a sprite of a feisty woman whose obsession with shortcuts takes her into an age-reversing alternate dimension? That narrative voice, a first-person piece told through the eyes of an older caretaker, is just quintesessntially King. At times humorous and horrific, and always atmospheric and unsettling, this is one of his finest.

I think that description of the ghastly frog the size of a large dog is one of my favorites in weird fiction (saw a Colorado River Toad at the zoo this past weekend--that sucker was a monster!)...

To date:

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" ~ Stephen King

"Voluntary Committal" ~ Joe Hill

"The Pear Shaped Man" ~ George R.R. Martin

"The Small Assassin" ~ Ray Bradbury

"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" ~ Peter S. Beagle


You Snooze, You Lose!

I posted an image of a draft of a cover for my second collection of short stories that will be released later this spring. The Silver Coast and Other Stories is a collection of reprints, along with a few newer stories, that were mostly written in 2010 and 2011.

Last night, I was looking at some reviews on BookReporter when, lo and behold, I saw this!

I was floored. I work with a very talented designer at the college. His business is called Canopy Studios. I'm not sure quite how many clients he works with, but he and I see each other all the time to talk about writing and design.

Zoe Sharp's title The Fifth Victim is being published in the United States by Pegasus. I asked my friend how it was possible that we'd both have the same image on the cover artwork.

"We've got access to similar resources, I suppose. What do you want to do?"

We can run that same cover. In fact, ours is actually a different image (it's a closer vantage point). We don't encounter any issues with legality if we just go with it (and the cover has changed some since I posted that link).

I felt kind of weird about it. I checked with my contacts at Distillations Press and they did, too. We're going back to the drawing board on the artwork. We'll take a fresh run at it.

But still, I was pretty stunned when I saw that cover. It's kind of cool seeing designers and publishers with limited resources (or at least I thought that was the case) playing with the big boys.

Oh, well. The key is to write good stories that can become entertaining books. I'll update the blog when I have a new draft and more information on a release for my second collection.

In the meantime, here's a look at the cover for a novella that will be released very soon. Distillations Press has novellas coming out from a number of different authors, in a number of different genres, with an eye toward publishing twelve of them in 2012. I've contributed the story Frozen and I'm working on the follow-up, whose title I'll write more about here when I get it approved.


Staying the Course

I had an interesting discussion this past weekend. My buddy recently gave up running. It wasn't because of an injury or a lack of free time. He'd simply tired of it, and it didn't feel fresh to him anymore. The pleasure had gone out of it. He was at peace with his decision, and he mentioned he might play more tennis to keep his activity level up.

Still, I felt a little sad for him.

I just jogged out to the Round Marsh (that's local photographer Will Dickey's image above; he's a fine Jacksonville artist...) an hour ago and I was struck by how much I still enjoy running. I love the scenery, love the act of challenging myself, love the benefits that exercise has for my health and sanity.

And since my time off from teaching began in earnest on January 3rd, I've used my daily sojourn to work through some tricky plotting on a thriller novella called Frozen. I've written almost 20,000 words in thirteen days, and it's been an exhilarating couple of weeks.

I wake up and spend the morning with my daughter, get to the computer and write, take a jog, hang with wife and daughter, make dinner...rinse and repeat. Having my summer in the winter/spring has been a blessing, mostly because I'm able to enjoy that simple routine. It's a mental reset, and I'm a better educator (at least I hope I am) because I'm fortunate to have the cool months off to run outside.

Running is crucial to my creative process. I couldn't provide a perfect answer for my friend when he asked me why I still enjoyed knocking off some mileage every day, but I think that's about the closest I can get. Running forms the foundation of what I do at the word processor.

Here's to hoping that those of you reading this are enjoying the new year and drawing inspiration from your passions. If you're in Jacksonville and you want to tour some pristine running trails, drop me a line and we'll hit a good run!


Big Bag O' Headlines

US will have world's strongest military despite cutbacks

  • According to the fine documentary Why We Fight, the United States spends more on defense than on all other areas of the line-item budget combined. I doubt that trend will continue as boomers continue to become eligible for entitlements, but I was happy to see that we'll see some decreases in spending in the near future. I've been a little disappointed in Obama's ability to follow through on his campaign promises in this first term. While he's not the author of the coming decrease in military spending, I do see it at least as a partial delivery on yet another of the things he promised back in 2008. Panetta is correct. We'll still have the world's finest military, with some outstanding men and women representing our country with great distinction. But as we see the long-awaited conclusion of one of our foreign military adventures, and the other is just over the horizon, I hope that whichever candidate wins this year will keep the focus on domestic defense, homeland security and intelligence. We need to focus on deficit reduction, following through on the promises made to millions of Americans (education, health care, social security), and shifting our priorities to focus on life here in America.
  • Spoiler--false premise...turns out life simply isn't fair, folks!
  • I notice these stories a little more since I looked at the fine movie Contagion. It doesn't mean anything other than I never paid much attention before to these pandemics, but still, it's scary stuff...
  • Admit it--there's a heck of a yarn in this one. Maybe my "Oily Man" will lurch out of the Gulf of Mexico, hunting BP executives and snacking on their jowly facial fat...


"Is there any more troll stench?"

That's one of the dozens of great lines from the Norwegian thriller TrollHunter (2010). TrollHunter is a film about complex commodities trading on the securities exchange in Oslo. Nah, it's actually about hunting trolls (who could have guessed that, am I right?).

It's a delightful film. The found footage storytelling technique works to great effect here, and I love the acting in this film. Glenn Tosterud's portrayal of Thomas, who goes from incredulous to euphoric as he understands the nature of troll hunting, is really good. The wide-eyed smirk is erased when he first encounters that Ringlefinch in the woods!

Otto Jesperson's portrayal of Hans the hunter is awesome as well. He plays it with such dogged determination and weariness that you have to admire his concentration. The dude never even cracks a smile the whole time! He brings some focused intensity to the piece, and pulls it off with style...

The story breathes life into details from the fairy tales. The trolls do smell the blood of Christian men. They do hang out beneath bridges, and the woodland trolls have a serious territory beef with the mountain trolls.

The film is packed with suspense. That jotnar above is no joke, and I loved the shots of their truck weaving in and out of his huge steps.

This was a joy to watch ('A' film). I told my wife what I'd picked out and she laughed at me. Ten minutes in, she was quietly engrossed in the film.

Score one for DP, and for director Andre Ovredal!


Coming Soon

The artwork hasn't been finalized, and the TOC is a work in progress, but here's a first look at this year's collection of short stories (a mixture of reprints from 2010/11 and a couple of new gems I'm pretty happy with!).

Any tips or suggestions are much appreciated...


Congratulations, Oregon!

I'll admit that I was disappointed when I heard we were leaving Colorado. I was in the fifth grade, and I had a lot of good friends. I loved living in Belmont, and my folks were really good about taking my sisters and me up into the Rocky Mountains. Pueblo, Colorado, was a fine place to be, and I wasn't thrilled when Ross and Mike came to the house to help us move to Oregon.

We moved into a house that was owned by the United States Forest Service. Our front yard was a motor pool for USFS vehicles--we're talking dozens of green machines parked out in the yard.

John Day was...different, for sure. It's a town of 2500 souls. The main industry there is logging, and that shut down when the Spotted Owl legislation crippled Oregon's timber harvesting.

But a funny thing happened during those years in John Day. Oregon got into my blood.

I made more friends in John Day. I played soccer and basketball and baseball. I swam for the JDST. I tried to catch every trout in the John Day River. I fell in love with the Portland Trailblazers.

We moved to Pendleton, and I made more friends--some that I still spend lots of time with. I began to follow college athletics, and the Ducks became my team. I was accepted at the UO, but I chose Linfield because I could play soccer and run track there.

Back when I was in high school, the team was run by guys like Bill Musgrave and Danny O'Neil. I loved watching Dino Philyaw and Saladin McCullough and Kenny Wheaton and Akili Smith and Maurice Morris and Herman Ho Ching and Keenan Howry and Jeremiah Masoli and Jeremiah Johnson and Joe Harrington and...and...and the list goes on and on.

I've spent a lot of days in Eugene. I've warmed a seat in Autzen many times. I've stood with my fellow Oregonians and roared for the Ducks time and time again--at Mac Court and the Pre Classic and in Autzen, where it never, ever rains!

And I'm so proud of this football team and so happy for the people of Oregon. The Ducks stuck to the plan last night and they were rewarded on so many levels. Tuinei, whose drops were pretty glaring in the LSU game earlier in the year, played a fantastic game. What a clutch performance by Darron Thomas! LaMichael was, as always, untouchable. Kenjon played really well and Kiko Alonso paid off Coach Kelly's faith in a big way. Mike Clay made plays, and DeAnthony Thomas is simply a transcendent player. Maldonado even made a clutch kick!

These guys stuck together and I couldn't be more excited about their achievement. If they would have lost, it wouldn't have been the end of the world. Coach Kelly is now 34-6, and that's a winning record that just speaks for itself.

But I won't lie--the air is a little sweeter today. The sun is a little brighter, the world a little more joyous. This is Oregon's first win at the Rose Bowl since 1917.

Congratulations, Oregon. Unbelievable...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...