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These days, a good portion of the reading I do is via audio books on my commute.  This is, for me, an efficient use of my time as well as a nice way to relax heading home from my day job.

As an aside: I have a friend who is a fellow writer, as well as being a librarian.  Her husband likes to tell her that audiobooks don’t count as “reading”, so she shouldn’t count it on books she’s read.  I think this is silly, personally, though I’m sure he’s not alone in his opinion.

There are some books that I listen to that don’t engross me.  That in itself, of course, shouldn’t be surprising.  Not every book can be The Wheel of Time.  It occurs to me to wonder, though:  Does the reader impact my perception of the story?  Would I have found it more interesting or engrossing, the characters more relatable, if I had read the book myself?

Most readers do a remarkable job.  I have just enough acting experience (during my college days) to appreciate how difficult it must be to bring a world to life with your voice.  A few of the readers, though, have struck me as off on their tone.

We’re all told to judge on substance, not the superficial. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  But we do.  Every day we judge people based on how they are dressed, how they look.  We decide on which book to pick up off the shelf because it has more interesting cover art.  As a writer, particularly, I find it unsettling that I may be deciding whether I like a book based on a reader, rather than the content.


Disclaimer 1: This post won’t be religious, per se.  I’m not in the business of convincing people to change their religious views.

Disclaimer 2: I am Catholic, which is the basis for my observations.

I attend Catholic mass (nearly) every Sunday, as well as (most of the) Holy Days of Obligation.  The readings we hear are mostly familiar, or extremely familiar.  Recently, the Catholic church updated some of the language to make it more modern, or to make the intent less ambiguous.  And I understand that.  Language evolves over time, and so the biblical translations will need occasional updates.  Anyone who has struggled through their first experience at Shakespeare understands this.

There is a part of me, however, that mourns the loss of the more elegant phrases that the previous version contained.  This strikes me particularly twice a year: at Christmas when the shepherds are no longer “sore afraid” and the angels proclamation is no longer, “fear not, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy”; and at Easter.  Christ once proclaimed to Peter that, “before the cock crows twice, you shall deny me thrice.”  Now He simply says, “before the cock crows, you shall deny me three times.”  As I mentioned, there is no loss of meaning, but the elegant language is now common.

It’s hard for me, as a writer, to accept this change.  How things are said is as important as what is said.  I can’t help wondering if this change, meant to help more people comprehend the message, is losing something.  God is after all, greater than we are.  Shouldn’t the language we use to invoke Him be on a higher level, too?

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I know this is far from a novel observation – but it’s quite ironic that Disney released Frozen in a year that (for those of use in the Eastern half of the US) has been one of the coldest, snowiest on record.  I’ve heard that Michigan, where I live, has been among the hardest hit when compared to our typical winter.  I confess I’m not sure what they used to decide that, though.

I was convinced to take my older two daughters (4 and 7) to see Frozen twice.  And by the soundtrack – which they proceeded to memorize.  So now the songs have been perpetually stuck in my head for about 2 months.  And of course, the DVD will arrive as soon as it’s been released.

The good news is that I enjoyed this movie.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, actually, and I’d venture to say that it’s one of Disney’s best efforts.  I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but  in my opinion it is one of their best efforts – ever.   The movie includes some pretty decent songs – which are a little too catchy, as I mentioned above.  The plot isn’t entirely unpredictable (hey, this is Disney after all), but there’s a significant plot twist which puts some thematic distance between this movie and its predecessors.


What most strikes me about this movie, though, is the (for lack of a better word) heart.  The sacrifices that the two sisters – Anna and Elsa (the one “cursed” with winter magic) – make for each other touched me deeply.  One of the early scenes – and first catchy song –  has Anna pleading with Elsa to play with her.  Elsa can’t – for fear of hurting her younger sister with her uncontrolled power.  Doubtless, part of the reason this scene struck me as much as it did, was the presence of my own young daughters.  My heart broke for this young girls, who want nothing more than to be carefree playmates – but cannot.

If you’re a Disney fan, you’ll like this movie.  If you’re not a Disney fan . . . You’ll probably still like this movie.

OK, I Am Number Four first came to my attention because of the movie based in the book.  And I can’t tell you how much I hated the title.  As ambiguous as titles are anyhow, I felt this was even further afield.  As though I should know the answer to the question that kept popping into my head: “four what?”  It even crossed my mind to wonder if it was a reference to something I should know.  Like if a movie was titles “I Am 24601”, I’d know it was Les Mis.  But no – The title, and the book has the same title, is a reference only to the itself.

And so I avoided the movie, as even the trailers I saw didn’t help explain what it was about.

Now a couple of years later, I happened to see the book as I was trying to decide what I should listen to next on my commute.  And I was struck with the same though, “four  WHAT?”  And I decided that the title bothered me enough that I was willing to listen to the book to find out.  Mental note: start giving my books irritating titles.

The answer is that he is the fourth of nine aliens, who escaped their home world’s destruction by coming to earth as children, and has been living incognito.  (Each has a mentor, as well – more on that later).  Maybe not the most original idea, but it kept me listening.  He’s being chased, naturally, by the bad aliens that destroyed his planet.  But wait – they have to kill the nine IN ORDER.  So it’s significant that he’s number four (especially as we learn in the opening scene that number three is killed).  This seems like an unnecessary complication – almost like the title came first and the story was written to fit it. 

At the start of the book, we find that the four and his mentor have been moving around all his life, never in one place long, always changing identities – so although he’s referred to as John Smith for most of the book, it’s not his real name.  This is to avoid the bad aliens finding him before his powers have developed.  Yes, the aliens and the bad guys (but not the mentors, conveniently) have magical powers that they can use to fight.  It’s through some sort of this magic that they must be killed in order.  The blending of sci-fi and fantasy elements, isn’t done well in my opinion.  The magic isn’t consistent – each will have their own abilities – and unpredictable.  There doesn’t seem to be any underlying rationale for who can do what.  In my own opinion, this would be easier to accept in a straight-up fantasy.

Despite all this action-related background, it seemed like an enormous amount of the book was spent dwelling on teenage issues.  Four spends a great deal of the book a) mooning over a girl or b) trying to avoid the move and change of identity that always comes – mainly because of the girl.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand that this character is a teenager, and teenagers obsess, particularly about the opposite sex, but the book at times seemed more focused on that than the EVIL ALIENS who could be attacking any minute.

I won’t say I hated this book – I didn’t.  I liked it well enough not to stop halfway through.  I just didn’t think it was all it could have been.

Reading Young Adult books, especially those deemed “popular” is often a mixed bag.  Some of my very favorite books fall here, touching just the right chords to remind me of the emotional trials of my younger days.  Others are more lighthearted, able to slip past traps that might subdue a book for older audiences.  And then there are the other books.  The ones that are popular not because they are well written, but because they can tug on excitement or romance.  I suppose this is true of all genres, but with the recent boom in movies based on Young Adult (and fantasy in particular) books, it seems more prominent here.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins was certainly not the worst offender I’ve read.  Far from it.  The story was entertaining, and the world that she describes, though nothing novel in terms of dystopia, is certainly interesting.  On a high level, I enjoyed the book, it was only in the details that I found displeasure.

The writing, while mostly very good, did tend to veer into trying too hard.  It takes a skillful hand to balance between “not enough” and “too much” description, and Collins at times has too much.  For me, at least, it distracted from the story.  Another item I found issue with was with what could be termed technical details.  Katniss is impossibly good with her bow.  Wounds (and there were plenty) seem to waver between extreme and mere nuisances, depending on the needs of the story.  Similarly, the younger girls (Rue and Prim), who are both 12 years old, seem to be described as younger.  I couldn’t help picturing an 8 or 9 year old.  Some of the effects af the mysterious technology shown in “the Capitol”, I found to be questionable.  I’m  willing to give these to the suspension of disbelief, though. 

My biggest problem with the book, however, is that I simply didn’t like Katniss.  I found her to be suspicious and self-centered.  In a book that relies on the reader rooting for the heroine, I just couldn’t make myself do it.  I would have been happier for Peeta or Rue to have won. 

In the end, while I wouldn’t talk someone out of reading this, I also wouldn’t encourage it. 

Read at your own risk.

There are times in life when change simply seems to be in the air.  You can feel it like an oncoming storm.  The adventurous may yearn for it, others fear it.  But it is there, coming and unstoppable.

Some of these times are inevitable and predictable:  High school and college graduations, marriages, the birth of children.  Others are harder to predict, plan for, and face.

I’ve felt – with a bit of knowledge and a bit of intuition – that such a time of change is coming. 

My day job, as I have known for some time, has a limited remaining shelf life.  I don’t know the hour or the day when I will no longer be employed where I am, only that it is coming.  But I can at least prepare for this, if not necessarily make specific plans.  the job hunt will begin soon.

Harder to face is friends leaving.  In the past couple of months, my wife and I have learned that two of the families we have been closest to since living at our current home are leaving.  And they aren’t just moving a few towns over – but from Michigan to Tennessee.  Making this even harder is the effect that their children are close friends  to my own daughters.  They will be undoubtedly be crushed by the recent news.  I know I can’t protect them from this forever, but I want to.

In the back of my mind, too, I have a strong suspicioun that change is not yet done with us . . .

On Thursday night I introduced my oldest daughter to The Princess Bride.  This followed the pattern of almost every new movie she’s seen since she was two – which was five years ago now!

I suggested that we watch a movie.  “Hurray,” she says.  “Let’s watch [whatever her current favorite is].”

“No,” I say, “Let’s watch a ‘new’ movie – something that I’m sure you’ll like, but you haven’t seen it before.”  This is followed by much complaining and arguing, where I’m told how she won’t like it at all.

When I get tired of trying to convince her rationally, I tell her, “I don’t care, we’re watching the movie I say!”

The movie starts, and she goes off to pout on the stairs.  After a few minutes, I find her and tell her that I’m trying to do something special with her.  She grudgingly follows me back to the living room and cuddles on my lap, resigned to watching this terrible movie.

After two minutes of watching she’s rapt.  By the time the movie is over, it’s the BEST MOVIE EVER.  Now, she’s begging to watch it, and constantly quoting it, particularly the bit about “inconceivable”.

So I chuckle to myself, knowing that we’ll do this all over again in another month or two, when I decide it’s time for her to watch another “new” movie.

The recent Superman movie, Man of Steel, was in many ways, exactly what I expected:  The movie started with background on Krypton, explaining why Superman came to Earth in the first place.  We then see Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) struggling with himself as he comes to terms with being “different”, and he finally learns the truth about himself and becomes Superman before the villain, General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives, bringing the climactic battle.  No surprises here.

What was in some ways surprising, and a departure from the series from the 70s and 80s, was how they did this.  The Kryptonian segment was far longer than I expected, with quite a bit action.  We also see more of Clark Kent’s struggles before he discovers his legacy.  And his childhood story is interspersed with this.  This approach certainly helped keep the Superboy parts from lagging (no, he doesn’t put on his suit and cape as a 10-year old).

The other departure from previous movies was the villain.  In the 1980s version, General Zod was out for revenge and wold domination – a bit cliché, but Terence Stamp sold the role.  In this version, though Zod is no less malevolent, his motivations have more substance.  Revenge is important to him, but less so than doing his duty, as he sees it, for Krypton.

The cast all does a superb job, as well.  Amy Adams, in particular, captures both Lois Lane’s irritating impetuousness and her charm.  All in all, I have to say that this certainly lives up to the inevitable comparison to the best big screen Superman movie to date, and was worth seeing – and I’m sure I’ll be seeing it again.

On an extraneous note – with the metropolitan devastation commonly seen in superhero movies, whether that is the Avengers, Superman, Batman, etc, etc, I have to wonder what their insurance rates are like . . .

I just read a fascinating article about making it in traditional publishing. It’s both illuminating and disheartening. And completely unsurprising.

The thing is, most of us have a good story or two (at least) to tell. Many of us would love the opportunity to tell them, especially if we made a few bucks doing it. And of these, there’s a pretty good percentage that actually sit down and make an effort of a draft. How many of these are decent writers, I couldn’t say, but the end result is an enormous number of unpublished works. I dare say that a fair number of these would sell, at least respectably, if promoted properly.

Some could see this as condemnation of traditional publishing, and supporting independent publishing. But the thing is, that this doesn’t solve the problem. We use publishers (even before the days of print-on demand and e-books) as much for marketing expertise as for gatekeepers. Trying to get your name out there and get published is no easier, and probably harder. Yes, you can guarantee that your book gets published. Maybe you can even assume that you’ll get a couple of sales. But there aren’t any more people “making it” this way than with traditional publishing.

In the end, no matter what path authors take, their sales are as dependent on luck as hard work and talent.