Dec 27, 2010

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

Friends have been recommending the OUTLANDER series to me for years, but I kept putting it off because the books are most often described as romance, a genre I'm not fond of.

I recently acquired the first book as a gift (the unabridged audio version read by Davina Porter), so I've finally lost my Gabaldon virginity. OUTLANDER was originally published in 1991, and now I understand why the series is still popular. These books are beautifully written, and they have all the earmarks of classics that will stand the test of time. They might be categorized as romantic fiction, but they would just as easily fit under historical supernatural fiction, or fantasy adventure. There are elements of horror as well. In fact, the torture scenes were enough to make me squirm, dark enough to compete with the darkest scenes written by George R.R. Martin or Anne Rice. When I think of romantic fiction, I often think of formulaic plotting. OUTLANDER had me turning pages the whole way through, with an intricate, fast-paced, and satisfyingly unpredictable plot.

This is smart writing. The main characters--both good and bad--are intelligent, and will earn your admiration. The books are thick, but every scene is well-placed and serves a purpose. Some of the scenes made me laugh out loud, and others had me tearing up. I was astonished to learn that the author was born after WWII, since her main character is a WWII field hospital nurse, and she made me believe it. And I'm astounded that she lives in the U.S. southwest, since she paints such vivid portrayals of the Scottish Highlands. I can't imagine how much time she must have spent researching Scottish lingo from the mid-1700s, not to mention Gaelic phrases, and the details of life during the era of colonization. She brought a historical era to life in a way I've never read before.

These books don't read like a history lesson. The characters and plot are wonderfully memorable, and famous personages show up only as necessary to the plot. They're treated with the same brush of humanity as the other characters, so they seem a genuine part of the story, rather than larger-than-life.

For me, an S&M element in the first novel, OUTLANDER, diminished what would otherwise be a staggering work of genius. I'm critical of one scene involving domestic abuse treated as erotica. However, I'm so impressed and blown away by these books, I was able to dismiss the weirdness as a preference for an alternative lifestyle. If these books had dwindled into BDSM erotica, I would have put them aside without finishing. But there's only one scene in the first book that stands out as "too much" to me, and I'm glad it wasn't repeated in any way.

These books appeal to me in part because Gabaldon isn't shy. No subject is taboo to her, and she throws as much sex, torture, and very uncomfortable dinner conversations as she can into each book. It makes for great entertainment. Men get their genitals hacked off, women get burned at the stake for witchcraft, boys get raped, girls die in childbirth . . . you name it, and she went there. She's not afraid to explore the way people struggled to survive during that era. On the flip side, she sinks you into the wonder of Scottish romanticism, and Paris during the era of powdered wigs and waltzes. It's a world ruled by religion, loyalty towards monarchs, and firearms, but completely lacking in our modern notions of law or medicine.

The OUTLANDER books also explore deep themes of love and loss, destiny and choice, honor and duty, and so forth, through the lens of modern life versus what we now think of the distant past. I have never seen such a poignant portrayal of marriage in any other book. These characters have strong personalities. They're people whom you'll remember.

Before I read OUTLANDER, I'd wondered why the protagonist vanished from 1945 instead of the year the book was written. After all, the more modern conveniences she loses, the greater the contrast. Now I understand: The horrors of WWII prepared the protagonist for the brutality of 1743. She needed that preparation, or she probably wouldn't have survived her first week in the past. And I imagine that the general sense of loss would be much harder for someone from today's world than someone who's never heard of television or the internet. As it was, I felt her loss of cars, electricity, recorded music, modern medicine, and indoor plumbing.

I'm addicted now, and I'm churning through the fifth book in the series. I'm sure I'll finish them all in short order. Gabaldon is such a capable writer, I'll probably buy whatever she writes next. I'm just amazed.

Here's a link to the Outlander wiki.

Dec 2, 2010


My friend Brian has an e-book for sale, and it's a page-turner! Slaves of God is dark supernatural horror, along the lines of early Stephen King or Chuck Palahnuik. I read it in 2 days and couldn't put it down. This is really great stuff--I think he'll be a brand name. 

If you know someone else who likes horror, it's probably suitable for older teenagers, too. Parental warning: Lots of nudity, sex, violence, and profanity.

And I made the cover art, so if nothing else, check that out!

"Slaves of God" by Brian Rappatta is available from Amazon, and from Smashwords in just about any format.

Oct 7, 2010

Rejection letters

Sometimes personal rejection letters can be amusing. Here are a few excerpts:

"To be perfectly frank, the only reason for our rejection of the story is that real estate is terribly, terribly boring. It's difficult to get into a story with such a boring premise, and impossible when that premise is not even played down or dressed up with other, sexier topics. ... We paged through and found that the later descriptions of the deformed woman were indeed disturbing."

And another for the same short horror story:

"To be perfectly honest, fat murderous retards are played out."

Random new photos

This is what I have to put up with while I'm on my computer. A dog stares at me all day, exactly like this:

heeler mix with yellow eyes
This is what I see when I go walking in the woods nearby:

metal sculpture barbeque grill
Another example of weird woods sculpture:

wall made out of sticks and stones, branches and logs
Here's downtown Austin at night. Halcyon on 4th Street is cool coffee bar and lounge.

Halcyon coffee bar and lounge on 4th Street, Austin
And here's a glimpse of brush country in hill country.

central Texas brush

Aug 11, 2010

Torth Book 4 finished!!!!

My fourth Torth novel, the aptly named "World of Wreckage," is complete!

It weighs in at a healthy 104,000 words, and took me one year to complete, or six months if you factor out real life delays.

Writing this book was one heck of a wild ride, and required me to stretch my writing skills in new and strange ways. I wrote a blog post about the chemistry of hate (see May 2010), inspired by a rocky relationship between two characters in this book. I developed some new insights about the Torth Empire, and opened up the plot gateway for the wrap-up of the series, which will probably require three more novels.

Working on this series has given me a lot more respect and appreciation for writers such as Robert Jordan, J.K. Rowling, and George R.R. Martin, who've juggled long character arcs that must stay fresh and fun over multiple novels. It's really not as easy as it looks.

And now . . . here are a few random, completely out-of-context, and spoiler-free quotes from the book!

# # # # # # # # # #

Here's a solution, she told the Commander of All Living Things. Drop a series of thermonuclear bombs on them.

"He's a lying sleaze-ball who'll lick anyone's boots if he thinks it will save his life."

"You've doomed the universe. Way to go, genius."

"I have to warn you," he said in a quiet voice, "the Great Prison is a hard place to visit, even if you're not being tortured there." He seemed intent on ignoring Thomas. "The sights we'll see . . . it will be unpleasant. We have to remember not to intervene. We can't help the prisoners, no matter how much we'd like to."

"I should have let you die." He raised his voice to a squeaky pitch, doing an imperious imitation of Thomas. "I bet I can outsmart them!"

"The little girl who keeps coming up with doomsday devices? Ugh. She gives me the willies."

"This place has been untouched for who-knows-how-many-thousands of years, and he's going to break it?"

"You're obliterating countless centuries of ancient artifacts!" His voice cracked, anguished. "The things we could have learned!"

"We've met before. You saved my life. Would you be so kind as to allow me to save yours?"

"C o m m m m m m m m m m e," the Torth whispered through smiles.

Cherise raised her hand--and stopped herself just before she could slap Flen across the face. "I don't love Thomas." The very idea stung her, a deep wound that she wasn't sure she could forgive Flen for speaking. "I hate him. But he's trying to save the Alashani, so get off his back."

"Oh, hell. I could explain it perfectly if you were a mind reader. But since you're not getting it, I think you're going to have to perform an astonishing feat of heavy lifting, instead."

The Indigo Governess sat in her massage pool in her suite on Umdalkdul, so weakened that she required medical devices to aid her lungs and heart. Derision leaked from her. This 'frippery' is an ingenious new weapon that will change the course of history. Her communication came with an attached mental image of the Betrayer as a bloodied corpse. Once it's ready, it will destroy him. My creativity will save the Empire.

"Alex is done for today. The next time he reappears, grab him. Jump on him. Tell him to get some sleep. If he tries to ignore you and do anything at all, kick him in the balls."

Get rid of all mentally defective infants, no matter how trivial the defect seems. No emotional babies, no handicapped telepaths, and especially no Yeresunsa. We (Torth) have been too lax.

Of course, the Death Architect replied. It could destroy a star. It might be able to destroy the galaxy. It might unravel the space-time continuum and collapse the universe as We know it. I don't really know. Pride and eager curiosity shone in her thoughts. I'll need to run some experiments.

Inwardly, the Commander wondered what signs of treachery she'd missed twelve years ago. Why did you throw away your life (just) to copulate with a human beast, and then carry a hybrid fetus to term inside your womb?

# # # # # # # # # #

Ah, those Torth ... never up to any good.

Now I would love to write Book 5, but I'm going to resist the temptation and (sighhhhh) take another peep at Book 1. I want to market this series, and, like, sell it, someday.

Jun 28, 2010

New Mexico, end of trip

A few photos from Carlsbad Caverns:

Carlsbad Caverns natural entranceThis gigantic hole in the ground was feared by early settlers in New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns
Views of Chaco Canyon, ruins of ancient pueblos:

Chaco Canyon
This was once a thriving city with a population of thousands of people. They traded with the Mesa Verde people, as well as coastal people and Mexican Aztec people. The city went into decline in the 12th century A.D.

Chaco CanyonIf you plan to visit this remote site, be prepared for a full day. The easiest route includes twelve miles of washboard dirt roads, and the nearest town with a hotel is over 80 miles away.

Whites Sands National Monument, after a rainstorm:

White Sands
White Sands
surfing White Sands Photographs can't do that sunset justice. We hiked away from the road and lay on a towel. The sand was damp, and the temperature was perfect. We also saw a rainbow, and a huge full moon that night.

sunset over White Sands

Jun 22, 2010

New Mexico, Day 4

Day 2:
I brought a video camera into Carlsbad Caverns, since it handles low light better ... I will capture still shots from the video when I get home. Suffice it to say that Carlsbad Caverns is a beautiful walking trip, about 1 to 2 miles of subterranean hiking. Every bend reveals a new array of colorful pillars, stalactites like needles, stalagmites like giant drip castles, and chandeliers made of rock. The trip took us about 3 or 4 hours.

Afterwards, we drove to Roswell and settled into a quaint motel built in the adobe style. Roswell is a strange town. We began to suspect everyone who lives there might be part alien. Here's a photo of a gift shop on the main drag:

Roswell alien gift shop
Day 3:
We drove to Albuquerque, and stayed with a friend I met via the Odyssey workshop. This was a laid back day, playing Skib-Bo and Bananagrams.

friend's pueblo style house in Albuquerque
Day 4:
We hiked around Petroglyph National Monument, right outside Albuquerque. It was a hot day to be hiking up a hill, but the view and petroglyphs were worth it!

Petroglyphs left by Native Americans in New Mexico
Then we drove up to Santa Fe, and had lunch at a cafe in downtown, which is full of beautiful pueblo-style buildings, art galleries, and very narrow and winding streets.

cafe in downtown Santa Fe
We're looking forward to tonight, when we will be having dinner with a fantasy author, of whom we're all fans.

Jun 20, 2010

New Mexico, Day 1

Since this hotel has wifi, I've decided to try and post a day-by-day account of our road trip through New Mexico. My friend Amy flew in from Rhode Island the night before, and we had a dinner with writers before leaving Austin in the morning. We arrived in Carlsbad, New Mexico last night around 7pm MST, after dealing with tourists in Fredericksburg, Texas, and then driving for about 8 hours west. The whole 8 hour drive is a lot of Texas canyonlands. I think we saw a few ghost towns on the way. There was one Burger King, and maybe three gas stations. Lots of roadkill, including a wild boar and a vulture eating a deer (we didn't kill the animals, just drove past them).

Anyway, we checked into our hotel in Carlsbad, met up with our friend Brian, who drove down from Colorado, and went to dinner at a very crowded Chili's--apparently the only restaurant in town, other than a Subway. But we had a good time catching up.

So now we're ready to tour Carlsbad Caverns! I have my Flip video camera (since it handles darkness pretty well), and I'll see if I'm permitted to bring it into the cave.

May 21, 2010

flying car parts

This morning, I was just thinking about how many bad drivers are on the road, when a collision happened right before my eyes. I was in a left turn lane. The light was green, but the green arrow wasn't lit up, so our lane had to yield right of way. The car in front of me completely failed to do so. He just swung out in front of a pick-up truck. The truck tried to swerve at the last minute, but it was quite a crash. Car parts few everywhere.

Fortunately, it looked like no one was hurt. The car driver jumped out and ran to the truck to make sure the driver was all right. The truck looked more or less undamaged, and its driver just looked shaken.

Everyone thinks their own city has the worst drivers, but I've lived on both coasts ... I've spent time in several U.S. cities ... and I think Austin is right up there with Boston. It's like the worst drivers from both coasts decided to move here and get drunk, get high, or otherwise mentally check out. The poorly marked, narrow roads for high volume traffic don't help (although Boston is worse on that factor). I like Austin, but maybe they need huge blinking traffic signs everywhere that say STAY ALERT! Maybe the Austin Chronicle should publish a memo that says "pay attention."

It seems that witnessing traffic accidents here is pretty routine. A few months ago, I almost got rear-ended by a speeding pick-up truck. There was nowhere for anyone to swerve; it was a two-way backroad in a forested area. I was waiting to make a left turn. The truck coming up behind me swerved at the last minute, but it had to drive on the grassy shoulder to avoid hitting me, and could easily have hit a boulder or tree. This was in daylight; the truck should have seen me and slowed down. I can't imagine what delayed mental processes led the driver to ignore the fact that my car wasn't moving and had a turn signal on.

A few weeks ago, I got stuck behind a car driving at maybe 2 to 5 mph in heavy traffic. I was stuck behind this car long enough to determine that they were not stalled; the driver was arguing with his passenger. It looked like a greasy older man and either a tiny old lady or a little girl. As we went through a heavy traffic intersection, I honked. The car slowed down even more, causing a huge traffic pile-up. I was able to swerve around him, and everyone behind me was forced to swerve, as well.

I could go on and on. Bicyclists pedal across busy intersections without looking. People cross roads without looking to see if traffic is coming. Cars change lanes or pull into busy roads without checking to see if anyone is coming. This is normal, daily driving in Austin.

May 14, 2010

The Chemistry of Hate

I’m pondering the nature of hatred as I write the fourth novel in my Torth series. The interaction between two characters (one of them a new introduction) who grow to absolutely hate each other on a personal level is a challenge for me, and my particular set-up feels like unexplored territory in fiction. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any comparable examples.

The closest might be Harry Potter and Professor Snape. Harry Potter and Snape are both on the same team, forced to interact for the larger good, yet they can hardly tolerate being in the same room together. This is similar to my character situation, except that the Potter and Snape relationship is skewed in favor of one character over the other. Harry Potter has valid reasons to hate Snape, but Snape simply equates Harry with the school bully who tormented him. In my opinion, this makes it harder to identify with Snape. If you had to side with one or the other, most people would side with Harry. Snape is just a little too greasy, a little too mindlessly supportive of Draco Malfoy.

My characters locked in mutual hatred are meant to balance each other. They’re both good guys. They’re both on the same team, which holds them in check. They both have equally valid reasons for wanting to strangle the other to death. (To readers: I can’t say names or details without giving major spoilers.)

This got me thinking about the nature of hatred. It seems to me that fictional hate relationships tend to be impersonal and sketchy. The grand scale of hero vs. villain hatred is alien to the average person. A serial killer or a tyrannical dictator is almost like a force of nature. Even if the villain orders the hero's family to be murdered and gets the hero framed for the crime, readers have to acknowledge that the villain is just acting in his or her best interest. Fictional villains usually target the hero because he or she has the wrong genes, or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The villain simply acts; all the hatred comes from the hero, who reacts. This is not the simmering, mutual hatred that leads siblings to tattle on each other, or divorced couples to use their children as pawns against each other. Most people can’t identify with grand-scale hatred, but everyone has some personal experience with mutual or personal hatred. Personal hatred seems to come from a betrayal of trust. It’s the flip side of respect or love.

Is there anyone whom you once admired? Someone whom you used to protect out of love? Someone you once held in great esteem? Someone who used to be your role model? Is this person now the one you speak of with venom, and can’t say two kind words about?

Yeah. That’s the chemistry between my two hate-filled characters. In a different story, they might admire each other. They are naturally inclined to respect each other. But each character feels as if the other did him a grave injustice, or has grossly misjudged him.

Both of these characters consider themselves to be very wise, but their world views are polar opposites. One character wears his emotions on his sleeve, while the other hides everything he feels. One character tells the truth no matter who it hurts, while the other sees no problem with lying. One character is deeply spiritual, the other is abhors religion. One is an adventurer, while the other would rather stay home and hide. One is a gambler, the other takes no risks. One advocates peace, the other is a war-monger. One sees the universe going to hell in a hand-basket, the other is wildly optimistic. One curses like a sailor, the other uses scientific jargon. They are hot and cold. They are night and day. All their personal differences add to the friction.

Real life abounds with this spectrum of friction. It’s as much a part of life as love. In America, we see outspoken atheists sharing a family with the devoutly religious. We see liberal Greenpeace advocates living and working with conservative Republicans. This is our world. I don’t know what side of the fence you fall on in those examples, but if you’re anywhere close to the middle, you probably agree that both sides have some merit and certainly have a right to exist. But people on the extreme fringes would disagree. They scream with fury if forced to spend significant amounts of time with their polar opposite.

That’s the kind of hatred I’m talking about. Personal hatred seems to parallel the love formula. Two characters meet, they get to know each other, they exchange scathing verbal attacks (as opposed to flirting), they are thrown into a situation where they have to rely on each other (as opposed to torn apart and having to rely on themselves), they start making death threats towards each other (instead of long for each other) and tearing the other down at every opportunity (as opposed to reuniting in romantic bliss).

I’m learning as I write that hate is just as complex as love, and takes just as long to build. I’m eager to see reader reactions on this one. Torth Book 4, World of Wreckage, will be finished sometime this year. As always, please let me know if you’d be willing to test read my Torth series. Unfortunately, the fourth book in the series only makes sense if you’ve read the first three.

Mar 28, 2010

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

One more positive book review! I listened to the (unabridged) first book in Jeffry Lindsay's Dexter series, about the serial killer who kills other serial killers. It's a new twist on crime thrillers, and despite being a cold-hearted serial killer, Dexter has a lot of personality and interesting inner monologue. If you've ever wondered if you're missing something about human interaction, you'll empathize with Dexter. The book's one weakness was the author's penchant for alliteration. Dear despondent Debra, discombobulated dorkiness, D'oh!

Refrain from watching season 1 of the TV show Dexter if you plan to read. It follows the book very closely.

Mar 25, 2010

The House of the Scorpion

My favorite book reviews are negative. They rip apart books dumb enough or unoriginal enough for me to hate, written by a best-selling or critically acclaimed novelist. But since I want to avoid winding up on a blacklist, I will henceforth only post positive book reviews. Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion fits the bill.

Fresh, original premise, sympathetic and strong protagonist, fast pace, tight plot, great setting and characters, scintillating dialogue, serious underlying themes, all wrapped in a light young adult package. The House of the Scorpion has it all. Go read it.

Need more encouragement? Let's see. I picked up this book from my local library because the back cover blurb sounded interesting. It's about the teenage clone of a drug lord/dictator, set in a future where mind-altering drugs and human slavery are legal in North America. I wondered how a young adult author would handle such weighty topics. I figured the protagonist would stay ignorant throughout most of the novel, until (HORRORS!) he figures out the evil around him (sugar-coated evil, of course), and easily escapes.

Nope. Nancy Farmer stays authentic to the situation. Matteo suffers the best and worst childhood imaginable, full of unique details that bring to life a high tech, futuristic dictatorship located in northern Mexico. Nothing comes easily for him, least of all, escape. Not only must he deal with the sinister implications of being a clone, but he's the pampered clone of a particularly feared and hated tyrant. He must figure out the secrets kept around him in order to survive, and he also has to navigate a tough world of criminals, child labor, drug trafficking, and communist ideologues. And somehow, Nancy Farmer managed to weave a romantic subplot in all that danger!

Seriously, this novel is adventure, science fiction, romance, action, coming of age, and adult themes, all rolled into one. Go read it!
(P.S. -- Don't read the Wikipedia article unless you want spoilers.)

Jan 31, 2010

Watch my student films on YouTube!

At last, the wait is over ... you can watch all four of my CalArts student films on YouTube!

Here's Like Liz and Beth, made in my third year.

This film was screened at the CalArts Producers Show and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

My channel on YouTube is AbbyBabble. Comments on the videos are welcome.