Book Review – Enablers Anonymous by Nico Laeser

I really like Nico Laeser’s writing. He’s got a smooth, easy style that sucks you in and brings the story to life. I’ve already reviewed Skin Cage and Harmonic: Resonance and just like those two books, Laeser brings his trademark wordsmithery to Enablers Anonymous. Also, just like Skin Cage and Harmonic: Resonance, Enablers Anonymous is hard book to drop into a single category. That’s not a bad thing. Genre bending is a very good thing to see in a writer. Witness Kurt Vonnegut, a man who I still struggle to categorize, but whose works I absolutely adore.

Maybe that’s why I like Laeser’s books so much. Just like real life, they defy the petty attempts of humans to shelve them. As such, they’re best left on the coffee table for more people to read and experience.

Enabler’s Anonymous follows the life and times of a self described loser. A fuck-up who has few (if any) fucks left to give. Life being the chaotic maelstrom that it is, Jimmy winds up doing more than he ever thought he could. As the old song (and saying) goes, “Only cream and bastards rise”. Our hero fakes it until he makes it and finds himself standing atop a self-help empire and wondering not only how he got there, but whether or not he even deserves it.

It’s part Fight Club (without the fighting) and part Catcher In The Rye and part sequence of events that seem so realistic, you can’t help but wonder why this hasn’t happened to you.

Toss in an interesting group of supporting characters, including a group of fantasy gamers, the smarmiest boss on Earth, and a coffee cup that brings a delightful bit of irony, and you’ve got a cracking good tale.

“By now, everyone knows the name James King. 
 
They see me on top of this block-tower pedestal, and it seems they’re all trying to knock it down, scraping away the lies I used to glue it all together.
 
I went from warehouse loser, worst employee of the month, to self-help superstar and media flavor of the month, using the tried and tested method—fake it until you make it.
 
What I made was a media monster. Now, an angry mob is at my door, wielding pitchforks and flaming torches, screaming, “Down with the Placebo Messiah!”
 
Ignore what the critics, and my absentee shoulder angel, tell you—I’m not all bad. Come in and help yourself to the complimentary food, but go easy on the coffee creamer or you’ll be up all night. It’s time for me to confess the true version of my story—I’m about to tell all.*
 
*including where to find the tastiest breakfast wraps in town.”

enablers

Get your copy here

Follow Nico on Twitter

Nico’s also an artist and musician (which makes me feel humble and pretty boring)

Sniffing girls, wildlings and finding my butterfly…

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Wonderful stories from the one and only Max Power.

Maxpower's Blog

I remember the pressure of the knife against my throat as clearly as if it was yesterday and the sense that in that moment, things might go terribly wrong. Having skedaddled out of a very hairy situation only minutes before, more as a precaution than anything else, being trapped and surrounded by a marauding gang of knife wielding men in a remote part of town late at night, left the three of us feeling less than confident that we might escape unscathed.

That we did, was more down to experience than luck, an element of comradery, balls that were needed and applied at the right moment and a hint of cowardice in one of the gang members that surrounded us, threatening to cut us up and throw us in the river. God it seems like such a long time ago now. I’m not sure if I’d handle it with such…

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Obligatory Election Year Blog Post

Ever stop to wonder exactly how the media can shape an election, intentionally or unintentionally? It’s remarkably simple: the best politicians know how to use the media to their own ends.

In January of 2004, I was in a hotel room in Bend, Oregon watching the Iowa Democratic caucuses on the TV and eating Mongolian stir-fry. Anyone familiar with the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus will immediately realize I was about to see an interesting sideline to US political history take place live and in color.

Remember this guy?

Howard-Dean-Joe-Raedle-Getty-Images-72350864
YAAARRRGH!

His name is Howard Dean and, at the time, he was considered one of the big movers and shakers in the upcoming Presidential election. I watched his speech at the caucus, primarily because I was curious about the guy people were calling a Rockefeller Republican (socially liberal, but fiscally conservative – it is actually a thing) and a guy who was so adamantly opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq.

So, he gets up and delivers his speech and God damn was that guy excited. Most candidates act like they’re excited, but Dean really was into it. He was having the time of his life and you could tell he actually believed in what he was saying.

And then, while I was munching on something unidentifiable, but fairly tasty, he threw out that scream that everyone has made fun of for over twelve years now. At the time, I remember thinking, “Damn. He’s genuinely excited.” He had some good ideas and I was leaning toward issuing my relatively worthless vote for him in the New Mexico primary. NOTE: NM votes really late in the primaries. Usually, by the time we get to vote, the primaries are pretty much decided.

So, I was feeling kind of proud of myself and generally happy that the Democrats might field someone who could take on Bush. I watched the rest, including the lackluster speeches from Kerry and Edwards, and even watched some of the final media interviews. And when Dean got a chance to talk to the media, my heart sank. One of the first things I remember him saying was something to the effect of “You guys in the media have been pretty mean.”

Right then and there, I knew his campaign was over. You never let the media smell blood in the water. No matter they say, you rise above it or ignore it. You can scream and yell about what jerks they are when you’re in private, but when you’re actually being interviewed, you never let them know they’ve gotten to you.

My guess was right; Howard Dean did not get the 2004 Democratic nomination. That went to this guy:

frankenstein

Whoops, wrong pic.

John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portrait
(Sorry, Mr. Kerry, you’re supposedly a great guy, I just couldn’t resist tossing a little joke in here.)

Howard Dean’s failed performance in the primaries was largely chalked up to that famous scream. It was the talk of the media for months. Someone even made a Howard Dean sound board so you could sit at your computer and listen to Howard Dean scream. Dean himself admitted it wasn’t the classiest move he could have made. But I have a different theory about why he got pummeled in the media and that was because he let them know they got to him.

Well, that and the Democrats wanted someone statesmanlike to take on the young, folksy twang of George W. Bush. Personally, I don’t think the DNC was ever behind Dean; he was too different from them. I don’t think they were behind Edwards, either, though. Kerry, while not the most exciting person to listen to, was experienced and brought an older, wiser feeling to the election and that’s what the DNC figured would win.

Until John Kerry got Swiftboated and Waffle-Housed and his whole campaign sank like the freaking Titanic because he couldn’t control the onslaught.

Flash forward twelve years and we some similar themes, albeit with different results. This time around, instead of Kerry vs. Bush, we’ve got Clinton vs. Trump and, damn, has this one gotten crazy. As of right now, one of the first things I look for when I read the news every morning is “what batshit insane thing did Trump say today?”

hillary-clinton-thumbs-up
More power? Thumbs up from me!
donald-trump
I can kill a puppy on live TV and my people will still love me.

Ah, there we go. Second Amendment folks can take care of the Hillary problem. That’s better than any cup of coffee for waking you up in the morning.

Nutty as this election cycle has been, it’s interesting to see some parallels with different results from the ’04 election. Dean went after the media early on and folded like a bad poker player when they went after him. Trump, on the other hand, went on the offensive. The extremely offensive, some (including Megyn Kelly) would say.

And that’s what’s really interesting. Trump – who has zero political experience, almost no filters, no real grasp of international politics, and is willing to go on the warpath over the slightest thing – is an absolute master of the media. They love to hate him and they love to repeat whatever insane thing he recently said. He could walk on stage and fart for 45 minutes and there would be an endless series of articles about “Trump’s Fart: What Did It Mean?”

And, amazingly, his followers would inhale that fart and claim it was the last breath of Freedom or some damned thing.

It’s easy to forget that Howard Dean had followers before the media destroyed him. He was, in some ways, an Internet sensation. Sure, he wasn’t in Trump’s league when it came to minions, but he was hardly unknown and unloved. The main difference, other than the fact that Dean had policies that didn’t involve building a wall around Mexico and filling it with water, was that Dean couldn’t manipulate the media like Trump can so a lot of people never figured out what Dean was really up to.

On the other hand, everyone knows exactly what Trump wants to do and they’re still in love with him. Which just goes to show there’s really no such thing as bad publicity. He can keep whining about the election being rigged (it’s not) or the way the Republican party is mistreating him (they are, but for very good reasons) and the media will dutifully report on how atrocious a person he is, his minions will continue to lick it up, and it won’t make a damned bit of difference come November.

What I find interesting about the media and Trump is how they’re doing his bidding without even realizing it. Every time they print a piece about Trump’s craziness and how terrible it is, he wins whatever sick little game he’s playing. And he’s doing it by just being himself.

Hillary Clinton, in her own way, is using the media to her advantage, too. All she has to do is shut up and let Trump talk. He’s already got his followers and is unlikely to gain or lose more over the next few months, but Hillary is busily picking off the disgusted Republicans and her lead will continue to grow.

And that’s how the media is influencing this election. Dean capitulated when the media spanked him. Trump is busily spanking the media back and giving them enough fodder to keep his name at the top of the headlines. Hillary, on the other hand, is doing her best to ignore the worst the media can throw at her. Three different ways of manipulating the message and the media.

Learning to the use the media is the first thing every politician needs to master. Trump gets it, even if his messages aren’t always (or ever) positive. Hillary knows when to keep her head down and when to rise up. Dean completely misunderstood how to deal with the media.

In the end, we’ll find out on the second Tuesday in November who did the best job of using the media.

Check out Howard Dean’s scream here

Simple Shadow Text in Inkscape

ShadowyFinal

Following up on the last post on creating shadowed text in GIMP, I’d like to show you an easier way to do it. As I said in that last post, I’m not a big fan of working with text in GIMP. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine program for bitmap editing, but there are just better tools for dealing with text manipulation. Vector applications like Inkscape and Illustrator give you more flexibility in layout and text work. To show you just how easy, here’s a quick tutorial. Now, I’m assuming you’re at least somewhat familiar with Inkscape. If not, there are lots of free tutorials out there and this post will still be here when you get back.

Step one. Make some text

With Inkscape open, select the text tool (the A) and type something. I was feeling clever, so I typed shadowy. Change the font to something you like and resize the text with the arrows that appear when you select the object with the pointer tool.

2 - Fonted Sized
Molot. 73.95 pts.

Step two. Copy the text

Ctrl + C. Control + V. If you’re on a Mac, it’ll be something similar.

3 - Copied
Double your text, double your fun

Step three. Change the color and layer the objects

Find the text you want to use as the shadow text and change the color to something a bit shadowy-er. I chose a medium-ish gray. Align the objects however you want. If your gray text is on top of the black text, select the gray text with the pointer, go to Object and click on Lower. Or just press the page down key on your keyboard.

4 Layers
Order the text to do stuff. And things.

Step four. Do a bit of blurring.

With GIMP there were a few extra steps here. Since GIMP works on pixels, you have to select the color, grow the selection, and then feather the selection. After the selection is made and the selected area filled with a selected color, a bit of blurring is necessary to get everything looking just right. With Inkscape, all you have to do is click on the shadowy gray text and look for the Blur slider in the fill dialog box. I set mine to 1.7%. Inkscape doesn’t mess around when it blurs things.

5 - Shadowed
Aaaand we’re done.

Step five. Export.

If you want to do your layout in GIMP, you’ll need to export the text as a transparent png file. Select both the black text and the gray text by drawing a box around them with the pointer tool. Look for the Export Dialog and specify where you’re exporting to, make sure to check Hide All Except Selected, then click Export.

6 - Export

Now you’ve got a transparent png file you can import into GIMP and use as a layer on your book cover. Or you can do what I do and pull the cover into Inkscape and do all the layout work there.

ShadowyFinal
Such a sexy, bold statement about something.

Has anyone got any tips to share or questions that need answering? Leave a comment!

Simple Shadow Text in GIMP

I’ve always designed my own book covers. I’m a terrible illustrator, but pretty decent at layout and text effects. Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there who make great images and I can do some manipulation on them to put together a halfway decent looking cover.

Not everyone can do this, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who look at what I’ve designed and call it crap. That’s fine, I’ve done the same about other book covers out there, too. Graphic design is a pretty personal thing in that what I find attractive may or may not resonate with anyone else. Design goes through trends, some of which are excellent and tend to stick around, others are abysmal and tend to vanish. Ideally, a design should appeal to the maximum amount of people possible, but if you think you’re going to please everyone, you’re fooling yourself.

Anyway, I’ve picked up a few tricks here and there over the years and they seem like good things to share. Ostensibly, this blog is about writing and books, so this is a bit outside the norm, but it’s not too far off base. The first of these tricks is doing some simple text shadowing in GIMP. Ideally, I prefer to work with Inkscape for all my text work because it’s much easier and more flexible once you wrap your head around it, but a lot of people like to work exclusively in GIMP, Photoshop, or other bitmap editors so this post will focus on GIMP. Photoshop and most other bitmap editors work basically the same way. The next post will do the same thing with Inkscape.

The first thing to get used to is the idea of using layers. See, images consist of individual pixels (picture elements, in case you’re playing Trivial Pursuit) and once you place a bunch of pixels in with another bunch of pixels it’s a real bear to separate them. Think about the amount of effort it takes to pull the bourbon out of your soda after you’ve poured them together. Actually, screw that. Just drink the bourbon and soda; it’s a hell of a lot easier.

Anyway, the way bitmap editors work is by selecting pixels based on certain criteria, usually color. In an image with millions of colors, selecting just the ones you want gets to be a dicey proposition. That’s why layers make things so much easier. Drink your bourbon and soda, we’re about to through the looking glass.

Take any image and it can consist of multiple layers. Those layers can be any color you want, including no color at all. When you look at the image with a whole mess of transparent layers, it looks like a single image. The image below is the final product of this tutorial. It looks like one simple image, but it’s actually comprised of three layers that can all be individually manipulated.

7 The Shadow Knows
Click to embiggen.

By using layers, you free yourself from the Herculean chore of selecting individual pixels. Everything is neatly laid out and separated from the other elements so you can tweak one part of the picture without impacting any other part. In GIMP, you create layers by using the Layers dialog and clicking the button for either new layer or copy layer (just hover the cursor over the buttons, it’ll let you know what they do). Photoshop and other tools work similarly. If your bitmap editor doesn’t support layers, ditch it and use something else. It may take some time to learn how to use the software, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. GIMP, by the way, is free.

Step one. Make some text.

This varies from editor to editor, but it usually centers on finding the Text tool and typing. Look for something that looks like an A or a T. Click somewhere on the blank canvas and type something. Working with text in a bitmap editor is still a PITA compared to working with text in a vector program, so you want to make sure you get things as good as possible before you commit everything. In this example, I’ve set the font to League Spartan at 72pt. Use whatever font and size you want.

1 Text
We’re about to find out what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

The final step (not shown here) was to set the text color to red. Once I’ve got my text done, I get this:

2 Red Yo
Red shadows? Sounds like the Commies are back. If they ever left.

Step two. Layer that sucker up.

If you look in the top right hand part of the image above you’ll see the layers dialog with two objects in it: A T with SHADOWY and a grid with Background. Those are layers. You can edit the text layer if you want to. Select the text layer by clicking on it, selecting the text tool from the toolbox, and double clicking on the text.

I’m going to make a new layer by copying the SHADOWY layer. To do that, look for the copy layer button. In GIMP it’s at the bottom of the layer dialog (top left of the picture, above the brushes dialog), and looks like a couple of squares, one on top of the others.

The reason for creating a new layer is so I can work with the copied layer without impacting the text layer. Copying the layer creates an exact duplicate of the selected layer that I can do horrible things to.

3 Layers
SHADOWY #1 is the new layer and a not-so-subtle reminder that SHADOWY is number 1

The visible order of the layers is the same as the order in the layers dialog. The topmost layer is at the top of the list.

Now, like I said before, bitmap editors work by selecting pixels. Because we made a duplicate layer and made the text all red, this is pretty trivial. Click the eyeball next to the SHADOWY #1 layer to hide it, and click on the SHADOWY layer to select it. We’ll put the SHADOWY #1 layer a bit. Hiding it makes it easier to work with the other layers.

Step three. Use the layers wisely.

With the second layer (SHADOWY) selected, go to Edit->Select by color-> and click on the red text. BAM! The text is selected. From here you can do whatever you want to just the text and it’ll be our little secret. Just to make things more fun, we’re going to modify the selection like the mad scientists we are. Go back to Edit and select grow. This grows the selection by a number of pixels. I chose 5 because reasons. Then, since shadows don’t look as good with a hard edge, I went back to Edit and selected Feather. This feathers the selection so it’s not a smooth line.

4 mod select
Selectamundo. Really hard to see when it’s this small. Click to embiggen or middle click to open in a new tab.

Then, because a shadow shouldn’t be red, I went back to Edit and selected Fill with Foreground color. This made the text black, thicker, and slightly feathered at the edges. Finally, go to Edit, select Deselect All. Yes, I know I just told you to select deselect. Let’s blur this out a bit more. Make sure the right layer is selected and go to Filters->Blur-Gaussian Blur. Blur it as much as you want until you get something blurlicious.

5 BLURRY
Blurtacular. Also, note the layer order has been switched in the Layers dialog. I did that to mess with your head.

Step four. Meet Mr. Opacity

The last thing we’re gonna do with the shadow is lighten it up a bit by playing with the opacity. Each layer can have a different opacity from the rest of them. You can change the opacity by using the Opacity slider. Opacity, by the way, is a measure of how well you can see through something. Something you can’t see through is considered opaque. The cat sitting in between you and your monitor is 100% opaque.

6 Opacity
I can see right through your shadowy heart.

Step five. Final steps.

Now, turn the top layer back on, make sure you’ve got the correct layer selected, and use the move tool to adjust the position of the shadow. The move tool usually looks like four arrows. You can reposition a layer without moving the other layers. This is a good thing.

The final step is the select the background and make it white. Edit->Fill with Background color will work for that. When it’s all done, you should wind up with something like this.

7 The Shadow Knows
Woohoo!

If you’re working on your book cover and want to do some text work, use your layers. You can have as many as you want. I think so anyway, I’ve never actually tested that theory. Create one layer for your background image and then as many layers as necessary for your text.

Bam! Layer magic and text awesomeness.

Anyone got any other good tips?

Just Passing Through

Outside of The Eagles’ classic song Take It Easy, most people know absolutely fuck-all about Winslow, Arizona. I’m fortunate to have actually spent a little time in the place. My aunt and uncle lived there for a while and we used to spend Christmas with them. Actually, they lived there twice. Once when I was fairly young, then they moved, then they moved back. Then they moved again.

At any rate, I’ve spent some time in Winslow. It’s a tiny, little wide spot on I-40 between Holbrook (also a wide spot) and Flagstaff (a cool wide spot and home to Northern Arizona University and Bookman’s). Winslow is your run-of-the-mill small Arizona town and aside from the fact that the Mormon church went out of business and someone bought the place and turned it into a giant house, there’s not much to say about Winslow.

Oh, it also has a place that serves the world’s worst Chinese food. My grandfather loved that place.

Now Winslow is dying the same slow, desperate death a lot of small towns are experiencing. The movie Cars made this sound like a tragedy, but aside from the fact that Winslow is a convenient place to get gas and a lot of people are going to lose their shirts when the town finally closes its doors, not much of importance will be lost. People will find new places to live and the world will move on just like it has when countless other places have rolled up the streets and called it a done day.

Anyway, enough about the sad and sordid history of Winslow, Arizona. The point of this post is just how much of an asshole I am that I can look at the slow death of a small town and see nothing more than a story idea.

Last week we took a trip up to Zion National Park in Utah to spend some time with friends and celebrate some birthdays. As we were passing through Winslow (at exactly the speed limit, I assure you),  we saw the remnants of some building or another. All that was left was a mostly empty dirt log, the rusted I-beams that made up the frame, and an old rail freight car.

A perfect place for a story with all kinds of high weirdness. I wish I could have gotten a picture, but driving (at exactly the speed limit) wasn’t conducive to getting a decent shot. But I saw the scene and immediately saw the end of the world had come and gone and there were still a couple people out there working on some strange tech hammered together with dreams, bailing wire, and bits of crashed UFOs. Around them were 50 gallon drums filled with flaming refuse and the endless brown desert. The stars filled the skies. They had one final shot at redemption in a world that died with a whimper.

Maybe it’s just me, but I saw a story in that old frame and dirt-bound freight car. Inspiration comes from all sorts of bizarre places.

Book Review – Deadly Secrets by Gordon Bickerstaff

I’d love to say I met Gordon Bickerstaff on a safari in Africa where we were saving an undiscovered tribe from a horde of army ants using only our wits, a glass of water, and a half-empty Bic lighter, but the truth is I’ve never met the man and likely never will.

But it would make for an awesome story of heroism and bravery in the face of rampaging Mother Nature.

In a way, Deadly Secrets, the first Gavin Shawlins novel, is also an awesome story of heroism and bravery in the face of rampaging Mother Nature. It also features corporations run amok, secret societies, governments, and Russian special agents. In a nutshell, Deadly Secrets has pretty much everything you need for a quality techno-thriller.

The story revolves around a revolutionary new way of handling food. Whoa, back up there, cowboy; we’re not ready to read it quite yet. Like all techno-thrillers, Deadly Secrets needs something revolutionary to kick off the story. In this case it’s a food additive that will change everything, but comes with some complications. Revolutionary things bring in lots of money. LOTS of money. And money is the best way to get at the heart of the human beast. As soon as oodles of money become involved, things tend to spiral out of control pretty quickly. When it turns out the revolution has a fatal flaw, well, hell, that’s just the price of doing business.

Deadly Secrets wanders a bit at first – which is probably my only complaint about the story – as it introduces the main players in the game before settling into the bad guys being really bad guys and the good guys being fairly decent folk. There were a couple subplots that could have been excised, but overall it’s a cracking good read filled with memorable characters and a pretty spectacular climax that’s achieved in a non-standard way. I appreciated the cleverness of how Bickerstaff handles his major showdown while, at the same time, showing us just how awful the bad guys can really be.

If you like techno-thrillers that don’t go overboard trying to explain the technology, this is a great book. Deadly Secrets doesn’t get bogged down in technical details, it lets the technology take a back seat to the characters and the story. All in all, a great read and I’m looking forward to Everything To Lose.

By the way, never let it be said Twitter isn’t a good platform for promoting books. I found Deadly Secrets from meeting Gordon Bickerstaff on there!

new deadlysecrets

Get your copy here

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