Book Review – The Institute by Kayla Howarth

The Institute is the second YA novel I’ve read and reviewed and, true to the best elements of the genre, enjoyed.  YA is an nebulous sub-genre of lots of different genres.  From what I’m seeing the writing is on the same level as what is commonly referred to as “adult fiction”, the plots are just as well developed, and the characters are as complicated as the works that are targeted at adults (whatever adult actually means).  The only real difference between YA fiction and everything else seems to be the ages of the characters.

Enter Kayla Howarth and The Institute, a fast-paced and contemplative work about the value and cost of being different in a world that really doesn’t appreciate differences.  Imagine, if you will, a world where people with special powers are encouraged to report to the titualar Institute to be treated and cured.  True to government form, the Institute is positioned as a place where people with these powers – Defectives as they’re called in the book – can be treated.  Of course, everyone knows the Institute isn’t there to help anyone, it’s little more than a prison where the treatment largely consists of locking Defectives away.

Institute
This cover is awesome sauce.

 

Allira Daniels will do anything to keep her family safe from the Institute. They claim to protect the Defectives, but really the Defectives are trapped and segregated.

Allira’s brother Shilah is not dangerous like everyone assumes all Defectives are. He just sees things before they happen, and Allira knows that if anyone finds out, they will turn on the entire Daniels family. So they live by one simple rule: be invisible. They try to blend in at school, try not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. But when Allira witnesses a car accident that critically injures two of her classmates, her family’s rule and her dad’s warnings are tossed aside.

Allira is quick to discover that saving Drew’s life could just be the best and worst thing she’s ever done.”

The concept of the Defectives is what sets off the story.  In Howarth’s dystopian world individuals with some kind of special powers pop up from time to time, much to the chagrin of a government that sees them as dangerous.  A Defective’s powers may be something simple, like the ability to see a short time into the future or to read someone else’s mind.  They may also be quite a bit more; the novel references a Defective that basically nuked a city.  With my luck I’d wind up being able to talk to corn but still get locked up for it.  Allira has a most interesting power of her own.

There are plenty of twists and turns in The Institute; the story is engaging and keeps you pondering the large questions about exactly what you would do if you were dropped into a situation where you had to work with the people you hated or suffer the dire consequences.  If you were abducted by government forces, dropped in a jail, tortured, and told your family would suffer if you failed to work with your abductors, what would you do?  Would you grudgingly work with the people who imprisoned and tortured you or would you stick to your guns and accept punishment?  To add a nice little twist to the tale, if you grudgingly work with the people who imprisoned you, your job will be to hunt down and imprison other people like you.

And that, right there, is the important part of the story.  It’s about what it means to be different and how people come to grips that.  It’s also a story about how we rationalize our decisions even when we’re not 100% certain the path we’ve chosen is a good one.

Aside from being a good story, it’s a well-written tale with a protagonist you can’t help but root for even as she questions whether or not what she’s doing is the right thing.  Moral abiguity and relativistic morality are always difficult to pull off well but Howarth nails it.  Highly recommended, The Institute is not only a cracking good read, it’s one of those immersive books where you find yourself wondering what you would do if you were in that same situation.

The Institute left me wanting to know more.  Fortunately, there’s already a sequel out.

Buy it here

Follow Kayla on Twitter

Kayla’s Website

Ban My Book

One Million Moms, those fun folks that hate pretty much everything, are running a petition to get Fox’s Lucifer stopped.  Their problem with the show stems from the fact that Lucifer (which is based on a comic of the same name) in the show is the actual, factual Lucifer who has decided to step out of Hell and into L.A.  True to his amazing powers, Lucifer can actually tell the difference between the two places.  In L.A., Lucifer helps the police punish criminals.  Among other things, One Million Moms takes offense at the idea that the Lucifer in the show is portrayed as something other than a unholy terror and abomination in the eyes of God.  They also oppose scenes of violence, scantily clad women (this is L.A., remember), and any kind of fun in general.

shocked
I love this gif

 

One Million Moms appears to have some funding because anything they want to get rid of gets pretty well known pretty quickly.  Of course, most of the people that see their protests realize that what’s being protested actually looks interesting and thus ratings go up.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to offer a list of reasons One Million Moms should look into protesting Henchmen and Arise.  To make things easier for them, I’ve prepared a bulleted list of things they would probably be averse to.

In Henchmen

  • Scenes of nudity
  • Scenes of bondage
  • Violence
  • Cursing
  • Bad guys opposing the Government
  • A brief bit of cross-dressing
  • Someone moves a chair
  • Sushi, which may be considered unclean by some standards is consumed off a naked woman
  • Multiple deaths
  • A God that is not Jesus is introduced
  • A homosexual couple that are treated as just normal people and not scorned
  • Discussions of pornography

In Arise

  • Scenes of violence
  • Cursing
  • A general disrespect for organized religion
  • Discussions of humans as Gods
  • Genetic modification (playing God)
  • An End Time vision that tracks more closely to the Norse version of the end of the world
  • A man becomes defeats a God
  • Kissing between unmarried people
  • Drinking
  • More treatment of a homosexual couple as just regular folks

So, One Million Moms, if you’re looking for something you can really get yourself wrapped around the axle about, why not ban Henchmen and Arise before their moral turpitude infects anyone?  There’s probably even some other stuff in my books that’s really, really bad, so I beg of you, One Million Moms, start an international campaign to ban my books.  Spare no expense.

Remember, that’s Henchmen and Arise.

Cover design © 2015, Eric Lahti.  Background Stock Photo by Pixattitude. ID 30553123 © Pixattitude | Dreamstime.com
Cover design © 2015, Eric Lahti. Background Stock Photo by Pixattitude. ID 30553123 © Pixattitude | Dreamstime.com
© 2015, Eric Lahti Background image: ID 30553123 © Pixattitude | Dreamstime.com
© 2015, Eric Lahti
Background image: ID 30553123 © Pixattitude | Dreamstime.com

Walter Gibson is My Hero

shadow9v

Ever heard of Walter Gibson?  How about Maxwell Grant?  Actually, they’re the same guy, so if you’ve heard of one you’ve heard of the other even if you didn’t realize it.  If you haven’t, don’t fret; not a whole lot of folks in this day an age have.  Walter Gibson was an extremely prolific author in his day (he died in 1985) and stage magician.  He’s estimated to have no less than 300 novel-length books (60k+ words) under his belt.  Gibson (as Maxwell Grant) wrote The Shadow novels that were popular in the 30s and 40s.  He also wrote more than a hundred other books on magic, psychic phenomena, true crime, mysteries, rope knots, yoga, hypnotism, and games and was a ghost writer for Harry Houdini.  It’s estimated that at his peak he was writing nearly 1.7 million words a year and to satisfy the demands of his fans he was writing two Shadow novels a month.  Each of The Shadow novels clocked in right around 60k words each.

By any reckoning, that’s a lot of typing.  And remember, he was writing on one of these:

Even works during blackouts; just add a candle.
Even works during blackouts; just add a candle.

For those of you too young to remember manual typewriters they were cantankerous beasts, prone to jamming, running out of ink, and breaking keys.  Also, here’s your intersting but useless bit of trivia for the day: the current standard keyboard layout is set up the way it is because of mechanical typewriters.  Each keystroke pushed a physical level forward that caused that character to impact on an ink tape and make a mark on the paper.  The way the letters were laid out meant that some of the letters had longer levers.  The longer the lever the more prone to breakage it was, so someone did an analysis of character use in the English language.  Characters that were used less were relegated to the outer edges where the longer levers lived.  The logic was since those characters were used less there would be less wear and tear on those longer levers and the whole typewriter would last longer.

If you ever get the opportunity, try writing on a manual typewriter; it’s definitely an experience.

I guess one thing spouses of serial writers have going for them is very few people use manual typewriters anymore.  Imagine living in a house with someone knocking out 10k words a day on machine that made a noise every time a charater was typed.  Now, you might have the click clack of laptop keys, but it pales in comparison the thundering hammers of a typewriter.

Last week we were watching Romancing the Stone and something about it clicked in my head.  Remember that scene where Joan Wilder is taking he latest novel to her editor?

Yep.  That's the one.
Yep. That’s the one.

See that big box of paper?  That’s her book.  That’s how manuscripts used to be sent to editors.  You type them out, put the pages (hopefully in order) back in the paper box and walk it over.  It was likely a huge pain in the ass and you had to have a ton of paper handy.  Also, try kicking back on sofa and writing with a manual typewriter in your lap.  If it didn’t break your knees it would cut off all circulation to your toes.

Writing was different back then.  If you had a story you typed it up, shopped it around, hoped someone would buy it and publish it.  From that point on, your words were out of your control.  Where it went, what it cost, how it was advertised, all that was out of your control.  You could make some good money writing as a traditionally published author, but the vast majority of published authors still had to have day jobs.  One of my favorites, John Steakley, made ends meet by owning a car dealership.  He was apparently part way into Armor 2 when he died.

Such are the ways and means of traditionally published authors.  For every E.L James there are thousands of John Steakleys.

Now, one advantage those traditionally published folks had over us indies?  All they had to worry about was the story.  Before everyone starts squawking, I get it: there are plenty of indie resources out there.  You can find people to edit and proofread, design your cover, format your ebook, and do everything but write the story for you.  Some folks go that route, others don’t.  I’m one of those that insists on doing as much as possible myself; I do my own covers, I do my own formatting, I make my own marketing decisions.  Good, bad, or otherwise, I’m pretty much on my own.  I’ve had help with editing and proofreading from a few trusted beta readers (editing is pretty much impossible to do on your own), but otherwise, I’m on my own.

Yep.
Yep.

I’m not saying this to toot my own horn or say I’m more indie than anyone else, it’s just how I am.  I enjoy writing, I’m actually learning to like editing.  I like designing book covers.  I like doing book layout.  I enjoy learning the little tricks that make things easier.

It wasn’t always like that, though.  I finished Henchmen in 2013 and thought it was the greatest story ever told (it wasn’t and it actually required some monstrous rewrites later on).  I’d heard it was easy to publish on Amazon but still largely didn’t what I was doing.  I knew what mobi files and epub files were but as for how to make one?  Not how to create one, mind you, but what they were.  I thought I was ready.

Boy was I wrong.

Henchmen went live with a bad cover, tons of editing issues, missing an internal image, and was generally not a good product.  It was a product of “I’m tired of this, let’s just get it done.”  I tried to follow Amazon’s instructions and created an HTML document out of my Word document.  The results were less than spectacular.

Since then, I rewrote huge portions of Henchmen, wrote Arise, learned a lot about making a decent cover, figured out how to write a better blurb, convert and edit files before uploading them, make a decent looking Table of Contents, and a handful of other things.

In the interest of saving some other folks that kind of misery, when The Clock Man is finished and edited, I’ll be taking copious notes and screenshots about the process of putting it together, how the cover came to be, and some other technical issues that popped up.  Then, I’m going to take all that and compile it into a simple how-to book that will hopefully stave off some of my problems for others.

Consider it a thank you to all the authors, designers, and readers who have helped me out over the past couple year..

 

Jade Helm 15 and How Perceived Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Of course it would be Texas.

If you’ve been living in America, especially the Southwestern states, you’ve probably heard of Jade Helm 15.  If you haven’t, Jade Helm is apparently the U.S. Government’s plan to bring Texas into the United States and do some other stuff, too.  It’s a tale full of sound and fury, told by madmen (and women) symbolizing the country’s further descent into madness and paranoia.

In reality, Jade Helm is a training exercise for the U.S. Military.  The modern world is a different kind of battle ground and requires a different kind of tactic to win; the Jade Helm exercises seem to be nothing more than the military trying some new tactics to see how they work.  Frankly, in-country military training exercises are nothing now; they’ve been going on for decades.  However, since the U.S. government is run by Democrat, certain people have decided that the whole exercise is nothing more than a smokescreen for the evil Obama to take over the country (that he’s already President of) and silence his political enemies (who, apparently, are nuts).

It all started with a leaked map and PowerPoint presentation detailing an internal military training operation called Jade Helm 15 and the conspiracy theorists have spun it so completely out of control to the point that it now involves the United States government, Wal-Mart, the Chinese, ISIS, and a desperate attempt to conquer Texas.  Jade Helm has roped in such luminaries as Greg Abbot (the governor of Texas), Rick Perry (former governor of Texas and failed Presidential candidate who is blaming Obama for the whole debacle), and Ted Cruz (Tea Party favorite who has questioned the Pentagon about “what’s really going on with Jade Helm”).  Abbot has gone so far as to warn the Texas National Guard to “monitor the mission.”

Note how Texas is labelled.
Note how Texas is labelled.

So, what’s the story here?

It would appear there are quite a few empty WalMart stores in Texas.  This isn’t entirely unusual; there’s at least one in Albuquerque I can think of.  Wal-Mart has a history of opening stores and simply closing them when they become unprofitable or more of a pain than they’re worth.  The huge shells are usually repurposed into indoor flea markets, other stores, or extremely large meth dens.  Kind of a cycle of life thing.

The scuttlebutt surrounding the closings (at least in the saner circles) is that employees at the stores were trying to unionize and rather than deal with the hassle of working with a union WalMart simply shut the stores down and told the employees to piss off.  WalMart doesn’t care much for unions.

Now, to really understand the rest of this post, you kind of have to understand the political climate in America.  The Democrats hate the Republicans and the Republicans hate the Democrats.  I’m not kidding on this point.  A Democratic Senator could say something like “we all need air to breathe” and his or her Republican counterpart would argue that point tooth and nail, claiming our need for air was just another example of out-of-control government expansion and that we really don’t need air anyway.  A Republican Senator could claim that Capitalism is a pretty good thing and his or her Democratic counterpart would scream to the skies about how Capitalism is nothing but greedy, rich white guys trying to get richer.

Some voters get behind this and will find any and every reason to hate those guys, whoever those guys might be.

anatomy_republican democratbrain

To hear them speak, no one on the other side has ever had a good idea, is actively trying to destroy the country, is a horrible terrible rotten no-good person who is probably either a Nazi or a Communist depending on who’s doing the arguing.  Those other guys want to take away freedoms and implement a theocracy.  They’re all awful people and if we could just get our guys into the White House all our problems will immediately go away and everything will be fine.

Some people live in an elaborate fantasy world.

Now, I should point out that not all Republicans or Democrats think like that, most are pretty middle of the road.  Unfortunately, you don’t hear from the sane people, they’re too busy trying to get about the business of actually running the country; you hear from the loudmouthed idiots who love to spin yarns like Jade Helm and how it’s an elaborate plot to do something nerfarious.

Get ready, folks, we’re about to go through the looking glass…

I’ve already mentioned the abandoned WalMarts in Texas.  If you’ve never seen one, they’re monstrous stores.  Some of the bigger ones can hold small countries inside of them.  After you kick out the meth heads, you’ve got a perfect place to stage an invasion from.  Each store could easily be repurposed into a place to feed and house an army and hold political dissidents.  According to a segment of the population, this is exactly what’s happening to a handful of stores that were shut down.

shocked
That’s RIGHT!

The invasion will come from special forces troops under the command the evil Barrack Obama.  The United States government is, right now, digging tunnels under those closed Wal Marts to link them together.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Chinese are apparently in on it, too (even though the US and China don’t really get along).  As if that bad wasn’t bad enough, ISIS is taking part in the whole thing, too; they’ll be providing the false-flag attack that will let the US invade Texas.

Read through those articles and if they don’t chill your blood, well, try something that’s actually scary.

I work with a bunch of ex-military men and women at my job and I asked one of the guys (a former Marine) what he thought about the whole thing and he pointed out two interesting facts:

Those two facts taken together should have been sufficient to kibosh the whole thing, but some people are loathe to let pesky facts interrupt what is becoming an exciting new conspiracy theory.  Among one of the newer conspiracies I read earlier today related to a recent decision by the Obama administration to stop selling military hardware to local law enforcent.  At the time, it made sense: what city actually needs its police to have a tank?  The darker side, though, was recently brought to light when someone figured out that the government stopped supplying the police with military hardware JUST IN TIME FOR JADE HELM.  It was nothing more than a clever ploy to defang the police so they’d be powerless when the government troops (who are already stationed in Texas) rolled in.  As if by ceasing the sales of military hardware to local law enforcement somehow meant all the nifty toys the police already had (assault rifles, body armor, drones, etc) somehow vanished.  Now you’ve got a police force that’s incapable of protecting the citizens from the military.

THAT'S RIGHT!
THAT’S RIGHT!

Bear in mind, this is the United States military we’re talking about here.  They take out countries for breakfast.  A handful of cops with body armor and the odd armored car would be nothing more than late morning Triscuit.

Now, lest you think I’m painting all Republicans as total whack jobs, bear in mind there are plenty of sane Republicans out there.  John McCain has expressed disbelief that the whole thing has gotten so blown out of proportion.  Most people think the whole thing is nonsense.  But it’s those few people out there who honestly believe Jade Helm is nothing more than a cover so that Obama can come take them away in the dead of night to a FEMA reeducation camp who simply can’t stop talking about it that keep the story alive.  American media loves the fringe – and this is about as fringe as it gets.  It’s become an echo chamber and each new reverberation adds to the madness.

So, what does this have to do with what’s ostensibly a writing blog?  It’s the perfect plot for a political thriller.  It’s got all the elements of a great story, it just needs some fleshing out to make it personal.  In a year or two, no one will remember Jade Helm 15, and that would be the perfect time for the book to come out.  Only in the book, the exercise really is a smoke screen and some terrible things happen.  If it weren’t for the concerted efforts of a few good people, all would have been lost.

The whole of the Jade Helm conspiracy also goes to show just how crazy a plot can be and still be believable.  I really fretted about the plot to Henchmen: that it wasn’t believable, that it didn’t make sense, that no one would believe it.  It turns out I needn’t have worried.  The stories people are telling themselves about Jade Helm are far crazier.  One “Texas Ranger” is claiming to have seen trains equipped with shackles for political dissidents.  And here I thought the political prisoners were to be stored in WalMarts and secreted away in the elaborate tunnels.

Still, if you’re interested, Jade Helm will be running from July 18, 2015 through September 15, 2015.  I guess we’ll discuss it again on September 16th.  Maybe I’ll make up shirts that say “I survived Jade Helm.”

Maybe.  If we’re all still free enough to do that.

 

Couple Thousand Miles, Two Time Zones, One Goal

Quite an amazing amount of international effort went into this work. I feel kind of guilty that I only contributed a few thousand words.

The Quill Pen Writes

You're Not Alone 43D

At 0200hrs UK time and indeed, for most of the day today on and off, myself and the very talented author Nico Laeser, the digital designer who created this cover image alongside the simply awesome Christine Southworth, batted backwards and forwards ideas relating to the font and text layout. The first image was far too generic for me, in my head was something smoother, older looking, something to give real ‘feeling’ to the efforts of both artists.

I wasn’t keen on the first cover with the italics and the regimented lines, it needed something to make it speak to me. After a couple of hours (the wee small ones in the UK) and much discussion with Nico, he sent through the image you see on the above picture and, with a little 3D magic applied from me, what we have now is the finalised cover to You’re Not Alone –…

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Book Review: Skin Cage by Nico Laeser

There’s a line in this book that triggered a memory of a dream I had many years ago after my dad died.

“Maybe when we are ready to let go of our memories, we are allowed to move on.’

Now I can’t get the dream or the line out of my head.

That’s the kind of book Skin Cage is; the haunting melody of forgotten dreams and things we should have left behind but clutch tightly to ourselves in a vain attempt to maintain some sense of self in a twisting environment.  But in the final analysis, you’re never who you were.  Like trying to cross the same river twice, you will always become the sum of an ever-shifting array of values from your past.

“Daniel Stockholm was fifteen years old when a parasite hijacked his brain, rendering him paralyzed and reliant on machines that run day and night to keep him alive. For nine years, Danny has been confined within a biological prison with only two small windows, through which to view the world around him; a silent witness to the selfless compassion of some and the selfish contrivance of others. When the malicious actions of care worker, Marcus Salt, threaten to push Danny farther from the ones he loves, and deeper into the dark recesses of his skin cage, he is left with only one option. He must find a way out.”

I had to chew on this book overnight to come up with a review that would do it justice.  It’s an engaging story, especially considering for the first part of it our hero largely cannot communicate with anyone at all.  He’s a pure sensory input with little to no output capabilities at all, but Daniel is not without skills honed from years of being stuck in his skin cage.  The first part of the book is great.

The middle and end of the book are phenomenal, but you’ll just have to read it to find out why.

Skin Cage is well written, engaging, and difficult to put down.  Physically it’s easy to read, the text is smooth and Nico has an excellent command of language.  The mental aspects of reading are more difficult.  It’s the kind of story you’ll continue to think about long after you’ve finished it and that’s a rare thing in a book.

It’s the kind of book I wish I could write.

©2015, Nico Laeser
©2015, Nico Laeser

As an aside, not only is Nico a bang-up writer, he’s an amazing illustrator.  The illustration for the cover is one of his works.  If you want to see some more of his art, check out his Tumblr feed.

Follow Nico on Twitter (his banner on Twitter is one of his prints, too, and is among the most amazing pictures ever made)

Buy a copy of Skin Cage (it’s available in ebook and print)