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Carnivores – Utterly Hilarious

I’m not typically moved by book trailers.  Not because of some innate snobbery that overcomes me when media formats attempt to interbreed, but because they rarely manage hold my attention.  This may have less to do with book trailers and more to do with my … LOOK, A PUPPY!

So cute.  Anyway.  Regardless of my shortcomings, of which there are SO VERY MANY, this trailer totally made me snort coffee out of my nose.  That should be taken as an endorsement of the highest caliber.

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat:

Via The Passive Voice!


Book Recommendation: Skinner by Charlie Huston


I don’t hate Charlie Huston, but I will admit to having snarled his name out loud more than once while reading Skinner.  It’s a stunning piece of work, even for Huston whose output is relentlessly good, but there are bits of absolute genius in it that spike my writer’s jealousy like few other things I’ve read.  Absolute mastery of pacing.  Evocative, descriptive turns of phrase that convey reams of information in a single jolt.  Lean, muscular confrontations whose nascent violence is more visceral than other people’s epic brawls.  It’s just one brilliant thing after another with this jerk, all book long.  That said, even my Huston-induced pangs of self-doubt couldn’t blunt my enjoyment of this book.  

Here’s the blurb:

Skinner founded his career in “asset protection” on fear. To touch anyone under his protection was to invite destruction. A savagely effective methodology, until Skinner’s CIA handlers began to fear him as much as his enemies did and banished him to the hinterlands of the intelligence community.

Now, an ornate and evolving cyber-terrorist attack is about to end that long exile. His asset is Jae, a roboticist with a gift for seeing the underlying systems violently shaping a new era of global guerrilla warfare.

At the root of it all is a young boy, the innocent seed of a plot grown in the slums of Mumbai. Brought to flower, that plot will tip the balance of world power in a perilous new direction.

A combination of Le Carre spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy from the novelist hailed by the Washington Post as “the voice of twenty-first century crime fiction,” SKINNER is Charlie Huston’s masterpiece–a new kind of thriller for a new kind of world.

There’s a perverse kind of synchronicity in the timing of Skinner’s release with Edward Snowden’s recent revelations that serves to underscore how eerily accurate Huston’s portrayal of the intelligence community’s underbelly really is.  Skinner’s world is not only plausible, but probable, in everything but the particular circumstances and scale.  And based on the news recently, I may be wrong to doubt the scale.

Amazingly, the characters remain front and center despite this vivid and frightening backdrop.  Skinner himself is a perfectly balanced blend of monster and victim and hero, effortless to root for and fear at the same time.  Jae, who is as much of a protagonist as Skinner, is equally complex and compelling.  Her tortured genius is executed with a deft hand, never becoming contrived or maudlin.  Together they produce a dynamic tension that’s marvelous to watch, like two pieces of broken glass from different windows that happen to fit together perfectly.  It would have been easy for lesser characters to have become subsumed in a story like this, but it’s never a possibility here.

Bottom line, it’s probably Huston’s best work to date, edging out even The Shotgun Rule and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death.  I know, bold statement.  But I stand by it.  


My Favorite Bad Review of All Time

A long time ago, back in the before-times of 2008, bon vivant and author-around-town John Scalzi issued a challenge to authors to post their one-star reviews.  Many did, and as you can imagine, hilarity ensued.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer up my new all time favorite bad review.  This one is for Bad Radio:

As I read this I was reminded of some books from the 50s and 60s. It was superficial, the characters had outlandish powers, the guys – to a man (there were no female ‘bad guys) – were nasty, had massive protective body gear, and were easily beaten by unusually intelligent amateurs. Untested space technology allowed them to build huge ‘flying saucers’ in order to fly off to create a new human colony on some planet far away. Give me a break!

I have to say, the bit about space technology and flying saucers really spoke to me.  While a less astute, and dare I say it, a more pedantic person might point out boorishly that there aren’t any spaceships, other planets, or colonies of any kind in the book, I would urge that person to open his mind and not be such a downer.

I think anyone that constrains themselves to the actual text of a book is only seeing a small slice of the truth.  I guess how small depends on how much extra stuff you make up, but that’s not the point.  The point is that any book can have as many spaceships as you want, if you can only open your heart to the possibility.  That’s the real beauty of reading.  Uh, or not reading.  Whatever.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m deeply, truly sorry for screwing up the spaceships that weren’t in the book.  I promise it won’t happen again.







Game Review – Cthulhu Wars (Pre-Production)

I’m going to warn you right now, this post contains a lot of me bragging about how I got to spend yesterday playing Cthulhu Wars and you didn’t.  On the other hand, there will be a lot less bragging about my performance, as I was up against Sandy’s sons, Grant and Arthur, who proceeded to crush me under a mass of squirming tentacles and clever tactics.  Repeatedly.  Even so, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  It was an astonishly fun experience.

A quick bit of background:  Unless this is your first visit here, you know that I kind of like playing board games.  If you’ve read my books, you also know that I might be obsessed with Lovecraftian horror.  So, when I saw Cthulhu Wars on Kickstarter with Sandy Petersen’s name on the box, you can imagine how badly I wanted to give it a try .

For those not in the tentacles-and-insanity crowd, Sandy created Call of Cthulhu, the groundbreaking pen and paper role playing game that introduced me and a generation of gamers to Lovecraft’s mythos.  In all seriousness, if it weren’t for Sandy Petersen, I’d probably be writing about elves or vampires or god knows what.  He also worked on a couple of video games that you may have heard of, like Doom and Age of Empires, so I guess it’s fair to say that he was instrumental in creating both the things that influenced my writing and the stuff that frequently prevented me from doing that writing.  If it weren’t for Sandy, the entire horror video and board gaming genres that we take for granted today would be very different.

In any case, when I saw that the father of Lovecraftian gaming was launching something epic for the tabletop, I started stalking reaching out to him.  And because he’s a delightful and charming man, he had no problem ordering his security to let me up so I could take a look at his new game.

First of all, let me tell you two things about the figures.  One: photos don’t do them justice.  They’re huge, intricately detailed, and vividly imagined.  Hastur is the size of a baby’s head.  You can see the souls swirling in Nyarlathotep’s belly-maw.  Cthulhu could easily serve as a standalone piece of decoration for your mantle (until your creeped-out significant other took it down and asked what was wrong with you).  Just take a look at Shub-Niggurath and her kids to get an idea for the level of care and detail in these figures.  Click for a close up view:

We call this the briar patch.  That blue guy is about to have the worst day of his life.

We call this the briar patch. That blue cultist is about to have the worst day of his life.

Huge like a bowling trophy.  If your bowling league were sponsored by an insane asylum.

Huge like a bowling trophy. Assuming that your bowling league is sponsored by an insane asylum.

The second thing about the figures is that they aren’t built this way for the sake of looking cool on the Kickstarter page.  Anything less would have been a disservice to the gameplay.  The first time you see the abilities of the factions, all you can think is that they are completely, insanely overpowered.

Cthulhu is an engine of destruction who begins devouring his enemies before combat even starts, and worse, he can appear with his impossibly hard to kill and offensively overwhelming minions anywhere he wants at any time.  Did I mention that the Shoggoths can become powerful enough to destroy even an elder god by themselves or that the Star Spawn are even worse?  

Or that Shub-Niggurath can give birth to an entire army in a single turn?  Get anywhere near her brood and you’re in for a bad day.  Of course, staying away from her is no picnic, either.  Her fungal Mi-Go can cause a planet-wide extinction event and even her cultists are rabid enough to kill enemy monsters.

Nyarlathotep has a cadre of flying engines of destruction that appear instantly whenever his faction is threatened, and if it looks like you might survive that, he can make you completely irrelevant by shifting you right out of reality.  You’ll enjoy watching invisibly from the sidelines as the rest of your faction is ground up into giblets.  And on the off chance that you do manage to fight back, he actually gains victory points when successfully attacked.  Delightful.

And then there’s Hastur.  His place in the pantheon is as the assassin of the other gods, if that gives you any idea what its like to face the King in Yellow.  There’s literally no protection from his attacks, so be prepared to kiss your best beasties and even your Great Old One goodbye.  And because he draws power from corrupting the land he moves across, you’ll get to watch him continue to tear reality a new one while everyone else is helplessly out of power at the end of the turn.  He actually exists as two separate Great Old Ones, because I guess one god-eating bastard wasn’t good enough, which would seem totally unfair if the other groups weren’t so completely nuts themselves.

Each faction is a complete nightmare.  The board represents the entire Earth and it can barely contain them.  It’s gloriously epic and visceral in a way that you rarely see in any game, much less a sophisticated strategy game like this one.  The factions all feel badass and super-charged, instead of just generic sets of actions and win conditions lumped under a common theme.  The fact that they are balanced against each other, while at the same time being completely asymmetrical in abilities, is a testament to Sandy’s skill as a game designer, as well as an absolute truckload of playtesting.

One thing I want to mention is despite having lots of unique units on the board like this:

You know where would be a great place for a cataclysm?  EVERYWHERE.

You know where would be a great place for a cataclysm? EVERYWHERE.

… each player’s turn is very fast and straightforward.  In fact, often a player’s turn will only last a few seconds, keeping everyone involved and immersed in the action.  If you’re worried about let-me-surf-on-my-phone-between-turns syndrome, rest assured that nobody is going to be wandering off as play moves around the table.  The secret is how Cthulhu Wars manages to break down fairly complex  gameplay into easily manageable chunks that are still effective and easy to knit into an overall strategy.

Which brings me to replayability and tactical depth.  You might think that because every faction is a nuclear weapon, there’s not much need for strategic finesse, but you’d be wrong.  All of the factions are just as tough as you are and none of their awful tactics can be directly countered.  You really do have to think on your feet if you want to survive the kind of stuff the other three factions are capable of throwing at you, but the brilliant thing about the way the game works is that none of the strategies you’re empowered to use require lots of time to get running.  You can improvise and adapt fairly quickly, alternating between attacking, building up your forces, and triggering your own widespread destruction as events unfold.

The truth is that as much as I like Sandy, Cthulhu Wars would blow me away no matter who made it.  The gameplay is fast and addictive, the strategy is deep yet accessible, and the arresting quality of the components sets a new bar for board games.  It’s not cheap, but frankly, you’re looking at an *eight pound* box full of awesome.  Without a doubt, there’s more value here than you’d expect for the price, especially if you’re serious about tabletop gaming.

As of this posting, there’s still time to pledge at the official Kickstarter, and there’s a crazy amount of free stuff at certain pledge levels.  Here’s Sandy:


Porn for Spaceship Nerds

I’m sure you’ll be shocked out of your sneakers to hear that I love both video games and space.  So, naturally, any intersection of those things automatically gets all my money.  Case in point: Star Citizen, being developed by Chris Roberts, who created Wing Commander and stole a large chunk of my formative years.

He’s pretty serious about this game, space ladies and space gentlemen.  Check out the trailer for a newly revealed ship, the 300i:

And before you ask, yes I already bought one 🙂


Alzheimer’s Research – Little Help?

A few years ago, I lost both of my grandparents on my father’s side to Alzheimer’s.  At first they seemed okay, just a few more ‘senior moments’ than they used to have, but hey, that’s growing older for you, right?  But pretty soon they were losing track of people’s names: good friends and neighbors, even family members became ‘honey’ or just an embarrassed pause.  Faces went next, and then finally the shared history they had lived with other people.  Parts of their lives simply vanished.  It was as if certain people ceased to exist for them, to the point of having them introduce themselves to their own relatives.

Sometimes you’d find that they hadn’t eaten that day, or taken their medication.  They became fearful and paranoid, even enraged at times.  It was a terrifying experience for them and a heartbreaking one for the family.

The reason I’m bringing this up is to ask you to please give a few dollars, whatever you can spare, to fund Alzheimer’s research.  This whole area  of research is chronically underfunded, so there’s no shortage of good places that could use your help, but if you’re not already connected with a particular group then please consider donating to Tess Gerritsen’s War on Alzheimer’s fundraiser campaign.

She will match the first $25,000 dollars that we donate, so this is an excellent chance to double your impact.  She’s also sweetening the pot with a chance to name a character in her next novel in her TV-adapted bestselling Rizzoli & Isles series.  From her fundraising page:

EACH $5 DONATION ($25 donation = 5 chances) ENTERS YOU IN A RAFFLE TO WIN:

– Two opportunities to name a character in Tess’ next “Rizzoli & Isles” thriller, coming in 2014. The named character’s role in the story is up to the discretion of the author.

Three runners-up “Rizzoli & Isles” prize packages including:
– Signed copy of Tess’ most recent hardcover, LAST TO DIE
– “Rizzoli & Isles” baseball cap, tee shirt and surgical scrub top
– Handcuff earrings

Tess has pledged to match total funds raised up to $25,000 – let’s help her get there!

From Tess: Why I chose to donate to The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI):

– It’s ranked as one of the most influential scientific institutions in the world (Source: Thomson Reuters), and is one of the world’s largest independent nonprofit organizations for biomedical research.

– TSRI has produced a steady stream of medical breakthroughs leading to new therapies for a wide range of illnesses.

– TSRI’s 1200 scientists include three Nobel Laureates and 26 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The institute attracts scientists from around the world.

– For the third consecutive year, TSRI has been awarded a four-star (highest) rating from Charity Navigator for fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

– With research centers in both California and Florida, TSRI facilities are located in geographically creative hotspots, fueling collaboration and cross-pollination with other research institutions.

Please help if you can.  Here’s Tess:


Food Thing:Bottled Coffee

The British have tea and biscuits.  I have coffee and cupcakes.  That makes me the winner.

The British have tea and biscuits. I have coffee and cupcakes. That makes me the winner.

I’ve admitted this before, but I don’t really know from coffee. I like it, yes, but not in some educated, connoisseur-esque way.  I’m more like a barn owl that likes mice. I know a good mouse when I cram one in my beak, but I’m not exactly going to be able to wax poetic about oakey notes or hints of cricket or whatever.

I’m just coffee-aware enough to drink it black and register a preference for French press over coffee served from a scorched pot with an orange plastic band around the top, and that’s not saying a whole lot.  But, because I’m all about the self-improvement, especially when combined with eating something fancy, I decided to give this bottled black magic a whirl.

And by self-improvement, I mean peer pressure.   Everyone else uses Twitter to be informed about what their peeps are up to.  Apparently I use it in order to find out what bad habits I should pick up.  That’s why the button is called follow, right?   Anyway, from the Twitters:

@dolohov@lacolombecoffee Had some last week. Best iced bottled coffee ever. Maybe even outside the bottle category.

I’m just glad Chuck wasn’t advocating eating roofing nails or Drano, you know what I’m saying?  It’s a hell of a lot harder to type these blog posts from the ER.

Long story short (too late), I done got me some.  There’s marketing stuff and technical coffee stuff that you can read about here, but since I’m not qualified to tell one from the other, I’ll just say that their big claim about not being bitter is spot on.  It has all the richness and depth of flavor that you want from really good coffee, but none of the battery acid kicker on the back-end that you learn to put up with when drinking lesser brews.

It’s pretty much the perfect coffee to use if you want to trick your friends into giving up sugar and cream and marscapone-apple-caramel or whatever people  are putting into their coffee these days.  Tell them black coffee is delicious and not bitter at all, then give them a cup of this.  Hilarity will ensue next time you see them, faces puckered up and clenching a mug of the regular stuff.

Is it weird that I like a food more if it can be used to enrage my friends?  Of course not.  Have some coffee.


Mojo Declares Summer Good, Grass Comfy




This is his smug “I don’t have to type things” dance.


I plan to do something similar the next time I’m eating steak.  TAKE THAT, DOG!



Game Day is Best Day

Crunchy, creamy, cheesy!

Game day eats! Crunchy, creamy, cheesy!

Inverted Aeropress coffee madness!

Game day fuel!  Inverted Aeropress coffee madness!

Victory for some!  Zombie mastication for others!

Game day gaming!  Victory for some! Zombie mastication for others!

Game days really are the best.  We hugged, we cried, we nerded.  Hope your day was as delightful.

By the way, if those Arancini (fried risotto balls) look good, you can find the how-to guide here.


Working in the Word Mines – The Goosebump Factor

Trust me.  Throw this thing at somebody hard enough and they’ll never notice that the color is wrong.

I just saw Star Trek:Into Darkness.  Star Trek movies have traditionally been a pretty risky ticket, but I’m the kind of nerd that would watch C-SPAN if it took place on a spaceship, so I went.  And despite a plot that alternated between being predictable and creating logic-twisting  brain cramps, I loved it.  (Be careful with that link, it’s one long hilarious spoiler of the movie.  Click it after you see the movie or vow never to do so.)

The plot holes in it are pretty bad.  Maybe not follow you home and pee in your bed bad, but still bad enough to make you wonder how they survived the final draft.  Now, you may recall that I have a fair amount of tolerance for goofy stuff in books and movies, but this is pushing it.  So the question for the class is … why did I love it?  And not just me, but also the audience I saw it with: a mix of fans and people for whom Star Trek began with the 2009 reboot.  They cheered and laughed and clapped when the credits went up.  If you hang out online and read about all the bits that don’t quite fit together, you’d assume that every showing of the movie across the country ended in booing and thrown popcorn.  So why didn’t it?

It’s called the Goosebump Factor.  This melding of poor plotting and great experiences seems like some crazy paradox, but it’s actually quite common.  Doctor Who is a prime example of pure awesome on top, creaky plot underneath.  Pulp novels and soap operas are also prime goosebump territory.  The only difference between a work being called a guilty pleasure versus a literary paragon is whether or not you have to defend explosive amnesia the plot holes to your friends over beer.  In fact, the more wildly popular something is, the less likely its popularity is tied to an airtight plot with seamless logic.  When the wedding party is tragically devoured by space beavers and the audience is in tears, you look like a real schmuck when you point out that space beavers are vegan.  Everyone will tell you that you’re missing the point, and they’ll be right.

Fiction’s purpose, and I’ll go so far as to say its only purpose, is to create emotion in its audience.  When you get that right, very little else matters.  Would it be better to have your plot not suck while your fans cheer and dab their eyes with a hanky?  Absolutely.  No question.  But as writers, we often fall into the trap of valuing the mechanics of the plot over the effect the story is supposed to be creating.  Your priority must always be the emotional payoff.  You have to pick your battles in this life and, if you’re forced to choose, this is the hill you want to die on.

Don’t get me wrong, plot holes do have an impact on the reader’s experience, but it’s far less than the emotional content of the scene.  Often, after the experience has faded into something easier to analyze, then people can and will pick some nits.  And they should.  But the truth is that how they fundamentally feel about the work is forged during the experience of it.  If the emotional logic works, then your reader will be inclined to either let the plot hole go, or attempt to justify it.  We tend to love or hate things with our guts, and use our brains to rationalize that decision after the fact.  Of course, if the scene is lifeless to begin with, then every flaw is going be painfully, embarrassingly obvious.

I’m not saying that its okay to throw logic out the door.  This is not me giving you permission to be sloppy and blow off that whole logical consistency thing just because you know this particular scene is going to be a real gut buster.  But I am saying to know where your priorities are.  Don’t toss out a scene that works on an emotional level just because you can’t figure out how to get the pasta bowl into the coat room.  Emotional payoffs are pure gold, logical satisfaction is silver at best.

Obviously you can’t get into eye-rolling territory here, but don’t be too quick to put a flawlessly logical plot on a pedestal over everything else.  It’s very common for writers to pass through their first draft edit looking for inconsistencies as the number one issue.  So when it comes time to fix them, the emotional content of that scene may well take a back seat.  Here are a few tips on how to keep your priorities in check, while at the same time keeping your detail oriented OCD satisfied:

The Fast Pass – Read fast and focus on the story.  This is the low detail pass, where you’re just trying to ‘see the movie’.  For each scene make a quick note about the key emotional payload.  It should be clear and evocative.  If any logical issues pop up at this stage, make a note, as these will be the most noticeable to the reader.

The List – This is a slow pass, where you make a note of key logical declarations in your story.  You assert that Brad only has one eye?  Make a note of it.  Put a gun in the kitchen drawer?  Note.  Ignore setting and atmospheric detail, just list things that impact the logic of your story.  Every time you hit one of these items, check your quickly growing list to see if it has ever come up before, and if it has, verify that it’s consistent.  Anything that hits this list needs to be labeled as key to the scene’s emotional payoff or not.

Fit and Finish – Now you have a list of stuff that doesn’t line up.  By the end of the book Brad has three eyes and the gun is taped to his forehead.  Oops.  Go through the list BACKWARDS to select items to fix, then go to the first mention of that information on the list as close to the start of the book as possible.  It’s much easier to mention all of Brad’s eyes the first time we meet him than to add in some eyeball multiplication surgery in the middle.  This will fix most logical errors, which are typically created through imperfect author memory and assumptions.  Anything not tied into your readers adrenal glands/tear ducts will be easy fixes with few consequences associated with the change.

The Leftovers – This is the weird and scary part.  It’s possible that you have an amazing emotional payoff early in the book that hinges on Brad’s one good eye.  Then at the end, it’s critical that all three eyes are glistening with remorse as he dumps his heist partner’s body into the ocean.  And of course, there’s no such thing as eye multiplication surgery.  You need to be very careful here.  Your first instinct is going to be to put all the emphasis on the logical issue and just fix it in the first scene, dumping the emotional payoff as a sad but needed casualty of war.  Take a deep breath instead and flip your priorities.  Preserve the emotion first, its pure reader candy, even if you have to fix the eye problem in a less elegant way.  A kludgy, rickety logical bridge later involving discount glass eyes and superglue is still a hell of a lot better than losing even a smidgen of reader manipulation.  Fix it as best you can, but keep your priorities straight.

There is no higher purpose than to move your reader in some way.  Don’t lose sight of that fact when you edit, or you risk doing far more damage to your book than you fix.