Friday, December 30, 2011

Nothing New Under the Sun

I suppose it is inevitable that as the world's population grows beyond all reasonable levels it becomes harder and harder to ever have a truly original idea. I like to think that many of the ideas in my work-in-progress, a sci-fi thriller set in the near future, are original. I've never heard of them or seen them anywhere, and I'm quite proud of coming up with these ideas.

Yesterday I was stunned to come across a book that has eerie similarities to some elements of my book. It's a completely different story, of course, and has none of my technological ideas, but it has...well, see for yourself:

My book is set in a near-future Moscow with the main male character named Artyom and a segment of the very poor populace living underground in the abandoned metro system.

The book Metro 2033 by Dmitri Glukhovski is set in a near-future Moscow with everyone living underground in the abandoned metro system and the main character is named Artyom.

I can just see it now, should my book ever be published, as some readers accuse me of copping my ideas from this book. I'm not going to change my details; I've had my story since the early 1990's. I never heard about this book until yesterday. I chose these details for my story for very specific reasons that are important to me.

The metro in Moscow played a big role in my life for the four years I lived there (1993 to 1997), and I always planned on it figuring into my mobster thriller. When that story morphed into a sci-fi, it only made sense that the metro would be abandoned, since it was already old and newer technologies would take its place. The idea of a group of poor taking residence there seemed fun and a bit creepy.

I chose the name Artyom very carefully, too. I wanted a name that wouldn't be too odd to an American audience, yet I wanted it to be slightly uncommon rather than the standard few Russian names that we see each time a Russian character is used in any movie or book. Artyom fit what I was after nicely. I used the name in my first novel, written several years ago since that book has a couple of the same characters as this sci-fi (the first book was a fantasy).

I guess my point is that this post serves both to air my frustration and incredulity over such rotten luck and also as a sort of proof that I did not steal my ideas from someone else's book. I came to my ideas honestly. If or when someone later accuses me of taking these ideas, I will refer them to this post, for whatever good it might do.

Happy New Year everyone! I only managed to write thirteen new chapters this year, which is disappointing even though I have the excuse of moving to a new country and settling into a new job. I hope to do better this coming year, perhaps even finish this new book.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chess Tournament

I'm exhausted after competing in a tough chess tournament. I used to compete a lot when I was younger, but it's much tougher these days. I hadn't played for nearly three years, so my goal was to knock some rust off and hope I didn't collapse completely.

It was a round robin-style tournament in which I play each other player, and since there were twelve players that means there were eleven rounds, one per day. I started relatively well, with one win, one loss, and four draws in the first six rounds, all against the higher rated people in the tournament. Then I had my dreaded collapse, losing three in a row. What makes it worse is that I was winning the first two of these games, but blew them. I finished the event by winning my last two nicely, but it was against the two lowest performers, so I was expected to win.

Here is the crosstable - http://chess-results.com/tnr59450.aspx?art=4&lan=1&turdet=YES&flag=30

Friday, November 11, 2011

String Bridge by Jessica Bell

I'm pleased to be able to help out with blog friend Jessica Bell, whose first novel has recently been released. She's a lovely and extremely talented writer and musician.
Today is THE day to help Jessica Bell's debut, STRING BRIDGE, hit the bestseller list on Amazon, and receive the all-original soundtrackMelody Hill: On the Other Sidewritten and performed by the author herself, for free!

All you have to do is purchase the book today (paperback, or eBook), November 11th, and then email the receipt to:


jessica.carmen.bell(at)gmail(dot)com


She will then email you a link to download the album at no extra cost!

To purchase the paperback:

To purchase the eBook:

To listen to samples of the soundtrack, visit iTunes.


If you are not familiar with String Bridge, check out the book trailer:



Rave Reviews for String Bridge:

Jessica Bell’s STRING BRIDGE strummed the fret of my veins, thrummed my blood into a mad rush, played me taut until the final page, yet with echoes still reverberating. A rhythmic debut with metrical tones of heavied dark, fleeting prisms of light, and finally, a burst of joy—just as with any good song, my hopeful heartbeat kept tempo with Bell’s narrative.~ Kathryn Magendie, author of Sweetie and Publishing Editor of Rose & Thorn Journal

“Poet and musician Jessica Bell's debut novel String Bridge is a rich exploration of desire, guilt, and the difficult balancing act of the modern woman. The writing is lyrical throughout, seamlessly integrating setting, character and plot in a musical structure that allows the reader to identify with Melody's growing insecurity as her world begins to unravel … String Bridge is a powerful debut from a promising writer, full of music, metaphor, and just a hint of magic.” ~ Magdalena Ball, author of Repulsion Thrust and Sleep Before Evening

Jessica Bell is a brilliant writer of great skill and depth. She doesn't pull back from the difficult scenes, from conflict, pain, intensity. She puts it all out there, no holds barred, no holding back. She knows how to craft a scene, how to develop character, how to create suspense. This is an absolutely brilliant debut novel. I look forward to reading her next novel, and next and next.” ~ Karen Jones Gowen, author of Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds and House of Diamonds

Please TWEET and/or FACEBOOK this post using #StringBridge!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Feeling Insignificant

I saw a video of a Fleetwood Mac song that blew me away and made me feel so small at the same time.
Yeah, so it's about twenty years after their heyday, but still they take what was a semi-good song on the album and make it so much more passionate here. Lindsey Buckingham can do it all, yet he never had guitar lessons and doesn't even use a pick. I couldn't imagine simply being able to play that music, let alone singing so well while doing it. And he's a lot better looking than I am, too!


 That's a little of why I am so sad. I know that the only type of immortality we really have a shot at in this life is perhaps leaving behind some fantastic piece of art - whether a painting, a song, a book, etc. - that may be remembered by people long after we are gone. It doesn't bother me when someone is better than me at some particular talent, because I can always tell myself that I have talents where I am better than they are. Then someone like Lindsey comes along and is better at way too much all at the same time, and I can never hope to compare with even a single one of his talents. He has an amazing voice, plays incredible guitar, and is extremely charismatic. He's a great songwriter and, who knows, he can probably write rings around me in fiction if he wanted to.

For those of us in the writing game these days, it's about as tough as it has ever been. We can write a book now that, if published two hundred years ago, could have stood out and become a classic, but today it would most likely be buried in the avalanche of books being poured out by far too many talented writers. So rather than our book becoming a classic and making us well-known even after passing on, our book is quickly lost in the shuffle and forgotten.

I suppose getting older is making me far too aware of my mortality and of how quickly time is slipping away as far as being able to make a lasting mark on the world.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Best Ever

Family, that is. Lots of people say such things, but in my case it's actually true: I have the greatest family ever seen in the history of the world.

My wife pointed out a few cute photos that I hadn't seen before. The first one was taken by a friend of hers in Baku, and she didn't have a digital copy, so I had to scan it. That's why it's not perfect, but check out the hilarious faces!
On the left is a neighbor girl. The middle is my eldest son Anton and Alex is on the right. I keep trying to convince them to try out drama, as I think they would be great, but they are too shy.

Here are a couple of pictures from our trip to London in the summer of 2010. They were taken by a friend who met up with my wife at a botanical garden.
I've never seen such affectionate and empathetic kids as my boys. I hope this world doesn't change them too drastically. Don't grow up too fast, sons!
My sons and my wife in the botanical garden. Often I wish time could slow way down to allow us to linger through the great periods. Getting old should be illegal!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Walk Through the Castle District of Budapest

Yeah, yeah, I've been gone a long time. Sorry. Although Budapest is a lovely city, it's still an adjustment to get settled down in the new apartment, new job, new bosses and colleagues. I haven't been posting and I haven't yet started writing again. I owe a good buddy a crit of his large book, and I'm only three chapters in so far. I'd like to get that done by December, if possible.

On August 20 there was a big holiday here in Hungary. The embassy community celebrated it at the compound of the US Marines, which is a gorgeous place in the castle district, which you can see in the pictures below. I wish I had my camera with me that night, because the fireworks over the Parliament were spectacular.

Before I get to the photos I took today, I thought I'd throw out a couple that I liked from over the summer. Here is my younger son Alex with our cockatiel Gosha just before leaving Baku.
Another shot I liked is this picture of Multnomah Falls in Oregon.

So, today was a wine festival in the castle district of Budapest, and my wife enjoys wine and decided to go. I'm not a drinker, so I brought my camera and walked around the district with my two sons. I liked a lot of the photos, but I don't want to overwhelm you, so I'll just give you a taste.
Above is my older son Anton near one of the oddly-shaped buildings within the castle.

This is a view from the castle wall down to the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament building. When I go to work in the morning I cross the river in the metro and get out just at that building, then walk a block south (to the right) to get to the embassy.
Here is the big cathedral. It looks smaller in the photo than it does in real life (you can click any photo to enlarge). It's covered in amazing designs. Below is an example of some inset statues.

And finally a shot of Hungary's favorite St. Istvan.

I probably won't blog a lot for the moment, partly because I feel a bit overwhelmed with all the new things going on, and partly because I need to get the creative juices flowing again at some point before I feel ready to jump back into this game. I do keep track of your blogs, even if I only comment when something grabs my fancy.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Home At Last

Finally arrived in lovely Budapest this past Saturday. The weather is great, work seems like it will be just fine, and our tiny apartment is at least livable. What more can I ask for, except perhaps for all my household goods to arrive so I can relax and get back into writing?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

DC Swamp

Usually when I depart Arizona for Washington DC during these home leave vacations it is a relief. This time Washington weather is worse than Arizona! Today it was well over a hundred degrees out, but with something like 90% humidity. Insane!

I met an old friend today and we talked about my writing, which was nice. He's always enjoyed helping me with my books.

We've met so many people over the years that my wife has every single day scheduled with various meetings with friends. It's funny how exhausting these 'vacations' always turn out to be. It will be a relief to finally get to Budapest next Friday.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Portland

My long summer with almost no internet continues. We are in Portland, Oregon for a week staying with some old friends, and it has been relaxing and fun. I've gone to a couple of parks to play football and baseball with the boys (my two sons and the son of our friends). We toured around Portland and walked through the downtown, including taking in an antique car show. We went down to the river so the boys could swim. My wife particularly liked the Japanese Garden and rose garden at the top of the hill.
My favorite so far was last night, when our friends took us to the Tony Starlight club to see the owner perform. He was quite amazing -- a really talented musician and mimic. He can sing like so many other famous people that it's astonishing. He ranged from Sinatra and Neil Diamond to Stealers Wheel, Gerry Rafferty, Blondie, and Stevie Nicks! If you are in Portland ever, I recommend you try to find a night when he is performing (it's fairly rare, as he usually just has other acts booked for his club).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quick Note

A quick note to apologize that I have not been able to visit or comment on blog posts. My uncle's internet is down, so I have only been able to get on for short periods to check email while stopping at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. I miss the blogosphere, and I feel like I am missing so many great posts out there.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tornado

After a crazy trip, my family is tired but alive in Phoenix, Arizona. On a perfect journey it was already going to take around 21 hours. We had to first fly from Baku to London. When we arrived we found we had only twenty minutes to make the flight to Chicago. Turns out our gate was a LONG way from the place we needed to be, so we had to run. It was super-frustrating to hit another security check-through, as they really slowed us down past the point where we thought we had to have missed our flight. Luckily we barely made it.

Then Chicago. Just as the time for our departure to Phoenix was creeping around, a tornado alert sounded and they ushered everyone down to a lower level to wait it out. After more than an hour we heard rumors that a plane had been damaged. The news that I can find today says that about 360 flights were cancelled. Luckily for us they didn't cancel our flight, but it lifted off about four hours late, making me worry that the rental car company wouldn't hold our reservation.

We arrived in Phoenix at around 2 AM, and though I barely made it to the rental company under the 3 hour limit, they didn't have any cars in the size I had ordered. Again luck was with us as they had one SUV left that they let us have. So, we got to my Uncle's house at around 3:30 AM and slept like the dead.

In more interesting news. Nathan Bransford chose a posting that I did in his forum (it was my previous blog post, but I liked some of the thoughts in it, so I posted it at NB) to put on his front page. It was kind of exciting, though part of me wished I'd had a warning so I could have polished it a bit more. I tend to just type my posts out in about 15 minutes and go with them, while for Nathan I would have parsed every word and phrase until they shone. As it was, some people misinterpreted some of the things I said, and since I had to fly away, I didn't get to defend myself much.

I thought perhaps a couple people from Nathan's huge audience might come over to my blog, but the statistics show that I had fewer hits than normal. Oh well!

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Memory...and Books

Think of the person you know who has the best memory. Can they quote from hundreds of books? Do they wow you with what can only be their photographic memory? It may be hard for modern people to fully comprehend, but the great memories of today can hardly compare to those of ancient times.

As the book I am reading now states (the following quote and all other quotes here are taken from The Discoverers by Daniel Boorsten) -- "Before the printed book, Memory ruled daily life..." Memory, both from individuals and communities, was the common means of passing knowledge on through the generations. People in those far off times had to intentionally cultivate an incredible memory in order to memorize amounts of information that would astound modern people.

"The elder Seneca (c. 55 B.C.-A.D. 37), a famous teacher of rhetoric, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard only once many years before. He would impress his students by asking each member of a class of two hundred to recite lines of poetry, and then he would recite all the lines they had quoted--in reverse order, from last to first."

Before the days of printing, "a highly developed Memory was needed by the entertainer, the poet, the singer, the physician, the lawyer, and the priest." We all know about the great ancient epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which were passed down orally for many centuries.

Even when the first writings became more common, Memory remained the primary means in use by lawyers and judges or anyone wishing to quote from the scrolls or manuscripts of the times. With no page numbers or other markings, it was too inconvenient to attempt to locate the necessary parts of text, often rolled up in scrolls dozens or even hundreds of feet long.

After the printing press was developed, books evolved into "an aid, and sometimes a substitute, for Memory." It was Socrates, two millennia earlier, who had first "lamented the effects of writing itself on Memory..." The more accurate and widespread the book became, the less important became the cultivation of a good memory.

The great anachronism of our age is Islam, which still sees as ideal for any Muslim child the full memorization of the Koran. A lesser one is the incredible use of memory of the elite chess grandmasters, who must memorize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of positions, tactics, strategies, and lines of openings, middle games, and endgames.

The reason I decided to write this was because the (far more detailed) story from The Discoverers reminded me of some thoughts I had been having regarding the effects on memory of the internet age. If the rise of books had been a death knell for developing memory as a tool, how much worse is the internet, which in effect serves as a substitute memory for the world? Regardless of issues of accuracy, almost all data is now placed onto the internet. Google and similar search engines become the key to accessing this modern day Memory.

And what effect on memory will come of the decline of leisure reading? Reading, which long served to teach and broaden the minds of educated people, is clearly on the decline amongst (primarily) young males, at least when it comes to spending long hours and days poring over long books for leisure purposes. Now kids turn to email, blogs, text messages, and tweets as primary substitutes for the hours once spent reading. Are we going to reach a point where the average person feels they no longer need to have much 'data' stored within their minds, since they can access it at will on the internet? Will high quality writing and the desire to enjoy such writing decline as people become used to the shorthand of modern communications? When 'lol' and 'rofl' take over for actual knowledge of good English, what does it say of our future?

It is hard to say exactly how much impact the internet will have on the area of memory, but my belief is that the coming of the internet age will eventually have nearly as great an effect on memory as the invention of the printing press.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tagged...

I've seen this tagging game all over the place, so I knew it was just a matter of time before I got hit. The super-nice Victoria Caswell hit me up with this one, and I can't refuse her anything, so here goes...

Do you think you're hot?
I suppose I will be when I reach Arizona next week. Honestly, who can be comfortable answering a question like this? I think I am not bad, but I'm no Johnny Depp or anyone else my wife thinks is 'hot'. I don't think my wife has ever called me hot, though since she is from Russia, I don't think they use that word.

Upload a picture of wallpaper you are using at the moment.
I can't do this, sorry. I don't have my computer since it got packed away by the moving company. I'm typing on a computer with no wallpaper. How about a picture of my cockateil that we have to give away on Monday? Bye Gosha! **Sad**


When was the last time you ate chicken? 
Is this an appropriate question after talking about my bird? I eat chicken quite a lot since I stopped eating so much red meat. Having said that, the move is throwing everything out of whack, so I haven't had chicken since my going away party last Friday at work.

The songs you listened to recently?
I don't have my beloved iTunes, so I am not getting to listen to much of anything. All I have left is a cd in my car, and it has:
Soundgarden - Searching With My Good Eye Closed, 4th of July, Boot Camp
White Zombie - Thunder Kiss '65
Filter - You Walk Away, American Cliche
Tool - Eulogy
and a few other really cool songs
What were you thinking as you were doing this?
Well, because of the last question, I've had White Zombie rocking in my head.
Do you have nicknames?
Sorry, no. My wife calls me 'Teddie', which I would hate if it was anyone else, but since she has such an adorable accent, it doesn't sound so bad coming from her. My kids call me Dad.
Tag five bloggers:
I think everyone's been tagged already. Aren't I the last one?
Bru Grace

Whose listed as number one?
Everyone knows Simon, right? Shame on you if you don't. He's one of the funniest and best writers I know, and he helped me a lot with crits on my first novel. I'd have tapped Matt Rush here also, except Victoria tagged him already.
Leave a lovey dovey message for number 2.
Oooo, I wish I knew how to flirt. Hart the Tart is great at it! Music is really sexy, and Jessica is splendid in that regard (not to mention her writing - she has a new book out!)
How did you get to know number 3?
The Naked Tart is a real character and also very helpful. She read my entire first book and gave me very nice feedback on it, for which I will always be grateful. She even pretended to like it!
How about number 4?
Hmm, I forget when I first 'met' L.G. (you see the problem of using initials for your name? I can't put a proper period there!). She's been a regular commenter and does really interesting posts. I hope any of you who haven't tried her blog will do so now!
Say something about number 5
I stumbled across Bru when I saw her interview of another blogger I follow. She did such a wonderful interview with me later. She's so kind and brave, too, as she battles near-blindness and other issues which she has bravely recounted to us. I wish so many good things for her.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blog Award of DOOM

The lovely L.G. Smith of Bards and Prophets (doesn't she have the greatest banner?) gave me this fun blog award, which gives me the opportunity to present one of my beloved characters in a very unpleasant situation. I have so many such scenes, which to choose?
 
The Rules:

1. When you receive the Blog Award of DOOM your task is to post a short selection of your writing, 100-300 words, in which your favorite character suffers a horrible fate. It can be your favorite character from your own writing or from something you've read, it can be from a finished manuscript, a WIP or something you just made up on the spot. Your choice, but it has to be full of DOOM!

2. Pass it on to one other blogger and let them know their DOOM has come.

3. Remember that the person who passed the award on to you also received it as well. Go back to their post to read and comment on their writing sample. Make sure to thank them for sending the DOOM your way.

4. Whenever you use the word DOOM in your post, you must capitalize the whole thing.

Let me first pass this along so I can finish this post with my excerpt. Hmm, who to give it to? I wonder if Joseph Selby and Sasha Barin would be willing to share a scene of DOOM with us? They are relative newcomers for me in the blogosphere, so I am curious what they might show us.

Here is a short excerpt from my fantasy novel The Shard. The young tinker's son, Geldrath, has become trapped inside a mountain along with some soldiers. They pass over a chasm and creep along a passageway to a small cavern, where they get a big shock, and poor Geldrath learns that he is nowhere close to becoming a hero yet.

*****

Dragon! Geldrath couldn’t believe his eyes. He was never meant to see the dragon. It was supposed to be in the Great Hall beyond. He saw the awful plunge of the dragon’s head, the quick death of one of the soldiers, and panic flooded through him like a molten river. He dropped the shield he was carrying, turned, and fled.


His arm struck someone as he ran. He felt fingers dig at his side and heard a shout, distantly as if from down a deep well. His mind refused to work. All he could think was--Dragon! Dragon! Run!

A tiny portion of his mind tickled at him, reminding him that he should feel shame; that he had responsibilities to friends and couldn’t desert them. The overriding part of his mind shoved those thoughts aside and forced him to run faster.

There was another shout behind him and he felt that someone was chasing him. Through the fear his mind teased him again with another thought: I’m forgetting something import--

His front foot came down on nothingness.

His throat jerked out a strangled scream as he pitched forward headfirst, his arms flailing. The back of his shoulders and head slammed into stone, followed by his buttocks and feet. His head rang and he felt consciousness slipping away as he plunged through cold air.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Authonomy

I've noticed that although the blogosphere is filled with writers eagerly learning their craft, almost none of them seem to be taking advantage of sites like Authonomy (link is to my book there). I've been a member since December 2009, and it's one of the most useful sites I have joined. It leans slightly toward the British side of things, since it is a Harper Collins site, but there are writers from all over the world there. I've recently been getting some great feedback for my book from a wonderful Belorussian writer.

As with any such site, one must have a bit of a thick skin to be able to ignore the few people who are not diplomatic enough, but most there are decent critiquers and pretty supportive. You just need to filter out the bad and concern yourself with the good.

The first time I posted a book there I had already completed it. Not many take the time to read the entire novel, which I can understand since reading on a monitor isn't the most pleasant experience, but a few do, and most will read some of it and generally leave some useful feedback. I have made thousands of corrections on my books due to Authonomy critters.

I've been posting my latest book chapter by chapter as I write it, and I've found this very useful. The critters have pointed out a number of things that have saved me lots of further effort down the line if I had waited to post only after completing the book. People seem to be enjoying this book far more than my first, perhaps because thrillers are more popular than Tolkienesque fantasy, but also perhaps because I am a slightly better writer the second time around.

I would never ask anyone to support me blindly, but if anyone finds Authonomy useful and checks out my book, I can always use more support. BTW, it actually doesn't help a book if you support it immediately upon joining. You need to add some books that don't mean much to you (or other ones you find that are good) and first get a ranking before adding the books you truly like to your shelf. Only with a ranking will books accrue benefit from your support. The longer you leave them on your shelf, the more points they gain.

After a year and a half, my first book reached around 191 in the rankings (out of tens of thousands of books on there). My second book has reached 84 after just over one month! If you like thrillers and/or science fiction, perhaps check it out!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Writing vs Story

My feeling is that most of us newbie writers have a serious problem with story. When we first take to the blogosphere, we learn an incredible amount about writing, and after a year or two we gain a lot of confidence. However, I think the bulk of what we learn concerns only one aspect of writing a novel, and that is the writing side of it. I don't mean only grammar, though of course that is an important part of it, but rather all of the disparate elements of creating decent prose and dialogue.

Imagine for a moment that you have learned to write perfectly, that you have perfect grammar, perfect prose, perfect dialogue. You can still write a terrible story.

Story is where most of us go wrong in our early efforts. Part of it is that it is a bit elusive. Who is to say for your particular subgenre where the best place to begin your story truly is? Who can tell you whether to have a single POV character, or whether several might work better for the needs of the story? There are some things that I can give an opinion on, though they are not universal. For instance, these days I feel that omniscient is not the best POV to use, though having said that I still see good books by famous authors using it and using it well. I feel that close 3rd works best for me, and for YA books first person seems to be the most commonly used POV.

Do you ratchet up the tension enough in your story? Do you deflate it too quickly? Do you use too much exposition? I keep hearing that there should be almost no exposition in the first fifty or so pages. You need to hook the reader and gain their trust before you start doing a little 'telling'. There are no hard and fast rules that will work in all cases, which is why becoming good at 'story' is so hard and frustrating.

So many times I see writers not getting it when it comes to story. They will post a chapter or excerpt online and others will let them know that something is wrong with it, yet when they come back with an edited version it is easy to see that they didn't truly 'get it'. It might be too much exposition, or perhaps the writer is overwhelming the reader with too many new characters in one chapter, but when the writer is warned about the issue, they more often than not tinker a bit with it rather than actually resolving the problem.

What are your thoughts on story?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Top 20 U2 Songs

I'm avoiding doing writing posts for now, primarily because I am in the process of moving and cannot do any writing or editing for the moment. My computers are all packed up and I won't see them again until probably October. I have to spend the next two months wandering around the US before I can finally settle down in our new home in lovely Budapest, Hungary.

So, I will continue my stroll through my favorite music groups. After the glorious rock of the early 70's, U2 was the next rock group I fell in love with. I'm proud that I loved them for years before most other people caught on to them. I'm also disappointed that after so many incredible albums they turned away from what they did best and started doing pop/electronica dreck.

1. New Year's Day (live from Under a Blood Red Sky) - The album version is okay, but it is this live version from the original Under a Blood Red Sky cd that really has the fire. The Edge plays both piano and guitar, and his echo-heavy touches really help to highlight Bono's soaring vocals in the middle part.

2. Bad (live from Wide Awake in America) - U2 is a fantastic live band. I've seen them several times, and often I love their live versions better than what they produced on the albums. Bad is far, far better in this live version than the studio version. It has a slow, relentless buildup, adding one instrument at a time, before exploding.

3. Where the Streets Have No Name - I prefer the single version, simply because it cuts out some of the overly long intro of the album version. This is a perfect song for opening a concert. I get chills down the spine during parts of it.

4. Pride (In the Name of Love) - U2 are great at anthems. The ringing intro and driving guitar on this one are unforgettable, while Bono's lyrics pay tribute to Martin Luther King.

5. Gloria - I like the studio version fine, but the live version from Under a Blood Red Sky is the best.

6. Sunday Bloody Sunday - Yet again, the live version from Under a Blood Red Sky is the definitive version for me. This song defines what an anthem is.

7. The Fly - I absolutely love the guitar solo on this one.

8. Mysterious Ways - I remember hearing this on the radio for the first time. The very first sounds of the guitar reminded me of Jimmy Hendrix, but as soon as the full band came on I knew it was U2.

9. In God's Country - A nice song, but it's the guitar solo at the end that always gives me shivers.

10. I Will Follow - The studio version was...okay. The live version from Under a Blood Red Sky is wonderful, especially the interlude in the middle.

11. A Day Without Me - The Edge was always great about mixing his riffs with little memorable echoey notes, and he does that splendidly here.

12. Seconds - This catchy songs features both Bono and Edge singing off of each other.

13. Surrender - Not the studio version. I love the live version from Live at Red Rocks. Edge even breaks out his pedal steel guitar.

14. Until the End of the World - The driving guitar riff and terrific solo raise this song above mediocrity.

15. Promenade - Most people would never pay any attention to this song, but I find it so lovely.

16. Fire - A wonderful guitar riff.

17. Two Hearts Beat As One - Yeah, I tend to love their older stuff better than the new.

18. Electric Co. - Again, I prefer the live version from Under a Blood Red Sky. Blazing fast guitar riffing.

19. I Threw a Brick Through a Window - I love Edge's added vocal lines, acting like an echo at the end of Bono's lines.

20. Out of Control - Fast paced and addictive.



Honorable Mention:
The Unforgettable Fire
A Sort of Homecoming
One Tree Hill
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Twilight
I Fall Down
Numb
Vertigo
Bullet the Blue Sky
One
Even Better Than the Real Thing
With or Without You
Rejoice
Red Hill Mining Town
Desire
Silver and Gold

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Top 20 Led Zeppelin Songs

I did my other two huge favorites from the time period of the late sixties and early seventies (Pink Floyd and The Beatles), so I need to finish up by including Led Zeppelin. I do also love bands like The Who, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, Hendrix, etc., but Floyd, Beatles, and Zeppelin are my very favorites from that time. I save Zeppelin for last only because their songs are harder for me to rank than with Floyd or The Beatles.

1. No Quarter - This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, lyrical songs I have ever heard, and the mix of hard riffs with soft interludes and echoey vocals makes this the most listened to Zep song in my iTunes. I also highly recommend the cover of this song by Tool.

2. Black Dog - As a four year old boy, this was the very first song that pounded its way into my consciousness. It was the first time I ever thought about MUSIC as something other than what Sesame Street or other TV shows provided. The best album of all time -- Led Zeppelin's untitled Fourth album -- had just come out and my parents played it over and over again. This song led it off, and the sound of Jimmy Page's guitar warming up made a fascinating intro for a 4 year old kid. The song was unusual, too, with its alternating music and vocal parts, capped off with a relentless ending guitar solo.

3. Stairway to Heaven - There's a reason this song topped all the charts for best song of the century. It's perfect blend of haunting melody, buildup of tension, mystical vocals, blazing guitar solo, and crunching coda seemed, well...heaven sent. This is also the very first song I taught myself to play on guitar, and I believe I do a pretty fine job.

4. Ramble On - I seem to have a soft-spot for the Zeppelin songs that are mostly soft acoustic numbers but suddenly throw in a wallop of hard crunchiness, and that's exactly what this song delivers. It doesn't hurt that it is about Tolkien, too!

5. Tangerine - I love playing this song on my guitar. It has such a lovely melody, and the outro is gorgeous.

6. Over the Hills and Far Away - Another song I love to play on my guitar. The riff is addictive and when the hard part hits, it packs a great punch.

7. Rock and Roll - Perhaps the greatest intro drum riff ever, and since it followed immediately after Black Dog on Zep's masterpiece fourth album, it formed the greatest duo of rock songs in my mind.

8. Immigrant Song - Another fantastic Page riff, and it's about Vikings, too! I love the original, but sometimes I love the LA Drone version better.

9. Fool in the Rain - A very funky song for Zeppelin, considering their usual blues/rock roots.

10. Whole Lotta Love - When I was little this seemed like such a heavy rock song. Nowadays other bands have come along that are far harder, but this one was special way back then. What a riff and what a solo!

11. Ten Years Gone - Another of those songs that alternates between super-soft loveliness and crunchy distortion.

12. Travelling Riverside Blues - This was recorded live for a BBC broadcast, but it sounds amazingly clean. Blues rock at its finest.

13. What Is and What Should Never Be - Like I said before, I have a soft spot for these soft songs that turn hard, and the outro is echoey fun.

14. When the Levee Breaks - John Bonham's drum sound on this song rewrote the books for drummers everywhere. It was huge and made you sit up and take notice immediately. This song closed the fantastic fourth album perfectly.

15. Achilles Last Stand - A guitar tour-de-force for Jimmy Page, though Plant's vocals fit the song perfectly as well.

16. Moby Dick/Bring It On Home - I have my favorite edited version of this, which might be sacrilege to some, but works wonderfully for me. I cut out the annoying drum solo in Moby Dick, leaving in the splendid guitar, and melding this directly into the follow up Bring It On Home.

17. Four Sticks - One of my favorite songs to play on my guitar. It's said that Bonzo used four drum sticks to get his pounding sound. All of the songs from this fourth album are amongst my favorites. This one is mainly instrumental, since Plants' vocals are mostly there to accompany the sound Page and Bonzo are making.

18. Kashmir - Many people rate this song much higher. I do love it, but not as much as the above songs. The guitar sound and chord progression are an amazing invention for Page, and I love the little violin part they threw in.

19. The Rain Song - I pretty much ignore the vocals on this one, as they don't thrill me, but the guitar part is special. I taught myself to play it because of how gorgeous it was, especially the way it finishes.

20. That's the Way - There's something addictive about this simple, soft acoustic song that I just love.

Honorable Mention:
Going to California
Thank You
In the Light
Misty Mountain Hop
The Battle of Evermore
How Many More Times
Good Times Bad Times
Heart Breaker
Dazed and Confused
Nobody's Fault But Mine
Poor Tom
You Shook Me
Your Time Is Gonna Come
Custard Pie
The Song Remains the Same
The Ocean
Since I've Been Loving You
Out On the Tiles
Hey Hey What Can I Do
Living Loving Maid
In My Time of Dying
White Summer/Black Mountainside

Monday, June 6, 2011

All Fun & Games Blogfest

I had to enter this blogfest, since some games have had a tremendous impact on my life. In fact, I believe one of them had everything to do with who I am today. I'm only going to mention two games (though I like many more), since those two had far greater influence on me than any others.

Let's begin with the lesser of the two, so I can save the greater for last. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D: an all-encompassing term I will use to represent all versions I played, including Middle Earth RPG) was the first huge game in my life. It swept me away, along with my younger brothers, for a good several years beginning in my early teens, and its impact is one I can still feel, especially in my writing.

My mother thought it was a terrible waste of time. I know she was wrong. I learned so much from D&D. My vocabulary certainly improved, along with my imagination. I finally found something that allowed me to indulge in the greatest fantasies of my youth, from sword fighting to knights in shining armor. D&D also pushed me a bit out of my shell of shyness, forcing me to actually socialize with other fans of the game. It was something so deeply compelling, almost magical, that we could play all day and wonder where all the time went. I'm grateful for what role playing games added to my life.

The game that transformed my life, however, was chess. I was first given a cheap plastic set when I was about four, but no one knew how to play, so all I did was push the pieces around in mock battles until someone threw the set away. I didn't notice chess again for many years, which is too bad since I later learned that I was quite talented at it.

In junior high school, a friend told me he was in the chess club and invited me to come. I did and I was fascinated to see this game treated so seriously by people. I even saw some magazines with an arcane notation, obviously used to portray moves of games played between professional grandmasters. I never imagined a simple game had a whole world revolving around it. The club required payment of a dollar per visit, however, and my family was very poor, so I couldn't return.

I was swept up in my soccer leagues for the next few years, so it wasn't until my junior year of high school that another friend invited me to the chess club and I got hooked for good. I saw people playing blitz chess, where they have to play the entire game within either three or five minutes per person. Playing so quickly seemed amazing to me, and I knew I wanted to be able to do that.

Sadly, I had joined near the end of the year, and every player in the club was graduating. Would there even be a club the next year? I spent that summer checking out chess books from the library and reading them frantically. When my senior year started, I harassed a teacher into becoming the coach (though she had no idea how to play chess) and advertised in the paper to get more players. We did get around ten players, but no one knew how to play, so I was the best player in the club. We had a blast playing in the tournaments that year, though we stank.

I continued to improve rapidly, though, and soon I joined a real chess tournament for adults. I did very well, scoring five points out of seven, and the only game I lost was one I was winning easily only to throw it away due to inexperience. From that point on I went to a dozen or so tournaments each year, improving steadily from Class C player to Class A.

How did chess change my life? I started college in computer engineering. Three and a half years into college I realized I didn't enjoy my major. I wanted to change to a career that I liked. I tried out a few different classes, and one I picked because of my fascination with the Russian chess grandmasters. I ended up loving that class, so I changed my major to Russian and Soviet Studies. I had no idea what I could do with such a major, but I didn't care. I wanted to enjoy my education.

As I drew close to graduation, a recruiter came to the university seeking Russian language speakers to work at the American Embassy in Moscow. I leapt at the chance, since it was the first sign I had of work I could do using my major, plus it meant perhaps getting to play chess in the heartland of the game.

Playing in Moscow was far more than I ever imagined. Tournaments were completely different than in America, and I was challenged far more by the strong competition. Because of the bad financial situation there, I was able to hire one of former world champion Anatoly Karpov's trainers for a cheap price. Even better, as a member of the embassy, I began receiving invitations to compete against famous grandmasters. Among them, I played against world champions Kasparov, Karpov, Anand, and Kramnik.
Playing World Champion Anatoly Karpov
I met and married my wife there, so I have chess to thank for that, as well as for our two beautiful sons. When I returned to the US in 1997, I was a much stronger player, and it showed. I had some fabulous tournament results, including several undefeated events. I won ten games in a row leading to a tie for first place in the 2001 US Amateur Championship in Tucson.

I rejoined the Foreign Service and moved overseas again. I keep seeking out new adventures in chess, playing in Iceland and Hungary. Now I am moving to Hungary this summer, since they have one of the best chess organizers there, and I hope to play often.

I find the experience of playing serious chess very much like writing a new chapter in a book. My mind seems to vanish into a mystical zone, from which I awake several hours later, hopefully with something quite nice as the result. Thank you, chess, for all that you have done for me!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Top 20 Beatles Songs

Sorry for those who find these boring, but music is an enormous part of who I am, and since I started off with one of my big favorites, I might as well continue on with my others.

Oh, how to do a best of with The Beatles? They were so fantastic and I love so many of their songs. They have a timeless brilliance, so I fully expect them to remain popular no matter how much time passes. Sometimes I am in the mood for some of their earlier stuff, and sometimes (more often actually) their later. Note that my list will be a mix of quality, nostalgia, and simply which tunes I listen to most often. So, there may be songs that I think are brilliant (like A Day in the Life), but don't actually listen to as often, so they fall to a lower spot. Pretty much any song you don't see on here is one that I probably do like, just not enough to make it to my top list.

1. Get Back - I prefer the one from the Past Master's album, since I like the ending better. The rollicking rhythm is addictive and McCartney's vocals work perfectly with it.

2. Yesterday - Such a beautiful song, and so simple. The soft little guitar intro always gets me.

3. Something - Yes, as much as I love rock, I am a sucker for beauty in music, too, so this one follows quite logically from the previous track.

4. Medley (Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window/etc.) - I know they strung a lot of unrelated stuff together here, but it is all so awesome and blends great together right on through to The End.

5. Sgt. Pepper - I shortened the title so that I could say that I dearly love both the beginning and the reprise of this song, and I also count A Little Help From My Friends as part of it.

6. Things We Said Today - I love how this song changes up the pace and feel, yet I really enjoy each of the differing parts. This is one of the two songs (along with Mother Nature's Son) that I always sang my sons to bed at night with when they were young. My youngest knew all the words to these two songs by the age of two and sang right along with me.

7. Mother Nature's Son - See the previous tune. Another lovely song.

8. Love Me Do - I once heard the alternate version where John and Paul reversed the parts that they sang, and I couldn't stand it. The original is simple and great, though.

9. For You Blue - I seem to like a lot of George Harrison's songs with The Beatles, though he never did much for me as a solo artist.

10. I've Got a Feeling - I can't figure out how to describe why I love this one so much. I just do.

11. I Feel Fine - I just love the guitar part, and I taught myself to play it!

12. Helter Skelter - I heard that this was the first ever heavy metal song. As a kid I didn't like it, but it grew on me.

13. Revolution - The one with the amazing, rocking guitar; not the slow version.

14. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - Off-beat and ingenious.

15. Come Together - Another off-beat song, demonstrating the creative genius of Lennon and McCartney.

16. Hey Jude - I don't listen to this one that often, primarily because it goes on far too long, but it still is incredible and addictive.

17. Let It Be - I prefer the version from Past Masters, since it highlights the guitar solo better.

18. Hello, Goodbye - There was a time when I was listening to this one and Penny Lane over and over.

19. I Am the Walrus - Psychedelic and crazily brilliant.

20. Obladi Oblada - An upbeat pacing with funny vocals.

Honorable Mention:
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
She's a Woman
Taxman
Drive My Car
The Ballad of John and Yoko
Rock and Roll Music
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
A Day in the Life
Strawberry Fields
Long Tall Sally
Money (It's What I Want)
I Me Mine
Twist and Shout
We Can Work It Out
Two of Us
I Saw Her Standing There
Back in the USSR
Glass Onion

...and so many more that I will stop here!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Top 20 Pink Floyd Songs

I'm in a musical mood today, so I picked one of my favorite bands, Pink Floyd, and wrote out all of my favorite songs. It's hard to put them in an exact order of favorites, since my mood changes all the time, but I'll see if I can get them into a generally good order. Perhaps you'll discover some hidden gems!

1. Comfortably Numb - There's a reason this one tops so many lists of Floyd songs. It's lovely, but also mixes the slightly crazy vocalizing of Roger Waters with the beautiful counterpoint of David Gilmour, and finishes off with one of the more gorgeous guitar solos ever done.

2. Time - Has my all-time favorite guitar solo, which zooms in with such power and then soars. I taught myself to play it, but even so I cannot come anywhere close to the tone and masterful touch Gilmour uses.

3. Dogs - It's so sad that this song almost never gets any airtime. Radio stations consider it way too long, at around 15 minutes, but this is easily one of the most fantastic of Floyd's songs. Gilmour's slightly sad vocals and terrific guitar build up slowly but surely, and then after a slightly overlong interlude with dogs barking, Waters finishes off the song with a scorching menace.

4. Goodbye Blue Sky - Most fans wouldn't have this one so high, but I just love it. It's probably the song I play most on my guitar, and what a lovely guitar piece it is.

5. Run Like Hell - Gilmour says this is their attempt at a disco song. Whatever. It is certainly an off-beat, rocking song, and the echoing guitars and dueling, frantic vocals between Gilmour and Waters make this a memorable tune.

6. Wish You Were Here - I tend to love the prettier of Floyd's songs the most, and this one certainly qualifies. It is also easy to play on guitar, so I enjoy sitting back and relaxing while playing it. Heck, even with my poor voice I can manage to sing along with this one.

7. Shine On You Crazy Diamond - Like the previous song, this one is a tribute to the lost founder of Pink Floyd Syd Barrett. It takes some getting used to, since it builds up so slowly and with such a long guitar solo before finally getting to the vocals, but this song amazes me. I am a guitar guy, so the long solo thrills me, and I taught myself to play it many years ago. I prefer the live version from Delicate Sound of Thunder to the studio version.

8. Brain Damage - Beautiful guitar. "The lunatic is on the grass..." How many pretty songs about insanity are there?

9. Money - You have to love the bass line. Gilmour is incredible, and can take a few simple notes and make them soar to amazing heights.

10. Hey You - Another song that I like playing on my guitar, though I do it the hard way since I don't like to re-tune it (this song uses a non-standard tuning).

11. One of These Days - Nearly all instrumental, this has a throbbing bass line and spectacular pedal steel guitar, especially in my favorite version from Delicate Sound of Thunder.

12. Empty Spaces/Young Lust - I always prefer to listen to these together as one song.

13. The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall part II - Like the previous song, I consider these two to be one song.

14. Have a Cigar - A jazzy rocker with amazing guitar that I just wish I was good enough to do. It's not that it's hard to play it, but that it won't sound decent unless you can recreate the tone, and I can't.

15. Pigs on the Wing - It's tiny, but it's so pretty. I should probably just include all three pig songs from Animals here, and throw in Sheep as well.

16. The Nile Song - One no one ever plays, but I love it. It rocks.

17. Ibiza Bar - Another version of the Nile Song basically, using the same music with different vocals.

18. Echoes - Another song you never hear, because it's more than twenty minutes long. It really has some amazing guitar in it, though.

19. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun - The version I love is taken from the movie Live in Pompeii, as it's much better than the album version.

20. Astronomy Domine - The live version from Pulse. By the way, I saw that concert live in London in 1994.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top Fifteen Horror Flicks

My post over the weekend draw hardly any hits. That'll teach me to post on a holiday weekend!

Ooooh, I just love horror movies! I know so many people don't, but for those of us who do, horror movies are a special treat, at least when done well. I always have to watch them alone, since my wife won't watch them, and she's made my sons afraid of them. When I was their age I was an old hand at watching such films.

Let me note up front that I won't include movies that I already used on other lists, such as Alien, Aliens, or Hardware. They are horror movies, but also sci-fi, so I put them there. If I did include them here, they would be at the top. Note that I am choosing based upon what I enjoy watching the most, not upon which is scariest. I'm also not including ones that some might list as horror, such as Stephen King's Stand By Me or Shawshank Redemption, because to me they don't quite fall into the horror category.

1. The Silence of the Lambs - I was loathe to put this here, as to me it is more suspense than horror, but I don't plan on doing a suspense list, so here it is. The acting and directing are superb, and this is one taut and suspenseful film.

2. John Carpenter's The Thing - It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I love this one so much. There's just something about being trapped in Antarctica on a little base, and the storyline is done brilliantly.

3. IT - There are a lot of great Stephen King movies (along with some clunkers), but of the horror flicks, this is the best, in my opinion. So many great actors, both in the children's storyline and in the adults'.

4. Scream - Smart and funny mixed in with the chills and gore.

5. Final Destination 2 - I like all of the movies in this series, but this one is the eeriest and scariest.

6. Fright Night - A cool mixture of horror and comedy. I love how nobody believes the poor kid and he turns to a cowardly television horror host for help.

7. The Lost Boys - Slick and funny as much as it is scary, and again it has some great actors in it.

8. Exorcist 3 - The first one was just too sickening for me to enjoy watching, the second sucked. This one is amazing, with the best actors of any of the films. It's sad that so few have watched this one, the best of the franchise.

9. Graveyard Shift - A bit low budget, but to me it only seems to add to the realistic feel of this scariest Stephen King movie.

10. Shaun of the Dead - More comedy than horror, but this English sendup of zombie flicks is a must-see.

11. Salem's Lot - Not the horrible original, but the tv miniseries starring Rob Lowe.

12. Arachnophobia - Another great horror/comedy. Millions of spiders coming to get you!

13. The Dark Half - A downright scary Stephen King movie. The book is incredible, but Tim Hutton does a creditable job of bringing it to the screen.

14. 28 Days Later - Perhaps the best of the zombie flicks, though I really enjoy the newer Dawn of the Dead also.

15. Descent - I watched this in a theater in Manila, never having heard of it before. It's one of the few times I thought a movie was truly frightening, while also being fun.

Honorable Mentions:
Sleepy Hollow
The Shining
From Dusk Til Dawn
Jurassic Park
Beetlejuice
Jaws
The 6th Sense
Resident Evil
Wrong Turn
Seven
Hostel
Saw
I Know What You Did Last Summer
An American Werewolf in London (also the one in Paris is decent)
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Halloween
A Nightmare on Elmstreet
The Hitcher
The Mist
Creepshow
House
The Blob
Dreamcatchers
Night Watch/Day Watch (slick Russian horror)
Joy Ride
Slither
Snakes on a Plane
The Fly
Severance
Blade
Sometimes They Come Back
The Hills Have Eyes
Pet Sematary
Identity
Vacancy

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Intro Chapter for Sci-Fi Novel

Some beta readers have given me feedback suggesting that my main character is thrust into the action so quickly that we don't get to know her first.  While I did want to jump quickly into the drama, I can understand wanting to first know something about a character. It's so hard to balance the need for some early excitement with the also important need to relate in some manner with the POV character.

So, I have tried writing this short new chapter to see if it works for introducing my main character. I'd love to know your thoughts on it. Does it work? Not? This is a sci-fi thriller set in Moscow in the year 2138.

--------------------------


It’s too easy to say one hates working with corpses.  Who could enjoy the smell of embalming fluid, the mannequin rigidity, the cold of a body that had once been full of warmth and dreams?  Zoya had prepped bodies for more than six years now, painting their faces to a ghoulish mimicry of life, so relatives and friends could view their loved one without having to face the stark horror of the empty shell death leaves behind.  She was used to cadavers, but she never stopped hating being around them.

Generally she listened to music while she worked, since it helped take her mind from the peculiar canvas upon which she plied her art.  Her preference was for ancient rock tunes, from the quaint times when people played their own instruments and wrote their own songs.  Lennon and McCartney, Waters and Gilmour, Plant and Page...demigods of a long lost age.

She hummed along to Hurdy Gurdy Man as she sketched a final line of purple lipstick onto the grossly fat man on the stainless steel slab.  She stood up to get a better view of the face, and jumped as someone dug fingers into her side from behind.

Snapping off the music from her slot interface, she whirled and was swept into the arms of her brother Georgy.

“Hey, little Sis.  Did I scare you?”

“Georgy!”  She pretended to punch his shoulder.  “Won’t you ever grow up?”  Despite the tender warmth she always felt around him, she felt a chill now.  He had never visited the morgue before.  A day’s worth of stubble scratched her cheeks as he kissed them; he was always so meticulous about shaving.  Something must be wrong.  “Why are you here?”

He stepped back, still holding her narrow shoulders in his steely grip.  “I need you to do something for me.  You know I’d--”

“Georgy!” she interrupted.  “You swore you wouldn’t involve me.”

He nodded.  “I wouldn’t ask this if I had anywhere else to turn.  You know that.”  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small package, a rectangle of old-fashioned brown paper tied off with twine.

“You have lots of friends, Georgy,” Zoya said.  “Don’t do this to me.”

“My friends can’t help me now, Sis.  You’re all I have.  Take this.”

He thrust the package at her, but she backed away, holding up her hands like a shield.  “I won’t ruin my life, even for you.”

Georgy set the package on the table next to the cadaver.  “I’m sorry, but I have no one else I can trust right now.  Please, just bring it to me tomorrow, say around ten.”  He pulled a small Web cable from a pocket and snapped it into the slot interface hidden in the black hair behind his left ear.  “Here, let me show you where to go.”  He reached out to plug the other end of the cable into Zoya’s slot.

“No, Georgy!”  She shoved his arm back.  “I won’t do it.”

Gently, he took her shoulders again and pulled her face close.  “Look at me, Sis.  What do you see?”

Zoya stared into his deep brown eyes.  There was a hunted, haunted look she had never seen before.  “You’re afraid?”

“I’m terrified, Zoya.  I fucked up so badly this time.  You have no idea.  I’ve got to disappear for awhile.  I need some time to prepare, and I can’t have this on me.” 

He used the moment to slide his hand up close to Zoya’s ear, and now he slipped the cable end into her slot.  Instantly, she saw the location where he wanted her to go.  It was in a dangerous, deserted part of old Moscow; a crumbling wasteland where only the drunk or the dangerous ventured.

“Yugo-Zapadnaya?  I can’t--”

“Don’t tell anyone where you’re going.  I have a safe house there.  You’ll be fine, you’ll see.  Tomorrow, around ten, okay?”  He pulled out the cable and leaned in to kiss her cheek again.  “I owe you big time.”

“Georgy,” she moaned, but he had already turned away, walking swiftly toward the morgue exit.

Zoya sagged against the edge of the table and dropped her eyes to the small package.  Fear made it difficult to swallow.  Fear for Georgy and for herself, though the fear was tinged with anger that he had forced this upon her.  She closed her grip around the package, and her hand brushed against the clammy skin of the corpse.  An image filled her mind of Georgy laid out on the slab while she rouged his cold cheeks.  She shuddered and tucked the package into a pocket of her lab coat.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Top Fantasy Movies

First off, let me say that Google didn't allow me to log in last night, so I couldn't respond to all the wonderful comments to yesterday's post until this morning. I loved hearing your thoughts and learning about some movies I hadn't seen.

I can't do a top ten with fantasy movies, first because there are simply far more of them that I like than with science fiction, but also because the quality level in fantasy is much iffier than with sci-fi usually, so some movies that I enjoyed also bothered me with their low quality.

I don't have my movie collection here with me as I write this, so I Googled a top 100 list. I think some of my favorites are not on there, so I am most likely leaving off some that I really love. I also disagreed with many of the movies on the list, as they were not fantasy movies, in my opinion.

I believe the quality dropoff from the first few to the others is significant, so I will rate my first few and then simply list a bunch of honorable mentions.

1. The Harry Potter movies - I'm including them all together, since to me it would be silly to list them apart. I could tell you that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite, though. It might seem heretical to those who know me that I list this ahead of the Lord of the Rings movies. Let me explain. I absolutely love the LOTR movies. They are awesome. However, I find myself watching the Harry Potter movies over and over again with my sons, and there is simply something undeniably fun about them. While I love the LOTR films and do rewatch them, I have to give Harry the tiny edge simply due to rewatchability. On another day, I would swap their places, though, as they are so close as the best two fantasy franchises ever.

2. The Lord of the Rings films - I am only talking about the extended editions, as I ignore the theatrical versions. The Fellowship of the Ring was the best of them, but all of them are wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better translation of the movies into film. No one could have done it perfectly, so this is as close as I think it can be done.

After the above two, everything has to pale in comparison! I can't list the rest in order, since so many of them fall into distinct types of fantasy to me, or are not even really fantasy as far as I am concerned, yet I know so many of you will consider them to be. If a really awesome fantasy is not listed here, it is probably because I didn't consider it fantasy (or it just didn't quite make my top list).


The Princess Bride - This one probably does deserve the number 3 slot. It is a timeless classic, and I can watch it again and again without growing tired of it. It blends wonderful fantasy elements with such wit and humor, while giving us unforgettable characters and dialogue. It's very nearly a perfect fantasy movie.

Now let me do some clear fantasy movies before I move onto the borderline ones and cartoons.

Dragonslayer - It's low budget and a bit corny, as most fantasy movies were before Peter Jackson taught everyone how to do it properly. I actually wouldn't put it high on my list, but this one is a clear fantasy, and it isn't so bad.

Willow - Again, a real fantasy, and despite some cheesiness, it is fun and has some great characters, such as Val Kilmer's roguish warrior.

Labyrinth - Some poor special effects, but that is what we always got with fantasy movies before Harry Potter and LOTR. It's still a very good movie, especially for kids.


Time Bandits - Oh, I really love this one, probably because when I was a little kid the only way to watch movies was to go to the drive-in (we were too poor for theaters), and my mom took us to see this one a couple of times and it stuck with me. It is just so FUN and funny, and there are so many tiny cool details. What's not to love?

Okay, now let me list my favorite cartoons, some of which are true fantasy and some of which are very borderline.

Fire and Ice - I always loved the art of Frank Frazetta. He can't do his full-blown magic over the course of a film, but it is still quite good. The story is fairly standard 70's-style fantasy fare, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

Wizards - Fantasy with some sci-fi elements. There are lots of nuances to the story, so it pays to watch it a few times.

Shrek - Fun and funny fantasy, cleverly done, at least in the first one.

The Nightmare Before Christmas - Borderline fantasy as are the rest of the ones listed below, but what a brilliant movie. The soundtrack is incredible, and Tim Burton manages to make each character in a vast cast distinctive and truly memorable.

Monster's Inc. - One of the best and funniest cartoons I have ever seen.

The Incredibles - Not as wonderful as Monster's, but very close.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit - I really love this one, too, but it's not really a fantasy, in my opinion.

Toy Story - Ditto

Howl's Moving Castle - I don't have a taste for Japanese animation styles, but this movie is just too fascinating to ignore.

Finally, the movies listed in other fantasy lists that I consider very borderline fantasy; I really enjoy all of these:

Dark City
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one only)
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version)
Beetlejuice
Sleepy Hollow (more horror than fantasy, but very good)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Bridge to Terabithia
King Kong
The 13th Warrior
Edward Scissorhands
The Goonies
Robin Hood (the Patrick Bergen and Uma Thurman version)

This is going on too long. I suspect you will let me know where I have missed some. I imagine there will be a few 'duh' moments!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top Ten Science Fiction Movies

I heard a vicious rumor that top-10 or top-100 lists draw the most hits on blogs, so I figured I should test this theory out. It has been funny to see how, in a writing blog, it is not the posts on writing that generally draw the most views and comments, but rather unrelated posts, such as my one last week about food. Perhaps I need to find a way to write more entertaining posts about writing.

Anyhow, I thought I would start my top-10 experiment with an easy one -- my choices for the top ten science fiction movies of all time. You will notice that there are few old ones here, as my taste is rather limited in regards to older films. There are also some I won't list that I see on other top lists, because I don't consider them to be sci-fi.


1. Blade Runner -- Hands-down the best science fiction movie of all time, in my opinion. The soundtrack by Vangelis is the most beautiful soundtrack I have ever encountered. There has been a lot of fighting amongst fans over which versions of this film are the 'good' versions, primarily because some fans hate the Harrison Ford voice-over that was added to the theatrical release. I have to say that I enjoy all the versions. I love the movie without the narration, but I also think it is really good with it. The hard-bitten, world-weary sound of Ford's voice only adds to the noirish quality of the movie, at least for me. Each and every scene in this movie resonates deeply with me, and I cannot imagine any greater beauty ever being brought to the screen.





2. and 3. Alien and Aliens -- What a duo of fantastic sci-fi movies, and each so different from the other! Alien (directed by Ridley Scott, who also did Blade Runner) provides a realistic-seeming take on a deep-space ship stopping at a planet due to a distress signal. This movie is the very essence of tension and suspense. Aliens gave us heart-thumping action as space marines return to the lost colony to try to reclaim it. Supposedly they are there to rescue any survivors, but in reality they are there for very different reasons...









 4. Serenity - Truth be told, I prefer the television series Firefly, as it goes into far more depth with the characters and story lines. However, a movie has limits on how long it can be, and they still did a fine job of bringing some terrific space-cowboy action. I recommend checking out this film, and then running as fast as you can to your PC to order Firefly!

5. The Road Warrior - Mel Gibson is perfect as Max in this post-Apocalyptic film that sort of but not really follows the not-so-great Mad Max movie. Maybe it's a male thing, but I always enjoy well-done survival of the fittest movies like this. Having to scrounge amongst the waste just to survive wouldn't be fun in real life, but it sure is in a movie.

6. and 7. Star Wars episodes V and IV - No need to link to these, as everyone has seen them, right? Episode V, called The Empire Strikes Back, was the best written of all these films, while episode IV was the original that started it all, and it does still have that magic. There's not a whole lot to say about these, as everyone knows them too well!




8. Back to the Future - I suppose this one is only borderline sci-fi, though it certainly has the right elements mixed in with the more contemporary stuff. This movie is simply a lot of fun, and very cleverly done. The cast couldn't have been chosen any better. The follow up movies were not nearly as good, but still fun.

9. ET - I won't link this one either. Who hasn't seen it? Steven Spielberg has a deft touch for these types of movies. He adds loads of realistic little touches and details to his films that really make them work. As a kid, I loved the D&D parts and also the Halloween stuff. Young Drew Barrymore stole the movie, in my opinion, with her adorably funny scenes.


10. Hardware - I couldn't resist putting this little known movie here. It is a very well done Australian low-budget flick that is a little like a scarier version of The Terminator, only funner. A scavenger in a post-Apocalyptic world picks up the remnants of a destroyed machine out in the war zone, thinking the scraps might make his artist girlfriend happy. She loves it and begins using the parts in one of her metal sculptures. However, the scrap turns out to have been an advanced type of new war machine, and once it can get access to electricity, it can piece itself back together. And it sees everyone as a threat. I love the dirty pig of a next door neighbor!

I couldn't end things without naming some others I really like: Brazil, The Matrix, The Terminator (1 and 2), Children of Men. I didn't bother with cartoons, or I might have added Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and I also left off zombie films and such, as they don't seem like sci-fi to me.

What favorites of yours did I leave off?