Thursday Reviews: In Loco Parentis by Nigel Bird; Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

In Loco Parentis

Nigel Bird

A slice of English life from Nigel Bird, In Loco Parentis tells the tale of Joe, a primary school teacher who constantly makes poor decisions. During his summer vacation, he and his stepsister finally give in to years of tension. But Joe balks at throwing away their sibling status, then promptly goes home to have an affair with a friend’s wife.

Meanwhile, he continues to make poor decisions, defying the school’s headmaster over handling an abusive teacher. He also lets loser pal Wolfe move in, and Wolfe talks him into dealing with a couple of child abusers by killing them. And Joe’s habits are not exactly what you want in someone assigned to a kindergarten class.

Bird narrates this odd noir story in first person, making Joe the most unreliable of narrators. He does horrible, stupid things, leaving a reader to wonder why he isn’t in Wormwood Scrubs or worse, but at the same time, rooting for him despite his depravity. Joe is out of control, knows it, and can’t do a thing about it. He’s rather like Jack from Fight Club, only without Jack’s split personality starting a terrorist group. Bird keeps Jack firmly in the real world, which makes his dilemma all the more tragic.

Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke

As man is about to send people to Mars for the first time, aliens arrive, bringing a sort of benign rule to the human race with the aim of uniting them. Humans are apparently on the verge of the next step of evolution, but the Overlords won’t say what that is. Over a period of one hundred years, the human race changes from a contentious, fractured group plagued by pockets of poverty, disease, and war to a utopian society where every whim is catered and people work for fulfillment. And yet humans get bored in utopia, seemingly unaware that, late in the book, they are the last generations of humans, that their progeny are about to take their rightful place in the universe.

Clarke’s tale of humanity in transition is extremely prescient in some respects. He predicts the rise of automated factories, reduced wars, poverty, and famine, and even a crude version of the Internet, though how people interact with this network is a bit primitive compared to how people first saw the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s. His explanation of the paranormal and the origins of superstition (including the Overlords’ demonic appearance) is an unusual one for the 1950’s, but this episodic tale ends not with the destruction of a bleak dystopia but with a surprising leap into the unknown, Clarke’s very own singularity.

Space Stuff: The Motion Picture

Astronaut on computerAs I sit on the sofa writing this Sunday morning, the SF novel is up to 15,000 words and sixty pages. In those sixty pages, stuff blows up, people die, and the normal pastoral world where my wealthy brat protag hoped to escape has turned into a war zone. And here I was worried the story would never get going. Instead, I now have to worry this might end too soon. Brevity is one of the reasons Road Rules did not sell to a publisher. At 55,000 words, about 5,000 words shorter than the standard minimum for a novel, it was something that did not really pad well. I know. I tried. The version you can now buy is essentially a slightly altered version of the original. When I tried to make it longer, mainly by going back an extra day and adding more lead-in material, every beta told me it felt bogged down, like there was deadweight. Funny how people who never saw the original picked up on that.

So it is with the SF project. I don’t want to add material just for length or even mess with the structure of the story I’ve envisioned. That’s hard enough with a good editor. But for now, the idea that things are moving too fast is a good problem to have. If I can keep the reader off balance for 90,000 words or so, they’re likely to keep turning pages.

And turning pages is what it is all about.


Back To School – 2013 Edition

snape teaching

Source: Warner Bros.

This past weekend began Year 2 at Wilmington College’s Cincinnati branches. Unfortunately, I have to go to Cincinnati State for both classes this semester. That may be meaningless to you, but to those of us who attended Cincy State or Wilmington in Cincinnati, we all dread the labyrinth that is Cincinnati State’s parking garages. Wilmington holds classes in two places in Cincinnati: The aforementioned Cincy State campus, where class is usually tucked off in the farthest possible room from any parking garage accessible to students, and a self-contained Blue Ash campus that shares a building with Citigroup. Just pull in the lot and walk through the front or back door.  I’ve been lucky. I haven’t set foot on Cincy State’s campus since last December. Now I will likely not see Blue Ash, only 10 minutes from my house and near a lot more interesting places to eat before class, before January. Or maybe next fall.

I did not get a summer break this year. I began the Accounting track in the Spring and needed to take a summer semester to get the second half of it. This began what I now refer to as “my year of math,” for this week, I start the first of two Statistics classes. (Statistics 101: Lies, followed by Statistics 201: Damn Lies). I’m not worried about this. There’s a long-overdue summer break at the far end of this, during which, Nita has decreed, we’re taking a summer vacation.

I’m also taking my first chemistry class in mumble mumble years. This one worried me. I looked at the syllabus to get an idea for what to expect from homework. Read 3-4 chapters a week. Okay, that’s doable. Do the review questions at the end of the chapter. I looked at those questions. Chapter 3 had 64 questions at the end of it. That was a disaster waiting to happen. So I set about writing out the questions ahead of time. This way, I could just delete true or false from those questions and all the wrong answers from the multiple choice ones. I’d copied up to seven chapters’ worth by the morning of the first class, a Saturday morning. Immediately, my hand went up. “Do we have to do all the questions?”

Turns out our prof’s fulltime job is a chemist for the water system and has a long memory about being a student. No, we don’t have to do 30-60 questions per chapter (which would be 240 questions in a worst-case scenario in a 4-chapter week.) We would do homework in the handouts and work on our research papers. We have just gone back to doable.

Were I in my late teens and early twenties, I would have complained loudly about 240 questions, 3-4 chapters, and research papers on top of my other classes. It would have interfered with my part time job, my underage drinking, and my “study breaks” with various girls in my dorm/apartment building. My forty-mumble self thinks my young self would need to shut up and get his priorities straight. My problem is a full-time job, a family, other obligations, and one other class (Lies and Damn Lies, of course). But this is also the life my prof needs, who also understands we’re all business majors who don’t want to stress out about covalent bonds, the impact of CFCs on ozone, or how to balance chemical equations.

On the other hand, I kind of miss having to do a few of the questions. One of them was clearly written by Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory.

“Dmitri Mendeleev was the last born of 17 children in his family. Can you write the atomic symbol and give the total number of electrons and the number of valence electrons for each of the first 17 elements in his periodic table?”

To which Penny would have said, “I dunno. What’s the atomic weight of cheesecake?”

At least I know now I can still exercise, write, and work on learning new programming languages. College, especially in middle age, is a sacrifice, but the sacrifice shouldn’t interfere with more important matters.


The Lead Singer

In the beginning, there was no lead singer. Elvis played guitar, as did Buddy Holly. Jerry Lee Lewis played piano. The Beatles had no set lead singer. Even Ringo sang.

But a change was hinted when the Beach Boys broke in 1962. Mike Love stood out in front of the band and sang without really playing an instrument. Hmm… But Elvis played guitar, and Little Richard played piano.

And then this blues band out of Dartford, Kent, England, who were friendly with The Beatles and boasted a jazz drummer, burst onto the British rock scene with this swagger, cocky, oversexed wisp of a guy named Mick Jagger. Soon, you had The Yardbirds and Keith Relf, The Animals and Eric Burdon. By 1967, Jefferson Airplane boasted two lead vocalists – one male, one female.

This was new. It was radical.

Actually, it went back to the swing era, where the singer was a featured player separate from the orchestra. But for rock, rapidly evolving into power trio music, the lead singer was revolutionary. He (or she) generally did not play an instrument. He was often the court jester, the star, the preening peacock out in front of the stoic, leering guys on guitars, drums, or keyboards.

Yes, Mick Jagger plays guitar. So does Roger Daltrey (who was The Who’s original lead guitarist, actually). But the lead vocalist has to communicate with the audience. And unlike a band like, say, Rush or Pink Floyd, the singer can’t hide behind his or her instrument. They not only have to get out in front. They have to talk to the audience. They have to be the show. Consider the difference between Van Halen with David Lee Roth and with Sammy Hagar. Sammy is a good singer and can put on a show worthy of his bandmates, but David Lee Roth put it best. “Other bands want to throw the party. I am the party.”

Yet lead singers have to have enormous egos. They sometimes forget that it’s a band and not a singer with a backup group. Keith Richards often says Jagger suffers from “LSD” (lead singer disorder). Steven Tyler admits he has “lead vocalitis” to explain a lot of his outrageous behavior.

So who are these singers who, without an instrument in hand, have redefined rock?

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger

Photo: Dina Regine, used under Creative Commons

The voice and face (and logo) of the Rolling Stones, Jagger took Elvis’s sexual power and gave it a menacing edge. And at 67, he hasn’t lost a step.

Roger Daltrey

Roger Daltrey

Photo: Heinrich Klaffs, used under Creative Commons

Originally the lead guitarist for The Who, he actually did not have Pete Townshend’s neuroses. In an odd reversal of roles, Daltrey, like Keith Richards, was the calm yin to Townshend’s manic yang. Usually, it’s the rest of the band that has to keep the vocalist grounded. But it’s a good thing Daltrey changed roles early in The Who’s career. His is the throat that roared before Plant, Ian Gillan, or Bonn Scott shrieked.

Grace Slick


Grace SlickIf Mick Jagger had been born a woman, she would have been Grace Slick. Actually, Grace would have swallowed Mick whole (and Mick probably would want her to try). In her prime, she was fire and energy unrestrained, and it didn’t stop when she left the stage, powering multiple versions of Jefferson Airplane/Starship.

Robert Plant

Robert Plant

Photo: Dina Regine, used under Creative Commons

Hammer of the Gods. At the forefront of Led Zeppelin, like Slick and Jagger, he was all sex and menace, but with a hint of the occult that Jagger could only tease at.


Peter Garbriel


Peter Gabriel

Photo: Jean Luc, altered by Spinning Spark, used under Creative Commons

Rock as theater? Around that time, we had David Bowie pushing the envelope. However, Gabriel, with his smoky voice and dry rapport with the audience, did what many lead singers fail to do: Get out of the music’s way.


David Lee Roth


The clown prince of rock. “I am the party.” There’s a reason Van Halen hired Sammy Hagar to replace Roth. They needed a musician to fill that role because no lead singer could be David Lee Roth.

Axl Rose


Axl Rose

Photo: Guns N’ Roses 2010 Tour, used under Creative Commons

The best and the worst of what a lead singer is. His is the voice that defines Guns N Roses and broke the back of hair metal in the late 1980’s. Yet his was the ego that destroyed the one band that could have assumed the role of the Rolling Stones in the 1990’s.

But then Mick Jagger could have told him, “It’s a band, mate, not a solo act.” There’s a reason Axl and Slash are not the Glimmer Twins. But they should have been.

Thursday Reviews: A Stab In The Dark by Lawrence Block

A Stab in the Dark
Lawrence Block

The NYPD has captured “The Ice Pick Killer,” a man who, eight years before we meet Matt Scudder in this tale, went around killing women with… Wait for it…  An icepick. Lou Pinell freely admits to all but one killing. He swears he did not kill Barbara Ettinger. And her father believes her. He hires Scudder to look into the matter on the recommendation of an old friend of Scudder’s on the department.

When Scudder talks to Ettinger’s widower, he suddenly gets phone calls from a woman demanding the dead stay buried. The next morning, he’s told to drop the case. Which, of course, Scudder cannot do. Eventually, he does resolve the case, and it ends in a typically Scudder manner, which once resulted in a man committing suicide on his say so. It’s not as drastic as that ending in Sins of the Father, but it shows Scudder’s greatest tool is persuasion, not bad for a man holed up in a rundown hotel and spending most of his time in a bottle.

A Stab in the Dark is the last Scudder novel before the watershed Eight Million Ways to Die. While the case is more humdrum – mostly Scudder being frustrated that even the real killer (before unmasking) has trouble remembering events that happened most of a decade earlier. Instead, Scudder finds himself becoming more and more aware that maybe, despite protestations to the contrary, he might not be able to quit anytime he wants. In fact, one of the witnesses, a sculptor who used to be Barbara Ettinger’s employer, realizes she herself is an alcoholic after becoming involved with Scudder. It’s a warning to Matt, one he fails to heed until the events of Eight Million. She even gives a glimpse of Scudder’s future in the later books, when Scudder leans on his AA groups the way he once leaned on the bottle to get through the day.

So Long, Elmore

Elmore Leonard

Photo: Zennie Abraham, used under Creative Commons

Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday. I never met the man and am not as well-versed as others are in his work. But he casts a very long shadow.

That’s not to say that I don’t know any of his work. The first novel of his I read was The Law at El Rondido, from his Western days. It was not a bad introduction to the master. While it did not have the subversive streak his later work thrives upon, it did have the classic Leonard prose – short, simple sentences, lean plotting, and snappy dialog. Long before Stick and Fifty-two Pickup and The Whole Nine Yards, those infamous rules were already in evidence.

It’s the rules that define Leonard’s writing. Without recounting them here, the main gist was simply “Don’t bore the reader.” But when Leonard switched from Westerns to crime, he added an element of satire to his storytelling. This had a huge impact on later writers Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry and even science fiction writer John Scalzi. (Go read The Android’s Dream and tell me Scalzi was not channeling – if not Hiassen who channels Leonard regularly – Elmore Leonard himself.)

Leonard’s influence crept into my fiction when I wrote Road Rules. There was a certain smart-ass tone and a healthy dose of the absurd that can be traced back to Leonard in that story.

Leonard left a huge legacy, and unlike a lot of writers who kept producing past their prime, Leonard kept up the quality. He will be missed.

2013: A Space Stuff Odessey

Computerized manual typewriter

Photo: taziobettin, used under Creative Commons

It was hard getting the SF novel started. The one thing that kept running through my head was that I didn’t have to do this with Holland Bay. Of course I didn’t. I was rewriting an existing story. This is neither Holland Bay (which was not really a joy to work with when it got started) nor was it based on an existing universe, mine or anyone else’s.

One of the things that bothered me was the action scenes. My two main protags are teens each dealing with a different set of circumstances. One is a wealthy runaway who finds himself plunked onto a farm. Another is a girl dealing with her mother’s recent death and living essentially in a tin can. All the action takes place in distant places and serves to end chapters.

At first I worried about this because I wasn’t even making 500 words a sitting. Then I was only making 500 words. Not good. I have only two weeks break before I have to start classes. I did not have more than 25 pages after two weeks. To put this in perspective, in the final stages of the latest Holland Bay draft, I managed 2000, sometimes 3000 words a day. In the final stages of that project, I also knew how it was going to end and couldn’t wait to get there.

And then the pace picked up. I managed two 1000-word days last week. Saturday was a slow day, mainly to get some household chores done and because Nita and I wanted a date night. But the scene I wrote that night resulted in my two teens getting into some trouble – his a parental scolding from thirty light years away, hers something more severe for forging her father’s signature (Trust me. It’s more involved that faking an ink signature) on a school application. Sunday morning, I was able to place shit in dangerous proximity of the proverbial fan. In all likelihood, the two will collide by the time this posts.

Now i just have to deal with night school, which this semester, involves Statistics I (Lies, followed next semester by Statistics II: Damn Lies) and Chemistry, which means Professor Snape gets my Saturday mornings. Fortunately, Snape’s class is accelerated, which means I’m done with him in mid-October. For now, I’m just happy to have the story finally take hold.

Bad Religion: The Shakeup

BadReligion-ebook600The mark of a good series is that it doesn’t leave the protagonist sitting in one place for too long. Sue Grafton uprooted Kinsey Milhonne both at her office and domestically (blowing up her apartment) and all within a matter of months. VI Warshawski has had to move her offices. Spenser, at least in his classic period, had a personal life in flux for years before settling into domestic bliss with Susan Silverman.

With the first two Nick Kepler stories, I had him in an apartment in North Olmsted (based on a real building on that corner that was torn down about six or seven years ago) and space in the offices of his former employers at TTG Insurance. In Northcoast Shakedown, I had to establish the character’s work routine and support network. It did not make sense to destroy all that in Second Hand Goods, since it was the second book in the series. In this story, his deal with TTG is threatened, Elaine’s marriage is disintegrating before she and Nick ever give in to any suppressed feelings, and Nick has already had to send a sidekick to prison for his own good.

If I do go ahead with Suicide Solution, the follow-up to Bad Religion, Nick’s office is going to be gone, his home will probably be at risk, and even his relationship – professional and personal – with Elaine will be on shaky ground.

No one wants to read about a character in his or her comfort zone. Why do you think Captain Kirk went on so many landing parties (to the fatal detriment of many red-shirted underlings)? Why does James Bond spend so little time on screen in London? Kirk is comfortable on the bridge, and unless he’s having to stare down an angry Klingon commander, he’s pretty satisfied with the give and take with the rest of the crew (who are also pretty comfortable with the deck of the Enterprise beneath their feet.) We don’t see James Bond in London much, despite having seen his office once in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, because no one wants to see Bond filling out forms, reading reports from other 00’s, or going to Tesco’s to pick up some beanies and weenies and a bottle of Coke. Boring.

Staying on the Bond theme for a moment, the whole reboot has been about keeping Bond in flux. In Casino Royale, he’s thrust into the role of “blunt instrument.” In Quantum of Solace, he has to learn on the fly how to wield that license to kill without overreaching. In Skyfall, he’s given a partner, gadgets, and a new boss, losing M in the process.

This is what Kepler needs. A character kept off balance is infinitely more interesting than one who does the same thing over and over again.