Pens, a Personal Journey

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If you happen to follow this blog, you know I have a thing about headphones, well, let’s just say that thing extends to pens. Now, I don’t have some amazing collection of fountain pens or a Montblanc StarWalker extravaganza. No, my pens are decidedly on the practical side with a little bit of flourish. For example, I think Uni-Ball has some of the finest ink cartridges on the planet, but the barrels and related materials are typically inexpensive plastic. (I use their cartridges a lot). So, my little collection’s decidedly on the low end, but consists of more permanent pens than plastic disposables. You’ll also see that each has a purpose albeit a somewhat eclectic idiosyncratic purpose of mine. In this post, I’m going to geek out a bit (OK, more than a bit) about pens; I hope this inspires some to think of their own writing and to take up their own weapons; it is, after all, mightier than the sword. Here’s some of my favorites.

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Now why would a guy who is as digitally oriented as myself be into such an analog device? Well, it turns out that the gulf between tech and analog are merging. Before diving into that trend, back to the question. In the tactile writing process, brain connects with thought, movement with ideas and, at least for me, it seems to make the words come alive. While I’ve largely overcome this over the years, I’m still old-school enough to think that if it’s in black-and-white typeface, then it must be done, right? I’m not quite as old as Yule Brenner’s Pharaoh, but I do have some empathy with “So it shall be written. So it shall be done.”

 

 

Pen moving across page seems to encourage a more free flow of ideas; it allows me to halt, edit, and pause to think through in a little more natural way. Of course, the vast majority of my writing is done digitally with keyboard and computer, but the tech world is coming around to merging analog and digital experiences. Especially the movement of Microsoft towards using pen on the Surface or a physical dial on the Surface Studio really brings this home. The fact that the sensors in the Surface Pro pen can provide variations of pressure so that the flow of the digital ink changes with pressure further bears this out. Microsoft sees us turning our focus more on creating and less on consuming, and doing so in such a way that virtual and the real worlds merge more. I tend to agree that we’ll see these tactile experiences flow more and more into our digital experience. Obviously the Surface Pro, the Surface Book and Surface Studio illustrate this with their emphasis on touch. Another illustration is Microsoft OneNote’s ability to search on cursive text or translate handwriting to editable text. Another example is Lenovo Yoga Book which allows you to use real link to create digitized notes. While this revolution is taking place, I’m not sure I’ll ever quite give up pen and paper and things like the Yoga Book give me hope that I’ll never have to whilst enjoying the benefits of being digitize. That is, having it saved, searchable, easily editable and easily shared.

 

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Pilot Axiom

 

Returning to my collection of pens (and pencil) themselves. There are two ballpoints, three roller balls/gel pens, one fountain pen and one pencil. While I’ve gone through many other pens, this set of pens and pencil have risen to the top as my go to products for different uses. One of the themes you’ll see is using Uni-Ball’s inks, but not so much their barrels. Another thing you’ll see is what I’d like to call stylistic practicality. In other words, while there are less expensive options that do roughly the same thing, there’s no less expensive option that really has nice fit and finish to the product with some heft; I like substantial writing implements without undo weight. There certainly are more expensive options as well, but this is the sweet spot where function and design come together to make a really good product. For a number of years now, I’ve considered Pilot’s Dr. Grip Center of Gravity line to be the best ballpoint. They tend to have a consistently richer look to the writing than any other ballpoint. The overall look of the script using this ink borders on a light rollerball. Pilot’s Axiom takes this line to the next level with a quite attractive barrel and mostly metal construction. Speaking of metal and heft, Franklin Covey’s combined stylus and ballpoint does a very nice job of providing great backup. Its pen borders on Cross quality.

 

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Yafa Schmidt Capless Rollerball

 

The Yafa/Schmidt Titanium (color; the barrel is steel) Capless rollerball is really great for having a rich look but a less smooth writing action that allows for more control. It’s really good for more technical oriented writing, maths and diagrams. I know some who preferred that level of control over an ultra-smooth writing experience. Alas, this pen is no longer made. The next best alternative (nicer but a bit more expensive, is Schmidt Capless Rollerball)  Next is a pen I love and is also no longer made: Pentel’s Excalibur; I’ve chosen to use Uni-Ball’s 207 BLX fine (.5 mm). cartridge, This pen has a nice elegant look, but not extravagant. It’s also quite practical with rubber around the bottom part of the barrel to help with your grip and writing. A new addition to my collection is BigiDesign’s Solid Aluminum Pen + Stylus. One of the cool things about this pen is that it can take a wide array of cartridges (refills). My favorite, at the moment, are Uni-Ball’s  207 BLX series (like I use with the Excalibur), especially its blue/black ink. This pen, with its solid aluminum barrel, calls for a slightly bolder look, which is met with the blue-black medium (.7 mm) cartridge. This is my favorite all-around pen right now. It’s very smooth but still provides for good control. You can also choose to have a stylus part at the non-writing end or simply close it off, which I’ve done. In fact, I love this pen so much I also ordered BigiDesign’s Ti-Click Pro in black. This barrel is titanium and has a rougher texture. I’ve paired it with Cross’s Selectip Porous-Point (fine, black). This combination of a textured grip and a smooth but more friction oriented pen tip provide more granular control in writing and a cool grey/blue tinged black from the ink. This pen also takes multiple refills.

My Parker 75 (hasn’t been made in years) has an extra fine gold nib. Despite its fineness, the flexible nib allows it to be expressive. This is a fountain pen that never fails to write if it has any ink. You fill this pen with ink (currently using Parker’s Super Quink Blue-Black Permanent ink) and there never is a fuss afterwards. It writes consistently the same way all of the time. It is a nearly flawless out and hence a great gift for my son. Most fountain pens I’ve used are a bit temperamental, not this one.

 

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Kuru Toga (metal) Pencil

 

Finally I come to Uni Ball’s Kuru Toga pencil, the metal version. (There is a plastic version as well.) The lead automatically rotates (not quite as often as I would like for my taste), has ridges for good grip and a great overall feel. It uses Uni’s NanoDia lead which is quite strong and somewhat challenging to break. This lead is infused with some diamond dust to help strengthen it. This is my favorite pencil of all time. Great for writing, diagrams, technical work but not so much as a drawing or shading pencil (at least for me).

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No one said you had to have great handwriting to enjoy writing.

So there’s my eclectic favorites. They all have their place for slightly different uses and I would hate to part with any of them. I’ve had the Excalibur the longest, the Yafa/Schmidt next; the others are fairly recent converts. I’ve arrived at this set having honed over the years my sense of what works well, looks great, and makes practical sense.

If there are some themes, clearly one of them is my love for black ink with color (or richer, darker colors depending on your perspective); I love the look of blue-black more than traditional medium blues or straight black. It absolutely colorful yet retains the richness and darkness of black. For straight-forward black, I use the Yafa/Schmidt and the Axiom for a more traditional blue. It’s been a great set for me. It, alas, seems like I like to pick pens that are discontinued. Is the industry that fickle or am I that eclectic?

Another theme is a writing implement for a purpose (or, for you techies, each pen has a use case).

  • Excalibur – Embodies a more elegant look whilst retaining Uni-ball’s 207 BLX smoothness.
  • Yafa/Schmidt – Provides more granular control with a bold, black look
  • Axiom – Elegant ballpoint with rich ink. This one is great for a long spells of longhand.
  • Parker 75 – Has the flair of a fountain pen with good control in a no-fuss package
  • BigiDesign Aluminum – This is a great all around writing with Uni-ball’s 207 BLX smoothness in a bit bold point.
  • BigiDesign Titanium Clip Pro – Great all around writing when you’re looking for a bit more precision whilst retaining expressive script.
  • Franklin Covey – A stylus cum pen always found with my Kindle Fire; a great pen or stylus in a pinch or I need a smaller form factor.
  • Kuru Toga (metal) – whenever an automatic pencil is required

Clearly I’m a bit of a writing geek. Even though I type more than I physically write. I still love the process of handwriting as a way to make me think through things whether it’s note taking while reading or listening to a sermon or just in meeting. These are some great instruments to help me do just that. In a nutshell, this is my personal journey to pentopia (oh, wait, that’s a brand). What’s your?

Microsoft Lumia 950 Sound Work Around – Going Jackless

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If you’ve followed the tech side of my blog, you know that I actually prefer Windows 10 Mobile over both Android and iOS (yeah, a particularly rare breed). I’ve touted the benefits of the connected Windows ecosystem and services for mobile, home & office work using everything from Cortana (Siri and Google Assist competitor) and Continuum (connect your phone to a monitor and keyboard/mouse to use like a PC) to Office and Skype to get work done. While the lack of apps is given as its major fault, with the slip of a small market share to a tiny one, supporting existing apps becomes the major issue (I’m looking at you Spotify). Despite those challenges, I still love the platform and still prefer it to the others. With Nougat, Android becomes more consumer friendly and less like a tech experiment but the issues of fragmentation and keeping current continue. While Apple has the benefit of owning the whole experience to help keep users current, the dark side of the proposition is the utter control – it’s their way or no way. For me, Microsoft has been a nice balance of a user friendly experience and options.

 

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Lumia 950 – now useless 3.5 mm headphone jack

However, as I continue my Quixotic quest of holding on to a third platform, I must confess the bad with the good. My Lumia 950 headphone jack is 90% defunct. It physically won’t recognize being plugged into headphones unless you hold it pressed at a weird angle and never move. Bummer. Shame on Microsoft; I had this phone for just days past its warranty when the failure began. I’m quite confident it hasn’t gone through anything more than normal wear and tear. So, this should not have failed. However, my backup plan is Apple 7’s only plan – a USB C to 3.5 mm headphone jack dongle as well as using Bluetooth. So, the good news here is that I have a backup that works; the bad news is I need a backup.

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I recently purchased Zinsoko Type-C to 3.5mm Audio Headphone Stereo Sound Port Adapter USB-C USB-3.1 Connector Convertor Cable. The dongle works well. The sound is fabulous. It’s also designed to allow for a phone case. Another piece of the good news is that my Lumia uses Qi wireless charging so that, unlike the iPhone 7, I can listen to music with the dongle in and still charge my phone. The bad news, besides having to purchase and keep track of a dongle, is that the mobile controls and microphone on my Sennheiser Momentums no longer work; the phone thinks it’s putting sound out to an external screen (since it can, using Continuum). I’ll live.

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While I have Bluetooth speakers (in the form of Amazon’s Echo and Fugoo’s Style) as well as inexpensive but surprisingly good headphones in Mpow’s Wolverine (used mainly when working out and listening to Audible books while walking with my dog), Bluetooth still doesn’t match wired headsets like the aforementioned Sennheiser’s, my Shure 215e‘s or Grado‘s (for more about my headphone choices, see Cans: A Personal Journey through  Soundscapes). The price point where they do come close is a lot more than the $17 I paid for the dongle; in fact, I could get a new phone for less than some of them. I could have spent less for a dongle, but I wanted something that would work well and for some time to come. This has a good connection, good design (such as leaving room for a case), good cabling  (high quality TPE and OFE materials), light (5 g) and small (5 in), so it doesn’t drag the headset cord down or unduly add to the length.

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My next challenge was listening to audio in my car (mainly used for Audible books, music and GPS). None of my cars have Bluetooth (they’re older – hey, I have teenage drivers). I can’t use the auxiliary cord anymore. For navigation and Audible books, my Plantronics M165 Marque 2 Ultralight Bluetooth Headset is great, but since it’s one ear only and not a speaker designed for music, I really wanted something to allow me to listen through my car’s speakers. So, I ordered an AUKEY Bluetooth Transmitter & Receiver. Pairing is straightforward, sound is good and the thing is light as a feather (a 40g feather). I’ve had good experience with Aukey in the past (cables, chargers). I anticipate good longevity out of this unit as well. While not audiophile grade, given the level of speakers I have in my cars, it’s more than adequate.

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This can also be used to listen phone through headphones via Bluetooth with surprisingly good results. So, if you had to choose, you could simply get the Bluetooth device. Typically, I would simply connect to via Zinsoko’s dongle. It’s nice to have both. The Bluetooth connector will usually remain in the car.

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So, while not ideal, I have some good options that worked out well and will allow me to keep my phone (I listen to a lot of music, books and video on it as well a navigation). If it just had a regular micro-usb port (like most android phones) and a headphone jack, I would be stuck with Bluetooth (in this case, not a bad sounding option since I have good headphones) or a new phone. Now I can use the relatively good cans I own and listen to my hearts content. Ah, the joy and curse of technology.

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Rosa Montero’s Weight of the Heart Bores into Your Heart and Mind

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Rosa Montero’s Weight of the Heart is the second book in the Bruna Husky series, her first being Tears in Rain (reviewed in Tears in Rain by Rosa Montero – a thoughtful techno-detective noir novel). The gist of what I’ve written there still applies. This is a creative brilliant story that takes Blade Runner (Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) as its springboard. She continues to expand her gritty world building, characters, dialogue, and relationships. Indeed, this sequel improves on all of those. Our favorite replicant, Bruna, continues her penchant for being pulled into major scandals via innocent seeming projects. She’s tracking down a missing person and through her generous heart is thrown into a radioactive world when. So, all that was good from book one remains and only gets better.

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Ms. Montero’s sequel matches the high hopes I had for this series. While it’s mostly moved on from its Blade Runner inspired beginnings, its dive into the characters and psyches that populate Bruna’s world only grows more intriguing. The narrative arc is never dull, the writing is ever brilliant and the space between words where we find ourselves and our own challenges taken up, broken apart, examined, and reconstituted allows fresh insight into perennial problems. Weight of the Heart does what the best of sci-fi has always done, it examines who we are and how we relate to one another all in the context of great story. Entertaining and challenging, with no need to compromise between one or the other.

Rosa Montero

Rosa Montero

Bruna unravels a conspiracy between worlds through taking a seemingly snotty girl under her wing. Ms. Montero extends her world both planet side to an artificial moon in ways that allow her to not only push the story forward, but provide this backdrop to reflect on the challenges of our own more mundane world. Not only is it challenging to know who to trust, where real problems lie, or how to respond when overwhelmed, but Bruna (and we) often must do so with so much else that is already challenging. We can’t wait for the circumstances to get right or good to do what’s right or good. So while our choices may not always be “right” (bring the results we desire), they are true. Following Polonius’ dictate to Laertes in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”

Amongst all these other issues, Bruna must deal with the overarching question of mortality. Because she’s a replicant, she knows the end of her days. She knows she has less than four years to live and she knows the end will not be pretty. Woven throughout all the story are elements of mortality and how we address it. Yiannis most explicitly hashes through death and dying, but it is ever present.

I may make this book sound heavy; it doesn’t feel that way. This is a quick paced, great story that keeps you on your toes and entertains, all the while mulling over these eternal questions of death, mortality, purpose, and culture. What we choose to do together as a people and our individual choices. The impetus of genetics and the judgment we exercise. All these are played out in the narrative. All of them explored through science fiction without deference to simple popular thinking of the day.

Ms. Montero brings fully-fleshed out characters, most of whom are interesting in their own right, even outside of their contribution to the narrative. They are organic, multi-dimensional people with foibles of their own; no one is perfect. Everything drives the story and there is little “waste” that doesn’t play a part. She continues to surprise but never in a contrived way. The relationships are rarely simple and always evolving. As long as she continues to write, I’ll continue to read her work.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal flawlessly narrates the audiobook. The introspective intimate moments seem to come from within you; the funny, odd-ball characters are portray as such, but not in a patronizing man. The rhythm of story, with her pacing and pauses, are spot on. Even as she performs passionately, she is clear and understandable. In short, her narration is all that you could desire.

I highly commend the work for your reading pleasure.

Phrasing/Dialogue 5/5
World Setting 4/5
Character 5/5
Narrative 4.5/5

So I met my weight goal. Now what?

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I’ve been on a bit of a health journey for the last seven months. I’ve outlined some of that journey in my post, Microsoft Band 2 – Real World Notes from the Field. I’ve now met my weight and BMI goals (the first time I’ve ever been considered “normal” in anything, between 18.5 and 25 BMI is considered normal) that I established during that journey. “Celebrate good times, come on.”

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I’m enormously grateful that I’ve been able to reach these goals. Indeed, it is grace upon grace that I could do so. Yes, I put in the effort, but it is the God in whom I live, and move and have being who sustained me in it, made it efficacious in the relatively short time of 7 months and allowed me to do so with little injury. Now that I’ve turned that corner, however, what’s next? I’ve been driven, to date, in large part by those goals. There wasn’t always a direct relationship between what I did in terms of eating and exercise and sleep and those two goals, but there was a strong correlation. I do know, as part of my experience, that the line between losing and gaining is quite fine, so I know this celebration cannot materially pull me off my daily regimen. As I indicated in my previous post, this is a life journey, a life change, not a fad or diet. I also know that I do have an opportunity to ease up a bit. Even with that knowledge comes the realization that I need to retain motivation now to maintain as opposed to losing weight. Some of that’s pretty straightforward. I still have some loss of muscle mass and will continue to need to tone to mitigate the “sag” phenomena. I still have personal bests to achieve rowing and lifting. So, my goals have not evaporated. In the past, those kinds of goals were intermediary goals, not the end game. Maintaining is now the end game. That doesn’t intrinsically have the same kind of thrill and motivation as achieving new levels. So again I have to ask myself, now what?

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Well first, maintaining is not going to be trivial as I gain muscle tone. I will gain body density, so to maintain the same weight requires loss of fat. I see that challenge. Also, I do have the joy of not feeling quite the pressure to push on to reach the next stage. Second, I can “gamify” and socialize a bit of the next steps to keep it fresh and to build motivation. Part of that is those personal bests I referenced earlier, part of that will require inventiveness on my part that I’m just now investigating.  I’m not one to post daily workouts and compare with friends or join group challenges or a myriad of other public means of accomplishing this. So how do I accommodate my private nature and socialize this process? I’m not quite sure. But I think it’s key to do so and make games out of the workouts I follow to avoid growing stale in this process. Because it is an ongoing process. There is no true end, even as goals are reached.

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For now, the goal is fresh enough and I’m scared enough of going in the wrong direction, that my motivation is relatively safe. But as with all things, we must safeguard what is important. So now, while I have room, I’ll turn my thoughts to how to keep on truckin’. I suspect, given my predilection for literature, that the way to “game” fitness is through story. Building story around what I do in the goals I make seems to be a fairly natural fit. While I’m shy about many things, I’m clearly not shy about sharing this  journey and will post again as the, by God’s grace, long road ahead please out before me.

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Robert Masello’s Clever Jekyll Revelation

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The Jekyll Revelation is historical fiction that takes as its main protagonist Robert Louis Stevenson and immerses him in the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde peppered with Jack the Ripper. Robert Masello’s ability to immerse us into disperse storylines is enhanced by his turn of phrase and detailed research/knowledge of Stevenson’s life and times. Primarily, it’s a brilliant premise fleshed out into a clever story arc. Despite a few reservations, outlined below, it’s a good read.

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When you begin the book, jumping between storylines can be fairly jarring which builds interest in seeing how they would come together. Both Robert Stevenson and Rafe Salazar are fairly empathetic characters whose connection is initially non-existent. Mr. Masello does a brilliant job melding historical events and characters into the story. His writing is accessible yet provides me with frequent vocabulary additions; for what it’s worth, it is relatively rare that contemporary authors provide significant fodder for my lexical treasury and rarer still to do so in a natural manner without feeling forced. While it’s initial pacing is slow, the journey is intriguing and the pace picks up towards the end.

[NOTE: I received an advance review copy of the book from Netgalley for an honest review.]

 

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Robert Masello

 

The main characters are not only well-developed but woven expertly into the story; others seem to present lost opportunities, especially Heidi with Miranda following closely behind. Heidi really doesn’t add anything to the story. There is a fair amount of ink spilled on Miranda that seems disproportional to her contribution. Even with the main characters, there are aspects that seem jarringly juxtaposed to other aspects of their character.  Stevenson, for example, is often brave and willing to take risks to “do the right thing.” He often seems a bit a slow on the uptake and self-serving, at least in dealing with Lloyd. Rafe is slow as well, with his risk-taking ability ebbing and flowing in every scene.  You might argue that makes the characters more human and believable. For me, it just didn’t seem to fit.

There are other extraneous elements. For example, the wolf that is set in the contemporary storyline. You’ll get the author’s motivation for placing him there but that’s the last aspect of the wolf that makes sense. Who he is, how he became present and his tie into any of the characters remain mysteries. There’s some potential theories but Mr. Masello not only doesn’t explain his presence, he provides no plausible ties.  Another challenge for Mr. Masello is that his villains are weak with an exception late in the game. Finally, the marriage of the two timelines seemed forced and slight reward for the large build-up throughout the novel. Fortunately, the clever manner in which he weaves historical facts of Stevenson’s day into the story outweigh these challenges.

Things I loved

  • A clever premise
  • He provides good phrasing with an extensive vocabulary
  • He clearly has done his research and, hence, nicely melds the narrative to the known facts of Stephenson’s life and times.

Things of which I was less fond:

  • Robert Louis Stevenson was the most empathetic character of the book and yet so often he act in ways seemed a bit daft and self-serving. For example he was too often more concerned about his stepson and protecting him then those who stepson injured or killed
  • The bad guys were somewhat feeble. While certainly depraved and dangerous under the elixir they simply didn’t have enough forethought in planning their evilness directed at either Stephenson or Rafe.
  • I like the idea of two disparate timelines that finally merge the modern timeline. It felt a little artificial. Yes, that’s how we finally learn the story and it all comes together, but there’s so much time spent in the current timeline that really doesn’t tie into the main thrust of the story. There also seem insurmountable technical challenges like an elixir that remains in semi-liquid form more than a century under less than ideal circumstances.
  • The wolf in the contemporary timeline is utterly extraneous – the argument here would contain spoilers.

 

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Christopher Lane

 

While I read most of the book on my Kindle, I did listen to a sizeable part on Audible. Christopher Lane’s narration was apt, well-paced and especially brought Stevenson to life with a passable (yet fully understandable) Scottish burr. Mr. Lane’s performance adds to the story.

 

While I liked the overall premise of the story and there were certainly moments where the execution was really good, I must admit to some letdown. I never connected with the lives of the characters, outside the two main protagonists. So it’s a good story, worth reading, but did not, at least for me, soar to being a great novel.

 

Phrasing/Dialogue 3.5/5
World Setting 4/5
Character 3/5
Narrative 3/5

 

United States of Japan Makes Nikkei’s Bestseller List

One of my favorite recent books, The Unites States of Japan, continues to earn the kudos it deserves.

The Whimsy of Creation: The Blog of Tieryas

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I’m so honored that United States of Japan is in its 5th printing in Japan and made the Nikkei Bestseller list at #1 in its Sunday Book Review based on Junkudo. For those not as familiar, Nikkei is their biggest newspapers and the biggest financial newspaper in the world (actually owning the Financial Times). My mind is blown. The reaction overseas has been unbelievable. And to think there are 80,000 print copies out there- just unbelievable. I’ve been seeing so many awesome pictures of people who’ve bought the book and it’s been exciting to say the least. (a few pictures below from different stores).

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Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet – A Brilliant Concoction of Greek Tragedy Infused with Original Sin and Laced with Fairytales.

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Ms. Holmberg baked into her story intriguing characters, even the least lovable among them evokes some empathy (despite some serious nastiness). Her world is rich with smells, sound and myth come alive. Her story arcs in sometimes surprising ways and enters dark corners but never artificially or without purpose. I devoured this delectable treat in a couple of days and wish to immediately jump back into Raea. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Imagine taking a Greek tragedy (and the related pantheon of gods), merge into it the story of the Fall and Original Sin and twirl in a mixture of fairy tales; never mind being able to “bake in inspiration”. That’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. It’s one thing to have a brilliant premise, it’s another to execute that well. Ms. Holmberg delivers in spades. She takes us along Maire’s painful journey of discovery of her own story. It’s a challenging world into which she has fallen, much like medieval Europe, full of might-makes-right and enslavement, as well as love, hope, and friendship. Maire’s “owner” is clearly not quite right. Not only is he devoid of a moral compass, he’s even devoid of common sense. So, he looks to the world around him to give him some clue of how to be in it. Given that sends him mixed messages, he’s not quite sure what that to do. As abusive and disgusting as he can be, he’s also an intriguing character of conflicting and foreign makeup. He is not only not normal, but he is “other”. He is not of this world. So even while you despise him, there is some empathy towards his plight. It’s a little like despising a snake that bites you. He cannot be other than he is. He cannot reflect and grow into something more even as he does learn to “fake it” better. He is limited by his very nature in an even more profound way than humans are.

 

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Charlie N. Holmberg

Maire’s antagonist is also a bit of an entrepreneur; his business deals bring us into the world of fairy tales. Charlie Holmberg weaves these tales within the overall story in clever ways with just enough of a twist to make them new. While this is a fun sideline from the main thrust of the narrative, it’s integrated well and certainly adds to the overall enjoyment of the story. While no individual element of this world is completely new, Charlie Holmberg combines them in intriguing and innovative ways.

The characters are well developed; these are primarily Maire and Allemas, but also Arrice, Franc and Fyel. The relationships are complicated. Arrice and Franc essentially adopt Maire even though she’s appears to be a young woman when they meet her. Fyel is the ultimate tightlipped mystery man who appears to be connected with Maire and on her side, but for some reason doesn’t directly help her. Maire and Allemas have an often bizarre, disturbing and ever-changing relationship. At times, Allemas seems to treat her as property while at others he evinces a more intimate connection.

 

In terms of her writing style, I love how the dialogue matches the characters so well, especially for Allemas. Even his speech patterns are bizarre. Because Fyel feels he must hold his cards close to the vest, his halting attempts to communicate with Maire are a study in frustration. Arrice’s speech brings forth her loving and nurturing nature as Cleric Tuck’s conveys his competence and care. In other words, there’s a great fit between the manner of communicating and the characters themselves.

Like most journeys, the path on which Magic bitter, Magic Sweet takes you has many unknowns and a number of surprises; the journey takes you along in a different manner than you might think and leaves you at a slightly different place than you anticipated. I think the magic of this story is how she melds these disparate elements of myth, magic, and misdeed. While it’s a time of worn phrase, this is a novel where the whole is greater than its parts. At least for me, this journey is well worth the effort; it is enlightening and full of points that inspire reflection. I highly encourage you to take the journey as well.

 

KateRudd

Kate Rudd

 

Kate Rudd narrates the audiobook. She has fast become one of my favorite narrators and this book is indicative of why. Her flavor for each character is spot on, her pacing beautifully reflects the book and the ability to understand her, even in the midst of emotionally charged sections, is lovely. I think I last heard her in Rysa Walker’s Chronicles File series. It was interesting to note that she definitely has a go-to competent-caring-male voice she used there as well as in this book. Overall, I love her performance which mixes just the right emotional energy while maintaining clear enunciation.

 

*** SPOILER ALERT for Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet & The Paper Magician series ***

 

I saw a number of reviews that suggest this book is quite the surprise coming from Charlie Holmberg. They suggest that it’s so much darker, with abusive behavior to a number of people but especially to the heroine, that this is just out of place and too dark for what they expected from Ms. Holmberg. Well, let’s think about the Paper Magician series. There is a whole group of magicians whose material is blood; they are willing to do things to people to get that blood that are pretty nasty. You’ve got people that are willing to go after a young lady and kill her. You’ve got a magician willing to literally rip the heart out of a body with the person alive. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff going on in the Paper Magician. I’m not sure enslavement and physical abuse of women are much more beyond the pale than these. Moreover, this is set in a sort of medieval world where, unfortunately, that kind of behavior was prevalent. The idea of owning another person is not new to Ms. Holmberg’s book. So it may be a slight change of tone, which an author is more than within her rights to do, but I don’t see this as a huge order of magnitude leap from her previous work.

Much more interesting is this idea of one’s own creation being the very thing that causes you this kind of pain. She is Frankenstein to her monster, Allemas. She brilliantly merges a Greek tragedy with that of original sin. Here we have Maere overstepping her mandate to create worlds by wanting to be God through mimicking God’s ability to create a soul. This takes on the biblical idea of being image bearers of God where we’re called to glorify him through our reflected capabilities but twists that by desiring to be God himself. It is so well done here when she tried to push beyond that boundary as she creates this warped creature. I love the grace that’s given to her, there are consequences to the action but that ultimately, she is allowed to, at least temporarily, take on a mortal mantle and procreate in a more mundane manner with a hint of then moving back into the celestial row.

Going back to the original problem of the evil that is done; let’s look at the claim that physical abuse of a woman is beyond the pale of what they would expect from Charlie Holmberg. Let’s be clear that physical abuse is horrific. No woman should have to go through what Maire does. It is, however, absolutely central to the story. It is like a Hitchcock film where our sins come back to haunt us but in a much more intense manner than deserved; it also harkens back to Greek tragedy. Dr. Frankenstein, and those close to him, paid a horrific price for his arrogance in creating the monster (whose horrific nature was at least magnified by our lack of acceptance of him). It seems to me that Ms. Holmberg’s use of this abuse is critical to the story and is portrayed on a reasonable scale and in line with what she’s done previously. While a parent may want to be warned at the ensuing horrors before allowing their child to read this, it strikes me as a bit disingenuous of us to be shocked.  The idea that an author can’t ramp up the intensity of conflict in a new novel series is a little funny to me. Even thinking about the Harry Potter series, we see a starkly dark book by book 7; it darkened over time as the subjects matured. This is a whole new series unrelated to The Paper Magician series whose protagonist is a full woman (it turns out that shes centuries old), not a teen. So I would think that if we dislike the book, it should be because the writing isn’t that good, the storyline fails to satisfy or the characters are wooden but not because it’s different than what went before it. And as you can see from my review above, I think it does well on all of those fronts.

The Delphi Effect – Making the Paranormal Gritty Reality

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Rysa Walker’s The Delphi Effect is a heart-racing, tough, paranormal thriller which makes the paranormal seem, if not normal, totally credible. (For synopsis of the story see the author’s site.)

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Let’s start with the characters. Our protagonist, Anna, is a complicated person with whom you develop empathy almost immediately. This never wallows down into syrupy sympathy because she’s quite capable and she does some crazy stuff. At numerous choices points, she opts to take, at least on the face of it, both brave and unwise paths. The interesting part is that she knows it’s unwise but, because of her feelings of obligation, does it anyway. So, not only does she have this challenging special ability where the dead communicate with her, she’s also had a pretty cruddy life floating between foster homes all of her days due to that very same ability. I also love how Ms. Walker brings in a tight-knit set of family and friends whose interactions are real but not completely dysfunctional. Then there’s Anna’s extended family of Deo and Kelsey. Deo is like the younger brother she’s never had with whom she’s navigated the foster world for many years and Kelsey is the counselor who has helped her come to grips with her strange abilities in a world that can’t accept them.

[Full disclosure: I received an advanced reviewers copy from Netgalley for an honest review.]

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Rysa Walker

The storyline itself is a fast-paced thriller that sucks you in but is always more than just a ride. You feel embedded in the piece which comes at you with multifaceted furor: from internal conversations with Anna’s dead hitchhikers and herself, the hunt and chase, the bits of dug up research on Delphi and dialogue with extended family and friends. There are no twists for twist sake, but there are surprises and turns that season the story and keep it fresh. Now you are hooked. Not simply into a desire to discover of what happens next but also into knowing these people more fully and seeing their relationships flesh out. Ms. Walker makes you care about the main characters. Let me warn you now, there are some really ugly characters and event brought out by them, but never gratuitously described. She doesn’t wallow in the ugliness even as she paints a clear picture of man’s depravity.

Often in discussing speculative fiction, we talk about world building. In The Delphi Effect, there isn’t world building in the sense of creating a whole universe but there is world setting. Ms. Walker is quite detailed and vivid in providing the backdrop to her story. Her literary set making skills are spot on and help paint, what I’ll describe more fully next, a plausible alternate world in which the paranormal seems real.

I’ve indicated that one of the aspects that sets this novel apart is how real the non-real feels. As you go through the process of finding out more about these paranormal abilities, the more it seems like “yeah if we had those this is how it would go down.” How so? Well, when we are introduced to a number of people who have said abilities, it becomes clear that for most, it’s a burden. They tend to whack you out mentally and emotionally to some degree, make you a social pariah, and in general much of your energy is taken up with attempting to cope with these abilities. You tend not to have the kind of control over them that you would desire and some come with limitations that are maddening. Ms. Walker takes all these elements of character, relationship, narrative, the world setting, and makes them into a quite plausible and intriguing whole.

The inevitable comparison to X-Men will come to mind. This is grittier, with no Professor Xavier or estate to save the day (at least, not yet). Their abilities are not writ large with any purely physical differences – this is a largely mental game with some physical consequences. So no bright spandex outfits or funky hairdos (OK, there’s Deo but he’s “normal”), but lots of inner turmoil.

I’ve previously reviewed Risa Walker’s Chronos Files series, and as you can see from my reviews, they were outstanding. I honestly think her writing has become even better. There’s a sense in which I feel enveloped in the story. I’m not outside of it, enjoying the story but as a spectator. Somehow, I feel like I’m a part of The Delphi Effect. It’s like Anna, if not a friend, is at least an acquaintance for whom I care.

In The Delphi Effect, we have a gripping story with an empathetic heroine, a well-done setting, with the compelling characters and powerful, wicked bad guys. We also have a well-completed phase of this series, but it’s definitely a series, which is to say there’s a bit of a cliffhanger at the ending. I highly recommend The Delphi Effect for your reading pleasure. It’s available tomorrow, October 11th! [A note about the audiobook version: while I haven’t heard the book yet, Kate Rudd is one of my favorite narrators, who always give an admirable performance. So, if audiobooks are your thing, I’m confident in recommending this one despite not having heard it yet.]

Phrasing/Dialogue 4/5
World Setting 4/5
Character 5/5
Narrative 5/5

I’ll end with a little bit of hubris; Haiku inspired by Anna:

Anna hears
Hitchhiker’s burdens released
Family

Ceres, the Well-Crafted Third Book in the Universe Eventual Series

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Ceres is the third, and most polished entry in the Universe Eventual series by N. J. Tanger, a pseudonym for the writing team of Nathan Beauchamp, Joshua Russell and Rachel Tanger. The first two, Chimera and Helios, introduce us to the world of Stephen’s Point, the challenge to that colony and the push to send a fractal-class ship (think, a ship capable of finding and traversing a worm-hole trail) back to earth. Much of that book introduced us to the young people (late teens) who were to become candidates to make up the crew. In Helios we see that crew form and deal with a surprising new arrival from Earth. We see a mastermind sociopath’s impact on the crew as they prepare for what mysteries lie ahead on earth. Now a much-diminished crew turns its attention to the colony with an older predecessor to Chimera, Ceres. This colony on Damascene, has its own set of cultures and troubles. In Ceres, we see the seemingly disparate worlds of Damascene and that of the Chimera’s crew join together. (Note, this story will continue in Horus).

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Ceres does everything a third book ought to do, namely extend storyline but develop it in new and exciting ways, continue to build the characters and their relationships, organically introduce new characters that make sense to this story and continue to build the tension. One of the ways that it continues to make this story fresh is through the new world of Damascene. The authors do a beautiful job of bringing these two disparate worlds with their respective storylines and weave them back and forth until they finally come together whole. The new world is interesting in and of itself; it has subcultures of interest, challenges that are intriguing and with fascinating bad guys (and good guys) and everything in between.

 

N J Tanger

Nathan Beauchamp, Rachel Tanger & Joshua Russell – AKA N. J. Tanger

We really continue to witness the growth of characters that are on the Chimera and we become connected to those on Damascene. We’ve lost a little connection to those back on Stevens Point but these new characters more than make up for it. From what I’ve been able to surmise from the authors work so far, all of this patchwork will be made into whole cloth before their through.

 

World building is absolutely spot on in Ceres as are the characters and their relationships. Nothing is cookie-cutter or one dimensional. The narrative is developed builds to a crescendo. While this book is not the end of the series, they still have a clean finish to this part of the story even as they look to the next. The phrasing in the dialogue are quite fine without any awkwardness; the level of dialog fits the characters and their roles perfectly. Overall, the writing is well done.

This really is a tightly written story with a great narrative, characters with whom we connect and a stellar world to set it all in. I highly recommend it.

Phrasing:                    3/5

World Building:         5/5

Character:                 4/5

Narrative:                   4/5

A Little Book Music: I spent a good deal of time listening Han Zimmer’s Interstellar as well as his Inception while reading this. You also might want to try some of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia sountrack.

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi Series Reviewed – a fabulous audiobook series

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Star Wars: The Fate of The Jedi (see series list below) are surprisingly (at least to me) well-written and remarkably well-produced audiobooks. While I doubt any will win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, they are consistently well-crafted stories which have unique nuances from each of their authors yet mesh well together and make some of the best use of sound, both music and effects, of any audiobooks I’ve heard. Breaking that down just a bit more, let’s look at some aspects that I believe are incorporated in all of the books: complex and conflicted characters, consistently rich and clever extensions to the Star Wars universe, well-woven, multiple storylines, and good pacing with a nice mix of intrigue/politics and action. So these are not potboiler, shoot-‘em-up action books nor are they simple character studies but rather are a nicely woven package within the confines of the Star Wars universe (although technically not canonical because Disney changed the timeline to be incompatible with the Expanded Universe (now Legends) with rich detail while still moving at a quick clip. A great example of complex (but not so conflicted) character is Natasi Daala. She is a true believer; she really thinks that order is the highest value which justifies almost any extreme action. Kenth Hamner represents a more convoluted character. Again, he is assured that he is right to the point he will not listen to his fellow Jedi and is willing to harm and, perhaps kill, colleagues to preserve his view of order and peace at all costs. While there are a few one-dimensional characters strewn throughout the series, they are rare and small roles.  [Similarly conflicted characters are found in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath duo (soon to be part of a trilogy, currently consisting of Aftermath and Lifedebt]. Another true believer is the empire’s Adm. Rae Sloane. Once again, order is the highest value for her with the second being her running the show because that’s what’s best for the universe. Gaillus Rax has similar views and reminds us of the cleverness of the best of leaders on the wrong side, Admiral Thrawn.

– Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi” Apocalypse Trailer

In terms of world building, you have all of the diverse species, characters, and worlds which you’ve come to love in the Star Wars ‘verse. We sometimes forget how well the wonders are described. Here’s an example from Christie Golden’s Allies: Star Wars Legends (Fate of the Jedi):

What appeared on the screen was a vision of beauty. It looked like a geyser at the moment of eruption, captured forever in time, each finger of water, each splash, each droplet, frozen so that one could admire its power and grace. Swirling, turning, it was vibrant, creative motion somehow paused, and Taalon’s heart leapt. Like all the Sith Tribe, he put a great value on beauty, whether it be in the lines of a being’s face, the drape of a handmade garment, or the curve of a shikkar handle. This moved him to his core.

So whether you’re visiting Klatooine’s deserts. the lush, yet wickedly dangerous flora of Dathomir or Coruscant’s urban underworld, there are wonders aplenty as well as intriguing backdrops to the narrative.

Not only do these authors have to work with some known characters, a largely known universe, with a defined “history” to the Star Wars canon, they all have complex stories with at least two threads going simultaneously – a slave rebellion in the midst of Galactic Alliance – Jedi tensions whilst Luke and Ben are off attempting to unravel the mystery of Abeloth is but one example. Yikes. Yet these stories weave together organically with endings that never feel too forced. Speaking of endings, that’s another aspect that is well done. While each story sets up the next and they suck you into the series since you want to see how the story resolves in the next book, they never just leave you hanging. These always do a nice clean job of ending while hinting at the next stage. I hate cliff-hangers that just stop and these don’t.

 

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Marc Thompson

 

Marc Thompson does a fabulous job with all the books. Having a consistent narrator through each of them is a huge help to unifying the Fate of the Jedi series on audiobook. Honestly, he really is near the top pantheon narrators. His range of voices, pacing and nuance really bring alive the stories. At times, he does reuse a voice for different characters in different books but never within the same book. He is also able to retain the feel of the characters introduced in the movies whether is Han, Lando or Leia. Moreover, the consistent incorporation, in just the right measure and time, of music and sound effects really add (and never distracts) from the overall experience. This is a series I would really encourage listening to the audiobooks over simply reading the books, although both are great.

– Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi – Vortex Audio Clip Trailer

These books perpetuate the evil of sucking you in because they’re so good and because you want to know what happened before and after the book you’re in based on references and hints. Despite this “flaw” (doesn’t every series writer wish for the same problem of grabbing their audience and keeping them connected to the series until the end), these books, especially the audiobook present a cohesive series that is well researched and well validated in terms of the candidate is creating and so is one story finishes it leads right into the next story and then into the next and, man, you could just get lost in this little mini universe forever.

What I love:

  • Consistent, clear “canon”: There is continuity among the various stories, not only in the writing but in the narration. The uniqueness of each author is maintained but within the framework of the universe and what’s gone on before them.
  • The production, sound effects, music, and pacing. These are well-directed productions.
  • Marc Thompson. Not only does he perform the books well, not only does he bring out the voice of known characters like Han and Lando well, but he is internally consistent not only in the story but throughout the books. Lando sounds like Lando throughout.
  • These are fun, good stories in their own right, but are helped that this rich universe is well understood so they don’t have to reinvent the framework but may add to it with their own touches.

What I’m less fond of:

Really there is only one small issue: Mr. Thompson reuses characters voices. So Admiral Daala of Fate of the Jedi becomes Winter in Scoundrels. I know Scoundrels isn’t in the Fate series but it’s the example that comes to mind. This is pretty nit-picky anyway. Seriously, great performances in these books.

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi Series:

Outcast (2009), by Aaron Allston

Omen (2009), by Christie Golden)

Abyss (2009), by Troy Denning

Backlash (2010), by Aaron Allston

Allies (2010), by Christie Golden

Vortex (2010), by Troy Denning

Conviction (2011), by Aaron Allston

Ascension (2011), by Christie Golden

Apocalypse (2012), by Troy Denning

Stories*  3.5/5
Characters  3/5
Phrasing 3/5
Pacing 4.5/5
World-building 4/5
Audio-production 5/5

 

*Avg for books in the series