A year in the life of Walter White

On Sept 29 it will be a year since Breaking Bad had its series finale. In that time my family has moved to a new house. My daughter started kindergarten, and my office transitioned through a huge paradigm shift. But compared to Walter White’s fifty-first year, I might as well have spent the last twelve months frozen in carbonite.

Breaking Bad was an incredible creative achievement. I can’t think of any other series that was so masterfully outlined from beginning to end—and executed with such unerringly focus on total viewer satisfaction. But I can’t understand why Vince Gilligan decided to stuff fifty episodes of plot into one year of actual story time. Here’s a list of major events that occurred in Walter White’s life between his fiftieth and fifty-first birthday.

health_breaking_badDiagnosed with inoperable lung cancer

death_breaking_badKills a couple of drug dealers

hired_l_breaking_badBegins a successful (and illegal) freelance business

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after his first kingpin boss is killed

death_breaking_badOne of his employees is assassinated

hired_l_breaking_badHis pregnant wife returns to the workforce

health_breaking_badWalt’s cancer goes into remission

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after finding a new drug kingpin boss

baby_breaking_badWalt’s daughter is born

death_breaking_badEffectively murders another victim

health_breaking_badUndergoes surgery

home_breaking_badSeparates from his wife

fired_r_breaking_badFired from his day job after sexually harassing his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model with a new lab and a new lab assistant

death_breaking_badMurders a few more drug dealers with his Pontiac Aztek

death_breaking_badOrchestrates the murder of his new lab assistant

hired_r_breaking_badStarts a new (semi-legitimate) business

home_breaking_badWalt’s family is put under protection of the DEA

death_breaking_badPoisons a young boy (but doesn’t murder him)

death_breaking_badKills his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model; partners with neo-nazis

home_breaking_badWalt’s wife has a nervous breakdown


That’s a lot of living for one character! More mayhem than your typical season of Scandal. Is it any wonder that he turned so cranky?

I Just Read: The Desert of Souls

desert of soulsOver the last few months, I’ve been in the mood for some fantasy stories that involve sand, sultans, and scimitars. Unfortunately those seem to be hard to come by, and the few ‘Persianish/Arabianish’ novels I have read haven’t quite scratched that itch. In my opinion, most modern desert fantasy novels spend far too much time inside city walls, in bazaars or back alleys. It’s like playing the first Assassin’s Creed, which, in my book, is not a good thing. The only good bazaar scene I can think of was Conan punching a camel. Sorry, PETA.

I want a novel where the heroes have to do each of the following, at least once:
• Stagger across a seemingly endless desert
• Steal an artifact from some creepy tomb or temple
• Sneak into a harem, or take part in some inappropriate flirting that could lead to a beheading
• Spend a few tense moments with an ancient monster that might decide to eat them, or might just ask them a few riddles

Howard Andrew Jones’ book checks off at least most of these items. The Desert of Souls follows two adventurers, a warrior and a scholar, and Jones intriguingly plays with the expectations baked into these two roles. You’d expect the scholar to be the narrator, right? And he’s documenting the resourcefulness, bravery, and righteousness of the warrior. No. Reverse that. From the outset, Jones establishes that the scholar is more accomplished, more destined to become legendary. The warrior, on the other hand, may be more skilled with his pen than with his sword. There is also a smart, strong-willed female character in the story, but it would have been nice to see her do more, or to see her ‘break type’ in the way the scholar and the warrior do.

All in all, The Desert of Souls kept me entertained, and the two main characters felt real and I liked their interactions. The story lumbered a bit on its way to the climax. As a reader, I hate scenes where the protagonist(s) know something to be true, but no one believes them. I guess most horror, fantasy, and sci-fi stories have to include an “It’s true!” “No you’re crazy!” conversation at some point, because they put their main characters into highly unlikely (or downright ridiculous) situations. When I have to write a scene like that, I try to keep it as short as possible, or add something unexpected. Otherwise I imagine the reader wanting to skip ahead. Anyway, everyone knows that the “No you’re crazy!” person is probably going to end up being killed by the thing he’s been so vehemently denying.

Still, I look forward to reading the second book of the series, and to seeing what happens next.

Notes on the Decatur Book Festival

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaOn Saturday my family checked out the Decatur Book Festival. We were there for just a couple of hours, and we met a few friendly authors—or at least walked past their booths. It was both inspiring and intimidating to see so many writers gathered in one place, all in promotional mode, and the place had a vibe like a Moroccan Bazaar—with Saharan temperatures to match the mood. Here are a few authors who were there:

Rosalind Bunn & Kathleen Howard – Children’s book
from Deeds Publishing

Penny McCabe Pennington
“It Burns a Lovely Light”

Vanessa Riley – Romance

Jo Cattell – YA Romance
Fallen Angel Series

Tamara Neal – Children’s Books & Self Help

Linda Joyce – Romance
“Bayou Born” – Fleur de Lis Series

Bryan E. Robinson –Mystery
“Limestone Gumption”



I Just Read: The Magician’s Land

The Magician's LandWait. Is that “The Magician Lands” or “The Magician’s Lands?” Ah, the perils of adding an S (possessive or pluralizing) to a word in of your title. You risk turning your book into the literary equivalent of Kroger/Kroger’s or Longhorn/Longhorns. Mothers Day/Mother’s Day. Daylight Saving/Savings. I could go on and on. But seriously, the title of Lev Grossman’s third Magicians novel makes good sense about halfway through the story. Yes, there is literally a ‘Magician’s Land.’ And it’s not the land you’d think it is.

Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, has obviously evolved as a character (and matured into a man) as the series has progressed. He’s no longer a binge-drinking dill-hole, and he’s not quite as self-centered and self-delusional as he once was. Quentin’s character arc perfectly reflects the author’s focus on two themes: The idea of a boy awkwardly maturing to manhood, and the conflict of fantasy vs. reality.

Throughout the Magicians trilogy, Quentin has phased through these dichotomies like a trauma victim passing through the stages of grief. Quentin’s stages of development have gone something like this:
1) Wishful thinking
2) Wish fulfillment
3) Disillusionment with said wishes
4) A renewed appreciation in the ‘mundane’
5) Nostalgia for his days of childish wishing

I can’t remember reading a series of genre books that are so dedicated to their themes—to fleshing them out, to adding nuance to the ideas and to progressing them. Just for fun, pretend that you’re back in your high school Literature class and see how many references you find to these two variations of Grossman’s overarching theme:
– Separation from father figures (and deity figures)
– The transforming/transporting power of literature (both the reading and the writing of it)

Another aspect of Grossman’s writing that really stands out is his ability to write a truly memorable villain. Grossman introduces his worst monsters with scenes that make you feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare, moving in slow-motion. These scenes are like David Lynch creepy, and I can’t think of any horror writer that can match them.

Unfortunately, the third book’s creepiest character is not the Big Bad. And the conflict at the heart of the book’s fantasy-world storyline is as weak as day-old Coor’s Light. Even during the strum-und-drang finale, the main characters don’t have much to do. But along the way there are plenty of great scenes and character moments. Grossman does open the door (literally) to more adventures in the future, so this is one grown man who’s childishly wishing that this trilogy has a fourth installment.

In the meantime, at least we have a potential TV series to look forward to.

Ken Doll Crotch = Evil

rocker_strainIf there’s one thing that popular media has taught me in the last 10 years, it’s that you can’t trust a man who is anatomically incorrect. Recently this universal axiom was exposed again on Guillermo del Toro’s FX series, The Strain.

Here are a few other examples of genital-free villains:

dynamicman_twelveDynamic Man – “The Twelve”
Spoiler: If you made it to the end of this comic series (12 issues were published over a span of 58 months), you were probably too numbed to care that Dynamic Man turned out to be a sexless android.



carver_niptuckThe Carver – “Nip/Tuck”
I won’t completely spoil this serial killer plot from 2005. Let’s just say that a Ken Doll Crotch is involved



julie_yourhighnessJulie – “Your Highness”
Ew, gross! Toby Jones plays a spy whose mean streak isn’t revealed until he does some streaking of his own.


ken_toystory3Ken – “Toy Story 3″
I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning the granddaddy or glandlessness, who took a villain turn in the last Toy Story movie.



Putting Toy Story 3 aside, I wonder why the Ken Doll Crotch seems to be such a popular  scare tactic? Is it the fact that it plays on the Freudian fear of castration? Or just a profane way to shock an audience while implicitly maintaining a PG-13 or TV-14 rating? And when will this trend stop? Won’t someone please think of the poor special effects teams that have to mold and apply these fake crotches? Someone should call the union!

I just read: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice‘Quite a few’ is a weird term. I wonder why adding ‘quite’ to ‘a few’ changes its meaning to ‘a lot?’ Any-whoo, I’ve read quite a few space operas in the last year, and I’ve been struck by how many similar themes and ideas pop up in each of them. Some of these ideas get a fresh spin in Ancillary Justice.

Cloning will be a substitute for space travel.
Make copies of yourself, and you can be many places at once. This is especially helpful when these locations are light years apart. Now keep cloning yourself, and you can effectively live for thousands of years. This is the Ann Leckie’s premise behind the imperial villain in Ancillary Justice. This is also the premise behind Charles Stross’ villain in his novel Neptune’s Brood. The unique spin that Leckie puts on her multiplied monarch is that her motives are not entirely villainous. But she is utterly ruthless in the way she gets things done.

Spaceships will have personalities, and they’ll dress up in human bodies.
The heroine of Iain M. Banks’ novel Surface Detail has several encounters with humanoid avatars of huge, nearly omniscient battleships. In Ancillary Justice, the heroine is an avatar of a gigantic, super-intelligent battleship. Breq is one component (a copy) of an interstellar ship’s AI. She’s been…let’s say ‘separated’…from the rest of herself, and she’s on a mission to right the wrongs that have been done to herself and to the ones she cares for. Breq explains the rationale behind her hardwired emotions: “Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s easier to handle those with emotions.”

In the future, humans will redefine what it means to be human.
Many writers have speculated that life outside of a ‘gravity well’ will change human physiology, change the way humans communicate (both verbally and nonverbally), and create new tribal tensions between planets and planetoids. In 2312, many space-dwellers upgrade their brains and their…naughty bits. When the two main characters decide to hook up, the reader realizes that they are both hermaphrodites.

Ancillary Justice is set in a future that is mostly post-gender. X and Y chromosomes are still in effect (as are, I assume, wee-wees and hey-nanner-nanners), but everyone is called’ she.’ I was surprised at how troubled I was by this ambiguousness. Leckie seems nonchalant as she prunes her pronouns to one gender. As she should be. This is what her characters are used to; they don’t particularly care if their peers are males or females. And I can honestly say that the character’s genders do not affect the plot or even the character arcs in the book. But even now my primitive, binary-sexed brain can’t fully grasp the characters. Was Breq truly a female? No, she was basically a robot. And no, it shouldn’t matter. But why do I want to call her a ‘heroine’ when she could simply be called a ‘hero?’