Monday, August 29, 2022

What Do You Do With Your Book Annotations?

I write in my books.

There, I said it. Ever since I can remember, I read my school books with pens or pencils or highlighters to mark passages and help me learn them for exams or papers. Heck, I’d often read magazines with a ballpoint pen and underlining special lines of text or ripping out pages that had recipes.

As I started writing and publishing in earnest, I eventually started reading fiction with a pencil in my had. For this, it’s almost always pencil. I actually like the sound and feel of a pencil scraping across the pages and I’m underlining a particular good turn of phrase.

I have also been known to markup books as I break them down and try to figure out why, say, Dan Brown’s prose seems so effortless or how a Clive Cussler novel was structured. It’s like homework, but, you know, fun homework.

When ebooks popped into my life, I kept up the practice. What’s nice about the Kindle Paperwhite is that you can go into your own account via a browser and see your annotations and, most importantly, copy and paste them into a word file.

Why? So I can have my own personal reference notes for anything I read.

But for those of you who write in your books, what do you do about all those annotations? I recently finished a trio of similarly themed books: two by Steven Pressfield (Turning Pro and Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be) and Atomic Habits by James Clear. All three of these books are fantastic and are chock full of great action items.

I marked up Clear’s book a LOT. I bought the physical copy of all three of these books and now it’s time for my next step of archiving my annotations.

I dictate my notes and passages from the book into a text file via my iPhone.

I strictly use a text file on the phone mainly because I don’t want to mess with formatting. I just want the words. Later, I’ll copy the plain text into a word file and apply some formatting like chapter headings and sub-headings. Since Clear uses a few charts and diagrams, I’ll also likely snap photos and insert them into the word file.

That might sound like a lot of effort, but I find that (a) I don’t mind and (b), it enables me to digest the content at least three times. The first is when I read it. The second is when I dictate the text, and the third is when I format it. And, yes, old-fashioned person that I am, I will also likely print it out and keep it in the book. I also keep the digital copy in a Dropbox file so that I can access the content wherever and whenever I am.

Anybody else do something like this?

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Surprising Humanity of Resident Alien

I really enjoy being surprised by stories and characters.

I started watching the TV show Castle because of the premise and Nathan Fillion, but over time realized that Stana Katic’s Beckett was a deeply emotional character that arguably had the biggest character arc of the entire series. John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts was advertised as a Star Trek parody but ended up delivering an emotional ending so vivid that on the day I finished the story, I couldn’t even talk through the ending to my wife without breaking down.

Add to this list the TV show Resident Alien on the Syfy Channel (still dislike that styling). Billed as a starring vehicle for Alan Tudyk, Resident Alien follows Tudyk’s alien character as he crashes in a small Colorado today. He assumes the physical form of the town doctor—Harry Vanderspeigle, a human who does not survive—and attempts to go about his mission to destroy all humans. In the process, however, he meets and interacts with the residents of Patience, Colorado, and learns what it means to be human and all the messiness therein.

Let’s be honest: Tudyk is a gifted actor who can make you laugh so hard you’ll stomach will ache. A great example of this is the movie “Death at a Funeral,” the original British version. Here, Tudyk’s Harry has an odd way to “smiling,” a childlike wonder at the world, a love of “Law and Order,” and a penchant of saying exactly what he’s thinking without any nuance. In every episode, there will be moments that will definitely make you laugh out loud.

A show like this might need someone of Tudyk’s caliber to get it greenlit, but the supporting cast is what makes the difference, and in Resident Alien, the cast is wonderfully just…normal. And human.

Sara Tomko plays Asta Twelvetrees, a Native American nurse who works with Tudyk’s Henry very close. She’s a town native—nearly all the characters are, a trait that plays into the interactions—who gave up her daughter when she got pregnant in high school, the father being a pretty abusive guy. That decision haunts Asta as it would anyone, which is especially hard when the daughter is now in high school herself.

Asta’s best friend, D’Arcy Bloom (Alice Wetterlund), owns the town bar after a skiing accident at the Olympics derailed her career. She’s a borderline alcoholic who so often makes the wrong decisions that you basically think her lot in life is already cast. She thinks that, too, so when she interacts with everyone, there’s general assumption D’Arcy will just always choose wrong.

Sheriff Mike Thompson (Corey Reynolds) and Deputy Liv Baker (Elizabeth Bowen) provide a steady dose of comedy (just in case you think I’m only zeroing in on the everyday drama). Mike’s a veteran cop from Washington, DC, who left the big city for the small town after his partner was killed. He often doesn’t have the right ideas but hides that fact behind over-the-top bluster. Liv is basically ignored by Mike even though she has her brain in the police game and is often correct about the central mystery of the story: what really happened to the real Harry and why are the government officials snooping around. Bowen deadpan delivery, laced with a real-world resignation that she knows she’s too good for the department but doesn’t know how or where to move.

The mayor is a young Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler), a slight man who likes to make candles and takes a backseat in nearly everything and from everyone, especially his more dominant wife, Kate (Meredith Garretson). He dated D’Arcy when they were in school together and Kate sometimes wonders if there’s still a spark.

There a pair of child actors work mentioning as well. Judah Prehn plays Max Hawthorne, the only child of the mayor and his wife. He and his best friend, Sahar, (Gracelyn Awad Rinke) can see Tudyk’s true alien form. Initially they’re scared but soon some to realize they can get things just by threatening Henry.

This may seem like a lot but the story lines are woven pretty well. There is the overarching story of Tudyk’s true mission and which humans ultimately come to know the truth. That’s almost always played for laughs and the laughs are full and genuine.

But it’s the small moments that makes this show rise above others and shine, and this week’s episode was a great example. Asta did a thing that tormented her so Harry used his alien ability and wiped her memory of the incident. The ripple effect meant she missed not only that memory but other things as well, things that hurt others. It was then that Asta told Harry that everything humans experienced, the good as well as the bad, is equally important. For Harry, he’d just as well just be happy, yet that’s not always possible.

D’Arcy’s actions the past few episodes, relationship-wise, were like walking on thin ice. Would she keep making the bad decision and self-sabotaging her life? That’s what she’s always done and there was a moment in this week’s episode when she fell back into the same habit. She had a moment of reflection and made her choice.

Lastly, there was a recurring theme of death, specifically end-of-life. Henry doesn’t understand it and wants to just have it happen away from him. But as a doctor, he needed to be with a dying man who told Henry how good his long life was and how ready he was to see his deceased wife.

Within the span of about ten minutes of the episode, I went from laughing and literally holding my sides to wiping away the sting of tears.

That’s the kind of show Resident Alien is because that’s the way life is. This is a great show and I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 15, 2022

A High School Reunion and a Murder: Girl Most Likely by Max Allan Collins

Last week, I mentioned a new way to consume a story, via a Kindle ebook and its corresponding audiobook. The book in question was Girl Most Likely by Max Allan Collins. Well, I’ve finished the novel and here is the promised review.

The lead character is Krista Larson, a twenty-eight-year-old who serves as the police chief for Galena, Illinois, a small, Midwestern tourist town. This makes her simultaneously the youngest police chief in the country and the youngest female chief. As we’re told throughout the novel, her department consists only of a dozen people, herself included.

Her father, Keith, was also a cop, but one from a larger town across the river. They live together now in the wake of her mom’s passing. They have a good relationship, nothing like the oil-and-water relationships you see on TV or in other books.

Speaking of TV, Collins intentionally set out to write “an American variation of the [Kurt] Wallander novels, and such Nordic TV mini-series as The Bridge, the Killing, and (again) Wallander.” Being a fan of those programs myself, that was pretty much all it took for me to download the ebook and audiobook and start reading.

There’s a certain style of mystery—mostly thrillers, I guess—where there’s running on page one or a murder on page one and that sets the entire tale in motion. That’s here in this book, too, but via a fun writerly quirk: all the times the killer in on stage, Collins writes those scenes in second person, that is, from the killer’s point of view. It serves more the one purses. The obvious one is that you get a peek inside the killer’s mind, what drives the killer to kill. The other obvious thing is that Collins hides the identity of the killer. By the time a reader reaches the end of the novel and know who did, it’s fun to return to those chapters and see how the veteran writer spooled out the clues.

Other than the opening chapter, the bulk of the novel sets the stage via its characters and surrounding environment. It’s a day-to-day life of Krista and her friends as they prepare to attend their ten year high school reunion. We get nice portraits of the folks who never left small town life as well as those who return from bigger cities. As the title of the book indicates, there is one character—Astrid Lund—who is the girl most likely to succeed, and boy has she. Astrid (a nice nod to the Nordic) has blossomed into a stunner who works in TV broadcast news up in Chicago. She broke up more than one relationship back in high school and her presence at the reunion threatens those same people. Most everyone reacts to her in one way or another. She’s like the sun: her gravity either pushes or pulls all her classmates.

What I found particularly fun is how Collins weaves the characters in and out of the story in such a way that you almost wonder if you are merely reading a traditional drama rather than a murder mystery. You kind of have an idea of who is going to be killed, but you still wonder when it'll happen, but when it does, it's visceral. Three people end up dead in this story, so this small town police chief ends up having a triple murder investigation. She draws on her father’s experience as a homicide detective while keeping the investigation local and not calling in the state police.

As a writer, describing a character is always a challenge. How much do you give? How to you give it? Do you do it every time a character walks on stage? Collins does it nearly every time, but he usually dispatches the description in a sentence or two. Interestingly, he goes a step further and details their voice, usually in the form of a musical notation: his baritone, her soprano. Being a musician like Collins, I dug that and, frankly, it never even occurred to me to do that.

Like the BBC shows that inspired Collins to write this story, this is a full-on police procedural. Krista and her dad ask lots of questions and follow leads. You definitely have to be in a mood for this kind of story, and it’s where I have an issue with the sub-title: A thriller. I don’t consider this a thriller at all. Sure, there is the ending, but when I think thriller, I think lots of running and shooting and more running and reading so fast that you quickly start to turn the pages or increase the narration speed. Girl Most Likely moves forward in a determined manner where you know you’re being given some red herrings and try and decipher the clues before the characters.

I enjoyed Girl Most Likely quite a bit. It was exactly the type of story I wanted and it easily met my expectations. In fact, I liked it so much that I already downloaded both the ebook and audiobook of Girl Can’t Help It, the second novel featuring Krista Larson. And, since I enjoy reading “seasonally,” I was pleased to note Girl Can’t Help It takes place around Labor Day. I’ll give you zero guesses when I start the book.

Monday, August 8, 2022

A New Standard to Consume a Story?

Have y’all tried this?

Last month, veteran author Max Allan Collins offered a pair of books for $0.99 each, Girl Most Likely and Girl Can’t Help It. They feature Krista Larson, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who serves as police chief for a small Midwestern tourist town. Yes, this makes her the youngest such chief in the nation, but she’s able to draw on her father’s multi-decade career when a murder of a former classmate during a high school reunion lands in her jurisdiction.

In a blog entry, Collins discussed the two books, the inspiration behind the tales, and a peek into the business of writing. But what got me was that these two stories are his take on Nordic noir, “an American variation on the Wallander novels, and such Nordic TV mini-series as The Bridge, The Killing, and (again) Wallander.” Well, that’s pretty much all it took for me to head over to Amazon and drop a buck and buy the ebook.

But then I got a prompt: for an additional $1.98, I could purchase the audio version of Girl Most Likely. I’m already an Audible subscriber and I’m an avid user of my local public library and the audiobooks it has. I have read/listened to the same audiobook before, back in 2007 when I read all the Harry Potter books in a row. Back then, I found the paperbacks from used bookstores and checked out the audiobooks from the library. I’d listen during my daily commutes, flip pages in the book at night and read, and the next morning, fast-forward the audiobook to match where I stopped reading the night before.

But I was curious: I had never purchased an ebook and audiobook with the promise that everything would be synced. I gave it a go.

I started with the ebook and read a few pages on my Kindle Paperwhite. Then I clicked over to my Audible app. Hmmm, the book wasn’t there. That’s weird. Where was it?

So I checked the Kindle app on my iPhone and viola! There’s the audio. It’s toggled when you tap to bring up the table of contents. 

If you tap on the title at the bottom, the screen flips and you get a basic audiobook look and feel.

Probably the coolest thing is if you start the audio while still having the ebook on the screen, the app highlights text as the audio goes along.

Oh, and when I picked up my Paperwhite later that first day, I get a message: “Want to sync to where the audio stopped?” Yes. Boom!

This is a great way to consume a story. I could easily see this dual format become a preferred way some people to “read” books, although from a business perspective, I would image you’d get the ebook for a buck after you purchased the audiobook at full price.

A note about the audiobook: this is not some AI voice stumbling through onscreen text. This is the actual audio narration by Dan John Miller. It’s a win-win.

And the story itself? Well, I’ll review it when I’m done but I’m really digging it.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Empty Nest Phase Begins

I experienced a momentous event last week: my son moved out of the house. 

On Wednesday, my twenty-year-old son into his first apartment to continue his education in audio engineering. He’s an only child and this is the only house in which he’s lived, so I know it’s a big deal for him. But it’s also a big deal for my wife and I.

Because of Covid, he stayed home after high school and got all his basic courses out of the way, so my wife and I got two bonus years, a fact we cherished. We got two extra years many parents don’t get. They came at a terrible, pandemic-induced cost, but we three got them nonetheless.

As New Year’s Day 2022 dawned, we three knew this was going to be The Year. We had to find him a new school to attend and we did. Thankfully, it’s across Houston…you know, so an hour of driving. But it’s only an hour. We drove home after meeting with his professors with the certainty that this was where he wanted to go to school.

But he didn’t want to commute across town every day. So that left the obvious alternative.

We knew Move Out Day was coming for months, but it was on some ambiguous date. Then suddenly the date crystalized and we prepared: movers hired, boxes packed, and last moments here at the house with him as a resident. One of the things he and I did was a nightly walk where we’d talk about music or the future or moving out or anything.

Move Out Day arrived and most of the day was filled with work: staying out of the movers’ way, unpacking boxes, setting up his stuff in his new place, a trip to the grocery store, and the first meal in his apartment.

The busyness of work was therapeutic, but it was not without emotions. Little by little, his stuff was unpacked and arranged. I broke down boxes and carried them to the car. But there there were little moments that shocked the tears right out of my eyes, like when I opened his box of clothes and his smell permeated my nose. He caught me then, actually, when I didn’t respond to something he said. I just shrugged, smiled, and kept hanging up his clothes.

Then my wife and I had to leave, and nothing prepares you for that moment…or the moment you come home to your house and see and feel his absence. The next day, Thursday, was the first day of the new phase of our lives: waking, working, eating, and living in our house without our son with us.

I know this new normal will become easier, that we’ll smile at a memory of his time here and not tear up, but these first days are all about the waves of emotions that are triggered at the slightest stray thought or vacant chair.

As parents, we intellectually know our children are bound for adulthood, for moving out and making their own mark on the world just like we did. But when that moment comes, it knocks your breath away. It’s incredible how emotions work, how you can simultaneously have your heart swell with pride that he is moving on but also have that very same heart contain an empty space because of his absence that’ll never truly be filled again.

So I wanted to share this moment with everyone because it is the one all-consuming thing of this week. Besides, since I’ve been writing these columns for thirteen years, I feel like we’ve come to know each other.

I’ve started reading about how parents deal with the empty nest. I know there are some readers who have already dealt with this transition and new phase of life so I’d love to learn about those experiences.