Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

In cooperation with the H. G. Wells Society, author Stephen Baxter crafted a sequel to The War of the Worlds. The second book takes place fourteen years after the first invasion. England has rearmed, but its leaders gotten a little cocky. They’re sure the new weapons and military strategies can handle any trouble on the horizon, or rather, in space. Walter Jenkins, the original narrator of the first book, is on hand to issue a dire warning: the Martians will return. Their numbers will be greater and this time their diabolical plot will result in the massacre of mankind.

Baxter has taken interesting liberties with the sequel. Walter is a minor character now. Instead, Julie Elphinstone steps in as first person narrator. In the original book, she was Walter’s uninspiring sister-in-law. Now divorced, Julie is a journalist, relocated to New York. She wants nothing more than to forget the past and then receives a mysterious phone call that drags her back to Europe. She returns to England with a fresh outsider’s eye, surprised at all the changes.

Baxter cleverly reimages how society would be affected by a Martian attack. World War I didn’t occur. Instead, the conflict in Europe was brief and didn’t become a world war and drag on for years. Germany increased its territory, but then made nice with Britain and became allies. (Julie returns to Europe on the still-floating Lusitania.) Instead of Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell has the Junior Sappers, children digging defensive trenches and rolling bandages. The Suffragette movement was outlawed, women still don’t have the right to vote. On the other side of the pond, the US, ignored by the Martians last time, maintains its isolationist policies. Will they be dragged into the conflict this time? Will the next Martian attack encompass the whole world?

You betcha. If you liked the verbose tone of the original story, this one will appeal. The book is nearly 500 pages with a ton of description and a multitude of characters. If you prefer more action oriented tales and less elaborate world building, this isn’t for you. 

Quibbles and Bits
The geographic detail is impressive, but it would have been nice to include a map, especially for the part of the story taking place in England. Julie travels a lot, but I’m never sure where she is in relation to the Martians or how far London is from the action.

Although the story is first person it jumps around quite a bit. It’s written as Julie’s book published after the war. Her story is ‘real time’ and focuses on how she became a key player in Walter’s secret plot to stop the aliens. Along the way, she adds other peoples’ accounts. The oddest part of the narrative is the lack of tension. As you meet each person, you know exactly who lives and who dies. Julie blabs their future saying she found out later this person was killed at such-and-such a place or this person made it through.

The ending leaves a lot of loose threads and is definitely set up for a sequel.

I received this from book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

New Release Spotlight: Consent of the Governed by Bernard LoPinto




Available September 1

Consent of the Governed presents an America ruled by a president whose blundering has thrown the nation into economic depression, where citizens are threatened by international terrorists and Red Shirts—government thugs—who keep the populace in line. In the state of emergency, the president has declared martial law and suspended the Constitution and free elections. Sid and Annie Winthrop are an elderly couple who have sworn to take revenge on the Red Shirts for murdering their son. Victor and Brooklynn are Red Shirts, true believers who are confronted with the dark underside of governmental control. When these couples are thrown together, they both come to understand what is real.

Excerpt
The clock outside Coaltown National Bank read 3:07 AM, and then flashed forty-seven degrees.  Alone on the Main Street sidewalk, lit only by the electric sign in the window of the hardware store and the one street light that still worked, Sid Winthrop heard the Troopers in the alley before he saw them.  Four Red Shirts.  Tall, young.  Looking for trouble, a victim.  He slipped Chloe’s leash into his right hand.  The young pit bull made a low growl.

“We got this, Big Girl.” Sid unbuttoned his long leather coat and fingered the grip of his suppressed Heckler and Koch USP .45.  Old men could look for trouble, too.

They came quickly and surrounded him, nightsticks in hand, as was their training.  The biggest one, the squad leader—helmeted, six-four, two-fifty, could have been a college football player—took a stance directly in front of Sid, nightstick at the level of Sid’s face, blocking the way if he should try to run.  Sid didn’t feel like running.

Buy Link

Author Bio
In writing Consent of the Governed, as in my other work, I draw heavily upon my years in Pentecostal ministry and my background in correctional education.  It may seem strange that religion and prison are closely linked in my psyche, but both experiences have taught me to value freedom of thought and expression.  Both prison and religion set about stunting one’s individuality and personal growth.

Besides prisons, the bulk of my career has been in education, teaching in the inner-city and Job Corps, the suburbs, and a few rural areas.  In between, I’ve spent time in retail, professional photography, and any other side hustle I could pick up.  Along the way, I’ve earned a Master’s in Education and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Education Administration to go along with my BA in English.


I write from a place where the “good” people aren’t so good, and one’s best friends can be the “worst” people in town.  I don’t trust the ones who put their spirituality up front; those people make for some of my best comedy. I look for the ones who live the spirituality they don’t flaunt around town; they aren’t many, but they’re the real people. Between a two-bit saint and a stand-up sinner, I’ll take the sinner every time.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

You Blockhead! Dealing with Writer's Block

You stare at the computer monitor willing the story to come, filled with sinking desolation. Where are the words? They were there yesterday, flowing with easy abandon from head through fingers on the keyboard. Now, the only writing you can bring to mind is a grocery list and you can't remember whether you need a bottle of ketchup or already have three of them in the pantry.

Welcome to writer’s block, but be of good cheer. It’s all in your head. As a matter of fact, it isn’t a real psychological condition at all. Up until the nineteenth century, the idea of writer’s block didn’t exist. Before then, writers had a romantic belief in a muse. Poetry magically arrived from a different spiritual plane. If words failed to come, the writer must have ticked off the gods and better sacrifice that chicken and get back in their favor ASAP. One of the first mentions of writer’s block was by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who described an indefinite terror at his inability to produce noteworthy poetry, and yet, he could write. He was not only a journalist producing articles, but also literary criticism. Coleridge still saw himself as a failure, because poetry eluded him after his twenties. Poor Sam never got back his mojo and ended life as an opium addict.

French writers of the later nineteenth century rejected the idea of a muse, but expanded on the idea that a writer needed to suffer for art. A true writer was a tortured soul, and if the words stuck in your head, you were on the right track. The only way to shake them free was be more miserable. Move into an unheated garret. Catch an upper respiratory disease. Mon Dieu, you can’t write without anguish.

In modern times, the idea of writer’s block is seen more as a function of a lack of discipline than a psychological condition. Psychologist Steven Pritzker, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Creativity asserts what's known as writer's block is an “artificial construct that basically justifies a discipline problem. A commitment to a regular work schedule will help you overcome barriers like perfectionism, procrastination and unrealistic expectations.” Susan Reynolds, author of Fire up your Brain agrees and lists five ways writing can stall; the author got off track and lost the plot’s direction, passion waned, unrealistic expectations, burnout, and distractions. A study from the 1980’s by Yale psychologists Michael Barrios and Jerome Singer had blocked writers doing imagery exercises and found even when people didn’t think they can be creative, they were. The ability to write doesn't go away, but may lie dormant as stress in our lives takes center stage. It's difficult to write when thoughts are consumed by something else. So how do you get past that and give your own mental juices a psychological kick in the pants?

Thinking hurts my brain
Writing is hard work. It requires constant creative thought and that can be tiring. Psychologists who study creativity suggest a move forward needs an action completely outside the box. So reject those mundane suggestions to take a walk and clear your head. Your head is fine. Instead, try one of these unusual methods

Change your writing schedule. A study conducted by the
University of Michigan concluded self-proclaimed “morning people,” who feel more productive in daytime hours, are actually more adept at creative problem-solving in the evening. The opposite held true for those who claimed they were more focused at night.

Write for fifteen minutes, but turn off or cover the computer monitor. Don’t be distracted by the words on the screen. Just put down what comes into your head.

Do a visualization experiment. Listen to music in a new genre, preferably without lyrics. Try to “visualize” the music. What images come to mind? What do you see people doing? Saying?

Step out of your head. Imagine your ideal reader. Spend ten minutes writing for her or him.

Start another creative project; paint, plant flowers, tweak a recipe, write a song (even a lousy one.) Experts on creativity say that using the brain for one project can spark inventiveness in another.

Get your brain out of the rut by changing the font and/or color on the computer monitor to wacky-looking. On every page increase or decrease the font size. When something normal and routine suddenly looks different, your brain works harder to process new information.


Finally, psychologists have noted a hand/brain connection. Doing something with your hands can spur creativity, so take a few minutes to write old school with pen and paper.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

New Release Spotlight: Some Whisper, Some Shout by K. K. Weil

Devices. Jolie’s got tons of them. Coping mechanisms that ensure she’s not falling victim to the mental illness that’s taken hold of both her brother and father. Helping the homeless gives Jolie much needed consistency. But when a stranger struts into her Jersey Shore creperie, writing cryptic songs on napkins and then disappearing, her world becomes anything but routine.

Reed can play the soul out of his saxophone, but he’s hiding something. Why else would he reveal so little about himself, or plan one secluded, albeit eccentric, date after another? And what’s in that backpack he carries everywhere? Then again, with her distressed brother missing, an estranged mother returning home, and a feisty grandmother acting weirder than usual, Jolie can’t decipher whether her suspicions are valid or dangerous delusions.

When inexplicable slashings of the homeless occur in her otherwise safe town, Jolie’s devices begin to fail.

Excerpt
Reed’s bag sat on the floor next to me. I wasn’t in the habit of snooping. I’d never wanted to pry into the life of a guy I was dating before. Then again, I’d always gone in with my eyes open and my information gathered.

And no one else had been so intentionally evasive.

I scooted a few inches on the couch toward the bag. It was zipped shut so I couldn’t even sneak a peek. I’d have to very intentionally open it. I leaned over, a centimeter at a time, as if someone was recording me and I was trying to be sly. In my own home. How silly. My hand fell to my side, closer to the bag. My nail scratched at the couch, creeping its way toward the zipper. My stomach knotted into itself and my palms got clammy. I wiped one against the couch. This was very unlike me. Besides, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for or if I wanted to know the answer.

Before my hand could make its descent from the couch to the backpack, the bathroom door opened. My hand flew into my hair and I sat up straight. Rigid even.

“Forgot my stuff.” Reed strutted toward me, in all his shirtless glory, with his shorts undone and hanging. He leaned over, scooped the backpack, and withdrew to the bathroom. He didn’t notice the plank of wood rammed down my back or the word guilty scribbled across my forehead.
I should have been disappointed. My snooping opportunity had passed. Instead, a cool ocean breeze seemed to blow through the room. I guess I didn’t want to know as much as I thought.

Author Bio 
K.K. Weil grew up in Queens, but eventually moved to New York City, the inspiration for many of her stories. Weil, who attended SUNY Albany as an undergrad and NYU as a graduate student, is also a teacher. She enjoys writing her own dramas and lives near the beach in New Jersey, where she is at work on her next novel.


Buy Link 


Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: Thank you for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs

Are not!
Are too!
If you think that’s the most effective way to argue a point you need to read Jay Heinrichs’ book about the effective use of persuasion, Thank You For Arguing. In the current contentious political client, the art of rational discourse seems to be a lost heart, but the author suggests calm and unemotional ways to discuss topic without coming to blows. His methods aren’t without a sense of humor. He uses examples from Eminem, John Belushi, and Homer Simpson.

Heinrichs handles both offense and defense equally well; how to win an argument and how to effectively defend a position.  He doesn’t play favorites with either young or old either. He has several suggestion how a teenager can convince a parent to push back a curfew. Nervous speaker? He covers that, too. One trick is to gradually increase volume. To the audience it will sound as if the speaker grows in confidence because the contents of the speech have also gained importance. Heinrich also examines effective use of rhetoric in the work place from how to talk yourself into a position during a job interview to dealing with an argumentative boss or disgruntled co-worker. He even gives a step-by-step method to recover from a screw-ups; set new goals, break the news first, focus on the future, don’t belittle the victim and apologize by expressing how you haven’t live up to your standard. Good advice for both businesses and personal life.


Heinrich is knowledgeable and amusing and teaches how to recognize not only when you’re being had, but also shows how to use the same tools to turn the tables. The back of the book has an extensive appendix with some fun exercises. This book would a good addition to a classroom and should be required reading for certain folk in government who think they’re always right, but sound like dolts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Spotlight: Passion's Palette by Peggy Jaeger

Talented and witty portrait artist Serena MacQuire is successful in everything but love. Her gift for capturing people on canvas is rivalled only by her fiery and legendary temper. A tragedy from the past keeps her heart securely locked away, preventing any man from getting close enough to claim it.

But Seamus Cleary isn’t just any man. After he left his professional football career to become a veterinarian, his bitter wife ended their marriage. Now, as he starts his life over in a new town, love is the last thing he's looking for. The more he tends to Serena’s horses, though, the more he realizes her own heart needs tender care and healing as well.

Will he be the man who finally unlocks and claims her heart?



Excerpt
      Their eyes met and Seamus registered the silent “O” of surprise on her mouth.
      "I'm sorry I startled you," he said, drawn to her as an errant moth would be to a ghost of moonlight. "Addie told me you were out here."
      Serena reached over to her sketchpad, open at her feet, and closed it with a flick of her toe. He was rewarded with a lengthy view of thigh as she stretched.
        "Working?"    
      "Doodling, mostly. I wanted to do some preliminary sketches for a commission I have."
       "Mind if I sit?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, did.
       When he reached for the pad and said, "May I?" she shot her bare foot on top of it.
      "Sorry." Serena reached over and grabbed the book. When it was safely tucked behind her back, braced against the tree, she added, "I'm a little schizoid where my work is concerned. I don’t let people see it when it’s in the planning or beginning stages."
       He looked across at her, lifted one brow slightly, then glanced around. "This is nice," he said. "Quiet. Peaceful."
        "Private.”
       A fist of pure desire punched him in the stomach, the muscles contracting in response to the challenge in her eyes.
        "Was there something you needed to see me about?"
     He considered her again, before replying. For someone so young she could act as regally as the most aged dowager.
      And she was young; much younger than he was. It wouldn't do to start anything with her. Besides, she was a client. He had to keep it professional.
        But dammit, those eyes speared right through him, impaling him with their beauty, and were hard to ignore. As was the gentle swell and shift of her breasts with each breath beneath her barely modest halter top. And her legs, well, just forget about those. Legs like that were destined to be his downfall.

Buy Links
Amazon        

About the Author
Peggy Jaeger is a contemporary romance writer who writes about strong women, the families who support them, and the men who can’t live without them.

Family and food play huge roles in Peggy’s stories because she believes there is nothing that holds a family structure together like sharing a meal…or two…or ten. Dotted with humor and characters that are as real as they are loving, Peggy brings all topics of daily life into her stories: life, death, sibling rivalry, illness and the desire for everyone to find their own happily ever after. Growing up the only child of divorced parents she longed for sisters, brothers and a family that vowed to stick together no matter what came their way. Through her books, she has created the families she wanted as that lonely child. Tying into her love of families, her children's book, THE KINDNESS TALES, was illustrated by her artist mother-in-law.


Peggy holds a master's degree in Nursing Administration and first found publication with several articles she authored on Alzheimer's Disease during her time running an Alzheimer's in-patient care unit during the 1990s. In 2013, she placed first in two categories in the Dixie Kane Memorial Contest: Single Title Contemporary Romance and Short/Long Contemporary Romance.  In 2017 she came in 3rd in the New England Reader's Choice contest for A KISS UNDER THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS and is a finalist in the 2017 STILETTO contest for the same title. A lifelong and avid romance reader and writer, she is a member of RWA and her local New Hampshire RWA Chapter.


Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00T8E5LN0
Instagram: https://instagram.com/mmj122687/

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Don't Surf Amazon in your Underwear. The Algorithm is Always Watching.

Blogging today at Paranormal Romantics. Here's the post:



Don’t worry. There’s no math. We won’t talk numbers because at the most basic level an algorithm is merely a set of rules used by a search engine to solve a problem. At a more advanced level, it’s code to tell how to sort and load product lists in response to a query. They’re not scary. You may even have used one today.  Every time you type a question or search an item on sites such as Google or Amazon it is the algorithm that supplies the answer, not some gnome living in the laptop. Google uses algorithms to scour websites for information. The Amazon algorithm does internal searches on its pages, but whether you’re looking for a vacation rental from one or a romance book from another, the basic process is the same. Using a programmed set of steps, a search engine retrieves results that the algorithm’s code says most closely matches the query.

Where did the Amazon algorithm come from?

Not some alternate dimension, but Palo Alto, California from an Amazon company called A9. The process to develop an algorithm starts by analyzing data in a catalog of information; in the case of Amazon, it’s the product description and keywords on the website. Descriptive text for every item is indexed, meaning scanned for certain words and phrases. The algorithm is also written to check past traffic patterns for you and others who searched for similar information to the query. It then ranks them and returns the results. As you type in keystroke after keystroke, the algorithm is already trying to determine what you want. This is why when you’re hunting for a fantasy, by the time you type in f-a-n-t, the drop down box appears with preliminary results and, son of gun, one of them is fantasy.

The better the algorithm understands the meaning of a query, the more able it is to retrieve accurate results. To that extent, algorithms examine the words and even the meaning behind those words. If a customer on Amazon types in the search box Texas barbecue, the algorithm first checks to see how many categories it can locate. It sees two; Texas and barbeque, and then works to bring up results that match both by scanning product descriptions. A well-written search algorithm is so strong it can even adapt to misspellings and offer suggestions for additional words. Amazon also keeps track of your buying habits so the algorithm can anticipate desires. This is why you get those helpful emails that start “Based on your recent visit, we thought you might like…” It tracks not only purchases, but also clicked items that caught your eye 

What does this mean for the Amazon sales rank?
The information Amazon uses to suggest products during a search is based on terms in product descriptions from the catalog. For books, that means the blurb next to the book cover and the key words, but those aren’t the only factors. The algorithm also checks sales rank and that’s more complicated because rankings are always done in relation to competitors in the same category. If a book’s sales rise, that knocks down others in the same category.  One rank goes up, books close to it in rank go down. Ranking is also related to purchase time. Recent sales boost a book’s rank, so does a temporary price drop but the effect quickly fades because the algorithm also favors steady sales over dramatic surges.

What about those dreaded reviews?
Reviews on Amazon only count in rank if from a verified sale. Gifting a book is nice, but only helps sales rank if the gift is redeemed within 24 hours. The algorithm also gives more weight to newer reviews, reviews from verified Amazon purchasers, and reviews voted as helpful by other customers. Price has no effect on sales rank. Enrollment in KDP Select or Kindle Unlimited won’t confer any additional advantage. While books don’t receive an added boost in rank, downloads through Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Online Lending Library are treated as sales. Pre-orders also count as immediate sales which is why publishers love them.

What’s the myth of high sales and rank?
High sales rank doesn’t guarantee high placement in search results. Surprisingly, sales rank isn’t the only determinant. Other factors include relevance, keywords, sales history, product description, and available inventory, so a book with high sales rank may appear later in search results than lower-ranked books. How can you help your book along? Techie experts offer the following advice.

  • Have a well-written description.


  • Use keywords in the book description, but not more than once because this can look like keyword stuffing. Amazon frowns upon the practice and you can get dropped in the ranks.


  • If a reader with a verified sale lets you know they liked the book, ask them to leave a review.



  • If you gift a book ask the recipient to retrieve it immediately or it won’t count in the sales rank.