Review: Devil’s Pocket offers YA action, intrigue

In today’s society where everyone gets a trophy no matter how you finish, it’s no wonder that kids get so excited about do-or-die worlds like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner. The imaginary free-for-alls that make those books and movies so popular seem to provide kids with an outlet for their competitive spirit… At least in a literary kind of way.

Devil's PocketAuthor John Dixon’s latest young adult novel, Devil’s Pocket, rides that trend with its own kill-or-be-killed funeral games. The novel focuses on 16-year-old Carl Freeman, who has been technologically enhanced by a chip in his head, and hundreds more throughout his body, turning him into a lightning-quick, lethal super soldier. Along with two other members of Phoenix Force, he will be pitted in the squared circle against the best young fighters in the world in a deadly competition. At stake: $10 million, bragging rights, and their very lives.

But as the body count continues to grow, Carl becomes more and more disillusioned by the game he’s been forced to play. Barely able to keep his temper in check, he and former girlfriend Octavia, who represents an opposing team, begin to plot their escape and the demise of the Few, a collection of masked overlords who run the games for their own nefarious purposes. The tension boils over into an explosive climax reminiscent of a James Bond movie.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: The Dead Student is exciting, psychological thriller

New York Times best-selling author John Katzenbach knows how to get into people’s heads, whether it’s in the psyche of his characters, or the minds of his readers. His newest novel, The Dead Student (The Mysterious Press, Oct. 6), is a perfect example.

KatzenbachThe Dead Student wastes no time shaking things up for his protagonist, Timothy Warner. A PhD student better known by his nickname “Moth”, Timothy is a recovering alcoholic who battles the temptation to sink into the depths of drink and despair every day. Even with ninety-nine days of sobriety behind him, Moth knows he is one glass away from falling into a devastating abyss.

When his AA sponsor Uncle Ed is found dead, that yawning pit opens beneath Moth. It is only through a concerted effort, and the help of his AA group, Redeemer One, that he sobers up long enough to realize that his uncle would never kill himself. But gut feelings like his aren’t proof enough for police, who appear more than comfortable with their suicide theory.

Read the full review
 at Killer Nashville.

Around the Web: Dirty dancing, kinky robots, fear of family spark changes

Every day I scour the Internet and my news feeds for story writing tips and advice. But every once in a while I come across some stranger than fiction articles that compel me to read further. You never know, some of the articles or ideas may just become fodder for a story later on.

Just when you thought you’d heard of everything…

A Gorham, Maine high school announced this week it will no longer hold student dances because of today’s tendency by students to participate in risqué dance moves, also known as grinding. The sexually suggestive dirty dance moves are making parents and dance chaperones uncomfortable. The ban follows on the heels of a similar ban by Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts last year.

Continue reading

Review: The New World excites, then settles into a lull

by G. Robert Frazier

Welcome to the New World, Jim Hawkins; it’s savage, untamed, and wholly unpredictable. Hawkins, the son of Robert Louis Stevenson’s more renowned Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island fame, and his companion Natty get a rude introduction to life in North America courtesy of author Andrew Motion’s The New World (Crown Publishers, $25).

the new worldPart action-adventure part literary memoir, the novel picks up on the heels of Motion’s earlier unofficial sequel, Silver, with a violent shipwreck off the coast of Texas. Jim and Natty are among the only survivors, though their true ordeal is only just beginning.

Before they are able to gather their wits about them, the pair are beset upon by a tribe of brutal Native Americans who take them prisoner while plundering the debris of the shipwreck and its lost treasures The only other survivor of the ship, Mr. Stevenson, is quickly shot to death by the Indians’ arrows, immediately upping the tension for Jim and Natty.

The death of Stevenson is symbolic in a way of how this book deviates from the more action-oriented fare of the original author. After being taken into captivity, The New World morphs into a more introspective-laden memoir, detailing Jim’s every thought and nuance during his ordeal. There is considerably less emphasis on action and more attention given to Jim’s thoughts and feelings on everything from his life with his father to life with Natty to the lives of his captors.

Motion aptly hooks the reader with his forceful prose, then allows the lulls in the action to express himself in a more lyrical voice. His love of words and their sing-song quality — he is one of the UK’s most renowned poets and was actually poet laureate for ten years – is clearly evident.

That’s all well in good, for literary readers. For those who favor the swift action of a genre story, however, the sudden shift in styles and contrast in the story’s tone is a bit of a letdown. After a bold, action-packed start, the novel segues into moody memoir and colorful description. The action only briefly reasserts itself late in the novel when Hawkins must face his Indian captors in a final showdown in the bustling port city of New Orleans.

The New World lacks the sense of fun and danger that its classic predecessor managed to instill, instead taking on a darker, more serious tone. Nor is Hawkins’ antagonist, Black Cloud, remotely as interesting as Silver in Treasure Island. His companion, Natty, is unfortunately a totally unlikable character from the start.

Overall, The New World races out of the gate, but crawls to the finish line.

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

Theater of the Absurd: LA creatives may be penalized for tax they don’t owe

Just when you think you’ve heard everything, there’s this: In Los Angeles, if you are freelance writer or creative trying to eke out a meager living, you could be penalized for a tax you don’t owe. The penalty applies if you fail to register for an exemption from the tax by a certain date each year.

This has got to be one of the most ridiculous excuses for a city government to stick it to the masses I’ve ever read.

The full article is here.

What do you think? Should freelancers and creatives have to acquire a license to work and be penalized if they don’t? 

Review: Ant-Man’s silly fun works for fan boys, kids only

I’m apparently not the comic book fan boy geek I used to be.

Antman movie posterOtherwise, I should have loved Ant-Man, the latest Marvel super-hero opus gracing your local Cineplex. But, for all of its efforts, I was bored, annoyed, and just plain uninspired by the film.

Oddly, it’s getting pretty decent reviews from most of the entertainment media and critics. Not the incredible rave reviews that Guardians of the Galaxy fetched last summer, but plenty of kudos nonetheless. A number of critics have stated the film is fun and features a terrific third act.

After watching the first two acts, it desperately needed something to save it. I can’t speak to whether the third act did the trick or not, though, because after 90 minutes of the dreck that is Ant-Man I walked out. Mind you, I don’t normally walk out on movies, so that says a lot right there.

For starters, Ant-Man is already a hero you can’t take seriously. Even Saturday Night Live once lampooned the character in a skit featuring Garrett Morris as the diminutive hero at a gathering of heroes. When asked about his power, he replies: “I shrink myself down to the size of an ant while retaining my full human strength.” To which The Flash (Dan Ackroyd) replies: “Oooh, that’s really impressive. Size of an ant with human strength. You must be able to clean house on those other ants, huh? Hey, Hulk, check this guy out. .. He’s got the strength of a human!”

IMG_20150724_153513431 (950x1280)So, to be fair, I didn’t give the movie much of a chance right out of the gate. The previews had left me less than excited and Ant-Man was never one of my favorite comic book heroes. How could he be when there are heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor around?

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the movie in the mood I was in. Did I mention it was my birthday and I was feeling old? But, I was bored at home alone and I wanted to do something to mark my special day. And, it wasn’t like there were a lot of alternatives at the theater to see. Well, there was Minions 2…

In any case, you’re probably wondering, what’s wrong with Ant-Man? Why didn’t you like it?

I think, in part it has to do with the mood or tone of the movie. I couldn’t tell if it wanted its audience to take it, and its little hero, seriously, or yuck it up for laughs. I mean, who is the target audience of this film? If it’s comic book fan boys, OK, parts of the movie should have satisfied them. References to the Wasp, the fight (if you can call it that) with the Falcon, and its continuity within the Marvel world of movies were all points to savor. But, on the other hand, it was chockfull of silliness you’d expect from a Disney film. (Oh, wait, Disney owns Marvel now, right?). Paul Rudd, as one critic put it, is “laughably unheroic” in the role.

The film also plays all the right notes when considering its story structure, following the hero’s journey/character arc from reluctant no-good conman to redeemable superman by the end. There are parallels of father-daughter subplots between Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter and between Scott Lang (Rudd) and his daughter. There’s the slighted pupil turned evil bad guy against his mentor (Pym).

But for all of that, the film seemed flat and boring. All the plot points seemed to come about more by rote (as in, story structure says such and such an event must happen next) than through the organic growth of the characters and plot. The result was a very dry, predictable romp for the first 90 minutes of the movie. I kept waiting for the movie to surprise me, and it just didn’t do that.

Favorite quote:

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang (Ant-Man): My days of breaking in places and stealing stuff are over. What do you want me to do?

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym: I want you to break into a place and steal some stuff.

What other critics are saying:

Update (Aug. 12): I just came across this trailer from Werner Herzog on his interpretation of Ant-Man, in which Scott Lang is trapped in the insect world and experiences the grim brutality of nature. This could have been a cool take on the Ant-Man movie. No silly super-villains. Man against nature. Much more interesting.

So, have you seen Ant-Man? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Kyle Busch crash another wake-up call for NASCAR on safety

Kudos for NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway for their quick response to Saturday’s horrific accident involving Kyle Busch. Officials plan to begin adding soft tire barriers around all portions of the track not already protected by SAFER barriers. But, why is it we have to wait for something like this to happen before anyone does something about it?

Busch was seriously injured after his car was collected in a multi-car wreck in Saturday’s Xfinity Series at Daytona. His car careened across the infield just past pit road and slammed head-on into a concrete wall there. According to reports, he suffered a compound break of his lower right leg and a mid-foot fracture of his left foot. He’ll be out of action indefinitely while he recovers.

He was lucky. He could just as easily have been killed.

Incredulously, Daytona did not have SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barriers in place at this portion of the track. SAFER barriers, consisting of giant Styrofoam-like blocks, were built around race tracks to minimize the impact of cars crashing into the walls. The softer walls were introduced in 2002 and installed on most NASCAR and Indy tracks by 2005, according to ask.com.

For the most part, however, the softer walls only line the outside walls of any given race track.

Following Saturday’s crash, dozens of fellow drivers leveled harsh criticism over the lack of safer walls around the entire track. NASCAR and track president Joie Chitwood III, in turn, pledged to take immediate measures to put buffers in place on any exposed concrete walls. Temporary tire buffers should be in place prior to today’s Daytona 500 and permanent SAFER Barriers will be added after the race.

It’s great news, however overdue.

NASCAR and each of its track operators must have known that anything can happen in a race. Yes, the odds are low that anyone might hit that portion of the wall. But to play roulette with driver’s lives, is a gamble that should never be taken.

Sadly, this gamble has now cost the sport one of its best, most popular (and most hated) drivers for the foreseeable future.

NASCAR safety measures

Admittedly, NASCAR has made efforts to increase safety of its drivers, crews and even fans over the years. The SAFER Barriers are a perfect example.

Restrictor plates were added to stock cars in 1988 to help reduce horsepower. They became mandatory after driver Bobby Allison crashed and his car spiraled into the fencing around the track at Talladega Speedway.

After losing the greatest driver of this era, Dale Earnhardt, in a head-on crash at Daytona in 2001, the sport made use of the HANS device, a sort of harness fastened to the driver’s helmet,  mandatory. The safety measure is designed to keep drivers from suffering life-threatening injuries to their head and neck in the event of a sudden stop.

Roof flaps were added to NASCAR vehicles after several terrifying crashes in the 1990s in which cars rolled over multiple times on high-speed tracks like Talladega and Michigan. The flaps open and disrupt air flow when a car gets sideways and air tries to get under the vehicles and force them up and over. They were further modified in 2013.

Taking chances

Not all of the improvements have been well-received, nor widely embraced when first introduced.

Many argue the advent of restrictor plates is responsible for the multi-car wrecks at Daytona and Talladega that have become the norm, and increase the potential for serious injury. Spectators and announcers alike bide their time just watching for “the big one” to occur. And, it inevitably does.

The HANS device was actually designed in the early 1980s, but didn’t become a mandatory safety device until after Earnhardt’s death. Many drivers, including Earnhardt, derided the device as being too confining and actually stated they would rather take their chances. It took Earnhardt’s death to end any arguments to the contrary.

Now we have an obvious lack of SAFER Barriers.

Amazingly, some drivers expressed surprise after Saturday’s crash that there were no barriers on that part of the track. They were quick to criticize NASCAR for its lack of safety, but did any of them ever walk the track to see where the potential dangers lied? Did any of them petition NASCAR to add SAFER Barriers to exposed walls?  Shouldn’t drivers demand safety measures be met at all tracks before blindly hopping behind the wheel?

Driving any race car – whether it’s a stock car, Formula One car, Indy car or funny car – is inherently risky. It takes tremendous courage for drivers to suit up and go wheel to wheel with other drivers at such high speeds for hundreds of miles. The speed and the thrill of chasing the checkered flag obviously outweigh the dangers for some. (I know I can get white-knuckled just driving at 75 mph on the interstate, let alone what these drivers do.)

It takes a special sort of individual to perform at that level week after week. Unfortunately, it takes a terrible tragedy like Busch’s wreck to bring about change.

Addendum (7-7-15):

It was great to see Daytona and NASCAR follow through on their pledge to expand soft walls at Daytona this past weekend as an added safety measure. But Kyle Busch also makes a valid point about the need to eliminate infield grass areas that add peril to cars as they are skidding out of control. I hope we see this addressed soon.

Lastly, kudos to NASCAR for its safety catch fence that, for the most part, did its job in keeping Austen Dillon’s car from careening into the grand stands on the final lap of the race. Though some debris did get through and caused a few fans minor injuries, the catch fence did its job. What’s more, NASCAR’s commitment to safety in the construction and design of its vehicles also did its job Sunday as Dillon was able to walk away from what otherwise could have been a deadly accident.

Additional reading:

Earnhardt Jr. credits NASCAR for safety efforts