Should-Reads: RED RISING, by Pierce Brown

Red Rising (Red Rising, #1)Golden Son (Red Rising, #2)Morning Star (Red Rising, #3)

Pierce Brown’s debut trilogy has the fingerprints of several great fantasy and sci-fi epics all over it, while simultaneously carving out a wide chunk for itself in the larger literary mythos of our time. Imagine a futuristic Roman Empire in space, with all of the technological and societal advances promised in our age, and then some.

Premise: 700 years from now, mankind is broken into groups and genetically altered to fit different tasks assigned to them. There’s no advancing outside of your “color” (assigned class.) Darrow, a Red, thinks he lives a normal life as a grunt on Mars, drilling for resources, but when he learns he’s actually a slave, he joins a rebellion to overthrow the ruling class.

Setting: Predominately Mars in the future, but across the course of the trilogy, the characters travel to Phobos, Luna (our moon), the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter.

Genre: Science fiction

Lesson: Good night above, there are too many to list. On its face, it’s a standard rebellion story, but there is so much more meat on these bones than just that. Too many times to count, I read these books (twice now all the way through) and thought “How does a guy so young know so much?” Astonishing wisdom permeates these pages.

My favorite character: Sevro au Barca, a.k.a. ‘Goblin’. Talk about a ruthless dude with no filter, who spends a lot of the book as a peripheral chaotic good, only to face the fallout of his choices later on.

Why you should read it: Despite the commonplace premise, Brown has proven that he deserves to be here, and that he writes more than just another nameless popcorn adventure. This is a series bursting at the seams with characters you will either fear, admire, or hate, but at no point will you feel nothing at all for them. I will read this trilogy many times yet, to learn how Brown writes so well.

Of note: To the extent that it might matter to you, this series is, shall we say, “authentically Roman.” So the violence isn’t candy-coated, and while the author doesn’t revel in it, he doesn’t shy away from it either. The reality of war is depicted with brutal veracity. Plenty of profanity and vulgarity comes from the rougher characters (no F-bombs until book 3, though.) And while sensuality also has its role, there’s only one true “in-room” scene near the end of book 2. If those are dealbreakers for you, be warned.

Otherwise, enjoy.

Talk Trash, Eat Trash: Bike Race Edition

Teenage boys talk trash. That’s just biology. The smart ones are tactical about it, and then there’s 15 year-old Graham.

I got fat in my mid-teens. I cut P.E. In favor of a drawing class, and started eating all the time. Once I realized I was sneaking up on 200 pounds, I decided to start exercising again. (You don’t burn calories at a drawing table, I discovered.)

So I set up a bike and trainer in our workshop out back, dropped an Offspring album in the CD player, and started pounding out circuits in the evening. The worst of the weight melted off over the course of months, and my confidence grew.

Around this time, my dad and sister were participating in a series of bicycle criterium races in Southern Cali, and we went down there about once a month to cheer them on. I think it was April or May of 2000 when, after a few months of spinning (and a 50-miler in Mexico where I blew a tire), I was feeling pretty damn bulletproof.

I’ve heard it said that humanity and the lowest form of bacteria are only about 10% different when it comes to genetic coding, or something to that effect. I don’t know, ask a scientist. The thing that sticks in my head is that all life on Earth comes from the same biological stock, and once you start narrowing that by phyla and genus and class and all that, we have a ton in common with our fellow mammals.

An apt simile, then, would be to say that I was like a wolf, territorial, anxious to assert dominance and demand the respect of other teenaged boy wolves with bad musical taste. The problem was, I had never actually been in a wolf fight, but I had imagined it a TON while spinning in a workshop after dark.

When I saw other teenage boys warming up for their own crits, I started talking trash about how they were skinny California twerps and I could totally wreck them on a bike. It didn’t take long for my family to get sick of me repeating this, and before I knew it, I was wearing my dad’s spare jersey and cleats, sitting on his 20-pound aluminum racer, surrounded by 150-pound Twerps, waiting for the race to start.

(They let you do that if you sign a waiver.)

It was essentially 20 laps or so around a city block where there was an elementary school in West Covina. The race started, and I went off like a cannon, smoking those twerps and giving them a good view of my (imaginary) sculpted posterior. I was awesome! I was unstoppable! I was gonna win this thing SO HARD!

20 laps, you say? Why not just end it at half a lap? Cause that’s when I blew up.

Soon the Twerps were lapping me. Then again. Then again. Before long I was almost lapped out. On my 10th, they were on their 16th. By their 20th, I think I had completed 12 or 13. If you’re grading that, I scored a 65% on a Can Your Cardio Cash The Check Your Mouth Just Wrote test.

As for my mouth, it was back at the van with the rest of me, choking on a baker’s dozen of hot, fresh, gooey STFUpcakes.

It was the kind of story that became family legend before the ink had even dried. To this day, we’ll get together as a family to hang out or play games, and we’ll all start jabbing each other, and then we pull out our Universal Argument Enders, and mine inevitably goes to “Yeah? How ’bout that bike race?”

Frankly, that’s as it should be. It’s important to overcome those parts of your biology. I mean yeah, we need to eat and sleep and challenge ourselves in between, but it’s also important to get kicked in the huevos every now and then so you remember what you’re made of. Otherwise you end up being that guy sitting on the couch watching TV with both hands stuck in Pringles cans, making fun of Olympians who only come in second.

Don’t be that guy. Go lose a race once in a while!

Then shut up and get back to work.

Wednesdays and the Work in Progress: Ides of March edition

As of last night, I’m just over 18,000 words in THE KORBADELL JOB. Every book I’ve ever written has thrown me a curveball during the first draft, and this one is no different.
The curve right now is that it’s too wordy. I have 37 chapters outlined, including a fast-moving action climax in the third act, and my target word count is around 80,000. (The first Fablehaven book was around 75,000 for reference.) 
At this rate though, I’ll break 120,000 words by the end, and that makes me nervous. My intended publisher won’t want it at that length, especially because I’m not yet established as an author. 
No matter how good I’ve gotten over the years, I have never cut 33% of the words from a draft. That’s a tall order for anyone.
I’m not going to change my writing speed, though. The most important thing to do with a first draft (for me anyway) is to finish it so I can fix it later. I’ve always preferred edits to drafting, because I feel like I’m better at diagnosing problems than I am at building things.
So I’ll allow myself to Hemingway this thing, get a crappy first draft out of the way, and then worry about making it right.
(With a chainsaw.)

Trucker Man Reads Girly Books: UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN by Renee Collins

TMRGB is a blog series wherein I, a HazMat trucker and blast crew grunt, recommend effeminate fiction to the masses.

Generations ago, when America was in the throes of the Great Depression, the federal government tried to spur the economy on by paying for public works projects. One of them was the structure we know today as Hoover Dam.

It’s a monument of triumphant engineering and unbridled masculine labor from an era when safety regulations were for sissies, now get back in that mineshaft with the diesel fumes and MAKE QUOTA.
Nowadays we have stuff like OSHA to keep that from happening, but man is still finding ways to beat nature into submission near my hometown. I give you the I-11 Bypass, a highway designed to alleviate traffic around Boulder City, NV and Hoover Dam.

If you’ve ever been down there, you’re probably scratching your head and saying, “But Trucker Man, you already have highways on all the flat ground by the dam.”
I know! That’s why we punched a hole through a mountain nearby. 
I was fortunate enough to be a part of this venture, not only delivering equipment and fuel, but blasting sections of the roadway as well. 

And on one particular day, there was a shot on a hill that was so steep and inaccessible, my truck couldn’t climb it. I had to chain my rig to the back of a bulldozer so he could drag me up to work.
Facial hair. Red meat. Screaming eagles overhead.

But while I waited for the bulldozer, I read a book, and that book was UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN by Renee Collins. 
What’s it about, you ask? Well there’s this chick, forced to endure a brutal summer of hardship in the labor mines of North Korea…wait nope, she’s on a summer vacation in a rich neighborhood on the Massachusetts coast, my bad. 

Um, yeah, okay so she is having a tough time, family issues and what, when she accidentally discovers that her beach (right? The beach belonging to her house, that’s so sick) is a time portal to the 1920s, and she meets a Hot Guy there, but he’s stuck in the past, and they only have that summer before the time portal closes, so you’d better believe they’re gonna make out. (Which is really why we read these books anyway.)
Oh also she has to help him solve his own pending murder, which she learns about at the local library.
I didn’t finish the book that day, but I did finish it a few days later in the cab of an explosives truck, waiting out an intense rainstorm so we could finish blowing up a mountain. It’s a summertime book and it made me happy on a day of bad weather, which many of my fellow Americans are currently enjoying.
So pick up a copy. I’ve got to get back to work, we’re about to set off a shot near a neighborhood full of rich golfers, this is gonna be fun.

The Gutsiest Thing I Did In High School

More often than not, I’m met with disbelief when I tell people I was a cheerleader in high school. In their defense, it’s been 15 years, and I’m not the lithe 170-pounder I was when I graduated. Back then, I’d rip my shorts when I did a toe-touch. Today, I’d rip a groin.

But I was, and I’m really glad for it, because it was one of those things that taught me more than any bookwork I ever did in class. It taught me to figure out something that I wanted, and then go for it, damn the torpedoes.

Keep in mind, I did this in 2001, before the numerous homosexual epithets that we know and love today became so widely taboo. If I went through an entire day without somebody asking me right to my face whether I was attracted to other dudes, I’d wonder if people didn’t recognize me.

(And as secure as I’ve always been in my liking of the fairer sex, when you’re 17, that stuff tends to wear on you at some point. At least, it did to me. But I put up with it, because that’s just what you do.)

To give you some context, I never really played any sports in school prior to trying out for cheer. I fiddled around with roller hockey in my freshman year, but only because my brother did it too, and the school “team” (really just a club) was so short on participants and they needed a rotational guy for the right wing D. (You know…for all the games we played. :P)

I got back into cycling my sophomore year, but not through school. Then my junior year rolled around, my big brother had gone off to college, and suddenly I was the oldest kid at home, and that had a big impact on me, having been Numeros Dos growing up. Early that school year, I saw the posters for the Powderpuff Game, kind of laughed it off, then stopped myself and thought…

Why not?

Suddenly I wasn’t looking for reasons not to do it. I wasn’t considering what my brother might say if he found out I wanted to do it. I was figuring out ways that I could just do it.

So I took a shot at it. I endured the laughs and the jokes and the ribbing from my peers. I hung out after school with a bunch of guys who were in much better shape than I, and we learned from the varsity cheer girls (who, surprise, were much better at cheer than we were) how to do some basic builds and fool around with pom-poms on the sideline. We had a heck of a time goofing off, the game came and went, and once it was all done, I found myself thinking…man, I could still do that.

I wouldn’t have been the first male cheerleader at my school. There were already two guys, one on varsity, one JV, so the trailblazing aspect of it was well and handled. I chewed on it all year long. I exercised, lost a few more pounds, built some upper body strength, and spent a week of after-school sessions at tryouts.

Come Friday, with no previous experience, just busting my hump and learning from Larry and Chris, as well as the outgoing senior girls…I made varsity.

And I learned a TON about myself in the process. I don’t know how much I’ve ever opened up to anyone about this in the years since, but of all the decisions I ever had to make in my teenage years, joining the cheer squad sticks out clearly in my memory as the one most outside my comfort zone.

Yet it gelled so well with who I am. I’m loud. I’m explosive. I’m obnoxious and colorful and get way too into things that I like. (These things are not always virtues. Learning to temper them was a process that lasted most of my 20s, but that’s a story for another day.)

My wife can tell you of the numerous decisions I made in my youth that I would go back and change, if I could. Or of the things I’d go back and tell myself, so I could get started sooner. These are things we plan to teach our boys, about having foresight, wanting something, learning how to get it, and so forth.

But she’s never once heard me express regret about being a cheerleader. I never have. It’s less about the sport itself, and more about the fact that I finally learned how to see something I wanted and grab it without giving a single damn what anyone else thought about it.

And in my adult life, that has so often made the difference.

As we clear out our garage, deciding what things to take on our move to Utah, we occasionally come across old mementos of things that we don’t really need to keep. I still have my cheer megaphone, which cost me $50 back in the day, and was custom air-brushed by local artist Shawn Ealy. I decided to part ways with it, and was just going to toss it, when my wife suggested donating it to my alma mater. I did (and the current principal happens to have been my Spanish teacher back in my teens) and we’ll be delivering it in the coming weeks.

Hopefully I’ll figure out how to condense the guts of this post to a single sheet of paper, so it can hang with the cone in the display case on campus. Not necessarily to inspire a new generation of cheer-bros, but rather to embolden everyone to shake off their fears and choose what they want for themselves.

That was the takeaway for me, anyhow.

That’s all. Get back to work.

Wednesday and the Work-in-Progress: 3/8/17

At least once a week, I’d like to take a minute to update you guys on the story I’m working on for the time being. One of my struggles as a writer has been to focus on just one thing at a time, and give it the attention it needed. (In the summer of 2009, I tried to write three books in as many months. They each turned out about as well as you’d expect.)

So if you’ve been following me on Twitter or Instagram, you know that the book I’m doing right now is called THE KORBADELL JOB. I haven’t yet settled on a name for its intended series, but the working name is Brimstone’s Boomers. It’s about a drilling-and-blasting company in a fantasy setting, and they’re hired to do a stealth incursion into an enemy nation and blow up their headquarters.

I got the idea from the place where I work. Back in October, I was dispatched up to Northern Nevada, where my brother-in-law and I were to do an ANFO shot at a gypsum mine. I’m not allowed to post videos of our shots online, but here’s one I found on YouTube that demonstrates what our shots look like:

My BIL, Austin, slept for most of the drive, and I was listening to Harry Potter on my headset, having fantastic little daydreams about books and whatnot, when the idea struck me: what if, in the standard-issue Fantasy Quest Novel, instead of sending a team of ragtag farmers and non-fighters into the heart of the Evil Empire to destroy a Super Powerful Artifact…someone hired a blast crew to do it instead?

The fact that I was driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation at the time probably helped to feed this fantasy.

(photo courtesy of Davemeistermoab)

Anyway, it was just a sarcastic little idea that I had. I still had plenty of book ideas to tackle…but a conversation with an author friend of mine steered me back to this idea. Adapting it as a middle-grade fantasy seemed like the smartest take, and since I hadn’t yet developed it too far in my mind, I wasn’t resistant to the idea of making it a kids’ novel.

Thus, here we are.

In November, I got the chance to worldbuild the whole thing while I was pulling a late night at work. (This is pretty meta, actually.) The company I work for had loaded a shot in the ground, stemmed it, all that–essentially it was ready to fire, but it couldn’t be set off for some reason, and the law dictates that we can’t leave explosives unattended or unsecured, so I volunteered to do it, knowing that I had writing to do.

No automatic alt text available.

There I was, figuring out my fantasy blasting novel, whilst doing real blasting work.

Right now I’ve almost got the outline dialed in. I tried writing the first chapter last night but I was tired, and it came out poorly, so I didn’t push it too far.

The ultimate goal is to send it to Shadow Mountain, my publisher of choice for youth fantasy. (Other than, yanno, DreadPenniesUSA.) I’d really like to get it in the mail to them by May, but I won’t force it if it’s not ready. I want them to love it as much as I do, and I think it’s got a much better chance than the work I’ve sent them in the past (mostly old versions of SIDEWINDER.) I mean come on, middle-grade fantasy with STEM and a colorful spread of multispecial characters? I just…might…make it.

I’ll keep you posted 🙂

Should-Reads: FABLEHAVEN, by Brandon Mull

Brandon Mull has written a ton of middle-grade books in the last ten years, but the bedrock series of his career is still the Fablehaven novels, which smartly began between books 6 and 7 of Harry Potter. While millions of crazed fans were waiting to find out how Harry would fight Voldemort, thousands of them sated that hunger with a fantastic voyage to a magical creature preserve in Connecticut, USA.
Premise: Kendra and her brother Seth have to spend two weeks with their grandparents in Connecticut. They’re eccentric and somewhat withdrawn. It doesn’t take long for the kids to learn that their grandparents secretly manage a wildlife preserve for magical creatures, and most of them can be remarkably dangerous.
Things naturally go south from there.
Setting: Starts out in the eastern US, but as the series progresses, they go all over the place. There are preserves across the world, and with the help of a teleportation artifact, the characters (and readers!) get to visit many of them.
Genre: Fantasy.
Lesson: Be brave, use your imagination, and make some spectacularly bad decisions along the way, and who knows? You might end up with magical powers for the rest of your life! (I jest. It’s ultimately a tale about being bold and fearless, using your imagination, and understanding that whether you end up as a villain or a hero is up to you.)
My favorite character: The obvious choice is either Kendra or Seth, right? But I’m gonna play a little inside baseball and say Patton Burgess was my favorite. The dude fought a centaur barehanded.
Why you should read it: There’s no shortage of middle-grade fantasy out there, most of it predictable or at least unable to reach past its target audience. And if I’m being fair, I don’t imagine that I’d get super pulled in to book 1 if I were to read it again now that I’m in my 30s. But I was one of those readers hungry for something fantastical to read while I waited for the next Harry Potter, and it definitely scratched that itch.
Then book 2 happened, and I realized just what I was dealing with: someone who could craft a sleight-of-hand plot twist about as well as Rowling could, and wouldn’t hesitate to pull the rug out from under you right when you got comfortable. Mull put a lot of thought into the potential twists and turns this series could take, and it shows. So read book 1, have fun with it, and then get ready to be tricked from there on out.
Of Note: the spinoff series Dragonwatch launches this month.

Something Great for Something Greater

For the second time in a decade, I’m planning a move from Nevada to Utah. 
The wife and I have been talking about it for a couple of years. Henderson is and always will be home, yet at the same time I feel an itch not to be stationary just for sentimentality’s sake; there are things we want, and we can make them happen more readily in a different place, so we’re going to move.
The plan is for it to go down this summer, when our lease is up. I’m still in the homework phase of job searching, fortunately our friends are helping out in that area. 
Much like I did in 2008, I of course have reservations. I have a good job here! Great friends and co-workers. Family all around. A bucket of memories on every block.
But there are better things for me and my family, that I have a better opportunity to achieve if we get set up in Utah for a few years. I have lots of fun at my job right now, blowing things up and mythologizing the work on Instagram, but I also work with guys who are ten, twenty, thirty years my senior. I see the toll it takes on their bodies to be 4AM risers in an unstable industry. Plenty of them are still trying to get “other things” going on the side. My income might support a wife and two toddlers, but can it support two teenaged boys, and any other kids we’ll have? Maybe not. I shouldn’t make assumptions.
So I want to go where I’ll have more flexible education opportunities (and abundant employment offers) in tech and programming. I want to be able to take my kids abroad, teach them trades at a young age, put them in sports and stuff. And I want to set an example of visionary pursuit, to not just tell them, but show them that if you want something, you ought to chase it! Then pin it down, slit its throat, stuff its head and mount it on the wall.
On top of all that, I have a vision of myself as a successful author and artist. I’m going to a place where I can work more conventions, meet more readers, talk with them, and share my work. I’m only 32, but there are plenty of things I wished I had done differently at 22. I’m not going to wait until I’m 42 before I decide I should do things differently now. 
That’s it. Cat’s out of the bag, the Bradleys are planning on moving this summer. More details to come! And if you know of anyone paying top dollar for local drivers in the Utah County area, holler at me 🙂
Thanks everyone. 

Should-Reads: AIRMAN, by Eoin Colfer

While he’s most famous for his Artemis Fowl series, Colfer’s best work is, in my opinion, this swashbuckling standalone about revenge, love, and ingenuity.
Premise: think The Count of Monte Cristo, only instead of digging his way out of prison, our (teenaged) protagonist has to build a flying machine. Balloons, gliders, and heavier-than-air craft are all discussed in fascinating detail.
Setting: Ireland, early 1800s. Specifically the Saltee Islands.
Genre: Historical fiction, wouldn’t go so far as to call it steampunk because it seems rather grounded in our world. I don’t know if the islands ever actually had diamond mines and a regal throne, but they’ve been unoccupied for over a hundred years in real life.
Lesson: Ultimately a tale of endurance and diligence, even when everything you love has been taken from you and turned against you.
My favorite character: No contest, really: it’s Conor, the main character. But then, you do spend the most time with him, as a reader.
Why you should read it: I recommend it because it’s great fun, has a touching romantic element, and falls under the umbrella of my recently-defined genre of gritpunk, where a boy who’s forced to become a man engages in a revenge plot that leaves nothing half-done.