My Best Books of 2015

85 books in all (38 in print, 47 on audio.)

Keep in mind that I am currently reading Jennifer A. Nielsen’s A NIGHT DIVIDED, and if I finish it during the Christmas break, it will very likely make this list. Others would have made the list, but I tried to keep it pretty narrowed down.


BUNTLINE SPECIAL, by Mike Resnick. A fast and fluid twist on Western US history, where the Indians had magic and the frontiersman had steampunk-ish technology on their side, and larger-than-life historical personalities brought their various interests to bear against each other. Very interesting, great dialogue, and a great pace. Cons: language and sensual content. (F-bombs, and there’s a brothel in the story. Nothing happens in-scene, but it’s discussed.)


LEAVES ON THE WIND, by Zack Whedon (& team). A wonderful trip back into the depths of the ‘Verse for fans of Firefly. Plenty of characters from the TV show & movie pop up in new and interesting ways, and with the signature wit and warmth that made the cinematic versions so popular. (Content warning: there’s a scene near the beginning where Mal & Inara have some skin time.)


AS YOU WISH by Cary Elwes. This is a heartwarming little account of the behind-the-scenes magic that made The Princess Bride such a successful film. I especially loved hearing the details about Andre the Giant’s life, and what everyone was like on set.

ATOMIC ROBO, by Bryan Clevinger (& team). I read the first two volumes of this series this year, and I eagerly await the time that I can read the next several. Robo is half Iron Man, half Captain America, built by Tesla to kill supernatural Nazis in WW2…but his adventures don’t end there. The series hops around in time, and you get to see this sarcastic robot do everything from fighting mummies to traveling to Mars, and there’s not shortage of hilarious supporting cast members. What an absolute gem of a comic.


ALEXANDER HAMILTON, by Ron Chernow. Glad I made the time for this series when I had a week of nothing but long haul runs to Reno and back. Hamilton was a very interesting man, and Chernow didn’t hold back when it came time to illustrate his flaws with all the same vigor that he used to highlight the man’s strengths. Completely indispensable during the American Revolution, regardless of whether he was ever President.

EVERWILD, EVERFOUND, by Neal Shusterman. This man’s imagination never ceases to amaze me. His unique take on the afterlife is a breath of fresh air in an era of YA that is all based on an established lore or mythology. Highly recommend.


MAKESHIFT MIRACLE, by Jim Zubkavich (& team). A beautiful watercolor comic about a group of teens that cross over into a dream realm and learn some truths about themselves. The entirety of this comic is available for free online, but after reading it I purchased the two-volume set in hardcover for my personal library. While at times sad and heavy to bear, the ending is rather moving, and moves one to feel hope.


THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, by David McCullough. I get why every child in America can’t spend an entire week on just two of the most important inventors in our nation’s history (because we’ve had a ton of them), but holy cow…McCullough brought up details of Wilbur and Orville’s story that I’d never heard before, and it’s amazing what people can do when they’re driven to accomplish something all on their own. (And I found it especially funny that they did with $1,000 and their own time that the government couldn’t do with $70,000.)


THE FOOD OF SPAIN by Claudia Roden. Thanks, Claudia. Now I’m Spain-trunky, and dying for a jamon y queso sandwich.


THE HOLLOW BOY by Jonathan Stroud. Third in a series, and it doesn’t quit. Fans of Sherlock will recognize the feel of a wonderfully fleshed-out London that is overrun with ghosts, and can only be saved by the teenagers capable of seeing them. I can’t say much about the third installment without recapping too much from the first two. I’m just glad that when it ended, it made it clear that there would be more.


THE BARBIZON DIARIES by James Owen. Holy $#!t. If DRAWING OUT THE DRAGONS was going to make you re-think your own toughness and motivation, imagine going through what Owen did in this one.


FIRES OF INVENTION by J. Scott Savage. Wow. Savage saved some of his best writing–and his most entertaining ideas–for this series, and it deserves to take a huge bite of Riordan’s audience and drag it down into a steampunk apocalypse. Plus, mechanical dragons! Waaaaaaaant.



THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE TRIPOLI PIRATES by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yeager. Keeping up with the historical pieces I read this year, this one did not disappoint. Just a further testament that in the hardest moments of this nation’s early history, stronger men than I am would rise to the occasion and fight tyranny in the name of freedom. These are the people that we honor on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, and after you read these accounts, you’ll never doubt why.

That one time when @Coby Fleener helped me move stuff at work

There’s a lot of well-deserved noise to be made about the uselessness of social media. It’s vain, it’s stupid, it’s a vortex of trolls…these are true, but they aren’t absolutes, as there are a great many uses for things like Twitter and Instagram (screw Facebook though), and one of them came clear to me this morning at work.

Now, probably 42% of everyone I follow on the above platforms are members of the Indianapolis Colts. One in particular is star tight end Coby Fleener, #80, out of Stanford University. Coby has been posting a lot lately about how tight ends have to be the most athletic players in the NFL, because they catch, they block, they run, they do it all. (Coby also has biceps the size of Christmas hams, and occasionally the Norse god Thor has warned him that his hair is getting a little long, but I digress.)

Well, today I had to put fork extenders on a huge Taylor tractor while I was working in the yard. The extenders were each about ten feet long, tubular, a foot wide, made of half-inch thick steel. They are heavy. They weigh all the pounds. I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s bad.

Normally they’re on the ground where I can just stab the forks into them from the comfort of the driver’s seat, but today someone parked a bunch of trailers in front of them, and the only way to get them out without running to the other side of the yard, getting a truck, and making a chaotic time-consuming mess of it, was to pull them through the dirt, by hand, by myself.

I did it. And it sucked. And I got really, really winded, like I haven’t in years. I’m only 30, and I run regularly, and I get plenty of exercise at home and at my job, so I’m not out of shape, these things are just beastly heavy. And I kept thinking man, if only I were an athletic monster, this would be a lot easier.

And it was during the drag of the second freakishly heavy extender that I, for reasons unknown to me, heard Coby Fleener shouting in my ear, like he was reading the text of his own Instagram post, “TIGHT ENDS ARE THE MOST VERSATILE ATHLETES IN PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL.” I imagined him pumping 100-lb barbells as he said it. His hair probably grew three more inches in the process.

None of this makes much sense to me because I have never A) been a tight end, B) played any real football, and/or C), been an employee of the NFL. Nevertheless, it was Coby Fleener’s ghost spewing Champion Stuff into my ear that got me to drag that extender the last ten feet (forty in all) so that I could put it on the forklift and offload the truck that had been waiting for me this whole time.

Look, I’m not saying there will always be a justification for some of the stuff I follow on social media, but in this case, tight end Coby Fleener had my back.

Go Colts.

Rebel Heart Annotations, 3 of 3.

(Final installment.)

Chapter 10

Retroactive! I confess, when I got to this part in the outline, I needed an excuse for Edsel not to be available—one Calvin would accept. That would mean going back and establishing something. A pox seemed like the way to go, so I had Shantewa Goodall talk about it. Then came the discussion on quarantines and the like. Combined with the abrupt nature of his dispatch, Calvin would just go with it and follow orders.

-And that’s how the McCrackens got rid of him.

Misfortune. When his muffler blew, that was just bad luck. Or perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, it was an act of divine intervention? Imagine how different this book—and its sequels—would be if Calvin hadn’t attracted the attention of the mages down below?

A million uses. Yes. Calvin used duct tape on his muffler. ‘Merica.

Centerpiece! The two-page spread of Calvin flying away is easily the best drawing of the book. When we first scanned them in, most of the drawings looked like crap, and this one made me the saddest. Fortunately a Sharpie treatment and a re-shoot solved the problem, and it looks better than ever.

Chapter 11

Authenticity. Finding the right balance for writing British dialogue took a few tries. You don’t want to overdo it with apostrophes and words misspelled for the sake of dialect; one thing that helped was I found a website with tons of old British slang, which I worked in when I could, just so the mages didn’t talk like the duffers they so despised. I only played up the dialect when they were drunk (which for Fitz and Birty means pretty much all the time.)

Light values. The drawing with the grenade going off was one of the harder pieces of this book. Keep in mind that I illustrated the whole thing with mechanical pencils and a crappy No. 2 for heavier shading. I foolishly thought it would be enough from the outset, and learned otherwise by the end. Still, even with a good set of graphites or charcoals, this would have proven difficult for my skill level, as I had never given so much attention to a light source in a piece before. I really had to think in layers and shadows, as I was considering Calvin in the foreground (behind a tree), Birty and Godfrey in the clearing, and the depths of the forest beyond them. The grenade blast would yield a slight, rapid burst of light, and would cast sudden shadows outward in all directions. I’m pleased with the overall effect, even if I had to lighten Calvin a little bit for him to show.

FINALLY. Also, this is the chase scene that originated in the web serial that I wrote in 2011. The scene with the grenade was there too, except Leon (Calvin) killed two mages with the grenade and shot the third with his blunderbuss. That made, Troy (Godfrey) had wrapped himself in his flying carpet and fortified it with an armor spell, so he survived. Leon knew Troy survived, but fled anyway. Like I said, I wrote those scenes in a flash to get them on the site; flaws like this were why I stopped writing it.

-But, as with the grenade drawing, I’m pleased now with the result. It was all grist for the mill.

Chapter 12

A villain is born. The infamous Godfrey chapter. In so many ways, this was just like writing a first chapter. It demanded the most revision, I think. First, I had to make sure it kept Godfrey’s tone. It was okay if he mirrored some of Calvin’s anger and bitterness, but he couldn’t maintain Calvin’s quiet competitiveness. Godfrey could be quiet, after a fashion, but he wasn’t there to compete. He had his place in his mind. He was better than everyone around him. He was too good for this job, for this continent, for this banishment. Too good for his own family. And he was only fourteen. All of these things had to inform his narration, so I had to go over it at different intervals and make sure that Calvin wasn’t leaking through (since I’d been writing him this whole time.)

-Dialect and vocab were important too; Calvin was a working-class bumpkin with a narrow education, while Godfrey was just posh enough to expect better things out of life than what he had.

So begins the hunt. Because Godfrey’s purpose in the story is directly connected to Calvin, it was easy to paint his ambition, his motivation, with such energy. He is a villain truly defined by the hero. As we learn that Baltimore has changed since Calvin stood up to Fitz and Birty, Calvin becomes more than just another technomancer recruit. There’s a price on his head, so capturing him would be symbolic. And Godfrey needs a symbolic win. Thus, their rivalry is born.

Chapter 13

Yet another antagonist. Edsel wasn’t a malicious antagonist for Calvin. Godfrey was, but he wasn’t an immediate threat. This is where Hamilton comes in, someone malicious and immediate, to give Calvin a new challenge. Most of that challenge comes to a head in SUICIDE RUN. The reader is meant to truly hate this man, the insane captain of the TechMan army. He’s not at the top of the food chain, he’s just in very good graces with the people who run the show, so that gives him leeway. You’ll also learn in book two that Hamilton was essentially a child soldier, having joined up at age 9. No matter your army’s cause, putting a kid into a war is only going to wrap his brain in layers of psychosis. The army doesn’t have psychological practitioners; figures who have endured the life that Hamilton has lived, well, they just become what they become. He’s functional, even rational, he’s just not moral.

How can I kick you in the groin today? The plot twist that comes about in this chapter was a very seat-of-the-pants decision that I made when writing the web serial. Like I said, I had the vision of a guy flying on a dragon-machine through the midnight woods. He’s cornered by wizards. He fights them off and keeps going. For a while you see some Godfrey chapters (including scenes from what became book two). Then Calvin reaches Camp Liberty (then it was League City in Texas; I had to change it to Ohio for the reboot, because in this story Texas is still a contested space belonging to Spain.) It’s only at Camp Liberty that he realizes he was duped by Old Man McCracken, without immediately knowing why. In the original, the reason was still Amelia, but the conflict with the McCracken boys hadn’t come up yet.

Foreshadow…The chase scene with the emergent gryphon mimics was also a holdover from the serial, but they weren’t manned by the recruiters who had brought Calvin in. That just hadn’t been established. When drafting this version, I wanted Calvin to cross paths with them for a moment, to keep them relevant. It won’t be the last time they run through the ruins of Youngstown..

-Major Tyler? Jodie Foster.

Chapter 14

-Hank Duncan? T.Y. Hilton, wide receiver, Indianapolis Colts.

-Hank’s character was originally named Paul. I thought it was too generic, so I changed it.

Be careful what you drop. The emotional imprint spell that Godfrey uses was another holdover. However, it only put him on Calvin’s trail in the beginning. Then he lost the trail, so he took the dregs of the spell to a blood magician, who was able to put a stronger trace on him. That character appears in book two, and with a much, much more intense role.

Serendipity. As to the nickname of the 7th Mimic Brigade, I seriously didn’t come up with that until I outlined this chapter. I had already decided to title the book “Rebel Heart”, but until this moment it was only descriptive of Calvin. As I introduced him to the brigade, this clicked in my head, and it felt too perfect to ignore. So I eased the reader into it, showing other brigades with other nicknames, only to have Calvin miss the name of the brigade to which he’d been assigned. That way I could end with Hank officially bringing him aboard, with the closing line, “Welcome to the Rebel Hearts.”


So there you have it: a deconstruction/behind-the-scenes look at the Engines world and the characters in it. Once I’ve annotated SUICIDE RUN, I’ll post those notes here. 

Rebel Heart Annotations, 2 of 3.

(Continued from the previous post.)

Chapter 4

-At first I based Amelia off of my friend’s teenaged daughter. That quickly had to change, because the girl always had the same smile on her face no matter what. Soccer, dance, sleep, funerals, whatever. That change didn’t come about until the next book, though.

Fleshing out the female lead. Writing Amelia was a very smooth and natural exercise. She just jumped onto the page, fully developed. The first hard part came when I tried writing from her point of view in SUICIDE RUN. When Calvin describes her, she’s flawless, but in her own mind she knows she has weaknesses. I like how that worked.

Remember, this is fiction. If the recruits are training in three weeks, it makes sense that they’d do actual combat maneuvers in three days. Right? Right? Oh, the power of suspended disbelief.

-That mage that gets blown away? John Cleese.

Note: frosted iron knives are used for the first time. The fabrication device for those things is probably one of the highest levels of technology in the Engines world. I intentionally added krypton to the process, for reasons of general Superman fandom on my part.

Chapter 5

-Brian McCracken? Will Poulter.

Consequences. I couldn’t just glaze over the fact that Calvin had killed a man. While it doesn’t dominate his every waking thought after that, it does strike him at the proper moments. It was too important a detail to leave out; while this is an America more accustomed to the hard side of life, where most people have killed their own food at one point, it would have been easy to say “Oh, they just take life if they have to.” But that would have meant Calvin esteemed certain people the way he esteemed livestock…and that wouldn’t make him any different from the mages, in some contexts.

Heating up. Also, I wanted to strengthen Calvin’s connection to Amelia. They were bound to have a romance, so the link needed some meat on its bones. The pantry scene got them alone, working together, so it was a step in the right direction.

Chapter 6

-Rockefeller was Robert Picardo. Fitting, as he’s the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager.

-Goodall is my sis-in-law Shantewa.

-Whitney’s physical description is based on Paul Teutel Sr. of American Chopper fame, but his demeanor and skillset are based on the father of a childhood friend, who owns a tow truck company in the Vegas area.

Rivalry. Stepping up the competition between Calvin and Edsel was also important. Basically whenever Edsel was talking, he needed to be full of himself. His rivalry with Calvin would push them both to be better. My editors at first referred to Edsel as the “Malfoy” of my trilogy, so I had to tone him down and make him more self-absorbed than deprecating. He and Calvin could have a rough dynamic at first, but I didn’t want it to define their contrast too sharply.

Outdated. The warg mimic was an idea that I had so I could show older mimics that had been phased out for their flaws. Flying mimics of various models were much more useful. Still, I thought it was worth exploring.

Prize piece. I’m proud of all of the technopunk things I came up with for this series, but I’ve given myself many pats on the back for engineering the flight simulator. I put a good amount of thought into it, and I daydreamed about it often. It came together really well and it was a good tool for Calvin to use so he could improve himself against Edsel.

Giggity. The gryphon attack solved a few problems at once: show that Mount Vernon, the stronghold of the technomancer rebellion, is not immune to magical surveillance; and get Calvin and Amelia alone in such a way that it strengthens their attraction while earning Calvin more scorn from the McCracken family.

Chapter 7

-If Jack Badgett is anyone, he’s Tom Cruise from Top Gun. I may yet write a standalone novel about his adventures down the road. It was fun to have a little propaganda icon for the young mimic pilots to idolize.

Transcendent emotion.Without getting into all of the gory details, I feel like this scene came together tremendously well to illustrate a lot of things: fear of the really skilled mages, fear of sickness, fear of painful curses, that the technomancers have their own hero culture, and that Calvin (as well as Edsel) does not care about getting in trouble, not even with a mimic. This leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the book: Calvin and Edsel’s punishment.

Chapter 8

-Peter McCracken is based on a young Wil Wheaton.

Big kitties. I wrestled with the decision to call the big cats “painters” instead of “panthers.” While there are big gnarly tree cats in the woods of the eastern US, they’ve had different names at different times throughout history, and in an effort to give the series a colloquial flare, I went with “painter.” It painted the right kind of picture.

Poultry. My wife has never hunted turkeys so I can’t tell you if they really behave this way. Someday I expect I’ll get hate mail for this scene if I got something wrong.

Camaraderie. In a sense, this is the one chapter in the book where you see Edsel let his guard down and do something genuine. He does have a strong sense of self-importance, so putting him in a situation where he has to know that without Calvin he’d have been screwed, that gave me a chance to show his commendable side. His virtues.

NOW it’s getting steamy. The lavatory scene was not originally that enticing. When you have two women professionally editing your book, scenes like this will naturally end up with suggestions like “Take his shirt off” and “This needs to last longer” and “That kiss sucked.” So I turned up the heat a little bit. You’re welcome. Ladies.

Chapter 9

Whence comest thou?! The defining scene of this chapter is the part where Calvin pulls a gun on Edsel. I’ve analyzed it and honestly I can’t tell you where it came from. Lots of portions of the book have a natural, progressive genesis; you tell me the instigating moment, I can walk you through the steps to its conclusion. But this…no clue. It’s just one of those moments where Calvin took on a life of his own and it felt right. I knew what kind of character he would need to be if he was going to survive the suicide run and play the patriot’s game. This was the result.

Self-control…for now. I also felt it was important to show a slight shift in Calvin’s maturity by giving Edsel the original dispatch to Camp Liberty. Three weeks of intense physical training has to have some degree of emotional and mental impact; for Calvin, he started to get a grip on his temper, and by extension, his jealousy.

Little did he know…What Calvin doesn’t realize is that the McCrackens are luring him into a false sense of complacency so that when they spring the real summons on him, he doesn’t overthink it; he just goes for it, post-haste, right into their trap.


Rebel Heart Annotations, 1 of 3.



As part of the outlining and writing process for the third Engines of Liberty novel, I’ve been annotating books 1 and 2 to make sure I keep the continuity straight and deliver on the promises I’ve made. I thought I’d post the annotations here in case anyone wanted to see how I built the world and planned the illustrations.

A note on celebrity models for certain characters: while I did Google pictures of certain celebrities to use as models for the many characters in the Engines world, the annotations only name them for the purposes of showing the reader how each character came to look the way they did. I’m not actually marketing these characters as celebrities, actors, athletes, or what have you. No infringement intended, etc.


REBEL HEART Annotations 2015

Understanding this series requires that you understand its genesis. Here are the relevant parts.

Sometimes my stories are triggered by certain visuals. I get an idea, I have to flesh it out and build a world and a story around it, and so I do. With the Engines world, I first had an image of someone in a fantasy story using math and science to build a crude mechanical replica of a dragon. They eventually got a motor and propellers in it and got it to fly. Someone else didn’t like that, so they came to destroy it. Thus, the first thing I imagined was a young man rushing to the barn on the family ranch, kicking the doors open in the middle of the night, firing up his dragon machine, and racing into the dark woods, where he was summarily chased by wizards on brooms.

I wrote that scene a couple of times and soon started to “pants” a story about it. I set up a website where I would publish the story in installments of 1,000 words or so, accompanied by a crappy illustration in black and white. The story was called TECHNOMANCER. I made it about a dozen installments in before abandoning it for a time.

Two years later, as other ideas bounced around in my head, the title “Engines of Liberty” came to mind, and I thought of the story I’d set up in TECHNOMANCER. That title was too generic, but the Engines one sounded cool. I revisited the archives of the online serial and started to make a new book, which I developed into a trilogy.

There was plenty of work to do. For one, I had to come up with better character names. Calvin Adler and Godfrey Norrington were once Leon Jacobs and Troy Hampshire. (Gag me.) Those weren’t even the worst ones. To date, the only names that have survived the transition are McCracken and Hamilton. As I fleshed out the world and the story, it soon became clear that I couldn’t open up with Calvin jumping on the machine and flying into the woods. I needed to take several steps back and work my way up to that. Thus the story arc of REBEL HEART was born.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Chapter 1

The first chapter is always the hardest one to get right, mainly because I feel like I get it right the first time—and I’m always wrong.

-In the first version, when Calvin soaks the mages with the bucket of dirty water, his immediate reaction is fear and regret and “Oh crap I shouldn’t have done that.” My brother, the Ph.D, pointed out that that was inconsistent with the character portrait I was painting of Calvin Adler, the American Rebel. It meant that his bravery was fleeting. Fleeting bravery does not pave the way for larger acts of bravery after suffering the consequences of a smaller act. I needed Calvin to tick off the mages and stand by his choice to do so.

-The other oversight was pointed out to me by Emily and Holly, my editrices: for Godfrey Norrington, the mage who would become such a powerful antagonist by the story’s end, the reader needed a greater awareness of his presence. While I felt it would be jarring to put more “Godfrey” chapters in the midst of what is truly a “Calvin” story, I did go back to the beginning and add a snippet from his perspective so that the reader would more readily remember who he was when the time came.

Both of these suggestions really improved the strength of the story’s beginning.

-Note: I Googled a list of whimsical British names for pretty much all of the mages throughout the series. If I recall, I found a name generator of some sort and pieced together the names I liked, once that sounded sufficiently Anglo, all BBC and bowler hats and monocles and whatever.

The “Tanner’s/Adlers” piece: I used my brother-in-law Patrick as the model for Calvin. My other brother-in-law, Joseph, has been the main mold for Godfrey. It makes their conflict somewhat biblical in the end. As for Fitz and Birty, that’s author-illustrator-cartoonist-comic guru James A. Owen, alongside fantasy author maestro J. Scott Savage. They both have great talent, and I value their friendship quite a bit. That’s why their characters die such brutal deaths in this series.

I finished this drawing on what would have been my Mamaw’s birthday.

The recruiters. Tim Thomas (goalie for the Boston Bruins), Forrest Griffin (MMA fighter), and Pat McAfee (punter for the Indianapolis Colts) provided rough models for the three recruiters. Using real people helps me to avoid drawing the same character over and over.

-This drawing was finished on my mom’s birthday.

-John Schneider and Paige Turco are Calvin’s parents. Which is weird because the drawing looks nothing like either of those people. (Crap.)

Propaganda. Including propaganda seemed like a no-brainer. Even for an historical fiction, it seemed to frame everything in the right time and place.

Magic used: transfiguration, making vines appear, summoning spells, terramancy equations.

Chapter 2

The general. A drawing of George Washington could only be an epic drawing for this book. Whether it was intended as exciting propaganda or not is up to the reader, but I wanted him reared up on a horse with a rifle in hand.

The others. The models for the young recruits are all listed in the acknowledgements of the book, so I won’t re-list them here. Three of them are my cousins, two are nephews of friends, and the last one was modeled off of teenaged pictures of my attorney.

Not an ogre. Sometimes I wonder if people will look at the propaganda rendering of King George and get the wrong idea, so here’s clarification: in the Engines world, King George is not actually an ogre.

Architectural adjustment. No way is Mount Vernon large enough to fit an amphitheatre of that size, along with all of the other stuff I cram into it as the series unfolds. It doesn’t matter. I don’t establish its finite dimensions in the series, as it’s unnecessary. I feel like I did a good enough job showing the reader what they needed to see as it goes.

Established: the history of the first revolution. The Brits used propaganda against the colonials, and the fact that people actively resisted their own liberation brought Washington’s downfall.

Chapter 3

-Commodore McCracken is totally Jonathan Frakes.

Training camp. I’ve read a handful of military non-fiction from retired SEALs, so I got a sense of the toughness of their BUD/S training and the like. It’s insane. What the technomancers endure is maybe a tenth that difficult, because I didn’t want to overdo it, but I did try to capture that same sense of fatigue mixed with urgency.

Livestock. In the boar pen scene, the recruits originally had to run through a stampede of ornery cattle. My wife read that chapter and laughed it to scorn (she grew up on a dairy.) Ultimately I had to change “cattle” to something meaner and more prone to charging.

Desertion. Calvin making the choice to ditch the army was not one that I had originally planned on him making. He truly came alive for me in this chapter; he didn’t have the stomach to put up with other peoples’ crap, so he decided he was out, just like that. Of course, then the challenge became: how do I get him to stay?

Enter Amelia.


Best Reads of 2014

I’m still getting used to WordPress’s format for posting and writing, because I used Blogger for so many years. The goal is to have this be my main blog (I haven’t posted at On A Grahampage since my 30th birthday), but honestly blogging hasn’t been a priority for the last several months. Got too much else going on and all of it is more relevant than this.

Still, I like doing these posts. Good books should be shared, so here are the best of the books I read in 2014. (2013’s list is here.)


ALL YOU NEED IS KILL (Hiroshi Sakurazaka). Audio version. The Tom Cruise flick Edge of Tomorrow is based on this Japanese light novel. I’ve read some Japanese novels that suffered during their translation to English (looking at you, BATTLE ROYALE) but this wasn’t one of them. The writing was extremely well done, the flow was as smooth as Gatorade on a hot day, the characterization was intriguing and the backstory on the aliens was of great benefit to the reader. Basically the movie got all the bits that looked sensational on screen (not a complaint, that’s what movies are for) plus Bill Paxton as a Kentucky Master Sergeant–executed to perfection. The book, however, explained a lot of things that were left as wide-open gaps in the movie, and had a very different ending.

Content warning: let’s call it “realistic military profanity.” Nothing held back. The fight scenes were also graphic.


TRUE GRIT (Charles Portis.) Audio version. I might never have read this if not for the film adaptation (2010, Jeff Bridges. Still haven’t seen the John Wayne version.) This transcends the ranks of a genre western and reaches the prosaic level of literature that just happens to be a western. I don’t mean that as a pejorative toward genre fiction (I mean come on), this one is just clearly a cut above its peers, based on tone and the strength of the narrator’s voice. Clever, witty, engrossing, and compelling. With the exception of one single scene in the movie, this book was almost an exact script for the film, right down to the dialogue.

Content warning: Some profanity, nothing worse than an aggressive PG or a mild PG-13. Western-style violence. (Shooting and such.)


THE SHADOW THRONE (Jennifer Nielsen.) Read in print. I’ve gushed about the Ascendance trilogy before. This is the final book in the series. Nielsen held nothing back. It’s rare that a first book (THE FALSE PRINCE) that is that awesome can deliver follow-up volumes of equal or greater caliber. If this trilogy doesn’t get made into a series of movies, it’ll be a travesty. Plot twists, brilliant characters, unbelievable sleight of hand…all set in a fantasy world without magic or nonhuman races. Just ingenious.

BONE (Jeff Smith.) Read in print. I can’t narrow this down to just one volume, because it’s a huge epic that spans ten books if you’re reading the color versions. (There’s a black and white omnibus out there, but I wanted the real deal.) Best way to describe it? Like a Disney movie that you read, with all the color and heart and humor and gravity and cute critters and funny one-liners and…it just keeps going. All ages, all tastes, I recommend this series.

The Unwind dystology–specifically UNSTRUNG, UNSOULED and UNDIVIDED (Neal Shusterman). All read in print. I read the first two books (UNWIND, UNWHOLLY) over the last two years. UNSTRUNG is a digital short that follows one of the characters who fell off-screen in UNWIND, and makes it so that the events of UNWHOLLY and UNSOULED make just a touch more sense. UNDIVIDED really brings it home. Horror, sci-fi, and present-day politics wrapped in a future civil war make this series a timely cautionary tale about numerous things. I can’t overstress Shusterman’s talent for dressing up a controversial social issue (abortion) in the garb of a sci-fi novel while keeping his own opinions somewhat clandestine on the matter. He shows all sides while keeping you riveted, desperate to know how it ends.

As to the level of awesome it reaches, well, let me say it this way: if there are only three series allowed into The Club, and those three series are Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Unwind, then you can’t put together a better mix than that.

Content warning: Some mildly PG-13 level profanity, a handful of sexual references (mostly in a technical sense), and psychological horror.


THE MARTIAN (Andy Weir) Read in print. I blogged about this one a few months ago. Genius, genius, genius. Excited for the movie, even with Matt Damon in it.

Content warning: ongoing profanity, numerous F-bombs, some sexual references.


SKULLKICKERS: FIVE FUNERALS AND A BUCKET OF BLOOD. (Jim Zub, Chris Sims, Brian Clevinger). Read in print. A frigging hilarious graphic novel series about two mercenaries who keep getting into all kinds of stupid trouble. The way they set up jokes and knock them down all throughout the story is worth studying. The creators of this series have taken humor, smacked it around, put it in the kitchen and forced it to make sandwiches for them. And humor makes a mean sandwich, I tell you what. So dang funny.

Content warning: the depicted violence gets graphic/gory/bloody.


RELIC (Renee Collins) Read in print. Another highly recommended western, with magic, romance, wit, charm, and a compelling magic system that promises even more discovery down the road. I eagerly await the sequel.


HARD LUCK HANK: SCREW THE GALAXY. (Steven Campbell.) Audio version. Great fun–it’s a sci-fi in the tradition of Star Wars. A big tough indestructible mutant guy on a space station has to fight local mobs, overpowered henchmen, the police force, and the incoming navy…along with an alien invasion. Hilarity and great cleverness ensue. Looking forward to reading BASKETFUL OF CRAP, the sequel.




THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND (Dan Wells). Read in print. Wells hasn’t missed a step, I’ll tell you that much. Still plenty of gas left in the tank on his signature series. He not only has plenty of ideas left; he’s not afraid to bring those ideas to a conclusion. At the start of the book, I thought to myself Okay, I see what the next three books will be. By the end, hoo boy…I have no idea what happens next, and yet I have full confidence it will be intelligent and engrossing.


CODE NAME VERITY. (Elizabeth Wein.) Audio version. I could think of a few complaints to register here, but they’re trivial. This is an extremely well-done story, and I think it will satisfy a breadth of readers. Wein, who is herself a pilot, writes about female pilots in WW2, and she manages to include nice details that paint a clear picture of the war and the world at the time, without bogging the reader in a bunch of boring explanations. I also thought it was neat that the two main characters (female) were portrayed like they were normal people, and not just a bunch of airheaded/catty/slutty placeholders like so many female characters in stories. It’s a spy novel first, and a woman’s story second, without carrying anything in the way of a preachy feminist message. I thought it was cool to see that side of the war for once.

Content warning: a pair of F-bombs, some other language. Some war violence and prisoner torture scenes.


Russell Crowe’s Best Film Involves Him Punching Nobody

Recently the Empire Podcast–which is like Top Gear for movies–had a discussion on movies that feature no weapons or fighting, an interesting topic amidst a glut of action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/six-pack ab flicks.

The hosts listed a bunch, some of which had qualifiers on them, most of which I hadn’t seen. But the first movie that came to my mind was “A Good Year”, a 2006 adaptation of a Peter Mayle novel.

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, portrayed an on-screen romance between Jor-El and Talia al-Ghul. (Srsly, it’s Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard.) For as much as Russell Crowe is lauded in films where he beats the crap out of people, I think this is his best one, and he never throws a single punch.

The premise is simple: a British stock trader fat cat guy finds out he inherited his eccentric uncle’s wine chateau in Provence, France. Going there stirs up a ton of old memories, and he begins to question what he really values in life. This flick hits a ton of emotional chords, and has a lot of solid performances in it. Kind of underrated if you ask me, as it’s in my top five of all time.

iTunes Radio Still Gets One Station Right

Couldn’t ever hope to tell you why, but when iTunes updated to its present incarnation, it really screwed up its radio apparatus. I liked the old format, where you could search for a topic, then key into radio stations all over the world and listen to all kinds of cool stuff (including local sports games.)

Nowadays when I even try to listen to something as innocuous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I get eight renditions–in a row–of the same Christmas song, in July.

It’s not like MoTab doesn’t have a broad corpus of ouevre from which to draw.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that their soundtrack stations like Two Steps From Hell and Epic Score still get it right. This gem was first on the playlist a few days ago and I thought it was worth sharing.

Writing Corner: September 20th, 2014

Hey gang. If you’re following along on Facebook, I’ve been illustrating SUICIDE RUN. What I learned from REBEL HEART is that it’s better to start with the small pieces, move to the character-one shots, and then do the sweeping sketches that will fill entire pages. At present I have 38 drawings left to do–10 character one-shots, 8 illos without background, and 20 full-scale drawings.

Of course I’m still writing. I’ve hammered out the rough edges of an outline for a new sooper sekrit project, with a working title of RIDE THE NIGHTMARE. And of course, no sooner do I accomplish this, then does another book idea hit me, and I decide to run with it…one day I’ll learn self-control. At least NaNo is right around the corner and I can use it as an excuse to drive myself insane and blow a fuse in the production department. If my brains start leaking out of my nose, just plug them back in and set me at the desk. I’ll figure it out.

Allergic to Studying

A Cautionary Tale…



This is the second of Trent Reedy’s novels that I’ve read, after STEALING AIR–a middle-grade story about three young boys that build a highly experimental aircraft out of stolen materials, sort of like the Red Bull Flugtag event.

DIVIDED WE FALL is a very different kind of book.

I’ll save you the detailed rundown, because you can get a sense of what it’s about via Amazon or Goodreads or wherever. The basic premise is that a 17 year-old member of the Idaho National Guard accidentally fires a shot during a riot, and the ensuing conflict sparks the next American Civil War.

Obviously there’s more to it than that. Read the book.

It has its pros and cons, and its sense of realism is very much in the former camp. Among its strengths are its timeliness, and how the characters (especially the media pundits and the partisan politicians) will go nuclear on their opposition at the drop of a hat. At the core of the problem is ideological contention, and Reedy does an excellent job of painting a picture where the only possible outcome is an armed conflict.

Watching the news and seeing how events are unfolding on the world stage, as well as here at home, it was hard not to read this book and think that things could definitely go down this way in my lifetime–one governor of one state decides to nullify a federal law, and the next thing you know, it’s 1 versus 49, with more fractures to come.

I really can’t say more than that without repeating many of the subtle arguments that Reedy presents within the pages of his own book, and for that reason it’s worth the read.

The only real problems that I had came in the form of dialogue; there was a “realistic” level of teen profanity (I generally read YA to avoid coarse language), and a lot of times the speech between characters felt…off. Unrealistic. Could just be me. The drama was very real, though, especially as it pertained to the military and political aspect of the conflict.

(Oh, and screw the media. Reedy nailed that portrayal.)

Trent has a Tumblr that you could follow if you were so inclined.