Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Senior Dogs for Dummies by Susan McCullough

Senior Dogs for DummiesSenior Dogs for Dummies by Susan McCullough

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Senior Dogs for Dummies is, of course, one of the many For Dummies series of books, on just about everything. They share a common format, with clear, understandable writing and a straightforward layout. They can help make a complex subject approachable to anyone.

The Senior Dogs version is a good starting handbook for anyone who already lives with a senior dog, and can also benefit those whose dogs may not officially be seniors yet, but who are approaching that stage of canine life.

The book touches on many aspects of life with an older dog, from determining if your dog really is a senior (it's not always just a matter of number of years), to the special dietary needs of older dogs, to common and some less common ailments, right up to the final decision to let go. Things are explained in simple to understand language. McCullough doesn't go into in deep detail when talking about medical issues, but the basics are there, as well as strategies to help both owner and dog enjoy life to the fullest. The need for continued socialization is discussed, with suggestions for keeping an older dog engaged and active.

The last sections of the book deal with the most difficult decision faced by the pet owner: when to say good-bye. McCullough gives advice on making the decision compassionately and fairly, with emphasis on knowing what is best for your dog. She also gives a good explanation of what will happen at the end, for owners who have never had to euthanize a pet. The explanations and descriptions are straightforward. She doesn't pull punches or use the euphemisms one hears many times. Still, the compassion and emotion are evident. She's been through it, and you can tell reading here.

As the owner of a senior dog, I didn't find a lot of new information here that I didn't know before, but if you are new to the world of older dogs, or are just anticipating your dog's later years, this book can be a valuable reference. I did learn a few new things, and I think I will keep the book handy on my shelf as both my dog and I go through his senior years.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

23 in 2013 Challenge Update

I posted last week that I was participating in the challenge proposed by
John Anealio to create 23 new things in 2013. I'm attempting to write 23 new stories this year. How am I doing? Well, I finished one short short story, and am progressing on another longer one. Halfway through the month, and I may actually stay on track. Of course, this is only January! :)

In other news, got a rejection on a story I sent off late last year. *sigh* But I did get some helpful critique in the email, and that does not happen often. That was a bit of a surprise. So, back to the drawing board on that one, as they say.

And here is the short short I wrote for the challenge. It's not perfect- I did minor edits for spelling, etc. and not much else. Are there problems with the story? Yeah. Is there a big hole in it? Yep. But it's written and that was the deal: write (not polish to prettiness) new stuff. 

M. A. Kropp

                “Across the bow!” The crewman’s voice shouted as the first volley hurtled across the port side into the distance.
                “Warning shot,” growled Atchens, the first mate. He turned his dark, bearded face to the captain. He jerked his head at the view to the front of the ship with a scowl.
                “They’ll not be givin’ us many of those, y’know.” The captain nodded.
                “I know,” she said, moving forward to stand against the bridge rails. “Ready the cannon.”
                With a crisp “Aye, Captain,” the gunner’s mate turned to his comm.
                “Cannon at ready,’ he said into the unit. A moment later, the speaker came to life with the acknowledgement.
                “Cannon primed,” the voice from below replied. “Target acquired.” The captain nodded to the gunnery mate. He leaned into the comm again.
                “Fire at will,” he relayed. A moment later, the soft whump of the cannon firing shivered the deck. All eyes on the bridge watched the missile as it streaked toward the pirate ship, right on course.
                “What the hell…?” Atchens cried. The captain leaned forward, as if it would give her a better view outside. The missile sped toward the second ship. When it got close, instead of smashing into the hull of the other ship, it seemed to bounce off an invisible wall, and was hurtled back toward them.
                “Some kind of force shield,” came a calm voice from behind them. “But not one I’ve seen before.” The senior science officer was watching the missile on its return path.  “I believe we are about to be hit by our own weapon.”
                “Brace for impact!” The captain shouted, and the message was relayed to the whole ship.          
The gunnery mate punched a few buttons on his console.
“That bounce took the missile just a hair off course,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a lot of damage.”  Just as he finished, the ship shuddered as the missile hit. The captain gripped the deck rail, and gritted her teeth. When the deck stopped quaking, she turned to the science officer, standing behind her.
                “Damages?” She threw the question over her shoulder, as she turned. “And just what the hell was that?” She spat the question at the science officer, who calmly shrugged. Atchens took a half-step forward, a low growl in his throat. The captain stopped him with a raised hand.
                “Cargo bay 2 breached,” a voice from the lower deck recited. “Inner doors sealed and holding, but we’ll need repairs soon as possible. No casualties. Lucky no one was down there.” The captain nodded, and turned her attention back to her science officer.
                “I don’t know,” he said. His voice was quiet and calm. “Obviously, some sort of defense shield, but how it slingshot that missile back at us, I don’t know. No idea where they got it, either, but they are pirates, so chances are they stole it.” The captain eyed him for a moment.
                “Terrific,” she said, turning around again. “Now we’ve got pirates we can’t even fire on, unless we risk getting cut up by our own weapons.” She thumped a fist on the rail. “Helm! Can you get us out of here?” The pilot at the front of the lower deck turned around.
                “I can try, ma’am,” he said, and began to turn the ship away from the pirates who now sat directly in front of them. The ship turned slightly and they felt the buildup of speed as the pilot put it into motion. The pirate ship turned smoothly to match the maneuver and pulled alongside.
                “Grapples!” The science officer’s voice called out. “They’re going to board through the breach in the cargo bay!” The captain scowled.
                “Get us out of here!” she called to the pilot. The man’s shoulders tensed.
                “I’m trying,” he said, his voice tight. “But they’re using grav tracks to keep us lined up with them. I can’t pull us out too suddenly. It will rip the ship apart.”
                “Keep trying,” the captain said. They felt the soft thumps as grapple lines settled on the outside hull.
                “Get me a visual,” the captain ordered. The front screen changed to a view of the ship’s side. The black night of space surrounded them, broken by pinpoints of starlight. The pirate ship loomed beside them, painted dark to blend with the surrounding darkness, the only color a zigzag streak of red lightning on the underbelly. As they watched, figures in space suits began to appear outside the pirate vessel. They clipped to the lines running between the ships and fired jet packs.
                “I want guns down there to meet them!” the captain ordered.
                “It’s going to take time,” Atchens said. “We’ll have to put on suits. If they come through the cargo bay, we’ll be exposed.” The captain gazed at him levelly.
                “Then you’d better get going, don’t you think?” Atchens trotted off the bridge, barking orders into his comm as he went.
                Atchens picked five men with decent weapons skill as his team. They struggled into the awkward, bulky pressure suits and took the hand weapons Atchens handed out.
                “No heroics, boys,” Atchens growled over his suit’s comm. “Just keep ‘em from getting into the ship proper.” The group made their way to the corridor outside the breached cargo bay.
                “Belt up to the handrail,” Atchens instructed. “When they open that door, the hole in the hull is gonna try and pull you out. Keep yourself tethered, but allow as much maneuvering room as you can.” They pulled empty cargo containers into the hall, and strapped those to the walls, as well. The men ranged themselves behind the bins on either side of the door, and waited. The bay doors shuddered and began to slide open.
                “Here we go,” Atchens said on the comm link. He tightened his grip on his weapon, and trained it on the slowly sliding doors. The gap widened enough for the first of the pirates to glide through, powered by the jet packs they wore. Atchens fired, knocking the pirate back through the gap. Answering fire screamed through the gap, now widening more, as the pirates forced their way through. Two of Atchens’ men went down quickly, caught as they leaned around the cargo bins for a better shot.
                Atchens crouched low to the deck and ran as quickly as he could from his left side position toward the bay doors. Movement was awkward in the clumsy suit, and he was hampered by the tether attached to the handrail. It slid in jerky movements as he ran, forcing him to tug at it to get more slack. He made it to the edge of the container barrier when he felt the clink of something on his helmet. He turned slowly. One of the pirates had his weapon trained on Atchens’ faceplate. The first officer glanced over the pirate’s shoulder to see a third crewman sprawled in the corridor.
                “Give it up,” the pirate’s voice came over the comm. “Nobody else has to die.” Atchens looked at the barely visible face behind the pirate’s visor. He dropped his shoulders and let his weapon slide to the deck.
                “Stand down, Andy,” Atchens said into his comm. A static laced voice came back.
                “But, sir!”
                “We’re all that’s left, Andy,” Atchens responded. “And I’m staring down the barrel of a gun. Stand down.”
                “Aye, sir,” came the reluctant reply. All sounds of the battle stopped and a moment later, two of the pirates joined Atchens and his captor, Andy walking just ahead of them. The rest of the boarding party joined them and they made their way to the ship’s bridge. They herded the crew together on the lower deck, guarded by armed pirates. The captain stood alone on the upper deck of the bridge.
                                “All here, Cap,” one of the pirates said to a tall, suited figure. He nodded and loosened the latch on his helmet. He pulled the helmet off and tossed it on the gunner’s chair. His clear gray eyes met the cargo ship captain’s blue ones. She didn’t flinch under his stare. He nodded.
                “So, it seems I’ve got myself a new ship,” the pirate captain said. His voice was light. The cargo captain let one corner of her mouth turn up in a smile and tossed her head.
                “A ship with a great big hole in her side that’s going to cost you to fix,” she said. The pirate waved a hand.
                “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said, crossing the bridge and climbing the short flight of stairs to the upper deck.
                “And we have no cargo,” the captain continued. “We’re on our way home from dropping our shipment now. So you haven’t got much to show for all that, do you?”
                The pirate looked her up and down, then turned to the group of her crew huddled around the helm station. He turned back to face her.
                “I wouldn’t say that, either,” he said, with a wide grin. “There’s cargo, and then there’s cargo.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Les Miserables (The Movie)

Let me start by saying I love this story. I've read the book, seen the stage play, and now the movie. It's heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. I'm not going to try to do a compare/contrast sort of thing, because I have never felt that was fair to something that has been done in various forms. Print, stage, and film are three very different media, and what works in one, doesn't necessarily translate to another. So, things get left out, changed, compressed or expanded, to fit the medium. I'm going to talk about what I thought about the movie.

And actually, I thought it was quite good. The basic story lines were there, mostly intact. Some additional material was added, and some bits a tad better explained, while others were left to be figured out. The story held together well, and had strong emotional impact. I had tears in my eyes for a lot of the time we were there.

As for the cast, some were better than others. I don't know who told Hugh Jackman he could sing, but whoever it was, he should not have listened. Valjean is a tough role to sing, and Jackman sounded strained and out of his range (whatever that is) most of the time. I have to say, however, that I thought he played the role well, and the torment and anguish was all there. Russell Crowe, on the other hand, carried his role well. His voice was better suited to Javert, and it showed. The highlight for me was Samantha Barks. Her Eponine was wonderful. Not only is her voice lovely, but she put such emotion into the performance, it was a joy to listen to. Natalya Wallace was very convincing as the young Cosette. There was something unnerving about Eddie Redbayne's Marius that I can't quite put my finger on, but I wasn't fully into his role. And Helena Bonham Carter was, as always, wonderful!

The sets were nicely done, although I thought the "slum" areas could have been-- dirtier? Costumes were good, as well, particularly the Thenardier's- perfectly over the top.

A few things didn't fare so well with me. In the scene where Marius and Cosette meet at the garden gate, it is night, isn't it? So why were there butterflies flitting about. That bit of unrealism stuck out to me. And the worst- the cow. Now, I don't really know a lot about Herefords, but I'm not so sure there were any in 1800's France, especially in the middle of a Paris slum street. And if there was a cow there, I suspect it would be a milk cow, not a beef breed. It was in the scene where the people are tossing all sorts of furniture out the windows to be used to build the barricade and I can only think they were going for the humor aspect of having this one lone cow standing in the middle of all the flying furniture and mooing. But it was just so out of place and ludicrous, it popped me out of the story for a moment. There were nice touches, as well- the two coffins at the front of the barricade was a nice little bit of foreshadowing that I liked.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. Not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes at many points in the film (and not all were because of Hugh Jackman's singing! :) ). Is it worth seeing? Yes, especially if you are a fan of the story, or of big, romantic, tragic, and hopeful stories. And don't mind if that story is mostly told in song.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Review: The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival by Ken Wheaton

The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit FestivalThe First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival by Ken Wheaton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Father Steve Sibille has returned to his bayou home to take charge of St. Peter's Church in Grand Prairie. Grand Prairie is a tiny backwater town, full of the (un)usual small town characters: senior citizens who hang out at Wal-Mart, teenage altar girls, and the daughter of the former pastor. There's also Miss Rita, a Negro centenarian who helped raise Steve and his siblings, and who now lives in a nursing home, where Steve slips her whiskey, cracklin's, and other taboo food whenever he can. And then there is Father Mark, a gay priest who has a crisis of conscience about his priesthood and homosexuality, literally on Fr. Steve's doorstep. As if all that isn't enough, the Reverend BP arrives with full intent to poach Fr. Steve's Catholic congregation to his Pentecostal church. At Miss Rita's suggestion, Fr. Steve decides to organize a festival to bring his congregation together. And so, the First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival is born. It is not an easy birth.

I bought this book a few years ago, after browsing through a table full of books at Sam's Club. I have to say, it is far outside my usual realm of fantasy and sci-fi, but whatever it was that told me to buy it, was very, very correct. I devoured the book in just a few days. It is laugh out loud funny in some places, and teary eyed poignant in others.

The characters are well written, and relatable, even if you are not from bayou country. Those who were raised Catholic will recognize pretty much the entire parish, from the teenage altar girl with a bit of a crush on Fr. Steve, to the elderly women who cook him more food than he could possibly need and who flutter around him after Mass. And if you are not Catholic, you'll enjoy them as well, as they are quite the interesting bunch.

Setting is somewhat secondary to the story, which is truly character driven. The town of Grand Prairie, though never described in minute detail, springs to life with its inhabitants. There is a real sense of small town lifestyle there.

I can't go into too much detail about the internal crises that flow throughout the book without giving too much away, but they are handled deftly and with the same attention as the rest of the story. When it hits, you realize that maybe the story wasn't quite what you expected, but it provides a nice, satisfying end.

While some may be put off by the open treatment of homosexuality, and the personal demons that a priest, straight or gay, may need to live with, everything is treated in a straightforward and mature manner. There is nothing "racy" or "dirty" about it. The story is human, compelling, and there are lessons here for everyone. I am very glad I decided to pick this one up.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

A Challenge for 2013

I saw a post from John Anealio (who, by the way, writes some really terrific scifi themed music: check him out here- John Anelio) about a challenge he is giving himself this year- to release 23 new songs in 2013. He is also challenging others to do a variation on that challenge: write 23 new stories, read 23 books, create 23 pieces of art, whatever your particular interest is.

I think this is a great idea, and I'd like to try it. The question is: what to commit to? Not blog posts. I did slack off a bit last year here, but still managed to get double the 23 done. I normally read 25 or so books a year, anyway. Besides, I do that challenge on Goodreads.

I know some of you are thinking of the obvious one: write 23 new stories. I thought about that, but the reality is, I don't really write that fast. That's about 2 stories a month. Whew! That's some pace, for me. I know there are others who would laugh at that, but they ain't me! I don't really do artwork of any kind.

I know! I'll make 23 excuses why I didn't get anything done! <Laugh> Not really.  Though I could do that one- easily.

I may have to think about this one for a bit, but I'll come up with something, and, in keeping with the spirit of the challenge, I will announce it here and then do regular (fingers crossed) updates to keep me accountable.

To update:

I think I have decided. I am going for the 23 stories thing. But I'm putting a few conditions on it so that I hope I'll have a shot at actually making it.

1) 23 stories finished. Not necessarily polished, but with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And some of them will be finishing up ones that are started. You know, the ones that you start working on, and then- ooh, Shiny New Idea! Hello!

2) In order to finish, that will mean roughly two stories per month. I think I am going to say that at least one will be flash fiction. It should be quicker to write, for one thing. Also, it's not something I do regularly, but I think it has value as a learning tool.

This is going to be interesting, at the very least.

Want to join in?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: Some of the Best from 2011, Patrick Nelsen Hayden and Liz Gorinsky, Editors

Some of the Best of Tor.comSome of the Best of by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of eight short works by Tor Publishing authors. I say “works” because not all are stories, there is one epic poem in the mix. Some of the authors I knew by name, some were unfamiliar, and one I have read before.
As with many things of this nature, there were some things I enjoyed more than others. I can’t say that anything included was badly written, just that some appealed to me more than others. I particularly enjoyed “Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders and “The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick. The poem, by Paul Park, was less than successful for me, and I found myself skimming most of it. “Hello, Moto” by Nnedi Okorafor was another I found less appealing, though not for lack of talent. The premise is interesting and the writing fairly good, but I found myself not relating to the characters well. The real gem in the collection is Harry Turtledove’s “Shtetl Days.” Without spoiling anything for those who have not read this one, it combines Turtledove’s deft hand with alternate history with a story about transformation that is both subtle and scary. This one alone was worth downloading the collection.
The eight stories are varied in theme and setting, and not everyone will enjoy each one. But since it is offered for free, it is certainly worth checking out, especially if you are looking for an introduction to a new author or two.

The 2012 edition is out now, with ten stories this time.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Out With the Old, In With the New

A lot of New Year posts and comments fall into one of two themes: 2012 was great, and 2013 will be even better! Or: I sure hope 2013 is better than last year! To me, neither one is the right way to look at things.

Were there bad things in the past year? Sure, both on a world, national, local, and personal level. But bad stuff happens everywhere, every year. There were also good things, and people, and events to be grateful for, and to remember with great joy.

The problem with saying "The year was" or "The year will be" is that it puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It's not the year that makes things good or bad. One year is not necessarily better than another, in the longer view of things. It's our perception that gives makes it so, that gives it power, if you will. We need to spend more time just being, here and now, and less worrying and dissecting whether it will be "good" or "bad" at the end of the year. Enjoy this moment, this person, this place. Is tomorrow going to be better? I don't know. I also don't know if the coming year is going to be better. What I do know, is that if I look at it from a strict good or bad position, I'm going to miss a lot of little things that I shouldn't let slip by. So that's what I'm going to try to do in this coming year:

Enjoy each moment for what it is.
Notice the small things.
Listen more- not just to other people, but to the silence, and try to hear the message there.
Do the best I can, and be the best I can.

If I can do that, then I think it will, no matter the individual things that happen, be a very good year.

And I hope you have a very good year, also!