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Monthly Archives: January 2010

My Retro-Tech Vacation – A Photo Story

My dad is an engineer who grew up during the golden age of electronics, and who infused me with a considerable portion of my geekiness.  He is a great go-to person for questions on almost any topic. He is the king of Trivial Pursuit. When my husband and I were dating, I said to him, “Watch this.” Then, I said to my dad, “What does DNA stand for?” Without missing a beat, he said, “Deoxyribonucleic acid” (I had to look up the spelling). He was great to have around while struggling with homework. No math question was ever too difficult for him, no matter how difficult the math got. He tutors to this day. My husband once said it was like growing up with Doc Brown from Back to the Future as Dad.

Not my dad.

While I was on vacation this week, we were going through some old pictures when I came across his old ham radio cards, or QSL Cards. I didn’t happen to think to take any pictures of them, but I found one in the Internet so you can see what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, my father no longer has any of his own QSL cards. He started telling us this story of how he got his ham radio license when he was fifteen, and how he built his own ham radio transmitter out of vacuum tubes and spare parts with the help of a retired Navy chief who lived just down the street. It is a fun story, and more details come out every time he tells it. I never heard about the Navy chief before this particular telling.

Fast forward a few days. Out of the blue, my mother asks my dad if something can be done about their old 8mm home movies. Can they be made into DVDs? Then, he starts talking about the projector, which is still in the garage. It hasn’t worked since the early ’70s.

I said to him, “You can fix it.”

He looked at me doubtfully.

I said, “Dad. You cobbled together a ham radio transmitter out of spare parts. Whatever is wrong with that projector, I’m sure you can fix.”

Mom tells him to go get it, and he dutifully brings it into the kitchen, and pulls it out of the box, along with about a dozen film reels. It’s a Kodak Brownie 8mm Film Projector. It’s dusty and made of metal, and is very retro-looking. A lot of unidentifiable dust comes out along with it, which my mother says is roach poop. There’s at least one dead silverfish.

Dad opens the front and the back, looking for the power cord, then he stops, puzzled, because it’s not there.

“There it is!” I said, pointing to a stub of a power cord poking out the front, where this one is.

Not our projector. Click to zoom.

At this point, we all think that the projector is junk. I mean, when an electrical gadget has no cord, that’s it, isn’t it? I go to the computer and start googling “brownie 8mm projector”. I even find one for 40 bucks, minus a lamp. My mom comes in and sidetracks me by having me price Irish crystal. You know, girly stuff. We’re in there for about 20 minutes.

We come back to this:

Click to zoom in.

Yes, that’s speaker wire that he’s started to splice in. It turns out, there’s a little bit of cord left underneath the grommet that was on the front panel. He assures me that speaker wire is good enough for now, since the projector only uses X amount of watts, not that I knew enough to be worried. (Since I’m a computer programmer, he talks to me in engineer-ese, expecting me to understand. I retaliate by talking to him in programmer-ese.)

Anyway, he hooks up the other end of the speaker wire to a plug that he just happens to have. I mean, we all have plugs handy in our tool box, don’t we?

Then, he peers at it, dissatisfied. The plug, he pronounces, is unsafe. He rips it apart, and goes out and gets a mac-daddy, supersafe plug. That he happens to have. At this point, we’re all just waiting for him to plug the danged thing in. He reassembles the safe plug, and then, just like Doc Brown, he apologizes for the crudity of his operation. He didn’t have time to get a proper power cord, yanno, or splices or grommets. I take on the role of Michael J. Fox, and I tell him that it’s fine.

Genius At Work

Time for the first test. It will only smoke a little, he tells us, if there is something wrong with the electrical aspects of it (whatever they are). He makes sure it is in the off position, and then without a fear, he plugs it in.

No smoke.

Next test: he flips it on. The light shines bright and after a bit of sluggishness — entirely understandable because it’s been in a box for 38 years — the danged motor starts to move.

We cheered!

Next test: an actual movie. We didn’t have a return reel, so we played an old Woody Woodpecker silent cartoon. A vaguely familiar electrical smell filled the room while husband held up a pillowcase to act as a projector screen, and we watched it upside down (it wasn’t safe enough to turn upright yet). As it played, I hand-fed the film into a coil, which we tied off and set aside. Presto. The empty reel is now a return reel.

Eventually, we ended up in the living room where we watched it like this:

Click to enlarge.

Yes, that’s a flatscreen TV that we are projecting it onto, covered with a folded sheet. There’s something poetic about using a flatscreen TV as a projector screen for an 8mm movie, but I’m not sure what it is.

Here’s the running projector, still sans covers:

Sorry so blurry. Click to enlarge.

It’s on an ironing board, because of it’s height-adjustable features and the fireproof cloth cover. Never mind the newspaper.

Since I have the only movie projector screen in the family, we plan to have a get-together where he will bring the projector (cleaned up and with the proper power cord, or course), all the movies and all the slides (yes, he has those too, but I have the only slide projector), and we will show them to the entire family for the first time in almost 40 years.

Now that will be worth another blog post.

Debut Analysis for Aspiring Writers

After two and a half years of following reviews, I’ve developed a few ideas about today’s publishing scene and I thought I’d share them with you. This is going to be fantasy and science fiction-centric, because I haven’t been following the debuts of other genres long enough to come to any conclusions. I do think the gist of what I’m trying to say will cross genres.

Also, please bear in mind that I’m no expert. These are simply the conclusions I’ve come to that govern the ideas I choose to pursue as a writer. If you think I’m dead wrong, please say so in the comments. I am willing to be convinced.

1) Write something entirely new. You can’t write about elves anymore. Elves were popular during the Tolkein revival of the 80s. When they started to become overdone, we saw the pseudo-elves of the 90s: the lyra, the eika, the other. Call ’em anything but elves. We all knew they were really elves, and we all winked and nodded.

You can’t get away with that anymore. Writers from the 80s can still write their elf stories. Writers from the 90s can still write their pseudo-elf stories. You have to come up with something new. A few of you might get away with spoofs or twists, as Lisa Shearin and Jim Hines did with elves and goblins, but it has to be both new and fabulous.

Aspire to do with Tolkein did with elves, and what Anne Rice did with vampires. Invent a new genre!

2) If you don’t want to come up with something entirely new, ride the wave of a trend. However, you need to be near the crest of that wave in order to succeed. For example, vampires have been popular, and they continue to be popular with established authors. However, there are fewer and fewer debut vampire novels coming out. It’s all zombies these days.

You also have to be quick to ride that wave. Early last year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out and became a bestseller. They’re even making a movie of it. Nowadays, other zombie books are popping up, but those were the lucky authors, the ones who happened to have zombie works already in the making. Deborah Blake tells me that she recently heard at a convention that agents are interested in zombie romance. If you happen to have a zombie romance lying around, now is the time to get it in front of an agent.

One thing you can do is see what’s popular at the movies, and then write fast. If you go to a popular movie and get inspired, get it done yesterday, and get it submitted. And be aware that lots of other people will be inspired as well. If the movie is the start of a trilogy, all the better. Your novel, assuming it is published, will come out at the end of the trilogy and you can ride success all the way to shore (assuming the movie sequels don’t bomb). A year after the last Pirates of the Caribbean came out, I saw a handful of shipboard fantasy debuts. But I’m already not seeing them anymore. The authors who jumped on this wave now get to ride it.

3) If you’re not quick, find a rising tide instead. The elf fantasies of the 80s were part of a tide. They endured for years and years before people started talking about “cookie cutter fantasies.” That’s when we started seeing pseudo-elves. Now, the phrase is starting to be “cookie cutter urban fantasies”. Expect pseudo-vampires in the near future. Heck, they’re already out there.

The problem is, telling the difference between a wave and a tide can be difficult. We have no moon of popular culture to guide us. If you wait and see, the wave might crash on the shore.

The big exception I’ve seen to all this is in novels written for children. I still see Young Adult and Middle Grade elf stories, and everyone knows how popular YA vampire romances are becoming. In my observation, YA tends to follow adult stories, and MG follows YA. Because of YA and MG, we get to constantly expose a new audience to the popular waves of yesteryear. They read Lord of the Rings and want to read more elf stories. They read Twilight and want to read more vampire stories.

What have I done to follow my own advice? Well my own 80s-inspired elf story is now trunked. I have considered retooling it for MG (actually it would be an entirely new novel), but I just haven’t been inspired enough to contemplate it. I spent too many years on it as it is.

I also have an epic fantasy that doesn’t go anywhere near elves. Instead, I deal with a pantheon of gods and, my protagonist is dark-skinned. Plus, it takes place in ancient times, rather than medieval. I’m hoping gods in fantasy aren’t a tide that has already passed.

Plus, I have a Jane Austen fantasy. There aren’t any zombies in it; it’s a spy novel. Jane Austen has been a tide in recent years, and I’m obviously hoping that continues. The Pride and Predudice and Zombies movie will probably help Jane Austen fantasies, unless it plunges the entire genre into a parody.

And while I continue to submit those, I’m working on something entirely new. I’ve taken the concept of time travel and have given it my own little twist. I’m hoping recent time travel historical successes (including The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is on my to-read list) makes my novel viable. And I’m hoping my twist is as cool as I think it is.

So what do you think? Am I dead wrong? Am I attempting to read tea leaves? Was this topic really worth a thousand words? Did I take my oceanic metaphors too far? Please share in the comments.

Gadget Review – The iPod touch

The only thing I wanted for Christmas this year was an iPod touch.

Why did I want an iPod touch? One, I recently upgrade my old Palm Treo to a Samsung Exclaim, and it turned out to be a downgrade. The Samsung Exclaim is a nice phone, but it’s just not a PDA phone. That’s when I realized that I missed having a PDA that was not attached to a phone. My old PDAs were standalone Palm-based PDAs.

I also wanted a device that could double as an e-book reader. I don’t intend to do a lot of e-reading, but I do want to do some, especially electronic versions of fiction magazines. I did not want a dedicated e-reading device. I needed a device that could be multi-functional. One of my dearest online friends, Lisa Nevin raved about being able to read do some beta reading on her iPhone for our mutual friend, Kristy Baxter. Ever since then, I wanted the iPhone’s poor cousin, the iPod touch.

Now that you know my reasons for buying an iPod touch, you should know that I do not use this for music. I have plenty of room on my 8 gig version because I only have apps and novels on it, plus my contact data, my calendar, and everything else you’d expect from a PDA.

The iPod touch is both visually and texturally appealing. It has some nice heft without being heavy. It comes with a charging synchronization cable (which is rather short) and a set of earplugs (which I’ve never used). When you set it up, you have to download the iTunes desktop application in order to sync. I don’t have a lot of experience with Apple-based applications, so some of the things the iTunes application did wasn’t exactly intuitive for me. For example, it turned out to be much easier to purchase any apps from the iTunes store directly from the iPod using WiFi, and then letting it download a backup version of the app when I sync later.

We used our router’s WiFi feature for the first time with this device (and belatedly realized we could have used it all this time with our Wii), and naturally, I love it. I knew that the iPods were capable of WiFi, but I had not imagined all the possibilities. Nowadays, I browse my RSS feeds from Google Reader using my iPod. It’s great.

Setting up contacts, calendar and mail was a little involved, but in the end I used a combination of gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts. (I went with this route rather than Exchange because my work’s version of Exchange was not playing nicely with my devices when I set it up. I’ve since restored my Exchange on my Samsung Exclaim, and I decided to keep things as they are on my iPod) I use the Google Calander Sync to sync between my Exchange and my Google Calendars, and then my iPod downloads the calendar. This allows me to get to both my family calendar and my work calendar in the same app. Handy. Updating contacts is a bit more involved. I email a vcard for the contact to my gmail account, where I can open it and add it to my contacts with just a few taps.

Here’s some quick app reviews:

Stanza. This is a free e-book application that was recommended to me by my iPod touch-using sister. It doesn’t reflow .pdf files very well (it ignores paragraph breaks), but it nicely turns the pages of properly formatted ebooks. I would like to find a .pdf reader than can handle reflowing text while preserving paragraph breaks. But for ebooks, Stanza seems hard to beat.

Docs to Go. I paid money for this. I use this to edit my stories. No more am I tied to a computer while editing! Any heavy-duty text entry has to wait until I’m at my computer (or I can use my Neo), but if I have an initial draft, I can easily use my iPod to do some fairly intense editing.

Although I was able to create Word documents from scratch, Excel spreadsheets turned out to be much more difficult. In the end, I created the spreadsheet from my PC, and I do all my major edits there, but I am able to use it from my iPod.

Planets. This is a free app showing the constellations and the locations of the major planets. It also gave my exact latitude. All of this is important for stargazing, so the last time I took out the telescope, I had my iPod with me. The 3D Sky feature is wonderful. However, somewhat vexatiously, all the planets are now clustered around the sun, leaving only Mars and Saturn in the night sky.

Safari. This comes pre-installed, but I wanted to mention it because I really like the way it handles multiple browser windows. It was all very intuitive — even when working with other applications. However, it appears that Apple is flexing its muscles and will not allow competing browsers — such as my beloved Firefox — to grace the iPhone store. (Boo! Hiss! And besides, how Microsoft-like!)

I have also downloaded the mobile versions of Echofon (for Twitter-ing), WordPress, Amazon, and Facebook, all of which are free, and all of which are well-realized versions of the desktop application. I also got the Constitution, Bible and My Gov apps, plus a lot more (two screens full so far.)

A complaint? The accessories are very expensive. I still have not found a reasonably priced charger, even at Wal-Mart. Most of the chargers are designed to hold multiple i-devices. And we only have one in the house. I don’t want a car charger. Even the plastic covers for the screen cost more than I expected. Since the iPod is not exactly a new device anymore, I really can’t expect the prices to come down by very much.

Another complaint is only one application “runs” at a time. However, they sometimes work together very well. When I open a webpage from Echofon, it opens Safari quite nicely, and returns to Echofon when I close the browser window. The email client isn’t that friendly, because I have to open the email back up once I close down the browser.

My verdict? I love it. There truly is an app for almost everything, and I’ve even toyed with the idea of developing a completely useless application just to see if I could make money off of it. Kind of like the many lightsaber applications, or an app that weighs jewelery, or an app that tells you whether or not you are a moron. Now maybe one day I’ll actually put music on it.

Debut Showcase for Mid-January, 2010

Congratulations to the following debut novelists!


Gutshot Straight: A Novel

by Lou Berney
William Morrow
Hardcover – $24.99
General Fiction

When Charles “Shake” Bouchon, professional wheel man, walks out of prison after a three-year stretch for grand theft auto, he’s only got two problems: he’s too nice a guy for the life he’s led, but not nice enough for any other. And he can’t say no.

It was supposed to be a simple errand for his former boss and lover, Alexandra Illandryan, the dangerous pakhan of the Armenian mob in Los Angeles. Deliver a package to Las Vegas and pick up a briefcase. Only that package turns out to be a wholesome little housewife named Gina. When Shake discovers the recipient is Dick Moby, aka “The Whale,” an unpleasant 400-pound Vegas strip-club owner, the ex-con decides to free Gina, a brave and boneheaded move. Shake and Gina are out of there, but good thing Gina grabbed the briefcase on the way out. (That’s one quick-thinking housewife!)

Now Shake and Gina are on the run to Panama, looking to unload valuable religious artifacts of questionable anatomical provenance and escape a murderous Armenian thug with erectile super-function, a heartbroken ex-linebacker who blames Shake for his misery, not to mention two angry crime bosses. Plus, Shake’s about to learn a whole lot of interesting things about sweet, little Gina.


Wench: A Novel

by Dolen Perkins-valdez
Amistad
Hardcover – $24.99
Historical Fiction

Wench: from Middle English, “wenchel,” a girl, maid, young woman; a female child.

Situated in the free state of Ohio, Tawawa House offers respite from life’s vicissitudes and the summer’s heat. A beautiful, inviting house surrounded by a dozen private cottages, the resort is favored by wealthy Southern white men who vacation there, accompanied only by their slave mistresses.

Regular visitors, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet have forged a deep, enduring friendship. They look forward to their annual reunion, and the opportunity it affords them to catch up on changes in their lives and their respective plantations. The subject of freedom is never shared—until the red-maned, spirited Mawu arrives and voices her determination to escape. For these slave mistresses, to run is to leave behind everything they value most—the friends and families trapped at home. For some, it also means tearing the strong emotional and psychological ties that bind them to their masters—bonds they can barely acknowledge yet don’t fully grasp.

When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet soon learn tragic lessons—that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the cruelest circumstances—as they bear witness to the end of an era.


The Breach

by Patrick Lee
Harper
MM Paperback – $7.99/$10.99 Can.
Thriller

Travis Chase, a man putting his life back together after fifteen years in prison, takes a solo hike into the Alaskan Rockies. He’s just looking for a quiet place to think about his future, but what he finds is trouble: a 747, downed in remote wilderness, the wreck impossibly undiscovered by authorities. Those aboard are dead, though not because of the crash. They’ve been shot.

This aircraft, along with the terrifying object it was transporting, is only the beginning for Travis. Within hours he finds himself at the center of a violent conflict that spans the globe, and a secret war that dates back three decades. A war for possession of radically advanced technology—that wasn’t created by human hands.


Beyond the Night

by Joss Ware
Avon
MM Paperback – $7.99
Paranormal

A man with no future…
When Dr. Elliott Drake wakes from a mysterious fifty-year sleep, the world as he knew it is gone. Cities are now desolate, and civilization is controlled by deadly immortals. Stranger still is Elliott’s extraordinary new “gift” – he has the power to heal, but it comes with fatal consequences.

A woman with a past
Jade barely escaped the immortals and is now hell-bent on revenge. She trusts no one… until Elliott. His piercing gaze and tempting touch shatter her defenses, but the handsome doctor seems to have dangerous secrets of his own. Is it safe to trust him with her heart?

If they are to survive in this dark new world, Jade and Elliott must work together to fight the forces that takes them beyond danger.

Beyond desire.
Beyond the night.



The Summer We Fell Apart: A Novel

by Robin Antalek
Harper Paperbacks
Trade Paperback – $14.99
General Fiction

Every family is crazy in their own special way, and the Haas family is no exception. Robin Antalek’s moving debut novel is the story of four siblings: Amy (the baby), George (the good son), Kate (daddy’s girl), and Finn (the drunk) as they careen into adulthood, trying to make peace with their past, and with each other.

As the children of a once brilliant playwright and a struggling actress, the Haas siblings were raised in a chaotic environment, abandoned into a shadowy adult world made up of equal parts glamour and neglect. When their father dies, they must depend on their intense but fragile bond to remember what it means to be family despite years of anger and hurt. From Amy’s adolescent yearnings for a “normal” life to George’s search for love and Kate’s struggle to not always be perfect, to the gritty details of Finn’s addictive and destructive behavior, the Haas children come to learn that this family—no matter how ragged and flawed—provides all the hope they need.

Told from the shifting perspective of all four siblings over the course of fifteen years, The Summer We Fell Apart offers a humorous and heartbreaking portrayal of a compellingly dysfunctional family. These brothers and sisters are painfully human, sometimes selfish, and almost always making the wrong decisions, but their endearing struggles provide laughter through tears—something anyone who’s ever had a sibling can relate to.


Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: A Novel

by Maaza Mengiste
W. W. Norton & Company
Hardcover – $24.95
General Fiction

An epic tale of a father and two sons, of betrayals and loyalties, of a family unraveling in the wake of Ethiopia’s revolution.This memorable, heartbreaking story opens in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1974, on the eve of a revolution. Yonas kneels in his mother’s prayer room, pleading to his god for an end to the violence that has wracked his family and country. His father, Hailu, a prominent doctor, has been ordered to report to jail after helping a victim of state-sanctioned torture to die. And Dawit, Hailu’s youngest son, has joined an underground resistance movement-a choice that will lead to more upheaval and bloodshed across a ravaged Ethiopia.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze tells a gripping story of family, of the bonds of love and friendship set in a time and place that has rarely been explored in fiction. It is a story about the lengths human beings will go in pursuit of freedom and the human price of a national revolution.


Unraveling

by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman
Laurel Leaf
MM Paperback – $6.99
Juvenile Fiction – General

THE SMART THING Is to Prepare for the Unexpected.
So reads the fortune cookie fortune that Amanda receives at the beginning of her family’s vacation to Florida. Amanda knows all about preparing for the unexpected—her mother, whom she calls The Captain, is always hard on Amanda, and it’s just when Amanda lets her guard down that the very worst comes through. Looking for acceptance, Amanda turns her attention to boys, and doing whatever she can to be popular at school. That includes making out with the gorgeous senior Rick in his car after school—even though he has a girlfriend. And when Rick offers her The Deal—a real, official date to the Homecoming in front of everyone, in exchange for her virginity—Amanda jumps at the chance. But no matter how you try to prepare for the unexpected, sometimes you can’t.


Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: A Novel

by Beth Hoffman
Viking Adult
Hardcover – $25.95
Literary Fiction

Twelve-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt is in trouble. For years, she has been the caretaker of her psychotic mother, Camille—the tiara-toting, lipstick-smeared laughingstock of an entire town—a woman trapped in her long-ago moment of glory as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. But when Camille is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee is left to fend for herself. To the rescue comes her previously unknown great-aunt, Tootie Caldwell.
In her vintage Packard convertible, Tootie whisks CeeCee away to Savannah’s perfumed world of prosperity and Southern eccentricity, a world that seems to be run entirely by women. From the exotic Miz Thelma Rae Goodpepper, who bathes in her backyard bathtub and uses garden slugs as her secret weapons, to Tootie’s all-knowing housekeeper, Oletta Jones, to Violene Hobbs, who entertains a local police officer in her canary-yellow peignoir, the women of Gaston Street keep CeeCee entertained and enthralled for an entire summer.
Laugh-out-loud funny, Beth Hoffman’s charming debut novel, which Mary Kay Andrews calls “charming, disarming, sweet as the scent of magnolias on a Southern summer night,” hums with wacky humor and down-home heart. It is a novel that explores the indomitable strengths of female friendship and gives us the story of a young girl who loses one mother and finds many others.

The Blue Orchard: A Novel
by Jackson Taylor
Touchstone
Paperback – $16
Historical Fiction

On the eve of the Great Depression, Verna Krone, the child of Irish immigrants, must leave the eighth grade and begin working as a maid to help support her family. Her employer takes inappropriate liberties, and as Verna matures, it seems as if each man she meets is worse than the last. Through sheer force of will and a few chance encounters, she manages to teach herself to read and becomes a nurse. But Verna’s new life falls to pieces when she is arrested for assisting a black doctor with “illegal surgeries.” As the media firestorm rages, Verna reflects on her life while awaiting trial.

Based on the life of the author’s own grandmother and written after almost three hundred interviews with those involved in the real-life scandal, The Blue Orchard is as elegant and moving as it is exact and convincing. It is a dazzling portrayal of the changes America underwent in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Readers will be swept into a time period that in many ways mirrors our own. Verna Krone’s story is ultimately a story of the indomitable nature of the human spirit—and a reminder that determination and self-education can defy the deforming pressures that keep women and other disenfranchised groups down.

Enjoy! Anyone of them sound interesting? Wench sounds pretty good to me.

Review – Spider's Bite by Jennifer Estep


Spider’s Bite

by Jennifer Estep
Pocket Books – $7.99
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Jennifer Estep was one of the first authors I reviewed, and she has been a longterm reader of this blog ever since. This is quite flattering, but it makes me a less-than-partial reviewer. However, I do have my usual mix of things to say about Spider’s Bite.

Ms. Estep knows that I’m not a big fan of Urban Fantasy. She also knows — and has discussed on her blog often — that fans of her previous novels might not appreciate going from campy and silly to dark and gritty. I have mixed feelings about Spider’s Bite. It was certainly an easier read than many of the urban fantasies I’ve tried to read over the past year (a lot arrive in the mail), but I also probably gave it more of a chance than the authors I don’t know. And I think that’s not a bad thing. After all, I never read a cyberpunk novel before I read Otherland, and the only reason I picked it up was because the author was Tad Williams.

However, this novel is just about one of the darkest and grittiest that I ever managed to finish. The pages are laced with foul language (especially the f-bomb) and every battle is drenched in blood. Most of the villains are the worst kind of scum. Gin gets away with being the heroine of the novel only because she isn’t as bad as everyone else. She lost her family in a fire and survived on the streets by being tough until Fletcher, who would become her handler, took her in. Now she’s Ashland’s top assassin.

Ashland is a fictional southern metropolis in the Appalachian mountains. It makes Gotham City looks like a paradise. The cops are so corrupt that assassins like Gin have a thriving business taking care of some illegal justice. Gin is usually careful about the clients she takes on. She wants to be sure the would-be victim really deserves to die. However, she gets greedy and doesn’t check out this next (and highly profitable) job quite as thoroughly as she should have. As added incentive, if she takes this job, she can retire. When she’s double-crossed, she ends up leaving her victim alive and barely escaping from an honest cop named Donavan Caine. Who has good — and personal — reasons to want to put Gin in jail.

Some dings. I felt that Ms. Estep could have done a bit more research in several areas. Erasing files on a desktop computer is rarely good enough, especially a networked computer where files are backed up nightly. Also most charitable missions do not demand repentance in exchange for charity. They’re looking to touch hearts and minds, not to forcibly convert.  Other details were glossed over, such as tricky escapes. Some of this I expect — let’s not get bogged down in detail — but we also don’t want to make things too easy on the character.

For the most part, Gin’s foul-mouthed bark is worse than her bite. She talks tough about torturing those who cross her, but clever plotting spares the reader. Gin grows as a character, ending up with a softer heart than when she started. She allows Caine to believe terrible things about her because she doesn’t want to disillusion him. She is willing to throw herself into harm’s way to spare her friends.

The nonhuman races in Spider’s Bite includes vampires, but don’t expect your usual vampire mythologies. They don’t seem to be undead at all, and can go out day and night. They are no more difficult to kill than humans. They often seem rather weak. There are also giants, dwarves, and elementals, who can command the elements of earth, fire, air and ice. Ms. Estep once explained on her blog that she chose these because they are opposites — fire and ice, earth and air.

Like Ms. Estep’s previous comic-book novels, Spider’s Bite is meant to be pure entertainment. For me, it was more readable than Maria Lima’s Blood Lines, but not quite at the level of Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness. For it to achieve that level, I’d want to see more interpersonal relationships, which I understand are coming in future volumes. It also stayed away from my red flags. The plot devices she used in Bigtime are gone completely: no more will you be able to guess secret identities (yes, there are a few) the first time you hear a character’s name. Fans of Ms. Estep’s previous novels should know to expect something completely different by the cover alone. Fans of urban fantasy should enjoy the dark tone, the tough heroine and the inventive mythologies.

Stuff This Week, Plus Spider's Bite Giveaway Winner!

J has won the giveaway for Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep! Congratulations J, and expect an email from me momentarily.

In other news, I’ll be away for half of the week, but this blog will go on! Actually, I’ll just be in a different place — at my parents — and I am perfectly capable of responding to comments while there, so it won’t be like I’m away at all. But technically, I’ll be on vacation. My prewritten posts are scheduled to go up bright and early each morning, Monday through Thursday. Whether I post on Friday or not is anyone’s guess. My posts include my review of Spider’s Bite, my review of my iPod Touch, a Debut Showcase and — ahem — an editorial. Well, not really. An article.

My birthday is also this week. WooHoo! That’s the reason for my trip to my parents. Plus, I could use a little time off. Our plans? To do as little as possible. I’ll bring some books along, including Canticle by Ken Scholes and and urban fantasy that I can’t seem to put down (can you believe it?!?) — Master of None by Sonya Bateman. It doesn’t come out until March — and the end of March at that — so I really need to read it later, except I’m having this little problem with putting it down. So now I’ll be stuck writing this review two months ahead of time. Can you imagine? The nerve of some authors, interfering with my schedule this way!

(And by all means, Ms. Bateman, interfere all you want!)

Should be a fun week! See you around the comment threads!

Guest Post – Jennifer Estep, Author of Spider's Bite – Plus a Contest!

Jennifer Estep is the author of the paranormal series, Bigtime. Three books were published in the Bigtime series, including Karma Girl, Hot Mama and Jinx. Now she’s changing gears with an extremely gritty urban fantasy about an assassin named Gin. The first novel, Spider’s Bite (which is available next week), received favorable advance reviews and Jennifer has just sold books four  and five in the Elemental Assassin series.

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Greetings and salutations! First of all, I want to say thanks to Tia for having me back on the blog. Thanks so much, Tia!

So today, Tia asked me to talk a little bit about what it’s like to change genres as an author.

As some of you might know, my first three books – Karma Girl, Hot Mama, and Jinx – were part of my Bigtime series. The paranormal romance series was basically a comic book spoof, set in a city full of sexy superheroes, evil ubervillains, and smart, sassy gals looking for love.

But I have a new book – Spider’s Bite – coming out on Jan. 26. It’s the first book in my Elemental Assassin series and focuses on Gin Blanco, an assassin codenamed the Spider who runs a barbecue joint in her spare time. Spider’s Bite (and the Elemental Assassin series overall) is as dark and gritty and violent as the Bigtime series was goofy and campy and over-the-top.

Yep, I’ve gone from penning light, fluffy paranormal romances to writing dark, gritty urban fantasy books about an assassin. And you know what? I didn’t find it all that hard to switch genres.

I know a lot of writers struggle when they switch genres. They struggle with the voice, the characters, the setting, even the plot. So why didn’t I? Well, for one, paranormal romance and urban fantasy aren’t all that different. Authors cross over from one genre to the other all the time. I’m certainly not the first. It’s not like I went from writing sci-fi space operas to historical non-fiction. Now that would be a big leap.

But mainly, I think that the reason I found it so easy to switch gears is because the Bigtime series and the Elemental Assassin series have a lot of the same core elements in common. Both feature sassy, kick-butt heroines, a cool magic city/world, and lots of action/fight scenes. (I really love writing fight scenes.) Everything in the Elemental Assassin books is just dark, gritty, and bathed in shadows, instead of being dazzling, neon, and candy-coated like in the Bigtime books. I still think the Elemental Assassin books are a lot of fun, though, just in a darker, different way than the Bigtime books are.

I really didn’t approach writing Spider’s Bite that much differently than I did Karma Girl or any of the other Bigtime books. Once I created my gritty southern metropolis of Ashland and figured out what kind of magic/powers I wanted my heroine Gin Blanco to have, I could concentrate on giving her a really strong, tough voice and persona to match the dangerous world that she lives in. Once I got Gin squared away as a character, the rest of the book just flowed.

Now, of course, I know that some folks won’t like the switch. I’m fully prepared to get e-mails from readers who are disappointed by my change from light paranormal romance to gritty urban fantasy. But I had been wanting to write a darker story for a while, and Spider’s Bite gave me the chance to do that. Not to mention that the darker urban fantasies and paranormal romances are what seem to be especially popular with readers right now. I do hope that fans of my Bigtime series will give Spider’s Bite and the rest of the Elemental Assassin series a chance – especially since I think that I’ve done some of my best writing to date in them.

And I don’t want to stop at urban fantasy. I’d love to write a contemporary romance, a really elaborate heist book, an epic fantasy young adult, and even a western one day. Yeah, my muse is all over the place – and that’s just the way I like it. 😉

What about you guys? Do you like it when an author switches genres? Why or why not? Share in the comments.

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As an added incentive to comment, Jennifer is giving a way a copy to a random commenter. This contest is open to residents of the United States and Canada.

Introducing the Debut Informer

I now have a page where you can let me know about upcoming debuts. I’m always looking to add to my debut calendar, and the first step is to get the debut on my spreadsheet. This version of the form works through Google Docs, so when you fill out the form, you are entering information directly into my Debut Informer spreadsheet.

From there, I’ll put it on the calendar and eventually include it in a Debut Showcase if it meets my requirements. I admit that I am picky about what I showcase. I don’t showcase self-published novels (too many of them; too difficult and time-consuming to vet) and I only showcase a handful of small publishers. When in doubt, go ahead and fill it out.

You can find the Debut Informer form right here, plus I’ve put it on my sidebar, just before the Debuts & Reviews title. (Yes, I still need to get the name of my blog into my header.)