Review: Little Computer People

I’m a geek by training and by disposition. When I read the description of Little Computer People I couldn’t resist signing up to review it.

Review summary: Galen Surlak-Ramsey has written a book that is great fun to read, and certain to delight those with an understanding of computers. Details are below.

About this book: When Gabe created the world’s first sentient program, Pi, he thought things couldn’t get better. Now he’s pretty sure things couldn’t get worse.

After a colossal error on Gabe’s part, Pi turns into a binary monster along the lines of HAL, GLaDOS, and SHODAN. As she goes on the rampage, the only thing rendering her mostly harmless is the fact that she doesn’t fully understand the physical world…yet.

But she’s learning.

And unless Gabe quickly finds a way to rein her in or shut her down, the next time Pi starts a fire, it won’t just be his empty house that goes up in flames.

About the author: When not writing, Galen Surlak-Ramsey has been known to throw himself out of an airplane, teach others how to throw themselves out of an airplane, take pictures of the deep space, and wrangle his four children somewhere in Southwest Florida.

He also manages to pay the bills as a chaplain for a local hospice.

Drop by his website https://galensurlak.com/ to see what other books he has out, what’s coming soon, and check out the newsletter (well, sign up for the newsletter and get access to awesome goodies, contests, exclusive content, etc.)

Buy the book at Amazon.

Giveaway: Galen Surlak-Ramsey will be awarding a $10 Amazon or Barnes & Nobel gift certificate to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Learn more, and register to win.

My full review: I became a fan as soon as I read “there are 10 kinds of people” and realized the author was using binary (where 10 = 2). Brilliant!

This is a niche book, but a well done one. I give it a 3.9/5

What I liked best: 

  1. The overall tone of the book is fun, funny and self-deprecating. The narrator/main character has a shrewd self-awareness that keeps him from becoming obnoxious, even when he does outrageous things like compare himself to God.
  2. His AI creation Pi has all the venom of an angry 14 year old. Her behavior is humorous, but her world view has interesting things to say about humans as well.
  3. I’m not enough of an expert to pick apart the technical details, but the author’s rudimentary understanding of computers adds a nice level of authenticity.
  4. I always like a book when the main character grows and opts for behaving as his best self at the end.

What I liked least:

  1. A lone guy in his living room creating something so phenomenal from scratch in such a short time does push credibility.
  2. That the man most likely to buy Pi has a smart, gorgeous and unattached daughter pushes credibility more, and the fact that she falls for the main character in a matter of days takes a pretty large a leap of faith.
  3. I would had liked to have seen more loose ends tied up at the end.

Those minor complaints aside, I’m glad I read this, and I will seek out more by this author. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys humorous speculative fiction.

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions. Visit Goddess Fish on Facebook  and on Twitter.

Read more reviews of Little Computer People at:

July 12: Long and Short Reviews
July 19: Let me tell you a story
July 26: Fabulous and Brunette
July 26: Kit ‘N Kabookle

My favorite excerpt: The first program I ever wrote was called Pussy Cat Divides. It was six lines of Basic goodness I wrote on my Apple IIe that allowed the user to input two numbers and the computer would then divide them, spit out the answer, and say, “How do you like that, Pussy Cat?” Yes, it was a glorified calculator, but since I was five, I was so in awe at what I had done I might as well have parted the Red Sea. From there I went on to program anything and everything I could dream up. Text adventures. Submarine games. Flight sims. You name it. I made it. And I managed to squeeze all of those programming gems in between elementary school, soccer practice, and developing a budding, but dangerous, understanding of chemistry thanks to my PhD-wielding father.

One sunny, summer afternoon, the garage caught fire. As I stood there watching the firemen pour untold gallons of water on the smoldering remains of our house, I had an epiphany. I realized that while I could easily test the stickiness of homemade napalm on the surfaces of garage ceilings, I could not, whatsoever, control the subsequent fire. And that wouldn’t have been too horrible if I could’ve at least erased the results of that minor oversight and kept my little sister, Courtney, quiet. But alas, that too was beyond my powers (and I’ll be damned if the fire marshal wasn’t a better investigator than I’d anticipated). So I had to admit that I didn’t actually own the universe in which I lived. I couldn’t shape its laws or make it conform to my will. I couldn’t add snippets of code to ensure things went my way, or hit that wonderful backspace key to correct a typo, stray pointer, or bug-ridden function call.

But I could do all of that with a computer. Anything I programmed had to obey me, had to follow the laws I set forth. I could make a world where gravity was non-existent and watch virtual objects float about. Or if I felt malicious, I could design a virus that went on its merry way and multiplied like a dozen cocaine-snorting, Viagra-popping rabbits. And if I could do all of that, I could create Life, the Universe, and Everything. All I needed to do was convince my parents not to kill me outright so I could hammer at the keyboard until my fingers bled.

A personal note: I am a writer myself and therefore come to all reviews with biases born not only of my personal preferences but also of my own writing style. This particular author writes in the vein of so many authors who influenced me years ago, so it may have been inevitable I would enjoy this book.

I also received a free pdf copy of this book from Goddess Fish, the value of which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

If you are interested in a review from me:  I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review dystopian novels involving zombies, romance novels of any kind, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review please comment here or contact me at Ariel (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Please understand. I write real reviews. I read your entire book, although I skim parts I don’t enjoy. I tell you and others what I liked best about it, liked least, and to whom I would recommend it. I try to be generous, and I avoid snark that would entertain others at the expense of insulting you. However, if I don’t like something, I say so.

I rate the book on a scale of 1 to 5 and I use decimals because I need a lot more bandwidth. If the rating is 2.4 or lower I will not post it in conjunction with a blog tour but will add it later. If the rating is 2.5 (or anything point five) I will round up on other sites. I cross post my reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Library Thing, and will post elsewhere upon request.

I am also open to doing an occasional feature of a relevant book without a review.

 

Review: The City and The City

Summary: I’m in awe of this book, and I like to think that I don’t awe easily. It has stuck with me since I finished it; the surest sign of an effective story. I give it a 4.8/5, the highest rating I’ve given since I started this decimal point thing.

What I liked least:

  1. The quotes and reviews on the cover and at the front. That may seem an odd complaint, but this book was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago and I put off reading it because everyone made it sound so depressing. Anything billed as a Kafka-meets-noir-crime-novel doesn’t go to the beach with me, yet this book could have and should have. I wish I’d read it years ago.
  2. The end. I might as well get it out here at the start. I’ll say no more about it, but there were so many ways for this story to go and while I can think of much worse endings, the one that happened wasn’t one of the possibilities I wanted. So it goes.
Author China Mielville

What I liked best:

  1. Everything else, but I’ll try to be more specific.
  2. The author takes an absolutely ridiculous premise, answers your every objection to it while telling the story, and leaves you accepting an alternate history wherein two independent city states exist in the same geographical place, each refusing to see the other.
  3. Once you make that leap, you start to realize how believable the premise is because it touches on ways real humans behave. Then you start to find examples of unseeing all around you and I don’t know how long that goes on for because it’s been a week now and I’m still doing it. I may never stop.
  4. The book is not depressing, at least to me. The reason is that many if not most of the characters have a shred of human decency in them and the main ones hide kind hearts under their tough and expletive laden exteriors. Yes, the overall style is crime novel noir, with a touch of cold war spy and splashes of absurdity, but any time we actually get good guys and gals trying to do what’s right, I’m willing to stand up and cheer.
  5. Main characters are well fleshed out given the author’s sparse strokes. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, the book’s protagonist and narrator, won my sympathy during the opening scene as he looks out for the young drug dealers who come forward when they find a body. He cemented my high regard when he met the dead girl’s parents and noted how “Grief made them look stupid. It was cruel.”
  6. When Borlu is forced to meet and work with his counterpart, senior detective Qussim Dhatt of the ignored city Ul Qoma, one sees through Borlu’s eyes and is lead to think the man is a jerk. We discover, along with Borlu, how much the two detectives have in common.
  7. I’m female, and I judge how a writer handles his or her women characters. Mr. Mieville treats them all as people, a refreshing delight. In particular, constable Lizbyet Corwi is a tough capable detective, no less female for not being some man’s love interest.
  8. The book is a mix of ingredients one would never expect to work as well together as they do. There is humor, as residents of each city joke about how their weather is better and visit their local Starbucks, which of course has shops in both cities. There is mystery and suspense, some of which surrounds a 2000 year old archaeological dig that may hold the secret to the origin of this bizarre arrangement. Some things are never solved or explained, others reach a satisfying conclusion.
  9. Finally, this author won me over with his dedication. It’s to his mother, which is common enough, but he adds that he “wanted to write a book that my mother would have loved.” Wow. I wish I could have met his mother.

I often get asked to name the writers who inspired me as an author, and I have trouble coming up with a list. Part of the reason is I tend to be inspired by specific books, rather than bodies of work, and the other is the degree to which the list has morphed as I’ve aged.

My approach is to keep a short list of books I can point to and say “I’m trying to write that well.” The City and the City has placed itself at the top of my list.

Nothing cool about modest ambitions

I’m attending my first conference of writers of any sort, and it isn’t surprising I am having an eye opening experience. The Science Fiction Writers Association is about to hand out this year’s Nebula Awards, and this is something I’ve followed since I was a teenager. Let others care about country music and Broadway plays; I was interested way back when in who wrote the best science fiction.

The organization has publishing standards for membership, and I only qualify as an associate member. This conference is open to non-members, too, but given the cost and programming, you don’t attend unless you are serious about writing speculative fiction. So I really am surrounded by three hundred people all doing or trying to do what I spend my time doing. It scares and excites me.

It also brings my “why do I write” quandary front and center and forces me to confront the part of my dreams I seldom speak of openly. I already know it is admirable and interesting to not care about making money, or to pretend not to care, as the case may be. Being an artist who is driven to create for the sheer joy of it has great appeal. Greed is ugly. Creativity is cool.

Yet, we also have a cultural fascination with being rich, and everyone admires success. To be driven is admirable. To say I believe in my books and trust they will someday be best sellers is also cool. Who doesn’t like a fighter determined to make it to the big time?

Wouldn’t you know it. I’m not either of these kinds of cool.

It is my impression that most if not all of the other writers at this SFWA Nebula Conference want to be successful, and the more successful the better. Those that only care about the pure act of creating have stayed home, or not joined this organization to begin with. Panels on how to sell one’s work abound and I’ve gone to quite a few of them.

Here is my little secret. I want to make money from my books,  just not a lot of it. I want a modest amount of success. As I move into full retirement, I’d like my writing to be there for me, providing a steady stream of play money while not really changing my life. Neither starving artist nor world famous author suits me nearly as well as mediocre success. That’s what I really want. It’s not something you can tell people.

My books started out on a reasonable trajectory to do just that, by the way, but in the noisy market of ever more sparkly self-published books, sales have already fallen below the level of play money, unless one is willing to count a nice lunch out a month as sufficient play. It isn’t for me. I was hoping for something between a dinner at a really nice restaurant every couple of weeks and a couple of trips a year to somewhere exotic. Maybe both. I’m not selling myself short; I’m going for what I actually want, uncool as it is.

Here’s the problem. The last couple of days have made me aware that I am unlikely to find even this modest financial fulfillment unless I make some changes. Those wiser and more successful at this self-publishing thing have told me it can work if, and only if, I plug myself more firmly into genre sales. I need to define what I write (superhero books? urban fantasy? metaphysical fiction?). Then I need to research what other books in this genre look like and I need covers that look like my genre. Then, I need names for my books that define them as being in my genre. Then I need to reissue them.

No one, at this point, has told me I have to rewrite the books themselves, which is good news because I’m not sure I’d be willing to do so, even as I fear lovers of superheros or urban fantasy will find my books lacking in the dazzle they expect. But maybe not.

I’ll never know if I don’t try. My books have more than met my first three reasons for writing, leaving me entertained, saner and more knowledgeable. Can they also provide me with an unimpressive but noticeable amount of play money? I hope so. Guess I’m going to try to find out.

Speaking of being cool, that ties into my fifth reason for writing. Ironic, huh? How did my muse become so entangled in such contradictory desires? I’ll try to sort it out in my next post.

(Read more about why I write at The Number One Reason I Write Books,  My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing, I write because it’s cheaper than therapy, I love to be loved and Remember My Name.)

 

 

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the  desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.

If I’d only known then …

I’m making an effort to get out more. Specifically, I’m working to engage with other writers, both in person and online. I want to broaden my base of knowledge before I start on my next writing project, one I hope will keep me happily making up stories for many years.

It occurred to me today, while listening to a woman describe to us how she sold her first novel to HarperCollins, that much of what writers crave to know is “what do you know now, that you wish you’d known then.” We give this advice, and we ask it of others, almost endlessly.

I found myself visiting with the woman next to me, who is on chapter one of her first book. “Who is it you are writing for?” I asked her. It’s a question I wish I’d spent more time pondering, back when I was in her shoes. If I’d only known then how helpful that question is. I tell her so, and she nods in appreciation. She is doing what we are all doing at this meeting –  gathering little grains of information from others to soften our learning curves.

Our speaker is Heather Newton, author of Under the Mercy Trees, a book about a southern family. She lives nearby, and published Under the Mercy Trees in 2011 after spending years writing it. She is now sending her second novel to an agent to market.

Yikes. I started writing in 2011 and have written six books since them. I’m certain mine are not of the same literary quality, but I wince when I hear her best nugget of what she wishes she’d known back then. That’s right, she thinks she rushed too much, and sent her first book out before it was the best it could be, squandering opportunities to impress. There is a wisdom in that, of course.

One of the oddities of self-publishing, especially electronic books, is that it can be a never ending process. Hidden typos that reveal themselves can be fixed at any time, and all recipients point forward get the improved manuscript. The first time I made such a fix I felt guilty, like I was cheating by correcting something supposedly etched in stone.

I’ve long since gotten over that. Why penalize myself and my readers for having missed something initially? It serves no purpose.

In my case, my books were born with links to supplemental material, such as music and photography that tied into the story. I thought it was clever and fun, but it gummed up the works for some readers and turned out to be almost impossible to maintain. So, over the last couple of years, I’ve been going back and eliminating the links and the references to them. In the process, I clean other things up too, as I find them, because why not.

I am almost done with this process on d4, the last of the books to contain links. I’m pleased with the result, and will probably do some advertising and giveaways to celebrate this new and improved manuscript. What a shame I couldn’t have gotten this final version in front of my initial readers. Wouldn’t those reviews be better? More copies have been sold?

I can’t go back in time, any more than I can see the future, no matter how often I write about characters who can. Would I have written better books if I’d only known then what I know now? Of course I would. Hell, I’d have lived a whole better life with that kind of knowledge.

Or, at least I like to think I would have.

 

 

When the future becomes the past

 It was the most likely and the least messy alternative. As she realized that, it became a near certainty, and then the wave of time washed over the moment and the soon-to-happen became the now and it then it became the past…

Of all the things I wrote in d4, this is the one scene I remember the best. I feel this wave of time washing over me whenever long anticipated moments finally happen. In that instant, all the worries and fantasies and hopes and dreads suddenly don’t matter because it has happened the way it will and I feel a magic in that transition.

Yesterday, I published One Too. It’s done, it happened, the water has drenched me and moved on and now there is only the story of how it was. I’m still acclimating to the fact.  Readers can find my book electronically and in paperback now (and for Nook and through iTunes in a few days.)

Above right is one of the many iterations of the d4 cover that was not used. This one featured a wave inspired by the excerpt above, but although the wave lasted in my memory, it didn’t make the final cut. I like the lightening bolts and clouds, but the eye in the sky was a bit much. Jen at Mother Spider and I struggled with this cover almost as much as we did with the cover for z2.

Below, are a few of my favorite excerpts from the new book, along with links to the blogs nice enough to host my work last week. I wonder if any of these scenes will stick with me two years later like my image of the wave of time did.

Lola’s quiet moment of gratitude is interrupted by a armed men in a mysterious black SUV on Author Linda Nightingale’s blog.

Ariel explains to her family the ways she can, and cannot, see the future at Readeropolis.

A dour Irish psychic tries to come between Lola and her daughter at Let Me Tell You a Story.

Violeta is frightened during an icy conversation with her boss’s lawyer at The Avid Reader.

A man afraid of the telepaths of x0 decides to stoop even lower to get the information he wants on Author Deborah A. Bailey’s blog.

Lola and Alex make a pact to keep no more secrets from each other at Sea’s Nod.

Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know

We are all human, analog creatures, never completely this or that, and we all slide in and out our of better selves as we make our path in this world.

Every so often I write something I like. I reread it and think I’m not sure where that came from but that’s profound. Then it passes, of course, and I go on writing normal stuff.

I had that experience when the lead sentence here showed up while I recently wrote a post about world peace for my qigong instructor and friend at Flowing Zen. None of us are completely this or that, and it’s worth remembering in our current heated political climate. It’s also worth remembering as we each reach inward, embracing ourselves for what we are.

What I am is a worrier, among other things, and I know in my heart that it is tied to my story-telling abilities. If you want a mind that makes up exciting scenarios from everyday events, well then, you get a mind that sees exploding cars, intricate scams and paranoid plots around every corner.

But there are limits to how much worrying a healthy person can do, and, to be honest, recent events in the international arena have catapulted my concerns to an unhealthy level. That’s where coping mechanisms come in.

Last November, I developed a new habit to calm my mind. I already do qigong, which is wonderful for creating calm, and I do a good bit of yoga as well. Gardening helps also. But sometimes I’m sitting at my computer and I read something disturbing and I need a quick reboot without leaving my seat. Sort of an “instant calm.”

And that’s when I play solitaire. I go to the World of Solitaire site, zip through a two minute game while breathing deeply, and somehow I’ve trained myself to emerge calmer. I don’t know why it works, but for me it does.

“Where do you the get the ideas for what happens in your stories?” It is a question I get asked. Okay, I do get many ideas from the things I worry about happening. But every once in awhile, I am able to get one from something that kept me from worrying, like in the scene below.

I got a real kick out of how my psychic hero Ariel finally sorted out a particularly complicated set of future probabilities. I hope you enjoy it too.

She wandered back into the hut she shared with Teddie and Vanida, and sat the kitchen table. She was trying to save the last bit of battery on her phone and her computer, so she aimlessly dealt out a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards that had been provided. She had played the game years ago on a computer, which made it more fun because it was easy for the player to redo moves.

But this would work to relax her. She started the game, doing the obvious first then moving on. Okay, now put the red five on the black six. Wait, which red five? They were identical choices. She went down one path. Not so good. Try the other five. Much better. She’d win going that way.

Geez, this game is like my life with premories, she thought. One choice is insignificant and another makes all the difference and you can’t tell the two kinds apart. And, you can’t tell which of your important choices will yield a good outcome for you because it’s not always about good decision making. Sometimes it really is random.

She kept dealing and thinking and replaying and after awhile she wasn’t so much paying attention to the cards as she was in a sort of trance. Teddie was the Two of Clubs and her mom was the Queen of Hearts and for some reason she was the Nine of Spades. The man who ran Reel News was the King of Diamonds, of course, but there were two of them; no, not really, the Jack of Diamonds was pretending to be the King which made no sense.

The worst of it was that the Ten of Clubs was trying to get that Jack to kill Queen of Hearts who could only be saved by the King but he wouldn’t know it and the Jack of Hearts who was Nell could stop the King of Diamonds but only if the Queen of Clubs who was Yuden did some random thing she probably would not do.

Ariel leaned forward and put her head between her knees and took deep breaths until the dizziness subsided. She could do this, use this, to see the arbitrary combinations and how the little things worked together in ways in she’d never understood before.

She dealt again. And again. A different sense of how events tied together began to connect for her as she used the cards to sort out a complex tapestry that would have confused her logical mind.

After awhile Camille came in and lit the gas lamp, saying nothing. A little later Fernando brought her a sandwich. She mumbled thanks but never touched it. She just kept playing.

Not long after Teddie and Vanida tiptoed by her as they went to bed. Sleep came early in a world without electricity. By then, every card had taken on at least one identity or location or time. Some had many of them. It didn’t matter. After a while the confusion subsided and the interrelation of all of them made perfect sense to something deep within her brain.

(Images shown are from the various victory images used at the World of Solitaire website. They add an extra bit of fun to the game.)

(For a companion piece to this post, see Worry about those you love and write about what you know.)

That’s Why You Make the Trip

img_3402Cinnamon on oranges and cumin on boiled eggs. The inside of a walled city so confusing that it has spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to directing lost tourists. Surfer towns painted in hippie colors and seaside resorts caught in a 50’s time warp as they offer hospitality to a smattering of elderly Europeans.

None of this is what I expected when I came to Morocco.

This is a blog about predicting the future, and over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the unexpected. Three of us have just spent some time in Marrakech, and now as we leisurely make our way to Casablanca we have three nights to spend on the road. One of us wants to simply drive and stop when we feel like it, with no research ahead of time and no plans. Us other two have agreed. For me, planner that I am, this will be a true exercise in embracing the unexpected.

img_3345The first night we land in Agadir, the vacation spot for aging Anglos. Our adventurous non-planner has become ill, so he rests while two of us walk along a boardwalk under the watchful eye of an old but festively lit Ferris Wheel. We order pizza from a Lebanese restaurant on the beach. My vegetarian version is covered in eggplant and is some of the best pizza I have ever had.  Okay, I didn’t see that coming from Morocco. Back at the hotel, I go searching for something to calm the stomach of my sick friend. The kitchen staff barely understands me, but they insist I take plain rice and “water with gas” for him at no charge. They also insist that it will help, and it does.

The next day we move north along the coast, sticking to the small roads that keep us in view of the sea. The surfer town where we stop for lunch has people wearing clothes that fully expose their limbs. Something deep within me wants to stay longer in this part of Morocco, and live on the beach in a tent while I write deep brooding novels that I’m already sure will far exceed anything I’ve written yet. Okay, maybe someday I’ll come back and do that.

img_3371We’ve been advised to be off of the roads by nightfall, but as sunset approaches we are nowhere near a sizable enough town to have obvious lodging for strangers. Luckily one of us speaks some French, the second language of Morocco, and he is able to talk to a young man in the street who sends us to the town’s only open restaurant which also serves as an auberge. I didn’t know what an auberge was, but it turns out that this fairly common form of lodging is somewhere between a B&B and a hostel.

The young Moroccan working at the auberge is quick to offer us local beers. Fresh fish is a possibility for dinner, but when he has trouble communicating the kinds of fish that are available he simply brings me a bucket of everything that has been caught that day and asks me to pick one. Turns out I don’t know a sea bass from a grouper, so I point and hope for the best. We dine gazing at miles of desolate beautiful coastline with a sunset behind the mixture of cliffs and beaches that could fill dozens of different postcards and no two would look alike. My travel companions are generous and let me end up with the room that literally hangs out over the ocean, and I have one of my most memorable nights ever as I sleep to the sound of the sea.

img_3453Our last day takes us north into the greener, more populated and more industrial part of the coast. This time we turn to Lonely Planet for lodging ideas, and at sunset we find ourselves in a traditional Riad inside the town’s walled city but overlooking the lovely Oum Er-Rbia river (which translates as‎ “the mother of springtime”). I get the small bedroom with my own flower-covered terrace and consider what this sort of privacy and beauty would cost me for one night in the United States. I don’t think I could afford it.

I don’t often eat meat, especially when traveling, but for my last night in Morocco I opt for the adventure of a beef tagine, where the meat is steamed in a special clay pot to make it particularly tender. I’m hoping for couscous and vegetables with it and my French speaking fellow traveler tries to find out what else my tagine includes. He finally gives up. “I don’t know what they’re saying. It keeps sounding like prunes and that can’t be right.”

But it is.  I get the most tender beef brisket imaginable served with a mess of very tender stewed prunes on top. It’s delicious. Who would have guessed?

img_3431The next morning I get a final surprise as we try to do a little last minute shopping. We didn’t consider that the market in this town would not be like the markets of Marrakech but rather be a place where men and women buy small treats and cheap plastic items much like they would on a Saturday morning back home at Wal-Mart. Yes, there are more motor bikes than cars, more women wearing scarves loosely over their heads than not, and there is more fresh-picked produce and whole carcasses of animals than I am used to seeing ay my local supersaver, but otherwise this could be the small city I live near now or the Kansas town where I grew up.

Why in the world would you want to go to Morocco? I did get asked that question, and I understood it because I had heard about the pushy sales techniques in the markets and the difficulties for a female traveler in a Muslim country.

img_3363But I went to taste the fig jam and the mint tea. I went to discover the things I didn’t know, like how you can see a dozen or more goats in a tree, chomping on the argan fruits.  I went to see the amazing graffiti painted on the crumbling ruins along the coast, even if I didn’t know that was why I was going.

I went because I didn’t know what I would find.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI see ghosts, It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

Bulletproof

Every so often one finds a song that they really like the first time they hear it, and they still like it dozens if not hundreds of times later. I’ve got a few of those, and La Roux’s “Bulletproof” is one. So when I was assembling my largely-female-indie-artist playlist for d4, I was delighted when my music expert recommended it.

Why so much love for this song? It’s always hard to say why you like something. I’m a “words” person when it comes to music, and the lyrics are just so clever. You’ve met this guy. You know this lady. You’ve seen the dynamics. But it’s more than that. The very concept of being bulletproof appeals to something deep within. It doesn’t just mean being immune to his manipulations. It also means not being afraid of icy ski slopes or catty store clerks or traveling alone. The lyrics speak to me about being stronger; for the next presentation at work, for the next nasty book review, for the next thing that strikes fear into me whatever it is.

Yet it is more than the lyrics. The infectious beat and sing along melody is part of what make it all work for me. I found this video from a live performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 2010 and it captures every bit of that. I can hardly keep from waving my arms along with the crowd while I watch.

No, I can’t explain why I like this song so much. But I hope you enjoy it too, as well as the short excerpt from d4 showing how I mentioned the song in my book.

She decided to take Friday off work, and Eoin did not object.

“Any special plans?” he asked.

“No. Just preparing,” she said. He didn’t ask for more.

The day turned out to be one of those unusual winter days when the sky is bright blue and the temperature climbs into the sixties. Ariel smiled at her good fortune as she took the little car the company leased for her and headed north out of Dublin, planning to drive for as long as it sounded good, and then to stop and do yoga somewhere along the shore.

Ireland doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches. Much of the coast is ancient granite and volcanic remains, and much of its rocky core is old limestone, formed from the remains of tiny sea creatures that led happy lives nearly half a billion years ago, back when Ireland was located near the equator and no mammal had yet set foot on the Earth. Ariel reached for her music, and spent a minute picking her song. She decided on “Bulletproof” by La Roux; it was the perfect choice.

 She drove far enough to find a rocky bit of shore that was deserted, spread out her mat, and worked on clearing her mind. The poses came to her in a random sequence, without thought. The table. The cat. The bow. The plough.

Her goal was to calm down, and gather her strength. To make herself as bulletproof as possible.

Downward dog into a cobra into a sun salute and repeat it again. Warrior poses. Low warrior. Warrior two. Warrior three. She had skills, she had advantages, and she had back-up. She finished her routine concentrating on balance, holding a strong tree pose while she gazed at the far horizon.

She was ready. Now, she needed to go do what needed to be done.

You can also listen to or buy La Roux’s “Bulletproof” at Amazon.

A radio wave is that long?

emsRadioWavesOne of the things about writing magical realism, at least the way that I do it, is that you are always trying to explain mystical, magical things in terms of believable science.  I am fascinated by this fuzzy boundary between the astonishment of the enchanted and the astonishment of what modern science tells us.

I had great fun learning more about the simple radio waves that keep me so entertained while I drive, and then tying this information into my theory of how precognition works. Enjoy the excerpt below, taken from a conversation held when my prescient hero Ariel first meets the Inuit Siarnaq, who shares her gift.

Then when you are done reading, let NASA tell you a few surprising things about radio waves.. 

“So we must be tuned to different frequencies!” Siarnaq continued on, pleased with his discovery. “You understand science. You understand radios.”

“I studied them in school, don’t remember much.”

“Well, I work a lot with radios. They are an important part of communication here in my world. Do you know how long a radio wave is?”

“Long. Like maybe feet long.” Ariel was pretty sure of that.

“You people still know what AM radio is?”

Ariel rolled here eyes. “Yeah. It’s the stations you turn to for sports.”

“Okay,” Siarnaq agreed. He pointed out the window. “The waves for AM radio are like from here to that building down the road.”

“Really? That big?”

“Your FM radio waves?” he went on. “More like just from me to you.”

Ariel got the analogy. “So I’m an FM radio seeing things more closely and you’re an AM radio seeing things further away. How cool is this? What are other waves? Microwaves? Longwave radio? Are there other kinds like us, but in other frequencies?”

“I don’t know,” Siarnaq shrugged. “Lots of other Inuit tell the future, but they all use tools for their fortune-telling, and no one seems as sure about their predictions as I am.”