Friday, February 25, 2011

On Beards & Dualism

When we think of manliness, we often think of a rugged face decorated with a sweet beard.  It may be the Jeremiah Johnson, the type of thick, woolen shag that could double over as a scarf if need be.  There's no doubt that this is man becoming one with the wilderness.  If the J Johnson is left to its own devices, (and let's face it, what control do we have over such things?) it continues to grow until it reaches the Robert E. Lee.  This beard emits civility and calmness for everyone around, and the wearer is turned into a distinguished sort of fellow.  And if this beard is snowy in color, one very likely may be a long-dead President.  Yet the R.E.L. is not the end of beardom.  There are many other types and styles, ranging from the close-knitted facial scruff to the survivalist beards of the post apocalypse.  Infinite possibilities with the facial hair.

Yes, a beard, a thick mess of hair on the face, this is manliness.  But somehow there exists a dualistic problem that presents a dilemma that needs a resolution from the conflict it produced to start a problem that presented the dilemma that needed the resolution which I'm seeking.  (What?)

I'm talking about the straight razor.  Lethal and aged, shaving with a straight razor also exhibits manliness.  Shunning modern machines and toys, the straight razor is all manner of seriousness when it comes to grooming.  It requires love and maintenance and a little more time, but its results are either an incredibly smooth face or an accidentally cut jugular.  There's no denying that taking such a dangerous tool and scraping it across your face isn't manly, and really, shaving with anything less is just a cop out.

Hence, the dilemma.  How can it be manly to have both a sweet beard but to also shave with a straight razor?  The dualism blows my mind's eye's mind.  It just doesn't make sense to me.

Of course, there are many more aspects to manliness than facial hair or the lack thereof, but this quandary must be worked out.  Any solutions?

Note:  My face has been bearded since September or October of 2010.  On a whim I decided to shave it all off last night.  I'm no longer sure who I'm looking at in the mirror, but his large chin seems much more noticeable. 

Post Note:  Happy Friday.  I was going to put up a new flash fic serial, but it has a few kinks that need working out.  Maybe next week.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Backlash, a Review+

Backlash is the fourth volume of the Fate of the Jedi series. As such, some of this will be spoilerish for the first three books, so use that how you will.

Luke Skywalker and Ben, his teenage son, are still in exile. Luke, banned by the Galactic Alliance from entering established Jedi places, such as the Temple, is chasing a young Sith girl across the galaxy. He and Ben have tracked her to forests of Dathomir, home to rancors and Nightsisters. There they land and intensify their search for the Sith, intent on capturing her and learning all they can about the mysterious group.

Meanwhile, Jedi are continuing to go crazy on Coruscant and no one knows why. The relations between the GA and the Jedi are at a breaking point, Daala's image as Chief of State is crumbling, and the backstabbing moffs are hungry for power. Political corruption and fighting is the Coruscant way.

Like the previous books in this series, the story is split among several different perspectives, offering insights from the Jedi, from the Sith, from the GA, from the Moffs, and from others, as well. This multiple POV style is fun to read and follow, and it helps add to how grey and vague politics and religion are.

As for the plot, Backlash took steps forward with the inevitable Jedi/Sith confrontation, but the problem with the Jedi going crazy didn't really go anywhere, and only minor advancements happened with the GA/Jedi relations. Still, the story was fun and entertaining, especially all the Dathomir stuff and experiencing their culture.

Thematically, going into a modern STAR WARS book I expect to be faced with the subtle differences between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force. Allston did a great job at blurring the lines of truth and the way Ben sees something as opposed to Vestara. I'm particularly interested to see where their relationship goes.

Overall, I'm enjoying the Fate of the Jedi series. The Lost Tribe of the Sith is interesting, and I'm enjoying Luke & Ben's bonding time. Plus, I have no idea what's causing the Jedi to go barvy, so that's keeping me entertained, too. In the end, Backlash doesn't offer many surprises and it's about what you expect out of a STAR WARS EU novel, but it's still a fun read.

In light of my review of Terry Brooks' Bearers of the Black Staff, where I stated that I was frustrated because I felt like Brooks didn't push himself enough, I'm left pondering the same thoughts for the STAR WARS Expanded Universe.  However, my feelings are vastly different here.  Maybe it's that the burning love in my heart is greater for STAR WARS than Shannara.  Maybe it's because the EU books have Jedi in them.

Truly, though, I think it's that the EU books do actually propel the advancing STAR WARS timeline forward by (usually) offering enough new things to make the books worthwhile.  Sure, each book has a repetitive feel to it.  Luke and the Jedi encounter some sort of brewing evil that's once again threatening the entire galaxy; Han & Leia are caught up in the brewing evil somehow or involved in the political games back on Coruscant; C3PO & R2D2 tweetle and talk; all of the main characters miraculously survive tremendously dangerous situations time and time again, giving the reader a sense of security for the beloved characters.  Still, from time to time, a book or series comes along (I'm looking at you Vector Prime) that shakes up the galaxy, and maybe it's these things I'm looking for.

Whatever it is, I enjoy reading in the STAR WARS EU.  Almost all of my EU reading has been post-Yavin, though I do think I'd enjoy some of the Old Republic stuff.  Overall, I have fun spending time with these characters, and I look forward to reading each subsequent book.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bearers of the Black Staff, a Review+

Hundreds of years after the fall of man, civilization is starting to come of its shell once again. Humans, Elves, Trolls, and others are all forced to survive the in their sequestered valley and surrounding lands. But even in the fledgling stages of rebirth, darkness and evil makes its way into hearts and threatens all.

Like all other Terry Brooks novels, Bearers of the Black Staff is heavy on the characters, this time focusing on three main points of view. The Gray Man is the current bearer of the staff, a man descended from the long lineage of the Knights of the Word. Panterra Qu is a young scout learning the tricks of his trade with his partner Pru. Phryne, an Elven princess, is nosy and annoying and, uh, that's about it. These three each have their own wars to fight, but together there is something that will unite them all. That said, none of these are too terribly deep, but they're still somewhat engaging, if not familiar.

Terry Brooks also tends to have quick, fast-paced chapters, and Bearers is no different. Things are always happening, be it a boring council meeting, a dangerous encounter in the woods, or any number of other activities. There's little down time in the three hundred plus pages, and yet, when I finished reading the book I felt like the focus could have been tighter and some pages omitted.

This book, I think, is just another addition to the Shannara canon. It helps develop certain races more, as well as give insight to why certain things are in the Four Lands, beginning with Sword of Shannara. It furthermore serves to link the Word & Void series to the Four Lands, and while it makes sense, it makes me wonder if this was Brooks' original intent.

Overall, Bearers of the Black Staff gets a passing rating, but only because I've been a Terry Brooks fan for a long time. The tale is uninspired and predictable and has been told in pretty much any other Terry Brooks novel already in print. Unless you're a big Terry Brooks fan, this one's okay to skip.

I feel obligated to say more, as this review probably comes across as a negative review.  (Apologies to those that already know this.)  First off, had it not been for Terry Brooks I very well may not be reading fantasy fiction.  The man's novelization of Star Wars: Episode I was an enjoyable read for me, so I found other books Brooks had written and fell in love.  At the time I didn't care that it was very Tolkienesque, and even now I don't care.  In my heart, Terry Brooks writes fun books, and Bearers of the Black Staff was ultimately fun.

That said, Brooks falls into old patterns, and verily, practically every book from Sword of Shannara onward is largely repetitive.  Stock characters and similar situations, plus a deus ex machina that is predictable from the onset.  (Does that even make it a "god out of the machine?")  So I suppose that really I've grown frustrated that Brooks seemingly doesn't challenge himself in his writing.  He doesn't push boundaries or throw wrenches, but relies on what's worked for thirty years.

Terry Brooks is a very successful author, and his books are gobbled up like crazy.  I've read 29 of his 32 fiction books, and I've enjoyed every one of them, some of them very much so.  I, for one, thought the Heritage of Shannara series was awesome, the Word & Void was amazing, and The Wishsong of Shannara was very cool.  Brooks writes smooth prose that's easy to understand, and this could be one of the reasons why he's so popular.

Still, I'd love to see him push himself more and see what he can do.


I'm also wondering if part of the reason I didn't enjoy this book (nor the Genesis of Shannara series, for that matter) is because my tastes have irrevocably changed.  Brooks writes in the high, epic fantasy field (well, he did until his world of the Four Lands turned into our ruined earth, so now I guess it's low fantasy, but regardless), an immensely popular subgenre of fantasy.  This was the norm pretty much from Tolkien through the end of the 1990s.  People (myself included until 2005ish) were so entrenched in stereotypical fantasy cliches that when the new batch of fantasy authors hit the scene the world was turned on its head.

That's probably why I love Pat Rothfuss so much.  He's the one that opened my eyes and showed me what the genre could be.  The Name of the Wind was fresh and new, and after reading it I knew my genre reading would be forever changed.  Brooks was good, but Rothfuss... oh my.  Rothfuss was like going from soggy oatmeal to a ribeye.  I didn't know what I was missing.  Then someone turned me on to George R.R. Martin, something so different than Tolkien or Brooks, and fantasy came alive.  I devoured Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Peter Brett.  It's what I love reading today, fantasy that's smart and pushing boundaries.

Do I still like reading Brooks and Tolkien?  Absolutely.  Tolkien, in particular, will always be up there, as will Brooks, I suppose, but this type of fantasy is so familiar that it's not very exciting to read anymore.  I've not read The Wheel of Time mostly because of this very reason, that I know how it's going to be and I've just not allowed myself to get into such a long, cliched epic fantasy.  One day, perhaps, but not now.

This has me thinking about the current state of the genre.  One opinion is that modern fantasy is nihilistic and awful in comparison to Tolkien, and plenty agree.  Others, like myself, are excited about the current state of affairs and think modern authors create works of beauty.  I'm definitely not the only one to be frustrated by Brooks' familiar writing style, but, if his next novel read like an Abercrombie book, I daresay many of his legion of fans would be disappointed and shattered.

It's a fickle world.  I'll just keep on reading, I guess.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cool & Uncool Stuff

One amazing trailer below.  Possibly the coolest video game trailer I have ever seen.  Even if you don't play video games you should watch this.  Beautiful, tragic, awesome.  I've never seen nothing like it in this format before.  Original article here.

Two perspectives of the same game.  Same thing as above but told in reverse.  I think I prefer the first one, but dang, they're both powerful trailers.  I may have to check this out some time.


Three times have I submitted short stories now, and thrice have I been rejected.

Four big events on the horizon.  I'm going to see Pat Rothfuss in Lexington on March 11, which is quite exciting.  I'm going to be going to see the Decemberists in concert April 26 in Louisville.  Super excited about this.  I'm also going to see Joe Purdy again, in Nashville, June 8.  I'm going to see my daughter by June 30.  Ultimate excitement levels for this one.

Eleven is the Chapter Borders has filed.  This has long been my favorite book chain to visit.  Now it's closing a large chunk of its stores, one of them being the one nearest me.  What a pity.

Seven rings were there for the Dwarf lords in their halls of stone.  Apparently there was a Lord of the Rings re-telling from Mordor's perspective written in 1999 to somewhat high praise.  Originally published in Russian, it's just now making its way into English.  You can download the novel as a PDF for free from here, the apparent translator.  You can read the article here if you're curious.  I think I may give it a go, just not sure when I'll find time.

Eight tracks on the new Radiohead album, The King of Limbs.  Out of nowhere the band announces their new album is available for order (here) and as an immediate download today (a day earlier than previously mentioned), though the actual release date for physical material is still a few months away...  I've never been disappointed in a Radiohead album, so this'll likely grow to be fantastic.  I've only listened to it once through, but as a first impression, sounds like Radiohead.

Five endings for this post.  So long.  Adios.  Farewell.  Goodnight.  Later on.

End Note: In case anyone inferred from yesterday's post that I am an awesome, super Christian, let me assure you that I in no way meant to imply that.  Like Paul, I consider myself the worst of sinners and nowhere near the level I need to be.  SO, in short, that post was written as much for me as for anyone else.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Heart Overflows, My Heart Grieves

I'm finding myself more and more overwhelmed by God's grace every day.  My heart yearns to know Him more.

Words want to pour from my mind, through my fingertips as I type, proclaiming Christ as King, exalting Him above all others, but all the words I have to give don't even scratch the surface of God's majesty.

Why does God love me?  Why wasn't I wiped out of existence and sentenced to hell after my first sin?  Why does He continue to love me even though I continue to fail Him?  Why is His grace renewed every morning?

I recently found a list of "fighter verses" recommended to memorize.  I know a few verses of scripture, but nowhere near as many as I should.  I started this memorization program to equip myself with biblical truth, to hide God's word in my heart so that I might not sin, to be wise in Him, not in the world.  Memorizing scripture is not an easy task, and too often I hear (from my own lips, even) "I don't have a good memory" or "I don't have enough time." 

Bull crap.  Pure and simple.  Inexcusable excuses.  Lies from satan to keep you out of the bible, defeated, burdened, and ensnared.

My heart grieves for our world.  How can we profess love of God and abstain from spending time with Him?  Do you love your kids?  Do you want them to spend more time with you?  Does it not break your heart when they don't?  This is the same for God.  The chief end for man is to glorify God!  It's why we were created, and yet where do our hearts lie?

They lie in routine, in comfortable pews and lazy idleness.  They lie, ultimately, in our own selfish behaviors.  I am convinced that those* that do not follow Jesus choose not to follow Him because of how they see so many "Christians" acting.  To be a Christian is to follow Christ, acting as He would, loving God and loving people.  And how do you love someone?  You spend time with them.  You intentionally invest time a relationship, going above and beyond normal protocol and acting unexpectedly, oftentimes against personal preferences and certainly into the realms of awkwardness/uncomfortableness.

My heart grieves for our dying generations, for people choosing to pursue selfish desires instead of selfless ones.  It hurts to know that there are lost people that do not know the true message of Christ and they're dying without Him.  It hurts me even more to know that there are people that do know the true message, and yet they're too self-absorbed/apathetic to do anything about it.  And, most of all, it hurts me to know there are Christians--followers of Jesus the Christ--that aren't acting as a follower of the Christ.

Matthew 7:21-23 is a sobering passage of scripture. 
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
It's time to wake up and start acting like Jesus.  It's time to start loving God and following His commandments, which Jesus broke down to two: Love God, Love People.  Otherwise, like Deuteronomy 7:9,10 says:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.
My heart breaks for the world, yet it overflows with the rich promises of God, that to those that love Him and follow Him, He will never leave or forsake us.

*To be clear, a Christian** is not one who judges, not one who condemns, not one who looks down on, not one who hates, not one who is prideful, not one who holds grudges and forgives not.  These actions are not in accordance with a Jesus-shaped person.  The Christ loved everyone and spent His ministry with the poor and broken people of Israel.  If we're emulating Jesus and following His words, these actions ought not be in our lives.

Know, then, those of you that have been hurt or turned-off from Christianity because of these types of actions (and more) that not all who follow Jesus act this way and I apologize for the poor behavior of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  I pray that you've not been too jaded to give Jesus another chance.

**That's not to say that a Christian won't display these actions, but doing so is sinful, but to be human is to be in a fallen world of sin.  Only the love and sanctification of Jesus can overcome our sinful selves, and sanctification is a lifelong process.  Daily we are to die and take up the cross and follow Jesus, fighting the fight and overcoming the world.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Remembering Louisville

Saturday afforded me the chance to return to my college town.  Keisha had a Pampered Chef conference downtown and she had to be there early.  I offered to drive, and together we hit the road before 5am, crossing the CST/EST time zone and journeying into the future.  I dropped her off at the site, walked her to the door, and spent the rest of the day largely alone.

I say alone.  Perhaps I should use a different word, as I wasn't alone, per se, but I was in no one's immediate company, either.  Truly, in a city as populated as Louisville, being alone is probably a thing more of the mind.  Anyway, I spent the morning in my favorite coffee shop, Sunergos.  I enjoyed going there and studying, listening to the mellow tunes and breathing the pleasing aroma of coffee.  So I ordered me a plain coffee and sat at a table and read for four hours.  I started with a little bible study, and after that I read a massive chunk of the unpublished manuscript I'm reviewing.  All I can say is that it's a piece of solid writing with a very interesting magical system and some fascinating world history.  I wish the author the best at getting it published.

As lunch time neared, I packed up my stuff and headed off to my favorite deli, Franks.  It's hard to describe how perfect, how amazing Frank's is.  Their cold-cut sandwiches are cheap and unbeatable in taste.  I got a roast beef and colby with lettuce on wheat for $3.  That may seem high, but the claim to fame for Frank's is that there's enough meat and filling on the sandwiches that it's hard to finish.  I've ordered sandwiches from there before and taken off enough meat to fix me another lunch from the excess.  This sandwich was a good 4.5-5.5" thick, if not more, and it was very filling.

After I had my lunch I drove to campus and parked behind the engineering buildings.  Saturday was nice and sunny, not too cool, so I walked from the parking lot over to the library, taking my time and remembering campus.  A lot's changed since I graduated.  It's been two years since I sat foot on UofL's grounds, but it was still very much the same campus.  My afternoon at the library went a lot like the morning.  I ate and read, a little from the STAR WARS book, but mostly from the manuscript.

This doesn't sound terribly exciting, spending a day cooped up inside reading, but I have to say, I quite enjoyed myself.  The joy ended when Keisha and I decided to drive to the mall.  The mall of St. Matthews is a somewhat special place to us.  You see, I proposed to my wife at this mall.  I didn't plan to propose at this mall, but it just kinda happened.

I planned to propose beneath the fireworks and heavenly spectacle of Thunder Over Louisville.  I planned to take her to the river and get down on one knee.  Instead, that darned ring in my pocket kept whispering things to me, making vain promises and offering visions of grandeur.  We were at the mall, sitting outside the JC Pennys beneath a copse of indoor trees and beside a mediocre fountain.  Things get a little blurry, but I vaguely remember kneeling and mumbling and talking and saying a bunch of stuff about love and that stuff and pulling out a ring and people looking at us and her face and...  Yeah.  I hadn't planned on proposing there, but it just happened.  The Precious willed it so...

I don't know why, but the city's entire population was converged at or near the St. Matthews mall.  We idled in traffic for a long time before finally getting to the mall, and then we idled more as we waited forever to find a parking spot.  Red Robbin (yum) was good for dinner, but after that we were ready to get the heck out of the city.

It's a shame.  There are so many wonderful things about Louisville that I love and miss.  However, there's plenty there to keep me far away, too, like the radiation.  I guess now that the meteor's fallen and decimated the town I'll never get to go back again.  Too bad, too.  I wonder if my alma mater will rise above the wastes and request donations to help rebuild?  Did the coffee shop survive?  News reports say that there weren't many survivors, and those that did have some kind of weird glow about them now and they're all quarantined in some secret location.  I guess it's good that we got out of the city before it happened, eh?

Happy Valentine's day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dead Space 2, a Review

In the year 2511 in a densely populated city called the Sprawl, Isaac Clarke wakes up wearing a straight jacket.  Things are disorienting and dark.  A man is standing in front of him talking quickly as if something is wrong.  He's telling Isaac that he's got to get out of the Sprawl, that they've got to go now.  Before he has a chance to free Isaac's bonds, a necromorph attacks the man from behind, impaling him with its razor-sharp limbs.  Isaac shrugs the man and monster aside and begins running for his life, through dark and ruined corridors.  All around necromorphs are appearing, snarling and pursing Isaac as he flees.  So begins Dead Space 2.

The game is a direct sequel to the bestselling Dead Space.  It continues the story that began with the events that happened aboard the USG Ishimura and the return of the Marker.  The Church of Unitology is expanded more, as is the science and culture of the times.  The Sprawl is located on a shard of Titan, a moon of Saturn, and this metropolis is basically one large space station.  Schools, hospitals, churches, malls, and many other sites exist in the city and all fall to the destruction of the necromorphs.

Throughout the game, Isaac makes his way around the city, looking for a way to stop the dementia affecting his mind and to stop the affects of the Marker.  On his journey he must work out many puzzles (good thing he's an engineer) to get through the wasted city. 

Many things are similar between the first and second games.  Gameplay is practically identical.  Isaac still walks around in his rig, armed with stasis and kinesis modules, as well as any weapons he may find along the way.  Unlike the first game, Isaac talks this time around, and this change adds more tension to the story I believe.  Also, simple jumps in zero gravity are no longer limited to linear directions, as Isaac's rigs have thrusters in their boots that allow for full 3d movement in space.  Another difference is the increased graphics and sounds.  Dead Space 2 offers a much richer A/V experience, many of which grip the player with fear and tension.  Muffled screams and babies crying behind sealed doors are somewhat unsettling.  Also with DS2, Isaac can use kinesis to pick up rods and impale the necromorphs if he's running low on ammo, or he can just tear a limb from a dead monster and use that.

Another major addition to this game is the creation of an onlline multiplayer option.  The multiplayer has two opposing teams: CEC troops and necromorphs.  Like a standard capture the flag game, the CEC team has tasks that need accomplishing in order to win the round.  The necromorphs task is always to thwart the humans.  Playing as both teams is fun, especially since the necromorphs can see where CEC troops are located, while CEC is forced to trust their instincts.

I was very pleased with the gameplay and plot of Dead Space 2.  The campaign takes about 13-15 hours to complete, but replay-ability is a certainty.   There are many new types of necromorphs, like the Swarm (see right), little children that are now lethal little pests that swarm and overwhelm Isaac. Several difficulty modes exist, from easy to hardcore, which allows the player only three save points and no checkpoints, less ammo & health, and more difficult enemies.  There is the right amount of sci-fi and horror blended together to make the game very fun, and I suspect any fan of survival horror (which, oddly enough, I'm not) would enjoy this.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Space 2.  One does not have to be familiar with the first to enjoy this, as there is a "Previous on Dead Space" menu option available to bring newcomers up to par; however, to get the most from the story, I would highly recommend it.  Now I'm ready for the next chapter...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Beginning Reader's Bible, a Review

Just by looking at The Beginning Reader's Bible I knew I had a real treasure on my hands.  The book is heavy and durable, enriched with a strong cover and crisp, glossy pages.  I requested the book because I thought it looked nice and that it would be perfect for little children.  After opening the package and seeing the actual book in front of me, I knew I was correct.

The Beginning Reader's Bible is aimed for young readers (as evidenced by the title) who still like a lot of pictures with their text.  The scripture all comes from the ICB (International Children's Bible translation), which simplifies the text so that a child can easily understand.  The entire bible is not included here, but a sampling of stories from both the Old Testament and the New.

The most astonishing thing about this book is how beautiful and rich the illustrations are.  Each page, each story, they've all been lavished with attention by Marijke ten Cate.  The characters look authentic and fitting.  The landscapes are breathtaking.  Even the animals are wonderfully drawn.  Yes, this bible's illustrations are sure to capture the young person's attention as they've captured mine.

To make the Word even more engaging, there are many extras to help drive home the point.  "Do God's Word" or "Pray God's Word."  Boxes like this pop up all over the place.  They're great to let little ones learn, memorize, and apply God's word.  There's also some supplemental resources at the back, listing the apostles, 10 commandments, and things like this.

Overall, it's really the illustrations that stand out with this book.  The scripture is great to instruct young ones, but I think they'll fall in love with the pictures and then listen to the Word.  This is a great little bible that I look forward to sharing with my children.

FTC Thingy: This book was given to me free of charge by Thomas Nelson & Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.  No cookies were exchanged.  Honest.

(By the way, if you want to get an idea of what Cate's illustrations look like, check out this page.  These images aren't exactly in the Bible, but close enough.)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Updates! Baby, Life, Movies, Games, Etc.

Chiefly being that we found out yesterday the sex of our baby, plus some ultrasound pictures, and other stuff.

1.  Stewart Little, as we've affectionately been calling the fetus, is now sexed, or at least is now sexed to us.  Keisha and I are proud to say that we're having a GIRL.  So it's gonna be me, Keisha, Stewart Little, Stella, and Sofie.  I say I'm vastly outnumbered here...

Aren't those images crazy?  Watching the little bugger squirm and kick and move and punch and everything yesterday was quite surreal, and it's amazing to know that I helped make her.  See the little feet!  The face still looks alien and skeletal, but I'm smitten.  It was funny how hyper and active she was, too, but everything looked great and healthy, and we thank God for that.

2.  We ordered our crib, changing table, and dresser last night from JC Penny.  I applied for a credit card to save an additional 10% off, was approved, and then found out my limit was $50 less than what the total cost was.  So I called Penny's and requested an immediate credit increase of $100 and got that taken care of.  Then I went to finish the purchase and was asked to enter my credit card info, which I didn't have as I had no card yet, so I made another phone call.  Everything was going well until my phone died about 20 minutes into the call, so I had to call back and repeat the entire process.   All said and done, I spent about 45 minutes on the phone working it all out, but in the end we got our stuff ordered and now we're waiting for the backorder to fill and ship.

3.  My paycheck is currently 19 days late, which is to say that I'm technically due two checks, as another is now 5 days late.  This is confusing, as my firm was awarded a 10+ million dollar contract recently (though obviously we've seen no money from this yet, as the project is in its early infancy).  I simply ask for your prayers in all this stuff, knowing God will provide and take care, but it's quite stressful, too.

4.  My brother returned from Afghanistan over the weekend, and I got to see him on Saturday.  We spent an hour or so sitting around and just talking, and it was great.  I'm very thankful God watched over him and kept him safe.  His unit encountered Taliban forces 41 times, and he was part of about 35 of those encounters, so God definitely saw to him.

5.  My reading life is hectic.  I'm listening to an audio book at work (Terry Brooks' Bearers of the Black Staff), and nearly finished.  I'm finally reading a STAR WARS book that I've been waitlisted on for a while.  I also checked out Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (so many great reviews already) yesterday, which was purchased by my request to the library.  I really want to start this soon, as I won't be able to renew it, since its waitlist is already growing.  And then I'm reading an unpublished manuscript for someone, which has been quite enjoyable so far, and I'm about halfway through that.  And then there's the smattering of graphic novels and comics I need to read and return.  (Oh, and let's not even consider the time I'm spending playing Dead Space 2.)  All of this on my plate and knowing Pat Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear will be shipped to my house come early March.  So much to read...

6.  As for Dead Space 2, it's been phenomenal.  It's captured all of the terror and features of gameplay the first one had and upped the graphics and added better controls.  The plot has been crazy; the necromorphs plentiful; the fear tense.  I've only got a chapter or two left before I beat the game, and I've really enjoyed this play through.

7.  We watched two James Bond films over the weekend: Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  Neither Keisha nor myself have seen much (or any) of Bond, but we both liked these movies.  Daniel Craig does great, and I'm looking forward to diving into more Bond, especially adding the older ones onto my Netflix queue.

8.  So much going on in life right now that there's no way I could cover it all.  At times I'm stressed.  Other times I'm amazed.  Sometimes I'm sickened and dismayed.  Through it all I look to Jesus and try to live like Him.  I fail, I know, but I try.

Monday, February 07, 2011

iShine NLT Bible (for Girls), a Review

The iShine Bible NLT (for Girls) is a low-frills, basic bible designed for tween girls in a contemporary society.  I was expecting more features from this, but instead there are three supplemental sections aimed at girls to let them know that to God they are a VIP and a smattering of helpful footnotes for reading.

My favorite thing about this bible is the opening section.  There are several pages of common questions people ask in life, such as "Is it okay to ...?" or "Why does ...?"  This Q&A section is simplistic and useful for a questioning tween, and all answers give scriptural references for consultation or further reading.  Also, as mentioned above, the bible makes use of footnotes, and some of these are helpful for the reader.

The bible itself is fine, and the language of the NLT is great for this age group.  However, the text may be too small or too close together for some to optimally use.  The big disappointment was the lack of flair.  Only three sections, a scant 30 pages or so, exist to make this bible targeted for tween girls.  These sections are standouts, as they're highly glossy and colorized, filled with images of today's teens.  Personally, if I were in this age group I think I would be looking for something more interactive, more personal, more engaging, not something that is shiny to look at.

That said, the bible is commendable for its pink cover and its compact size.  If a girl is wanting a pink, girly bible that's easy to read, the iShine Bible NLT (for girls) is perfect.  But if they're wanting something more in-depth, this is not the one for them.

Note: There is also a version of this bible available for boys in the same age group, and I imagine it is the exact same but for color and the three VIP sections.

FTC Thing: I received this book freely from Tyndale Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: The Hanging

     It’s not everyday they hang a fourteen year old boy. ‘Course it’s not too often you get one as mean as Willem Coolidge, either. But the day’s finally came and Pa told me that I could go watch despite Ma’s saying otherwise. He told her he had half a mind to make her go too, just to put her in her place, I reckon. She piped down pretty quick after that. Willem was my friend and it’s only right I should see him off.
     So me, Jamie, and Pa loaded up the horses and headed into town. Had a full day’s worth of chores to get to before the hanging and Pa never was one to dawdle. We got to town and Pa dropped me off at the jail and told me to stay put until he came back. Said Willem was askin’ for me.
     “Can Jamie stay with me?” I asked him.
     “Naw, I need his help with the corn. You’ll be alright. That boy’s still your friend ain’t he?”
     Well Pa had the truth in him. Willem was still my friend and I guess he deserved some company, being his last day and all.
     “Good girl,” Pa said. “I won’t be gone too long.”
     Willem was sitting on the bed all alone inside his cell. The sheriff knew me and Willem were friends, so he let me in his cell with only a common sense warning. Now I ain’t never been locked up before, ‘specially not with an accused cold-blooded killer, and I have to say it’s not a feeling I want to experience again. There’s just something indescribably awful about the sound of iron slamming shut.
     I sat next to Willem on the bed. Our feet were dangling off the side like they would when we sat out at the lake and fished.
     “Hey Willem,” I said.
     I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to someone that’s never gonna get to see another sunrise? Or hear another church choir sing? Or eat another potluck dinner? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
      We sat there in silence for a long time. The sheriff scribbled on some papers or read the Herald or smoked his cigar. People came in and out, but nobody to see Willem. The boy was an orphan and a drifter, tossed around town after town. Somehow me and him connected. Might’ve been his cute eyes or his lanky arms, I don’t know. Coulda been that almost-white hair he had.
     After a time the sheriff brought us some lunch. I didn’t much feel like eating, so I gave mine to Willem. He chomped down his stuff without a word, eating as much from routine as from it just gave him something to do.
     “I ain’t sorry I did it,” he said abruptly. I almost jumped out of my skin. His voice was so quiet, like he was already dead.
     “What?” I don’t know if I said the word or not, but he kept on talkin’ like I did.
     “I was out at Jack’s house hammerin’ some boards on the barn. The windstorm a few weeks back knocked off some planks and he was too frail to get up and do the work hisself so he hired me to do it for him. Five dollars negotiated. I didn’t finish the first day and asked if I could stay over for the night to finish in the mornin’. He didn’ look too pleased that I didn’ get it done and went a complainin’ about being ungrateful and stealin’ from him. Said he was gonna have to take off fifty cents for lodging and another fifty if’n I wanted food for the night. I haggled him down to fifty cents total and he let me stay in the den and sleep in front of the fire.
     “After he went to sleep I lay there thinkin’ about my life and my Ma ‘n Pa and what they woulda been like. I could hear Jack snorin’ deep and I wished sore bad that I had me a family. But I knew I never would. I felt it in my soul that night, El. Lookin’ into the fire as the logs died I felt the certainty that this was it and I didn’ have nothin’ left to live for. It was like somethin’ went off in my brain and the next thing I know I’m standin’ over Jack’s dead body.”
     He was looking down at the floor, eyes never finding mine.
     “I coulda ran. I coulda fled town an’ nobody’d knowed, but I didn’. I went and fixed me another plate a’ ham and watched the fire until the sun came up. Then I went out and finished hammerin’ them boards up on the barn. After that I took four-fifty from Jack’s billfold and made my way here to the sheriff and told ‘im what I done.”
     Willem finally looked up at me. His eyes were the empty sockets of a skull, unseeing and far-off. I don’t know if he was looking for a response or not, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
     “Did you talk to Jesus, Willem?”
     No recognition came to his eyes, but he did crack a smile. It’s the smile that’s haunted me to this day. Not the lifeless eyes or the sound of his neck breaking later on. Not the fact that they had to put sandbags on his feet to give him extra weight for the drop so he’d die proper. The smile. Cocked slightly and teeth showing. It looked alien on his face.
     “Jesus don’t know me, El. I learned that early on. He ain’t got no place for me.”
     “Jesus has a place for everybody. You just gotta ask for forgiveness and He’ll save ya.”
     Pa came in then and the room changed. I searched Willem’s eyes again for some sort of acknowledgment, but I saw nothing. No fear. No hope. Just acceptance. The sheriff let me out of the cell and Pa asked if I said all I needed to say. I said I had and that was that.
     I’m not sure if Willem ever asked for forgiveness or not.
Word Count: 1039

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Coffee, a Puzzle, and An Unexpected Rant

It all starts with coffee.  Fresh ground coffee.  The kind of stuff that wants to be imbibed immediately.  Usually it is, paired with some 1% milk to give it a boost of flavor and distinction.  The rest is hermetically sealed in my less-than-good stainless steel thermos and carted off to work, where I'm forced to quickly down two or three more cups if I want anything resembling hot coffee.  Typically the first cup is fine.  Enjoyable.  Savored.  I'm doing good and the world is going well.  Then I pour the second cup.  My mouth is not ready for more brew, nor are my stomach and bladder, but they're gonna take it whether they like it or not.  I wind up regretting this choice almost every time.  Halfway through the cup I'm sick of coffee.  I'm sick of how it tastes and how it makes me feel.  I'm sick of the bitterness left on my tongue and the yearning for the bathroom.  I usually just throw the dregs down in one quick shot, wincing and convulsing--literally shuddering sometimes.  And then it's over.

I find myself wondering why.  Probably because I paid for the stuff and I'm danged well gonna get my money out of it.  But really, is physical and emotional anguish worth the few paltry dollars spent on coffee beans?  I don't know.  Perhaps I should invest in a new thermos, one that will keep stuff hotter for longer than one hour.  Then I would have all day to enjoy the rich tasting aroma that makes coffee a favorable drink.  Until then, I'll stick with my failed thermos.*

For any wordsmiths out there, yesterday's puzzle (from my daily puzzle calendar**) was quite challenging.  I'll repeat it here below.
None of the answers below contain an A, E, I, N, T, or S - six of the most commonly used letters in English.  Answers 1 to 5 are nine letters long; answer 6 is eleven letters and is the longest common word that lacks any of the six letters mentioned above.
1. Groundhog
2. Never-failing, as a method
3. Machinery that runs as a timepiece
4. Study of Earth's water
5. Nonsense; hogwash
6. Green pigment in photosynthesis

Good luck.  I was particularly happy with #4 since I took a lot of classes in this during my college years, and my job is heavily involved in it.  This calendar has been pretty fun and occasionally challenging. 

So Sunday is the Super Bowl.  This is the first year I've actually ever sat down and watched football intentionally, and I have to say, I'm looking forward to the game.  Granted the team I was rooting for (Colts!) didn't make it, but still, I'll be interested to just watch and experience the Big Game.  Service has been moved for the Youth to someone's house and I've been asked to help lead a little worship service at the start of the festivities.  A year ago I would've said no, no way, find somebody else, heck no, no, No.  But I simply said sure, no problem this year.

I'm astonished at how far I've come.  And lest anyone think I'm boasting, it's all for the glory of Jesus Christ, that God will be exalted and worshiped.  Without His help I would be nothing.  I see my guitar playing and my singing as gifts that God has blessed me with, and while I think I play and sing merely mediocre, I now no longer care.  I do it not to be heard or seen, but that the Spirit can move and lift up the name of Jesus and that the Youth will grow in their faith and will have no fears when serving God.  After all, a follower of Christ living in fear is only defeated by themselves. 

I used to say no because I was scared and timid.  Stepping up was uncomfortable and God had other people that could do the work.  But the more I read the Bible (especially Matthew), the more I realized that Jesus called us to be uncomfortable, to be in awkward situations.  It takes faith to step out into awkwardness, an attitude of the heart that says God, I trust in You that You know what You're doing.  And in that faithfulness, whether we see any fruit of our labors or not, His will is working.  It is this that has led me to stepping out and stepping up.  Too many "Christians" are sitting comfortably in their traditions, in their pews, in their hearts, that they've grown lazy and stagnant in their faith.  As the adage says, "If you're not moving forward, you're going backwards."  That's very true with God.  He hates lukewarm; He spews it from His mouth.

This same sentiment extends well outside the doors of Christianity.  If you're going to commit to something, commit, don't just sign up and stay uninvolved.  Who wants a benchwarmer on their team?  Or an occasional paladin?  No one.  I suppose it's our fallen human nature that wants to stay complacent and lazy, but this must be bypassed in order to live a life worth living.  It's easy to come home and plop down in front of the tv or pick up a book.  Get involved in your own world.  Ignore the rest.  That selfish attitude is simple.  Everybody's good at that.  But that's not living life.

It takes work, uncomfortableness, awkwardness, and effort to truly live.  How does a family grow if you give it no time?  Or how does a community grow, or any other relationship?  Relationships are a fundamental part of a functioning, meaningful, committed life, be it with friends, family, church members, or strangers on the street.  And the only way to grow relationships is by getting up and stepping out.  It's like in KOTOR 2: "Apathy is death."

.......I don't know what happened.  I was going one way and I ended up with a rant.  Sorry.  So, uh, happy Thursday?  I've got a new flash fic piece for tomorrow that I'm really proud of.  Hope you read it and enjoy it. After I read it to Keisha she said "you are one twisted person."  That's the kind of response I like.

*The thermos used to work, but due to my negligence (i.e., it not being dishwasher safe), I ruined the rubber seal, so the thermos seeps out heat.  Something something thermodynamics...

**This comes from THE MENSA PUZZLE CALENDAR 2011.  Not sure who came up with the riddle or I'd give them credit.  The box the calendar came in says by Mark Danna and Fraser Simpson, so I'll give them credit.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Hellboy: Volumes 9 & 10, Reviewed

The Wild Hunt is possibly the best graphic collection so far in the Hellboy universe. The artwork is beautiful (Duncan Fegredo is amazing), especially the huntsmen. The plot is crazy-good, partially because I've always been a fan of Arthurian legends and partially because so much happens in this volume.

Hellboy's destiny still calls, and we wonder how long he can refuse. Also, the antagonist's identity becomes known, and this makes the arc better for it, instead of waiting around for a long time before a reveal.

If you've read the previous eight volumes of Hellboy, then you'll likely read this one as well. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend starting here, but if you did I would think it'd be enough to get you to read the rest of the story.

The Wild Hunt was a remarkable volume in the grand story arc of Hellboy's life.  Wonderful.

I love these Hellboy short tales. The Crooked Man and Others contains four short stories, and all of them were enjoyable.

"The Crooked Man" is the longest arc and Mignola's first foray into American folklore. He chose the Appalachian region for his setting and source material, and I loved it. The artwork was different than the normal Hellboy style, but the change was fitting to this piece. I really liked the illustrations of the Crooked Man, and I thought this dark tale was great for the creepiness.

"They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships" is possibly the greatest art style I've seen in Hellboy. Each panel was beautiful, especially those of Blackbeard. The story was fast-paced and filled with the usual paranormal-ness of Hellboy and I really enjoyed this piece.

"In the Chapel of Moloch" is simple and straightforward. Hellboy is sent to investigate something for the BPRD and encounters problems. Nothing special for this piece other than the fact that Mignola illustrated it and his work is always nice to see.

"The Mole" was a short, fun piece with great illustrations and a somewhat humorous plot. Essentially, Hellboy has a mole on his hand that needs looking at.

Overall, Volume 10: The Crooked Man and Others offers some gems in the Hellboy catalog, and this collection is worth it for the inclusion of the first two stories alone. Any fan of the series should read this volume.

That's it for now.  I've read all ten volumes and have loved them all.  If you've not read this series and are a fan of paranormal/occultish type things with a heavy dose of world folklore, this is a must read.  Not only is the art beautiful throughout, but the stories and development of Hellboy's character make for fascinating reads.

The only collection I've got left to read is Hellboy: Masks and Monsters, which features Hellboy, Starman, and Batman, which may or may not make for an interesting read.  I'm not sure if it has anything to do with the continuity of the Hellboy universe or the DC one or neither, but I guess I'll find out.  I'm unsure when the next TPB collection will come out, so this could be it for a while.