Hopefully reading

Ever since the coronavirus officially entered Indiana, the state I live in, I’ve been reading books that had a post-apocalyptic and/or world spreading virus theme. For instance, I’m a little under 200 pages left in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

At first, I thought I was reading it out of sheer morbid obsession. Reading a book about 99.4 percent of the world dying from a super flu while the actual world is living through a pandemic with flu-like symptoms. But then I got to page 904. For those that don’t know, “The Stand” starts with a super flu that kills off most of the population. The survivors are pitted in a battle between God and Satan. The prophet that God has chosen to lead His people is Mother Abagail. Spoiler Alert: She instructs some people to travel to the heart of evil, Las Vegas, and stand up to Satan’s prophet, Randall Flagg.

Here’s the end of Mother Abagail’s instructions. “But he is in Las Vegas, and you must go there, and it is there that you will make your stand. You will go, and you will not falter, because you will have the Everlasting Arm of the Lord God of Hosts to lean on. Yes. With God’s help you will stand.”

Now, only one of those chosen four were religious. The other three were skeptical at best, but they all believed in Mother Abagail. And Mother Abagail believed and trusted God.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ll be finishing the book this weekend. For those that have lost track of the date/time (I know I have on several occasions), it’s Easter. For those that don’t know the specifics, here’s a brief rundown of events.

Beginning in the Bible, Matthew 26:47, Jesus was betrayed by Judas. He was arrested, taken to the high priest Caiaphas, accused of false crimes, condemned to death, mocked, beaten, and crucified. Here’s the thing, Jesus knew this was going to happen. He knew Judas would be the one to betray him and that he would be put to death. Knowing all of this, he didn’t fight the Sanhedrin physically or try to escape (I imagine he could’ve if he so decided).

Now, I’m not saying that the Bible and The Stand are equal in importance. If there was one text, I would advise reading it would be the Bible.

Both have a great moral story to them and teach a valuable lesson. In fact, in each text, it’s the same moral story. The moral is that if you trust in God and stand against evil, you will prevail. Even if your results aren’t what you desire, you’ll eventually prevail.

And that’s why I’m reading the Bible and The Stand. Not for the doom saying or the plagues or the death and destruction. Trust me, there’s a lot of that in each book.
But there’s also hope.

In this time, the Era of Corona, we could use some hope. That’s why Easter is such an important time for those that believe in God. Jesus died and in three days he was resurrected. If we trust in God and are faithful to His instructions, then we will also live again in Heaven. It is my hope that you find something to read that inspires hope. For me, I find hope in the Bible and fictional novels like The Stand.

I wish everyone has a safe and happy Easter. Remain faithful to God, trust in the Word, and do the only thing we can in this harrowing time.

Stand.

What to read in a time like this?

I try to find the humor in every situation I face. Somehow, if I can laugh about something it just doesn’t seem that scary/depressing/overwhelming/(insert emotion). I remember when I was hospitalized for a three foot blood clot and I had made a joke about it to my wife (at the time). She doesn’t share my humor for laughing in the face of disaster.

Maybe that’s why we’re no longer together. Hmmm…

Anyhoo, so for those that are self-quarantined, staying away from the public, or just simply an introvert here are some choices in reading material for this time of season. And please, just know that even though this list is themed toward pandemics, it’s simply a literary book list with some dark humor to it.

So for your reading pleasure, here is my 2020 Pandemic Book List:

the stand1. The Stand, by Stephen King. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this horror classic. The premise of this ginormous novel is a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s an amazing read about what happens to humanity and the good vs evil theme is quite page turning. I’m currently watching the television adapted movie and reading the uncut version of the novel. I’ve been sniffling and coughing up phlegm all the while.

Makes a man a bit paranoid, haha.

the-andromeda-strain2. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. First off, I love when people call books a techno-thriller. It’s such a great name for a genre. So this novel handles the narrative differently. It documents the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial mirco-organism in Arizona.

Year-One-Nora-Roberts3. Year One, by Nora Roberts. Okay, so if you’re not that into Stephen King because of the length of books he writers, I get it. However, if you’re looking for a pandemic themed book that invokes King’s The Stand without the 1,000 + page count then this one is it. I’ll warn you though, it’s part of a trilogy so if you’re wanting a one and done read, then you may reconsider it. It’s a great read about a sickness that spreads suddenly and within weeks, everything starts to crumble. This is different than your basic pandemic. Where science and technology falls, magic rises and people start developing magical powers and turning into elves and other magical creatures.

world_war_z_book_cover4. World War Z, by Max Brooks. So, without getting into all the zombie fiction out there (and believe me there’s a lot) I’ll just offer this one beacon of light among the undead. This book, written by Director Mel Brook’s son, is a collection of individual accounts following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. For those that have read The Zombie Survival Guide, this is the same author and it’s equally well written. While the guide was written in a half-comical nature, WWZ is written in a serious tone that examines survival-ism, uncertainty, and the ineptitude of individuals and governments. It’s really a must-read.

As an additional note, I really disliked the movie simply because it was nothing like the book. In my opinion, it would’ve been better to make it a strict adaptation of the novel. And you can fight me on that.

dracula_book_cover5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Okay, hear me out on this one before I get an angry voicemail about how I need to “get my facts straight.” Dracula is about a vampire that travels to England so that he may find new blood and spread the undead curse. However, the good Count is defeated by a band of humans that wield science as a weapon. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the basic theme of almost all pandemic themed fiction. I once wrote a college paper about how Dracula was a metaphor for Cholera. It was pretty good paper inspired by a very good work of fiction. Check it out.

Well, that’s five pandemic inspired fictional works. While I hope you all don’t fall ill with the coronavirus, I do hope you read some of the books on this list. All have a soft spot in my literary heart and have earned a place on my Hall of Fame for books.

With any luck, I’ll talk to you all next week.

A Decade Remembered

For my work, I was tasked in combing through ten years’ worth of Starke County Leaders to find highlights from the last decade. It’s only natural, while making your way through almost 500 editions of a newspaper, that I began to think about the highlights from my own life.

Dictionary.com defines highlight as “an important, conspicuous, memorable, or enjoyable event, scene, part, or the like.”

I think it’s important to consider the fact that a highlight can include negative events as well as positive ones. After all, you can’t take the good without taking the bad. For example, look what happens to the Jedi Order when you don’t study the Dark Side of the Force. You end up on the bad side of Order 66. Nobody wants that.

Here are some of the highlights from my own personal decade:
– I celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary on July 11, 2010.
– In March 2010, I wrote this joke: Q. What do you call a sleep walking nun? A. A Roaming Catholic. It was received with mild success.
– In 2011, I went back to school at IUSB. Instead of Computer Science, I began studying English.
– In December 2012, I wrote a 1,600-word paper on King Arthur’s court collapsing due Marxist Theory. It was pretty spectacular.
– My grandfather, James Norton, passed away on March 7, 2013. He was a great man, role model, and grandpa.
– Signed with Permuted Press to have my book series published in February 2014.
– Spent an amazing week in Seattle for the American Writers & Publishers (AWP) conference with fellow IUSB writing friends.
– In 2014 I got a mortgage for a home in Plymouth with my wife of five years.
– On March 2, 2015, I found out that Permuted Press cancelled the book contract.
– I finished my college education at IUSB in May 2015. It took me 11 years, but I did it.
– Left my job at IUSB and started work at the Pilot News Group, where I’m still employed and loving it.
– Found out I had a ginormous blood clot in my left leg. That was fun (sarcasm).
– November 2015 I signed a new book contract with Burning Willow Press for that series that was earlier canceled.
– In 2017 I became a published author. Since then I’ve published three books, four short stories, and a combined book with several other authors.
– After a two-year separation my wife and I divorced in 2018. This event ended nine years together.
– When BWP closed in 2019, my books were once again homeless. But only for a day when Random Evolved Media offered to pick them up.

There have been many other good and bad highlights that I won’t mention. From the list above, it looks to me as if my life has been filled with more bad memories than good. That might make some people feel depressed. Admittedly, there were times during the last ten years that I feel deep into depression. I still do sometimes.

Since I’m a nerd, I thought of this quote from the BBC show, Doctor Who. “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things,” says The Doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith. “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

There’s no way of knowing what the next ten years will throw at us. However, as long as we cherish that pile of good things while learning how to overcome the pile of bad things, I’m sure I’ll be writing another decade rewrap. And hopefully you’ll be here to read it.

Goodbye 2010-2019 and hello 2020-2029!

See you all next year.

The Thankful Writer

As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my aunts and mother’s home. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re all waiting for Thanksgiving Dinner. My sister’s family and I piled into their van early in the morning to travel to Illinois where our aunt and mother live. It’s a rather short trip, just under three hours, and we were fortunate not to experience any kind of traffic. We stopped for gasoline once and I was able to refuel my caffeine tank while my brother-in-law filled the van’s. The dinner we had consisted of turkey, ham, potato casserole, cheesy broccoli, and some type of cranberry concoction. It was delicious. When we finished and washed the dishes, we had dessert. As tradition dictates, that dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. While we devoured the pie, the Disney Plus movie “Noelle” played. That too was pretty good. Sure, it had a lot of product placement and a predictable ending, but the casting was great and the humor was flawless.

Overall it was a rather perfect day free of any kind of drama.

To say that I have a lot to be thankful for is an understatement. The first thing that I’m thankful for is my family. My family has supported me and has had my back even at my darkest, lowest moments. I count myself blessed to be apart of this family. Another thing I’m thankful for is my job. As an author, it’s difficult to find a job that grants the flexibility needed to actually get some book writing done. It’s also very fulfilling and entertaining. Covering the news, you will always get something different coming across your desk. Being able to help get the word out on various topics, organizations, and causes is something that I take pride in. I’ve also made many friends and acquaintances in my four and a half years as a news writer.

My faith is something that I don’t touch on very often during these times together. That’s something I could talk about later on, but for now let me just say that without God, I might’ve succumbed to the devastating depression that followed my separation and divorce. I’m so thankful for all the things that God has done for me, even if some of those things weren’t all that great.

One of the final things that I’m thankful for is… you. The reader. You’re the one that reads my weekly rants, my articles, and (hopefully) my books. Without you guys, I might not be here every week ranting about one thing or another. I’d most likely be working at a gas station on third shift. As a side note, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I had worked third shift at a gas station in South Bend and I despised it. Working nights at a gas station in the south edge of a minor city in Northern Indiana was boring and soul-crushing. However, I did meet a lot of interesting individuals during those nights. An example was this one guy that was walking to Kokomo from Michigan because he was kicked out of the state.

There’s always one person on my Facebook feed that likes to remind their friends that this holiday was based on White people taking advantage of the natives. Whether that was the case or not, it really doesn’t matter much because the past is the past.

What does matter is that on Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessings that we have been given. We need to remember that not everyone has been blessed as we have. For me, I know that things could have gone a very different route if it hadn’t been for my family, my God, my job, and readers like you.

So, what I guess what I’m trying to say is… thanks.

Review of The Institute

institute.jpgLet’s get this disclaimer out of the way so that we can get down to the meat and potatoes of this book review. I absolutely, positively love everything that Stephen King has ever written. Not so much his film adaptions, but that’s another review for another time.

Released in mid September, the storyline of The Institute follows two main characters. The first readers encounter is Tim Jamieson, an ex-policeman that’s traveling to New York for a job. Following his intuition, Jamieson ends up in DuPray, South Carolina. He ends up being a Night Knocker. For those that don’t know what a night knocker is, don’t worry I didn’t know either. Basically, it’s just a lowly paid member of local law enforcement that walks around at night making sure places are locked up. Jamieson has his own interesting history and is developing a life in DuPray when the story shifts over to the central character of the novel, Luke Ellis. 

Luke is a twelve-year-old genius that’s about to enter college. One night, he’s kidnapped from his home in suburban Minneapolis and taken to The Institute. It’s a facility located in Maine. Luke soon finds out that he and all the other kids in the facility have either telekinesis or telepathy. Oh, and the facility is operated by a super secret shadowy organization.

Going into the novel, I was certain that it was a sequel King’s 1980 novel, Firestarter. It’s essentially the same premise. A child with pyrokinetic powers is hunted by The Shop, a super secret government operation that does drug testing on people with telekinetic abilities. Spoiler alert: Firestarter ends with The Shop reforming under new leadership. With Doctor Sleep being a sequel to The Shining, it wasn’t that hard to think that The Institute was a sequel to Firestarter. However, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no references to the book that was adapted into the 1984 film starring Drew Barrymore.

While I really enjoyed Luke’s journey of survival and vengeance, all I really wanted to do was get back to Night Knocker Tim. For some reason, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tim’s normal, everyday life compared to the freaky and slightly traumatizing tale of Luke Ellis. As you could guess, the two main character’s path eventually collide and that’s when the story picks up. To quote Pam Beesly-Halpert from The Office, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

Stephen King is one of those authors that has an innate talent to craft a decent story with children as characters. The Institute is pretty much a mash-up of IT and Firestarter. You take a shadowy government organization testing children and the children must band together to survive. Luke and the other children share a deep relationship together and King so masterfully gives each child a story arc without bogging down the narrative.

The one thing that I truly did not like were the political digs at President Trump and the Republican Party. If you follow King’s social media, you’ll know that he doesn’t particularly look on them with a positive light. There aren’t many of these references, but they always made me cringe and pulled me out of the narrative when I read them.

I guess I wouldn’t be a good reviewer if I didn’t mention how the novel parallels real world events. When you finish this 576 page science fiction/horror thriller there are a few things that hit close to home in terms of vaccinations, missing children, and zealots that believe that the ends justify the means. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that The Institute is an interesting look into these issues and the deeper and terrifying implications they have on society.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, The Institute will itch that literary scratch. For those that haven’t delved into the deep library of King, you’ll find this book a great introduction into it. The Institute is definitely one to put on your To-Be-Read list.

Victory is Sweet

When it comes to games, I’m pretty competitive. Of course, if you ask my nieces and nephews, they’ll tell you I’m ruthless. When playing Risk, I’ll backstab my allies. When playing Sorry, I’m not sorry. I don’t try to collect four of the same kind in the game of Spoons. I just pass cards and wait for the first spoon to be grabbed.

In Candyland, there is no mercy.

Because of my ruthlessness, I’ve been accused of being too hard on the kiddos. Whenever I’m accused of this, I defend myself by stating that I want my nieces and nephews to win. And I do want them to win, but I want them to win because they achieved it. I want them to learn that if you want something in this world, you need to work for it.

When one of my nieces started playing Candyland, my wife (at the time) and I played. I took my turn, my wife took her turn, and then my niece took her turn. Now, if you’ve never played Candyland, the game doesn’t use dice to advance. Instead, you draw cards from the top of the deck and then advance to that color or location. My niece had drawn the Chocolate Swamp card that advanced her to the end of the board. While my niece was celebrating, I looked at my wife suspiciously. It only took one look at her mischievous smile to know that she’d rigged the deck. I understand that my niece was like three or four at the time, but it was irritating that my wife had just handed the victory to her.

Now, I know what you all are saying. “But Jim, it’s your niece. She’s like three-years old.” Or, “But Jim, it’s only Candyland.” Or “But Jim, you’re a monster.”

Believe me, I’ve heard all of these before. Sure, it’s only Candyland. But what about after Candyland? If we allow children to become used to winning because “it’s only Candyland,” then they’ll become used to winning. And like it or not, we can’t win all the time.

As an author and a survivor of a failed marriage, I know about not winning all the time.
When my two nephews started playing chess, I never let them win. My oldest nephew was about five or six at the time when he started playing the game. My second oldest nephew started about the same age. Both are formidable opponents to this day. In fact, I recently played my second oldest at a game and he nearly had me in checkmate.

proud uncle2
My nephew upon realizing he’d just checkmated his uncle.

I’m not a chess genius, but I’m pretty good. And with that ruthlessness, I’ve become elevated to a Bobby Fischer legend status in that household. My sister has beaten me less than a handful of times, and I think my brother-in-law had beaten me once. Other than that, I’m undefeated.

Well, that was until Zeke, the oldest at 12 years of age, defeated his uncle. He didn’t even know it at the time. It wasn’t until I extended my hand in defeat that he realized he had me in checkmate. The legend was defeated.

Seeing his face flush in realization and the gigantic smile was worth the six or seven years of being ruthless. He won because of his own cunning and merit, not because I gave the victory to him.

The publishing world is like a ruthless uncle. It will never hand you a publishing deal. It wants you to do the work. Write that novel, submit it, wait all of those agonizing months, and suffer rejections. Maybe, you’ll taste victory.

Don’t quit playing the game. Even if you receive rejection letter after rejection letter, keep it up. Strengthen your game, know your opponent, and plow ahead. My nephew could have given up playing the game. I assure you he had moments after a crushing defeat where he thought I was undefeatable. The next day when I’d walk into their house he’d say “Uncle Jim, let’s play chess. This time I’m going to beat you.”

proud uncle
Victory is Sweet!

I promised my nephews and niece that if someone defeated me at chess, I’d take that person to Dairy Queen for a reward. Last night, I did just that. We ate medium Oreo Cookie Jar Blizzards while talking about the game. Just a smiling teenager and his proud (and now humbled) uncle. For my nephew, victory never tasted sweeter.

If my nephew can topple that undefeatable and ruthless uncle, then you can get that book/poem/artwork/ (insert whatever goal you have) accomplished. Do the work, persevere, and never quit. Maybe then, you too, can taste victory.

The Social Writer: Blogging Platforms

Continuing with the series The Social Writer, this week I’ll be talking about blogging platforms. Now, last week I discussed why a writer might want to begin his/her own blog. Let’s say you decided to take my advice and start a blog. But then there’s a hitch: you don’t know what blogging platform to host your awesome blog.

Well, have no fear, Mastering the Craft is here!

blogging for writersRecapping from last week, I am still reading Robin Houghton’s book “Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers build successful blogs.” It’s published by Writer’s Digest so you know it’s going to be full of stuff that writer’s will want to know. In all seriousness, so far I’ve found it to be full of stuff that I, as a writer, would want to know. If you’d rather go out and buy the book instead of reading this column, I’d fully understand.

So, back to the task at hand. You’ve probably visited or heard of some of the blogging platforms I’ll be discussing shortly. You might be wondering though, what exactly is a blogging platform? Houghton describes them as “the software that powers a blog. You could think of it as the underlying construction, like a house-is it timber-framed or brick-built? Once the house is built, you may not be able to tell. Most blog platforms do pretty much the same job.”

There are so many of these platforms out there and it’d take more effort than I’d like to spend so I’m going to give a summary of three of the more popular ones. Here goes.

WordPress.com. This is the platform my website uses (www.james-master.com) and I find it very comfortable to use, yet also a little challenging. Let’s say it’s for intermediate level internet users. Prices can range from Free to $45 per month. Of course with most things, the more you pay the more perks you have access to. Stages include Free, Blogger ($3/month), Personal ($5/month), Premium ($8/month), Business ($25/month), and eCommerce ($45/month). All of those prices are billed yearly. That’s how they get you. You think, of that’s not a bad price, but then you’re panicking when they want you to pay a crazy amount.

Screenshot (40)
Screenshot of the pricing and what it includes from WordPress.com

 

• Blogger.com. I had no idea that Blogger.com was owned by Google so automatically I was logged into my webpage. “It’s like trading off some control for more convenience,” writes one review site. The site also states that Blogger has very little in terms of content management. While you can buy a custom domain, a blogger on Blogger.com is free and you get essentially unlimited resources to run your blog. I might actually try this one.

Wix.com is the third blogging platform. They have a basic free package like all the others, but then they have their four different levels including Combo ($13/month), Unlimited ($17/month), Pro ($22/month), and VIP ($39/month). The one thing that I like about WordPress.com is that they tell you ahead of time that the price is billed monthly. With Wix.com, they say the price, but only tell you it’s billed yearly later on. For instance, the Pro plan is $22 per month if you pay for one year. If you pay it month-to-month it’s $27 per month. Of course, if you pay for three years it’s only $16/month. So there’s that.

Screenshot (41)
Pricing and what it includes from Wix.com

 

Here’s what you need to think about when making the choice of where your blog is going to call home: Do you like the look and feel of the blogging platform sites? Do you have the budget for the higher tiers? What are the goals for your blog when thinking about the future?

The last piece of advice I can give you is this: search for other blogs that use the platform you’re thinking about. Do your research. Read some reviews about it. And always remember that you can start on the free option and then upgrade to a higher tier later on.

If you use a blogging platform, let me know in the comments which one and if you like it or if you are looking for a different one. If so, which one?