Monthly Archives: January 2012

Monday’s Top 5

I’ve posted links to blog posts with advice on ways to get over the infamous Writer’s Block in the past. (As a note: “infamous” does not mean “more than famous”. Just in case you were wondering.) Now, I don’t believe in Writer’s Block, but if you do, then this post may help you. With such great advice as “Wallow in Self-Pity”, how could y0u go wrong? I highly suggest you check out the rest of Peri Kinder’s Top 5 Ways to Get Over Writer’s Block.

While that advice is obviously going to be useful to those people writing a first draft, what about those people currently working on revisions? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered as well. K. Marie Criddle’s drawg this week is a truly inspired piece of awesome. Check out what happens when she tries to edit her work while in a non-neutral mindset: Revising for the weak minded and easily distracte–SHINY.

Have you ever sat down and thought to yourself: You know, grammar is seriously sexy. (…yeah, me neither…) Julie of byanyothername clearly has. She published a post this week titled Today call me Laid — but it’s not about S – E – X. No, this post is about the correct usage of the verbs “to lie” and “to lay”. Because as she says: “There’s nothing hotter than the proper conjugation of verbs.”      Warning: References to Moby Dick, Jersey Shore and Ryan Gosling. 

Shawn Ledington Fink starts out her post on Ways to Just Be With your Children by saying:

It’s not easy being a parent. No matter if you work outside the home, inside the home. No matter if you have one, two, three or fifteen children. No matter if you have a small house in a big city or a big house in a small city. No matter if you have money or very little money. Raising children is hard work — at least it is if you are doing it right.

This post touches on a number of concerns that have been playing around in my head recently, and suggests 25 “unplugged” ways to spend time with your kids. While I wouldn’t necessarily use all 25 of her ideas, this post really got me thinking. If you’re a parent and you’re struggling to come up with interesting ways to connect with your kids (sans TV, computers and consoles), check it out.

Finally, I’d like to share a post on parenting that really touched me this week. Tracy of Sellabit Mum is a Stay at Home Mum of three girls who believes that we should get on with raising our children according to the needs of our own families, rather than participating in so-called “Mommy Wars”. But she wasn’t always a Stay at Home Mum. Like many of us, she was once a career-focused woman who didn’t think having a baby would change her ambitions. But then it did. Check out her beautiful story Why I Stay at Home… (And if you’re a softie like me, have a box of tissues handy.)

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Preparing for Parenthood

“Having a child is the most rewarding experience of your life. “

That statement is guaranteed to immediately divide the room. On one side, there are the people nodding emphatically — some of them with wry expressions of joy mingled with exhaustion, others with the sagely peace of people whose children have grown up and left home — and on the other side are the people who don’t have children, looking either bored or sceptical.

Before my children were born, I was one of those bored, cynical people. I listened to people talk about motherhood and, I’m ashamed to admit, often thought they were a little soft in the head. “My daughter is amazing. She only sleeps for two hours at a time and she spits up constantly, but when she looks at me and smiles, my heart just melts.”

Really? This baby stops you sleeping and vomits on you, and you think that’s good? You’re clearly insane. Besides, I’ve had plenty of rewarding experiences in my life. I’ve travelled, I’ve had a job that I love, I’ve had pets who depend on me and love me unconditionally. How much different can a child possibly be?

All the parents in the room can stop sniggering now.

The fact is that having a child changes your life, your mindset, your priorities, and (in the case of a child-bearing and/or breastfeeding mother) even your physiology. When my first son was born and placed on my chest, he opened his eyes and looked into mine. In that moment, it wasn’t just my life that was changed — it was me. I distinctly remember leaving the hospital three days later, baby in my arms, and looking at the road I had to cross to get to the car park. “How am I going to get over there?” I thought to myself. “How can I possibly cross the road, dodging these terrifying projectiles hurtling past me at extreme speeds? Why have I never noticed before how dangerous the world truly is?”

But enough of that. There was no way that anyone could have explained those feelings to me before my boys were born, no matter how eloquent they were. The thing is, that feeling is what so many people focus on when they talk about parenthood. They talk about the feelings that come with holding your newborn, or the way the world changes, or the way the hard stuff fades into insignificance in comparison to the good stuff. (I’m also guilty of doing this.)

But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

You see, while the good stuff is amazing, that doesn’t mean you don’t feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and generally unprepared for all the hard stuff. People will tell you that there’s no way to truly prepare yourself for the way your life will change. But I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong.

I give you: Five Ways to Prepare for Parenthood

  1. Find an alarm clock. Set the alarm to go off every two and a half hours, day and night. Every time the alarm goes off, immediately stop whatever you’re doing, jump to your feet, and spend five minutes running backwards and forwards around the house — really get that adrenalin flowing. Then return to what you were doing, and try to pretend there was no interruption. Do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next three years. If you intend to have more than one child, add an extra two years per child.
  2. Every time you cook yourself a meal, leave it sitting on the table untouched until it’s cold. For bonus preparation points, forget about it entirely and find it still sitting there the following day, then eat it rather than cook something fresh.
  3. Ask a friend to spray you with a mix of sour milk and water at random, unexpected intervals throughout the day. Don’t wash or change your clothes afterwards.
  4. Fixate on poo. Spend your free time reading about it, looking at pictures of it, and discussing what it means when poo is different colours or consistencies. Insert at least one statement about poo into every conversation you have.
  5. Find the most annoying noise in world. (I would suggest either a baby crying or a toddler whining?) Play this sound for sixteen hours of every day. At high volume. For bonus preparation points, have the sound start and stop at random, uncontrollable intervals throughout the day and night. Continue this for two years and then change from crying/whingeing to children’s music.

Do any other parents have preparation tips they’d like to share?

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Are your Characters Reactive or Proactive?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been beta reading a YA novel for a good writer friend of mine. After reading the first few of chapters, I  come to the conclusion that I didn’t like the protagonist. In fact, my dislike was such that, if I were reading for enjoyment only, I would have put the book down. My first thought was that the character needed to be made more likeable. However, as I read on, I realised that my response was unfair. And by the time I reached the end of the book, I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong to suggest that the character should be changed in any way.

Did I come to love the character? No. Not at all.

But I did realise why I didn’t like the character.

The protagonist of this purposely unnamed book is purely reactive. The character at no point takes charge, develops a plan, or takes any action that isn’t directly prompted by another character. And, put simply, I don’t like purely reactive characters any more than I like purely reactive people. But that’s not to say that reactive characters are bad. There are plenty of stories with reactive (or even passive) protagonists, and the “passive character takes control of her own life” trope is a very familiar one. It’s just not one that I personally enjoy.

But my enjoyment, or lack thereof, is not a stain on the writing in this YA novel. The protagonist is consistent throughout the story, has a distinctive voice, and is so authentic that I’m pretty sure this person is living their own life in an alternate dimension somewhere. (Or possibly New Zealand.) And, really, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for with our characters: consistency, distinctiveness and authenticity?

My dislike of the character was purely subjective. It’s not up to the author to change the character to suit me.  The only reason the author should consider making any changes is if the intention was to have a proactive rather than reactive character. 

As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to see our characters the same way other people see them. To us, they’re perfect works of art, even more endearing for their faults and flaws. And it can be hard to tell whether they’re being proactive or reactive when there’s a mad slasher or serial killer hunting down all their friends and family (mwah ha ha ha ha!). So, here are some questions you may like to consider if you’d like to determine where in the reactive-proactive spectrum your character fits.

What is your character’s goal before the story starts?

We all know that we should start a story as close to the action as possible, right? But we also all know that if we start too close to the action (in media res, as it were), there’s a chance we’ll alienate readers who have no reason to care whether our young Jedi is captured and tortured by the Empire. So what is your character like in his normal life?

If he’s sitting around waiting to see what life throw at him, or he spends all his time following in the footsteps of his friends and family, or is drifting aimlessly through life without a goal or plan (apparently waiting for a story to begin), there’s a pretty good chance he’s more reactive than proactive.

But if the character is working to achieve a goal, whether or not it’s story-related, he’s more likely to be a proactive character.

Note: This goal doesn’t have to be something big like “to save the world” (or even “to destroy the world”). It could be something as simple as “to get good grades so I can get into college” or “to be the prettiest girl at the Prom” or “to hit the target at the firing range”. The key here is that the character is taking action to achieve his goal, not waiting for it to happen through divine intervention or good old-fashioned luck.

What does your character do during down-time?

Almost every novel has it: down-time. That moment between the adrenalin-fuelled car chase and the point where the slasher leaps out of the tree-line and drags the protagonist’s boyfriend into the undergrowth. It’s a chance for the characters (and the reader) to take a deep breath and process everything that’s just happened. It’s often the point where characters share information, or plot their next move, or take advantage of the lull in death-dealing to “celebrate the wonder of life”. (Cue the sleazy electric guitar.)

So, how does your character behave in the lull? If she takes the opportunity to sit quietly and cry, or goes along with someone else’s suggestion, or her entire plan revolves around waiting to see what happens next, she’s probably a reactive character.

A proactive character is likely to be the one leading the conversation, making plans that include the theme (if not the words) “the best defence is a good offense”, or even taking the opportunity to return to her pre-story goals: “Yes, I know there’s a mad slasher out there. But if I don’t cleanse and moisturise every day, Laura Pringle will look hotter than me at the dance and I’ll never live it down!”

How does your character make choices?

A good story always involves hard choices. Perhaps they don’t seem hard from the outside, but in the character’s mind, they’re huge: “Do I go to the D&D Convention with my friends like I do every year, or go to the Country Club with my cousin in the hopes that I’ll see the girl of my dreams?”  Sometimes the choices are life-altering. Sometimes they’re story-altering. And sometimes they seem to have no bearing on the story… until they do. “Wait, you mean if I’d chosen Strawberry topping, you wouldn’t have torched my car? Damn it! I don’t even like chocolate!” So, when faced with a decision, how does your character decide?

A reactive character is more likely to do what’s “easiest” or “more immediate”. If choosing between two love interests, the reactive character will go with the one in front of him right now. Or the one who tries the hardest to woo him. Or the one that his friends tell him he should go with. Alternately, he won’t make a choice at all — at least, not until he’s either forced to do so by outside events (“Declare your undying love for me, or I’ll start drowning kittens! “) or one of the options is removed (“Now that Laura is dead, you have to love me!”).

A proactive character will make a choice. It may not be the right choice (and often isn’t), but it’s a choice nonetheless: “I’ve considered my options and have decided that I’m really in love with the evil, but incredibly sexy, vampire, and not the sweet girl-next-door who’s always been there for me. How could anything possibly go wrong?”

How does your character resolve the story?

At the end of the book, the plot and character arcs should (ideally) all tie themselves up into a delightful little thing we call a “resolution”, leaving minimal loose threads hanging around for people to trip over. This generally comes straight after the final conflict (or climax) of the story. So, what’s your character’s role in all of this?

A) What do you mean “role”? She’s too busy hiding behind the cupboard desperately hoping the police arrived in time to save her from the pushy hat-salesman to actually do anything. 

B) Her role is to get captured so the antagonist can give his well-prepared monologue. Then she begs for her life, but the antagonist ignores her. Then her boyfriend/the police show up and save her, capturing the bad guy and high-fiving each other all the while. But it’s not really a plan, it’s just what happens.

C) It depends. What does everyone else think her role should be?

D) Fed up with being chased around the College Campus like a rat through a maze, she plots out a Scooby-Doo-esque trap, using herself as bait, and lures the bad guy into an abandoned warehouse where she drops a cage on him, coats him in honey, and releases the dogs with bees in their mouths. Sadly it all goes horribly wrong and the dogs end up being stung by honey-coated bees, but it’s the thought that counts. And then she confronts him mano-a-womano.

Hint: Only one of these is proactive. And it’s even better if you can tie in your proactive character’s starting goal with the final confrontation: “See, I am the prettiest girl here! Take that Magic Mirror!”

In Conclusion…

I’m not saying that proactive characters are better than reactive characters. (Although I am saying that I subjectively prefer proactive characters.) Just make sure that the character that ends up on paper is the same one that runs around screaming obscenities inside your head.

Oh… is that just me?

Leave me your comments, thoughts, or random abuse (if you disagree with me).

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Monday’s Top 5

Stephen Watkins has a great post this week where he addresses the various types of ambitions a writer may possess. In many cases, when asked why they write, writers tend to wax poetic about the way they “have to write or they’ll die” and other such over-dramatic statements. While I understand the sentiment, the reality is that we probably have more concrete ambitions with our writing than mere survival. Stephen looks at three types of Writer’s Ambitions, what they mean, and which are most important to him.

Regardless of where our ambitions lie, however, there our times when we have to choose between spending our time writing and spending our time with our families. Tess Hardwick captures that conflict, and the fact that it really isn’t, beautifully in her post It Is Only Now…

Stephanie of Momma Be Thy Name freely admits that she has often been accused of being “overly altruistic, naive, and trusting”. She blames this over-optimistic attitude on Growing Up Sesame and struggles with the questions all parents face:

So what do I teach my children? To be skeptical? To be paranoid? To be distant? To skip down Lollipop Lane oblivious to society’s shortcomings? To steal off to a cabin in the woods and never return?

We’d all like to protect children from the negativity of the world, but how do we do that when we live in a world where language that was once taboo is common place. Heather from Prawn and Quartered touches on this issue in her post Strong Women Are Not (Necessarily) B*tches.

My main objection to the increasingly coarse standards of culture is the desensitization process. If kids see this kind of thing plastered across magazines and TV shows their parents watch, they will think it is acceptable too.

And finally this week, I bring you a great story of fear and redemption. If you have ever visited Bridget at Twinisms, you’d know that she has an aversion to crafts that borders on the phobic. Her take on craft is best summed up by her comment when discussing New Year’s Resolutions: “Take up crafting — Yuck. Don’t be gross.” But despite her distaste, this week finds her not only participating in, but apparently even enjoying, a craft project. How did that happen? Well, let’s just say she was Craftnapped!

I’m not here. My morning and my blog have been hijacked by my so-called-friends. At our Thursday morning coffee they made me do…a craft. It was the worst morning of my life. I can’t talk about it. My “friend” Brooke now has a hot glue gun to my head and her crafty fingers on my MacBook typing out a play-by-play of the awful events.

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Walking with Big Brother: Easy as ABC

Not too far from where we live, there’s a 5km long walking track through some beautiful parkland. It incorporates a lot of riverside walking, a dog park (with obstacle course), a basketball court, skate ramps, and a delightful swimming/fishing pond complete with ducks to feed. I like to go walking/jogging there, and soak up as much of the outside world as possible. The boys like to see the birds, feed the ducks, and generally do outdoorsy boy things.

Last week, my 4-year-old was feeling a bit cooped up after some uncharacteristically hot weather (yes, it’s summer here in the southern hemisphere) and so I left Baby at home with my husband and took Big Brother for a special walk. To keep us both him entertained, I suggested we play the ABC game: Let’s find something that starts with A, then something that starts with B, etc etc. And I stupidly bravely decided to take photos of everything we found.

Big Brother ran out of patience for the game at about N, but I felt rather obligated to continue the game all the way to the end. (Otherwise my photographic journey would be incomplete!) I hope you enjoy our ABC walk.

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Books I’ve Read in 2012: Part 1

This year I set myself a goal to read a minimum of 50 books and to share them here on my blog. To that end, I will be writing a quick wrap-up/review every time I finish five. I love sharing the books I’ve enjoyed with other people, and would love to hear from you if you’ve read any of these, or if you decide to do so based on my recommendation. (Actually, I’d love to hear from you anyway. I’m addicted to comments.)

Wintersmith — Terry Pratchett

Description

Tiffany Aching put one foot wrong, and now the spirit of winter is in love with her. He says it with frozen flowers, which is sweet. But he also says it with snowflakes, icebergs, and avalanches. If Tiffany can’t find a way to deal with the Wintersmith, there will never be another spring. Fortunately she’s got Granny Weatherwax and the Nac Mac Feegle to help her. Crivens!

Review

There was no doubt in my mind that I would enjoy this book. I love almost anything Discworld, and Granny is my second favourite character (after Vimes). The story was simple but elegant (in the tradition of all the Nac Mac Feegle tales), and the book definitely didn’t disappoint. If you’ve not read any other Discworld novels, this is not the one I’d suggest you start with (there’s a lot of references to previous books, and very few really “new” characters), but it was a fun, fabulous read.

As a side-note, I didn’t technically “read” this book at all — I listened to it on audiobook during my drive to and from my parent’s house at Christmas time. This is the first time I’ve listened to an audiobook and I have to say: I was impressed. I laughed out loud, got teary at the right places, and enjoyed the experience of hearing the characters “speak”. But what I find most interesting is that, when I think back, I don’t remember it as an audiobook at all. I just remember it as a book. I have no more recollection of the narrator’s voice than I would normally have of the font size or type. I just remember the story.

I will definitely be listening to more books in the future.

 

Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

Description

This classic novel is a darkly satiric vision of a utopian future. All negative emotions have been removed from the human experience. There is no anger, grief, jealousy, or unrequited love. Everyone is happy. Perfectly happy. All the time. They’re engineered that way through genetics, pharmaceuticals, and childhood training. The loss of family, romance, and art is but a small price to pay for the eternal contentment of mankind.

Review

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never before read Brave New World. In some ways, I really regret not having read it a long time ago. In others, I’m glad I didn’t.

The world in this novel is, quite frankly, terrifying. Between the enforced sexualisation of children and the training rooms where babies are taught to hate books and nature through the use of electric shocks, there is very little pleasant about the means they use to reach their contented end. This is a world where the word “mother” is pure smut, love is unheard of, and a pro-consumerist mentality is programmed in utero, and that’s disturbing enough. But the thing that I found most terrifying is the logic behind this “perfect” society. Logic that makes inexorable sense.

It’s simple, really: If no one wants for anything they can’t have, no one will be unhappy. If all your hopes and desires are fulfilled the moment you have them, there’s no cause for angst or frustration or anger. So the solution is simple. Step 1: Make sure people only want the things that you want them to want. Step 2: Provide those things on demand.

But the truly terrifying part of this novel is not just that it makes so much sense, but that I can see parallels between this mentality and the real world.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed this book. At least, not in the sense that I usually use the word “enjoy”. It was powerful. It was monumental. It was amazing. But it wasn’t something to be savoured or enjoyed. That being said, I do recommend you read it. Just don’t expect to walk away from it feeling happy.

The God Engines — John Scalzi

Description

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this — and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from that the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It s what he doesn t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put — and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely.

Review

John Scalzi is best known for writing science fiction, but this novella is tagged as fantasy (despite its futuristic setting). It’s only a short book (136 pages), but it definitely packs a hefty punch. Right from the first sentence, this book grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. In fact, it has one of my all-time favourite opening lines:

It was time to whip the god.

In this world, the people all worship and serve Our Lord, the strongest and only “true” god in the Universe. Many centuries ago, Our Lord bested all other gods and chained them to His service. These bested gods now serve as engines in the fleet of space ships that patrol the galaxy and keep order. For the most part, the gods do as instructed. But if they don’t… well, Our Lord’s justice is absolute.

The characters in this story are so real, they could have stepped out of the pages and had a party in my kitchen and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. The story is intricately woven and well told. The writing is superb –I’d read another of Scalzi’s books without a second thought.

But.

My only criticism is that I felt the story was wrapped up too quickly. I loved the character of Captain Tephe, the world-building was phenomenal, and the story held me enthralled. And then it was over. I turned the last page and had to sit and catch my breath, sure that a few dozen pages must have fallen out of the book somewhere. Don’t get me wrong — it doesn’t feel incomplete. It doesn’t even feel particularly rushed. It just ends too soon for my liking.

I’d recommend this book to those people who aren’t afraid of a heavy premise and story (despite the light page count) and to those who like fantasy elements in their science fiction.

The Big Over Easy — Jasper Fforde

Description

It’s Easter in Reading — a bad time for eggs — and no one can remember the last sunny day. Humpty Dumpty, well-known nursery favourite, large egg, ex-convict and former millionaire philanthropist is found shattered beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Following the pathologist’s careful reconstruction of Humpty’s shell, Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant Mary Mary are soon grappling with a sinister plot involving cross-border money laundering, the illegal Bearnaise sauce market, corporate politics and the cut and thrust world of international Chiropody. As Jack and Mary stumble around the streets of Reading in Jack’s Lime Green Austin Allegro, the clues pile up, but Jack has his own problems to deal with. And on top of everything else, the Jellyman is coming to town.

Review

After reading a couple of really heavy stories, I felt the need for something light. Something fun. Something that I could sink my teeth into, only to find it was full of chocolate. And that’s why I picked up this book, at this time.

Many, many years ago I picked up Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ at a small bookshop when I was desperate for something to read. I went on to devour the rest of the Thursday Next series, and fell in love with Fforde’s voice and style. He’s the type of storyteller who can spin a ludicrous tale with a straight face, and have even the most sceptical listenere wondering if perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a measure of truth to his story.

Humpty Dumpty is an egg. A four-foot tall egg. He’s found dead, having apparently fallen off his wall in the middle of the night. Or was he pushed?During the course of the investigation, DI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary encounter three little pigs, the gingerbread man, magic beans, three bags of wool, Georgio Porgia, and a host of other familiar characters.

The whole story is full of little in-jokes and cute coincidences, but the key word in “nursery crime” is definitely “crime”. Fforde tells the story straight — it’s a police procedural with nursery rhyme characters. There’s a CSI team, a medical examiner, forensic evidence, clues and red herrings, unexpected confessions, jealousy, subterfuge, lies, and enough straight-faced satire for any three books.

Fforde’s writing is hilarious — effortlessly so, it would seem — but this is so much more than just a comedy. It’s one of the best mystery stories I’ve read in quite a while.

Working Stiff — Rachel Caine

Description

Bryn Davis knows working at Fairview Mortuary isn’t the most glamorous career choice, but at least it offers stable employment — until she discovers her bosses using a drug that resurrects the clientele… as part of an extortion racket. Now Bryn faces being terminated (literally) with extreme prejudice. With the assistance of corporate double agent Patrick McCallister, Bryn has a chance to take down the bigger problem — pharmaceutical company Pharmadene, which treats death as the ultimate corporate loyalty program. She’d better do it fast before she becomes a zombie slave — a real working stiff. Some days, you’re better off dead.

Review

Let me start this review by saying: READ THIS BOOK!

Seriously.

I saw Working Stiff reviewed a while ago on All Thing Urban Fantasy, where it was rated 5/5. The description of the book didn’t really appeal to me — zombies? really? — but the reviewer (Julia) was so enthusiastic that I added it to my TBR list anyway.  And, let me tell you, I’m so glad I did.

Bryn is just your average, ordinary working girl. Well, assuming that by “average” you mean someone who grew up in a small town, joined the army to help her pay off her student loans, spent 4 years as a soldier in Iraq, and discovered that she had a quiet respect for the dead; the kind of respect that had her deciding to train as a funeral director when she left the military.

I liked Bryn right from page one. She hooked with her no-nonsense attitude, her strength, and her compassion. And then she got turned into a zombie, and somehow that made her even more relatable. (Not a slobbering, brain-eating, apocalypse-causing zombie. Oh no, something much better. A zombie created by… (wait for it!) Science! )

Yes, inside the beckoning pages of this book, you’ll find such wonders. Zombies! Nanobots! Spies! Gunfights! Double-crosses! Triple-crosses! Ticking clocks! Secret conspiracies! Evil corporations! Mad scientists! Thrills! Spills! Automobiles! And in between the mystery, the action, the corporate espionage, and the themes of life vs death, there’s even a hefty dose of romance.

Seriously, what more could you want from a book?

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