End of May

I haven’t blogged just to blog in quite a while. So, as I’m sort of between projects and figuring out what to do with myself at the start of summer, I thought I’d do an update on my life. Because both you readers care, right?

School’s Out for summer. It was an interesting year. Not always a good time, but come the end of the year all is forgiven and transgressions (mostly) forgotten. I’m going to really miss having those seniors in my life on an almost daily basis. They’re good young folks with very bright futures ahead of them.

It would seem I have broken a tradition the Advanced Placement English students of the Class of 2017 had going. I’m apparently the first English teacher of their high school career to not quit the school after having this group. For some of them, the trend goes back to eighth grade. For what it’s worth, I did apply for a couple of jobs at other schools, but nobody called for an interview.

No surprise here, but the Oklahoma Legislature has failed to find a way to raise teachers’ salaries. Many teachers are leaving the state, which is just as well since a lot of schools are having to reduce the number of teachers they can afford (and increase class sizes). This includes my school, where class sizes for English are expected to be 35 students per section … although that math doesn’t really add up when all things are considered and we’re looking at 40+ kids in some classes.

But hey, in other news I finished a new book. It’s called A Light Beyond. I’ll be posting the cover and blurb here in a few days. This is a book I proposed to my previous agent several years ago and he shot it down (like he did everything else I proposed). Now it’s written and is being edited. It’s currently at about 50,000 words, which is an odd length, pretty long for a novella but not long enough to be a novel. I’m not looking for a publisher for it. It’s going straight to my own MoonHowler Press and will hopefully be available at SoonerCon 26, which starts June 23 and really should include your presence.

Students asked me a while back how many books I have published. I couldn’t answer at first. The answer is 16. They asked how many I’ve written. That answer is 30. Eight of those unpublished books will hopefully be released in the next year as I find time to polish and do the layout and design for them.


Review: 14

14 by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, for many years, all I read was horror fiction. These days, my reading tastes vary pretty widely, with horror popping up … rarely. You read too much in one genre, you get burned out. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Now, when I dip back into the horror pool, I need for the book to be really good. Peter Clines’ 14 managed that.

Nate Tucker got lucky and found a nice apartment at an affordable price in an old building in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the building is also a machine that is keeping Lovecraftian horrors at bay. More unfortunately, some weird cultists have found the machine and want to shut it down so that Cthulhu and his buddies can feed on humanity.

On the one hand, I wanted to say Blech! when the full plot twist was revealed and real people like Lovecraft and Tesla were used to advance the plot. However, Clines did such a good job at creating his very believable cast of characters that I went along with it. And I enjoyed nearly every minute of this ride. There were a few things, like the constant movie references and the cliche of … who the bad guy is that were a little annoying, but they were only minor annoyances.

The book comes across like a mystery, with the horror not rearing it’s slimy head until you’re way into it. But you know it’s coming. And you know it’s gonna be big and bad. Clines delivers on that. It’s a good book and I highly recommend it. I listened to it on audio and can definitely recommend it that way, too.

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Family Means Forgiving

Yesterday I delivered my first sermon. It was for the Class of 2017 baccalaureate ceremony at Western Heights High School, where I’m the English department chairman. Some Facebook friends asked for a copy of the speech, so here it is, pretty much just as delivered.

Family Means Forgiving

Hello. Thank you to my colleagues, the parents, and especially the Class of 2017 for asking me to be your speaker today. I know some of you are thinking I’m an odd choice to deliver your baccalaureate sermon, and honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. When I was a kid, my dad would blast Jimmy Swaggart on the turntable Sunday mornings while getting ready for church, and I would stay in bed as long as I could, pretending to be asleep, sick, lame, or dead in hopes I wouldn’t have to go. And now here I am.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide what I wanted to talk about today. Although I am a licensed minister, I’ve only used those credentials to marry people, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to get married today, so I had to sit down and write an actual sermon. I’ve written news stories about teenagers dying while huffing gasoline and novels exploring my own deepest fears, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. For my topic, I decided to talk about something I wish I’d been told some three decades ago when I was sitting in the audience at Enid High School’s baccalaureate.

Forgiveness is part of what I want to talk to you about today. Forgiveness, family, and avoiding regrets. But let’s start with the family part.

What is family? If you were a senior in my AP Literature class this year you probably expect to hear some John Steinbeck quotes about how there’s only one soul and each of us has a little piece of it and that makes us all family. Well, instead of a quote you got a paraphrase … and I expect you to know the difference.

Romans 12:10 has something to say about who we should consider to be family. “love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. ” First Peter, Chapter 4, verse 8, tells us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

My point here is that family extends beyond the mom or dad or grandparents sitting with our graduates today. Sure, we’re all made in the image of God and that makes us family. But beyond that, we share a kinship forged here in these hallways, in the stadium, in this auditorium and in the classrooms. We are a family of Jets.

One of the things that has always struck me about Western Heights is the diversity of our student body and how well we all usually get along with one another. Sure, there are some fights, especially at the beginning of the year, and there are cliques and best friends and bickering and such, but for the most part, despite our differences, everyone gets along with everyone else.

That’s not how it was for me in high school. Races didn’t mix. Economic groups didn’t associate with one another. And stoners didn’t talk to preppies. The Breakfast Club was real, man.

There were over 400 seniors in my graduating class. I didn’t personally associate with more than about 25 of them. I didn’t talk to guys who wore pink shirts or girls who wore bangles. Student Council kids were brown-nosing nerds. Our state champion football team was a bunch of thugs. My grades were average, so I couldn’t chill with the geeks. I didn’t use drugs, so I didn’t even hang out with the kids who shared my musical taste. High school wasn’t much fun, and now, looking back on it, I can see that it was mostly my fault I didn’t have any fun.

We’re human and have to deal with our human nature. We’re cliquish. We’re petty sometimes. We hold grudges. We push our brothers and sisters away from us. Some of you are about to graduate without really knowing your classmates, or maybe you’re holding on to old angers. She dated your ex-boyfriend, or he dented your car, or Sally blocked you on Snapchat and Miguel got that scholarship you thought you deserved.

Things happen.

Time passes.

When you come back for your 20-year high school reunion, do you want to still be holding on to your anger because Mackenzie changed senior quotes to senior thank-yous in the yearbook or because Nayelli ate your lunch or Lakota ran faster than you in track? Take it from someone who has a hard time forgiving, from someone who let prejudices and peer pressure decide who he associated with in high school, you don’t want to walk out of here for the last time with hard feelings or not knowing your family.

Colossians chapter 3 verses 11 to 13 say, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,* slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

Matthew 6:14 tells us, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” And Luke adds to that in Chapter 6, Verse 37, with, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

I’m not one to turn down good advice from other sources. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Elbert Hubbard, who says, “The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods.”

Forgive your friend for not letting you copy that homework assignment. Forgive Mr. Zenati for not rounding that 89 up to a 90. Forgive the referee for his bad calls. Forgiving will bring you joy, even if the offending party never knows or cares that you’ve given it. Do it for yourself.

Some of you know I’m kind of a literature nerd. You’re not getting out of here without a few quotes from some of my favorite books. And if I’m going to quote an author, you know I’m going to start with John Steinbeck. No paraphrase here. America’s greatest author wrote this in his journal during the time he was working on his short novel Of Mice and Men. He said:

In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

If somebody had told me this when I was your age, maybe I would have been smart enough to be open to the advice. Maybe not. If I had, when I went to my first high school reunion maybe I would have actually known the names of people who greeted me instead of simply remembering how she was a snob and he was a jock and that guy was always too stoned to matter.

My next message is for the parents and guardians. My daughter Sara graduated from Western Heights in 2013. When she came here as a freshman I had the highest hopes for her to work with Mrs. Wood and get a ton of scholarships and go to college for free and become the psychologist she’d talked about becoming. As time went on and we were constantly around each other at school, it got to where Sara liked me less and less and I approved of what she was doing with her life less and less until by her senior year we were hardly on speaking terms. Her path ended up being something different than I’d imagined. It was a few years after she graduated before I read Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha and found this advice given to the title character in regards to his son. Hesse writes:

Which father, which teacher had been able to protect [his son] from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear,
anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.

And so my message for my fellow parents and guardians is this: Recognize that the young person sitting here today has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. They are going to live their own lives and it might not be what you envision. It might not be what they envision today. Be forgiving. Be supportive. Love them no matter how stupid you think they are sometimes. And trust me, there are days I’ll agree with you about that. They have to learn on their own, just like you did. Just like I did. Be ready to welcome home the prodigal once he or she has earned wisdom.

Finally, I’d like to mention Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the only book most of my AP seniors liked. I’m taking this quote a little out of context, but she writes that some people “forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Memory is like a fishing net, she says, with the mesh releasing things that aren’t needed and holding in the good stuff. Hurston closes her novel with the protagonist, Janie, sitting on the porch as an older woman with much experience. She writes, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it in from the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes.”

As you leave today, I want you to think about your time at Western Heights High School as a fishing net. It’s time to draw in your net. Make sure it’s full of things worth remembering. Repair any relationships that need it. Forge new ones with people you avoided. Never forget that you are a member of the Jet family, and family sticks together.

Review: Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d never heard of this book or author until I saw a preview for the movie based on the novel that will be out soon. The movie trailer intrigued me, so I searched out the book. I’m very glad I did, as it was an excellent story.

Madeline is 18 years old at the start of the story and has lived all of her life as far as she can remember in a house that protects her from the dangers of the outside world. She’s sick and exposure to almost anything could trigger a fatal reaction. Then a troubled family moves in next door and Madeline meets the boy, Olly, first through pantomimes at the windows, then through electronic messaging. Love blossoms. Madeline begins to question whether the life she has is worth living, or if risking it all for a short time with Olly is the better option.

The love story is sweet in the way young adult stories about first love typically are, but without being sickly. Madeline and Olly are well-rounded, believable characters. My favorite character, though, was the nurse, Carla. The story here is fast-paced without ever seeming to leave anything out, and the ending is a nice twist. (I’d love to go into that more, but won’t to avoid spoilers.)

I actually listened to this as an audiobook and the narration was very well done. So, whether you read it or listen to it, I highly recommend it. Check it out before the movie hits theaters. You won’t regret it.

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Review: Unteachable

Unteachable by Leah Raeder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this book. The author was new to me, the “new adult” category was new to me. And the subject matter was … edgy.

Maize is an 18-year-old high school student who meets (and has sex with) an older man at a carnival. She ditches him, but guess what. Turns out he’s the new film studies teacher at her high school. So they have a real affair. Maize gets blackmailed, has a male best friend who betrays her, learns her 33-year-old boyfriend has secrets, and has to deal with her junkie mom. True love may or may not win out in the end. I’ll let you figure that one out.

I expected this to be pretty much a young adult book. Umm, no. The graphic descriptions of sex would never make it through the editor of any YA novel. I mean, there’s A LOT of sex, and not much is left to the imagination. Plus, the fact she’s banging a teacher is pretty much a YA taboo, I think.

One thing that kind of made me go back and forth on how much I liked this book was the use of language. Maize has an incredible vocabulary and can paint with metaphors and similes like the great Italian masters used paint pallets. For the daughter of a drug-addled whore going to public school and not really being academically focused, her diction and use of imagery was just a little unbelievable. But then, as a writer and English teacher, I did like it. So … yeah.

Unteachable is a good story. A little predictable, but it’s a fast ride. Probably won’t be on the shelves of too many school libraries, though.

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Where’d My Horror Go?

So, I’m currently working on a short novel (maybe novella) called A Light Beyond. I left a Western novel called Badger’s Bend to work on this one. Before that I wrote another Western novel called Orphan. And before that was a realistic — or mainstream — novel called The Teacher.

What do all these (so far unpublished) works have in common? Not a whiff of the supernatural.

For 30 years I was all about the horror genre. The movies I watched, the books I read, and almost everything I wrote had werewolves, ghosts, demons, or some trope of otherworldly origin. But I’m not feeling the need for those kinds of monsters anymore.

It’s kind of annoying. I know a lot about werewolves and demons and such. What am I supposed to do with that knowledge if I’m not writing about them? I don’t know. But instead I find myself looking more and more at the pain we cause ourselves psychologically, emotionally, and physically, and what we do to each other. A Light Beyond is really an examination of the events that led Robert, the main character, to where we find him when the story opens, beaten nearly to death in an abandoned subway.

My theory is that the tropes of horror appeal to younger people. Young people haven’t experienced enough life to see the beauty and pain in everyday things. They need to add zombies and vampires and other things that go bump in the night to make up for the lack of wisdom that comes with age and experience. It’s just a theory.

If I was to write a new horror novel today, I’m sure it would be a ghost story. Old people understand ghosts, because ghosts are often some representation of regret or past decisions. We get that. We’ve had time to really screw up our lives and have the wisdom to be able to look back and say, “Yep, right there, that’s where I went wrong. I should have done X.”

The irony here is that the last agent I had tried to get me to abandon the supernatural and write mainstream, especially mainstream young adult, and I refused, so we parted company.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve completely left the supernatural behind. I want to continue The Werewolf Saga. I wrote the first book of a YA series with ghosts and I’d like to finish that. I also want to finish a sword-and-sorcery fantasy series that features a lot of monsters. It’s all about prioritizing and finding the time for everything these days.

Review: The High Mountains of Portugal

The High Mountains of Portugal
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those novels where I know I was missing something. I could see that there was something bigger going on, but couldn’t quite see the big picture. I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of it, too.

The High Mountains of Portugal is a tale told in three parts, over three different time periods beginning in the early 20th century. Tomas goes in search of a mysterious crucifix, Dr. Eusebio Lozaro is visited by his dead wife, who brings Agatha Christie novels and explains that they echo the Gospels before he does a very, very bizarre autopsy, and finally Peter, a retired Canadian senator, buys a chimpanzee in Oklahoma and goes to live in his ancestral home in the High Mountains of Portugal.

The first part of the story, with Tomas, is rather boring. He drives his uncles car, and there is a lot — I mean, A LOT — of information about the car. Most of the people he encounters in the country have never seen one, and their reactions are interesting, but seem a distraction from the story. Of course, the car turns out to be pretty important.

The part with the pathologist and the mystery novels and the autopsy was, by far, the weirdest. Honestly, it was a bit hard to swallow, unless the whole thing was a dream. Maybe it was.

My favorite part was the third, with the senator and his chimp. Peter was a very relatable character and I could appreciate his desire to get away from everything and enjoy the quiet countryside after the death of his wife.

Chimpanzees are an important symbol to the book, as all three stories feature one (or more) in some way. Relationships between fathers and sons and surrogates is also important. There’s more, and a closer second read would likely help me understand it more, but unlike Life of Pi, I don’t feel the desire yet to revisit The High Mountains of Portugal.

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