Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Blood-Tainted Winter Is A Winner

I recently read an affecting debut novel titled The Blood-Tainted Winter. Written by T.L. Greylock, the book is the first of what I understand will be a trilogy.

The Blood-Tainted Winter takes its name from a line in the epic medieval poem Beowulf, which suggests its setting in ancient blood-stained lands. Set in the far north and peopled by Norsemen, The Blood-Tainted Winter is the story of Raef Skallagrim, a young man who is about to set off on a life-defining sea voyage, when his father, the lord of Vannheim and possible successor to the king, is murdered. Raef is a classic reluctant hero. Against his desires he’s drawn into the resulting turmoil. Raef doesn’t know who killed his father, nor does he know the reason the man was murdered. But he wants vengeance.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is a story of the war that grows in the vacuum of a dead king. It is also a complex tale with dozens of characters spread over a large canvas, lords from many lands jockeying for position and fighting side-by-side with the warriors who’ve sworn allegiance to them. 

Greylock seems to be a student of medieval war strategy, and I learned a thing or two about fighting with swords and spears from horseback and with knives and axes on the ground, mano a mano.

While Greylock’s novel doesn’t feature an appearance of a vicious monster on the scale of Beowulf’s Grendel, the novel is quite violent, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war in an era when each warrior carried multiple weapons and didn’t hesitate to use any or all of them dispatching enemies.

In addition to burly men who fit our image of brutal vikings, there are also female warriors who are as deadly as any man. Add to the mix a collection of gods and half-gods, some benevolent and some not, wolves and ravens and crows that may or may not be as they appear, a shapeshifter or three and other possibly magical characters, and you realize that T.L. Greylock has done some serious world building. At the end of the book is a list of the characters. I counted 59 of them, which communicates a sense and scope of Greylock’s vision.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is not for the squeamish. And while I didn’t find the violence gratuitous, it was dramatic and abundant. Many people die by these medieval weapons. Blood flows and heads roll, sometimes literally.

Less plentiful, but still there, were tender moments, touching scenes of friendship and love. There is even the occasional child trying to survive in an epic landscape that provides little if any tolerance for play or delight or mirth.

The book is well-written, and Greylock has professional chops. I knew I was in good hands from the well-constructed and unhurried beginning, which is populated with many marvelous sentences such as “Raef let his anger slide away, a silver mackerel in the dark fjord waters not to be forgotten."

As violent and dangerous as the world of The Blood-Tainted Winter is, I liked spending time there. Perhaps I was attracted by the beautiful world of snow and ice in a vast land of forests and mountains and lakes not unlike the Sierra where I live. This harsh, elemental place with a hostile climate contrasts with the warmth of men and women with a deep sense of history and friendships. I was also drawn to those moments that reveal the connections and bonds between the characters, the thoughtful and telling dialogue, the strategies of both friends and foes, the feasts cooked over fires and cemented by a celebratory sharing of mead, a honey wine. I found myself worrying over the fate of the characters. And since I finished the book, I’ve often revisited it in my mind and imagined what it would be like to have lived in that time and place.

The Blood-Tainted Winter is an atmospheric tale that envelops you like a heavy mist flowing out of the northern forests, its scents as enticing as they are ominous. You will not soon forget the characters, virtuous and evil, the promises of allegiance and the treachery of lies, the sounds and smells of the charging horses, the battles on foot with the spray of sweat and blood, the sharp pain of physical wounds and the longer-lasting scars of betrayal.

If you like to spend time in a world unlike any you’ve ever experienced, give The Blood-Tainted Winter a try. You may, like me, find yourself entranced and eager to find out what happens to Raef and company in Greylock’s next installment.

If you want to check in on Greylock's progress, you can visit Greylock's blog here:

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Dogs Have A Thing For Human Faces

There's a new study out that shows what happens in your dog's brain when she gives you that intense, focused, you're-the-most-important-thing-in-the-universe stare.

Most other animals, including our closest primate relatives, don't really care much about us. And when they look at us, it's pretty much the same as when they look at regular stuff in their environment. We're just not that important.

But unlike those other animals, when a dog looks at your face, multiple areas in her brain "light up." If a dog looks at other things or animals, not so much. It turns out that looking at you is a big deal, and a dog devotes a lot of brain space to this.

How did people figure this out?

Scientists trained dogs to sit still in an MRI. Then, while scanning the dogs, the scientists projected a wide range of pictures on a screen in front of the dogs. Most pictures are just processed in the dog's occipital cortex, the area where most vision is processed.

But show a dog a person's face, and multiple parts of their brains sit up and pay attention.

Is this dog dedicated to helping science or what?
Once again, we see science illuminating the amazing link between dogs and people. As all of you dog owners know, you and your dog have a powerful connection. Now we can see that connection in brain scans.

If you want an abridged version of the study, try this article: Dog Perception of Human Faces

If you want all of the involved and fascinating scientific details, here's the link: Full Study of Dogs and Human Faces.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Your New Book Hasn't Caught Fire? Write A Bunch More.

You've written a novel. Fantastic. You should be proud. Few people ever have the chutzpah to try such large, complex, intellectual undertaking. And of those few who try, only a small percentage follow through to the finish.

It's very exciting when you type "The End," and it's reasonable to want to send it out and pursue the dream of finding a publisher. Or maybe you decide to publish it yourself. The thrill of having your book produced as a physical entity, there to look great on your shelf or coffee table, is like no other. It's a big deal, this book stuff.

But why is it that when someone writes a novel and nothing big happens with it, they think it's a failure, or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair, or... fill in the blank.

I have four completed novels in a drawer. Two of them garnered a bunch of rejections. The other two I never even sent out. I also have many partial novels and even more treatments and outlines. Nothing happened with any of them. Is that a failure or a giant disappointment, or terribly unfair?

Let's look at it from a different perspective. Think of any desirable career. What does it take to succeed in that career? Probably four years of college, maybe a graduate degree or two, a bunch of specific career training, an apprenticeship or residency or internship or on-the-job training, possibly multiple jobs before you find your rhythm. If you want to be a successful professional, you can expect to spend many years getting up to speed. Six, eight, ten years. If you want to be a cardiac surgeon, you might expect to spend 16 years from college to medical school to your residency to a lot of on-the-job training. Then you'd spend another 10 developing true excellence.

Yet a novelist wants success after writing one book? Is becoming an excellent novelist much easier than becoming a surgeon? I don't know. But writing novels sure ain't ditch digging. It takes time. Lots of time.

If a novelist were to be realistic about the job training, he or she might expect to spend ten or twelve years writing ten or twelve novels to become expert at the job.

Yet, many writers write a single book, and when nothing much happens - no best-seller list appearances and no starred reviews in the big journals - they think that they're a grand failure at worst and a grand disappointment at best? What are they thinking?

A typical professional writer writes at least one book a year. Four books could be considered a minimum of college-level education in the field of writing. Figure in another couple of books for your Masters equivalent. Add four more years of writing to hone your writing chops. Do you see why so many successful writers have dozens of novels under their belt before they achieved success? And why so many writers whose successful "first novels" were actually preceded by a dozen novels written under a different name?

I've mentioned before the old joke about the neurosurgeon who comes to an author signing and says to the author, "When I retire, I'm going to write a novel." And the author says, "Really? When I retire, I'm going to do brain surgery."

Becoming an accomplished writer takes years and years of hard, focused effort. Anyone who thinks they can pound out a first novel and have it catch fire is either deluded or is the next Truman Capote.

Of course, all of us in the trenches are eager to find the next Capote, so go for it. Show your chops.

If, possibly, you're not quite in that category, then your best chance for success is to be realistic. Stop hoping you're the next shooting star. Start thinking of yourself as a future professional writer, with all of the related aspects. Think of your career the way would-be doctors think of theirs. Plan to put in years and years of effort.

The payoff is extremely attractive. Making up stories for a living is the best job in the world. It's worth the investment of time and work and energy. The critical realization is that it takes time and work and energy.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What's The Best All-Wheel-Drive Vehicle In Snow?

When you first move to Tahoe, it only takes one experience of lying on your back in a slush puddle at night, flashlight in your mouth, as you try to wrestle on chains because you need to get over the pass or even just up the road to your house. As the dirty ice water seeps down your back and down your pants, you decide at that very moment to start the All-Wheel-Drive savings account and upgrade your car or pickup at the earliest possible moment.

For those of us in snow country, AWD has transformed our lives. But are they all the same? And if not, which is the best?

Here’s a quick primer.

First, many people wonder what is the difference between all wheel drive (AWD) and four wheel drive (4WD or 4X4).

Back in the old days when four wheel drive was invented, one had to shift from “normal” 2-wheel drive into 4WD. Most driving was done in 2-wheel drive. It was only when you got stuck in a snow bank or when you strapped a snow plowing blade to the front of your pickup that you shifted into 4WD. The reason for shifting back and forth was that when driving in 4WD, the engine power got sent evenly to the front wheels and the back wheels. That was okay for the slow grind out of a ditch or plowing snow. But in normal driving, every time you turn, your front wheels are going a slightly longer distance than your rear wheels, because your rear wheels are "cutting the corner," hence a shorter distance. Because 4WD tries to make the wheels all turn the same speed, your front and rear wheels end up “fighting each other.” Thus your vehicle does not track well in 4WD.

If you were driving faster than a crawl, 4WD gave you LESS traction instead of more. Back in the ’90s, a friend of mine had a Jeep Wrangler. When we had a ton of snow, he wanted more traction on the roads. But he said it was impossible to drive faster than walking speed in 4WD without the Jeep wanting to skid and slide and spin around. Our own experience with 4WD came when we rented a Toyota 4-Runner during a particularly snowy winter. The 4WD option worked well at speeds appropriate for, say, plowing a farmer’s field. But it was worthless for normal driving on the roads. Just turning a corner, where the front wheels have to track a bit farther than the rear wheels, the 4-Runner bucked and shook and slid until you shifted out of 4WD. Then it ran just the way you’d expect.

(Please note that the manufacturers never recommended 4WD for normal driving!)

Manufacturers eventually realized that a reliable 4WD with perfect balance of power to all four wheels, i.e., a vehicle that tracked well at any speed, would be a great advantage in any snow country, especially in the mountains, because people would have much more traction at any speed. So they developed 4WD systems that used both sophisticated mechanics as well as computers to send power to all four wheels yet keep them from fighting each other. This new approach would always be “on” so you never had to shift into it.

Voila! It worked. These new systems were called All Wheel Drive and, as you know, there are many manufacturers that produce AWD cars and trucks and vans.

But are all AWD vehicles the same? Do they work equally well? Nope. 

Of course, everyone who has driven multiple vehicles has preferences. And many have written about those preferences. So I’m adding my personal experience to the mix.

My wife and I have had four different makes of AWD vehicles. Like all vehicles, each has its strong points and weak points. But when it comes to the AWD aspect, one stands out.


The other three brands we’ve had are clunky. If you go around a slippery corner, you can feel the vehicle making these little jerks as if it’s trying to decide which wheels to send power to. If you go up a hill and either a front wheel or a back wheel starts to spin, the clunkiness is even more dramatic. It’s as if the system waits until a wheel starts to spin, then it detects it, then it thinks about it, then it stops sending power to that wheel and starts sending power to the other wheels. It makes noise, and the vehicle jerks, and then it starts to grab.

Two of the three clunky AWD vehicles are late models and have electronic stabilizing (non-skid) systems. But I’m not sure they do any good at all. And if they do help, they are hobbled by flaws in the AWD design.

On the other hand, the Subaru just drives. We never think about its AWD system because we never notice it. No jerking, no clunkiness, no weird sounds. And if we turn up a hill after a fresh snow storm, we can be pushing snow with the front bumper and we still don’t pay much attention. Our other vehicles (two of which we still have) can’t even make it up a street when the snow is as deep as the bumper. (We learned that the hard way.)

Bottom line: AWD is great for regular driving, much better than 4WD. It's a thousand times more convenient than putting on chains. But of the AWDs we’ve owned, Subaru is not just the best, it is far and away the best.

Are there other great AWDs out there? No doubt. There are many brands we haven’t tried. But from our experience, you wouldn’t go wrong with a Subaru.

P.S. In a recent Consumer Reports study of which AWD vehicles worked best in snow, their Number One choice was the Subaru Outback.

Here's the link: Consumer Reports Best AWD

Here's the Consumer Reports ranking of AWD, which concurs with our own experience:

Snow traction (best listed first)

Rank                Make & model
1.                      Subaru Outback
2.                      Subaru XV Crosstrek
3.                      Subaru Forester
4.                      Audi Q5
5.                      Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL
6.                      Jeep Wrangler
7.                      Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon
8.                      Jeep Grand Cherokee
9.                      Toyota 4Runner
10.                    Ford Expedition
11.                    Volvo XC60
12.                    Ford Edge
13.                    Volkswagen Touareg
14.                    Buick Enclave
15.                    Lexus RX
16.                    Toyota Sequoia
17.                    Volvo XC70
18.                    Acura MDX
19.                    Lincoln MKX
20.                    Jeep Cherokee
21.                    Dodge Durango
22.                    Mercedes-Benz M-Class
23.                    Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia
24.                    BMW X3
25.                    BMW X5
26.                    Ford Explorer
27.                    BMW X1
28.                    Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class
29.                    Honda Pilot
30.                    Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain
31.                    Toyota Highlander
32.                    Toyota Venza
33.                    Ford Escape
34.                    Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
35.                    Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
36.                    Toyota RAV4
37.                    Buick Encore
38.                    Honda Crosstour
39.                    Hyundai Santa Fe
40.                    Volkswagen Tiguan
41.                    Honda CR-V
42.                    Ford Flex
43.                    Nissan Murano
44.                    Mazda CX-5
45.                    Mazda CX-9
46.                    Cadillac SRX
47.                    Acura RDX
48.                    Infiniti JX, QX60
49.                    Nissan Pathfinder
50.                    Kia Sorento
51.                    Hyundai Tucson
52.                    Nissan Rogue
53.                    Nissan Juke
P.P.S. Now the usual qualifiers and disclaimers... AWD won't keep you from sliding off the road or hitting another car or causing any amount of deadly mayhem if you drive too fast. AWD won't make you stop any faster. So if it's snowing or slippery or icy, SLOW DOWN.