Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Adventures in the Middle East

My interest in the "mysterious east" probably started with Disney's Aladdin back in *mumble* when I saw it in the theater with my mom and sister. Flying carpets, genies, great monsters made out of sand ... Sultans and Allah and tigers as pets: that stuff isn't real, but it sure was exciting to watch.

But that stuff (some of it) is really out there. And though I didn't see one single cheetah on a leash, I experienced some pretty fancy stuff.

starry night on the plane
before the crowd
Last week, I finally got the opportunity to visit Dubai, and I flew the wonderful Emirates to get there.

The food onboard is delicious, the seats are comfortable, and they keep first class on another floor so they don't flaunt their good fortune in our faces.
Dubai from the air 
Our hotel was nicer than our apartment at home. One bedroom, 2 bath, kitchen, living room, and a view of one of the plainer mosques in the city.

still pretty

The first morning, I woke up at 5 with a "what the hell is that??" feeling. It was the call to prayer, which I'd never heard in its natural habitat before. The second morning, I slept right through. Just like church bells, I really enjoyed listening to the call for prayer throughout the day. In NYC, no religion is "good" ("follow your own thing and don't talk about it" is the general attitude), so it was nice to have at least one openly celebrated. No one bothered me to cover my head (I didn't go into any mosques) or treated me badly because of my race or gender. There are a ton of tourists and expats, so I never felt out of place.

The weather was another thing. I've never really been in a desert climate before, so I wasn't prepared for how dry my lips and sinuses would get. I was constantly thirsty. Evenings were mild, almost cool, and daytime sizzled. During both parts of the day, the air conditioner ran full blast, bringing back to mind the head-exploding sensation I had growing up in Memphis when I went from scorching to freezing in 2 seconds. Everything from the malls to the subway stations to the bus stops to certain covered street crossings are air conditioned. 

And here's something about the subways: there are doors on the platform keeping the cool air in, and nothing at all anywhere smelled of urine. Everything was clean. I think there were 2 homeless people in the whole city.

Dubai vs...
What the actual fuck, New York?
But it is hot outside, and BO is inevitable.

During rush hour, the "Ladies and Families Only" sections are very nice. It's not that a woman won't squish right up on you when there's no space (they will ... everyone will), but for some reason it feels safer than when a man's big, stupid elbow is taking up unnecessary space right at boob level. Though women have their own section, they are free to move throughout the train if they wish -- they're just given some breathing room away from guys. The only thing better would be a "no babies" section.

The NYC subway upsets me because I'm usually on it during rush hour, and people smush right up on me for the whole hour and a half trip. Enter anxiety attack. Dubai's subway was just as crowded every time I got on. At one stop, I needed to stay on the car, but almost everyone else got off. There was nowhere for me to get out of the way, so they pushed and streamed around in a torrent, and I think I actually screamed in trample-induced panic. Now, romantic human contact is strictly forbidden, but at that moment, my husband pulled me away from the crowd and gave me a big "calm the fuck down" hug.  I've never realized how much he and I touch and kiss each other in public. Nothing graphic, just a peck, a hug, a head on the shoulder. They're automatic responses, so when one of us would say something cute and go in for a kiss, we'd both catch ourselves and step away. This particular time, I stayed in the hug and wished I could go one single day without being crowd-tortured.

Anyone who visits New York knows you don't make eye contact on the subway (or pretty much anywhere else). Not so in Dubai. People will look you up and down, make eye contact and generally stare. I'm white and my husband is Indian (the majority in Dubai), and we both had the same experience. While it's weird, nobody approached or bothered me, and absolutely no one catcalled me. I'm guessing staring isn't rude in this culture, so I gave myself permission to look at the people around me, and it was nice.

You can always pick out the Emiratis because they wear white gowns with white or red checked headscarves. I'm not sure what the Emirati women wear. Probably the full black niqab? The abayas and hijabs were so beautiful -- but in the heat I can't understand how they do it. I saw a few women wearing a full face covering -- like a big piece of chiffon draped over their head and face that they can see through. It's eerie and gorgeous.

The Dubai Mall
If you like shopping, Dubai is the place to be. And because it's hot, there are malls everywhere. The one I liked best was the Mall of Dubai with its aquarium, souk, and various themed areas. You can enjoy this place without spending any money at all.

Sharks at the mall 
The Souk area
A waterfall with diving statues
Fancy-pants restaurants
The Burj Khalifa, right outside the mall with a pretty brilliant fountain show every 30 minutes
The gold/spice Souk
Arguably the place I was most excited to see, and the place I went almost every single day.

The flag was literally everywhere in the city
the scarves were limitless and beautiful
and stray cats made me miss my kitty
10th anniversary wedding bands from the Gold Souk!
But all this foreign-ness didn't stop me from noticing the similarities to my own home and culture. Though all the stores had names in English and Arabic, almost everything was something I'd seen before.

Donuts, anyone?
Al Fanar Restaurant was what I expected the Middle East to look like. This place was described as "Authentic Emirati cuisine", which of course raised a little, watchful BS flag in my head. I was sure there would only be tourists inside. But wait -- inside the restaurant I was floored at how many actual Emirati people were eating.

Outside the restaurant were seating areas decorated with plastic statues of old-timey Emiratis going about their old-timey lives.
and lots of plastic goats

The Dubai Museum is also a great place to go if you want to see what the city looked like back in the olde days.

While this is a modern city, parts of which could double for Anytown USA, there are bits everywhere to remind you you're far from home. When it comes to vacations, I want to be somewhere I can forget everything familiar. Maybe next time I'll go somewhere where the words "oh hey, they've got a Dunkin Donuts!" don't pop out of my mouth.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Guest Blogger D. J. Donaldson

Things are getting tight for me in the time department. You all know how it goes: work, 2nd job, writing, other exciting, yet secret plans. They're a time-suck. As such, I haven't posted anything here in so long you guys probably have given up hope. I should have a book release coming soon!

A little while ago, I reviewed a book by D. J. Donaldson and liked it very much. While I'm reading another of his mysteries, he's agreed to do a guest blog for me. Enjoy!

Outbreak… Breakdown
A Forensic/Medical Author’s Take on Ebola and the CDC

My book, Louisiana Fever, involves the spread of a bleeding disease known as Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever. This is a real disease that, like its close relative, Ebola, is caused by an infectious virus.  And having researched this thoroughly (and having come from a forensic/health background) I feel compelled to weigh in on the Ebola outbreak.

When I was plotting Louisiana Fever, I figured I ought to have a character in the book that was once an infectious disease specialist at the CDC.  It seemed like a logical idea because the CDC is this country’s unquestioned champion against virulent organisms, an organization staffed with experts that know every nuance of tropical viruses and how they can be controlled.

To make sure my writing about the CDC would have an authentic ring to it, I asked the public relations office of the CDC if I might be given a tour of the place.  “Sorry,” I was told.  “We don’t give tours.”  Considering how many dangerous viruses are stored in the various labs there, that seemed like a good policy, even to me.  So there would be no tour.  But then I heard from someone in my department at the U. of Tennessee Medical Center that one of our former graduate students now worked at the CDC.  I began to wonder if this connection might work to my advantage. 

And it certainly did.  The former student was now a virology section chief. A SECTION CHIEF…. Holy cow! This could be my way in.  But would the man be generous by nature and sympathetic to writers?  He proved to be both of those.

On the day of my visit, I reported to the security office as instructed.  There, I had to wait until my host came to escort me into the bowels of the place… no wandering around on my own with a visitor’s badge.  That day I saw the hot zone in action and spoke with experts in many fields of virology, even spent some time with the world expert on porcine retroviruses.  At the end of my visit—including all the cumbersome clinical protocols I had to engage in both before and during said visit—I not only left feeling more educated, but actually more safe and secure that no tropical virus would ever be a threat to this country… not with the meticulous, detail-oriented, security conscious, microbe fighters at the CDC watching out for us.      

So, it’s with much regret and… yes, even a little fear, that I witnessed the head of the CDC recently assuring us that the Ebola virus is very difficult to transmit and that we know exactly how to control it.  Instead of (what looked like) his clumsy attempts to soothe an ignorant and paranoid public, the CDC head should have given a blunt assessment, educated everyone like adults, and encouraged them to exercise precaution. Then, seemingly in answer, two nurses who cared for the index patient from Liberia become Ebola positive.  And the CDC clears one of those nurses to take a commercial airline flight, even though she was in the early stages of Ebola infection…depressing.  From a medical professional standpoint, this was practically criminal negligence. At present, the disease is not transmitted by air ("airborne"), but any scientist worth his/her salt cannot account for mutations the virus may undergo.  This is why the job of the CDC is to contain harmful microbes, issue protocols to protect the public against them and ultimately eradicate them... period.  It is not to be PR professionals for television cameras and fostering carelessness.

I’m still convinced that the combined knowledge and brainpower of the CDC staff will be a major impediment to any virus taking over this country.  But Ebola probably has some tricks we haven’t seen yet. That means we may lose a few more battles before we can declare that this particular threat is behind us.

Meanwhile, how is development of that Ebola vaccine coming?

D.J. Donaldson is a retired professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee, Health Science Center—where he taught and published dozens of papers on wound-healing and other health issues.  He is the author of Louisiana Fever, one of the seven in the Andy Broussard/Kit Franklyn series of forensic mystery thrillers.

Louisiana Fever:  http://bit.ly/1u5ohGC

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Deadly Assets

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Deadly Assets by Wendy Tyson

The first thing I noticed about this book was how disconnected I felt from the characters. At first, I wasn't even sure what Allison's job was (she had clients, though). Image consultant, eh? Can't say I've ever met one, but I did meet a person who picked out all the appropriate colors for your personality, and gave all her clients a "swatch wallet" so they could stop for clothes properly. 

So I didn't connect with Allison. I didn't connect with the victims (a rich old lady and a mumbly teenager), so when the victims went missing, I skimmed the last chapter, (view spoiler) and put the book down.

Every night, this book called to me from under my phone/Kindle saying, "You promised you'd read me!!!" And I'd say, "But I found out what happens and I don't really care."

It's not a badly written book. It's got some great reviews -- just wasn't for me.

Reading Progress

08/19page 10
3.0%"lots of description, and I'm not quite sure what it is Allison does."
08/19page 17
08/19page 32
10.0%"not feeling a connection with any of these characters yet. bored and not sleepy, so continuing to read."
08/22page 71
23.0%"I peeked ahead to the end. [spoiler]"

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Unwritten pt. 2

I finally read up to The Unwritten: Apocalypse #5. Up until issue #50 (where Fables gets involved), the story was so interesting I couldn't wait to read every issue again. The characters travel around the world, through fiction, through time, and encounter strange beings (including, but not limited to vampires and zombies -- which they handle in a non-cheesy way). To put it mildly: this series is The Shit.

So we've got a great story, interesting characters (although Tom annoys me pretty badly, the other characters more than make up for it), and gorgeous artwork. The ending has to be spectacular, right?


In comes Fables, an already established comic book series that's making a crossover appearance. While I haven't read this series, other reviewers stated you get caught up to speed pretty quickly. I already knew a little about Fables (fairy tale characters living in the modern world, trying to keep anyone from learning who they are), so I jumped on in. What followed was the weirdest jumble of war and chaos I'd ever witnessed. So much was going on in the panels I sometimes couldn't make sense of it. And these "new" characters? Not my favorites. Skim. Get the gist. Next issue.

I mean, anyone who knows me knows I take the Scarlet O'Hara approach to war: If anyone talks about it one more time, I'm going to scream.

And the Orcs trod unto with their veritable swords and axes and lo! came upon an army of --*

*not an actual quote

I liked this story because it followed a small group of characters. They interacted with each other, discovered, solved, and got into bigger things, and occasionally fought off a bad guy. That's awesome! It's what I want in every story. War, on the other hand, is the reason I skimmed most of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Sorry, Tolkien.

In conclusion, I haven't read the last remaining issues of :Apocalypse. I believe it's running until December. I'll more than likely finish the whole thing, but I've gotta say with a title like "Apocalypse" I just know there's an epic war coming up and I'm not keen to go.

Do check out the cover artist Yuko Shimizu's work. It's absolutely stunning.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Southern Flavor

There's a big difference between going somewhere and reading about it. For example, I watched a superhero movie the other day in which Park Ave near Grand Central Terminal got totally destroyed. That hasn't happened ONCE since I got here. Monsters and storms are always wrecking this city, yet the only thing I have to complain about is being crushed by the mass of humanity that is 8+ million people on my daily commute (that's actually a big deal to me and I'll be leaving as soon as possible).

Memphis was almost the opposite. It was so boring there (nothing happening in the suburbs, nothing happening downtown -- unless you were a tourist who wanted to walk down the 2 blocks that is Beale Street) that I left when I was adult enough not to have my parents follow me. But when I write, I like to include Memphis as one of my settings (in The Silent Treatment I definitely did, and I've hinted at it in others). Why? Because Memphis is more interesting on paper, as any of my hair clients will mention when I tell them where I'm from.

Sleeping with the Crawfish* by Don J. Donaldson is set a little bit in Memphis. Not so much that I felt like I was sitting in morning rush hour traffic on I-40, but enough to make me glance away from the text occasionally and think, "Yeah. I miss it." And the author didn't only focus on the cliche touristy places (such as the aforementioned Beale Street), he takes the characters into a lived-in city.

The bulk of the book is set in New Orleans and surrounding areas. (Question: does everyone in New Orleans have a French last name?) While the author does write a bit in dialect (mostly in the form of leavin' a G off the ends of words), it doesn't distract from the story.

This book surprised me. The writing was fluid and nearly invisible. The story kept me going (in the whole "one more chapter... and one more..." vein) and kept me guessing.

For the squeamish, there's loads of information about how a body is cremated. I found this fascinating, but some might be weirded out. You know what, though? This is a murder mystery with shootings and cars in the bayou and foot chases (with guns) and people getting locked in giant freezers. Grizzly stuff is all part of the genre, and it's why I love mysteries so much.

While the plot did involve a web of deceit I kind of got confused with (especially with the lengthy "here's how it happened" at the end), the story was exciting and ended in a satisfying way.

Though this book appears late in the series, it wasn't difficult to get to know (and love) the characters. Hints at past plots make me want to go back and read the other books.

Don J. Donaldson, you have a new fan.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Unwritten

A lot of things I "didn't like" as a kid and young adult had a lot to do with my early influences. Mom doesn't like gold jewelry, so I don't like it either. Dad doesn't like opera, so I think it sucks too. Meeting people from the internet is dangerous folly, so I don't do that. And people who read comic books, well, they live in their mom's basement and fix their glasses with tape, don't they?


Having an opinion about something is all well and good, but what's good for one person (silver jewelry only) isn't necessarily good for me (a little gold is actually really pretty). So I delved into some of the things I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole earlier, and what do you know? Keeping yourself open to new ideas is good. Opera is unbearably beautiful sometimes. I married someone from the internet. And recently, I started reading comic books.

Hard to get over the stigma sometimes. The way these stories are set up sometimes is freakishly beautiful. Combine reading a book with watching a subtitled movie -- it's a little like that. But that doesn't really matter when I'm carrying one of these books around my house like someone might ask me to solve a calculus problem (that is to say, hoping I won't run into anyone). Hey, I'm a married adult! I work in the beauty industry! I read books without pictures in them! I can't just walk into a comic book store and have everyone stare at me.

Okay, but I did do it. I walked in. Not only did everyone not stare at me for being a woman amongst the nerds, there were loads of regular-looking women there. Women worked there. Not only that, at every turn, I'd see something and go, "Ooh!" So either the nerd stereotype is way overblown, or I am one and need to embrace that.


When I read that this series was about a man who's father had written a book about a "boy wizard" (similar to Harry Potter), and that people thought the son was actually the character come to life, I was intrigued. As the story progresses, we flash back to Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, etc. The literary geek in me is squealing (and the "regular" part of me is hoping my husband isn't going to come in the room and laugh -- but screw it: he's reading Game of Thrones and talking to me in Olde Englishe).

While this series is more fanciful than Habibi or Daytripper, it is a lot of fun. And when I get my hands on the remaining 60something issues, you can bet I'm holing up that weekend to finish it in one gulp.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Broken Monsters

It's been a while since I've read a book I loved as much as Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. Unfortunately for all of you, it won't be released until September 16th. I got my copy at the mass of humanity that was BookCon. (Until July 16, you can enter to win at Goodreads.)

The story follows several seemingly disconnected people, and involves a serial killer in Detroit. I mean, it sounds a little interesting, but something violent happening in Detroit? Not exactly a shocker. However, the first victim is a boy who has been cut in half and fused with half a deer. (That isn't a spoiler; it happens in the first 2 pages -- and on the cover in some instances.)

It's hard to explain. This book wasn't great because of the plot or because of the characters ... maybe it was because of the way it was written. Reading made me jealous at best. Maybe I'm not supposed to compare myself to other writers, but I kept looking for something, some trick that made what she'd done possible ... but every time I tried to read objectively, I kept getting sucked into the story until the words melted into pictures in my head. Damn you, Lauren Beukes. I love you so much.