Monday, June 24, 2013

Progress Post: Looking Up

Slowly but surely, I'm getting there.

I've been handwriting a lot of the updates to my current work-in-progress. I've had some moments where it's a lot easier to grab a handful of blank pages than my entire laptop. I've noticed that I can write for longer periods of time without distraction when I'm handwriting, as opposed to typing. The drawback is that the side of my hand gets smudged with ink, and that it takes extra time to type up. I currently have 16 pages front and back, which roughly winds up as one double-spaced typed page apiece. The last time I typed up some pages, I'd topped 40,000 words. So that's going well.

I also have my crit partners. I've been working with them since January, and they've both had excellent ideas to improve book 1 and polish it up for publication. They both had some very positive things to say about it, too, which was exciting.

I wish I could say my excitement translated into getting their stuff read quickly, but, alas, my motivation is failing me in all aspects of life. Hopefully typing this out will be just the kick in the rear I need to get moving on that, because, really? Five months? That's just laziness on my part.

One really, really good thing happened last week. On Thursday, June 20th, I went to a reading and signing event for Neil Gaiman at Saratoga Springs. I found my way there, and eventually found a parking spot. I did not arrive in time to submit a question for Mr. Gaiman. But I did have plenty of time to knit and people watch
before the event.

Then it was really Neil Gaiman on the stage, and really Neil Gaiman reading from his book and answering questions and being humble and adorable.
Not a good photo at all, but the blob on
the right in black is, indeed, Neil Gaiman.
He read from the book he was on tour to promote, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which our admission price got us a signed copy of. He also read from Fortunately, the Milk, his kids' book coming out this fall, which sounded utterly charming. He also discussed why this is his last book tour: because it's not fun for anyone when 4000+ people show up to get their books signed, and they're there all night, and he's bleary and grumpy and loses the ability to spell. He said he may do ninja signings, where he puts a notice up on his Twitter last-minute and maybe a couple hundred people come.

The event is going to be broadcast on WAMC on Tuesday, July 9th at 3 PM, and on Thursday, July 11th at 8:30 PM. Even if you're not local to the NY Capital Region, you can listen online at the link.

Then it came time for the signings. I was in group B, and wound up standing just in front of The Least Affected Youth, Ever. They loudly made fun of everyone and everything in the room, with sarcastic comments aplenty. Or maybe I was just overly sensitive because I was nervous, and had no moral support there to keep me centered.

I've met authors before, and almost always end up with that feeling I'm watching myself from outside, wondering what possessed me to say something so stupid. This time, I scribbled a note on the back of my email confirmation explaining I'm shy and that I clam up around people I admire, but that I loved his writing. I also scribbled the question I was going to ask, if I'd arrived in time to ask it. It was too involved for a quick, 30-second interaction, but I still got part of it answered.

When I finally got up to the front of the line and passed my note, I saw him read it, then his face visibly softened. He thanked me for my kind words, and held out his hand to be shaken. I shook it, and managed to whisper something like, "Thank you." He told me he was shy, too, and that one usually muddled through and made it, somehow, and learned to be better next time.

And now I have a signed copy of Ocean at the End of the Lane, and my copy of Fragile Things is signed and personalized. It's just a trade paperback, but it's also the last book I bought from Malaprop's before I had to move away from Asheville, NC.

The above doesn't have a whole lot to do with my writing progress. But that's one of the reasons I write. Because other writers can bring so many different people together to talk about how their words touched them. Because every writer I've met has been wonderful and warm and caring. Because, while I will never reach that level of fame, I could die happy if I met one person as ecstatic to meet me as I was to meet Neil Gaiman.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi

Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasRedshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Redshirts takes the running joke about the Star Trek original series, that the guy on the away team in the red shirt will end up dead, and does something entirely unexpected with it.

The book starts with the recruitment of five new ensigns to the starship Intrepid: Dahl, Duvall, Hanson, Finn, and Hester. They quickly learn that this is no ordinary assignment, and that low-ranking officers die at an alarming rate, especially when on away missions. Obviously, they don't want to die, so they start looking into what's happening, and how they might fix it.

I'm used to going into books with no idea what to expect of where they'll end up, especially with science fiction. But I wouldn't have predicted where this went if you'd given me 100 years to guess. I'm not going to spoil it, so you have the joy of discovering it for yourself. I will say, though, that it could've been hokey and contrived, but that Scalzi maintains the wry comic tone beautifully throughout the book. He skirts the line of ridiculous so many times within the plot, and instead makes the reader laugh with him, not at him.

Redshirts does some of my very favorite things. It subverts several tropes, calling attention to tired old clich├ęs in order to pound them into a new shape. It uses the science fiction elements to comment on the world we know and recognize. It says something deeper about the world, about writing, and about the human condition within its pages.

This is not the book I expected. It's the book I didn't realize I wanted to read.

I listened to the audio book, read by Wil Wheaton. I thought that was rather an appropriate choice for this book, and Mr. Wheaton is well up to the task of reading a humorous science fiction novel.

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Review: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (Sherlock Holmes #7) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, #7)The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a free Audible giveaway for Christmas 2012. I've only just gotten around to reading it. It's the first Sherlock Holmes story I've read, and it's good enough that I can see myself reading a few more.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle starts just after Christmas, with a mysterious dropped goose and hat. Sherlock surmises the identity of the owner, then places an ad to find him. Before the gentleman can show up, though, a servant finds a precious blue gem in the goose's stomach, and Sherlock sets out to find how it got there.

This is not a Christmas story in a way modern audiences would recognize it. There's no moral at the end about the meaning of Christmas or about what baby Jesus would've said about the case. Sherlock does show mercy to the thief, but he never explicitly says it's because it's Christmas. Rather, he believes that the man will be scared straight by his near-miss with infamy.

The story is short, but performed well. I enjoyed it. It was enough that I can see myself reading more Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Movie vs. Book

black and white - film
Photo found here
As you know, if you read my review of Silver Linings Playbook, I recently had the chance to compare a
book and movie side-by-side.

If I'm going to read a book and see the movie, I'll always read the book first. I've found that doing it the other way around gets images stuck in my head so I can't appreciate the book's subtler parts, and sometimes it confuses me.

Silver Linings Playbook has to be the first time I've liked a movie better than the book, full stop. It's not that it was a bad book. It was partly the strength of the actors, one of whom won an Oscar for her portrayal. Mostly, though, it was that the movie shifted the focus to external forces, rather than letting me wonder the whole time what was wrong with the narrator. Mysteries that drive the narrative in the book are stated outright in the movie, making it an enjoyable experience even for those familiar with the story. There were a lot of changes, but they all made sense for the movie's framework.

Another movie that accomplishes this is Stardust. I enjoyed the movie, but I have to view it separately from the book. They're different entities. The book is whimsical and sweet and understated, while the movie is funny and sweet and adventurous. I liked the bittersweet ending to the book, but would have been disappointed to see that happen to the movie characters. I can't say I like the movie better than the book, because I have to qualify it.

The Last Unicorn, The Neverending Story, and Princess Bride were all a part of my childhood, and I'd seen the movies long before picking up the books. I wound up liking the books better for The Last Unicorn and The Neverending Story, and I found The Princess Bride book to be indistinguishable from the movie, and so a tie.

I could list the examples where the changes between the book and movie infuriated me, or where I felt disappointed, or where I declared the movie didn't exist. But, you don't have all week.

I find that movies must, by their very nature, simplify inner monologues and leave character motivation implied. Action has to be moved to an external source, and revelations must be bigger. Movies have a tighter time frame to work in, so subplots and entire characters are often cut. (Oddly, Silver Linings Playbook added characters, and expanded the roles of some while compressing the time frame.) Sometimes, those cuts and changes lead simply to a different story, not an inferior or superior one, as discussed above. Most of the time, though, I find the movie oversimplified and lacking in everything I liked about the book.

A criticism I heard fairly often last year of The Hunger Games movie was that it was impossible to follow if one hadn't read the books. Having read all three books, I don't know if that's the case, but I'd be interested to hear from those who've only seen the movie. I'm also interested to know if you've ever watched a movie after reading a book, and wound up liking the book more. So, please, comment below if something comes to mind.

Review: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with OwlsLet's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I so enjoy David Sedaris's humorous essays. I snatched up his latest on audio, because his delivery often adds to the wry humor within. I thoroughly enjoyed his latest collection, though it leans toward slightly different themes than previous collections.

In Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, Sedaris mentions in several essays that he's recently reached the age of 50. His mood is slightly more reflective, almost nostalgic in places, and he's not afraid to come off as an old coot with his "back in my day" ramblings.

His sense of humor is still intact. If anything, it's sharpened as he's grown older. I found myself gasping with laughter at the description of his new passport photo, and kept giggling as he narrated what should've been a grim, depressing story. There's a bit more potty humor, but it's tempered with his usual sardonic wit.

The story about owls ("Understanding Understanding Owls") comes out right off the gate, with Sedaris seeking a taxidermied owl as a Valentine's Day present for his longtime boyfriend, and being recognized by the taxidermist for the strange, morbid person he is. It turns into a poignant reflection on illusions in relationships.

Another favorite essay, "Author, Author," discusses his book tours, and the highlight that is the Q&A portion, when he can interact with fans. One woman in Boston answers a startling question with an offbeat reply, and Sedaris's delivery had me glad I'd pulled over to listen to that part. I would've gone off the road, if I'd laughed that hard while driving.

"Day In, Day Out" discusses his habit of keeping a diary, from which he culls his essays. Not only is it fascinating to learn the process that produces his bestselling books, it allows him to share observations that haven't made it into previous essays.

"Obama!!!" delves into politics, with Sedaris winding up disgusted at foreigners' apparent ownership of our election of a black man as US President. He reflects on the lack of candidates who support gay marriage, and hammers home (in a subtle, self-deprecating way) why that matters.

For those who enjoyed Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris has some more musing about language in "Easy, Tiger," where he discusses learning from the Pimsleur audio program, which allows one to memorize phrases without learning the building blocks. A bonus feature on the audio includes a translation of phrases he would've found a lot more helpful on his journeys.

The weak point in the collection were the handful of fictional narratives in the back, included for students who have to memorize a short piece to perform. I'm not as fond of Sedaris's fiction, though it's often bitingly satirical. They're short, though, clocking in at about a third the size of the shortest nonfiction essay.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection. I wasn't disappointed to have bought it, as I can see myself revisiting several of these essays at some later time.

The audio includes some tracks recorded live, and others in a studio. The sound quality is excellent no matter the venue, and Sedaris's reading can be understood perfectly. If you're interested in reading anything by David Sedaris, I recommend picking it up on audio, because his delivery and timing really bring out the humor.

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Emergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin and Margaret M. Scariano

Emergence: Labeled AutisticEmergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd been reading a lot of nonfiction books this year, and I'd noticed that most of them left out the experiences of people with disabilities or mental illness. Over the last few weeks, I've been making a concerted effort to pick up more books about disabilities. So, somehow, this is the second book by Temple Grandin I've read in the last month.

Emergence: Labeled Autistic is a familiar story if you've seen the HBO movie with Claire Danes in the title role. It covers Temple's growing up with autism in a society that had no idea what that meant, her difficulties and adjustments, and how she learned to turn it to her advantage.

This book came out in 1996, so some of the terminology it uses has been phased out. Definitely a lot of the questions answered by her mother about her upbringing (included in an appendix) would no longer be asked today. The book also discusses Temple's having "recovered" from autism, which is no longer in use. Today, we acknowledge that a person with a particular diagnosis may still have a productive role in society, and that overcoming one's difficulties doesn't negate them.

A lot of the understanding we have today about autism and how it works is thanks to Temple Grandin's contributions, and so we have her to thank for the fact that autism isn't a life sentence of isolation and blame. While a lot of people still react negatively to those with autism, there's a movement toward inclusion that's benefiting entire communities.

The narrative has a much different focus than most memoirs I've read. Temple struggles with understanding other people and finding a balance in her life between her fear of overstimulation and the need for some unfamiliarity. She's able to verbalize a lot of her struggles in a way that I found easy to grasp.

While no two people with autism are exactly the same, I found it enlightening to read of Temple Grandin's upbringing and struggles in her own words, and to apply her observations to other people with autism I know. The book is a quick, accessible read, so I'd recommend that anyone, from neurotypical to on the autism spectrum, give it a try. It can't hurt to learn how others perceive the world.

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Review: Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings PlaybookThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend, and because I wanted to see the movie. I'm glad I read the book first; the movie spoils several major plot points as if they're throwaway, and changes a lot of the focus of the narrative.

The book starts with Pat Peoples leaving the mental hospital that's been his home for what he thinks is months. He only calls it "the bad place," and later hints within the narrative indicate it's for treating people with major head injuries, rather than just mental illness. Pat, himself, has a four-year blank in his memory, and can't remember what he did to get himself locked away.

Pat's father is quite distant, except where it relates to the Philadelphia Eagles, his favorite football team. Pat bonds with his father and older brother, Jake, over the games, while going to therapy. He meets a troubled young woman named Tiffany, who lost her husband and has been struggling with her own issues since. Tiffany offers to speak to Pat's wife, Nikki, on his behalf, but only if he'll help her win a dance competition.

The book is framed as Pat's journal, with some letters from Tiffany and Nikki. Pat's style is stilted, repetitive, and makes him sound like he lost some IQ points with his head injury. It's clear Matthew Quick can write in a more flowing style, because Tiffany and Nikki's letters are much more readable.

While I enjoyed the characterizations, especially of the laconic Tiffany and Pat's mother, I found them a bit rigidly stereotyped. There isn't a single woman in the narrative who likes football or cares about it, beyond the fact that the men they care about like it. There's only one male character indifferent to it, and Pat reminds us repeatedly that Danny is his black friend. Danny was a rapper, and wound up in the same place as Pat thanks to a turf battle that almost killed him.

The strongest parts in the book, I felt, were during Pat's therapy sessions with Dr. Cliff Patel, who asks Pat to call him Cliff. (He winds up as "Dr. Cliff" throughout most of the narrative.) He's insightful, and provides most of the reflection and information Pat needs.

The movie and the book end fairly similarly, though they get there in entirely different ways. Book-Pat is not nearly as smart as the version played by Bradley Cooper in the movie, and he needs quite a bit of prodding to come to the same conclusions.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Ray Porter. The narration made Pat sound a bit slow, though I think that was supported by the text. It was clear and easy to understand, and I didn't have to adjust the volume when characters whispered or shouted.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Talk Nerdy to Me (Nerds #5) by Vicki Lewis Thompson

Talk Nerdy to Me (Nerds, #5)Talk Nerdy to Me by Vicki Lewis Thompson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the fifth of the Nerds series by Vicki Lewis Thompson, and possibly the weakest so far. The books are linked by theme, rather than by events, so they can easily be read out of order. While it was a fun read, I don't think I'd be missing anything if I'd skipped it.

This book is about a pair of nerds. Eve Dupree is a fashion model and high school dropout, but she really wants to be an inventor. Charlie Shepherd is leaving his tiny Connecticut hometown for a job at the Hoover Dam, but is sidetracked overhearing an explosion in Eve's garage. It's lust at first sight, and, though he doesn't want any entanglements holding him back, they're soon all over each other.

While I understand the appeal of chaps, and agree with Eve's assessment that they showcase some of a man's better features nicely, the repetition of the word within this book renders it almost meaningless. Once they're used as a prop during sex, I was hoping they'd drop it, but soon they have to reminisce about that one time Charlie was wild and spontaneous.

Without repetition and overthinking, though, this would've been a slim volume, indeed. First they have to overthink Charlie's inevitable new job, and whether he's capable of a meaningless fling. Then, as Eve's invention appears to be sabotaged, the obsessing turns to safety measures and speculating about who might've done it.

The dialogue failed to improve since the last book, and some of the sexy elements were actually creepy. I have no idea what the point of the neighbor's alien abduction thing was about, and her winking offer to share her sex toys with Eve was horrifying. That's unsanitary. Then there's some voyeurism that was also pointless and creepy, and is shrugged off by the characters. The involvement of people in one another's sex lives in this book is truly dizzying.

While I enjoy these books for their lovable beta males and naughty hijinks, I would've skipped over this one, if I'd known how little I'd like it. I hope the next one's better.

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Review: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley

The Mark of ZorroThe Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first encountered Zorro as a character in an old movie my parents liked. Since then, I've sought out the stories when I could. When I discovered a number of them as radio plays through Audible, I had to pick them up.

This is the book that introduced the character of Zorro in 1919, originally titled, "The Curse of Capistrano." Johnston McCulley changed some aspects of the character since this first publication, but the sense of adventure and heroism is all there. As is the character's thirst for fairness and justice, and the corrupt government he inevitably has to fight against.

The Mark of Zorro covers a period of time during which Zorro has been an established force in California, well-known but mistrusted. His evasion of capture is more due to his cunning and the ineptitude of the local law enforcement than because anyone would shelter him.

The story is fairly simple: the authorities would like to capture Zorro, and will stoop to almost anything to do so. He would like to stay free, and to keep his friends out of it, which is easier said than done. Meanwhile, his alter ego, Diego de la Vega, is attempting to court Lolita Pulido, who falls in love with Zorro.

The story is very much a product of its time. A married woman rhapsodizes about the rewarding life of a housewife, and a father encourages a suitor to pester his daughter who's uninterested, because women are fickle and change their minds a lot. (It is to the character's credit that he trusts the woman to know her mind, and graciously accepts her refusal.) The story is an adventure, and it's about guy things, so women are relegated to wives and daughters and damsels, though Lolita gets to show off some skill with riding and swordfighting.

The performance I listened to has the story narrated by the tavern barkeep, which saves the characters the awkward task of narrating their actions for the listeners' benefit. However, it has the drawback that the barkeep doesn't know everything, and so, if I hadn't known Zorro's secret identity from the lore, I'd be puzzled, and maybe a little frustrated.

Val Kilmer voices Diego/Zorro, and, while he has a fine, gravelly, heroic-sounding voice, that he doesn't even attempt an accent makes him stand out more than a little. He intersperses several Spanish words into his dialogue, and his pronunciation is cringe-worthy, even for non-Spanish-speaking me.

Highlights of the cast include Armin Shimmerman as the barkeep and Ruth Livier as the spirited Lolita. Most of the rest of the cast did a good job with their narration, and they all sounded different enough that I didn't have difficulty keeping track of who was speaking.

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