Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Progress: Catching My Breath

You remember the trilogy I was working on the last time I checked in? If you've been watching this space at all, you've probably noticed I'm not updating a whole lot. That's because I was writing. And writing. And writing.

I finished the trilogy on Sunday morning.

As in, I've written two books since I last checked in in late January. Books in excess of 100,000 words. Don't ask me by how much, because I'm still writing them by hand. That was, apparently, the right call. I've had an easier time avoiding distractions, and I've been able to write during every minute of down time throughout my day.

And in some ways, it was wrong one. I've written through the night more than once. I've neglected a lot of real world concerns.

But I just wrote three books in five months! I guess I really wanted to write that story.

I think there are more stories to be told in that world. I just need to figure out what those stories are. I'd hate to get repetitive. I think I need to use different characters, because those ones have been through enough. They learned and grew from their adventures, and now anything I throw at them would have to be ridiculously overpowered to pose any challenge.

Honestly, though, it would be a waste to leave the world alone. I drew up a map and everything!

It's not much, but it's my fictional fantasy world.

Yeah, it's not much to look at. And I've changed it since I took this picture. But I kept losing track of where the characters were and how long it would take them to get from one point to another. Having a map made it a lot easier.

Next on my slate is typing up all my handwritten stuff, then editing it and sending it off to beta readers. A lot of people have expressed interest, but only a few get to read the early stages. No one but me will read the original handwritten form. Mostly because I'm the only one who can read my handwriting.

I have no idea how I did that while holding down a full-time job. I have no idea if I'll ever be able to do it again. But it's one of those things that made me remember why I wanted to be a writer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread this book for a book club. I'm glad I did, because apparently I retained nothing of the first time I read it. I know it's been a while, but you'd think I'd remember more than a few brief flashes. It's not like this is an unmemorable book.

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a dystopian America that burns books and sneers at learning and depth. Most people pass the time interacting with their televisions, acting out a scripted part with a fictional "family". We meet Guy Montag on the night he's just gotten back from burning down a reader's house and all the books in it, to find his wife has attempted suicide by sleeping pill overdose. The stomach pump operators who show up tell him this happens a lot, and he starts to wonder what's wrong with the society he lives in.

What sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from other dystopian novels is that there's no outside push to destroy knowledge or wipe out a way of life. This is a world its citizens have chosen to embrace. Yes, there are outliers, but those content with the status quo have no trouble trampling over them in their quest for utter mindlessness.

Most people bring up this book when people talk about books being banned from schools and libraries. It rather misses the point. Books don't need to be banned in this world. The fires are just a show to put on for the people, to reassure them their way of life is the right one.

Of course there are antecedents of modern ills. Clarisse McClellan, the young woman who helps Guy wrap his mind around what's wrong with the world, bemoans the disappearance of sidewalks and front porches, and how everything is sped up. How many miles of sidewalk does your city or town of residence have? How often do you see people just out on a walk? When was the last time everyone in your neighborhood hung out on their front porches? It might seem like pointless nostalgia in 2014, but it's changed how we see other people and how we converse.

While some of Bradbury's ideas seem borne of mere technophobia, for the most part, this book has a lot of things to say about modern society. He does allow for good storytelling in TV later in the narrative, luckily, which reassured me he wasn't just another "kill your TV" nut.

Unfortunately, the edition I own has an appendix with the author's comments after the book's publication. While I agree with Bradbury's assertion that he shouldn't edit existing works, his stubborn assertion that he needn't add depth to female or minority characterizations left a bad taste in my mouth. I see merit in criticizing authors for their blind spots, so they can work to correct them in later works. Bradbury felt differently, which is a shame.

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Review: The Misanthrope by Molière

The MisanthropeThe Misanthrope by Molière
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Between my light, fluffy reads, I like to have something to chew on. That was my motivation in picking this one up. That and, why are people always talking about this play?

Having read it, now, I honestly have no idea.

The Misanthrope tells the story of Alceste, a man who despises all the hypocrisy and sucking-up in society. He wants honest discourse, and gives plenty of it, himself. Meanwhile, he's in love with Célimène, who embodies everything he hates about people. She's a two-faced flirt, only in love with herself, which only becomes more obvious as the play goes on.

Alceste is being sued for slander against a man nobody likes, but who has a lot of social capital. He's also pulled into court by Oronte, whose sonnet he gives his honest opinion of. To be fair, he did warn the man, and Oronte was egotistical enough to think he'd flatter him.

Célimène has a lot of suitors. Alceste begs her to dismiss them for his sake, but she enjoys being the center of attention too much. As the play goes on, her rivals and suitors start comparing notes, and see her for who she is.

The ending of the play seemed abrupt. Alceste's fate is left up in the air. That of his more temperate friend, Philinte, is pretty well settled. I think if I'd read the play seeing him as the protagonist, I might've found the ending less jarring. I really couldn't tell if the play is condemning Alceste's snobbery, or agreeing with his opinion of French society.

The translation I read is entirely in verse, which automatically made it sound more clever. Though, clearly, my sense of poetry is less refined than Molière's; I couldn't find the flaws that justified Alceste's poor opinion of Oronte's sonnet.

There isn't very good female representation here, but then, the men are no better. The cast is populated with vain, egotistical, two-faced people, with two exceptions other than Alceste. And Alceste's rigidity is its own problem.

It was an entertaining play, full of wit and glimpses into the time it was written, but I have no idea what's made it survive to modern day as a classic. It didn't strike me as particularly memorable.

I listened to an audio performance by L.A. Theatre Works. That made the characters harder to keep straight in my mind, but I do tend to believe that plays should be read as performances, as the writer intended. The actors do a fine job, and all the lines are able to be heard and understood.

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review: Ex-Heroes (Ex-Heroes #1) by Peter Clines

Ex-Heroes (Ex-Heroes #1)Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just when you think you're sick and tired of zombie books, someone does something different with them. In the case of Ex-Heroes, it's a blend of superheroes and zombies that somehow keeps either concept from feeling entirely absurd.

Ex-Heroes takes place a year after the zombie apocalypse. There's a pocket of survivors in a movie studio lot, protected by the few superheroes that survived. They have a secure perimeter, housing, gardens, and regular scavenging runs. They even have electricity, provided by Zzzap, who's basically a small sentient sun.

Roughly a third of the story is told through flashbacks to before and during the zombie apocalypse. We learn that superheroes are a new phenomenon, having appeared in the last couple of years following a mysterious meteor shower. The story is told through several points of view, but goes back most often to that of St. George, who's roughly equivalent to Superman in terms of morality, and the fact that he's the strongest of them.

The zombies aren't the main conflict, though, as in all good zombie fiction. There's a gang that was a big deal before the apocalypse, and it turns out they're still around, growing by the day, and they have a secret weapon. They want our heroes' weapons and for them to turn over one of their own, and they're willing to wage war to get it.

The story is told in a way that evokes comic books very strongly. The scene is often set, like the one-panel first page of an issue, then the characters move about the space in a very visual way. Unfortunately, that sometimes made it hard to keep track of characters and action. The story often jumped from one end of the action to the other without warning, just like in a comic book. It relied on us to have a good image of each of the characters in play. And, toward the beginning of the book, that was tricky. It took about five chapters before I felt I had a handle on most of the characters, and I never really wrapped my mind around Miss B.

I had a hard time telling if the female characterizations were meant to be subverting comic book tropes, or if they were accepting them unironically. Female characters were described in terms of their looks, even when the story was being told from a female perspective. Male characters' looks were sketched in terms of how strong they were or what their costumes were. And the entire character of Stealth and her dynamic with St. George was problematic, to say the least.

It was an enjoyable read, though, and the story builds on itself nicely. The flashbacks are all necessary to the story, and give the reader important information they need for the present. I liked the character development, and I'm interested to read more about superheroes in a post-apocalyptic landscape infested with zombies.

I listened to this book on audio. It had a male and female narrator. The woman read all the female parts, including dialogue, while the man read all the male parts. It was a good way to get around the problem of how silly one gender can sound reading off dialogue of the other, and it helped me tell who was speaking at any given moment. I don't think it would work for all books, but I liked it, once I adjusted.

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Review: Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost GiantsOdd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked an interesting time to read this book. At the end of the longest winter in memory, I'm reading a book about a boy who goes on a quest to end the neverending winter in his corner of the world.

Odd is a boy whose father died and his mother remarried. His leg is shattered in a woodcutting accident, and he's largely considered useless. Then winter goes on longer than it should. He returns to his father's cottage, where he's led by a fox to where a bear is trapped in a tree, while a one-eyed eagle looks on.

It turns out the animals are really Loki, Thor, and Odin, trapped in animal form by the frost giant who tricked his way into Asgard. Off goes Odd and his fallen god friends into a journey through Norse legend to stop the frost giants before the world is locked into winter forever.

Odd and the Frost Giants is a fairly straightforward middle grade chapter book. Kids familiar with Norse legends will get more out of it than those who aren't, but it's not a requirement. The story fits nicely into existing legends.

While the story is about a hero with a disability, it doesn't entirely skirt the trope of curing the disability as a reward for saving the day. The story is also lacking in female characters. There are precisely two: Odd's mother, and Freya, whose shrieking isn't worth her beautiful face. Hardly what I'd call decent representation.

Still, it's an entertaining story, creatively crafted. It could work well as an introduction to Norse mythology, or it could complement what a kid already knows about it.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Neil Gaiman. That's probably the next best thing to a parent reading it to you as a bedtime story.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: My Man Jeeves (Jeeves #1) by P.G. Wodehouse

My Man Jeeves (Jeeves, #1)My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jeeves and Wooster stories are known as the epitome of British humor. So of course I had to see myself. I found a lot of influences on modern British comedy, but, overall, they're a specific kind of humor, dependent on the antiquated class system and people with more money than sense.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight stories, three of which don't include Jeeves or Bertie Wooster. There's not a lot of variety in the story structures. Each feature a young man who's trying to get away with something. Then Bertie Wooster (or Reggie, in the three exceptions) helps. Something happens to complicate the situation and/or expose the young man's dishonesty. Then, through luck (in Reggie's case) or Jeeves' anticipating the complication, all works out for the better. The people involved, the deceptions, and the reasons for them all change, but otherwise, the stories are interchangeable.

Most of the humor lies in our perspective characters' lack of intelligence. Bertie is aware Jeeves is smarter than he is, but he insists on trying to use his limited capacity, often to disastrous effect. Jeeves often outsmarts Bertie, himself, which Bertie often doesn't notice. Jeeves is definitely the one in charge, and he's smart enough to give Wooster the illusion of choice. The complications often come about because Jeeves has to work within the framework Bertie set for him, as a direct contradiction just isn't done.

Aside from the repetitive nature of the stories, there's another major flaw. Female characters are either young, in which case they're capricious and/or greedy and/or conniving, or they're old, in which case they're domineering and unpleasant. I never got the impression that was an aspect of the satire, that they were really whole people beneath Bertie's or Reggie's impressions. Most of the characterizations are shallow, but some of the male characters get painted in a sympathetic light, while the female get no such consideration.

These are light, funny stories, and probably best read spaced apart to reduce the repetitiveness. If you'd like to read a major influence on modern British comedy, I'd recommend these stories. You may find some amusement value in the antiquated slang, if nothing else.

I read this on audio, narrated by David Thorn. The narration was good, with the exception of a few verbal flourishes. He rolled his r's, often extravagantly. It was to illustrate how well the perspective characters thought of themselves, but it often served to distract, and occasionally irritate.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an eARC of this book through Net Galley. I was not compensated for my review.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a book about time travel. Sort of. The title character lives the same period of time, again and again, always with his memory of the last time he went through it. He knows what the future will hold, as far as he lived the last time. Then he learns of an organization called the Cronus Club, full of other people who are effectively immortal. He can find out more about the future through members who lived past his lifespan. And he does. He finds out, at the end of his eleventh life, that the end of the world is coming, and something is hastening it with each iteration of time the Cronus Club members (called kalachakras or ourobourans) live through.

In one life, he teaches at a university, and has several philosophical conversations with a young man named Vincent. He learns, quite by accident, that Vincent is like him, living the same timeline again and again. But, while the Cronus Club wants to keep things the same, Vincent wants to change the world. The last time a kalachakra brought his future knowledge into the world, he nearly brought the world to a premature end, and lots of ourobourans were never born. Incidentally, never being born is the only way to kill one of their kind. So Harry immediately has a candidate for who he has to stop to save the future. Only Vincent has a lot more resources than Harry, and he seems to be always a step ahead.

The time travel aspects are believably complex. The entire concept seems to have been thought out very well. As useful as it seems, it has its limitations, and its pitfalls. As startling as the notion of killing oneself to preserve oneself seems the first time it comes up, it becomes an easy concept to wrap one's mind around as the story goes on.

The concept does drag the book down a bit in places, though. Harry is a curious sort of person, so he likes to examine the questions brought out by his existence. He pursues learning, and the narrative is sometimes bogged down by the knowledge he integrates. I felt like his third life, where he seeks meaning, could've been trimmed significantly from the narrative without taking anything away.

The book also suffers from tokenism and orientalism. Harry seeks meaning in the Far East, of course, and encounters a very polite authority figure who wants to know if he's a spy. In one life, he marries an Asian woman so she can manage his sometimes-shady business matters, and she serves as a caricature of Asian competence. There's one black character in the entire book, and she's there for Harry to have a sexual relationship with another kalachakra and to experiment heavily with drugs with. Sigh.

Overall, I found this book to have a slow build, with a satisfying conclusion. The narrative sets up Harry's intelligence then relies on his wits to solve it. There's an aspect of the bittersweet to the ending, but I was happy with it.

If you pick this book up, don't go in expecting a fluffy summer read. The book is far denser than the description makes it sound. I went in expecting a quick read, which was like running headlong into a brick wall. Adjust your expectations, let the book make you curious about the questions it raises, and you'll do just fine.

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Review: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and SpiritIf You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a gift from a college professor in 2001, the year I graduated. It's been on my to-read list a while, clearly. Hence its inclusion in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

My professor warned me, as she handed it over, that it was far less useful for practical writing advice and more for inspiration. In that, she was absolutely correct. While there is some advice for how to get started and find one's voice as a writer, I found some of its advice counter intuitive, and sometimes contradictory of my process. The book is If You Want to Write, not If You Want to Be Published.

Brenda Ueland recommends an approach that ignores such words as "craft," "polish," and "honing." Her background is that of a teacher of nonwriters. She's drawn out the inner writer in her students, and the book's purpose is to do the same for its readers. She's interested in helping people find their voices as writers and finding what inspires them.

There are sections where she compares or contrasts pieces of writing, meant to illustrate her points about a looser, less critical approach to writing. At times, her point is well-made, when her students initially turn in stilted prose of the kind they feel they're supposed to write, and eventually write pieces that are flowing and natural. Other times, though, the "better" passages are purple, or just plain rambling. I understand at the time Ueland was writing, the longer, more descriptive passages were better valued, so some of my disconnect is a product of the shift in literary trends.

One of the major points in this book's favor is that it advocates pantstering, or discovery writing. It specifically recommends against outlining or planning out where the story will go. Ueland says, instead, to see where the story takes you. That's an approach I can get behind.

I wish I'd come across this book before I graduated high school. A lot of its lessons would've helped me in my early writing development. In this stage of my writing, though, it reads like a giant step backward. It tells me nothing about how to improve as a writer or how to edit what I've already written.

This book will not help you if you've already written a novel, or if you're ready to edit your pieces. Its main utility is giving a budding writer the confidence to find one's own voice. I'd recommend it to people considered NaNoWriMo; its lessons will help unclog you from the expectations holding back your word count.

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