Tag Archives: books

You Were Doing So Well!

22 Mar

Publishers and directors all want the “sure thing,” which is fair, because that’s what their customers want, too. Formulas work, and to go off formula, you have to train the audience to expect where you want to go. So when the creator goes off script, the audience gets mad.

For example, let’s take the book I just finished, Takedown by Brad Thor. It’s a “thriller,” not a technothriller, because that would require more “tech.” This is hunting terrorists, which…. hey, is not necessarily my thing, but I’ve liked them in the past. I happened by the Little Free Library near my home and found this, so I thought I would give it a shot.

It starts off well, capturing the bad guy, who becomes the McGuffin of the whole story. In other words, he’s the objective of the whole plot and does nothing to further it himself. I know this because he has the blandest name in the world: Muhammed bin Muhammed. Now we can’t just have him be the bad guy, he has to have a kink that makes him a really bad guy, but since we just met him, it’s hard to bring him in. They bring in a… what I can only call a “consultant villain,” who is actually really cool, sympathetic, and highly capable. Unfortunately, he’s a minor character.

Now this being the fifth in the series, and I’ve ever only read this one, our hero is a complete unknown to me. However, he’s introduced pretty well. The author introduces a lot of characters, but unlike other stories, I don’t feel overwhelmed by them. It becomes obvious that a) here are the characters that matter and b) here are the characters that don’t, but I’ll remind you of them when appropriate. So the flow works great.

When the BOOM happens (because this is a book about terrorism), it’s pretty good and the plot is great. In fact, the actual plan is pretty cool–even cooler because no one–not even the terrorists–know what the actual plan is. However, the point is to chase the McGuffin, and our hero has to stop them. That’s pretty cool.

There is a needless chest beating subplot where the civil liberties loving DHS secretary just can’t understand why everyone else in the administration just wants to use “extraordinary rendition.” Which leads to a “how dare you question the military” speech. Now I’m a Navy brat. I love folks who serve in the military. But when you’ve been around enough veterans, you know they’re the first to tell you, “look, the military screws a lot of people over.” Just because someone serves does not make them a saint. So there’s a “screw the hippies” storyline, which is rather ridiculous, considering you need both the “kill the bastards” and the “save the whales” crowd to make society work.

However, the unforgiveable part is after the climax, when the hero has saved the world, got the girl, and everything is resolving as it should, the author ruins it in the last paragraph. Literally–the last paragraph. “Ha, ha, Horvath! You have met your match!” What. The. Hell?! I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’re going to screw over the hero, you start it at the beginning of the next book, not at the very end. At least make it an epilogue or last chapter, not just a… “oh, I forgot!”

This is why Bond fans hate On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film is actually really good! But because it ends on such a downer, fans rejected it. (Plus, it was the first film without Sean Connery.)

So a book that was a good 4 out of 5, drops an entire star just because the author wanted to set up the next book… at the last minute. What a waste! I now have no interest in reading anything this author writes. Have you run into this before? Let me know in the comments below!

And when you’re done writing that, why not check out some of my books! Or if that’s too pricey for your blood, download some of my stories for free!

Stranger in a Strange Book

24 Feb

Who is John Smith? The protagonist in most books has a simple name, understandable motivations… in other words, forgettable. They are taking the place of you while you walk through the universe. Because there’s a price to be paid if your protagonist is too exotic.

After reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I realized that he rotates between three or four main characters, of which one is American, two are Thai, and one is Chinese. It’s set in Bangkok, so that makes perfect sense, and you’d think that a guy with a complicated Portuguese name is going to be comfortable with characters with strange names to American ears. But Paolo struggles with this same problem. When you have to crank out a last name like Chulalongkorn (actually the name of King Rama V), you start using nicknames or first names fast. When I lived in Thailand, it seems Thais understand that, and are comfortable being referred to by their nickname because their real name is so long.

However, it doesn’t have to be just names. For example, when I sat down to write Drag’n Drop, I thought I would make my main character the dragon, because… that sounded really cool. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted a two-ton flying machine running around an alternate New York, and not have him be a shape changer… he wasn’t going to be in all the scenes. So I invented a guy and a girl to hang out with him to go to all the places where a big green dragon just wouldn’t fit in.

The more I thought about it, though, my main characters were generally white guys, but do NOT have easy names, because… well I’m a white guy with a slightly uncommon name. You would surprised how often Marcus Johnston becomes Mark, Marc, or Markus Johnson. I generally refer to my characters by nicknames. In Defending Our Sacred Honor, I thought it would be fun to call my main character Javier Jackson, but he became Jax instantly. Fatebane is the name of the main character, but it’s not the name he was born with, for reasons that are clear in the book.

Predatory Practices is the only book I was involved with that where there was a non-human main character. However, his name was Heth… because the complicated three name alien nomenclature wasn’t practical most of the time. Mind you, I wasn’t the main writer on that, but I thought Ed did a great job creating a believable alien culture that was still relatable to the reader.

In the end, though, I am an American, and although I reach out to readers all through the world, I’m sure when I slip, my references are uniquely American. Since I prefer to write sci-fi, I hope it’s more universal. However, I’ve read books that use references that are distinctly English or Irish or Japanese and my mind hits a speed bump when I read them. I remember reading an article by a Czech, and since I was working through Google translate, I didn’t catch an idiom when I was writing it down. It was only talking with my Czech friends that they explained the reference.

What do you think? Have you been taken out of a book by all the strange names? Or do you not mind a main character named Massaponax? Maybe it’s better if he goes by Mass. Let me know in the comments below!

“This is a really great book.”

16 Feb

Reading a really good book is a wonderful opening into someone else’s world. It can refresh you after reading mediocre… or just plain bad books. However, it can also be terribly disheartening when trying to write your own.

Not that quality has anything to do with success; but it helps. I try to reassure myself that if really bad books can somehow make it to be published, sometimes hitting the best seller lists, then my decently written books can also be read and enjoyed.

So recently, I’ve finished reading “The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (“bag of galoshes”) and was bowled away by it. First off, because it was set in post-apocolyptic Bangkok, which appealed to me greatly since I lived there for a year. However, second, it was the perfect mix of steampunk and cyberpunk which fit beautifully together. It was also a great choice, because even though it was written ten years ago, it’s setting of a world ravaged by genetically engineered diseases and climate change didn’t seem too far fetched. The characters were wonderful, nuanced, and blended well together to tell the whole story of a Thailand in trouble.

However, it also had another side effect. It made me completely stop wanting to write my own story. Of course, I wasn’t that motivated to outline it as of late, but having my own story set after the warming seemed rather trite after reading the major award winning book. What kind of story could I tell that could compare with that?!

So I feel like I need a better story idea–and after reading Leviathan Wakes, I’m realizing that my merchant marine in space story is kinda weak tea as well. Thankfully, I already knew that was whale puke, so that’ll have to sit in the electronic desk drawer for a little longer.

But what do you think? Have you read something so good that it’s turned you off to working on your own stories? Let me know in the comments below!

Saving Mr. Crooked Nose

8 Feb

Last July, I worked on and finished a novel. The problem is on August 1st, I realized that when it was done, it was whale puke. How do I save this story and make it salvageable?

How this situation came about was that I decided to focus harder on my writing. I’ve found that doing NaNoWriMo is the most effective way to ensure that I actually get a novel done. So since I was starting in June, I enrolled into the Camp NaNoWriMo program so I do it into the summer instead of November.

So this was the “merchant ships in SPACE!” story that I named my fan club after. I thought this would be really fun – I did a lot of research into what merchant marines do today – and I managed to write 57k words of the novel and finished it on time! However, I realized within a couple thousand words of the end that… it sucked.

However, I don’t want this story to go to waste. The story of Cameron Crooked Nose (yes, that’s the main character – the naming conventions of this world is a little tricky) I know that part of the problem is that I tried doing the “flashback.” Problem: I really didn’t know where I was going with the story, so I didn’t really know where he’d been. Which is the primary problem – there was no plot!

You think I would have figured that one out, but I was so enamored with the setting that I just ran with it… and didn’t think about what story would actually be told. Whoops. Well, now I have a chance to fix all that.

Now that I’ve had enough time to think about it, I feel more confident that I can tackle this problem without beating myself up too much. Have you run into this before? Love a concept so much that you completely miss the flaws? Let me know in the comments below!

No One Writes Utopias Anymore

5 Feb

To quote Hamilton, “Winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.” As I happened across some author’s manifesto, I realized that no one writes utopian stories anymore. Is it the lack of conflict? Or is it easier to fight injustice than to say what you’re fighting for?

What started this train of thought was coming across the Twitter account of one Winnifred Penrose, who defines herself as a “writer of steamy anti-capitalist feminist historical romance novels. Many ripped bodices.” Durh? My first thought is “here are two things that just don’t go together. How does she accomplish this?” Then I checked out her book, Last Night in Ireland, which is teased as:

An English suffragette.
An Irish Rebel
A Revolution that would divide them.

Okay – that works. Two rebels find each other in a past conflict: fits the narrative. But I find it interesting that Miss Penrose doesn’t look ahead and see where the Easter Rising takes us. You get an independent Ireland… but it immediately breaks into civil war. Michael Collins starts the Troubles in the north. Women get the vote in Britain eventually, but we dive into WWII. Not the ideal world that either of her characters were hoping for.

But no one writes utopias anymore; I think because everyone sees them for what they are. Political tracts disguised as literature. When I want to read fiction, I want it to be fiction, not someone trying to convince me of the perfect future. Take Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. I’ll admit–I’m a bad Libertarian and have never read this tome, but I certainly know who John Galt is. As a Heinlein fan, I did read his utopian novel, For Us, The Living, which is his vision of the Social Credit Theory brought to its perfection. Mind you, he wrote this after his failed attempt to run for Congress. (Hey, me and Bob have something in common!) The closest I’ve seen to a utopian novel recently was The Unincorporated Man (2009) by Dani and Eytan Kollin, which actually is a good novel, but also talks about living in a libertarian utopia. However, the authors are really clear that a) it took a disaster to get us there and b) it’s not perfect.

Part of the problem is that utopias are boring. If everything is perfect, then there is no conflict. However, I once read a sci fi book written during the Soviet Union which lived in the ideal communist future. The first line was “I remember the day they eliminated money.” However, the conflict was finding a way to continue progress, so it follows these two scientists who fall in love, and the writer who was their third wheel. It actually kept my attention and was very well written… I just wish I could remember all of the author’s name (Matvei).

I would a bad history geek if I didn’t point out that utopia is a word that simply means “no place,” which was the point of Sir Thomas More’s original book Utopia. But even then (1560?), it was a commentary on the politics of Europe at that time, not necessarily a place you wanted to live. However, maybe there’s a utopian book I’ve missed out there? What do you think? Are utopias simply boring? Let me know in the comments below!

Your Ideal Neighborhood

4 Feb

So I’m been trying to get working on my next novel and just having no idea what my other characters (apart from the main one) should be. Then I discovered what I was missing–write the setting that you would WANT to be in.

My next story idea is called “Death in the Age of Seitan,” which is a sci-fi story in a vegan future where a cop has to investigate a deer “murder.” Okay – I loved the premise, so I decided to set in 24th Century Canada in a small town, but then… I didn’t know who to populate it with.

It’s been too long since I lived in my hometown, so it was hard to base it on people that I grew up with, and although I could base it on people I know now, I couldn’t grab any characters that I really wanted to write about. Then I turned to Google and found an interesting article by an author named Nan Reinhardt called Creating and Maintaining a Small Town Setting and Characters in a Series.

She had a lot of really good ideas when it came to her own books–in fact, basing her small town on Madison, Indiana (which is an awesome place on the Ohio River–about an hour west of Cincinnati–I thoroughly recommend it), but what I drew from it the most was “write about the neighborhood that you’d want to be in.”

Once I read that, it suddenly made a lot more sense. Who would I enjoy the main character talking to? What kind of businesses would this post-disaster world would my protagonist go to? Who’s behind the counter? What are they hiding? I was able to sketch out a few characters without worrying. Once I get a few more done, then I might be able to tackle the outline without cringing.

Have you got some good ideas about populating your worlds? What has worked for you in the past? Share with me in the comments below!

Feminist Sci-Fi

27 Jan

Whenever I tell my wife someone is a “feminist,” she asks, “which wave?” Like many words, “feminist” means different things to different people. “Feminist sci-fi” is no exception; in this scenario, it translates as “mad at my dad.”

I picked up a book from the library called Seven Devils by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May. From the cover, it looked pretty good. I’m always looking for new and interesting sci-fi, so I picked it up. When I actually went to read it, I was faced with a searing hatred before I hit Page 1. It was the authors’ dedication:

For the underdogs among us, those who hold the lines, and protest, and write, and speak out, empires only topple brick by brick. And for Hannah, who was always there to help us smash the patriarchy.

Dedication, Seven Devils

I had to actually go downstairs and open the book to find that nugget of defiance. Interestingly, you go to the book preview, it’s strangely missing… hmmmm. To me, this smacks of internet activism–people on both the left and the right who are so gung-ho about toppling whatever–as long as they’re online. They probably have never gone to a protest, and if they had, they were out of there after an hour, certainly before any hanky-panky goes on. These are folks who like to feel they’re part of the “resistance,” as long as all their friends agree with them, and they don’t have to actually do anything.

That put me in a real bad mood trying to get into the book, so I’ll admit, my limited review of Seven Devils is already tarred by my hatred of the dedication. The first scene throws one of our protagonists right into a fight scene. Okay–cool. She’s getting a call from her supervisor reminding her a) to get a move on her mission and b) try not to kill anyone. It’s cute, I’m enjoying it, while at the same time, I’m a bit confused. But that’s okay, because the story’s just starting, and I don’t have to know everything.

So the guys that our protagonist is (accidentally) killing turn out to be able to be controlled by the great computer that runs most of this empire, so once things get hot, the enemy loses free will, and becomes slaves of the computer. Interesting. Tell me more.

Our protagonist escapes and we meet the rest of her team. This is where it loses me. She’s bitchy with her co-workers, her boss sounds like a regular supervisor, and they’re part of the resistance. This tells me that our authors have NO CLUE what a resistance actually looks like. They treat it like a corporate job–with shiny offices, bitchy bosses (for gender equity, a male), and established missions. No, dummies! Resistance movements are rarely well organized. It’s more like a volunteer organization, and once they get successful, they’re military organizations, leaving the volunteers to either shape up or get lost.

So I put the book down. I was already pissed at the dedication, so it didn’t take much. When I looked up “feminist sci-fi” the first example was Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. I love this book. However, there’s nothing feminist or activisty about it. The planet does have gender-flipping aliens and she does a great job playing with alien civilizations. But in the end, what makes it “feminist” is that a woman wrote it… under her own name in 1969.

I’m going too long on this post, so I’ll have to cut it off. Meanwhile, I’ll ask you, what do you think makes a “sci-fi” book “feminist?” Let me know in the comments below!

Book v. Movie (1964)

23 Jan

I’ve been on a Bond kick lately, so I decided to actually read one of Ian Fleming’s books, to see how to compared to the movie I loved so much. So I picked up Goldfinger and started reading… wow! There is no comparison.

There wasn’t a great time difference between the book (1959) and the movie (1964), so it was fascinating to see the changes they used to show the story on the big screen. First off, the plot made a hell of a lot more sense! Naturally, in a book, you’ve got plenty of time to explain what’s going on to the audience. Also, I realized later that I grew up with an “edited for television” version of the movie, that (among other things) completely skipped the beginning mission before the credits. So naturally, my opinion of these things are skewed.

Second, Bond did a LOT more spycraft in the book–he actually does spy stuff–rather than just bust into places and see what happens (which they lampshade in the later movies). The written James has a lot more time to brood, to have an inner monologue, not just be the soulless killing/sex machine that we’ve come to know and love.

They compressed a lot of the characters, which makes sense for time, but that means that Jill and Tilly Masterson are actually in the book for a lot longer. You get to know these women (and not in the way you’re thinking). Interestingly enough, Pussy Galore barely appears–Tilly is the female companion that’s dragged with Bond to the US.

Why Bond is kept alive when going into the final act still makes absolutely no sense, apart from the fact that he’s the main character. The reason that gangsters are there makes a lot more sense. And the way that Bond foils Goldfinger’s plan makes a lot more sense, although I think the movie version of G’s plan was actually better.

There’s a lot less gadgets, certainly less lovin’, and in the end, a much more solid story. Mind you, there are some dated references (because this was the late 50’s), dated terms (I had to look up “commissionaire”), and some dated attitudes (Bond has some theories on what “turns” women to becoming lesbian), but that did not distract me from the plot.

In the end, I really enjoyed Goldfinger the book, despite having watching the movie first, and that makes me very surprised. I’m gonna have to read more of Fleming’s books! Have you had a chance to read the James Bond novels? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

“The Future’s Disposable”

20 Jan

“Yeah, so are you, chombatta.”

I love cyberpunk the genre–I’ve read all of William Gibson’s books, I own the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG book, and love anything that’s even tangentially related to the aesthetic. So what is it about the dark future that attracts me?

The obvious answer is right place, right time. I grew up in the 80’s, went to high school in the early 90’s and Cyberpunk is very much a subgenre of its era. Johnny Mnemonic (the short story) and Neuromancer (the novel) that Gibson wrote came out in 1981 and 1984. We were still reeling from the 70’s: oil crisis, unemployment, disco. Then came the conservative ascendency, which for liberal writers was the ultimate sign the world was going to hell. (The comic book V for Vendetta was a response to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.) It was depressing. It didn’t take much to a consider a future that was even worse.

So growing up as a middle school teen, imagine the effect that something like the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG had on me back in 1987. Guns, chicks, tech–hell, yeah! Plus it was wrapped up in a sense of humor that told you that everyone was in on a joke. If the world’s crap, after all, you might as well have fun.

Of course, the authors didn’t get it quite right–you never do. He predicted the internet, but Gibson was sure it was going to be virtual reality. No flying cars, but I think we all realize what a clusterf#$* that would actually be. The drugs have changed, and if we don’t all have implants, we have prosthetics that are just as amazing.

I think it’s the aesthetic–the technopunk style. The emphasis is “style over substance.” Do you look cool while you’re go through your daily grind. Of course, the characters aren’t grinding… they’re petty criminals, they’re homeless, they’re the antiheros your English teachers talked about. Maybe that’s part of the appeal. Anyone can be a hero of the story–they’re in a worse situation than you and they’re having an adventure! Why not you?

So as I listen to the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack this morning, I’m feeling great, jamming through the dawn. I’d like to buy the video game–bugs and all–but I honestly don’t enjoy those type of games. I’d rather watch someone else play it. However, they’ve used all the details from the 2020 RPG that I played that I’m hit by a beautiful wave of nostalgia. It might be a while before “I’m chipping in.”

Do you like Cyberpunk? Do you find it silly? Is it just a different taste of dystopian literature? Let me know in the comments below!

Okay, so… that happened.

15 Jan

I’ve been asked to review many books before, but children’s books aren’t necessarily my forte. On the other hand, I’m a father of two and have read MANY children’s books before, so I’m gonna call myself an expert. Let’s dive into Honeycake.

Honeycake is a evil child with special magical powers who threatens to destabilize the world economy by… no, of course not. Honeycake is our protagonist’s nickname, whose actual name is Nala, a mixed-race girl who goes with grandma and Uncle JD to give her leftover toys to charity. I mention that she’s mixed-race, not because I care, but because it’s the first thing you notice on page… two? (Could be four–children’s books are formatted with maximum space for small readers.) The child is black, the grandma is white; since the author (Medea Kalantar) is mixed-race herself, she’s basing it on her own life.

Okay, let’s move on, the art is amazing! There are so many children’s books where the art is either sub-par or they had a professional illustrator have to come in and save the day. This is done by the author herself and it is excellent. Since there is so precious little text in children’s books, this makes me move my review WAY up, because I give great respect to illustrators. After all, in a kid’s book, the art is over half the material.

Now I’m pretty cynical, and there’s not a lot of text in this book, so the author gets to the message rather quickly. “Talk less, smile more.” (blink) Wait, that’s Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Let me have the book tell it: “When you give a someone a nice smile, it makes them feel better,” said Grandma. (Grandma might need an editor there, or it’s supposed to be a delightful brogue, but it’s a kid’s book–so who cares?!)

So when Honeycake uses her special magical power of smiling, you show kindness, and spread sunshine wherever you go. Okay–good message.

Going through the visit, Nala’s experience reinforces her special magical power of kindness, and she learns that she can use her power to spread kindness wherever she goes. Nice. Although, having the stars around the phrase “special magical powers,” puts a ™ in my mind, as if the author trademarked it. 🙂

There’s not much else to review, because it’s only 36 pages, and half of them are art, so I’ll just say this is a great children’s novel. It feels about right for a 3-6 year old and it’ll probably have good repeat value. It’s got a story, a relatable character, so I think it’s worth getting. As much as I gushed about the art earlier, she does repeat many of the same pictures, so I’m gonna dock her a star in my review, especially because the best children’s books are those that are a little quirky and the message is not so blatant. But this is good and I’m sticking to it.

What are your favorite children’s books–the ones that are heavy on pictures and not much on text? Let me know in the comments section below!

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