Anonymous Book Review 23: Keeping it simple is Stupidly Hard.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book, but I guess that’s how I usually feel about twist endings. Really didn’t see that one coming. The ending wrapped up the interesting narrative style perfectly, threw me back in my seat and made me say out loud, “Holy shit!”

The five star rating system is way too limited to adequately rate a novel like this.

The author wrote one of the greatest opening chapters that I’ve read in a long time. There’s instantly danger, intrigue and a secret that takes three hundred pages to resolve. I had some doubts about this book, but a book club I thoroughly respect selected this title so I picked it up not knowing what to expect.

That first chapter did not disappoint.

Then a second POV took over. A slower tale that became a little uncomfortable for me to read. This second POV actually had better characters, but it was written as a spoken story that almost crossed from a first-person perspective into the second-person. And this style carried through for three hundred pages as well.

Both of these perspectives, well written on their own, came together in an unexpected way through a manipulation of time. It wasn’t as linear as I’d thought, though I might’ve gotten it if I’d seen the style before. But I haven’t and that’s a major factor in what made this novel entertaining.

The overall structure was a treat, the character voices were strong, the ending satisfying, but the two things that stood out most, the aspects I’d like to take away and incorporate into my own writing is first simplicity. Not dumbed down, but written in a way that was clear and concise. The second is the attention to detail. I’m speaking in an overall sense which on a smaller scale occasionally detracted from the story.

Simple and concise. Conserving words, keeping the point of each sentence as the focus and using just enough flourish to convey the message naturally. Never were there long descriptions of people, places or things. Gone were the purple prose and flowery language that tend to dull a mind. This author kept her story front and center. And that’s

what kept my attention during the soggy middle. The story got slow, most do at some point, but the direct sentences and limited description kept the story moving without letting my mind drift on extraneous details. The scenes, being what they were, would’ve bogged down and bored me to death had there been any language not focused on the story alone.

Every format has its art. Words are the necessary evil in fiction. Too few and the story is boring. Too many and the adventure becomes muddled. Microwave instructions are clear and concise, but I don’t want to read those.

It’s the Goldilocks—

Yeah, yeah, yeah, thank you mister obvious.

Okay, the author found the sweet spot, but how did she convey enough information to set scenes? Especially in India and East Africa, places as exotic as sci-fi realms to me. This author was very specific. She used specific names for cities, streets, foods and languages.

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Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

I may not know what streets actually feel like, but the few details included formed an image in my head of streets I know with an added layer if images I’ve seen on television.

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

What she couldn’t convey quickly with a name and a few words she dialed in with metaphors and similes. She used similes to generate a visual representation instead of slogging through an itemized description of another street or food. Personally, I think metaphors and similes are dynamite. Like, they do a lot of work when they go off properly, but explode in your face when they don’t. A few didn’t land, but overall they worked fantastically in keeping the description to a minimum while setting a mental image.

Where this story didn’t work for me was in the vast numbers of names. Near future sci-fi in a non-Western setting. Great! Introduction to a complicated slice of my own world and history that I’m completely unaware of? Awesome! A thousand names with spellings more difficult to pronounce than any sci-fi I’ve ever read? Bummer. Okay, the author has traveled extensively and she has close friends residing in these slices of the world. I know this because she basically beat me over the head for three hundred and twenty pages with names that I simply don’t have the linguistic model for which to contrive a functional sound. At least with fantastic sci-fi, the eccentric names and words don’t have mispronunciations capable of offending entire populations.

This is where the attention to details became too complicated. People, places, foods, so many were so difficult to pronounce and in the case of foods, I have no idea what kind of food is being consumed. Great that she’s eaten delicious foods and I’m sure these foods resonated with her beta readers, but for me they were just an endless distraction. I had no context, nor did I want any because all but one, a pastry, had no bearing on the story. I suppose in the larger scope of a spoken tale the teller would recount minute details like food, but I thought much of it could’ve been dropped without loss of feeling in the story.

Within the plethora of names, the main character herself changed several times. A nice nickname for a difficult first name and an alias. Not hard to remember, but added to everything else, those became tiresome. As the stories came together, the only name I stayed familiar with then became the original character. But I was led to believe that that name was somebody else, somebody real who then wasn’t, which almost nullified an entire storyline with the end reveal.

I think this, too, can form an important lesson for writers, particularly those in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, that too many names distract from the story. They stunt the flow and

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Photo by Pasquale Vitiello on Magdeleine.co

make the reader sound out and wonder if their pronunciation is accurate. And crazier spellings don’t add to the story as much as constitute an abuse of language.

This book took me on a cerebral adventure, one with guilt-ridden hallucinations from a close perspective. The story circled back to a point it had never left. The slowness, the intimacy, the isolation of the characters gave me the impression that there’d be some literary meaning, some form of understanding and personal growth at the end. Imagine my relief when all the characters turned out to be murderous monsters.

Phew. Narrowly dodged a moral lesson.

The writerly lesson, however, is invaluable. It showed me a style I’ve been trying to master. It’s given me examples to elevate a clear and concise format by sprinkling in details and similes that’ll raise microwave instructions to a level of art. It’s also shown me how too much of a good thing saps emphasis from the devise that delivered the goodness. I ended up giving this book three stars, but the limitations of the rating feels like a crime against literature, yet a higher rating would disregard what I consider major detractions. I wouldn’t place this book on a must-read shelf for everyone, but I will enthusiastically recommend this book to people I’d consider the right audience.

Now to start cutting words.

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Greatness from an Outline: Anonymous Book Review 22—A quick look at plotting complex story arcs and subtext in fiction writing.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written a book review for the categorical best of any genre. That just changed. After reading this graphic novel again, even after watching the movie, I’m more impressed now at the attention to detail than at any time before.

Thought I was pretty good at outlining.

I’m having doubts.

I’m a writer. Like all writers I enjoy outlining, but I also enjoy free writing, too. Nothing wrong with a pantser style when we’ve got to get a story out of us. Reading this book showed me that when working toward perfection a solid outline becomes the GPS.

The success of this story comes on the back of sixty years entrenched clichés, concepts artistic communities had been talking about, and a world in real life wracked by aibiizmdv0k8mhcjuebvexistential tension. The author had a lot to work with. So like a drunken trust-fund brat pissing away a hard-earned family fortune, this author exhausted the collected cultural capitol in a single twelve issue collection. Instead of blurry nights, fast women and fiery car crashes though, he blew his inheritance on a nihilistic monolith that buried in a shallow grave the naïve superhero tropes humanity had grown accustomed.

Whoa, sounds like someone had a big bowl of metaphorios this morning.

Yes. Yes I did.

There hasn’t been a successful sequel, nor can I imagine one. The characters, the social commentary, the conclusion belong to an era. It exposed the clichés, killed them and left only sour irony for future artists.

Until a new commentary evolves.

It all started innocently enough. After having problems personifying a main character in my novel project, I turned to the graphic novel as a case study on archetypal super heroes that played with their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, I went into it to analyze characterization, instead I’ve picked up a thorough lesson on the potential of organization, on outlining, on plotting.

It’s a graphic novel. Images are as important to the story telling as the dialog and in this one just as technically perfect. There are clues from the very first panels as to how the story will bend. Details that draw you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the finale. Innocuous scenery—end table trinkets, by-standers, litter blowing on the motionless breeze—telling a deeper story than the words alone. To us writers this is the mysterious and alluring art of subtext, a facet of literature that pushes good stories into great tales.

But these effects didn’t come by accident. They were planned and plotted before the first words were lettered. A specific, detailed outline is especially important when working with a partner, particularly since a graphic artist needs time to interpret the story, then produce the visual standards, even if the artist is a certified genius in his own right. Which this guy is. Novels take between six months and a million lifetimes to finish and in that interval important details are, umm, occasionally overlooked. If there’s a lesson to take from this, it’s that a complete and layered outline only multiplies the quality of your work.

I once sat in a crowd absorbed in an hour long speech by the famous sci-fi author, David Brin. He was funny and engaging and spoke in that cryptic language professionally known as nerd. I loved it. In his speech he suggested that all us aspiring writers should begin our fiction careers by penning a murder mystery. His point was that writers would be forced, by the very nature of the genre, to pay close attention to the details, and that the their job was to plant clues in such a way that the reader is dropkicked by the realization that the evidence was in front of them the entire time. All while stretching out the secret for the length of the novel. Solid advice, but I’m not interested in murder mysteries right now and really don’t want to commit to a novel simply for an exercise. Too much work.

Well, this graphic novel is a murder mystery. It starts as a violent and bloody whodunnit. The one person concerned starts tying clues together. The people he comes across describe him and feed in doubt to the course he’s investigating. Alternate history and character back-story knit together, each piece connects to other characters revealing their personalities through the perceptions of the people around them. This subtlety builds a pattern throughout the novel that becomes natural and even succeeds in the nuanced justification for the surprise villain’s opportunity to eliminate his greatest threat.

This is pure showing, no telling. Sure, easy with a comic book, you say. Valid argument, but there’s so much more than that.

At one point one hero narrates his ennui in past, present and future tense. It’s a little confusing at first, though the graphics help to set the context. After a quick re-read the brilliance of the passage sank in. The story wasn’t what had happened in the past, present, or future, but how the elements of those episodes led the character toward his current state. Beyond that, the significance of those episodes led the reader to understand the character’s condition without saying it explicitly.

All the characters are plays on well worn superhero tropes. The brooding detective, the superman, the wonder woman, the rich idealist gadget man, the world’s smartest, and the comic relief. Then these recognizable tropes were turned on their heads and given normal human failings.

So what? Every writer is trying to flip a trope. It’s why there are so many Alice in Wonderland stories right now.

True, but it wasn’t the failings alone so much as the way their normal faults made the superheroes pathetic on the inside. These faults drove tension in the story as the reader came to know the conflicting motivations of the characters.

Within the novel there’s a parallel comic book story. A horrible tale told in the background of a background scene. One character acts as narrator to the overall status of the world while the secondary comic book tale works as an allegory for the mysterious villain’s descent into madness. At first I wasn’t sure this part was needed. Then I put the clues together. Dreadful acts for noble purposes still make monsters.

The details in this book were so diverse that I almost needed my own outline to follow it. Almost. The author kept the detail threads relevant throughout. At no point was I fully lost trying to piece an aspect of the story together that wasn’t purposely obscured. I say purposely because there are small elements set between big details and repeated often enough to matter, yet hidden by seemingly greater things.

Keeping the murder mystery progressing, maintaining the parallel story line, edging in the back-story and narrating in three tense, plus delving into the psychological states and motivations for a vast number of characters while holding them within the narrow limitations of their particular superhero stereotypes could not have been accomplished by writing straight from imagination. There must’ve been massive amounts of time devoted to every aspect. Outlined story development, integrating character arcs, researching many, many topics from physics to psychology to ornithology. There must’ve been years worth of meetings to generate the perfect graphics that fully portrayed the themes, tones and context of the scenes. Drawn before the digital age, there must’ve also been stacks, mounds, mountains of discarded story board drawings.

I personally appreciate outlines. For me they’re where nebulous ideas and kernels of characters gain validity. I also love free writing as stories flow from the ether of my mind. But it’s when I contemplate the completeness of this novel, the cover-to-cover perfection in the art of storytelling that, for me, outlines becomes indisputably necessary. The richness, the complexity, the webs of entangled histories and character arcs have launched this graphic novel into the strata of best.

tl/dr. The takeaway.

I couldn’t find a decent outlining map online. Not one that wasn’t uselessly cartoonish. But here’s my hot take. Outline the overall plot. I like to use this beat sheet for a point A to point B plot-line. I then annotate the main or POV character’s growth points. The points in the story when they learn something in the sub-plot that moves their character business-planning-653x339arc, which then pushes the plot toward conclusion. Within this framework the theme of the story can develop. You can see how the characters and plots work together. It’s also where you can plant meaningful details that tell more to the reader than the words on the page. In essence with an adequate story outline, with the important character arc points layered over and a fair idea of the story’s theme you can plan the subtext messages.

The available graphs and charts and spread sheets didn’t help me much, mostly because each is so static. What feels right to me is a blend of approaches. A living outline that molds and adapts to the work in progress. I don’t think a static approach to outlining would’ve worked for this novel. Perhaps I’m projecting, but the turns and twists, the attention to detail, the symbolism justified by dialog contrived by the story arc must’ve been flexible enough to incorporate new ideas, place clues and illustrate motivations long before the first draft was written.

People may disagree with this claim of best and I’m okay with that. It’s the point of my book review to look at and study an aspect of this novel that stood out to me. The elements I recognize as useful writing tools to guide my art toward perfection. I could talk about the great story, the impeccable graphics, the enormous concepts, but none of those alone spoke to the organization of details that ushered this novel to greatness. It’s in the plotting that these elements came together and not only pushed the bounds of the genre, but shoved them to the ground and kicked dirt in their faces.

I’ve read a few Hugo Award winners, they’re always brilliant. This book, however, changed what I think in writing a novel. It showed me the work that goes into details. How specific details reveal characters, how characters shape events and how those events arrive at conclusions. I’ll wait patiently for the next best ever to evolve. When new clichés develop over time. When author and artist arrive at the perfect moment to create a new and substantial commentary. But I’m sure this new best will have one thing in common with the old best. An intricate and living outline.

So continues the debate of plotters versus pantsers. Please, tell me you thoughts on either style and why that style works for you.

Can I Brag?

The rough draft to my third legitimate novel is finished. Started November 5th, 2015. Ended June 24th, 2016. Seven and three quarters months. And it’s only 74,500 words. Not exactly what I was shooting for in terms of time or word count, but to some extent, every story writes itself.

This writing business is a strange and amazing process. So many twists and turns to the story of the story. Grandiose ideas that fizzle. Characters’ morphing arcs, motivations, genders. And here, at the end I’m sitting back thinking of all the turning points. How, if this didn’t happen in real life, than I wouldn’t have written that piece of fiction. In this story’s case, if events had happened differently two years ago, I would not be posting thisMonkey-typing-300x214 write-up today.

I’ve composed this post to brag about an accomplishment, but also to illustrate the importance of writer friends. I’m saying this now in the afterglow of a finished rough draft because I knew I was getting close, but insurmountable barriers obscured my view of the end.

That is, until I reached out for help.

I have been thinking of this novel for about three, maybe four years. There’s even initial hand-drawn sketches of scenes in my two-inch thick stack of notes. What was originally a pure action hero became a deeper character struggling to answer questions. Of his allegiances, of the plot, of life. Shit gets blowd up, too, don’t get me wrong, but the focus has changed.

In one of the stranger twists, if a demoralizing event didn’t occur to me almost two years ago, I wouldn’t have met (again) the person who brilliantly forced me to reevaluate aspects of my main character, then helped me with major road blocks.

A few years ago I had met this writer lady through a mutual writer friend. The meeting was brief, just introductions, really. My second novel was in the works at the time, off to an agent, per request, who never got back to me (part of, but not close to the demoralizing event).

The second novel had major structural issues so I quit it to write this third. I had what I thought was a good outline, knew the plot points, drawn all the supporting characters so last November I sat down and started writing. My goal was 100,000 words in about four months. I wanted to be finished, or nearly so, by February, 2016, in time for a writers conference.

Yeah, none of that happened. But I still attended the conference. After all, writers conferences are good places to meet like minded people. This writer thing is so isolating to begin with, getting out and talking to other cave dwelling humans who intimately understand the struggle is refreshing. And after said demoralizing episode the conference was exactly what I needed to believe in myself again.

lrg-786-monkeys_-_best_friendsOkay, back to friends. I had met the writer lady again at the conference, this time in a sociable setting with dozens of other inebriated writers all exhausted from the busy weekend, all recounting shared writerly experiences. At one point I talked to a dude. A romance writing dude. About sex scenes. At a bar. Where non-writers could hear. More than the subject matter, the subtext and technique he explained to me was amazing. The information translated in my mind at first in the form of fighting scenes (my specialty), but then I figured out that the questions should be asked and answered about every scene. That was an awkwardly transformative conversation.

Later the writer lady and I discussed our works-in-progress, found out we live vaguely near each other and agreed to meet at some time later. That’s common at conferences, though it usually never happens.

After the conference I contacted one fellow (not the dude), met him for coffee. I’ve always hated a specific enormous chain coffee shop, but hell if it isn’t a convenient place to meet writers. Anyhow, we made future plans, but his course in life is a little different than mine and we haven’t seen each other since. I met another writer from the conference shortly after, read some of her stuff, though she’s at a different place in her writing journey than I am. We still keep in touch. I never like it when people discount me because they’re ahead of me, so I make it a point to never brush off others who may be newer to the game than I am. Everyone has needed help and everyone has help to give.

Finally met the writer lady. We’re in similar places, writing wise. I told her about a major problem I’d been having with my main character. She asked me one question. One damn question that I couldn’t answer. That one damn question stuck with me the rest of the meeting, the entire drive home and into that night despite normal household chaos. Over and over the question recycled without answer. I couldn’t shake it. It bothered me. Simple enough, but I couldn’t answer a basic foundational question about my own freakin’ character.

Then it hit me. I scrambled for paper, pencil, scribbled, thought, rewrote the idea legibly, placed it in my notes, wrote it into the rough draft, although I was about half finished. It defines the character so needs to be mentioned as early as possible, but that’s what edits are for. I was amazed that the one question could affect my writing in such a way.

But it didn’t stop there.

Approaching the end. My main character has a few more obstacles to cross, but I can’t figure out how. First problem—should a lady character get beat up? In the story she deserves it, but I just didn’t like the arrangement considering the following scene. No matter, I’ll jot it down and ask my friend later. As I wrote out the set-up and problem, I thought of an alternative that produced a much more meaningful end. Still two more lingering issues, one about motivation, the other about logistics. Coffee, I posit my problems and though a series of questions, some back and forth brain storming, we came to some rough solutions. Not write-arounds, not writing over them, these solutions ran straight through my problem spots. These solutions worked so well I finished the story two weeks after the last meeting.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have been at that conference without the demoralizing episode, which means I wouldn’t have learned about sex scenes from a dude at the bar, nor would I have found that foundational trait for my main character. I would have a couple more pointless clumsy scenes in the current draft and a less satisfying ending if I hadn’t embraced people from the writer community and asked for their help.

I finished writing my third legitimate novel, but more importantly I know there are people out there willing to invest time and energy into helping me succeed. It’s not a one way street, however. I, too, am willing to help others succeed. By reading manuscripts, brain storming problems, or sharing posts. It’s the friendships built over time that help all of us writers become better at our art than we were the story before.

Anonymous Book Review 7

Why am I breaking up? Let me start by saying I truly liked you so much. I mean, you’re amazingly imaginative, witty and without a hint of pretension. You were fun and fast paced. You’re in good shape, from front to back there aren’t any saggy parts. And, yes, I did have a good time with you. You made me care about your character, the opening scenes where super unique, even curled my toes a little. No, I’ll never bad-mouth you. In fact, I’ve been saying only good things. Probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ve gone ahead and set you up on a blind date with a fantastic person. I’m sure you’ll both hit it off immediately.

So why all this? Well, it’s nitpicky, but I think you’re a little too young for me. A little too YA for my taste. Now I know I’m being hyper critical, like I’ve explained, I loved most everything about you and cannot overstate the imaginative quality. Just, at times, some of the narrative seemed too simple with regard to the action. I don’t know, I guess I wanted more tension in this relationship and feel like some paragraphs were structured in a way to make me feel secure. No, I’m not saying that it wasn’t reassuring, it just means… well, it just made it easy for me to put you down. This sounds cruel. I mean, I knew you’d still be there and we could pick up exactly where we left off and I just got this stack of old comic books and, well, that’s not an excuse. But, I came back. I did the right thing, came back and now I’m owning up to my real feelings. Some people said not to go back. But it’s not like that. You’re too good so I wanted to finish this properly.

What specifically? I don’t want to do this, but if it’ll give you closure. There were some amazing points in your story, some tense moments then everything became okay. Or, not okay, but the tension passed too quickly. I mean, the final showdown dove into a really dark place, then the inner strength was found, which is always awesome, but then the resolution was discussed as back story. Back story done well I’ll add, but the act that occurred could’ve taken me on a stupefying rollercoaster of emotion. Instead done-is-done and I shouldn’t worry about the ethical, moral, or personal thresholds that had to be crossed. That’s some seriously psycho shit to gloss over. True, I still liked you after the atrocity because it was concealed, and maybe that was the point, but I feel I was owed the truth. Yeah, that kind of did it for me at the end.

You know what though? I’ve learned. I know now how important maintaining tension is and how keeping to the subject of a paragraph is the simplest way to do so. I’ve learned how more words don’t equal better ideas. Brevity is powerful. Also, don’t hide the crazy. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be shown but it needs to be acknowledged in the moment, especially if we’re in this adventure together.

Will we see each other again? Right now I can’t say. Everyone has had one of these, where most everything is absolutely perfect, yet those few minor issues build up until they become the defining problem. I am interested in your next adventure, but I’m pretty sure everything will turn out okay. For now I wish you the best of luck. And I know the world is full of people that will love you.

 

Anonymous Book Review 6

I’ve come to understand that in writing, as with everything else, hard work shows. Not simply putting in the hours, but putting in meaningful hours. Hours spent not only beneath the keyboard, but in reference books, in talking to people, smelling the world, listening to the sounds behind bigger sounds. Real, genuine experience pays off in intimate details difficult to suss from Wikipedia. I’m talking about research.

This latest book is a dense piece of historical fiction drawn from a single dry paragraph of source material. Beer is appropriate for the rest of this review. The person was real, with real and recognized accomplishments. The plot, however, is fabricated. The story comes in the interactions between the facts. And this book delivered on the story with extraordinarily compelling characters, a highly dramatic plot and dire consequences.

 

I had read a fortnight prior to this post three particular details to keep in mind while writing historical fiction and as I read this piece, those details stuck out. First, fictional events need to coincide with history. Some familial lineage, a couple dates and the activities of background characters I’m sure will satisfy historians, while period foods and dress, daily habits and political organization of a time from the long ago will satiate historical societies. Second, the author’s longbow 12 scriptvoice needs to stay true. This story is impossible to tell or read in the original languages spoken so the author had to maintain a certain voice throughout the narration that sounded… old timey. Current colloquial sayings take the reader out of the time period and it happened once distinctly in this book and maybe a couple more times that weren’t completely obvious. I caught them, but it doesn’t diminish my respect for the author’s hard work. Third, research on display. If you’ve spent years studying something you’d want to show it, too. And that can ruin a good story. Over exposed research obscures the fine line between historical and fiction. This story could’ve been shortened considerably with less detail told to the nature writing. So many words devoted to birds and horses and huts and menstruation and dirt and sky and dresses and wool and mead and beer and mead and beer and mead and…..

This is a good place for another beer.

Here’s what made this book so good for me—none of the lengthy descriptions read like lists or info dumps. At times, yes, it felt as though the author was showing her research, but everything pushed the story forward the entire time. Not simply nature for scenery or grounding. I learned what the character saw and was guided into forming similar opinions. When observations based on the environment weren’t sewn directly to the plot, they still worked for character development. Weaving such details into a fantastic world that’s both identifiable and distant by millennia is more than skill, it’s art.

Interestingly, the same attentive descriptions were given to nipples, too….

Definitely time for a beer.

But without the attention to detail this title would’ve been a history book. A dusty, old, boring history book.

The author obviously took much license with this fictionalized history. That said, from a writers perspective, the nature writing was world building in a way every science fiction writer should envy—though the author is a sci-fi writer. But anyone that can put me so close to something is an expert world builder by any standard. I came away from this story with a better understanding of human interactions from a period that all of my history classes glossed over with the generic term, “The Dark Ages.” I got to know the landscape, the people who used it and how it affected their lives, how it affected their love, war, sex, superstition and babies. I haven’t been big on historical fiction in the past, but I will definitely look into more epic titles.

Love historical fiction? Hate historical fiction? Have a recommendation? Weigh in and we can discuss over a stein of beer.

Anonymous Book Review 5: The Back Cover

The back cover copy. So much detail. So… misleading. So… on-the-nose. So… ambiguous. So… all of it?

The back cover copy, a brief description designed to titillate the reader into forking over good money. Everyone has read an awesome back cover, bought the book, then one thing doesn’t follow the other. Or, more egregiously, when the back cover gives away too much and you’re hoping for a bigger surprise, but there isn’t.

Back cover copy is an art unto itself. If an author can tell the entire story in two hundred words or less then why waste time reading one hundred thousand more? The back cover copy needs to introduce the main character, the main dilemma, the consequences and writing style while asking big questions only the full text can answer.

I’ve seen people reduced to jelly trying to write back cover copy. It’s hideous.

So to the last book on my list. I didn’t read the back cover, had no idea what it was about before I bought it and I’m so glad for it. It was a book club suggestion, democratically selected and, like most, I went quietly with the results. After all, I sort of trust these people and some were intrigued, even passionate, about this particular title.

When I got to reading it, I had doubts. It’s about group therapy for victims of brutal crime.

Nope.

But I continued because it went into monster hunting, then cannibalism, then vessels for demonic possession. Okay, this was the fun kind of brutal crime, fictional, not the kind that makes me hate my species.

There was one very sad moment, the darkest point in the book, but it also came as the turning point, and one so gripping that it fully earned a boisterous, “Oh shit!”

Stylistically, I would’ve gone in slightly different directions if I magically became the editor. Some parts didn’t seem as polished as possible, but overall this was a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read that I highly recommend.

This book didn’t come anywhere near the science fiction and fantasy theme of the book club. It’s closer to horror, though not quite crossing that threshold. I read the back cover afterward and wasn’t convinced, not compared to the story itself. And I would’ve vetoed it if I had read it during elections. But I have to say that going into this book without the slightest expectations delivered one of the greatest reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

While the back cover copy is there and volumes of reviews exist on every title, my advice is to take a recommendation without description from someone you sort of trust (like me) and dive headfirst into a book without preconceptions.

If you’ve had similar experiences, good or bad, please share in the comments section. And if you’re writer, feel free to share your approach to writing back cover copy.

Curious about this title?

Anonymous Book Review 4—Cage Match!

Two books, head to head. Both hard sci-fi. Both brilliantly written by super authors. Both nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Both explore the reaches of human expansion. Neither written for the casual reader. Get out your dictionaries, folks, and settle in for ring side seats to a no-holds-barred, cage match main event!

In this corner, book 1 weighing in at 640 pages, written out of California… Crusher!

And in this corner, book 2 weighing in at 470 pages of fine print, hailing from Great Britain… Bruiser!

Boxing Photo

Crusher: Drawn from an author with a Ph.D. in English, this is a sweeping scenic masterpiece set in a fully realized solar system completely colonized by humans. He’s meticulously detailed the nuances of various terraforming techniques, taking into account the unique circumstances around the inner planets, outer planets and multitudes of asteroids. And then the full descriptions of the hollowed out asteroids, each one simulating an individual biome of Earth as safe deposits for endangered animals, was nothing less than stunning. Stunning over and over again for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Bruiser: This one, written by a mathematician with a Ph.D. in aeroengineering follows a washed out astronaut billionaire who funds his own venture into space to mine the asteroids and colonize the universe. Bruiser’s characters are all quick with math and the numbers move the story. This book was fast paced and all over the place. All the info dumps you could ever want with plenty of math, physics and philosophy behind it all. The info dumps generally lasted a paragraph or so inserted into dialogue with obvious take aways. I absolutely loved them, but then I like math, too. A decent working knowledge of scientific notation is required to contemplate the scales and expanses discussed in this novel, so I can see why it didn’t review so well on Goodreads.

Crusher: I found the main plot… flimsy. Almost as though the author invented his vision of the solar system then contrived a reason for a character to fly around and reveal the marvels of his imagination. Was so-and-so’s death natural or murder? Oh, yes, I guess it was natural—540 pages later. Cliché political turmoil—bad Earthlings wallowing in misery while space people have solved all problems. And every other plot and subplot detail had similar outcomes. Unfortunately I can’t even say the flimsy plot carried though the book. It disappeared for several hundred pages, replaced with more description and a benevolent revolution force down from above that had no consequences on anything.

Bruiser: This book had a well defined plot, ambitious and glorious. To spread humanity throughout the galaxy so that the species may survive into infinity. The main character drives his mission forward by bucking the system and building his rocket from leftover NASA technology. Later it’s revealed that he’s suffering from cancer, has no children, yet still wishes to leave behind a legacy. Despite the heavy subject matter, the author keeps the tone light. But the main character is shown that, despite his best efforts, humanity will eventually go extinct when the very protons of existence decay to nothing. In a subplot, mysteriously genius children gather to build secret devices to change the nature of nature… on a universal scale, one that could spawn a billion billion new intelligent species, but the cost for such ambition is the human race with the only solace that one day, hundreds of billions of years out, one of those species might become smart enough to put the pieces together. Whoa!!

Crusher: Effectively the main character did nothing. She (ostensibly for pronoun purposes) drifted back and forth, interacted with the various environments and showed the reader this solar system though her eyes, but that was it. As far as the plot, one character that got very little time on the page moved the plot along the most. The main character came along simply because she was the granddaughter of the original victim. She wasn’t pleasant, carried a cynical mood and seemed bored with her own existence. In discussions it was suggested the character was a commentary on living an unnaturally long life without needs. What would you become if you didn’t have to work and lived for 200 years or more? Very interesting concept, but nothing spoke to that topic and a resolution never offered. That left a miserable character. At one point she threatened to scream if she didn’t get her way. She betrays her friends and reveals a secret to her quantum computer on a whim who then talks to another one who comes up with the details of a plot in progress and the solution. When the main character decides to act on the solution the other quantum computer already alerted the appropriate authorities. At the end her only character arc came as she goes against her previous declarations and gets married. Oh, and she’s flexible which made her good in bed. I’ve got to say, this author wrote a weak gynandromorphic character.

Bruiser: Dashing, rich, astronaut, who wouldn’t want to be this character? Except for the cancer, but everything else seems fun. He flies by the seat of his pants in all situations, never giving in, extending his opportunity until something comes up. He makes snap decisions and lives with the consequences, even stealing uranium from Scotland, throwing a fictional U.S. Senator out the door and blasting into space while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is coming to arrest him and a psychopath is shooting at his ship. Sure the character is a trope, but it’s more fun than following a mope. One issue I had was in the beginning the main character followed the math, physics and philosophy while his ex-wife is the ignorant foil who needs explanation, though, she too, is quick with the math. At the end, after she dies and everything is being explained, he becomes the dullard who continuously asks for simpler explanations. I understand it had to be written that way if the author wanted to reach a greater audience than Ph.D. candidates in astrophysics, but the change in character was a little annoying.

Crusher: After the main plot disappeared and the author got elbows deep in a preachy tangent that encompassed three years of book time, the actual writing turned bad. I mean really bad. The author intruded on the story the entire time and everything, even the action scenes, were written very passively, but a one hundred page section must’ve been skipped by his editor. Cause and effect all wrong, repeated clauses, explanations of narration, purposeless exposition, rambling paragraphs that went nowhere, huge sections devoted to random incidences that had zero bearing on the plot. Oh, look, she’s disobeying for a good cause. What? Her grandmother’s death is still suspect, the person who killed thousands of people, destroyed an entire city and tried to murder millions more is still at large? Go play with the animals while we all wait.

Bruiser: It had a soggy middle bogged down in technobabble. The main character and his ex-wife are plunging themselves farther and farther into the infinite number of universes which proves to him that no intelligent life exists anywhere but Earth and illustrates the Big Bang, the Big Crunch and numerous other bizarre universes in various stages of development. It was a chance for the author to take his audience on a trip though grad-student level thought experiments. I found it long and tedious, but at least it served the plot.

Crusher: The entire book is predicated on a date. All the annoying extracts make this date seem important. The time line is working to this date and then… nothing happens. The supposed plot’s conclusion relies on one person’s weak evidence and a look, a knowing look, the main character received several years earlier. Sure the main character got the guy the job who witnessed the evidence, but that was coincidence. Case closed, we got the bad guys. Even the epilogue says nothing happened on or around that date. There was no point to the entire story. Everybody lived mopily ever after. He’s telling the story of a privileged, yet unremarkable person experiencing frustration and futility. The author set out to write in this fashion specifically to defy the common expectations of readers.

Bruiser: A time line also drives this story, but everybody dies in the end. I mean everybody. Earth is obliterated and humanity blasted extinct. The main character and his ex-wife even die twice. Actually the entire universe collapses into a nearly perfect vacuum. The entire time I was pulling for a happy ending, but the stakes were too high and it defied my expectations. But there was a reason, a conclusion with a purpose, and so I can accept the dreary end.

Both books taxed my vocabulary. Bruiser with sciency terms. Crusher with obscure words and references. I’m familiar with the sciency words and in my opinion they fit, they were genuine. Now, I like a robust vocabulary in a book, but some of the word choices in Crusher seemed eccentric. He used the name of a 1960s performance artist as a verb and then never showed a mutilating act of art. It seems he threw the name in to prove he knew who the real artist is. And now, the pet peeve—“Sure, why not?” used twice in the narrative and about three times in dialogue. All the rest of the author intrusion was bad enough, but to shrug at his readers and offer, “sure, why not?” as an explanation to a part of his story in the narrative I found contemptuous. The bland and mopy characters, the thin, disjointed plot, the pretentious vocabulary, the over description, the narcissistic tangents and the endless name dropping I thought condescending, but those three little words revealed to me an author who doesn’t care for his audience.

I waited months to read both these book. I had no plan on reading them consecutively and had no idea how similar they were until I finished Crusher and got well into Bruiser. Scored on a ten point must system, let’s go to the cards!

Round 1 Scenery:                      Crusher=10                    Bruiser= 9

Round 2 Characters:                  Crusher= 8                     Bruiser=10

Round 3 Plot:                             Crusher= 8                     Bruiser=10

Round 4 Writing Style:              Crusher= 9                     Bruiser=10

Round 5 Cover Design:             Crusher=10                    Bruiser= 9

Round 6 Science:                       Crusher= 9                     Bruiser=10

And the winner by 58 to 54… Bruiser!!

While I loved so much of the detail in Crusher, this was never actually a contest. In Bruiser, genius children ride a nuclear explosion to the Moon! That was the knock out, right there.