Anonymous Book Review 17

What an amazing book series. This installment covers the third of a trilogy, the first two of which stunned and the last didn’t fail. The author wrote something special and I hope there will be more to this universein the future. Preferably from the unstoppable aliens’ perspective. They were funny.

As I approached the end, when the situation looked bleakest, I tried guessing where the story would go. I suspect that’s for my own comfort because the tension was so high that I wanted to imagine a victorious conclusion. The scene was set for outright devastation, odds were impossible and the main character’s only option was to give herself up to buy everyone else a little more time.

I thought of two fairly obvious ends. The main character should prevail (I’m taking comfort in the structural form of the narrative itself), but that would only solve a part of a problem which could only be resolved with more books, though I haven’t heard rumors of any more. Or the main character might die, which would have to be handled extremely well for the ending not to suck. The author is talented enough to pull that off.

Neither of those options occurred.

The pace of this book was incredible. I couldn’t tell where the end was going. In fact, at no point in the series could I tell where the next scene was headed. And not because a lot of stuff happened fast. Actually the opposite. People interacted, ships flew, aliens quibbled and the action scenes lasted only a few paragraphs, but the story moved.

This is the stroke of a master. The author stayed at least one step ahead of the reader. Granted, I’m not a very savvy reader. No decision made was apparent to me, yet every turn of this story made perfect sense. Even the end (which lacked the devastation I was hoping for) was set up in book two.

Everyone has read a book, acclaimed books, too, that drag. Where there’s never a surprise. The plot is good, the characters are likeable, action making or love scenes are handled well, but it’s an otherwise bore.

Enter pacing.

Listening to children is tedious, not because their lives are dull, but because they don’t know how to tell Child reading to elephantstories.

Enter pacing.

Radio talk show banter sounds natural until a caller tries to tell their tale.

Enter pacing.

When your coworker describes at length how his bombastic presidential candidate is better than your bombastic presidential candidate.

Enter, well… that’s just obnoxiousness.

See? That unnecessary scrap of information bogged down the pace, slowed the flow and let a reader’s mind wonder to topics outside the page in front of their face.

I once listened to a highly acclaimed author talk for a while. Audience members had asked if he was going to make a third book to the two he’d all ready released. The first was a stand alone, the second was written under popular pressure. The author revealed that he intends to write a third, that it’ll take place a few years after the others when the main character and his girlfriend are adults. Okay, none of that really intrigued me until he mentioned that the story following these adults would be written in a YA style. When asked about that he explained that word choice and pacing make the YA more so than the character’s age.

Pacing, again. There is too much to pacing, word choice, sentence length, talk styles in dialog, all of it to build the proper feeling for the right moment. But the idea to anticipate and stay ahead of a reader’s expectations delivers a surprise with every scene.

I like fast paced books and even though these books moved slow as far a locations they moved quickly in the interactions between people. And interactions make the story. Loyalties, motivations and tension move the story forward. The greater of all three, the faster the story will progress. Or slower, if the authors purpose is producing long, involved works. In this case it moved fast. Which led to the subplot which wound back to become the justification for the resolution I didn’t see coming until the very end.

I had an impression of an end I would’ve like, though that required several more books, and the pace of those books would have to change. To be honest, if I magically got my way I don’t think they’d change for the better.

The next time you find yourself either enjoying a book or bogged down and bored, take a moment to analyze the pacing. Do you know what’s coming, or is the next scene a mystery that keeps you reading?

 

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Anonymous Book Review 12: The first book I quit.

I’ve quit my first book. That’s right, quit it. Put it down and moved on. I’m glad I didn’t list it on Goodreads. I don’t want to face scorn from the fanatical community who loves this book and the seemingly endless sequels. See, this book is legend. It’s sacrosanct. Hallowed text. My bookstore lady guaranteed (in spirit, not refunds) that I would love it.

But I didn’t. And I pissed-off a friend.

Okay. A few things took me out of the story. First was the POV. Third person omniscient. It was done well. I always knew who thought what, but I could never make a connection with a single character. This book is some fifty years old, written in an earlier time, before hyper-critical (ahem) MFAs ruined literature. (Ahem.) I needed something different than the style of the bygone time.

Second, the pace had me yawning. This anonymous book is big. The author took his time developing the characters and

Question: What does the author and lice have in common? Answer: They both hop between heads.

Question: What does the author and lice have in common?
Answer: They both hop between heads.

plot. Fifty pages, ten percent of the book, not enough to adequately judge the rest of the story, but it was all politics. Tedious politics, not fun or scary or spellbinding. Page over page of speculation and preparation. MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN!!!

Sorry. I lost my comportment.

Where was I…

Yes, third, which had more to do with my expectations than the book itself, was that the plot read like a fantasy novel. I love a good fantasy novel when I’m in the mood for one, but this genre defining sci-fi book started with a feudal hierarchy where a sorceress administered a magic test to see if the main character is “The Chosen One,” or some such. Then this lesser noble family is supposed to—

I’ll stop there to preserve a thread of anonymity.

Yeah, I wasn’t ready for that kind of a book.

From a writer’s perspective the POV stood out most. In third person omniscient justification for choices come abruptly, or the back story (as little as a sentence or two) was fed into spots at exactly the right time. The effect was removing tension from the scene. When two people are glaring at each other, daring the other to flinch, I don’t want an explanation why character bad-guy made her choice, then hopping into good-guy’s head to listen to her reasoning. Set up the conflict with solid, distinct POVs and let the consequences follow smoothly.

Speaking of consequences—there’s my pissed-off friend. I had recently critiqued his novel and I think I now know the problem. His story was really good, but the POV and pacing were my biggest issues, issues my writer friend was unreasonably skeptical to accept. It is, after all, only my opinion, but my critique was totally wrong.

I had known that this anonymous book and its many sequels was one of his all-time favorites. Of course, it’s everybody’s favorite, right? But when I read this first part everything made sense. My friend’s writing style matched the style of this book. My critique wasn’t mere comments on his hard work, but comments inadvertently against his favorite fiction, against his childhood fantasies.

Damn. Well, what’s said is said.

So I paid retail price for the massive paperback. I own it and expect someday to pick it up again, but that probably won’t be for a while.

Have you ever disliked and disregarded a book that was supposed to be spectacular? Share your story because you’re not alone.

Oh, and one last thing. Thank you MFAs for insisting on distinct POVs. Readers do come closer to main characters this way. Maybe you haven’t ruined literature after all.

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.

The story that got away from me—word count and expectations.

            Is it supposed to be a short story? Around five to ten thousand words qualifies and I don’t mind a little embellishment so, yes, 10,000 sounds like a reasonable limit, right?

            Right, well, short story number one of my forced novel writing-editing sabbatical came in at 4,000 words. It simmered for a while so the outline came easily and the note cards worked great. Still needs work, but not too shabby. Expand some details, clarify some tricky spots, I don’t expect more than 5000 words tops. A true short story, but this one is not at the heart of the problem.

            Story number two of the tedious hiatus is composed of 6,700 words. A tale that spans the entire solar system wrapped up in a tidy package and after a little love, I’ll send it to appropriate short story outlets. Because, while long by some standards, it falls within the general word count category of a short story.

            At this point I’m feeling good about the quality and quantity of material being produced on this tiresome holiday. Time to indulge the nerd and jump on a project I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s silly and spends my limited writing time in a direction that doesn’t foster a career, but like I said, I’ve decided to indulge during this summer’s doldrums.

            Character lists, bios, maps of story arc, points of conflict, and a love interest all set in a tumultuous near history with a fully developed protagonist and a cliffhanger at the end. Maybe not the best style for an ending, but this is number two of a four part short story collection I intend to publish on a fan fiction website.

            Told you it was nerdy.

            The story is moving along nicely. Actually, too nicely. It clocked in at 6000 words by the end of the first act.

            Hmmm. Troubling.

            I could end it there. Kind of a happy ending, hints at the overall arc, but it doesn’t properly describe what I want to say.

            Okay, time for damage control. I can salvage it. There are 4000 words left to work with. I’ll wrap up the other two acts and get to chopping in the first rounds of edits.

            Damn!!

            The second act came out larger than the first and the denouement promises to be longer still. This is truly a story that got away from me. At this rate I’ll have a 20,000 word novella that I’m trying to fit into a short story collection. It won’t work. Twenty thousand words is what I wanted all four stories to total. But this story deserves justice, it needs to be expressed and the inner nerd says more.

            So what can I do? What choice do I have? No short story anthology will take something this long. It would be difficult to publish because novella markets are scarce, besides, it’s a work of fan fiction. I could be sued if I tried to make money on it.

            That’s right! Its fan fic! On a free website without constraints or word counts.

            While not an acute concern, word count has always gnawed at the back of my mind, yet when it came to a boundless format, I decided on a short story and truly believed all would be lost if I missed the target. Strange how after a while even the blinders become invisible.

            I fretted a full day over what it was supposed to be and forgot to ask if the story that got away ever needed to be a short story to begin with.

            And to the answer. It’s not supposed to be short or long, it’s only supposed to be a story.