Anonymous Book Review 18

What a unique story. This book was fun. Overall pace was good, characters likable, interesting plot. And it had big words. I like big words.

The scope was huge. Alternate history where a tiny colonial player had nullified the real life powers to retain authority over conquered lands. But that was pure setting and never elaborated upon.

Every aspect of the plot was bedded in dualities. This power against that. One religion against the other. The nature of free will versus slavery with a fair amount of contemplation on both. That part imposed an amazing duality on a single character. A Catholic priest secretly advocating freedom for robotic slaves, pushed to horrendous actions by his religious convictions, yet arguing free will. Then captured and implanted with a spell to force his actions through pain inducing compulsion while pleading that he no longer had free will. That flip I found so cool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy favorite duality throughout the book—alchemy versus chemistry. Yep. In this world they both exist and they’re employed by opposing forces for war. Magic clockwork robots built to slaughter can only be stopped by glue bombs with both sides engaged in an arms race to limit the other’s advantage. Yet another one of those “nailed it” parts of the story.

Now to the alchemically enhanced nuts and bolts of the story.

This was a good sized book. Four hundred and forty pages. Three point of view characters need a lot of space to work. The author wrote so floridly at the beginning, sprinkling in similes by the handful, that the story took a few chapters to get going. Not that there wasn’t a catchy hook and a compelling scene, but it all felt bogged down in the beauty of the world. Those big words that I love so much? Yeah, they became noticeable and to be honest I don’t feel good about pointing that out. Words need to be written and used, but a story isn’t about the words.

I thought this was a tremendous first novel. A bunch of subtle flags gave me that impression and after a meeting of the minds, I wasn’t the only one. Though the author actually has several other titles. Yes, the wordiness threw the first of those flags as though the industry hadn’t yet beaten the love of words out of him. Aspects of the narrative, too, waved another flag. Written in third person close perspective in the past tense (my favorite narrative form), the narrative itself had very strong opinions. The narrative used pejoratives for the opposing characters, even cussing about plot twists it had just informed me of. Yes, I understand the close perspective is interpreting the thoughts and feelings of the POV characters, but this almost treaded into a first person view that made me think it was edited from such. I found several typos, though none to suggest the perspective was actually changed, but taken together, they layered in the feel of a debut novel.

Throughout, this book was very visual. While that added to its all around goodness there was a lot of details paid to bodily functions. Including observations drawing lines to the many qualities of vomit. I could’ve done without. A little glossing over or hand waving would’ve been great for that and a few others seriously taxing sections.

Pacing…. If you read my previous post you’ll know how I like a well paced book. The hair is split with this one. Pacing in the big picture—Hit. Pacing through action scenes—Miss. Overall there wasn’t one throw-away scene, except, perhaps the gratuitous sex scene. Again, a hand wave could’ve done, but even that scene built tension that carried through the book. Things moved fast. I couldn’t tell what would happen from one scene to the next and even when I had an idea, the scene got there faster with consequences greater than I had expected. This is where the author showed his well seasoned writer chops. I liked it and it kept me reading.

The other part… this author is so descriptive he can put you where he wants. The down side to that is during tense, high impact scenes that need to flow really fast he describes the beauty around his characters. This ruined the pacing of many, many scenes. At one point his character even paused to acknowledge how funny it is that it should be observing beauty while in a race for its life from some impressively scary things. NO! I might be able to relate, (High school football, face down under a pile of animals, pondering the blades of grass poking through my facemask), but it sucked all the tension out of the scene and diminished my level of caring. (Coincidently, I wasn’t the best player, either.) This also led me to assume it was a first novel. But it’s not. He has a bunch. Sure, I turned out the light and went to bed during these parts, even cursed a little in frustration, but the story was still worth reading.

Okay, the finale. I kind of knew that this book began a series. I kind of figured there’d be a question leading into the next. And when every story line concluded with a cliff hanger I shrugged, a little crestfallen at such an open end. I would’ve preferred at least a semblance of resolution. Meh. Internet says the guy is friends with George R. R. Martin, so he gets a pass on conclusions. The part that put me over, the one scene that utterly, unequivocally disappointed, the one devise I’ve known about, yet never reacted to so strongly—? The knock-out scene. Right at the end. Right where an explanation was needed most.

A little exposition. Knock-out scenes; when the hero is in a dire situation, when tension is at its peak and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. The hero is knocked unconscious, then miraculously awakens in safety where the events of the rescue are recounted by another character. The hero survives through no fault of their own. It’s anticlimactic. Often a wave of the hand to speed along a difficult scene. I’ve even heard it called lazy writing. Personally I don’t mind if they come early in a story, they can set a tone or send a message, but this one….

Character has fought its way to the heart of the evil empire, battled enemies beyond its class. Its free falling into the center of an alchemical inferno surrounded by vats of acid with massive metal rings collapsing all around while the castle crumbles! It blinked off just before certain death. Next scene… the character wakes up safe. A nameless helper switches it on and says it was luckily buried in a gap when everything else in the chamber was incinerated and crushed. The few other survivors were found around the outskirts of the castle.

Great character. I’m glad it survived, but why did I have to read about so much vomit instead of how it managed to escape, other than knocking itself out. I would’ve preferred this character to die accepting some kind of metaphysical conciliation to living like that. It just didn’t fulfill my expectations.

Breathe….

It’s not until I looked into the structure that I saw things that robbed the tension and allowed me to take breaks during action scenes. And those are extremely picky reasons to disparage an otherwise great work of fiction. The unique alternate history, the perpetual dualities, the themes of free will and slavery, the beautiful description, the well drawn characters, all of it made such a fantastic book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It is one that I’ll wholeheartedly recommend.

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 16

A masterpiece. The pacing, the characters, and in this case, the writing itself, all fell into the right seams. This book is the second in a trilogy and it thoroughly defied my expectations.

How’s that?

I’m not a fan of space station stories—DEFIED!

I’m not a fan of third person omniscient points of view—DEFIED! Sort of.

I get bored with long winded social messages—DEFIED!

Infallible captains are tiresome—DEFIED!

In general I haven’t enjoyed space station stories because it’s usually a ship that goes nowhere. All kinds of deceit and intrigue takes place among species whose dominant character traits resemble somethingAstronaut Pic human. Good, bad, caring, loving, militaristic, and then these traits come into conflict with only the station administrator or a good natured captain to mediate the tension. The problem is there’s never a good enough motivation to keep everyone playing the game fairly. Why not send troops to expel the ne’er-do-wells?

With this book the station stayed near a planet in a well traveled solar system. There were other ships, important ships, moving about. It was big with an organic environment that supported the inhabitants. And it was old. Generations of people, an entire subculture, grew and lived within the dilapidated portions of the station developing their own adaptations to an impoverished life. It added more depth to the space station than some structure drifting about. It had a reason to exit above good will to all.

The social message played into the story fairly quickly with the infallible captain immediately finding a cause for the poor. Take that imperialists. The B plot played out as the justice minded captain made enemies of the privileged who sought to destroy the interloper, opening up a reason to find the culprit, talk to the down trodden and reveal improprieties leading back to the A plot. This one quietly built a narrative that let me take a look at real life from another perspective using thinly veiled allegory. I love when that happens.

Only one alien made an appearance in this book. Its species feared by humans, the individual’s presence leading to suspicions within the A-plot, it had an unsettling way of subverting all human and AI security. And with a very funny disposition that added levity to an otherwise somber tone, it died within two pages of its introduction. That took the infallible captain to the planet’s surface where the B plot got going rounding out the rest of the book.

I sure hope the aliens return to destroy humanity if they’re this funny when they do it.

I can’t discuss why I liked this infallible captain without discussing the most crucial part of this author’s writing technique. The story is written in the first person, but the main character is plugged in (wirelessly, of course) to the surrounding artificial intelligences, a battle ship, a lesser war ship and the space station. Then all the ships’ crews and important people on the station were enhanced so the AIs could read thoughts and emotions while being able to see everything everyone did continuously with very few blind spots. Here’s the beauty of this book’s style. While written in the first person, the main character was able to narrate every action and emotion from all the characters in an omniscient style without ever breaking the first person POV. The scene switches were important, concise and always felt close. It was an omniscient view from a close perspective that worked amazingly well for me.

Now to the infallible captain. Everyone’s read a piece of sci-fi where the captain is perfectly confident in words and actions and never lets the crew down. Tough, but fair. To a great extent this is very much the same, however, this captain, acting upon authority vested by the tyrant emperor over the entire military apparatus, carries several secrets. Its origin, the truth about a very quiet civil war and the nature of its mission. With that kind of baggage every choice and decision, weighed in terms of secrecy and loyalty to unreadable factions, added tension and consequence throughout the book. Not a choice of this or that with only thin margins for success lesser men may not see, but conundrums that lead to greater conundrums always searching for missing pieces to the wider plot. The infallible captain moved the story forward, but not on orders for the sake of orders. With the pieces unfolding wider dangers hid just out of sight, dangers that threatened the whole of an empire this captain served, yet didn’t entirely agree with.

This may give the book away, but I don’t care. The author chose an interesting form of social order. Yes, imperialistic, yes, feudal, but even a step further. I can’t call it a matriarchy because lineage isn’t discussed in detail. Nearly all of the pronouns are feminine. Everyone is a she and a sister. My grasp of the pronouns was better this time than from the first book so I didn’t spend much energy thinking it through. At one point, in a less civilized community one girl had a brother, but the brother was later called a sister and referred to in terms of she. Interesting. So binary genders exist in this world, yet there was never any distinct gender identifying descriptions, or actions for any character throughout. Even though sexual propriety was discussed in some fair length, orientation never mattered which flowed into a greater theme that for the story narrative gender itself never mattered. From my writers perspective gender has always defined the who, as in the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a story.

While the technique was interesting as an experiment to see if distinct binary pronouns are necessary to tell a good story, the overall effect did something every sci-fi story needs. It removed the reader from the real world, yet not so much as to make it unidentifiable. Naturally English readers can take comfort in the familiar pronoun she. Okay, grounded in the humanness, dealing with people similar to me. You know, human. But now that everyone is a she there’s something different. The culture is different and within the difference anything can happen. This notion of differentness allows for FTL travel, loving AI, and comedic domineering aliens. Sure, all of those have happened hundreds of times over without the gender ambiguity, but with the indistinct pronouns holding a question in the back of one’s mind, the reader is never permitted, not even for a sentence, to slip into the familiar world they inhabit. And the greatest accomplishment, the reader is never pushed into a world so foreign as to be uninteresting or boring. It’s a keen balancing act from a skilled and bold writer.

Huhhhh…. I’m out of breath. I’ve already got the last book and can’t wait till this post is finished so I can start reading. If anyone wants to know the name of the book and author leave me a message. It’s taking all my strength not to shout the names simply to preserve the theme of these book reviews.

 

Anonymous Book Review 14: The Book That Was Almost Perfect.

I’ve been wanting to read a police procedural for a while and this science fiction entry was a perfect fit. In that regard, this book did not disappoint. Elements of the premise are taken from the scariest pandemics to hit the planet, the sciency technology was cool and the Earth wasn’t besieged by some contrived man made apocalypse. All plusses.

There were quite a few pleasant set-ups and pay-offs throughout. And the end was satisfying. Now that the characters are established, I see where this can become a long running series. Actually heard a rumor that the second book is in the works. But I thought it could also stand on it’s own. The author did a good job making everything big. The protagonist works hard despite a larger than life reputation. The antagonist is planning to corner a global market at innocent people’s expense. The partner has real and destructive problems that play right into the plot.

Structurally this is a great book. As it should be. The author is a Hugo award winner along with a slew of other acclaims. In many ways this, in my humble opinion, is a good example of how to write a novel.

However….

My internal editor senses started tingling almost immediately. And not in the creepy good way that secretly begs more. What struck me strange was a consistent use of a same word within one or two sentences. Not unique or scenic words. Not words for repetitive effect. Just plain words like, before. The repetition affected my reading experience in a way that I didn’t expect. It probably would’ve been ignored if not for the tingly editor senses that have ruined most literature for me. These repetitions made me wonder if I had skipped something. Like, read the same sentence twice or missed an entire paragraph. I’ve gotten so used to varying word choices, both in my writing and from popular fiction that I noticed the repeated words.

I talked with one person, a fellow writer, and the repeated words didn’t bother him in the least. I talked to a panel of readers who hadn’t noticed, then chalked it up to the author’s own admission that he writes for popular markets and that he probably wrote to popular market reading levels. This makes big assumptions. One: that the author has a good enough command of the language to dumb it down. Two: that the author has a good enough grasp on popular expectations to write sloppy sentences on purpose. I don’t buy either of these.

Now I hate to give the impression that I didn’t like the story because of technical issues with the writing. This isn’t the case and I probably should say it more. I liked the story.

With that said, let’s go to everyone’s favorite segment—Politics.

Politics matters and you’re either with them or against them. Every human in the known universe holds a position on something. There’s no avoiding, so it’s entirely possible that a writer’s opinion or outlook will get into their story.

This is fine. Who could expect different?

The beautiful thing about long form fiction is the ability to craft a narrative over the course of hundreds of pages to come to satisfying conclusions. Not only does this include the hero’s journey, but the moralistic arc as well. Into which politics falls. I’ve read stories where I didn’t agree with the writer’s position at first, but over the course of the story, elements were introduced, choices faced and decision made that guided my personal beliefs into a softer, more understanding stance. I was shown new perspectives that I appreciated and incorporated into my life narrative. As a writer this is the lasting impression I hope to achieve if ever a personal political opinion sneaks into my stories. The art demands no less.

Unfortunately, this story did not live up to the demands I’ve unilaterally placed on the art. This author is fairly well known for his politics. I knew that going in and didn’t mind a bit. About two thirds of the way through I noticed a very… what’s a word like naïve, but not naïve because I know this author is well versed, yet something was missing, not to balance a personal position so much as to acknowledge a contrasting experience…. What is the word? Ahh. Wishful! Yeah, a very wishful approach to a political issue in the book with many sticky real life analogies. At which point much of the panel discussion dissolved into modern politics with one person inartfully supporting one side and another person declaring half of the United States’ population a scornful and mostly untrue name.

Come on people. Get back to the book. We are all sci-fi.

Again, I liked the story.

Okay, how do you feel about popular culture references? Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Me, too. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t. This near future scenario had a Star Wars reference define the accepted name for a major component of the story. While I liked the name, I had trouble with aThreep quick reference becoming pervasive. And the derogatory term for these components was a shortened version from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. That was never mentioned in the book.

Overall this book did a lot right. I like to learn from those that have gone before me and studying established writers helps me discover what works and what doesn’t, particularly for my style. While the sci-fi was cool, the plot was interesting and the characters were deep enough, my suspicion is that this book was rushed. The pop culture references put instant pictures in the reader’s head, but it seemed too easy, almost a cheat, since the references didn’t have bearing on plot or character development. The politics, while well thought out and integral, could’ve used more depth, more insight into why or why not. And the repeated words are one of those things a couple more passes by the author or editor would’ve caught.

Or, perhaps the author is popular enough not to worry about those little flaws. I’m or there yet. Maybe one day, but until then I’m going to read and pick out the details I like and don’t like from as many books as I can cram into my tiny brain.

Anonymous Book Review 9: Brilliant but Sloppy

Ahhh…. The realms of computer programming and the occult. Two oceans of which I have seen but drops. A couple beers with a few Wickens at midnight and fancy a dalliance in mysterious ways. Hit F12 at start-up and pretend to be a computer hacker.

This latest review follows a twenty something computer programmer who comes too close to opening a gateway to unspeakable evil and is thus coerced to working for the good guys in a secret bureaucracy. Fun. Seriously, this was fun.

Computer hacking? Check.

Occult magic? Check.

Obscure math and physics references? Check.

History’s greatest villains to detest once again? Check.

Copious pop culture references? Check.

Oh, did I mention all this is packed into 235 pages? This book had just about everything I could want in an story.

C and H 2Unfortunately, I had peculiar problems with this story. The main character was supposed to be a disheveled, slacker computer programmer cliché on one hand, then a super intelligent problem solver connecting the dots between machines, computers, mathematics, occult and history on the other. He was too much of everything. Too much of a slacker to change his clothes. Too quick with mathematic principles. Too smart about history. Too comfortable with occult practices without any acknowledgement of an educational background. At one point PhD lady-in-distress mentions a little about her secretive research and instantly the slacker recognizes all the ramifications, which in turn never plays out. She was simply the love interest he felt compelled to rescue. I really wanted some aspect of her research to affect the story’s outcome.

And then there was the knock-out scene. The situation is dire, blood-thirsty murderers have the lady, the main character makes a desperate phone call, bad guys are coming around the corner, then he wakes up in the next chapter with a headache, but otherwise safe and sound at home… on another continent. Crisis averted. Awesome action sequence avoided. That’s just bad writing.

There seemed to be details of amazing things glossed over until needed. A general overview of the magic system was C and Hdiscussed briefly without specifics. This became a scosh confusing when magic and technology intertwined, though there may have been an issue between my awesome F12 ability compared to the full programmer vocabulary used. I couldn’t tell what was real and what was fictional and it became distracting. I read it closely, but still felt like I missed something. I think the Author could’ve used fewer terms and define them clearer in context, or given a short dissertation. Something to differentiated the dominant system.

I must’ve skipped the history class necessary to follow the semi-antagonists. A little more exposition for us readers not intimately familiar with the specific interests of particular Nazi SS groups would’ve been helpful.

This story, written in the first person present tense, was made for popular culture references. Most of which I got. Pop culture references are fun and bring a real world feel to a story, though I thought the references often got in the way during narration.

One particular scene at the end made me reflect and conclude that much of this book was inserted afterthoughts instead of a cleverly crafted story. The main character’s two flat-mates, cliché nerds so absorbed in esoteric experimentation that they’d absentmindedly blow up their building, were dressed in leather and chains headed for the gay pride parade without the slightest hint or allusion that they were even in a relationship. The change was abrupt and out of the characters the Author had drawn over the previous 233 pages. That final scene along with the obligatory PSA could’ve been handled so much better. There was no point in leaving that scene for the last few pages. It could’ve added texture to the story if it came up early, instead it distracted from the proper ending.

No doubt about it, this was a fun story from an Author who knows how to write a world of his interests. I’ll read more by this fellow, but I think this book could’ve gone easily from pretty good to great with a few explanations moved forward and a main character with some flaw worse than mere shoddy hygiene. He should’ve had to work a little harder for the answers and relied on the specialties of his friends to a greater extent than drawing one day-saving analogy from a random experiment. Really the ancillary characters only existed for quirkiness.C and H 3

I could go on, but the brilliant book exasperated me in its sloppiness.

Read a story lately where characters fell flat in their perfection? Or luck saved the day, every day until all peril is routine? Share with a comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts on characterization.