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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I’m a Fan.

I’m a fan first and foremost. A consumer of art for the sake of entertainment. Movies, television, video games, novels, comic books, music, along with classical forms. Not only do I consume, but I also like to create—strum a guitar, sketch a portrait, write a book.

I’ve always carried subtle threads of inspiration. Mostly I wanted to recreate the greatest stories ever told. You know, share my absolutist opinion on entertainment with the entire world. But I didn’t have the nerve.

And then it happened. Sequels and prequels to a couple of my favorite stories came out at roughly the same time. One was easy to see, the other I trekked a ludicrous adventure to attend. But both disappointed. Last time I ever exclaim, “This is going to be great!” again.

The writers of these movies hurt me personally. What were they thinking? Why the hell did they do this or that?

In my bitter despond, I protested the only way I could. I bought one copy of the DVDs. Yes, I still bought them, after all, like the first sentence says, I’m a fan.

During the weeks that followed, grumbling, proclaiming with utmost authority what should or should not have been done, a tiny thought grew. Like a golden dandelion in a perfectly watered lawn, this thought sprouted, bloomed among millions of blades of wild declarations, always growing, never to be mowed away because this tiny thought was truth.

One day in the midst of a well practiced rant, I picked the dandelion. I spoke the truth, “How can I complain about someone else’s work if I’ve never made anything myself?”

The next day I began writing my first ever piece of fiction. Which, upon critical review, read like microwave instructions translated from the blender instructions. But it was mine.

I’ve always said that I was driven to writing out of revenge. It earns a chuckle. Now I’m a dedicated writer with a couple published short stories and goals far and away grander than revenge.

But I’m still a fan.

Enter fandom disappointment round two.

Big budget, decent actors, but the constraints of a motion picture forced a convoluted plot to move too fast. Granted the movie wasn’t made for me as much as a modern version of the original demographic I once belonged to. But still… disappointed.

Revenge’s gelid tendrils clutched my writer’s heart once more. Pencil to paper, fingers to keys. Spread the time, develop motivations, hew breathing characters from the primordial canon. Give justice to my love.

Fanfic is born.

Writer friends scoff, ask why I’d write something I cannot be paid for.

Prominent authors say don’t write fanfic, that it’s a waste of time.

But I’m filling a hole other writers have left. I’m expressing an ultimate display of fandom.

I’ll post my work so like-minded people might enjoy. And I’ll do this for free… unless the legal copy write owners would like to speak with me about future writing projects. Contact me. I’m open to conversation. Or if The Powers That Be intend to sue me we can talk about that too without litigation.

Besides, how many writing instructors ape the claim that you must write a million words before you get good? If that’s the case why not make glorious pieces of fanfic part of that million? Why stop there? Why not improve on something you love?

I have now written four stories in this particular universe. I stayed quiet for a long time, embarrassed of the connotations. Then I read this article on fan fiction. So many positive examples of the transformative qualities to this spontaneous wave. Sure, there’s bad writing, and lots of it, but it’s free expression, a gathering place for abstract ideas and concerns too often overlooked in the profit-driven narratives of life.

Fans of the television show Once Upon A Time are wholeheartedly enjoying a phenomenal piece of fanfic.

The director J. J. Abrams re-imagined Star Trek TOS, then gets Star Wars!!!! Ultimate fanfic dream come true.

I doubt I’ll ever have a hand in my favorite movies. Or play lead guitar for my favorite bands. But the one thing within my control is to write beloved characters into a story of my own precious creation.

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.

Favorite Bookstores

I’ve found my new favorite comic bookstore, which got me thinking about book stores in general. A new indie bookstore made my list a few months ago and an old classic I haven’t given much thought to has now earned its own spot.

The Downtown Bookstore is a used bookstore that has been in Riverside for generations. It used to be the creepy dark place at the end of a narrow alley that smelled of aged paper and dust with sagging wooden shelves and creaky floors. The basement really was the backdrop of fantasy novels where unsuspecting kids find a mystic tome that begins all their surreal adventures. City codes have closed the basement to customers and the place has cleaned up quite a bit in recent years. Great books still line the stacks and original are decorates the walls, but the bookstore has lost the creepiness.

My new favorite indie bookstore, The Cellar Door, has a friendly coffee klatch feel. Not the volume of books to peruse that I liked from my old favorite, but that place is too far away. Eighty miles too far! They also host several book clubs and writers groups. Unfortunately the writers groups are all memoir, but the book club I’ve joined is sci-fi and fantasy. Perfect. There’s even a big old dog that makes rounds for attention once in a while.

Now for the latest discovery—the comic bookstore, aptly named, Affordable Cards and Comics. I’d visited the place about a year ago, but haven’t been back until last week. Now this place might not be the greatest, but after a few unnerving experiences it has earned its top rank. It’s clean and bright. There’s a fairly good selection of the simple things I’m interested in. The owner is friendly and knowledgeable. And, as the name suggests, the prices are reasonable.

For practical purposes B&N will get as much of my money as any of these places and ordering on Amazon is often the easiest way to get what I’m looking for fast. For physical books it’s nice to have those in my back pocket, but given the choice I’m always going to support my favorite local bookstores.

What are your favorite bookstore?