Tuesday, August 30, 2022

How High We Go in the Dark Sequoia Nagamatsu: Book Review

This was recommended to as literary sci-fi which also involves grief over a grown daughter's death. Indeed, the writing is pretty good. But the first POV seemed quite distant, and not too believable to me in how disconnected from his daughter's death the father seems, as well as angry at her for behaving exactly as he (apparently) had. Maybe that is realistic but it isn't fun to read.

But the second POV, about an amusement park where parents put their terminally-ill children on a rollercoaster to die, was one hundred times past believable. I can imagine wanting to save your child from suffering, but not being with them at the time is unthinkable. And roller coasters are scary: does the author think small children would enjoy them that much, especially when they know what is happening?


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan: Book Review


The writing was good, and the author does a great job keeping you  hooked in the story (eg. difficult to go to bed). I liked how the futuristic/dystopian nature leaked in; a refreshing change from the (stated) requirement that every story reveal it's genre in the first paragraph.  Several key scenes were not presented in scene but only afterwards; I'm not so sure this works as well from the stated wisdom to present the big happenings on the page, but it was a clear part of the style.

However, by the 20% mark, things were so bad, and clearly going to get so much worse, that I just couldn't put myself through it.  The worst for me was how the protagonist just ingests all the negativity about herself, and this definitely just gets worse. A strong character voice, but too depressing for me. I skipped to 95% and got to the twist at the end which was interestingly late for novel conventions but pleasantly somewhat hopeful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Artemis by Andy Weir: Book Review

I'd heard that this book's biggest failing was the author's attempt to write from a female perspective and yeah, that was pretty distracting. It's unbelievable to me that the author, and his editors, are not aware that women don't walk around thinking about how great their bodies are. (Note: even if someone thinks a woman has a great body, pretty much 99.9% chance that she just thinks of her flaws.) Also, a woman doesn't notice when her hair falls over the face of a man, this is so much what a man notices about woman and then tries to shove into her perspective. Add on to this to concept of 'sex for service' even if it is to be kind to a friend; it is not what I want my daughters to learn about the world!

This was all possible to brush off. My next hurdle was the paragraphs of scientific explanation. There are clear places where the author's voice comes through heavy to explain something that really isn't necessary. Since I'm writing a book based on the moon, in a similar time frame, I was very interested in what science issues I've missed, and the science itself, so it didn't bother me. On the occasions he manages to get the science into the story (like when she is welding for the first time out on the surface of the moon and discovers the need to add oxygen to the flint and steel sparks system) and then it is really cool. I'm sure many of his fans are only reading for these details, so it works in the genre. For me, I care more about the characters, and the attempts to shove in some emotional responses seemed heavy handed.

That said, I finished the thing, which puts it in the top 10% of books I've read lately...

Monday, August 15, 2022

Presenting at RMFW conference in September: The Heroine's Journey


Last year, at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's Conference in Denver, I took a master class from author Gail Carriger on the Heroine's Journey. Like many writers, I was familiar with the Hero's Journey as a skeleton to build my stories around--very many tools for plotting essentially use this as a base. And it isn't necessarily formulatic: Joseph Campbell developed the theory, and beats of the Journey, by analysizing existing myths. It basically is a distillation of a common story pattern that is found in many myths in the Greco-Roman/Egyption tradition. (Probably Norse, too.. care to chime in, Chuck?)

The Heroine's Journey is comparable, and apparently well-known in anthrolpological/classical circles (Gail Carriger's background).  I'd never heard of it before, and indeed its lack of appearance in writing advice is what motivated her to write a book (and give the class). So much clicked into place for me: how it just didn't seem to be working to get one of my protagonists to 'go it alone' at the climax of my current novel, and even realizing that the other protagonist is trying to be a Hero in a society that values the strengths of a Heroine, which is why she ultimately fails.

Yes, she. Because it turns out that characters on a Hero's Journey don't have to be male, and those on a  Heroine's don't have to be female. Gail analyzes the latest Wonder Woman movie to show that she is on a Hero's Journey, and it turns out that Harry Potter's path is that of a Heroine.

So what makes a Heroine's Journey different from a Hero's? Well, you'll just have to come to the conference to find out... prices go up Friday, Aug 19!   If you can't, you could order the book. Even better, do both!  (She gave me permission to present the material, since my agenda is to share the message and help other writers see a whole new dimension to explore).

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Finalist (for the fourth time)

It makes me happy to share that my latest work-in-progress novel, To Feel the Earth as Rough, has been selected as a finalist in the Colorado Gold Rush Literary Awards.

I'm circled, and marked three friends/critique partners in the list, too!

Does this seem like familiar news? Yes, it is the second time in so many years for this novel and my first novel also finaled twice.

It is strange: it makes me happy but there is nothing like the first year when it felt like such validation that I was a good writer and on the right track. Now I feel a bit jaded: having finaled but not won three years in a row starts to feel like a judgement. To become a finalist, all I have to do is get high enough scores on several craft components. To win, I need the judging agent to think its publishable (or the most publishable of the finalists). I know I need perseverence but I'm starting to feel like that is a lot harder than just writing well. Which I guess we all know to be true about publishing success!

But all writers out there should come to the conference to clap for me (okay, really just to hang out with me)!  I'm giving a one-hour (sanctioned) summary of Gail Carriger's Heroine's Journey, which added a whole new dimension to plotting for me. And of course there are lots of great classes *and* some key notes speakers you might have heard of: Chuck Wendig,  Katherine Center, Erika T. Wurth.  Register by Aug 7 to save $50, or there are scholorships to the conference still available if it doesn't fit your budget.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Ash Holes

Lying in my improbable bed
Protected by our improbable roof
that mere hours ago I imagined gone
before I understood how 'gone'
gone would be.

Weeks later, reminded only
if I walk half a mile south or west
or try to run the trail around the hospital
where the collie used to leap up
to bark above an eight-foot fence
and now a bin of dog food
sits at the base of a tree in the wasteland of the neighborhood
some guardian put out in case 
their dog miraculously escaped
the fence and ran east
(please not north, not west nor south).
I don't even know if it was the collie
there must have been twenty houses
on their little patches, now undivided.
The acreage so small it seems impossible
that I used to consider that it mattered which way to drive the circle
when we picked up Gwyn or Isabella, 
but a subdivision is a few acres. Now empty,  
with a retaining wall naked for all to see, 
All those houses made it bigger,
expanded it with life and love.

The houses that survived: Dan's backyard burned 
but only boiled the paint on one wall and broke a window
and Natalie's, the last house standing on her street,
and John's, alone among mansion-holes,
will be months to be repaired and cleaned
and now they say the demolition 
will take eighteen months,
rebuilding five years,
and ten percent of those that burned
have already been sold. It hasn't even been one month.
Our neighbors gone,
under-insured or traumatized or too exhausted
to deal with all of this
because who even has time to breathe 
or take a bath or read a book
and now this? Loss and grief
trauma and paperwork.
Work. Painful, grueling, work
out of nowhere for no reason but nothing at all.

Even the untouched houses now appear
in my head as ethereal, just one hot moment
away from being twisted metal ash holes.
The wheated grass I love signals danger:
not only the lines of houses bordering vast open spaces
but the tongues that stretch along bike paths
meant to connect people but they connected flame
to streets that burned while others, between,
remained untouched.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Guide by Peter Heller (A book I finished!)


The Guide by Peter Heller

I have ten unfinished books on my night stand, and there is little chance that I will return to most of them (for various reasons). However, once I started reading The Guide, I had trouble putting it down (even though I'm hella busy right now and also sleep deprived). 

The curious thing is that there are several aspects to the book that I didn't like. 

Format: The author's chioce to write in paragraphs denoted by a space between instead of first line indentation. This is how I wrote the first draft of my first novel, and my understanding is that it is for online content instead of hard-copy. Normally I would see this as a flag for beginner, without an editor, but this author has published at least three novels and more non-fiction, so it is clearly a choice. It is distracting on pages with a lot of dialogue (where each speaker requires a new paragraph) because there is so little room for text, and I'm not sure what is the reason for the choice.

POV: It is about 99% in Jack's head, but on four or five occassions, it wanders to another character for a paragraph or two.  I'm aware that the current, strong admonition against omniscient point of view is just a trend, but the extreme imbalance in this book seems amateurish. One of the arguments against using omniscient is that it can serve as only a device to transmit information to the reader that the protagonist doesn't have, but that didn't even seem to happen here. In this case, the only reason I could see to use it where the author did is to deepen the supporting characters but this wouldn't have been that hard to achieve by strictly using limited POV. It is an example where my critique group's advice would help: if you're going to go that route, introduce it early so the reader isn't thrown out half-way through, and put in more so it seems consistent, and certainly think about why you're doing it and if there's another way to achieve the same effect.

A major aspect that I was unsure about

The setting is a with-COVID world. (There's apparently not going to be a post-COVID world). It has been an interesting discussion with fellow writers how to deal with COVID in our novels. Any fictional world that doesn't include it seems false, but it is so fresh that no one really knows how it is going to affect our long-term future. This novel did a good job in having Jack don a face mask in the first few pages and mention the possibility of new variants, so I knew what world we were in. Given that it was published in Aug 2021, I can only imagine there were lots of last-minute edits to more truly align the fictional experience with the virus real-world experience. I can't even imagine the hubris required to write it, and I quite admire how well the author did with making it work.

So why did I keep reading?
It was a bit of a mystery to me during the act. Here's some guesses:

The mystery. 
Throughout most of the book, I thought this was a negative aspect. It seemed like the mystery was going to have a really obvious conclusion. In the end, it was different, and tied well into another major aspect of the book. It seems in retrospect that the author was purposefully misdirecting me to think it was going to be the obvious answer, but since I was pretty convinced, it turned me off that it was heading an apparent cliché.

The backstories
It seems this is actually a sequel to The River, which has now been spoiled for me (but since I enjoyed this enough, I probably will read it anyway). But there is a tragedy in that, and a tragedy early in Jack's life, that are tied in here, and I found them to be compelling "wounds" for the protagonist to recover from. The way they were healed in this book seemed a little forced, though.

The protagonist wasn't a hero, the relationship wasn't consummated
Not sure if this kept me reading but I liked how the characters could be attracted to each other without ending up in a relationship, and I liked how much the love interest was key to the final solution. I've recently realized how many books try to force their protagonist to go-it-alone because all we know about is the Hero's Journey (or atleast that's all I knew until I read The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carriger). This was a fresh change.

Purple prose
It's not really overly descriptive and flowerly although some of my critique partners might disagree. But there is a lot of emotionally evocative description of the natural world and the experience of fly fishing right in the middle of the action scenes.  I can quote Anna Solomon's review of Ocean Vuong's writing "coaxing his readers to understand the weight of each moment with welcoming, fluid prose and imagery.

I think this served to slow down the action just enough, and definitely to get to know the character and set me deeply in the scene. It might not work so well for someone who isn't such a fan-girl of the natural world, but then Peter Heller himself expresses that those who grew up in cities appreciate nature more so maybe there's more readers who can identify!

My appreciation of this aspect leads me to think that the real reason I liked this book is that it really is my genre. The ARC quote on the front is "Peter Heller is the poet laureate of the literary thriller." I'm not writing thrillers (yet?) but I find myself straddling the literary/commecial divide. Sometimes I feel like that means I'm not doing either well but my hope is that the work I'm putting in will strengthen both and I can land in that sweet spot where the plot is moving and compelling, the characters are interesting and also the language is beautiful enough. While reading this, I felt tension between wanting to linger in the imagery and wanting to skim to find out what was going to happen, and I think this is my sweet spot. It is great to have an author that does this at the balance that I want, and definitely a reason for me to read more of him.