The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: March – April 2013

bookshelf books

Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show edited by Glenn Yeffeth

Like “The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy” edited by Leah Wilson et al., a lot of the essays in this book start getting samey. The power of friendship, sexiness of vampires, who should Buffy be with, wiccan good, love the earth, woman power. It starts feeling like refined versions of online editorials, only by professional authors.

And that’s saying something because, unlike most things, I did not lurk on Buffy web sites. I didn’t read the analyses or identify with a main character or get into discussion groups. Mostly because I wanted to avoid spoilers, but because I thought the TV show, by itself, was perfect. Anything extraneous would sully it, like dumping a bunch of toppings on ice cream.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (unfinished)

I just could not get into this book. It starts strong, with a steampunk driller and a blight that causes zombies and a part of Seattle walled off into a “Quarantine Zone” and it’s all in 1899. But then the scope changes and it never gets around to anything interesting. It’s like buying an album based on the single, which is the first track, but every other song sounds nothing like it — plodding and missing that energy.

There aren’t really any plot twists. No realizations. It’s just straight-on action. Fast-paced action, slow-paced style. Every little thought, every little sound is dragged out. To the point where the action sequences have no point, because you know they’re not going to kill off the main character. You know no consequences will happen. So I ended up skipping whole pages just to get to the next plot event.

The central “What if” is good enough, but the author didn’t make me care enough about the characters to not skip to the end. And the central question doesn’t get resolved until the last two pages, so it makes me feel like the middle was filler. It felt like a screenplay — lots of visual action (which I don’t like in a book). Maybe it’ll make a better movie, which it will be.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold

It’s hard to say whether I should recommend this one or not. On one hand, I was looking for science fiction and fantasy specific advice, and this doesn’t have it. It’s really just another book on writing, which I’ve read enough of.  And I’m starting to get the same advice over and over. There wasn’t much here I didn’t already know.

On the other hand, I like Gerrold’s style of writing. This was definitely better than Bird by Bird and comparable to “On Writing” by Stephen King.  He makes the book fun to read.

On the other other hand, the examples that Gerrold cites are all his own works. And they are looooong examples. At a certain point, it makes me wonder whether this volume was as self-promotional as it was self-help.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (unfinished)

Geez, I haven’t given up on a book since May-June 2012 and suddenly there’s two in the same reading period?

I gave it 100 pages, then decided it was just not for me. I wanted to like it — it was the only “Top 10 Books of 2012” that looked interesting to me. But it’s just too post-modern literary realism. The story just kept spinning its wheels, retreading over territory. I got bored.  It’s all literary and poetry and the plot never moves. I guess it’s more character profile than story.  I’m sure it’s a good book, it’s just not for me.

The Books I Read: November – December 2012

bookshelf books

room emma donoghue
Room by Emma Donoghue

Oh my god. This might be the best book I ever read. Certainly the best book I read this quarter, and maybe the best all year. From the moment I saw its description, I was too intrigued.

Room takes place in just that: a room. The entire novel revolves around a woman locked in this 12×12 space that she never leaves.  Just that alone had me hooked — what happened?  Was there an apocalypse?  Is this a survival story?  How do you write an entire book that takes place in one room? Much less a book that keeps getting onto “best of the year” lists.

How do you keep that intriguing? How do you keep it from being claustrophobic torture porn? Answer: you make it from the POV of a five-year-old boy. Everything is fascinating to a five-year-old. (As the parent of one, I can attest to this.)  And this boy has lived all of his life in “room”. Every inch, every crack.  Can you imagine what would happen if he ever got outside of it? Would it be like Tarzan? Would he just freak out? Would he need to be fostered?

Somehow, even though the walls never change, you are never bored. The novel is intense, psychological, full of horror and despair and optimism. I had to re-read the middle-of-the-book climax because I was too afraid of what was going to happen, so I was speed-reading to find out. I never do that. Only once I found out, I had to go back and re-read it.

Sometimes I just had to stop reading altogether because it got too intense. Some of that probably comes from being a parent myself, and part of it from my own life. In college, I rarely left my dorm room. That year I spent without a roommate was one of the best of my life. I’ve often thought I might be happy if I could just live in a single room with just the computer and a bed, etc. But then, there’s a difference when you get to choice versus no-choice, no matter what the contents of a room are.

Definitely read this book.

bill cosby fatherhood
Fatherhood by Bill Cosby

It’s a short book. Most of its material is from “Bill Cosby: Himself” which I’ve practically memorized. And reading it in narrative form tells you how good of a comic Bill Cosby was. But mostly that he was a performer, not really a narrative writer. If you already know his material, it’s highly skimmable.

The mediocrity gets compounded by the fact that it’s remarkably out of date. At the time, it had a lot of forward-thinking ideas about the presence of the father in a child’s life. It’s nice to know that the things he was fighting for in 1986 are common  today. But it remains a book  written in 1986. And there’s no way around it. Stick to the albums.

robert cormier i am the cheese
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This book was on my “to read” list for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that I forgot why I put it up there in first place. I think it had something to do with “Looking for Alaska”, but I’m not sure. My point is that I went into it with no expectations, besides a silly title.

And after reading it, I’m still not sure what I thought of it. I felt like I needed to read the book twice, because it’s one of THOSE books with the twist ending like “The Usual Suspects” or “The Sixth Sense”. So a second read lets you see all the signs and understand what was really going on. The good thing is that it’s short, so it’s easy to do. That or you can just read the cliff notes.

It’s also an old book with some archaic elements. For instance, the witness protection program was a new innovative thing.  It wasn’t even named yet.  And the other anachronisms, especially the way mental health is treated, seem downright barbaric now. It feels like watching those racist Bugs Bunny cartoons as actual entertainment, rather than a historical reprimand.

If you need to complete a collection of some kind, then go ahead and read it. It’s not horrible. But I didn’t feel more fulfilled by adding it to my library.

self-editing for fiction writers
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

As I read this book, I didn’t think it would be useful. Then I got to the second half, and it got a lot better.

The first discusses a lot of standards that orange-green belt writers should already know. Like “showing vs. telling” and point of view. If you’ve read the good writing books like “On Writing”, “Characters and Viewpoint”, and “Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction”, then you know those basics.

However, some of the later tips do come in handy for reaching that blue belt, like proportion, unsophisticated prose, and the writing exercises. You’d be amazed how often you write something, know in the back of your head that it’s stupid, but still fail to fully recognize it. That’s why I still check out the writing books from time to time, even though I now see that “On Writing”, the first and basically my bible, has screwed me up somewhat.

It’s certainly better than “Bird by Bird”.

bioshock rapture
Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

This is… not terribly great prose. It reminds me of when I wrote “Mortal Kombat”, my first fan fiction. And actually the first thing I ever wrote. This is not a compliment.

The structure is all over the place. Characters get introduced, then forgotten about. There’s about a thousand stories happening at once. In a book like “The Stand”, each character was introduced slowly. Here there’s no slow development. It feels like they’re thrown in when they need to be. There’s no quest, no viewpoint character, no antagonist. This really feels like badly fan fiction, written solely to make money. I think the author literally read the BioShock Wiki, all the dialogue and audio diaries, and simply wrote a story in a way to include all those bits.

The thing is there are more than a hundred diaries in Bioshock alone. And the author tries to include every one. It’s character soup — a hundred stories, plotlines upon plotlines, crossing over characters. There’s simply too much here to make a novel, unless you’re making “Les Miserables” or “War and Peace”.

There’s no interlocking, no crossover. The “Finding the Sea Slug” event is written basically word-for-word. No attempt to incorporate or connect events or make story flow non-linearly or give some flesh to people that otherwise only exist in snippets of spoken dialogue.

No attempt to innovate or enhance the storyline like good fan fiction should do. I was hoping for some explanation why everyone’s walking around carrying giant tape recorders, or why society didn’t immediately collapse when people discovered they could have psychic powers.  It brings nothing new to the table.

The thing about Bioshock is that it’s up to you, the player, to connect the storylines. And the more I read this book, the more I felt I could do better (that is, if I could handle the historical aspect). The culture is great, but the characters and story are practically plagiarized. The people who didn’t play Bioshock won’t understand anything and the people who did would be better off playing the game again.

the giver lois lowry
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Like “Remember the Stars”, this kept catching my eye on those wire swivel racks in my elementary school library. But I never wanted to check it out — what nine-year-old boy wants to read a book about an old man and “giving”? Plus a stupid, pretentious award? No thank you.

And again, like “Remember the Stars”, I finally got around to reading it now. The result? Well, it has good points and bad points. It’s easy to read, but the story doesn’t start until almost at the halfway point. Before that it’s all world-building. Once you get into the “giving” that the complications start setting in. And they are good complications.

But that ending… Oh, that ending. I hate, hate, HATE ambiguous endings. That stupid “was it a dream or wasn’t it?” that belongs in art films and stories with no plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, The Matrix, The Black Hole, Inception, Half-Life. There’s only two reasons to do that: the writer doesn’t know how to end it and gives up or the writer wants to fuck with expectations — to create arguments and analyses. In either case, it’s disrespectful to the reader. Do I truly believe Lois Lowry set out to do that? It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But I’ll say this. That ending soured me on reading any further books in the “Giver” series, and any books by Lowry herself even. Think about that, authors. A carefully, crafted exciting ending isn’t as necessary as you think. The fun is in the journey, not the destination. But that journey does need to conclude.

(Bonus note: while searching through the archives, I found this gem.)

the forever war joe haldeman
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This is really good. Much better than I expected for a space opera novel in the seventies. It deserves all the accolades it got. Still extremely readable, extremely entertaining. It’s like reading proto-Scalzi. The best thing about it is, like Halo, it delivers what it promises and doesn’t add anything unnecessary. No stupid romances, no bureaucratic filler. It doesn’t bore you with constant space battles, idle thinking, or meaningless conversations that go on too long. It gets the battles right, it makes the science entertaining and understandable. I feel smarter for reading this book.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the themes of sexuality. In the beginning, soldiers are expected (even required) to have sex with each other about every night (the army is now co-ed). As time goes on, the world’s polarity swings away from natural breeding towards heterosexuality becoming the deviant behavior. I find this twist delightfully ironic, but does it really have a place in an allegory about war?

Maybe it’s just me — I’ve never been in a war — but including this sort of thing seems extraneous. I don’t get the associations of war or of evolution losing its sexual identity. It reminds me of when every future story thought we’d be taking our dinner in pill form by now. If anything, I think sexuality would end up becoming more extreme, more carnal. As mankind’s brain reaches higher planes, the body will need to satisfy its natural instincts harder. That’s why we have all this weird stuff today like furries, futanari, and porno that would make a sailor blush.

But that hardly ruins the book. I highly recommend this one.

The Books I Read: September – October 2012

bookshelf books

the last unicorn peter s. beagle
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

My mom was surprised I’d never read it. And I saw the movie, which I loved for its campy 80’s-ness and animation that wasn’t Disney. The book follows the movie pretty damn well. It’s almost word-for-word. So much that I’m afraid my experience with the movie colored my opinion of the book. I guess it’s like when you hear the remix to a song first, then you hear the original version. But the remix was the first one you heard so you like that better. I’m sure there’s a name for that phenomenon.

Anyway, I wish I could say I enjoyed it and could recommend it, but the fact is, I think I got more out of the movie than the book. Sorry to be that way. Maybe it was meant for the seventies. Maybe it was supposed to be old-world satirical, like “The Once and Future King”.

For instance, one of the bandits eats a taco. I had to read that several times and look it up to make sure taco didn’t have some weird etymology. And there are other weird anachronisms like the Rastafarian butterfly, Jewish names, and magic that works when the story needs it to.

But I also didn’t like “The Once and Future King”. I guess if you’re going to make a humorous fantasy novel, you gotta go whole hog like “The Princess Bride”. The movie felt more alive, with bright colors and good voice acting and better tension. But I’m glad I read it.

stardust graphic novel neil gaiman charlie vess
Stardust by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charlie Vess

I picked this up in the graphic novel section of my library by mistake. It’s actually the novel’s full text, saturated with illustrations, in the shape and size of a graphic novel. At first I wasn’t going to read it — I’d already seen the movie and it’s one of Gaiman’s very first forays into text, which are always stumbling. But then I thought, well, it’s Neil Gaiman, so what the heck.

Like “The Last Unicorn”, this might be a case of “first version” syndrome. I saw the movie first, and it follows so closely, I feel like that’s my preferred version. The movie has more — Robert DeNiro is a gay sky pirate, crying Claire Danes, and there’s an awesome climax battle.

In the book, it feels like the plotlines aren’t woven together, but in the movie, they are. Plus the added bonus of the visuals. Maybe that’s why they turned it into a graphic novel.

wild cheryl strayed
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Oh boy. Grab a cup of tea for this review. I got a lot to say.

When this book was assigned for book club, my first thought was that it was going to be like Eat, Pray, Love. Instead of shirking her responsibilities to work and family and spending a bunch of money she doesn’t have so she can eat grubs with toothless monks and have sex with strange European men, Cheryl Strayed takes a short cut and just hikes the Pacific Crest trail.

This kind of story is always bullshit. I couldn’t get past the introduction without immediately disliking her.

In the first section, she presents herself as divorced, a drug user, an adulterer, homecoming queen, and cheerleader. And to boot, she colors Minnesotans as north woods cabin-dwellers with no electricity or running water. And I’m supposed to root for her?

In the first chapter, she’s already hating her husband of four years (who she married at twenty) for no reason, despite the fact that he has been calling her every day (out of concern) while she’s at the hospital with her dying mother. But nope, whatever connection she thinks they had broke. No reason why, it just happened. No reason to make an effort to try and put things back together either. Solid. You sound like a good person to me.

Especially after you leave your husband and start doing heroin. Then he drives eight hours across the country to intervention you away from this asshole. With nothing to gain from it — out of the goodness of his heart he does this. After a few months of dealing with the divorce and the death of her mom (and not having a job or source of income), she decides on a whim that she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Based solely on a book she picked up.

Listen to me. You are not courageous. You are a fuck-up that doesn’t know you’re a fuck-up, and then wonders why there’s consequences for your actions. You’ve been acting selfish all your life, then go out and do something selfish under the guise of “finding yourself”, then write a book all about it because you can’t fuel your ego enough.

You hiking up the Pacific seaboard without learning how to hike properly is not a struggle. It’s you being stupid. Your sole source of information was a book published in 1989 (hike took place in 2006) and the pimple-face at REI. You don’t know how to wear boots or pack a bag. I read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. That means I’m more qualified than she was.

But Strayed makes sure to mention each and every other book she reads on the trail (before she burns them for campfire fuel). Not that any of them help her — it’s all pretentious literary bullshit like “As I Lay Dying”, “Dubliners” and “The Novel”. And just in case we forget that she’s “well-read”, there’s a handy list at the back of the book.

She’s surprised that there’s no such thing as a bad hair day on the trail. She’s no longer worried about the intricacies of being thin or fat. Women have been discovering that for decades. Do you think Mia Hamm or the female American Gladiators worry about their hair? (Well, the gladiators might. They’re on TV, after all.) This women is so deep in her self, the idea that anyone around her might have already discovered these gems or feels the same way never occurs to her. She thinks she’s finding all these things herself for the first time. And then she doesn’t even learn anything. She still has sex with anonymous partners. Just to experience “what a man feels like again”.

And if that’s not enough, if you get the Oprah Book Club edition, you can enjoy all of Queen O’s laudations and notes about how she’s so courageous, how she’s such a good writer, all the passages she loves about “past-bloom flowers in the wind” and being in love with words. Make me puke.

The biggest example of her idiocy occurs midway through the book. A man in a car stops up and asks to her interview her for Hobo Times. “But I’m not a hobo,” she says, “I’m a backpacker.”
“Do you have a permanent home?” he asks.
“Are you walking on the road?”
“How many times have you slept with a roof over your head in the past month?”
“Is your backpack all you have in the world?”
“Are you getting around by hitchhiking?”
“Then please take this standard hobo care package.”

Which she does. Nice. Way to stay true to your convictions. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…

This book perpetuates the same idea I had in Merm-8, that people who break the rules get it all, while the people who follow the rules, go to work every day and do their job, get shafted. Please, women. Please don’t look up to self-absorbed people like this for your inspiration.

mogworld yahtzee croshaw
Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw

After that book I had to get something a little more my style. Mogworld is the first book written by the very awesome creator of the very awesome video game review series “Zero Punctuation”. Imagine the Angry Video Game Nerd on speed and Australian.

All Jim wanted was a little peace and quiet. Not much to ask for, being dead after all. But after a necromancer raises him for his unholy army of the night (with a nice health-care package), Jim tries everything to get back to his crypt. But things keep getting in the way, like the zealot priest, “Slippery John”, the crafty thief who keeps referring to himself in third person, and the Deleters — mysterious, ghost-like apparitions that seem to have more control over the world than anyone really should.

Okay, I don’t know why I just wrote a query for this book (a bad one, at that). The book combines a little Terry Pratchett and a little Video Game Memebase. There are so few books out there that treat video games as legit (like Ready Player One) it’s a pleasure to find something that’s this well-written. My only beef is that it’s so satirical and biting that there aren’t enough really likable characters in it. Like a lot of nerd humor, it relies on Asperger’s syndrome or douche-bag characters for its humor.

pulling up stakes peter david
Pulling Up Stakes (Part 1) by Peter David

I love Peter David, and this book was only $.99 so why not? The problem as I soon discovered is that this is only part one. I’m not even sure if it’s the first half. (I think it is, cause the end blurb says “Coming Soon: the conclusion”) There’s no indication that this is just the first part, and no indication where the second half is or if it’s even forthcoming.

If I hadn’t paid just a buck for it, I might be pissed. I know how books are — sometimes it can be months or years between sequels (George R. R. Martin). Sometimes the writers never come back to those works — they just don’t feel like writing them anymore (Anne Rice). Sometimes they get made but never get published because of market demands (Fiona Apple).

What I do not like is getting half a story, no matter how cheap it was. I’m a bit of a completionist, and knowing that the story might be hanging out there forever, like a song that never reaches its final chord, does not make me a happy customer. It’s like making a recipe, but you can only make part of it now — the rest of the ingredients will come later. When maybe you don’t feel like eating anymore.

the book thief marcus zusak
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Sigh. I wanted to like this, but I guess I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy when it comes to books. I like my plot and I like my characters. Any fancy dressing or style tends to get in the way for me. I don’t like all this weird flowery roundabout writing, or lacy descriptions, or jumping around between events, or being narrated to by Death, who should be omniscient and godlike. But he/she gets presented as a human being concerned with the day-to-days of a single ant. It’s not plausible for me.

Not to mention I already had a certain level of prejudice. “Number the Stars” was recently finished and I’d seen Anne Frank a few times. How many different ways can you tell the story of a young girl in the Nazi occupation? Without the stylistics and obfuscations of what’s going on, the core story is really quite bland. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

The novel has its strengths and weaknesses. Near the end, I actually did like the idea of Death as a narrator, but I would have rather Death was an actual character, a protagonist a la Neil Gaiman (but that might be my bias showing through). I like the frequent uses of colored skies, and how they relate to the novel, but I can’t get out of my head that that’s something a high schooler would do. An author’s first duty is to the story. And it would have been stronger with the fat boiled away.

A First-Year in Harry Potter’s Seventh Year

Hogwarts battle harry potter

You know, it must have been amazing being in school with Harry Potter. Triwizard tournaments, pranks, broomstick basketball, and classes taught by centaurs. Awesome. Well, at least if you were in the same class as Harry Potter. But what if you were younger? What if your first year in Hogwarts was Harry’s seventh year? Can you imagine that?

First, you get the letter. “Ma, I’m a wizard!” You dance around! Callooh-callay! No more placement tests or China foreign policy papers. You’re going to a world full of jelly beans and unicorns and flying cars and pumpkin juice. Just like you’ve heard your friends talking about.

Except you get there day one, and your head master looks/acts like Edgar Allen Poe. And he’s a known ally of Hitler Junior. Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, the wizarding world is currently being terrorized by a maniacal power-hungry wizard who’s dead set on killing anyone who’s related to a non-magic person. By the way, I have a few questions about your parents.

And right now there’s kind of a war going on, with Hogwarts being one of the contended territories, since it’s the premier wizarding school (congratulations on your acceptance, by the way). Of course, you’re lucky the school’s open at all. It was attacked by Voldemort’s army and its headmaster was just killed. By the guy who’s now the headmaster. Appointed by the governing wizard council, which has also been compromised by Voldemort.

But I guess it’s still better than learning algebra, right? Let’s see what house you’re being sorted into. Maybe you’ll be in Slytherin. That was the headmaster’s house, so that might be a good place. Except all your friends will be rich assholes. And while it might most favored by the administration, it’s least favored among all the other teachers. (Not to mention, that once the Battle of Hogwarts begins, you’ll be relegated to the dungeon for the remainder of the time. And don’t forget, you’re just a freshman. You’re 10 years old.)

Of course, if you’re in any other house, you’re going to get shit on. You heard about the trips to Hogsmeade, Honeydukes? Yeah, none of that anymore. Now it’s more like military academy, where most of your classes will be about hating and killing all your old friends. Discipline is handed out by two psycho twins, who simply beat the tardy out of you. And if you’re unlucky enough to get detention, you won’t be writing lines or signing autographs. No, now they just torture you with magic. They say it feels like “white-hot knives piercing every inch of your skin”. Better think twice before setting off that cherry bomb.

Students speak of a student. Harry Potter, maybe you’ve heard of him? All throughout his attendance, he saved Hogwarts: from a giant snake, an escaped prisoner, a tyrannical disciplinarian, and numerous death eaters. He’s the reason Voldemort fell in the first place. Of course, now he’s back and they think Potter’s the only one who can kill him. Where is he? Oh, he’s not here this year. Sorry, guess you’re born just one year too late.

But you’ve gotten through your classes, you’ve put up with the teachers. The students keep hope alive. If you manage to avoid spilling the beans about the reformed “Dumbledore’s Army” and survive the Dark Arts classes, you might see him return. Oh, of course, now you have to fight a war against the guy, who maybe you’ve been told is a fine upstanding citizen. This is your first year as a wizard so everything you’ve heard to this point is propaganda put out by the occupied ministry. Maybe you’re not even on the same side anymore.

But let’s assume you’ve seen the light, and now you’ve been handed a wand, spun in the right direction, and told to go kill the enemy. Meanwhile, do your best to avoid the giant stone golems falling around. Once again, I remind you that you are a ten-year-old first-year. All you can do is levitate a feather, and you’re being told to face an army of magicians hurling Avada Kedavras at you. And you aren’t even supposed to learn about those until fourth year.

To be honest, I actually think there’s a great story in here. Imagine two students, one from Gryffindor, one from Slytherin. They both enter at the same time, neither knowing a thing about Hogwarts, Voldemort, or anything. They have no prejudice. They’re both nice guys, even if the Gryffindor’s a little more straight-edged and brave, and the Slytherin is more cunning and devious, a little darker. They’re both sides the same coin. And even though they’re in separate houses, they become friends. They struggle through the looming war, the totalitarian academy, and the war that separates them both.

P.S. Every house has bedrooms separated by gender. You sleep with like four or five roommates. How do you jerk off? Where do you get your me-time? Do you have to learn to masturbate without moving like I had to in college?

The Books I Read: October – December 2009

bookshelf books

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I borrowed this one from my mom, along with the rest of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. It is a long read, and it reminds me of those early modern literatures that expound a lot of philosophy along with the story (i.e., students go to a coffee shop and wax poetical about the nature of something while nursing the drunken one-night stand they had ). Not that I’m saying the story is pretentious. It’s not. But it is long-winded.

The storyline is good and the writing style is quite palatable. It made me feel smart to read this book, even though I was reading it for the pure fantasy and “what happened next/behind the scenes” of The Wizard of Oz. That’s the problem with this book. It’s got a lot of intelligent messages about art, science, politics, and the nature of evil. Pretty Shakespearean stuff. But it sacrifices the fantastic elements for these dialogues.

Plus, it violates the Wizard of Oz canon, and I can’t get past that. You can add stuff to the universe, but you can’t change the existing universe. Especially one that’s as iconic as the Wizard of Oz. I don’t care if you change the 400 other Oz books, you can’t change the first one. You cannot say the Winged Monkeys were made through biological alchemy by the Wicked Witch. They were controlled through a magic cap, and created as a wedding gift. The Tin Woodsman was not created the way he was (although Maguire tries to nod towards continuity with this, it fails to incorporate all established canon). The novel can’t decide if it’s pulling from the book or the movie (look at the witch’s appearance) and the final confrontation with Dorothy is all wrong.

These glaring errors pull you out of the story, but most of them don’t occur until the end. I’m really not sure whether to recommend this one or not. But for me, I know I don’t want to play in this universe again. Maybe wait for the movie-musical in 2011.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

The thickened conclusion to the story of some little kids trying to kill God… but in a good way. It feels like Pullman was trying to pad out the novel here, and the time he should have spent wrapping up storylines was spent with meaningless non-obstacles. Will gets drunk on vodka with no consequences. The dimension-skipping knife breaks, only to be easily repaired with no consequences. Going to the land of the dead and freeing everyone, with no consequences to the main plot. It seems Pullman needed space to put in the subplots. It made the story drag out, and it’s long enough without the filler.

If it wasn’t for the padding, would it still be a good story? I don’t know. I guess I didn’t really care for this piece, or the trilogy. I felt like I had to read it to find out what happened. I don’t know where it went wrong. Maybe it just didn’t click with me. Maybe it was too British, maybe it felt too stilted, maybe I couldn’t identify with the characters. Ah well, c’est la book.

Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm

It’s hard to read and repetitive. Every story is a variation of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. There’s lots of long paragraphs, little dialogue, and the narrative does little to evoke imagination. Everything happens in sets of threes, and I know nothing is going to happen the first two times, so I would just skip to the third.

Every story is the same. Someone goes out into the world to seek fortune, marry someone, or defeat evil. He/she collects some magic artifacts. Something happens based on wordplay or puns. Then he’s told not to do something, and inevitably, he does it. Because where would the plot be if anyone actually followed directions? Otherwise we wouldn’t have Gremlins. Go see the Disney versions.

The Mermaid’s Madness by Jim C. Hines

I was really looking forward to this one, and not just because it dovetails with my own mermaid story. The mermaid fiction that isn’t a rehash of The Little Mermaid is few and far between, unless it has more mush or turns mermaids into horrible sea monsters. Before I start let me just say I love me some Jim C. Hines. He’s a cool guy and the writer I can most relate to in this world. I like his work.

But the story left me dissatisfied, maybe because my hopes were too high. It’s an action-oriented plot, meaning characterization and plot get pushed to the background. There’s lots of pirate ship fights, tense trespassings into enemy territory, and hand-to-hand or magic-to-magic combat. That means there’s no neat revelations or “oh crap” moments that provoke an emotional reaction and make the plot page-turning like The Hunger Games did.

The characters are great, but I wished they had been explored more. And I felt he was padding near the end (maybe because I know he was padding near the end because he wrote it on his blog). Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to see more of the mermaid world. He had a great antagonist–Ariel made into a serial killer–and it looked like he was going to do a good job with her, but then she was reduced to a mewling, muttering straitjacket-wearer huddled up in a tower. Her potential as an enemy ended up largely ignored, and heroes are only as good as their enemies. 3.5 stars.

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow’s latest (free) release steers away from the singularity science-fiction & urban fantasy and returns to base roots–boys with toys. The story chronicles two Makers, people who build random DIY stuff just to see if they can, like a hive of Tickle-Me-Elmos that collectively drive a golf cart. Eventually they create some sort of “ride” that garners worldwide attention, including Disney Parks, who wants to tear them apart, steal their ideas, and sue them to the short-and-curlies. Along the way, Doctorow interjects some singularity elements like drastic weight-loss medical procedures, 3-D printers, and advancements in shantytowns.

I don’t think it’s as good as Little Brother. There’s not as much tension, and the plot meanders. Lord does it meander. The first part, with the boom and bust of the Makers, acts more like a prologue. There’s no real unifying goal for the protagonists to achieve (except maybe to be left alone so they can build their things). It’s treated more like obstacle, overcome, obstacle, overcome. And the final resolution seems deus ex–the bad guy spontaneously learns the error of his ways and converts. Plus I don’t get the “ride”. Is it a museum? A fictional exhibit? A sort of play? And some things suffer from “24” disease. It would be nice to see communication and events happen so fast, but I don’t think that’s realistic.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book. It and Mermaid’s Madness were probably the two best books I read this quarter. But the story is more like a serial than a novel, and I’m no big fan of serials.

Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk

This book was offered for free for one day from Jeff Burk’s website. I, unfortunately, did not get to download it, because I read my blogs in the morning. And by the time I saw it, the offer was already over. So I had to procure this book through… different means (I mean, seriously, one day? Come on).

I’d heard about Shatnerquake from Wil Wheaton, so I was excited to read this. I was surprised at how short it was. It’s more of a novelette than a novel. It reads at warp speed. Of course, I don’t think it’s meant to be taken as serious literature, since the story is about how all of William Shatner’s previous roles come to life at a William Shatner convention to attack William Shatner in a devious plot conceived by (wait for it) Bruce Campbell fans.

There’s weirdness and there’s funness. I think I liked this book, but it was so weird that I’m not sure. There’s a lot of Crowning Moments of Awesome, like when James T. Kirk takes out a room of fanboys with a lightsaber. The only fatal flaw is that it’s not very serious. It’s a little trashy, and definitely throwaway. I’m reminded of the old days of pulp fiction. This is definitely it. Of course, I want to read more.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

I can’t remember why I got this particular book at this particular time from the library. I think I needed some short books because my second daughter was about to born and I didn’t want to get into anything epic or long that I might forget about in case I couldn’t read it for two weeks. So YA would work. Also, I think I needed to get it quickly and this was on the shelf.

This was not the novel I expected it to be. It’s minimal on the action, minimal on the science fiction. It’s a lot more like A) essays on militarism and citizenship and B) the story of a man’s military career, which doesn’t include much combat. There’s not much science fiction stuff here, at least nothing plot-centric. It’s more on the periphery, with the space stuff, aliens, and some military tech. You could take that out and easily make it a literary novel.

I can definitely see where John Scalzi got his inspiration for Old Man’s War from this novel. It’s fun to have read that and then read this. There were definitely times I thought “This is not a novel, this is a bunch of ranting” and “This would have a hard time getting published today, because of all the parts where the plot doesn’t move”. Not that that matters, I’m sure these were the reasons it became popular. I recommend Old Man’s War first. Then if you liked that, read this. It’s like seeing the special features for Old Man’s War.

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

Another YA novel. Somewhere along my writing research I stumbled upon Barry Lyga’s journal, who was giving a series of posts on writing advice. There wasn’t a lot here that wasn’t new to me, but I did like the conversational style he used. It reminded me of Jim C. Hines, but aimed at the younger. So I thought I might try one of his books. Like Starship Troopers, I needed something short and available, and this was it. Plus the story idea appealed to me–goth girls were one of my adolescent fantasies.

But what struck me was how similar it was to “Blood: I Live Again”. A disaffected loser who does nothing but introspect and whine forms a relationship with an unstable goth girl. Hilarity ensues. Of course, saying the two are similar are like saying “Old Man’s War” and “Avatar” are similar. But as I was reading it, I thought “This is what Blood: ILA would’ve been like if it had been publishable.” That’s what made it the most fun, but that’s a characteristic that can only appeal to me.

Now I’m a Barry Lyga fan, and I plan to read more of his novels soon.

Sausagey Santa by Carlton Mellick III

After Shatnerquake was done with its one free day, Burk saw how well it did and offered a bunch more. This time for a longer interim. There was a lot to choose from, so I selected one that fit the season.

This one is even weirder. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Santa is made of sausage. His fingers are Vienna sausages, and his head’s a big bratwurst. According to the novel, he was immortal but he got sick of living forever. But all his suicide attempts failed. So he fed himself through a meat grinder. This still didn’t work so his enslaving elves transformed him into sausage so he could move around.

This is not the weird part.

The weird part comes from the main character who is married to a dominatrix who wants to be a Transformer, has a child who has some sort of growth in her head, twins that are forever strapped to his wife’s back, who get their limbs lopped off in the battle with Frosty the snowman, Santa’s mortal enemy who controls coffee birds–flying amorphous blobs of congealed hatred.

Also there’s sex with elves using extra-dimensional panties.

I think that’s all I need to say.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Didn’t intend to read this one. I had finished the book I brought to the hospital during the birth, and needed something else to read. So I stopped in the gift shop and looked for something. Lots of chick lit I didn’t want to read. Lots of covers with roses and quaint cottages. But then I saw the dismal visage of Viggo Mortensen staring at me from the third row. It was the closest to science fiction they had, but I had seen the trailer for the movie and thought it was neat, and I like apocalypse fiction. So I bought it for $7.99.

I don’t often read literary novels. Really, it’s just a road movie of a father and his son (who are never named) as they trek across a decimated country (they never say why, but I think it’s nuclear winter). The style is extremely simple, there are a lot of section breaks, but no chapters. I thought the story was realistic, but never particularly engaging. Maybe because no one has a name. I saw a few instances of literary no-no’s (a switch to first person, some telling, some wool-gathering) and I never really felt I needed to see how it ended (because it was obvious from page 1), but I was intrigued to see what happened next before they got there. There are no spectacular events, it’s really more of a log of what happened–they find some food, they meet an old man, they sleep, they walk, they eat some peaches out of a can.

I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t feel like I wasted my time either.

The Æsop For Children by Aesop (I think)

I liked this one better than Grimm’s Fairy Tales because A) they’re all super short, great for reading a teeny bit at a time and B) the language is much more understandable. But like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the stories get repetitive after a while. They’re all moral lessons, and they fall under three categories: evil is its own ruin, be honest and don’t lie, don’t be vain, greedy, or prideful. Consequences of failing to heed lessons A, B, and C will result in you being eaten by a tiger 90% of the time.

Midnight Girl by Will Shetterly

A free e-book. I can’t remember where I heard of it from. Must’ve been Boing Boing, since that’s my usual source for the free e-Book movement. Like most other e-Books, this one is science fiction and has a low buzz. Unlike most e-Books, this one’s YA, and it’s actually pretty good. To a point. It’s about a young girl who discovers that her mother is a vampire/werewolf/shapeshifter thingy and her father is a vampire/werewolf/shapeshifter thingy hunter, and that she’s destined to end the war between the two families.

The dialogue is quick-witted, and there are some good parts to the book, like when the main character is forced to suck blood for the first time, an act that’s almost guaranteed to kill the person due to the initial bloodlust, and she finds her best friend is forced to be her first victim, so they have to figure out a way around the binding spell. And when the council of families on her father’s side decide they must kill her to save everyone, and she willingly volunteers (a sixteen-year-old!) to be killed for the good of everyone.

Random Word of the Day: Patchouli

On the submission front: Fairy Kingdom was rejected from Flash Fiction Online. It took them until almost the max day to do it, so I was disappointed because I thought it might be accepted, since it was taking them so long. The next candidate after that was supposed to be “Postcards From…” but when I looked them up, their blog had been deleted. Then I looked up 365 Tomorrows, but then I discovered it was non-paying, so that got sent to the bottom of the stack. Next it will be going to Electric Spec.

One thing I forgot to mention in the last update that, when I was shopping for books, I almost picked up The Forever War and Starship Troopers. My thinking was that these are classic, must-read sci-fi books on everyone’s list, and I’m a bad writer for not reading them. Plus the pile in my hand was skimpy (one book). Then I thought, well, I shouldn’t be picking up books and reading them just for the sake of reading them. I’m not really interested in war stories – the only ones I’ve read are the Old Man’s War novels and World War Z. And I don’t plan to write anything about war. I didn’t grow up in wartime, so it’s a distant subject for me, although it should be learned about.

I’m done revising the first drafts of Kaiju Story and Old Dragonslayer Story. For “dragonslayer”, I’m going to try using Critique Circle, and see how it is, if it’s better than Critters. So far the interface is much better, but its really about the feedback. It looks like most of the stories are much shorter than typical Critters fare, but it doesn’t look like the quality is any better. The one story I critiqued so far sounded like it was half-written by Stephen King, half-written by a nine-year-old.

Also, these two being done mean I’m getting close to having to compose again – straight writing on a blank page. It’s a little scary, because I haven’t done it for a while. I look at all the great little ideas that I’ve had in previous stories, and wonder if I can come up with those again – the bits of spice that make my stories flavorful.

Lastly, Black Hole Son is starting to come back from the initial RFDR’s. Well, one person’s sent it back, and I haven’t even opened it yet.

Here’s a strange story. I got a proposition for RFDR from some guy who had an eccentric writing style, talking about things that had no relevance to the request. Very European style. He had a website, so I checked it out. I guess he’s from Spain, but he’s had some books published so I thought, “all right, I could get critiqued by a real author”. Then we’re trading e-mails back and forth. He won’t start anything until he sends me a sample so I can tell if I like his “writing style”. Writing style doesn’t matter when you’re critiqueing. Critiqueing’s all about wading through shit. It doesn’t matter whether I like it or not, I signed up for it. But I gotta wait till he’s back from Kuwait to send me something.

So he finally does, and it’s pretty horrible – long paragraphs, no dialogue, no characterization, and it’s a prologue of all things. It’s not even science-fiction. I can’t believe this guy’s been published. But it doesn’t matter. A critique’s a critique. So I send him what I think, and it’s basically a less-heavy critique then I usually give for something of this stinkitude. But I tell him I want him to send me a chapter at a time and revise it first, because he obviously sent me a rough draft, and I think only one chapter at a time would be all I could take.

But it’s a fair critique and I say I want to do it. What does he do? He says that “judging by your response, I can see you don’t like my writing style and this would not be a good fit”. First of all, I’m not getting into bed with you, we’re critiquing novels. Second, it doesn’t matter whether I like your writing style, it matters whether the publisher likes it. And no publisher is going to like it unless you follow the very basic rule/guidelines I told him. I’m not reading it for enjoyment, I’m reading it to analyze and improve it. Some people are weird.