I Just Read: Station Eleven

station-elevenI’ve read a few looong books lately, books that are parts of even looooonger trilogies. So it’s nice to get to the end of a book and actually be sorry it’s over. Ahh, the sprightliness of upmarket speculative fiction. Not only is it worded so prettily, but it’s plotted and edited for brevity.

Station Eleven is an upmarket post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. In this book, the end of the world is brought on by an extremely deadly flu, and the story flits back and forth in time—before, during, and after the outbreak. The narration follows five main characters, and a series of coincidences links these characters’ lives, both pre and post pandemic, and before and after death. The co-inky-dinks only become more prevalent as the character’s figurative ‘small world’ becomes a literally decimated small world. I don’t think the author was trying to create a sort of apocalyptic, mystical force of ‘Fate’ (although a lot of post-apocalyptic books tend to go that way: The Stand, The Passage, Swan’s Song). Instead, Mandel’s serendipity is an echo of art, of stories that outlive their authors, of actors whose fame outstrips their personal lives. In this post-apocalypse, ideas from Shakespeare, Star Trek, and the glossy photos of tabloid magazines keep the survivors inspired and illuminated, long after the loss of electricity and air-travel.

Most of the unlikely connections in Station Eleven stem from a comic book that was published at a vanity press (only ten copies were ever made) by an unknown author who may or may not have died twenty years ago. If, like myself, you’re aspiring to be an independently published author, this idea will probably strike you as particularly sad. And the book does often strike a melancholy mood. Even before the plague: these characters are haunted by divorce, dysfunctional families, and dissociation from their own lives. And Station Eleven doesn’t offer much in the way of easy answers, or chances at redemption. But it is sparkling with hope.

Words that mean the opposite of what they mean

Come on English! Get your crap together! You’ve got antonyms and synonyms and homonyms—even capitonyms (that’s words that change meaning based on whether or not they’re capitalized: ‘Polish’ vs. ‘polish.’) But what are writers supposed to do with words that, depending on how you use them, can convey meanings that are diametrically opposed? Let’s take a look at a few of these two-faced words:

Fearful: Full or fear? Or causing fear? I vote we keep the second meaning, because it gave us the badass phrase ‘Fearful Symmetry.” Actually, William Blake gave us that phrase, and it’s been used in a hella bunch of media since then.

Dubious: Full of doubt? Or causing doubt? The words ‘suspicious’ and ‘doubtful’ have this same kind of shenanigans going on. There’s no way that this sentence should be allowed to make sense: “Anne was suspicious of the suspicious stranger.” Shouldn’t Anne and the stranger be commiserating on their mutual suspiciousness?

Nonplussed: I always assumed this meant ‘unperturbed.’ I guess that proves I’m an informal American; because in standard English (as in dictionaries or across the pond) the word means ‘surprised and confused.’

Cleave: And I guess I don’t have much in the way of literary inclinations, because I think of ‘cleave’ as meaning ‘to split or sever.’ For hoity-toities, ‘cleave’ means ‘to cling or adhere.’

As I wind up this post (Wait… do I mean ‘wind up’ like a toy or ‘wind up’ like some yarn, because those are opposites too!), I’ll ask you… what two-faced words drive you crazy?

A Writing Tip That Ruined Me: Prologues

prologue_114378562What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”

I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.

I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:

- The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror

Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.

As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!

In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.

I Just Read: Blue Remembered Earth

bluerememberedA good chunk of the science-fiction I’ve read in the last year has dealt with the mankind’s future in the next 200 years or so. According to these books, we’ll have cities on the moon and on Mars in 200 years. We’ll be mining minerals and ice from the farthest reaches of our solar system. We’ll be uploading our minds into computer brains, and modifying our bodies to live like mer-people under the sea.

I get the point that human technology is accelerating at an amazing rate. And if you took a man from 1814 and showed him the world in 2014, his mind would be blown. And that’s just from seeing all the yoga pants! So when it comes to predicting our advances in the next 200 years, some would say that the sky’s the limit. But I think that’s more literally true than we’d like to admit. The sky IS the limit, considering the current state of space travel, and the long list of earthly problems that nations are facing today.

But author Alastair Reynolds chooses to be more optimistic than I. In his Blue Remembered Earth, mankind has established factories on Mercury and Neptune. Space elevators, laser propulsion, and shape-shifting androids are all commonplace. And Africa is the continent that is leading the way in all this innovation. Blue Remembered Earth follows a brother and sister, scions of a wealthy family based in Tanzaniya, who are led on an interplanetary scavenger hunt by clues that have been left behind by their deceased grand-matriarch. ‘Interplanetary scavenger hunt’ sound like fun, doesn’t it? And the book is usually fun, with some surprising set pieces and action scenes punctuating a few slow stretches. Sometimes the characters came off a bit dry to me, but overall I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

One interesting idea in the novel is ‘the surveilled world,’ which is like Google Earth turned up to Super Saiyan Level 4. In this possible future, the public surveillance ‘cloud’ is so omnipresent that anyone can access real-time video footage of the dark side of the moon, or be immersed into an accurate, real-time 3D model of an African savannah. People can use these ever-present hotspots to project avatars of themselves into the vision field of nearly anyone in any locale, from Kilimanjaro to Olympos Mons. That’s one innovation that I definitely think is coming down the pipe. Unfortunately I think it will first be used to try and get us a peek into Jennifer Lawrence’s bedroom.

A year in the life of Walter White

On Sept 29 it will be a year since Breaking Bad had its series finale. In that time my family has moved to a new house. My daughter started kindergarten, and my office transitioned through a huge paradigm shift. But compared to Walter White’s fifty-first year, I might as well have spent the last twelve months frozen in carbonite.

Breaking Bad was an incredible creative achievement. I can’t think of any other series that was so masterfully outlined from beginning to end—and executed with such unerringly focus on total viewer satisfaction. But I can’t understand why Vince Gilligan decided to stuff fifty episodes of plot into one year of actual story time. Here’s a list of major events that occurred in Walter White’s life between his fiftieth and fifty-first birthday.

health_breaking_badDiagnosed with inoperable lung cancer

death_breaking_badKills a couple of drug dealers

hired_l_breaking_badBegins a successful (and illegal) freelance business

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after his first kingpin boss is killed

death_breaking_badOne of his employees is assassinated

hired_l_breaking_badHis pregnant wife returns to the workforce

health_breaking_badWalt’s cancer goes into remission

hired_r_breaking_badReconfigures his business model after finding a new drug kingpin boss

baby_breaking_badWalt’s daughter is born

death_breaking_badEffectively murders another victim

health_breaking_badUndergoes surgery

home_breaking_badSeparates from his wife

fired_r_breaking_badFired from his day job after sexually harassing his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model with a new lab and a new lab assistant

death_breaking_badMurders a few more drug dealers with his Pontiac Aztek

death_breaking_badOrchestrates the murder of his new lab assistant

hired_r_breaking_badStarts a new (semi-legitimate) business

home_breaking_badWalt’s family is put under protection of the DEA

death_breaking_badPoisons a young boy (but doesn’t murder him)

death_breaking_badKills his boss

hired_l_breaking_badReconfigures his business model; partners with neo-nazis

home_breaking_badWalt’s wife has a nervous breakdown


That’s a lot of living for one character! More mayhem than your typical season of Scandal. Is it any wonder that he turned so cranky?

I Just Read: The Desert of Souls

desert of soulsOver the last few months, I’ve been in the mood for some fantasy stories that involve sand, sultans, and scimitars. Unfortunately those seem to be hard to come by, and the few ‘Persianish/Arabianish’ novels I have read haven’t quite scratched that itch. In my opinion, most modern desert fantasy novels spend far too much time inside city walls, in bazaars or back alleys. It’s like playing the first Assassin’s Creed, which, in my book, is not a good thing. The only good bazaar scene I can think of was Conan punching a camel. Sorry, PETA.

I want a novel where the heroes have to do each of the following, at least once:
• Stagger across a seemingly endless desert
• Steal an artifact from some creepy tomb or temple
• Sneak into a harem, or take part in some inappropriate flirting that could lead to a beheading
• Spend a few tense moments with an ancient monster that might decide to eat them, or might just ask them a few riddles

Howard Andrew Jones’ book checks off at least most of these items. The Desert of Souls follows two adventurers, a warrior and a scholar, and Jones intriguingly plays with the expectations baked into these two roles. You’d expect the scholar to be the narrator, right? And he’s documenting the resourcefulness, bravery, and righteousness of the warrior. No. Reverse that. From the outset, Jones establishes that the scholar is more accomplished, more destined to become legendary. The warrior, on the other hand, may be more skilled with his pen than with his sword. There is also a smart, strong-willed female character in the story, but it would have been nice to see her do more, or to see her ‘break type’ in the way the scholar and the warrior do.

All in all, The Desert of Souls kept me entertained, and the two main characters felt real and I liked their interactions. The story lumbered a bit on its way to the climax. As a reader, I hate scenes where the protagonist(s) know something to be true, but no one believes them. I guess most horror, fantasy, and sci-fi stories have to include an “It’s true!” “No you’re crazy!” conversation at some point, because they put their main characters into highly unlikely (or downright ridiculous) situations. When I have to write a scene like that, I try to keep it as short as possible, or add something unexpected. Otherwise I imagine the reader wanting to skip ahead. Anyway, everyone knows that the “No you’re crazy!” person is probably going to end up being killed by the thing he’s been so vehemently denying.

Still, I look forward to reading the second book of the series, and to seeing what happens next.

Notes on the Decatur Book Festival

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaOn Saturday my family checked out the Decatur Book Festival. We were there for just a couple of hours, and we met a few friendly authors—or at least walked past their booths. It was both inspiring and intimidating to see so many writers gathered in one place, all in promotional mode, and the place had a vibe like a Moroccan Bazaar—with Saharan temperatures to match the mood. Here are a few authors who were there:

Rosalind Bunn & Kathleen Howard – Children’s book
from Deeds Publishing

Penny McCabe Pennington
“It Burns a Lovely Light”

Vanessa Riley – Romance

Jo Cattell – YA Romance
Fallen Angel Series

Tamara Neal – Children’s Books & Self Help

Linda Joyce – Romance
“Bayou Born” – Fleur de Lis Series

Bryan E. Robinson –Mystery
“Limestone Gumption”