I Just Read: Life After Life

Life After LifeSnow. Darkness falls. Snow. Darkness falls. If you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, those words probably make you think of dead kids, and you probably agree with me that Edwardian England was in sore need of a DFACS. The book’s heroine, Ursula, is killed and reborn several times while she’s an adolescent. Whoo-wee there’s some negligent parenting going on here! And when Ursula finally makes it to womanhood, that’s when the sexual assault and spousal abuse begins.

Sound brutal? Atkinson’s novel about reincarnation, fate, chance, and redemption often is brutal. And also fascinating. It’s a piece of onyx carved by a mad, ingenious sculptor. Turn the carved stone over and over—new facets catch the light, jagged razor-sharp edges leave impressions on your palms. This is what the book was like for me, as Atkinson continuously cycles through the milestones of Ursula life (and of England’s history from WWI through WWII). Occasionally I worried that this series of revisited/revised scenes would get monotonous. Each time I got to that point, Atkinson would deftly hew the script into some new bend of her labyrinth.

With each life, Ursula becomes wiser and more aware of he situation (if always just nebulously), and she evolves into a Valkyrie who—in the name of love—is ready to obliterate the whole of our world history and start the second half of the 20th century from scratch. When the novel ends (the cycle of Samsara doesn’t), Ursula is more like Franka Potente in Run Lola Run than Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors.

Stylistically, Atkinson strays far from standard writing format. She doesn’t use commas when she’s technically supposed to. She layers flashbacks over flashbacks over flashbacks, and loves to use asides nested in parentheses. (“Don’t use parentheses,” Strunk & White would say.) The plot often bleeds into cluster of two or three scenes striated together, which actually fits quite nicely with the central idea of the book. In Life After Life, time is not linear. It’s an onion. It’s a Moebius strip, a flat circle. (Cue Matthew McConaughey and a beer-can doll).

Highly recommended. The end. Darkness falls.

I just read: The Magician King

magiciankingIn June of last year, I was lucky enough to read two great books back-to-back: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Some readers might cringe at my drawing a connection between both of them. Reader reviews of The Magicians have been mixed. Some people dismiss it as simply a New Adult version of Harry Potter (others have praised it as a New Adult version of Harry Potter). The Secret History, on the other hand, is an overwhelmingly (and deservingly) adored.

Both novels are set in cloistered collegiate environments, and the authors hardly try at all to make you like their characters, who are selfish, cliquish, and arrogant. In The Secret History, the character’s misanthropic tendencies are the whole point of the book. In The Magicians, the flaws of the characters help to highlight the treacherousness, the ruthlessness of their magical world. To me, reading The Secret History was an event—it slightly skewed everything I’ve read and written since. The Magicians wasn’t that momentous to me, but it was just as enjoyable. Of the two, I would re-read The Magicians first. And when I finished it last June, I was raring to pick up its sequel.

And that’s when I made one of my classic reading mistakes. I told myself to wait. I don’t know why this is my usual inclination when I find a series I like…to let it linger, as the Cranberries would say. It’s like I think genre books are rich desserts, or Italian meals—part of me thinks I need a buffer period between each, or I’d get sick of them. So instead of reading The Magician King right after The Magicians, I read The Secret History, and that ended up being a good choice. But then I read something else. Then something else.

Before I knew it, a whole year had passed before Grossman’s second Magicians book bobbed back to the top of my reading list. And it was just as fun, as scary, and as intricate as his first. Harry Potter was adapted into theme park rides and Lego video games. The Magicians’ world would be more likely to become a series on FX. Sometimes Grossman’s word-choice gets a little clunky: “He took a breath, tremblier than he wanted to be.” But often his descriptions are beautiful. I read several paragraphs twice. He breathes life into his fantastic scenes with small, mundane details. That’s a technique that I hope to remember and use myself. And he’s really good at taking a ridiculous mystical being and making that entity totally terrifying. Which of course, it would be, if you actually saw it in real life.

Here’s hoping that the final book in his trilogy will be just as fun and harsh. The Magician Land will hit shelves on August 5. I’ve learned my lesson this time; I won’t defer my gratification. I’ll snap that book up right away.

A writing tip that ruined me

This post goes out to anyone who ever felt the stirrings of a panic attack while reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. So many rules, so many words, so many snidely delivered suggestions! Sometimes I’ll take in a writing tip (not necessarily from Strunk and/or White), and the illogical complexity of it will turn me squishy, grammatically paralyzed. In the spirit of kvetching, I thought I’d share one of those paralyzing bits of advice with you.

You’re welcome?

Today’s writing tip that ruined me is the difference between alternate and alternative.

Alternate and alternative are often used as adjectives to mean the same thing: “available as another possibility.” To properly fit this definition, ‘alternate’ is an imperfect alternative. Alternate more properly means ‘every other’ (alternate Saturdays, or alternating Saturdays).

All of that makes pretty good sense, until I start thinking about a term like ‘alternate reality,’ which sounds so much better an ‘alternative reality.’ Or an ‘alternate juror,’ versus an ‘alternative juror.’

Urrgh! Luckily the erroneous synonymity of alternative and alternate is being slowly accepted as a part of our standard English lexicon. Ain’t that cool?

I Just Read: Wynne’s War

ImageLately, I’ve been on the lookout for modern novels that heavily feature horses. But fictional horses seem fairly scarce in the 21st century. Damn you Henry Ford! (And to a lesser extent, Preston Tucker!) So I jumped at Wynne’s War (by Aaron Gwyn) when I saw it. Here’s the basic premise: An Army Ranger, who’s also a horse expert, helps prep a special forces team to ride horses into enemy territory in the mountains of Afghanistan. The book is short, adorned with “simple, masculine prose.” (For some reason, I relate this exact phrase with Ernest Hemingway, although I can’t find anything that confirms the veracity of that association.) The setting descriptions throughout the book are quite elegant, which reminded me of one of my favorite classic novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (I loved most of the books I was assigned to read in school, but this is one of the few I re-read after graduating.)

The book features fascinating details on horses and warfare. Consider the fact that firing an automatic rifle in an enclosed space will creates strains in air pressure that will leave you eyes hurting for days. Call of Duty 4 didn’t go into this stuff! My biggest complaint would be that sometimes the action turns cliched. Stop me if you’ve heard this before:
• A mortally wounded enemy is tortured into a secret (ala Taken, 24)
• A character is nicknamed Ox (ala Saved by the Bell)
• The hero receives stitches without anesthetic (ala Roadhouse)
• The only female in a 1000 square miles falls in love with and beds down with the hero (ala every movie ever starring any member of the Expendables cast)

On the whole, Wynne’s War goes pretty much the way you’d expect it to go, but that doesn’t mean the journey isn’t enjoyable along the way.

A Note about Silicon Valley

I feel like someone pitched Mike Judge an analogy comparing penis manipulation to computer processing, and Judge liked it so much he built his season finale around it. That penultimate segment in “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency” just seemed too perfect, too sublime to have come about from a brainstorming session in the writer’s room. “OK, here’s our protagonists’ problem. How do they solve it? Preferably in a way that involves jack-off jokes.” In this case it seems that the brilliant solution came first and the writers plotted a series of problems to set it up.

That happens to me occasionally (not as often as I’d like). I’ll come up with a cool idea or twist or scene, and then I imagine a whole book or short story crafted around it. For instance I wrote this short story (Under another name. Oooh mysterious!) based on a sudden idea: “Instead of a voodoo doll, what if someone created a voodoo globe?” After several rounds of revisions, the voodoo globe idea started to seem ridiculous (it seemed so awesome in the shower!), and the idea didn’t survive the story that it had helped to spark.



State of My Writing, Spring 2014

It’s time to dust off the portable hard drives and those nearly useless 16MB memory cards. Time to  email attachments to myself. Time to start stashing files in the cloud. It’s back-up time!

As of right now, I’ve finished the 4th (and hopefully final) major redux of TURNING and the 7th (and hopefully final) redux of IDYLL. Whew, what a relief! I started the first version of Idyll in February of 2006! The four main characters and the setting have remained mostly unchanged in eight years. Everything else has changed drastically and often. Right now I want to sit on both stories to plan a potential roll-out in late 2014, early 2015. This is because:

1) I’m skeered.
2) Both books are being reviewed by Beta-Readers
3) I want to absorb as much as I can on the subjects of publishing e-books, marketing e-books, building my platform, etc.
4) It’s a very busy time with my job and attempting to sell our house
5) I’m beta-reading my wife’s new WIP
6) I’m skeered.

And there’s another exciting reason! Only exciting to me probably! I’ve begun humping away on a sequel to Idyll! Three weeks ago, I was one paragraph away from finishing a final revision on a cool short story, when the urge to start on the sequel overtook me. For a long time, I’ve had a rough idea of where I wanted to take the characters in Idyll—their course for a second and third book. But in early May I began to really think about what would happen in Book 3 of the series. I think I came up with a great story—I can see the characters evolving to these great places, and now I can’t wait to write them.

Hopefully Idyll’s first sequel won’t take another eight years to complete. I think I can realistically shoot for eight months. Part of my plan of attack is a tactic I’m calling “gap writing.” I’ve heard in the past that as some writers go through their first draft, they’ll write as fluidly as they can, and leave blanks if they can’t come up with the perfect adjective, or if they don’t want to stop to look up a particular fact. I’m taking that rapid-burst technique a step further: sometimes I won’t even bother to write down proper names. I’m skipping straight to the verbs and their objects. We’ll see, as tactics go, if this is more of a Pickett’s Charge. So far, when I’m on a roll and really enjoying myself, the full sentences seem to flow unbidden from my keyboard. In fact after one particularly fleshed-out, detailed paragraph, I had to stop and remind myself that this is just a first draft, and everything I write could change, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it now. The goal is to end up with a intensely descriptive outline that lays out each chapter, clause-by-clause. Description…Action…Reaction…Description…Metaphor…Dialog…Action… All muscle and bone, but no sinew.

My hope is that I can have Book 2 finished so that it could drop 2-3 months after Idyll is released. That means I could have three novels and one short story on the market by March or April of next year! Of all the self-publishing advice I’ve read, the tip that makes the most sense to me is “Write, write, and write some more. Don’t stop with one book.” The most successful authors have multiple items on their Amazon author pages, so that they can leverage the success of one book to help boost the others.

I Just Read: Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerA team of four women are tasked with charting the mysteries of an isolated coastal wilderness called Area X. Area X seems to irrevocably change any human who enters it (those who are lucky enough to leave). And Area X is spreading.

Reading the description of this book, I knew it fell squarely in my wheelhouse. The actual book fell obliquely; then skidded to a stop in a corner of my wheelhouse than I hadn’t expected, a secluded, Lovecraftian corner. (OK, I’ll drop the wheelhouse euphemism. What the Hell is a wheelhouse, anyway?) I expected to read something sparse and allegorically apocalyptic (The Road), but the book reminded me a lot of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s quasi-Lovecraftian novel, Cold Skin.

That’s not to say that this slim novel isn’t sparse and allegorical apocalyptic. Characters are only signified by job title or role, never by an actual name (the psychologist, the surveyor, the husband, etc.). The overall tone of the book is distant and clinical. The story is told in first person through the journal of a biologist. As a new writer, I’m always struggling with the yin and yang of showing vs. telling. First person POV seems particularly liable to lead to dreaded ‘telling.’ As I read each exceptionally crafted paragraph, it seemed to me that each chunk of prose was at least 60% exposition. But something about this narrative detachment—this fact-to-fact-to-fact storytelling—served to heighten the creep-factor, not buffer the reader from it. The book is punctuated by quite a few skin-crawling moments.

The biologist wanders pine forests and marshes (Man, I love me some maritime settings!) and encounters some typically Lovecraftian horrors of the indescribably monstrous variety. (You know the horrors are ‘indescribable’ because that’s always the first word H.P. Lovecraft used to describe them.) Toward the end of the book, the narrator shifts from detached observations of effed-up, unexplainable events to far-sighted hypotheses of what is actually happening, and that’s when the book takes a step backward. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) This book is Part One of a three-book series, and I hope the next two books don’t shed too much light on this ephemeral mystery that Vandermeer has created.

One more thing: the covers of this series are kick-ass.