I just read: Packing for Mars

pfmcoverI’ve never read a Mary Roach book, although I’ve always heard good things. I knew she was the lady who wrote funny non-fiction books with pithy, mostly one-word titles: Stiff (curious about corpses?), Grunt (curious about troops), Bonk (curious about sex?), Gulp (curious about digestion?), etc.

I for one and curious about the lives of astronauts, so ‘Packing for Mars’ was the book for me. Although I’m disappointed that Roach didn’t stay on-brand and pick a title that seemed vaguely poop- or sex-related. What about ‘Thrust?’ Or ‘Moon?’ Or ‘Void?’ How about ‘Deez ‘Nauts?’

I was impressed with myself that I skimmed through some of the cruder sections. Roach dwells on tales (genuine and exaggerated) of masturbating space-chimps. Then she spends a long time searching for an authentic zero-g sex-tape. Also I thought she was way too exhaustive in her accounts of how astronauts defecate in orbit. Maybe I’m maturing, but these chapters didn’t hold my interest. Or maybe I came to the book looking for something else.

There were quite a few factoids that I did find cool. For example:

– Hot air doesn’t rise in zero-g. Which means that extra steps must be taken to ensure that machines and astronauts don’t overheat.

– Because of surface conditions (less gravity and no wind or moisture) moon dust is more abrasive than earth dirt, and moon dust has annoying static-clingy qualities.

– Motion sickness is a common ailment in space, and vomiting in a gravity-free, helmeted spacesuit can be theoretically quite deadly.

I also liked Roach’s appeal at the end that Earthlings should venture forth to the red planet. Especially considering President Obama’s recent proposals on the subject. Although if you want a book that will amp you up about a new space-race (and that viscerally explains the challenges on living in space) let me be the hundredth person to recommend that you read Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian.’ My review to that book is here.

I’m averse to my adverse reaction

fearful_109227560Grr! Sometimes I want to punch the English language right in its stupid face! Why does it create so much confusion by giving us words with similar definitions, separated by just one or two letters?

Only this week did I realize that there are two words for adverse. One for ‘I’m having an adverse reaction,’ and another for ‘I’m not averse to a little hard work.’ Hard work! It’s hard work keep up with all these doofy definitions.

How about these old chestnuts?
complimentary / complementary
stationary / stationery
principal / principle

Luckily, the differences between these definitions were drilled into my head in junior high.

Here are a few others that annoy me:

alternate / alternative (I wrote a post about these two)
turgid / turbid (and a post about these)
immoral / amoral

And don’t even get me started on words that can mean the opposite of themselves! Dubious, fearful, etc.

I just read: The Fireman

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-11-02-42-pmLet me start by saying that I loved Joe Hill’s book Horns. It was definitely in my top-five books for the year that I read it (2013? 2014?). It was the perfect horror novel, with all the right tropes and a few good twists and deviations in plot structure. Any time a horror/paranormal novel clocks in at over 400 pages, I expect it to be a bit too sprawling. I think the best spooky novels are oftentimes fairly short-and-sweet. But Horns had just that right amount of ‘sprawl’ to it. It bounced back and forth through some classic coming-of-age flashbacks; established a good mystery with some solid red-herrings; established a great, unique villain; and set up the reader for some devastatingly heartbreaking moments. Awesome.

On the other hand, Hill’s latest horror novel, The Fireman, left me with mixed emotions. It’s over 700 pages long, so I can definitely say it felt too long. There’s a lot of stuff stuffed into this book. (OK, not my most well-crafted sentence.) A plague, a near-apocalyptic setting, a psycho ex, escaped convicts, a ghost, a potential psychic, sci-fi exposition involving brain chemistry, a religious cult, a murder mystery, two or three secondary mysteries, a budding romance, car chases and gun fights, whew!

Here’s the basic premise (which definitely drew me in): humanity is being decimated by a plague of spontaneous combustion. The plague is caused by a fungal spore called Dragonscale. The Dragonscale grows on skin in glittering black patterns, like tattoos, but those pretty tattoo patterns can burst into flame when the infected feel stressed. The story follows a recently infected (and recently impregnated) nurse named Harper Grayson.

In the first act of the novel, we follow Harper, seeing the beginnings of the outbreak through her eyes. Hill establishes another great villain in Harper’s husband. He starts off seeming fairly nice, but quickly we see how self-centered, misogynistic, and brittle he can be, especially once Harper becomes infected. Harper makes like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy, and we’re off to ‘Act Two!’

This is where the story became too bloated, in my mind. Harper falls in with a tight-knit community of Dragonscalers who have found a way to tame their infection—to stave off a fiery death. I wanted to skim through parts of this section, which introduced over a dozen characters. Too benign, too boring. Too many corny references to Mary Poppins, 80’s music, and MTV VJ Martha Quinn (Martha Quinn?!? Really?) But of course this is Hill building up a sense of complacency. Just as Harper’s husband revealed his dark side, eventually her new friends show their ugly sides.

My favorite part of this section is Hill’s sci-fi explanations of how the spore interacts with the minds of its hosts, how it has a biological imperative to punish stress and to encourage a harmonious ‘group-think.’ Hill relates this to oxytocin, which is a real-life hormone, and a pretty scary concept in its own right.

The Dragonscalers are being hunted by ‘Cremation Squads,’ who want to end the contamination with a holocaust of their own. So Hill sets up a interesting conflict where we get to see both sides of a mob mentality. The Cremation Squad are xenophobes (violently rejecting outsiders), and yet the people who are supposedly on Harper’s side are too prone to cultishness (tightly controlling insiders).

I love books where close-knit or desperate communities devolve into totalitarianism. The Beach, Lord of the Flies (sort of), Walking Dead, even Watership Down (which is mentioned a few times in this novel). But once again, there’s maybe a few too many scenes, and few too many story elements, and there are points where it seemed like the plot might collapse under its own weight.

I think part of the reason I felt restless was because I expected the xenophobes vs. zealots storyline to play out and climax at the very end of the book. So when I was about 80% through the book, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I have a long way to go before all this stuff is resolved.’ But no, Hill surprised me by changing the status quo earlier than expected.

I won’t talk too much about ‘Act Three’ to avoid spoilers, but I will say I enjoyed it. I could definitely understand why some people might find it slow, or a bit anticlimactic, but I appreciated the change in structure, as a sort of thoughtful, hopeful denouement. Also, I truly didn’t see the last twist coming, and I liked that part very much.

So, overall, I think I’m finding that I like the book more than I thought I did. Just one last comment: Hill tries that trope of taking a fairly banal lyric or rhyme and framing it in a horror context so that it comes off as creepy or bad-ass. But I’m sorry… there’s nothing creepy or bad-ass about Mary Poppins quotes. ‘Spoonful of sugar.’ ‘Chim-chim-cher-ee.’ Ugh. It just reminds me of being forced to watch 60s Disney movies on the last day of school. Although there is a scene that used the Christmas carol, ‘Old Come All Ye Faithful,’ and that scene was very creepy.

Idyll Chatter: False Start

I posted a few weeks ago about how I had started to write Idyll Book 3 from the middle out. (I’m sure the boys at Pied Piper would be proud!) Well, that was a over a month ago, and since then I’ve returned to the proper beginning of the book, and I’ve been treading forward, building characterization and tension (I hope) that will lead to that midway climax that changes the rest of the book.

I knew what characters I needed to inject into the story, where I needed them to be at the midway point, and what new scenarios I had to set in place. So I diligently set to work. Perhaps that was partly where I ran into a problem. Or at least my focus prevented me from seeing the problem, at least for a while. Unfortunately, after writing those first five-or-six chapter, I realized that the process was feeling a little too much like ‘work.’

The first few chapters were coming out boring!

Too much sci-fi exposition. Too much dwelling in the past. Honestly, probably too much characterization—too much angst and hopefulness and mushiness and all that stuff. And no action. In fact, my first outline contained a few twists and interesting reveals in the beginning, but the first real action scene didn’t happen till maybe 15% in.

So I backtracked and started again. And I think EXILE is going to be much better because of it. I’ve moved up the first big action scene, so it starts to happen while we’re still coming to grips with our heroes’ new status quo. And a few dangling, sci-fi-ish threads are twined together and explained (hopefully smoothly, in a way that won’t make more action-oriented fans lose interest).  Also, a critical new character is introduced during the action.

And another character was excised from the plot altogether. Readers of the series hopefully recognize the name ‘Arbiter.’ I had this character arrive in our heroes’ new home and spend a few tense (but wordy) chapters with our heroes before any action begins. Now, the Arbiter will have a much more scaled-back role (but still essential), and a portion of that story will be told through Interludes.

So there you have it! Thank goodness so far I’ve been working in a gap-writing style, so I didn’t waste too much time on my false start. I believe I’m back on track with a story that will be much more enjoyable, middle, ending, and beginning. I’m hoping to have the first draft done my the end of October.

I just read: Sleeping Giants

sleepinggiantsThe description for Sleeping Giants reminded me of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers. To me, that’s a very good thing, because Tommyknockers starts with one of my favorite high-concept openers ever: Woman finds a strange piece of metal stuck in the ground, starts digging, and digging, and digging, and eventually realizes it’s the lip of a gigantic, buried flying saucer.

In Sleeping Giants, it’s a young girl who stumbles upon a huge piece of long-buried alien technology. In this case, she finds a hand. But where’s the rest of the metallic body? It’s up to a shadowy government conspiracy to find it. The girl grows up and joins the shadowy government conspiracy, and soon her and her team are on a globe-spanning quest to find the pieces of their Giant (not unlike G.I.Joe searching for fragments of the Weather Dominator).

Overall, this novel has a fun ‘popcorn’ type feel to it, so a comparison to an afternoon cartoon feels very apt. I was also reminded of the movie ‘Pacific Rim.’ A giant robot? Check! Alien threat? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find the answer to that. But mainly I was reminded of Pacific Rim in the way that the Sleeping Giant is designed to be driven.

The feature of this novel that really helps it stand apart is the way it’s constructed in a sort of ‘found footage’ way. Most of the story is told through transcripts of interviews or communiques, or through descriptions of satellite footage, etc. I suspect some readers will love this type of storytelling, and others will hate it. It does make you work harder to understand what’s going on, and to keep track of characters. In fact, reading ‘Sleeping Giants’ is a bit like putting together your own mysterious puzzle. But this also creates a distance between the reader and the characters. Sometimes the author cheats with this technique to give us more of a perspective into the heroes’ personal lives, and some of these attempts are a bit cringe-worthy. For instance, in at least two separate occasions, agents are being interviewed by their superior and they end up describing sexual encounters with their coworkers.

I never felt fully immersed in a scene, although I was fine with that because I enjoyed the ‘piecing together’ aspect of the reading experience. I’m sure I’ve read other books that are primarily told by letters or transcripts, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t include a huge, drivable robot in them!

The story also takes some very unexpected, whip-fast turns, which was cool. My main beef would be that the ending is a bit anticlimactic—and it’s obvious that the author is setting up a bigger conclusion in Book 2, ‘Waking Gods,’ which doesn’t come out till April 2017. Wakey, wakey! I’m ready to see how the story ends.

The Incredible Judith Tarr

Blair MacGregor

It is my honor—and I mean that truly—to host author Judith Tarr today.

I first read Tarr’s work in the 1990’s, and continue to be swept up in her stories the moment I read the first page. Her novels encompass the fantastical and historical traditions fantasy readers yearn for, and entwines them with characters who are vibrant, real, flawed, and ever striving. Among my favorites of her works are the White Mare’s Daughter and Arrows of the Sun. Both open trilogies filled with marvelous things. The Washington Post said of her work, “Judith Tarr is as confident in describing the battlefields of war as she is in exploring the conflicts of love,” and I must say I agree completely!

So when it looked possible to include Tarr’s newest novel in the Weird Western bundle—and as a debut!—I was biting my fingernails until she said yes. This woman of sharp…

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Decatur Book Festival 2016

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaI scoped out the Decatur Book Festival for a little while on Saturday and listened to a handful of indie authors do the unthinkable… Speak in public!

Check ’em out:

Roger Newman (Suspense Thriller starring a OB/GYN mystery solver)
Michel Le Gribble-Dates (Yoga and storytelling for kids)
Katelyne Parker (Fiction, Hosanna)
James Marshall Smith (Suspense Thriller written by a Radiation expert at the CDC)
Dawn Loetscher (Memoir, Survivin’ the Hand Life Dealt)
Dell Johnson (‘Poetry and Other Muses’)
Bernard Lee, Jr  (‘A Look Back In Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the Fifties’)

Lots of cool genres and types of literature on display at the DBF. If you’re in the Atlanta area (possibly nursing a Dragon*Con hangover?) you should go check it out!