Sunday 16 December 2018

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Hardcover, 403 pages
Published  2018 by Hodder & Stoughton

Years ago, I read The Eyre Affair by Mr. Fforde and came away vastly entertained.  A lot of other people were as well, it seems, as a series of adventures featuring the literary troubleshooter Thursday Next poured from Mr. Fforde.  These did not entertain me as much.  I do love wry humour, dry humour and even doses of zany humour, but these books were increasingly, well, "silly".  Nonstop silly.  Silly for the sake of being silly.  Silly overriding any sort of plot or tension or forward action.  Silly to the point that I expected the stuffy major from Monty Python skits to stomp into the scene and demand the proceedings stop on account of being too silly.

Maybe the major did just that.  The books certainly allowed for it.  I, however, was no longer reading them by the time he did.

So, the years dribbled by with me acknowledging Mr. Fforde as a damned creative and clever writer, but not for me, thanks anyway.

And apparently enough years went by that my irritation blurred and faded until only my foggy admiration remained.  When I saw this new novel, I was immediately intrigued.  The clincher came in two parts:  1) It didn't appear to require a minimum of a Bachelor's degree in English Literature to fully appreciate. 2)  It was a stand-alone novel and not part of a #*@&#! series. 

What a wonderful blast of fresh arctic air!  It doesn't require a Lit degree, but a lifetime of SF&F reading certainly helped.  By that I mean, Fforde sets the reader on a strange twist of an Earth and without a suffocating info-dump nor rambling pre-amble, starts off at a brisk trot.  It's one of those races where the reader simply has to trust the author and his skill will keep feeding us details to follow the track and not trip up.  Any and all previous training in dealing with bizarre alien worlds will only help.

And he does.  Tidbits and morsels and offhand remarks place jigsaw pieces to expand the world picture with nearly every page.

(I am tempted to start the book over so I know what some of the background terminology means from the first page)

This "winter Earth" (focussing on Wales) is an elaborate creation and I enjoyed every snow flake of it.  It's strange and crazy and Jasper Fforde at the height of his convoluted creativity.  And while it gets odd in some places, a little goofy in others, it never gets "silly".  Despite the plot revolving around the dead of winter and people lying in hibernation, it is a frenetic action-packed tale that covers a mere handful of waking days for Our Hero, Charlie Worthing.

As always with my reviews here, I don't bother with plot details.  Read the blurb-synopsis on the back of the book for such information.  Early Riser is a fun, engaging romp that will have you thinking differently about winter and wondering about any dreams you have tonight...

PS And Jasper Fforde is a role-model for me as an author.  Not that I could match that convoluted creativity, but that he publishes books like these that defy easy labelling as "science fiction" or "fantasy" and add frown lines to people who find a place for books on their shelves.  I want to write what I want to write, not to write to order for a particular niche market and demographic.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Neutronium prose

I have this minute coined a term in my head for poetry:  neutronium prose.

Poetry takes a perfectly good concept that could be elegantly written in normal sentences but then crushes it and strips it of small but essential words until it is nothing but oddly shaped, mashed metaphor.

Prose is the shining star that beautifies the night or gives life as a sun during a warm day.  A neutron star is a fascinating anomaly without much purpose.

And, I don't want to belabour the comparison any further.

Monday 26 November 2018

Salvation by Peter Hamilton - book review

Salvation by Peter Hamilton
Paperback, 576 pages
Published September 4th 2018 by Del Rey Books

This is making me so darkly melancholy. I am a major fan of Peter Hamilton and I almost did a shout of glee when my turn in library queue came up.

And I'm giving up on it. I'm about one-third of the way into the book and it's like reading some novice's first book rather than one of a seasoned and excellent professional.

The first prologue pages featuring aliens sending infiltrators in a major long game gripped me by the throat. But immediately following is an info dump so thick and clumsy, I could practically hear the reversing beep of the truck as it emptied the pages of character bios all over me. Okay...I tried to keep track of all these dossiers and settled in and...the story jumps to some ridiculous future school without any apparent relevance. Pages of an incomprehensible game between monkeys and kids flounders by. As soon as we're free of that, we go flying back in time to the info-dump characters' past. That sequence actually re-engaged my interest until it ended, flipping us back to the "present day" and the info-dump characters not doing anything but petty sniping and arguing.

Dulling the entire work is a heavy patina of "been there, done that". No dazzling new SF concepts are trotted out, but only the ones Mr. Hamilton has used (and perhaps over-used) regularly in recent years.  His love of wormhole instant travel has hit the point that these characters are using them to save a few steps from bedroom to water closet.  Okay, I'm engaging in hyperbole, but not by much.

As I write this, memories of his Void trilogy bubble up to the surface.  I'd forgotten my impatience with that effort, though I did finish the trilogy.  Every time the plot shifted to the "fantasy novel" of the dreamscape city, I nearly cried with boredom until we returned to human space.  It felt like he'd concocted two or three novels, and rather than simply writing two or three novels, felt obligated (by publisher or reputation?) to shuffle them together to make a giant trilogy thing.

The way Salvation was reading, I suspect he's warming up the same strategy.

I'd just shrug and say "They can't all be magical", but this thing is a trilogy, and judging from Hamilton's past output, that means it'll be the better part of five years before he moves on to a new effort.

*heartfelt sigh.*

Thursday 15 November 2018

Scenes that hit the button...

I saw this pop quiz on a couple of other blogs recently and decided it might be a fun offering for my little part of the web.

What movie moment/scene popped you right in the button?  Whatever emotion that was evoked, be it laughter, awe, tears, fascination, etc and etc.

To get the ball bouncing, here are some movie moments that did it for me:

Dirty Harry (1971) The monologue discussing the .357 and how many bullets remained..."Well, do you punk?"

Star Wars (my original viewing in 1977) - seeing the Millennium Falcon jump to hyperspace. After umpteen SF books describing "jump to hyperspace" there it was on the big screen.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) When Mortimer Brewster (Grant) and Johnathan Brewster (Massey) both madly leap to keep the lid on the window seat closed, securing the dark secret of the contents within. The dawning comprehension and deduction on Grant's face is priceless.

Superman: the Movie (1978) Superman's first appearance. "Don't worry, miss, I've got you." "You've got me? Who's got you?!?" And then the subsequent string of super deeds keeps me smiling.

I'd suggest keeping your offering to three or four moments. Otherwise, you'll discover an hour or three of your day evaporated in memory, research and list-making.

Monday 12 November 2018

Write what you know

There are editors and publishers who take that precept as literal writing law.  They have a needle-point rendition hanging on their wall, and gesture to it when discussing manuscripts with authors.

They are, of course, far too literal and narrow of vision.

People who cling to the literal rule would apparently wheel a wood-chipper into a bookstore and, beginning with the science fiction and fantasy section, work their way thru all the genres of westerns, mysteries, horror and so on, heaving every book into the hopper until nothing but retellings of “Death of a Salesman” remained.  Oh, so treasured would be the books written by former skydiving firefighter spies who could turn a decent phrase.  All the other books would come from people like us, with generally mundane work resumes.  Yawn.

The loophole lies in the word “know”.  Literalists take it to mean “what you’ve smelled with your own nose, seen with your own eyes, what you’ve cried over, what you’ve laughed at”.  Since we do have all those examples of fiction on the shelves, a larger number of people understand “know” also means “what you’ve learned thru intense research”.  As the story goes sailing off to Barsoom or Middle Earth, the research is buoyed up on a surging sea of imagination.  (Or, the dinghy of imagination must be buoyed up on the sparkling lake of research.  That might be more accurate.)  Studying, reading, interviews and collating all that new information is now what “you know”.

Perhaps that is the new definition of “mainstream fiction” - the easier it is to research and interview for facts to fill in the gaps in the author’s personal knowledge, the more “mainstream”.  The genre ripples outwards, probably requiring the author to leave their social circle of contacts to find police detectives, ranchers or combat veterans to interview, or to find credible books written by same.  Further yet, now finding books and people who know the profession as it was a generation or two generations ago.  And further back into history means the interviews are now with historians, and then archaeologists and palaeontologists.  Now it’s bits and pieces that must stitched together by extrapolation and imagination.  Astrophysicists and astronomers and chemists provide facts and their own imaginations and speculations alongside your own.  Finally, you’re in the heady genre realm of “making it plausible to the reader”, because nobody knows for sure.

That “plausibility” is still the slender link back to “write what you know”.  Too many lazy authors think “It’s a scene where a dragon is talking to a little manlike creature about a magic ring”…why do I have to care a sniff about “research”??  Only if you want to write a compelling story of any merit.

How far afield have you gone in your writings?  When did personal experiences need to be supplemented by a goodly portion of research?

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Crack that whip!

I've been lazy.  Not just in blog entries, but in proper writing.  It's not entirely due procrastination or being bone idle, but there is too much of those elements among the solid reasons.

Deadlines are the only answer, but establishing a deadline with "teeth" is almost impossible without Supreme Cosmic Willpower or an outside agency with sufficient influence to catch my attention.

The additional wrinkle is few people want the responsibility of being the "bad guy".  They don't want to be the whip-cracker as any overt duty, possibly having me become resentful of their nagging.

It's a conundrum.

However, I've managed to do this twice.

The first time was with my 8-year old niece.  She asked about the status of my book (my first effort ever at the time).  I said I had not been doing much on it lately.  She was confused and horrified.  "Why not?"  I went to answer and, looking into those big innocent eyes, found that the usual adult bullshit reasons about life being too busy would *not* fly at all.  I arranged that she would be my editor and check to make sure I wrote five pages a week.  We shook hands before witnesses.  No consequences beyond seeing my procrastinating lazy ass reflected in those disappointed eyes.  Finished that book before the summer ended.

The second time was more consciously developed.  My girlfriend (now wife) and I established that if I didn't do a minimum of five pages a week, I'd have to watch a musical with her, AND be a happy date.  I _hate_ musicals. Again, this proved excellent incentive.  I lasted a couple of months before outside, realio-trulio pressures tripped me up.  A deal is a deal and went to Hairspray with a smile on my face thru out the experience.  Fortunately, I had already developed enough momentum to finish that book as well.

WELL, it's time to cast about for a Third Arrangement.  My writing groups provide incentive, but we only meet once per month.  That is not enough.  I need to get some major keeness on my ass.

Ponder, ponder, ponder..


Wednesday 20 June 2018

LeVine and Bergman

That's not pronounced "leveen", but rather rhymes with "that's divine".  

Hmm...maybe that's too prissy for our private dick, Jack LeVine, but not necessarily.  Under that bald melon and behind that big beezer is a sophisticated brain.  Sure, he likes his poker and the Yankees, but he's no palooka.  He appreciates the high brow stuff, and anyone who crack wise at the rate Jack does has more than a little bit between his ears.

The adventures of Jack LeVine, moderately successful private detective in New York City, take place in 1944, 1947 and 1950.  The tough guy slang and lingo doesn't run so thick as to be silly, but Bergman employs it to good effect to set the time period.  In point of fact, Bergman obviously did his homework because the time periods read very much as a slice of life from days gone by.  The sharp writing takes you in the time machine and leads you thru a crisp, crackling tale with marvellous description and vibrant plots.

For a low-rent shamus, Jack LeVine gets mixed up in some extremely high-rent cases.  Luckily, our hero has the moxie to bluff and bullshit his way through tight encounters, or dodge fast when his mouth fails him.  Once he wipes off the sweat and catches his breath, then his brain is likewise up to the task of playing in those big leagues.

Other places on the web will give large or small synopses of the what LeVine faces, but they come across as spoilers to me.  Each case starts out, as all these P.I. stories do, with quirky small potatoes stuff.  A young dish wants Jack to recover some stag movies before the blackmail gets too hot.  An old college chum pops out of the past to lure Jack to Hollywood to discover why the studio is dragging its heels on contract negotiations.  A strange duck of a violinist reckons his boss has been replaced by a twin.  All three expand and expand and before you realize it, those quirky small potatoes are now gigantic.

If a sharp visit to the classic private eye genre is up your dark alley, I heartily recommend all three.

Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue

Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue (The Bern Saga #1)  by Hugh Howey
Published September 1st 2009 by 

Hugh Howey came thundering on to my book shelf with Beacon 23. That was some fine reading. I then tried the much acclaimed Wool and was forced to discard that for being exceptionally tedious. Well, what else has Mr. Howey written...?

I didn't get as far into Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue as I did Wool. I'm beginning to think Beacon 23 was Howey's "one hit wonder" moment.

This book is pablum. Many other reviewers try to excuse the lack of substance due to being "young adult", but youth need to be protected from this sort of drivel as much as overt sex or violence.

 There's no gravitas. There's not even a nod to plausible world-building or convincing space opera science. It's a simplistic video game of a universe where flat cliches are go bouncing by without so much as a toe grounding it to reality. 

The single most annoying aspect is the way it demeans the female sex. The hero might be female, but she is nothing but the sappiest of teenage stereotypes that lets men do far too much of the heavy lifting in the plot. We're constantly told she's a dynamic firebrand of a go-getter, but we're never actually shown her doing anything special.  Maybe Molly finally rises to the challenge of breaking the male domination of the galaxy in this or subsequent books, but I can't be bothered to wade that far.

(The graphic artist in me can sum up the quality of the book by directing your attention to the insipid cover art.  As the saying goes, the contents are just what it says on the tin...)

Sorry, I'm beginning to rant a bit hotter than necessary here, so I'll sign off.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Play nice

I read some wise advice recently offering that the first move for any new writer is to join a "writing group".  This is where a half-dozen writers submit works-in-progress to each other and critique the pieces at the next scheduled meeting.

After "join a writing group", I would add as the first sub-clause:  "And leave your Attitude at home."  Writing is an intensely solitary affair, so you have to make sure your diplomacy skills are rust-free and oiled up.  You're there to learn and you're there to teach at the same time, so bring all the friendly consideration and open-minded modesty you can carry.

Being Defensive will get you nowhere.  It may feel like these nasty people are stabbing forks into your beautiful baby, but take a breath.  They're trying to help.  If you can't take some attempts at constructive criticism now, you're gonna be one sad puppy later on when the 1-star reviews pile up online from uncaring strangers.

Being Offensive is even worse.  Defensive is only making everyone feel awkward as you pout like a toddler.  Throwing snark, insults and sarcasm might get you big points in some forums, but face-to-face will only get you booted from the group.  Good riddance.

And you can't dump all that open-minded, goody-goody stuff at the coat rack when you get home.  You can't just slip back into your Attitude.  You have to really give a think to the various suggestions offered your piece.  If five of the six group members thought your hero's six page soliloquy on the hazards of goat choreography was a bit too long, you have to sit and honestly roll it around your head.  Could it be trimmed?

The benefits of a writing group are manifest and many, but only if you play nice with others.  Just like your parents told you at the playground.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

A question that came up elsewhere:

Why do folks love to read books about post-apocalypses and dystopias?

Dystopias?  I haven't a fargin' clue.  Like a variety of similar dark diversions, I can only guess it's because the real world looks so much better when they surface from the book?  It feels so good when I stop hitting myself with a hammer?

Post-apocalyptic (as in the photo above), has been a popular sub-genre for decades, since the beginning of the Cold War.  I think it's because everyone has experienced a visceral scream of a moment where we wish all the clods, chuckleheads, line-cutters, bullies, mindless celebrities and politicians would just go away.  LEAVE ME ALONE!

When you're a kid, especially, the idea of demanding teachers, authoritarian parents, halfwit classmates, and all the pressures of a young life disappearing in a nuclear fire ball is a deeply satisfying image.

The curious aspect is that very few, if any, authors concoct stories where everyone vanishing is a good thing in any way.  I surmise the raw emotional fantasy is satisfied within a few pages of learning how the stinky old world ended.  That out of our system, we then settle in with a more mature attitude of seeing what happens next.

The "Robinson Crusoe" problem-solving aspect has great appeal as well.  To have any successful post-apocalyptic story, the author has to supply the survivor-hero with many moments of ingenuity in their new life.

But, as we read a post-apocalyptic story, I think half our brain is ignoring the hero altogether.  We're absorbing the setting the author provides and charting our own strategies.  The hero manages to get a truck started.  Nay, nay we say.  Stick with bikes for the maneuverability....  A post-apocalyptic novel is almost a rule-less, informal "Pick Your Own Adventure" book.  "What would I do next?"

Where is the line between "dystopian" and "post-apocalyptic"?  Many (not all by any means) dystopian cultures are born of an apocalypse.  Are they not then one and the same?

I'm thinking the difference comes down to population.  Post-apocalyptic is one survivor up to, well that's hard to say.  Essentially few enough people where we can know them all.  Where they all interact with each other on a daily basis to exist.  When the group gets large enough that we can't follow what everyone does, nor can the main hero, that's now a society.  And trying to cobble new rules and laws for a large group means we've crossed to "dystopian".  (Well, maybe their new society is better than ours, making it a utopian novel.)

As a kid (and maybe not so young for it to be an excuse), I remember many a post-apocalyptic novel that lost me when "the elections started".  How are we divvying up the scavenge?  Who's going to farm and how do we punish those who aren't pulling their weight?  That stuff could be fascinating, depending the skill of the author, but I began to read with a more academic interest than real excitement.

Back to the business of the day, because this world still exists!

Thursday 15 March 2018

Double-space after a period

Double-spacing looks better.

Double-spacing feels better.

Double-spacing is all that keeps the dark elder gods from entering our plane of existence.

I'll never stop.

Friday 2 March 2018

Diplomacy Hospitalized in Head-On Collision

“Could you give me some feedback?  Any comments are welcome.”

A piece of writing is given to you for your thoughts.  A one-on-one favour, some online writing circle or an in-person writing group - the source is mostly irrelevant.  You’re being asked to assess and critique a person’s baby.  And, “baby” is a particularly apt comparison.  Like any new mother and tot, the writer is equally protective and defensive while the words on paper are equally precious and valued.

(Veteran writers, or any creative artist, try to work up a “thick skin”.  It’s impossible.  One never develops armour.  One develops layers of scar tissue that can still shriek with agony when prodded too hard.)

Therefore, any critique has to be done with careful diplomacy.  No harsh or rude language is allowed (“What crap!” “You’re fronting for a baboon trying to be writer, aren’t you?”).  Definitive statements are rarely allowed (except by editors when money is involved).  No, “change this” or “remove this character” but rather everything is couched in opinion and suggestion:  “I wonder if changing this part might sharpen the scene up?” or “I don’t know if this character is really plausible.”

Diplomacy and politeness are the code.  Any real-world writers group will soon teach a guy these standards, if only by the golden rule.  Be blunt and scathing all you want, but only if you can take it on the chin coming back at you.  Usually, though, any uncivilized bugger will be shown the door by democratic vote.

Okay, armed with these concepts, and at least moderately skilled by using them regularly, what do you do with that dewey-wet new manuscript when it stinks?  I don’t mean a “soiled diaper” stink, but “who fed this baby rancid chili?” stink.

Fortunately, my in-person writing groups have quality talent.  Some are stronger with a turn of phrase than others, but everyone all the basics well in control.  No, it was this morning while visiting an online writing circle where one eager chap offered a few pages for the world to judge.  I started reading, diplomacy and writing skill standing at the ready.  

Two paragraphs in, diplomacy is reeling and writing skill’s jaw is hanging open in disbelief.  

A full page in sees diplomacy throw up his arms in defeat and leaves for a quiet nap.  Without diplomacy monitoring the procedure, writing skill is now alternating between guffaws of ridicule and sobs of despair for human literacy.

What does a guy say, faced with such a chemical weapons attack of a submission?  There was no part to praise.  There was no faint spark to fan with encouragement.  My personal integrity won’t allow me to say any mealy-mouthed platitudes of “It’s…different.”  The only possible action is to retreat and regroup, preparing cautious statements “There are lot of spelling typos.” and maybe “For a rough first draft, it has some potential.”

I’m not being rhetorical.  I’m asking y’all:  what do you say in such a situation?