Monday, April 17, 2017

Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton)

Finishing School
Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton
Tarcher Perigee
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many people have unfinished stories in their drawers, attics, or computer hard drives. The mystery novel started in college, the memoir of a family tragedy, the articles on your hometown history, the short story stubs you meant to follow through on... even professional writers often have those projects that never seem to get done. Simple logic tells you that, if you don't write your stories, nobody else ever will - but simple logic doesn't make it any easier to pick up a dusty manuscript, or clear time in a too-hectic schedule, or overcome the obstacles like fear and shame that grow like thorns around unfinished projects over time. To help, authors Tennis and Morton present a method that has helped them, and countless others, organize their time and get the motivation they needed to put the final period on that long-neglected project.

REVIEW: As a writer myself, I know my proverbial trunk is packed far too full of novels, story stubs, and free-range ideas, so when I saw this title I figured it could help. The concept of "Finishing School" involves committing to smaller steps and holding oneself accountable via a group and the "buddy system" - not to critique or judge, as many writing groups do, but simply to have that outside person to answer to for doing (or not doing) what you need to do. It needn't even be active writing; just committing time to get back to an old or thorny project and look it over, to decide what the next step is, is invaluable. The idea gels with other material I've been reading lately on time management and thinking of projects in terms of just "the next step." Both authors came at the subject with different backgrounds and approaches to writing, each adding a different voice in favor of the Finishing School method. They start with a section on the reasons people commonly abandon projects (many of which ring true, though a few felt like they struck just to the side of the bullseye from my experiences), followed by a description of the process and its results for themselves and others. It's an interesting idea, one I intend to try - though I may have to hybridize it, as I have notoriously poor luck with group activities.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins) - My Review

Monday, April 10, 2017

11/22/63 (Stephen King)

Stephen King
Pocket Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In 2011 Maine, schoolteacher Jake Epping never dreamed time travel was possible - until his friend Al Templeton, dying of cancer, lets him in on a secret. In the back of Al's diner is a portal to 1958, always the same moment - and no matter how long one stays in the past, one always returns just two minutes later in the present. For years, Al just used the local market and 1950's prices as a cheap source of meat for his burgers, but then he realized he could do more... much more, such as prevent the national tragedy due in November 1963: the assassination of President Kennedy. Al tested his theory by preventing smaller tragedies, then meticulously stalked killer Lee Harvey Oswald, but his ill health caught up to him before he could act. Now he passes the secret and his notes to Jake. But time travel is tricky, and time acts to protect itself from even the best-intentioned meddlers...

REVIEW: I've read a couple books and the odd short story by Stephen King, and while they weren't bad, I never got the huge hype surrounding him. Still, the subject of this one intrigued me (and I had a coupon to burn off at the bookstore that day), so I picked it up... and was very impressed. This is the writing that I hadn't encountered before, the stuff that elevated King to his near-cult status.
Jake isn't a perfect hero, struggling to do what he thinks is right against increasing resistance from various sources. His exploration of the past reveals the good and the bad of history, a world often viewed through the glow of nostalgia but which was every bit as contradictory as modern times, where attitudes may be (slightly) different but humans remain human, for better or worse. Time itself becomes a character, a stalking force that feints and strikes and tempts Jake off his course. His ultimate goal may be to stop assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but even as he pursues that goal he must live his own life in the past, a life where even the best plans and truest loves are seemingly doomed for being built on lies. The story is a bit of a slow burn, but interesting enough to keep me reading, building at last to a tense climax - but what comes after the climax is even more powerful. King's extensive research makes both the "Land of Ago" and the characters come to life, turning the cast into much more than names in a history book or conspiracy theory essay. Reading this book in 2017 is a very different experience than it would've been just a few years ago; much of the ugliness of the past that Jake saw, the ugliness so many of us thought was slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, has come back to threaten our future, casting a bit of a pall over the ending. Nevertheless, I found it an eminently satisfying read, riddled with interesting details and recurring themes and moments that kicked it up a half star in the ratings.
(As a closing note, I still say the best-ever explanation for the JFK assassination was the one posited in the British sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, in the episode "Tikka to Ride".)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglimia) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide (Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip)

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide
Phillip Wilkinson and Neil Philip
Dorling Kindersley
Nonfiction, YA Mythology
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A quick-reference guide to myths and gods from around the world.

REVIEW: This portable overview of global myths and deities earns marks for covering a wide array of cultures, from the oft-retold Greek and Roman tales to less common myths from Africa and Oceania. It divides itself by region, then includes a quick-reference at the back grouping gods by basic roles (war, love, and so forth.) However, it also glosses over major chunks of mythology (such as chopping off often-tragic endings to Greek hero myths), and its summaries sometimes feel frustratingly incomplete. This is, naturally, one of the trade-offs required to keep this visual reference guide from becoming a multi-volume oversized encyclopedia set, but I still wondered if more could've been done to preserve some cultural touchstones or relevance; many of these stories lose a lot simply by being translated, with connections that seem obvious to the original tellers lost to those of us reading it in a different language and culture. Like most DK titles, there are numerous illustrations from various sources. In the end, I went with a Good rating, considering it as a simple introduction to world mythology.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends (Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Micheal Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review
Eyewitness Books: Mythology (Neil Philip) - My Review

Friday, March 31, 2017

March Site Update

Finally got the March update for the main site posted, archiving and cross-linking the previous ten reviews. (I've been having internet issues all day...)


Monday, March 27, 2017

Caliban's War (James S. A. Corey)

Caliban's War
(The Expanse series, Book 2)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, a team of scientists discovered humans were not alone in the universe - and attempted to exploit the protomolecule, the virus-like creation of an unknown species, for profit, an effort that nearly led to the obliteration of life on Earth. Now, it has taken over uninhabited Venus, running through its inscrutable "program" while baffled humans observe. With the outfit behind the outbreak dismantled and every known sample beyond Venus destroyed, everyone thought that the threat was as good as contained... but everyone thought wrong.
Martian space marine Roberta "Bobbie" Draper was stationed on Ganymede, the "breadbasket" of the outer colonies, when an impossible monster attacks, leaving her the only surviving witness to a strike with all the earmarks of the protomolecule. She becomes a pawn in a political game played by her Martian superiors and the United Nations of Earth and Luna, but what she really wants is to avenge her fallen friends, no matter the cost.
Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede, thought the greatest tragedy of the attacks was the loss of his experimental crops - until he learns that his young daughter Mei was abducted by her doctor, along with several other children, mere hours before the trouble began. His desperate search leads him to a most unlikely knight: Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante, who are either thieves, heroes, terrorists, or traitors, depending upon whom one asks. All Prax knows, or cares, is that when he needed help, they were there... but the search for Mei becomes part of a much greater conspiracy.
Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala has been a vital cog in the government machine, not to mention a shrewd player in the game, for decades, but never in her career has she faced anything like this. As the fallout of the Ganymede incident again tilts the delicate balance of power toward open interplanetary war, alliances crumble and enemies turn up in the most unexpected places. For the first time. Avasalara may have been outmaneuvered - and if she loses the game, countless people may lose their lives.

REVIEW: Like the first book, Caliban's War presents a well-paced tale of space travel, political intrigue, grit, and wonder, not to mention a good deal of explosions and gunfights. The characters aren't always the deepest, but they do grow and change. Holden has been scarred by his experiences in the first book, and must work to rediscover himself even as he finds himself once more plunged into danger. (If the other crewmembers of the Rocinante are somewhat less scarred, they didn't personally experience what Holden did - plus, they're more of a supporting cast than stars, even if their personalities and backgrounds expand here.) The new characters each bring strengths and weaknesses to the table, not without some personality and agenda clashes. They also, like the first book, represent a nice swath of diversity in a genre that sometimes still leans a little white and male. It's not a deep or profound read, with some of the writing still clunking a bit now and again, but it nevertheless entertains. This book also ends on a hook (not a true cliffhanger) that makes me glad I have Book 3 already on hand, even if it might have to wait a bit before I pick it up. So far, I'm enjoying this series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Star Rigger's Way (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke) - My Review
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) - My Review