Welcoming New Books With Squee

I know what you’re thinking: “Two posts in two days? Did some one die?” No. No one died, why would you think that? That’s horrible. Can’t a woman deviate from her regular blogging schedule without the internet rubber-necking for a look at the bodies? Yeesh.

Actually, this week has been a mix of awesome and frustrating. I’ll start with the awesome first, because it’s really, really awesome. Also because I’m sure people will read the whole thing if I promise some sort of emotional carnage at the end.

Starting at the beginning, way, way back at the start of this week, I came home from shopping to a failure to deliver mail slip from the embassy. Sweet! New passport, I can finally buy my Christmas plane tickets home! But there being no time to pick it up at that moment, I went after work to grab my stiff new passport. When I got home, I found yet another failure to deliver slip waiting for me. This one from a package sent from New York. GASP!

So I busted open the door and cried, “Alex! We gotta go to the post office. NOW!”

“Why?” she called back down.

“Because it’s here!”

“What’s here?”

“IT!” And then I ran outside and whined at the door until she sauntered out as if the post office were open 24/7 and I wouldn’t die of disappointment if I didn’t have it in my hands that very night. I think I might have violated a few traffic laws in rushing down there, but I was too much of a blur for the cops to see me running reds on my bicycle. It was 8pm. When did the post office even close? Would I be able to retrieve it at all that night?

The lights were still on at the main office, and no one had bothered to pull down the blinds. It doesn’t matter what office hours are printed on the door, post office availability follows the same logic as Halloween candy availability: if the porch light is on, we’re good to go.

Huffing and red-faced, and slapped my second failed delivery notice on the front desk. “So-Sorry. One- just one more- please.”

The lady at the counter gave me a pitying look as she took my slip to the back, but I didn’t care. It was back there. The good vibes could not be contained. When she handed me my package, I left her with my identification card. No time could be spared. I had to get home. Had to open it.

Magically we acquired food somewhere along the way, but that was secondary compared to the package I had in my hand. With the tender care of a heart surgeon I slit open the box, and with the energy and excitement of each of my twenty-eight Christmases combined, I lifted away the protective wrap. This is what I found:

IMG_1695

Books. Beautiful, coveted, signed books. I was not expecting such generosity. I wasn’t expecting anything for what was a small favor to an admired author. I’m delighted and anxious to start reading all of these, but I really have to be done with Empires of Sand first. (Honestly, I don’t know why I bother making a yearly reading list. Too many other books jump in, demanding to be read.) My most gleeful thanks to both Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman for the above gift. These will most certainly be numbered among my personal treasures.

Ends

Let’s now return to the aforementioned Christmas plane tickets. Due to some family concerns, I’ve decided to go back to Canada this Christmas again. Waiting another two years for another visit is undesirable at this time. My family had in the past expressed puzzlement as to why Alex does not travel with me to visit them, and the reason for that is purely economic. It costs on average about $1200 for a single person to fly from Japan to Canada and back. For the both of us to take the trip would be at least $2500, not including finding someone to take care of the dog. My family, inclusive as they always are, decided to raise the money among themselves to pay for the both of us to visit this Christmas. (This would make a terrific holiday special.)

In fact, I managed to find good plane tickets for the both of us that didn’t even use all the money they sent us. Huzzah! The difficulty started when, in the time it took for me to submit all my information to the travel agency, the price jumped up by $800. But when I say that the tickets were good, I mean it. They were really good tickets, with a fast airline and short layovers. I figured that they were worth the increase, and accepted the change. And immediately after I confirmed the whole thing I realized that the increase put the total price over my credit limit.

Naturally, the charge was declined, but the agency kindly informed me that I should double check all my information and try again, or call them to consider other options. Knowing immediately what the problem was, I called my credit card instead. The continuation of my problems was likely in part my fault. The company assured me that the increase would be easy and simple, rattled off the information they had on file for me, and without pausing to allow me to confirm or edit any of it, sent the short application. It was rejected.

So I was sent to another department for a long version of the application, in which I corrected all the information they had on file for me, and answered all their questions truthfully. Perhaps too truthfully. I probably should have mentioned my marital status, but they never asked for it. As a result, it likely looks to them that I am living way above my means. I seem to have been denied my increase.

But, no matter. The agency gave the option to pay over two credit cards. All I had to do was call them and request that the additional cost be charged to Alex. It was a flawless plan that had only one flaw: the agency call center appears to be abandoned. I waited on hold, listening to the same robot man informing me that they were experiencing an unusually high call volume, for thirty minutes. Twice. While calling on international rates.

So I sent them an email. It may have been slightly passive aggressive. I’m still waiting to hear back.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014
256 pages
4 stars

 

I finally have a weekend free to do some reviewing (for that matter, to do some reading for reviewing later). Weeks of stress and studying have come to an end. Time to get back into the literary saddle. My creative brain was wound so tight that when I sat at the keyboard last night, had one drink and next thing I knew there were 2,500 shiny new words before me. Awesome. If only they’d always come that easy. Not sure yet if they’re any good. Honestly, I’m afraid to look.

As with most issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I enjoyed this one. While nothing in particular stood out and a couple stories didn’t do it for me, on the whole it’s a good read.

FSF May Jun

Which I’m going to do my best not to spoil. Promise.

The End of the Silk Road
David D. Levine
One-star-rating-1

I liked this story the least out of the issue. There are a few genres I don’t normally care for, but can read if they’re interesting enough. Detective mysteries are one of those genres, however The End of the Silk Road doesn’t have much in it to make it fresh. Several times throughout the story I felt I could skip whole paragraphs of familiar tropes that didn’t do all that much for the narrative. The story suffers an insufficiently entertaining first person protagonist, and wears its sci-fi skin like a bed sheet with eye-holes cut out.

Mike Drayton, PI has been hired to investigate the business of a Venusian drug dealer by his rival in love and life, Victor Grossman. If he can keep his hands off the dames and his head in the game, he stands to earn a tidy profit out of the deal, even if his employer is the last sleaze in the solar system he’d want to work for. But of course, it’s never that easy for a private investigator, and the past–both ugly and beautiful–has a way of stalking up on those lugging around too much baggage.

I rolled my eyes enough through this story to give myself eye strain, but if you’re a fan of detective mysteries and sci-fi settings, you’ll likely enjoy The End of the Silk Road a lot more than I did.

The Fisher Queen
Alyssa Wong
three and a half

Alyssa Wong’s take on mermaids in The Fisher Queen is both startling and intriguing. The story is as disturbing as it is poetic. Visceral without being graphic. Familiar and exotic. What I didn’t like about it came down to mechanics, specifically near the end where some things were left too unexplained to feel like the story concluded satisfactorily.

Mermaids are real. Lily knows it. Everyone says her mother was a mermaid, but she knows it’s not true. They’re just stupid fish, after all. She catches them for sale as an Asian delicacy. They’re ugly and dumb, and only worth what wealthy people will pay to eat something unusual. But there’s a seedy underbelly to the fishing industry that she doesn’t know about. Secrets, lies and questionable morals come to light when Lily joins her father on a deep sea fishing expedition and the truth is a deep, cold ocean.

The things I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about this story surprised me but ultimately, I couldn’t connect with Lily’s motivations, especially at the end. I don’t like it when characters experience a light-switch of inner change. The transformation always seems too sudden to be believable. Still, it is a gripping story, perhaps to inspire a few nightmares.

White Curtain
Pavel Amnuel (Translated by Anatoly Belilovsky)
4 stars

This was a bit of a confusing story to begin with. It took a while for the scene to settle itself, and the characters who keep interrupting each other and vaguely hinting at the past make trying to understand the science fiction or even the premise of the story a bit of a challenge. However, once the reader gets their footing steady enough, this is actually a very pleasant read.

Dima has been having a difficult time of it. His wife Irina is a year dead and he has exhausted every avenue he can think of to bring her back. His final option is to consult with their old friend and colleague Oleg, now considered by some as a prophet. Dima knows Oleg is highly skilled at splicing together realities to alter people’s lives, after all, they used to work together, but will Oleg even agree to help him after Dima stole Irina away from him, all those years ago?

The prose in this story make it a wonderful read, as well as the sad procession of emotions that really tug at the heart strings. It is one of the best stories in the anthology, in my opinion.

Presidential Cryptotrivia
Oliver Buckram
4 stars

Like much of Buckram’s work, this collection of totally true secret facts about each American president is short, witty and entertaining. For that, I can forgive the lack of a story here. These little tidbits of shocking revelations gave me a few giggles of which I’m always thankful to Buckram for.

Bartleby the Scavenger
Katie Boyer
3-stars-out-of-5

A bit of a caveat to this review: I don’t care for retellings, I don’t like dystopias and Bartleby the Scrivener alternated between boring me to sleep and frustrating me into high blood pressure. That said, the fact that I could give Bartleby the Scavenger three stars at all has everything to do with Boyer’s skill as a writer.

If you’ve read Herman Melville’s original story, then there isn’t anything all that new in Boyer’s retelling. Even the names are very cheekily similar, if not the same. I’m fortunate to have read the story in the recent enough past that it hasn’t dissolved into obscurity from my goldfish memory, and I was able to connect the dots between the two works. There are many, many connections.

I won’t spoil it further though. Boyer weaves the original tale seamlessly into a post-apocalyptic landscape with several dystopian embellishments embroidered into the pattern, and comes out with something that is as original as it is derivative. I didn’t enjoy reading it any more than I enjoyed reading Melville’s story, but Boyer is clever enough to bring all the elements together in such a way that I could at least tip my hat to the talent that it took to do so.

Rooksnight
Mark Laidlaw
4 stars

As soon as I saw the cover of this issue I was excited. It couldn’t be, could it? A continuation of Bemused from the Sept/Oct 2013 issue? Oh yes it could! I wasn’t disappointed either. The characters still hold up, and though the plot is nothing out of the ordinary for a fantasy, it keeps itself entertaining.

It’s a tough life being a traveling bard, tougher still when you’re on a mission with a gargoyle. You never know where your next meal will come from. Sometimes you’ve got to steal it from a nest, and sometimes you’ve got to accept dinner invitations from suspicious folks. After the bloody events of Rooksnight, however, I’m not sure if Gorlen will seriously consider either option in the future.

One thing that did snag me a bit was that the prose–especially in the beginning–felt very self important. I wouldn’t have minded this all that much if the POV had been more closely attached to one of the characters. This not being the case, it stumbled my reading a little bit. Fortunately, this quirk seemed to be shaken off later in the story as the action picked up. Laidlaw is a master of evocative description, and the story ended very strongly, with a nice full circle turn-around that always delights me in fiction. I hope to read more of the adventures of Gorlen and Spar in subsequent issues.

The Memory Cage
Tim Sullivan
3-stars-out-of-5

I’m a little on the fence with this one as I find myself with a lot of Sullivan’s writing. On the one hand, the emotions in The Memory Cage are clear, crisp and painful. On the other, the mechanics of it, the drawn out exposition, the sci-fi necessary dystopian setting, and the overly familiar genre tropes bogged me down as I read it. I think I enjoyed it, but I can’t say that for sure.

Death isn’t the end, at least not definitively. Not any more. Not since the discovery of little pockets of revived consciousness, floating about in space, charged up by the interaction of particles. Jim can’t explain it–he’s just a technician, but he’s been honing in on his late father’s signal for a while now, searching for answers to the wrong questions while the those back on Earth destroy themselves.

There’s a lot of information in this story that I’m not sure all relates, but it is put together well enough that I can’t decide if it made the read difficult or not. Really, I think I liked and disliked this story in exactly equal proportions.

The Shadow in the Corner
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
3-stars-out-of-5

Despite a small victory up there with Bartleby the Scavenger, this is yet another story which I will have to admit ignorance of the source material. At least regarding specific details. The Cthulhu mythos is pervasive enough on the internet that it’s impossible to not have some knowledge of it.

Arnold Boatwright and Agrawal Narendra are just two scientists out of many who have tinkered with the secrets of the universe they’ve got no business messing with–as all good scientists do. It’s clear that the experiment (given the Frankenstein treatment of “the details are too horrifying to ever be made public”) has gone gone wrong, but no one knows just how horribly wrong. Well, Agrawal does. He saw… it. Directly. Everyone else saw… whatever it was second hand. Through a recording that they can’t get to play the same way again. Now Agrawal is convinced there’s something in the corner. A shadow. And it’s getting closer. And closer.

And closer.

Containment Zone
Naomi Kritzer
3-stars-out-of-5

I think the thing that kept me most from enjoying this story was the fact that I couldn’t pinpoint the protagonist’s age. In the end I placed her somewhere near to fifteen, but only because there were moments when I thought she was as old as twenty, and others as young as eight. This inability to accurately picture her in my head kept me largely out of the story, like an anxiety lingering on the fringes of the mind can ruin an otherwise pleasant day.

Rebecca is just like any other (?) aged girl, except that she lives with her father on a seastead off the coast of LA called New Minerva, free of things like national laws and regulations. When one day a mysterious illness strikes Min and several other seasteads, her father dumps Rebecca with one of their neighbors and disappears to fight the new infection, only appearing again briefly to give Rebecca and her host family a trial vaccine. But sitting quietly inside and waiting for the crisis to blow over is just not something that precocious children do, and confident that the totally untested vaccine will keep them safe, Rebecca and her friend Thor venture out of their quarantine to see just what the heck is going on. And boy, the skeletons are tumbling all the way out of the closet.

The pacing of this story is a little off from my personal tastes. It starts very slowly and ends in a sprint, to a sudden and unsatisfying conclusion that again made me question the protagonist’s age. The fact that I couldn’t decide if the story was supposed to be taken seriously or as a playful bit of fun at the expense of more melodramatic sci-fi also made reading this one a little uncomfortable, but in the end the characters were entertaining enough, at least to read it without much difficulty.

The next book on my reading list is Empires of Sand by David Ball. I swear I’m going to finish it this time, guys.

In the Black Abyss Without a Light or My Writing Process

Last week Lori L MacLaughlin tagged me in the writing process blog hop. After I spat out my coffee and had a series of mini elementary playground flashbacks (I’m it, I’m IT. Crap, What are the rules? No tag backs? Is fist to chin a sin? Is the girl’s bathroom a safe zone? Is it?!) I realized I was only supposed to write about how I write, and then tag some other tormented writer souls to do the same. Damnit, Lori, you made me break my no talking about writing streak. So if there’s anyone out there who is sitting on the edge of their seats, biting their nails to a bloody nub waiting for this information, here it is, but I’ve got to tell you, I’ve withheld it this long for a reason.

Also, I’m stealing the questions from Alex’s blog, because then at least I have some structure. Structure is good. Structure is nice. Ooo, I should include that in my answers:

 

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

Oh boy, what am I not working on? I have a novel that I’ve been starting and scrapping, and starting and scrapping again for over two years now. I’ve finally just ripped the delete key out of my keyboard to power through it without the nagging need to smear away everything I’ve written in tears and rum. It’s an other-world, dark fantasy set in the (a?) desert, because Europe is hella boring you guys. Seriously. I’m aiming for 150,000 words because that seems like it would produce a book of a decent clubbing weight.

Other than that I’ve got another two, or possibly three novel ideas bubbling around in my head including but not limited to, magical eye-worms and the psychedelic pictures they draw, outlaw priests saving the world, and tits and swords saving the world. Also with magical eye worms. Possibly.

Oh, also lots of short stories and novellas about death. That’s not an intentional theme, by the way, it’s just sort of happened that way. I write about death a lot. It fascinates me and I’m not even sure why. I guess that’s why I’m writing about it.

 

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN MY GENRE?

My work is different in that it’s not finished. Honestly, I haven’t had enough stories actually published to know exactly how my work is different from others. I’m still figuring that out. I’m still finding the me in the words I’m writing. I know that I like writing from unique settings. My travels in Japan and Asia have become closely tied into my writing. I also like to challenge certain roles in society in a lot of my writing: the roles of men and women, the role of religion and government, the role of technology, etc. Does any of that make my writing different? No, not at all. Maybe that’ll change while I continue to grow as a writer.

 

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

I write what I write because I believe humans are terrible communicators. We are alike and connected in so many ways through a mutual human experience, and yet we’re shit at empathizing with each other. So when I write about a loss of cultural identity, I want others to look at their own lives and feel that loss. When someone reads one of my fundamentally good characters being a shitty person, I want to highlight that truth in our lives, that good people don’t always behave in good ways, and bad people don’t always behave in bad ways. When I write about death, I’m not doing it just to come to terms with my own insecurities and curiosities, but to reach through the pages and tell my reader, “we’re ALL gonna die, and isn’t that both terrifying and awesome?”. I guess I write what I write because we need more ways to connect to each other, and sometimes its easier to do that through fiction and fantasy than in real life.

Also, I like dragons

 

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

Now we’re getting to the meat of this, heheh.

First of all, I’ve been writing for a long time, since high school, at least, and before that I told my stories in doodles and typewriters without ribbon. So I’ve been writing for a long time, but actual, sit down, write a novel, with structure, polish it and send it out into the world, that part is still new to me. So bear with me if this all seems like a confusing jumble to you. Believe me, it’s no better in my head either.

I start with a character, or a concept for a character. Either I’ve seen someone or something inspiring, or a situation that calls for a specific sort of personality is chucked up from the sawdust under the thousand spinning hamster wheels that is my imagination. Then I let that character run around exploring a blank world. Usually they do a good enough job of populating and coloring it on their own (they mostly stay within the lines). By that I mean, I usually don’t have to work too hard to build a world around a character, once I have the basic premise for that character.

Once I have enough of the world and the character unraveled to have a few more points than ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ I sit down and start writing. I think most people call this pantsing, and I did too. I called myself a pantser for a long time before I realized that this was just the pre-outline stage. This is just the part where I’m testing out character voice and setting mechanics to see if I actually have a viable idea. Sometimes I don’t, though I like to salvage as much as I can from failed projects. Every idea is precious! I don’t know when I might run out (god forbid).

When I’ve pantsed far enough into the story that the plot holes are getting big enough to lose a blue whale in, I step away and start outlining. By that time I’ll have a point A and a point Z and a series of random binary code and Egyptian hieroglyphs in between. The outline then, is where I connect the dots between all that mess and try to make a sensible path between the huge gaping maw of empty plot and random events. Sometimes I have to change the course away from my first awesome idea, or sometimes I have to scrap large chunks altogether if they just can’t play nicely with the rest of the story. Sometimes I have to pound away at a single niggling wrinkle in the plot that disrupts everything else before and after it, but is crucial to the story. Sometimes I break out the poster board and sticky notes. Sometimes I draw character maps. Sometimes I sacrifice a chicken. The point is, I always have an outline before I start seriously writing, because the outline will let me know which is the next pitstop on my writing road trip that I need to hit. My outline will usually tell me (if I’m writing a novel) who the POV character is, what the setting is, what the significant events are, and what the consequences will be for each chapter. If I’m writing a short story, my outline will do the same thing, only for each scene.

After I’ve wrestled with my idea for long enough that we’re both sweaty and exhausted but I am the one ultimately triumphant, I open up a fresh document, stare at the beautiful white screen and panic.

The panic stage usually lasts anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and can also be accompanied by deleting paragraph after paragraph of unsatisfactory beginnings, and uncontrollable sobbing. Usually at around this time I completely forget why this idea was so awesome to begin with.

Once I have a few lines of dialogue written that I’m satisfied enough with to keep, things usually start falling into place from there.

I like to write in the morning, after Alex leaves for work. I have the house to myself, my creative juices are fresh from a nights sleep, it’s quiet and– ooh, she did not just post that on Facebook.

Yes, social media is a terrible distraction in my writing. I don’t turn it off, because when I do I inevitably feel the oppressive silence and expectation weighing me down. Loneliness eats at my soul and crushes my creativity.

Ahem. I keep social media open while I write, but I exert my tremendous power of will and allow myself only to check updates once every fifty words or so. I can usually almost make it that long.

I try to also stick to a daily word count. This was really hard in the beginning because there are always so many more interesting things to do than the thing you are supposed to be doing. I will leave dirty dishes growing their own self sufficient ecosystems in the sink for MONTHS until it comes to deadline crunch time, at which point I will become desperately in need of that potato peeler I used back in April when I was making homemade french fries. These days I’m not only achieving my daily word count, but every week I’m increasing it by another 100 words. So far so good, but I don’t know how long I can keep it up. I think I hear the silverware drafting their own constitution.

Hemingway once said “write drunk, edit sober”. I like to do things slightly differently. I write juiced out of my mind on caffeine, revise with a rum and coke, and take beta reader suggestions after half a bottle of wine. We all have our methods. Mine might not be the best one for you. I do recommend walking though. Not only because it’s ridiculously easy to put on pounds when your ass is stuck in a chair all day typing at a keyboard, but walking helps stimulate the creative mind. It’s a true thing, go look it up.

On the topic of revisions, I strike without mercy. Kill your darlings, burn down their houses, and club their baby seals. I’m not afraid to cut out large chunks of uncooperative writing. I cut and paste them into a ‘deleted scenes’ folder anyway, so they’re not really gone, just exiled. After the first cull, I’ll re-read it in a different font, then print it in an even different font and take a red pen to the physical copy. I may repeat this process a few times before it ever sees the eyes of a beta reader, or even an alpha reader. Again, it depends on how much loathing I’ve accrued for the project.

As for the number of drafts I’ll go through before I think a work is polished enough for a submission, I don’t have a set number. I’ve gone as high as eight and as low as two. I have some accepted works that I’m still tempted to take a red pen to–in the book they’re published in.

 

So that’s it folks. My writing process. Not sure if that was helpful, or if it even made any sense. Writing is a different beast for all of us, and you can really only do what works for you.

I also don’t think I know another writer who hasn’t already done this blog hop, so I don’t know who to tag. If you’re a writer reading this, and you’re burning to answer these questions yourself, consider yourself tagged.

Happy writing. :)

Finding Inspiration

Being a writer in Japan, naturally one of the most frequent comments I receive is some variation of the suggestion that I should write about Japan (which usually follows the question “Do you write in Japanese?”). I find this amusing for two reasons. First, if “You should write about X” translated so easily into actually writing a story, the writing world would be populated with a whole lot fewer frustrated authors. Inspiration isn’t something that can be plucked out of a hat. Yes, this technique can be used successfully to ungum the works, to pump some creative juices and to flex the writing muscle, but I’ve found that ‘write about X’ does not produce my strongest work. It doesn’t grab me by the ears of my soul and shake me. The stuff that I really want to write about are the things that some inner eye within me has seen, and tells me “This is really beautiful/frightening/awe inspiring/disgusting and you need to explore how this makes you feel”. I like that feeling and I can’t borrow it from someone else.

Secondly, I do write about Japan, way more than most people know. And I’m not just talking about stories like Where the Fireflies Go or the zombie short that’s bubbling on the back burner–those stories I’ve set in Japan and reflect (with I hope some amount of truth) the culture and atmosphere of this country. I also mean the stories that Japan has brought to life. Bits and pieces of inspiration that light a tiny candle flame in my brain which, if left unattended, can grow into a creative wildfire. A sci-fi dreamed up amid the flashing lights of the never sleeping Tokyo, an ethical fantasy inspired by the pavilions of Kamigamo Shrine, an entire tribe of people to populate my fantasy world brought to life by a single festival at Tanukidani Fudoin. Just because I don’t set most of my stories in Japan doesn’t mean I’m not writing about it, or from it. I’m inspired by this country more often than even I’m aware of, I suspect.

And nowhere is this more true than in my current work in progress. I’ve borrowed heavily from historical Japan on this one, from costume design to social order to language structure. While it is absolutely an other world fantasy, the Japanese influence is strong, and I don’t care much to hide it, either. This is my home, after all.

Today Alex and I took a trip to Eikando Zenrin-ji, which is one of many temples along The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto’s Sakyo ward. It’s not the first time we’ve been here and I hope it’s not the last. The complex is huge, with many gorgeous buildings to explore, and several gardens and ponds to reflect on.

The temple was founded in 863, ten years after the estate was purchased from a Fujiwara nobleman. It was originally dedicated to Shingon Buddhism, but later turned to Pure Land. Its most famous icon is perhaps its Mikaeri Amida, which is a small Amida Buddha which, instead of looking forward like most Amida icons, looks over its shoulder. The legend of this strange position has several versions: One says that once while the head monk Yokan was performing a ritual, the Amida statue came to life and stepped off its dais. Yokan became temporarily paralyzed with surprise, and so the Amida turned its head to look over its shoulder to scold him for being ‘slow’. The plaque at the temple explains the legend slightly differently. It says that instead of turning its head to scold Yokan, the Amida turned its head to invite Yokan to follow him. In either case, the turned head of the Mikaeri Amida is supposed to signify Amida’s compassion and patience for those who fall behind, or have not yet stepped onto the path of Buddhism.

The icon room itself is incredibly impressive. Glittering with gold leaf and illuminated by several spotlights, its hard not to feel a little bit awed in the quiet room, and to see the Amida in such an unusual position is itself a special treat.

But what I like the most about Eikando Zenrin-ji is its beautiful outdoor architecture. Perhaps because it started its life as a Fujiwara mansion, the design and layout of the buildings is unlike any other temple I’ve visited in Japan so far. Graceful arching bridges and open breezeways connect the different sections of the temple together, and sweeping staircases and balconies give a stunning view of the Kyoto mountains and the forested gardens that surround the complex.

It was these features of this lovely temple that brought me out of a creative slump on my current WIP, Bone Wall, when we first visited last year. The atmosphere and being able to walk through a place so beautiful, and with such amazing design threw my creative brain into ‘what if’ overdrive, and helped create a new starting point from which to tell my story that has made it, frankly, so much stronger than its original versions. Returning today, that feeling is still strong, and it pumps energy into my fingers that then drop words onto the page. Being able to sit in a representation of a setting I’m building is incredibly helpful, and brings things to life far more easily than sitting in my living room with my eyes squeezed closed really tight. In the end, this is ‘write what you know’. Write from your life and your experiences. Write about what speaks to you. Write that which sets fire to your creativity in such a brightly burning torch that you can’t sleep at night. I can’t write about your X, but you can.

Japan is the creative force that drives Bone Wall in lots of different ways. I am writing about Japan, even if I’m not writing about samurai, or geisha, or the technological apocalypse.

For your viewing pleasure: Eikando Zenrin-ji

The World’s Greatest Short Stories: Afterthoughts

The World’s Greatest Short Stories
Edited by James Daley
236 pages
4 stars

 

I don’t usually review classic works for reasons I’ve spoken of before but which largely boil down to laziness. If I’m going to review classics it’s not enough to talk about how the story made me feel. I need to talk about the author and their lives, and how those lives reflect in their writing, what tools we can use to interpret their work and what, if any relevance do they still have today. If you want that sort of detailed analysis, then this blog isn’t for you. What you’re looking for is an English lit class. I’m going to review this book and its stories today because I don’t have anything else to talk about and I’m (still) avoiding talking about my actual writing.

Sometimes I like to spoil stories. Just so you know.

Sometimes I like to spoil stories. Just so you know.

 

To start with, this book introduced me to the writing of a few literary greats which I hadn’t had the chance to read yet: Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and John Updike. It also gave me a chance to form a firm opinion on some others whose work I’d read before: Rudyard Kipling, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and Virginia Woolf. Happily, it also introduced me to some authors who I’d never even heard of and in many cases whose works were a delight to read. Below are my completely candid, unsophisticated and largely uneducated thoughts on these stories.

Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville

This was an infuriating story to read. Throughout the whole thirty pages of it I was tearing out my hair in the manner one does when watching a horror movie in which the stupid teenagers insist on investigating the suspicious sounds, completely alone, in the dark. “Don’t open the door!” you scream in frustration, flinging your bowl of popcorn at the television, spooking the dog and causing your spouse to roll their eyes at you. Similarly I found myself shouting, “Just turf his obstinate ass!”, throwing my bowl of popcorn at the book, spooking the bird and causing Alex to ask what the hell was wrong with me. I really couldn’t connect with the protagonist’s strange sense of charity toward Bartleby, which really probably says more about my quality as a person than the quality of the story.

The Necklace
Guy de Maupassant

I’m almost one hundred percent positive I’ve read this story before or if not it, then one very similar. It’s not a very unique story. O. Henry must have written dozens like them on his toilet paper. Chances are if you’ve sat through thirty minutes of any sitcom (I feel for you), you’ve seen this story. A financially strapped, yet high society minded woman borrows a diamond necklace from her friend, and then promptly loses it. She and her husband then work their asses off to buy a new necklace, during which time miss priss learns the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Finally she works up enough money to buy an exact replica of the necklace she lost. But when she returns it and confesses what had happened, her amused friend informs her that the original necklace was a fake and worth only a fraction of the cost of the real one (cue laugh track).

The Death of Ivan Ilych
Leo Tolstoy

I liked this one. In fact, I loved it. I’d read it again, just not when I’m feeling sick. Or depressed. Or really any sort of melancholy. I was excited to read it as lately I’ve heard so much about it, and I can now agree that Tolstoy does know his way around words. Like, damn. The whole story is an account of a man from the peak of his life until his death. With emphasis on the death and the dying part. He goes through all the stages of grief as he degrades on the pages right before our eyes. I could most acutely empathize with his growing malcontent with doctors and their high-minded thought that if they can’t find anything wrong with a patient then there must not be anything wrong with the patient. Puh. If only Ivan had had webMD this story may have ended very differently.

The Man Who Would Be King
Rudyard Kipling

I’m going to take a stab in the dark and assume, without any previous knowledge, that Kipling lived in early twentieth century India. Am I right? Yeah? Hot damn. I mean, I had my suspicions after The Jungle Book and The Courting of Dinah Shadd but after reading The Man Who Would Be King I got to thinking that there may just be a bit of a pattern here. Despite Kipling setting his stories in one of the richest cultural environments I can think of, his writing is as dry as plain, stale toast. Buried in sand. Even a story that features a crucifixion and a bloody beheading takes way too long and three too many naps to get through. Not my favorite story in the collection.

The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If this story were a person it would be of the sort that you back away from slowly while avoiding eye contact. I’m fairly certain it’s a commentary on postpartum depression, and the absurd way in which mental illness in women was treated back in the day, but damn. This story is just freaky. A lot of it calls up this quote from Jane Eyre:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: But women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.

Basically it’s a story of a woman who went a bit loopy and is taken to the country by her husband to recover, except he pretty much confines her to her bedroom and won’t let her do anything that he feels is strenuous. Anyone who has ever had to spend three or more days in bed with the flu knows that by the third day it’s a special kind of mental torture to not have anything to do all day. Eventually the protagonist figures that the wallpaper in her room is out to get her and loses it entirely. It’s a good story, is what I’m saying.

The Fortune-Teller
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

If you look very closely at the last period of this story you can see M. Night Shyamalan winking at you. I’m serious, go see for yourself.

The Lady with the Toy Dog
Anton Chekhov

Does the Chekhov’s Gun rule apply to items within a story’s title? ‘Cause if it does, I’m disappointed that the dog in this story didn’t shoot someone in the face. For someone who has such an energetic piece of story-telling advice attributed to him, The Lady with the Toy Dog is actually kind of boring, especially coming after The Fortune-Teller. It’s a pretty standard story of an adulterous affair between a jaded older man and a beautiful, naive young woman. They meet, have a few twists in the sheets and then she returns to her husband. Only then does the protagonist realize how unfortunate it is that he is actually in love with his guilt ridden mistress. He crosses the country to see her again where they continue their affair for a time before both of them realize that they can’t continue on in that manner, in secret. The last paragraph ends the story in chilling vagueness. On second thought, maybe the dog does shoot them both.

How Old Timofei Died with a Song
Rainer Maria Rilke

This one had a frame story so disconnected from the actual story that I forgot all about it by the end–and the whole piece itself is only four and a half pages long. It kind of reads like a fairy tale except without any magic or fairies or enchanted sticks. So not like a fairy tale at all I guess. I’m not entirely sure what this story is about. It’s a lot of events stitched together and none of them have more prominence than another so, yeah. It’s a fairy tale.

The Path to the Cemetery
Thomas Mann

Or Old Man Yells at Cloud, whichever you prefer. In this story an ugly old man walks down a path toward the cemetery to pay his respects to the family he lost, along with everything else in his life. Along the way, a strong, beautiful young man rides by on his bicycle and old man flies into an apoplectic rage because symbolism. He chases after the youth and knocks him off his bike. The young man, understandably pissed shoves the old man down, gets on his bike and rides away, leaving the old man foaming at the mouth and raving about the nerve of young people who dare ride their bicycles on the path to the cemetery. Yup.

The Prussian Officer
D. H. Lawrence

Good god, the homoeroticism in this story! I mean, I know it was written by D. H. Lawerence but wow! Every single scene between the Captain and the orderly is absolutely charged with sexual tension. Even the last scene between them feels like a great erotic release of frustration. I can’t be the only one who read it this way, can I? Can I? (Cue crickets.)

Araby
James Joyce

Oh, Joyce, but you take a long time to get to a simple point, don’t you? This story seems way, way longer than four pages.

Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, Her Son-in-Law
Luigi Pirandello

Ok, here’s a nice little mystery for you: a frustrated man says it’s his mother-in-law who is mad, yet the old woman claims it’s the other way round. This curious state of affairs has the whole town divided down the gender line, and yet the only person who can shine light on the truth is the wife, who validates both stories. Honestly, I care less about who is insane and more about what the wife is possibly getting out of being so coy. Unfortunately, I get no satisfactory answer to either.

The Mark on the Wall
Virginia Woolf

Much like The Yellow Wallpaper, this is a story about a woman strangely preoccupied with what is on her wall. I understand that they didn’t have Xbox back then, but you’d think these women would have something better to do than stare at a wall all day. Even needlepoint has to be more exciting than that. The narrative is annoyingly stream of consciousness, which makes it difficult to follow. If I wanted to listen to an ADD wandering of random thoughts vaguely connected, I’d go sit in a quiet room alone for an hour.

A Hunger Artist
Franz Kafka

As noted, this one is written by Kafka, so I’m tempted to interpret it as commentary on the starved state of the literary soul forced to comply with so many rules and conventions in order to secure the means to sustain a meager life–even though it knows it is capable of so much more if only given the freedom of the attempt. Or maybe Kafka just had a soft spot for circus freaks. I’m not a literature professor; don’t ask me.

The Garden-Party
Kathrine Mansfield

So this is a bit of a depressing story. I read it last year in a different anthology actually, but I still remember the events pretty clearly. This rich family lives on top of a hill (the rich families always seem to live on top of hills) and they’re throwing this incredible garden-party. No expenses spared. I’m pretty sure there are elephants- Really? No elephants? Well, there could have been elephants, it’s that kind of party. As it happens, on the day of this party, one of the peasants living at the bottom of the hill has the gall to die, of all things–in a horrible accident, no less. It’s obviously a plot to ruin the party. Anyway, the only decent human in this story is Laura, who still has that innocent, child-like notion that holding a party literally a driveway up from where a man just died is kind of distasteful. Well, her mother needs to correct that sort of thinking right away, doesn’t she? Of course she does.

The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket
Yasunari Kawabata

I’ve lived in Japan for four years now, and with that experience well ingrained into my being I can say with confidence that I sort of understand this story. The protagonist is watching a bunch of kids play in the woods at night (nothing creepy about that), looking for bugs when one of the boys announces that he’s caught a grasshopper, and asks if anyone wants it. All the kids rush forward with their bug-baskets out for what is apparently a rare catch, but the boy holds out until the girl asks for it, at which point he drops it into her basket and low and behold, it’s not a grasshopper at all, but a bell cricket, which is apparently higher on the bug currency scale than a grasshopper, I think? While the protagonist is watching all this, he notices that the light from the kids’ lanterns is shining on each others shirts, and the names written on the lanterns have imprinted on the other child. So he reflects a little while on the nature of the name reversal, and grasshoppers actually being bell crickets, and bell crickets actually being grasshoppers and one day the children will grow up and find other grasshoppers that they think are bell crickets and visa versa. Yup.

The Sacrificial Egg
Chinua Achebe

This is pretty much Things Fall Apart from the other side of the fence. Told from the point of view of an African Christian convert, it paints the same struggle of tradition vs. western influence, though this time, arguably, tradition wins. I can’t say that it ends any happier than Things Fall Apart, however.

A & P
John Updike

Didn’t I just review this one like, two months ago?

Borges and I
Jorge Luis Borges

Thanks, Borges. Now you’ve got all the people in my head standing up and shouting about the unfair treatment of imaginary characters. How do you expect I’m supposed to sleep now with, “Why’d you have to kill me” and “You don’t even remember my name” and “You promised me my own novella”, huh? Puh.

 

5 Great Books For Writers

I don’t have a lot to talk about at the moment, and the reality is I’m probably going to have to be absent from my blog for a little bit while I study for my kendo exam.

My time has been pretty equally divided recently between finishing the outline of Bone Wall and denying that I have any responsibilities in real life. I haven’t finished reading a novel since Beloved, so I don’t have much to review. In fact, the only books I’ve really been reading recently have been non-fiction. I also realize that, despite this being a writing blog, I actually talk very little about writing. Given the choice between discussing my deformed WIPs or my favorite writing related books, I’m almost always going to go with the latter.

So here they are, my top five favorite writing books:

1. Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

I’ve been fairly impressed with all the books in Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series (for beginning writers, this is a must read collection) but Nancy Kress’ Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint is my favorite. Kress delivers her insights in a to-the-point manner, without the patronizing or over-exuberant encouraging that some of the other books have. Discussing everything from reader expectations to character motivation, from which emotions are most useful in fiction to deciding which point of view is best for your particular story, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint gets to the heart of what makes a character memorable. Like the other books in this series, each chapter ends with a summary and a series of helpful exercises to do on your own. The book also offers character bio templates and answers to frequent road bumps along the road to building compelling characters. If creating believable, well rounded characters or gut-wrenching emotional scenes causes you problems in your writing, or if you just can’t decide on what point of view to use, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint will absolutely bring your writing to the next level.

 

2. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick

As the title says, this is a dictionary so it’s not exactly easy to read cover to cover. It is, however, a great resource for reminding yourself of all those literary words you learned in high school English and then promptly forgot. Covering the jargon of poetry, prose, theater, and rhetoric this 361 page book will most likely contain some concepts you didn’t even know had words. In addition to going into detail about rhyme and meter, diction and narrative, most entries have a cross-reference resource for further reading, and some have web-link access for a more in depth description.

This book is unlikely to help you with your actual writing (unless you’re writing poetry; it’s very helpful for poetry) but it is handy to have around to keep up with the language of literary circles and critics.

 

3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

It should be no surprise that this thin little volume is on my list. Most of the writers I know who are serious about their craft have read and/or recommend this book. The fourth edition has a foreword by Roger Angell that explains a bit of the history of the book and its authors, which I found charming. The Elements of Style is by no means an exhaustive guide to correctness in English grammar and form. Rather, it covers the most common errors and mix-ups of native English speakers in one easily portable book. Covering such topics as the correct use of commas and semi-colons, a defense of active voice, misused expressions, and some basic stylistic advice, having a working knowledge of the contents of The Elements of Style will save your editors headaches in the future.

4. 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias

The question of which drives the other, character or plot will be answered differently depending on who you ask. Personally, I start with a character and build my plot around their personalities, but by no means is that the best or only way to go about it. Tobias makes a good case for the importance of focusing on a strong plot, but also reminds us that there are no more untold stories, only old stories told in new ways. In his book 20 Master Plots he takes us through twenty of the most common plots found in literature. It isn’t a complete list, and as the author points out, some of these plots have been combined or divided by different sources, but all in all, it’s a good place to start if you’re trying to pin down what your particular story needs to make the plot well rounded and believable. Each plot is given multiple examples from which to understand the key elements, as well as the usual (though not necessarily crucial) steps that the characters need to take to satisfy each plot. Chapters end with a check list, either to make sure you’re still following the same plot you started with, to find out which plot is dominant in your story, or simply to recap what you just read.

5. Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us  by Jessica Page Morrell

Of all the writing craft books that I’ve read, this is still the one I like the most, both for its content and for the way it is delivered. Morrell, a developmental editor, shares with readers what elevates or sinks a manuscript directly from her professional experience. She gives examples of the kind of auto-rejection errors she has seen in her work and insights into how to avoid them in your own writing. Item by item this book rolls through each element of fiction and not only highlights the common mistakes of novice writers, but gives reasons why they are so cringe worthy for editors. Witty, snarky, and brutally honest, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us gives writers the tools for that final self edit before a manuscript goes off to be torn apart by other eyes.

 

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I disappear into the despair that is constant, meticulous studying of a foreign language. Happy writing!

Joining the Uncomfortable Conversation of Violence Against Women

Last week I watched a video by a YouTuber whose opinions I generally agree with which suggested that #YesAllPeople and #NotAllMen are as legitimate a statement as #YesAllWomen. To say that I was angered by it is a bit of an understatement. The desire to leave a comment was high, but as I scrolled through the comments and read the chorus of pro-men’s rights statistics and mysogynistic rhetoric I realized something that is despairingly analogous to real life: this was not a safe place to voice my opinion. The reality is that the world is not a safe place for women–even in the western world which we love to tout as being progressive and inclusive. We women exist in a culture that promotes the idea that we are tools and objects to be used and won. Where “feminist” is a dirty word, and in which speaking out about abuse and sexism is a social crime, because damnit all, look at all the rights women do have, and haven’t you seen all the shit that [x] group has to go through? Ultimately, this is where the #YesAllPeople and #NotAllMen hashtags fall short, because guys, this conversation isn’t about you.

I know it seems like it is, with how many women are coming forward recently to talk about what it’s like to live in fear of men. The horror stories of abuse and violence must seem like an accusation that you need to defend yourself against, but you’re reading it wrong. This conversation isn’t about how evil men can be. It’s about the tragic experiences disturbingly common among women, and how we can prevent them. This is why it’s crucial for you to understand that we don’t need you bursting onto the stage like you’re Kanye West saying, “I’m really sorry about your hardship, and I’mma let you finish telling your story, but I just wanna say, not all men are abusers and rapists.” Yes, we know that. But we’re not talking about the percentage of men who abuse women. We’re talking about the percentage of women who are abused by men–it turns out that that’s a bloody high number. And just to briefly address the #YesAllPeople argument, consider what it would be like if every time you talked about how outrageous the cost of living is currently, some asshole jumped in and said “Ch- You know, there are some people in the world who live off of five cents a month. You’re not the only one with problems, you selfish prick.” Not only is the relative poverty of the world not related to what you were originally talking about, but it would get old really fast.

I know that a lot of you guys out there feel bad for us. You don’t like the uncomfortable feeling that these stories produce any more than we women do. You want to comfort us and absolve yourself of guilt by association. You don’t want to be a part of the problem. But if you want to be a part of the conversation and the ultimate solution, here is what we need you to do first: close your lips and open your ears. Listen to us and our stories. Understand that even if you don’t see it, sexual harassment and violence against women is a very prevalent reality in our society. Recognize that institutionalized sexism and mysogyny exist everywhere in our culture, and speak out against instances of it where they appear. And as difficult as it is, whenever you can empathize instead of sympathize.

Women live in a world in which drinking can be misconstrued as implied consent (if she didn’t want to be fondled, she shouldn’t have had so much to drink); where inviting a guy into your home can be interpreted as a sexual invitation for which the women is at fault if she doesn’t follow through with the unspoken promise; where grown adults are advised not to walk the streets alone at night; where each date is a potential rape; where we’re taught that our bodies need to be put on display for men, but we must feel ashamed of ourselves if they overstep their boundaries. If you’re a guy and you think this is bullshit, then join our voices, but first you have to understand that we’re not talking about whether or not you’re a part of the problem; we’re talking about the reality of the problem itself, and that’s the bigger issue.

In the end, #YesAllWomen exists because #NotAllMen listen.

 

Follow the conversation on these great blogs as well:

Not All Men: How Discussing Women’s Issues Gets Derailed

Not All Men, But Still Too Many Men

 

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Mar/Apr: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Mar/Apr
Pages: 256
Rating: 4 stars

Wow, I’m so late on this one I almost didn’t review it. Between doing the readings for Crash Course and participating in April A-Z, I had no time for my usual reading list and schedule. I still don’t think I’m going to be reviewing the books I read for Crash Course, in part because my reviews of classics usually boil down to “As expected, this was an amazing book; let me summarize it for you”, and in part because I don’t have the time: I still have twenty-eight books on my 2014 reading list to get through, as well as a bunch of other books I’m drooling over that will probably be squeezed in somewhere in between; I’m picking my way through another rewrite of Bone Wall, which is going much more smoothly that the previous ones, thankfully; my san-dan kendo examination is fast approaching, so very soon all my time and energy is going to have to go to study and practice for that. I’ve got a bit of a full plate, is what I’m saying.

But I’m getting off topic. The reason I’m not skipping the review of this issue of MF&SF is that I really enjoyed it. Most of the stories pulled me in from the start, and kept me there with the competent, interesting prose and compelling narratives. This is probably in part due to the overall spec-fic feeling of this issue that really spoke to my fiction interests.

MF&SF Mar-AprSlow start, brilliant finish

Collar – Leo Vladimirsky
3-stars-out-of-5

It’s no secret that I prefer the anti-heroes over the heroes, the protagonists straddling the line of morality and naked self interest. They’re the complex and interesting characters. They’re the ones that make me feel uncomfortable with my own ethics and worldview. They’re the ones I cheer for.

Collar by Leo Vladimirsky gives us such a protagonist in Tom, a labor smuggler helping the unemployed find work on the Chinese factory ships sitting on the fringes of US waters, ready–in an ironic twist of events–to snap up cheap American labor in those recently unemployed. But the patrol boats prowl the waters, eager to arrest those desperate enough for work to run to the Chinese–and they have quotas to fill.

The descriptions in this story fill all the senses and as a result, the reader feels as though she is walking right there with the characters, whether she wants to or not. Unfortunately, this story also falls in with the incapability of some sci-fi and spec-fic to imagine a future that isn’t dismal. After a while, all futures being dystopias makes me unwilling to get out of bed in the morning.

A Struggle Between Two Rivals Ends Surprisingly – Oliver Buckram
4 stars

Like all of his stories, Oliver Buckram delights the reader with freshness, originality and clever twists on old sci-fi themes in A Struggle Between Two Rivals.

When conducting trade negotiations with alien races, it’s an absolute necessity to have a knowledgeable translator on your side, especially when your prospective business relations communicate only in musical, theatrical tropes. Fortunately, Treya is the best at what she does. She knows all three thousand, six hundred and two plots the beetles use to communicate, and is determined to win her client the much coveted herring catch with her expertise in beetle communications. Only her troublesome ex-boyfriend is negotiating on behalf of their rival. Why must he always be such a thorn in her side?

I love the way Buckram tells his stories, and A Struggle Between Two Rivals is no different. It’s always fun to dive into one of his worlds, expecting only the unexpected.

The Lightness of Movement – Pat MacEwen
4 stars

I always look forward to the novellas in each issue with one part anticipation and one part anxiety. On the one hand, if the story is a good one, I’m glad it’s the longest. On the other, if the story doesn’t hold me, then it takes forever for me to finish the issue. The Lightness of Movement was somewhere in between.

Shannon is a graduate student on a research mission to the world of the Neons–a humanoid, sentient species. There, with the help of a specialized Neon suit she will observe, record and participate in their complex mating rituals. The success of the mission and her thesis sits entirely on her shoulders, but can Shannon resist the temptation of anthropomorphizing her study subjects?

At first glance, this is an interesting if droll twist on the human sex with aliens theme in sci-fi, but thankfully it goes deeper than that. As Shannon tries and fails to adequately fit in among the aliens the reader is given insights on what it is to be human, in particular, what it is to be an alien among fellow humans.

The plot and the premise are strong in this story, but the characters failed with me. Shannon, I felt, channeled too much of the gutsy maverick who doesn’t care what superiors have to say, despite being fully conscious of the fatal dangers of failure. Her bi-polar switches between “I’ll do what I want” and “I’ll do what you say”, sometimes on the same page were sudden and jarring and made me wonder if she was really the best candidate for this kind of mission. In the end, I enjoyed the story, despite the twists it took. I would probably read it again.

Hark, the Wicked Witches Sing – Ron Goulart
One-star-rating-1

First of all, I’m not a huge fan of noir in any genre, fantasy noir is no different, so that may have played a hand in my rating of this story. The other, more major issue to me was the protagonist. He was wholly unlikable, and wholly uninteresting. I can enjoy a character that has one or the other of these characteristics, but both together leaves him dead in the water to me.

Anyway, the story is about Hix, an egotistical hack Hollywood writer, as he attempts to solve the watery mystery of who is sabotaging his actress friend Polly’s casting chances. I say watery because the story and Hix seem more concerned with reminding the reader that OMG the setting is 1940′s Hollywood, than it actually cares about the mystery plot. One only needs to read the ending to get the full feeling of this.

A Stretch of Highway Two Miles Long – Sarah Pinsker
five-stars

First of all, I almost want to make my rating system longer to accommodate how much I loved this story. From the setting, to the characters, to the beautifully simple spec-fic elements. I adored the theme of identity and loss of humanity and not-so-distant future feel of it. It is, in my opinion, the best story in the issue.

Andy is a young farmer fond of the old ways. The horse and plow feel better in his hands than all the new machinery his parents farm with. So when a violent combine accident takes his arm and his parents decide to fit him with the latest in prosthetic technology before he’s conscious enough to make the decision himself, he unsurprisingly feels a bit of out of sorts with his new limb. And that’s before it becomes convinced it’s a stretch of highway in Colorado.

This story goes deep down the path of self exploration and identity, from small town Saskatchewan, stretching out into the vast unknown. It’s beautifully written and easy to sympathize with.

Byzantine History 101 – Albert E. Cowdrey
3-stars-out-of-5

This one is a sort-of continuation of another story from last year, and as far as Cowdrey’s usual writing goes, not one of his stronger narratives. I didn’t much enjoy the first part of this story, and the second installation doesn’t do much for me either. In both cases the protagonists are the sort of mean, antagonistic, selfish assholes that make the reader uncomfortable being put in the position of sympathizing with them (if that’s even possible).

Terrence is opportunistic, selfish and manipulative and he knows it. His fiance, Adam has just the sort of meek personality that Terrence can roll all over. Unfortunately, his grandfather is another story. The stubborn old man doesn’t care much for Adam, which means Terrence will never get his hands on all of Grandad’s money. Matching wits with the old codger might take all of Terrence’s skill, but every so often, life throws you a wild card that you’d be a fool not to take.

The perspectives in this story jump a little too quickly to be comfortable with, and the ending was predictable and anti-climactic. Still, there’s something in Cowdrey’s writing that makes up for it in Byzantine History 101.

Albion upon the Rock – Daniel Marcus
4 stars

I really liked the dialogue in this story, both between Brown and Ship (which was entertaining all by itself) and between the humans on board Ship, such as that dialogue is. The personification of all the characters is sweet and made sweeter by the quietly tragic ending. I don’t want to spoil this very short story with a summary; it’s best taken in fresh. Suffice to say that it’s a very well written piece.

Apprentice – Jon DeCles
five-stars

Like YA and romance stories, my days of utter delight in high fantasy are mostly behind me. Yes, I still enjoy the occasional story and smile a little nostalgically at the familiar characters and themes, but I have, for the most part, moved on to other interests. Jon DeCles’s Apprentice brings me pleasantly all the way back again.

Dafyd is a gormless stable boy whom everyone in the village has marked as lazy and unteachable. When one day the local wizard is called to get rid of a griffon that is terrorizing the villagers and killing horses, the locals are a little shocked when the powerful man names Dafyd as the price for his services. Surprised, but also pleased to see the last of him. Dafyd, however, thrives under the wizard’s guidance, but the impatience of youth can be dangerous, and even fatal if left unchecked.

The pacing and characterization of this story are perfect and the ending tearfully bitter-sweet. DeCles shows us the follies and pitfalls of growing up that we’re all familiar with in this fantasy setting, and the emotional attachment to the characters and the events of the story linger long after it has concluded.

The Uncertain Past – Ted White
three and a half

I appreciated this story for keeping the science parts of it interesting, which is something I’ve been disappointed with in science fiction in the past. The story applies a sort of Schrödinger’s cat theory to time travel, in which the act of going back and observing an event alters it, and so one is never able to go back in time and see the event exactly as it unfolded in history… until one takes the trip with another. The story is worth a read just for the interesting thoughts on the nature of time travel, but I couldn’t connect well with any of the characters, so ultimately, the narrative itself didn’t do much for me.

Butterscotch – D. M. Armstrong
three and a half

In general, I liked this story, though there were some parts in which I felt it sort of wobbled a little off its track.

Grey skinned, shambling and utterly vacant, it’s not hard to imagine ‘travelers’ as zombies. Except they don’t want brains. Or human flesh, or really, anything at all it seems. Arthur and Alexis have a good life and a good marriage. What they don’t have is a child, or the certainty that they even want one. Unfortunately, life doesn’t pay much attention to stuff like that, and when Alexis discovers she’s pregnant, a traveler suddenly appears in their yard. And that’s not the end of their troubles.

I really did feel for Arthur as a character and felt he was unfairly mistreated in the story. I would have liked a more solid conclusion, or at least some closure on all the emotions I was building up through out the reading. This one sort of left me dangling.

I Said I Was Sorry Didn’t I – Gordon Eklund
4 stars

The voice and the narration in this story really tickled me, as did the lack of quotation marks in dialogue. The combination of these makes the reader feel almost uncomfortably close to the protagonist.

The universe is ending and it’s all the protagonist’s fault. How he did it the reader never comes to know, but that’s not important. There is no future, so what he will do isn’t important either. No, the important thing is what he does now, in the present, for his family and the people around him.

Ultimately a story about living in the now, I Said I Was Sorry is very touching, despite the crass protagonist. The unconventional prose is jarring in a way compatible with an end of the world story, and the character’s journey to try and find the peace within himself that he isn’t entirely aware that he needs is something that I think most of us can identify with.

Our Vegetable Love – Rob Chilson
4 stars

A lot of the stories in this issue focus on what it is that makes us human. Our Vegetable Love is one of the ones that asks this question more directly.

Agnes is a little girl in a big hurry to be grown up. She wants more than anything to attend the bonfire ceremony in which the adults of her village in tandem with the animated trees containing the souls of their dead burn the saplings of the dangerous soul-suck trees that have begun to outgrow their allotted land. Roger Tree used to be a man, the grandfather of Agnes. He also used to be a tree. What he is now is a confused mix of both, and when Agnes rages against his refusal to let her attend the ceremony and accuses him of not being her real grandfather, it puts poor Roger Tree in a painful existential crisis. Where does Roger end and Tree begin? What, if anything is his real relationship to Agnes?

I especially liked this story as I’m watching a lecture series on the philosophy of death at the moment that asks precisely these same questions, so the themes are fresh in my mind. If all that is left after death is our personalities, are we still alive? Are we still the same person we once were? The realization that Roger Tree comes to at the end of the story shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, but the message is still powerful.

Draft 31 – Michael Libling
4 stars

This is one of the more chilling stories in the anthology, not because it throws the reader into a depressing dystopian future, but because there is no clear intentional antagonist in the story. By that I mean it’s not stated that any of the events of the story are done with malicious intent or even awareness.

Cap is a small town doctor, who has recently moved with his wife and his small daughter Tess back to  his roots. The old familiar faces and places seemed to be doing him good, until an old high school flame knocks on his door. Allie’s son has been acting strange, and she’s at the end of her rope. He talks about people and events which not only aren’t there, but have never existed. Cap is the last person she wants to ask help from, but when her son starts accusing the doctor of making his father disappear, Allie knows there’s no one else she can turn to.

This is another story that will lose its impact if over summarized, so I’ll end by saying, if our lives played out like an endlessly repeatable choose-your-own-adventure book, how many of us would consider the morality of how many lives we would change if only we tweaked things down a slightly different path?

Amok Giveaway

May is now here, and that means two things: the daily posts are at an end, and Amok has finally gone live. You can buy yours on Amazon, or you can enter to win one of two paperback copies here.

cover

Who doesn’t like free books?

What makes Amok special is its regional diversity. When we say ‘Asia-Pacific’ we mean from India to Hawaii and everything in between. To continue to share these narratives, this contest is going to be centered around cultural experiences or interests in the Asia-Pacific region. In 300 words or less tell me one verifiable fact from a country or area in Asia–food, architecture, traditions, anything that can reasonably be called cultural is fair. Entries will be judged both on composition and content. You have until next Friday (May 9th) to submit in the comments below. All entries will be reviewed the following Saturday and the winners announced on Sunday.

Best of luck!

April A – Z Highlights

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I did it. I blogged every day in the month of April. I even kept to my regular Sunday schedule (except for one Sunday when I was just too tired to have a coherent thought). It was a lot of fun researching the authors on my shelf, talking about my favorite books and connecting with fellow book lovers. Most of all, I enjoyed the incredible, entertaining, and educational content I found with other bloggers participating in the challenge. I want to give the spotlight here to a few of them whose blogs I especially enjoyed reading every morning:

Claire Gillian: Oh my goodness, did Ms. Gillian ever have me laughing and giggling over my coffee! In her theme Regrettable Books A to Z™, she gave us a new cover and back blurb for a new ridiculous, completely fictional romance novel each day. While they were each over the top with their tongue in cheek romance tropes, I admit, there were a few days when I found myself genuinely wanting to read some of those books that do not exist. Maybe Claire will pen a couple of them and satisfy my curiosity.

Editorial Stand: Giving fantastic advice and definitions from the editing side of the publishing industry, I looked forward to a new fact every day to add to my writing notebook. For writers, this blog is a must read. If you have a manuscript in need of professional copy-editing, Editorial Stand provides that service.

Jay Noel made me feel old, then young, then old again with his theme One Hit Wonders from 80′s, 90′s and 2000′s pop music. Many of the songs he featured threw me back to my childhood. Many more I’d never heard in my life. In addition to enjoying spending a few minutes in my past every morning, I also enjoyed the originality of the theme, which is what earned this blog a spotlight here.

Mina Burrows: I don’t watch a lot of classic movies (or really any movies much anymore) but I love a good monster story, and Mina took us through A – Z of classic movie monsters. Quizzes, trivia and clips from old classics–this blog was a delight for looking back into what scared us in the past, and what still does.

MopDog: With a new strange Hungarian cultural tidbit every day, MopDog was a delight to read for me who sometimes feels as though I grew up in a cultural vacuum. As the adage goes, the grass is always greener (or more interesting, in this case) on the other side– these quirks and oddities from Hungary more than once made me want to visit the country on my next vacation.

Murderous Imaginings: Love a good slasher story? Writing a crime novel and just can’t pick the right murder weapon? Murderous Imaginings has you covered. From Axe to Zip Line, throughout April this blog gave us murder weapons and the bizarre, gruesome, horrific true stories that go with them. Don’t forget to lock your doors at night.

Notes From My ApartmentIn case my theme for this challenge didn’t make it obvious enough, I love books and the people who write them. It’s no surprise then that I loved stopping by this blog through the challenge for a new author and applicable book recommendations every day. I was both saddened and delighted by the number of books and authors featured here that I had never heard of before, but that is the way of things. I recommend going back and giving this A – Z a look if you’re interested in filling your shelves with more books.

Olivia Waite: Doing her challenge on intersectional feminism in romance, Olivia Waite amazed me daily with deep analyses of the romance genre and how it portrays women and people of color. There were some great recommendations and some well deserved dressing downs, and for someone who takes an interest in feminism in literature, this was a great blog to keep up with.

SaylingAway: I love history; I love art; I loved this blog which explored the life and work of a new historical artist every day. Some of the works I was familiar with but for the most part, every entry was entirely new information for me–something I also adore.

Tales of a Pee Dee Mama: This was one of the blogs I especially looked forward to reading each morning. As a kindergarten teacher, this A – Z animal crafts theme was and still is a great resource for my lesson plans. Each letter gave a detailed craft idea, and several facts about the animal in question, which I also very much enjoyed.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping: With tales from life that were sometimes stranger than fiction, this blog had me giggling and chuckling through most of the month. A must read for those who enjoy everyday humor.

I’d also like to give my thanks to the following blogs for being so active in the comments. You guys are awesome, and I really looked forward to seeing what you had to say about my shelves! Please come by again. I have cookies!

Tina DC Hayes
Elizabeth Hein
Dean K Miller
Shere y Paul
Defending the Pen

Linda Covella
Donna’s New Day
Writing, Reading, and the Pursuit of Dreams
Anabel’s Travel Blog
Tell Me Another
Doorway Between Worlds

StrangePegs
herding cats & burning soup
The Transgentle Wife

And of course I couldn’t have done it at all without the encouragement and support of Alex Hurst.

There are so many others too. Thank you for your time, your interest, and the audience. I had a lot of fun this April.