Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thumbs Firmly Jammed in the Meh Position

For the first time in quite a while, I've finished a book that I can't honestly decide whether I like or not. The book itself (Blue Lab, by J.A. Jones) reads somewhat like a second-round novel draft you should have brought to your writer's group earlier. The voice is there, the pacing is almost there, and the logic is...well...interesting.

I picked this up because I'm working on a similar mix of tech & fantasy in one of my drafts and I was curious about how the author had handled it in this instance. The main POV character was a child born a few generations after the (factual, in this case) King Arthur, living in a small village and trying to survive the open secret that he is the bastard grandson of the monarch who has fallen from vying with the High King to the bandit lord of this village. Myths in this story are covers for alien visitation, words are alien because aliens apparent prefer 'gre'at n'umb'ers o'f a'postro'phes. Evolution, thy deity is Extra Keystroke. Aliens who have artifically long lives apparently aren't able to reason their way to the potential downside of their decision (although apparently their biological systems can), but super-powered mutant children can help with this. Earth was once a vacation spot and is now a laboratory--this was one of my favorite conceits.

By the end I was hooked and firmly on the side of the good characters, but this was mostly because I was reading around the alien parts of the story (excising the mechanical parts from the cyborg genre?) and focusing on the fantastic. It was fascinating to find areas where the author had left in artifacts of previous edit rounds (creatures referred to that had never been mentioned, references to scenes that weren't in the book), but these weren't frequent enough to interfere with the story. My first urge is toward sarcasm...but there are emotional hooks that catch at you as you're hurtling past. It wasn't a bad book. It was a sad book--an unfinished tale.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Writing Seasons

We're finally starting to feel fall slipping in under the heat pallisades summer has thrown up around this part of Texas. With the change of season, I'm finding my imagination shifting onto different paths. I've always been the kind of writer who picks up some things easier in cool weather, with the lead-in to the winter holidays being a good time for me to outline and come up with new ideas and summer being a good time to slog through revisions (long days, extra incentive to stay inside, hurricane season preparations goading me to straighten stuff up).

This fall, I don't think I'm going to be able to focus on new things, however. I've been piling up a set of drafts that are just hanging out and I need to give them the attention they deserve. Imagination will just have to content itself it with finding something to do with all the paper and scrapbook stuff in the front room. Oh, and figuring how I'm going to get all the Halloween decorating done this week, before my in-laws arrive (I thought they'd enjoy seeing the house all dressed up--we'll see). Maybe the heat will hold on long enough for me to get everything done.

Meanwhile, I'm picking up and reading the first bits of a handful of books. My attention has swung toward the physical spaces around me and the interior spaces offered during reading is too cramped. I think I'm reaching the end of my memoir fascination, but I have two more to go before I exhaust my teeny reading list. There is a tendency toward the twee and precious that is clogging the text of the last two, something about looking back on parts of life that neither author seems to want to integrate into their current life. Perhaps they'll seem more welcoming after a day stuffing chrysanthemums into pots and beds.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reading Vacation

I didn't realize how much I needed something fun to read until a few days ago, when were cruising through B&N and poking through the shrinking F/SF section. Soon, the closest B&N will be a giant plastic playland with a caffeinated oasis for bored parents and people taking their laptops out for an afternoon. There is only so much one family of avid (yet broke) readers can do for a bookstore.

That day, we ended up with a stack that included Nicole Peeler's Tracking the Tempest, which happens to be the second book in her Jane True series. I don't remember seeing the first one and that B&N likes to stock only the most recent book ('cause ya wouldn't come back and by the first in a series if ya missed it, would ya?), so I picked up the second. It looked both amusing and as if it wouldn't take itself too seriously. As it turned out, both things were true.

It kept me laughing, resulting in my husband continually asking me what I was reading. I just ignored him and kept going. :) The story is an interesting mix of Boston, English/Scotch/Irish folklore, froth and...my favorite--selkies!!! Yea!! Jane's voice was pitched at that perfect sardonic tone that hits the serious and the silly sweet spots at each twist of the roller-coaster plot. There is an interesting physicality to the characters whom Jane encounters and a good visual rendering of the magical elements (even if at times the characters seemed to moving around in little glass display cases).

I read the book in just a day and a half and am now stuck waiting for the third one to come out in January. Looking forward to scooting out and picking that up for a cozy bit of winter reading. Oh, and tracking down the first one. Now to go find out what just crashed and which dog is guilty...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Other People's Navels

I am awash in a reading list of blogs, most of which function (as this one does) as a draft of life that might have once gone into a letter or a phone call (or lecture...). My online reading habits then bleed over into my book list and I wind up with a stack of memoirs and essays interspersed among the other books. Recently, I've begun to feel that every other book I pick up is some kind of memoir.

This is good in the sense that I've been wandering through the entire bookstore or library instead of concentrating on the genre section and trying to encourage family members to embark on writing down pieces of their lives. It's been less good in that I've come to feel this is partially because we don't have kids and I feel sometimes like the old house on a cul-de-sac that was nice for a while and is now withering inward from the lawn to the shabby porch to the increasingly closed off rooms inside. The one that renters make temporarily their own and then move on.

On balance, am I appreciating the flash of perspective that I get from another person's story or am I borrowing the emotional trappings of the success and diligence and courage of others? Since reading is my one go-to source of comfort as well as a favorite way to spend time, what I read signifies where and who I am at particular moments in time. It shows what I'm willing to explore and what I don't let in. Right now, I just want to make sure I'm letting the right narratives in.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shape of Memory and Experience

When asked earlier today what I remembered about a trip to Canada that my family had taken when I was a child, it was surprising to the person asking me that I couldn't remember the order of hotels and the specific order of the travels, which seems to me something that I would have had no control over and therefore no proper awareness of (other than we stopped here, we stopped there)--I have an episodic memory of arriving at hotels, of embarrassing meals and disappointing Northern swimming pools, the giant ground wasp in North Carolina, and the feeling of ennui upon climbing out of the van at another grassy battlefield filled with wall-sized posters of historical battlefield minutia.

The pool in Pennsylvania became the basis for a short story that I'm still struggling with--the story is a bifurcated narrative of what travel was like and what it meant to live anonymously on a vacation with my head in a book, daydreaming or reading. What it meant to confront the fear that accompanies the unforeseen exhaustion of one's parents and the weird embarrassments adults visit on their offspring.

Niagara, in contrast, was all sun and thunder and food and castles. I don't remember the maps, though...or the specific hotels (although I remember the false fire alarms and the unfamiliar formality). I remember the son of the friend of the family who made some kind of living off making fake musket balls for tourists.

It wasn't, in other words, a continuous trip for me, the way they are now. Now, I drive and plan and am aware of the shape of the road and the links between places. Perhaps this is a good analogy for some of the challenges that I have with fiction--I perceive it in episodes rather than in coherent journeys. Nonlinear.

For whatever reason, this is a good reminder to stop sitting around pretending to work and to actually get down to work, before another narrative dissolves into a piecemeal memory of that story that I was going to write.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Now that we're down to one car, I tend to spend more time in the bookstore each week while acting as chauffeur. This means that I've long since abandoned being a one-section reader and have been remembering interests that have lain dormant since I had access to a good library. While this doesn't give me much grist for the blog (since I tend to end up reading lots of first chapters and not much else), it did bring up a wish the other day that's been getting stronger.

While thumbing through the biography section looking for Frederick Pohl's memoir (still looking, will find it eventually), I found a book about a job at Tiffany's in the 1940s. I skimmed it and thought about picking it up. Although it looks like an interesting read, it made me think of my grandmother and the trip she made to Texas with my mom (by herself), coming from a life in Pennsylvania that my mom has always missed to be near her family and friends. My mother's father passed away when she was a little girl and that perhaps is the root of her preference for the north (although there is nothing to explain her Anglophilia save for a library card that runs high to English mysteries).

There is a story in my family that stopped and another one that started and I'm part of the new storyline. Why this has been running through my head, I don't know. I am looking forward to reading about Tiffany's in the 40's and thinking about how the questions of heritage will find their way into what I'm writing. I'll let you know how the book turns out. :)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Harrow My Heart

I was skimming my blog bar when I finally slowed down enough to read the latest entry in Clarkesworld Magazine. A few minutes later I was numb and by the end...I realized the numbness was the anasthetic that prepared me for having something slipped in close to the heart. I think this entry might be one of those touchstone pieces that one reads every so now again just to savor it.

The writer part of me wants to go dancing on the slippery edge of a volcano after reading it--what could possibly be left to say?--and the reader part of me wants to stand on a street corner handing it out and insisting that passers-by read it. The writer part is a little vain and a little bereft with the cascading ending of a series of formerly productive writer's groups and could use a little (non-burning) mountaintop time to regroup.

The reader just wants to read more good stuff. To that end, it looks like another 'not this time' for Ivanhoe. There are good books crammed on my shelves, some of which will hopefully lift me as high as Ms. Valente's piece and some of which will joing Ivanhoe and his fellow characters under the bed, growling out a reminder of their half-read state. Back to the shelves!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Muddy Stream

Well, Ivanhoe is not going so well. There are two introductions before the main body of the text begins, not to mention the long essay at the beginning telling me all that I was afraid to ask about the text as literature. There is a sentence in the second prefatory section that remarks that the writer hopes the 'modern reader' will not be '...much trammelled by the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity,' and yet, I find myself so trammelled before the first page of the first chapter is over.

There are places were the text seems to cast itself away from the scene (when describing the forest at the beginning, for instance) and many other places in which it muffles scenes like a winter blanket. I find myself stopping at the same places to admire the view and skimming the same areas that bogged me down previously.

At this point, I wonder if there is any sense in trying to force myself through something that I don't care for--there is only so much time available and there are other books that could be read, ones that would move much quicker because they are more in sync with my (sloppy? brisk?) reading habits.

What I want from this, however, is a sense of what a novel can be. Ivanhoe is a popular book that has been called into service (if you believe the introduction) by people over and over again for the way Scott pictures the knights and the society and the love story. Even if this was never his intention, he built a part of the theatrical structure upon which modern fantasy is based, not to mention the Renaissance Festival circuit that is my post-school celebration of the coming of Fall. There has to be something in here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Book Under the Bed

Do you have a book under the bed, one of those lurking tomes that just doesn't get read, despite intentions to the contrary? I have two come to mind, growling in a murk of guilt and purple prose. Technically, I suppose that could make for a lovely twilight landscape or a bountiful autumn feast(gold leaves, purple grapes). At the very least, both of them will make for an autumn festival of blogging as I attempt to finish both E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe between now and the end of September. If I have time, I'll add in John Crowley's Little, Big.

What stops me in the first two books, earlier and earlier in each attempt, is the language. It doesn't flow for me in the way that it seems to for others. I was thinking about this in the bookstore a few days ago and I decided that I've reached the point in my life when I have different 'ports' available. Essentially, there are few "firsts" left for books (especially if I'm reading genre books in a narrow subcategory) and there are few "bests" left for them either. Not to mention that I'm older and looking for a different kind of escape in the novels I read. Whether this means that I'm looking for older protagonists or a particular authorial voice, I've found that the particular moments for some books has passed me by.

I think that I picked up Little, Big too early. It was something that I wasn't ready to embrace when I first picked it up and now it's become that book that I've carried around for at least a decade without finishing. There is a momentum of failure that I'm overwhelmed by when I look at the cover.

Reading them this year would be overcoming a challenge and it would give me an interesting point of reference for where I am in my life--what it is about these books that speaks to me or doesn't? Can I drag them out from under the bed (to make room, doubtless, for others) and add them to the shelf?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

All Hail Saint Cleese

I thought today's post would end up being more gratuitous YA bashing. Then I looked at my bookshelves and thought about what I'd been reading lately. There is a good sprinkling of YA or younger protagonists and I'm not complaining about the stack of reading beside Varda's Window of the Suspicous Neighbors (at least she isn't barking at the more familiar people outside).

For the most part, these are books that I think I'll enjoy (except for the lurking Ivanhoe, which I may finish but will never appreciate). My challenge is that my tastes crystallized in the early 80's, too early for Manga, and in an Anglophile household in which British mystery fiction was considered superior readng material. There is a certain cast of snark, a certain literary tic, a certain cast of characters who are part of my literary pantheon.

While there are little altars to Sayers and small engravings of Christie beneath the stained glass windows bearing the image of John Cleese and Tom Baker in this pantheon's temple, there are no chapbooks featuring Jane Austen. There is a giant hanging tapestry of Neil Gaiman.

What I struggle with is that given these interests and influences (aside from taking myself too seriously) is that they give me an anarchistic take on the idea of rules for texts. Or I'm making this up because today my brain isn't capable of cogent argument given the fact that finishing the novel draft left me in the bottom of a well, hungover from the emotional bender of a painful last chapter. Today, I need a literary chapel and a quiet place to rest.

Monday, August 2, 2010

To Everything It's Season

As I'm weighing the victory that is the finished draft of my novel and the irritation that is the fact that it looks like I'll be losing another writer's group, I feel like running screaming through the house. Not unlike Merlin, who is barking his frustration at Varda, who has snagged the 'good' bone.

Merlin is taking a break to stare into the fan, fur blowing Fabio-like behind him and then he's whining at Varda's shoulder. This combination of melodrama (which is probably not on Merlin's mind as he gets his nose as close to the fan as he can) and begging for attention is hideously familiar. I mean, it's not the end of the world if you have to switch groups because of a disconnect with the leadership or because of a conflict with meeting times--it happens to other people in other groups all the freaking time.

I'm going to miss having a physical, in-person writing group, though. I like to talk plot points and theme and the difficulty of even recognizing POV (I tend to blow past it & multiple POVs just don't usually bother me). I won't miss the YA explosion, which is starting to feel like 'blah, blah, blah' bellowed from a Charlie-Brown's-Teacher megaphone in the intonations of Miley Cyrus. Tired. Of. It.

The question before me is whether this is the end of the season of depending on group commentary or the end of the season of sending anything out for publication at all?