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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the video game universe of Mass Effect were populated by Fraggles, you’d get this book. It’s a charming, sweet, lovely little soft-sci-fi escape, and you should read it.

Author Becky Chambers most succeeded at creating a ship full of characters who are unique species, each with little foibles but who all generally get along. Reading the book is like you just popped on the ship and they offered you a fizz drink, so you sit a spell with them and just hang out.

But that’s also my frustration here. The plot is haphazard and there isn’t a single thread of narration or a theme that runs all the way through. There are episodes, like you’re tuning in to an alien spaceship version of Big Brother except everyone is trying their damnedest to get alone instead of creating unnecessary trash drama. But it made the ending flat—you’re just turning off the show, no series finale, or, at least, not one that feels like an actual ending.

I’m torn, because this book really was just a charming respite from reality and I did so love the characters, but I feel like it could have had just a touch more plot and been a better overall experience for it.

That said, I will still be looking for the next one.

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3 Reasons to Publish a Book

A few weeks ago I “e-attended” the Book Marketing Summit. By and large, the “summit” (a serious of time-locked webinars) wasn’t great, a rehash of things I’d heard before mixed with tactics considered bad form in the marketing world and overly tipped toward churn-and-burn business writers who pump out short “how to” books.

But one thing one presenter (a “book marketing expert” *cue eyeroll*) said just really fired me up: “There are only three reasons to publish a book: 1) to make money 2) to build prestige and 3) to start a movement.”

Let’s take this one at a time:

1) To make money. Of course every author with a book out is trying to make money on it; otherwise, it just sits there and there is no more grist to allow the author to write more things. But making serious, all-I-do-is-write money is vanishingly rare and very hard to achieve. Writing a book is not a get-rich-quick scheme because it is neither easy nor quick and you won’t be rich. A few years ago, Hugh Howey wrote about how the average indie author is making $500 a year on their books. And The Guardian just wrote about how the author cut is dwindling even while book sales are up.

Authoring is just not a cash cow.

Possible exception: you are writing a nonsense business book to support your main business. Maybe it will help; maybe not.

2) To Build Prestige. Let’s just say, if this is a goal of book-publishing, I am definitely doing it wrong. I’ve so far published adventure gamebooks for adults, about zombies and aliens. Where’s my prestige? Is it under the joke about the evil sentient cow overlords? Maybe in the bit where you have the deep existential decision about whether to try to eat a lion?

3) To Start a Movement. Again, this probably doesn’t apply to fiction. Was E.L. James trying to start a movement when she wrote bad Twilight fanfiction?

Fiction doesn’t need movements to be worthy. It just is.

When I heard that ridiculous list, I basically gave up on the “summit” entirely. It was mostly hogwash.

But what ARE reasons to write and publish a book?

Just a few off the top of my head:

  • To explain something
  • To explain something better than was previously explained before
  • To help you process something in your life
  • To help other people address a problem in their lives
  • For fun
  • To achieve a deeply held personal goal
  • Because the book you would like to read doesn’t exist in the real world yet
  • Because the words won’t stop bubbling up and the only way to deal with that is to put them on a page
  • To pass something on to someone else
  • Look at that: nine other perfectly legitimate reasons to write and publish a book, already three times more than that so-called “expert” claimed existed.

    I wrote my books (including the just-published gamebook Beamed Up: Decide Your Destiny. Buy now!) as a personal challenge, and because I thought they were funny. I published them because I enjoy self-flagellation… well, no, that’s not the reason, but it feels that way sometimes. I published them because I had already spent so much effort writing all those words, it seemed silly not to spend a little (lot) more effort and put them out in the world.

    Be wary, authors, of marketing “experts.” Keep your critical thinking turned on when you hear them out.

    And write for whatever reason you want to write. You deserve that.

    What’s your reason?

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    How-to: Make a Mystical Fairy Cage

    If you’re like me and a trip to the craft store is a dangerous thing, and you’re a little bit of a whimsical-twisted individual, this may be the craft for you!

    The craft store Michael’s happened to have a confluence of two things: whimsical fairies and other dollhouse-sized items, and also decorative bird cages. I, being a well-adjusted person, saw these and decided I really needed a fairy cage.

    I bought entirely too many supplies to create my fairy habitat, and got to work.

    First, I cut up scrap pieces of cork to cover the cage’s open bottom. Cardboard would work just as well. You need decent coverage but don’t have to cover everything. This is just a base for the rest to sit on.

    Add decorations and arrange until you’re happy with the layout. The trees can just poke slightly into the cork to prop it up.

    I didn’t like the scale on some of my trees, so I made them taller by stacking and gluing cork pieces. I’ll hide this stack in a later step.

    Here’s the new arrangement. The stacked cork adds some dimension and makes the trees look more visually interesting. At this point, glue in the trees.

    Take some fake moss, and arrange it around the base. I used a bit of glue to secure the moss around important areas, but mostly left it fairly loose. I had to cut the moss into small pieces to make it look natural, because it comes in one big unworkable sheet. Just make it look like a decent ground cover.

    Next, I threaded LED twinkle lights through the top of the cage. The one I had was wrapped around jute rope and had a alternating effect, but any kind would work. Be cautious as you thread it through that you aren’t stopping yourself from reaching the next part.

    For extra whimsy, I wrapped a few butterflies on the top to create the illusion of flight.

    That’s it! Hang your fairy cage somewhere it’ll make you smile!

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    Review: Guards! Guards!

    Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This is one of the most-recommended Pritchett books, so when I was looking for a light vacation read it was my first choice. And it was perfect!
    Guards! Guards! follows the downtrodden Captain Vimes of the Watch, a role that used to be prestigious but now is just holding on. In this city, it’s wiser to run from trouble than to arrest anyone. Cue a rather mysteriously opportune dwarf-raised human and a weasely bad guy who decides to call in dragons to restore a puppet monarchy, and you’ve got a recipe for a really fun book.
    I hadn’t realized there were dragons in this one, and the dragon discussions were by far and away the best parts of the book. I really think someone ought to go through Pratchett and parse out all the lines; there’s a quip for everything in this series! The Librarian also gets quite a lot of action, and the book as a whole definitely holds up to its reputation.

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    Review: Lost Solace

    Lost SolaceLost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    In space, you are all alone—unless you have a hacked military AI to keep you company as you explore a strange ship.

    Lost Solace is dominated by just two characters: Opal, a tough escaped space marine with lots of secrets, and her ship, which Opal has named Clarissa. This is a clever plot that shrinks the vastness of the decisions into something individual.

    We don’t know much about the situation as the story opens: there’s a girl, a ship, and a weird, misshapen, alien ship floating near a black hole. And Opal is crazy enough to jump on board. The story chases down dark hallways full of creepy crawlies, dashed away from the space marines in close pursuit, and meanders down to find secrets against a ticking clock.

    The aliens were my favorite: juicy and unique, haunting and definitely run-away-worthy. I struggled a bit with some of the sentence structure and grammar, though that may be because of the author’s Britishness against my American ear. By the end, I liked the plot a lot, but in the middle it sagged a little and some things that seemed obvious to me as the reader took too long for the very clever Opal to piece together. The action in the last act is truly top-notch, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it!

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    Is “This is America” the Modern “Invisible Man”?

    “Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.” (Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison)


    First, backstory:

    There was one black boy in my elementary school. His parents came, at the invitation of my kindly first-grade teacher (who was also black), and taught us about Kwanza. It seemed marvelous; they had full costumes, the lighting of candles, eating of special foods, and there were stories. The whole thing seemed magical, and I was deeply impressed with my classmate, and that he got to participate in this incredible celebration.

    Later, we had a visiting storyteller come by and tell us Anansi stories. The storyteller also wore the colorful South African-inspired clothes and had black skin, and that was fascinating, but I was focused on Anansi. She invited class involvement, and I was picked to play Tiger, a role I took deeply seriously. Tiger was strong, and fierce, and angry, but Anansi was clever, and trapped Tiger in a hole. This storytelling lesson inspired me to read many more Anansi stories as I got older, too. Anansi was clever, if not always kind, and he was an inspiration, how smart could beat strong.

    While my school, over time, was minority-majority, there were very few black people; the main minority in my area was Hispanic. I learned about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn and was troubled that these people, locked tight up in history books, resigned to the past, had been hurt, but proud that they had struggled and won, had finally been proven how right they were. The history was done; it was written down, final. Black people were free. I didn’t need to worry about it anymore.

    I grew up thinking we were in a truly post-racial society; racism didn’t happen to me, or in my range of vision, so that meant it was done and gone.

    I shake my head at my naiveite now. It’s embarrassing that I ever believed the world was so pure, that I was so insulated that I didn’t know I was insulated.

    The scales of privilege didn’t start to fall from my eyes until I read Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison in high school. It shook me, deeply. I was very troubled that this man would be treated so unjustly in so many ways, again and again, based on the color of his skin. But still I didn’t connect that it was not just a history book, that it was a fact of life for real people living at that very moment. I asked my reading group, “What can we do? How can we, as people, fix this?”

    I wanted to patch things up, tuck it nicely back into the history books. My classmate said, “I don’t think we can. All we can do is try.”

    So, all that is to say: I know I’m not the audience for Childish Gambino’s This is America. I’ve seen some commentary that white people shouldn’t try to dissect and comment on the music video but “listen and learn.” And maybe that is true. I am trying, do try, to listen and learn. I admit my privilege and my shortcomings, but I also can’t help but react to the music video. It’s powerful, and it resonates. And all I can do is try.


    Soaked with Symbolism

    Maybe the first reason Childish Gambino’s music video reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s novel is because it shook me the same way. Neither experience—reading the book or watching the video—feels good. In fact, it’s revolting; I want to draw away from it. But at the same time, it echoes in my mind long after I’ve interacted with it. There’s an inherent push-pull, where I want to swim in the content more, but also hate how it makes me feel, hate the mirror it holds to the world.

    Second, both are steeped with symbolism. Buzzfeed tries to break down some of it; even Forbes has chimed in with the dance-move call-outs. It all happens so fast it’s impossible to take in in one viewing.

    But I haven’t seen anyone, yet, say that the music video has parts of Invisible Man in it.

    Go read the book (or at least the plot summary). There’s too much for me to break down briefly, but the basics: It’s a symbolic, unusually-styled book about an unnamed black man and the many (many) ways he is abused by society, both writ large and personally. It is both subtle and not in its use of symbolism (the narrator, at one point, works for a company that sells white paint… paint so white it will get anything white – the way it’s meant to be, it’s implied).

    At the time of first reading, I had to ask a teacher about the dancing Sambo doll in Invisible Man. From context, I knew it was racist somehow and some kind of mockery, but I didn’t know the cultural weight of it. Sambo was a word for a person of mixed (black plus anything else) ancestry. It’s a name that shows up all over the place for black characters and African Americans as a whole.

    But the Sambo doll had more layers. The doll pranced and jived and looked happy for all the (white) children and doll-purchasers. It is based entirely on stereotypes and yet is seemingly innocent fun. It was the entire minstrel movement shrunk down and commoditized; you, too, children, can play with a Sambo of your very own! (The package instruction–“easy to work!”–also strikes me as insidious double-messaging.)

    In the book, it’s repulsive that a black former activist has resorted to selling these racist dolls—it’s a repudiation of his prior interaction with the narrator and a meta-commentary on society as a whole. It makes the reader question: is the seller mocking the white people, for being so stupid as to think Sambo is a reflection of reality? Is the seller mocking the other blacks, for their participation in the system? Is he just out for money by playing on stereotypes? Has he betrayed the other blacks he used to work with?

    Which gets me back to Childish Gambino: is he a living Sambo doll in the music video?

    He dances with jerky movements (like a puppet doll might). He distracts the (white?) audience from all the chaos going on behind him. He smiles and japes like a minstrel act, while representing something deeper and more tragic. “Look at these great dance moves,” Gambino seems to say, “you don’t need to care about anything else. This is the only kind of black person you want to see, audience, so here I am, performing my tricks for you. You are so stupid you won’t see anything else.”

    Are Gambino, and the dancing school children with him, a reflection of the commoditization of black bodies, black culture, the way the Sambo dolls are in the book? Is Donald Glover/Childish Gambino the rich sellout Sambo-dancing his way to the American public, tricking us white idiots into swallowing the message we don’t want to see?

    Invisible Man ends with the character on the run, chased by both one of his black former friends and an angry crowd. The book ends in darkness, counterbalancing the electric lights of the beginning. This is America ends similarly, the fear etched in Childish Gambino’s eyes as the people who ignored him, looked past him, didn’t see him, finally do—and want to kill him for it.

     

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    Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

    Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
    1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

    2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

    3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

    4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
    Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
    See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

    That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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