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Review: Abaddon’s Gate

Abaddon's Gate (Expanse, #3)Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another riveting book in the Expanse series! Only pick these books up when you’ve got some time to read, because otherwise you’ll stay up too late to read “just one more page.”
Abaddon’s Gate follows in the footsteps of Caliban’s War, dealing with the ongoing repercussions of the discovery of the protomolecule by Capt. James Holden and his crew.

And, as is now typical, things get bad fast—the mysterious molecule has constructed a large portal. To where?

For what purpose? Is something coming…or are humans being called?
We’re introduced to a new set of characters for this group, including a no-nonsense security chief, an annoying socialite along for the ride, and a minister who just can’t stop helping people, even when it means putting her life at risk. Through these characters–particularly Pastor Anna–Abaddon’s Gate reaches out to try to explore some of the greater mysteries of life: what is our purpose? How should we interact with each other? Is there a God in all the great expanse of the universe? If there are hyper-intelligent alien species, what does it mean for Earth and for religion?

Sidenote: I love that a character is gay with a family and that it is absolutely no big deal at all. Hurrah for a more inclusive future!

It’s an interesting book, if a little more philosophical and yet action-oriented than the prior two. While I still very much enjoyed it and would recommend it to sci-fi fans, this story just didn’t resonate with me quite as much as the first two. I even found a handful of glaring editing mistakes, adding to my feeling that this one was a smidge rushed. I miss some of the characters we’ve met before (though they do get notable mentions). Some parts were a little far-out, which is hard to believe when we’re dealing with hyper-advanced space-zombie-making molecules.

It’s still absolutely worth the read, but I’m hoping the next book in the series “gels” a little better.

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The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

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Review: Atlanta Burns

Atlanta Burns (Atlanta Burns #1-2)Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Atlanta Burns is what Veronica Mars would have been if, instead of growing up in sunny California with an understanding father, she’d been transplanted suddenly into “Pennsyltucky”—the rural/backwoods center of Pennsylvania—with an impoverished lost-soul mother and no one to fall back on. Atlanta Burns is Veronica Mars with red hair, a cut lip, dirt all over her face, and the vocabulary your momma wouldn’t approve of.

The story is good, but rough, hard to take. Atlanta is still recovering from the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, and her unwanted legendary status she earned with a well-placed shotgun hit to his bait-and-tackle. It is in part because of this reputation, however, that she attracts the downtrodden, the friendless, and begins to help them fight back, too.

The only thing you can really say Atlanta has going for her is grit. She’s not always the smartest girl; she’s into way more drugs than I am even familiar with, often in tandem; she makes really shitty decisions and has a hard time remembering who her friends are. But she doesn’t give up, doesn’t back down, even as she stumbles into bigger and greater crimes against those who can’t fight back.

Chuck Wendig spins a good story, but I think he inserts a little bit too much of himself sometimes, making his agenda too clear and creating a gap in the fourth wall, like when his drug-dealing lowlife happens to be a frequent reader of Margaret Atwood. I don’t disagree with his message, and, true, it’s one of these clear agenda items that makes up the overall story arch, but there were times it drew me out of the story and had me rolling my eyes.

Overall, Wendig does good work here: it doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the bad guys are too big to fight. Sometimes you’re the dog in the ring, just having to fight to survive. It’s a good story, with a hard message to swallow, but it’s a bit too gritty and intense for me. Tread carefully, readers; this is a solid book but you’re going to need a steel stomach to get through it.

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Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Martian is a gem, an instant science-fiction classic that will blow your mind and make you long for (and fear) space travel. If this book (and its soon-to-be-produced movie) isn’t enough to reignite interest in NASA’s Mars mission, I don’t know what will.

The plot is simple: Mars astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars after an accident; he is on his own to survive until NASA can figure out a way to pick him up…years later.

What’s particularly amazing is that with any other author, this book could have been an exhausting, emotionally-draining beat-down. It could have focused on how much it would suck to be totally alone on Mars; Watney could have spent the whole book being a pathetic, barely-surviving drag.

But “The Martian” is surprisingly funny, the kind of funny that means you’ll be laughing aloud and poking your spouse to share it with him. Watney is completely sarcastic, a naturally buoyant personality who, when faced with adversity, says, This is going to suck, but I am going to survive, damnit.
And then he’ll name rock formations on Mars after himself and declare himself King of Mars. And maybe institute worship of duct tape.

Another way this book distinguishes itself from pretty much all fiction is how clearly it was written by a science- and math-inclined mind. Author Andy Weir saves the reader from all the equations, but it is no less clear that there is intense math right under the surface; he even provides the variables used, in case another math-inclined person wants to try to figure it out, too. Most science-fiction, it need not be said, is more of the fiction, less of the science. But Weir is a world-class nerd of the best kind, and the hard science backbone to “The Martian” is what makes it so utterly believable.

“The Martian” is an outstanding book. What may make it truly great is its ability to transcend normal book-readers and reach those who care about hard numbers, math, and science, as well as those who could use a good laugh. It’s first-class writing that makes me believe we can send a man to Mars (but hopefully not leave him there).

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Review: Bossypants

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m late to the Bossypants party, but luckily Tina Fey knows how to keep the party thumpin’. Bossypants is hilarious, smart, and deeply insightful. But mostly it’s hilarious.

Bossypants is less a biography and more a brilliant stream-of-consciousness into the life of Hollywood-stomping Fey. It’s loosely organized by periods in her life, with a brief bit on her childhood, including irreverent stories about who she met on the first day of school, all the way up into her ongoing surprise that “30 Rock” turned out to be a sleeper hit. She’s humble about her achievements, making Fey seem even more like the person you’d most like to have a beer with. This sounds stupid, but she really is “just like everyone else,” and it seems that maybe a little of that midwestern awareness of the ridiculousness of NYC culture/TV writing insanity is what makes her brand of humor so fresh and entertaining. She’s the girl next door who makes you laugh so hard you nearly pee.

But just because it’s funny—and it IS funny, the kind of funny that’ll have you tapping your husband on the shoulder at midnight to read “just one more line” aloud—doesn’t mean this is an idle book. Fey wraps her humor around sometimes biting criticism, particularly about gender roles. She’s a feminist icon for a reason, and she’s very aware of the limitations (and benefits) of being a woman who is also funny.

The only criticism I have is that I wish there were more, particularly about the writing process for “Mean Girls,” the smash-success movie about teenage girls’ social structure that has, for me at least, left lasting ripples. There’s a scant reference to it, with a lot more time devoted to “30 Rock,” which I have been negligent about seeing (I’ll be fixing that soon).
More, Ms. Fey, always more. I love you and can’t wait for more.

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Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

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Inclusion as Rebellion: Adding Diversity in Fiction

Tales from Earthsea poster

It shouldn’t be surprising that Hollywood made the cast white when they made a movie version. But apparently it’s also just a really bad film.

I didn’t happen to think much of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but I did absolutely love the author’s afterward. In it, she talks about writing A Wizard of Earthsea in 1967, and how she ever-so-quietly tried to subvert convention. Her rebellion? The main character, Sparrowhawk, and the vast majority of the “good guy” supporting cast, are all non-white people. The people who are pale are seen as the dangerous outsiders.

She writes: “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly, and it went almost unnoticed.”

But LeGuin writes about how she was, is, somewhat disappointed. It seems her rebellion was a little too subtle, and didn’t attract the notice it deserved, most notably because cover artists tended to put a white person in the artwork, and apparently many readers didn’t pick up on the many small hints of the characters’ skin color. (My copy was released in 2012, and features a hawk, no people.)

She goes on to discuss the philosophical roots of her book, how the main action turns aside from battle and war, favoring instead to be a rather quiet hero’s journey of the self (which…ok. But I found it a little too detached). But I’m fixated on that concept of trying to push cultural boundaries with fiction.

The most notable and painfully glaring example is Rue from The Hunger Games. Despite many clear mentions of Rue and her companions as black characters, some movie-goers were rabidly furious when they showed up to the film and saw the (incredible, wonderful!) acting done by Amandla Stenberg. Not only were these people poor contextual readers, apparently (seeing as they missed this fact), they felt they actually had a right to be angry about a black actor being cast for a black character. It was stomach-churning.

It’s not the only example, either. Neil Gaiman makes a point of writing in non-white characters (my favorites show up in Anansi Boys) but even so, a challenge was famously issued to stop reading books by white men which prominently featured his (multicultural) book American Gods. When some readers/fans cried foul (either because they liked Mr. Gaiman or realized that the book’s character was himself nonwhite), Gaiman stepped in to say, “no, absolutely, go read those other books. Have at it.”

And if that’s not enough for you, this year’s Hugo Awards were hijacked by a group calling themselves “Sick Puppies” who felt, for whatever reason, that books featuring straight, white, men were being somehow maligned by authors who wrote other things or who themselves came from different backgrounds. They effectively rigged the awards and caused a lot of controversy. All because science fiction authors did what they are supposed to do: push cultural boundaries.

One good thing may have come from these incidents, at least: people are talking about the power of fiction in culture, the power to change culture, and the importance of inclusion. We need more stories, from more people; different stories, interesting stories. I know for my book I worked hard to create a diverse cast of background characters from different nationalities, while also working to ensure that the main character (the reader) remained gender-neutral and accessible to just about anyone who decided to pick up the book.

Do you attempt any cultural rebellions in your books or in the books you read? Do you see value in including a variety of characters of different skin colors? Or of breaking other boundaries? Let’s talk about it.

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Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This classic fantasy novel, written in 1967 by one of the world’s top sci-fi/fantasy authors… just didn’t grab me. It’s well-composed, with a nicely fleshed-out world and an interesting power structure for the wizards and some cultural details, but the story of the Sparrowhawk’s beginnings left me wondering, “so why should I care?”
I think I’m ruined for this book by the Harry Potter era. It’s just hard to get attached to a boy wizard in this style, after I’ve gotten accustomed to the very feelings, friendships, and trials of a different, more relatable wizard. The whole “true name” thing may have been a cool storytelling concept, but it just serves as one more layer between the reader and the character–what’s his name again? (The main character has no less than three different names throughout the book!). It’s also told in a rather detached third-person; we only vaguely get a sense of Sparrowhawk/Ged’s feelings at any given time, and we are invited not to feel with him but to watch as he fumbles around. Throw in the jumpy time setting (following not a calendar but whenever the action seems likely to hit) and you’ve got a story I just never felt comfortable in.
I finished the book for the lessons of the craft I could learn, not from any deep affinity for it. In fact, I found the author’s afterward far, far more compelling and approachable than the rest of the story–I’d have rated THAT 5-stars!
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just that this book had its heyday in a different time, in a very different genre fiction landscape. It’s certainly not LeGuin’s fault; she’s a beautiful, if impassive, author who has my utmost respect. But I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series.

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Review: The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and WorkThe Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work by Christine Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was so persuasive, I implemented some of its suggestions even before buying and reading it!
It’s true. I first heard about The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work on the incredibly excellent radio program Think. I only heard the tail end of the discussion, but it was very convincing: that implementing a few routines and intentional habits into your life could make work, life, everything more copacetic.
And that’s how I started doing pushups as soon as I woke up. And then how I bought the book.
Carter does a great job in grouping concepts and providing both detailed research and easy action points. Because of that, I think this is the kind of book you read twice: once to grok it and let it really sink in, and a second time with a pencil and paper as you work out what you’re actually going to try to do.
The things she advocates are both really easy and seem like they’ll be very difficult to implement in real life. Most people already know they should get enough sleep, but allow themselves to stay up late anyway, for example. But even if you take only a little bit away from reading this book, you’ll probably be better for it. I fully intend to go back and complete some of the personal challenges Carter suggests. My favorite was outlining, literally, the top 5 most important things in your life, and only doing things that serve those goals. Oh, and I’m working on halting my habit of checking my cellphone at stop lights while driving, though “embracing boredom to allow for creativity” is proving easier said than done.
Why is this book only 3 stars? Well, it’s true that I liked it (what a 3-star rating on Goodreads means). But it felt a) a little sanctimonious and b) like doing literally all these things would make you a very boring person.
Carter often uses examples from her own life to explain how her concepts could be performed in real life. But these were the absolute low points of the narrative for me: the details of your childrens’ daily breakfasts (a “healthy meal of half an avocado spread on toast!”) just come across as a humblebrag for anyone who knows how much an avocado costs outside of California and how weird it is to eat that every single day. I was further (and possibly unjustifiably) irked when Carter got into her hard-knock story as a single mom…but she still paid for a regular, weekly housekeeper. #firstworldproblems? She gives herself a bedtime of 10 p.m. so that she can wake at 6 to begin her day–I had to wonder, does that ever vary?–and even went so far as so detail her wardrobe (if you have her as a speaker, don’t worry, you’ll know which of the three dresses she’ll be wearing!).
And yet despite the rigidity of her self-imposed habits, Carter never satisfactorily explained what it had gained her (except for the section on her morning workout routines; apparently that has led to some nice benefits). Presumably more creativity–but for what? Potentially more time with her kids, I guess, but they all sound relatively young, with early bedtimes?
Because of that, despite all the positive things I think I can get out of this book, I was a little distant from it and felt myself rebelling. What if I don’t want the same routine forever and always?
Honestly, Carter leaves room for that. She doesn’t necessarily want to make you accept her goals, but does want to teach you how to make your own. I’ll have to try it to see how well it works out.

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How to Support an Author

Bestseller and ebook trailblazer Hugh Howey had a blog post that I think bears repeating: What’s the Best Way to Support Your Favorite Authors?

The answer may surprise you: while buying stuff is absolutely great (and hey, you can buy my book here!), but it isn’t actually the best way to support someone.

Howey says:

“If you really want to support your favorite authors, my advice is simple: Read their books. Spread word-of-mouth. Write reviews. Email them and express your delight.”

The best–and easiest–way to support an author, be they independent, with a small publisher, or from one of the big publishers, is to tell someone else how great the book was. Despite all our gizmos and features, we still value word of mouth most. Telling your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and others how much you liked a book is powerful mojo. Tweeting about it, blogging, sharing on Facebook, or writing up a review on Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else are all bonus ways to share with more people all at once.

It’s humbling, really, to know that the most powerful way to boost your favorite authors (or even your most recent read) is just to tell someone else about it. I review every book I read on Goodreads. How do you show your support?

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