Review: The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster

The Drowning EyesThe Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The characters in The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster are so engaging, their world so compelling, and the book cover art so gorgeous that I feel bad giving this novella only three stars, but the truth is I personally wanted more details and more time in this world with these characters.

The plot finds the crew of the Giggling Goat taking on a new paying customer: an apparently rich young woman who seems to be on the run. What she is running from and where she is running to lead her and the crew she hires on a trip north through a chain of islands. Along the way, I found the world building intriguing but frustratingly sparse. For example, the plot doesn’t give the characters much time to embark on the islands they reach, so there’s not much time for details about these intriguing settings. More details are provided about religion, culture, and class, and there are interesting character conflicts related to these that arise, but in my opinion the swift pace of the work provides little time for the world and its people to coalesce into a satisfying whole.

There’s a creative decision near the end of the story that I like a lot, but the end leaves me confused about what happened. The captain of the ship and where she ends up are particularly confusing to me, especially because I otherwise like the character so much. She seems to be left with just one option, and it is not clear to me why she ended up in this particular circumstance, and what that might say about the larger themes of the story.

What is here in the novella is really good, but I’m left wondering what this story would have looked like as a longer piece with more details and exploration of character backstories and motivations.

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I Honestly Don’t Know

what my blog is for.

But first: Twitter. When I tweet on Twitter, and don’t receive likes or retweets, I feel that the reasons why I have an account are hardly reason to continue. On social media. When I do receive feedback, it’s a jolt, like a hit, like I’m not alone, like I’ve connected a transect through humanity that happily includes me. It passes as quickly.

This is not a post about depression. Or isolation.

When I use Twitter the other way, in which I dip into the real time news/entertainment/slice-of-life river from all the accounts I follow, I find reality unfiltered and too damn large. All that outrage. All that eating. All those jokes and wit. All the news, the merriment, the sarcasm, the tears, the depression. All that humanity and artifice and the closest thing to a face is a little image or avatar and some emoticons. What would I be if I sat across from you while you verbally tweeted to me fragmented moments or sustained ranting, and your hand I held in my hand? Would I compete with you? Between your words, while you caught your breath, would I fit in my own careful observations about my current mood and the state of the world?

This is not a post about social media. About isolation.

There are several things I wanted to tweet about tonight.

I watched the first episode of that new The Exorcist series on FOX. It was really good! One really good scare, smart writing and directing, and a twist at the end that suggests a widening of the story. This is not a remake of the movie. A quick scene makes it clear this happens in the same universe as the first movie, but years later, to different people, from different backgrounds, with, perhaps, a much more involved and expansive plot by the forces of evil. What is it saying about the real world, though? What are the writers, filmmakers, and actors trying to tell me? I got the episode for free on iTunes; am I going to buy the entire season? Do I have time for more TV?

How I’ve not written much lately, but I have plans. In October: research mode including a few hours a week at the university library, watching horror movies and TV shows all month long, and reading back issues of Nightmare magazine. All of it in preparation for the supernatural horror novel I’ll be writing during National Novel Writing Month. Two solid months of effort leading to a first draft.

An apology and/or explanation for not tweeting my thoughts on last night’s Presidential Debate? But I shared other people’s tweets.

Some joke I’ve already forgotten. I would have laughed, tweeted it, wondered why it didn’t get any hearts or retweets, and then deleted it when I remembered humor is not my brand. What brand? My online writer’s platform, the one that includes Twitter, this blog, and LinkedIn.

Here are the reasons why I canceled my LinkedIn account this afternoon:

  • Earlier today, I was talking to a co-worker about something completely different but during the conversation I became convinced that the very best response I could make to what we were discussing was to cancel my LinkedIn account.
  • I dislike the site very much; it’s very ugly.
  • I’m in that minimize! and simplify! mood again.
  • Microsoft owns LinkedIn. It’s fine. It’s fine! I’m not sure how I really feel about that.
  • I’m not looking for a new job.
  • Two anonymous lookers looked at my résumé recently.
  • I change LinkedIn notifications to none yesterday.
  • I linked my LinkedIn account to my WordPress account and every blog post wants to automatically share to LinkedIn, but why would I share my blog posts there?
  • What am I using LinkedIn for?

What is my blog for?

My blog lets me write posts like this, missives that are much longer than tweets or even a series of tweets. Twitter is just not for long form writing. And that’s what I like to write: much more than 140 characters. Ever since Craig Mod and his team shuttered and archived Hi.co, I’ve been thinking I could have supported their project better, written there more, read other writers’ stories more. How I could read more longer form work if I stopped checking in on Twitter and its realtime blizzard of headlines and chatter leaving me time only to add articles I want to read to my reading list. Why is my reading list full of so many things I haven’t read yet?

I read about the city of Flint in Michigan in the United States and the contaminated drinking water there. I learned there are other towns with the same problems. It’s really about racism and greed. It’s about aging infrastructure and lack of priority. It’s about a basic need, the lowest tier on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of our very basic physiological needs, and how it remains unmet even in the 21st Century here in the United States let alone around the world. What can I do about it? Be aware. Share. Donate. Vote. That’s not enough.

This is not a post about what I can and cannot do. This is not a post about how people are isolated.

What this blog is for are the following:

  • To be the center of my writer’s platform.
  • To share my stories, poems, and essays.
  • To review my favorite media.
  • To share things I like.
  • To write about science and technology.
  • To write about longer things.

That list is not helping. I think what I am saying is that I don’t want to tweet any more. I think what I am saying is that I feel little connection between my online presence and my offline presence, but I don’t feel they are that different, either. I guess what I am saying is that the question about what my blog is for is hard to answer. Am I the audience? Would it matter if I had more followers? If I opened up comments again? If I shouted into the wind and no one heard me whisper? What I’m trying to say is that the online, digital experience is still uncertain and I can see what is not working for me but not what will.

What I would have tweeted would have taken much less time and left me much less satisfied. It’s easy to get lost when there are fewer characters to work with.

It’s not clear that many more words will make it any easier to be found.

Maybe this post is about isolation after all.

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s collection of his stories published between 1990 and 2002 is now one of my favorite books ever, full of some of my favorite stories ever. There is not one story in this collection I did not enjoy, and all of them left me in awe. Yes, I’m going to be a little breathless with this review, but it’s how I’ve been feeling for days now ever since I started reading Stories of Your Life and Others.

These stories are about people who find themselves on sudden exponential journeys into the future. They soon discover that such journeys are both isolating and actualizing. Sometimes these are physical journeys, like Hillalum climbing the “Tower of Babylon” but more frequently these are mental or spiritual journeys, including Leon’s intelligence enhancement in “Understand” and Neil Fisk’s love of God in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” Always these are stories about the pursuit of knowledge, no matter where that knowledge leads. Each story moves forward with increasing momentum and speed, resulting in my heart racing, my eyes widening, and my jaw dropping (I told you this would be a breathless review.)

I purchased this collection for “Story of Your Life”, soon to be a major motion picture. That story alone is worth the price of the book. It brings together the very personal with the sudden arrival to Earth of aliens, and its journey is through both linguistics and physics, leading to a tremendous and unexpected ending. I have no idea how the sheer brilliance of this complex literary masterpiece can be dramatized on the big screen, but with early reviews suggesting a cinematic masterpiece, perhaps the filmmakers have succeeded.

While reading “Tower of Babylon”, I realized I had read it before in a recent magazine issue. It is even better the second time around. Every step of the journey is invigorating. “Understand” explores topics and themes I’m particularly excited about and I sped through the pages at what felt like supercomputer speed. “Seventy-Two Letters” is so well-researched and expertly crafted that I wanted to cry with joy and appreciation, long before the genius, inevitable, but still unexpected ending left my jaw on the floor. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is an oral history about a specific future technology; there are many perspectives about that technology collected in the story but there is also a through-story that focuses on one woman and her own insights about the technology. It’s incredible.

Chiang’s gift is that he seems to select a single compelling idea and then pursues that idea wherever it leads him, in a completely rational and logical manner that still leads to very surprising and shocking revelations. He grasps an idea in his hand and rotates it to find, I think, every possible beautiful and horrifying facet. He also selects the perfect characters to tell personal stories related to the idea, and he’s not afraid to suddenly expand into social, cultural, even cosmic dimensions, before returning to the personal.

Here’s where I get even more breathless: he includes “Story Notes” with a brief summary for what inspired him to write each story! After reading all the great stories, those notes were like an extra special bonus, just a little more information about their genesis to make me even more appreciative. For example, “Division by Zero” is another great story in the collection and he explains how he was amazed by a particular famous mathematics equation and began to wonder what it would be like if someone discovered that the “wondrous beauty” of mathematics “was just an illusion.” From such a story spark to a heartbreaking exploration of a relationship.

I cannot recommend this collection of stories enough. I’m still reeling. This is what I want from science fiction: stories that captivate me from the opening words, surprise and delight me along the way, that stay with me after the end, and that feel like they are actively changing me. I feel changed as a reader, a writer, and, well, a person! I feel like I might be on my own sudden exponential journey into the future and it is exhilarating and horrifying. I cannot wait to read more of Chiang’s exceptional work. Yes, I’m out of breath. Ted Chiang is now one of my absolute favorite authors, right up there with Ursula K. Le Guin, Nancy Kress, and Vernor Vinge.

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Book Review: The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig

The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your AudienceThe Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig includes over 30 lists of 25 tips about various subjects like writing, rewriting, craft, and publishing. The tips are really helpful and comprehensive. Some of the tips are repeated, but I found that extremely useful; this is a good way to cement in my brain tips that might be especially helpful to me in the future. While I read the book from beginning to end, I think I’m going to enjoy it most by coming back to specific lists when I need inspiration at those particular steps in my writing.

Here’s the thing, though: this book isn’t going to be for everyone. If you follow Chuck Wendig on his website and social media, then you know he’s kind of a rascal, someone who uses a great deal of profanity and scatalogical references in his everyday writing. I happen to think he’s really funny, but even I became a little impatient while reading through these lists of tips; Wendig has a strong voice and the book probably would have been half as long without it. Keep in mind, I read the book in just a few days, so the humor was bound to get repetitive and a little annoying. After a certain point, though, the humor is really a part of Wendig’s charm. A dry list of writing tips would not have been any better. By the end of the book I was thankful to have added it to my collection of books on writing. Reading one of these lists occasionally as I need it is going to be a great help to me.

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Magazine Review: Analog September 2016

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2016Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2016 by Trevor Quachri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First time subscriber, first issue of Analog I’ve read, and I loved everything in it!

Fiction

“Progress Report” by Ragnar Vajra follows the protagonist on an alien planet from their first conscience thoughts to increasing awareness and intelligence, as the mystery about how they came to be there and what they are meant to do unfolds. The technology involved in the protagonist’s rapid development is so interesting and it also serves as a unique tool for the writer to fill in backstory and build the world. The characters’ diction is a lot of fun and the diary-like telling over a span of several days is captivating.

“Detroit Hammersmith, Zero-Gravity Toilet Repairman (Retired)” by Suzanne Palmer brings the protagonist out of retirement to investigate failing toilets on a space station. What he finds leads to even bigger mysteries, and a role he wasn’t expecting to play in diplomatic talks being held on the station. This is a really fun story with great characters and aliens and a nice twist that amusingly bugs the hell out of Hammersmith.

“Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost presents a different mystery: what goes on in the mind of a squid? The protagonist is a scientist and animal mind-whisperer at a facility that hooks up animal like swordfish to their own virtual heavens. The history and ethics of such a zoo aren’t really explored in this story, but the protagonist is a caring soul who goes out of zir way to make the transition for the animals as painless and fruitful as possible. The latest addition to the facility knows something is missing, and the protagonist must find out why the squid is so unhappy. There’s a parallel plot of friendship, perhaps more, that leads to an emotional mind-melding moment.

I see some other reviewers struggled with the pronouns in this piece. I particularly liked how the story is not about the protagonist’s gender identity, and that they simply refer to themselves with their preferred pronouns. I’m looking forward to more gender fluidity in my reading, without gender necessarily being the thrust of the plot. It’s just nice to see people from a variety of backgrounds with various identities participating in thought-provoking science fiction stories.

“Silhouettes” by Dave Creek includes the personal notes and science reports of an 87 year old exoplanet explorer who for reasons to be revealed didn’t bother to participate in rejuvenation technologies back on Earth. He’s alone and studying the reproductive cycles of aliens on planet Keleni, a planet of short days and fierce winds. As details about the exoplanet and its aliens are revealed, so are those about his past. Another great story in an issue full of wonderful world-building.

“Adventures in Family Bonding” by W. Michael Beachy has a breezy title and writing style that belie the really dark places and dystopian future this story eventually reveals. It starts out simple enough: grandma gets a call from her son, wondering if she can babysit her grandson for a week or two. Something’s not quite right about the relationship between mother and son, and things only get worse from there. The last image is terrifying, or maybe gratifying, depending on the reader.

“Dreams of the Rocket Men” by C. Stuart Hardwick recounts the youth of a boy caught up in his elderly neighbor’s interest in rockets, and though the science fiction is light and comes nearer to the end, the fiction leading there is wonderful and heart-breaking in turn. A very heartfelt story.

“Nesting Dolls” by Jacob A. Boyd feels very alien and strange as it follows two boys onboard a generational vessel making its way across the void between the Milky Way and another galaxy. The vessel and its layers are inventive, as are the layers of storytelling. This is a gripping tale, one that is also quite dark and even cruel.

Finally, I almost missed the short poem on page 74, “Paint It Black” by Bruce Boston. In fact, I didn’t miss it, but I didn’t know what it was until I reread the table of contents just now. It’s a very short poem. I would love to learn more about it.

Nonfiction

Trevor Quachri’s opening editorial “Captain America’s Bathroom” merges a little memoir with a survey of comic book superheroes and his maturing understanding of them, especially Captain America. There’s a nice parallel drawn between discrimination against transgender people and Captain America’s origins. Definitely a must-read.

Edward M. Lerner provides a quick primer in the first part of “A Mind of Its Own” about artificial intelligence. This is a good review of concepts we’ve been hearing a lot about in the field lately, and I was thankful for the summary. Looking forward to the second part!

My favorite essay in the issue is “Pluto’s Perplexing Polygons” by Richard A. Lovett. Lots of great details and speculation about processes in Sputnik Planum on Pluto determined from the first close-up images taken by New Horizons last year. There’s a quick summary of the mission, but the bulk of the essay is about models of the processes that form the polygons in Sputnik Planum, and what these models say about the youthfulness of this region. Pluto turned out to be beyond anyone’s expectations, and this essay does a great job capturing that wonder and making me impatient for a Pluto-Charon orbiter!

Don Sakers has a nice list of books to check out in “The Reference Library,” and spends some time surveying how science fiction and religion come together over time in various novels and short stories. It was fun reading about the first novel by Madeline Ashby titled Company Town because I was surprised to realize I knew the plot from a short story by her I read and enjoyed what seems like a long time ago. I’m going to have to check this one out.

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Writing a StoryADay in September

Back in May, I spent all month writing a story a day, inspired by Julie Duffy’s annual StoryADay writing event. She’s decided to run it a second time this year, so I’ll be spending all of September trying to accomplish the same goal. In May, I published everything I wrote here on my blog. I thought several of them turned out pretty good, but because I self-published them online, I cannot now send them out to potential short story markets. It’s possible that if I significantly rewrite these stories,  then I could send them out, but instead of dealing with that this time, I’m not going to post any of my StoryADay September stories online.

One of my goals for 2017 is to send out stories to potential markets frequently enough that I will end up with at least 100 rejections by the end of the year. I like the idea of these month-long writing events for coming up with and finishing first drafts. Holding them close to my chest will let me revisit and rewrite them later. Making sure I have a large pool of stories to rewrite from and start sending out will go a long way toward reaching my goal.

Are you participating in StoryADay September? If you’re on Twitter, you can follow along and post your own updates using the #storyaday tag. For more information about how to participate, head on over to the StoryADay website. Good luck and keep writing!

Book Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being NormalThe Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Williamson’s wonderful “The Art of Being Normal” explores the complicated and emotional coming-of-age of two English teenagers. David Piper wants to be a girl. Leo Denton has secrets of his own. The novel switches back and forth between the two characters’ points of view. Both characters are vulnerable and matter-of-fact in tone and diction and their voices capture the weight of their teenage worlds, but David is the more cheerful of the two while Leo is much more emotionally withdrawn and angry. Their family lives are very different: Leo is from a lower class and fights with his irresponsible mother while missing his father who left when he was a baby, and David is from a higher class with two doting, loving parents who think they know what’s going on with him, but have the details all wrong. Leo has two sisters who adore him, while David’s younger sister can’t quite figure him out. I found these family dynamics to be one of the highlights of the book.

They meet when Leo starts attending David’s school. School is rough, and David and Leo spend much of the book dealing with bullies; the unfairness of teachers, administrators, and parents; and their own emotional landscapes. These scenes are often tense and upsetting, but there is also a lot of humor and young romance, including Leo’s blossoming relationship with Alicia Baker, a girl who sees right through his apathy. A climatic road trip contains some of the best scenes between David and Leo, and also some of the most emotional moments. Starting about half way through the book I was in almost constant tears as revelations and obstacles escalate and the two characters try to overcome them. While I’m a little cynical about how their story arcs conclude, these are still very satisfying and soaring conclusions.

Williamson uses a matter-of-fact tone, straight-forward structure, and limited lyricism to prevent the often very emotional content from becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The style is very naturalist and frequently emotionally raw. David and Leo are not characters given to overwrought language, and this helps suggest how they are prepared to deal with what life throws at them. My heart often broke for David and Leo, and I could not help rooting for them to find happiness and acceptance.

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