Book Review: Rosetta by Stephen Patterson

Tony Palermo’s life has been one of long odds, hard knocks, and hard-earned expertise in lucrative fields of questionable ethics and legality. Still, he may have finally met his match when a simple misstep lands him in the broiling political landscape of a backwater planet, where the untold wealth of a few and the potential destruction of millions is ready to burst on the galactic scene in the form of a key to an alien language, long dead.

Can the resourceful, unflappable Tony apply his incomparable training and razor sharp wit to the most complicated challenge of his life and survive? More importantly, can he manage to rescue the collateral victims (including a young slave girl and her mysterious angel) AND thwart the deadly, self-serving intentions of any number of thugs, tycoons, super corps, and incorporeal malevolent entities? Only time and a breakneck series of plot twists will tell.

I enjoyed the rare privilege of reading Rosetta in one of its early forms, as part of a rigorous round of critiques. I’ve been inspired as I’ve watched it grow into a truly epic piece of quality science fiction. Don’t mistake my friendship with the formidable Stephen Patterson as bias in his favor, however. We met as aspiring authors and established a dialogue of candor and encouragement toward excellence from the start. As Rosetta makes its debut on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service, I can say with delighted conviction: this book rocks.

Book Review | When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

I’m always looking for book recommendations and this one had been passed my way already by a reader I respect. This review was the final push I needed to officially add the title to my list. It gives a great summary, a taste of the book’s style, and the reviewer’s own personal takeaway.

A great review!

brown books | green tea

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92aac483e96cd907f6b3732cf5654b44Rating:  5 out of 5 stars
Short review:When Breath Becomes Air is as deep a look into death as one can have without actually experiencing it first hand. Introspective and philosophical, Kalanithi illustrates how being acutely aware of one’s mortality can simultaneously push them to have the most meaningful life possible.

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Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

51gKAVDyENL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In a world where magic is ordinary, where witches and wizards live among florist and princes and bakers, Sophie Hatter is a plain, hard-working, sharp-tongued eldest of three sisters, convinced that her lot in life is one of drudgery and loneliness since she is, after all, the eldest. But then she meets Howl, the dashing young wizard who eats young girls’ hearts and hails from the mysterious and other worldly land of Wales. And then she meets the Witch of the Waste, an ancient woman of considerable beauty and power, whose penchant for nastiness will wreak havoc in more than one world, more than one life, but none more than that of Sophie Hatter.

I first encountered Howls’ Moving Castle in the film adaptation drawn by Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary Studio Ghibli. I’ve avoided the books ever since, convinced that either the book would be a bitter disappointment (it’s happened before) or – more likely – the book would so outshine the film as to overshadow and belittle my first love’s magic.

I am very happy to announce that the book is brilliant. It’s sarcastic and warm-hearted and full of beauty and horror. They two versions of this story are very, very different, of course. Apart from an opening scene which is mirrored almost perfectly between book and film, the two renditions part ways swiftly and completely on all the details, large and small alike. As he plotted the film, Miyazaki erased worlds, merged characters, and parsed in his own thematic overtones so that his imaginative creation stands quite independent of its muse. But the essence of the characters remained inviolable, as they always must. The clever, romantic spirit of the story shone through.

In short, they’re both good.

Fantastic, even.

I highly recommend book and film alike to young readers everywhere.

Book Review: The Abundance by Annie Dillard

I’ve tried to write this review a dozen times now. But how do you summarize and evaluate a book that so thoroughly and immediately permeated your innermost thoughts that it is now one of the chorus of silent voices in your head? It’s a dilemma similar to the one I experience when living in Asia a few years ago. People want to know what it’s like, how your day to day is different from your life before, what you see and hear and smell, who you talk to… But it’s just your daily life. How do you explain it?

The Abundance, a collection of essays, is the work of my greatest inspirations, Annie Dillard. Abundance is curated by the author herself, some of the articles published in previous works, some brand new to the public eye. Every one of them seemed to echo or illuminate secret thoughts and experiences from my own life. And all she did was write openly, honestly, about life.

The two essays in particular which rocked the earth beneath my feet spoke of two experiences, a total lunar eclipse Ms. Dillard witnessed in the 70’s, and her experience with adolescence. The story of the eclipse transported me. The story of adolescence broke through decades of loneliness and secret shame and set me free.

Everyone should read Annie Dillard. Start with An American Childhood. Graduate next to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Sip and savor The Abundance.

Then call me.

We’ll meet for coffee.

We’ll chat.

About eclipses and pursuits on foot through deep winter snows and vicious waterbug attacks. We’ll talk about Abundance.

Book Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

15161Susanna Clarke, associated with crazy greats such as Neil Gaiman himself, is best known for the monolithic achievement which was her first novel: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Following in the same tradition of urban fantasy (if than urbanity can be said to translate hundreds of years back) and English literary style at its antique best, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a collection of short stories in which the dividing line between human and Fae is treacherously, delightfully thin.

So confident, so sure-footed is Ms. Clarke in the worlds of mysterious and unlikely adventure, one is often tempted to believe she is, in fact, reading history. Clarke’s genre has been called Alternative History, but I think that title fails to communicate the light touch and darkly-humored charm of her writing.

I’ve often said that Master Neil Gaiman’s stories are fairy tales for adults, too disturbing for my youngsters, but not to be missed by anyone who is young at heart. If Gaiman takes you traipsing through the dark and twisty, the ne’er before traveled deer paths of tangled woods, Clarke calls you to a parallel path , I feel, only she keeps the safe and well-lit beaten trails in sight. You never feel at a total loss for where and when  you are with Clarke, you only occasionally recognize, with a shudder, that you are NOT safe at all, only lulled into believing so.

I loved this book. When I next find myself able to read for hours at a time of uninterrupted attention, I will certainly be tackling her masterpiece, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genly Ai, a “First Mobile” of an intergalactic collective of planets called the Ekumen, travels in his youth as a lone human emissary to Winter, a world comprised almost entirely of glaciers and a thin band of habitable valleys, blanketed in nearly constant snow, around the planet’s equator. The inhabitants of Winter, called Gethenians, live as humanoids without gender 28 days of each month, at which time their natural cycles send them into a state called Kemmer, when they manifest either as male or female, however the dynamics of their current mating relationship demand. As a full-time male, unchanging, Genly Ai is considered by the Gethenians to be a “Pervert”, only the first of an unending series of political, emotional, physiological, and cross-cultural barriers to his interplanetary mission. Genly Ai is tasked with drawing the various warring governments of Winter into the Ekumen, as a peaceable cooperative, to give and to take knowledge and power and protection. But the gap between the Gethenians and the rest of humanity is broad indeed. And Genly Ai is only one man, unadapted to the local social and political systems, to the nature of Gethenian relationships, or to the cold.

Ursula Le Guin, as I have learned far too late for my liking, is the godmother of fantasy and science fiction. If Tolkien re-established fantasy as a respected genre, Le Guin answered him with her own unique, reasonable, impassioned female voice. I don’t know how much more I can say about the Left Hand of Darkness than just to lay out its rich and delicate highlights as I’ve done above (spoiler alert, the left hand of darkness is LIGHT… how brilliant is that??). In a grand/epic/light-handed/gentle style, Madame Le Guin has crafted a masterpiece of intellectual science fiction. The characters are lovable, believable, and journey through dramatic changes of heart and mind. The world she created is stark, beautiful, deadly, and wild, never once stretching past the limits of reason, yet showing a face wholly “other” to the world in which we live. The language is meticulous, flowing, generous and easy to read.

My favorite part of this tale is the relationship that developed between the rational, masculine, prideful Genly Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian who started out as Genly’s powerful and manipulative enemy, and turned out, layer by delicate layer, to be a person wholly unexpected. By blurring the definitions of gender, Le Guin forces the reader to take every interaction between Genly and Estraven entirely at face value. The cultural divide between them makes far more distinct an impact than any question of sexual attraction or repulsion, and the qualities of each individual are attributed to each character as a whole, rather than to their natural-born  sexual identities. Brilliant. Challenging. Unique.

Ursula Le Guin is certainly one of the Crazy Greats. Madame, I salute you.

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Book Review: The Sparrow

I’m starting Children of God today and remembering how much I loved The Sparrow. Mary Doria Russell, you are spurring me to write better fiction. Hell, just to write better.

Amy D Robinson

“Kinda spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.”

Russell, Mary Doria (2008-05-27). The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) (pp. 121-122). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Father Emilio Sandoz of the Society of Jesus has never considered himself to be a mystic or a saint. His faith is not founded in a “feeling” about God, or even in any kind of love for Him. Sandoz was attracted to the centeredness, the morality of the faith as a mere boy, when he was rescued from the slums of La Perla by a Texan Jesuit priest with a penchant for swearing and an eye for diamonds in the rough.

So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring…

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Book Review: The Stone Man by Luke Smitherd

41eKtYmYOSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOn an average day, perhaps tomorrow, in an average British town, in an unremarkable city square, a stone figure of a man appears. It isn’t carted in by performers, it isn’t theatrically unveiled, it isn’t dropped from the upper atmosphere in a terrifying lightning bolt or a dazzling display of lights. One moment it isn’t there, the next, it is. So simply and so silently does it appear, only a few people notice it. But then the statue stands erect. Two hours later, it begins to walk. And nothing – and no one – can stop it.

What is a government supposed to do when a stone monolith walks steadily and inexorably through the country? It demolishes buildings and bridges and civilians who get in its way. It cannot be blown up or lifted or diverted or even slowed down. What does it want? Who sent it? And when will the blasted thing stop?

Just lucky enough to be on the scene of the Stone Man’s arrival, a washed up reporter named Andy Pointer follows the walking apocalypse in hopes of securing a career-making story, only to discover that he is more intimately connected to the statue’s story than he’d like. What the Stone Man wants, where it stops, what it does when it reaches its destination… the horror of the Stone Man grows with each passing hour. And Andy can only try to stay one step ahead.

The Stone Man caught me by complete surprise. It added greatly to the story that I listened to this book, narrated by an expert story-teller with a killer accent (Matt Addis), because the format of the narrative was a journal recorded on a dictaphone, told from the perspective of acutely detail oriented Andy Pointer. The excruciating tension and deeply rooted horror of this story got into my bones. I found myself camping out in my driveway, unable to turn off the car or interrupt the story long enough to switch to my headphones and walk inside.

So effective was this tension, in fact, that I often grew impatient with the narrator’s minute details and laborious explanations of the facts. “I get it, I get it, move on!” I shouted. Literally, I shouted. Whether this was because Luke Smitherd has mastered the art of not disclosing all the facts until the very end or because he should have cut about half of the narrator’s inner monologue, I have no idea. I do know that nothing could have stopped me from getting to the conclusion of this book.

The conclusion, as it was, turned out to be more of a question than all the pages that preceded it. I’m a long standing lover of science fiction, so unresolved conclusions aren’t too irksome for me. They’re preferable, actually, to those endings which work too hard to tie up the various strings of a complicated story. The ending Smitherd chose finished on exactly the sort of horror I prefer: the horror of the mysterious, the unknown, the unresolved, rather than gore or perversion or extravagance. There’s plenty of gore in The Stone Man. Consider yourself warned. But every incident serves the purpose of the whole. And in my humble reader’s opinion, that is almost always worth the trip.

Pomodoro: An Exercise in Hope

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately. It’s not the usual trend for me. I have almost always read exclusively fiction; mainly novels, really; mainly 19th century novels out of Europe. I know. Time to branch out. Now that I’ve dabbled in the genre somewhat demeaningly labeled “self-help” I find myself more and more addicted to books which address issues I’ve always struggled mightily and farsically to manage through my own wit and strength.

The three books which have caused the deepest tremors in the foundations of how I operate in every day life are How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gotten and Joan Declaire, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown.

I bring up these three books because they’re awesome and you should read them all. I won’t review them here since my focus is fiction, but seriously. Drop what you’re doing and go read them.

I also bring them up because each of these books is intricately connected to the success I’ve had in writing of late. I’ve gained insights into my own areas of emotional intelligence (and areas where intelligence is sorely lacking) and this has informed my characters and relationships in my fiction. I’ve benefited greatly from hearing about healthy and life-giving boundaries that “keep the bad out and let the good in”, instead of following the opposite pattern… MY usual pattern. And from Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection, I’ve learned a brand new definition for hope, one which ties directly into a strategy I’ve been employing just to get words on the page in my life overrun with diapers and dishes and the myriad blessings of a quotidian life.

So now, the roundabout way, we finally come to it: The Pomodoro technique, a simple tool I discovered while surfing Facebook (See, Wormtongue? Facebook surfing does have its uses. (Note: I’ve named my inner critic Wormtongue.)).

Pomodoro is simple enough: set yourself a task, work at it for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break. Repeat this pattern four times and then take a 30 minute break. Start over. I tried it out with writing and found that not only did the 25 minutes fly by while while they normally crawl while I strain to put words on the page, but my writing efficiency also increased with each 25 minute session. 200 words the first session, 500 words the second, 700 words the third, 900 on the fourth. Over 2,000 words in a single sitting and the time felt too short! (My brain also felt like a bowl of jelly on merry-go-round but that just means it’s been working, right?)

No matter what your work is, what your goals are, what tasks you set for yourself, this technique can be a very effective tool for motivating and sustaining your efforts. And as a very high bonus, this technique can also be an exercise in Hope.

According to Brene Brown, hope is not an attitude but a practice. This practice is made up of three parts: 1. setting goals, 2. striving towards those goals with perseverance, and 3. believing our own adequacy and worthiness to achieve those goals. Hope can also be based on belief in the adequacy and worthiness of someone else, of course. My hope in heaven, for example, is not founded on my own adequacy or worthiness but on the adequacy and worthiness of someone else altogether. But the pattern stands.

I set out to read and write this year, to make it part of my unconscious habits. I want to expand my palate and my knowledge by reading books outside my usual genres. I want to draw the connections between treatises on emotional intelligence and sci-fi space operas and odd literary exercises in introspection. And I want those connections to lend depth and maturity to my writing.

Just three months in, I have found my mind to be much changed. As though dormant parts of my soul are surfacing. As though my mind, a starving and exhausted creature, is being brought back to life by a feast. I’m reading decent books and extraordinary books and really, really bad books. Life-changing and inane, spectacular and miserable. Each one of them is working its changes on me as a thinker and a feeler and a writer, either by opening my eyes to gorgeous new vistas of possibility or by pointing out ways of writing and thinking and seeing the world that I just don’t like. (Finding out what you don’t like can be as helpful as reading the crazy greats!)

All that after just three months. I look to the next 9 months with great excitement and renewed vigor and… Hope. One book at a time. One story at time. 25 minutes, then striving to rest. Keeping my eye and focusing my energy on only those things which challenge and drive and inspire me toward my heart’s desires.

The world is indeed wide and weird and a wonder to behold.

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

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In the age of the Gilead Regime, American society is restructured according fundamentalist, pseudo-Biblical law. Women cannot own property, cannot work outside the home, cannot choose their husbands or even choose not to marry at all. Women are vessels only, sacred and abused, venerated and reviled, valuable only if their wombs are viable and their spirits broken. This is the world in which an anonymous “handmaid” of the near future is set. Like thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of women across the country, she was seized from her former life, separated from her young daughter, conditioned through violence and indoctrination to submit, then placed in the home of an influential “Commander” and his wife for the sole purpose of producing a child. A Handmaid’s Tale is the story of her daily life, of her introspection, of the bruises inflicted on a young woman’s soul as it beats itself to death against the bars of its cage.

I have tried to read books by the Crazy Great Margaret Atwood before, giving up on all of them because of the jarring, despondent, acidic tone of her narrators. Perhaps because I listened to this book instead of reading it, and perhaps because it was read by the wonderful and versatile Claire Danes herself, I succeeded in finishing. Though I’ll give it four out of five stars, I can’t say I loved the book. I can’t argue with the quality and experience of the writing. I can’t deny the ingenuity of the world Atwood created or the piercingly effective pathos of the book. But unlike my experience with The Sparrow last week, this book left me empty instead of full. It left me a little less hopeful about people and society at large and it made me hate men, which is not the healthiest place for me to live.

I will say that there were a few shining moments of authenticity and insight that elicited my signature “humph” (not unlike the sound I imagine I’d make if I were kicked in the stomach). The narrator’s musings on nightfall, on ignorance, on fear, and on the female body… nothing short of brilliant. But, I look for hints of redemption and hope in every story, no matter how desperate or dark. And, try as I might, I just could not find those things here.

In fact, I found myself dwelling on one of the narrator’s mantras as I pushed through to the end:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.