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.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

“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 galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.

But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?

Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally “universal” truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.

I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what’s possible to achieve in fiction.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There is a silence which follows Kote the innkeeper. The root of the silence is in the stories of Kote’s youth, when he was known as Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Kingkiller, Re’ Lar Kvothe of the Arcanum. He is finally willing to tell his story, from his childhood days in a troupe of traveling troubadours, to the death of his childhood and his struggles at the University; even the tale of his one great love. He’ll tell it all, now that the renowned Chronicler is here and ready with his pen. But the silence still haunts Kvothe’s every step, death still lingers on the doorstep, and dark, treacherous hints of magic are beginning to seep into Kvothe’s little backwoods town.
Patrick Rothfuss has been hailed as a world builder to rival the grand master Tolkien himself. My first exposure to the Kingkiller Chronicles lived up to those rumors. Languages, cultures, histories, and religious traditions flow through this book like a rain-gorged river. In the dedication, Rothfuss thanks his mother for teaching him the love of story, and his father for teaching him to take the time to do things well. When it comes to the creativity and depth of this fantasy series, Rothfuss must be acknowledged as a crazy great.

That being said, this book was a struggle for me, from beginning to end. Rather than argue with the loud protests of many fellow readers whom I hold in the highest respect, I’m going to put my ardent dislike of this book down to a matter of interpretation and personal taste. Rothfuss did indeed take the time to build his story very carefully, although I could have done with a few less redundant descriptions and cliché euphemisms (a sigh should only “deflate” a character once, not three times in a single scene). But the real crux of my problem with Kvothe as a character and Rothfuss’ choice of narrative style was the myopic, pompous, exclusive tone that ran rampant throughout. (Before you turn red in the face and start stabbing your keyboard to decry this less than positive reader response, please refer back to the disclaimer at the beginning of this paragraph.)

I will give one example of my complaint before I leave this alone and move on to other reads. Ok, two examples.

Toward the end of the book (no spoilers here), Kvothe opens the case of an instrument so that it can “feel a little sun on its strings”. He goes on to tell the reader that he doesn’t expect anyone who isn’t a true musician to understand why he did this. I scoffed aloud. It would have been so simple a thing, the most minute of shifts in the semantics, for the narrator to express this same sentiment with an air of inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness. He could have said, for example, “Anyone who has had a long and intimate relationship with a musical instrument will understand.”

If this was a one-time choice of phrasing, I could be quite legitimately accused of nitpicking. But of course, it wasn’t. I got so fed up with the words “I don’t expect you to understand” by the end of this book, I considered making it a drinking game. But then, I’ve got responsibilities to tend to and taking that many shots in a given day cannot be good for one’s health.

In addition to the grating hubris of the narrator, the character Kvothe was a quintessential “Gary Stu”.

A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.

See full article here.

Kvothe is a wunderkind from the very start: supernaturally intelligent and mature for his age, blessed not only with survival skills most eleven year olds have never even heard of, but also with a knack for acting, music, languages, dialects, horse taming… Oh, and he knows EVERYTHING. Any time any question in any field of study or social etiquette or street wisdom arises, this kid knows the answer. Every. Time. The only people who don’t like him are either ignorant or straight up two dimensional bad guys. He’s the guy the ladies love and the haters love to hate.

Ok I’m done. So sorry guys. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my middle age, but this was just not for me.

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I feel like I’ve just run a marathon.

Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of eight short stories, all written between 1990 and the present day, by a software engineer working in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington.

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The first story in this series, “Tower of Babylon”, caught me up and tumbled me head over heels like a sudden breaking wave. All the stories that followed, while they certainly could never be called disappointments, felt more like the gentle surf leftover after the initial swell, carrying me back up to shore.

That’s the best I can do, folks, to explain the impact this cornerstone of science fiction has had on my views of Story, the craft of writing, and science fiction as a genre. One story, Chiang told entirely without dialogue. His characters spoke, to themselves and to one another, but he explained those exchanges rather than writing them out. This normally unacceptable approach completely escaped my attention until I’d nearly reached the end of the story. Another short was a collection of monologues. Like reading a scattered collection of interviews without hearing the questioning voice of the interviewer. Still another story employed the passive voice so often, I actually stopped mid-story and started over from the beginning, unable to believe he was getting away with that basic of a faux-pas in the art of writing fiction.

Rule-breaking writing styles aside, Ted Chiang’s stories ring with thoughtfulness, with intention, in exactly the way I hope my own stories will. He does not shy away from the hard, offensive questions that plague our culture and he does not pretend to believe other than he does for the sake of political correctness. And since he couches it all in tales of miles-high towers and parthenogenic experimentation and the advent of the super-intelligent human and student-led movements for calliagnosia, you just sort of absorb his ideas into your subconscious before you realize what’s happened.

Genius.

Mr. Chiang, please quit your day job and write more. For all our sakes.

Audiobooks, Paperbacks, and Kindles, Oh my!

As I savor the last of the short stories in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and Others, I’m also starting in on an Audible offering, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

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I’ve had very mixed feelings about audiobooks and my experiences seem to be largely determined by the audiobook’s reader. Neil Gaiman is an excellent narrator, as you could only assume he would be, so I’ve loved every one of his audiobooks thus far. I got frustrated with the tone and pace of the reader for Station Eleven, which made it tough to finish the book. Whereas Benedict Cumberbatch was so much fun to listen to, I didn’t really mind that I didn’t love the book.

The issue I’ve encountered in The Name of the Wind is that it’s a sweeping epic, likened by some to The Lord of the Rings, but it’s read by a kid who sounds like he may just have graduated from college. Not to be agist, but too many of these character’s voices sound like they require a seasoned voice to represent them. It’s been a major distraction.

Does anyone out there enjoy audiobooks? Do you have any favorite readers? Any least favorites?

I don’t encounter these sorts of distractions when I read books in paperback or on my Kindle, happily. Although, the voice-to-text on the Kindle can lend very interesting insights as you hear text read aloud in a monotone, digital voice. I couldn’t listen to a whole book that way, but it is certainly a worthwhile stop gap when I just can’t pick up a book to read it for whatever reason.

What about you? Do you love to listen, to feel the printed page between your fingers, or to scroll across the screen at your leisure?

How do you read best?