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: 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 Times Two

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin

Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell c.1998
 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Madames Russell and Le Guin, you’ve both done it again. I find that I must reiterate how baffled I am that these two Crazy Greats escaped my attention for all the formative years of my life. What lasting lessons could I have learned from these two women through their extraordinary stories! Of course, much of their genius would have likely left my narrow, tender mind much disturbed. Now that I’ve left at least some of my childish ways of thinking behind me, these books taste like graduating from milk to feasts fit for kings.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven wanders the dark and twisty path of dreams, asking the generally horrifying question: What if your most vivid, overpowering dreams all came true? Not just for you, but for all the world? Worse, what if an arrogant scientist, certain of his own unfailing rationality and good will, gained control of those dreams?

George Orr stumbles through this nightmarish series of worlds and disparate narratives with a demeanor just placid enough to permit us our own perspectives, just morally centered enough to keep us wholly on his side. Lathe of Heaven felt like a feminine love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Man Who Was Thursday, misanthropic and humanistic, speculative and practical, hopeful and despondent all at once. It was a quick read, but a deep one. And yet another example of Le Guin’s peculiar and powerful craft.

Children of God, on the other hand, is a work of poetry and music and ancient religion, all woven together in the lives of children and soaked in blood. A sequel to the already classic masterpiece which was The Sparrow, Children of God has very possibly surpassed its predecessor in power and prose. Mary Russell strikes me as an author with the utmost respect for her character’s personalities and histories. Emilio Sandoz would never willingly return to the planet of Rakhat, the site where his faith was first buoyed, fed, then brutally eradicated. So what does Russell do? Spoiler alert! She beats, drugs, and kidnaps the poor bastard to force his return! Brutal? Yes. Dedicated to the integrity of the character? Absolutely.

Children of God worked to redeem the irreparable tragedies and violations of The Sparrow, using faith, war, forgiveness, but most of all Time to harvest what was sown. And was it all redeemed? Read it for yourself. Just be warned, Russell is merciless. She cuts like a surgeon to those secret doubts and bastions of silent hate you thought no one knew about but you. Her work is not to be entered into lightly.

As for you, Mary Russell, I am once again in your debt. Each time I read, I am changed by your work.

And to each of you crazy great women, master storytellers, bold and faithful to the art: I cannot wait to read the rest of what you’ve created. Every single book.

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 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.

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: 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.

To Amazon or Not to Amazon, That is the Question…

Since the first time I mentioned to someone that I was actively seeking a publisher, I’ve gotten confused looks and the same question, over and over again: Why don’t you just self-publish an eBook on Amazon?

I know I’m not alone when I say that getting published the traditional way, with an editor and/or agent, with a carefully bound tome of printed pages that I can smell and feel and turn over in my hands, is quite simply my heart’s desire.

That is my goal for my novels: I want to see them on my bookshelf. I want spines with “Amy Deringer Robinson” printed on them resting between Poe and Salinger. I want books.

But my short stories… Well those I might be willing to self-publish as digital bite-sized fiction.

Thoughts?

Anyone have experience with this?

Anyone like to buy short stories on Amazon?