30 December 2010

The Year in books

This year I joined a book club and discovered something interesting.
I found many great books that I wouldn't normally encounter because of book club recommendations. And I started many books I uncharacteristically didn't finish because of the same thing. It's incredible how different opinions can be on the very same book. (Alternate hypothesis: it's incredible that so many people can enjoy an awful book.)

I also tried to read more award-winning books, leading me to the conclusion that an award doesn't mean it's a good or balanced book, but it certainly means you made people feel something (possibly just annoyed.)

Here are my favourite books of 2010, arranged by useful category:

Best mix of depressing and uplifting:

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
A man keeps his son alive in a post-apocalyptic world. And the book is very much like a road: you join it where it has already been going for some time, and leave it even though it keeps going, away in the distance. Poetic and unsettling and a little hypnotizing, I read it in a day and enjoyed it a lot. It's haunting.

Best mix of despicable and fascinating:

White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The main character was called Munna by his father (meaning "boy") and given no other name. Using a series of letters to the Chinese Premier--speaking as an equal, maybe even a friend--he tells the story of rising from a poor servant to a rich entrepreneur in modern India. The voice is compelling, the story absorbing, and even as he does terrible things you can't help but understand... a little. Both playful and deadly serious, he illuminates injustice in India, how it can change, and why it won't change. It's entertaining and enlightening.

Best mix of mystery and literary:

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
Several apparently unconnected cases (a missing child, a murdered daughter, a housewife gone psychotic) are brought to the attention of private investigator Jackson Brodie. Of course the cases aren't really unrelated. The author weaves them together using the characters themselves, giving us a glimpse of each life as it touches the others. Sometimes information is kept back from us, the reader, to the point that it's excruciating, but we're satisfied when it's finished. And I loved a few of the characters. Jackson wasn't one I loved and I was still excited to read his next book.

Best mix of bizarre and awesome:

The Rehearsal, Eleanor Catton
A sex-abuse scandal upsets a high school and we witness its effects on students, friends, teachers, and a theatre production by a nearby acting institute. This book is extremely literary but very readable. Its subject is serious but the author presents it with cutting honesty that's clever and often humourous. This is not a dreary account of a ruined young girl. It's the aftershocks of the event and the characters it reveals that make this story, totally confused (on purpose) about who is a character and who is "real," and whether we are always acting, always playing a role. Read the first few pages to see if you'll enjoy the style.

Best mix of throwaway-paperback and I'll-remember-this-forever:

The Delilah Complex, M.J. Rose
Sex therapist Morgan Snow becomes involved in an apparent series of serial killings when a secret society of empowered women come forward for help dealing with their grief. This was a zippy read and I can hardly believe I finished so quickly. The characters feel real and even the trope of the divorced woman with one teenaged daughter didn't bother me as it usually does. In fact, I really like Morgan Snow. References to sexuality are respectful and interesting. I don't know much about real therapy but details were presented with such confidence that I was happy to believe it all. There were plenty of red herrings and the final twist had me speechless.

Best mix of character and plot:

Broken, Karin Slaughter
The latest in the Will Trent series of thrillers set in Atlanta. Explaining the plot will give away spoilers, but as far as plots go, it's as compelling as they get. There's a great and twisted murder mystery combined with further revelations about each character and further interactions between them. It seems like every scene Will Trent walks into becomes suddenly more interesting and complicated, and with Lena finally trying to redeem herself and Sara acting uncharacteristically unforgiving, this becomes one of the best of the series. I just wish that for once certain characters could have a happy ending. But that's not the kind of book this is. If you enjoy character-driven thrillers and you haven't tried this series, you're missing out.

Best surprise from a known author:

Gravity, Tess Gerritsen
A seemingly benign experiment on the ISS transforms into a nightmare as it grows beyond the expected and threatens to kill all the astronauts, and maybe make it back to earth. There's no reason to be dubious of Gerritsen's earlier books. While I love the Rizzoli/Isles thrillers, I think I liked this one even more. There's tension on every page, it's easy to root for the characters, and there's so much detail about the medical aspects as well as the NASA & astronaut aspects that it feels like it must be real. Great thriller, great science fiction. Write more science fiction, Tess!

Best classic-I'd-read-again:

The Secret History, Donna Tartt
A young man joins an elite group of people studying Greek at an American university. As he gets to know his new friends and their world he admires them more and more, and then he learns what's really been going on--deception and murder--and it changes all their lives. This book is more suspense than mystery. It is long and thick with fascinating ideas, but easy to read, and very compelling. Halfway through I realized I was reading a five star book and tried to slow down, to savour the pages. Nothing within is revolutionary or shocking but it's all so well described, human and realistic, a little surreal, and totally gripping. A brilliant story with bigger-than-life characters, extremely well written.

Read any of these and have an opinion? Have any recommendations for my reading list next year?

23 December 2010

Deck the Halls

It's a Christmas song of bizarre possibilities. From donning gay apparel to trolling Yule tide carol, modern language has left this story behind, but we haven't. It's still sung with gusto every year.

This year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day twenty short stories by twenty different authors will be posted, one per hour, each inspired by one of the strange and marvellous lyrics from Deck the Halls. Brainstormed and produced by eMergent's Jodi Cleghorn, it's a Christmas-themed religion-free literary mix tape and it kicks off at 6pm GMT (10am PST) on Christmas Eve:


My story, based on the lyric "Don we now our gay apparel" and which I promise has a happy ending, will be posted at 10pm GMT (2pm PST.) (Update: Here it is!)

You don't have to hang out by your computer. The stories will remain online after the holidays, and the full collection will be released as a free ebook later on. There's also murmurings of a charity paperback for Christmas in July next year.

Merry Christmas! And happy reading on this lovely holiday.

Many thanks to Icy Sedgwick for the book cover!

20 December 2010

Science pessimism: a rant

When I was a kid the human race was amazing, particularly with regards to its future. I was born just before the launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia. I was old enough to appreciate the Challenger disaster. Every time scientists hinted that they'd found water or bacteria somewhere other than Earth, my heart leapt. It had been a long time since the moon landings, but suddenly Mars seemed within reach. I was at university when the Mars Surveyor Program failed, and then things began to seem a little less certain.

But still. We're human. We have imagination. New Star Trek series were produced and there were always the classics to watch, like 2001: A Space Odyssey that linked humankind's very beginning to distant worlds. And Babylon 5 philosophized its way through the 90s: "The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out."

I'm a little concerned about us now.

Somewhere along the way we replaced our thirst for the stars with the idea that we can't even take care of ourselves here, so why ruin another planet? I'm fine with the shuttle program ending, because I understand why. But when I look to our fiction to see where we're hoping to end up, I'm disappointed. There are no flying cars. Even Bladerunner, depressing as it was, had flying cars. Never mind distant galaxies now; we can't even get off the ground. Robots took over long ago, and we're not concerned with that anymore so much as not having enough fossil fuels to keep them running. Prize winning science fiction is Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi--apocalyptic mutterings from after we destroy ourselves. Sure, it's good writing. For instance, here's a quote from the latter:

But Kanya cannot think of a time when she has seen smiles as wide as those in museum photos from before the Contraction. She sometimes wonders if those people in the photos were acting, if perhaps the National Gallery is intended to depress her, or if it is really true that at one point people smiled so totally, so fearlessly.

And, later:

...he feels the weight of his ancestors pressing down upon him, crushing him with their judgments. He took what his father and grandfather before him had built in Malaya and turned it to ash.

The failure is overwhelming.

Indeed. So, I'm concerned. I'm confused by the new Battlestar Galactica, which was a kind of A Series of Unfortunate Events based in space. Shadenfrueude doesn't explain it, because that's us we're watching betray and fail each other. Closer to home, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a big hit, partly because it tricked people into watching science fiction without realizing it, and also because it picked up on something we all share: the suspicion that sometimes it might actually be better to just forget. Oh, joy.

And I know I'm not alone in thinking that the new Star Wars films were written with someone saying, "You know what this film needs? More politics. A council meeting. A lots of talking. Just like real life. Yeah, that's the stuff."

Where is our bizarre optimism? Where is the lovely arrogant presumption that the rest of the universe is better off with us involved? Our pig-headed, fools-rush-in spirit that keeps us always looking to the horizon? Even the new Star Trek movie had to destroy all of Vulcan to make us care.

But let me back up there, because actually that film is just what I want. The character Jim Kirk, who I kind of disliked in the original series, was updated in the new film into exactly the person I'm looking for in the bleak new realm of science fiction. When Christopher Pike complained that Star Fleet had lost the tendency to leap without looking, he was kind of speaking for me about all of us. I adore the idea that if we throw ourselves out there whole, flaws and all, then we'll be accepted with a Vulcan eyebrow raise and a McCoy shake of the head as being simply inexcusably irrepressibly human--and better for it.

I know there are arguments about why climate change and pessimism have a place in science fiction. Of course there are. I just... don't really want to read it anymore. I can always read the news for that. And I already know how we can fail. I want to see how we can survive.

I'm glad I grew up when I did. It lets me believe anything is possible, rather than being stuck with all our mistakes, doomed to repeat them, or just doomed in general.

Both these photos were snagged from NASA's Image Exchange. For more beauty check out NASA's incredible Astronomy Picture of the Day.

13 December 2010


The Wall Street Journal reports that advertisers are experimenting with putting ads into ebooks.

My first reaction: Oh, gross.

But then, I haven't seen a movie in the theatre in months because I can't stand being bombarded with 45 minutes of advertisements before they get to the point. I have been known to forget which film I've actually paid to see before that film starts, because the ads are so long, loud, and obnoxious. Ads in books? ...Nawww.

One digital-book store, Wowio Inc., is making inroads selling ads in the e-books users download from its site onto, say, laptops or e-readers like Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle. Some Wowio e-books have three pages with promotions: an introduction and a closing page each with an ad, plus another full-page ad. The company also is experimenting with techniques to insert ads between chapters and to target ads using profile information that users submit to its website...

What do you think? If you were reading a book and an ad popped up between one chapter and the next, would you mind? Would you notice? Keep in mind, this isn't necessarily a text-based thing. It might have videos and sound. Would you vomit onto your ereader?

The static ads that used to appear in paperbacks (and failed) are very different than digital ads that not only can change with the times, set for whenever you download the book, but also can be geared to your own personal reading tastes. After all, we've accepted Google's personalized advertising. And we're usually interested in Amazon's personalized recommendations. Combine this, smack it near the end of the last book you read, and they could be on to something. It sounds downright profitable.

I still don't like it. I see advertising on my commute to work. I see advertising on everything I buy, even food. I see advertising at home, on the radio and on television. On clothing. At the side of the road. On nearly every webpage I visit. At the bottom of my pay slip, for God's sake, there's advertising. People are worried about generations born that can't concentrate because of the bombardment out there. Advertising between the chapters of books? Really? I'm going to have to write my chapters allowing for an advertisement in between them? Not just carrying the story over, or pausing for breath, but to allow some company to sell something--who knows what--while I change the scene? Really?


06 December 2010

Writing to market

Usually I write whatever comes to me, and then I try to find a market. I like this order because it means I write what speaks loudest to me, and that means I write it well, instead of trying to force my creativity into some shape or another. However, with so many markets inviting submissions it makes some sense to write a short piece to fit a call for submissions. So I tried this recently.

I received a request for a certain length short story, with this theme, in that genre. I figured if it didn't work I could use the story for something else, and if nothing else it would be an interesting experience.

It didn't work. The market rejected me, which happens and isn't a big deal. But in trying to write such a specific story to such a specific length (a fairly long short story, or a uselessly short novella) I pretty much killed any chance of adapting it smoothly to another market. I could definitely put the time in and alter it for somewhere else, but it might take as much work as it did to write and edit the first time.

And therein lies the real problem: in writing such a specific story purely because of the market, and not because it was speaking to me, I produced something that I'm not sure deserves as much time again to make it right. I'm not at all surprised it was rejected, actually, because I can tell it isn't my best work. It was written to sell. And just like it's annoyingly obvious when a movie is using every technique available to trick viewers into thinking it's good (*cough* Avatar *cough*,) it just wasn't very good.

How frustrating. But so it goes, and now I've learned. Although it might work for more general pieces, writing to market for something so specific is not a good idea. It felt like I was writing particularly for someone who then refused to pay. And that's a waste of time.

My recommendation for anyone trying to get their stories out in the world is to prioritize writing what speaks loudest to you, and what's inspiring you. Sometimes a call for submissions will inspire you, which is great. And sometimes you'll be writing in the dark, with no idea where the story might end up.

If it's a good enough story you'll find the market eventually. And if it isn't, you haven't wasted any time.
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