Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Circle

As the title says, I'm currently listening to Dave Egger's "The Circle," on audio CD. I might have more to say about this book when I finish it but at the moment I can absolutely see how it got a go-ahead for production as a movie. There is something smack dab in the middle of everything about this novel. A way-too-good-to-be-true company pressing for the end to privacy. The snappy "Social Network" dialogue. The futurist optimism about technology and social media. The dystopian terror of the same. Afghanistan, health care, Syria, and kayaking. 

Okay that last part is more about what's going on in my life, but still...

After a summer reading some really heavy speculative literature, the nicest thing about "The Circle" is how it echoes the themes of other books I've read recently without ever losing its sense of charm. The characters in this book feel very real, very familiar in this hyperkinetic, chatty style that probably took an enormous amount of craft to make feel so effortlessly casual.

One more bit of praise. I'm loving how this book - for all of its bright colors and snappy banter - expresses dread for the future more effectively than nearly anything I've read so far this year.


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Chapter 23 is now available for my espionage thriller, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." We're back with Frankie, dealing with the aftermath of his decision to climb into the pit with some very unpleasant serpents. I hope you enjoy the chapter; feel free to comment either on the blog or in web fiction online, which is hosting this web fiction.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"The Grace of Kings" and Uses of Perspective

Ken Liu's massive silk-punk epic, "The Grace of Kings," is the kind of novel that requires a significant runway in order to achieve flight. The books isn't just long, it's also deliberate and thoughtful in a way at odds with any expectation for instant gratification. Although the pleasures of this book are commensurately immense, it takes a while for the true force of this story to unfold.

As I've said to a few friends when discussing this book, "The Grace of Kings," is in certain respects the "Into the Woods," of fantasy epics. The initial set-up will be familiar to anyone who's read Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Suzanne Collins. A tyrannical ruler causes greater and greater burdens on the people, inspiring a few desperate rebels to resist. This rag-tag collection of heroes experience great adversity and loss until they finally defeat the Evil Empire in one final battle. This is a story as timeless as the Aeneid and Star Wars.

It's also not quite the story Liu is telling here.

The true story, like Sondheim's musical, is what happens after "they lived happily ever after." The two main characters of the book: Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu, represent extremes of personality and behavior. Liu describes Mata as the epitome of classical heroism, a stoic, taciturn force of nature capable of turning a battle through the ferocity of his own indomitable will. Kuni enters the story as a truant, progresses to a lay-about, then a bandit. By the end of the first act, Kuni is declared Duke by acclamation, his every success labeled the product of tricks and luck. Liu's great talent lies in showing how both men's strengths are also their weakness. Although the two join forces in the rebellion, the author never lets us forget the natural tension between the two. The true story emerges from that conflict, like a dark moth from a chrysalis.

A closer comparison then for this novel, at least to me, is Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Although Liu deals in airships and stringless battle kites, mythical sea beasts and alchemical warfare, he is clearly fascinated by the sweep of history, how clever rulers seize opportunity and overthrow tradition in favor of reform and progress. This is not a fantasy story that ends in the same place it began. The world of Dara has been radically, plausibly changed, the technology and culture depicted as a fluid, dynamic thing that I've always found sadly lacking in many other fantasy epics.

Partly this larger perspective comes from the style of storytelling Liu uses. Although the narrative can lean in to hear the thoughts and motivations of a particular character, it can also ascend to a more lofty perch in one smooth transition, detailing the fates of kings, kingdoms, and wars. For me, that was the most instructive thing about this work, and the aspect I'd like to emulate - that humanistic, yet clear-eyed appraisal of the world. It's a voice capable of explaining the motivations of individuals, and also the pressures that move nations.

Looking over other reviews of "The Grace of Kings," I notice that other than its length and deliberate style, some critique its relative paucity of female characters. This is something that troubled me at the beginning as well, with only the wife of one of the characters receiving much attention. In particular, the first third of the book seems to cling to Mata and Kuni, almost as though they alone are all that's needed to describe Dara. During a pivotal battle, Kuni gives a speech praising the sacrifices and valor of women but this could seem tossed-off and gratuitous in the moment. I honestly don't think it is. As the story progresses more females characters enter and one, in particular, provides a much needed counterpoint to the Mata and Kuni. Again, as stated above, Liu doesn't leave Dara in the same place it started. The sequel, "The Wall of Storms," appears set to explore a world open to a great many different types of conflicts and characters.

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I'm pleased to announced that another chapter is available in my espionage thriller, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." Thank you for reading, and if you get a chance, please let me know what you think by either commenting directly or going over to Web Fiction Online to leave a quick review. Enjoy!





Sunday, August 21, 2016

Listing for "Agent Shield and Spaceman" on Web Fiction Guide

My web fiction, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now listed on Web Fiction Guide, a community-run listing of online fiction. In addition to providing a platform for stories, Web Fiction also features reviews of work. If you have a spare second and you've read a few chapters, please consider adding a review (good, bad, whatever) to the site.

As I reach my last week of summer vacation I'm attempting to get as much basic revision done as possible so I can keep this going into the fall. Keep checking back here and on "Agent Shield and Spaceman," to catch updates!

Thanks for reading! Web Fiction Guide (online novels, reviews) Novels Online

Friday, August 19, 2016

New Chapter for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

Good morning folks!

I have a new chapter up for "Agent Shield and Spaceman," my espionage web fiction. Frankie Two-eyes, already at the Thulewaite party starts to mingle and quickly gets himself over his head.

Other than that, my mind has been preoccupied in recent days by the superlatively good epic 'silk punk' fantasy novel "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu. Ken's name has come up a few times on this blog because I have enormous respect for his talent and the clarity of his ideas. This novel is door-stop and I hadn't had enough time to really launch into a massive fantasy epic until this summer. I guess at the moment, all I have time to say is that I'm blown away by it. I think it's easily one of my favorite fantasy stories and ranks pretty high up in terms of general works as well.

I could probably talk for a couple of days about all the reasons I think this novel succeeds at everything it sets out to do and writers of speculative fiction have a lot to learn from its example. I'm going to try to put together some of these thoughts at some point this week and see where it goes. In the meantime, do yourself a favor, pick up "The Grace of Kings" and give it a read. It's a huge, consequential addition to fantasy literature.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chapter Twenty for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

We've reached chapter twenty in "Agent Shield and Spaceman," and the rest of Section Starfire Agents (the premier anarchist intelligence agency of the United States government, lest we forget) infiltrates Gunther Thulewaite's social gathering. Marcus Delacroix gathers information important to the mission from a source close to the Anti-cerebrist threat.

This chapter is pretty much the same as when it was written a decade ago. That will not be the case for ones following it. Part of my revision effort centered on making the novel flow better. A lot of this early part of the novel went deep into the backstory of Section Starfire, the Anti-Cerebrists, and Gunter Thulewaite. While interested in that stuff back in the 00's I'm thinking it's better to just keep the story moving now. 

It's a tough balance though. The difference between a successful novel and one that drags (in my opinion) is how to strike the proper balance between significance and momentum. Time spent on interesting details relating to characters and setting helps reader invest in the story. Without that grounding, a novel can quickly become a succession of disjointed events. It's what my brother Justin referred to as the "this then this then this," problem. 

However, if there is too much of that, a longer work loses energy and begins to sag into long block of exposition. At its heart, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is meant to be fun. Long blocks of exposition, to me, feels not that. 

Is there a director's cut where some of that extra information could go back in? Maybe. I think I'll try to get the whole novel out there first before I worry about it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

I Am Thinking of Ending Things

Ian Reid's "I Am Thinking of Ending Things," is one of the most haunting novels I've read this year. To say too much about the novel would give away the pleasures of the story but it's enough to say that it concerns an unnamed narrator's drive through a snowy evening to visit her boyfriend's family. During the drive, she considers breaking up with him.

Similar to "Disappearance at Devil's Rock," Ian Reid displays a subtle grasp of the tropes of the genre. Although the book is written with enough piercing observational skill to function as a contemporary exploration of relationships, it also knows how to build a sense of dread and alarm through well chosen details. The book functions like a psychological horror story where the killer, haunted house, and heroine exchange places with each other like half-remembered dreams.

I suspect readers of Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Ligotti, and Mark Z. Danielewski will enjoy this book immensely.

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I'm releasing a new chapter of my web fiction novel, "Agent Shield and Spaceman," today. I'm making a bit of head way this month revising a few chapters ahead. We are are about ten chapters away from the end of Part One, which is an exciting milestone for me. I hope to keep my schedule of two to three chapters each week through September but then, with the start of my teaching job, things might get dicey. I have a vague plan of finishing up the entire novel sometime in November but I'm giving myself permission to adjust that as necessary to maintain the quality I want out of each chapter. I hope you are enjoying the story so far. 



Friday, August 12, 2016

Disappearance at Devil's Rock

Finished reading "Disappearance at Devil's Rock" by Paul Tremblay and I'm going to put it on the recommended list for 2016 novels. This is one of a handful of works I've read this year that seem directly influenced or reacting to the True Detective phenomena from a couple years back. The first season, I mean, not the second.

The influence in the case of Tremblay is of an established weird fiction writer (His story "Swim Wants to Know If It's As Bad As Swim Thinks" was one of my favorites from the Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1 anthology) embracing the ambiguity of a vaguely supernatural, philosophy major-baiting crime thriller. Like True Detective, the layers of narrative and contradictory witnesses all work to cultivate doubt and suspicion. Unlike True Detective, the setting here is a very fleshed-out and specific evocation of childhood in the media inundated 21st century. Far from lamenting the presence of cell phones, internet, and the 24 hour blizzard of cable news, Tremblay embraces it as one more piece of the horror of the novel. Everyone feels as though they are connected, aware at all times of what surrounds them. Yet, the book suggests that a few misspent evenings and a couple instances of misplaced trust is all that's needed for the lives of a three children to be irrevocably changed.

I'm recommending this book despite some flaws in its narrative. Tremblay is probably trying to say something about trust and our ability to place belief in other people but the lies his plot depends on stretch plausibility. This isn't something that hits you at first and the ending of the book is quite satisfying but the jump between the indistinct menace of the first half of the book to the overt evil of the second is jarring and strains the suspension of disbelief.

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The next chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now available. As the agents draw closer to the Thulewaite Ranch, one member of the team reveals a  useful talent.