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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Books I Read: January - February 2014

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer



This was a fantastic resource for someone like me whose almost in the game but not quite. It's one of the only books I've read that has more to do with the promotion/publishing game than what adverbs to choose. It provides much needed guidance on how to promote, how to plan for your future, how to have an effective public marketing appearance. This book tells you how to do that.

The second half talks about how best to set up habits, mental health, and so on. But not so much about the nitty-gritty writing advice, which was just fine by me.

The problem is that, even now, it's a teensy bit dated. It still mentions MySpace as a valid source of social networking, and bypasses Twitter. Also, the material tends to be really dry. It feels like reading a text book at times. It's thick enough to be one. I wish the text was broken up into some diagrams or lists for easy access.

But I feel this book was a necessary read. Definitely if you're a first time writer. It provides a jumping off point for creating a marketing plan and the do's and don'ts of the public persona.

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia


This book is about a female clockwork automaton. She's an alchemist living on her own, but she's still technically beholden to her creator, since he has the key. She's hired by gargoyles (real stone gargoyles) to find a way to stop them from petrifying forever.

I picked this up because it was on a list of robot books with a different spin. The book has great world-building, great description. It reminded me of Dishonored or "The Wise Man's Fear" in terms of how sheerly vast this world is. You only see a little bit, only what's on the surface.

The problem was that it was too slow-paced. Few events of significance happen throughout the plot. There's a lot of plates in the air, but they never come down. I felt like the gorgeous writing was compensating for the lack of plot. And the end result was that the style got in the way of the story. Character motivation was lacking too. Or at least I didn't get it. The characters do things, but I never got a sense of their back story to figure out why, or why it was important to them. The non-humans start getting indistinguishable after a while.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz


I've got to be honest. All I could think of is "Are they gay? Are they gay? Are they gay? Are they gay?" Then one turned out to be and it's like "Are they both gay? Are they both gay? Are they both gay? Are they both going to be gay?" And then they were.

This is probably just me. I hope it is. I mean, look at its description: "But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be." That's word for word. A lack of tangible events is a sure sign that something's controversial is going down.

It's pretty good, but not great.  It has earmarks of "The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep", "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian".  I have no problem with the homosexuality, but the "are they or aren't they" ambiguity hung like a cloud over me during reading.  It distracted me.  Like if you go on a date with a nice guy, but lose your ring in the middle of it.

The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones


I was practically jizzing all over the starting pages. It's so genre-savvy, it hurts. The basic premise is "What happens to Alice after Friday the 13th?" (assuming no Friday the 13th Part 2). It hosts a cast of potential Final Girls living through the sequel, waiting for the killer to strike again, full of fake-outs and jump scares. Everyone's anticipating the slasher's return, but is the slasher really the one they need to worry about?

The problem was once it got past the initial prologue, it got pretty incoherent. It's not bizarro fiction (like the site I heard it from), it's more like horror. For one thing, the whole story is written like a pitch in front of a studio executive. Paragraphs start "Aerial view: the school. Students are milling around..." or "Point of view on Millie. She stands in front of the pipe as if something is going to come out." It sounds like someone narrating the screenplay/treatment.

This was remarkably effective for the cinematic aspects (the jump scares and dread moments) as it forced your mindset to the exact image the author wanted. However, the narrative itself got pretty confusing. I had a lot of difficulty following the plot, the characters. There are plot threads that aren't touched on, and some that go on too long, like this phone call thing where they're trying to figure out how to spring a friend, who they're not friends with, out of a police interrogation. And then at the end of part 1, we find that the main character has trapped the slasher at her house. But nothing comes of it.

That being said, I would LOVE to see a movie like this. A love letter to B-movie horror, something that plays with tropes. I think this is a great, GREAT concept. It was just not well executed in this book.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut



Well, I liked it better than "Cat's Cradle". This one is less tongue-in-cheek, more about the grimdark of war. Maybe that's why it appealed better to me. The story structure is wacky this time too -- this time with non-linearity. I'm not sure if it's science fiction or not -- the stuff inside seems too ridiculous to take seriously (with the Tralfamadorians). But the war stuff and the post-war stuff feels pretty important. It's a rare experiment with form that succeeded. I think if you're starting out on Vonnegut, choose Cat's Cradle if you're a girl, Slaughterhouse-Five if you're a boy.

So after all this, what's my conclusion of Vonnegut? I'm still not sure of why all the hubbub, but I do understand why people like him. For some reason, he was an "it" retro-author during high school (Disturbing Behavior comes to mind). Maybe he was an author of his time (especially since a lot of his works deal with Cold War era stuff).

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman



A re-read, and this time I got the 30th Anniversary Edition. Still an excellent story, but I forgot how closely it follows the movie (which is not unusual, given the author wrote the screenplay). My favorite parts are the ones that got excised from the movie -- Inigo's father, the Goldman commentary, Fezzik's origins, Humperdinck's characterization, the Zoo of Death. The parts from the movie, I find myself hearing Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes' voices in my head.

And I can never tell which one is better. See my diatribe about remaking The Princess Bride for more info. But the great thing is, one doesn't negate the other. Both can be enjoyed for what they are.
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