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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Books I Read: May - June 2015


Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul by various authors

If you haven't noticed, I could use a little pick-me-up for my writing these days. Or maybe a Phoenix Down or Philosopher's Stone. We all need some motivation some times. I was hoping that this book could add a little gumption to my typing fingers. But the articles just don't give much to inspire. In fact, a lot of them did the opposite. They told me just how much more others achieved with so little to start with. The "genius" authors as I call them -- the ones whose success and talent cannot be duplicated or learned. It just comes naturally to them. People like Alex Haley and Harper Lee and Garry Marshall.

And that's the other thing. This book is out of date. We've got people talking about Vietnam and writing in the 1930's. These people didn't have to deal with self-publishing saturating the market or eBook piracy or (god, forbid) Fifty Shades of Gray.

And some of the stories have a Christian spin on in. As in "God was sending me a message to write this book", which is the bane of every slush reader and query letter. Anyone who says they were commanded to write a book by God scares me.

So if you're looking for something to keep you writing, look somewhere else. It has just as much chance of bringing you back down. Bit of a poor effort when it's got the opposite effect.


Life Itself by Roger Ebert

I cannot, for the life of me, remember why I wanted to read this book. I think it was because I watched the documentary Life Itself, but I can't remember why I watched that either. I guess I was coming around to the fact that one of Roger Ebert's underappreciations was his proficient writing. He wrote thousands of movie reviews and somehow never ran out of material, never lost inertia. He even wrote a book about the history of the rice cooker. Who does that? Especially if you're known for being a movie critic.

Back in the before time, there were people who were famous for no particular reason, just because of their personality. They produced things, but they were more known for being celebrities. People like Charles Nelson Reilly, Charro, Whoopi Goldberg. Roger was a gentleman scholar, but you'd never know it from his humble Chi-town roots. He waxes on about the beauty of London and the disgusting destruction of the elder rustic for the modern commercial. Then a chapter later will discuss how great Steak and Shake is (I wish they had one in Minnesota, it sounds tasty).

It reminds me of a blog compilation. The story has little of his life and more of his opinions, statements, and essays. He doesn't talk much about film or writing, except chapters dedicated to people I didn't really care about (like Werner Herzog). He's not terribly clever, but he's a straight-shooter. Don't come here for an autobiography, but come here to learn a little about the man who helped us appreciate the art of story-telling a little more.


The Martian by Andy Weir

The world's longest word problem.

If you don't like math, you're going to hate this book. The first 13% of the book is nothing but engineering problems of how he's going to survive on Mars, just by himself, with the handful of utilities NASA sent. It goes through all the math needed to create crops, combining Earth soil with Martian soil to grow bacteria to grow potatoes, how many calories he needs from potatoes for how fast they can grow and how much he can grow until he runs out of days and how much he needs per day and the water he needs to make and how many molecules of hydrogen he can get for the oxygen and so on; all using only the tools he has available. Someone with less than a college degree wouldn't be able to understand this.

Someone said the whole book is like that scene in Apollo 13 where they're trying to figure out how to make a CO2 scrubber with plastic wrap and cardboard. And I can't disagree. That's not to say it's not a good book. It is. It's just quite heavy with engineering and less so with plot developments and characterization.

The main character has a sense of humor, thank god, and he writes his log entries so the layman can understand. But it's almost to a fault. He sounds too blue collar sometimes to make me think he was taken on a NASA mission (similar to Gravity taking an untrained schoolteacher on a spacewalk).

The appeal of this book is the science. It is kind of fun watching the guy work through a problem and solve it, using science (and in an accessible language). But that is not going to appeal to everyone (like I called "The Historian" out for being just a guy doing research).


The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

A re-read. I got a bunch of books from ThriftBooks.com (shout out!) which includes a bunch I want my kids to discover. This is one of them. It's more disjointed than I remember, but I guess Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz were too. It's still a classic, blending logic and imagination in wonderful ways. The biggest flaw is that I never got a sense of the obstacles the main character has to face. It never seems like he's suffering. Dorothy's homesick and Alice is neurotic with the paradoxes and chaos. Milo's just cruising. Needs less scenery and more protagonist.


Heartbreak Hotel by Mona Ingram (UNFINISHED)

Was this person writing a movie? I know it's "show, don't tell", but you've got to play to the medium. Like all great authors recommend, it starts with a description of the weather. Then it methodically introduces us to each character. One. After. The. Other. Just character soup.

It's full of first chapter mistakes and nothing happening. It's supposed to be about a girl coming into a hotel but she has no characterization, no personality. It's just a laundry list of characters coming in. Here's the maid, here's the ski instructor, here's the cook, here's the concierge, here's the billing manager. I couldn't finish it.


A Summer in Amber by C. Litka

A pastoral regency romance. Takes place in an alternate 1900 where there's cell phones but no cars. A Ph.D. is assigned to a quaint country house to transcribe a mad scientist's papers. But more important, the tempestuous daughter of the town's leader is catching his eye. She's a good character, as is the main character's cantankerous boss. But other than that, a lot of them don't have distinguishable personalities.

The prose is influenced by Jasper Fforde's slipstream, but the science fiction elements have no bearing on what happens. Nothing moves the goalposts back. The main character always has his antagonist in the palm of his hand, so there's no tension. I liked the fantastical elements, I wished there could have been more of them.  The romance is the best part, and thankfully that's the main part of the plot.

The biggest flaw is that all it does it explain what's happening. There's no chance for the reader to make his/her own interpretations on motivations or character flaws. It has that early 20th century habit of spelling out everything that's happening for the reader. Not in an amateur way -- the story sounds professional -- but it means there's no element of surprise when someone's backstory comes to the foreground or a twist results. And as a result, it's hard to get invested for what's going on.


The Ables by Jeremy Scott

This is for a younger audience than I thought. It's a simple comic book plot, but a decent one. It's got some cliches. Doesn't break out of a mold or do anything to distinguish itself. It's no "Steelheart" or "Soon I Will Be Invincible". It's supposed to be about disabled superheroes, but the disabling doesn't come up much.

It's fun to see them come up with ways around it (like hooking a telepath to a viewscreen of the blind guy's POV). But they find ways around it quickly and it ceases to be an issue. Katawa Shoujo did a better job of dealing with the day-to-day hardships and it had a variety of characters -- thematically exploring who lets their disability define them and who doesn't. There isn't much of the daily life struggles they face, like the handicapped guy getting stared at. That's the sort of thing I wanted to see. In fact, I think one guy gets his arm back at some point. And my biggest complaint? No girls.
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