Tag Archives: Reading

Review of Two Pairs of Shorts

Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book from a Goodreads Giveaway.

First, I should note that I went into this book having no idea what it was. I thought the title was quirky enough to be interesting, and I figured I’d give it a shot and see what it was about. It turns out the title is a pun on the four short stories in the book…two pairs. It’s clearly a self-published book, and from the start I could see it isn’t one of the more professional self-publications. There are no page numbers, the text is left-justified (like a Word document that was directly uploaded without formatting), and most of the book is double-spaced, giving it a strange layout. However, I decided to focus on the content itself, rather than letting the formatting anomalies affect my judgment of the book.

The stories themselves were mostly bland. The writing itself is solid enough; the writer knows how to paint a descriptive scene, and the book was mostly free of grammatical errors. But the problem was simply that the stories didn’t go anywhere. One of the stories was nothing more than a man walking to the mailbox, for about twenty pages, while he reminisced about how his life wasn’t going anywhere. Another had a woman doing laundry, for about six pages, while she reminisced about her poor life and her abusive husband. She spends the whole time thinking about having a nice cold glass of lemonade, but the big twist ending (Spoiler Alert!) is that when she goes inside, her husband already drank it!

The only thing that made reading this worthwhile was that two of the stories were kind of funny. Completely predictable and without much plot, but humorous enough that I was entertained. But all in all, I’m glad that I didn’t actually pay for this book.

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Review of Breadcrumb Trail by Adam Dreece

Dreece-YellowHoods02CoverI just finished reading Breadcrumb Trail, the second book of The Yellow Hoods by Adam Dreece. It was a fun story, with entertaining characters, and some pretty interesting steampunk-style gadgets and inventions along the way.

The story centers around a group of young teens who call themselves “The Yellow Hoods.” They’re all bright, resourceful kids who can handle themselves in a fight, racing through the woods on sail-powered carts and using electric shock sticks to duel against sword-wielding soldiers. The Hoods get drawn into a conflict between two secret groups of inventors that are manipulating events from behind the scenes, plus there’s a war brewing in the south, a group of dangerous red-hooded outlaws kidnapping children, and a conspiracy to steal the secret plans to the world’s first steam engine.

The writing style is upbeat and fun, with a sense of swashbuckling adventure behind a lot of the action scenes. There’s also a lot of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to fairy tales and fables, from Tee’s grandfather putting on a red coat and handing out toys during Winter Solstice, to the home of the Ginger Lady and her kids, Hans, Saul, and Gretel. Add in a few puns here and there, and the story gives you plenty of chuckles during the more lighthearted moments, though there’s definitely a dark side to some of the conflicts.

The pacing of the story could use a little work, with some of the chapters feeling too short, or some conflicts being resolved before there had been enough tension built up. There were some moments that felt like they were building up towards some good dramatic tension, but some of the impact of that tension can be lost when a chapter ends without hitting the right “cliffhanger moment.” This didn’t take away from the fun of the story, but it did lead to most of the story having a more casual pace, rather than the high-energy, action-packed pace it achieves at certain points.

All in all, the book was fun, entertaining, and intriguing. The inventions and gadgets show a lot of style, from electric shock gloves to compressed air cannons to a rocket-powered whirly-bird. And Tee and her friends are characters you really end up rooting for.

Zero Echo Shadow Prime

facebook_cover_01I just finished reading Zero Echo Shadow Prime by Peter Samet. It’s one of the best sci fi books I’ve read in a long time.

The story starts off with a teenage girl, Charlie Nobunaga, finding out she has cancer. As part of an extreme attempt to save her life, her father makes a deal with the head of a corporation that creates advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR), and robotics. Charlie’s mind is scanned and copied, and as a result, four different versions of her are born. Zero, her original, dying, biological body. Prime, an advanced super-strong robot. Shadow, a computer program that serves as a virtual assistant and companion to a wealthy man. And Echo, a four-armed creation that is forced to duel against a variety of other genetically and cybernetically altered clones in a virtual simulation.

ZESP does an amazing job developing the different aspects of Charlie’s persona and showing how they change once they begin living their separate lives. The book also creates an interesting dystopic future where flying police drones can monitor and control people’s movements, “smart cell” technology allows for digital manipulation of the human body, and radical separationists protest against the loss of humanity caused by the advent of robotics and AI.

In classic sci fi tradition, ZESP develops a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, and has an ending that, well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a thrill and a shock that left me wanting more.

If you like sci fi, robots, virtual reality, flame throwers, spaceships, and cyber-terrorism, you should definitely check out this book.

Science Fiction, Science Fact

Image Source: http://www.thebuzzmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/war-of-the-worlds-xbla-psn-title.jpg
Image Source: http://www.thebuzzmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/war-of-the-worlds-xbla-psn-title.jpg

I’m currently reading H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which is one of the great classics of science fiction. It was first written in 1898, when our scientific advancements weren’t anywhere near what they are today. It’s interesting to see how the scientific knowledge at the time influenced certain . . . inaccuracies in the text.

At the beginning of the book, Wells describes the launching of the attack ships from Mars, visible from Earth as small eruptions of light from the surface of Mars. During this section, Wells describes what seems to be the assumptions about Mars at the time:

The planet Mars, I scarcely need to remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one-seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.

…Its physical condition is still largely a mystery, but we know now that even in its equatorial region the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snow caps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones.

He goes on to theorize that the motivation of the Martians’ attack is because they see our fertile green and blue planet as having all the natural resources that Mars lacks.

Image Source: http://space-facts.com/wp-content/uploads/mars.jpg
Image Source: http://space-facts.com/wp-content/uploads/mars.jpg

We can easily fact-check some of this information against what we currently know, considering we have robots on mars right now. Mars is about 142 million miles from the sun, so Wells had that just about right. Mars is about 15.1% the volume of Earth, close enough to the 1/7 Wells states. But when he says “the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter,” that doesn’t even come close to describing Mars’ average surface temperature of -81 degrees F.

The biggest inaccuracy, however, is when he says that “It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.” Mars has an atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide, and so far we haven’t found any water there. There’s some evidence to indicate there might be water on Mars, but there’s certainly no oceans like Wells described.

Wells was no doubt letting his imagination fill in some details, while getting others from the limited scientific information available at the time. Pretty much all sci fi does this. It’s likely that in four hundred years, we’ll look back at Star Trek as being just as inaccurate to the realities of interstellar travel and exploration. It can also be seen in movies that take place in the “near future,” such as how Back to the Future II took us from 1989 (the year it came out) to 2015 (this year). There’s lots of analysis out there of what Back to the Future got wrong and what it got right. Of course, the filmmakers are on the record saying they designed the future to be a joke, not even trying to get it accurate. Still, they hit the mark on quite a few areas.

When it comes down to it, this is one of the risks you take with any speculative fiction. Books, movies, and TV shows get plenty of stuff wrong all the time (The Mythbusters make a living off exposing many of those inaccuracies). And when it comes down to it, no one should expect a writer to get everything 100% right. You do the best you can, you tell an entertaining story, and you hope that the reader can suspend their disbelief enough that they don’t get pulled out of the story. For the most part, I’m able to stay in this story. And when something is jarring to me, I pause and think, That’s just because it was written in 1898.

Though one thing I’ll give Wells credit for is that he has a very authentic voice. He writes this story as if it actually happened to him, and he even addresses the reader at a few points. He also makes references to what “other survivors” have written about the attacks and then goes on to explain why they’re wrong because they didn’t see what he saw firsthand. It makes for some pretty fascinating storytelling.

Book Addictions

Hello. My name is Jason. And I’m addicted to books.

Yes, I bought all of those. Yes, I also bought several others that I found after I took the picture.
Yes, I bought all of those. Yes, I also bought several others that I found after I took the picture.

Today I went to Barnes & Noble for the first time in a long time. I do most of my book buying online these days, both for the convenience and for the ability to find used and/or out of print books that won’t be found on the bookshelves. Sometimes I search Amazon and find used books for a penny plus shipping, which basically means I pay $4.00 for a $10.00 book. Other times I use it to search inventories from around the country to find books I can’t find locally, such as when I ordered the first 28 or so books in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, since my local bookstores usually only have a random selection of 5 or 6 of them. But the thing about shopping online is that it doesn’t have quite the same experience as wandering the bookshelves and searching for something that will just jump out at you.

Sometimes, you spot a new book in a long-running series, like Kristen Britain’s Mirror Sight that I didn’t even know was out until I walked past it. Sometimes it’s a classic like Beowulf or Gilgamesh that I had to wonder how I’d gone my whole life without reading yet. Or sometimes I just spot a cover and title so fascinating I can’t help but buy it:

There was no way to resist this.
There was no way to resist this.

Though living in the digital age makes the book buying experience a very different one than it was ten years ago. Such as when I tweeted the picture above, and then next thing I knew the author himself was tweeting me with a promise that I’ll like the book. It goes to show the inter-connectivity we’re experiencing with social media. I can only imagine how excited I’d be in the author’s shoes when I find someone tweeting about my book. I look forward to the day I come across a total stranger talking about my book and we can make a connection like that.

So maybe being a book addict isn’t such a bad thing. You meet interesting people, discover new stories you’d never thought you’d find, and you get to write blog posts about being an addict.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to do before I get buried under a huge stack of hardbacks.

Poor Persecuted Villains

Every story needs a villain. There needs to be conflict to drive a story, and that conflict can best be generated by someone who opposes the hero. In fact, that opposition can be carefully constructed to be the driving force behind your story. Consider the following advice from writer and editor Sol Stein, in his book, “Stein on Writing” (p. 82-83):

We are driven through life by our needs and wants. So must the characters we create be motivated by what they want. The driving force of characters is their desire.

. . .

Which brings us to the essence of plotting: putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . One way to plan is to think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist. And be certain there is a two-way urgency: your protagonist wants a particular, important desire fulfilled as soon as possible, and the antagonist wants to wreck the chance of that happening, also as soon as possible.

This kind of conflict, created by having a hero and a villain butting heads because of incompatible goals, is common in many books. Sometimes it can be something grand: Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring, and Sauron wants to get his hands on the same ring. Other times it can be something simpler, but still of critical importance to the characters: In Misery, writer Paul Sheldon just wants to go home, while his “number one fan” Annie wants him to stay and write his next novel. Despite the book only having two characters throughout the majority of the story, it works because of their conflicting desires.

But here’s the problem: who gets to decide which of the characters in conflict is the hero, and which one is the villain? Can you always just tell who is the villain by who has the curlier mustache?

Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/
Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/

That’s hardly fair, and it tends to lead to a lot of biases and stereotypes. Sometimes villains can be very badly persecuted just because of who and what they are. It leads to all kinds of assumptions. Everyone assumes that someone with a goatee is automatically going to try to summon the dark forces of Hades to his command, and that someone with a mustache will be tying you to the railroad tracks to distract the hero while he runs off and completes his bank heist.

Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.
Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.

Why must these poor, misunderstood individuals be seen as the “villains”? Just because their goals and desires happen to conflict with the desires of the people we label as “heroes”?

I say we stand up right now, and fight against the unjust labeling of characters as either hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist. Do you know the root of the word “antagonist”? It’s the same as antagonizing. Would you like it if someone always called you antagonizing, just because you happen to use explosives and/or dark magic whenever you are trying to accomplish your–


. . . *ahem* Sorry, where was I?

The point is, we shouldn’t be so quick to label someone as the “villain” just because their goals are in conflict with someone else’s. Some villains are, in fact, quite misunderstood.

Consider this fellow, for instance:

Every last inch of him is covered in hair.
Every last inch of him is covered in hair.

Gaston is one of the most misunderstood Disney villains ever. Sure, he’s a bit smug. He’s kind of rude. He doesn’t wipe his feet. He killed Bambi’s mom. But is he that bad, really?

He isn’t trying to kill innocent little puppies. He isn’t tricking princesses into giving away their voice in a mad attempt to grab power. He isn’t plotting regicide.

Gaston doesn’t do anything like that. Up until the end of Beauty and the Beast, what does Gaston ever do? Let’s review:

1. He takes an interest in Belle, the smartest and most misunderstood girl in town. He could have any other girl he wanted, and there’s plenty of brainless girls swooning over him. But no, he doesn’t go for one of the three blondes in the low-cut dresses. He goes for the simple girl who everyone else considers odd. In fact, Gaston is the only person in town to show Belle any kindness or attention, except maybe the bookstore owner. Sure, his approach is a bit too smug and condescending, but he doesn’t realize that. He’s grown up in a society that praises men for strength and expects a woman to raise babies. Maybe, if Belle had told him she wanted a different kind of life, he would have respected her wishes and tried to be the kind of man she wanted. If you watch the proposal scene, you’ll see that Belle never bothers to correct Gaston on his chauvinistic behavior or give him a chance to change his ways. Instead, she knocks him into the mud! No wonder he was so mad after!

2. When Maurice, Belle’s father, comes in raving about her being captured by a beast, no one believes him. Who would? I mean, put yourself in Gaston’s shoes. Would you really believe a monster like that existed? Everyone in town had good reason to believe Maurice was just a crazy old man.

3. When they DO find out there’s a beast out there, Gaston and the others react in the way any person would. They seek to defend themselves against the perceived threat. Sure, Belle tries to say the beast is gentle, but she’s clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after being held hostage for months. During that time the beast locked her up, refused to feed her if she didn’t follow his orders, went on multiple volatile rages (and frankly, Belle is lucky she didn’t get hurt when he was throwing furniture around in his blind fury), and he never told her that he was holding her there to trick her into falling in love with him in order to break the spell.

Gaston is clearly misunderstood. And hey, every guy in town would love to be him. He’s admired, he’s everyone’s favorite guy. So, sure, he’s a bit full of himself. Wouldn’t you be, if the entire town was singing your praises like that? Maybe Gaston isn’t as bad as we think. After all, it’s not Gaston who starts off singing about how awesome he is. His little friend, Lefou, starts off singing his praises. Can we blame Gaston for getting swept up in it?

Okay, so there’s that one little part where he schemes to have her father locked up unless Belle agrees to marry him. But I’m willing to chalk that up to a desperate man who’s gone down a slippery slope. He didn’t start off as a villain. He started off as a charming (if pompous) guy who became a villain because that’s the way he was treated.

This is what happens to our poor, persecuted villains. They get treated like criminals, and the societal pressures we put on them force them to take drastic measures. I think it’s time that we, as a society, stopped blaming these antagonists for the extreme things they’re forced to do in this Hero vs Villain world. I think we need to take responsibility and realize that we created these villains. They deserve a second chance.

Literature vs Genre Fiction

I’m currently enrolled in a Fiction Writing Workshop class at Rowan University. Since this is a graduate-level class, the intent is that we will learn things that go beyond just plot and characterization and show, don’t tell. The professor described it as a more in-depth course where we will be refining our writing on multiple levels and in as much detail as possible.

One of the issues that was raised on the first day is “What is the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction?” The answers varied, but in the discussion that followed we basically defined Genre Fiction (whether it be fantasy, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc) as books that are designed just to tell a story. They have a plot with a beginning and an end, and they are written for the purpose of selling books. Many authors who write a sci fi adventure book probably don’t say that they’re trying to send some epic message about the human experience. They may just enjoy those types of stories and think that they have a good story to tell.

Literature, on the other hand, was defined as writing that has some deeper meaning or message that goes beyond the story. It tells us something about life, and resonates in a way that will carry with the reader long after the experience.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have Sci Fi Literature. If you picture it as a Venn Diagram, you’d have some overlap between various genres and works of literature. Some stories, however, are just stories.

To give a basic run down, I’ll go over some of the books I’ve read so far this year. One was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is definitely Literature. The story wasn’t just a story about animals taking over the farm. Instead, it was a political commentary about how power can corrupt and governments can take advantage of the people.

Then I read Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, about the war taking place in Wonderland where Alice has to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (in a darker and more action-oriented tale than the original Alice in Wonderland, in a similar vein as the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film). This book didn’t seem to have any important political message; the war in the book was simply the Queen of Hearts grabbing power and ruling the land with an iron fist. You don’t really need to dig much deeper than that to understand the conflict.

Some books, as I mentioned above, can fall into both categories. For example, while there might be some individual dispute on this, I’d consider the Hunger Games Trilogy to be both literature and sci fi/action-adventure. On the surface, the first book is a story about teenagers being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the evil Capitol that rules over the various districts. However, there can be parallels made to many social issues: youth violence (such as school shootings), poverty, the misbalance between starving third world countries and lavish capitalist societies, and the way media will depict any kind of tragedy or violence on the air just to get higher ratings. The fact that these events are taking place in a futuristic high-tech society that has force fields and such is just a matter of setting.

The questions raised in my graduate class, about the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction, has made me have to sit down and consider my writing in a new way. I don’t have any aspirations to be considered a literary writer or have my work have some deeper meaning (though if I sat down to analyze my work from a neutral perspective, I could definitely list a variety of ways that Manifestation and Contamination are critiques on how our society reacts to acts of terrorism, and the way blame is passed to people who aren’t responsible for the attacks just because society views everyone of certain “groups” as being equally to blame). I sat down to write an urban fantasy story, and if people later decide to consider it literature, then hey, bonus.

However, even though I don’t consider myself a literary writer, this class will require me to produce works of literary fiction. I still plan to make it urban fantasy literature, but I need to think more deeply about my approach. My goal with the class is to work on more short stories to go alongside Radiance, Belladonna, and the other shorts I’m working on for release along with the rest of the series. I may end up writing several new short stories, or one long one (since the class is open to either possibility). But for the new stories I work on to count as “literature,” I need to make sure there is a deeper meaning.

Is there a deeper message in Radiance? I would say yes. On the surface level, it’s a story about a girl gaining a magical power. Yet on a deeper level, it’s about faith and belief (which are themes that run though all of my writing, since belief is a very powerful force in the Arcana Revived world). So I’m considering how to look at the types of themes and deeper messages I tend to work with, in order to consider how to focus more on those things in whatever I’m about to write this semester. I haven’t yet decided how to go about this, but the ideas of belief and faith are a good starting point. I think I can say a lot about the power of belief and the way your personal perspective can change reality around you.

On one level, these are concepts I’m familiar with from my Communication Studies education; there’s a principle called Symbolic Interactionism that explains how our understanding of reality is changed by communication. This is a subtle effect, but can have a real impact. A small example would be if your parents treat you like you’re stupid, and you end up unmotivated in school, resulting in low grades, thus proving your parents right. Yet if they encourage you and tell you that you can succeed, you’ll try harder, get better grades, and prove them right. Your success or failure in such a situation can be determined by what kind of communication takes place.

On another level, this idea can be applied to fantasy works when considering the effect magic can have on you. The way characters like Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez communicate about magic in their world has a very real impact on how it functions. I don’t want to go into more detail because of spoilers, but it is something you can see in Radiance if you pay close attention to Maria’s thought process during the story and watch the nonverbal communication between her and the other minor characters in the book. There are some deliberate moments where people’s reactions reflect their beliefs in a way that causes literal changes in the world. It’s Symbolic Interactionism meets Magic and Mystery.

So in order to write literary works in this class, I think I’m going to take these concepts and focus on them more than I have in the past. Hopefully the results will be something my classmates say has a deeper message or says something about faith, belief, and society.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook