Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book review: "Wonderbook" by Jeff VanderMeer

Just this morning, I finished "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer.  I'm not going to do a Magrs Method review here because this book, as fantastic as the cover presents it to be, is a how-to book.  In fact, the subtitle is "The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction."

This book lives up to its cover in every way.  It is fantastic, especially if you are a fledgling or even intermediate writer that is looking for guidance about how to improve your craft or seeking some inspiration from the minds of other highly creative (and successful) authors.

The author, despite what you may think on first glance, offers a very consistent and easy to follow guide to creating fiction.  Starting with things as simple as "make sure your space inspires your creativity," he progresses to describe the different parts of the story and subsequently show how to think and act on every part.

You can't really talk about the prose in this book without calling out the illustrations.  If you think the cover is good, you ain't seen nothin' yet.  Jeremy Zerfoss is the principle illustrator, and the book is full of his sublime work.  Literally, this is the most beautiful book I've read in quite some time.  The book also features other illustrations of the wondrous and strange.  Every picture struck a chord with me, and I actually spent time studying each one.

Beyond the guide, the book also has writing exercises along the way that help drive home the points that are being made when the exercise is introduced.  The appendix of the book is full of ANOTHER set of exercises as well.  If the first rule of writing is "WRITE!" then this book encourages you to obey the rules.  I did most of the exercises and was pleasantly surprised by at least a few of them.

I have always thought I have at least one good story in me.  It's quite possible I've got more than one, given the way my brain seems to work.  For the time being, however, I still consider myself a non-writer.  As such, this book was slightly overwhelming, but thankfully made me aware of two very important things.

1)  Writing is a job you do because you love it.  It's ridiculously hard, has aspects that are tedious, presents situations you simply have to fight through, and possesses every other facet of a day job that frustrates everyone else.

2)  The writing community is full of people that are genuinely happy to help other people realize a dream of becoming a published author.  The publishing community, not so much.  Alright, that might be harsh.  The fact of the matter is that there is a LOT of content in the wild that most people wouldn't enjoy consuming, and agents, editors, and publishers serve as wilderness guides in a very real sense.

Oh, one other thing about the book.  It includes contributions from a bunch of different authors, including (but not limited to) Neil Gaimon, Lev Grossman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and George R. R. Martin.  I found these contributions really insightful, and they offered perspectives of people that have been in the business of writing for the better part of their lives.  If you want a peek inside the operating procedures of some of the best and most popular authors in recent history, this book provides the keyhole.

I really can't say enough about this book or recommend it highly enough.  I will certainly read large parts of it again as I work through the exercises in the appendix.  If you've ever had a hankering for writing or were curious to see what the process looks like, pick up a copy of this book.  If you always suspected that writers were only semi-normal people, pick up this book to validate that suspicion.  If you enjoy a good how-to book with lots of pretty pictures, pick up this book.  If you have a birthday coming up and $25 is the gift purchase limit, you should add this book to your wish list.

Happy reading!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book review: "Armada" by Ernest Cline

Encapsulate the plot of this book in one sentence.

An eighteen-year-old boy is called upon to utilize the skills gained during countless hours of video-gaming playing to save the world from an impending alien destruction.

When and where did you get this book?

I got this book from the local Barnes and Noble in July of 2015.

What year or edition?

First edition (2015), hardback.

Did you finish it?


What's your verdict?

This book is definitely worth reading if you liked the style and content of "Ready Player One".  I enjoyed this book but it didn't engage me the same way "Ready Player One" did.  I will almost certainly read it again, especially if a sequel is written.

What surprises did it hold, if any?

There was a subtext that was introduced fairly early on that I was surprised to see used in separate layers.  That's the best way I can say it without spoiling too much. :-)

Which scenes will stay with you?

There's a scene where a group of people are watching a video introducing the alien opposition.  The video is narrated by Carl Sagan, who (along with other leading scientists) had been part of a government cover-up to keep the knowledge of the aliens secret.  This secret is held into perpetuity by the leaders of the scientific community, spearheaded by Neil deGrasse Tyson currently.

With both of Ernest Cline's books, I've found myself suspending disbelief quite a bit in order to fully submerge and enjoy the world he's creating.  In retrospect, I found this to be particularly offensive.  It's preposterous that the leaders of the scientific community would withhold knowledge of one of the greatest discoveries in human history, regardless of the manner in which it was discovered.  It's a fundamental tenet of science.

Which characters will stay with you?

You would hope is was Zack, the main character.  However, aside from the fact that he's involved in every scene, he's not nearly as memorable as Lex, his love interest.  We first meet her in the auditorium where a group of people have been gathered for a briefing.  She's sitting alone, near the top, drinking from a flask painted like R2-D2.  She's immediately identified as an all-around bad-ass, dressed in black, tattooed, and having hacked the techno-gadget she'd been given.  She subsequently proves her bad-assery on multiple occasions, acting almost like a deus ex machina.

Plus, she's from Austin.  :-)

What genre would you say it is?

Science fiction, with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for extra bonus.

Have you read anything else by this author?

Yes.  "Ready Player One", which I feel I can recommend to anyone that grew up in the 80's or at least has a fondness for the decade.

Is it available today?

Yes, although I don't think the paperback has been produced yet.

Give me a good quote.

There are actually several pretty good quotes.  Here's a sampling.

     "Shit!" I heard Diehl shout over the comm. "I just lost my gorram shields because I'm already out of frakkin' power!"
     "Dude," Cruz said. "You shouldn't mix swears from different universes."

     "That’s how you know you’ve mastered a videogame—when a bunch of butt-hurt crybabies start to accuse you of cheating in an effort to cope with the beatdown they’ve just suffered at your hands."

     I rolled my eyes.  "I find it hard to believe that you were ever a Girl Scout."
     Her eyes narrowed, then she reached out and rolled down her striped knee sock, revealing a dark green Girl Scouts of America logo tattooed on her left calf.
     "I stand corrected," I said.  "Are you hiding any other cool tattoos?"
     She punched me in the shoulder -- hard -- then pointed at the flask, still in my hand.  "Quit stalling, baby face.  Bottoms up."

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book reviews pending!

You may recall back in July I posted that I had a few books in my reading queue.  Since then, I've redone my queue entirely thanks to a huge influx of kindle books for my birthday.  The list of pending books has grown to 21 as of this posting.  Apparently I need to learn to read faster.  That, or dedicate more time to reading and less to work.  Hey, I like that idea!  ;-)

I have managed to make it through a few of the books in both the original and updated queues.  The issue is that I've been dissatisfied with the way I review them.  I think my resistance to give spoilers limits the efficacy of the review and doesn't tell anyone interested enough about the book to know whether or not they'd really like it.  At the same time, I recently read a blog post by Carrie Green (author and marketer extraordinaire -- learn more about her here) introducing a light-weight book review method called the Magrs Method.

The Magrs Method of book reviewing looks like it was originated by Paul Magrs (pronounced "Mars"), an author, artist, and lecturer.  The first entry I can find of him using this method is here. The method entails an initial encapsulation of the book's plot in a single sentence, subsequently answering ten questions about the book, and ending with some good quotes.  Specifically (for anyone that hasn't been clicking the links so far):

  1. Encapsulate the plot of this book in one sentence.
  2. When and where did you get this book?
  3. What year or edition?
  4. Did you finish it?
  5. What's your verdict?
  6. What surprises did it hold, if any?
  7. Which scenes will stay with you?
  8. Which characters will stay with you?
  9. What genre would you say it is?
  10. Have you read anything else by this author?
  11. Is it available today?
  12. Give me a good quote.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm not a fast reader.  As such, the queue of read books is not very long, and I'm not sure I'll review all of them.  However, expect reviews of at least the following in the near future:
  • Armada, by Ernest Cline
  • Killing Floor (Jack Reacher #1), by Lee Child
  • A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
  • The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  • The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
I still owe you a talk about how cutting the cord with "cable" is going as well.  I might interview Tanya about that, since she's the mastermind behind that particular scheme.  That, and I like the thought of sitting her down for an interview... :-D

Friday, September 4, 2015

Epitaph for Granny

My grandmother died yesterday morning.  She was the last of my surviving grandparents.  I went to look for her obituary in the Temple Daily Telegram.  It said:

“Mary R. Hughes, 89, of Salado died Thursday, Sept. 3, at her residence.  Services are pending with Dossman Funeral Home in Belton.”

It lacks verbosity, don’t you think?  To be fair, many of the obituaries were sparse, and follow the pattern of being an announcement first, then a proclamation later.  

I assume it will fall to my mother to write the final obituary, or she and her brothers together.  I wonder what epitaph they’ll give her?  If they ask me, I suppose I’ll have some things to draw on.  I’m not sure of the validity of any of it, since the sources were Granny or stories about Granny I heard from my mom, both of which are now filtered through the faulty sieve of my recollection.  Take anything factual in the following with a grain of salt. Trust that opinions shared are absolute truth from my perspective.

Mary Ruth Hughes was born in Coleman, Texas, in February of 1926.  I want to say it was February 4th, but that might not be right.  She had a sister, Theda, and a brother, Jerrol Max (and don’t quote me on the spelling of his name, as it’s always been pronounced “Jurl”).  They were raised by her mother after her father left them.  Despite the hardships of growing up fatherless and during the Great Depression, I was always left with the sense that Granny enjoyed her childhood.  Maybe she only ever told me the good stories on purpose.

She married my grandfather when she was 16, so sometime in 1942.  You’ll notice that she was too young to get married without some kind of special consent.  Luckily for her and my grandfather, grandpa was already in the army, and quite wily.  He pulled some private in off the street to attest that “yes, he’s known Mary a LONG time, and of course she’s 18!”  Shortly after they got married, my grandfather went off to fight in World War II.  I’m not sure about the details of any of the scheduling, but my mother was born near the end of August of 1944.  You do the math.

Granny and Grandpa and Mom moved around quite a bit, as many army families did.  I know there were stints in Camp Hood (before it was a proper fort) and El Paso.  Ultimately they ended up in San Antonio, where my uncles did most of their growing up and from whence my mom departed for college in Abilene.  All of my early Christmas memories involve long trips from Salado to San Antonio.  There were two houses involved, although I can barely remember the first one (the Harding house).  The more prominent one was the Glasgow house.

When we were little, Granny would pay us a nickel to look for bugs in her hair.  I can’t remember ever finding one, but she kept offering the nickels every time we’d see her, and we’d keep looking faithfully, reveling in our new-found riches.  It wasn’t until years later, when I was having my own head massaged, that I realized what she had been doing.  CHILD LABOR LAWS BE DAMNED was probably her motto.  Crazy old lady.  

When I finally caught the chicken pox, it was Granny that wound up taking care of me.  Both Mom and Dad had to work, so Mom drove me to San Antonio for a full week of hanging out with Granny.  I remember sleeping late every morning, and Granny singing me awake to the tune of “Lazy Bones… sleepin’ in the sun.  How ya ‘spect ta get your day’s work done?  You’ll never get your day’s work done… sleepin’ in the noon-day sun.”  I spent my time playing with Hot Wheels, my Millennium Falcon and Star Wars action figures, and watching Shirley Temple movies on the Classics movie channel.  I itched, but it was a pretty great week.  I don’t remember feeling lonely or homesick.  Granny had a way of making you feel like you were home.

My grandparents moved to Salado in the early 1980’s.  My grandfather came up first, living in a camper while building an aluminum-sided barn with an apartment above it where he and Granny would live for a fair amount of time while I was in elementary school.  They subsequently helped build my parent’s current house and then built one for themselves.  The only years my sister and I rode the bus home from school on a regular basis was in order to stay after school at Granny’s until Mom or Dad got home.  After what seemed like an hour on the bus, we would arrive, climb the stairs to the apartment, and Granny would be there to greet us with an after school snack.  Those were some of the best snacks ever.  I watched Tom and Jerry cartoons, which Granny seemed just fine with.

One of the last times I rode my 10-speed bike, I wiped out on some gravel about a mile from my house.  It was kind of a bad wipe-out, leaving me in a state where I couldn’t ride the bike very well.  I’d earned a pretty neat abrasion on my knee, and my left elbow had a gash in it deep enough to leave a lasting scar (which I still bear today).  Granny’s house is only a couple of hundred yards from my parent’s house, so I had walked the better part of a mile, trailing small drops of blood from my knee and elbow, when I decided to stop there.  I’m not sure why I did; I think I just wanted to rest a minute.  She made sure I was OK, and then asked me if I wanted her to take me the rest of the way up the hill.  I said no, that I was fine, I would just walk the bike the rest of the way.  It didn’t occur to me until after I became a parent myself that she might have wanted to take me up there.

I used to practice my trumpet outside, typically pointing it down the hill toward Granny’s house.  She often told me that she liked to hear me playing.  That was all the encouragement I needed.  I kept doing it through the end of high school.

My first car was a 1983 Thunderbird (which my parents generously bought for me).  It was originally my uncle Steve’s car, purchased for him by my grandparents.  I loved that car.  It was a V8 and could MOVE.  When it came time to get another car for me, I sold the Thunderbird back to Granny and Grandpa.  I can’t remember if I ever thanked them for letting me keep it as long as I did.

Granny worked for years down at the Salado Galleries across from the Stagecoach Inn Restaurant.  I would visit her there from time to time, typically after some school- or church-related activity ended.  Truthfully, I was visiting to see if Susie Cosper was there, whom I had a fairly large crush on.  Oddly enough, my grandmother approved of the match, and never failed to remind me of the fact anytime Susie’s name came up in conversation.  Still, it was Granny from whom I bought stuff there, most notably the fireballs (hard cinnamon candy).  For the record, hard candy was a big winner for Granny.  Brach’s butterscotches were some of her (and my) favorites.

Good grief, I haven’t mentioned food yet, or if I have, I haven’t given it nearly enough emphasis.  Granny was a tremendous cook.  Every holiday would find her slaving away in her kitchen, preparing feasts fit for royalty.  Everything that was worth making was worth making from scratch, and typically without the guidance of an actual recipe.  She simply knew how to make all of the foods she liked.  She made especially fine pies, of which lemon and chocolate were my favorite.  Each pie was topped with lightly browned but exquisitely fluffy meringue.  They were, in a word, delicious.

One quick aside about pies… one of my favorite stories from my grandparent’s early marriage involved pie.  My grandfather was ornery and a constant (but good-natured) teaser of my grandmother.  One time she had made a pie for him that she genuinely wasn’t sure about with regard to taste.  She asked him whether or not it was good.  He replied that it would have been perfect if it had had just had a bit more ketchup.  She promptly grabbed the ketchup bottle off the table and proceeded to dump a load onto the piece of pie my grandfather was consuming.  He ate the rest of it in silence.  Every.  Last.  Crumb.

Granny always claimed that the ketchup incident was an accident, that the cap must’ve been left loose on the last use.  I have my doubts.  I’ve often wondered if he was scared of her at that point or not…

Granny was, in many ways, one of the wisest people I’ve ever known.  She was a pretty good judge of character.  She warned me about associating with certain people and encouraged me to associate with others.  She gave advice regarding what I should study in college (and where I should go to college).  She always claimed credit for me getting into computers, although I’m pretty certain that credit has to be shared with a lot of people.  Some of her advice I took, other bits I discarded.  I think she was right far more often than not, and I would be a better person if I’d been better at swallowing my pride earlier in life and heeded her wisdom more often.

She was also pretty smart.  She did sums in her head faster and more accurately than I ever could.  She did crossword puzzles practically every day of her life when given the opportunity.  She had an opinion on everything, although she often qualified it with “well, I don’t know…” just prior to launching into everything that she knew or felt on whatever the subject was.  She claimed to not be smart; I never really understood why, because she obviously was.  It’s possible that my grandfather was a genius, and perhaps she compared herself to him.  In any case, she was smart, and I enjoyed our conversations on pretty much anything, even when we disagreed.

Granny had beautiful handwriting.  I wish I had letters or even Christmas cards with her script in them.  I’m hoping that my mom does.

My grandmother was not an overly or overtly spiritual person.  We had a couple of talks about it.  My grandfather was a flat-out atheist.  He’d seen too many horrors in life to allow him to believe in a personal, benevolent, loving, caring, or even just god of any kind.  Granny, on the other hand, felt like there was something greater than us, although maybe not in a personal sense.  I can only recall her attending church with us a handful of times at most.  I think the idea of organized religion rubbed her the wrong way, since she saw the truth in most human-run institutions.  Still, she did believe that something happened after we shrugged off our mortal coils, and I’m glad she believed it.

After the passing of my grandfather eight years ago, the life seemed to slowly drain out of Granny as well.  She had lived for a long time as his caregiver, and I think she might’ve felt purposeless afterward.  In the course of about a year, she had gone from fairly active to almost immobile.  Her back had gotten into a state where she couldn’t straighten up comfortably.  She moved slower and slower.  She loathed the thought of being a burden of people, and told me so on more than one occasion.  I think the truth of the matter was that she despised not being self-sufficient, but didn’t have the will to regain that state after Grandpa died.

Her funeral will be on Tuesday at 10 a.m.  I’m not sure if the headstone will be there already or not, although I think it will.  I’m curious to see what it will say.  If it were up to me, I think I’d keep it simple, perhaps similar to what is on my grandfather’s:

Feb 4 1926
Sept 3 2015
Beloved Wife