Friday, October 22, 2021

Reading Summary (September-late October)

I usually read about 40 books a year. Last year, I managed only 34 books. (That's 24 fiction and 10 non-fiction). In 2021, however, I'm already far behind my usual numbers.

To date (and keep in mind the year is almost over!), I've read 10 fiction and 5 non-fiction books.

That's a bit sad, isn't it? I'm trying to pick up the pace in the last three months of the year and hope to at least finish ten more. (Actually I'm hoping to get to 35. But who knows.)

On the other hand, I've been writing a lot, so maybe that's taking some time out of my reading... time.

There are a few books I'd like to talk about in this blog post. They're still fresh in my mind and I have plenty of opinions on them.

1. Lost Connections by Johann Hari

if you struggle from any mental health issue, especially depression or anxiety, you need to read this. It's a story, like any other about mental health, but this is a story that made a huge impact on me. It seemed to help.

if you have read it, let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts (comments are open and free, as always!)


2. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

This is a bit of an older book. 1983 – that's older than I am! But it's the best book I've read so far this year (if you don't count my re-read of The Windup Girl, and even then, it's close.). I'm aware that many readers will call this book old-fashioned, sexist, or unnecessarily complicated, but I absolutely loved it. On goodreads, you'll find plenty of reviews complaining about the language, the prose, and how it's written 'ponderously'. Plenty of readers tossed it down for that reason and never picked it back up. But I? I absolutely loved it, despite the horrible clown. I just wished it hadn't ended so soon (she says, after almost 400 pages) and that there were a sequel. That's literally the only quarrel I have with the book (or rather, Tim Powers).

Other than that (and here is the point where I wish I had a few millions to convince Mr. Powers to write more in this universe), this book has everything. It's set in the past (mostly), deals with ancient sorcerers and magic, has a plucky female character, and a male main character who's just... trying his best even though he isn't really good at it. All he knows is poetry and poets, and the book is delightful in how it uses the character's particular knowledge and genius.

It popped so many chicken-vs-egg and grandfather paradox questions into my mind while reading, giving me food for thought, but it never slowed down enough for me to get bored. There's a werewolf (an ingenius combination of the usual trope and a dead Egyptian god), there's magic that doesn't work with stupid rules (such as wands) but feels magical and mysterious rather than a science project, and there's homunculi who are basically doppelgangers of people who exist. There's also other homunculi. And I love it.

I'm gonna say: You have to read this book. There's just so much delight and fun in it without it getting silly. I absolutely loved (ok, ok, we get it) and recommend it. I'll probably re-read, soon.

3. Howl's Moving Castle

This was supposed to be its own blog post. It might become one. But let me here note down some quick thoughts about HMC.

It was fun! It was silly, but the voice didn't annoy me, like it usually does. I listened to this in audiobook format and the only section I didn't like came in the middle of it. There's a part where Howl, the titular character, goes to 'a different world', but it felt strangely out of place and Narnia-ish to me. I was glad when this was over. It didn't really have much to do with the plot either. Why does the witch/demon want to go to this 'other world'? To catch Howl? But he's mostly not there. So yeah. That part didn't make too much sense.

HMC was a lovely light read. I'd definitely recommend it. The only issue is...

4. The Problem with Howl's Moving Castle (the film)

The movie made on the basis of the book doesn't make any sense whatsoever. It's Studio Ghibli, so what am I expecting in terms of plot? Not too much, but even so, HMC was a severe let-down.

Caveat: I did enjoy watching it. It was emotional. I'm a crier and so I cried. (I actually hid in the bedroom to watch it so I wouldn't get teased about this.) However... The plot made absolutely no sense.

*The main villain was just dumb- This is a witch called Sulliman. A royal witch (as in, in the service of the king). Apparently this witch started a war to get back something Howl had lost and make him realize 'the truth'. After telling the main character of the movie, Sophie, that she wanted to destroy Howl's powers and (possibly) kill him.

Ok? I'm all for the reversal- the villain did it because of loooove! But a royal advisor starting a devastating war just so she can help a single child? I mean, it can be seen as love, but it sounds borderline obsessive. The witch isn't even Howl's mother.

*Howl's firm (an admittedly cool-looking bird) is never linked to anything... but apparently he is a 'monster' because of it. I don't... buy it? I'm thinking this was set up to imply Sophie loves Howl despite him being a 'monster'... but he isn't really a monster and doesn't act like it. He'd a kind dude. Who is apparently part bird. What's wrong with that?

*Howl is perfectly friendly and very kind. He's not even vain or in any way as cruel as in the book. Despite that, the film insists he has no heart (physically), and it repeatedly hints at Howl's heart being important for... something. This something is not explained, nor is it explained what will happen to him if he doesn't regain his heart, or what will happen when/if his heart is returned. Him lacking a heart is just thrown out there without reason or rhyme, labeled as a 'bad thing' without any consequences shown or any other plot related to it. In the end, he does get his heart back, of course, but this doesn't seem to change him all that much either or has any effect on the plot.

*Unlike in the book, there is also no explanation about Howl's pact with Calcifer (who was admittedly the almost-best character in the movie and book). The movie shows us briefly how the pact was made to explain why Howl has no hear (he gave it to Calcifer) but no reason for this generosity is named and Calcifer doesn't seem to be evil (implying something baaad will happen if he keeps Howl's heart). In the book, of course, Howl saved Calcifer by giving him his heart and Sophie is able to keep them both alive when she returns Howl's heart to howl. In the movie, however, none of this is explained and Sophie doesn't even seem to have magic.

Ugh.

*The best character of the whole movie was the Witch of the Waste. As much as I love Calcifer and the fact that, while the others are animated and drawn cute-ly, he's just a flame with googly eyes, hands down, the Witch of the Waste was the better character. The Witch, unlike all the other characters, has a single purpose: She wants to have Howl's heart. She was in love with him once and he with her. She wants to have his heart again.

Her goal, her entire raison d'etre is to get back Howl's heart. This is what she does throughout the movie, the consistent goal that thrives her to do bad things, such as turning Sophie into an old woman, such as setting her goons on the hunt for Howl. In the end, she realizes, even when her memory seems to have been half-wiped by Sulliman, that Calcifer has Howl's heart. The Witch is willing to kill Calcifer to get it... and she succeeds, at least at stealing it. Then, however, as she watches Sophie's pain and grief, her fight to save Howl, she is moved. She hands Howl's heart over to Sophie.

Isn't that great character development? The Witch, a caricature of the character she is in the book, turns from 'his heart is mine' and being willing to murder for it to 'here you go, dear' when she realizes Sophie loves Howl more/differently than she ever did/could. She is willing to surrender her goal, the reason she fought so hard, because she has been moved by Sophie's kindness. She, who was, if not the villain then at least an antagonist, changes, and she is the almost only character who does. (The dog, Hine, changes too, from his loyalty to Sulliman to a loyalty to Sophie and her found family. However, I'd argue that the Witch's change is the most profound in the movie.)

Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer, on the other hand, all stay the same throughout the movie. Nothing changes in their character.

I'm not sure if it'd be silly, here, to argue that the Witch is the real heroine of the story, at least in the movie, but I definitely feel like she was more heroic than either of the other characters (safe perhaps Howl) in the end.

 

 

The other books I've read the last month and a half are a bit easier to judge:

1. House of Hollow: I read this for the Fantastic Fiction Book Club as October's read. I'd definitely say it was okay. The story wasn't super unique and nothing special (I've read better changeling literature), but the plot was decent, the characters entertaining, the narrative tightly written and always full of mystery and intrigue. I liked the book, but I wasn't super impressed by it. It seemed derivative, using a lot of common tropes, and the main character was annoyingly powerless most of the time. I kind of wanted the villain to win. He had real motivation and seemed to be the only character with a clear and realistic goal. A small spoiler: The villain is the main character's father. The main character's mother on the other hand was hysterical and... I really cannot emphasize with her at all. Her children were killed... and she forgives their killer and invites her into the family? Oh-kay? I get that grief does weird things to people. But really?

2. This is How you Lose the Time War: What complete bull-shit. I've heard tons of good opinions on this one and was curious what the hype was about. People seemed to praise it left right and center. Then I got into it.

And what absolute crap it was!

I get it, I get it, it has so much purple prose the plot almost drowned, which some readers might find beautiful. It has imaginative imagery and imaginative settings (although most of that is literally just taken from historical moments) and it just oozes... something. I'm not even sure what. It just oozes.

It's supposed to be a love story (I guess?) but despite the characters playing with each other and circling each other for millennia (through space and time, nonetheless), none of this is ever shown. I don't understand why Red likes Blue and vice versa. I didn't see them play, didn't see them circle one another, didn't see the challenges that placed them together and took them apart. It's a kind of Romeo and Juliet- The two main characters are from different 'factions'- but written in a way that absolutely doesn't work. I'm not sure what readers are drunk on these days. The whole 'exchange of letters' the book is based on is absolutely garbage and definitely not emotional enough to be considered a love story.

It reads more like something where the concept became more important than the story. The concept, a huge war between factions across space and time, whose outcome is never explained so hard to care about, and changing history to suit one faction over another, sounds like fun. It's a very complex and interesting concept. But except for a few scenes in which the main characters hide a note to each other, we're not shown the time war, not explained how it works, what the end goal is (beyond one side winning over the other, as in every war), and there seem to be no stakes for the outcome that make the love story 'tragic' (as the writers intended).

The characters, too, are bland, and if the names hadn't been evident in their correspondence with one another I'd not have been able to distinguish who sent which letter. They're this similar, and this bland. Their alleged character traits (Red being bold and very direct in her approach to battle whereas Blue is more mellow, smart, the poisoner rather than the warrior) don't come through in any of the scenes. The hiding places of their messages have no distinct qualities to them that make you instantly know who hid which message.

The ending was wrapped up neatly- I could believe that Red might save Blue the way she did- and set up meticulously. However, the other ending, the one where they communicate again with one another, was just as stupid as the rest.

Am I supposed to believe that two people who never touched and barely caught any glimpses of one another across time and space can actually feel enough love toward one another to sacrifice themselves entirely? That screams teenage LDR fantasy to me. (And that's coming from someone who's met almost all of her friends and previous partners in online settings and games.)

In short, I don't buy it. The prose was too purple, the story unnecessarily convoluted, the setting much too whimsical to allow for any real feelings to grow.

3. Dune (Movie):

I know the movie isn't out yet in the US- so proceed with caution if you don't want to be spoilered. I'm going to keep plot spoilers to myself despite the age of the book but there will be some general rants about Chosen Ones, visions, and prophecy.

First of all, it's clear from the beginning of the movie that a few things will happen:

Paul is the Chosen One (TM).

Paul will master 'the Voice'. (Is this a Star Wars rip off?)

The girl in his vision won't kill him- even though it looks like it where conveniently the vision cuts off!

They will kiss (confirmed in later scenes by another vision).

Paul will kill/incapacitate/overthrow the emperor.

The villains are all Star Wars villains- old men in hoods and robes- but fat.

I cannot take the Baron seriously. He literally floats like a fucking balloon! He even bounces.

All that out of the way, the movie was enjoyable, the graphics and CGI super neat. I love the desert atmosphere, the great spaceships coming down, the battle scenes. I love all of that for its visual aspect. It's just so fun to watch! The space ships are designed absolutely wonderfully (I love the square black ship hovering over the desert city in one scene), as is the desert city, as are the enormous sandworms (although sandworms have looked the same for ages) and the tech they wear/use.

The one problem I had with the movie was... women. There are none. Almost none. All the warriors of Paul's family are men, the army is male-only, and women feature very lightly in any battle scene. I remember one female warrior, a spear-woman, but she's shown for a fraction of a second and then disappears (dies).

The other females are this:

1. Paul's mother: I have to admit she's great. There is femininity and vulnerability to her, she's the member of some ancient secret nun clan, and she's immensely powerful. Her control of the force Voice is great (and absolutely awesomely portrayed in the movie) and she is a physical fighter as well. She can hold her own, and she does, when threatened. She's also vulnerable and able to cry when bad things happen to her. Solid 10/10 character with the one caveat that she's still very attached to her not-even-husband and it feels a bit cringey in some moments.

2. Dr. Kynes. This character is supposed to be 'cool'. Very aloof and 'hands-off'. Roguish with a heart of gold. Yada yada. You get the stereotype. Mystical woman saves Paul and his mother and is generally 'badass'. There isn't much more to her than that. I suppose she'll become a mentor to Paul or something in the future.

That's in terms of the main characters of the first movie. And before you jump down my throat there these two more: love interest mysterious desert girl and old woman cult leader nun. They're... just your standard token woman character fare. Paul needs a love interest, of course, and of course she has to be the mysterious desert girl of his visions! The cult leader nun doesn't have much of a role or anything else (I don't get the box test in the beginning- what was this even for?) so I'm not going to elaborate on her. There's really nothing to elaborate about.

In summary, then, there's only really one female character with impact: Paul's mother Jessica.

The rest of the characters are male. The advisors to the house are male: The army-leader-general (?) dude as well as the fat spymaster dude. Also the dude (Duncan Idahoe) who is some sort of fighter person and used to be Paul's teacher (I'm gonna need to call him Obi Wan even though he looks more like Quigon Jin).

The villains are of course all male too. There isn't a single woman (except the extras with their shaven heads- but I'd call those androgynous rather than female.) in the opposing house or anywhere else in the empire's ranks.

That being said, you can throw at me the usual 'but it's an old book' or 'but we must stick to be book'... but really, we mustn't. Dune, the movie, could have chosen a more progressive path while keeping all the tropes intact. Duncan Idahoe is the character that instantly comes to mind who could have been a woman. As could have both of the advisors. As could, actually, have Paul's father. Or, the villains. Rabban could have been a woman. The emperor could be an empress. There is no reason that we had to watch this dick-fest for two hours and the women had marginal roles only.

Listen, Paul's father at some says to Jessica, the cool mother, 'I should have married you' and all I could think was: What in the ever-loving hell? I get it, he's the one who makes the decisions, but really? This felt so denigrating to hear that it turned my stomach.

I'm finding it difficult to put into words why. I get that they love one another, and there's nothing wrong with that, and there would have been nothing wrong with them being husband and wife either (in fact, the mention that they're not is jarring, as it has no bearing on the plot and no one cares whether they're married or just together because.). However, the fact that he tells her HE should have married HER, as opposed to 'We should have married' or 'I would have liked to be married' or something that doesn't make it seem like he is the only one who gets to make that decision would have been... just great. This is why Jessica is a 10/10 with a caveat. How can this powerful woman let herself be treated like that?

Anyway, again, a lot of people will probably have some sort of argument along the lines of 'But that's how it was in the book'. And I ask you back: So what? The book is old. The book was written when stuff like that was... not acceptable, but still widely practised. These days, it's all about equality, about eradicating sexism, and the film had such a great chance to do that.

So why didn't they? Why isn't Duncan a cool warrior woman? Why isn't Rabban an angry, evil niece? Why is Paul's father a sexist asshole?

These issues really didn't have to exist. The book might have been out of date in social regards, but the film didn't need to be. And still it is.

So, isn't Hollywood trying to become more diverse? Isn't sexism an issue, everywhere? As a woman, the film disappoints me, and it's not because of the hundreds of tropes and the tired old stereotypes it is full of. It's because there's almost no representation of an actual woman in a cast of around 20 actors. There's one. 1/20. As a society, is that the rate of inclusion we're going for?

I've social anxiety and problems with society enough not to want to be part of it in many regards, but this just makes me want to not be part of it at all.

 End Rant.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tally: 2020 writing (and other) progress

 It's that time of the year when we're all making our new year's resolutions and some of us are tallying up what we did in 2020 to see whether we're happy with it. (ok, fine, it's actually a week or two after that time of the year, but what can I say? I had to perfect my Lebkuchen and Challah habits before anything else).


Things I did in 2020 that weren't very productive:

* fudge around too much with old stories (seriously. I'm trying to ONCE AGAIN edit my first ever novel series and I wrote that in 2015 so... probably not the best idea to re-paint something you did as a child).

There were probably a lot more but I don't tend to dwell on stuff that doesn't go well.


Things that did go well in 2020:

* My Master's degree from the University of Glasgow. There were some disappointing things about the program (about half of the lectures we paid for cancelled due to strikes and some would have been cheaper if I just googled) but there were good things as well. I wrote a story I'm quite proud of. It's good. I like it. I even had it edited by Justina Robson and handed it in as my Master thesis. This was good. I would not have written this story without the program. The idea came to me there and I ran with it because it was rad.


* hiked all across the Southern German Alps. I mean, I live in the Netherlands and travel was shut down for a lot of the year, so I went into the mountains where I was (mostly) alone and no one could get hurt from my germs. This was when it was ok to travel during the summer months.

Do you think there's actually a path in the picture below? BECAUSE THERE IS A FUDGING PATH. It just means your behind is sticking out over a 3000m drop while you climb!

*wrote some more short stories I like. The total number is 4. I am not finished editing all of them yet though. They'll still count as 2020 works when they're done.

The one I did finish is called 'When the Moon Was Still Young' and it's about a book mage who travels through different dimensions to collect/help/aid strange beasts. I really enjoyed the character and his assistant. The story is written by the assistant. I even (poorly) drew one of the beasts he encounters - a ghostly octopus-human maid!

 (Let's not talk about her enormous head though. Please let's not.)


* I queried 1 story (When the Moon Was Still Young actually) to a magazine in 2020

This is worse than 2018 (9 queries) and better than the 0 of 2019. (I suppose getting a new day job did that.) I've already queried 6 in the last few days so I'm off to a good start.

 

* I'm on track with my fitness regimen.

I started squats at 15kg and can now do 50kg.

Deadlifts ~20kg to now 50kg. 

Pullups are difficult to measure. I'm doing differently every day. I started at around 2-3 (which left me absolutely unable to do any for the next three weeks) and can now do 3-5 almost daily. Closer to 3 if I do them daily. Closer to 5 if I wait half a week and don't do any other lifts (pushups) in the meantime.

Pushups have seen great growth. I'm proud of this. I used to not be able to do ANY (ok maybe 2-3) in the beginning of the year. I can now regularly do ~14 difficult ones where my feet are up on the sofa/bed/other sofa. My max is 16 before collapse. I call that a win!

 

*I signed on buying a house. I'm not sure this is an achievement. I don't like the house that much in hindsight. However, there'll be a room just for me, so there's that.


I might edit this list once other things came to mind.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Recap: 2020 Reading List

 I read 50 books in 2018 and made a post that quite a few of you liked. This year I only managed 27 novels (37something books in total). I won't bore you with the bad ones (looking at you, Bone White) but here are the highlights!

 

 1+2. Those Above/Those Below by Daniel Polansky

I was surprised how much I liked these two books. It's a classic revolution overthrowing a fascist (-ish) government plot with a twist. The fascists are weird fantasy alien bird-people and we get to see a lot of things close to their point of view through one of their servants. They've basically created a utopian city that's not utopian for all of those who live on the lower levels. There's a grandma-aged heroine who's just so incredibly smart (tricky!) and snarky you have to enjoy her. The character who you start to hate early on dies in the second book. (Is that a spoiler? Eeehh...) The other characters seem well rounded and their whole lives don't revolve around the revolution. They're just people who live in the bird-people's utopian city and are drawn into the revolution (or not).

 

3. Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

 This was fun! I wasn't really much into the 'romance' plot because it felt mostly silly but the rest of the book was cool. There are some ancient alien whales which are super rad (I forgot their name but I still remember the super-cool concept!) and the imagery in the novel is quite good. It's all about stars and starlight and turns quite romantic while not being over the top or cheesy. 10/10. I already bought the second novel (Machine) and look forward to reading it soon.

(Side note: I liken this book to Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne. If you can only read one of them then go for Ancestral Night. Architects of Memory has nothing to do with either architects or memory and the 'plot' is very... let's say chaotic to be kind.)

 

4. The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt 

What can I say about Tim Pratt? As the other Axiom books The Forbidden Stars was FUN! Tim's imagination takes you places and a lot of his characters are great. The main character and her girlfriend are not really my thing (the main character's a meat-head and the girlfriend doesn't have any personality) but there's also two other characters who were absolutely awesome. One is a flying alien squid called Lantern, the other is Ashok, a cyborg engineer who's very fun. The ending of The Forbidden Stars wasn't my thing either. THE WHOLE SERIES HAS SO MUCH POTENTIAL I'M MAD TIM WANTS TO STOP AT THREE BOOKS. I get it. Tim probably wants to do other things and has other projects. But come on! A) It ended very inelegantly and B) The series could have been 20 books and I would have read every single one of them. The characters (even meat-head and no-personality) are so entertaining to read about!


5. Planetside by Michael Mammay

I absolutely loved this! It was so fun to read and the action great without being brain-dead. It helps that the main character is an older dude (think grandpa age) and not a young hot-headed (read: brainless) spud. There's some sinister experiments and explosions and soldiers fighting on an alien planet. What's not to like? I recommend you just buy it and read for yourself.


6. The Deep by Alma Katsu

This one was a good read. I didn't like it as much as The Hunger (by the same author) but it was well written and the plot tore me along on a magical journey. In terms of aquatic horror-ish it could have done better. There are books like Mira Grant's Into the Drowning Deep, The Swarm by Frank Schätzing, and The Fisherman by John Langan that use the water that surrounds the characters and out of which the horror comes much better. Heck, there is an absolutely brilliant short story I read last year which uses the water/ocean theme to a much better effect than The Deep (This might have been The Deep by Corissa Baker in Kat Rocha's Whispers of the Abyss but not entirely sure. I'll update once I've got it.). In The Deep the water was circumstantial rather anything else. There was no need to tie any of the plot to water/the ocean if we're going to be strictly honest. But ok, fun premise, good execution, and the characters don't wear layers of layers of plot armor, so that's refreshing as well.


7. The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Who hasn't sung the praises of this novella lately? It's short, it's thoughtful, the style is fresh. There's nothing more to be said. I liked all the characters (although the their/they pronoun used for a singular character still confuses me and it makes things more difficult read at times) and the story was... as you'd expect Neo-Chinese ancient mythology to be, full of magical realism, full of lovely imagery. 12/10 I liked it well enough to pre-order the next in the series (hopefully?), When the Tiger came Down from the Mountain, and I don't usually pre-order books.


8. An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner

Another novella, but vastly different from The Empress of Salt and Fortune. This one is sci-fi and deals with AI and AI's rights. I got sucked into it and read it in 1-2 hours. The ending jarred me a bit. It's not the fact of WHAT happened, but that there were no consequences and no segue out of the story. The ending was quite abrupt. Still would read and possibly re-read (another thing I generally don't do) 10/10.

 

9. Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

The series starts with Ninefox Gambit (read in 2019) and is kind of a space opera and kind of not. It has one POV for the most part (which can make it seem small) but a massive world. That world is great. It's amazing even if you don't understand half of what is going on because you're unfamiliar with the things the author is describing or your imagination fails. The spaceships are (semi?) sentient moths. The space stations (?) are castles with names such as 'Fortress of Scattered Needles'. I won't pretend I read it closely enough to be in any way able to describe what these things look like. I just used my imagination. The books are fast-paced and I just liked the trickery in them! Fun read.


There are some more that I liked but wasn't blown away by. They don't really warrant a whole paragraph so they get a honorary mention instead. These are:

Gamechanger by L.X. Beckett (Virtual reality overlaid across the real world. A kind of battle-royale situation inside the game and outside the main character's struggling with her infamous father and his drug habits. A decent read.)

And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (This was a novella and it was neither good nor bad. It didn't have much substance but was a futuristic 'slice of life' with a lot of action/detective-ery. I'm still going to read the author's other stuff when I'm in the mood.)

The Perfect Assassin by K.A. Doore (gay assassin's creeds in some sandy land. It was a fun read but I'd have loved a happier ending and didn't like the twist that much.)

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (eeeh... I've read better things but it was entertaining.)

Hold back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury (This one would have gotten a paragraph because it was quite a refreshing read. However, the ending was completely unwarranted and went against everything the rest of the story told. There was no sense in the novel ending the way it did.)

 

I'm looking forward to reading some follow-ups of the above the year. These two are on my reading list and already bought:

Machine by Elizabeth Bear

When the Tiger came Down from the Mountain by Nghi Vo 


How did your reading go in 2020? Leave a comment and all that. I'd love to hear what you enjoyed and let me know if you read some of the same books as I did!

Reading List 2021

 This year I'll attempt to read some books I've had on my reading list for a while. All titles are hyperlinks to Amazon.co.uk in case you want to check the books out yourself.


I'm starting with:

Eden by Tim Lebbon

 

The rest of the list as follows

Already purchased:

Machine by Elizabeth Bear

When the Tiger Came Down from the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

I'm especially stoked about this one too: The Walled City by Ryan Gaudin (who appears to be a woman despite the name???) 


Out of the Dark by David Weber and Into the Light (by the same) published 12. January

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Black Cranes by Nadia Bulkin (and others)

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected on Water by Zen Cho

Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill (The previous novel, Sea of Rust, was definitely worth the read!)

Beneath the World, a Sea by Chris Beckett (The cover is gorgeous, man...)

Edges by Linda Nagata

Otaku by Chris Kluwe

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

City of Bones by Martha Wells


In nonfiction:

Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth


I'm always looking for more recommendations on THE GOOD STUFF so let me know if you have any!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A short review of Ted Chiang's 'Exhalation'

Last week I read the short story collection 'Exhalation' by Ted Chiang. I'd heard about it somewhere, and bought it because I needed something new to read to stick with my target of 100 pages a day.

As a whole, the collection was great, each piece carefully crafted and all of the pieces fit together like a puzzle to create a comprehensive collection of science fiction that focused heavily on the person. Personal choice, personal freedom, personal development.

The collection spoke to me, because quite frankly these are topics I often struggle with. What does it matter if I act like a good person one day? If I do a good deed? I know I'm not infallible. I know I can hurt people and have done so in the past – both unintentionally and (to my great shame) intentionally. I'll probably do it again (hopefully not the latter). I often think that either way it won't matter in the end what my actions were throughout life. In the face of sometime-death I could just as well become a bad person and live an ok life. I could cheat my way through life and it would not matter in the end. There is no inherent benefit in being 'good' and I often feel like I've suffered enough due to (primarily) depression and OCD that it no longer matters how I act – that life will not improve whether I'm a good person or not.

But let's go back to Ted Chiang's 'Exhalation'.

There were some stories that left me largely unimpressed. Though perfectly executed and detailed like any other Ted Chaing story the titular story 'Exhalation' was one such. It's about entities that run on cogs and gears – 'clockwork' people is not entirely accurate but will suffice for the purpose of this post. They believe themselves immortal until one of them – a scientist – realizes that a) They will die at some point. And b) Their environment is turning hostile towards them because of their way of life.

In a way, the main character's seeking a way out, a way to survive beyond the melting of the sun, so to speak, but they know it is most likely hopeless and the most they can expect is to be found far in the future by a race of archaeologists who might be able to piece together the stories of their lives.

This story was obviously reflective of our own world. Though things work much differently for the clockwork people there's nonetheless an inherent warning relevant to our own world: Observe your environment and be careful of it. No one is immortal. We must find ways to mitigate the damage we're doing to our world and find a way to survive.

I get it. Take care of the environment. Chain yourself to a tree. Hug others. Reduce pollution.

On the other hand there were some stories in 'Exhalation' (the collection) that resonates with me more than the rest. Ted Chiang ponders the question of choice and free will in most of the pieces included. What does it mean to have free will? What does it mean to be able to make one's own decisions? Is there such a thing as fate, or can we actually influence the direction of our lives?

Ted offers arguments for both.

In one of his stories there is a machine called 'predictor'. It's a simple device of a single button and an LED light through which he illustrates how life's choices are predetermined. The LED light will only switch on if you press the button – you can wait endlessly for the light, but the light always follows your press of the button and the mechanism cannot be cheated.

In the rest of his stories however he turns around to argue entirely for the other side of the equation. In one story he grapples with the question whether God has a purpose for us and if He does then what does it mean? Do we lose our freedom of choice if He does? In another story he illuminates through the use of parallel lives how our choices will have an influence on us no matter whether they are good or bad. Do our choices truly matter when there's different parallel realities where we make the opposite choice? Ted argues they do. That every good deed has the potential to improve a person, and therefore improve a person's parallel realities going forward.

I'm not doing the story justice – You have to read it to understand.

The two stories that spoke to me the most were these:

'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate': This is the first story of the collection and the one that had the most emotional impact on me while reading it. The character's protagonist is a merchant of Baghdad who recounts his journey from the future into the past. In the past, he has committed a sin for which he has tried to atone all his life and which he has regretted since it happened. In the future, he is warned the past cannot be changed, but the merchant nonetheless wants to try his luck. The story illustrates wonderfully how one might observe the past, how one might have influenced one's own past from the future, but it makes clear there is only one fixed way forward. The same events will happen no matter how one tries to change the past. These in turn will make the future immutable as well.

There is something to be said for this story being too much of a denial of free will, but the part that impacted me was the simply fact that no matter what one's intentions are, the past cannot be altered. The past has happened. It cannot be changed.

The second story I still think about is called 'Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom'. This is the story mentioned above about parallel lives and whether it matters if in one branch of reality a person makes a bad choice or not. Ted argues here that each time a person chooses the 'bad' course of action, the person sets themselves up for future 'bad' choices. On contrary, if the person chooses the 'good' path, then they are more likely to do the same in the future as well.

This resonates with me because it reminds me of that old saying 'a thousand drops'. A thousand drops, no matter how small, form a puddle, then a lake, then an ocean (Ok, this might be exaggerated, but bear with me.). It means to me that each time we choose to be 'good' people, the urge to choose 'good' again when we're at the next crossroads increases. It means that no matter who we were in the past and what bad deeds we might have allowed ourselves to commit, we can still change whenever we choose to. All decisions are choices. In a way, you can remake yourself simply by doing a small good thing and letting it spiral into more and more goods things over time.

Though both stories can feel a bit on the nose (and in fact most of Ted Chiang's stories in this volume do) there is a clear message I liked: The past has already happened. It cannot be changed. The train has left. The only course of action anyone can take is to look towards the future and decide what kind of person one wants to be.

How will you decide? Will you put your chewing gum in the bin or simply spit it out? Will you help when you see someone in need on the way home or will you tell yourself 'the next person coming by can help' - I'm busy. Will you speak kindly with your loved ones even when you're angry enough your head seems about to explode? Or will you explode on them just to get some relief?

Good choices aren't always easy, but I believe they are definitely worth it. So tell me in the comments below – What good choices are you making to change your life?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

#PenPower Myth Debunk #8: Writing has to be scary and difficult!

This week's post is a bit later than usual. Apologies! I've had to hand in several assignments and hit plenty of deadlines this week and a lot of my time simply disappeared. Yes. All of the above are excuses for poor planning... but here is the post! I hope you enjoy it.

As I mentioned last week this one is a bit special. We've been looking at all the scary things in writing so long that I thought for the last post it might be really interesting to see: Why do writers write when it all seems so difficult? Why make the effort and put in the time?

So this week's question is this:

What about the writing/editing process do you enjoy the most?


ADRIAN: The freer I can be in creating, the better. Those parts of my writing where I really get to explore the world, to show new perspectives and vistas, are definitely my favourite, even though they can also be the most challenging. The sections from the PoV of non-humans in Children of Ruin almost broke my brain, but they are definitely favourites. I am also a sucker for the big emotional scene – the chase, the fight, the doomed charge into the teeth of the cannon. There are definite scenes I’ve written that still carry a huge emotional weight for me, and hopefully some of that transfers to my readers.



SUE: I like editing the most, and that’s because I have something tangible that I can work with. I can fix any problem, but first I have to have a problem to fix.










ANNA: I love the feeling of seeing characters and settings come to life on the page. I love it when I really nail a scene - an interaction, a piece of action, a setting - and it feels immediately real and visible. It's a great feeling when the image in my head matches the one on the page. That can also come with editing; being asked to trim a certain scene, particularly a favourite scene, can be hard, but it's a bit like sculpting - all of a sudden the true image emerges from the surrounding detritus and what I was trying to say all along is still there, it's just much better.

And I love being taken by surprise by my subconscious!


YOON: Honestly, the planning is the most fun. Actually writing is kind of a chore because it goes on foreeeeeeever, and then revisions become fun again. Kind of like a sandwich? I like twisty chess plots, which are hard to pull off, so that aspect of Raven Stratagem was particularly satisfying.







CAITLIN: I think my favorite part is the first draft. Seeing how the characters interact with each other (it's not always how I predict when I first start writing), how my brain starts riffing on my original plans, figuring out the shape of the story. In The Luminous Dead, getting to the crunchy meaty bits about Em and Gyre's similarities (and how much they hated seeing those) was an absolute joy. Getting those scenes exactly right usually takes several editing passes that are totally agony, but getting the main ingredients down in the first place is just... fun.




THORAIYA: Like a woodworker who has to build their own chessboard and carve their own pieces before they can play with them, I definitely enjoy writing big emotional or action climaxes more than I enjoy setting up the board. It’s sad when you leave the game, too. That’s why, in every trilogy, whether to write or read, my favourite is book two.







EOWYN: It's hard to explain but there are certain moments in writing and revising when a sentence or a plot element will just appear to me, and it's as if it's part of me and has always been there, and when I click it into place, the whole thing shines in a new way that I couldn't have imagined before but feels perfect now. Those are the rare moments I live for as a writer.






RICH: That’s like asking whether I’d rather be poked in the eye or slapped around the head. I don’t enjoy any of the process, I find it extremely difficult, so you might ask why I do it in the first place? And I guess it’s more of a compulsion than anything. The burning need to create your story and get it on paper for others to read. Add to that the feeling when you receive your first print copies and smell that ‘new book’ smell! There’s nothing like it (just have a look at some author unboxings on YouTube).
Saying that, I did enjoy writing a diverse cast of characters in the Steelhaven books. I enjoyed inhabiting their heads and learning about them as I went (despite already knowing what they’d do, if that makes sense) – I liked Merrick’s witty irreverence, I liked Nobul’s brutal desperation, I liked Rag’s impulsive cunning, I liked Waylian’s unexpected bravery. Despite the hard work, despite the monotony of grinding out that first draft, particularly when times were almost unbearable, it was an experience I cherish. Go figure!

TIM: I like drafting, seeing and hearing the story unfold in my mind and documenting it as well as I can on the page. The romance was great! I had different favorite parts in all the [Axiom] books. In the Wrong Stars, Elena's confrontation with Sebastien near the end was great, and Callie growing to trust Lantern too. In the Dreaming Stars, all the virtual world stuff was a blast, and their rescue of Q, and the simulation scenes where Sebastien tries to murder everyone. In the Forbidden Stars, Callie's assault on the prison/lab on the planet was super fun, and every scene Kaustikos was in (scene-stealing little jerk). Also, of course, every single time I got to write Ashok, because Ashok is a character who writes himself.

MARTHA: I like the final stages of revision, where I already have the story down and I’m just polishing and figuring out how to really focus in on the important points. Nothing about writing Murderbot is easy, but I think my favorite parts are when I figure out a scene and know it’s right, and it’s just a matter of polishing it.







JOHN: There's something wonderful about the act of creation, about seeing what's inside you expanding onto the page.  There's something strange and beautiful and a little scary about walking around feeling that you're as much in what you're writing as you are in the world around you.






KAT: My favorite part about editing Whispers from the Abyss was reading all of the submissions. True, sometimes it was a bit of a slog but often the stories were entertaining on one level or another. I also was on the ground floor to be exposed to awesome authors I may never have heard about before.








What a great set of answers to end on! As much as we may sometimes be afraid or worried about our progress it seems writing isn't just sweat and hardship! There are many enjoyable things about the writing process as well, whether you enjoy the puzzle of the edit or the many many pathways you can take from an empty page.

As a last call to action to all readers: What do you enjoy the most when you're working a new project? What makes you get up and do it again and again even if one of them doesn't work out? Leave a comment below!

I sincerely hope you enjoyed this series.

It's been great to work with the authors and editor and get to ask questions! They've been very generous with their time and their answers. A huge thank you to all of them! (In no particular order...)

Sue Burke
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Anna Stephens
Eowyn Ivey
Thoraiya Dyer
John Langan

Martha Wells
Caitlin Starling
Yoon Ha Lee
Rich Ford
Tim Pratt
Kat Rocha

and you the reader!