09/8/19

Review of This is How You Lose the Time War

This is How You Lose the Time War is by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I would have put their names in the title, but it was already comically long, perhaps cosmically long, and the book was very short.

My TL;DR review: I give it a 9 out of 10, and I’m only detracting a point because it’s short and I wanted more. Buy this and put it in your brain immediately.

This is the fourth of my reviews, and I saved the best for last. In fact, I’ll give you the order in which you should read the books I’ve reviewed:

  1. This is How You Lose the Time War
  2. Wanderers
  3. Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard
  4. The Big Sheep

Honestly, you should probably read the next Barsk book before reading The Big Sheep. The 7/10 I gave it might have been too generous.

Let’s get to the actual review.

I enjoyed Time War so much that I listened to it all in one day. I started it in the morning on my way to work. It hooked me and stayed in my thoughts all day. I continued listening on the way home, then went straight to my garage, hooked my phone to the big speakers, and finished it.

The audio book is only 4 hours long, so it wasn’t difficult to consume it this way. But still… it satisfied me, and I wish I’d read it sooner.

I love the form of the story. It alternates between regular prose and epistolary, the adversaries referred to as Red and Blue writing to each other as they move through time, working to ensure that one timeline wins over the other. I think all that information is on the cover, so none of that should be a spoiler.

The prose is rich and beautiful. The character voices are clear and compelling. El-Mohtar and Gladstone worked to create a pitch-perfect, tight story. Emotionally satisfying and never boring. I highly recommend you read it.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

My spoilers will be pretty light, but they’re still spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, go do so and come back. I’d love to talk with you about this story.

Here we go…

I don’t think I have any real nitpicks. From the title alone, I knew time travel would be involved, so I knew that the final twist at the end would need to be some kind of causal or recursive play on the characters. That being said, even though the authors telegraphed it, they masked the twist with Red’s apparent death. They did this so well that I wondered if they were going full Romeo and Juliet.

The authors knew Time War bore a resemblance with Romeo and Juliet so they smartly hung a lantern on it. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, I believed the romance between Red and Blue. It happened organically and naturally over the course the novel, with each character giving and taking, crawling under the skin and into the heart of their rival.

Much of the beauty of the story is found within the small details. The description of a cup of tea. The unwinding of a note passed from one character to the other through the imperfections in the rings of a tree. The world building could be described as light, in that not a lot of time is spent explaining how the time travel works or what the ramifications of their time alterations look like.

In terms of the war, we’re told what the stakes are without really seeing them or even feeling them. Honestly, the war just becomes backdrop and window dressing. The real stakes are in the characters themselves, in how they’ll make their relationship work, or if they’ll make it work at all. From that perspective, the stakes are small, but because we fall in love with both characters, that doesn’t matter. I was invested in Red and Blue, so those were the stakes I cared about.

It’s an almost perfect little story that makes the absolute most of the form. El-Mohtar and Gladstone wrote something really special, and I expect to see it win awards.

09/7/19

Review: The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

After Wanderers, I needed something light. A palate cleanser, like a slice of ginger after a particularly strong piece of sushi. Michael Gallowglas sat across from me while I browsed Audible. He recommended Barsk, which I talked about last time. Audible’s recommendations came up with The Big Sheep, which I purchased at the same time as Barsk.

The title alone might have been enough to entice me. I read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep last year, and though it is a product of its time with its casual sexism and racism, I really enjoyed the noir setting and gritty feel. It felt like a black and white movie in book form.

The Big Sheep is obviously a play on the title of the Chandler book, but it doesn’t have much else in common with the older story. The Big Sheep is set in the not-too-distant future, with flying cars and parts of L.A. descended into urban chaos. The protagonist, Blake Fowler, is a junior partner to a Sherlock-esque private investigator named Erasmus Keane. Keane insists that he be called a “phenomenological inquisitor.” Where Chandler’s story defines hard-boiled, taking itself seriously from cover to cover, Kroese created an action comedy.

My TL;DR review: The Big Sheep is mostly light and fun, sometimes suffering from tonal dissonance. It’s a 7/10 for me. It’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I recommend reading it if you can do so without taking it too seriously.

SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT

I’m not going to go into too much in the way of spoilers, but still.

Also, I seem to keep my nitpicks for the spoiler section of all these reviews. Maybe that should be my warning? Oh well… you’ve been warned.

I mentioned tonal dissonance. The plot and the characters are painted with a bit of silliness, from the “phenomenological inquisitor” title to Keane duck-walking around a sheep near the beginning of the story and declaring that he’s measured the creature’s soul. Intermixed with the humor are scenes where the protagonist outright kills a couple of folks. During one scene in a park, to prove that he’s serious, Fowler shoots a bodyguard in the foot. It’s pretty well established at this point that the bodyguards in this book aren’t part of the larger plot. They’re basically bystanders trying to do their job.

The author overplayed the physical beauty of the damsel in distress, Priya Mistry, to the point that I think female readers might take issue with it. He doesn’t go so far as to describe her “breasting boobily” but it’s not far off, with Fowler being so dumbstruck by her that he can’t even hear what she’s saying when he looks at her. He has to spend an entire scene looking past her.

There is just a dash of passive sexism in this story, like an aftertaste from Chandler’s story. Only one woman has much in the way of agency, and that’s in the form of the main villain.

Like I said, it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I did have fun with the story. Kroese knew what story he was writing, and he did a good job. I didn’t have any problem with his craft, and it’s entirely possible I’m being overly critical around the feminist issues.

I wanted a lighter story, something I wouldn’t have to work that hard at, and this was exactly what I needed.

09/4/19

Review of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

After Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, I needed something a little bit less intense. I wanting something lighter, something I wouldn’t spend quite so much time thinking about. How about a book about anthropomorphic elephants written by the man that founded the Klingon Language Institute?

If I had to describe Barsk in one word, it would be “rich.” Maybe even “savory.” Some of that may have had to do with the voice of the narrator, J. G. Hertzler. His reading was unhurried, and his voice had a husky, grandfatherly quality to it.

Just as the story starts with an artist working at the height of their talent, carving an image into wood, Dr. Schoen crafted a fantastic story full of nuance and exquisite payoff to each piece he sets up. On the surface, the description of the story sounds silly, and while there are moments of humor spread throughout the book, this is a serious story. Dr. Schoen didn’t cheat.

I wish I’d read this story sooner. Going in, I wanted a story I wouldn’t have to think about so much. In that respect, I did not get what I wanted, since I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this story since finishing it.

TL;DR — This is a fantastic book, and I recommend you read it. If I had to score it, I’d give it a 9/10.

I’m about to go into some plot points which may contain spoilers. If you have not read this book yet, this is a good time to close the tab.

SOME SPOILERS BELOW

Last warning. Don’t read below unless you’ve read the book.

Here we go…

There’s a lot going on in this book. The world building is both wide and deep. We see the relationship between the Fant of Barsk and the other hominid species of the rest of the galaxy. We also see how the Fant culture works on its own in how it treats Pizlo, my favorite character in the whole story. We’re treated to the spirituality, the politics, and the relationships of this world without heavy-handed exposition. It’s all woven into the story with a deft hand.

I admire Dr. Schoen’s patience. Early on, we find out that Jorl’s best friend, Pizlo’s father, committed suicide. We find this out when Jorl speaks to his friend’s ghost. It sets up the question: why would he do it? What could be so bad that this individual would take his own life, leaving behind his wife and child? By the end, we get the answer, and it is surprisingly satisfying.

All of the pieces fit together so nicely, sliding into place as the story unfolds, intricate as clockwork. But the writing itself isn’t dry. Questions are planted and answers are revealed naturally. Characters behave consistently, and they drive the plot.

The only thing that might detract from the story is the amount of alien terminology that the reader must pick up and discern. There’s quite a bit, and it made me nervous at the beginning. It’s not beyond reason, however, and it’s appropriate for this type of story.

Barsk isn’t afraid to go to dark places. At one point, dozens of older Fant are burned alive. One of these is a POV character. It is a dark scene, but it is not bleak. Dr. Schoen doesn’t cheat, but he’s not cruel to the reader.

This is a good one. I’m really glad I read it.

09/3/19

Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

I listened to Wanderers on audio, and now I want to talk about it. The first part of this review will be light and spoiler free. During the second half, I’m going to go deep into some of the details. I’ll make it clear when I’m about to get into spoilers, so if you haven’t read this story yet, abandon this post at that point.

I’ll start with the TL;DR — Wanderers is great, and you should absolutely read it.

Chuck is a great writer, and if you’re familiar with his voice, it comes through strong and clear in this book. His descriptions are stellar. While other people might praise the strong characterizations and the intricate plot, I want to impress upon you that Chuck’s mastery of the craft is on full display in Wanderers.

I enjoyed the book so much that I bought the hard cover to give to Melissa to read. I bought the book twice. It’s that good.

From this point forward, I’m going to go into greater and greater details of the book. If you want to go into this story as blind as possible, this is where you should close this tab. If, on the other hand, you’ve read the story and you want to talk about it as much as I do, read on! Let’s have a discussion.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Are you still here? If you haven’t read the book yet, get out of here.

Okay. Let’s get into the meat.

Some of what I’m about to say is going to sound a little bit negative. The book is really good, though. Good enough for me to buy it twice and open this review with glowing praise. It’s not perfect, however, and while sometimes the beauty can be found in the flaws, other times, the problems are the gristle that gets stuck in your teeth, lingering with you long after the meal is done.

The story begins on a farm, following a teenage girl named Shana that has just a little bit too much on her plate even before the story fully begins. Chuck’s storytelling really shines here, succinctly giving us Shana’s world and her family dynamic in a way that doesn’t feel expository. We get her voice, her dilemmas, and a feel for the core of her character, which is what drives her to walk with the flock and become a shepherd.

Let’s talk about the sleepwalkers. From the beginning, they fascinated me. Their impenetrable skin and their ability move continuously without eating or sleeping stood out. Zombie imagery is offset by the quirks of their physiology, such as violently exploding when their progress impeded.

That brings me to one of the flaws. A good deal of time is spent making the reader aware of these extremely unusual qualities. They seem supernatural, but the book goes out of the way to present a world of science and reason. All the characters that are part of the CDC are presenting in a convincing fashion, with terminology and approaches that ring true. It felt to me that a promise was made in giving a rational explanation for everything that takes place in the story, but I found the explanation for the sleepwalkers to be unsatisfying.

Nanobots do not explain how the sleepwalkers are able to continue walking for months and months without sleep or calories. Nanobots aren’t capable of keeping eyeballs from drying out. They can’t make skin impenetrable to needles. It’s a point that most readers aren’t going to stumble over, but after doing such a great job of presenting a rational, scientifically sound premise, this part of the story fell a little flat to me.

The world’s authentic reaction to the walkers was pitch perfect. Chuck depicted the slow, painful collapse of society in a very believable fashion.

The fully realized characters leaped off the page with strong voices, believable motivations, and distinct personalities. I cared about them. I didn’t always like them, but that’s part of what made them so real.

I need to talk about a scene that really bothered me. If I were going to give this book a rating between 1 and 10, I’d give it an 8. If not for this one part, I’d easily give it a 9 or 10. But this scene…

To properly frame it, I need to talk about two characters: Benji and Matthew. I related to both characters as men of science and faith. The science aspect played out more strongly with Benji, and the faith more with Matthew, but they individually embodied both. I projected myself into both characters and enjoyed the ride through their eyes.

In terms of conviction and force of personality, Matthew was the weaker of the two. I kept wanting him to steel himself and rise above the temptations placed at his feet. I looked forward to him doing right by his faith and his family.

I did not expect him to get raped by Ozark Stover.

This is the one thing that kept me from fully enjoying the book. Whatever flaws I mentioned regarding the nanobots, I could look past. But the rape? It bothered me. I couldn’t see a reason for it, other than shock value. It happened without warning.

If Chuck hadn’t done such a good job with the rest of the story up to that point, I would have stopped without finishing. I did stop listening for a couple of days. Then I returned and pushed forward. After that, I needed Chuck to deliver a narrative that justified that kind of unexpected and brutal content. I needed Chuck to stick the landing.

Did he? Well…

If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you might be familiar with his Heirloom Apple reviews. I certainly love them. The rape scene for me was like biting into a crisp, delicious apple, juice running down my chin, then looking down to find half a worm nestled in the fruit’s white flesh. Does it matter how delicious the apple is after that bite?

But… it was good. The ending was good. To me, not great. Probably shocking to some readers, but after the rape scene, my senses were dulled and I wound up fixating on little things that didn’t make a lot of sense if scrutinized too closely.

I think Wanderers is great. I recommend people read it. It’s a magnificent piece comparable to The Stand. My own feelings about the use of a rape scene for shock value aside, it is the product of a masterful writer working at the top of his game.

09/2/19

A Very Productive Summer

I haven’t posted anything here for a couple of months, and the last one went really long. Anxiousness drove me to dump everything on my mind into a long screed full of good information that basically no one read.

I’m not doing that this time. In fact, I promise not to talk about politics for at least another three or four posts… unless something monumental happens. My next few planned entries here will be book reviews.

For the last couple of months, I’ve stayed too busy to blog. My schedule consisted of getting up, going to work, coming home or going to a coffee shop to edit, then repeat the next day. I made my life boring in order to make it as productive as I dared.

I finished the second draft of Spin City. 100,000 words edited twice in a little more than 6 weeks.

That level of productivity left little time for anything else. I didn’t practice my sax. I didn’t play any games. I spent a few nights goofing off in order to maintain my sanity, but otherwise, I kept my head down and pushed forward.

This weekend, I wrote a query letter and enlisted help from some of my writing friends. A few provided insight into how I could tighten the query up and be more specific about the stakes and plot. Some simply offered emotional support. I needed all of it. Even though I hate writing query letters, I think this is a good one.

We’ve reached September and the summer is winding down. Here is what I wish to accomplish over the next several months:

  • Enjoy the 2019 Writing Excuses Cruise, starting in just a couple of weeks!
  • Finish the first draft of Synthetic Dreams, my post-apocalyptic SciFi about artificial intelligences as the last children of mankind
  • Write a short story for a Crisis at the Border anthology, a book intended to raise funds for charities helping the separated kids at our southern border
  • Write a handful of book reviews (hopefully to be posted this week)
  • Blog-tober 2019
  • For Nanowrimo, I’m going to try and write A Clean Slate, the fantasy novel I failed to complete the first time I attempted Nanowrimo.
  • Possibly go to World Fantasy, since it’s geographically close this year
  • Finish reading and studying M. Todd Gallowglass’s Dead Weight series
  • Write a novelette within the Dead Weight I.P., to be published by Heads and Tails publishing
  • Determine my convention schedule for 2020

Soon, The Goldilocks Zone from Flying Ketchup Press should be out, which includes my short story “Unclaimed Goods.” To say that I’m excited to see it is an understatement. My story will have an illustration! My story will be in PRINT! I’ve been holding onto an expensive bottle of Scotch for when I receive incredible publishing news. If this doesn’t qualify, it comes very close.

I’ve made sacrifices to advance my writing career, and I’m starting to see results. I just have to keep pushing!