Short Book Reviews: July 2021

My wife’s been out of town most of this past month (helping her mother recover from cataract surgery), so I’ve been leaning on books (and friends!) more to keep me sane company.

As ever, I’ve listed the books in reverse order, with the one I read most recently listed first.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

Not what I expected at all. I’d hoped for a thorough, wide-ranging, history of Central Asia. What I got instead was a history of Europe, told from the perspective of how events in Central and East Asia impacted Europeans.

So…not the kind of thing you can really use as research material for a novel set in the Central Asian steppes, as I’d wanted 😬

But once I got over my expectations, I settled in for what turned out to be a very enjoyable, very readable history. It’s lopsided, in that he spends only about 1/3 of the book on the vast majority of human history (everything before 1800, that is), and spends a lot of time in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even so, it’s a good corrective to our usual look at the past six hundred years. Especially when it comes to the “rise” of Europe, Frankopan deftly illustrates how the real story was the theft of vast sums from the Americas and Africa to Europe, which was then funneled to Asia to obtain spices, silk, paper, etc etc. The “normal” situation for the world is for money to flow East, and the development of China and the various former Soviet Republics in Central Asia is less a revolution than a return to history’s status quo.

Oh, one last thing: This book does a much better job of laying out the perfidy and fickleness of the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world than the next book in my list. Leave the history to the historians, I suppose?

American Rule, by Jared Yates Sexton

I wanted to like this one. I really did. I wholeheartedly support Sexton’s goal here, which is to pierce the myths that we’re frequently taught as American “history.”

The trouble is — and the reason I couldn’t actually finish the book — in order for that kind of argument to be effective, you really have to get your own history right. And Sexton, um, doesn’t.

Here’s a sample paragraph (from page 10):

…England’s monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion…

There’s…so much…wrong with that paragraph.

The absolute monarchy he’s talking about was something invented in the early modern period, not the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, is an offensively wrong term for the period). And the doctrine of absolute monarchy had nothing to do with the fall of Rome (itself a disputed event), and everything to do with the centralizing projects European monarchs embarked on after centuries of conquest and consolidation.

Far from civilization “languishing” in Western Europe for hundreds of years, the Middle Ages saw rapid urbanization, expansion of trade, and the foundation of Europe’s first universities.

And religion being the one unifier? As opposed to any, oh, government? That’s…fuck, that’s just laughable

These are not small mistakes. They’re massive mis-representations of the period and the trends within it. And Sexton makes mistakes like this on every page (nearly every paragraph)!

I couldn’t take it. So I noped out.

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

My second of two (see below) King books this month that don’t read like King books. This is told like a fairy tale, with the same sort of remove and third-person omniscience you’d have in a fairy tale. It’s the same voice King sometimes used in the latter part of the Dark Tower series.

And as far as I know, this is King’s one and only full-blown medieval fantasy book: kings and wizards, magic and dragons. I picked it up because of the connections to his other books — the king’s name is Roland, you see, and the (evil) wizard’s name is Flagg — not expecting too much.

I should have known better. Even in this mode, King is a master storyteller, weaving a tale of family and betrayal and escape that captivated me all the way to the end.

The Running Man, by Stephen King

Ok, technically this is a Richard Bachman book, since that’s the name King released it under originally. But they made a friggin’ Swarzenegger movie out of it, so I’ve got to include it in my reading list, right?

Interestingly enough, I can see why King published this one under a pen name. Because it doesn’t read like a King book at all. There’s no slow build up of tension, no deep dive into the lives of multiple characters before everything goes to hell. It just dives right into the plot, explaining just the bare minimum about the world needed to keep up with what’s going on.

And this thing moves. Each chapter is incredibly short, maybe 3 pages maximum. It’s the “potato chip” technique (keep chapters so small that folks think “I can do one more”), and it works here; I read the entire thing in a single day.

On the downside, it’s incredibly violent, and racist, and sexist, all at once. Granted, the world he’s portraying is very much that, all the way through, but it’s bigoted in a very…old-fashioned way, from the slurs they use, especially. Like 1960s racism ramped up to 11 and then set in the future.

Here’s the kicker, though: King absolutely nailed how misinformation, spread through the media, can keep the people at the bottom of the economy apart, keep them hating each other, when they should be attacking the wealthy. And he portrays our current “meritocratic” caste system perfectly, illustrating how inequality can get so locked in that the only way out for some people is to offer to die on national television. That’s the horrific part of the book, for me, the part the lingered after closing the book.

The White Album, Joan Didion

Didion’s essays covering the Seventies (and part of the later Sixties). I could definitely feel a cynicism creeping in, something present in the first book of hers i read and becoming stronger with each essay here.

But she continues to draw moments in time in vivid colors, and is brutally frank about her experiences with mental health issues during this period. Just…compellingly readable, all the way through.

I’d like to say I wish I could write like her, but then I’m not sure how I would even begin to learn or adopt her techniques. Intimidatingly good.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. The title is…a bit pretentious, at least to my ears.

But the essays are as unpretentious as they come. Didion, for the most part, refuses to generalize or judge, choosing instead to capture the moment, or series of moments, that she experienced with and around certain people, at certain times.

The result is a bit like a time capsule of the Sixties, or at least, the parts of the Sixties that she experienced in California.

Her writing is a bit hypnotic, in that way. In how she brings you into a moment, even if that moment itself is a composite of other moments, showing you what it felt like, if not what actually occurred. Makes her essays a bit addictive, tbh, each one a hit of experience from another place and time.

The one downside? Because she’s writing so close to her own experience, her version of the Sixties is very…white. And middle class. To the point where, when she talks about the farming communities she grew up in, she doesn’t talk about the actual workers on those farms, who were organizing throughout the Sixties to advocate for better working conditions for the majority-immigrant workforce. Nor does she mention the Civil Rights movements, or the Black Panthers, or…I could go on and on. Suffice to say that her viewpoint is very well detailed, but is very much myopic.

Keeping Score: August 6, 2021

I’ve not written a single word for the novel, this week.

It’s been a mad scramble to get everything lined up at work before I go on vacation for the next two weeks. Plus my wife’s coming home after a month away tomorrow, so I’ve been getting the house back into presentable shape 😅

So this week has been a bad one for words on the page. I haven’t been entirely idle on the writing front, though. Two of the four short stories I wanted to edit are done, and I’ve sent them both out to different markets (one got rejected 48 hours later, so I need to send that one back out, but still). I’ve also stolen some time to plot out the current flashback sequence in the novel, discovering some things along the way about the main character and her experiences.

And I’ve been putting together my short book reviews post for last month. Slowly. But steadily.

I’m hoping to catch up on my actual word count today, as the first day of my PTO. If I can get my chores done first, of course 😬

Keeping Score: July 23, 2021

Novel’s hit 57,665 words!

I’ve finally had a week where I’ve hit my word goal every day (so far). I’ve had to trick myself into doing it — thinking “just write 50 words, and if that’s it, that’s fine” to start — but it’s worked.

I’m wrapping up the “bridging” chapter I’ve been working on, one that advances the main plot while setting up the second of three flashbacks. This chapter started out as just a scattering of dialog, much of it out of order (as it turned out). Over the past few weeks I’ve been layering in blocking, then descriptions, then thoughts, as well as stitching the different pieces together (via more dialog, blocking, etc). I confess I wasn’t sure until yesterday that I could actually get the beginning and the middle conversations to link up, but somehow it’s all come together.

At least, in a first draft sense. This whole thing might have to be trashed and re-done for the second draft, who knows? But I can’t get to that second draft without finishing the first one.

It’s good that I’ve been hitting my word count for the novel already this week, because I need to spend the weekend working on my short stories. I did a count recently and discovered I have four that are just one more draft away from being ready to submit to magazines. Considering I currently I have nothing on submission, it’s time to polish those stories up and start sending them out. Maybe rename one or two (like everything else, my first passes at titles are…terrible). And there’s that previous novel sitting in the corner, waiting for its third draft.

Too much to do. But thank goodness I don’t have any hard deadlines. I’ll get to the stories, and the third novel draft, and finish this current book. All in good time (but seriously I need to wrap these up so I can get to some of the new ideas I’ve been having…)

Keeping Score: July 16, 2021

I’m back to something of a normal writing schedule, finally. I’m not always getting my writing done in the morning, like I’d prefer. Often having to squeeze it in over my lunch break, or between getting off work and cooking dinner. But I am getting it done, thank goodness.

Weekends are still my best option, though. Having a long block of unbroken time lets me tackle things that require more focus, like editing a short story (which I got done this weekend, and started sending out to beta readers). If only weekends were longer, eh?

The best thing that’s started happening recently, though, is that I’m getting ideas again.

Before the pandemic, I’d stumble across an idea for a story (short or novel) multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. i’d capture it in whatever notes software I was using at the time (I’ve been through several, don’t judge me). Starting a new project was a matter of rifling through those ideas to find the one that resonated with me the most, while telling myself I’d get to the others “someday.”

That all dried up in 2020. It’s like that part of my brain went to sleep, waiting for a time when I wasn’t worried about surviving the week.

It makes sense that it would, but I missed it. Even though I thought I knew why it was gone, I wondered if it would ever come back. If I would ever be an idea-generator again.

But thankfully, it has! Over the last week or so, I’ve been coming up with story ideas — most of them novels — every other day. Bits of dialog come to me, or a scenario that I’d thought about before suddenly clicks with something I read, and the seed of a story is made.

Some of them are about novels I’ve already written. I may have mentioned the four novels I have in draft form (3 first, 1 second), a, um, embarrassing habit of mine that I intend to correct soon. I’d thought that all but the last would end up trunk novels, but lately I’ve been getting ideas on how to tighten up the others, things to trim and change to make them better. And you know what? I might just pull them out of the trunk after all.

I mean, in the end it’s my body of work, and I can do with it what I please, right? Maybe they won’t sell, even if I edit them all, but editing them will be good practice. Especially if I do it deliberately, getting better each time. So eventually I will draft and edit a novel that’ll sell.

…you know, if I can just find the time for all of that 😅

Anyway, I’m happy to be generating ideas again, even if they sometimes distract me from the novel I’m currently drafting. Welcome back, formerly missing part of my brain!

Keeping Score: July 9, 2021

This week has been a bad one for writing.

It started out well enough, mind you. Got a blog post written and some plotting done on Monday, and actual words down on Tuesday.

But the rest of the week has been a wash. Wednesday was a blur, between work, getting the dogs to the boarding people, and prepping the house for having the power shut off on Thursday. Yesterday I got up early, packed, drove out to the hotel I was going to work from, and rushed right back home as soon as the power was off.

And no, spending all day working in a hotel where no one else was masking was not conducive to being creative 😬

So here I am, end of the week arriving and only 271 words written. I’ve got a lot of catch-up to do this weekend.

Wish me luck.

Short Book Reviews: June 2021

The year is already half over? And California’s re-opening while vaccination rates are slowing and the Delta variant is spreading and…

breathes

…and I’ve been fully vaccinated for two months now, but I’m still keeping a low profile, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Oh, and reading! Mix of essays and horror and, well, horror hesitates tools? Is that a thing? Because I read one.

As always, the books are in reverse reading order, with the most recent one I plowed through first.

Christine, by Stephen King

Definitely the worst of the King re-reads so far (and also the first one to not be set in Maine, make of that what you will).

I almost put this one down, after the rough opening and dialog that seemed broadcast from a 1940s B-movie. I’m glad I kept going, because the story eventually kicks into King-Dread-Gear and becomes compelling. The dialog never really gets better, and the car scare is just plain weird, but the possession bit was goose-bumps-down-my-neck spooky.

Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

A series of excellently-written, pointed essays that I quickly realized were not aimed at me. Not that everything needs to be, of course!

Still illuminating. Kendall has no trouble stabbing through all the BS we tell ourselves about these issues and calling them out for what they are. Points to a type of feminism concerned less with Leaning In and more with putting food on the table. A critical work on fundamental problems with the way American does and doesn’t work for its people.

Body Trauma, by David W Page

This one was slow going for me. I get squeamish around needles, to the point where I get lightheaded whenever I have blood drawn (I’ve only passed out once, so there). But it was recommended by Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, and in the book I’m writing (and in short stories I’m working on), I need to be able to portray injuries and recovery accurately. So I pushed through.

And I’m glad I did! I’m sure I’ll need a few re-reads for everything to sink in, but I’ve got a much better sense of how serious certain wounds would be, and how they can be used to raise or lower tension in a story.

wow, no thank you, by Samantha Irby

Went into this one with no idea of what I was getting into, other than the essays were supposed to be funny. And they were, in parts — literally laugh out loud funny, in fact — but above all they’re a master class in writing a revealing, engaging, personal essay. What other writer do you know can make you reflect on your own poverty-filled past while relaying a (funny) story about how they thought their cheap-and-shitty apartment was haunted? Or make you admire them while they constantly put themselves down and refer to themselves as a “trash person”? That’s a magic trick played with words, and Irby pulls it off again and again and again.

Keeping Score: July 2, 2021

Novel’s crossed 54,000 words!

I’m back to writing it in a scatter-shot way. Skipping up and down a chapter, scribbling down dialog or blocking or scene descriptions as they come to me.

The current chapter’s proving particularly difficult to write in anything like a linear fashion. There’s just so much for me to cover, to bridge the time between one lengthy flashback and the next. I’ve got to deepen the two main character’s relationship, continue to express one character’s coming to terms with their recent debilitating injuries, and set things up for the next bridge after the second flashback.

It’s a lot, and as a result, the draft of this chapter is a jumbled mess. I’ve got dialog for one line of conversation scattered across three different scenes, and none of it ties together. Yet.

I keep telling myself the first draft is supposed to be messy, but this is just…the most confused thing I’ve ever written, so far. How am I going to pull together a coherent chapter from this?

Speaking of coherence, I’m also trying to edit the short story I drafted last month. And at some point I do need to start in on a third draft of the novel I was working on most of last year. I’ve not yet gotten a novel through enough drafts to be ready to send it out to agents, and it’s high time I finally did.

But time…time is the problem. If I’m working on the new novel, I’m not editing the short story. If I’m editing the short story, I’m not editing the novel. And if I’m editing the previous novel, I’m not making progress on the current one.

How can I square this circle? How can I find the time to not just work on, but finish, all these projects?

Keeping Score: June 25, 2021

Screw it, I’m putting more magic in my fantasy novel.

Up to this point I’ve been careful to keep it magic-lite. I wanted to make things as close to historical as possible. Did — and continue to do — my research, mixed in my own experiences with the locations involved, and restrained myself to just the one change (dragons!) and nothing else.

But now, 50,000 words in, that’s boring me. So I’m letting it go.

Mind you, I’m not going all-out. I’m not suddenly dropping in some fireball-throwing wizards or wisecracking elves (though fireball-throwing, wisecracking elves does sound like my cup of tea 🤔)

I’m taking the fantastical elements of the book, and strengthening them. Taking what had been a vague psychic connection, and making it both stronger and more specific. Like turning up a dial in the sound mix.

That’ll give it a more prominent role in the story, and provide another tool I can use to complicate things for my characters. rubs hands together It’s going to be fun.

What about you? Have you ever gone into a story with a set of self-imposed constraints, only to shatter them later?

Juneteenth 2021

It is so sadly, quintessentially, American, for every Republican in the Senate to vote for the new federal holiday at the same time that they (and their Democratic allies) block legislation that would secure voting rights for people of color.

And while their fellow party members at the state level move to stifle even the discussion of racism in the classroom.

So rather than the normal Keeping Score post this week, I’m going to link to some Black authors that have inspired me. Great writers that make me want to improve my craft, to make each word sing in the minds of my readers.

Writers like:

Keeping Score: June 4, 2021

I finished the eternal section!

Finally laid down all the connective text it needed. Final word count: 34,089 words, for just that one part of the book (!).

It’s a huge milestone. Means not only that I can move on to the next part of the book, a shorter interlude before the next large chunk, but I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book as a whole: 49,594 words. I said this was going to be a door-stopper, right?

I feel like I need to take a moment and look back at where I started. Not to brag, but just to survey the view from this part of the summit, so to speak. Because otherwise the moment’s going to be lost, mixed in with all the others spent putting one word in front of the others, trudging up the slope.

When I started out on this book, last November, I had a plan in a very loose sense of the word. I knew the beats I wanted to hit, and the general shape of the story, but that was it. I didn’t really know who these characters were, or what could motivate them through these events. I also didn’t know if I could even write this kind of historical novel, where I leap from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Central Asian steppe and back again.

But I have. I can. It might be junk, but the first draft of the steppe sequence is done. I conjured up a whole family from scratch! I worked out how to track a dragon across the plains. And discovered how a pre-teen could summon her inner strength to strike back at that dragon for her father’s death.

That’s not nothing! Again, it’s just the first draft, and I can already see that it’ll need a lot of edits. But after months of grinding away at it, wondering if I’d ever see real progress, wondering if I should just stop and spend my time doing something else, I can take heart in knowing that this piece, at least, is done. And if I can finish one section, I can finish the others. One word at a time.

So take heart, if you’ve been feeling like me! Like the work is never-ending. Afraid that none of it will be worthwhile.

Because eventually you’ll summit that mountain. And you’ll look back at where you started, and wonder how the hell you’ve come so far.