Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shelf-Sitter Challenge: Book 10

The tenth book for the shelf-sitter reading challenge is Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold, part of the Miles Vorkosigan series. If you're a fan of Science Fiction at all-- if you even suspect you might be, given the right circumstances-- then you must read the Miles Vorkosigan books. I suppose they're most properly described as Space Opera, but while there's plenty of space ships and swashbuckling and blasters and exotic planets (no aliens, though), it's just so much more intelligent than I think of Space Opera being-- perhaps because the central character is up there with Sherlock Holmes as one of fiction's most believable geniuses.

Lord Miles Vorkosigan (a.k.a. Admiral Miles Naismith) is born into an extremely powerful, aristocratic family on a planet ruled by the military caste. Due to an assassination attempt on his parents while he is still in utero, Miles is born a brittle-boned, hunchbacked dwarf. This is an enormous problem in his culture, which harbors a Spartan-like horror of disability. Fortunately, Miles is also extremely bright, and by the age of 17 has conned his way into leading a mercenary army in space. Action, adventure, romance, mystery, and hilarity ensue.

I compared Miles to Sherlock Holmes, but there's an important difference between them: people skills. Miles is a whiz at strategy and scheming, but his true genius lies in commanding others. Miles' crew is filled with people who are absolutely loyal to him, and you see how he builds those relationships-- partly through mostly benign manipulation, and partly because he himself is incredibly and demonstrably loyal to those he feels responsible for. In one of my favorite Miles stories, Borders of Infinity, Miles is dumped stark naked into a dome-covered POW camp where he knows absolutely no one. 48 hours later, he's running the place-- and you completely believe it.

I started Brothers in Arms over a year ago, but got sidetracked early on. I realized it was an evil-clone, mistaken-identity type story, and that is one of my least favorite tropes. It just sounded annoying, like sitcom-level conflict. But I worried needlessly; Bujold can do no wrong. The story arc I expected took like three chapters, and then the story moved on in interesting directions. And like all Miles stories, it was thought-provoking and witty and just fun.

Have I gushed enough? I am a Bujold fangirl, it's true.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Shelf-Sitter Challenge: Book 9

The ninth book I've read for my shelf-sitter reading challenge is Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson. It was a Christmas present-- one of the last books to make it on the shelf-sitter list. I'd never heard of Ronson, and frankly, it was one of the books I was sort of dreading having to read. Then I stumbled across a TED talk by Ronson, and realized that he wrote The Psychopath Test (which I heard about on This American Life), and that he's a pretty interesting guy. The book jumped to the top of my TBR list, and I felt like a brat for feeling put-upon by getting a cool book for Christmas.

Lost at Sea is a collection of articles (mostly written for The Guardian) that are all loosely connected by the theme of self-deception. Ronson interviews people who believe in weird stuff (indigo children, alien abductions), people who try to sell their beliefs to others (evangelical Christians, self-help gurus, psychics), people who have managed to rationalize the way they hurt others (pedophiles, credit card companies), and people whose self-deception has led to tragedy.

I thought half the articles were brilliantly done-- by turns amusing and chilling, depending on the subject. The other half weren't bad, certainly. Just less successful. Some felt too short and/or too glib. A few weren't effective examples of self-deception, and seemed out of place in the book. And a couple felt like the kind of article you write when your interview shits the bed and you wind up with nothing substantial to say, so you just write the hell out of it and hope no one notices the big pile of nothing in the center. Even in my own exceedingly piddly journalistic career, I've been there. It happens. But why put it in a book?

Also, there were too many copy editing errors. My own definition of Too Many is more than two in a book. I probably noticed five or six in Lost at Sea. This is obviously not Ronson's fault, since he is not a copy editor, but I did notice it and it did annoy me.

These quibbles aside, I recommend this if you're in the market for interesting, short non-fiction pieces about total wackos. And I'm adding The Psychopath Test to my TBR list.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Checking In

The train is going, but it's been jerking down the track at the rate of two or three sentences a day. The Husband started back at work Monday after nearly a month on disability, and I guess I expected my attention span and ability to convey thoughts with written language to instantly snap back to normal, pre-crisis settings. That expectation probably made this week more frustrating and dismaying than it had to be. But seriously, guys-- tick tock! The two-year anniversary of TOB fast approacheth, and I'm not even halfway through the second draft!

Thankfully, today it started to come back, and I wrote three pages (so, maybe 900 words?). I was able to work for a while in the library of the boarding school where I tutor, which has the added bonus of no internet connection. I think that for now, I need the library to work. Tomorrow is my first day of The Son in school until 3:00 coupled with no appointments for The Husband in I don't even know how long, and I am going to get the hell out of this house and work at the library for at least two hours. I may even get myself a study room.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Shelf-Sitter Challenge: Book 8

The eighth book I've read for my 2013 Shelf-Sitter Reading Challenge is Ilium, by Dan Simmons. I read Simmons' Hyperion Quartet in 2011, and I count it among my favorite SF series EVAH. When I saw a new SF duology by Simmons in the used book store, I squealed a little. But then I doubted. Like the Hyperion novels, these books were long. And the blurb made it sound pretty wacky: Greek gods on Mars? Resurrected warriors reenacting the Iliad? I dunno about this. Could I really love another Simmons series as much as I loved Hyperion?

Silly rabbit. Of course I could.

The thing about Simmons is that I have no idea whether to recommend him or not. You and I could have significant overlap in our reading tastes, and you could still hate Simmons. I can definitely see that he's not everyone's cup of tea. These are long and sometimes ponderous epics, and he shoves everything in there he can make fit: multiple story lines, wild-ass science, philosophical musings, space travel, disgustingly graphic violence, friendship, romance, monsters, robots, the end of the world, and weighty literary analysis.

Given all that, his books are difficult to describe, which is what makes them sound kind of dumb on the blurb. But I'll give it a try. Ilium is a braid of three story lines: in the first, a twentieth-century classics professor has been somehow reanimated by supremely powerful beings in the form of the Greek gods, and is tasked with observing their reenactment of the Trojan war and reporting any deviations from Homer's account; in the second, four utopia-dwelling humans go on a quest and discover some of what humanity has lost; in the third, two autonomous, sentient robot friends from the Jovian moons deal with the aftermath of a mission gone wrong.

All the Simmons novels I've read have a deep interest in Great Literature underlaying them. (Hyperion was modeled after Canterbury Tales.) In this book, the Iliad is obviously a key work, constantly referenced as the events are retold (and invented, as the war eventually takes a different course than Homer's version). But there is also discussion of Shakespeare's sonnets, The Tempest, and Proust's Remembrance.

Actually, I think the easiest way to sum up why I loved this book so hard is a description from the Dramatis Personae page of the character of Orphu:

8-ton, 6-meter-long, crab-shaped, heavily armored hard-vac moravec who works in the sulfur-torus of Io; Proust enthusiast.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Shoveling the Coal...

...to get the train moving again.

In the past two weeks, I've opened TOB every day, and probably only added words to the file four of those days. I am terribly, horribly, hopelessly behind.

I really do think my brain was just fried from stress. Usually when I blow off working on the novel for more than a day, it's because the story's gone cold. But that's not the case now: I'm thoroughly immersed in Willa and Akenam right now, daydreaming about their story, listening to their soundtrack, trying out dialogue in my mind. It seems like all I can write for the moment is images and dialogue; I can't seem to string sentences of introspection and description together make paragraphs. Last night I stopped beating my head against the wall with the (already outlined and everything!) apology scene and started writing the dialogue and images for a scene in the second half of Act II, because it was playing in my head like a DVD, and before I knew it I had 500 words of fairly detailed scene outline and a complete set of dialogue.

This morning, I got an unexpected chunk of quiet time when a student didn't show up for our session, so I tried tackling the apology scene again. I started with the last 3/4 of the scene, which is mainly dialogue that I've already written-- all I had to do was connect the lines of dialogue with a few sentences of action and introspection here and there. I'm about 3/4 done with it. Then I'll go back and write the first 1/4 of the scene, in which Willa is sitting around brooding about how spectacularly she's managed to fuck up on her first day of being envoy.