Friday, May 24, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Alien Abduction Falls Short

Glow : Book I, Potency, by Aubrey Hadley (Ruby & Topaz Publishing)

This book began auspiciously with a homeschooled teenager who loves soccer and rebels against her mother’s demands for a curfew as a mysterious “sleeping syndrome” reaches epidemic scale. Not only that, but she starts seeing mysterious glowing creatures, invisible to everyone else. Before we can catch our collective breath, she’s kidnapped by an alien race bent of cleansing the Earth of human evil. What a great set-up!

Unfortunately, that’s where the story began to sag. The suspense dissipated into long, long, long stretches of characters explaining the obvious to one another. Action submerged under the weight of description and dialog that didn’t advance the plot, reveal character, or heighten conflict. Even when something important was happening, it felt distant and flat, without emotional engagement.

On a prose level, the many scientific impossibilities or rather extreme implausibilities are dismissed with “unknown reason,” or “somehow this happens.” I was able to ignore most of the medical errors, until “Unless he’s bipolar and can change his mind without a trace of his old emotions” just threw me out of the story, since my husband has bipolar disorder and that’s not how it works. Awkward prose includes bits like, “My ears comb the silence,” and “The seconds of silence that followed lingered in the air like a pungent smell.”

I want to say something about first person, present tense, when handled by an inexperienced writer. Both choices give the illusion of dramatic intensity and emotional immediacy but are actually hurdles to achieving them. Just because action happens inside the protagonist’s head and “in the now” does not automatically engage the reader more deeply. First person is commonly used in Young Adult fiction today (although this was not always true and might fall into disfavor in the future) because the focus is so often the personal growth of the central character. This creates difficulties in conveying information that’s necessary for the reader to understand but that the narrator herself does not know or that there is no logical reason for her to think about. You end up with dialog whose only purpose is the edification of the reader, or in which two characters tell each other what they already know, or ask idiotic questions at inappropriate times, which happens entirely too frequently in this book. Present tense in particular requires skill in order to not be flat and passive. You end up with passages of verbal flab like:

We go through the net, the garden, and then come to the base of the structure. There is no visible divide between the inside and outside. We enter the building by walking through an invisible force field. We enter a massive lobby with towering white walls that elegantly slope down from the ceiling and rise up from the floor like white sand dunes. We go to the wall straight ahead.

If you’re in need for a cure for insomnia, look no further. (Snarky aside: three out of four sentences begin with “we,” and two of those “we enter” — what editor let this slip through?)

I think in the end the length and tedious pace bothered me so much because I didn’t connect with the central character. She kept asking annoying rhetorical questions, and the choice of present tense conferred an unfortunate emotional flatness. Another reader might love the book. For me, though, the fact that this is only the first book in a series made it ¾ of a book too long. The story is imaginative and should have been compelling. I don’t know whether the author or the editor bears the greater share of blame for the result.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

BayCon 2019 Schedule

Here's my schedule for BayCon 2019

Besides these events, I'll be around on Saturday the 25th, so please say hello!

How To Write A Heroine

26 May 2019, Sunday 14:30 - 16:00, Connect 5 (San Mateo Marriott)
Tips for writing strong female protagonists in sci fi/fantasy (or YA sci fi/fantasy).
Marjory Kaptanoglu (M), Ms. Jennifer L. Carson (Freelance), Deborah J. Ross

Urban Legends in Science

27 May 2019, Monday 11:30 - 13:00, Connect 3 (San Mateo Marriott)
Salt causes high blood pressure. We only use 10% of our brains. Vaccines cause autism. Where does this stuff come from, and why do these fallacies persist? Scientists and science-knowledgeable fans dissect some of the crazy things we hear.
J.L. Doty (M), Deborah J. Ross, Kathleen Bartholomew (Self-employed)

By Any Other Name

27 May 2019, Monday 13:00 - 14:30, Synergy 5 (San Mateo Marriott)
Are character and place names important to a reader's response to your story? What about titles?
Ms. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (Book View Cafe) (M), Heather Rose Jones, Deborah J. Ross

Today's Moment of Art

Still life with a squirrel by Edouard Vandenbosch, 1874

Monday, May 20, 2019

Memories of Vonda

My friend and fellow writer, Vonda N. McIntyre, died last month. There were a bunch of obituaries, including mainstream papers like The New York Times and The Guardian, and many genre publications. Her friends have been gathering memories of her as well. It took me a while to pull together my thoughts, but here they are:

I have been thinking what I could add to the wonderful stories about Vonda. She was one of the many amazing women writers who inspired my early career, but I didn't meet her in person until 1994, when she came to Los Angeles (where I lived then) for a fellowship to the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project workshop. How could I resist the chance to meet her? I wrote to her, introduced myself, and received a warm reply. I picked her up and brought her home to my family. I remember her relaxing, being treated as a normal but quite fascinating person, away from the artificial, competitive environment of Hollywood. We got together a number of times during her sojourn, talking a little about writing but mostly life and food and the weather, just enjoying each other's company. I remember her returning the favor when I was in Seattle for a convention and she took me out to the best salmon dinner I've had in my life. We found a lot to laugh about. Then when I joined Book View Cafe she was my mentor as well, endlessly patient and encouraging. (Plus I got to brag that she formatted my ebooks, how amazing!)

One particular discussion stands out from her time in LA. The topic had gotten on to media tie-ins and shared worlds (she'd written Star Trek and Star Wars novels, and I had a story in a SW anthology and Darkover anthologies -- and I have since gone on to novel-length works in that world). I asked her if she regretted taking time from her original writing and she said that the tie-ins made it financially possible to work on other, less commercial projects. The way she discussed her work made it clear that she did her best, no matter what the story, how her imagination and sensibilities and values enriched everything she produced. That has stayed with me over the years as I've wrestled with my insane expectations of myself and my work: Write the best you can with whatever life gives you. The rest will take care of itself.

Ironically, the last book Vonda was going to format for me was a collection of my Darkover short fiction. Here's the last email she sent me, typically generous, loving Vonda:
Hi Deborah, 
Body is sort of setting the boundaries.
I sure wish I could finish the book for you.
So of course the book is dedicated to her.

Miss you much, my dear friend.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Great World-Building Shows Promise

For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones (St. Martin’s)

The best thing about this book is the world-building, which the author has clearly put a great deal of care and thought into, at least for the central realm and its main characters. Especially in the beginning, it reminded me of Sherwood Smith’s wonderful Inda books with the sense of long-established institutions, complex relationships, and history.  The opening sequence, with the discovery that a legendary sword is missing and a well-constructed forgery substituted in its place of honor, engaged me right away.

Gradually I became less enchanted with the story. Too many characters, especially the antagonists, did and said things that were ill-thought-out or downright incompetent. Denevan, who has risen to a position of power and authority as chief of the ultra-elite Alternen, has the emotional maturity of an adolescent, still nursing old petty jealousies. I much prefer villains on a more majestic scale, capable of greatness. Neither Denevan nor Mazakan, king of the invading Naor, fits the bill.

My favorite character was the brilliant, if somewhat distracted mage, Varama, who’s always a step ahead of everyone else but gets lost as other, less intelligent characters end up bashing their way through the violent climax. For me this was a major disappointment. Varama was akin to this world’s Sherlock Holmes, putting together otherwise-overlooked details to perceive patterns. I’m sure she would have come up with an elegant solution to Denevan’s power play and the invasion of the Naor. Speaking of the Naor, their only purpose in life seems to be to invade, pillage, and so forth, in order to make the central characters look noble. I never discerned any reason for their belligerence.  In fact, it seemed at the opening that a mutually beneficial peace might lead to some interesting politics, jockeying for trade advantages and so forth. The only explanation seems to be because evil invaders (hint: “piles of skulls” = seriously nasty folks) are required for a big battle or three.

I wish the author had put as much thought into the causes of war and its creative resolution, and valuing science/intelligence over military prowess, as he did into the rest of the world-building. Such a rich world and array of characters might have served up a truly memorable story, but this one is only pretty good.