Book review: Welcome to the Writer’s Life

Welcome to the Writer’s Life: How to Design Your Writing Craft, Writing Business, Writing Practice, and Reading Practice by Paulette Perhach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am continuing on my unofficial second career as not a writer, but one who reads every book about writing instead. Then writes about them.

Welcome to the Writer’s Life succeeds on a couple of fronts. First, author Paulette Perhach has an entertaining voice and regularly drops funny little zingers in with her advice without ever making it feel like she’s trying really hard to make you laugh.

Second, the book tackles a few things that a lot of new writer books don’t cover or cover minimally. There are plenty of books that will cover the classic plot structures, character development and other things you need to know in order to tell a convincing story–whether it be through fiction or non-fiction. Perhach covers the other stuff in a writer’s life, relating her and the experiences of other writers in finding ways to nurture and grow your writing habits, covering everything from what to read (and how important reading is) to meditation to clear your mental decks (she claims to never suffer writer’s block because of her daily 15-minute meditation sessions), as well as touching on the business side of writing, along with thoughts on pursuing an MFA (spoiler: she doesn’t think it’s necessary).

It took me awhile to read through the book and though I enjoyed it, I found myself wondering why, and I believe it’s two things: I found the quotes from other writers largely unnecessary (fewer would have been fine) and there are sections where even Perhach’s writing style can’t lift the subject matter from feeling just a little dull. But I have read a lot of books on writing, so it’s just as likely that I am becoming a bit weary of the topic of writing itself.

Still, I think this is a good intro to the craft of writing for a new writer and have no problem recommending it alongside other more “nuts and bolts” book on the writing process itself.

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Book review: Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love

Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love: An LGBTQ Romcom by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another romance novel bought on sale. I think what got me here is simply the title. I like the title.

As you might expect from that title, the story is cute and fluffy, with the tone kept light and the drama minimal–it’s more of a romantic comedy than drama, and plays to that well.

Although I haven’t exactly read a ton of romance novels, this one did stand out from the others I have in a few ways (spoilers ahead): one is how the romance comes together fairly quickly and then just keeps sailing along, with the couple firmly in lust/love and only external factors presenting a threat. All of the thorny stuff is before their (unintended) courtship begins. I think it works, but it does undercut any potential tension. Then again, it’s clear this is a “happily ever after” book, so I can’t complain that it delivered what it said on the tin.

The bulk of the story concerns two men working at a company looking to design, market and sell a smart vase. One is the titular Teddy Spenser, a snappy dresser and designer who vows to remain single after a bad romance, the other is Romeo Blue (yes, the name is mocked in the story itself), the programmer making the software work.

When the famous if eccentric designer Joyce Alexander offers to help fund the project, the two men–who at this point have negative and preconceived notions of each other–are forced to fly together to Seattle from Chicago to perform three seemingly arbitrary tasks to prove their company worthy of the funding. Hijinks ensure as Teddy and Romeo fumble through a mountain hike, making a dinner and more. At the end they are given an ultimatum and fear the worst. but vow to stay together no matter what.

The interplay of Teddy and Romeo is cute and they both seem so darn nice–you want to reach into the pages to pinch their cheeks. Watching them bask in their newfound romance is like sitting in front of a cozy fire on a cold winter’s night.

And it all works out in the end (spoilers). This is a very light read, but its so breezy and well-intentioned, with the occasional clever turn of phrase, that it’s hard to fault it for being somewhat slight.

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Book review: Exhalation

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories continues to demonstrate his ability to take “big idea” science fiction themes like time travel and parallel universes, and relate them at a personal level or present them in ways that are fresh and inventive. Long after reading them I am still lingering over the questions they raise, playing out various “What if?” scenarios in my head.

Two of the nine stories are originals and one, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is a perfect example of what Chiang does so well. Here, he imagines a near-future where devices called prisms allow people to communicate with others–including themselves–in parallel dimensions. The design of the prisms means each one eventually exhausts itself, forcing any communication to ultimately end. Around this Chiang weaves the stories of several characters caught at crossroads in their lives, hung up on actions or decisions in the past that have kept them from moving forward, and how the prisms help (or hinder) them.

The longest piece is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a novella which imagines another near-future where “digients”, basically cute-looking AI pets that are capable of learning (and acting) like small children, are made as companions for virtual worlds people can visit.

Over a period of twenty years the main character of Ana Alvarado works to not only keep her digient and others like it alive after the company that created them shuts down, she works with others to get them to evolve past their child-like minds, to learn and become more. Chiang convincingly presents the idea that there is no shortcut available in doing this, that the teaching of the AI is slow and methodical, and has costs on the emotional and mental energy of its teachers. He also manages to create convincing relationships between Ana, her AI robot Jax and others that feels authentic without becoming creepy or weird. The people in the story are flawed, but smart and believable.

The other stories are just as entertaining and thought-provoking. If you enjoy speculative science fiction, this is among the best. Highly recommended.

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Book review: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Review: Bird by Bird

There are a couple of important things to remember when reading Bird by Bird. The first is that it was published in 1994, so it predates the internet. This means that the writing advice is not informed at all by the last 27 years of technological and social change. It makes a difference.

The second is that, while Anne Lamott is enthusiastic and funny, this is not anywhere close to a formal hot-to on writing. Lamott covers some broad topics–writing every day, not worry about the quality of first drafts, how publishing shouldn’t necessarily be looked on as an end goal–but does not get into any kind of nitty-gritty. The advice is more inspirational than nuts and bolts.

A lot of it is amusingly written. Lamott seemed a tad neurotic at the time but also rather self-deprecating, so a lot of the book consists of colorful recollections on how she dealt with various writing-related crises and sometimes her advice translates to “don’t do the thing I did.”

I was glad to finally read Bird by Bird, but the passage of time, changing markets and new technologies have made some advice less relevant in 2021. Some fault may also undoubtedly lie with me–if this was one of the first books on writing I’d read, I probably would have found it hilarious rather than amusing, and found the tips more compelling. Still, it’s a quick read and a lot of the information it contains remains relevant today.

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Book review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is, more than anything, a story about growing up and making the transition away from childhood, leaving behind the magical and fantastic and trading them in for the everyday and mundane, and accepting that not everything in the world is good, that life can be arbitrary and unfair, but that the journey is still one filled with wonders and the love of others.

Jake Baker is a 12-year-old boy living with his parents in Niagara Falls, also known as “Cataract City” because of how it never changes, how its old buildings are left to stand as relics and skeletons instead of being torn down to be replaced with newer edifices. During the summer Jake becomes friends with the kids of a new family in town, the Yellowtails. Billy is quiet and rocksteady, while his older sister Dove is revealed to be grappling with unspecified mental issues that make her “larger than life.” She gets most of the best lines in the story as a result.

The core of the story revolves around Jake’s Uncle Calvin, a seemingly lovable eccentric who peddles strange wares at his store, The Occultarium. Calvin believes in ghosts and other sundry weird things, and shares stories of the macabre with Jake–who is afraid of nearly everything–culminating in the formation of The Saturday Night Ghost Club, in which a small group, led by Calvin, are given tours of local haunts.

As it becomes clearer than there is more to Uncle Calvin than meets the eye, the story turns from sweet to bittersweet, becoming a reminisce tinged with sadness, but with hope or at least the possibility of hope never far off.

Davidson writes with a kind of spare gentleness, the prose painting the scenes with quick metaphors; interjections from Jake–the story’s narrator–never feel like the voice of the writer intruding, but rather the earnest reflections of someone who has yearned to tell this story.

The villain of the piece, a budding young sociopath named Percy, feels somewhat stock and perhaps a bit unnecessary, but Davidson uses him to draw out the growth of Jake. It just seems like these kinds of stories about growing up must always have a Bully who is overcome.

Overall, though, this was a short but enjoyable ride, even without the “twist” at the end, a pleasant enough look at growing up in a town where tragedy can lay just a step away.

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Book review: Missing Person

Missing Person by Sarah Lotz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Missing Person is, perhaps not surprisingly, a story about loss. But it’s also a story about friendship, moving forward, a mystery (naturally) and a murder (or two).

Shaun Ryan, a young man working at a small bookstore in the Irish town of Wicklow, has been told that his uncle, Teddy Ryan, died in a car accident. Always skeptical, he learns the truth as the story begins–his openly gay uncle was effectively driven out of Ireland by his conservative family in 1996, and fled to New York. He has not been seen since. He begins to search for his uncle, thinking he may still be alive.

Into this comes missing-linc.com, an amateur site dedicated to UIDs (Unidentified bodies) and a report of a murder victim found in the U.S. who might be Shaun’s uncle. The victim is found wearing a prom dress.

From there the story hops back and forth between the members of missing-linc.com, their lives, and their investigation into the cold case of Teddy Ryan’s murder.

Lotz often writes in epistolary and does so here to good effect, showing the personalities of the various amateur investigators through their forum posts, instant messaging and Skype chats. Shaun Ryan slowly gets pulled into the investigation and the group moves toward cracking the case, unaware that the killer of Teddy Ryan is still around–and very close.

Lotz juggles the cast well, slowly cranking the tension as it is revealed to the reader that one of the members of missing-linc.com is, in fact, a killer, and one whom the group is at risk of exposing. While the story races to a showdown of sorts, the journey to that point is the meat of the tale, illustrating how the work of digging up the past can have consequences in the present.

Recommended.

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Book review: At the Mountains of Madness, Volume 2 (adapted by Gou Tanabe)

H.P. Lovecraft’s at the Mountains of Madness, Volume 2 by Gou Tanabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concluding volume follows Professor Dyer and Danforth as they fly out to the ancient ruins, to discover the fate of Gedney, the still-missing expedition member, and to explore the remains of a long-dead civilization.

This is where things get weird and Tanabe does a great job with the illustrations, constructing the baffling, maze-like remains of the Old Ones’ sprawling city in grand detail. Staying faithful to the story, Dyer and Danforth come across the giant albino penguins and…other things.

All visual adaptations of Lovecraft must grapple with the same dilemma–how do you illustrate things that, per the prose, will drive people mad merely be seeing them? Tanabe does this in two ways–the first is by depicting the shoggoths as so physically weird that it’s difficult to tell what they are, other than organic, immense and heading straight for you. In the second way, Tanabe allows the reader–equipped with his hundreds of illustrations of the labyrinthine ruins as background–to imagine what drives Danforth mad, with no description offered. And it works.

Highly recommended, particularly for those who have already read the story. This is a great adaptation and short of the seemingly ill-fated Guillermo Del Toro film, may be the best we will see.

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Book review: At the Mountains of Madness, Volume One (adapted by Gou Tanabe)

H.P. Lovecraft’s at the Mountains of Madness, Volume 1 by Gou Tanabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent adaptation of Lovecraft’s classic tale, with artist and writer Gou Tanabe providing exquisite black and white illustrations depicting the doomed expedition to the Antarctic, done in a realistic Manga style. Tanabe often lets the characters speak through reaction shots alone, and it works well.

This is only Volume One of two, so it ends with the discovery of what remains of Professor Lake’s camp and the promise to find out what led to its grisly end. It works well as a cliffhanger for those unfamiliar with the story, and as terrific anticipation for those like myself who are.

The depiction of the otherworldly elements, from the strange star-faced creatures to the towering Black Mountains, does an excellent job of conveying the sinister feeling of entering a realm that is both weird and brimming with malevolence.

Recommended.

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Book review: We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is ostensibly a YA science fiction story about a teenage boy who is given the chance to save–or end–the world by the cryptic aliens that abduct him. But it is really about overcoming grief, mental breakdown and the angst of being a teenager.

There is a lot of angst. A lot. A copious amount.

The protagonist is Henry Denton, a young gay man attending high school in the fictional Florida coastal town of Calypso. The story begins just under a year after his boyfriend Jesse committed suicide, leaving no note and no clue as to why he ended his life. Henry is still grappling with the suicide, while also dealing with his loutish older brother and the harassment of others at high school who mock him as “Space Boy” after his brother revealed the alien abductions stories to all.

Henry’s estranged best friend Audrey and the suave but mysterious Diego Vega enter the scene to complicate matters, as does the thuggish Marcus, who alternates between telling Henry he really likes him, and beating him.

Henry also lives in a broken home, his father having abandoned the family years earlier.

Surprisingly, given this backdrop of Everything is Horrible, the fact that Henry is openly gay is treated as not a big deal, and the worst he faces are juvenile taunts from other guys.

There is drama and angst and the beats of the story are predictable–I could almost see the plot structure leap out at me at times–and by the end (minor spoiler) the “Will he press the button to save the world?” plot point is almost forgotten as the real thrust of the story–Henry’s inability to get over Jesse–takes over. This is not a bad thing, but I almost wish the alien part had either been left out altogether or worked in more deeply. It exists in this weird middle space where it just pops in every now and again to remind you it’s there, until it disappears altogether.

This might be author Hutchinson’s way of suggesting that the aliens may have been manufactured in Henry’s mind. I give him credit for leaving me unsure.

I give less credit for the length of the story. For what happens, it felt too long, with too many scenes feeling like repeats, heading toward an inevitable conclusion. And did I mention the angst?

The story is told from the perspective of Henry. Henry mentions Jesse 351 times, which works out to a mention on approximately three out of every four pages of the book. And each mention is accompanied by Jesse wondering if he was responsible for Jesse killing himself and other dark thoughts. Again, Hutchinson has done a good job in capturing the self-loathing, doubting mind of Henry, but there were times I put the book down, wanting to simply get away from the endless angst. It is poured on like so many layers of molasses. But bitter molasses.

In the end, it was almost more a relief to be done with the story. This is not a bad book, by any means, but Henry Denton is the most dour character I have ever come across in some time and while he has an arc, it feels like a significant part of it is squeezed into the very end of the story, making it not feel unearned, exactly, but still unsatisfying.

If you can plow through the angst, there is some nice stuff in here about the value of friendship and love, of being there for someone, of finding the courage to seek help when you need it, but getting to these things at times felt like a chore. This could very much be a me thing, though, so if the general outline of the plot intrigues you, know that Hutchinson writes the characters well, and peppers the story with darkly humorous examples of how the Earth could end, among other things.

Recommended–with reservations.

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Book review: Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a cute and affecting coming of age story about a pudgy 14-year-old Filipino boy spending his last summer at scouts camp before starting high school.

Author Mike Curato notes the story is fictional but deftly deploys his real life experience going through scouts, setting the story in 1995, the same time he was in scouts. The result is a story filled with lots of authentic details, ranging from the mundane (you’ll learn about a bunch of different knots) to the mildly horrifying (best summed up as “boys will be boys”).

The titular character Aiden grapples with his identity while fighting off accusations of being gay. A few of the boys are openly hostile to him, throwing slurs about his race and orientation. Things come to a head and for a time turn dark for Aiden, but he ultimately finds the strength to be true to himself.

The artwork here, is terrific–the facial expressions often convey more than any words could. The teasing and threats, the quick dismissal of the same, the gangly awkwardness of teenagers, and the effortless cruelty of boys–all of it is captured in a pleasing black and white style that bursts into color when things get hot (symbolism!)

While this feels like a YA graphic novel, its frankness when it comes to sexuality might make for some squeamishness, depending on the sensibilities of the reader. That said, this is a warm, funny and ultimately touching story. Recommended.

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Book review: Insanely Great

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Steven Levy’s book chronicling the development of the Macintosh is not just a historical record of the development of that seminal personal computer, it’s a historical record in itself. Originally published in 1994, with an afterword for the revised edition added in 2000, it captures Apple at three distinct periods in its history, all of them coming before the development of the iPhone and Apple’s eventual rise as the world’s most successful consumer electronics company:

  • The early 1980s when the company went through its first growth spurt, buoyed by the success of the Apple II. This is where the bulk of the book takes place, as it covers the genesis of the Macintosh through to its debut in 1984.
  • The early 1990s. The Mac is established and successful, albeit not the world-changing device many of its developers had hoped for. Apple itself is in a precarious position, embroiled in boardroom drama, a bloated product line and the existential threat of the growing PC market.
  • The late 1990s. In which the story comes full circle, in a way, with Steve Jobs returning to Apple and unveiling the iMac, the first major release that would help guide Apple back to profitability and long term success.

The first third of the book lays out the history leading up to the development of the Macintosh, centering largely on Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). One of the scientists working there was Alan Kay, whose hypothetical “Dynabook” would embody many of the design elements we take for granted in modern personal computers. The scientists at PARC would go on to create machines that used mice and windows, but the company was never able or particularly interested in turning their research into commercial products, frustrating many of them who wanted to push forward the boundaries of computers.

From here, Levy–who actually visited with these scientists during this time in the early 1970s–moves on to the newly-minted Apple Computer, which was expanding to dozens of employees on the success of the Apple II. The Apple II was a capable but primitive machine and most acknowledged it would not be the future of Apple. A serendipitous trip to PARC by a team from Apple to take a look at what the scientists there were working on would lay the groundwork for what ultimately became the Macintosh.

It’s here that Levy moves onto a two-pronged approach, covering the development of the technology, along with the personality clashes along the way, many of which were due to Jobs’ combination of perfectionism and antagonistic management style.

Apple actually developed the Lisa first, a Mac-like computer doomed to fail mainly due to its exorbitant price (some things never change). Another team worked on a more accessible computer and while Jef Raskin led the Macintosh project initially, Jobs imposed himself and eventually took over.

Levy does a good job in letting the principal characters tell the story through their own words, fleshing out detail when needed, without imposing his authorial voice (though he is an unabashed Mac fan). Oddly, Levy’s tone stands out most when he is simply talking, often in a condescending way, about the technology itself. He is clearly interested more in what the technology can do and not the nerd factor.

The fun here is in seeing how the Macintosh team struggled and (mostly) overcame so many obstacles as they put together the original 128K Mac. Levy does a very good job in dispelling the notion that Apple simply copied what they saw at PARC. The Apple engineers actually expanded the PARC research in significant ways and put all the technology into a device that could be used by anyone. The Macintosh was not the first computer with windows, a mouse and a graphical interface, but it was the first available to the masses and the first to do many things we take for granted now.

It’s especially illuminating now, some 36 years after the debut of the Macintosh, to see how it all came together and how the original device really shaped the personal computer industry–and still does, as witnessed by the introduction of Apple’s in-house M1 chips that will power all Macs going forward.

One minor complaint about the book–it is filled with numerous grammatical glitches, possibly due to a bad scan (it effectively predates the e-book era). There’s also some sloppy, if amusing typos, such as a note on how “Hypercard was included for free with every Macintosh starting in 1977” (impressive as the Macintosh did not debut until 1984).

Overall, this is an informative and at times fascinating look back at the birth and clumsy adolescence of the personal computer, and how one, the Macintosh, dared to push forward, thanks to an incredibly dedicated and talented team of designers and engineers. Recommended–and not just for nerds!

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Book review: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a weird story that effortlessly embraces its weirdness.

Molly Southbourne is an only child raised and homeschooled on the family farm under the guise of having hemophilia. What Molly really has is much stranger and deadlier than that. Every time she bleeds she produces a clone of herself that eventually turns murderous and tries to kill her.

The novella is largely framed around the mystery of why this happens while chronicling Molly’s training by her parents on how to avoid making clones and combat them if needed.

Molly becomes very efficient in combating them.

Fed by insatiable curiosity, but lacking the social skills acquired from being out in the world, Molly turns into a clinically efficient young woman, one who knows exactly what she wants, speaks to others with a daring frankness, and pursues her goals with relentless precision. She is admirable, if not entirely likable.

The story does address this, but it feels a bit too late to resonate much. It is there, though. It’s perhaps a case where a longer work would have expanded more on the theme of Molly not really connecting with anyone due to her bizarre upbringing and the freakish requirements for survival she endures.

And while the story is violent and gruesome, and devoid of sentimentality, there is a certain droll quality to the proceedings as Molly literally stacks up the bodies of her bloodthirsty clones.

The ending is neat, but I am unsure how I feel about it. The ride getting there is, well, fun isn’t quite the word I’d use, but it definitely entertained, with prose that moves as crisply and briskly as Molly with her clone-crushing hands.

Recommended, if only because of how all-in author Tade Thompson commits to the premise.

(Note: I did not realize this is apparently the first book of a series–it stands on its own as a quick read, though.)

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