Book review: The Happiness Equation

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw Neil Pasricha at The Art of Leadership in Vancouver in December 2019, and he is a passionate, funny speaker, one of those compelling personalities that will compel you to buy-in what they’re saying just through their sheer enthusiasm and exuberant delivery.

In book form the effect is muted, so it’s easier to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this really god advice?”
Of course, one of the things Pasricha writes about in the quest for happiness is to ignore advice. Except sometimes you can listen to it.

A lot of the book trades on this line of thinking—take what you need for you, discard the rest. Be true to yourself, above everything else, and a lot of the happiness that eludes you will fall into place on its own, or at least more readily than it would otherwise.

One of the things Paricha mentioned in his talk that he doesn’t really address in The Happiness Equation, is his view of smartphones. He describes them as “poison”, strongly urging everyone to drastically scale back how much—and for what reasons—they use them. This does tie in with one of the broad philosophies of the book—to be authentic, to not do things to curry favor or approval of others (“This post is sure to get lots of likes!”) but to just be yourself, flaws and all, because this is the foundation of being happy.

It makes sense, really. If you can’t accept who you are, how likely are you to be happy? Pasricha’s advice (which you can accept or reject as appropriate, of course) ranges from the simple (put your gym clothes within easy reach to make it more likely you’ll actually change and go to the gym) to things people would want to consider very carefully—like, how happy is your significant other? Are they dragging you down? Are you better off leaving them?

A lot of the rest of the tips are basically about shutting off access and focusing. He rightly points out that people are easily distracted and tend to multitask poorly. He encourages people to apportion the time to check things like email to a minimum, to “unplug” as much as possible, what some might see as a kind of digital detox. It’s actually pretty appealing, but I say this as someone who works in IT and has started to have had my fill of the same.

At times funny and sometimes a little awkward, there’s a lot to recommend in Pasricha’s approach to achieving happiness, even if some of his declarations are bound to surprise or even shock. He believes retirement is a bad thing and points out that it’s mostly a modern invention, and the argument is compelling. He isn’t suggesting 85 year olds should be working 40 hour weeks, but more that to stay happy, people need to keep doing things and feeling productive, no matter what this things may be.
I’ll revisit this book over time to see how some of its advice plays out. It’s not perfect and Pasricha openly encourages the reader to discard the things that won’t work for them, but there is enough here to at least shake things up a bit and see what happens.

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Book review: Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares!

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares! by Stephen Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another uneven horror collection, but this is pretty much the standard, so overall I found it perfectly fine and would recommend it as a quick read if you can grab it at a lower price.

Ostensibly aimed at kids (the acknowledgements section notes that some stories have been edited for content), some of these tales are pretty dark, so Stephen Jones’ warning about these causing nightmares may be apt for younger readers.

A brief take on each of the ten stories:

Click-Clack the Rattlebag (Neil Gaiman) is a typical Gaiman story, with a droll sort of delivery, the promise of spooky shenanigans, then it abruptly ends, so it certainly fits the “short” part of “short story.” It was fine.

Homemade Monster (R. Chetwynd-Hayes) is a light, modern take on the Frankenstein monster, featuring an easily distracted mad scientist, a yearning-to-be-sophisticated helper and exploding parts. It’s fun, if slight.

The Sideways Lady (Lynda E. Rucker) features a sister and brother out ghost-hunting in an abandoned house across town said to be haunted by an entity called The Sideways Lady. On Halloween they wrap up their trick or treating then go explore the house, joining up with a few older, skeptical kids along the way. The allegedly empty house has a strange occupant–and maybe others, as well. The kids felt authentic, but the actual haunting part seemed a bit confused, as if the author went in several directions, couldn’t decide, and tried to make both work.

Here There Be Tygers (Stephen King). Taken from King’s first collection, Night Shift, this is a curiously delightful tale about a boy at school who needs to use the washroom very badly, the possible presence of tigers in said washroom and what might happen to the frumpy, rude old teacher he has to endure when all elements are combined. The light, almost absurdist tone here stands out from the bulk of King’s work.

The Chimney (Ramsey Campbell) starts out as a simple story about a boy who is frightened of Santa and of the huge fireplace in the bedroom of the very old house he lives in. It gets progressively darker, turning from a child’s tale to something downright grim. I liked it, but this is one of those that could very well give younger kids bad dreams.

School for the Unspeakable (Manly Wade Wellman). First, Manly Wade Wellman is a great author name. This story, about a boy sent to a private school, is terrifically weird and unsettling. When Bart Setwick arrives at the school–at night, of course,–it’s strangely dark and the boys he meets are just strange. Things escalate quickly from there before the (mild) twist is revealed. This reads like a classic spooky story told ’round the campfire.

Granny’s Grinning (Robert Shearman). Told in a deliberately twee style, with giant paragraphs stuffed with dialogue from multiple characters, this is the one story I didn’t finish. I just didn’t care enough about the story or characters to push past the writing style. Grandma was probably a zombie or something.

The Chemistry of Ghosts (Lisa Morton). This feels like a YA story, in which a brother and sister attempt to find the brother’s missing friend, who the brother fears has disappeared in the closed wing of a college said to be haunted by a former chemistry professor. It is not a spoiler to say this is correct and the ghostly instructor challenges the kids to a series of puzzles to get their friend back–and avoid being trapped in the wing forever with him. Light, almost breezy, with plenty of opportunity for kids to try to figure things out and brag about how smart they are.

The Man Who Drew Cats (Michael Marshall Smith). A quiet stranger moves into a small town and begins to paint and draw in the town square, sharing (some) small talk with the locals at a nearby pub in the evenings. This is one of those stories that telegraphs what will happen in huge neon letters, but knows it, and makes the journey to its inevitable destination as entertaining as possible. In this case, an abusive husband gets his comeuppance when the stranger turns his drawing skills to certain beasts. In a way, this is a great companion to “Here There Be Tygers.”

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Charles L. Grant). Basically, a story about a very bad babysitter. It’s weird, a bit gruesome and maybe should have been the second-to-last story in the collection.

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Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.

Recommended.

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Book review: Recursion

Recursion

Recursion by Blake Crouch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This type of story is catnip to me: high concept present-day science fiction wrapped around a slick, fast-paced action-adventure.

The story asks a simple question: Do our memories determine our reality? What if we could not just revisit memories, but control them, effectively making the past, present and future exist simultaneously? Could our minds cope with multiple timelines occupying them?

This is a story best read without too much knowledge of the specifics before hand, so I’ll simply say I enjoyed watching the main characters of police detective Barry Sutton and neuroscientist Helena Smith interact as they grappled with the very nature of reality. While the nuts and bolts of the depicted science are kind of hand-wavey, it’s perfectly acceptable for the type of story Crouch is telling, which is less about how we might be able to manipulate memory, but whether we should, and what the effects could be.

As with any story that dabbles in time travel, you can pull apart the plot and argue about how things wouldn’t really work this way or that—the characters themselves even have these kinds of conversations—but this is a romp, full of both spectacular disaster and quiet moments that show what it means to be human.

If you like this kind of story, Recursion comes highly recommended.

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Book review: A New World

A New World

A New World by Whitley Strieber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much like The Afterlife Revolution, this book is pretty bonkers when viewed through the lens of the world most of us see and know. There is always the chance that Strieber, for reasons unknown, is pulling a very long con (dating back to Communion, published in 1986) or is merely delusional. But while it might make one feel smug to dismiss this as nothing more than crackpot theorizing, there is enough evidence to suggest something is going on.

I’ve long felt that there is a lot in the world and the universe that we don’t understand, that for all our advances and (alleged) intelligence, humans are still pretty primitive. As explorers, we don’t know what is in most of our own oceans. We have only seen our solar system on a limited scale (albeit with some fantastic results) and have ventured no further than the moon when travelling off the planet. We have exploited said planet to the point where we may be accelerating drastic climate change–global warming–and when we need them most, it seems more of us are turning away from science, rational thought and logic, especially those in positions of power, both in business and government.

It’s kind of depressing.

Against this backdrop, A New World is both a summary of Strieber’s previous books recounting his experiences with what he calls the visitors, and a call to action for the visitors–and the reader. For the first time Strieber puts emphasis on having as many people as possible seek out the visitor experience, believing that open communication between us and them may be the only thing that will prevent humanity from being all but wiped out as climate change accelerates (because the visitors will share knowledge that can help us, but won’t do so until we are “ready.”)

In presenting his case, Strieber recalls past experiences, putting them into new perspective, then builds on them by detailing a new chapter with the visitors that began in 2015 and continues now (the most recent events are from a scant month ago as I write this, in November 2019). What it basically comes down to is time is running out and Strieber believes that the more people that join in the communion (sharing) with the Visitors, the better our odds of achieving a communication breakthrough and getting help in literally saving the world.

Again, this sounds bonkers, but Strieber builds his case piece by piece, drawing from experiences he had that feature credible witnesses, to citing other incidents and examples–such as the recent admission from the U.S. Navy that objects captured on video by Navy fighters are actual unknowns. He makes connections that may surprise those who are only familiar with movie aliens. While never stating firmly–as he claims he doesn’t truly know–Strieber posits that the visitors may actually be some form of human from a parallel or mirror universe that is overlapping ours, that they experience time differently, able to see the past and the future, and are attracted to us because we get to experience things in the moment, with a spontaneity they lack.

Also, the dead may also be in this mirror universe as energy beings, and are only able to manifest in the physical realm in very limited ways. While noting that some of the visitors may have ill intent, Strieber says it is only in the same way that some humans are criminals or otherwise operate outside of society’s norms.

As for why they have been so reticent to present themselves openly to us (by landing on, say, the lawn of the White House–and hoo boy, would that be interesting right now), despite possibly having been around for thousands of years (picture Georgio Soukalos leaning forward and saying, “Aliens!”), it’s that they experience reality so differently than we do that just trying to wrap our minds around it can overwhelm us. The visitors can’t chat casually with us because they are fundamentally non-physical beings, so they use imagery and symbols and it all comes out cryptic and weird. We just want to sit down at a table with them, have some tea and get to know each other. They can control things–including themselves, perhaps, at a sub-atomic level. Idle conversation isn’t really possible.

There is a chapter that actually goes into the possible science behind this, referencing everything from Schrodinger’s cat to decoherence and the fine-structure constant. The very nature of reality is brought into question, that the information our senses provide may not be exactly reflective of what reality really is. Strangely, the tone in this chapter is a lot less serious than the others, possibly because the entire thing is framed as trying to prove how something so bizarre can be real.

The book ends on an urgent note, calling on the visitors to more openly present themselves, to “open the doors of their school wide, to us all. We have a planet to lose and our lives along with it, or we have a journey to take.”

As always, Strieber writes clearly and with a sober tone. More than usual he confesses to how strange everything sounds, imploring the reader to make a leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one, but with a spiritual component). He also provides good news to lazy, but generally decent people–you don’t need to believe the visitors are real or that the soul is a thing to contribute positively to the communion process, you just need to be a fundamentally good person.

Any book that ends with that kind of promise can’t be so bad.

As I’ve said, it is difficult to buy into what Strieber talks about, especially if you’ve never experienced anything even tangential to what he talks about, unless you have a very open mind and are willing to think way outside the proverbial box. I keep an open mind (some might say downright vacant) and I find the theories and ideas presented in A New World to be interesting and intriguing. This is in a way a hopeful book, and in these dark times, that goes a long way.

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Book review: We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, gruesome, breathlessly paced, and with a loving, near-reverent tone toward its subject matter–metal–We Sold Our Souls chronicles what happens when a little known metal band signs away more than it bargained for on a fateful night in 1998.

The protagonist is 47 year old Kris Pulaski, one-time lead guitarist and writer for a metal band called Durt Work. Kris and the other members of the band are enticed into signing a contract late one night by their lead singer Terri Hunt, aka The Blind King, giving away a lot more than they suspected in the process. The night’s events end in tragedy and the dissolution of Durt Wurk.

Jumping forward to 2019, the story picks up when Hunt decides to reunite with his successor band, Koffin, for a final tour. Intrigued and unsettled by the tour, Kris begins putting together what really happened on that fateful night in 1998 and the story kicks into high gear, barreling relentlessly toward an inevitable but entertaining conclusion.

Ending each chapter with an epistolary snippet that uses radio shows and news reports to foreshadow or chronicle events, Hendrix presents a story in which the power of metal and music in general is literal, and which can be used to fight against evil, or to at least to hold it at bay. In this case, the evil is something called Black Iron Mountain, an entity Kris wrote about without understanding its implications on Dürt Würk’s album Troglodyte. As forces array to stop her, Kris tries to warn and then enlist the members of her former band before Koffin completes its shows and very bad things happen.

Kris gets pulled through the ringer and there are scenes featuring gory action that recall the pulp horror of the 70s and 80s–a subject Hendrix explored at length in the delightful Paperbacks From Hell. I found one scene (minor spoiler) in which Kris works her way through an increasingly claustrophobic tunnel to be especially vivid, perfectly capturing the suffocating despair one might feel in such a space.

We sold Our Souls is both a love letter to heavy metal and the freedom and power of being in a band, of doing your own thing, of having an axe and using it to make your mark on the world, and a perversely funny take on “What if every conspiracy theory turned out to be true?”

The prose at times is laid on thick, but it fits perfectly with the over-the-top, larger-than-life world of metal (and seemingly demonic forces) it depicts. Kris is a hero you will want to cheer for and see succeed, and We Sold Our Souls is a terrific old school work of horror.

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Book review: The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar's Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone looking for nuts and bolts advice on writing should be warned that this is a collection of some of Block’s fiction columns from Writer’s Digest, and as such they sometimes provide instruction or advice, but sometimes Block just takes you along on his musings about the writing life.

It’s probably also relevant to add that the columns in question date from 1981 to 1987. He mentions typewriters a lot.

And that is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. Some of the writing advice is obviously dated–he has a wonderfully detailed column about self-publishing his own book that isn’t particularly relevant to how self-publishing works in the 2010s, but Block has such an affable style that the column still entertains.

The columns also serve to paint a portrait of the author as he draws extensively on his own experience writing and publishing–he had been in the business about 25 years at the time these columns were new–and in a way, this makes the pieces serve as a kind of memoir. Block recounts his early days writing soft porn novels, confesses to questionable behavior in his youth, details his fights with editors, agents and others, and regularly reminds the reader that what works for him may not work for them and to adjust as needed.

If you want a no-nonsense book about writing full of advice on plot, pacing, story structure, characters–you will find that here, to a degree. But more than that, you will get a good glimpse into the life and habits of a particular writer, and a snapshot look back at what the writing life was like in the 1980s.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first book on writing advice, but I would recommend it as one of the books to check out.

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Book review: Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mick West was a video game programmer in the 90s who cashed out, retired early and became fascinated with conspiracy theories–and then more specifically in debunking them. With plenty of time to support his hobby of debunking, West went on to create multiple sites on the subject, with https://www.metabunk.org being perhaps the best known. This is his first book on the subject.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole delivers exactly what the sub-title promises. West devotes space to general techniques and methods on debunking conspiracies, with the aim of helping you (the reader) to help someone else (referred throughout in the book as “your friend”) break free from believing whatever conspiracy or set of conspiracies they are holding to. He also offers more specific information on some of the more popular–and in one case, more fringe–conspiracy theories, including the claim that a controlled demolition brought down the World Trade Center towers, that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened, the theory that contrails from planes are actually chemtrails either changing the weather or poisoning us (or both), and, of course, the flat earth theory. The latter may boggle any sensible person, because it is by far the most extreme and easily disproved conspiracy theory, yet West provides an example of someone who genuinely believed the earth was flat.

West accompanies each specific conspiracy theory with a shorter chapter chronicling how a particular individual escaped the rabbit hole (such as the aforementioned flat earther), showing how for some it can happen swiftly–in a matter of a week–and how for others it may take years. Often it is the patient work of a friend that pulls them out, but sometimes it is seeing a specific video or getting a critical piece of information at the right time that gives the conspiracist just enough pause to start questioning what they believe. West also shows how it can also be a matter of adherents to a particular theory crossing a line that the believer isn’t prepared to step over.

Throughout the book, West keeps repeating his mantra of being respectful and patient, urging the reader to avoid arguing and mocking the conspiracist’s beliefs, rightly stating that this puts them on the defensive and makes them less receptive to hearing other points of view. He emphasizes the use of examples and evidence, or actual demonstrations where possible that show how the conspiracy theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Anticipating one of the claims conspiracists will throw at him–that he is a simply a paid shill–West spends a chapter providing background on himself and how he came to be a debunker. Reading where he came from and how he ended up running metabunk as a hobby, I both envy and admire him for having the freedom and funds to not just pursue a hobby, but one that will genuinely help to make the world a better place.

He perhaps puts too much faith in the efforts of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to combat bots, disinformation and conspiracy stories/videos. He is heartened by the work they have done (I am more skeptical), but still warns it is likely to get better before it gets worse, with AI growing ever-more sophisticated in its ability to present itself as credible-sounding “people,” not to mention the work being done in the area of deep fakes where pulling apart what is real and what is a fabrication will get increasingly difficult.

Escaping the Rabbit hole is a thorough, sensible and compassionate toolkit for getting someone you know out of the world of conspiracy theories. Even if you don’t know anyone personally who has gone down the rabbit hole, the book’s techniques and background are an interesting examination of modern conspiracy theories and the damage they can do.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy by Brian Klaas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oof.

For historical reference, this review was posted in August 2019. The book in question came out in late 2017, a little less than a year into Trump’s term as president of the United States. That means there’s been more than a year and a half of further events and actions to either bolster the case Klaas makes on how Trump is undermining democracy in America, or to provide evidence that Trump has “become” presidential and changed course.

Anyone who knows anything about Trump will know, of course, that the latter was never and is not a realistic scenario. Trump has no experience in government and in the time he has been president has shown little inclination to learn or improve, unless you count improvements on being a terrible person and a terrible leader.

This book is exhausting. Reading it is like getting punched lightly but continuously. It hurts but you go on, because the punching is bound to stop. But it never does.

In the short time span covered, Klaas documents all the horrible things Trump has said and done, underlining how just a few things have essentially kept America’s democracy intact for now–mainly by the grace of Trump’s incompetence and inexperience, and the still relatively strong (but weakening) bedrock that forms the democratic government the U.S. has had since 1776.

The problem, as Klaas points out, is that much of what holds U.S. democracy together, takes the form of political norms and traditions. Presidential candidates always release their tax returns. Presidents don’t profit from their presidency. Presidents don’t mollify dictators while attacking allies. But Trump doesn’t care about norms–he bulldozes through them, showing how fragile democracy is when it relies on people being innately good, or at least respectful of what government should be.

Klaas makes it clear that Trump is not the first president to engage in lies and work at tearing down important government structures, citing Nixon as the obvious modern go-to equivalent, but in comprehensive detail, he lays out how Trump is so much worse–and therefore, more dangerous.

All of this is compounded by America’s troubled history, something Trump has taken advantage of, choosing to divide and turn Americans against each other and the rest of the world. Klaas repeatedly shows how Trump is emulating despots both old and current, by assaulting the free press, by perpetuating damaging lies, by undermining trust in government institutions. The list–and examples–go on and on. As I said, it’s an exhausting read.

The book ends with four possible scenarios (remembering that this came out before the 2018 midterms in which a glimmer of hope was raised when the Democrats won back the House of Representatives), three of which result in things getting worse. The first suggests a slow decay of democracy, as people grow numb and then indifferent to Trump’s actions. The second offers the chilling scenario of a Trump 2.0 coming along and picking up from where Trump left off–but imagines the successor being much more intelligent, savvy, and able to appeal to a broad audience in a way Trump simply can’t, making this person far more dangerous. The third scenario offers Trump the opportunity to use some kind of large scale disaster or terrorist attack to provide cover for further draconian actions under the pretext of national security. George W. Bush’s popularity soared into the 90s following the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s popularity could hit the lofty heights of fifty percent! More seriously, a country under attack or ailing is more vulnerable, and a person like Trump could easily take advantage of that to peel away rights and freedoms.

The fourth scenario offers Trump as a virus, with people banding together to make a vaccine to fight back. This did come to pass in the 2018 midterms, and there is some evidence that it is still a process that is advancing and not retreating. Trump, through it all, has not changed.

In the end this book didn’t really offer me any new insights, but it did lay bare and in explicit detail just how thoroughly, through malice and incompetence, Donald Trump has carried on the work of chipping away democracy in America. Even if he does not get re-elected in 2020, the U.S. is looking at years or even decades to undo the damage already done.

It’s hard to recommend a book like this, but Klaas makes his points clearly. The only fault I can offer is the idea he has of working alongside your political adversaries to keep government functioning and healthy. Klaas states what seems obvious–the Democrats and Republicans can disagree on specific policies, but must work together to keep the institutions of government strong and healthy. In an ideal world this could happen, but the current incarnation of the Republican party has been taken over by extremists who are of much the same mind as Trump. Those who oppose Trump’s actions ineffectively offer criticism from the sidelines or say (and do) nothing at all, making them complicit and helping to enable Trump’s behavior.

If you still hanker for a primer on how Trump’s first year in power emulates the worst sort of authoritarian leader, The Despot’s Apprentice will provide everything you might need. You might want to start by choosing a palette cleanser to read after, though.

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Book review: Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Greg Egan’s Perihelion Summer does a mostly good job of taking a high concept science fiction premise–a black hole comes through our galaxy, possibly imperiling Earth–and marrying it to how it affects a relatively small group of people.

In this case, the people are a team on a custom-built ocean-going aquaculture vessel called the Mandjet. Early on, marine biologist Matt tries to convince his family to come aboard the Mandjet, as initial predictions expect the black hole to cause mega-tsunamis across the globe, wiping out populated coastal areas planet-wide. His family, in Australia, refuses, with his sister insisting they will move inland if the need arises.

Eventually, the trajectory of the black hole is worked out more precisely and in a way, it is even worse, as the black hole will come close enough to pull Earth out of its orbit enough to drastically alter seasons, making them far more extreme, with parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable depending on the time of year.

When this happens, the story shifts gears, becoming more a tale of survival, as the crew of the Mandjet plots a course to Antarctica, now newly habitable compared to the burning hellscape that Australia has become. There is some drama involving Matt trying to rescue his family, and pirates of a sort threatening to disrupt the Mandjet’s journey, along with the flotilla of other ships it is leading south.

Egan does a good job of evoking the horror of a dramatically changed climate, and how people adapt–some better than others. In a way, the short novel is affirming, because most of the people are depicted as willing to help others, to barter and trade for mutual benefit, to take risks for the safety of others, facing adversary with (some) humor and courage.

There are a few aspects that don’t hold up as well, though. I never felt I had a good handle on what type of person Matt is, who comes across as decent and caring, but also nondescript and weirdly flippant. The story also ends on an abrupt, odd note between Matt and his mother. I’m not sure what (if anything) Egan was going for with this, but it left me shrugging.

The overall story, though, is well-constructed, offering a fascinating “What if?” scenario that Roland Emmerich would probably love to turn into a terrible disaster movie. Recommended for anyone into hard science fiction featuring big concepts with some old-fashioned human drama mixed in.

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Book review: The Outsider

The Outsider

The Outsider by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Outsider is both vintage King and a continuation of his recent fondness for police procedurals, notably the Bill Hodges trilogy. Here he fuses a murder mystery with a classic King monster. There is a shift in the story where it goes from being a baffling murder case to more of a monster chase, and at first the shift felt a bit abrupt to me, almost as if King started writing a whodunit and couldn’t figure out how to finish it, so reverted back to supernatural boogums.

But in the main character of police detective Ralph Anderson, King works the angle of the disbeliever hard, laying down the groundwork for the novel’s closing act and the introduction of Holly Gibney from the Hodges trilogy, who becomes the linchpin who helps steer events to their conclusion.

While not reaching the heights of some of King’s latter day work like Duma Key or 11/22/63, The Outsider still has all the strengths typical of King–instantly engaging (or despicable) characters, and an authentic feel for the places the people inhabit, while avoiding most of the excessive bloat. The story could probably stand to lose a bit of the flab, but King is one of the few writers I’ve read who makes even the flab interesting.

There is an analogy used by one of the characters late in the novel about how we all skate on the thin ice of reality, and how few fall through to see what is beneath, and that both summarizes the main theme of the story, and also serves to ground it in a way some of King’s other straight-up horror novels don’t quite manage. Here the characters basically confront weird shit, acknowledge it’s weird shit, then deal with it, because what else are you going to do?

For King fans, this is a solid effort. For those intrigued by the police procedural aspect, be warned that while it is there and is a good chunk of the story, this is ultimately a horror novel that fits neatly alongside the others King has written.

Recommended.

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On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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