My Book a Week Challenge – Week 7

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dashboard ConfessionalVindicated

This week’s book is “Everything is Broken” by John Shirley.

When twenty-year-old Russ arrives in the northern California town of Freedom to visit his dad, he finds a town cut off from state and federal government. Thanks to the local mayor’s ideas of “decentralization,” Freedom enjoys minimal public services including medical care and law enforcement. Before Russ can get to know much about the town and its people – including an interesting young woman named Pendra – a massive tsunami strikes the West Coast, killing most of the town’s inhabitants and leaving Freedom helpless to combat the wave of human brutality that soon follows. A local gangster, Dickie Rockwell, has plans for Freedom and they include the town’s increasingly unhinged mayor and a lot of killing. Now, it’s up to Russ, his father, Pendra, and the other townsfolk to find the strength to survive and find real freedom.

On his website, John Shirley describes this book as a “thriller and political allegory,” but it’s so much more than that. In just a few hundred pages, this book manages to shock, frighten, and enrage, all while making the reader think. What struck me most about this book was Shirley’s powerful use of imagery, both during the tsunami and in the aftermath. He has this unique ability to observe people, places, and events and then distill them down to their purest, most basic forms.

Word of caution: packed with action, violence, and depravity in its purest form, this book is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Seriously, after I finished reading it, my first instinct was to go out and buy a whole bunch of guns. Then, I remembered how clumsy and absent-minded I am and decided against it. (But I still sleep with a switchblade under my pillow…just in case.)

Bottom line: A different kind of disaster novel. One well worth reading.

Favorite Line/Image (WARNING – disturbing imagery): “A little later: A gasping, semiconscious young woman trapped in her slime-swamped Audi, mud up to her neck. People digging her out. Finding that her belly was sheared open by a big shard of metal from the car door, mud crammed up inside her, she hadn’t lived long after they’d dug her out. Russ had made the mistake of letting her get a grip on his hand as she lay dying. Just couldn’t bring himself to break the grip. Had to watch her die.”

What I learned: Details matter. The line above isn’t really my favorite, but it’s one of the many images that kept repeating in my head long after I’d put the book down. I think what makes this book so compelling is Shirley’s exquisite attention to detail, even in the midst of huge events like the tsunami. He knows which details to include and which to leave out. This makes for a realistic experience without overwhelming the reader with information.

Coming up next week: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman.

My Book a Week Challenge – Week 6

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Colbie CaillatRealize

This week’s book is “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman.

This book is really two stories in one. There’s the purported abridgement of “S. Morgenstern‘s classic tale of true love and high adventure” in which Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, thinking her true love Westley is dead, agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, who plots to kill her and frame another country in order to start a war. Then there’s the book’s effect on the life of the narrator, a fictionalized version of the author.

Got all that? Good.

The first word that pops into my mind when I think of the Princess Bride is “clever.” Everything about it is just so brilliant: the writing, the conversational asides, the characters, even the fictitious events in Goldman’s life. It’s all fantastically creative and original. Another thing that struck me is the fact that this book was written quite a few years before I was born, and yet continues to be entertaining. The tone is so modern, so relevant, that the story still feels fresh after almost forty years and countless reads.

If I had to pick my least favorite character, it would be Buttercup. I know. I know. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world. But she also happens to be brainless, cowardly, faithless, and to be brutally honest, useless. All she does is stand around and wait for her beloved Westley. I don’t know if Goldman meant her to be a satirical version of every other fairy tale princess, but I do know that she annoys the hell out of me.

Despite the useless Buttercup, I’ve read this book half a dozen times and I’ll probably read it a dozen more, if only to relive the thrilling duel at the Cliffs of Insanity.

Bottom line, this is still one of my favorite books.

Favorite line: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

OK, that one might be a bit obvious, so here is my second favorite line. “There are no words to contain all my wisdom. I am so cunning, crafty and clever, so filled with deceit, guile and chicanery, such a knave, so shrewd, cagey as well as calculating, as diabolical as I am vulpine, as tricky as I am untrustworthy…let me put it this way: the world is several million years old and several billion people have at one time or another trod upon it, but I, Vizzini the Sicilian, am, speaking with pure candor and modesty, the slickest, sleekest, sliest and wiliest fellow who has yet come down the pike.”

What I learned: Freshness and creativity can conquer time. Like I said before, I’ve read this book many times, and I enjoy it every single time, probably because I haven’t come across anything like it before or since.

Coming up next week: “Everything is Broken” by John Shirley.

The First Ten of Fifty-Two Books for 2012

WHAT’S PLAYING: Lil Wayne “How to Love”

So, last week I decided to read a book a week for an entire year. It’s not really about the number; it’s about reconnecting with one of the most important things in my life: reading.

That being said, I’m having a hard time getting started. The idea of reading fifty-two books is ambitious to say the least. At the same time, fifty-two is a paltry number compared to all the novels I want to read.

So to make things easier, I’ve narrowed the list down to the first ten. I’ll be posting reviews on each one, depending on when I finish them. Some of these I have read before and want to revisit. Others are new additions to my ever-expanding library. But they all have one thing in common: masters of the craft wrote them, people I hope to emulate in my own writing some day. (And please, remember that I’m reading these books as a consumer. Not a critic.)

1.Witches Abroadby Terry Pratchett

Bet you saw that one coming. This is one of my favorite Discworld novels, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off the New Year.

2.The Enchantress of Florenceby Salman Rushdie

This is a new addition. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’m a huge fan of his writing. I can’t wait to read it.

3. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden

Lyrical prose, haunting imagery, and a strong protagonist. Toss in an epic love story set amidst World War II, and you have a book worth revisiting.

4.The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood

No reading list would be complete without this unnervingly realistic portrayal of a dystopian future.

5.Poison Studyby Maria V. Snyder

A friend of mine recommended this one. I don’t usually go in for fantasy-romance novels, but she insisted I give it a try.

6. “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

I grew up watching the movie. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the book was so much better.

7.Everything is Broken” by John Shirley

Another favorite author — not to mention a kick ass mentor – this is John Shirley’s latest. It’s scheduled for release on January 24. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

8. “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

I am ashamed to admit that – while I am a rabid Neil Gaiman fan – I have yet to read this one. An oversight I intend to remedy soon.

9. Luka and the Fire of Life” by Salman Rushdie

The first repeat on my list, but not the last. I picked this one because I wanted a kid’s book on the list, though from what I hear, this book is so much more than that.

10. “Butcher Bird” by Richard Kadrey

Tattoos and demons and witches, oh my! An excellent choice to round out the list. (Plus, I’m kind of digging the ink.)

And there you have it. The first ten of my fifty-two books. What about you? What’s on your must read list for 2012? (If you have any recommendations, I’m open to suggestions.)

I’ll be honest. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this one off, but no matter how many books I read – fifty or five – the important thing is that I’ll be reading.

Best New Year’s ever!

Website Coming Soon

WHAT’S PLAYING: DuffyRain on Your Parade

Holy sh*t! I have a website!

Well, not really. Not yet. But it should be up and running by the first of the year. It feels strange, topsy-turvy. I haven’t even published (or finished) my book yet, and here I am already setting up an author website and Facebook page. Is it just me, or does all of this seem a little backward?

Turns out, it isn’t. I’ve talked to half a dozen authors, agents, editors and marketing execs, and they all agree that the best time to start building a platform is now. I don’t really like the term “platform”. It makes me feel as though potential readers are little more than a surface on which I’m supposed to build my career. That doesn’t sound…well, right. I’m not trying to sell anybody anything. (I don’t have anything to sell.)

I’m doing this to connect with potential readers and people in general. I have to admit that it’s a little odd though. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding people, closeted in my room safe from the minefields of social interaction and the subsequent humiliation that comes with it, that actually trying to attract other people’s attention is like trying to speak Russian while walking a tightrope suspended over Niagara Falls.

Let’s jut say it usually doesn’t end well.

To be brutally honest, I suck at it. I joined both Twitter and Facebook, but have yet to post on either site. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, it’s just that I can’t imagine that anyone would want to hear it. My friend, M, has graciously agreed to help me set up an online profile, but I keep chickening out. Every time she starts explaining the various ways to manipulate social media, I suddenly turn into a moron. It’s not that I’m not interested or that she’s a bad teacher, it’s just that when it comes to certain things, my brain shuts down.

I usually wind up feeling the need to assure her that I really am smart. (I am. Really. I swear.)

And that brings us to the website. What the hell am I going to do with it? To that end, I’ve signed up for a Social Media 101 course. Don’t laugh. Some you probably don’t know much about nuclear chemistry.

So there.

Some cool links for you:

http://halfwaybetweenthegutter.wordpress.com/

Fearless honesty and haunting poetry. This young woman’s journey is not for the faint of heart, but the fact that she’s still trying to move forward makes her an inspiration.

http://astoryeveryday.com/

This is for anyone who has a story they want to share, fiction or nonfiction. Send them a story, long or short, or even a picture, and they will post it for the world to see. (Disclaimer: despite the title, they don’t really post stories every day, but it’s still a cool place to drop by.)

http://www.john-shirley.com/blog/

John Shirley’s blog. Full of current and relevant observations and strong opinions on such. Warning: you may come away smarter or at least, more aware than you were before.

Recharge Your Writing

WHAT’S PLAYING: Elvis PresleyPolk Salad Annie

The Outage is almost over, and it’s been a hell of a month. Between insane work hours and class, I haven’t had much spare time. I spent most of my days off cleaning, shopping and doing laundry. Worse, the stress was taking a toll on my writing. Instead of churning out 5 or 10 pages a night, I was lucky if I wrote 5 or 10 words. Even the quality of my writing suffered, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it better. Frustrated by my lack of skill, I usually wound up deleting the few precious words over which I had spent the last few hours sweating.

When it came down to it, I just didn’t want to write. It wasn’t fun anymore.

Then something happened that changed everything. A massive snowstorm swept over New England, dropping up to 24 inches of snow in one night. The drive into work usually takes about 40 minutes, 35 if there aren’t any cops around. That night, it took three and a half hours – one of which was spent waiting while emergency crews cleared away downed trees, power lines, and cars in various states of distress – and I didn’t even make it to work. Instead, I found myself stranded at a bed and breakfast roughly ten miles away.

Here’s a picture taken the next morning:

After the roads were clear, I drove home only to find that I had no electricity. That meant no laundry, no classes, and no writing. After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I got into a pair of my fuzziest flannel pajamas, jumped into bed and started reading. Soon, I was lost in a Discworld novel, not caring that I was out of milk or that my closet looked as though it belonged on an episode of “Hoarders”. I didn’t think about all the things I should have been doing. I just read.

When the power came back on a few hours later, I kept on reading, only stopping for a hot shower and a fresh pair of pjs. As soon as I had finished Sir Pratchett’s book, I reached for another favorite by Neil Gaiman. That snow day was one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

Needless to say, my shopping and laundry never did get done, and my house remained a mess. What did happen was my passion for writing came back. I felt renewed. I plopped down in front of my computer and wrote for the next six hours. I’d forgotten what it felt like to create entire worlds and fill them with flawed, interesting people. Reading books by people who have mastered the craft brought it all back. All I could think was, “I want to do that too.”

The fact that I will probably never be as good a writer as Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman or John Shirley or Patrick Rothfuss or hundreds of others doesn’t matter. What matters is that writers like them inspire people like me to create and dream. Their words have seen me through poverty, illness and heartbreak. What about you? What do you turn to when your passion for writing, for life, diminishes? Movies? Music? Books? Poetry? Who is your go-to muse?

Who or what you turn to isn’t important. The next time you feel blocked: you’re out of ideas or the words just won’t come, step away from the computer and visit with your muse. If you’re anything like me, you’ll come away with a renewed sense of purpose and awe that’s all consuming.

Just don’t wait for a snow day to do it.

First Dates and First Drafts – How My Personal Life Mirrors My Professional One

WHAT’S PLAYING: Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me”

Despite my introverted nature, I have occasionally ventured into the murky waters of romance. With one exception, my forays into dating usually last for about a month. Two at the most. My past relationships fell apart for a variety of reasons, some of them my fault. (If anyone asks though, I blame my exes. Every. Last. One.)

Truth is, one of the major reasons dating never seems to work out for me is that after a couple of months it actually starts to involve…well, work. You know what I mean. The sheen of newness has been worn away by near daily interaction, and you find that all those little quirks (so adorable back when you started dating), are now just annoying. Soon, you find yourself sickened by the very sight of them. (Or is that just me?)

I tend to have the same problems with writing projects. They start out all brilliant and cool and fresh. Next thing you know, they’ve fizzled faster than a Tiki Barber comeback. When that happens, I usually find that it’s not the story’s fault. Yes, there are major plot and character flaws, but that’s common for most first drafts. No, it’s my perception of the story that has changed. Suddenly, it’s no longer flowing from my brain like water, cascading from my fingertips to the screen. Instead, it’s more like sludge, molasses in wintertime, bathroom breaks after too much cheese. Every page, every sentence, every word requires a monumental effort.

After the initial rush, I often find that I have no idea where I’m going or how I plan to get there. Plotting and outlining helps, but sometimes, the best way to figure out the story you want to tell is to wade hip deep into another one. Though usually I get so fed up with the struggle that I abandon the project midway through the first draft.

Not this time though. With a little prodding from my mentor, the magnificent John Shirley, I actually finished the first draft of my novel and am slowly making my way through the second. Yes, it’s still awful – full of plot holes and cardboard characters – but I’ve finally found a story I want to tell, need to tell, and a main character that can not only pull it off, but do so with style.

It will be months, if not years, before it’s ready to released to the public, but at least I can finally say that I’ve written a novel. I’ve finally broken my streak of abandoning first drafts.

Now, if only I could same the same thing about dating.