Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Short Stories

This entry will be a mixed bag, and some of the reviews may be a bit short as I'm trying to catch up before tomorrow's flight home.

271. Better Lessons by Aaron Polson, the June 6, 2010 entry on Every Day Fiction. As usual, I found myself really enamored of Aaron Polson's ability to tell a full story in under a 1,000 words. I can't seem to manage it. This is one of his less SF/Fantasy entries, although there is a slight touch of the fantastic. It's about a street-rat who teams up with a rather personable Macaque to pick pockets among the tourists, and the relationship between the two has a strong effect on the man's life. Well written.

272. The Young Painters by Nicole Krauss, from the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I liked this story, but I can honestly say I did not like the main character. The story is really about where writers get their inspiration, and what happens when you draw (perhaps too closely) from the lives around you. The narrator does this several times, and does not seem at all bothered by how her stories and books might affect those from whose lives she has drawn. She directs her story to someone called "Your Honor," and that adds a level of mystery to her tale: is she recounting this as part of a divorce proceeding? As a witness at a trial? Or is she not really directing her words to a judge at all -- is she just pretending to do so while really addressing us? I'm not sure we'll ever really know, and in this particular case, I'm okay with that.

273. Blue Water Djinn by Tea Obreht, from the August 2, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I will be shocked if this story doesn't turn up in at least one "Best of" anthology in the coming year. It would be eligible for Best American Short Stories 2011, and honestly I think it would also deserve placement in Best American Mystery Stories 2011. A young boy, the son of a hotel owner, watches as the adults around him try to find out what happened to a French guest at the hotel who has gone missing. Jack is both overlooked and overprotected by the adults in whose care he has been left while his mother is off attending a conference; he is able to get close up to the proceedings as long as he does not get close to the ocean. The connection between boy and missing man is implied early on, and I was happy that the story did not go where I almost immediately thought it was going to. Obreht feeds the tension of the story out on a tight line and lets the tide of the story pull you in. One of my favorites of the year, I think.

274. The Landlord by Wells Tower, from the September 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. My first impression of the story was that it's about yet another clueless American middle-class business who doesn't know how to do business. I feel like that's a stock character type these days -- the guy who thinks he knows how to make a million but can't manage to manage his own office. In glancing back over the story, I hit on a few key phrases that made me rethink that assessment. The narrator of this story may seem dense and self-absorbed, but he really does understand how his life has spiraled out of control and how it's his own disconnectedness that has cost him not just his business, but his relationships with his daughter, his tenants, and his workers. It's actually a great first person character study, and I can easily picture my friend Dave making this work as a monologue.

275. The Science of Flight by Yiyun Li, from the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. This story seems to bookend nicely with Nicole Krauss's. In Krauss's story, the main character steals from real life to create her fictions. In Li's story, the main character creates fictions to mask the real life she's embarrassed to tell people about. Zichen's fictions threaten to over-take her much as Krauss's narrator's stories do. Li really captures that sense of getting caught up in a lie that last for years and becomes the truth.

276. The Pilot by Joshua Ferris from the June 14 & 21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. The main character of Ferris' story is a self-absorbed writer who second guesses every move he makes socially, who reads too much into every word spoken to him (and every silence as well) and who can't bring himself to finish the pilot script he's been working on. Okay, who let Ferris into my own head? There are some key differences between myself and the main character -- I'm not writing a tv script and I'm not a recovering alcoholic. I also don't live in LA and don't get invited to lavish "end of season wrap parties" where I can awkwardly attempt to shop my wares. Another main character I can't say I liked, but that might largely be because of how much of myself I saw in the character.

277. Captain Midnight At Ultima Thule by Win Scott Eckert, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles (published by Moonstone). If I'm being honest, this was not my favorite Win Eckert story. The story had two strikes against it, one my own fault and one the publisher's. For my part, I admit that I know next to nothing about Captain Midnight; I'm far more familiar with other pulp characters and felt through this story that I didn't really know enough about the character to understand why he does what he does. On the side of the publishers, Win's story seems to be the only one in the book that is marred by proof-reading errors -- odd printer's marks and symbols where there should be normal punctuation; it was a bit too distracting. However, on the positive side the contains Win's usual plethora of literary references that cross-connect and build on Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton concept, and that kind of story is always fun to read. Win always makes me feel like a literary detective, trying to figure out what's a reference to a previous work and what isn't. And of course there's a rock-em, sock-em fight and heaps of sexual tension.

278. Captain Midnight Meets Airboy
by Chuck Dixon, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles The Eckert and Dixon stories are the reasons I bought this book. Dixon's tale of two classic aviators meeting for the first time had great tension and action, and managed to get into Midnight's head a bit. I don't know how much of a departure Dixon's characterization of Captain Midnight may be from the classic pulp version, but his Airboy is of course dead-on. So good to have him back writing a character he made me love twenty years ago, and plenty of good gun-fighting and old-fashioned pulp fisticuffs as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mao II

Book 56: Mao II by Don DeLillo, isbn 9780140152746, 241 pages, Penguin, $14.00

Don Delillo is one of those writers I feel like I should have read long before now. Somehow, he did not come up in any of my Lit courses in college, and I have not sought him out since then. Two years ago the owner of my local independent bookstore recommended MAO II. Dave's recommendations have always been spot-on before and as is my habit when recommendations are made while I'm in a bookstore, I immediately purchased the book, put it on a shelf at home, and promptly forgot about it. But lately I've been on a "clean out the bookshelves" binge, and this was one of the books I decided I wanted to read before trading in at the used bookstore.

Plot-wise, the back cover tells us MAO II is the story of reclusive author Bill Gray who, stuck for years now on a failed novel, is inspired to leave his reclusive life and become involved in a group's attempts to get a French poet released from hostage captivity in Beirut. Bill's sudden change in attitude is brought on by an encounter with a world-renowned photographer, and his actions leave his obsessive-compulsive assistant Scott and Scott's girlfriend Karen at a loss for what to do while waiting for Bill's return to what they consider normalcy.

That's the plot, but the book is "about" something larger. It took me a few days after reading the book to figure out exactly what that larger thing is. Ultimately, I think, the book is about the Cult of Personality. DeLillo litters the book with references to Andy Warhol, to Chairman Mao, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who fails to draw at least a surface connection between Bill Gray and J.D. Salinger just isn't paying attention. Scott is concerned that Bill's reputation and reprint rights are based on what people think he is up to in his seclusion, and that if he publishes this latest novel (failed or not, we never really get to see the contents) people will no longer be intrigued. The French poet is held hostage by a Communist terrorist building a following in Beirut, whose followers give up their own identities to be a part of his. Even the photographer, Brita, builds her career around a sort of cult: she travels the world photographing writers almost exclusively.

The opening section of the book, which focuses on Karen and takes place at the Mass Wedding lead by the Rev. Moon at Yankees Stadium, almost lost me. DeLillo bounces between at least three (that I could count) distinct points of view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the feeling I had by the end of the section was that this work was going to be too pretentious, too arty for me. Had the rest of the book continued in that vein, I might not have been able to finish it. Happily (for me), the remainder of the book is written a bit more traditionally. Actually, it becomes a bit heavy on the dialogue side for a while -- characters jumping on various soap-boxes and rambling, dissembling, reminiscing, pontificating. At first, the penchant for characters to spout non-sequiturs bothered me, but ultimately that's what real conversations are like, aren't they? So DeLillo does capture that aspect of real life, even if some of his diatribes go on a bit long. He also does a nice job of allowing we, the readers, to see where all of the characters ultimately end up even if the characters themselves have lost track of each other.

I can't say that MAO II has inspired me to rush out and start reading everything Don DeLillo has ever written, but I am glad I made the effort to read the book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writers, Advice Please!

Had a real nice thing happen today, which also inspired me to seek some advice from the writers who read my blog here. I will probably also post this to

Yesterday during class, I tossed in my usual off-handed mention that I met my cousin who works for the Coast Guard when she came to a book-signing I did two years ago. Occasionally, people will pick up on that and ask me during a break or after class what the book-signing was all about, and I get a chance to advertise my book THE FIRFLAKE without feeling like it's a conflict of interest (advertising my book while doing my Daye Jobbe). No one mentioned it yesterday (which is what usually happens, honestly), so I assumed no one had picked up on it, or if they had they were not interested in hearing more. Today towards the end of lunch, I was back in the meeting room checking email and one of the participants said, "I enjoyed reading your short stories last night." My immediate answer was, "oh, thanks!" And then I looked at her and said, "Wait. Short stories? Which ones? Where did you find them?" I know I've posted one or two here on LJ over the years, but I'm pretty sure I locked those posts. She said, "there were three of them on a website. One of them was about a bank robber." I'm pretty sure the issue of Willard & Maple magazine that includes my story "Invisible Me" is not available online. "I found them just by googling your name."

So of course, I immediately googled myself. Sure enough, there's a link ... to the "test run" of the website page my friend EJ Flynn was designing for me. I had given her an author bio and three of my stories ("Invisible Me," "Navarre," and "That Happy Kid," the latter of which has been revised since I sent it to her) to see what the site might look like in final form. I had thought that test page was locked off for only she and I to see, and the project sort of fell through the cracks as she went on to other work and has spent less time designing websites (especially for free as she was doing for me). A month or so ago, my buddy Darrell and I got the actual finally up and running, with the intention that I'd probably eventually add a Story tab to the site once things were tweaked to where we want them.

So, the question is: should I leave these stories posted / open to being found on her site? Two of the three are unpublished in any kind of print form, and one of those is fairly substantially revised while the other I'm considering revising. I've heard that many editors (of print and online mags) will not look at stories once they've been on a website of any kind (be it a personal site or a blog like Livejournal or Blogspot). If that's true, can it hurt to leave these three on the web since they've been out here for over a year without my knowledge that they were visible to the general public? Should I move them to my website, leave them in both places, or take them all down? I'm genuinely unsure of the best route to take.

Thoughts are appreciated.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What I Was

Book 54: What I Was by Meg Rosoff, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95

WHAT I WAS was an impulse buy off of the $2 table at a Books-A-Million in Roanoke. The back-cover copy pulled me in (which is what back cover copy is supposed to do on trade paperbacks, after all). The book is narrated by H., nearing the end of a long and seemingly fulfilling life. He reflects on the teenage "relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century." That relationship was with a "beautiful boy named Finn, who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll that nurtured their relationship is shattered by heart-wrenching scandal."

I wish the book were half as interesting as it sounded. I was expecting, because of the boarding-school-by-the-sea setting, a bit more closeted boy-romance. I was expecting, because of the back cover copy, a revelation partway through the book that rocks the characters' world. Instead, what we get is an excellent "inside his head" character study of H and how he is a) obsessed with the free-spirit but not socially adept Finn and b) oblivious to the schoolmate in his own dorm who could be his only friend if H would just stop to think about it. Even from the vantage of his later years, H is brutally honest about his own teenage motivations, how his lust and fear combined to alienate him from everyone except the virtually unknowable Finn. On the mission of creating a very understandable main character, Rosoff succeeds. I won't go so far as to say "this is a British CATCHER IN THE RYE," because I don't think that was Rosoff's intent at all. There's a similarity in feel in that the narrator is caught up completely in his own world and doesn't really understand what's going on around him (or, if he does, he brushes it aside in favor of what he wants us to think is going on around him), but the similarity in feel is about as far as I'm comfortable taking the comparison. (Besides, aren't we all tired of hearing first-person-teen-boy-narrators described as "the next Holden Caulfield?")

The shocking scandal? It comes way too late in the proceedings and is dispatched fairly quickly in favor of a "here's what the rest of my life was like" ending. The events precipitating the scandal are somewhat brutally described, and I give credit to Rosoff for some terrific writing in that section. I can't say I was completely shocked by what transpires in those pages; in retrospect the hints are all there regarding where this will all go, despite the fact that the book never feels like it's headed in any particular direction at all. What I take exception to is the editors who decided to tout "the heart-wrenching scandal" as the core of the book when it really isn't. If it was meant to be the core of the book, I'd think Rosoff would have taken a little more time with it, teased out more details of the years immediately following the breaking of the scandal -- but it's as if Rosoff, and by extension H, loses interest once those key events play out. The breaking of the scandal and its aftermath are almost glossed over.

As a character study, I can recommend the first two thirds of the book, but I have to say I was disappointed in what feels like a complete lack of energy in the final third.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Life In Books

Yoinking this from the lovely and talented Adam, aka RoofBeamReader:

Basically you just answer the questions with books you read this year!

In high school I was: What I Was (Meg Rosoff)

People might be surprised: If I Were You (L. Ron Hubbard)

I will never be: Where Angels Fear To Tread (Thomas Sneigoski)

My fantasy job is: To Open The Sky (Robert Silverberg)

At the end of a long day I need: Wishful Drinking (Carrie Fisher)

I hate it when: It All Changed in an Instant (various)

Wish I had: Instructions (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess)

My family reunions are: Dark and Stormy Knights (P.N. Elrod)

At a party you’d find me with: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)

I’ve never been to: Hunt Among The Killers of Men (Gabriel Hunt & David Schow)

A happy day includes: The Kiss Box (Regina Gelfer)

Motto I live by: Fear Strikes Out (Jim Piersall)

3 from The New Yorker

Three from recent issues of The New Yorker. In mid-June, the magazine started featuring "20 Under 40," twenty writers under the age of 40. It seems this will run through the fall. I'm behind on my New Yorker reading, and I'm not approaching the stories in any kind of order. Just whatever's next on the pile.

268. The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Galchen from the June 14-21, 2010 issue. To be blunt: I really didn't like this story. I read it, and as I was reading I hoped I'd find something favorable to say about it. The best I can say is that it is not badly written. But I thoroughly disliked the characters and the fact that the story doesn't seem to go anywhere and the abrupt ending that failed to resolve anything at all. If all of that was the author's intention, then she did a good job. The main character is either incredibly self-involved or is the stereotype of the dumb blond who just doesn't get what's going on around her. Both of the people she expresses her problems to (her brother and a close friend) are equally self-involved. The main character's agent seems like the only person who might have a clue as to anything, and we never actually see him on-screen, just get a summary of a phone conversation. And I realize that there are very good stories out there (some of which I've reviewed here) that have ambiguous endings and lack complete resolution. This story's ending doesn't just leave things hanging, it feels tacked on.

269. The Erlking by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum from the July 5, 2010 issue. I've only read one other Bynum story, Yurt, reviewed earlier this year. The main character in that story struck me as disconnected from herself and the world around her, and the main characters in this story strike me in much the same way. Kate, the mother, and Ruthie/Ondine/Dorothy, the young daughter, both are wrapped up in their own heads (as so many of us so often are) that even the simplest social interaction between them becomes something absolutely different to each. Bynum works the neat trick of alternating pov without making any sharp breaks in the narrative (and the few sharp breaks there are don't occur at a POV change but in the midst of Kate's thoughts, providing us with some indication of the recent past). Both mother and daughter are caught up in their own fantasy worlds, although Kate's fantasies are of the mundane kind: find the right school for her daughter, find the right colored doll, and the child's problems will disappear, while Ruthie's are typical child flights of fantasy: the strange man and the Renaissance Faire-like day at a nearby school surely has an amazing surprise gift meant only for her, if only she could get her mother to talk to the man. The story takes on a darker tone near the end, as the mother's searching for the right doll overwhelms her attention to what her daughter is doing. The ending is a bit ambiguous -- is the last paragraph in Ruthie's imagination or is it real -- but compared to the story above, the ambiguity is a satisfying ending.

270. The Dredgeman's Revelation
by Karen Russell from the July 26, 2010 issue. Karen Russell is one of those writers I feel I've read more of than I really have. I've read Vampires In the Lemon Grove twice now, and St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves once, although I can't seem to locate the review of that latter story here in the community. Perhaps I mis-tagged it. Anyway -- I loved both of those stories, taking genre tropes and tweaking them. This story works in a very different way. There is no obvious genre feel to the story at the beginning, unless you consider "Depression-era Dust Bowl Lit" to be a genre like SF or Horror. The story is about an adopted son who runs away from home during the Depression and ends up on first one, then another, work crew in Florida dredging a swamp. Most of the story has a very Oh Brother Where Art Thou / Grapes of Wrath feel: the boy is optimistic despite hard times, does what he has to to survive, doesn't talk about his past with his coworkers. You can almost feel the tension building like humidity on a summer day: something is going to happen, things seem too happy. Sure enough, something does happen -- something that caught me so off-guard I don't want to spoil it here. In its final page the story takes on a genre aspect, and in fact reminded me of a very different movie than the two referenced above. Very much enjoyed this one, and will be surprised if it doesn't end up in Best American Short Stories in 2011.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dark Stormy Knights

Book 52: Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod, isbn 9780312598341, 357 pages, St. Martin's Griffin, $14.99

This is the fourth P.N. Elrod-edited urban fantasy anthology I've picked up. Honestly, the deciding factor to purchase each lay in the fact that each includes a story / novella of The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher. I also have to be honest and say I haven't really finished any of the other anthologies. Over time, I've picked out a story or two to try out but have never really had the urge to read the anthologies cover to cover. I didn't have that urge with this anthology at first, either, but I kept finding first lines / first paragraphs that interested me, and after the third time that happened I decided I needed to just read the whole thing.

I'm glad I did. The contents of any anthology can be described as "hit or miss," but I can say this collection actually had more hits than misses for me. According to the back cover text, the characters in these stories are "the shadow defenders of humanity -- modern-day knights committing the darkest of deeds for all the right reasons." Most of the main characters fit that description well, both in the stories that are part of an already existing larger fictional world and the stories that introduce us to new settings.

As I've already reviewed each story individually on the [info]365shortstories community on livejournal, I won't retread those thoughts here in any detail. Of the nine stories in this collection, five are definitely part of existing fictional worlds: Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books, Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty" books, Vicki Pettersson's "Sings of the Zodiac" series, and editor P.N. Elrod's Jack Fleming mysteries. I was already very familiar with the Dresden books and have a decent familiarity with the Fleming stories; the other three were new to me. Of those, I thought Ilona Andrews and Carrie Vaughn did the best at making a new reader feel comfortable. Pettersson's story was interesting (especially in terms of the question "what makes us human?") but I felt like I was being penalized for not having read the novels -- too much of Pettersson's story seemed to rely on knowing exactly where in the novel series the characters were, while Andrews and Vaughn gave me enough world and character background to enjoy the story as a stand-alone piece. As for the two worlds with which I was already familiar, I'm probably not in a good position to judge whether the Dresden story (which does not feature Harry Dresden himself, but rather gangster "Gentleman" John Marcone) is easily accessible without knowledge of the novels. I think it is, but readers new to Dresden can judge better than I. The Fleming story, as with the others I've read, is a decent little mystery, serviceable towards the anthology's theme, and I think ultimately accessible to new readers; Elrod gives you everything you need to know about Jack to get you through the story.

The remaining four stories in the anthology appear to be truly stand-alone tales. Shannon K. Butcher's "The Beacon" reads like an introduction to a series. I have no idea if she plans to continue with the Ryder Ward character, but I think she certainly could and could build up an interesting world around him. Rachel Caine is always a favorite of mine in these anthologies, and this time she gives a tale of dragon-hunting in the modern day that is both funny and heart-breaking. The Lilith Saintcrow story also felt like it might be an introduction to a new series (or perhaps it is part of something that already exists -- it didn't seem so from the author's notes, though). And the Diedre Knight story felt so complete that I can't imagine where she would go if it was part of a series.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

new website

Hello all!

I finally have up and running. Right now, there's an "About Me" page, a page advertising my book THE FIRFLAKE, and a Blog page. My intent for the blog page is to be pretty much the same stuff I post here. Book reviews, thoughts on reading and writing, etc. I haven't been very consistent with this blog, and hopefully having my own domain to keep active will inspire me to post more frequently. I still intend to crosspost any writing-connected blog entries to this space. However, as I have yet to figure out how to get notifications to my email to work here on Blogger, the advantage to is that I will actually see your comments when you make them, and be able to respond sooner!

I appreciate the support of the few of you who follow me here and take the time to comment even when I don't answer right away, and I hope you'll follow me to the new domain. I also intend to, in the next week, add links to your blogs from my site. I respect your reviewing and want to drive more readers your way!