2014: Year in Review

CalendarObliqueThis past year has been a mixed one at best.

The bright point of the year was that I got a job, which relieved a lot of financial stress. On the other hand, though, it took away a lot of my writing time.

My goal of writing a million words fell flat on its face, mostly because of the job. I think before I started work, I was on pace for about 650,000 and accelerating, so it’s conceivable I could have made it, but the second half of the year pretty well tanked in my writing. I did manage a NaNoWriMo, but mostly due to a Herculean effort over the Thanksgiving holiday. Anyway, I stopped keeping good records in the later months, but I’m pretty sure I ended up in the neighborhood of 450,000 for the year.

But I did not get a single book out the door this year, and for that I consider the year a failure. I now have six – yes, SIX – novels in the queue. Two are technically still in the draft phase, but they’re close to done. Mostly everything is held up in edits, which I suck at. And alas, most of these aren’t the kind of edits I can hand off to an editor. These are essentially writing additional scenes and rewriting others to fix story problems. The actual grammar and language stuff goes pretty fast, and I DO get professional help with those.

But I get stuck on these story-level edits, and I’m still trying to fix that as a process problem. It’s not that I don’t know what needs to be fixed. I’m just having a hard time making progress on them. I once quipped, “I spent about forty hours this month not editing that book.” That is, I dedicated forty hours to the work but got virtually nothing done in that time. This is probably one of those things that I’ll eventually figure out, and once I do, I’ll look back on my lame excuses with the same scorn that I currently do for things like, “I don’t have the time to write” or “I don’t have any ideas”, etc. But in the meantime, I’m pounding my head against this wall of edits.

It’s also been a very rough year for me personally. I have special needs kids. I don’t talk about them much – at least not in specifics – but it’s been a hard year, especially with my oldest son, but even my youngest son has caused his share of gray hairs. My daughter, on the other hand, has been a delight. Still, I worry for her, growing up around her brothers who are causing me plenty of grief, even with thirty-six more years of emotional experience and perspective.

I’ve also been having a tremendous amount of physical pain this year. What started as an intermittent stabbing pain in my ribs in September 2013 has blossomed into near-constant agony throughout my torso. There are people out there hurting worse than me, so I feel lame complaining, but I also realize that I’ve probably only had three of four days since summer that the pain has not required a dose or two of Vicodin, just for me to function.

In the last couple of months, it’s gotten even worse while the source remains a mystery. A back specialist thinks the pain is being caused by pinched nerves. Apparently, I have herniated discs on either side of my T7 vertebrae, though how I did that is yet another mystery, since that part of the back is generally immune that this kind of problem. But after a couple of cortisone injections in my back, we’re starting to think there may be multiple sources to this pain. So I’m now being sent off physical therapy as well as a GI specialist. Apparently, there’s some chance the culprit is that bilious bag known as the gall bladder.

But whatever it is, I’ve spent much of the year exploring the upper ranges of the pain scale, determining the finer shades between an 8 and a 9. For those of you in similar situations, I highly recommend the alternate pain scale by Hyperbole and a Half.

So I go into 2015 with a few vague plans and a lot of an

Review: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

This is the third and final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as the first two.

This one picks up shortly after the end of the second book, Catching Fire, which ended on quite a cliff-hanger. Everything has broken loose and been turned upside down. It’s no longer a matter of surviving the Capitol’s Hunger Games. It’s a matter of surviving open warfare, and now everyone is at risk, not just the tributes in the arena.

Yet with so much at stake, our hero Katniss mostly just fumbles around. Yes, she’s been a pawn before, and I suppose she knows she is still just a pawn, but she only breaks out from that on the rare occasion. You’d think that by now she would be coming into her own. So, for much of the book, I was kind of annoyed with her. Towards the end, she does finally break out on her own – or at least, of her own volition – but ultimately she falls short of her goals, with others stepping in to do the heavy lifting.

I was kind of disappointed by the ending. It’s not so much what happened as how it was revealed to us. Again, Katniss has been sidelined as a pawn, and so much of what has happened is simply told to us as a fact. There’s very little dialog, and very little narrative of discovering what has happened and seeing Katniss’ reaction. Instead, we get a “this is where I am now” info-dump that is lacking in passion. She does finally make some good, independent choices, but it wasn’t enough to save the ending for me.

The love triangle was resolved more or less the way I thought it would end, and that was at least satisfying. So, it was a pretty good book, but I think it was a weak ending to the trilogy.

Review: Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

I’ve been reading Chuck’s blog for a year or two over at TerribleMinds.com, so I thought I would give his fiction a shot. I’m not sure how to characterize Blackbird’s genre, but at the intersection of paranormal, crime, and thriller, it’s definitely on the outskirts of my usual reading.

The premise is that Miriam, a young drifter, can see the time and circumstances of anyone’s death as soon as she touches them – everyone, that is, except herself. It’s not exactly a Disney princess life for her, seeing often-gruesome death with every handshake. More than once she’s tried to stop them from dying, but in a cruel twist she just ends up being the cause of their demise.

So when she brushes up against a truck driver and sees his murder and hears him calling out to her as he dies, she’s in a pickle. Is she helping the murderer, or is she the next victim? She does what she can to avoid it all, but fate seems as inevitable as ever, with each random turn taking her closer to the grisly murder. Is there some way out? Maybe, but she’s going to have to fight fate for it.

Overall, I liked it, but he didn’t knock it out of the park. I liked most of his gritty, profanity-infused writing style, but the point-of-view kind of threw me. The story tracks with Miriam most of the way through, very rarely showing a scene where she is not present. The narrative distance from her is almost non-existent, i.e. we’re totally in her head, in her thoughts. Yet, the tale is told almost entirely from third person, and given how deep we were inside Miriam, I kept expecting it to be in first person.

The only time we got first person was in individual chunks when other characters took a chapter to tell us their back-story, and strangely, those sections did not have nearly the narrative closeness that the rest of the story did. Then toss in a series out outside-the-plot interludes where Miriam is giving her own back-story in an interview reminiscent of the film Memento, and the result was a narrative style that felt like it was all over the map. However, I’ll admit that these are largely structural issues that might only stand out to another writer, and in that sense, it could simply be that I don’t like it because I don’t write that way. Still, I was the reader, and I didn’t like it.

So, I’ll give it five stars for originality and then rip off a few of the stars’ points for the structure of the narrative.

Review: Cloud Atlas

I’m reviewing the movie here, not the book it was based on. I actually tried reading the book, but I have a hard time reading dialect, and both book and film half quite a bit of it. Hence, I settled for the movie.

I was quite taken with the trailer when I saw it over the summer and was really looking forward to this. It promised to be a little deeper in the intellectual waters than most American films. And yeah, I’d say it was deeper all right. It ended up being one of those films I was going to have to see more than once to really know what I thought about it. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to do so before it promptly vanished from the theaters, so that will have to wait until it comes out on disc.

First of all, I have to say it is a visually beautiful film. The settings (both real and virtual) are gorgeous, and the cinematography is stunning. It’s a testament to how seamless effects can be in a film that’s not really billed as a special effects bonanza. Things that are quite unreal simply looked real.

Second, the movie hops around quite a bit, but I think it does so to its benefit. It’s really six tales interleaved with each other, but they are all separated by time, anywhere from fifty to three hundred years. And yet, there were connections between most of the tales, some subtle, some not. Some of the connections were about cause and effect, while others were more tangential. I would say they were actually all connected, but there was one link going forward that I could not spot in my memory of the film.

And third, the cast was a fabulous collection of A-list actors, with each of them playing multiple roles that were often quite different. It was only when the credits rolled did I realize just how many roles they each played. I expect this film to win various technical awards for its costumes and make-up.

So, all of that is the blah-blah-blah that movie reviewers go on about when describing some high-concept art film, but it never really tells us what the film is about.

So, what is this one about?

It’s kind of hard to say, but to sum it up, I would say it’s about the terrible things we humans do to one another as well as how individuals face that. Some of them fold under. Some stand up and fight. And others make good their escape. And these six tales examine many of humanity’s real and imagined sins ranging from historic slavery all the way forward to post-apocalyptic barbarism. And I would say it did a good job at it.

So, in short, the six tales are about the following – and no, these aren’t really much in the way of spoilers:

  • the American institution of black slavery
  • the treatment of homosexuals in historic “polite society”
  • the abuse of corporate power against citizens
  • the shutting away of our elders
  • the denial of basic rights to artificial life forms
  • the barbaric struggles of a post-apocalyptic world

There was also a hint of reincarnation, cycles of life, and other non-Judeo-Christian views. The preview actually made me expect much more of this than I saw in the film itself. What it had was actually pretty vague and open to interpretation. On exiting, I overheard an elderly couple discussing the film, with one asking, “So, was Tom Hanks supposed to be Christ?” I never would have made that leap myself, but it does show that different people will see different things in the film.

So, if you missed it in the theater, definitely give it a look when it comes out for purchase or rental. I know I’m going to be buying it on Blu-Ray, just to get another look at it.

Review: Academ’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the second in the six-book Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. While this is the first Butcher book I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’ve mentioned before how good I think he is. And yet, the first book of the series, “Furies of Calderon”, left me flat. This one was much better.

Mostly it came down to pacing and already being past the world-building. The events in this one seemed to come much faster, and instead of struggling to understand how the people interacted with their elemental spirits (aka their “furies”), I was able to simply accept it and move on. Also, this one simply felt tighter with fewer extraneous threads pulling me in different directions. I imagine by the time we get to the end, all of those loose threads from the first book will be important, but I’m glad that for this one, we didn’t need to keep up with them.

So, this one mostly focused on battling a nasty spider-like monster that was spreading forth from the nest we saw in the first book, as it spread out, sending its children forth to multiply. It proved quite nasty and its particular powers were pretty squicky – not I-stepped-on-something squicky but please-kill-me-before-the-alien-impregnates-me squicky.

In and around the monster battles, political intrigue advanced, secrets were revealed, and several characters made some hard choices that I suspect they will later regret. Specifically, there was one of those “for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” things that probably won’t reach the level of losing battles and wars until book five, but it’s troubling to see that chain of loss start.

Anyway, it probably took me two years after reading Furies of Calderon to give this series another shot, but now that it’s picking up, I’ll probably be back before long.

Review: Highway to Hell, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is the third (and so far final) book in the Maggie Quinn vs. Evil series. I really enjoyed the first two (Prom Dates from Hell and Hell Week), but I have to say I was a little disappointed in this one. However, I will admit that much of my disappointment can be tied to my expectations that the book was going to be something that it was not.

The story follows Maggie Quinn and her old high-school friend D&D Lisa, aka Lisa the Evil Genius, on their way down to Padre Island in south Texas for a week of spring break debauchery. Along the way, they get sidetracked and end up spending the bulk of their week investigating a local legend and ultimately going into battle against capital-E Evil.

Some of the other supporting cast of do-gooders show up to join in, and the locals add their own skills. Probably what I liked best was seeing them all come to rely on one another’s strengths. It was reminiscent of the final battle in the summer movie Avengers when they finally stopped bickering and worked as a team. And the Evil and the supporting history for it fit together nicely.

However, I was really expecting them to actually reach Padre Island and run into some as-yet-unknown capital-E Evil down amongst the bikinis and beer kegs. You see, to me, much of the charm of the first two books was how Maggie dealt with Evil amidst some common rite of passage. The first book was battling a demon in the run-up to high school prom, while the second book dealt with curses and blood pacts all tied in with a college sorority’s initiation rituals. This one seemed to be aimed at the rite of spring break.

So I figured they would be fighting Evil during the road trip itself or on the island of crazy parties and loose morals. (Not that Maggie Quinn’s morals were ever going to be all that loose. I mean, really, she’s a good girl.) But still, I was expecting another rite of passage. Yes, the conflict occurred on a road trip, but the road trip wasn’t really part of the story. It merely bookended the tale, providing an excuse for their arrival in middle-of-nowhere and a reason for their eventual escape, so it wasn’t even a proper road trip, with bad fast food, dirty rest stops, scary truckers or any of the other elements of a long cross-country trip. Instead of a rite of passage, they were out-of-towners tangled up in some local legend.

I suppose if I could have gotten past that, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. After all, the plot and characters really worked, but in the end, I confess I felt like Private Hudson in Aliens asking, “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” Well, as my reaction shows, it was a bug hunt.

Review: The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

This is the sequel to Old Man’s War and takes place amongst the Colonial Union’s super soldiers, except this time, instead of following the tale of some regular super soldier, we tag along with even more elite special forces, specifically Jared Dirac.

By and large, I enjoyed the book, but there were a few things I didn’t like. Specifically, I felt that the backstory on how Dirac came to be was a little convoluted and required more than one person to be… well, maybe a little dumb. Having said that, though, I liked Dirac. He was a good guy with a very dry sense of humor.

The other thing I didn’t like was the level of non-action exposition the tale required. That’s common in sequels since they need to fill in the backstory of the universe without going to the trouble of discovering it all over again. It’s easy either to skimp on it or to unload the dumptruck. This one fell a little too far on the dumptruck side for my tastes.

The tale took us through some fun combat, some terrible losses, and some interesting existential conundrums. At times, it seemed a bit too philosophical, but the ultimate payoff was worth it, both in terms of plot and character. I won’t say that everyone got what they deserved, but I will say that I was satisfied with what everyone got.

Sorry to be that vague, but this is one of those that isn’t served well by summing it up. I’ll just say that it’s an interesting piece on how your choices and your experiences make you… you.

Review: Side Jobs, by Jim Butcher

This is a collection of short stories from the Dresden Files:

I’m going to start off with two opposing disclaimers. First, I don’t really read that much short fiction anymore. I used to, but somewhere along the way, it lost its appeal. Second, the Harry Dresden series is one of the best things I’ve read in my life, so I’m predisposed to like this… except, of course, for the short form.

These stories occur between the various novels, and there’s a little forward for each one saying when it occurs and how he came to write it. Often these stories were requested for anthologies, so the story behind the anthology was a little interesting as well. Anyway, the stories started from perhaps halfway through the series so far (i.e. maybe as early as book 5 or 6), all the way to one story that occurred between Changes and Ghost Story.

By and large, these were good stories, and I enjoyed them. Perhaps my biggest complaint was the short form, but I already said I’m biased against that. That stripped the tales of a lot of the wonderful character and world building that they’re known for, and then just as the story really started ramping up, it was over. But what else are you going to do in 8,000 words?

Two stories in particular stood out from the rest, largely because they were not written from Harry Dresden’s point of view. Now, I love Dresden’s first person narrative voice, but the tales done from Thomas’s and Murphy’s points of view were fabulous.

Thomas’s tale dealt with a subject that, by its very nature, Harry was never going to be able to narrate. It was about an effort to intentionally obscure and hide things, which tends to be the very opposite of Harry’s modus operandi. Thomas, however, is well-versed in keeping secrets, and it was great to get his view of the magical world.

Murphy’s tale takes place between Changes and Ghost Story. It’s a time when Harry Dresden is, shall we say, indisposed. Given what the magical side of Chicago looks like at the start of Ghost Story, this story provides a powerful glimpse at the desperate resolve of his friends picking up the fight in his absence.

So, if you’re a fan of Harry Dresden, definitely check this out. If you haven’t read them yet, though, go pick up Storm Front and start reading.

Review: Best Little Stories from World War II, by C. Brian Kelly

I’ve been working through this one for a few months now:

This is a collection of short articles about World War II, centered on the little picture, i.e. small actions, little anecdotes, surprising details. I usually enjoy reading this kind of thing, and I do have a strong interest in World War II. However, I can’t honestly recommend this one.

The content was okay, but what really annoyed was the variation in style. The articles were not written by Kelly. Rather, he edited them together from multiple sources, and the variation in style comes from the multitude of original sources. Some are bare-boned factual accounts. Others are breathless reports from the front line. Some are almost propaganda. And some are trying too hard to obscure the facts for cuteness sake, all so that they can end with, “And that soldier went on to be Dwight D. Eisenhower,” or some such.

Coming after “Band of Brothers” by Ambrose, the inconsistent voice and (in some cases) poor writing in this book was a big disappointment.

Review: Angelica, by Sharon Shinn

This is the fourth book in Shinn’s “Samaria” series, where almost-honest-to-God angels live among the humans on a distant world:

This one was a step backwards in time for the series, taking place a few generations before the first book, Archangel. Again, there is the regular plot line about the difficult relationship between the archangel and his angelica, and there was also an somewhat twisty plot line about the archangel’s human sister trying to find her place in the world. Against this backdrop, the people face the onslaught of invaders with mysterious powers and an equally mysterious origin.

I liked it, but I don’t think it was as good as the previous ones. I put a lot of that on the romance plot line, which really lacked passion in this book. Admittedly, much of the difficulty they had was coming to terms with them both being quite level-headed and not particularly passionate, so it’s not like the author merely failed to reveal their passion. Rather, she made it clear it wasn’t there to begin with. So, I’ll give her a B+ for realism in that respect, but a C- for invoking the romance. About the only thing that really saved that plot line was just how smart and practical each member of the couple was. It’s rare to see protagonists that don’t plunge deep into that one stupid thing we all know is going to be a disaster.

The plotline with the sister was a lot more interesting to me, because it takes someone who starts off emotionally damaged and leads us through her dark times and trials as she reinvents herself into a better person. I wish I saw more of that kind of story line in my SF/F.

But more than anything, I was disappointed by this step backwards in time. Each of the previous three books revealed something about the world of Samaria and the god who ruled over them. By the end of those three, we know a lot about that god, and I must say that the third one left me wondering, “Well shit… what’s going to happen now?” But the fourth book did not pick that up. Instead, it went back.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the fifth book. I don’t know if it’s merely the fifth or if it’s the final one, but I’m hoping it either goes all the way back to the beginning to the founding of Samaria or picks up where the third book left off. As it is, this one added very little to the world’s canon. Instead, it was more of a filler book, telling us some inconsequential tale. Maybe something happens in book five that will change my mind about this, but I doubt it.

So the bottom line is that I enjoyed reading it, but I was disappointed in what it did for the series.

(And yes, I’m switching my various book links over to Amazon Associate links, so that funky URL means I’m whoring myself out. Whether Amazon is the savior of books or the destroyer of mankind I leave to the reader.)