The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman, #15in2015

Standard

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax  (Mrs. Pollifax #1)The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 8 of #15in2015.

I’m honestly torn about this one, because there are so many good things but the negatives are colossal.

Setup: Mrs. Polifax is an elderly widow so bored with her life of volunteering and middle class charity work that she’s on the verge of suicide, until she decides to revive her childhood dream of becoming a spy. So she slips out of her home in New Brunswick, NJ and takes a train to CIA headquarters in Langley to volunteer.

Of course, due to a mixup, an administrator actually meets her, is intrigued by her story, and just so happens to have a perfect job for her. A milk run. All she has to go is visit Mexico City as a tourist for a week, then buy a book in a particular shop (using proper code words) and bring it home. Easy, right?

Obviously, everything goes wrong and she ends up in deep shit, and just as obviously, her common sense, practicality, and basic decency helps her to save the day.

I heard about this book, which is the first of a popular series, from commenters on the io9 article about my own elderly protagonist, and I thought it would be only fair to give it a try. When I started this one, I really wanted to like it.

Yeah, some of the writing can be rough. It’s annoying that the protagonist’s thoughts are put in quotations, just like her dialog. But that’s minor stuff. The character work is terrific, and there are several lovely little grace notes in the narrative that I enjoyed very much.

Unfortunately, the book was written and is set in the early sixties, when readers might seriously see the CIA as heroic freedom fighters and the rest of the world as a little slower, a little more primitive or ridiculous. I can look past casual racism in older books (I have to do it in modern books, too) but when the supposed heroes reveal [SPOILER] that the man they saved from prison was a food scientist the Red Chinese government had kidnapped because they hoped his discoveries would help relieve famine in their country.

Character: “Can you imagine what the Chinese government could have done with him?”

Me: “Feed a bunch of starving people?”

But I guess those people don’t count, because fuck ’em. Saving their lives would stabilize a communist government, and that’s not a price these characters are willing to pay.

Here I am fresh off a fantasy trilogy all about the seductive ideas of conquest and empire, and I just can’t go there.

So, good book, but dated in a way I just can’t abide.



Buy a copy.

Randomness for 3/31

Standard

1) Man trolls bookstore w/ fake self-help book covers.

2) A super-tall webcomic about unhappy stories.

3) Double space after a period? Single space? A history.

4) Arnold Schwarzenegger went to reddit to encourage a guy who had a rough day at the gym.

5) Joy Division + Teletubbies = This video

6) A businessman’s affair with his secretary, meticulously documented.

7) Thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon eye remedy proves effective against MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria.

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer #15in2015

Standard

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People HelpThe Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 7 of #15in2015.

I liked this much better than I expected. I’m not a fan of Palmer’s music, I don’t read her blog or follow her on Twitter, so what I know about her can be summed up by:

Her TEDTalk
What people say about her online
Retweets

Which isn’t much. That said, as soon as she began to describe the experience of leaving college with no idea how to make a living as an artist, I was on her side.

What follows is a memoir mixed with personal meditation on her own need to connect with people on a personal level, to ask them for the things she needs, and to understand the nuances of a gift economy. Then, towards the end of the book, she broaches the subject of how that gift economy appeared to people who were outside it, and how much hate she got.

I found it fascinating, in part because her own worldview is so alien to mine, and in part because of the parallel thread structure the book uses. Recommended.



Buy the book.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig #15in2015

Standard

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 6 of #15in2015

One of the many ways you can categorize urban fantasy is whether it leans toward the fantasy stakes or crime stakes. Is the character on a quest to recover the ancient fang of Curlique before The Bad Guy can use it to take control of the were-lions of Little Rock? Or has someone you care about gotten into debt to/stolen something from/slept with the wife of A Very Bad Person and need to be saved?

Or, is this going to be a story about a threat to the succession of some made-up organization of magical beings, or is it going to be a search for the truth behind the death of a single person?

Both of these are fictional conceits, of course, but one is not grounded in the concerns of real people and one is, and I suspect you can tell by the tone of my comments which I prefer.

BLACKBIRDS falls into the crime-stakes end of things, and I’m glad of it. Premise: The first time Miriam Black touches someone, flesh to flesh, she knows how they’ll die. Then, one day, she touches the hand of a truck driver who helped her out of a tight spot and discovers that he’ll die in one month, while saying her name.

Aside from some vision/dream sequences that might be advice/harassment from Mysterious Entities, that’s it for the fantasy elements. The rest is lifting wallets, roadside harassment, blackmail, a mysterious suitcase, and criminal psychopaths.

Miriam herself is profane and damaged. Not only does she have this awful gift, but she knows that she can’t prevent the deaths she foresees; any attempt to save the doomed person only ensures events will play out as prophesied. Throw in an abusive childhood and you have a cynical fatalist who lives like a vulture. She never kills people, but she’s nearby when they die so she can lift their cash.

And of course the events of the novel destroy all that.

The tone is very gritty, a sort of rural noir that almost reminds me of JUSTIFIED (without the dialog). It’s a powerful story, especially if you’re a fan of low thrillers, which I am. Good stuff.



Buy a copy.

The Blog Tour Continues, Part Nexter

Standard

Continuing from the previous blog tour link farm

1. Like every writer, I sometimes I have to write a synopsis. It will surprise no one to learn that I have a system.

2. Here’s a post about genres, protagonists and exposition at SFF World.

3. Advice you won’t hear from sensible authors: Always Blame Yourself.

4. The way that studying screenwriting helped me as a novelist, and the way it didn’t.

5. Self-publishing vs traditional publishing, with an agenda to push one over the other.

6. He Always Runs While Others Walk: Pacing in Fiction. My ideas about pacing aren’t what I hear from so many other writers.

7. God is All Loving (Some Exemptions Apply) Religious Magic in Horror and Fantasy. I talk about vampires, crosses, and dehumanized enemies.

8. King Queen and this Three Seasons: ARROW and the Challenges of Long Term Narrative.

9. SF Signal Mind Meld: which series got better after the first book?

10. I Search the Body: What Role-Playing Games Taught Me About Writing Fiction.

11. Helpless in the Face of Your Enemy: Writers and Attack Novels.

— 11a. That Black Gate post was linked at io9. Comments are interesting.

12. The Loneliest Student: Writing as a Subject of Study. Applying education research to the process of learning to write.

And that’s it for my blog tour. It’s Dee Oh En Ee, done. I hope you find these interesting; please share if you do.

Sometimes it helps to clarify your goals

Standard

When I’m writing, sometimes my goal is as simple as “Finish this day’s work so I can have finished this day’s work.” Sometimes it’s as complex as “I don’t know how to solve this problem.”

Then there are times like right now, when I have a list of odd tasks that accumulate around a writing career, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do, except cross off everything on this list. And then I have to wonder why I’m doing any of this.

It’s not money, despite what some “fans” might say. If I wanted money I wouldn’t have become a writer. It’s certainly not awards; that’s someone else’s concern. And if I wanted writing-style fame, I’d probably do readings or conventions or whatever. So, what do I want, then?

It was this article that reminded me: How Terry Brooks Saved Epic Fantasy.

Regarding the article itself, I don’t think Brooks gets a bad rap. He wrote accessible, commercial fantasy fiction, and was lucky enough to hit the NYTimes bestseller list when other fantasy writers couldn’t. Even now, 35+ years later, his books are gateway fantasy to bring middle-graders into the genre, and as comfort reads for older fans. And if you think I have something against comfort, you haven’t seen my Goodreads page or my waist line.

However, the article itself reminded me of What I Want: I want people to be still talking about my work, decades after it was published.

That’s not to say I want people to think I “saved [genre]”. I don’t really think about genre as a unified thing that could be/needs to be saved. Fantasy is certainly doing better now than it has in a long while.

But I want to have an impact. I want people to look back at my work and believe that it mattered in some way. I want to be remembered.

Which is not nearly the same as winning awards or hitting bestseller lists. There are plenty of award-winning novels that nobody reads, and the thrift store shelves are packed with forgotten bestsellers from “#1 New York Times” authors that few remember.

I mean, awards would be nice, and money would make things easier for my wife and kid. I’m not saying those things don’t matter at all. But the number one thing is to be remembered because things are different because of what I’ve done. I’m not even sure it’s possible, but it’s what I want.

Bucket Nut by Liza Cody #15in2015

Standard

Bucket Nut (Eva Wylie trilogy)Bucket Nut by Liza Cody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part comedy, part tragedy, this book follows one Eva Wylie, a big ugly brute of a woman trying to make a name for herself as a baddie in professional wresting. She wrestles under the name of the London Lassassin, but her (anti-)fans call her Bucket Nut.

She lives for their boos and their insults, but she’s living a marginal life. After a childhood spent in foster homes and years living homeless, she’s only now beginning to put her life together, with a job watching over a junkyard, petty theft, and running errands for a local gangster.

Then everything goes to hell and Eva finds herself caught in a war between rival gangs.

The real appeal here is Eva’s voice, which comes across as loud and brutish even on the page. It’s not often readers get a crime novel where the POV character is as clumsy and comically clueless as this one. Everything has to be explained to her, because she’s always looking elsewhere when important clues pop up.

There are two more in this series but I don’t think I’ll continue reading it. I enjoyed this one, and I liked the way it ended. I’m satisfied. Book 5 of #15in2015



Buy a copy

Mr. Kiss And Tell, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham #15in2015

Standard

Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars, #2)Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Browser crash ruined my first version of this review, but let’s try again:

This book was going so well, until it fell apart at the end.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I’m a fan of the Veronica Mars tv show. I’ll admit that I didn’t watch every episode multiple times, but I’m pretty sure there was never an episode where Veronica got the criminal to confess by bringing in a huge bruiser to beat the confession out of him.

Poor book-Veronica doesn’t have half the devious wit of TV/movie-Veronica, because book-Veronica just can’t think up a way to catch the bad guy without having his bones broken. Sure, in the TV show there were fights and physical dangers. Logan brandished a gun to pull her out of a tight spot. Keith faced off with Aaron Echols. Logan got himself thrown in prison to kick the shit out of the Hearst rapists.

But at no point did Veronica ever pull a lazy, shitty stunt like torturing a suspect into a confession.

Did I mention that a major subplot in the book involves the fight against corrupt local police?

Here’s the thing: Veronica was a trickster character. She put on disguises, played with people’s heads, and tricked them into incriminating themselves. She used her brains. In this book, not so much.

Anyway, that’s a massive, massive disappointment. I expect better. I wouldn’t want to drop a series for one terrible creative choice, but I’ll be borrowing book 3 from the library, and if the authors pull this lazy shit again I’m out.



No buy link this time.

Book 4 for #15in2015

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham #15in2015

Standard

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars, #1)The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Obviously, I was a fan of the show and I backed the Kickstarter. I even went to the theater to see the film. When this book came out, I bought it right away, but it languished on the shelf.

It shouldn’t have. It’s not the deepest detective novel I’ve ever read, but it was addictive as hell. I lost half a work day pushing through to the end.

This is the first novel I’ve ever read about characters from another. medium and being able to picture the actors delivering the dialog had a strange effect. There was a flush of warm feeling because I enjoyed the show so much, but it took me out of the story, too. Every time a scene with Wallace would end, I’d start thinking about Percy Daggs’s career, and wonder how much acting work he was getting now.

Still, it was compulsively readable, funny in spots, and while the scenes between Keith and Veronica didn’t have the warmth of the TV shows (because how could they without those two actors) it was still Keith and Veronica.

Good stuff. Recommended if, like me, you enjoy private investigator novels.

Book 3 in #15in2015



Buy a copy.

The Blog Tour Continues, Part Next

Standard

Continuing from the first post.

Over at the Skiffy and Fanty blog, I wrote an entry for their “My Superpower” series. My superpower is an unusual kind of invulnerability.

“It’s Dangerous to Go Alone” is a post about figuring out why most people didn’t like my old series, and what if anything I should change for The Great Way, hosted by David B Coe.

“Let’s Fail On Our Own Terms” is about making ridiculous creative choices and standing by them, no matter what.

On Nick Kaufmann’s blog, I wrote about The Scariest Part of the trilogy, which is also the longest chapter in the trilogy.

Also, author Joshua Palmatier interviewed me about the series. I talk here about the hardest part of the trilogy to write, among other things.

An amusing review posted over at reddit.

And not to bury the lede, but once again here’s that starred review in Publishers Weekly.

More links in part nexter.

If you found any of that interesting, please share.