Category: Book Review


I picked up this book for two reasons: First, one of the stories is by Barbara Ashford who will be one of the guest lecturers at Odyssey and I’ve been trying to get at least a taste of the writing of each guest lecturer who will be there, and secondly, because I’m still desperately searching for a ‘favorite short story’ which is one of the things I’m required to bring to Odyssey (I always have “Sand Kings” as a fall back, but I’d like to come up with something a little more obscure.)

After Hours is a collection of short stories with a common element–they all include a bar which mystically appears in various settings throughout time (from ancient Rome or viking ruled Scandinavia to a near-future zombie infested post-apocalypse) run by an immortal bar-keep (as long as he stays in the bar). So as far as setting goes, there’s a little something for everyone. The bar is not always the centerpiece of the stories, in some it only appears in passing, but it is present in every story.

There wasn’t any story that I will be taking to Odyssey with me, but I enjoyed them all. My favorites were “Sake and other Spirits” by Maria V. Snyder set in feudal Japan, “The Alchemy of Alcohol” by Seanan McGuire set in San Francisco in the early 1900s, “Steady Hands and a Heart of Oak” by Ian Tregillis set in London during WW2, and “Where We Are Is Hell” by Jackie Kessler which takes place entirely in the bar.

My main take away from this book was an idea, or really, an exercise. It was apparent from how certain aspects (Gil, the bartender and the circumstances of the bar) stayed completely consistent from story to story that these ‘rules’ were set in stone for the authors. It’s not hard to pick them out as they are present in every story (Gil always had dark hair and a beard and a faint accent that you can’t quite place). So, taking those and imagining that I was asked to write a story for this anthology that ‘follows the rules’ what would I write? Where, and when, would it be set? My first thoughts were South America, perhaps Chile which I know best, during or just after the Pinochet coup, or maybe the early, ‘wild’ days of Australia.

I think I might give it a try sometime.

Next up: I’m halfway through “Catching Fire”, i.e. Hunger Games 2.

Seed to Harvest is a collection of four stories (“Wild Seed”, “Mind of my Mind”, “Clay’s Ark” and “Patternmaster”) by Octavia Butler in her Patternist series. Each story is set at a different point along the timeline of an alternate Earth – “Wild Seed” in the 17th-19th centuries, “Mind of my Mind” at more or less present time, “Clay’s Ark” in a near future, and “Patternmaster” in a more distant future.

The stories follow the rise of a group of mutated humans, most of whom have some sort of mental abilities (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) and who have been bred together by Doro (the ‘first’ mutant, and strongest) to enhance their abilities. The first two stories follow the rise of these mutants. The third story introduces an alien organism which is brought back to earth by the first interstellar explorers and begins to transform the humans it infects into its own form of life. The final book explores the conflict between the patternists (the telepaths) and the clayarks (the alien infected human hybrids) in a world in which ordinary humans have been reduced to mind-controlled labor.

There’s two things that especially struck me as I read these stories.

The first is the power of a strong character. In the first two stories, Butler flies in the face of convention – at least the convention that you’ll read in most writing books. The plot is minimal and the setting is secondary. They are both simply explorations of two characters–Doro and Anyanwu (his most powerful mutant), how they act and how they interact with each other. And it works! Because she’s created two strong, complex characters that fascinate in and of themselves. It just goes to show, in my opinion, that strong characters are just as valuable as strong plot.

The second thing that struck me is Butler’s world building. I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed. First of all, she’s created a world (in the literary sense) that not only stretches across space but also encompasses at least five centuries (and probably more) of time. The world doesn’t remain static, each story is different. There is a sense of history, of things changing and society adapting/evolving. Okay, that is hugely impressive by itself, but here’s what blew my mind…

She didn’t write these stories in chronological order!

The first book she wrote was the last chronologically – “Patternmaster” in 1976. Then came the 2nd book “Mind of My Mind” in 1977, “Wild Seed” (the first book chronologically) in 1980, and finally “Clay’s Ark” in 1984.

This tells me one of two things: either she plotted all of this out beforehand and then simply wrote them out of order (I find this theory less likely) or she wrote a story and did some worldbuilding and then expanded her world backwards to backfill the history of how it got to that state.

Either way, she created a world so detailed and so rich that she could simply pick a spot in time and write a story placed in that world. It seems to me that that is something to strive for if you are an aspiring writer – a world right there in your mind that is so real to you that you can simply reach in and pluck stories out.

 

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile tries to be exactly what its title says. This isn’t a book for writers looking to take their craft to the next level, it’s a checklist of bad habits that will cause editors to dismiss your writing at first glance. The entire premise of the book is that editors are looking for a reason to reject your manuscript. Knowing what they are looking for helps you to avoid giving them that reason. It doesn’t claim that your writing will be accepted if you follow its advice, but simply that avoiding these mistakes will at least force the editor to give your work more than a cursory glance.

Does it work? Meh. It’s a quick read, so it doesn’t hurt, but after that I think it probably has more value as a reference/checklist that a writer might skim through on occasion to make sure he isn’t falling into bad habits.

Each chapter is centered around a particular bad habit that the author maintains an editor will notice very quickly and use as an excuse for rejection. They are ordered in decreasing importance (to an editor) and so, the most egregious errors are in the first few chapters. It’s a good premise. My problem with it was that there wasn’t much in here that any writer with a modicum of experience wouldn’t already know. It might be valuable as a checklist for the experienced writer, but it won’t add much to their knowledge.

My biggest complaint with the book is the examples. Without exception, the examples (of bad habits) are such over-the-top bad writing that it’s hard to think anything other that ‘who writes like this?’ There’s not much in the way of subtle nuance which makes it difficult to draw parallels from the examples to your own writing.

If you want a quick read and perhaps a little insight into the mind of an editor, give it a look. If you’re looking to improve your writing, there are better books to be found.

I don’t know about you, but I find that there is always a hole in my knowledge no matter how complete I think it might be. There’s always more to learn. Such was the case when I realized that one of the more important modern science fiction authors had somehow slipped through the cracks of my reading education – Octavia Butler. So, I picked up a copy of Seed to Harvest, which is a compilation of four of the books in her Patternist series. So far, I’ve only read the first, Wild Seed, and it’s apparent to me that the series needs to be read in its entirety before I can express an opinion.

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I read George R. R. Martin’s and Patrick Rothfuss’ latest books and loved every minute of them. Sure, in the back of my mind I was aware that they both seemed to have lost their plot focus and were drifting/idling, but who cares? They can both tell a story like nobody’s business. They could write about filling out tax forms and I wouldn’t be able to put it down. I’m all about the storytelling.

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