book reviews

Book Review: Dial M for Monkey

3 of 5*

Only 60+ pages; this quick read can be started and finished in well under an hour, and that alone makes it not a waste of time. The stories are a mix of “high impact” and “needs an editor” – I kept wanting to revise or strike his last lines, over and over.

Maxwell sticks to a format of “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, TWIST”, expanding it sometimes to “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, wait for it, wait for it, really I mean it, keep waiting, TWIST, he he he” for most of the collection. Most of the characters are middle-aged, blue collar, London-area blokes, and a lot of the humor is crude (“He got hit in the balls with a block, lol” type of stuff.)

Probably the best are “I Almost Spanked A Monkey”, “Sprouts” (which is one of the few near-genre stories in the book), and “Is That To Go?”. All use Maxwell’s preferred format successfully, and none go on too long.

The longer pieces aren’t quite as good as the flash, IMO, but at the same time Maxwell brings in an earthy, working class, feel to his fiction that I don’t often see in lit flash. It’s an important perspective because it’s not often published, and some of the pieces do work very well. Don’t read it because it’s the best ever (it’s not) but it is a valuable use of an hour, even if you’re only learning what not to do yourself.

Book Review: “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Pros: If you’re struggling with creating a organized routine for writing, and you haven’t heard these ideas before, there are a couple of good thoughts here.

Cons: The book is about as informational as a collection of motivational posters, full of corporate speak (talking about talking instead of imparting facts), and four page essays which only loosely support a single idea. Could have been reduced to a bullet list of ideas – which the book does include, at the end of each chapter – and would have been just as helpful but a lot faster to read.

I make it a point to only review books that I’m recommending, and in this case, I really am recommending it, but only to a small group of people. If you’re having a hard time balancing your writing, your dayjob, your family commitments, and the pressure to be brilliant at all of it, and you haven’t already read a bunch of these books – or you’re the sort of person who needs a lot of outside reinforcement to make changes in your life – this book might be what you need. The highlights:

  • Get plenty of sleep. If you can’t decide whether to go to bed or keep working, go to bed. Start going to bed a half hour earlier than you think you need to – if you need the sleep, you’ve got the time, and if you don’t, you’ll naturally wake up earlier and you can use that time for getting things done instead.
  • Get something done for yourself before replying to emails in the morning.
  • Make a master to do list that you don’t see every minute of the day, and instead write your daily to do list on a post it note. Nothing bigger than that – if you can’t fit it on a post it, you probably can’t get it done in one day. If you do all of those things, you can always make another list partway through the day, so don’t worry that you’re limiting yourself. You’re really freeing yourself to focus on just the things you really need to do first.
  • There will always be negative distractions. It’s impossible to get rid of them all (though certainly, if you can cut down on some of them without losing anything good, you should do that) but what you can and should do is bring in positive distractions to balance out the bad. Hold on to the bright, loving, happy, sexy, funny, relaxing, refreshing, and inspiring things/people in your life, and schedule little blocks of time to enjoy them. You’ll go back to your writing with more focus and more enthusiasm for your work.

The full review: (more…)

Review: In Search of and Others, by Will Ludwigsen

4* (our of 5) for “In Search Of”. It’s a weird format–a list of facts about your life that you didn’t know. But in telling you these things, Ludwigsen tells you who you are–a man who became a cop, who wasn’t everything he wanted to be but wasn’t nothing, who lost more than he thought and didn’t hold on to the woman who loved him the most. The kicker at the end makes it all worthwhile.

4* for “Endless Encore”. What looks like a simple ghost story becomes more with the addition of tangible details; you stop thinking of it as a story written on a page. The color of a dress, the time of day, the wood and stone and the dialogue of a jealous preteen, all blend together into a real moment.

5* for “The Speed of Dreams”. Once again, Ludwigsen presents you with one story and then kicks you in the teeth at the end with the other story he’s been telling all along. You’re watching it move along and take this twist and then you’re thinking, “No, no, don’t go that way…” but it does. I was left at the end wanting to tell her not to do it, but by the time we’re reading it, it’s too late. (more…)

Reading, better.

Recently, a friend emailed me about a job opening for a book reviewer position, “since I think it’s aligned to your career path right now”.

Every week I get emails from companies that want me to read, review, and promote their books, though most aren’t at all like what I really read.

Even without adding in my work for SF Signal, I write more words about books than I write any other kind of non-fiction.

And it’s all making me want to bang my head against the wall.

I read because I love reading, and because it’s part of the process of becoming a better writer. For me, reading is a step on a path toward my goals, not the end of it. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a book reviewer, but I admit that there are times when the bulk of what I post here is me talking about the books I’ve read. Lately I’ve written long, detailed summaries, because I’ve already had that conversation with myself in my head, so why not share it with you? Maybe someone else is looking for a book that does a thing the book I just read did, and my review will help them to find it.

But I’m not a book reviewer. My aspirations don’t include simply being a consumer of literature – I am and will continue to be a creator of it. Reading and then thinking about what I read is part of the writer equation, and by posting reviews here I’m just showing my work.

There is no possible way that I will read everything I want to before I die. It’s never going to happen. The best that I can do it to devote as much time as I can to reading and accept that there are stories I won’t get to. More and more I think that spending time writing a straight review is taking away from being able to read or write something else, but… I’ve been hesitant to talk about books the way I want to because I wasn’t sure if anyone else would care about my deeper thoughts on the book I was discussing, beyond “is it good or not?”

I wondered: Do I know enough to have my opinion respected? Am I well read enough to make the right connections, the right correlations? There’s very little mainstream junk-food reading in my reading list for this year; it’s just not my style. My to-be-read pile includes some genre classics, a lot of small press, liminal or interstitial work, non-Western fiction, poetry, non-fiction essays, and non-speculative literary fiction. Does anyone else even want to hear about the titles that I most love to read?

And then I remembered that I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m going to read what I like.

I will still mention some of the books or stories I think you should read, in brief. I’m more interested in talking about how I was influenced by a particular work, how books are connected, or whether I agreed or disagreed with a certain author. I hope you stick around, because I’d like for my readers to be people who have read or want to read the kind of books I’m reading. I’d like more comments, more discussion. Tell me what you thought of it, ask questions, suggest something for me to read next. Let’s read deeper.

Let’s read better.

I Read David Marusek’s “Getting To Know You”

I’d never heard of David Marusek when I was handed this collection*. Just told that I would like it, and I should read it. It sat on my bookshelf for a few months while I caught up with other reading material, but lately I’ve been trying to get through my back catalog, finish tasks, let go of things I don’t need anymore, and move on. Clear out my inboxes. Turn in what I owe people.

Read books that aren’t mine so I can give them back.

The collection of ten short stories was put together after his 2005 novel, COUNTING HEADS, got great reviews. Half of the stories are set in the same future, and one (“The Wedding Album”) won the Sturgeon Award.

“The Wedding Album” is a novella, the longest piece in the book, and switches perspective between a couple of different characters, though mostly it’s told from the view of a simulated Anne, captured on her wedding day. A couple of hundred years pass as civilization rises and falls through the evolution of their technology, but wedding-Anne has no say in what happens around her. It’s sad with brief bits of loving, though it’s mostly a look at how selfish one man can be.

“The Earth Is On The Mend” is a flash piece, well done, a slightly rambling account of one survivor’s day in the frozen wasteland that was the Earth. It tells you enough to suspect this story will end badly. That’s what flash is about – setting a scene, giving you one moment, and enough other bits to hint at a great deal more.

“Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” was written as a letter to editor Gardner Dozios, who published it and gave Marusek his start as a published writer. The epistolary style isn’t one of my favorites, but this version is light-hearted. It’s got dying husbands and cryogenics and Alaska small-town culture – it qualifies as a science fiction story, certainly. In the end it’s just cheeky, daring you to enjoy it and daring Mr. Dozois to publish it. Worth a read.

“A Boy In Cathyland” was originally a chunk of “The Wedding Album” but was cut from the final version. Marusek revised it into a stand-alone short. It explains a minor detail from the novella, but that’s not what’s important about it. The best part of “A Boy” is that Marusek blends Russian into the dialogue without explaining the meaning. He places description and action around the non-English parts to give the reader enough context to suss out the meaning on their own. The story is weak without the knowledge of what happens in “Wedding Album” but I like his use of language a lot.

“We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy” is another novella, Marusek’s second published piece and the first of this length. It’s set in the same universe as “Wedding Album” and makes up the beginning of his novel. Like several of his other stories, Marusek introduces an idea, then ignores it while he goes through all of the history and scene-setting, then gets back to his opening toward the end.

The introduction to “VTV” warns that it was an exercise in writing a miserable story, and the reader should feel free to skip it. I didn’t, and I’m glad, because while it contains many of Marusek’s most-used elements, it stands out from the others because of its subject matter. It’s more concerned with making a point which, while still negative, has the potential to affect our lives now instead of centuries in the future. One of the more interesting pieces.

“Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” is another one about the same old things. So is “Getting To Know You”. Not bad, but dull after reading all of the rest.

“Listen to Me” is written in second-person perspective, which immediately makes it stand out. It’s about boredom and, again, about isolation and selfishness. But it’s also set aboard a starship, which is different. It’s very short, and I liked it.

“My Morning Glory” is another flash piece, forcefully exuberant, a quick-step shuffle off the edge of the cliff that is the end of the book.

There isn’t much to connect with, emotionally, in this collection, except the overriding feeling of sadness. It’s sad that these people can’t be happy for long. It’s sad that technology outpaces humanity. It’s sad that the only other feeling to come across is one of isolation. I don’t know if Marusek is disconnected from the world or if it’s the one emotion he knows how to write well, but it’s there, with the sadness, in every story. They’re two sides of the same coin – the characters are sad because they’re distanced from the things that make us happy, like love and companionship and hope.

In a way, that’s what makes the book kind of boring. Marusek has a few ideas which he clearly loves, so much that he recycles them through several stories. His “original” ideas, the ones not part of his “Wedding Album” universe, appear in the shortest stories of the book, as if he didn’t want to  - or couldn’t – write about them in the same way he writes about his holos, simulacrum, and clones. He even recycles characters (not just Cathy from “Cathyland” but Yurek Rutz, who’s mentioned in “VTV”) and locations – Alaska comes up a lot. I don’t mind any of that as much as I mind him recycling plot points. After all, so many of the stories are about the exact same thing: how do you handle living in a future where artificial people are common and naturally-born humans are not? 

Apparently Marusek only has one answer to that question. I would like his work much more if he had more to say.

Overall I’d suggest reading this collection for the technique. The structures are crisp, the writing is clean, there’s rarely anything unnecessary going on. Parts which appear to be side stories get mentioned or dealt with again before the tale is finished. Marusek is a skillful writer and is able to keep control of stories with circular natures. This tight hold on where his writing is going takes some of the surprise out of the ending but I look at this collection like the start of something good. If he has this much skill when he’s starting out, all he needs to do is maintain that level of writing while adding in whatever he’s fascinated by next.

Read GETTING TO KNOW YOU one story at a time and take a break in between. You’ll appreciate it better that way.

* Another book loaned to me by Don, who has the best taste in reading, and has shaped the course of my literary education the last few years. He gave me copies of Craig Strete’s THE BLEEDING MAN, Maureen F. McHugh’s AFTER THE APOCALYPSE, Brian Wood’s DMZ, M. Rickert’s various stories, Fran Lebowitz’s METROPOLITAN LIFE and The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. He convinced me to buy INTERFICTIONS, Ray Vukcevich’s BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS, Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT, Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES, Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, Stephen Elliott’S MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP and Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.

He also loaned me Etger Keret’s THE NIMROD FLIPOUT, though, sadly, I had to give that one back. (Click on the links to read my reviews of these titles.)