Review: The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

27177204[1]I’ve never found Steampunk to be more than a nice change in genres; I don’t seek it out, but I often enjoy it when I find myself reading something that employs Steampunk elements.  But with The Invisible Library, I found myself relishing it in all its idiosyncratic glory.  Here it’s not overdone, the story doesn’t revolve around steam and mechanics, though both shape this part of Cogman’s greater universe.  And that’s as it should be.  Gimmicks and gadgets are not plot or characterization, they should simply add color to a story.

And the story itself is a delight as are the characters.  Irene has a lively sense of the absurd, and so won my heart right out of the gate.  She’s all too human, she gets muddled, angry, jealous, has girly crushes on handsome detectives, and is prone to non sequitur thoughts such as noting a character’s amazing grammar as he delivers a swashbuckling speech to a room filled with people being attacked by cyborg alligators. It’s a quietly hilarious book.  There are laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly the humor makes you grin and think, “I like these people.  Even the awful ones.” or “Irony so thick you need waders.”

Don’t expect anything too heavy here.  There is violence, blood, and some ookiness likely to make you cringe a bit, but the story itself isn’t a dark one.  Rather it strips down to a fairly tame detective story about the search for a special book.  Which is fine, it’s good.  A familiar structure makes the grace notes shine brighter. What you can expect is a heckuva good read, and the raging desire to get right to the second book in the series.

Review: Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

28194[1]I had a lot of reactions to this book beginning with OMG, I love this so much! which I did.  I do.  It’s a wonderful tale about the power of stories and storytelling.  It has wonderful characters, and a plot that kept me guessing where it might lead.  I want to read the rest of the books ASAP.

Another reaction was: This is way dark for a children’s book.  It made me uneasy and I know dark.  I’ve written it.  It isn’t so much that there’s violence because that’s more implied than shown.  Rather it’s the sense that decent people can have some difficult secrets, and the others carry around horror and misery that they enjoy visiting on anyone who gets in their way.  There are a whole lot of damaged people in this book, and not a lot of redemption.  Quite the contrary.  Even Meggie, the 12-year-old protagonist, is not immune to terrible thoughts and desires, and it’s disturbing to watch a child who is old enough to know what death is, wishing death on another person.  And yet, it’s also completely understandable given what she’s going through.

Everyone seems to be working at cross-purposes, either because they’re unable to communicate with one another, or they’re so stubborn that no matter how many times they’re told what’s what, they’re sure they know better.  Meggie’s aunt, Elinor, is a great example of a character who always knows better than anyone else how things should be, and I found that she reminded me of John Hammond from Jurassic Park.  As I read about Elinor, I gritted my teeth.

And then I realized something about the difference in writing between Funke and Crichton.  Crichton made Hammond a cardboard figure, almost clownishly so.  But Funke has created a complex character in Elinor.  She has an internal life which informs what she does and says, and we understand her even if we don’t always like her.  We know she’s acting for everyone’s good, even though it often seems as if the opposite is true.

It’s the characterization which is one of the stand-out qualities of Inkheart. It’s a story of magic in an unmagical world, of people doing and saying things that are stupid, or petty, or stubborn, or cruel, sometimes because they’re just that awful, but sometimes because they’re trying to keep their heads above water.  And in every case, we do understand why they are who they are.

In fact, the conceit of fictional characters being pulled out of a book, and meeting their author gives us  an opportunity to consider character behavior vs human behavior.  Capricorn is a complete and utter villain because that’s how his author wrote him.  He cannot be anything else and wouldn’t even think to try. But Meggie is written as a human being and her motivations are complex. Her behavior can change.

I can’t help but feel that Inkheart is a lesson about human character, and how we have the ability to change the things about our lives and behaviors, if we wish to.  It’s a valuable lesson for young people, though I wonder if it’s a little too complex for the target age group.

But all that aside, it’s just a hella good story.  I devoured it and want more.

You have to have ideas before you can have ideas

This is something I like to say when people ask me “Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s not only true, but it often gets a conversation started.  See, the thing is, having ideas is a habit you have to grow.  You may not think you have ideas for stories, but you do, all the time.  Either you don’t recognize them as ideas, or you shrug them off as not being worth pursuing, or you get just so far with them, and let them go.

  • You don’t recognize them as story ideas — Any time you think, “I wonder what would have happened if (blank).” that’s a story idea.  Trust me on this, it really is.  It may not be a good one, but your idle question holds the germ of a story.
  • You shrug them off — Stories don’t write themselves folks.  It’s all well and good to think “Eh, nothing much different would have happened if (blank).” but until you start to work with the idea, you won’t know for sure.  If you have an idea, work with it.  Write it down, make diagrams, ask yourself questions and do your damndest to answer them.
  • You only get so far and let go — Don’t be a defeatist  Seriously, if you’ve pursued it that far, keep at it.  “But it doesn’t seem to be working,” you say.  Or: “It turned out to be shitty so I gave up on it.”  Don’t be fucking lazy, sez I.  Hammer away at it, and if nothing at all comes of it, put it in a file and don’t look at it for six months or a year. You might be pleasantly surprised when you go back to it.  What’s changed?  The little writer in your brain has been working at it all along.  Surprise!  Or maybe you still think it’s crap, and that’s fine, but recognize the work you put into it and hang on to it.  These things can be cannibalized.

You see a theme here?  Having ideas is easy.  Recognizing them and doing the work is the hard part.  You’re going to have shitty ideas, but even those can ultimately yield some good things that can be used in other stories.

You have to have ideas before you can have ideas.  You see?  You have to work at making all this habitual.  I now have more ideas than I know what to do with.  Some of them include:

  • A gay love triangle set after WWI that begins with a mystery that comes out of the Russian Revolution, and ends in the aftermath of WWII.
  • A ghost story about Anastasia and Anna Anderson.
  • A huge, honking universe filled with magic and dragons, fairytales, parallel dimensions, and demon detectives.  There are a bunch of stories in this universe.
  • The story of a castrato who isn’t really a castrato. (Part of the magic universe above)
  • A time-travel romance set in Russia on the verge of revolution (This one is actually finished, but needs a lot of editing.)
  • My Scrooge stories which still need something more, but I can’t quite figure out what.
  • A bunch of other romances (eyeroll, don’t ask)
  • A novel about female friends.
  • A big old vampire universe that may never get written, but which is being cannibalized for the magic universe.
  • A serial killer thriller
  • The rewrite of White Rabbit
  • A novel about people becoming immortal and the research into why this has happened.

And there was another one I had in my head just as I began this list and, something I thought of this morning, and now it’s gone.  You see how fast this stuff comes and goes?  It’s crazy-making, and that means you have to be alert, you have to write things down, and you have to go after ideas with both hands and a net.  Eventually they’ll be everywhere and you really can pick and choose the ones you need to pursue.

  • Wait, I just remembered!  I want to write something about the events around the writing of Frankenstein.  I know it’s been done, but I want to do it.  I think I have something to say, or will have when I start poking at it.  I knew it was something historical.

The other thing I would tell you is this:

Read

I cannot stress this enough.  Read everything including newspapers, and magazines, and labels, and birthday cards.  If you want to write, words are your medium, and all the world is in them.

This post is like the writers’ version of just do it.  But it isn’t just a habit, it’s a discipline, so yeah,

Just. Do. It.

3-Year-old reenacted the Shia LaBeouf's Just Do It Speech - Imgur.gif

And that’s about it.  I have to go write now.

 

July Reading Recap

I passed the 90-book mark in the wee hours of July 25th and now I’m counting down toward 100, which will be a personal best for at least the last few decades.  So…

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay — Full Review  I hope that readers will understand what it is Gay is saying here, not just about being fat in a world that values only thinness, but about being female in a world that values us as objects, not people.  Hunger isn’t just about Roxane Gay.  It’s not just about being fat.  It’s not just about being different or challenging society’s expectations.  It is about being female in a world where everything you are is public property, and where you are expected to take up as little space as possible.
  • 30517272[1]Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson —  Full Review  I can’t improve on Lawson:  “I’m fucking done with sadness, and I don’t know what’s up the ass of the universe lately but I’ve HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE.”
  • Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher —  Full Review  I ended up with more respect for Carrie than ever before, but a deeper sense of sadness that she’s gone too soon, and as a result of her own emotional problems. I hate seeing her as a cautionary tale, but I can’t help but feel that she might enjoy being thought of as a terrible warning.
  • Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3) by Rachel Caine — Full Review  After a bit of a slow second book, this series picks up again with Ash and Quill, and races to an unexpected (for me) cliffhanger that had me shouting at my Kindle at one in the morning.  Yeah, that good.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle — Full Review  An old favorite from my childhood, one I’ve read dozens of times.  I decided to read it again on the strength of the first movie trailer which looks fantastic.  I was not  wholly disappointed, but I did realize that I’m past the point of being uncritical about it.
  • Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson Full Review  Hanson is what I think of as a great science writer. He engages our imaginations while imparting facts, and I suspect that is at least in part because he has such a lively sense of wonder that he can’t help but infuse even the most prosaic of information with a feel of awe as if the evolution of feathers or seeds, or whatever else he’s writing about is pure magic. And in a sense, the things he writes about are magic, or as close to as we get in our world.
  • Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill Full Review (such as it is) What caught my eye, and my imagination was this comment about how time will not change Murdoch’s novels, and yet with each subsequent generation that discovers them, they do change; every reader changes them.  Hill says: “…because until it is read, a book is a dead thing.”  That’s true.  Books depend on us as much as we depend on them.  They must be read to live.  I underlined that in neon pink, in keeping with the color scheme established by the Roald Dahl fan who owned this book before I did.  …  This is a book with heart, not just because of its contents but because the physical copy I own has been well read, loved, perhaps shouted at, as I did when Hill went on a rant against e-readers.  And I will concede this one point to her: No ebook could ever be so beautifully aged.  People who insist on pristine copies miss a lot of the deeper beauty of a physical book.
  • 41f6b9uCFpL[1]Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West — Full Review   I didn’t find Shrill as laugh-out-loud funny as Furiously Happy, nor did it make me break down in tears as did Hunger.  It made me furious, it helped me — here’s that word again — assimilate a lot of the experiences I’d had in my life and understand how they’d shaped my attitudes.  It helped me to forgive the unintentional hurts and view the intentional ones with a resolve never again to let anyone make me feel like a bug to be squashed.  And remember: “They talk to you this way until you make them stop.”
  • Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini —  Full Review Avast, ye lubbers, here’s a fine tale of hearty men, stout ships, proud wenches, (well, one anyway) and brave deeds! … I’m declaring this one a No Guilt read.  Read what you want, put it down when you want, pick it back up only if you want, and have some fun with it.  It’s not to be taken too seriously.
  • Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley —  Full Review There’s a lot of charm to this book.  The characters are all too human, but in the end they have become sympathetic and appealing, and I found myself cheering for them.  So while I’m not at all sure why I spent the $0.99 on the ebook, I’m heartily glad I did.
  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie –  Full  Review  The Golden House is far greater than a fictionalized view of the House of Trump. Rushdie is not heavy-handed, he doesn’t make this a thinly veiled portrait of an easy target, but creates Trump-flavored touchstones in an attempt to do much more than simply criticize or satirize a single figure or family. Rather, peppered as it is with popular culture touchstones, it becomes a portrait of an age in American life, and not a pretty one.
  • 23647530[1]The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami –  Full Review  I still have no idea what actually happened.  I mean, I know what the book says happened, but I don’t really understand it at a visceral level except as a fairytale that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  To be fair, I find a lot of fairytales from outside the most familiar cultures make little sense to me, and this is more alien than I’m used to.  I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be clear on why.
  • Jurassic Park  by Michael Crichton Full Review  I’m willing to give props for a compelling story told in such a break-neck fashion that had I not been paying close attention to the text, I might never have caught these problems. Or at least they might not have gotten up my nose so completely.  What you have is a decent thriller with a great plot and a damn good hook: cloning dinosaurs.  It was timely then and it still is, it plays to our fears and our desires, and Crichton knows how to manipulate both.  My 94th book this year.

I started The Invisible Library, by Genivieve Cogman last night, in hope that I could finish it today, but since I virtually passed out about 15 minutes in, and woke up at 3:45 this morning with all the lights still on, and since I still have work to do, that’s not going to happen.  My final tally for the month is 13 books.  Year-to-date: 94  (oooh, so close to having done 95!)  I’m going to start adding some statistics to my monthly recaps so when I do the year-end one, I can see what kind of progress I’ve made in reading more widely and diversely.

Statistics for July

  • Books read this month – 13
  • Books by Women: 7
  • Books by People of Color: 2
  • Books in Translation: 1
  • Books by LBGTAQ Authors or with those themes: 1
  • Books about Books: 4
  • Sci-Fi and Fantasy: 4 (I count The Golden House as a fantasy, though it’s as much a Greek tragedy as contemporary mythology.)
  • Mysteries and Thrillers: 1
  • Science: 1
  • Bio/Memoir: 5
  • High Adventure: 1

Um… huh?

I’ve pretty much stopped looking at my royalty statements since they’re depressing.  The last one I looked at was something like ninety-three cents.  Woo hoo, partay!  Yeah, not so much.  At that rate it’d take me something like three or four months to buy a simple cup of coffee.  I don’t even look for my stuff on pirate sites anymore because what’s the point?  If people are gonna steal my work instead of pay for it, what’s my recourse?  And clearly nobody wanted to buy it, so I doubt the pirate sites are getting much traffic on my account.

51hmfqEdD1L[1]So when my last statement came in from Dreamspinner Press it was not something I paid much attention to, guessing that it’d be something like fifty cents, and almost sure sign that when the terms of the contracts were up, they’d be cutting me loose.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls, your royalty statement lays all that out in detail.

But today I got a notice that they’d sent me a payment.  It was actually more than ninety-three cents.  A lot more.  My first reaction?  Someone made a mistake.  I finally opened the statement and it turns out that my work suddenly, and for reasons I don’t truly understand, began to sell after all this time.  Could it be the blogging?  The social media presence?  What am I doing right?  OMG, am I famous?

Uh, no.  Pleasantly surprised?  Yes, absolutely.

vampyres-revenge[1]Call Me But Love seems to be the clear winner this quarter.  I applaud that choice, it’s one of my better works.  But The Vampyre’s Revenge, which I enjoyed the hell out of writing, seems not to have breathed its last, and I’m kind of glad.  I always liked Frank.  I was happy to give him a chance to be who he really was.

After my contracts ran out on a bunch of other items I listed them through Kindle Direct Publishing over on Amazon.com, and while the response was not terribly exciting, I pretty much knew that I couldn’t blame anyone but myself because in spite of 51WtLcoTAXL[1]spiffy new covers, I wasn’t doing much to support their release.  One of the hardest things for me to do is promote myself, and that’s why ghostwriting is a good gig for me.  I never have to promote anything, I just write. That’s what writers want to do.  Just. Write.51ecoRBYrpL[1].jpg

I always meant to do more with the out-of-contract stuff.  I have the rights to Suffer the Little Children, and a sequel to it that only needs a good edit to get it into fighting shape, but I never did anything with those or any of the other titles which reverted to me.  This is what severe depression does to people.  They stop caring.

But that weirdly unexpected royalty payment did me a world of good, and while I know my energy levels won’t carry me through a whole lot more effort to get new titles into the KDP program, they have moved me to do one thing.  I have no control over the pricing of the titles under contract to Dreamspinner, the ones that are currently self-published, I can put on sale.  So starting August 2nd and running through the 9th, both Waiting for the Moon and Devil in the Details will be $0.99.  (I’d have made them free, but couldn’t figure out how to do that without having to pay for it, which I can’t afford.)  When the promotion is over I’m dropping the price to $1.99 for both stories.

I would love to promise (to myself as well as anyone who is interested) that I’m going to get on the stick and get my other out-of-contract books back on the market.  We’ll see what the rest of the year brings.

Wish me luck, willya?

___________________________________________________

Review: The Strange Library, by Haruki Murakami

23647530[1].jpgIf I said, “Strange doesn’t begin to cover it,” I could probably just stop.  This is easily one of the most bizarre things I’ve read in yonks, a nightmarish fairytale about a boy who just wants to read about tax collection in the Ottoman empire.  Yes, it’s strange from the get-go.

The boy goes to his local library to return books about building a ship and… something else equally odd and not particularly interesting, and the librarian, who would rather read than deal with him, tells him if he wants more books he need to go to room 107 in the basement.  There he finds an old man who rustles up not one but three books on Ottoman tax collecting, and then tells the boy they have to be read in the library.

The boy doesn’t want to stay.  It’s late and his mother worries, but he’s a polite boy and agrees to read for 30 minutes.  The librarian leads him through a maze to a cell where he’s told that if he’s memorized the three huge books in the course of a month, he’ll be set free.  He’s put in the charge of a man in a sheep costume, fed well, and told that at the end of the month, the old man is going to eat his brains.

At this point I was pretty well committed to the story so I read on to find out whether the cannibal-librarian would have his meal, or whether the boy would get away, and who is the man dressed like a sheep and the girl who brings the boy food, but who everyone else says doesn’t exist?

And I still have no idea what actually happened.  I mean, I know what the book says happened, but I don’t really understand it at a visceral level except as a fairytale that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  To be fair, I find a lot of fairytales from outside the most familiar cultures make little sense to me, and this is more alien than I’m used to.  I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be clear on why.

Possibly it’s something to do with the illustrations which look like bits of Asian advertising art from the mid-20th century.  In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if Murakami began with these images and rearranged them until a story began to form in his mind.  That would make as much sense as anything else.

The Strange Library is short, oblique, perturbing, scary, and funny.  I found myself laughing over the most awful things, or muttering “What?” and “Oh come on!” but I finished it with a sense that I wanted to read more Murakami.