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Review: These Days by Jack Cheng

These DaysThese Days by Jack Cheng

I am seldom a reader of fiction that is not rooted in fantasy or science, so books set in our modern world are foreign to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging These Days was. Author Jack Cheng has a fluid narrative that is colorful and evocative of New York City and the characters' physical sensations. Reading a book where the events are realistic — two twenty-somethings meet, one who's planning his future, the other who's escaping her past — was actually a refreshing change and gave me ideas for my own life.

The characters were also very relatable, at least on a personal level. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, Connor: makes his living online, connected to the social web, and perhaps a bit naive and needy in relationships. But I also related to his love interest, K, who never carries a cell phone and enjoys her time offline. It was in fact that technological divide between the love interests that led me to originally back Cheng's Kickstarter to self-publish this book.

But this is not "a story about technology", as the crowdfunding video suggested. Connor uses technology to distract himself from the present but capture and relive the past, through photos, videos, tweets, and status updates. K, by contrast, is all about living in the moment but wants desperately to forget her own history. The scene describing her motivation for doing so was so evocative, I cried — I can't remember the last book to have that effect on me. These are the true challenges the characters are facing.

The book takes us through several anecdotes that demonstrate these opposing philosophies, but the narrative never really builds. Connor hates his job, quits, and gets a new one. He doesn't like his new job, thinks about quitting, but decides to stick around. He and K go out to dinner and have a conversation. They ride on the subway and make observations about the other commuters. With the exception of some flashbacks that are occasionally hard to place in the tale's chronology, it's vignette after vignette, without any real momentum.

That's why the novel's ending came as such a shock. And again, it's one I relate to personally, as something nearly identical happened to me, which may color my reception of the book. I look to fiction to vicariously experience situations I've not yet encountered and to get into other people's heads and learn how they feel, that I might better empathize. But These Days offered neither alternative to, nor insight into, reality. I had hoped that the message would be either "Things don't have to be this way" as I find in the unreal fiction I normally gravitate to, or at the very least, "Things are this way, but here's why". I received neither source of closure from this book. It was an abrupt and heartless ending that left me unsure why anything had just happened, what the characters' motivations had been, or what either of them was supposed to learn from this experience or how they were expected to grow from it.

I normally dive right from book to book, but I was preoccupied with These Days for days afterward. Perhaps that's a sign of a good book, that it stays with you and makes you think. But, like Connor, I don't know what just happened, and I don't know that I ever will.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Review: Extinction, by Mark Alpert

ExtinctionExtinction by Mark Alpert

After reading Robopocalypse last summer, I suspected Extinction might be too similar, too soon. It proved to be quite different: rather than an anthology of vignettes connected by a common theme of a robot uprising, Extinction focuses on fewer characters and a more subtle takeover. However, those characters prove to be unnecessarily dense in what they bring to the story. Here's our cast:

  • A man with a Terminator-style prosthetic arm that can be swapped out for a machine gun.
  • A scientist intent on achieving immortality by uploading his memories to a computer.
  • An NSA agent who is blind except when wearing special glasses that can beam images, including in the infrared spectrum, directly to her brain.
  • A sentient computer that can assimilate humans into its network through a crude lobotomization process.
  • A hacker working for WikiLeaks.

Any one of those gimmicks would be enough to tell a tale, but Alpert crams them all into one book. He seems so excited by each character that, especially in the beginning, he alternates among the various points of view regularly, with some chapters lasting only as long as two paragraphs.

Although the story is reasonably plotted and paced, there are other aspects of its recounting that seem a bit forced. Some of the character development didn't strike me as natural, with dialogue-driven flashbacks hammering us over the head with a protagonist's motivations. Some of the American military interactions also didn't strike me quite right, though I confess I have no professional background or research to suggest it should be otherwise. Though the hacker character? The most hacking we see her do is looking for a sticky note with a computer's login password.

Extinction offered a unique take on the Singularity, one in which a sentient computer program, one somewhat human in its emotions yet Borg-like in its capabilities, tries to invoke its own Judgment Day. But the overall theme is general enough that there are better alternatives to this robot apocalypse.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Reading Rainbow Remixed

Here's a remix that came out a few months ago but is still fun to hear. PBS Digital Studios conscripted John D. Boswell, aka melodysheep, to take footage from LeVar Burton's Reading Rainbow and produce a music video. The result is "In Your Imagination":

Although this remix is one of the best collaborations yet between PBS and Boswell, it has fewer than a million hits. Why not more love? I purchased the single on iTunes and still enjoy hearing it. Drop a dollar on this worthy tune, and be sure to check out remixes of Bob Ross and Mister Rogers, too!


Neil Gaiman's commencement speech inspires art

Celebrity commencement speakers are often as known for their art as they are for being themselves — bigger-than-life personalities who have become famous for being famous. In life, I've heard graduating classes addressed by Meryl Streep and Whoopi Goldberg; online, I've enjoyed the speeches of Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Jobs. All were excellent, but few spoke specifically to my craft: writing. Perhaps writers are more anonymous than other celebrities, letting their works speak for themselves. After all, an actor's living requires felicity of appearance and presentation, making them natural choices for speakers, whereas writers are better known for being glib of pen than of tongue.

Neil GaimanBut when your school is committed to respecting all arts, visual or written, then the scope of your speaker candidates widens to encompass so many talented artists. Such was the case this past spring at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, when they recruited the insightful and accomplished Neil Gaiman, fiction author and master of multiple media. His speech to the graduating class was not a typical "rags to riches" story of how he became a successful writer and you can, too! Rather, Gaiman went beneath the surface, employing metaphor and allegory to reflect on the significance of his experiences and the lessons learned or ignored. His thoughts on being a writer are inspiring not only to me, but to artists of any form, making this 20-minute video worth the time of anyone whose creative flame could use some fanning.

My great thanks to fellow wordsmith and book club member Michele DeFilippo for sharing this video after we read American Gods.


Review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks

I first heard about World War Z upon its release six years ago. Since then, its name has continued to pop up, including last year when it ranked #54 on NPR's list of the best fantasy and science fiction novels of all time. Some friends and I finally decided to read it together. As is typical for us, we came to a similar opinion of the book; but surprisingly, it wasn't the popular one.

Author Max Brooks presents an oral history of a now-past war against a zombie infestation. The world is slowly recovering from a global outbreak of a zombie plague, transmitted though the usual bites and scratches of the undead. Our main character, if there is one, is a journalist who has taken it upon himself to record the experiences and reflections of the war's survivors. Each chapter is presented as a monologue or, where prompting questions are called for, a dialogue.

I'm not unfamiliar with this general format, having previously enjoyed Robopocalypse. But unlike that tale, which focuses on a few characters and then weaves their threads together into a cohesive plot, World War Z rarely revisits anyone to whom the reader has been previously introduced. As a result, there is little, if any, character development or continuity throughout the disparate tales.

The only commonality I found, other than the zombie armageddon itself, was the decidedly militaristic nature of the individual stories' focus. The book's subtitle is "An Oral History of the Zombie War", with "war" proving to be the keyword. Almost every recounting is about how a soldier fought a battle, or a general planned a strategy, or a scientist invented a weapon. There are two stories from women who related how their families survived the war, but otherwise, almost no chapter is dedicated to the human element. Even the zombies are faceless foes, rarely viewed as former parents, siblings, children, or co-workers who their former friends and family are now forced to fire upon; this psychological aspect of warfare is almost wholly ignored.

English: A participant of a Zombie walk, Asbur...It's not just average citizens who are overlooked; the science of the plague also remains unaddressed. One character pointedly asks, "How come zombies freeze in the winter but come back to life in the spring? Shouldn't the water in their bodies have expanded and burst, killing them?" Another wonders, "Why do zombies that sink to the ocean floor remain whole? Tidal forces deteriorate their clothing, yet the zombies themselves keep plodding along." These are all good questions, yet neither the author nor his nameless journalist see fit to look for answers. A cure or vaccine for the plaque is never even considered.

With so little of the war's fallout examined, and so few typical plot devices present — since every chapter is the narrator's own memory, we know that he or she survived, eliminating any mystery or suspense — World War Z was not a page-turner. My colleagues, who run the gamut of hardcore sci-fi nuts to casual enthusiasts, all agreed: on an academic scale, Michele and I gave the book a C-, and Bob and Paul gave it a C. Only Gene gave World War Z a score as high as B-. It doesn't make any of us eager to see the film adaptation, which appears to bear little resemblance to Brooks' novel.

 

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The benefits of re-reading

booksI've lately taken to getting more of my books from the library than from Barnes & Noble. Not only did last year's effort of moving my collection of 600 books — small by some measures — from one town to another prove exhausting, but I've realized I rarely revisit books that aren't part of a series. Seeing them as part of my personal library can be a gratifying reminder of my literary pursuits, but the expense of purchasing, storing, and moving books that I would read only once has become difficult to justify.

But new studies suggest that my methodology is flawed, and that I should be re-reading books more often. Mail Online reports:

The first time people read — or watch — through, they are focused on events and stories.

The second time through, the repeated experience reignites the emotions caused by the book or film, and allows people to savour those emotions at leisure.

The 'second run' can offer profound emotional benefits… By enjoying the emotional effects of the book more deeply, people become more in touch with themselves.

If you think that such repetitive activity is exclusive to children and their reruns of Blue's Clues, think about your peers who re-read every Harry Potter book to date in anticipation of the release of each sequel.

I own few books that I've found myself revisiting over the years, in no particular order:

And there are admittedly books I'd like to read again:

But with so many unread books waiting to be read, how do I justify retreading old ground? Is it better to spend time with old friends than it is to make new ones?

What books make your "must read again" list, and what balance do you strike between old and new?


Continuing TV's tale in literature

It's a sad truth that television doesn't last. Whether it's seven seasons of your favorite Star Trek or a single season of Firefly, all shows get cancelled or go off the air eventually.

Fortunately, the imagination of the show's creators and writers often has a bigger budget than the television medium can afford, allowing them to continue the tales of their heroes in print format. Novels, comic books, and short stories can extend the lives of your favorite shows for many "seasons". Not all shows are fortunate enough to get that extra lease on life, but that doesn't mean your own imagination can't continue the journey.

In that vein, Charlie Jane Anders suggests some awesome books to replace your favorite cancelled TV shows. From Terminator and Angel to Journeyman and Jericho, many of your favorite (but cancelled) science fiction series of the last decade are represented by equally modern literature. Even if you were satisfied with your favorite show's run and are just looking to try some new authors or series, this list is a great place to start.

For my part, I think I'll go add Robopocalypse to my to-read list, making for a nice change from my usual Star Trek pulp.

However, I draw the line at adapting my favorite books into video games.


10 ways to start your story better

As a writer, I often find one the most challenging components of an article to be the beginning. I often instructed my students to write this part last, which surprised them, but I would ask: How do you know where your story is going until after it's gotten there?

That advice may not hold up for a work of fiction, but across genres, the struggle of a perfect opening is universal. Yet it's one that must be overcome, as editors judge manuscripts by the first few paragraphs, and so to do readers. How often have you started a book at the store, the library, or your reading chair, and quickly found it didn't live up to expectations? Better to find a tale that grips you from the get-go.

Readers may have the luxury of skipping an intro, but writers do not. Fortunately, Jacob M. Appel of Writer's Digest offers ten ways to start your story better. Each suggestion includes explanation and example, but to summarize:

  1. Build momentum.
  2. Resist the urge to start too early.
  3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones.
  4. Open at a distance and close in.
  5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
  6. Start with a minor mystery.
  7. Keep talk to a minimum.
  8. Be mindful of what works.
  9. When in doubt, test several options.
  10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.

There — that was easy. Now can we get tips on how to write better middles and ends?