Book Reviews (18)

The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

(Mistborn #1)

I got round to reading some Sanderson – and, yeah, it’s good folks. A dynamic, pacey story about a group of thieves, led by the enigmatic Kelsier, working to topple the dictatorship of the immortal Lord Ruler. Vin, a new recruit with burgeoning powers, comes from a traumatic background which has made her expect treachery at every turn. Meanwhile, glimpses into the Lord Ruler’s past hint at a larger story behind his rise to power and fabled defeat of the mysterious Deepness.

At first Kelsier’s smiling and Vin’s frowning were a little much (yeah, I get it…), but all the cast quickly become interesting, complex figures. Allomancy – the magic system based on using various metals – is very clever and works great in action scenes, particularly the pair of steel and iron, which allows for pushing and pulling metals. The way characters fling themselves or objects around is described so clearly and follows a strong logic. However, the categories of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ are less intuitive for other metals – but don’t worry about it.

Worldbuilding, character, and action with a powerful climax leading to the next book, although some of the last section felt a little bit rushed.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Not everyone will like this. I loved it, but this is a book without easy answers, the epigraph warning, ‘This is not for you.’

On the face of it, it’s about a Lovecraftian house developing dark empty rooms and shifting corridors, possibly infinite on the inside. Photojournalist Will Navidson documented the horror his family and others experienced in The Navidson Record. Most of the book is an academic manuscript about the film and its events, dictated by an unstable blind man, Zampanò. After Zampanò’s death the documents are discovered and put into some order by Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee.

The story in the film, told straight by itself, would be a good creepy novel with engaging characters. But the experimental approach House of Leaves takes is more complex, challenging, and interesting. Zampanò’s analysis of The Navidson Record leads off in many directions, engaging with psychology, mythology, science and literature. His and Johnny Truant’s footnotes relate subplots and lead to materials in the Appendices, like Truant’s mother’s letters to him from an insane asylum. One of her letters needs to be decoded – it’s not hard, but it forces you to slow down and makes the emerging story so much more impactful as you find what’s coming (but is it true?).

Chapter 9 is particularly incredible. While discussing labyrinths, it is itself one. The footnotes lead to dead ends and endless loops. The pages have various segments read in different directions, even parts that need a mirror. It’s not just gimmicky. In this chapter, as in others, formatting quirks reflect the content – accentuating story, playing jokes, reflecting themes.

Truant’s story can be a little tiresome at points – yeah I get it, the guy lays pipe, enough dude – but his developing mental collapse and questionable relationship with the manuscript add so many layers to the book.

The film, and the many other academic treatments of it which Zampanò references, don’t actually exist. But if the whole thing is merely Zampanò having a mental break, why does the manuscript affect Truant? And where did those claw marks come from? Does the minotaur represent a eldritch Nothingness (‘There is nothing there. Beware.’) which erases the house and film behind it, then becoming the manuscript – then, perhaps, erasing Truant as it becomes House of Leaves, then on to erase its readers? 😮 Perhaps Johnny Truant was that dead baby all along, and the whole damn thing is his mother processing trauma in the asylum? Is there a real house and minotaur? Or is it all symbolic?

Truly mind-bending.

The Bees – Laline Paull

A thriller following a bee in the totalitarian society of the hive through religious purges, wasp invasions, and the trials of winter. The life of the hive balances fact and artistic license to make an alien society centred around the Queen, beset by internal and external threats.

The idea is great. The writing is mostly solid – many scenes breathtaking, other points a little awkward. References to ‘data’ passed through antennae and encoded in scent can make the bees sound strangely computerised, and once when Flora sneaks into an area her attempt to slowly turn a door handle is like – since when are there door handles in the hive?

Mostly, the tricky balance between actual bees, and the humanised version Paull needed to tell a story that made sense to humans and is this good, works well. Occasional confusion and awkwardness is worth it to get the unique, action-packed theocracy.

Book Reviews (17)

books17

Reform or Revolution? – Rosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionary’s response to Eduard Bernstein, who argued for a path to socialism through gradual reforms, without a revolution.

Reading this felt a bit like watching Rosa put Eduard through a wood chipper. The arguments are fairly accessible to the sort of weirdo who would read this, and when she directly addresses her opponent it’s with an entertaining irascible tone.

She would be disappointed that (as of now) capitalism hasn’t irrevocably collapsed in crisis with the proletariat rising to seize the means – in a sense, she was too optimistic. But other theoretical forecasts are prophetic, such as credit being a ‘mighty instrument for the formation of crises’ (rather than a mitigation, as Bernstein argued).

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Kennedy’s thicc account of the rise and decline of leading powers through economic and military change from 1500 to 2000 was popular with DC wonks on its release in 1988 mainly because of the last chapter – an analysis of existing trends and informed speculation on the near future.

These days the last chapter is more of an example of how a well-educated cautious broadly-liberal American observer saw things in 1988. It’s fascinating that such an intelligent and informed person could be so naive as to refer to ‘fissures [which] often compel the United States to choose between its desire to enhance democratic rights in Latin America and its wish to defeat Marxism’. PAUL, YOU MUG, THE U.S. USES ‘SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY’ AS A RHETORICAL PRETEXT WHILE SPONSORING ANY DICTATOR GOING, YOU’RE TOO SMART TO FALL FOR THIS!

Also intriguing looking back from now is Kennedy’s reference to balancing the three competing priorities facing governments heading to the 21st century – ‘guns’, ‘butter’, and sustained growth – as a very difficult task. Continual economic growth is demanded by capitalism, but is impossible (not merely difficult) due to the threat of climate change, and, indeed, the finite amount of resources and demand – good luck breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It would be interesting to hear his response were he pressed on this point now.

The book is primarily a work of history, looking at how economics, technology, and warfare relate to the global balance of power from 1500-1988/2000. You don’t need to memorise particular battles, names, or dates. Kennedy’s writing is as engaging and narrative-driven as you could expect of something like this.

He explains how Europe became the centre of world power due to its internal competition in technology and trade, with its geography making it difficult for, say, the first country to develop gunpowder to take over the whole continent and have innovation stall there. From there he looks at the leading powers which rose in the continent, and the factors which helped each to prominence as well as those which led to downfall – the Habsburgs, Napoleon; and Britain’s place as an imperial/merchant superpower spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Developing through the two world wars comes the long-predicted ‘bipolar world’ led by the U.S. and Russia, taking Kennedy through to 1988 and fears of nuclear war.

Is this a good book? Yes. Do you need to know a lot of history or economics? No, though you might want google here or there. Did it take me a long time to read, and is it a bit dry? Yes.

Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

H/t Matthew Richardson.

A well-paced, character-rich gothic story of a murder in 1913. A manor in a fen; a somewhat unfortunate, bright, ‘plain’ female lead; an overbearing misogynist father figure; superstitious villagers with strong accents. All the familiar tropes – very slickly executed.

The marsh setting is an atmospheric point of contention between Maud and Edmund Stearne, the girl and father whose… difficult… relationship forms the core of the book. Paver alternates a close third-person focused on Maud with an epistolary style, each character’s voice stark and engaging. Young Maud’s understanding of her mother’s regular miscarriages, Edmund’s awful pompous journals, and Maud’s inexorably growing knowledge of what’s really happening around her are well served by the approach, which leaves room for doubting everyone’s reliability.

An atmospheric read, well-researched and suspenseful.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

A funnier, better characterised, modern adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two feuding academic families. The narrative centres on the Belsey family – the white academic father, Howard; black hospital admin Kiki; budding Christian Jerome; self-styled hustler Levi; intensely driven student Zora.

The Belseys alone are diverse and well-realised (though Kiki perhaps less so – a human counter to Howard’s ultra-cerebral nonsense who’s given less chance to shine in her own right); but add in the black conservative Kipps family and you get a lively cast with complex personalities and conflicted relationships driving the plot. Add in other characters: Carl, a rapper thrust into poet’s circles, sensitive to being taken a fool; Claire, a perfect satire of a poet; the delightfully elliptical Jack French and his dictionary… – it’s funny, with powerful, frustrating, and touching encounters.

At times the nods to Forster can ring a little false. The opening awkwardly uses a Forster highbrow style to frame the more natural, effective email exchanges (before the fantastic dialogue introducing the Belseys); making the plot reflect its earlier inspiration sometimes requires unconvincing gambits like Howard not having a mobile phone.

On the whole, though, very entertaining and meaningful.

Marginalia

Once when I was a boy I rode out in the general direction of the Twiceborn King, with some fantasy of burying my stolen sword up to the hilt in his undead flesh. I had only a vague idea of where I was going, and no idea of what I’d do once I got there. I made my way from village to hamlet, but before I got to see any battles or castles or magic, before I’d even crossed the river, my father caught up with me and wrestled me home. I’m glad he did. Farm work had made me more than strong enough to swing the sword around, but in my hands it was just a club. I had no coin. No plan. I’d have been just another rotting body in the Twiceborn army by the time the Protagonist arrived to destroy it.

Read about a character dissatisfied with his place in the story in Marginalia, reprinted in Spillwords. 🙂

How to Help

By Hook Or By Book

8C7970C9-1F77-4CEC-B298-C9219B7CF932

Hi everyone. If you’re like me and are feeling sad, frustrated, and helpless over the continuing systemic racism in America, here are some ways to become proactive.

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#

https://www.thecut.com/2020/05/george-floyd-protests-how-to-help-where-to-donate.html

78E83EB0-CB04-43C9-9AC1-3D8DF428B237

https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/30/us/how-to-be-an-ally-guide-trnd/index.html

11 Terms You Should Know to Better Understand Structural Racism

Handshake of friendship and respect, racism concept

Defeating racism, tribalism, tolerance and all forms of discrimination will liberate us all, victim and perpetrator alike.

~ Ban…

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Dialogue, Lovecraft, Ellipses Out of Place

Lovecraftian image
Source: https://bit.ly/2UbtbS4

Stephen King’s On Writing mentions that H.P. Lovecraft ‘was a genius when it came to tales of the macabre, but a terrible dialogue writer.’ King quotes a passage from ‘The Colour Out of Space’:

Nothin’… nothin’… the colour… it burns… cold an’ wet… but it burns… it lived in the well… I seen it… a kind o’ smoke… jest like the flowers last spring […] it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here… one o’ them professors said so…

King says, ‘And so on and so forth, in carefully constructed elliptical bursts of information,’ concluding Lovecraft wrote like this because he was a weird bigoted loner.

It’s not as painful a line as that Lovecraft, but I remembered a bit of my critique of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon’s prologue:

“Stop whoever is coming… or die.”

Ellipses in dialogue can be effective for showing a speaker trailing off or hesitant, or, as attempted here, giving the listener pause to register a threat. Pauses can be used to give the listener/reader time to embellish a vague hint for themselves. (‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if…’)

But the threat has to actually be threatening. I can’t imagine someone speaking this edgelord line. A pause doesn’t automatically add badass power.

I suspect this sort of forced drama is something a lot of beginner writers do. I remember using ellipses like that myself.

Possibly one reason why is the influence of film and TV. I can imagine a younger me writing a line like ‘Stop whoever is coming… or die,’ and picturing how it would work on camera. It’s still never a brilliant line (I mean, come on) but with a suitable soundtrack, camera work, good acting, scenery, it might end up forgivable.

So how can we add punch to dialogue without Lovecraftian Ellipses Out of Place?

A solid point for a lot of things in writing is Rachel Walton’s reminder to read out loud. If it’s unnatural to speak or makes you picture a 1960’s Batman villain, reconsider!

Pauses have their place, but use them consciously. Do they produce a natural rhythm that matches the tone and content of the dialogue, or would another tactic be more effective?

Perhaps Lovecraft’s dialogue above would’ve worked better as a manic ramble of run-on sentences. Perhaps the character would keep roaming off topic, or drift into a silent thousand-yard stare, and need to be re-prompted. There are many ways to use structure and interaction with other speakers. Consider this wild monologue.

And then there’s all the stuff around the dialogue. If you’re picturing a gesture that makes the ellipses work perfectly, other people won’t see that – lighting the cigarette, grabbing the lapel, gesturing to the henchman, etc – unless you prompt them to.

Dust

school football

A pile of dust on Tim’s desk. To make you feel at home!

It looked like he could jump over the wall. Aww. Too heavy?

Puffing through the corridors. So many kids.

How’s the weather up there, slenderman?

After school he went in the pool. Mum floated, rubbing her joints. ‘I know it’s hard now, Tim. We’ll all adjust. Don’t you like that sky? Listen to those birds.’

Go back to Mars. He lay in bed missing the colony, watching the shuttles at night.

Leaked Labour Report

These revelations should end any debate around whether Labour’s senior management team, including McNicol, were serious about a Labour government in 2017. To the contrary what this stunning cache of documents reveals is how McNicol – and a tight, unelected circle around him – made every effort to undermine and denigrate that year’s election campaign, frequently stating how they hoped it would fail while simultaneously planning to replace Jeremy Corbyn from as early as January. – Novara Media

A leaked report makes plain the extent to which anti-Corbyn staffers – including former general secretary McNicol – sabotaged the party, actively undermined it in the 2017 election, targeted those they deemed a ‘trot’ (‘anyone left of Gordon Brown’), and intentionally mishandled antisemitism complaints to tar the leadership with their own failures to properly respond to allegations.

This use of antisemitism as a factional football is, of course, grossly antisemitic. The report refers to a case of holocaust denial being sat on, all to help falsely brand the Corbyn wing as antisemitic.

Here is Novara Media’s selection of extracts regarding the 2017 election.

Here is Emilie Oldknow saying she had Tom Watson delay the expulsion of Ken Livingston (for antisemitism) to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn, despite his demanding a resolution.

Here are Rod Liddle’s (apparently he’s a member?) shameful public statements being ignored due to factional allegiance.

You’ll be able to find the full report, if you can stomach it.

This is a true test of Keir Starmer’s commitment to ‘unity’ and ‘fighting antisemitism’. Anyone complicit in this should have no place in politics.

Flying Away

balcony view

Leather creaked as Joe shifted on the couch. Waiting for my patient to settle, I watched a bird basking in the sun out on the balcony, the drapes billowing through the open door with a soft breeze.

‘Mary wants to see me tomorrow,’ he said.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘I…’ He sighed. ‘It’s been a long time coming. I wanted to get to this place. But now we’re here I don’t know what I’m going to say. How do I make up for seven years?’ He waved a hand lazily. ‘I know, day by day. Still…’

‘What do you think brought Mary round?’

‘Matt wants to meet me. She’s not sure about that yet.’

‘So, he wants to. What do you think about that?’

‘Honestly, that just makes me more guilty about the whole thing. I was too much of a dick to be there from the start. There’s so much I’ve missed. But that’s what happens when you run.’

‘Last time you mentioned -’ I said, licking a finger and flicking through the file, ‘that avoiding difficult things actually just isolates you and takes away choices, you said you’re doing to yourself what you’re trying to avoid.’

‘I hear you. If I want to be free I have to not escape anything that feels like it might trap me. Avoiding complications or responsibilities just means they own me in a different way. I miss opportunities.’ He should’ve been his team captain by now. He’d turned down promotion twice.

‘You’ve come a long way since our first session.’

‘It’s simple. I’m not that scared kid any more: I have to face things, take charge. Simple doesn’t mean easy, though.’

That’s how it is with them. A need builds until it bursts into an outlet – escape, strength, control, recognition or anonymity, whatever. But that still leaves something unresolved. Joe’s father had died when London fell, yet the impact he’d made on his son lingered.

Leather creaked. ‘I mean, what do I say tomorrow?’

I watched the drapes fluttering, weighing up a response. I’m not his friend – I’m his therapist. My job is to enable him to help himself figure out what to say to someone he left pregnant at the altar. ‘You’re looking to re-establish a connection. It’s a case of being honest, patient -’

‘Answerable. Responsible.’ Said hesitantly, fishing for a confirmation.

‘That frightens you.’

‘Sort of my whole thing, isn’t it?’

‘Go on.’

‘I know I’m not my father. I won’t repeat those mistakes. Though when I vanished… that was just a mistake in the other direction. I’ve already done damage. Getting back into their lives… who is that really for?’

‘Matt wants to meet you.’

‘He wants to meet the guy behind the action figures. Not the guy on your couch.’

‘Does that idea come from him or Mary – or is it just you?’

‘He must have some sort of expectation. It’s only natural. I don’t know if I can live up to that.’

‘Is your worry that he will want you around, or that he won’t?’ I asked.

He lay there for a while, rolling that around. A cloud passed across the sun. ‘Huh. Oh, man. That’s… I’ll need to chew on that one.’

‘Let’s put a pin in that for next session, then.’

‘Mary did let me have a photo.’ He fished in his pocket, saying, ‘His thing affects photos though,’ as he passed it back over his head.

Matt looked a lot like Joe. The photo had been taken in a busy park, with everyone else in the shot washed out, vague. So second-generation cape. A need to be noticed? I noted that down – possibly something to bring up as things developed on the Matt front.

‘I see the resemblance,’ I said, trying to draw things out with a less intense approach. I returned the photo.

‘Yeah. It’s… I mean, he looks okay, doesn’t he? He’s decent in school.’

‘Go on.’

‘If he’s fine, I mean – that’s good. I can’t have done too much damage. He’s well-adjusted, it seems. I’m still a dick, obviously.’

Yes. ‘What matters is how you move forwards.’

Joe’s phone bleeped, insistent. He checked it and groaned, shooting to his feet. ‘Sorry, something’s come up. I must dash. But you’ve given me a lot to think about. Same time next week?’

‘I’ll see if I can tack some more time on the end.’

‘Great,’ he said, walking out into the sunlight.

Joe stood on the balcony, hair fluttering in the wind. Sparks trailed from his fingertips as he rose into the air, heels then toes lifting from the floor. For a moment it struck me, again, what my patients were to the rest of the world. How much more human the parahumans were to me, lying on my couch without the silly branded capes and masks. Then he shot into the sky with a discharge of lightning, leaving a sharp burst of ozone on the summer breeze.

I pressed the button to call the next patient.

#

#

(If you like this, go read Worm.)

Passengers – Viewpoint and Structure

[Spoilers]

In the film Passengers, Chris Pratt is accidentally woken from hibernation early into a long space voyage and deliberately wakes Jennifer Lawrence so he won’t be alone. It’s not bad, but it struggles with a predictable arc, and its unresolved tension between ‘creepy guy thriller’ and ‘sci-fi romance’.

I stumbled on this video about it, which makes a good argument Passengers would be better from Lawrence’s perspective.

With the plot shifted to allow the viewer to take a more active role picking up on clues, and be surprised as the reveals come with increasing tension, the arc would be more engaging. With a change in viewpoint character and suitable adjustments to the closing act, the story could begin as a mysterious sci-fi romance with hints of something untoward and develop a darker tone – rather than its confused mish-mash.

From all this, I think writers can draw some helpful questions to ask themselves:

  • Is this being told from the right viewpoint?
  • How is the chosen viewpoint shaping audience sympathy, and does this support or conflict with the themes?
  • Is the plot structure predictable?
  • Does the plot structure encourage the audience to passively take in the story, or to actively pick up on hints and form interpretations? (Though, too much of the latter can also be frustrating.)
  • Would there be a benefit to revealing certain things later?

Nine Types of Job Interviews

handshake

Phone call

A lot of people don’t like this, and I don’t get why. You can stay at home in pyjamas with notes in front of you, they’re the least cursed type.

Skype call

The second least cursed – only presentable from the waist up, no travel, notes out of frame.

You really made me come all this way for that?

I.e., recite your CV to us for five minutes. It’s obvious they haven’t read it, and there’s no reason for this not to be a call unless handshake quality is really important. Hopefully you didn’t have to go too far.

Scammy scheme

You turn up and there’s a crowd of other interviewees. You’re handed a little form to fill out, with more emphasis on your interests than your experience. They ask you almost nothing, but spend ten minutes giving you a spiel about their ‘training program’ or whatever – as though anybody actually believes they’ll become a manager in six months, seeing as the same job is advertised every three months. Commission only. The job advert was either cloyingly faux-ironic or outright misleading. Any sufficiently desperate extrovert can get it.

Standard

Just the standard type, they know what they’re doing. It’s fine.

Amateur interviewer

They’re more awkward than you are. Sort of refreshing, but it can be annoying.

Casual chat

You were probably told not to dress formal, and the first thing they say is not to worry, it’s only a chat. Much like the standard interview in practice, though a bit more relaxed, and the interviewer is usually better at asking useful follow-up questions.

Sherlock HR-olmes

If HR could put you in an MRI during the questioning, they would. A long tedious affair, more suited to a NASA application than an entry-level office job. What would you do in several scenarios? How do you schedule? What meme are you? (I got asked this, said salt bae because it was the first I thought of. They said, ‘oh, so you’re a salty person.’ Jfc, there’s a wrong answer to the meme question!?!) Where were you on the night in question? Feels like a malicious therapist.

Practical

You have to do a short test or example. Whether this is cursed or blessed depends on the field and the test’s actual relevance. It can be artificial and pointless, or it can be a chance to cut through all the bs and be judged on your ability to do the actual work for once. You’ll also realise how long it’s been since you used a pen to write more than a sentence or two.