Monthly Archives: June 2013

My NaNoWriMo CreateSpace Experience

The Waking World For the past six years, off and on, I have attempted to complete the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Three times I succeeded; the first time the result was so awful I don’t even remember what I did with it. The second time also produced a giant mess, but a mess I kept returning to at random intervals to try to fix. The third time I wrote something I actually hoped could be made better.

As a reward for successfully jumping the 50K word hurdle, CreateSpace–Amazon’s self-publishing arm–offers winners five free copies of their book. I always wondered how they could afford that. Now, after having claimed my five copies, I understand.

With a month left before the CreateSpace offer expired, I decided to tackle that final, ultimate, no-holds-barred edit on my 2010 NaNo novel (aka the giant mess.) I had already whittled the thing down from an ungainly behemoth to a lengthy meander. Reading through it again only made me cringe a few times, and whenever I cringed I cut whatever it was out. That helped. It still wasn’t War and Peace, but it clearly never would be. The terrible, indefensible word satisficing comes to mind, but I was on a deadline.

So I ventured onto the CreateSpace site and looked around. Hours and hours and hours later, after downloading a template, pasting my document in, formatting, reformatting, and saving the whole thing as a PDF, I finally uploaded a document that the CreateSpace site would accept.

I already had a cover that I’d designed for fun in Picasa. Getting it to fit into the appropriate online template was also a challenge, but after playing with it for a while it looked okay to me. I submitted the whole package and waited to hear whether it was acceptable. Once my uploaded novel passed the 24-hour review process, I was ready to order a proof. To be clear, the “five free books” does not cover the proof. I already knew this, so I was fine with it, but I can see where it could come as a surprise to the unsuspecting. It was around $5 plus shipping.

Of course, if you’re serious about publishing your novel you’re going to want to see that uncorrected proof. I was conducting this whole exercise as an experiment, research for when I really want to publish something. Once I saw the actual book, though, held it in my hands and flipped through the pages, something bizarre happened. I started to wonder if maybe the book was good enough after all. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe someone would want to buy this, right? This despite the fact that I knew what it contained. It’s intoxicating.

I have to wonder how many people did all the work required to get those five free copies (plus shipping), how many paid for the formatting and cover design assistance offered on the site, how many ultimately decided to go ahead and publish since they’d gotten this far. For me, I found the whole experience educational. Who knew that Word Style Sets were so useful? That a gutter is an actual type of margin. That Verdana looks so blah on the printed page.

The Waking WorldI also learned that procrastination has its price. I received my uncorrected proof in time to make changes, but if I actually made the changes, the book would go through the same review process again–new 24-hour wait, new proof. The clock is ticking and I simply don’t have time for that. So I plugged in my promotional code, ordered my books, and my five free copies will look like what they are: a half-baked experiment. A lesson learned for next time. And in the meantime, my mom is  going to get her very own signed copy of my never-to-be-published novel. Who knows, maybe if I make it big some day, she can sell it on eBay.

Review: Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett

Amy Falls Down“What if you wake up one day and you’re old and your life is almost over, and you realize all you could have had?” Amy Gallup teaches writing courses online, rarely leaving her home, her basset hound Alphonse her only true companion. She had a critically successful writing career as a young woman, but the death of her husband left her bereft and frozen. A close encounter with a birdbath in her garden, an interview given while almost certainly suffering from a concussion, and the courage that comes from utter indifference all combine to lead Amy out of her cloistered existence and back into contact with the world.

Somehow Amy Falls Down manages to convey searing truths about grief, loss, and old age while being laugh-out-loud hilarious, thanks to Amy’s dry wit and keen observations. Sharp-tongued yet not mean-spirited, Amy has never understood the emotions that drive most people–the craving for fame and recognition, the need to be  validated by the approval of others. What she does crave, and miss intensely, is the sense of being known. Very few people have ever known her, understood her and accepted her with all her phobias, foibles and flaws. That sense of connection is lacking in her life and she comes to realize how much she misses it.

I read an ARC of Amy Falls Down, which comes out officially on July 9, 2013. This is one case where I wish I’d read it on an e-reader, because there were so many great lines I wanted to highlight (I can never bring myself to highlight or write in a book, anymore than I could fold down a page corner to mark my place.) I won’t make the same mistake with Willett’s other books, which are already safely downloaded to my Kindle.

As it turns out, Willett’s previous book, The Writing Class, also features Amy Gallup and explains the rather shocking events mentioned but not really explained at the start of Amy Falls Down. I’m delighted at the chance to spend some more time with this extraordinary character.

Genre: Humorous fiction about writing fiction

Read it if: You write or try to write or would like to try to write; you appreciate a dry sense of humor; you enjoy books about books and the people who love them.

Skip it if: You are the irascible host of a vulgar talk radio show; you enjoy making obscene, poorly spelled comments on YouTube; you hate Betty White for reasons you cannot articulate.

Movie-worthy: I am skeptical that a movie could bring the inner workings of Amy’s mind to the big screen, but who knows.

Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesJulia is 11 when the world learns of the slowing. Some unknown force is affecting the Earth’s rotation, randomly adding first minutes and then hours to the span of every day. Its effects on humanity are not yet fully understood, but Julia is already coping with a treacherous and unpredictable world: middle school.

As the parent of a sixth-grader, The Age of Miracles frightened me more in its depiction of Julia’s peer group than in its description of the slowing, moribund world. After all, Slate informs me the Earth is probably safe from such an effect for the next hundred and fifty million years or so, barring unforeseen asteroid impacts; middle school, on the other hand, is undeniably real.

Julia’s mother, affected more severely by the changes, has no idea that her daughter is dealing with the loss of her best friend and a subsequent plummet in the middle school social order. While Julia spends her lunches alone in the library, her parents move in their own separate orbits, oblivious. Her father wants to hide any unpleasant truth from Julia, while her mother’s anxiety colors everything. Meanwhile, Julia’s remaining almost-friends have boyfriends they invite over when their parents are out, or run off with strange boys they met on the internet. It is suggested that the change in the Earth’s magnetic field and the force of gravity, the combined weight of the slowing, diminishes impulse control for many people, but these kids didn’t have much to begin with.

Would people really react to such a situation as they do in the book? Hard to say. Even if it seems odd that anyone would think staying up for the daylight hours of a 51 hour day would affect your perception of time (or sillier still, the speed at which you age), people do believe stranger things. It was also somewhat surprising that such animosity would arise between people who follow the arbitrary settings of the clock and those who try to adapt to the changing light. That sort of anger might plausibly arise over generations, but surely most people wouldn’t care in the short term; after all, there are plenty of night shift workers who already operate on separate schedules.

These questions are mere quibbles in the context of the book. This haunting, elegiac story resonated from start to finish, as the narrator speaks about the events from a point some time in the future. Her childhood is forever inextricably bound to the slowing and the course of a year that changed everything.

Genre: End-of-the-world coming-of-age fiction

Read it if: You enjoyed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, or that episode of Star Trek when Picard experienced a whole lifetime on a dying planet and carried the memories with him for the rest of his life.

Skip it if: You would rather not relive the worst memories of middle school, or you would strongly prefer a world affected by “the speeding up.”

Movie-worthy: It would be tough. Maybe Ang Lee could make it work, like in The Ice Storm.


Review: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Red MoonPatrick has to move in with his long-absent mother because his father has been called up to fight in the Lupine Republic, where the US military battles lycan insurgents to protect the nation’s uranium mines. Claire is considering her options for college, completely unaware of her parents’ history and the repercussions it will have for her own future. And in their lair, a lycan resistance group is plotting a devastating attack that will change everything.

In Benjamin Percy’s novel Red Moon, werewolves are known as lycans, an oppressed minority forced to register with the government and take a mind-numbing drug called Volpexx to suppress their ability to transform in the interest of public security. Unlike Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which focused on the viscerally sensual violence and existential dilemmas of life as a werewolf, Red Moon explores the political and social repercussions of a potentially violent and partially disenfranchised sub-group of people within an otherwise free country.

The narrative could have collapsed under the weight of all its real-world associations–lycans were granted their own country in 1948, but insurgents resist the US occupying forces; lycan segregation ended within living memory after protests and violence; lycans are monitored, illegally detained and subjected to inhuman torture when questioned–but in fact, the pacing is relentless and the lycan-human dynamic is complex and realistic.

Like Glen Duncan and The Passage author Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy aims higher than simple thrills. The evocative prose added an additional dimension to the story and brought the world of Red Moon to vivid life.

Genre: Thoughtful and fast-paced werewolf political thriller.

Read it if: You enjoy old myths reimagined with an original twist, scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena, and vampire-free werewolf novels.

Skip it if: You have a low tolerance for violence, gore, etc.

Movie-worthy: It would be difficult to do this well. Also, lycans spend a lot of time naked.

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LexiconI admit it: I have a book addiction. I acquire many more books than I can possibly read in a normal human lifetime. I recently wrote about how acquiring an e-reader has only compounded this problem.

Reading books on the Kindle has also increased the temptation to pre-order. When I see a book I really, really want to read, it’s so easy to click that little button guaranteeing that it will download automatically on the release date. This is especially attractive because, living overseas, I tend to receive even pre-ordered new release hardcovers a couple of weeks after everyone else.

ProxyAnd pre-ordering combines so many attractive elements in one package: 1) instant gratification, because I know I’m getting the book in a single lightning flash on its publication day; 2) deferred cost, because although I’m pre-ordering it today, I don’t have to pay for it until that day somewhere in the future when it downloads; and 3) the added bonus fun of giving myself a happy surprise, since I always forget I’ve pre-ordered the book until it magically appears.

Only today turned out to be some perfect storm of pre-ordering synchronicity, which I have chosen to call, in the portmanteau style so frequently adopted these days, “Pre-orderpalooza.” I really, really wanted to read Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, because who doesn’t? And then at some point I heard that Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government, had a new book coming out called Lexicon, about people known as Poets who use their persuasive powers to control the world. Pre-ordered! And finally, there was this nifty-sounding YA book called Proxy, about a future world where the rich can employ a proxy to take the consequences when they do anything wrong, in exchange for taking on the proxy’s debt. Pre-ordered!

Guess which day all three of these books come out? Today, June 18th. It’s like The Ocean at the End of the LaneChristmas in June, or something. Why did a random Tuesday bring such a shower of publication riches down on my e-reader? I don’t know. I’ve been in India long enough to briefly wonder if the date has some auspicious astrological significance, but I suppose there is some more rational-seeming, publishing-related reason behind it.

Whatever the reason, I am delighted to have sparkling new reading material to add to my collection. If only I could pre-order more time to read it all.

Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

9780061493348The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is easily one of my favorite books of all time. I remember wanting to stop halfway through because I loved the characters so much, and I knew that going on would mean seeing them come to harm. When I read the beautifully elegiac novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, it was clear that Michael Chabon is a fearless and relentlessly imaginative author.

With Telegraph Avenue, Chabon explores a completely different world, the vinyl paradise of Brokeland Records, a store in Oakland, California. Though the story is set in 2004, the throbbing heart of the book seems to move to a 1970s soul-funk beat. If ever a book needed a soundtrack, this is it, and helpfully, someone over at Slate actually put one together with this playlist. I highly recommend playing it in the background while you read, although I was surprised to see that Minnie Riperton was missing–she gets a couple of plot-relevant mentions in the book. Her 1970s classic Lovin’ You can be found here.

Riffing on pop culture references to Tarantino films, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, Sesame Street and everything in between, Telegraph Avenue follows the misadventures of a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters: Archy Stallings, father-to-be, general screw up, and co-owner of Brokeland Records; Nat Joffe, existential drama queen and Archy’s business partner; Gwen Shanks, a hugely pregnant, black-belt possessing midwife (also: Archy’s wife); Aviva Roth-Joffe, a highly experienced midwife, married to Nat, and in business with Gwen; Archy’s formerly almost famous father, the martial artist and blaxpoitation star Luther Stallings; and that’s just to name a few.

The plot of the book revolves around the impending arrival of a vast new shopping complex funded by a successful football player that threatens to put Brokeland out of business. The store is a beloved local hangout for a ragtag assortment of characters, but it’s already teetering on the edge of insolvency thanks to Nat and Archy’s unwillingness to face financial reality. Meanwhile, Gwen and Aviva must deal with the fallout from a difficult birth and an even more difficult doctor, Nat and Aviva’s son Julie is crushing hard on a new kid in town, and everyone seems to be looking for Luther (except Archy, who has written the man off.)

There is so much going on in this book. Even the sentences are so jam-packed with inventive description, serial phrases and pop culture references that, stretched out to its full length, the book would probably reach from the Golden Gate Bridge to LAX. Despite its often funny, easy breezy tone, it is a complex and layered story with many moving parts. Chabon deftly and vividly brings even the most peripheral characters to life, and by the end Brokeland feels like a place you used to be, a place you’re going to miss.

Genre: Vinyl nostalgia literary fiction

Read it if: You are a big fan of Pulp Fiction, Miles Davis, Foxy Brown, Zatoichi or Michael Chabon.

Skip it if: You do not recognize at least one of the names in the above list. Just kidding. You know Bert and Ernie, right? Go ahead and read it.

Movie-worthy: Definitely. If Tarantino’s not available, maybe Barry Sonnenfeld?

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Review: Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

Crazy for the Storm“There is more to life than just surviving it,” Norman Ollestad writes near the end of his breathtaking 2009 memoir. The beauty of this book is that it deals with so much more than mere survival–although the author’s survival of a plane crash on an icy mountain at age 11 is a shocking story in its own right.

What gives Crazy for the Storm its heart is Ollestad’s depiction of his relationship with his father, the man who pushed him further than he probably had a right to, the man who taught him the qualities of strength, resilience and resourcefulness that enabled a child to survive an ordeal that would have killed most adults. Ollestad’s father urged him to ski the most dangerous slopes, to surf the wildest waves, to push past fear and embrace the moments of grace that ordinary people never experience.

It is to Ollestad’s credit that he doesn’t romanticize his childhood or his father. The cover image depicts Ollestad’s father carrying him in a sling on his back while he surfed, probably not something a parent could get away with in this day and age. As a kid, Ollestad resented and sometimes resisted his father’s plans for him. At home, he was dealing with his mother’s bullying boyfriend and dreaming of a normal childhood, where he could play games with other kids in a regular neighborhood.

Surviving the crash is not the end of that childhood, although it changes him. Ollestad describes the difficulty he had adjusting to life after the crash, the belief he carried that he had to be strong and show no sign of the pain he felt. It is not a simple happy ending.

In the final pages of the book, Ollestad briefly describes his relationship with his own young son, a dynamic very different from the charismatic pressure exerted by his father. He wants to give him the appetite for life, the joy in the moment, without the extreme danger and the relentless intensity. The reader can only wish him luck.

Genre: Survival/childhood memoir

Read it if: You want to glimpse a complex father-son relationship and its impact on Norman Ollestad’s life.

Skip it if: You want a simple straight-up survival story.

Movie-worthy: I’m surprised there hasn’t already been a movie. [Just checked there is no movie, although the title is listed as “in development.”]

A New E-Reader = Twice As Many Books

My purple kindleIn December, I bought a Kindle Paperwhite. As much as I love physical, tangible books, buying an e-reader made sense given my itinerant lifestyle. Every few years, my family and I pack up all our possessions and move to another country. Books are heavy. It makes sense to leave them behind and keep my library on my Kindle and in the cloud.

Only it’s not working out that way. I have fully stocked my Kindle library with impulse purchases, new releases, book club books I can’t find locally and so very many of those irresistible $1.99 Kindle daily deals. Yet this hasn’t stopped me from acquiring new books at approximately the same rate as before, i.e. more quickly than I could ever hope to read them.

For example, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. I could have downloaded it, but it has that beautiful rainbow cover. I wanted to have it, in my hands, and now I do. In the case of Allegiant, the upcoming third book in the Divergent trilogy, I could have pre-ordered it to download when it comes out–instant gratification. But it’s the last book in the series and I want to clutch an actual copy while I zoom through it, and pass it on to a friend who loves YA when I’m done.

So while the books accumulate in my closets and bookshelves and the occasional drawer, the e-books pile up unread on my e-reader with its lovely purple cover. Not only has my e-reader not solved the weighty problem of all my physical books, it’s also changed my reading habits in a way I hadn’t anticipated. For the first time in my life, I am regularly reading more than one book at a time.

Sure, lots of people do that, but not me. I have always tended to focus on exactly one book, and any time I tried to read more than one at a time, the best book won and the other book had to wait its turn. Not anymore. Now I have my daytime hard copy book, and my nighttime e-reading, lit by the soft glow of the screen. Right now my daylight read is Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (purchased locally in the 3 for 2 bin–who can resist 3 for 2?) and my bedtime read is Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Two completely different books in every respect (except they’re both set in northern California). It turns out I can read two books at once. Who knew?

Even if the Kindle has not solved my increasingly heavy book problem, the good news is I have another year before it’s time to think about moving again. And there’s absolutely no chance I will run out of reading material in the interim.

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Review: Diverse Energies, edited by Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti

Diverse EnergiesThis collection of YA science fiction short stories takes its title from a quote by John F. Kennedy: “The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.” The stories feature protagonists from around the world, with skin tones and ethnic backgrounds as varied as the children in the Caribbean where editor Tobias Buckell grew up. Among the authors contributing to the anthology are Daniel H. Wilson (Robopocalypse), Malinda Lo (Ash), Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Drowned Cities).

The stories explore the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the exploited, the alternate realities and possible futures where things are much, much worse. As someone who’s spent most of the last decade living in Asia, I loved that the stories reflected the world as it is even while speculating on the future. In “Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia, the tech-enabled rich literally fail to see the impoverished squatters occupying their garages and homes, too engrossed in a virtual world to notice the real desperation around them. In Ken Liu’s “Pattern Recognition” and Rajan Khanna’s “What Arms to Hold Us,” children raised to believe one truth about their worlds discover the shocking reality behind the stories they’ve been told.

Of all the stories, though, one stood out: “Solitude” by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. Set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness, “Solitude” explores the consequences of a field ethnologist’s decision to raise her children immersed in the culture of a little-understood people on a planet called Eleven-Soro. Previous attempts to communicate with the adults of the culture have failed, and the researcher believes she might be able to learn more through her children. Her daughter, Serenity, the narrator of the story, is very young when they arrive. Serenity absorbs the teachings and belief system of Eleven-Soro so completely that her mother ultimately cannot understand her, exactly as her mother has never truly understood the people she’s lived among for so many years.

I found all of the stories in this collection interesting and compelling, but “Solitude” affected me on a completely different level. I normally pass my books on when I’m done reading them, but this one’s going on the keeper shelf.


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Review: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

The threat of imminent nuclear annihilation looms over Mumbai as the date of a The City of Devipromised attack approaches, yet for the characters in The City of Devi that’s a secondary concern. Sarita, a thirty-something statistician, refuses to flee the city with her family. Instead, she is determined to find her missing husband, Karun, who has disappeared, and offer him the pomegranate that represents the sensuality missing from their as yet unconsummated marriage.

Meanwhile, Jaz (also known as Ijaz, the Jazster, Jazmine and, when in Hindu-controlled zones of the now divided city, Gaurav) searches for Karun for reasons of his own. He offers Sarita his help and, though she increasingly comes to suspect his motives, she has little choice but to accept. Together they travel on a tragicomic quest through the bombed-out shell that was once glorious, dynamic Mumbai, now split into sectarian zones controlled by gangsters, zealots and, so it is said, the goddess herself.

For the most part, Karun is seen only through the memories of him shared by Sarita and Jaz as they alternately narrate the story. He is a passive pawn, pushed and pulled by the forces and passions around him, yet early on he offers the key to the narrative when he relates his father’s unusual views on the trimurthy, the Hindu concept of the trinity. Normally, the trimurthy encompasses Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but in this version:

“Vishnu, with his sunny disposition, represented the dynamism to make things work, while Shiva personified introspection, solitude, the tendency to withdraw from life. Which left the rest of nature’s attributes for Devi to embody: since she received the power to create, she was the most versatile.”

It’s not hard to figure out who’s who in the trinity of Jaz, Karun and Sarita, but their reunion is constantly in jeopardy and the fate of the city, maybe even the world, teeters uncertainly on the edge of doom. Ron Charles certainly said it best when he described this book as “the best sex comedy of the year about war between India and Pakistan.” As absurd as the events of the book sometimes are, the author has captured the ways that love and lust can make even the impending end of the world appear trivial by comparison.

I’m sure someone else has already noticed this, but the title of this book would also appear to make it a trimurthy with the author’s previous novels, The Death of Vishnu (which I read and loved) and The Age of Shiva (which I somehow missed but will have to read very soon.)

Genre: Apocalyptic sex farce

Read it if: You do not blush easily, you don’t mind a little absurdity, or you want a near-future dystopia that’s really completely different from all the others.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about sex in books. Because there’s a lot of sex in this book. I will never look at the Jantar Mantar the same way again…

Movie-worthy: That would be some movie! Train derailments! Elephants! Laser battles!



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