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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Book review: The Most Intangible Thing

I'm fortunate enough to have a regular writing partner, and even more fortunate that she's the amazing author and artist Cly Boehs.  Cly, an Oklahoma native with an endless supply of creativity and an ear for lyrical use of language, first hit the shelves with her wonderful novel Back Then, a deft (and at times heartbreaking) portrait of a family trying to make sense of a world changing too fast to keep up.

Her most recent, The Most Intangible Thing, has a different approach.  Each of the stories has a lurking surreality that is reminiscent of the works of Haruki Murakami.  In Cly's stories, like in many of Murakami's, you are invited into a subtly magical realism -- magical not because of what the characters are doing, but because the world they're immersed in exists in that peculiar shadowland between the real and the imagined, where you're not quite certain if what you're seeing has actual substance or is a product of the mind.

And truthfully, how could you tell?  Our fallible sensory apparatus and brain can only deal with the input they get, so how would you deal with a world where Siamese cats seem to truly have nine lives,  where a man defines his life and death with cryptic clues left behind in a coffee shop, where the end of a woman's college experience coincides with an encounter with horses that seem to have borrowed their reality from her mind, where a book club turns to recounting experiences that defy explanation?


In Cly's deft hands, each of these stories draws the reader in, and we believe what the characters are experiencing as readily as we accept Murakami's fractured world with two moons in the incomparable 1Q84.  Each is a vignette into how our stories define our reality -- and how our relationships create the stories we tell.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Happily ever after?

In an online fiction writers' group I belong to, we were discussing how to end chapters and entire stories.  Tie everything up with a neat bow?  Leave loose ends?  End on a cliffhanger?

I suppose we all have preferences, but I like the plot arc, even if a book is part of a series, to have some kind of closure.  My trilogy about the mysterious and terrifying Black-eyed Children, The Boundary Solution (Lines of Sight, Whistling in the Dark, and Fear No Colors), has an overall plot arc for the entire series, but each book wraps up at least a good chunk of what was driving the action, answering a lot of the questions that come up during the course of the story.  But the first two do leave some loose ends -- otherwise, why write a sequel?  (I won't go into a lot of detail because I'd like you to read the books themselves, so sorry for being coy.  I just don't like giving spoilers.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Megamoto85, Black eyes by megamoto85, CC BY-SA 4.0]

What about cliffhangers?  Well, for me, it depends on what you mean.  Those "OMG you can't stop here!" moments can work for a story, or completely piss off the reader, depending on how it's handled.  As an example of the former, consider the end of Tolkien's The Two Towers, the middle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Remember the final paragraph?
The great doors slammed to.  Boom.  The bars of iron fell into place inside.  Clang.  The gate was shut.  Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground.  He was out in the darkness.  Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.
The first time I read that book, I stared at that last sentence, and said, "Wait!  No!  What happened next?"...

... and immediately picked up The Return of the King.  (I have to admit to being pretty damn frustrated when I found out that the final book in the series jumps to what's happening to Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith, and we have to wait until halfway through to find out what became of Frodo and Sam.  I mean, how horrible... leaving them there in the Orc stronghold all that time.  Sheesh.)

But as an incentive to go on, it worked brilliantly.

However, take one of the worst "let's piss off the reader" endings I've ever come across, in William Sleator's book The Duplicate.  (And I am going to give spoilers here... sorry about that, but I need to tell you the end to make a point.)

Now, I'll say up front I love most of Sleator's YA books.  Among the Dolls, House of Stairs, and Interstellar Pig are all absolutely brilliant, combining twisty, unexpected innovation with believable characters and a gripping writing style.  And I thought I'd feel that way about The Duplicate -- until the last line.

What Sleator did, in my opinion, was to create a cliffhanger the story didn't deserve.  The short version of what he did is that the main character, who has accidentally created duplicates of himself (who go on to create more duplicates, with horrifying results), has successfully dealt with all of the various copies -- or so the main characters and the reader think.  So on the last page the protagonist is there, having a celebratory snog-fest with his girlfriend on the sofa, and we think all is well.

"And then the phone rang."

That's the last line of the story.

What the hell does that mean?  Is one of the duplicates still alive, and called to say "neener-neener"?  Are the police calling to talk to him about some of the dubiously legal stuff some of the duplicates did?  Is it his girlfriend's former lover, calling to find out what the hell he thought he was doing, making out with her on the couch?  Is it the PTA calling to see if he'll donate some cookies to their next bake sale?

No way to know.

So that's an undeserved cliffhanger, and one that didn't create a sense of suspense and a desire to know what came next, it created a sense of anger and a desire to hurl the book across the room.  (And no, he never wrote a sequel to it.)

It's not necessary to tie up every last thread.  Life isn't neat and tidy.  But if there's no sense of closure when you shut the back cover of the book, something has gone seriously wrong.

It's a balancing act sometimes, to create an ending that's ragged enough to be realistic and at the same time brings the plot and character arcs to a satisfying conclusion.  I hope I hit that balance most of the time.

Or at least don't piss you off enough to hurl the book across the room.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Character study

A friend asked me a couple of days ago who my favorite characters from books were.

"My own books, or other people's?" I asked.

"How about both?" she replied.

A discussion ensued that I thought would make an interesting blog post, so here are my favorite fictional characters (not including movies & television), starting with the ones from other folk's stories.  In no particular order:
  • Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It's been said, and I think it's the truth, that Sam is the real hero of the story -- not Frodo, not Aragorn, not Gandalf.  Over and over the point is made that it's the simple, sweet things in life that the whole War of the Ring was being fought to preserve and protect, and Sam embodies that, as well as a hefty dose of pure courage and loyalty.
  • Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  An enigmatic woman with a mission that pulls her between compassion and retribution, Aomame lives in the surreal space Murakami creates -- a world that on first glance is just like ours, but only intersects reality at the edges.  Murakami's book is a tour de force, and Aomame is a brilliant, puzzling, fascinating character of the kind only he can bring to life.
  • Hazel from Richard Adams's Watership Down.  If I had to pick one character from fiction who displays the qualities of a true leader, it's Hazel, who leads his intrepid, ragtag band out of one danger and into a greater one, inspiring loyalty from his comrades and in a quiet, understated way bringing out the best in each one of them.  Yes, I know the characters are rabbits.  Doesn't make a difference.  If you haven't read this book, put it on your list.
  • Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I'm hard-pressed to pick between them, because they're a bit like figure-and-ground, complementary opposites who have come together to save the world.  Aziraphale is the angel with a deep compassion for and understanding of human foibles, and Crowley a demon with a heart of gold he tries (unsuccessfully) to hide.  This is one case where the television adaptation is as wonderful as the book -- Michael Sheen and David Tennant as (respectively) the representatives of heaven and hell are absolutely brilliant.
  • Speaking of Pratchett, Sam Vimes, the head of the police force in Ankh-Morpork and the right hand man of the Lord Patrician of the City, the machiavellian Havelock Vetinari, in a number of Pratchett's wonderful Discworld series.  Vimes is the stalwart, common-sense-ful anchor of the cast of oddballs that make up the rank-and-file of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork's police, and he navigates political intrigue and the odd assassination attempt with a weary, almost-but-not-quite-cynical deftness.
  • Brother William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco's murder mystery The Name of the Rose.  A fourteenth-century monk with a flair for observation, he's a medieval Hercule Poirot without the little Belgian's overinflated ego.  Brother William is faced with the superstition and fear of the time, and always comes back to rationality -- there is a natural, logical cause for everything, and the world is understandable to anyone who is willing to put some effort into learning about it.  Even when monks are mysteriously dying all around him, and the abbot is blaming the Forces of Darkness, Brother William never deviates from his determination to solve the case through reason and hard evidence.
Now, a handful of my own creations:
  • Whenever the question of my favorite character from my stories comes up, the answer is always Callista Lee, the brilliant, eccentric telepath from The Snowe Agency Mysteries (starting with Poison the Well).  Callista is constantly bombarded with others' thoughts, and as a result, shies away from people -- her gift gives her a unique window into the human condition and at the same time pushes her away, leaving her deeply alone.  Her character arc over the entire series is one of my favorite creations.
I always thought that if the Snowe Agency Mysteries were ever made into movies, Tilda Swinton would be perfect as Callista. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, Tilda Swinton (28352184350) (cropped), CC BY-SA 2.0]
  • Doctor Will Daigle, from Whistling in the Dark (the sequel to Lines of Sight, and hitting the shelves next week!).  Will is funny, quick, smart, and profane, but his genial temperament covers a huge heart and a tremendous compassion.  Which is why -- no spoilers -- what he has to do about a third of the way through Whistling in the Dark is one of the most poignant (and difficult!) scenes I've ever written.  I won't tell you more, you'll just have to read it for yourself.
  • Tyler Vaughan from Signal to Noise.  If I had to pick the character whose temperament is most like mine, Tyler would be the odds-on favorite.  A socially awkward biology nerd who'd just as soon spend his time ear-tagging elk in the Cascade Mountains, Tyler finds himself the center of a terrifying mystery -- and is forced into the role of Unlikely Hero completely against his will.
  • The Head Librarian, Archibald Fischer, from Lock & Key.  Fischer (forget he's named Archibald unless you want to be the target of his ire) is the sarcastic, Kurt-Cobain-worshiping, f-bomb-dropping director of the Library of Possibilities, where every possibility for every human on Earth is catalogued and monitored.  The repartee between him and his assistant, the imperturbable Scot Maggie Carmichael, is some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
  • Last, Jennie Trahan from my novella "Convection," in the collection Sights, Signs, and Shadows.  Jennie may seem like an unlikely choice -- from the beginning she's the bitchy, eye-rolling foil to the other characters' attempt to stay alive in a Category Five hurricane.  But she's the character who while I was writing the story grabbed the keyboard from my hand and started telling me about why she was so irascible -- and became one of the most compelling, sympathetic characters in the story.
So there you have it, a smattering of characters from different sources who have really resonated with me for one reason or another.  So let's hear your take on this -- who are your favorite characters from fiction?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The ten best

A friend of mine posted a link to one of those "Ten Best Books Ever Written" things, where someone sets him/herself up as the arbiter of taste for the whole English-speaking world.  I tend to cast a wry eye any time someone says "these are the best ever" in some kind of definitive way.  Yes, there are standards for storytelling and writing mechanics and so on, so there are books that would undoubtedly fail on a variety of levels; but when you start looking at why one book resonates with you, but it leaves someone else completely cold, you're launching into matters of taste, which are not only highly individual, they're not true in any kind of absolute sense.

I get really impatient with people who ridicule people's taste in books, music, and art.  You know what?  If (to grab a particularly apt phrase from the Quakers) it "speaks to your condition," it's good.  Never mind if I don't like it.  You do, and that's that.  If I like Nickelback and your tastes run more to Tchaikovsky, that's just the way it goes.

(Nota bene:  I do not, in fact, like Nickelback.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

(Nota bene again:  I also do not particularly like Tchaikovsky.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

Anyway, it's an interesting question as to why different people like different works of whatever.  My favorite painting, for example, is Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But I would be hard pressed to say why, exactly.  All I know is that it has a deep poignancy for me, so much that when I finally got to see it for real at the Courteauld Gallery in London two years ago, it brought me to tears.

On my other blog, Skeptophilia, I've dealt with the issue of musical taste, in particular how specific music effects people's brains -- resulting in the feeling of chills we get when we hear music that moves us emotionally.  Of course, showing that this happens and showing why a particular person resonates to a particular piece of music are two different things -- and the research into the former isn't getting us any closer to finding the reason for the latter.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to return to the literary, and see if I could come up with my ten favorite books.  I limited it to fiction (although there is non-fiction I love as well; maybe I'll deal with that in another post).  Here's what I came up with, in reverse order:
10. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
9. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
8. Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
7. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
6. Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman)
5. Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
3. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (Haruki Murakami)
1. Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco)
I'm sure if I sit and think longer, I'll go, "Wait, I forgot ______!" and revise the list, but this was my first pass at the task.  These are all books I keep returning to over and over, some of which I first read a long time ago (my first reading of And Then There Were None was when I was twelve, and it hooked me on murder mysteries for life -- and Christie's approach to a whodunnit significantly influenced my own mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries).

So -- those are my top ten.  What are yours?