Writing about Reading: Victory Square

October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s taken me a couple of days of mourning before I could review the last of Olen Steinhauer’s Yalta books, Victory Square. I have enjoyed all five books very much, but all good things must come to an end, and that makes me a bit sad.

Endings are a theme in Victory Square; careers end, lives end, governments end. In several ways, Victory Square brings the story started in Bridge of Sighs full circle. Emil Brod, the hero of Bridge of Sighs, returns as the hero of Victory Square. In the first book, he was at the very beginning of his career; here, he is a few days from retirement. Likewise, the anonymous Eastern Bloc country he lives in (which I thought was Poland, but the author’s notes at the end of this book say it is based on Romania) was in its infancy in Bridge of Sighs; here, it is about to fall.

I can’t say too much about the plot without spoiling the fun, but suffice to say that Brod’s first case comes back to haunt him in a big way, and he must call upon the help of his current and past coworkers and friends in order to survive and strike back. But Brod and his compatriots aren’t the young, healthy men they once were, and age is as much a villain in this novel as are the men Brod is trying to stop.

Steinhauer learned a lesson about narrative structure from the previous installment in the series, Liberation Movements. I took issue with how Steinhauer switched from third person to first person in that book. In this, he sticks with first person: although there are two point of view characters, Brod and Gavra Noukas, we learn everything through the filter of Brod’s after-the-fact account. Sure, there are some things it’s hard to believe that Gavra “told” Brod, but it works a lot better overal than the structure of Liberation Movements.

The pacing and tension is, as always, top-notch. At no point in the book are you sure what will happen next. Because it is a first-person story, you know Brod lives at least long enough to write all of this down; nevertheless, I found myself wondering if Brod was going to survive. Part of the reason for my uncertainty is due to a trick Steinhauer pulled in his other first-person installment in this series, The Confession. In that book, another character steps in at the end to tell the reader what happened to the narrator after he wrote his confession. I thought that Victory Square might end similarly; whether or not it does is something you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Olen Steinhauer had earned a place on my “must read” list with his Milo Weaver series, and Victory Square only served to further cement his position. As sad as I am that there will be no more new Yalta books (nor, apparently, any new Milo Weaver novels), I eagerly await the next story Steinhauer publishes.


Need a shorter synonym? Thsrs to the rescue!

October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Calling all sesquipedalianists! Is your love of long words preventing you from expressing yourself in today’s brachysyllabic social media? Fear not! Help is here in the form of Thsrs!

I just spotted this on GalleyCat and had to share:

As you fill your Tumblr, Facebook page and Twitter feed every day, the new Thsrs tool will help you locate a shorter synonym and lower your character count on these short-form platforms.

We’ve embedded a screenshot of the simple interface above–do you think this modified thesaurus will help or hurt your writing? While shorter words can keep your Twitter feed balanced, it could end up influencing your long-form style too.

AllTwitter approved of the tool: “Say, using the example above, I chose ‘wasteful’ instead of ‘extravagant’ when describing some celebrity’s spending habits. That change would save me three characters – not a ton by itself, but do this a few times in an overly-long tweet and you’ll be able to fit even the most complex thoughts in 140 characters or less. With this little tool, you don’t have to commit grammar suicide, nor change the meaning of your tweets. You simply get more spare characters for your efforts.”

No longer will you have to shorten “for” to “4” or “you” to (shudder) “U.” If “l33tsp34k” is like nails on a chalkboard to you, Thsrs may help.

In fact, Thsrs may save us all.

Writing about Reading: Liberation Movements

October 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Olen Steinhauer’s fourth novel in the Yalta series is an experiment on the author’s part, and sometimes experiments don’t work. I won’t go so far as to call Liberation Movements a failed experiment, but it isn’t entirely successful, either.

The problem with the novel isn’t that it plays with time. I actually enjoy a story that is told out of sequential order when it serves the plot and is handled adeptly. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite films, and part of the reason I love it is the way Tarantino plays with the chronology. Liberation Movements does the same thing, but with a better effect, as secrets are revealed at the moment in which they have the  most impact.

I don’t have a problem with the story, either. Like all of Steinhauer’s other novels, it is a tense story with several twists, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it turns on you.

The characters, too, are well wrought. It seems everyone in Steinhauer’s world has marital issues, which starts to wear thin in this novel. But as Chekov so famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Steinhauer’s unhappy families are no exception, so it’s not as if the author reusing the same marriage issues. It just seems, at times, as if Steinhauer feels like every major character has to have a troubled relationship of some kind as a back story or subplot. But it works, and isn’t what really bothered me about the book.

The problem I had with Liberation Movements is the fact that Steinhauer mixes points of view. There are several point-of-view characters, and the focus shifts with each new chapter. So far, so good. Most are told in third-person, but a few chapters in Steinhauer introduces Katja’s POV, and switches to first-person. There seemed to be no good reason for it; unlike The Confession, Katja wasn’t creating a historical document or even keeping a journal.

The net effect was that it jarred me out of the story every few chapters and reminded me that I was reading a book. Katja’s chapters are big, jagged seams in an otherwise seamless story. I imagine Steinhauer wanted to make her story more personal or give it more emotional impact, and he thought first-person POV would accomplish that. Sadly, it did not. Katja’s story would have just as much impact if it were told in third-person as first. It might have had more impact in third-person, actually, since the reader’s immersion in the story wouldn’t have been interrupted.

It’s still a good book, don’t get me wrong. The story is very compelling, especially with the jumbled chronology helping to build the suspense. But it could have been better, and as such, is so far the weakest of the series.

Guilt-Free Creativity

October 9, 2012 § 6 Comments

So you may have noticed that this blog about writing hasn’t really been so much about writing lately. It’s become more of a blog about reading, hasn’t it?

Yes, it has.

The problem is, I haven’t been writing anything except book reviews. When I’m not writing, I don’t much feel like writing about writing; I feel like a fraud.

I’m not sure why I haven’t been writing — or, at least, I wasn’t sure until a few minutes ago. I’ve got the idea for a great science fiction space opera trilogy 90% written in my head (well, okay, maybe 50%), but when I sit down to type it up, nothing comes out.

Ditto with a short story that I’ve got the bones for written down, beginning to end, but I can’t flesh it out more than that. Nothing comes.

So what happened a few minutes ago that opened my eyes to my problem? I read an article called “Guilt-Free Creativity: Stop Kicking Yourself & Start Producing.” Particularly, it was this part:

Guilt That You Are Progressing Too Slowly

The Challenge: Once you have the time to focus on your creative pursuits, you may discover that you completely underestimated how long it would take you to make progress. Your grandiose visions of writing the next great American novel deflate to hopes of completing a few short stories. Or your desire to create a website that makes your designer friends drool diminishes to a hope that you’ll launch a site where all the hyperlinks function.

The Solution: Just because you have what you consider loads of time, doesn’t mean that you can get everything done at once. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel and some of the world’s greatest buildings took hundreds of years to construct. Instead of getting discouraged, record what actions you do on a daily and weekly basis and celebrate what you did accomplish. Also, try to find ways to get a sense of completion faster, such as publishing an excerpt of your book as an article, exhibiting the first painting in something that will become a series, or giving a presentation on your findings so far.

Is guilt holding you back, or have you overcome it? Tell me how you beat it, because I really need to get writing again.


Writing about Reading: Devil Said Bang

October 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

When we last saw Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, Heaven didn’t want him and Hell was afraid he’d take over.

As Devil Said Bang opens, Stark is trying to rule Hell and doing a miserable job of it. Being the Devil is one of the most boring jobs Stark can imagine (not that he wanted the job in the first place), and the only thing breaking the tedium is the fact that all the rest of Hell is trying to kill him.

I loved the first thee books in Richard Kadrey’s series (Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, and Aloha from Hell, respectively), but the first half of this book meanders so much that it seems like Kadrey is just going through the motions. For example, he makes a huge historical error that anyone who has done even the most cursory research into Wild Bill Hickok should know: in one scene, Hickok says that Broken Nose Charlie Utter “violently interrupted my final card game,” implying that Utter killed Wild Bill. It was, in fact, Jack McCall who killed Hickok; Utter was one of Hickok’s best friends.

Fortunately, the plot kicks in halfway through, so the second half sees Stark back to doing what we love: cracking wise while killing bad guys and saving the world. Unfortunately, the copyeditor seems to have given up at that point, because there several typos. I caught three on one page, and they were errors so glaring that they yanked me out of the story in annoyance.

Typos and historical errors aside, this still is far from the finest book in the series. The second half, while better than the lackluster beginning, still doesn’t reach the heights of the previous three books. All in all, Devil Said Bang could have used one more rewrite. Possibly two.

I hope Kadrey publishes just one more Sandman Slim novel, and takes the time to make it a really stellar ending to the series. Stark is one of the best badasses ever written, and he deserves a better finale to his odyssey than Devil Said Bang.

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