Category: reviews

My review of A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin


Last night I finished reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. ¬†I gave Game of Thrones a 5-star rating. Five stars is a hard rating to come by and a hard rating to match and while I didn’t give A Clash of Kings 5-stars (I give it 4), it is only because some of the novelty of the style in which Martin tells his story is no longer new.

Outside of that, A Clash of Kings was a rather breathtaking book that carries the story forward from where A Game of Thrones left off and mixes in some new viewpoint characters along the way. I counted 9 viewpoint characters throughout the novel (10 if you can’t the Maester in the prologue, who we never return to). Some of these characters we are familiar with and some of the them are new. Some of the new viewpoints are familiar characters, like Theon Grayjoy, but this is the first time we see things unfolding from his eyes. Others are new to the story, like Davos.

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How George R. R. Martin made me a fan of epic fantasy (a review of Game of Thrones)

I finished reading Game of Thrones this morning and I thought a review of the book was in order, despite having mentioned it already on several occasions. Be warned there are spoilers present! So without further delay, here is how George R. R. Martin made me into a fan of epic fantasy:

  1. He altered my preconceived notions of what an epic fantasy is supposed to be. In my head, all epic fantasy was simply a retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It all contained elves and wizards and dragons. Magic played a big role. Ambitious quests were the order of the day. And it was almost always good versus evil. Game of Thrones broke all the rules in this respect. The “dwarf” was so through a birth defect. There were no wizards. While magic was hinted at, we see almost none in the book. There were no quests. Nor was there a clear good or evil. (Joffrey seems evil, but he’s really just a kid trying to be a man.) From the moment I started reading the book, it was not at all what I expected. And that was refreshing.
  2. His characters were among the most complex people I’ve come across in science fiction and fantasy (Connie Willis has equally complex characters in her novels.) These are not characters who necessarily behave the way their position dictates. A fighter isn’t always brave. A lady isn’t always meek. An old man isn’t always wise and a young boy isn’t always a child. The burdens of the leaders of men weigh heavily upon them and that comes through in the book. By the end of the book, I began to feel like I knew some of the characters so well that I could guess at their reactions to a situation and be pleased to find that I was usually right. They feel like friends to me, not caricatures.
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Managing my writing life with Evernote

I’ve been using Evernote for closed to 2 months now and I have been very impressed with it. I originally started to use it as part of my desire to go paperless at home (I’d already done so, more or less, in the day job). What I have found is that it is not only an effective tool for going paperless, but it helps to manage my writing life. It does this in several ways:

  1. It has replaced Google Docs as my idea file. Google Docs is a great tool, but if I was sitting in a restaurant or walking down the aisle in a grocery store, it was a little inconvenient to pull up on my iPhone. Evernote has an iPhone app that opens quickly and within a few seconds, I can have a the idea uploaded into my writing notebook. If I am pressed for time, I can make it a voice note and simple speak the idea, tag it and upload it. Then, when I want to review my list of ideas, it doesn’t matter where I am, I can pull it up on my iPhone, on the web, or on the application on my MacBook.
  2. Clippings! Clippings! Clippings! I read a lot of science magazines. If I find something interesting in, say, a New Scientist article, I used to cut the article out of the magazine and put it into a folder for later use. Now, I go to the web version of the magazine, clip the article using the Evernote clipping tool for Google Chrome, tag it, and it is stored in the cloud in my writing notebook, with everything else, easily searchable. No paper, and much easier to find and refer to than my old system.
  3. Paperwork. A writer’s life does involve some paperwork. There are contracts and checks, for instance. Now, when I receive these, the first thing I do is scan them in as PDFs and upload them to Evernote as a note. Evernote has OCR technology to make the scanned PDF searchable, so if I search for the phrase, “electronic rights”, contracts that mention these words appear in my result list. And I don’t have to worry about digging through a file folder to find them. Similarly, I use Evernote to capture my writing-related receipts. Come tax time, I have a saved search I use to pull up everything related to writing and taxes. Takes 5 seconds. Can’t wait to use it later this year and impress my accountant.
  4. Blog topics. Just like story ideas, I use Evernote to capture ideas for blog posts (this topic was captured as a note in Evernote some weeks ago). If I am ever at a loss for something to write about, I can pull up my list of blog topics, pick one, write the post, and then delete the note. It has been working beautifully.
  5. Writers group critiques. I read 2-3 stories/week for my writer’s group. Typically these stories are in Word, and I will use the Comments feature to mark up the file and make my specific comments in the manuscript. I then take that manuscript and create a note in Evernote with it. The file itself is an attachment to the note, tagged with the author and the fact that it is a critique. The note is my summary of the story, my actual critique which I give to the author. It keeps a nice record not only of all of the stories I’ve critiqued and for whom I provided the critique, but also what my critique was. And again, it takes up no space in my file cabinet

All of these notes are stored in the cloud and synchronized to my various devices so that I can literally access them anywhere, anytime. I can take my notes from story ideas and science articles, and add them to the research section of a Scrivener document to get started on a story with all of the information I need. If I am reading an old science fiction magazine and want to capture something on the page, I can take a photo in Evernote from my iPhone and the page is captured and the text scanned so that it is searchable.

Evernote has become an invaluable tool to help me manage my writing life. Who else out there is using Evernote to manage their writing life? And what innovative ways are you using it?

Science Fiction Age: Volume 2, Issue 4 (May 1994)

SF AGE May 1994.jpg

(This is a continuation of my re-read of Science Fiction Age. Here is the index of issues I’ve already covered.)

This issue begins with Scott Edelman’s allowing the “readers to write the editorial.” In his piece, he sums up the top 10 stories as voted on by the readers. I listed the tabulation in my writeup for September 1993, but in the additional issues that appeared since, I would make one change to my original listing: In the #1 spot I would put William Shunn‘s “Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde“. Everything else would shift down by one. I think Bill’s story is one of the finest pieces of fiction to appear in the run of the magazine.

On books, Michael Bishop reviews the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars triology, Green Mars, and it was fun to read Bishop’s thoughts on the novel, some 17 years later.  But the fun really takes off with the science column, where Arlan Andrews, Sr., Marianne Dyson, and Geoffrey A. Landis discuss “space travel the way God (and Robert Heinlein) intended it to be”. It is a fascinating discussion, as the science columns always manage to be in the magazine. Science and technology change rapidly and in space explorations, disasters can set us back years or decades, and monumental tasks like going to the moon or building a space station can seem daunting. Still, I was always taught to avoid absolutes. I mention this because of something Arlan Andrews says in the interview. While discussing space development, he says:

While we’re talking space development, my prediction is also that there will be no space station, not as presently planned. The plans call for 20 plus successful shuttle launches, plus a lot of Russian launches. That is not going to happen.

There is no shame in predictions like this. In a way, it is a safe prediction because if it comes true, Andrews predicted it, and if it doesn’t, it means our space program was more successful than he imagined it could be.

This issue contained six pieces of fiction. If there was a theme to tie the stories together in this issue, I think it is one of class or caste, or a person’s place in society, relative to others.

“Where Two Souls Dwell” by Al Sarrantonio

This is the story of a researcher trying to get access to a space station for his research. It is up to his old man to pull some strings for him to finally get him onboard and so this is the first example of the class theme in this issue. The story really gets interesting with the introduction of the mysterious Rayla and her dog and it eventually evolves into a love story. It was a fun story to read.

“Down on the 01 Level” by Gene O’Neill

Gene O’Neill makes the caste theme explicit with his “Down on the 01 Level”. In this world, classes are literally separated by levels within the overall city. “Bobbing” is cruising outside your own level and it’s what our narrator, Sandoval, and Oberon decide to do, mostly for the thrill of it. They live up in the high levels and decide to go bobbing down the lowest level. There is a good overall story arc here and a nice little twist at the end of the story. In reading this piece, I was reminded of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, with it’s towers and complicated sexual unions. (In O’Neill’s piece, people formed “quad-bonds” and I never understood this idea, even in Silverberg’s books), but it still made for an interesting story.

“The Biomantic’s Last Husband” by Ray Aldridge

Aldridge’s story approaches the class/caste theme from the point of view of master and slave–where the slave is a former freer of slaves, and emancipator. What I liked most about this story was the world that Aldridge envisioned, the living, breathing biomantic as a kind of world-person, an ecosystem of sorts. This is a story of deception and rebellion and one of a growing fondness and appreciation of the true nature of things.

“The Ballad of Sally NutriSweet(TM)” by Paul Di Filippo

I believe this is Paul’s third story in Science Fiction Age and in my opinion, it usurped Daniel Hood’s “Wealth of Kingdoms” as the funniest story–so far–to appear in Science Fiction Age. I felt like I was laughing at almost every sentence. First there is the deliberate (and for the story, appropriate) overuse of trademarks. Second, is the style in which the story is written, almost like a pulp hero story or a superscience story from a 1926 issue of Amazing. This story was hilarious from story to finish. I was tempted to count just how many name brands Paul managed to mention in the story–but I resisted.

“The Bigger One” by Gregory Benford

I was confused by Benford’s story at first because the blurb on the cover of the magazine referred to “California Timequake”, but I didn’t see how time played a role in the story that followed. (Maybe I was thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, which of course had not yet come out when this story appeared.) The story itself is written in the form of a radio announcer talking to people “on location” of a massive 8.1 earthquake in southern California. Keep in mind this story appears in the May 1994 issue. The Northridge earthquake took place in January 1994. My parents, who lived in Northridge at the time, had to move out of their house for 9 months while the damage was repaired; I was 80 miles east at UC Riverside when the quake hit. In reading the story, I wondered when it was actually written; and knowing that stories are often bought 6-9 months before they appear, I wondered if the appearance of this story in this issue was a coincidence or not. Maybe Scott can answer that question.

“Quality Time” by John Morressy

It was a close call–Paul’s story being as funny as it was–but I think Morressy’s “Quality Time” was my favorite story in this issue and that is unusual because it is a fantasy story and I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy. But this is one case where I really enjoyed the story which was about a wizard who has become an acquaintance of Death, and who on occasion, has the kind of conversations with Death that one might have with a stranger at a baseball stadium. There was humor in the story, which worked very well. There was a quest (don’t all fantasies have them) but this one was an interesting one, and one that made for a more poignant and meaningful ending

I’m hoping to squeeze in at least one more issue before I start on my vacation in the Golden Age of science fiction. The July 1994 issue of Science Fiction Age looks to be a lot of fun, and contains the story that I think should have won the Hugo and Nebula–but more on that next time.

Review: All Clear by Connie Willis (5-stars)

All Clear.jpg

All Clear is the second part of the book that began with Connie Willis’ Blackout (see my review here) which came out early in 2010. Blackout/All Clear are a single book that was broken into two parts; they are not part of a series and it is impossible to read All Clear without first having read Blackout for the same reason that it would be impossible to read the second half of Tom Sawyer without having read the first half. I mention this because All Clear begins right where Blackout left off, smack in the middle of things and someone coming to the book thinking it is an independent volume would be in for an unsettling surprise.

That said, I worried that it would be difficult to keep up the wonderfully complex historical/time-travel story that Willis began in Blackout, and I was delighted that she managed to make the second half of the book even better than the first.

The story takes place in the same universe as Connie Willis’ brilliant Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Firewatch. It is 2060 and time travel allows Oxford historians to go back in time to witness events first hand and better fill in and understand the historical record. In Blackout/All Clear, historians are busy researching World War II, in particularly the Blitz of London. However, some strange things have begun happening as historians are sent back in time. “Slippage”–which is supposed to prevent historians from going to divergence points–are growing larger so that historians are coming through days, weeks, even months before or after they are scheduled to arrive. And in Blackout, we learn that the drops are no longer opening to allow the historians to return to their time in 2060.

The story is a rich in historical detail from the era. Reading it, I felt like I was living through the Blitz. Willis does a remarkable job of evoking the terror of the nightly bombings, while mixing in the humor the people of London needed to survive. The characters we follow through All Clear (there are mainly three of them) become attached not only to the struggle of the people of London, but they also experience their fears, both directly (through the bombings) and indirectly, in not knowing the outcome, sacrificing themselves for victory over Hitler.

Time travel plays a larger role in All Clear than it did in Blackout as we discover that a mystery is unfolding surrounding the slippages and why they are happening. The time travel plot alone is brilliantly complex. I used to think The Time Traveler’s Wife had the most complex time-travel plot I’d ever come across, but Blackout/All Clear beats it.

When I finished Blackout in March, I could not wait to start All Clear, which came out in early October. I wasn’t able to start All Clear right away, but once I started it, I was not able to put the book down, reading almost all day for nearly two days, breathless at the end of each chapter. The characters in the book become as close as old friends and you experience their joys and pains along with them.  And as the book unfolds and the mysteries are revealed, the sense of wonder, the sense of awe at the entire literary construction is stunning.

It will be interesting to see how Blackout/All Clear ends up on the Nebula ballot: as a single volume or as two separate books. I’ve already nominated Blackout for a Nebula award, but if I could, I would nominate and vote for the combined, complete work. It was by far the best thing I’ve read in many, many years.

Review: Echo by Jack McDevitt (4 stars)

I finished reading Echo by Jack McDevitt on Saturday and like the previous books in the series, I totally enjoyed it. I am a science fiction fan at heart, but even within science fiction, there are certain types of stories that I find immensely enjoyable. Science fiction mysteries are among those stories, and Jack McDevitt is a master of the form. Echo is just another example of this.

The story is the fifth involving the antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick, Chase Kolpath. At Readercon this year, I sat with Jack in a Koffeeklatsch and he said that Chase was his favorite character to write, the one that he enjoyed the most. It shows in this latest mystery, where Chase and Alex come across an artifact written in a language that no one recognizes and which all clues point to the possibility that a third race of intelligent aliens might have been found–and covered up for some reason.  That’s about all I can say about the plot of the story without giving anything away.

As I said in my review of The Devil’s Eye, one thing I love about these books is how the world in which the characters live feels so real, despite taking place 9,000 years in the future. Jack does some things that makes it believable, at least in my eyes. First, there is a clear assumption that not too much in the way of basic human functioning and society changes. There is no Singularity here, which is a welcome relief. People eat in restaurants, they stay in hotels, they own houses, they travel. It’s the little touches like giving the restaurants names that make the world come alive. There are definitely things that place the story in the far future: the AIs, FTL, air taxis, anti-grav units, but it is also clear that these have evolved into the society over time and are not demonstrations to the reader of fantastic technology, but simply more examples of what Chase and Alex are used to.

In this story, we see both Chase and Alex struggling with the mystery they are following–to a breaking point–and we get some additional insight into both characters that we’ve never really gotten before.

Of course, the mystery itself is typical of Jack–and I mean that as a compliment. It starts by seeming virtually impossible and concludes by both surprising the reader, and making perfect, logical sense. I enjoyed the novel immensely and I’m already looking forward to this time next year when the next Alex Benedict/Chase Kolpath novel, Firebird, will be released.

Review: The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt (4-stars)

I haven’t finished a book since mid-August, my longest drought on record, and there was no better book to break that drought than Jack McDevitt’s The Devil’s Eye. This is the fourth installment in Jack’s series of science fiction mysteries involving Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath.  Benedict is a trader of antiquities and Kolpath is his pilot and sidekick. Together, they solve mysteries that generally start with the discovery of some ancient artifact that cannot be explained. The stories take place more than 9,000 years in our future.

These novels are pure fun for me and the more I think about it, they are the type of stories that I enjoy writing. (In fact, my story, “Take One for the Road” coming out in Analog in 2011 is probably best-described as my attempt at a Jack McDevitt science fiction mystery.) Jack does an amazing job of taking a seemingly impossible event and pulling together a plausible explanation for it.  In The Devil’s Eye, the event is a memory wipe without explanation, and the results–well, I don’t want to give anything away, but the story along the way has perhaps the biggest scope of any Alex Benedict novel so far.

The story involves political intrigue, travel to the far end of the galaxy, and grand cosmic events, all wrapped up into a tight mystery that keeps you reading to the very last page. The world that McDevitt paints in these novels is one that I wish actually existed.  (The only other time I’ve felt this way is in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe.) Alex and Chase are like old friends. One thing I particularly like about this series is that it is a series only in characters. While there is occasional mention of events from previous books, the books are only very loosely connected and the novels themselves stand as independent mysteries, almost like the Agatha Christie Hercule Poroit novels.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil’s Eye and I highly recommend it. I’ve already started on the next Alex Benedict novel, Echo, released just last month.

Scientifc American gets a face-lift

Scientific American October 2010

Beginning with the October 2010 issue, Scientific American has gotten yet another face lift. I’ve been a subscriber to SCIAM for 15 years and I read each issue cover-to-cover, and in doing so, I’ve become very comfortable with the look and feel, and where things fall in the magazine. So I was ready to complain about any change just for the sake of the change.

But overall, I’m pleased with the result.

In part that’s because the changes they have made seem to mirror the aesthetics of New Scientist, which is my favorite science magazine.  Looking at a page in the first half of SCIAM, it looks remarkably similar in formatting and over all feel to a page in New Scientist.  This may not be the most original move on the part of the designers of the magazine, but it works from a usability standpoint.  For one thing, the non-feature articles almost never span more than a page now.  I think some of the headline news is more condensed than it was before and I like the fact that I can read these pieces in their entirety without flipping a page.  (There are one or two exceptions.)

The magazine has also reorganized the way it presents articles, columns and features.  In this, I generally don’t like the change.  I was used to a very specific rhythm whereby you started with the editorial and letters, followed by the famous 50-100-150 years ago page, and then by the news. That was followed by all of the opinion columns, and then the features, and finally, reviews.  Beginning in October that all changes.  You get the editorial and letters, and then 2 short opinion pieces.  This is followed by the “Advances” section which replaces the science news.  Then an opinion piece on health, followed by a new column, “TechnoFiles” which is an opinion piece by David Pogue.  Then you are into the features which is followed by reviews.  Michael Shermer‘s excellent “Skeptic” column has been moved way to the back (page 98 in the October issue), and Steve Mirky‘s “Antigravity” column follows that, no longer being the last item in the magazine.  That’s too bad because it was always nice finishing off an intense reading of science with a laugh.  Inexplicably, the 50, 100, 150 Years Ago page is now the second to last item (page 102 in the October issue), and the final page of the magazine is a new item called “Graphic Science” which illustrates something of interest using fancy charts and graphs.

There are other minor changes, the most notable to me being the use of Wall Street Journal style illustrations for feature and column authors instead of the photographs they used to use. I’m not sure why one is better than the other, and therefore question the purpose of this change.

I liked when all of the opinion pieces were collected together before the features, but I suppose the magazine designers can’t please everyone.  I cannot for the life of my understand why the moved the 50, 100, 150 years ago column from the front to the back.  I do, however, like the new format of the features themselves.  They are all 2-column and make much better and more efficient use of page space, in my opinion.

My last grip is about the binding.  Beginning with this issue, the magazine goes from a rounded binding to a flat one, presumably because the flat one allows information to be printed on the edge.  It is a mistake.  It may not seem like a big deal, but as a regular reader, I like to fold the magazine in such a way the I am only looking at one page at a time.  The round binding made that easy, the flat binding makes it virtually impossible.  From a usability standpoint, it is frustratingly annoying.

I finished the October issue yesterday and I’m halfway through November.  I imagine by the time I’m through November I’ll be more-or-less used to the new format, and then, just when I’ve finally become completely comfortable with it, it will change again.

Science Fiction Age: Volume 2, Issue 3 (March 1994)

Each issue of Science Fiction Age presented a good mix of fiction, not just genre (fantasy, science fiction), but types too (humor, horror).  This issue is no exception, but the most remarkable thing to me containted in the March 1994 issue is the precience of Scott Edelman’s editorial.  Titled, “We must leave our children the best of science fiction futures” it is, in essence, an open letter to Scott’s son and one paragraph of this essay struck me as particularly prophetic:

My son will have all the information he could ever want at his fingertips, whenever he wants it.  He will carry an electronic Library of Alexandria in his pocket.  He will be able to stay in constant communication with all the world, and sift at will through all the globe’s wisdom.  His world will be smaller than mine.

In this brief paragraph probably written in late 1993, Scott captures the world nearly twenty years later.  His “electronic Library of Alexandria” might be wikipedia.  Sifting at will through all the globe’s wisdom is a fairly good description of a Google search (if you factor out all of the world’s idocy from the search results). With minimal alteration, this paragraph could be an ad for an iPhone or iPad.  What I find most ironic is that while Scott wished this for his son, he got to see it happen, too.  Today, if Scott is at a convention, you will find him tweeting about what people are saying on a panel (sometimes while he is on that very panel).  He is in constant communication with the world, spreading his dreams out across the global network.  You’d almost think he had a time machine, back when he wrote that paragraph.

It’s always amusing to go through science fiction book reviews from 17 years ago.  In this issue Connie Hirsch reviews a book by first time novelist Jonathan Lethem called Gun, With Occasional Music.  More disturbing was the science discussion on “a permanent manned U.S. space station is an idea whose time has finally come” between Joe Haldeman, Doug Beason and Geoffrey A. Landis.  While such a space station in now nearly complete (17  years after this discussion), there was this prophetic exchange between Beason and Haldeman:

BEASON: [referring to the space shuttle] One of these days we’re going to have another explosion.

HALDEMAN: Doug, the shuttle is dangerous and obsolete and is going to be out of the equation soon.   One more disaster and American’s are going to lose heart.

Of course, nearly 8 years later, the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry and while flights eventually continued, the space program hasn’t had the same energy since.

It was a pleasure to read Jack Williamson’s essay on the birth of science fiction.  It was also sad.  Jack is no longer around and the essay serves as a reminder of not only all that science fiction has gained, but all that it has lost.

There were 6 pieces of fiction in this issue, of quite varying lengths.  The issue opened with Richard Parks “Simple Souls”, a story not unlike Daniel Keyes “Flowers for Algernon” about a mentally challenged boy and the experimental procedure he has to enhance his mental abilities.  The story is a good example of writing from a challenging view point, and I came away from it wondering who it was that was really “challenged”, the boy, or his doctors.  His sympathetic doctor, Susan Curruther’s was not only reminscent of Asimov’s Susan Calvin (coincidence?) but also of another Asimov character, the nurse Edith Fellowes in “The Ugly Little Boy”.

If there was a theme in the stories for this issue, it seemed to center around time.  Three of the stories touched on this theme, beginning with “The River’s Time” by Mark. W. Tiedemann.  The story centers around a world on which nine rivers dominate the lives of the people.  A group of siblings travel these rivers on a barge to make their living.  To replace crew (a brother who left for the stars, for instance) they pick up “Returnist” woman–the Returnists being a group of people who shunn technology and machinery and want to go back to simpler ways.  The story is a moving one, remincent of both Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and Phillip Jose Farmer’s, To Your Scattered Bodies Go.  The time element in this story centers around absences.  People get the “wanderlust” and head for the stars and are not heard from again, or return only after long periods of time.  It is these absences that influence the lives of the characters throughout the course of the narrative.

In “Survivors” by Steven Popkes, a 20,000 year old simulacrum presents itself to a “surivor” warning him that there are still parts of the planet that are poisonous, even all these millenia later.

The last of the time-themed stories, “Taken For a Ride” by Brian Stableford, is a time-travel story dealing with the potential of future information and the paradoxes that arise out of it.  Most notible about the story was the twist at the end, reminiscent of the ending of Robert Silverberg’s end-all-be-all of time travel novels, Up the Line.

“Obituary” by Jeffrey G. Liss was an interesting story, the ending of which I simply didn’t get.  I didn’t connect it back to the title of the story and the opening paragraphs, and this is certainly my failure as a reader and not Liss’s as a writer.

Finally, there was the humour fantasy piece, “Sherlock the Barbarian” by David Garnett.  I like that Science Fiction Age includes humour stories from time-to-time and I think this one worked well on many levels.  It was clearly poking fun, not only at the Sherlock Holmes genre, but at logic, reason and inference itself.  This is brought to bear in a rather remarkable  way toward the very end of the story (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it) when you find that your own assumptions about the narrator of the story brought into question.

The issue included an essay by Ben Bova on science fiction illustrator Vincent Di Fate, which provided some interesting insight into the illustration process for a magazine like ANALOG, to say nothing of some of the gorgeous illustrations that Di Fate has produced.

It’s always a pleasure to read these magazines.  I hope to keep better to schedule for the next one, which should appear about November 1.  In the meantime, all of the re-reads I have done so far have been compiled together here for anyone interested.

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (5-stars)

This is one of the most remarkable novels of any kind that I have ever read, and a truly stunning piece of time-travel/historical/science fiction.

I started reading Doomsday Book because I’d read Connie Willis’s Blackout earlier in this year and was anxiously awaiting All Clear. I knew that DOOMSDAY BOOK was a Hugo and Nebula winning and I knew that Connie Willis was an outstanding writer, so I figured the book was going to be a good one.

It was a remarkably good one. I’ve come across very few books that are both page-turners, and emotionally jarring as well. There have been even fewer books that have moved me to tears multiple times. But this book was one of them. Connie’s portrayal of the middle ages during the plague is brutal, and made more so by her impeccable ability to make the reader feel for the characters as if you know them, as if you are there with them experiencing the horrors. You almost wonder if Connie has the ability to travel back in time and used that ability to form the research for this novel.

Everything about the work is impressive, from the description and historical details, to the humor she injects, to the style of her writing and the care and effort she clearly puts into it.

Scrivener: the ultimate writer’s tool

Today’s announcement of the upcoming release of Scrivener 2.0 gives me a good excuse to write about my experiences with this invaluable tool for writers.

There are literally scores of positive reviews of Scrivener available online, and for good reason:  it is an outstanding piece of software that allows a writer to focus on his or her primary job, writing.  Philosophically, Scrivener focuses on content.  Since most professional markets (novels, short fiction, plays and screenplays) have a standard manuscript format, Scrivener knows how to take the content a writer provides and turn it into the proper format–so that you can concentrate on writing.  All of my stories since 2007 have been written using Scrivener, including the stories that I have sold to professional markets.

Scrivener uses an innovative “corkboard” that allows you to plan out your scenes on virtual index cards, easily shuffle them around, color code them (by point-of-view, for instance) and visualize your story at a high level.  There are features that allow you to set goals for a story and session.  (I want to write 1,250 words today.)  And there are features that allow you to manage your research.  (Scrivener is even used by students for writing research papers.)  All of these features have been described by others many, many times.  I wanted to describe some of the unique ways that I use Scrivener, in addition to just writing my stories.

Scrivener provides templates for different projects.  I made some small modifications to the Short Story Manuscript template, adding some folders that I use with all of my stories.  There are 3 of these folders that are part of my template: Deleted Scenes, Critiques, Business.

One of the toughest things for me as a writer is cutting my own writing.  But it is a necessary evil and I’m a better writer for the cutting I do.  Scrivener has made this cutting easier.  I have a folder called “Deleted Scenes” and when I am cutting scenes, I simply move them to the “Deleted Scenes” folder.  This allows me to preserve what I wrote (and possibly reuse it somewhere else) without cutting it and losing it forever.

Back in the summer of 2008, I participated in an 8-week writing workshop led by science fiction writer James Gunn.  One of the most beneficial things to come out of this workshop was a trusted cadre of writers whom I trust to give me feedback on my stories. Scrivener makes it easy for me to manage these critiques and keep them associated with the story.  Each critique gets a document in the “Critique” folder (with the person’s name) and in this way, I can keep feedback on the story with the story.

Finally, I have  “Business” folder.  In the business folder goes things related to the business-end of the story.  For instance, if I sell the story, a scanned (PDF) version of the contract would go in the folder.  Correspondence with editors get placed in this folder, and I also put any reviews of the story that I find in this folder.  (I could probably keep a separate folder for reviews, but I haven’t done that at this point.)

The ability to keep everything together for a writing project, from the first index card on which the idea is scribbled, to the contracts and reviews of the published story is one of the things I really like about Scrivener.  The clean, unobtrusive interface makes it easy to focus on the writing.  I used Scrivener to successfully complete NaNoWriMo last year and plan on doing it again this year.  I would highly recommend Scrivener to any writer out there.  (Although that writer would have to be on a Macintosh.)

I can’t wait for Scrivener 2.0!

Review: Other Spaces, Other Times by Robert Silverberg (5-stars)

Wow!  I just checked my list and discovered that I have never, in 15 years of record-keeping, have I rated 2-consecutive books at 5-stars.  Until today.  On the heels of completing Connie Willis’ stunning Blackout, I just zipped my way through Robert Silverberg’s wonderful collection of autobiographical writings, Other Spaces, Other Times.  It was an absolutely terrific book, and if it had any flaw, was too short.  I wanted more!

The book is broken into several parts.  Silverberg discusses his beginnings in science fiction, his writing, provides and autobiography, as well as miscellaneous thoughts on his career.  It is absolutely fascinating reading to anyone with an interest in the history of science fiction, but also to anyone (like myself) who is a writer, or aspires to be one.  In the numerous essays, Silverberg talks honestly about his career, his approach to writing, the challenges he faced, and from this, one gets the sense of an impressive lifetime spent in science fiction.  The sheer volume of writing that Silverberg was doing in the late ’50s and early ’60s boggles the mind.  I thought Asimov was prolific, but even he does not match the quantity produced by Silverberg during this time.

I’ve read numerous biographies and memoirs of science fiction writers.  My favorite has always been Isaac Asimov’s massive 3-volumes.  While Silverberg’s slim book doesn’t go into anywhere near as much detail as Asimov did, what is there is equally as interesting and a sheer joy to read.

The book contains an incredible amount of marginalia: photos, magazine covers, notes, all of which provides additional insight into Silverberg and his writing.  It is a beautiful book, a bit pricy at $29.95, but well worth it.