Book Review: The Andromeda Strain

This review will contain spoilers! If you want to avoid that and you only want the gerfunkle report, there are no gerfunkles in this book. Granted, there really aren’t any female characters whatsoever so that’s pretty easy on the author, but I digress! Level one gerfunkle, go ham my dears.

I dug this. Of course, I’m the ideal reader. I work in microbiology and I’m a science major. So naturally, I have an appreciation for SCIENCE. I was familiar with most of the terminologies thrown at me, and I found it easy to infer those I wasn’t. For those who don’t have my background, though, Crichton does a good job elaborating on what he means through metaphor. The metaphors can get lengthy, but if you’re interested in learning a bit about molecular structures and how contagions function, you’ll stay entertained.

I will say that to some degree this felt like a tense, drawn-out prologue. That’s not a bad thing. I have no issue with kicking off a series that way – and I can see there is a sequel to this book, though it wasn’t written by Crichton himself. What matters is that despite that vibe, plenty of things happen in this book. All of it, assuming I’ve pinned where this story is going, is very relevant information. It feels like a strong foundation to build on.

We’ll start with characterization. I can’t say it was very strong, so I’d give that 2/5 stars. Crichton does manage to give us a lot with a little: he defines cut and clear depictions of the characters at the beginning of the book, then pretty much leaves them at that. While I wouldn’t enjoy that in usual circumstances, The Andromeda Strain quite obviously wasn’t written to focus on characterization. It was written as a way to explore intriguing scientific theories. That means the characters are left weak – or at least as outlines that aren’t fully fleshed – but I wouldn’t say that’s unintended on the author’s part. He had somewhere he wanted to be, so he focused on getting there.

The plot was great. The book was lightning-fast paced, a swift read even as it threw heaps of scientific jargon up in your face. I have to laud the man’s ability to make a bunch of scientists working in a lab seem white-knuckle intense. I doubt I could do that shit, personally. Flashes of what’s happening outside of the Wildfire project lend fuel to the intensity too, all the more because for most of the book our intrepid nerd-men don’t even realize what’s going on due to a technical issue. The creeping horror of the Andromeda Strain mutating into something else is delightfully implemented. The reader gets a little bit of a break just for a moment when Stone and Hall realize that the virus has evolved beyond human virulence – but only for a moment. When Stone mentions that the organisms (which eat plastic and polymers now, oh boy,) are trapped in the atmosphere, I felt a cold dread.

The epilogue is about a spacecraft being compromised by the virus and crashing to earth, so that dread successfully manifested.

The plot gets a 5/5 from me.

Finally, we get to worldbuilding. Crichton’s strength here isn’t so much in pure creativity: everything happens on earth, based on very real science. His strength is the depth of his research, and the way he masterfully applies it to the terror of the Andromeda Strain. I think the most success comes at the end, where we as the reader are left with many delightful questions supplied by his steady drip-feed of information. It’s mentioned by Leavitt that the organism may be a means of transporting information through the vastness of space: as in, not natural, but created by another sentient species. When we’re left with a spaceship-eating virus drifting in the clouds – with the implication that it’s trapping us on the planet – that opens up a slew of uncomfortable possibilities. Was this an intended consequence? If so, was the intention to trap us on the planet? And in that event, were we the only species hit by this manufactured plague? Hell, is this Crichton’s take on the fermi paradox?

If so, it’s a fun one. 5/5 stars for worldbuilding.

All of this is really why I mentioned it felt like a prologue to me. I’m certainly eager to see where the story goes from here.

Finally, our gerfunkle report is pretty cut and dry. There’s no time for any of that bullshit here, we’ve only got SCIENCE to worry about. Probably the weakest thing about the book is the complete lack of character variety. Admittedly I had trouble telling Stone, Hall, Leavitt, and Burton apart (and even now I’m thinking there was a fifth guy, but I’ll be damned if I remember his name.) I just sort of pictured them all as the same generic cutout. The book might have been helped by a touch more variety in the ‘cast,’ but still, you can merrily read it without any worries for gerfunkles.

Enjoy, ladies and gents.

Unintended Reverse Psychology

I really love the inspirational posts about great teachers. Sincerely, I do. I still remember some gems from high school and college. Those folks make a difference on a dime. They bleed for their students, and frankly the work they put in should qualify them for sainthood – and that’s even ignoring how unappreciated educators tend to be.

The story of how I started writing, however, isn’t about an inspirational speech.

It was seventh grade. I was twelve, a preteen on the cusp of being overly dramatic. We had a school project that I don’t recall much about, except it had something to do with writing a story and drawing pictures. My friend did all of the drawing, I did all of the writing.

This was because I couldn’t draw. A literary protégé I was not, I assure you.

At any rate, we got our grade. It was a B-. We got deducted because my writing ‘wasn’t very creative’ and ‘I needed to work on my imagination.’

When asked about it, my teacher said:

“It’s alright, V. Some people just aren’t very good at writing.”

I was infuriated. Utterly infuriated. My little twelve year old self had never been so grievously offended. How dare she! I was a great student! I had plenty of imagination! I could do anything I set my little heart/mind/soul to!

None of these things were true, but I was stubborn, which is arguably more useful.

Her comment kicked off a sudden interest in writing stories. I say interest. I mean vindictive hobby. At first I certainly wasn’t doing it because I enjoyed it. I doubt it ever would have occurred to me to try if not for her.

Once I’d given it a shot, I found out, by some miracle, that I actually did enjoy making stories. My writing led to more fascination with reading, creating a delightful feedback loop. I can’t say I feel I’m some sort of guru these days, but writing has become a sincerely fulfilling hobby for me, one that I look forward to and enjoy.

So I just wanted to give a little toast to you, Miss Thompson. If not for you, I may never have discovered this side of myself.

Also, f*ck you. (<3)

So tell me. What made YOU start writing?

Character Sketch: Evelyne Rale

[This is a sketch for one of the POV characters for my current novel. These excerpts may go into the finished product or they may not, but the hope is that they help me understand the characters better. If you want to join me in these exercises, I’ll include the prompts I used to write them. For this excerpt, the prompt was: ‘Write about something your character has lost.’]

Eden.

Her mother always claimed she hadn’t picked the name until her sister was born. Most babies came into the world screaming. Raised fists and eyes screwed shut, primed and ready for a fight. ‘You looked fit to beat the world, Evelyne,’ she said, laughing. ‘I wasn’t sure it was ready for you.’

Not Eden, though. Eden came out quiet as a breath. The doctor looked worried at first – turned her over, slapped her on the bottom. She didn’t cough anything up. She didn’t cry, even then. She just stared around her with round-eyed wonder. Then her lips started to work, opening and closing, her little brow furrowing. When at last they placed her in her mother’s arms, she looked up and smiled.

‘Like a sunbeam, Evelyne,’ she used to say. ‘She was like a ray of light. And I thought, well, maybe she knows something we don’t. Maybe things are better than they seem. Maybe they’ll turn out alright.’
And she was a sunbeam. She was relentless about her warmth, though she’d never burn you. When they were young, she’d often catch Eden sharing food with other children. Their father didn’t have a good job, but he had a job, so they weren’t on basic. They had more than most of the other families living in the outer ring of the city. You could survive on universal income, but only just. Everything put in their neighbor’s hands went in their mouths in the same breath.

‘Why do you do that?’ Evelyne asked once. She watched a scrawny boy Eden had just fed totter off. ‘We don’t have much.’

Eden really thought about the question. You could always tell when she was thinking: she got that look, that furrowed-brow look she’d been sporting right out of the womb. Existence was a marvelous puzzle she was bent on solving.

‘You know how dad digs trenches to make the water flow out in the field?’

‘…Yeah?’

‘It would all get soaked up by the first couple plants if he didn’t.’

Evelyne tilted her head at that. ‘I guess so.’

Eden shrugged. ‘I don’t think kindness builds bridges. I think it digs trenches.’

She never truly understood Eden. Beside her, Evelyne felt like a dandelion blooming next to a rosebud. She’d see weeds in concrete and think that’s what we should be like. But Eden made the concrete her loam. It didn’t matter to her that they were growing up on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t matter that they were always barely scraping by. She turned surviving into thriving, and it was a power so fragile that Evelyne was afraid to question it.

She didn’t want the stem to break. It didn’t have any thorns.

Eden disappeared when she was ten.

They never knew what happened. She went out to play with her friends in the bright light of day. No one saw anything – though there were whisperings that a car had been passing through at the time. Nobody on the outskirts of Osage City had cars. They all took the rail system when they wanted to get anywhere, and they rarely did. Evelyne used to see cars in the distance sometimes: shiny balls of metal that went whipping by faster than a blink, barely skirting the houses, blitzing out into the long empty desert beyond.

Eden’s case got a month’s worth of attention. Then she was filed away somewhere, a couple lines of code tossed into an archive by people with more important things to do. The shrine lasted longer. They set it up on the empty lot where she was taken. It felt like defiance. There were fresh flowers every week for two years, so long that her picture faded and all that was left was her smile.

Her mother staggered in the night the flowers stopped coming. She saw Evelyne down the hall. They stared at each other for a moment, the silence filled with sorrow and the smell of whiskey.
‘It shoulda been you,’ she slurred. ‘You coulda survived without water.’

Evelyne said nothing. Mother went into her room and slammed the door.

Lots of things wilted after that. Mother fell deeper into the bottle. Her father’s pain was more quiet. He threw himself into work so hard even his dark skin wrinkled beneath the sun. He worked until he was exhausted, and then he came home and slept. She figured it was the only way he could sleep at all.
The worst part was not knowing. The never knowing. The gnawing thought that one day maybe they’d find her, maybe she’d walk through the door again and bring life back with her. Sometimes, on nights when her mother went into rages and her father had to keep her from hurting herself, Evelyne wished they would find Eden. It would be better if they knew she was dead. Then they could bury the hope and move on with things, try and forget about the garden.

When Evelyne became an investigator, her father was thrilled. He never said it, but she knew he thought she’d done it for Eden. Maybe there was always a bit of him in her sister. Maybe that was where she got it. ‘You’ll do great things for people,’ he said once, and it was the closest she ever saw him come to tears.
Her mother knew the truth, though. She spoke it in a whisper one night after her husband went to sleep, his blistered hands coated in cream that smelled as antiseptic as her breath. She watched Evelyne walk in the door, gray hair on her temples, dark eyes glittering in the light of the moon coming through the window.

‘It was rage, you know,’ she said. ‘From the very first moment. You were rage. I see it sometimes in you. All this time, and it’s only been growing.’ She shuddered. ‘You didn’t cry. You screamed.’

Evelyne stared at her. Her face was cast half in shadow, her beautiful black skin ashen. Worn. Tired.

‘Are you gonna make it pay?’ her mother asked. ‘The world? Will you make it pay for what it did?’

The expression on her face was hard to read. If it was hope, it was a crooked sort. A fox’s grin right before it broke the rabbit’s neck. Her mother watched her, fingers curling and uncurling in a way that said she’d do it herself if she could.

‘Yeah, mom,’ she told her. ‘‘Till my knuckles bleed.’

‘Good.’ Her words were a rasp. ‘I love you.’

It was the first time she’d said it since Eden left, and she knew the words weren’t meant for her.

Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

Here there be spoilers. If you’d like to enjoy the novel without spoilers, this book contains a rating of one gerfunkle. Enjoy, lovelies!

I really liked this.

I think part of it was the fact that the novel was so entirely self-contained. Yes, there’s a little bit of a hook at the very ending, but for the most part it covers its full arc without feeling incomplete. I’ve been reading a lot of full-length series lately, so sitting down for something that wouldn’t carry on for five other novels was nice.

I mean. I could still kill someone with the paperback, though. This book is dense.

If I could sum it up for you, I’d say this book is the kind of thing my grumpy old coworker was ‘asking for’ when he whined about the ghostbusters remake. Or was it the fact that Rey was the jedi in Star Wars? Anyway, whichever ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN MY SOUP’ whinging he was doing that day, he claimed all he wanted was for people to write their own stories with female characters.

He’d absolutely hate this book. It makes me love it more. But it’s also very empowering of women, without the sometimes eyeroll worthy thisisamarketingploy emphasis Hollywood is dipping into these days. I am unequivocally here for Eadaz. Tané is a delight, and I found her introduction for the story completely gripping. The romance between Eadaz and Sabran was just…magnificent.

The male characters are no slouches either. Loth is about the most lovable creation I’ve ever encountered. Niclays is bitter, resentful, hurting and vengeful. It all makes him an incredibly believable character, and I have to say, no matter what terrible thing he did, I still felt empathy for him. That’s the gift of a talented writer.

So characterization is certainly a five out of five here.

The worldbuilding was great. Samantha Shannon pulls from many different cultures in order to flesh out the different continents she’s working with. Most of them were some iteration of a theocracy, and for me that really added a lot to the whole mix. Playing with religion is one of the things I really enjoy in a fantasy setting, just because when you’re a history nerd, you know how prevalent and relevant it has been in shaping cultures (for good and bad.) To boot, Priory clearly has a rich history. You get flashes of it as you’re reading. The book definitely leaves holes here and there for you to be curious about, but it tells you just enough to give the world a solid spine. (I found the deification of ‘The Saint’ to be particularly delicious. And when the truth comes out about him…HOOBOY.)

A five out of five goes here, too.

The plot almost got a five out of five stars. I was REALLY feeling it right up to the ending, and the ending wasn’t bad, but I do feel that it was a touch rushed. Fighting The Nameless One was everything I wanted it to be, but it came upon us so abruptly and felt like it concluded too quickly. Other than that, though, the plot was brilliant. It was everything I wanted in a high fantasy: the political intrigues of Virtudom, in particular.

It’s a four out of five stars for this.

Finally, Priory has a rating of one gerfunkle. And I’m going to add this: the story is still plenty dark. What I love about the fact that Shannon excluded gerfunkle was that she was able to explore so many other things that women have dealt with historically. The pressure to have children, for instance, even if that wasn’t what she wanted, was something that made me gravitate towards and feel for Sabran. Honestly, speaking as a woman who loves to read, I think the prevalence of gerfunkle as That One Thing Women Always Face helps rob us of a rich and poignant past, one filled with so many things we have stood against and overcome. It’s a part, but it’s not the whole, and I really like seeing pieces of the entire pie.

Enjoy this one, readers. I know I did.

Carnival

He smelled like cigarettes and cheap cologne. Whenever he came to visit I always thought the cigarette smell was better. It suited him, it was the fragrance of cancer and he was the malignant tumor. I wanted him to go away, but no matter what I did he kept growing back.

“I’m getting better, Joany,” he’d say. His face had a gristle of unshaved beard that scratched when he hugged me. “I’m getting better and one day I’ll take you home with me.”

I didn’t want to go home with him. I wanted him to let me go. I wanted him to stop coming to see me so I could find a new family, a real family with a mother whose sweet scent wasn’t just a cover for her rot.

I sat in the back of his pickup as he sped down the highway. I gripped the seat as he flicked his ashes out the window and yammered at me, his teeth born like a grinning rat.

“You’re going to love this, Joan. You ever been to a carnival?”

I shook my head, staring at the back of his seat as his eyes bored into me from the rearview.

“Well, you’ll love it. Best place for twelve year olds. I used to…”

“Thirteen,” I muttered.

“What’s that, kiddo?”

“I’m thirteen.”

The silence was instantly uncomfortable. He wove around a semi-truck and cut it off to the sound of its clarion horn. He thrust his hand out the open window and flipped the driver off.

“They’ve got this guy there from Germany – heh, geezer by now, for sure – he dipped my hands in wax and I got this casting. You’d think it’d hurt, but it doesn’t. We’ll do that, get you one of your very own. You get to pick the colors, too! Pink, right? You like pink?”

“Yeah, pink’s great.” I hated it.

“I thought so,” he said proudly. The truck lurched off the highway and down a gravel path. It rolled into the churned up, muddy parking lot with a groaning sound, and he killed the engine.

“Come on, come on!” He pulled the door open and my sneakers squelched as I followed him. There weren’t many people flooding in. It was late afternoon and most had already had their fun. The faces of the parents looked tired and the children’s were flushed. A brother and sister used sticks to try and see who could pop the other’s balloon first. He won. She cried. His drifted into the sky like a soul that wrongfully won heaven.

The entrance was hung with a frayed rope that had a golden hook at the end. The man accepting money for access was dressed up like a clown. It was muggy and he was sweating – it made the red makeup around his mouth run down like blood dribbling to his chin.

“Check it oooouuuuut, Joany.” My father pranced before me, splaying his arms to show the tents around him. “They got camels here, you ever seen a camel up close? They say they spit. That’s funny, isn’t it? You want to go see?”

“Sure, dad.”

It reeked. It was hotter inside the tent than it was outside, and even though they weren’t bothered by it they made the place smell rancid. People were climbing up to an elevated stand to get on their backs, and one of the carnival workers would lead them around the cramped ring slowly. The camels chewed cud, eyes rheumy and half-lidded, tails lifting so they could take a shit.

“Cool right?” He stood pointing at the nearest one. “Did you know they store water in their humps so they don’t die in the desert?”

“Oh, neat.” I knew they didn’t really.

I watched him from the corner of my eye. His leather jacket had holes on the ends of the sleeves, and his stomach bulged too far past his pants. There was a sign nearby; ALL RIDES ONLY $10! He glared it down angrily.

“C’mon. I don’t want to get spat on.” I turned and trudged towards the entrance.

“Heh, yeah. Good call, good.”

I heard his BIC flick on behind me. A mother gave him a dirty look, herding two toddlers away from him with shooing motions. Coming up beside me, he took a defiant drag and let it out through puckered lips.

“Old bitty should mind her own business.”

“Yeah.”

“Got all these health nuts now ready to turn their noses up.”

“Sure.”

“All that second-hand bullshit’s for the birds anyway.”

We walked and my eyes fell over the NO SMOKING sign. I didn’t say anything, I just looked at it. He dropped the cigarette and ground it out under his heel.

“Come on. They got a carousel here. You’ll love that.”

The embers were starting to eat at the drought-browned grass, and I finished snuffing them for him. “I’m sure I will.”

There wasn’t a line. Dusk was hovering, and people were chowing down on everything deep-fried for dinner. He thought he was subtle when he asked if it cost anything to ride, but I was already walking towards it while the carny running it shook his head. The lazy spin came to a halt, and I climbed aboard.

It was old. The horses looked almost ceramic, the paint chipping off bit by bit so their eyes were white and ghostly without the pupils. I picked one with half its leg shattered off. I imagined it limping its way around tirelessly, round and round, always moving even though it knew something was missing. We had a kinship.

It started. My valiant steed moved up and down the pole, letting out a high screeching sound at points. It needed oiled.

“Joany?”

I glanced over. My dad was sitting in a carriage nearby, fingers drumming nervously against the front, darting his eyes towards me and back ahead again.

“I’m trying real hard, Joan. You know that, right?”

“I know you are.” But if you really wanted me, you’d try harder.

“Times are tough. I can’t afford to take care of you right now, but I will. I promise. I’ll get a job and we’ll be together, big old happy family, you and me. Right?”

My knuckles went white around the pole. I stared at the fake golden painting, flaking off and fluttering down. I wanted to scream at him, call him a deadbeat, tell him I hated him for not being able to take care of me. I wanted to tell him that I knew full well I’d just keep on living at that foster home, watching others come and go while I stood there like some aging statue forgotten in a swamp.

I wanted to tell him I wish he’d never had me.

“Sure John. Sure dad. I know.”

We sat there quietly as we rode forward to nowhere.

Written March 2015.

World Ends

My grandmother thought it was the second coming of Christ. We were star gazing, she and I. We had one of those old ratty blankets with holes in it that ‘the chiggers could take if they wanted to.’ She kept pointing out the constellations and I tried to follow her finger as it shook with the onset of Parkinson’s.

“That one’s Orion. You see his belt right there?” Point. Shake. “There’s a bull he’s fighting, you can see off to the side…”

Her red-shellacked nail gave birth to the meteor. It seemed to sprout right out of her wrinkles and surge towards the moon. It was beautiful. I wished for the usual things a kid wishes for; new dolls, new dresses, hell, I was cliché enough to want a pony.

I was just deciding it would be a palomino when it tore into the moon. My happy shooting star turned into an asteroid before my eyes. I was so fascinated I didn’t hear my grandmother screaming beside me at first. I watched as that moon spat out glimmering shards, and somewhere in my head my third grade teacher’s voice reminded me that the light came from the sun reflecting off its surface.

“Sweet Jesus take me!” She shrieked, running down the hill, her sun dress fluttering. “Sweet Jesus sweet Jesus take me home!”

I watched after her and started giggling. When she fell over and her legs started twitching I laughed harder. My mother stepped out onto the porch and started screaming as well, first at the sky, then at grandma, tripping over herself to get to her.

She’d had a heart attack. She died three days later. I guess Jesus said yes.

I remember a lot of news reports after that. Neither of my parents really gave a damn about the news before, but now they were addicted. Men in white coats would look out soberly from the screen, dark bags under their eyes, making predictions like soothsayers trying to read the palm of fate.

“The moon has lost approximately half its mass and its orbit has been drastically altered.”

Collective gasps from mother and father. I continued playing with a box of Legos I’d taken from my brother’s room. I asked him if he minded and he said no, but I could tell by the way his nose wrinkled he was lying. I took them anyway.

“Those closest to the coast should begin evacuations immediately. Massive flooding is predicted, but you still have time. Please follow the instructions of the National Guard. It is imperative panic be avoided…”

The white-coated man was replaced by a news reporter standing in the street. People were running around behind him frantically. They reminded me of what the ants did when I sprayed water down their hole with the hose. They tripped over one another, they trampled each other. I saw one man grab an older woman and slam her head down into the fender of a car.

“Riots have broken out in New York. Businesses are being broken into in broad daylight. Crime is rising unchecked, and it’s not safe to be-”

A gunshot. The video cut out and the audio relayed the sound of gurgling. The scene shifted again and a pale-faced fat man in a suit started babbling about politics.

My mother started to cry. I dropped the Lego-sphere I’d been building and whispered “boom.”

We were in the Midwest. We made our home on the bible-belt, Oklahoma. My father was a Preacher. After the moon was hit, the pews got much fuller. He would raise his hands up towards the stained glass and everyone would start chanting after him.

“Lord, protect our brothers and sisters from the floods!”

“Protect them, protect them father!”

“Lord, may your great hand deliver them from harm!”

“Deliver them, Lord, deliver them!”

They wept. They bowed down. They poured their money into the offering plate and sent it to New Jersey.

One hundred million people died. I guess God said no.

Before everyone was mad about the immigrants coming in from Mexico. My grandfather used to rant about it, talk about how they were stealing jobs nobody else wanted. He had a shotgun he called Bessy sitting right by the door, and he was ready to ‘shoot them illegals if they ever came through his property.’

They didn’t like the immigrants from the east and west either. At first we welcomed them, but then the food started running short. There wasn’t enough to go around, and the weather was changing fast enough that things stopped growing. My father started handing out gift baskets instead of letting folks inside. Most took them gratefully because it was more than others offered. Then one night a big guy with three kids tried to break into our house. He gave my mom a black eye, and my dad chased him out with a shovel.

After that, we didn’t open the door when someone knocked. Dad dusted Bessy off and kept the bullets next to the cross on the mantle.

He didn’t preach anymore.

It got really cold. People stopped flooding in and out of our town. Instead it was just us, and whatever neighbors decided to stick around. Rumors started flying about bunkers the government was building. They sounded to me like the promise of Oz being just over the rainbow, like any second the Tin Man would come traipsing over the hill asking for oil for his creaking joints. Mom hung on every word. She stopped eating and started giving me and my brother her portions. Her eyes would get that gleaming faraway look, and she would ask people to tell her more about these magical places where she would be safe.

Then one day Dorothy turned into Judy Garland. Mother downed a bottle of pills with a glass of straight whiskey. Dad said it was an accident and we buried her in the garden where the tulips used to bloom.

I’m sixteen now. We’re leaving. My brother’s face looks grim and tired, and I’d almost think he was older than me if I didn’t know any better. We’re packing the canned goods we have left and the smoked deer jerky my dad brought in with Bessy. It’s still pretty fresh. There’s a bloody stain on the cement in the garage where he peeled off its skin.

“You think it’ll really be better in the South, Jason?” I ask, stuffing my backpack. “You think we’ll make it down there?”

He’s looking out the window. Across the street, our neighbor trudges through the snow towards the mailbox. He puts the flag up as he opens it to stick in his letter and removes the one he put in yesterday. His eyes light up, like they do every day, and he tears it open, weeping at the sight of his own handwriting and at the signature he forged at the bottom. His son’s.

“Yeah, Amy. We’ll make it.”

His nose wrinkles a little. I can tell he’s lying.

Written March 2015.

Ready. Set. Go.

And you came out shrieking. The womb opened up and set you free, slick and hideous. Your face was scrunched. Your head was a malformed cone from being pushed through your mother’s chute. The doctor slapped you on the ass or stuck a tube up your nose for suction. You sputtered, snorted, and began to bawl. You wailed red-faced and beat your fists at the air.

Round one. Begin.

You learn to crawl. Learn to walk. Learn to defecate in the toilet instead of in your pants. Your bones ache down to the marrow with growing pains. Time shoves you on the rack and starts cranking the chains to make your limbs longer. You’re a gangly thing. Together with others like you, you find people who are less or more gangly and laugh at them. Camaraderie.

Round two. Get in the ring boy, you ain’t done.

Say goodbye to the nest. It falls out from under you and you don’t have wings. Walk along the ground pecking at the breadcrumbs tumbling from higher perches. Get shit on by the birds sitting on those higher perches. Wait until the fat cat comes along and eats one of them. Watch the feathers float down. Hop out of the way of the blood spatter. Climb up and take their place. Corporate ladder.

Round three. Broken? Boy, please. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Find the love of your live. Give her your love without reserve. Reach your fingers into your chest and rip your heart out. Fall to your knees before her and hold it up still beating. Keep smiling as she plunges her acrylic nails into the ventricles with quiet pops. Keep moving until you find someone with packing tape and a defibrillator. Settle down, but mostly settle.

Round four. Tired already? Oh, there’s no throwing in the towel now.

Hate your job. Work it anyway. Enter the data you don’t care about to get a result that is meaningless to you. Turn in that project. Start another one that looks exactly the same. Give yourself ulcers with coffee to keep yourself awake. Pay a doctor to remove the ulcers. Pay a therapist to tell you why you still never wake up. The alarm is shrieking. It’s Monday again.

Round five. Relax. Put some ice on it and the swelling will go down.

Retirement has come. You’re back in diapers and have a rash. Turn on the TV and watch wheel of fortune. Notice your wife is knitting and wonder when she learned to knit. Look in the mirror and think about offering to play the crypt keeper if they ever do a remake. It’s half past five. Swallow your pills dry.

Round six. Push it to the end, baby.

Look around you. You’re in a hospital bed. People are smiling. There’s the kid you shoved a bully off of. There’s the guy you gave a job. There’s your kids who were never wanting. There’s your loyal wife.

Ding ding. That’s a match.

Written in May of 2015.

Original Fiction

(My fiction will follow the same rules as my book reviews. If my work includes use or mention of gerfunkle, I will let you know.)

A lot of this stuff is old.

Not super old. More like five years old or so, and I’m at that age where five years is a flash in the bucket instead of a minor eternity. What you’ll see here will cover a lot of different topics, things that have interested me for a moment and then fallen away. Short stories. Starts that never got stops. I think part of being a writer is exploring what you’re interested in. I’ve found my niche now, but it took a while to get there, and I like to think there are still fruits of everything I’ve toyed with left in my pecan pie.

One day, I’m going to advertise a full length book here. One day I’m going to shoot off some of my babies to magazines, hoping they’re good enough for a nibble. I’m thinking it will be one day soon – I am, after all, creating this site. Letting people see what I’ve been sticking in hard drives for however long. You’re only getting the best of the best here, the things that I can re-read and not hate. I hope you like them. If you do, let me know. If you don’t, let me know that too. It’s all part of the journey.

Ultimately, though, my thought is that to really invest in a whole book, I want to know if I like the author’s style. If I like their themes. Do I enjoy the kinds of characters that they do? The topics that they’re interested in writing? If not, then there’s really no point in digging deeper. We all like to read a few pages before we take it over to the register, no?

I hope you pull up a seat and stay a while. If my words can do that much, I’m happy with that.

Book Review: Red Rising

Here there be spoilers. (For those that want to enjoy the novel without spoilers, this book as a gerfunkle rating of two. Sadly I would definitely categorize this as a salt-and-pepper case – the author uses gerfunkle liberally, even if he doesn’t necessarily go into detail.)

I wasn’t really feeling this one, and I’m not 100% sure why.

The worldbuilding was okay. I wasn’t a fan of the color-system-society. I found it to be rather simplistic. ‘The pinks are for pleasure, the reds are for labor, the golds are the gods.’ I do enjoy ancient Rome, and while for the first book I do get the impression the author smashed all its facets flat, I appreciate trying to use something historical when writing one’s fiction. I just maybe would have done more research myself, if I was going to use the framework in such a direct way.

Overall, though, I can’t say there’s much about this book that stands out to me. The color system made me think of Divergent (which I’ve never read, but I saw one of the movies at some point.) The concept of the Gold’s ‘training ground’ was essentially the Hunger Games. Now, I’m the first person to point out that literature is derivative – it’s not a bad thing to explore similar themes and take them in a different direction. Problem was, Red Rising didn’t really run with any of those themes. Not in a way that felt fresh or new.

I give the worldbuilding a 3 out of 5 stars. Not great, not terrible.

The characters are really what lost me.

Darrow strikes me as a cardboard cutout everyman. He loses his wife (and we’ll get to her later) and goes on a revenge crusade. That in and of itself wouldn’t kill him for me – we use familiar ideas precisely because they’re familiar. It’s like a diving board. You all start from the same place, but there are a million different ways you can enter the water.

Darrow’s a straight-backed, rigid-limbed belly-flop. He’s painfully flat. He mourns his dead wife (whose death didn’t give me any kind of emotional catharsis.) He rages against the injustice of a system so evil it feels like a caricature. It just really felt like Pierce Brown took the outline for this kind of character and didn’t add anything to it. He did nothing to sincerely make it is own, and because of that lack, I just didn’t care about Darrow. I cared less and less about him as the story progressed. His mourning of Eo felt plastic. His rage felt repetitive.

The other characters in the book suffer similarly. I will say I did like Sevro, but even he was only an inch above baseline. His society values perfection, and he doesn’t look perfect, so he’s been ostracized. That’s made him a fighter. That said, I never understood why Sevro felt such gung-ho loyalty to Darrow. Even right up to hiding the fact that he was a Red, or so we’re led to believe. I need a reason why a character would be willing to die for another, and for me, that never came through.

Mustang can be summed up by the fact that she’s named after a horse. As a female character she wasn’t throw-the-book-at-a-wall bad, but she really didn’t jive with me either. I also found the bit about her singing Eo’s song a touch too convenient. Also, if they’re constantly being watched by cameras, shouldn’t she be worried about singing a rebel’s song? A song apparently so controversial it calls for immediate execution?

Just a thought.

Finally, we have Eo. We all knew Eo was going to die. The ‘beautiful wife that lights up a room’ thing is basically like casting Sean Bean in a movie. The question isn’t if, it’s when and how.

I didn’t give a damn about Eo dying. The way she died was certainly very graphic and I think anyone would feel a reflexive empathy for a sixteen year old being strangled by her husband grabbing her legs (to be fair to Brown, I did like that imagery.) But once the shock has cleared, you’re left only with the memory of her character. She was a woman who chose to die as a symbol in front of her husband and family. She was a woman whose one conversation was to belittle Darrow, to tell him that the hardships he suffered because of his father’s choices were meaningless. To tell him he was a coward, because he was afraid of people who could take everything from him.

And honestly? That kind of made her an asshole.

So by the fifteenth time Darrow pines for Eo, I was over it. I wasn’t sympathetic. I was irritated. She was a badly done fridge. To really pull my heartstrings, you need to put in more effort.

Characterization is gonna be a 1 out of 5 stars for me guys. Hate to say it.

Finally, we have the plot. I’ll give it that it’s fast-paced, which is always nice. There’s something happening at every turn, so Brown does show a good feel for pacing. It really picks up when you get to the school and start realizing how oppressed the Golds are along with everyone else (although it does bring up the question: if you’re constantly ostracizing your military, how has your society not crumbled? Google what caused Rome to fail.) We did have some interesting interactions between characters – the whole arc with Darrow and Cassius, for example. And to the author’s credit, I did feel a little something when Pax died. His death was easy to see coming too, but at least by that time he’d built up the character enough to make it more impactful.

I have to say though I found the whole ending hilariously bad. The fact that Darrow was gary stu’ing his happy little butt through most of the book I tolerated, but when he managed to just break into Olympus and take the place over with his ragtag group of teenagers, I laughed aloud. That was the moment he clearly became a power fantasy, which is okay, but I don’t really have an interest in that particular kind of story.

I’ll give the plot a 3/5 stars. The pacing is really what bumped it up there.

Finally, we get to our gerfunkle rating.

I considered making this three gerfunkles. While there is never a completely explicit gerfunkle scene in and of itself, Brown has no issue whatsoever throwing it everywhere. He uses it any time he wants things to ‘get dark.’ He uses it with great liberty, to the point that I couldn’t really tell you which pages to avoid it getting brought up. And here’s the thing:

If it weren’t for his constant use/mention of gerfunkle, this would have been marketed as a Y/A novel.

I’m not saying that to piss on Y/A novels. I have many Y/A authors that I adore. (Francis Hardinge, call me.) I just mean that many of his themes, his overall worldbuilding, and even his cast of characters – 16-18 range – would typically find themselves at home in that market. I sincerely wonder if he didn’t just use gerfunkle in order to avoid that, instead of maybe tossing in some more facets here and there or aging up his characters somehow.

And if that’s the case, that’s pretty cheap.

Two gerfunkles on this one. If you’re really sensitive to the topic, I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book. I don’t think it’s worth the payout.

Overall, this book could have used another couple of drafts. It wasn’t bad, it just needed a little more something.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse)

Here there be spoilers. Reader beware. (If you want to skip the review to enjoy the book without spoilers, Leviathan Wakes has a rating of one gerfunkle.)

One piece of helpful advice on writing I’ve received pertains to forming an ‘anchor character.’ Someone you can sincerely relate to as a reader. Somebody you can latch onto, feel a world through, and relate to. As long as you anchor a reader firmly enough, they’ll still have somewhere to land, a sticking point to make things more believable – no matter how weird shit gets.

Which is all a very long-winded way of describing how I felt about Miller.

We know Miller. We’ve met Miller before. He’s our down and out detective, our grizzled, jaded man who’s seen it all and gotten tired of it. His job consumed him so much he got a divorce. The untreated stresses of what he’s seen behind the barrel of a gun have driven him to alcoholism. He knows the world is shit, but that little kernel of wanting to make it better is still somewhere inside of him, kicking around his ribs like a heartbeat trying not to die. Is he a cliché? Yeah, he is. He’s a trope. But damn does he work, and the popularity of this formula is like a really good recipe.

We can enjoy the weirdness of the protomolecule through Miller’s eyes. We never meet Julie Mao except in the very first chapter, and yet we learn so many important things about her through Miller that I wouldn’t even count her as a fridge character. James S. A. Corey cleverly conveys the kind of person she was through our stalwart detective: a young woman born into so much privilege, yet recognizing the horrible disparity in the solar system and breaking away from that birthright to help those less fortunate than she. In turn, Miller pursues Julie because to him, she’s an anomaly. By rights, she should be spoiled. Entitled. In spite of that, she threw in all her weight somewhere she thought would do some good. And if she can do that, maybe he can keep the kernel beating a little longer.

I found the ending between Miller and Julie to be heart-wrenching in the best of ways. We see how much of a broken man he is, but we follow him through what feels like his personal story of redemption. And we get to finally see Julie’s own strength, powerful enough to steer the alien monstrosity of Eros away from Earth and towards dead Venus.

Characterization in this book was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. It’s a 5/5 stars for me.

There’s a lot of great worldbuilding ideas in this story. All in all, the way that humanity has begun to ‘other’ one another feels all too real. Frighteningly so. The elongation of the belter’s bones, the establishment of entire new languages – all of these details just added so much to defining the world itself. I admit that first conversation Miller had with a witness completely threw me off – I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what she was saying, (long arm what now?) but that was clearly intentional. It’s classic low-fi building blocks, and it’s done flawlessly. In particular, I loved the hints of cultural mixing: the music, the people, even everyone’s last names. In my view, science fiction should be inherently diverse. It makes no sense to me otherwise.

Worldbuilding is another solid 5/5.

As for the plot: like Miller, there’s a lot about it that feels familiar, especially if you love science fiction. An evil corporation makes decisions that effect countless people, mostly for personal gain. This story does raise some really interesting questions, though, about coming into contact with an advanced alien race. Even just seeing its technology has to make us question everything, and within the context of the story, the technology found is billions of years old. When confronting the scientist that ran the horrible experiment on Eros, he points out that compared to humanity, these beings are essentially gods. If they chose to end us, they could do it without a thought.

If you’re a sci-fi geek like I am, you probably got just as giddy as I did during this scene. Because it’s true. On the grand scale, we better f***ing hope we’re forerunners. Because if we’re late to the game of sentience and space travel, people, we’re completely and utterly screwed.

Plot, you guessed it, is another 5/5.

Finally, here’s a great one. Guess what?

This book has a rating of one gerfunkle. (If you don’t know what a gerfunkle is, you can find that information here: https://vrholmes.wordpress.com/2022/07/03/book-reviews-and-how-i-do-them/)

This shocked me. It’s so rare that I read a novel in this genre which doesn’t contain themes like this, but Leviathan Wakes has none.

You can read and enjoy this five-star book completely at your leisure.

I sincerely hope that you do.