Reader’s Corner: The Starless Sea

As someone who has, a little bit, lost their energy for reading (I like to read; I just find it difficult to read working 40+ hour shifts, struggling with what feels like near constant fatigue that is constantly diagnosed as “stressed,” and diverting certain energies into mental and physical health), I have tried to be better about it. If I hear someone quote Stephen King one more time about how writers need to read–

One of the ways I started reading again was listening to audio books on my commute. It was comical when my commute was five minutes.

Now that my commute is 20-30 minutes, who’s laughing now?

(Me, I’m still laughing, I love my little jokes.)

The first physical book I read in a bit was actually Gideon The Ninth  (I’ll do a reader’s corner when Harrow comes out), then Corona happened, and my mental and physical health went to shit.

But, I’ve since started listening to audio books now that I’m getting better at walking (sunshine and fresh air…who knew?)

And then I read The Starless Sea.

I first cracked it open when I was at a coffee shop (this was about a week before the world started to shut down), and I couldn’t concentrate because people on one side of me were fear mongering about the virus and the other people on the other side of me were on a very introspective date, I think? And I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

I was very intrigued about the pirate in the basement.

I didn’t pick the book up again for about a month.

I feel like this is a book I probably would have eaten up when I was 20 and was really into metaphors and books about stories and what they mean.

But I’m older now. I don’t mind a good metaphor but I also like some meat and potatoes with my reading. Like, actual plot with actual characters without the pages telling you that the pirate is a metaphor when I really want to read about the pirate.

That is, if the pirate were an actual pirate on a starless sea.

I would not recommend this book if you read slowly, like me. I would not recommend this book if you struggle with exhaustion, like me, because there were so many threads and imagery that meant something else I literally kept forgetting them. There are three images (that I’ve already forgotten though two of them are a bee and sword–third might be a feather) that were mentioned occasionally and that I kept forgetting. Then another three were added. There were also at least three other books within the book and the chapters would alternate and feed into the main story.

It also starred a main gay character, who was in love with a guy, and they ultimately got their happy ending with one of the most arresting images in the books–

but it was lost, to me, with all the other arresting images and I feel that if the author had just concentrated on the story+subplot leading up to that one arresting image, the book would have been much easier to read.

I’m sure this book is amazing for someone who isn’t me. But for someone like me, the prose was so luscious I got lost in it more often than not.


Reading Corner: The Postman Always Rings Twice

This year, I want to broaden my literary scope. Instead of just reading Sci-Fi with a non-fiction book thrown in everyone once in a while for good measure, I want to start reading all the genres.

So I started with one I normally wouldn’t glance at in a million years: noir.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was on a list of top noir books, and the title intrigued me so I started with that one. After I finished the book I googled why it was called that because the novel itself featured zero postmen. There are several theories of course, which you can find on wikipedia, but I think my favorite one was the inescapable aspect of death. It reminded me of Roxy in Dead Like Me, who was actually a meter maid (I remembered belatedly), but still it would have been cool if one of the reapers had been a postman, wouldn’t it? Like, that seems like a thing that Dead Like Me would have done.

Noir is not my favorite genre. It’s an unhappy genre (at least in my very limited experience), and I don’t think that Cain’s novel was an exception to the rule. It began unhappily and it ended unhappily.

However, Cain’s prose is gorgeous. It was some of the most gorgeous prose I had ever read. The voice of the narrator came through so clearly, so intimately. One day, I hope to write so skillfully–which is why I must practice.

I have another noir book waiting for me on the library hold list. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which one it is because it’s in an anthology called Books to Die For. Perhaps I’ll read another book than the one I wanted, which is one of the reason I sprung for the anthology.

Who doesn’t love a good anthology?

Reader’s Corner: King & Riordan

When I was a kid, I used to read several books at a time. I blame this on my home school education,  tv was a limited amusement, and that we used to belong to the Pizza Hut reading program: read x number of books and you get a free single-serving pizza.

I would read books that were beneath my reading level so I could chow through them in a single day, satisfactorily log it, and then read another one. Normally, I was reading other books that were not considered pizza fodder, though I took great satisfaction in logging those too.

Then I grew up. Got a major case of The Depression, and stopped reading!

I know, what a bummer.

I’ve actually been reading again for a while but not like I used to. Not like I did as a kid.

I’ve been starting small, again reading books below my age. For example, my coworker gave me the Percy Jackson books for Christmas. You’ll have these read over the weekend, right? She asked me.

Uhhhhhhh, I said, very intelligently.

To be honest, I was feeling the pressure. My mom had also given me two books that she wanted me to read, one of which was sitting on my shelf for over a month, the other languishing in my kindle for even longer. I also had my own list of to-reads which I had yet to get to–Amazon asks me how many stars I want to rate a book I’ve purchased but yet to read, and the guilt sets in.

I did not have the Percy books read over the weekend, but I did go through them at a good pace despite working full time, writing, being dog tired, and reading other projects.

Yes, I am back to reading multiple books at a time!

The primary book that I read while reading Percy Jackson was Joyland by Steven King. I chose to read Joyland to expand my genre horizons beyond science fiction and fantasy.

I consumed Joyland in a day and a half. Stephen King is a pretty good writer, obviously. His On Writing was one of the first books I read about the craft, though my thoughts are mixed on it now as an adult. I really enjoyed Firestarter, but couldn’t get into some of his more “heavier” stuff. Basically, I don’t read a lot of Stephen King for several reasons, and I started IT though stopped when I discovered what happens at the end of the novel.

I’ve never read any of Rick Riordan’s work before and, even though they are different genres written for different audiences, I couldn’t help but compare the two to each other craftwise.

One of the things I immediately noticed about Joyland was that it was not structured into chapters. The other thing I noticed is that, even though I could remember what happened as I was reading, the drama was written so smoothly it was sliding melted butter over bread. It’s the juxtaposition of feeling where you remember what happened–but you also don’t. The same sort of feel when you try to remember exactly what filled your hours on a weekend, but you can’t. The day was there, and it wasn’t. There’s just the feeling you had–that it was great or good or satisfying or bad.

I’ve always had this feeling when I’m immersed in a well written book. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I’m trying to write: how am I going to fill these pages when hardly anything is happening, when the plot is a slow boil? And here is Stephen King doing just that, nearly effortlessly.

I’m not sure if I’m explaining it right. Maybe if I finally bring in my point about Percy Jackson:

With Percy Jackson, I have the opposite feeling. I remember what fills the page because it feels very much like a video game. Each obstacle is like a punctuation mark. Again, this is probably because this is aimed at a (much) younger audience than myself.

But it also got me thinking about different writing styles, and the audience. Of course, you’re going to be changing your form and style as necessary, but I couldn’t help but feeling that my most mature writing is more like Riordan’s than King’s.

And there really is nothing wrong with that! But, especially since I am not writing for a younger generation, I want my writing to read more like King’s. Not in his voice, just the way people read the words without noticing the plot structure or other writing devices because they are so well hidden in the actual story.

It’s something that I’ll be aiming for in the coming months.

Reading Corner: On Writing by Stephen King

I finished reading On Writing by Stephen King for the second time of my life. The first time I read it I was an eager adolescent–a teenager I believe–who wanted to be a writer more than anything in the whole world.

I don’t know what happened after I finished reading it for the first time. I know that crushing depression and a bewildering experience with my professor in my college’s creative writing program made it difficult for me to write. I didn’t write for years after I graduated college due to one thing or another, and when I did start writing again, it was fanfiction. I have an account somewhere on the internet that documents over 100 works of fanfiction, some of them over fifty thousand words.

I don’t think Stephen King would have much use for fanfiction, but for me it helped rekindle not so much love but at least a feeling towards writing again.

And it had been such a long time since I had felt anything towards writing that I welcomed it, and hung on to it, and kept writing it even though I didn’t write the stuff that got a lot of notes and attention from the fandom corners in which I lurked.

Stephen King talks a lot about reading and writing daily. I’m ashamed to say that I still don’t write every day. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t read seventy to eighty books every year. I read still, but not a lot, and again not every day. Stephen King is very hard on television and I do tend to veg in front of netflix after a long day’s work. I find it difficult to wake up in the mornings and no matter how determined I am to Accomplish Things and Write Stuff in the mornings, it rarely happens.

I’ve been vaguely aware of this untenable state of affairs for a while now. Re-reading King’s words of wisdom was simply a fog horn telling me to stop diddling around on the internet and to actually Do Something.

In the latter pages of this book, Stephen King talks about the joy of writing, and how he never did it for the paycheck. I don’t have that joy. I haven’t had fun playing around with words for a long time. I want to survive on my writing, and I don’t want to go back to my job because working is like being in Azkaban.

So I think first and foremost I need to find that joy again as well.

I don’t know how I’ll do that, but I do know that I won’t find it by waiting for it to come to me. I know that I enjoy writing. Even when I don’t enjoy it until I start (much like cardiovascular activities), eventually I get in the zone and I feel love for the words I’m putting on the page, and I love the way I’ve put them together, and I love writing.

So I know it’s there. It just needs to be rekindled. It’s been untended for far too long–first because of brain and heart sickness, and then discouragement and the lack of ability to tell a story–to even think of a story.

Stephen King said that he had an Ideal Reader in mind, someone you wrote for. I don’t think I have one of those yet. My Mom and my Dad are good people but there is a lot of bad stuff between my mom that I don’t feel comfortable having her be my ideal Reader. Also, she doesn’t have the time and has her own circle of people towards whom she bears emotional responsibility.

Stephen King’s Ideal Reader is his wife but I have been single for eight years and I do not see that changing anytime soon.

I can’t let not having an Ideal Reader stop me. I know that writers don’t do well alone–that they do need a community of some sort.

So in addition to recommitting myself to rekindling that joy, I am also going to try to make a friend to be my Ideal Reader. And maybe I can be their Ideal Reader in return–anything could happen.

My isolation in terms of friendships is not good for my writing. Staying at home all the time minus trips to the movie theater, is not good for my writing. That needs to change as well. One thing that stuck in my head when reading this memoir is that Stephen King’s ideas for a novel came when he was out doing something–even something as mundane as work or driving up a highway. Even I’ve experienced this. My venture to Utah’s salt flats have shaped the background of two stories, even if I did end up putting them away for later.

Despite not having read hardly any of Stephen King’s works (I think I’ve only read Firestarter), I am grateful for this call to action, and I definitely plan to act on it. I do recall that there is a live poetry reading at a nearby coffee shop every Saturday evening that might make for a good starting place.

Reading Corner: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

I recently finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. It was one of the longer books I’ve attempted since my attention span has been negatively affected by working full time, depression/anxiety, etc.

That said, I’m glad I read it, though I don’t think I could in all honesty put it on a list of must reads.

Lynch is a master of world building. He writes this beautiful world as if the reader is part of it. He does not explain what he means when he describes the seasons, the gods, or the time of day. He does not need to. His lack of explanation makes their existence absolutely believable, infallibly real. Even objects that exist in this universe and that universe are written from the perspective of someone from Locke’s world (I’m thinking, specifically, of the word “optics” used for “glasses,” a small touch that absolutely enhanced and reinforced the world of Locke Lamora–it’s a great example of texturizing detail).

Not only that, there was just so much to the world that it was easy to realize that the single city explored in the first novel is part of something bigger, richer than itself. I don’t really get that feeling when I read a lot of modern fantasy, so to see such a reality so masterfully scripted–I was awed.

I struggle with world building. I struggle with it a lot. It’s one of the major weaknesses of my own writing, and something that I am attempting to rectify, a muscle I am attempting to train and strengthen. It is for this reason alone that I will probably continue to read the rest of the Gentleman Bastard series, of which the Lies of Locke Lamora is the first volume. I have a lot to learn from Scott Lynch.

Now that I’ve made my courtesies to the author, I have to admit that there was a lot about Lies of Locke Lamora of which I was not a huge fan, but that is mostly because our writing philosophies are incredibly different (which is no surprise seeing as we are different people with different tastes).

I find it incredibly sad and disappointing that despite the rich world that Lynch had created, there were so few women who were part of the story. I can think of five major women off the top of my head. One, a fellow Gentleman Bastard I suppose, was always referred to off screen. The other was the wife of the noble they were conning and had very few scenes of her own. The third was the daughter of the ruling gang-king who was drowned in horse urine. Then there were the twins who were accomplished fighters and they also died–and they were almost always considered as a singular entity instead of their own persons.

So, that made me feel, in a lot of ways, unwelcome to the party? And even though most of the men that comprised Locke’s gang also died, it just was frustrating that there were so few women with major roles and that so many of them died–particularly in very bloody and violent ways.

Additionally, the entire novel was comprised around this idea of vengeance and violence–I am not particularly interested in these themes, especially when they appear in collusion with the absence and death of women and are orchestrated by men as reactions to these missing women. Beyond that, I am someone who does not want violence to be celebrated or to be so taken for granted that the narrative can find no other means of absolution or resolution. All the major players, including Locke, choose a course of violence and vengeance. Sometimes it works out for them, sometimes it doesn’t.

For me personally, such stories provide me very little insight, and I bore quickly of them.

Some might say that such a stance is unrealistic, that violence is a certainty in the world and that any other course would be unrealistic. Violences, both large and small, both bloody and bloodless, are enacted today. But so is non violence.

But as I said, despite my philosophical differences with Scott Lynch, I will be reading the rest of the Gentleman Bastard series, if only because Lynch’s technique is so very good.

Reading Corner: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

I recently finished reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

Ever since I read Gone Girl, I have been impressed with Flynn’s master command of prose, specifically in the first person voice. Dark Places was no exception to what I had come to expect from Gone Girl: a compelling first person voice, word play, and intricate unlikeable characters.

First person has always been something that I’ve not been a big fan of. Sometimes it feels like I’m reading someone’s poorly written journal (and if it’s in the present tense, I’m even more confused because I don’t process my immediate life in that way), but Flynn writes a first person voice that is utterly compelling to me. I haven’t quite figured out the secret, but I definitely want to read more of her technique, even if I’m not a huge fan of her plots.

The word play aspect is closely associated with one of the reasons her first person voice is so good. In the words of Humpty Dumpty, Flynn can make words behave. I can’t remember which writer advised this, but she is very good at using one strong word instead of writing in lavish, wandering prose. And not only that, she uses words that aren’t normally associated with what she is trying to describe, resulting in forcing the reader to view common, everyday objects in a new way that lingers with them, that gives a unique flavor and texture to the prose that is unforgettable.

Even though I’m not a huge fan of her plots, I do have to bow to her ability to write utterly unlikeable characters with whom I find myself invested. Libby Day reminded me a lot of myself. Her executive dysfunction, her depression, her meanness, her selfishness, are all things I’ve seen in myself. This kind of averageness is not something I’ve seen in a lot of the literature I’ve read (admittedly, I read primarily sci-fi — both Gone Girl and Dark Places are a bit of a departure from my normal fair) but it’s something I crave.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in the plot at all–but then plots have always been of secondary importance to me, so it wasn’t something that bothered me very terribly. That said, I’ve noticed something in both Gone Girl and Dark Places: both narratives featured false rape accusations. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, but it has left me feeling vaguely unsettled. I’m interested to see if the other novel I want to read by Flynn, Sharp Objects, features similar themes.

Reading Corner: The Astronaut by Andy Weir

I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir, something that has been on my radar for about a year now.

For being a New York’s time best seller, I wasn’t that terribly impressed with it.

The character itself was static in that he felt like the same person at the beginning of being stranded on Mars as he did at the end, over a year later. The author didn’t make as much use of the first person voice (through the conceit of logging how he was stranded, his day to day survival, etc)–and that surprised me because there was a lot one could do with that kind of voice in that kind of element–it was a missed opportunity to really pack an emotional punch for the reader.

I was reading part of the interview at the back, and Weir said that the character is very much like him, and he just put in what he’d say in such a situation and that, to me, explained everything about why the character sounded so weak.

There was no sense of exile, of hopelessness, of desperation–

Of loneliness

and i felt that if the character was based on just what he’d say that would explain a lot. There was such a lack of imagination there that I was actually mildly mystified that the author would choose to go in such a direction.

I also felt alienated by the author and the narrator (both, since they are apparently one and the same) in that the narrator seemed to miss women only in the sense that they could provide him sex as women were always presented in this context. I just felt really uncomfortable and like I wasn’t supposed to be the target audience of this novel.

Reading The Martian didn’t challenge my own writing nor did it get my creative juices flowing. However, the mere fact that it’s a New York Time’s best seller doesn’t necessarily mean that quality will sell.

This does give me hope because of my weaknesses in editing. I am still struggling with editing my maritime story, and I am also afraid that it is boring and it is not as strong as it could be. I’m waiting to hear some feedback and maybe I will end up trying to re-write it so that it’s stronger or do some more strenuous edits, but at the end of the day I know that I’m just going to have to accept it as it is and realize that just because it’s weak, doesn’t mean it’s the end. It only means that we all have to start somewhere.