Undercity by Catherine Asaro.

Stars: 1 out of 5

I usually refrain from writing negative reviews, mostly because I feel like by posting a one star review I am doing the author a disservice.  But once in a while I come across books that I can’t simply discard and not explain why I didn’t like them, either because they were really bad, or because they could have been great and failed to live to my expectations.

In the case of Undercity by Catherine Asaro, it’s the later rather than the former. I was so excited when I got an advanced reader copy of this book thanks to NetGalley. I love science fiction, I love strong female characters, and I absolutely love new and interesting takes on societies. So I really wanted to love Undercity.

Unfortunately, while I am willing to suspend my disbelief in most cases (it’s a made-up world after all), I can’t shut off my logical mind as well. I can’t read a book if I have to be brain dead to enjoy it.

I will not go into too many details about the story itself, because my problems with the book are more general than that. So you can read on ahead without fear of spoilers.

So, problem #1 and biggest pet peeve. The author describes a star-faring and technologically advanced civilization that had existed for over seven thousand years and created a galactic empire. In this civilization, for some unexplained reasons, there are only about 2 men for each 10 women born. So, obviously, the society is very matriarchic.  This could work. This could actually be a very interesting topic to explore IF the author had bothered to think logically about the implications of such a disparity.

To me, such a deficit in males means polygamy, if not the rejection of marriage as a viable solution altogether. Communal men, children either raised by their mothers or the larger family including sisters, aunts, cousins, etc. We are also talking about a technologically advanced society, so sperm banks, genetic modification, draconian control over who can procreate with whom because of the reduced genetic pool with the Y chromosome…

What we get in that book instead: men are kept hidden from the outside world, and only their immediate family and future wife to be can interact with them (that’s an interesting reversal of the situation many women endured in the Muslim countries, even if it’s a bit far-fetched). BUT the society is still monogamous. You heard me right. There are 2 men for every 10 women, yet each man is married to one woman… So what do the other 8 do? How do they chose who gets to create a family and have children and who doesn’t? How can that work??? All those questions are left unanswered.

Also, I find it hard to believe that in all seven thousand years, their scientists haven’t found a solution to fix this disparity between sexes. For one, a society with so few men would have interbreeded and died out in seven thousand years, not went on to dominate a galaxy. It could have achieved it only if measures had been taken to spread the genetic pool around and a drastic genealogical control… none of which is even mentioned in the book.

My second problem with the book is the population of the Undercity itself and the inner conflict / motivation for the protagonist.  I think it’s mostly because even the author isn’t quite clear of what the people of Undercity are, so her protagonist isn’t very clear whether she wants to save that population or not, and for what reasons, or whether it even needs saving. This puts the reader in a state of slight bewilderment any time she reads about that elusive society, because it’s not very clear what the stakes are.

How big is the population of Undercity? The author never gives us straight numbers. One page she says around 300, then she mentions about 400-600. Even if it’s 1000, how can a civilization like that have survived for 7000 years by itself? The author mentions a few times that they have zero to very little contact with the people from Cries, the city above them…. So they just breed amongst themselves then? All 300, 600 or 1000 of them for the whole 7000 years? They would all be closely related by now and horribly deformed, especially considering that they have the same problem as the people above them – 2 men for every 10 women…

But even if we put that little problem aside, the author has no clear vision of what that population does. Either they are vagrants that survive on scraps collected form above them (how if they rarely go outside?), who have no sustainable industry or production or anything. Or they are skilled mechanics, hackers and artists who learned their skills “in the streets” and by stealing the online feeds from top above ground schools. Either they are divided into a society of violent gangs, or they have a strict code of helping each other and taking care of their own. According to what the author says, they are all that at the same time with no real explanations on how, why and how that would even begin to work.

This could have been a wonderful book. There were so many possibilities to explore, but I guess the author’s logic was different from my own. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book. There are plenty of better science fiction novels out there. But ultimately it’s always up to you, guys.

P.S. This review is for an advanced copy I received from NetGalley.

NaNoWriMo – you reached 50k, now what?

There are only 7 days left until the end of NaNoWrimo, and some of you can almost see the finish line. I know I can. Sitting at 43k after Sunday’s writing session, that finish line finally seems within reach.

Winner 2014

This will be my last NaNo-related post for 2014, so I wanted to talk about what to do AFTER you have done your victory dance, gotten your cool NaNoWriMo winner certificate, and took advantage of winner discounts with various sponsors (Scrivener is definitely worth buying by the way, especially at 50% discount).

So this post will be about the Do’s and Don’ts of life after November 30.

DON’T stop writing. Unless you are writing for the young adult or middle grade market, your novel is probably not finished at 50k words. The standard length for a novel is anywhere between 80 and 120k. Or maybe you’re the next George R. R. Martin and your novel will be more in the vicinity of 300k. The point is – don’t stop now. Keep on putting your story on paper until you reach THE END.

DON’T self-publish or send your draft to agents on December 1st. You have finished your story. It’s a big accomplishment. But trust me when I tell you that your story is far from being publishable. This is your first draft. It’s only half-baked. It needs to rest in a dark corner before being put through the fires of editing and revision.

Blue blood on the page!
Blue blood on the page!

DON’T start editing your draft on December 1. You are too close to your draft right now, too involved. You are still living in the story. Put it aside. Let it rest. Forget about it for a month or two. Come back to it with fresh eyes. Read it as if you weren’t the one who put those words on the page in the first place.

DO take time to celebrate. Congratulations! You wrote 50k words in 30 days – that’s a huge accomplishment! So go and celebrate. Pop that champagne bottle, open that box of chocolates you’ve been saving, go party with your friends. You have earned it.

champagne

DO keep writing. You don’t have to continue careening at the mad speed of 1667 words a day anymore, but don’t stop writing just because NaNo is over. Finish your story. Put it aside. Then start a new one. And another one. And the one after that.

DO take the time to edit your novel. The road from the first draft to the published novel is long and difficult. There will be many revisions and rewritings before the monster you created is ready to be unleashed on the unsuspecting public. Take your time. It will take as long as it needs to. Better make sure that you made your novel as good as it will get than hurry up and published a half-baked product and deal with negative reviews.

Not over

These are some of the advice I took from the people on NaNo forums after NaNoWriMo 2013, and they served me right. So I thought I would pass them on to my readers. But the most important advice  have is:

NEVER STOP DREAMING.

If you want to pursue this crazy career, then go for it. Write, write, write, and write some more. Love the process, with both its easy and its painful days.

And be proud of yourself- you survived NaNoWriMo!

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F Hamilton.

Stars: 5 out of 5

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a rather hard book to describe, because it’s equal part science fiction and fantasy. In a way, it reminded me of Inversions by Iain M Banks – an author I absolutely love.

In Inversions, we have an agent from the Culture, a highly advanced space faring civilization, living as the personal doctor to a king on a medieval planet. The people around her don’t know anything about starships, other planets or even that their world is a round ball orbiting another round ball of burning gas. And the reader experiences the story through the eyes of one of the locals to whom a lot of what the doctor does seems like magic.

We have a bit of a similar situation in this book. There is a large and highly advanced civilization called the Commonwealth that is very reminiscent of Mr. Banks’s Culture. Several Commonwealth colony ships get sucked into the Void, a mysterious area in the center of the universe that nobody has ever returned from. What they discover inside is a world where normal laws of physic don’t always apply and things that seemed impossible become ordinary. Their highly technological ships, robots and nano-enhancements fail. But they discover that they all have acquired telepathic and telekinetic abilities instead.  They crash land on the only inhabitable planet within reach of their rapidly failing starships and call it Bienvenido.

Fast forward about 3000 years and the civilization founded by the colonists has devolved as far down as the high middle ages, with a rigid system of casts ruled by a corrupt nobility and a justice system that favors the rich and powerful. The civilization is stagnating, so buried under the burden of traditions that all notion of progress is killed in the cradle. And into this culture that has forgotten that once upon a time it traveled between stars, lands a man freshly sent by the Commonwealth to find out what happened to the missing ships. And Nigel Sheldon is just the man needed to create a few waves in this stagnating cesspool and maybe start a revolution.

I loved this book. It has this wonderful mix of science fiction and fantasy that is very hard to pull off well, and Peter Hamilton accomplishes it to perfection. We are introduced both to the highly advanced world of Commonwealth, where technological and biological advances have made even death optional. And then we are fully immersed in the rather medieval world of Bienvenido, where technology is reduced to a bare minimum, but everyone can use teekey (telekinetic) powers and talk to each other through ‘path (telepathic) voice.

Then there is the significant detail that Bienvenido is under constant attack from the Fallers – mysterious black eggs that fall from the sky on regular intervals. They sure people to touch them, and absorb them. Once absorbed, the egg hatches and a Faller is born. It’s an exact copy of the person who had been absorbed, but it only has one thought on its mind – destroy the humans of Bienvenido. Nobody knows why those Fallers are so hostile, or how to do more than mitigate the damage they do, because to defeat them, humans have to bring the fight to the sky, and nobody has flown off planet in milenia.

I loved the characters I got to explore the mysterious Void and the planet of Bienvenido with. I loved the highly complex and fleshed-out world the author built. And the story itself is a good mix of adventure, horror, and high politics. It’s especially interesting to see how  a few well-placed “pebbles” can have a ripple effect that brings about a tsunami of civil unrest that washes away the old order and attempts to created something better out of the wreckage. I loved following Slvasta around and seeing him evolve from a naïve young trouper dreaming of glory and axing his first egg to a battle-hardened young man who still managed to preserve his integrity, no matter how much he had to go through.

The Void is a bizarre and fascinating world, and I am really looking forward to exploring it farther in the next books in the series.

So is this book worth buying? Yes, definitely. You are guaranteed to spend several days (this book is over 600 pages long) happily immersed in a very detailed and interesting world.

PS. This review is for and advanced copy I received courtesy of NetGalley.

NaNoWriMo – we are halfway done!

pen-and-paper

We have officially rounded the bend on this year’s NaNo challenge. It’s all downhill from now on. Some of you might be doing great and rushing through that word count with the finish line getting closer and closer at NASCAR speed. But for some, this is the most treacherous part of the journey, when the fatigue sets up and motivation flags down.

You have been plodding along, struggling to meet your word count for over two weeks now. Sometimes you were successful, sometimes not so much. And if you are behind on your word count for some reason, the realization that the number of days you have to catch up is limited can be extremely demotivating.

Or you could be experiencing another symptom: you suddenly feel like what you wrote is utter useless crap. Your writing is flat, your characters are not interesting, or worse, your story is not worth telling. I know that feeling. I’ve experienced it last year. I even wrote a panicked post about it.  It got so bad that I was about to toss everything into the trash and call it quits.

PanicAttack

My NaNo novel and my writing career was saved by one of my writing buddies who told me that this feeling was totally normal, and that all writers experience it at one point or another of their first draft. She also send me the link to a pep talk Neil Gaiman wrote for NaNoWriMo back in 2007 and told me to read it before I did anything drastic like pressing DELETE on my computer and tossing my writing dreams out of the window.

I read Neil’s pep talk and I found it very motivating. The words that resonated with me the most were these:

That’s how novels get written.

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

So I gritted my teeth and kept on writing, no matter how much I hated my manuscript by that point. And you know what? It got better. I wrote a few scenes I thought were rather good; I got excited about my story; the characters started speaking to me again; and I managed to get to the finish line. The result  was the first draft Of Broken Things, which is far from being perfect and still needs a ton of editing, but at least it’s finished.

Hemingway

So I want to do the same thing my writing buddy did for me last year and motivate you today. If you feel like tossing your novel into the trash and giving up – don’t. Go read through the wonderful pep talks we have on the NaNoWriMo site. Talk to your writing buddies and ask for support. Stop by the forums and share your doubts. But more importantly, stick around for a day or two more, write a few more words, start that scene you had been looking forward to write, even if it doesn’t happen until several chapters later. Or introduce a brand new character, or lead your story in a completely different direction.

I am convinced that you will get your mojo back and actually looking forward to the few days we have left before the end of November and NaNoWriMo.

And finally, let me leave you with this post by Chuck Wendig called On the Detestation of your Manuscript: an Expedition into the Dark, Tumultuous Heart of Authorial Self-Hatred. Be warned that Chuck uses a lot of naughty language, but his stuff is usually very funny and motivating.

And with that, write on, wrimos!

Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I don’t usually read YA. Well, scratch that. There are very few YA books that I actually like. Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, or the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix come to mind. So I should rephrase this to : I read YA, but the book needs to be exceptional for me to like it. Fortunately, Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn is one such book.

This is the first book in a trilogy and it’s perma-free on Amazon, so I admit that I was rather reticent about downloading and reading it. I’ve been less than impressed with the quality of some free books on amazon in the past.

But the moment I opened this book, I was hooked! I kept turning the pages and I couldn’t put it down. Susan Kaye Quinn created an interesting and compelling world where reading other people’s minds is considered the norm, and where people who can’t mind-read, or zeros, are outcasts, relegated to the most menial jobs. Because you wouldn’t trust someone whose mind you can’t read. And they wouldn’t be able to operate most of the machinery anyway, since everything, from phones to cars and kitchen appliances, runs on mindware. I must admit that the worldbuilding in this book is impressive, and the consequences of common mindreading are well-thought of.

Kira is not a typical teenage protagonist either. Sure, she dreams of fitting in and having friends again, and agonizes about the fact that the boy she likes will never go out with a zero. She has the normal hopes and dreams of a teenage girl. And when she discovers that she can not only read minds, but also control them, her first reaction is to pretend that it never happened, to try and hide it, to pass for a normal reader and just fit in. That’s what Kira wants most of all, to fit in. But that option proves impossible, and she discovers that there are a lot more jackers than she thought. She also discovers that the harsh reality for a jacker is either to live your life in hiding, work for the FBI, or be sent to a concentration camp.

I liked the fact that when the shit hits the fan, Kira doesn’t lose time mopping around and waiting for a knight in shining armor to rescue her. She takes the matters in her own hands instead. She does what she thinks is right, even if that means risking her life to free other jackers from a secure FBI facility, or exposing the existence of the jackers and the horrible way they are treated by the government to the media.

I am very interested to see how she deals with the fallout from that bombshell in the next book,  Closed Hearts, btw.

My only gripe with this book would be how quickly Kira changes from being scared of her powers and reticent to use them to using them left and right without remorse. But you can argue that she is placed in a situation where her survival depends on those powers.

I would also have liked to see a bit more of a learning curve, because it seems like Kira went from a zero to a super-jacker in the space of a couple months and without any particular efforts.

But all in all, Open Minds is a fast-paced and interesting book. It’s also very well written and formatted. I would never have guessed it was self-published. So if you want to pick up a though provoking and intelligent book for your teen (or for yourself) to read, head over to Amazon and download the free copy.

NaNoWriMo – things I’ve learned after week one.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

We have officially survived the first week of NaNoWrimo and (hopefully) even managed to put some words on paper! This is a big first step and if you are still hanging on (and still writing), a small celebration is definitely in order. This is the first important milestone in our NaNo journey.

For me, this NaNoWriMo is not really about discovering whether I can write 50k words in a month. I know I can, because I have already done that last year.

NaNo 2013 was all about  nervous excitement at the challenge laced with a lot of doubts and “oh my god, what was I thinking when I decided to do that, and 1667 words per day is impossible!” moments. NaNo 2014 is more about refining my writing process and discovering what methods allow me to be more efficient when writing my first draft. So, this year I try to pay attention not only to what I write, but also how I write it, and note things that help me write faster and those that hinder me.

So here are a few conclusions I came up with after week one.

  1. Detailed outlines are a lifesaver.

During NaNo 2013, I had a general outline of my novel, arbitrarily separated into 3 parts. I had only put down some major points and decided to fill out the blanks as I went. As a result, my first draft contained a lot of backstory, side stories, and meaningless wanderings. I never got stuck per se, but there were days when I meandered through the story with no clear idea how to get to the next big plot point on my list.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I can tell you that editing that first draft is an absolute nightmare. I have only managed to wade through Part 1 and started on Part 2, and I have rewritten 90% of the draft.

This year, I spent the whole month of October writing several outlines for my NaNo 2014 project. I had a general plot outline, I had my characters bios and backstories and I had a chapter by chapter outline. Yup, I have written a 15k words, very detailed outline of my whole book.

The result is rather impressive – my WIP is has broken the 20k milestone today, and I haven’t been stuck even once so far. I also find it easier to get into the writing mood each day when I know exactly what scenes I will have to write.

2. Practice might not make everything perfect, but it certainly makes things better.

When I foolishly decided to participate in NaNo 2013, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I had never tried to write consistently for any prolonged period of time. So of course I struggled! Some days coming up with that daily 1667 word goal seemed almost impossible. The most I could manage in one sitting was between 500-600 words, after which my brain would go into meltdown and need a few hours to recuperate.

WordCount

I have been writing every day for the past year and building up my “literary” muscles, so to speak. So now my brain can produce 1000-1400 words in one session before the critical meltdown, which makes meeting the daily goal suddenly so much easier.

Plus whenever I feel like slaking off, this annoying little voice in my head starts nagging at me, “You managed to meet your word count last year, even if you had to struggle for it. You can do better than that this year!” Maybe I should try to lock her in the basement along with my inner editor next time?

And I saw another aspect of my writing in which practice really makes a difference. Not only do I write faster now, but I also write cleaner. I have a clearer idea of what I want to put on the page, and I manage to come up with the words I need much quicker than a year ago. So hopefully, this will make the editing process much less painful later on.

  1. Planning ahead is essential.

NaNo 2013 was a success for my writing life, but a bit of a disaster in my everyday life. I was so absorbed in the writing process, that I didn’t have time for anything else. Between my day job and NaNo, the month of November 2013 went by in a blur. I think my family had started to forget how I looked like by the end of it, because I would come home from work, grunt an unintelligible greeting, and disappear behind my monitor, dead to the world.

This year, not only do I have a lot more responsibilities at work, which require more of my time and attention, but I also have to update this blog, providing new interesting content every week, and I have a novel to write.

So I have to plan ahead, use every free minute of my time to keep up with everything. I have succeeded so far, and I’m not even too frazzled yet. But it’s only been a week, so we will see if I’m still as organized and optimistic by the time Thanksgiving comes knocking at my door.

write

Conclusion:

One week down, three more to go. Keep on writing, wrimos and remember that it doesn’t matter if you are ahead on our word count, just on the money, or desperately behind. You are here, you are making an effort to put words on the page and to create something beautiful out of nothing. That in itself is already an accomplishment!

Pines by Blake Crouch

Stars: 5 out of 5

Blake Crouch says that Pines was inspired iconic TV series Twin Peaks. He wanted to capture the same eerie atmosphere of a  small town that seems perfectly ordinary on the surface, but where something isn’t quite right. I must say that he succeeded.

Ethan Burke is a federal agent who arrives to the small town of Wayward Pines looking for two fellow agents who have gone missing. Within minutes of his arrival, his car is t-boned by a truck. When he comes to, he is in a meadow in the outskirts of Wayward Pines, with no cell, no ID, no wallet and no firearm. He is badly bruised and has a horrible headache. He remembers the accident, but has no idea how he ended up in that meadow instead of a hospital. He is hurt and confused, and the inhabitants of Wayward Pines, who seem friendly enough, aren’t all that eager to help. And why do all the roads out of town just loop on themselves? And why is there a tall electric fence barring the only exit out of the valley?

I loved how the author managed to make the reader feel Ethan’s confusion. He is hurt, he has blackouts, he can’t remember his home number or even his wife’s cell. At several points in the book, he starts doubting his sanity, and so does the reader. I caught myself wondering if this was just a dream, or a hallucination brought by the accident and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ethan feels that something isn’t quite right, but he can’t put his finger on it. So he tries to contact his superiors back in Seattle, but is given the run around. He tries to get his possessions back, but the hospital staff says the sheriff has them, while the sheriff is sure the EMTs have them, and the EMTs are nowhere to be found…

So the reader struggles with Ethan to understand what is going on and what kind of dark secret hides behind the sunny facades of Wayward Pines. Or maybe there is no secret at all and the local psychologist is right – Ethan is suffering from a mental breakdown.

But then the town itself is positively creepy as well, and Ethan Burke showed this creepiness masterfully. It’s such an idyllic little town with brightly painted Victorian houses and well-manicured lawns, where all the neighbors know each other and everyone is friendly. Like an orchestra playing a perfect melody. Only one of the instruments is slightly off-key. And this discordance keeps reverberating, until the whole melody is ruined.

I loved Ethan as the main protagonist. I loved the fact that he never gave up. That no matter what he was told, he always followed his gut and kept digging until he found out the truth. He was interesting to follow and root for.

I also liked the mystery surrounding the town itself and how the author would slowly uncover more and more details about it. And the more he showed, the creepier it got.

And I also absolutely loved the fact that the ending was NOT what I had expected. The book kept me guessing and turning the pages, and the ending was an absolute shocker.

So the final verdict is – very good book indeed. A must read for fans of Twin Peaks and other creepy mysteries alike.