Monday, December 30, 2019

What I Read in 2019

At the end of each year I do a summary post of what I read throughout the year. I find it interesting to see my reading habits, and to make note of what the best books were each year. I managed only 28 books this year, though to be fair some of them were very long ones. I use a standard five star rating method with five stars meaning I loved the book so much I intend to re-read it throughout my life, so there are rarely any five star books.

1. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey ****
2. Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gilian Polack ***
3. The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke ****
4. Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart **
5. God's War by Kameron Hurley **** and a half
6. Infidel by Kameron Hurley **** and a half
7. Rapture by Kameron Hurley **** and a half
8. Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards ****
9. The Wolves of Winter by Matt Johnson ***
10. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh ****
11. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer ***
12. Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh **** and a half
13. One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence *** and a half
14. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon *****

15. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson ** and a half
16. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett **** and a half
17. Low Town by Daniel Polansky ****
18. Lucifer's Hammer (reread) by Larry Niven ****
19. Embassytown by China Mieville *** and a half
20. Winter of the World by Ken Follett **** and a half
21. The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin *** and a half
22. With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge ****
23. Alliance Space by C.J. Cherryh ****
24. Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett **** and a half
25. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi **** and a half
26. Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton ****
27. The First Man in Rome (reread) by Colleen McCullough *****
28. Limited Wish by Mark Lawrence *** and a half 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Writing a Single Point of View

My first two novels were written with multiple point-of-view (POV) characters, and it never occurred to me to do otherwise. It just felt natural. I have seen a few readers complain about not liking the change of characters, but it never bothered me much given that I really love reading multiple POVs in a novel. I love complexity.
One POV from The Immortality Game, art by Stephan Martiniere
But in the sci-fi novel I am currently working on, I tried to do it with just a single POV character. It was more 'young adult', which is a category forced on us by the book industry these days and not something I actually like, but having said that, the YA category often outsells the standard adult category. So since I felt a young protagonist was necessary for this particular story, it felt logical to try to tell it in the manner of most YA novels -- with a single POV.

I managed to get through about seven chapters this way before hitting a wall. It began to feel to me that I was running the character around far too much to try to witness and participate in all the key plot points. It began to ring false to me. And this is with only two primary locations for the whole plot!

I haven't read a ton of books with just one POV, so I don't recall whether I had this feeling of the character running around too much and seeming to overhear or oversee too many key moments, but I vaguely recall feeling this way a number of times. I'm certain some authors have brilliantly pulled a single POV off with no such issues. I guess I'm just not that kind of writer.

I've come to realize that I just can't make this story work without at least two other POV characters. I wonder if it will always be like this in my writing?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

False Romance

A recent review on Goodreads of my novel The Immortality Game made a similar point of several other reviews, so it made me start thinking about the romantic aspects within that story. I set out to do romance quite differently from what is typical in novels, and I guess people are either confused by it or simply don't like it.
Zoya, art by Stephan Martiniere
The two primary characters of similar age in The Immortality Game are Zoya and Marcus. Zoya is a young Russian woman just trying to get by in a harsh life. Marcus has had it both better and worse in his life as an American living in Phoenix, Arizona. He has no financial difficulties. His father was the most famous scientist in the world. And that is the main problem for Marcus--he was sheltered and very much overshadowed by his superstar dad. Marcus is no dummy, yet he feels very small in comparison to his father, so he has struggled to figure out his place in life. He became one of the billions of Mesh addicts, and probably would have died of it if his father hadn't intervened.

Marcus has been sheltered in the extreme, barely ever going outdoors and almost certainly never speaking with a woman other than his mother. His entire education happened via the web and food and anything else that is needed arrives directly to his door. I purposely made Marcus lacking in self-esteem because I wanted for a change to see a main character that I could personally relate to.

I was so painfully shy when I was young that I didn't date until after graduating college. It's not that I didn't want to but rather that I simply couldn't start a conversation with a girl. If I saw a girl that I found attractive then I automatically assumed she was out of my league. It is painful to go through all your formative years this way, and I had never yet read a book that really gave me a character who went through this.

So I did it with Marcus...and readers don't seem to like it. Or else they don't understand it and act as if there is a real romantic arc in the book that actually isn't there. I'm sorry the readers are confused, but I'm not sorry I wrote it the way I did. I'm tired of standard romances and am glad to do one that rings true to life, at least for my own experiences.

From Zoya's perspective, a romance never made any sense in the story. It all takes place in one day, and it's the worst day of her life. I don't see a romance happening in such a place and time, so I certainly never shoehorned a romance into it. I think where the readers get confused is that the Point of View switches between chapters, so sometimes they are seeing things and thinking and feeling from Zoya's perspective, while at others they are seeing everything through Marcus. Naturally in the thoughts of a single character you are going to see when they notice an attraction to another person, so there are hints of that throughout the book. Marcus clearly is smitten with Zoya from the start. But he never indicates anything of this to her other than subconsciously. He definitely doesn't flirt with her. Alternatively, Zoya is going through hell that day, and barely has a few moments to catch her breath. She does notice certain nice qualities about Marcus, but that's where it stops. She goes no further with it, and it makes no sense for it to go further.

I think the readers forget that they are seeing inside the minds of both characters, so they know the thoughts and feelings of both. But the two characters don't know what each other think and feel. So there is no romance there. Only some budding feelings that never get any chance to bloom. Yet readers keep seeing a romance. Even at the very end of the story, when circumstances change dramatically, I only hint that there now exists the possibility that a romance could potentially happen in the future.

So my point--I guess it frustrates me that readers want to elevate the relationship between Marcus and Zoya to a romance when it really isn't there and isn't meant to be there. Perhaps readers only want the same old cliche romances? Perhaps they don't like real life intruding upon the stories that they feel should go the way they want them to go? They don't like Marcus because of his weaknesses, his lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Well, a lot of us live like that in real life and I think there should be a place in literature for us to have our stories told.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Tool - Fear Inoculum

It has now been about a month since Tool released its first new album in 13 years. If you haven't heard of Tool, they are what I like to think of as 'intellectual Metal'. They produce heavy, intricate, gorgeous heavy prog metal that really makes you think. And you have to spend time getting to know their music--you can't take one listen and dismiss it or you are simply missing all the nuances.

I truly believe that the singer of Tool--Maynard James Keenan--is the greatest singer/songwriter of my generation, with all due respect to Chris Cornell or Eddie Vedder. He's prolific as well, leading three very popular bands with Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. I've been fortunate to see him live three times now, twice with APC and once with Tool, and this past May when my wife and I saw Tool in Jacksonville, we got to be in the audience for the first public performances of two of the songs from this new album.
Maynard James Keenan
Since I have now listened to Fear Inoculum 50 times, I thought that should give me enough perspective to give my feelings about the new album. The verdict is that the 'real' songs on the album are terrific and worth investing quite a bit of time into delving into their subtleties. Why do I say 'real' songs? Because Tool likes to put some filler stuff onto each album. This is an album with six true songs, which sounds like a small number until you realize that each song is long, with 7empest coming in at over fifteen minutes and the shortest song, Culling Voices, at just over ten minutes. Then there is the filler, four tracks that some fanatics may enjoy but don't add much, and I can't say I ever really enjoy such tracks.

But the six true songs on this album are all great, all five stars on my iTunes. Is the album as incredible as Aenima, Lateralus, or 10,000 Days? Perhaps not quite, but I think that's only because those albums had some tracks playable on FM radio, whereas this album doesn't even come close with their very long track lengths. But the quality is up to par with the older albums.

It's difficult even after fifty listens to rank which of the songs I enjoy most. There are tiny moments within each song that really grab me. I see a lot of people ranking Pneuma as their top choice, and I won't argue with that. It's a great song. For me I think I'd rank it fifth among the six songs. Even the sixth best song on the album, Culling Voices, is really good, with some beautiful guitar moments and a rocking ending.

I'll rank Invincible as my top choice. Some of that may perhaps be sentimental since I saw it live and it was amazing, but the moments in the song that really grab me are very subtle and are even difficult to describe. There is a point at the 9:34 mark when the music pauses before the drums crash in and the music picks up a cool crunching rhythm. What I love is something you have to listen very hard to pick out. Turn the volume way up so you can feel what I mean. Let your ears listen to the primary beat going on, and every so often just off of the beat the drummer throws in these incredible little fills that just MAKE this part thrilling for me. I get chills each time I hear/feel them. One is at the 9:44 mark and you hear the next at 9:52. (note those times are in my iTunes so don't necessary come in exactly the same on Youtube)
Adam Jones
Descending and the title track are also both really cool, but I'll go with 7empest as my number two choice. It has the most traditional rock radio sound to it despite its incredibly long length of more than fifteen minutes. It won't bore you, though! Guitarist Adam Jones really shows his chops throughout this song with some amazing solo work, the drums as always are jaw-dropping, and Maynard even seems to be rapping a bit during some of the lyrics, and while I'm not normally a fan of rap music, it works with what he's doing here.

Fear Inoculum is a slightly more mature and thoughtful Tool, and every bit as worthy an album as their greatest ones. I hope you'll give it the depth of listening that it deserves.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Living in Rome

This summer we moved to Rome, Italy. I first visited Rome way back in 1995 when I was living in Moscow, Russia. I later visited northern Italy quite a number of times while we were living in Croatia. We finally visited Rome as a family in 2013. But now we get to actually live here, which is awesome!

I have always been a huge history buff, and ancient Rome was always my favorite. If you have never read the Rome series by Colleen McCullough, it's the best historical fiction I've ever read. I intend to re-read the series now that I'm living here.
View from our apartment

You can see the balcony of our apartment
Our apartment is right in the historical center of Rome, not far from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.

Monument to Emmanuele II and the Capitoline

Walking anywhere around the city center is simply amazing, blending so many historical styles.
Spanish Steps
Even my new place of work is gorgeous. The hallway below is just steps away from my office!
It's going to be a fascinating three years here!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Summer Move

This summer we moved from Nassau, Bahamas to Rome, Italy. In between we spent about a month and a half back in the US. We visited family and friends, but mostly we drove all over the western United States. We started in Phoenix, Arizona and went through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and back to Arizona. It was exhausting but fun.
Me in Yellowstone Park
I last visited Yellowstone Park when I was four, so it was great to see it again. I even had a deja vu moment where I realized the spot we were in must be one that I had been at as a four year old.
Visiting Seattle
I hadn't yet been to Seattle, so it was nice finally getting up there.

We visited the Museum of Pop in Seattle, which had nice sections for Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but strangely had nothing for Soundgarden or Alice in Chains.
One highlight was stopping by the Seattle Library (due to its amazing architecture) and noticing that they had one of my novels! Later I checked in Portland and their library system had two copies.
Crater Lake
On our way down through Oregon we drove through Crater Lake, which had the bluest waters I have ever seen.

I loved spending this summer with my wife and younger son, though we missed having our eldest with us, since he was doing an internship for college.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Rockville 2019

My family all went to Welcome to Rockville in Jacksonville, Florida two years ago to see some of our favorite bands playing at the festival, including A Perfect Circle, Soundgarden, and Alter Bridge. This year the kids couldn't make it, sadly, since they are in the middle of finals at college, so only my wife and I went. The only real reason we went (other than to get to spend some rare quality time with my wonderful Aunt Jan and her family in Jacksonville) was to see Tool. I hadn't gotten to see Tool live yet, and not only was this a chance to fix that, it was also a chance to see them unleash a couple of new songs from their forthcoming album that no audiences had yet gotten to experience.
My Aunt Jan with Victoria and me
We didn't go to the first two days of the festival, since none of the bands really appealed to us, so instead my Aunt Jan showed us some cool places out and about in Jacksonville.

Victoria and me at Meshuggah

Then on Sunday we finally went to the festival. We got there in time to see the last couple songs by Meshuggah, then whole sets by Papa Roach, Bring Me the Horizon, and Incubus before the grand finale with Tool.


Tool did their two new songs, which was nice, and they played well. I was a tad disappointed at some of the song selection, as I didn't get to hear some of my favorite Tool songs, but still it was a great experience.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

First Article Published on Chessbase

I'm really proud that I got my first article published on the largest chess news site in the world, I've been published in Chess Life in the US before, but Chessbase has a global audience!
Nathan Smith, photo by Gurth Smith