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I was in a foul mood all last week, so when a friend offered her opinion of a movie I’d recently enjoyed, deeming it “fairly good, while predictable,” I took it as a passive-aggressive reference to my low-brow viewing choices.

Naturally, she did not mean it that way and (thankfully) I have a strict “reread before hitting enter” policy when posting to social media, so no damage was done, but it did get me thinking.

The movie in question is of the “coming of age” variety and my friend’s evaluation was, to be frank, pretty spot-on. The movie is predictable, as we follow a young man growing up, navigating the pain of early adulthood until, at movie’s end, he comes to terms with his father’s history of absence and utter unreliability.

Predictable. Trite. Cliché. I’ve used these words to describe (in negative terms) both books and movies. I’ve done so here on this blog, and usually I’ve not been kind about it. So, why do I look down my nose at some formulaic works, yet enjoy others? Why do I consider some works to be entertaining, even though they are utterly predictable?

We’re all familiar with the old argument about story archetypes, how many there are, and how old. According to common wisdom, there are only seven archetypal plots (though opinions differ, and widely so). Whether this is true or not, formulas are used to build stories, especially in film—the coming of age plot, the rom-com, the murder mystery—and they are often followed to the point where you can set your watch by what happens on screen. Eighteen minutes into an episode of Murder, She Wrote? A body is going to drop in three . . . two . . . one . . .

Why do we enjoy such stories, even when we know how they’ll work out? And when do we not enjoy them?

I returned to the movie under discussion, and found that my enjoyment had nothing to do with the story’s predictable nature. I knew the boy would grow up and be happy. I knew the boy’s father would remain an irredeemable two-dimensional deadbeat dad. I knew the boy would have some sort of confrontation with his father and, in so doing, accept his own adulthood. I knew all this would happen, and to be honest, those were the least engaging sections of the film.

What grabbed and held my interest were the differences, the ways in which the writers deviated from the expected. As one example, it was how a collection of men—grandfathers, uncles, and pseudo-uncles—cooperated to raise a boy, communal fathers to an abandoned son, a composite role model that was both counterpoint and counterpart to the flawed original. The formula, that’s the foundation on which the whole is built, the scaffolding that supports what is new, but it’s the differences that set it apart.

Absent these differences, that’s when formula is a problem. That’s why the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was a flop: simply filming it in color wasn’t enough of a difference.

But with sufficient differences, ah!, now we have variations on a theme, the same story told from a different point of view, and we enjoy the result. Otherwise, we’d never watch another rom-com, see a new staging of Macbeth, or read another mystery novel. We’d be all “Been there; done that,” and set off in search of the totally new (and good luck with that).

Some will argue that there are no original stories; that everything is an interpretation of one of the seven archetypes; or a fanglement, a mash-up of two or more to fashion what merely seems new. I disagree but will allow that, in most cases, it is true. We do tell the same stories, over and over, and we enjoy the retelling, the predictability.

So, when I begin to fret that my current work-in-progress is just another old tale retold, I’ll make a point of remembering the differences I’m working into it. Style, setting, sub-plot, backstory, characterization, tone, structure, pacing—differences large and small all adding to a unique outcome.

Formulas just are; it’s how we employ them that determines if they’re worth the time.

k

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Back when I was a panelist at writing/sci-fi conventions, I would occasionally pop in at the workshops, where pros read/critiqued story submissions and provided a professional’s view. The critiques were honest assessments, often served with actual “pro tips,” but the stories submitted were usually—to be honest—pretty awful.

On one such occasion a pro author/editor I knew provided a critique that was both the shortest I’ve ever heard as well as the definition of “damning with faint praise.”

Her critique: “It’s very nicely typed.”

The newest title in the Firefly novel ‘verse is Una McCormack’s Firefly – Carnival, from Titan Books, and sadly, the best thing I can say about it is that “It’s very nicely bound.”

I’ve complained loud and long about previous titles in this series—the lone exception being Tim Lebbon’s entry, Firefly: Generations (also the only one with a title that comes with a colon instead of an en dash . . . go figger—as the entries written by James Lovegrove have been massive disappointments. Learning that this title was penned by a different author gave me hope.

Misplaced hope, as it turned out.

The basics of the plot are: Mal and crew are hired to provide security for a shipment and escort it across town from the train station to the space port where, once loaded, it flies off and they get paid. Naturally, things go wonky, the shipment goes astray, and two of Serenity’s crew are taken hostage—by the employer who hired the team—as collateral pending return of the goods or compensation for the loss. Failure, within 48 hours, and the “collateral” will be sent back in boxes.

Now, if that’s not a goofy enough setup for you, it gets better. Or worse. Example: the job pays 200 platinum (a ridiculously high wage for a few hours’ work) but when the crew is told they have to cover the losses, the sum is only 500 platinum (more than they have, of course, but 200 Pl is an unreasonable chunk of that profit margin).

The story unfolds and we learn that (unsurprisingly) nothing is as it seems, and therein lies the tale.

McCormack is a best-selling author of many television and movie tie-in novels, but reading this I came to the conclusion that those titles were best-sellers based on an established fan base and not on the style or content because . . . damn.

For any book set in the Firefly ‘Verse, you have to deal with the show’s excellent use of dialect and language. As with other books, the occasional sprinkling in of “g-less” gerunds (i.e., shootin’ and flyin’) helps evoke the tone from the show, and the reader fills in the rest. Lovegrove, for all his faults, did this well. McCormack does not. They pop up all over the place and, most troublesome, she throws them into non-dialogue sections, including those that are straight narrative and not part of a character’s internal thoughts. In addition, she decided to spice it up with other dialect elisions, such as “platinum” becoming “plat’num” which (to my ear at least) has no audible difference and only disturbs the eye as we trip over it. (In her defense, McCormack is a Brit who may very well have better diction than we Americans, so this may have made sense to her.)

Stylistically, the prose is pedestrian and flat, without any beauty. At regular intervals—presumably to evoke a feeling of action or a character making a quick assessment of surroundings—McCormack drops into a paragraph of fragment sentences. This in itself isn’t a bad practice, as it reads with more urgency, but when she drops pronouns and subjects from the beginning of the sentence, we have to re-read to make sure we get it, which obviates the point of the fragments.  In fact, McCormack often creates sentences where the syntax is imprecise or vague, and it can be read with one of two (sometimes opposite) meanings depending on inflection. This is simply poor writing, and should have been caught and fixed.

Sadly, the editors seem to have taken holiday on this book. And, halfway through, the proofreaders seem to have gone to join them. This is less McCormack’s fault than Titan Books’, though the author is not off the hook either. Content errors. Out-of-place references to current pop-culture. Missing punctuation. Typos. For all of these, the author gets proofs, too, and there are simply too many errors late in the book to deny a lackadaisical process from start to finish.

In short, it’s a hot mess and I found myself remembering Lovegrove’s less-than-stellar titles in the series with something approaching fondness.

The Firefly novels are now one for six, with Lebbon’s book being the only one worth the time. It’s sad, but it’s clear at this point that these are simply revenue streams—something I should have figured going in—hackwork without interest in the actual art and craft of writing.

Frankly, I don’t know that I’ll bother with any future titles. My love for the show, its original use of language, the depth of its characterizations, begins to suffer from such low-bar fare.

In short, these books are beginning to damage my calm.

k

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A week or so ago, I had a hankering to spend time with some old friends. We’d been out of contact for fifteen years, and I felt it was time to reconnect, to catch up, to share stories. So, for the past week, I’ve been hanging with Alain, Bronwyn, Wrdisten, Boduos, and the rest of the gang from old Breizh.

In other words, I re-read The Ploughman Chronicles, my 9th century historical high fantasy series.

And we had a blast. Literarily speaking, that is.

In the year AD 880, much of Europe was on the cusp between the old/pagan and new/Christian worldviews, and Brittany itself (where the series is set) was in open revolt against the expanding Carolingian Empire, so there’s a lot of historical intrigue woven into the books. Added to that, though, is an even greater intrigue between our world and the fabled Summerland, the land of the Fey, which lies beyond the Veil. Now throw in a prophecy, that there will come a man who will travel between, and master the power of both the line magic of the Veil and the earth magic of the sleeping gods.

For me, though, it is the characters I love most. I mean, they’re so . . . individual, so quirky, each with a distinct manner, their own way of speaking, and with motivations that are set (and revealed) in layer upon layer.

These books are not your usual high fantasy; I can’t think of another series that even comes close to it. Sadly, this series got no love from my agent—perhaps precisely because it isn’t your usual high fantasy—so they never had much opportunity to get shopped around. Also sadly, when I decided to publish them myself, my editing skills weren’t as sharp as they should have been, so I had to contend with the odd typo (and I really hate typos, especially when I’m the one who let them get into the final product).

But here’s where y’all come in.

You see, I love these books, even more so after my re-read, and I want to share them with you.

So, from now through Monday (November 22), the Kindle versions are free. You can find them both on this page at Amazon.

Download them for free, get the reading app for free, and (I hope) fall in love with them, for free.

Paperback versions are still available, of course.

So go, enjoy; tell a friend; hell, tell an enemy, I don’t care. I just want to share them. And if you like them, write a review. If you don’t, tell it to my agent; I think you’ll find a receptive audience there.

k

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It may surprise some, considering past reviews posted here, that I deigned to read James Lovegrove’s Firefly: Life Signs, his fourth volume in the ongoing Firefly series, but I did.

I haven’t been shy with my disappointment in Lovegrove’s past entries (as seen here and here). In fact, my disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to review his third book in the series.

Thing is, though, it’s Firefly. I adore the show, the characters, the setting, the language. I’m a Browncoat for life, so I couldn’t not read it.

The book released just prior to this one, Generations, by Tim Lebbon, was an exceedingly pleasant change from Lovegrove, so it was disappointment layered upon disappointment when I learned that yet another Lovegrove entry was on the schedule. (FYI: the next in the series is not a Lovegrove title so, fingers crossed.)

With all that as prologue, I’m sure you’re asking: Why the hell is he reviewing this one?

The answer is two-fold.

First, Life Signs deals with a crucial bit of the Firefly canon: Inara’s terminal illness. As fans of the show, we knew about this part of Inara Serra’s planned story arc—plans cut short by the show’s abrupt truncation—so a novel that deals with that is worth exploring.

Second, this one wasn’t as bad as Lovegrove’s previous work. In fact, for most of its length, it was quite readable. (If you’re thinking I’m damning him with faint praise, that’s not my intent.)

The book is not without issues, but let me start with what works.

As Lovegrove demonstrated in previous books, he is able to evoke the pattern and rhythm of the Firefly ‘verse without reverting to caricatured patois. Rather than peppering us with g-less gerunds (e.g., fightin’ and stealin’), he leans more on the syntax and the language, which makes the dialog—and there’s a lot of it—much more readable. Once we read a few phrases like “I reckon . . .” and “Seeing as how . . .”, the g-less gerunds follow without us having to stumble over all those apostrophes. In other words, here, less is definitely more.

Moreover, his dialogue is exceptionally well-paced, which is good because, as stated, there’s a lot of it. Lovegrove successfully runs scenes of banter between three or four characters with ease, giving us just enough clues as to keep us straight on who’s talking without slowing things down. And though (once again) we have someone monologuing in the midst of a crucial action scene, this time it occurs during a brief lull so, while it’s not the optimal time for someone to explain their backstory, at least it’s not with bullets are whizzing by their heads.

The plot, while wholly improbable—and let’s face it, if you have an issue with improbable plotlines, you’re not a Browncoat anyway—is also straightforward: Inara is sick, and terminally so, but there’s a sketchy doctor who might be able to help, only, ruh-roh, he’s been incarcerated on a prison planet. (I’m not telling you anything that isn’t in the publisher’s blurb.) As expected, hijinks ensue.

The characters—canon and new—are pleasantly fleshed out. With the established characters, Lovegrove goes beyond what the series established, developing them and giving us emotional content that simply must be there, given the plot. (In this, I feel for the bind any author of these books must be in; the novels take place between the Firefly series and the movie Serenity, so with those as bookends, there’s only so much you can do.) For the characters specific to this novel, Lovegrove gives us sufficient context to understand the why of their actions, which was also a nice surprise.

However . . .

I’ve complained of this before, but Lovegrove is not great at world-building. I admit, it’s a pet peeve of mine, and it will not bother many (possibly most), but when (on the first half-page) I read of an alien world that has cicadas singing in the mesquite trees, well, that just seems a tad lazy to me. Even if we stipulate that it was a barren rock that’s been terraformed, who in their right mind is going to bring mesquite seeds and cicada larvae across interstellar space? This laziness permeates the book as much as any of his others. [sigh]

Past the first few pages, though, Lovegrove hit his stride, and I sped through the book. Some of this was illusory, however, as most of the chapters were only two or three pages long, meaning that, with a half-page for chapter header and a half-page (or more) for break to the next chapter, there’s a lot of white space in the book. Well, it’s one way to make your book a page-turner, I guess.

There are clunky bits of writing, mostly due to his use of adverbs. I’m not averse to using adverbs, in general, but Lovegrove often commits Classic Error #2, using esoteric or tongue-tying adverbs. Mostly, it’s fine, but when I hit three words like “despairingly,” “understandingly,” and “languorously” within a single chapter (did I mention how short most of the chapters are?), my mental Adverb-Overload switch flips and I need to put the book down until I reset.

Sadly, though, it’s in the climactic final sequence where Lovegrove (as usual) face-plants. If this was a one-off issue, I would grimace, make mention, and move on, as I did in previous reviews of his work, but this has now happened in every Lovegrove book in the series: to wit, he shows either a stunning disregard or an unforgivable ignorance of how things work, whether it be scientifically*, practically**, or (in this case) both. I mean come on! Doesn’t Titan Books hire editors? Shameful, mostly because they are fixable errors.

In summary, did I like it?

It’s a quick and mostly fun read with a stumbling start and a flawed finish that deals with a crucial part in the life of a beloved Firefly character, so . . . yes, I liked it, in spite of itself. And I will grudgingly (see? adverbs) recommend it to fans of the Firefly ‘verse. It has the standard Lovegrove issues, but it did pull me in for most of its length and, at times, touched my heart.

k

*Newtonian physics and the laws concerning conservation of kinetic energy are tossed out the airlock as Lovegrove misapplies the Kessler syndrome (which deals with space debris travelling at high speeds in low-Earth orbit) to pieces of space junk that are stationary relative to one another. A nudge from Serenity on one rather small piece of space junk would not cause a cascade that makes every other piece of space junk, including much larger pieces of junk, fly about like billiard balls on a pool table.

**In every aircraft (and, presumably, spacecraft capable of atmospheric flight), the steering yoke adjusts roll and pitch, the rudder pedals control yaw, and the throttle controls the thrust. Anyone who has flown a plane, played a flight simulator, or hell, just been relatively observant when watching film of someone doing the same, knows that if you pull back on the yoke, the plane goes up, and if you push it forward, the plane goes into a dive. In no aircraft does pushing forward on the yoke make it go faster; that’s the throttle. Different thing. Again, where are the editors here?

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As I mentioned a while ago, my mind is once again calm enough to allow me the enjoyment of reading fiction. In fact, I’ve read four novels in the past few weeks, which is about three more than I read in all of 2019.

Seriously. It was that bad.

The first books had been in my TBR pile for a while, but this latest one was a recent arrival, and it was a serious break from the “literary” works I’ve been reading. Written by Tim Lebbon, Generations is not only science fiction, but (gasp!) a television “tie-in” novel, the fourth novel set in the Firefly ‘verse.

The previous titles in this series, all written by a different author, were (to put it mildly) a tremendous disappointment. I reviewed the first two (here and here), but frankly, I didn’t see the point in bothering you with a review of the third one, so I read it and tossed it aside.

Seriously, they were that bad. (more…)

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For most of my life, if I was awake, I had a book in my hand.

Riding the bus, walking to school, in the quad between classes, lounging at home, I’d have a book open, thumb in the crease, my nose buried in its leaves. Novels, anthologies, treatises, memoirs, history, science, poetry.

Anything.

Everything.

I read it.

Then, about a dozen years ago, life went off the rails. Book deals dried up. Friends and family began to die (at least ten during this period). We fostered a young woman, giving her a place to live for a year. Work became a stress factory. The economy tanked, causing the Great Recession. Then along came Trump. And then this pandemic.

In response, my reading habits changed, radically. They became constrained, limited to news articles, political analyses, and works of non-fiction. Instead of a dog-eared book, I carried my tablet with its instant-on, 24×7 access to current events and a front-row seat to our increasingly divided society.

Even so, every now and again, I would return to my fiction books, the stacks of TBR novels that inhabit every room in this house. I tried, repeatedly, to read one of them, hungry for that immersive experience, that miraculous wash of words that would sweep away reality and bathe me in the light of a different sun.

But the miracle never came. I didn’t have the patience, lacked the power to focus., and was unable to drive away the here-and-now with worlds of what-if. Book after book I picked up, opened, began, and abandoned within a few days, the only evidence of my attempt, a bookmark left somewhere in the first thirty pages.

With all this as preamble, one might wonder why, during my recent time off, I decided yet again to pick up a novel and give it a try. I mean, there I was in the last month of the most turbulent election cycle of my sixty-plus years, with a pandemic raging beyond my door, a daily gush of political scandals and turmoil filling the airwaves, and everywhere people shouting and crying and grieving and protesting. Was it hope? Obstinacy? Desperation? Whatever compelled me, it was in this moment, amid this maelstrom of chaos, that I chose to try again, and opened up a 150-year-old book.

And I read it. Cover to cover, in record time.

And then . . . I picked up another book, and read it, too.

And now, here I am, wondering what to read next.

. . .

Do yourself a favor.

Turn off the television. Put down the phone. Leave the tablet in the other room.

Pick up a book. A real book. The one you’ve been meaning to read for so long.

Take a seat near the window, where the natural light will be over your shoulder. Settle in, book in hand.

Open it up. Stick your nose in it. Smell it. Feel the pebbled surface of the printed page, the tension of the spine.

Chapter One.

Read. 

I tell you, it’s like coming home.

k

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When Jon Stewart announced his retirement from “The Daily Show,” I was very disappointed. Jon’s penchant for incisive and relevant analysis wrapped in wit and snark would be a hard mantle to take on. When he announced that Trevor Noah would take the helm in his stead, I was downright unhappy. Noah (I felt) was too young, too green, to fill that spot. The show would founder with this “kid” at the helm.

Noah quickly proved my preconceptions to be unfounded. Though he did bring a more youthful spirit to the show, he also brought a depth of understanding and a global sense of humanity that, albeit different than Stewart’s style and substance, was also an enhancement in many ways. Since those first years, Noah has only improved, and has emerged (in my opinion, at any rate) as a clear-minded observer of American society who is well worth listening to.

That said, when someone suggested I should read his autobiography, I again returned to my prejudice. “Autobiography? He’s just a kid! What could he possibly have to say?”

Silly, silly me.

Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime, focuses on his childhood, growing up in South Africa, dealing with apartheid and the effects of that heinous system’s downfall. Told with humor and candor, he shows us, through his experiences, what apartheid intended, what it accomplished, and what it left behind.

Most of us who remember a world with apartheid know that it was definitely a bad thing, a truly evil social construct designed to subjugate a majority population by a tyrannical minority. Likewise, we remember the boycotts, the riots, and the eventual jubilation when that social system was finally dismantled and cast onto the ash-heap. Like Nazism, apartheid was racial and ethnic hatred codified into law on a national level, and we do well to hold them both in similar regard.

But what did I really know about living under it? What did I really know about apartheid’s mechanisms of pressure, or about the myriad tiny rebellions performed by regular folk (of all colors) who lived there?

Nothing, really. Really. Nothing.

This book helped me with that, from Noah’s tales of his mother’s religiosity and recklessness, his father’s legally enforced distance, and the complicated interactions of the government’s often arbitrary assignments of racial class. Through these, Noah illuminates both the absurdity of the system itself and the lasting damage apartheid left in its wake.

More importantly, though, is that in this book, in its stories of an openly and unabashedly racist society, we can see magnified versions of what is currently convulsing America. Our government, our institutions, our law enforcement, and more all carry elements of what was writ large in South Africa’s apartheid, and when you see what the end-state was under that regime, it’s not difficult to see America’s slavery and Jim Crow laws nestled comfortably within it.

However—and I fear I’ve buried the lede here—this book is not a heavy treatise or polemic. Rather, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read filled with unique characters, passion, rebellion, high-jinks, bittersweet romance, danger, growth, wit, and pranks, all told by a self-described “naughty rascal” who, because he really didn’t fit into any of apartheid’s established classes, was able to flit between them, being part of all and part of none, simultaneously insider and outsider both.

Trevor Noah is young, by my benchmarks, but he is not green, and he has a lot to say. I, for one, look forward to reading about the next chapters of his life, and expect I will learn as much about him, about the world, about America, and about myself, as I did with Born a Crime.

k

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