David Kubicek

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The Circle: Destroying Privacy

                                                                              The Circle

The Circle is a most disturbing novel.

Actually, “frightening”might be a better word. Most classic dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid’s Tale describe future societies that don’t yet exist and may only exist in a more distant future “if this goes on.” But The Circle, written by Dave Eggers and published in 2013, depicts a world that is being built as you read these words. The infrastructure is in place, and the technology is almost there.

The Circle is a technology company, like Facebook on steroids. Its goal is to run all of the members’ social media through their Circle accounts–to connect everything and everyone, to store every bit of information known to humanity in The Cloud where it can be easily accessed by anyone at any time. Management’s end game is to require everyone to have a Circle account.

Mae Holland starts work at The Circle as a customer experience representative. At first she thinks of her work as just a job and doesn’t connect with the community as she is expected to. It takes some doing, but her supervisors convince her to be more “social.” It works all too well. Through a series of events which I won’t go into–read the book, and don’t forget to wear Depends–Mae agrees to become totally transparent, which means that everything she says and does will be recorded and can be viewed in real time by anyone with a Circle account–tomorrow’s reality TV, unedited and raw. She wears a bracelet that shows her the zings–Eggers’ version of tweets–so she will receive a constant flood of feedback about what she is doing and seeing. She is permitted to turn off the audio (but not the video, supplied by a tiny necklace camera) for three minutes while she’s in the bathroom, and she can shut down the whole system at night while she’s sleeping, but other than that, her life is open for all to see and hear. Her transparency turns her into a celebrity among the Circlers.

Soon Mae is driven by a strong need for approval, as represented by the number of smiley faces she gets on her bracelet (think “likes” on Facebook) and how low she can get her party score, which is determined by how many zings she sends out and how many groups she joins–basically, her level of involvement in the Circle community. She so craves approval that during a presentation of how quick and easy it is to get instantaneous survey results, the final question sent out to Circlers is: “Isn’t Mae Holland awesome?” Ninety-seven percent of the responders send smiley faces, but 3 percent send frowny faces. Rather than delight in having so many fans, Mae obsesses over the three percent who, in her mind, “want her dead.”

The most terrifying thing about this novel is that The Circle’s management wants to make transparency mandatory, and Mae is okay with that. In fact, there are some instances in which Mae decides to reveal secrets of her friends and family who want their lives to be off the grid–but Mae exposes them “for their own good” and because they’ll “thank her later.” The results of are tragic.

A movie based on The Circle was recently released. I saw the movie without knowing it had been based on a book, but when I learned that from the credits, I read the book. The movie does well enough at hitting major plot points, but it fails because it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book. The movie is actually a little warm and fuzzy compared to the book. In the movie, Mae (Emma Watson) is a sympathetic, though misguided, character who learns from her mistakes and tries to make things right in the end; in the book Mae comes off as naive and foolish, and she neither seeks nor achieves redemption. And–SPOILER ALERT–the movie does not have the same ending as the book.

Basically, the movie is a classic Hollywood tale with a flawed but sympathetic main character who reaches an epiphany, and everyone–well, almost everyone–lives happily ever after.

But the novel tells a darker story. It is the tale of an average person who became ensnared in a cult that is controlled by a charismatic leader.  It  is well worth reading because it takes Big Brother to the ultimate level, and it’s not about some distant possible future–it is happening now.

A Dystopian Novel Reading List

In observance of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which will be coming up soon, here are a few dystopian stories you might like to check out. A dystopia is a world where something, to use the technical term, has “gotten out of whack.” It is an unpleasant place, usually an extrapolation of what our future could look like if current trends continue. The disturbing thing about some of these stories is how many of these visions already have come true. For instance, in Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury predicts interactive television, although it is a klunky version of interactive television because he did not predict digital technology. In that same novel, Bradbury envisioned reality shows and that entertainment media would become a major focus of many people’s lives–he also predicted our fascination with large screens, except his screens weren’t 50, 60 or 70 inches–one of his screens made up the entire wall of a home, and families saved to up to turn all four of their parlor walls into TV screens.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most memorable dystopian visions created over the past century.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924): This novel was completed in 1921, only three years after the Russian Revolution. In those early days, there was still a little freedom left in the Russian literary world, but the New Order was clamping down hard. We was not published in Russia (and as far as I know it has not been published there to this day), although it was published outside of the former Soviet Union, and Zamyatin (who asked to leave Russia and, surprisingly, Stalin let him in 1929) is better known in the West than in Russia. We depicts a totalitarian society where everyone has a number, not a name, and conformity is the norm.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932): This one is about a 26th Century society that worships technology and conformity. The main character is Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is different from others in his caste. When Bernard returns from vacation–to a  “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico–with a savage named John, he basks in his short-lived notoriety. But the meeting of the two worlds does not work out well for either of them.

1984, by George Orwell (1949): Shortly after Trump took office, this novel shot to number 1 on the Amazon best seller list, an extraordinary feat for a novel that was first published more than 60 years ago and had long been relegated to the list of books that are assigned in English classes but that few people seek out for pleasure reading, which is understandable–a lot of unpleasant things happen in this story. It is about a world where individualism is discouraged, citizens are under continuous surveillance, and the past is rewritten to support what the government wants people to believe. 1984 originated some phrases that have come into general use, such as “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrime.”   It is understandable that the novel is suddenly hot again; the Trump Administration seems to be using it as an instruction manual–Alternative Facts, anyone?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953): This story is set in a future where books are illegal and firemen are called to burn books in secret libraries of a few elusive radicals (librarians, college professors, and other book lovers). Guy Montag is a fireman who used to love his job, until he succumbs to his curiosity about what’s in books. After that, the sh-t hits the fan.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986): This is a society in the near future, so near in fact that the narrator, Offred, remembers being taken from her husband and child and indoctrinated into her new life where her job will be as a Handmaid, whose main purpose is to bear a child for her “Commander.” Her name is Offred because her Commander’s name is Fred, and she is the handmaid Of Fred. Everyone in this new society has a specific function and must live by specific rules, even the Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual for a dystopian novel because it has a happy, or relatively happy, ending.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). Every year a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem–which long ago was known as North America–is sent to a competition (think gladiators of ancient Rome) in which they are expected to fight to the death. The victor–in a society where it’s a struggle for most citizens in the Districts to put food on the table–is rewarded with a house and the promise of food for the rest of his or her life. The rules specify that there can be only one survivor, until Katniss and Peeta change the rules, which causes considerable embarrassment to the Establishment and drives the story for books two and three.

Honorable Mentions:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945): Orwell, which is the pen name for English writer Eric Arthur Blair, hated totalitarianism. He made this clear in no uncertain terms in his non-fiction as well as his two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter of which tells the story of a group of barnyard animals that overthrow an autocrat (the farmer), and set up an animal democracy only to have it overthrown by another autocrat, a conniving pig (a real one, not metaphorically speaking) named Snowball.

A Friend of the Family, by David Kubicek (2012): Allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion. This is on the “Honorable Mentions” list because it is a novella, not a full-length novel, and it deals with characters acting within the confines of their dystopian world rather than trying to change their screwed up society or escape from it. It is about a future society that has outlawed the practice of medicine, replacing medical doctors with Healers who rely on magic to treat patients. But not everyone in the society puts their faith in the Healers, and for those people there is a loose underground network of doctors. Hank, a doctor estranged from the underground, finds himself blackmailed into trying to help a girl’s dying father and becomes enmeshed in a power struggle for control of the family, which could expose Hank and land him in prison.

Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.

I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.

Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.

Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

A Friend of the Family Blog Tour Ends: And the Winners are . . .

At Midnight April 20 – in whatever time zone you’re in; I won’t be anal about it – my virtual book tour for A Friend of the Family ended. It was a fun three weeks, but it was also lots of work, so I’m ready to move on to other things.

Today I conducted the final bit of business for my blog tour, awarding two $25 Amazon gift cards. One card went to J.A. Beard, whose Unnecessary Musings blog received six comments, the most of any blog stop. When deciding on a winner I included my own comments, which consisted of thanking my host and responding to any comments posted by readers, hosts, etc. This wasn’t an unfair advantage; if I took my comments out of the mix, J.A. Beard still would have won.

To award the other card I put the names of everyone who left a comment on the tour into a bowl. I didn’t put in my own name, of course. If a commenter left more than one comment I put his/her name in for each comment he/she left. I thought this was fair for two reasons:

  • I believe the people who left two or more comments should have improved odds, as if they had bought more than one lottery ticket
  • It increased the pool because even with the duplicate names, there were only 17 chances to win

I wrote each name on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in a bowl. I held the bowl above my head, and my son Sean drew a name. The winner was Louise Wise. Louise is the owner of Wise Words, a stop on my blog tour. She also left two comments – the most comments any one person left was four, so in this case the greater odds weren’t that great of an advantage.

The good thing about doing a virtual blog tour is that the interviews  and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until time itself comes to an end.

Okay, maybe I’m being  melodramatic. The interviews and guest posts will be anchored in cyberspace until (and if) someone takes them down. So if you missed any of the stops, here is the schedule.

Now I’m taking a break from my novel work long enough to write a short story. We’ll talk again soon.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Book Tour Schedule

The virtual book tour for my short novel A Friend of the Family kicks off on March 29 and runs through April 20. Here’s the schedule:

March 29 – Meet & Greet at VBT Cafe’ Blog
March 30 – Interview & Excerpt at BooK ReviewS
March 31 – Interview at Unnecessary Musings
April 2 – Guest Blogging at Mass Musings
April 4 – Interview Immortality and Beyond
April 6 – Interview at Writing Innovations E-zine
April 10 – Interview at Reviews & Interviews
April 12 – Guest Blogging at Beauty in Ruins
April 16 – Guest Blogging at Wise Words
April 16 – Interview at BlogTalkRadio

April 18 – Interview & Excerpt by Louise James
April 20 – Review at Ereading on the Cheap
Visit the blog stops on those days and leave comments. There will be e-book (for Kindle) giveaways, and everyone who leaves a comment will be entered into a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card.
See you around the blogosphere.

Dear Morality Police, Let Us Choose What We Read

Payment processing giant PayPal recently gave Indie publisher Smashwords an ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape, and incest or have your PayPal account deactivated.

In an email to Smashwords authors, CEO Mark Coker said “PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

PayPal didn’t mention any names, but these “banks and credit card associations” are most likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

This is a major assault on free speech. It is an attempt by financial institutions to censor an author’s writing without due process (i.e. – going to court). Basically, the morality police are deciding what they don’t like and refusing to allow others the opportunity to choose to read it. And with the clout the financial companies have authors and publishers – especially Indie Publishers – find themselves between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

One thing you must realize is that books with adult themes or adult material usually are labeled as such so the reader can make a decision whether to read it or not. It’s unlikely that material readers find objectionable will be sprung on them without notice.

If a reader doesn’t want to read erotica, it’s best to stay out of the Erotica section. If a reader doesn’t want to read a book examining pedophilia, the cover copy for Lolita should send up red flags.

In fact, almost every classic novel you can think of, at one time or another,  has been challenged or censored.

What I ask is that the readers – not the credit card companies and banks, not citizens groups with names like The Moral Majority – be allowed to choose what they read and, just as importantly, what they don’t read.

For more information on this topic be sure to read: Legal Censorship: PayPal Makes a Habit of Deciding What Users Can Read and a letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship, and a follow-up letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

Love and Other Four-Letter WordsLove and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is a well-written and engaging story about a teen caught in the middle of marital problems between her parents.

When Sammie’s parents decide on a trial separation, her father (a Cornell University professor) leaves for California on sabbatical while her mother sublets their home in Ithica, NY, and moves with Sammie to New York City.

Her mother, a frustrated artist, regrets leaving the big city for an art teaching job in Ithica when she got married. When she can’t find work immediately, she falls into a deep depression, leaving Sammie to take care of both of them while also trying to rebuild her own life. But before things get better, they will get worse, much worse, eventually leading to a melt-down.

This coming-of-age novel contains some profanity and mild sexual situations but nothing that would be surprising or disturbing to most teens. I highly recommend it for early teens on up.

Read my review of Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

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Australia’s Minister for Small Business Predicts Demise of General Bookstores

Nick Sherry, Australia’s Minister for Small Business, said he believes that within five years online shopping will effectively kill general bookstores, and only specialty bookstores in major cities will remain. This prediction upset lots of people, especially since the Minister made the statement at an event that was designed to encourage small businesses to expand their online footprints.

As you may know, I predicted in an earlier post that ebooks eventually would phase out paper books. But the Minister is not suggesting that people will stop buying paper books; he’s saying they’ll buy their books online.

I think five years is pushing it, whether for phasing out paper books or bookstores. Although people are buying more and more merchandise online, changes this radical happen slowly. I’d give it 50 to 100 years. The younger generation, those youthful whippersnappers who grew up using computers (like my son, Sean, who was computer savvy before he entered kindergarten) will drive this change. Five years seems awful quick. Fifty to 100 years will give society the time it needs to adjust.

For more about reaction to the Minister’s announcement, read the Sydney Morning Herald article.

 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Help is a page-turner.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 to 1964 the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the segregationist society at that time. It is told in first person by the three main characters in rotating segments. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, and Skeeter is the white woman, recently graduated from Old Miss, who convinces them and ten other maids to tell their stories for a book she wants to write about what it is like to be black maids working for white families.

Given the social climate, Skeeter is risking ostracism, but the maids are risking not only their jobs but the prospect of being black-billed so they will not be able to support their families. After much work, Skeeter manages to gain the trust of Aibileen and the tentative trust of Minnie, but the other ten prove to be impossible to get.

Until some things happen.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, tells the story of writing this book and of what happens after it is published. It has been made into a movie – due out in August – which from the looks of the trailer seems to follow the novel quite well. But I encourage you to read the novel first; they have to do lots of trimming and condensing to fit a 444-page book into a two-hour film.

I most highly recommend The Help.

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Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy

Torn (Trylle Trilogy, #2)Torn by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Switched, Torn and Ascend make up the Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy. Although each book has a beginning, middle, and end, they all fit together, so this review will cover all of them.

The story is about a girl named Wendy who learns, as a teenager, that she is a troll. Not like the ugly irascible creatures in fairy tales. These trolls look like humans, but they have peculiar qualities that distinguish them–such as hard-to-manage hair, a distaste for foods humans like (such as soda pop and pizza), and a preference for going barefoot. They also have mental abilities like being able to move objects or control the wind. Wendy has the ability to persuade people to do things, although as Switched begins her persuasive ability is in a very rudimentary form because it hasn’t been developed yet.

The story begins with Wendy learning that she is a changeling–her mother switched her with a human infant–and now a “tracker” has come to return her to the Trylle. He comes for her early because the villains of the story, another tribe of trolls, is planning to kidnap her.

That is the start of the story which will span three books before reaching its conclusion. The Trylle trilogy is a fast read, and Hocking is an excellent story-teller. Her narrative is full of twists, turns, and surprises. The only thing that prevented me from giving it four stars is that some of the dialogue is distracting.

For example, when two characters are arguing Hocking tends to use lots of exclamation points and uses phrases like “he yelled” or “she shouted,” which is similar to killing a fly with a sledgehammer; the dialogue is written well enough that the reader probably would picture them arguing without the added emphasis.

Also, instead of relying on “he said” or “she said,” Hocking uses words like “he smiled” or “she laughed,” when it might have been better to say “he said, and smiled” or “she said, and laughed.” I stood in front of the mirror and , just to try it out, talked while I was smiling; it looked creepy.

But those were minor distractions. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the Trylle story, and I think you will, too.

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Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space KapowJacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jacob Wonderbar has one of the coolest log-lines I’ve ever seen: “Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.”

That sentence sets the tone of this zany novel for young people, ages 9 and up. Jacob – general troublemaker and the terror of substitute teachers – and his friends, Dexter and Sarah, buy a spaceship from a disgruntled alien for a corn dog and set off for adventures in outer space.

In trying to prevent their spaceship from crashing, they fire a missile that causes a chain reaction of explosions across the universe (which Jacob dubs “the spilled milky way”), which blocks the path to Earth. Miraculously, no one is injured, no inhabited worlds destroyed, but in the words of two cosmic police officers the kids just caused a “big mess.” Unfortunately, that mess will prevent them from returning home for one or two thousand years (according to a construction worker when they try to head home), and there is no detour around the chaos.

The novel contains a pirate, a planet that smells like burp breath and has a day one minute long, a planet populated by scientists, a planet populated by substitute teachers, and a king of the universe.

Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent whose blog is an excellent resource for readers, writers, and anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry. I’ve been looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar ever since Nathan blogged that he’d sold it. I like the book, kids in the tween and early teen years will like it, and adults who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which I am) will like it.

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Please Look After Mom: A Review

Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Please Look After Mom is a must-read. Told from the viewpoints of four people – a daughter, a son, a husband, and Mom herself – it is about a family’s reactions to Mom’s disappearance at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The family reports Mom’s disappearance to the police, and they post fliers asking if anyone has seen this woman. At first they get a few calls, but soon the calls stop coming. It is as if Mom has vanished into thin air.

But the search for Mom is only a loose framework on which hangs a story of self-discovery as each viewpoint character reflects on what Mom meant to him or her. Please Look After Mom is full of surprises. It is a character-driven story that engaged me from page one, and I highly recommend it.

Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular novelists and has won many literary awards for her work. My only disappointment is that Please Look After Mom is the only book by this exceptional writer to be translated into English. I hope it does well enough so there are more to come (as of this date it is number 27 on the New York Times best seller list).

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The Future of eBooks and Publishing: Things Change

This is in response to a blog post in which Laura L. Cooper suggested that the popularity of  ebooks will plateau within a few years and that ebooks will never replace physical books.

I’ve already seen a response or two to that post, one person comparing ebooks to automobiles; no one ever thought cars would catch on, either. I agree with that assessment.

One certain thing is change. Technology will change, culture with change, people will change.

I started writing on a Remington portable typewriter. When I was in high school, the school had a computer. A computer. It was kept in a room in the office. We were taken down in groups to look at it.

At that time, who could have predicted how computers would permeate our society?

Who could have predicted that automobiles would replace horses and carriages?

Who could have predicted that big-box stores would replace neighborhood groceries, dry goods, and hardware stores?

Ebooks are not a passing fad. They have many advantages over physical books:

  • They require little storage space.
  • They are relatively inexpensive. I need to give a shout-out here to indie authors, who usually price their books below $5, sometimes way below $5 – which is a fair price considering there is very little overhead in publishing a digital book.
  • When you travel, you can take your entire library along in a space the size of a trade paperback book.
  • Instant gratification – you can browse online and download immediately, no trip to the bookstore, no ordering online and waiting a week for your book to be delivered.

People today (and this will be even more true in the future) are pressed for time, they are mobile, they like to do all their shopping in one place, and they are impatient – they want something, and they want it now. This is why the big-box stores like Wal-Mart and ShopKo have become such fixtures in our society. This is why computer technology is an integral part of our lives. This is why we drive cars instead hitching horses to buggies.

For now, many people prefer physical books; printed books still  account for 80% or more of book sales. At one time you could make a similar statement about the horse and buggy in relation to that upstart, the automobile.

Today, physical books are the choice of the majority of readers. But let’s revisit this question in 100 years.

Ebooks are not a passing fad. The popularity of ebooks will not plateau.

Ebooks represent the next stage in the evolution of publishing.

Censorship: The Dumbing Down of Society

What do the following books have in common?

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Give up?

They are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned and challenged classics. There are a few dead giveaways on that list, but others probably will surprise you (Winnie-The-Pooh? What’s that all about?). The puny sampling above does not do the list justice. Hemingway and Faulkner are on it (several times), Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and Stephen King. The list reads as a virtual Who’s Who of literature.

Once, in an indirect way, I had a brush with censorship. A Need To Kill (Ballantine, 1990) by Mark Pettit, published in hardcover in 1990 by Media Publishing, was the story of convicted child-killer John Joubert, who had terrorized the Omaha bedroom community of Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s.

Media had contracted with Pettit, a reporter for an Omaha TV station and the only journalist at that time to have  interviewed Joubert in prison, to write the book. When the chapters started coming in, publisher Jerry Kromberg thought they were a bit skimpy. Pettit was used to writing 30- to 60-second news reports giving just the facts. So Kromberg asked me to beef up the chapters so they could get a decent-sized book out of it. The hardcover first printing of the resulting book sold out in a few days, and Ballantine snapped up the mass market paperback rights.

A group of local folks weren’t too happy with the book. They petitioned  ShopKo to remove it from their shelves. I don’t know if ShopKo removed it. I saw a newspaper article detailing the effort, then I heard nothing, and I didn’t go to ShopKo to see if A Need To Kill was still on the shelves.

I don’t know the specific charges against A Need To Kill, but I can guess–graphic violence and some sexual content–and I’m not putting A Need To Kill on the same level as any of the books on the  ALA’s banned and challenged list.

My point is some group, somewhere is going to have a problem with almost anything that is published. One reason the Harry Potter books were challenged is that they “encourage” witchcraft. Really? The main characters have a well-defined moral compass, and they celebrate Christmas. They just happen to be able to do magic (which would be kind of cool), which they try to use responsibly. This is fiction. It exercises the imagination, stimulates brain cells, and. I hope, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s (although the verdict is still out on that last point).

One reason often used to challenge Huckleberry Finn is the frequent use of the “N” word and the depiction of  African-Americans as slaves. Huckleberry Finn was set in the 1840s when the “N” word was in common use, and African-Americans were slaves. The novel is true of our society at that time. Oh, and one other thing, Huck is not a racist; during their trip down the river, as he comes to know Jim as a human being, he rethinks commonly held ideas about the races that he’d once taken for granted.  This was a progressive position for the time when Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885.

I admit that some parents might not want their children to read certain things until they are old enough to understand them. That is the parents’ right, but it is also their responsibility to monitor books their children are reading (or TV shows they are watching or games they are playing or Websites they are visiting).

But I have a problem when others decide  my son or me or any other adult should be allowed to read. And to remove certain books from library and bookstore shelves is to make them less available for those of us who prefer to decide for ourselves.

Censorship eats away at our civilization, dumbing down our society and stifling our imagination. It has plagued our world ever since human beings first began to make chicken scratches on stone tablets (obviously I have no data for this, but I can imagine one cave dude shattering a stone tablet on another cave dude’s head because he didn’t like the fellow’s story of The Hunt). The Nazi book burnings scared the crap out of a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who visualized what our future would become if books were outlawed. The result was Bradbury’s 1953 short novel Fahrenheit 451, which to me is the ultimate condemnation of censorship.

There is, however, an upside for authors who have their books banned: readers want to  know why, so the authors often will experience a boost in sales.

I’ve rambled on for more than 800 words. Now it’s your turn. What do you think about censorship: for it, against it, don’t care?

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