I blog on writing tips, write book reviews, share anecdotes about military life, and point out issues that crop up frequently in editing. I'll also share guest posts and interviews with my clients. My thoughts on the similarities between writing and woodworking can be found here.

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Book Review: Ready Player One

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (1)

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In the modern parlance, I am disappoint.

***This reviews contains spoilers***

Cline’s first novel came with a heavy promise of satisfying nostalgia and, if the hype was to be believed, not too small a dose of hilarity. Billed as “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix,” the novel caught this geek by the chin and spun his head directly onto page one. That’s about the best I can say for it, sadly.

I love a good cyber-thriller with conspiracies, a race against the clock, black-ops murder squads, and clever hackers running for their lives on the streets and in the boundless realms of cyberspace. Throw in countless nods to my generation’s glory days (the 80s), and you’ve got me hooked. But you need to deliver. You have to tell a story and sometimes drop easter eggs now and then to make me smile.

Ready Player One does neither, at least not terribly well.

Cline drops plenty of easter eggs (*hint: that’s a big theme in this book), but they come like info dumps, almost ad nauseum, with passing and, at times, overly-long references made to TV shows, bands, songs, albums, movies, toys, arcades, pop culture out the wazoo! But it’s all presented like the reader should, de facto, have a vested interest in seeing these elements of pop culture simply mentioned and then their relevance or importance explained, as if everyone is simultaneously in and not in on the joke.

Nudge-nudge, wink-wink works once or twice, or even a dozen times spaced out and with engaging storytelling in between. But a dozen times per chapter, and with an almost encyclopedic dryness … I began skimming and then skipping entire pages after a while.

Telling me your characters in a far-future love the same things I loved as a kid in the 80s doesn’t endear me to them or give me a compelling reason to follow their story arcs. I need something to worry about, and to see your protagonist worrying about something.

But what him worry? Wade Watts, the 1st-person protagonist of Ready Player One, has about as much to worry over as an otaku whose parents deposit money and food outside the bedroom door, hoping one day for the child to emerge and speak intelligible language again.

To be fair, the book opens (somewhat) well and had me anticipating a story I would enjoy. Barring dry as old bones early chapters of info dumps and history about Wade’s near-future story world, I got into the tale and was excited to see where he was going. We meet him living in squalor and isolated from any IRL peer group. This set up a clear-cut case of YA adventure. The expectation is that he’ll break out of his squalid existence and make a break for it to succeed, against all odds, at winning the day. He’ll meet people, have some challenging trials to face, maybe fall in love or maybe not, but he’ll be a different person than when we meet him, even if his real-world conditions haven’t changed much.

And yet, every time something seemed ready to thwart Wade’s progress, he conveniently either knew the necessary pop-culture reference, or had the means to circumvent any obstacle the real world threw at him.

Bomb threat? No problem; he’s not home anyway. And then the people who tried to kill him decide they were successful and don’t bother trying to do it again – even though Wade’s avatar continues to show up in the virtual world that comprises most of the settings in the book. Again, what does Wade have to worry about? He’s got all the money he’ll ever need, and he has a safe location to inhabit, protected from the people trying to kill him. And they seem to forget about him at the drop of a hat.

Sure, the big, bad evil mega corporation is hell-bent on ruining everything Wade and his fellow OASIS users (read: everybody on the planet) have grown to love about life. Namely, the OASIS (a global MMO experience, and the only one of its kind in existence). But only one attempt is ever made on his life, and it is not even remotely successful. Like every danger he ever encounters in the story, it may as well have been a virtual bomb that threatened his avatar’s existence.

I’m well acquainted with the sense of loss when a video game death peels back hours and hours of progress. And that could have been a clever conceit of Ready Player One. I say ‘could have’, because it was, as best as I could tell, the only conceit of the book. I get that some people make money putting their game play up on YouTube, and that advertisers sometimes pay them to play their favorite games because those advertisers know other people are watching. This review is not meant as judgment about anyone in that scenario; neither gamer nor voyeur deserve any shame or criticism from where I’m standing.

But if you’re going to write about someone playing a video game, you’d do well to at least acknowledge how such stories have been written in the past (e.g., Snow Crash, Johnny Mnemonic, Neuromancer) and employ similar tropes and aesthetic elements as those authors have done.

Cline does make obvious, overt, and even one explicit reference to the giants on whose shoulders he attempts to stand: Gibson and Stephenson. Not a few times I got a whiff of Snow Crash and Neuromancer, the latter being the novel Cline names in reference to something or other that Wade was worrying over. But there it is again – that sense that I was simply being shown something that I know and love. I could just as easily have wandered my eyes over to my own bookshelf and noticed the titles lined up in a row.

Had Cline written a book layered with intrigue and peril, I’d be handing out a better review. Had he even written a book with a genuine sense of human need, I’d be doing the same. But Ready Player One only goes so far as to show us a character who wants to get the high score on his favorite video game, and that, for my money, is not a story worth reading.





Throne of the Crescent Moon

Posted on December 13, 2016 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (3)

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Science-fiction and fantasy stories are at their best when they truly fascinate, immersing the reader in new worlds or cultures. The best of the best will go one step further and encourage readers to more than fascination; they will engender an insatiable curiosity, the sincerest sympathy, and a boundless empathy. Saladin Ahmed’s tale of ghul hunters and mystics fighting ancient evils does exactly that.

The book opens with a gruesome scene involving the antagonist, but quickly moves to introduce Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the pure-white kaftan wearing ghul hunter of the city of Dhamsawaat. Here was a man I’d never met in any of the books I’ve read, and in a city I’d yet to visit either in truth or fiction.

My curiosity piqued, I read on from the opening chapters to delve deeper into the tale of Adoulla and his companions. While Adoulla occupies center stage more often than the other characters, his brusque manner left plenty of room for me to identify more closely with Adoulla’s friends, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, and Litaz Daughter-of-Likami of the Soo Republic to the east. Even more fascinating was the character of Adoulla’s assistant, the dervish, Raseed bas Raseed.

I’m no devoted or pious follower of any faith, but I recognize and appreciate the values of discipline and devotion. You can take the man out of the Army, but … Raseed’s strict behavior, and his internal struggles, paint a picture of a young man with a rigid concept of right and wrong (a young man I remember seeing in the mirror years ago). I found myself wanting to applaud Raseed’s insights when they matched up with my own thinking (everybody loves an ego reflector) and at the same time I could not deny a sense of admiration for Raseed when he stood strong in his values and refused a temptation to action or speech – restraint, discipline, and honor are the hallmarks of the dervishes in Saladin Ahmed’s world, and his most pious character was an exemplar of all three.

The tribeswoman, Zamia Banu Laith Badawi, with her shapeshifter’s ability, was a refreshing sight as well – it’s not uncommon to have adolescent girls occupy places of power and agency in fiction, but Zamia’s genuine autonomy felt like a welcome change (maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong books).

Saladin Ahmed has written a stellar tale of intrigue, suspense, and, at times, horror. The ghul maker only gets a few pages to his name, but they were among the most ghastly parts of the book. Thankfully, they are short and are clearly included not to horrify or shock, but to encourage greater sympathy with the protagonists: the bad guy is someone who absolutely must be stopped.

I have never visited the regions to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. My only travels there have been through history classes, the occasional poem, and the ubiquitous news reels of our modern day. This news, at least in my home country, seems aimed at maintaining a view of the Middle East as being a hotbed of war, misogyny, religious fanaticism, and government corruption.

Certainly those things are true of some areas in the Middle East, but the same could be said of my home country. More importantly, with all stories the whole truth contains so much more than we are first shown.

That was my motivation for reading Saladin Ahmed’s book: to learn more about the one part of the world that has, for all of my years, been presented to me as a place I would never want to visit. Despite Throne of the Crescent Moon being a work of fiction, I had no doubt that I would learn from it. And learn I did.

From the scenes of conviviality around tea and plates of food, to scenes of bustling markets, or quiet nights under the stars in the open desert, Ahmed’s story showed me visions of what I always knew to be true about the Middle East, but which I had allowed to be quelled and forgotten behind the news of the day. I turned the final page of Ahmed’s book with a sense of being cut off from the Middle East, and from the vibrant, colorful, joyous, and wondrous scenes of life there. And I hoped that worldwide efforts might someday soon be truly joined in service to conviviality, to trade, and to peace.


Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Posted on November 26, 2016 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (1)

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

An engaging and often heart-rending tale of life in Revolutionary Iran and the years immediately after the Shah’s ouster (ca. 1978-1983).


The autobiographical story follows the author (Marji) on a path through the violence and turmoil around the Iranian Revolution. Marji learns the truth of many competing realities – the real reason the Shah came to power, the real differences between members of Iranian society, the real use of torture on political prisoners, and the real acts of retribution against those prisoners following their release.


Marji’s young life is, in ways, one long act of defiance of a world that refuses to allow her the space to be herself. At every juncture, she is forced to accept conditions or proscriptions that conflict with her beliefs about how people should be allowed to live in the world, and she never ceases in her efforts to live as she would.


At the heart of Marji’s objections is a deep resentment of oppressive systems and institutions, particularly those based in classism or religious fundamentalism. She wants to throw off every rule that is laid upon her shoulders or those of the people around her. Marji’s family has a maid, who, with Marji, learns the painful lesson that she cannot ever love above her station. The maid also must eat at a separate table, one of the first indicators to Marji that something is not right in the world.


The Story of a Childhood tells a tale that wavers from hopeful to grim and back again. Moments of lightness flare between extensive passages that reveal an enduring gloom and desperation to escape. The years and events around the Iranian Revolution, when discussed in America, are almost always reduced to a hostage situation at the US embassy in Tehran. As Satrapi demonstrates from page one, those years contained multitudes.

Fifty Feet of Trouble

Posted on September 15, 2016 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

50 Feet of Trouble by Justin S. Robinson


Following up his smash hit, City of Devils, Justin Robinson returns to his horrific Los Angeles for another noir comedy monster movie mashup, starring the last human private detective in the greater LA basin: Nick Moss.


Like Nick’s first adventure, Fifty Feet starts off with a missing, um . . . a missing companion tale. That quickly gets upgraded to missing person, and then missing persons. Nick has his work cut out for him here, and the stakes start off as high as they come. The first actual missing person may as well have been Nick’s own flesh and blood.


Robinson writes with his trademark homage-to-Chandler style, giving all the right nods in all the right places, and he puts his hard-boiled private eye through the paces like the best noir thrillers out there. Just when you think Nick’s caught a break, he nearly gets broken. Again.


Robinson also brings back the best cast of characters to hit the page since Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, and Caspar Gutman, and he adds a few new players into the bargain.


These are the monsters you know and love: The Salem Sisters, Hexene, Serendipity Sargasso. Sam the Pumpkinhead and the werewolf LAPD. Everybody gets some page time. Then you have all the other things that go bump in the night that populate this monstrous Los Angeles.


Some favorites of mine: the Phantoms – you know the type. Pasty flesh, rouged mouths, horrific disfigurements, and the ability to detect and identify any form of music. In City of Devils, we met a Phantom band, which always had me thinking vaguely of the Misfits or Metallica. In Fifty Feet, we meet Miss Bella Fontaine, who has this to say about harmonicas:


“Harmonicas give voice the transient murderer inside us.”


Just so you know who you’re dealing with here.


On that, coulrophobes be warned. This one has killer clowns in it, along with werewolves, vampires, and ogres (to name a few). If I was in love with what Robinson did in City of Devils, I have to upgrade my appreciation of his wit and innovation to enthralled with Fifty Feet of Trouble.




You’ll get that line a couple times in the story, right around when the Reverend Bobo Gigglesworth shows up. And what a show he puts on. The whole bit, slapstick and all, and right when you least expect it, a mouthful of horrific clown fangs are steaming up your glasses and giving you the serious heebie-jeebies.


Three guesses how you fend off a killer clown in Robinson’s version of Los Angeles.


Not to be outdone, the human side of the city has a crew of vigilantes called the Normandie Knights. The gang is your basic set of street toughs. They spend most of their time off screen, and we're told they get up to no good and cause more problems than they solve. But they also add another layer to the City of Devils. Their presence takes the book slightly off the comedic path and into the realm of speculative fiction, where the occasional bit of commentary gets mixed in with one-liners. I liked the addition of the Normandie Knights and hope to see more of them in the next Nick Moss adventure.


It’s anyone’s guess when Nick will be ready for more action. After what he deals with in Fifty Feet of Trouble, I’d say he’s earned a vacation. Maybe not on a pleasure yacht or anything, but a little feet up and time off somewhere safe would do the man good.


Justin Robinson’s latest noir-comedy-with-monsters tale is a winner, top to bottom. The book opens with a grand slam and soars through thrills and laughs at every turn of the page. If you like noir, classic monster movies, laughs-a-minute writing, and you have a soft spot for the underdog, you need this book in your hands.

Check out Fifty Feet of Trouble on the publisher's or author's website.

The Screaming Staircase

Posted on September 13, 2016 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Book Review: The Screaming Staircase

I've been a devoted fan of Jonathan Stroud's writing since I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book of The Bartimaeus Trilogy. From the first word, I was entranced by Stroud's prose, his narration and voice, and the cast of characters inhabiting his stories. Of course, I devoured The Bartimaeus Trilogy in short order, leaving me with that old headache every reader knows too well. I wanted more!

Stroud was not one to disappoint. More of the great detail and narration, captivating characters and fascinating adventures can be had in the tales of Lockwood & Co., beginning with The Screaming Staircase. The book is a fantastic tale of ghost hunting and supernatural peril, told in the best tradition of sleuthing. The set up, like with the Bartimaeus stories, is a mystical tale set in a London that everyone will know and recognize, but which is a city that neverwas. 

Lockwood plays Holmes to Lucy Carlyle's Watson, while the at times coarse and yet indespensible George Cubbins plays the perfect Johnny-on-the-Spot with witticisms, barbs, helpful advice, and a host of talents that every ghost hunter needs. Together, the trio hunt for a killer long forgotten, and fight for their lives against the deadly threat of "ghost touch" as they seek to cleanse London of unwelcome "Visitors" who have taken up residence after the advent of "the Problem."

Stroud's prose, his dialogue, and his pacing are first rate. The descriptions of the ghostly threats were absolutely haunting. Nothing about the story disappointed.

Full recommendation for The Screaming Staircase to anyone who loves a good scarefest, immediately sympathetic characters, and a sense that the story might well be taking place right around the corner (or under the bed, for that matter). Check out Lockwood & Co. on Stroud's website.