Book Club: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is the author’s debut novel and won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

The author is AnnaLinden Weller, who writes under the name of Arkady Martine. The adage “write what you know” couldn’t be more relevant to her. She’s a historian and city planner by day and obtained a Ph.D. in medieval Byzantine history in 2014. Martine said that this novel was, in many respects, a fictional version of her postdoctoral research on Byzantine imperialism in the 11th century, particularly the annexation of the Kingdom of Ani.

This backstory about the author explains the complexity of her created world. In my humble opinion, the best part of the book. The worldbuilding is rich and fully developed. The different cultures of the planet (Teixcalaan) vs. the station (Lsel) are highlighted, but the writing wasn’t intrusive. In other words, it didn’t interrupt the telling of the story. Albeit it made for a dense read like Dune.

Other similarities to Dune include the openings of each chapter. They started with excerpts from various sources. Like the selections from the writings of Princess Irulan in Dune, they provided glimpses of previous Teixcalaan and Lsel events. Likewise, Memory includes a glossary. Though I didn’t need to use it to understand what was happening as I did for Dune.

What I did find myself doing was reading the print version along with the audio. I started listening to the audiobook but couldn’t get grounded in the world. The language of the epigraph and prelude was quite ornate. (Yes, this book has both, and yes, I read them. After all, they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have significance.) In the end, I purchased the eBook to follow along with the audio.  

Listening to the audio helped with the pronunciation of the names used. (Another pet peeve of mine: nearly unpronounceable names). In Memory, the author used a unique naming convention for the Teixcalaanli characters. A number-noun configuration made their names pronounceable. According to an NPR interview with the author, it is similar to the system used by many Mesoamerican people.

The characters were likable. In particular, I enjoyed Three Seagrass, the cultural liaison for the Lsel ambassador and protagonist, Mahit. Though, as noted by the Book Club members, a few of the characters central to the story weren’t integral to the plot. In other words, they only made brief appearances but were critical to events happening in the narrative. Such was the case for the three characters in line for the throne. We are given short scenes, including two of them, but only hear about the third one through other characters. The readers never meet her in the story.

The other unusual facet of this book was the point of view. It was third-person limited like most contemporary novels. The difference was that there is only one POV, the protagonist. It made me wonder what the story would have been like if it had been written in the first person.

The story wasn’t anything profound. For all intent and purpose, it was a murder mystery, as the book blurb advertised. A good story, especially the end (no spoilers), especially the technology central to the plot. Though I didn’t think the book needed to be nearly 500 pages. The pacing is what stretched it to such length. There weren’t enough twists and turns to warrant so many pages. Admittedly, the worldbuilding was extensive, but as mentioned above, it wasn’t invasive. It didn’t occupy pages and pages of the book. Thus, I couldn’t attribute the length to this aspect. The story was slow, and I felt there was some repetition in it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it earned a highly coveted slot on the bookcases of my home library. Oh, and if you’re counting, I bought this book three times – audio, electronic, and a hard copy.

One last note – The sequel to this novel, A Desolation Called Peace, won the 2022 Hugo Award for Best Novel.


Up next: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (2022 Hugo Finalist for Best Novel)

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

Until next time, happy reading!

Book Club: Year Zero

June’s Book Club selection was Year Zero by Rob Reid. (Yes, I’m a little behind with my reviews.) After my epic 600-page space adventure, I looked forward to a light and short read. Particularly, a story about the music industry. 

The premise of the story was rather quirky. Quite simply, the author is the founder of the music streaming service, Rhapsody and an attorney. The story is a parody about copyright infringement laws, particularly as it relates to a period in time when peer-to-peer filing sharing was a new technology. Some of us remember the days when dirt-poor college students were threatened with $250,000 fines and felony convictions punishable by up to five years in prison for downloading music from the Internet. The first highly publicized case, Metallica v. Napster, Inc.

There are a ton of references to popular music like the protagonist’s name is Nick Carter as in the Backstreet Boy. A receptionist named Barbara Ann, a nod to the Beach Boys’ 1965 hit and recently revived by the Minions as the Banana Song. Aliens named Carly and Frampton. Some quips were wildly entertaining, but a little goes a long way.

Almost all Book Club readers lost interest in the story towards the middle. Also, some of the characters introduced weren’t fully developed. At first, it seemed like they were going to be an intricate part of the story, but trailed off and eventually disappeared. Finally, the author uses footnotes throughout the narrative. Small passages of explanation, which most readers felt took them out of the story. They distracted them.

Overall, a fun read especially if you are a music lover. Just know that it’s a satirical look at the music streaming industry, so don’t go into it thinking there’s going to be some profound theme. There’s no huge take-away from it other than how lucrative frivolous lawsuits can be. The take-away for me was how Metallica and other musicians lost in the end anyway since they make only pennies on the dollar from streaming services.

Up next for July is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Until next time, happy reading!

Book Club: Into The Black

Last month’s Book Club selection was Into The Black by Evan Currie (587 Kindle pages, 39 chapters). Admittedly, I wasn’t thrilled about 600 pages of military space opera. But I was determined to stay open minded if only for the sake of learning about the craft of writing science fiction. After all, that is why I participate in this club.

The first few chapters didn’t give me any hope. They were slow with little tension or intrigue. In true military fashion style, they were regimented. The introduction of the captain, Eric Weston and other key members of the crew of the Odyssey, the first ship constructed with a transition drive system, allowing for faster-than-light travel.

It wasn’t that the pace was slow. To the contrary, the narrative had a nice, even flow. I’m a reader who likes backstory at the beginning of a story. Getting to know the characters is important to me. It’s how I decide if I can invest in them or not, and a lot of characters were introduced. Otherwise, nothing really happened in the early chapters. Or what did happen wasn’t very thrilling: the official transfer of command, the requisite press conference, departure for the mission, weapons tests, refueling near Saturn, etc. I felt the story started in Chapter 3.

Despite the slow start, I flew through this book – all 600 pages. Anyone who has read my previous reviews knows that I’m a tough reader to satisfy, and it’s been a long time since I wanted to do nothing but read a book. I enjoyed the story so much that I wasn’t pulled out of it by any infractions of the writing fundamentals. If there were any violations, I was blissfully unaware. Nor was my suspense of belief tested. I believed (and understood) everything I read.

The consensus of the Book Club was the story had a very Star Trek ambiance about it, which probably explains my fondness for it. The thing about every reiteration of Star Trek are the captains and their crews. For me, Kirk and Picard are my all-time favorite captains. Now Captain Weston and the crew of the Odyssey have earned the top spot. The rest of the Book Club didn’t share my enthusiasm. They liked the book, but thought the Star Trek spin was cliché.

Likewise, the Odyssey’s fighter squadron, the Archangels, were reminiscent of the Star Wars starfighters. Oddly, my reading of this book coincided with the release of the Top Gun sequel. But let me tell you, those Top Gun flyboys, past and present, got NOTHING on the Archangels! Like anyone who flies the likes of F-16 fighters, they possess a suave bravado and a ton of moxie. The difference: the Archangels past and present commanders, Weston and Stephanos, have a humility about them.  

Finally, the battle scenes. I’m notorious for putting a book down whenever the plot seems to move from one action scene to another. In such cases, it starts to feel reactive to me. Not enough word count is devoted to developing intrigue at a slower pace. Without any spoilers, most of Into The Black are battles. The difference was they were very short scenes with the myriad of characters: Captain Weston on board the Odyssey, Stephano’s squadron in dogfights with the opposition, and the various special teams forces on the surface of the planet. The impact of these short snippets was over the top intensity. The only reason that I put this book down was to catch my breath.

Needless to say, Into The Black earned a spot on my bookshelf. Though I probably won’t read any of the other six books in the series. While I want more of Captain Weston and his crew, I want the story of this first book to remain unadulterated.

Up next for June is Year Zero by Rob Reid:

Low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when a redheaded mullah and a curvaceous nun show up at his office. But Frampton and Carly are highly advanced (if bumbling) extraterrestrials. And boy, do they have news. The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been hopelessly hooked on humanity’s music ever since “Year Zero” (1977 to us), when American pop songs first reached alien ears. This addiction has driven a vast intergalactic society to commit the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang. The resulting fines and penalties have bankrupted the whole universe. We humans suddenly own everything—and the aliens are not amused. Nick now has forty-eight hours to save humanity, while hopefully wowing the hot girl who lives down the hall from him.

The author, Rob Reid, was the founder, CEO, and Chairman of Listen.com, the online music company that developed the Rhapsody music service. Listen was the first online music company to secure full-catalog licenses from all of the major labels. So the book’s nuance and details should be authentic.

Until next time, happy reading!

Agent Boot Camp

I pushed the SEND button with my first 10-pages this morning. It’s the second time I’ve done this Writers Digest boot camp. Getting feedback from an industry professional is invaluable and money well-spent.

I anticipate the “I can’t sell this kind of story” comment since the market is flooded with urban/contemporary fantasies. But I believe my story is different and stands apart from the typical fare. Why? Because my story is plot is a treasure hunt, a cross between National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark and Angels and Demons.

I’ll come back and give an update about the feedback I receive. So please stay tuned.


AND THE RESULTS ARE IN:
I received four valuable pieces of feedback from Paula Munier, Senior Literary Agent & Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary.

The First Scene
The first page is confusing. We don’t know where she is–on a plane, at the office, in a meeting, at her house? All of these settings are referenced, but none is established. You need to ground every scene in setting and point of view in the opening lines of the scene.

I cringed when I first read this comment. Why? Because most of my chapters start with setting. I lost my way by focusing on making a thematic statement. My understanding is the opening sentence of a novel should be about your theme. It’s the only time it is explicitly mentioned. The good news is learning that starting chapters with setting is agent-approved. At least for Paula anyway.

This opening is confusing and boring–nothing of importance really happens until the Councillor shows up and even then most of that conversation is just a poor excuse for backstory and info dumping.

Ouch, this one hurt. But after letting it fester for a bit, I better understand the importance of balance. Based on feedback from my critique partners and beta readers, I added more worldbuilding. They told me there wasn’t enough for them to understand the created world. Likewise, I received feedback that the readers didn’t know what was at stake. Why was restoring Absolute Power to the Society so important? Hence, the backstory. While they liked this updated reiteration better, the agent accused me of info dumping (the worst criticism for a writer other than “show, don’t tell”).

After much reflection, I concluded that the balance is subjective. Readers want more whereas agents/publishers want less. While I’m a little unsure about which party gets preference, I like to think there’s a sweet spot where everyone is happy.

You need to cut this scene by at least 50 percent. Focus on the Councillor telling her they need her, her balking because of her parents’ death at the Vice Lord’s hands and the grandfather magick pulling her back in. Then get her on to the mission. THAT’S when the story really begins.

And that’s exactly what I did, but only 30%. Some of the backstory could not be cut because it plays a major role in the story. It isn’t revealed until the end, but it’s an ah-ha moment for the reader. A question raised early on finally gets answered and completes the big picture.

USP
This genre can be a tough sell these days as the market is glutted so a strong USP is very important. USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. That is, what makes your story unique. What sets your story apart from the others of its ilk? What are your comps? How can you articulate your USP in your pitch? How soon in your story do you make the USP clear in your story?

There it is: the anticipated “I can’t sell this type of story.”

My USP is National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Angels and Demons with magick. Easy enough. What wasn’t easy was integrating it into the story narrative. I managed to get it done in Chapter 1, but it sort of felt like it was author-placed to me.

The good news was the agent thought it sounded a fun project and love it. 

Tired Tropes
Because this is an over-published area, and the tropes are tired, you have to find a way to make your story different, to set it apart from all the other stories like it out there. The sooner you get to the main action, the better. And the sooner you show us how you reinvent those tropes for your story, the better. Especially the magick.

More comments about a tough sell, but the door seems to be cracked if I reinvent the tropes I use. In particular, the magick (my purposeful spelling). Some of my magick is mundane: mind control, telepathic communication, etc. Yet part of it is different, but I’ll keep it under wraps for now.

Line Edit
You could use a good line edit.

  • Fix all typos, misspellings, missing words, grammatical errors, incorrect formatting, etc.
  • Murder all your darlings. This basically means that whenever you come to a sentence that you are inordinately proud of, you need to cut it. Or as Elmore Leonard liked to say, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • Go through and eliminate all redundancies, cliches, repetitions, etc. Aim to trim by 20 percent. That will help pick up the pacing.
  • For example, you should rework cliched lines like this one: I huffed a laugh of indignation and rolled my eyes.

I was a little surprised by this feedback. Admittedly, my submission was rougher than I normally present for review. The changes that I mentioned above had been added, but I didn’t get to do the usual 15-20 edits required to meet my own personal standard. So I’m kind of okay with this feedback. Just don’t like to hear it.

I disagree with the typos/misspellings. It’s the easiest part of editing/proofreading, and Word does it for you. Plus my other tools include spellcheck. I rechecked the submission afterwards, but 3 different checks found no typos/misspellings. I’m passing on the comment and moving on.

The cliché part might be a stretch for me because I use cliches in my everyday conversations. I know, but don’t roll your eyes at me. Likewise, I have a penchant for using fragmented sentences. I love the emphasis and tension they add to the narrative. Albeit, I use them judiciously because they break the rules.

The biggest take away (not included in this feedback) was to hire a professional copyeditor to review the first 50 pages. I thought it was a good idea because I have some doubts about some of my grammar usage.

Overall, the agent said my writing was solid and voice was strong. She thought I was a good writer. For me, this is the most valuable feedback.

I revised Chapter 1 accordingly and expected final comments back by July 6.

Book Club: Remote Control

May’s SciFi Book Club selection was Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor. An accomplished author, she writes African-based science fiction and fantasy (African futurism and African jujuism), and her other works have won many awards.

Here’s the blurb to give this review context:

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From here on in she would be known as Sankofa­­–a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?


I’m sort of indifferent about this book. I didn’t hate it, but I can’t say I liked it either. As mentioned by many, it read like a folk tale, and I like a good fable. Also, I liked the non-traditional setting in Ghana. It was nice to get absorbed in an area different than the standard urban area. Although this land included many unique gadgets not of this current time and place.

The protagonist, Fatima/Sankofa is a young girl. She ages from five years old to fourteen by the end of the book. Though I didn’t feel the story was told in the voice of such a young girl. Certain descriptions and thoughts seemed to be those of a young child. Like early on, she thinks dead people are sleeping, which seems plausible for a six-year-old. But I felt the character was a little too wise for her age. Her perspective and know-how were more like a young adult. I couldn’t get comfortable with the level of knowledge that this young child possessed.

This book was an allegory in every sense of the literary device. An example is the fox that follows Sankofa during her journey from one town to another. Some in the book club thought it was her familiar, but they have a definitive purpose – helping witches or cunning folks with their powers. The fox didn’t literally help Fatima/Sankofa in anyway. He was just there. Overall, the underlying messages intended were unclear.

Perhaps, the story would have been more meaningful had I read it knowing it was an allegory. Even if I had been able to pick up this notion somewhere along the line as I was reading it. But I read from a very literal perspective, which didn’t work in this case. Another reading from a more abstract perspective might be useful, but I’m probably not going to do it. Time is valuable, and I wasn’t compelled enough to read it again even though it’s a novella.

A significant amount of time was spent discussing the ending of the book. If you’ve read the reviews, you notice it’s a common point of speculation. Its meaning entirely open to interpretation. The book club members had several ideas about what it meant, but we never reach a consensus. There were several moments of contemplative silence. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish I was able to take more away from the discussion and the story.

Finally, I like to invest in the substance of the story like most readers. One thing that takes me out of it is poor form, meaning the writing. This book was full of everything I avoid in my own writing: sentences with three independent clauses, missing commas to separate independent clauses, poorly structured sentences where I had to reread them to understand what the author meant, repetitious word use in the same or consecutive sentences, more than one character’s dialogue in the same paragraph, frequent use of ly-adverbs, noticeable use of filter words, etc. For any published book, this type of poor form is unacceptable. But it’s especially egregious for a traditional publisher. Even an accomplished author such as Ms. Okorafor should have to follow some of the fundamental rules.

Next on the docket for June is Into The Black by Evan Currie:

Beyond the confines of our small world, far from the glow of our star, lies a galaxy and universe much larger and more varied than anyone on Earth can possibly imagine. For the new NAC spacecraft Odyssey and her crew, the unimaginable facets of this untouched world are about to become reality.

It’s a 600-page military space opera. After this past month’s selection, I’m looking forward to spending time aboard ship in space and getting overwhelmed by the science overload.

Book Club: Fahrenheit 451

This month’s book club selection was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (195 pages, Goodreads). First published in 1953, this book was part of the curriculum of my college class, Intro to Science Fiction.[1] It’s been a while since my initial reading.

The most striking aspect of this novel was the stylistic writing. Lots of fragmented sentences and figurative language are used, giving the narrative a rather abstract feel. Yet it wasn’t too weird like such writing can be. Just enough to make it poetic but not incomprehensible. Well, there were only a few places that I glossed over.

A few of my fellow clubbers felt the prose was too strange. It contradicted the hard science found in a lot of our selections. I appreciate their discontent. It’s the same way detailed scientific explanations cause me to lose interest in a story. So I get it; the writing style is not for everyone.

I listened to the audible version while I read along in the book. Tim Robbins was the narrator, and I nominate him for whatever award recognizes exceptional performances in this area. He brought the characters and the stylistic language to life. If you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend this version.

Another noticeable facet of this story was the seashell radio receivers used by Montag’s wife, Mildred. To think the rudimentary concept of earbuds as part of this dystopian world nearly seventy years ago is kind of spooky. Perhaps, the technology existed like headphones, but actual earbuds?

Finally, the social commentary that is the book’s notoriety. Again, the uncanny parallels to today’s world…burning (banning) books, the cancel culture, the powerful influence of the media, living life at 100 mph (beetle cars). It made me wonder if these paradoxes are humanity’s ying-yang. Its balance-counterbalance. The perpetual two sides of the coin. Hundreds of years from now, will readers look back at Fahrenheit 451 (or other works touching on such issues) and see similar analogies with their current culture? Does humanity need a constant push-and-pull, opposing forces to exist?

Hence, the thought-provoking power of this classic…

Up next, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (476 pages, hardcover). I admit that I’m not looking forward to this one. Artemis was a club selection last year, but I couldn’t get through it. Too much hard science and flat characters. For me, the protagonist was devoid of emotion, so I couldn’t connect with her. Also, I felt the pace a little slow. Almost weightless in a sense.[2]


[1] I was so lucky to have this class as a Humanities elective.

[2] Pun intended.

Book Club: Shards of Earth

This month’s book club selection was Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky (549 pages, Goodreads). Published in 2021 by Orbit, it’s book one of two in the Final Architecture series.

In short, I liked it. I haven’t finished it yet, but I like it so far.

The best part for me was the created world. It’s so intricate and has such depth. The first topic of discussion at the meeting was the density of the book. Thankfully, the science is light. It’s more about the worlds on different planets and a myriad of factions in the galactic neighborhood. In fact, there are almost too many – ten planets, eight species, twenty-two characters including the eight crew members, and thirteen spaceships. I was only able to keep track of everything with the assistance of the reference guide at the back of the book. Some only had bit parts in the story, while others had more prominent roles. In general, good stuff. Though there might be too much exposition for some readers.

The action scenes are well written, and I could visualize the choreography. Unfortunately, they are starting to add up with three major fight scenes in the first 250 pages. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but I’m not a fan of books, movies, and shows that move from one battle/fight scene to another.[1]  I lose interest in them almost as quickly as when the science is too complicated. They need to be well placed and judiciously used, and I think these rules apply to these scenes. Keeping my fingers crossed that the plot doesn’t include too many, especially because some scenes are very long.

SPOILER ALERT! At least, some of the ensemble cast don’t walk away from the fights unscathed. I mean, how unbelievable is it when characters engage in battle after battle with little or no physical impact? Even if they can regenerate, there should be some physical aftermath. The demise of the central characters was sad but refreshing. Also, I liked seeing the other characters adjust and carry on their mission afterward. Taking the helm per se.

The worst part about the book is it’s nearly 600 pages. Hence, I’m only halfway through the thirty chapters divvied up into five parts. As such, it seems like it took a lot of pages to get back to unraveling what happened at the beginning. SPOILER ALERT! First, the crew’s quarry, the Oumaru, isn’t introduced to the reader until Chapter Five. Finding this missing ship sets the story in motion. Then, a series of events happen, including the hijacking of the Vulcan God, towhich the Oumaru is tethered. Ten chapters later, the reader learns why the ship was stolen in the first place. The reason is related to the events presented in the first five chapters. Did you follow that?

One other observation – I’ve noticed some social commentary by the author here and there. In particular, during an argument between two characters, one doesn’t like the other’s species. That alone says a lot to me, but there’s more. I’ll let other readers make their own judgment about the underlying context of the character’s perspective of the other.

Overall, I like this story so far, and I promised myself that I would finish it. Like Dune, a second reading might be warranted to fully appreciate the splendor of it.

Up next, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (194 pages, Goodreads). A classic. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the tale. It’s been a while since my last reading.


[1] I’ll keep what kept my interest in the LOTR movies to myself. Though my preference is swords and horses rather than guns and fast cars.

What’s in a Word?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Word choice is such an essential part of writing. It’s the difference between an awkward sentence and dialogue or a description that perfectly conveys the character’s emotion. I have a healthy respect for the power of them. Some of my self-imposed rules border the quirky, but I unabashedly own them.  

Like do you think about when the pronouns I/me and we/us are used? I’m quite conscious about it, and I don’t mean in terms of singular or plural. When dealing with characters who don’t like each other very much but are forced to work together to save the world, I make sure that they avoid referring to themselves as we/us. Before they find common ground, they are only allowed to see the world around them in terms of themselves. They are still in the “me” stage. This difference seems like a small detail, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Another rule I use is picking words associated with the metaphor or scene setting. For example, at the beginning of The Venerable Dawn, the main characters are in an airport, waiting to board a flight. During this scene, I use an occasional aviation term. Lilith, the protagonist, tries to remember something from her training many years ago but struggles to recall specific details. She searches for them in the cargo hold or belly of the plane. When she readily remembers some things, I liken their holding place to the easily accessible overhead compartment. Naturally, such references are done with nuance and not overused.  

I’m careful about the terms I use for descriptions. Not every reader knows the fancy names for various references. Most know what an oak tree looks like, but not necessarily a white ash. Or they might be familiar with a giant redwood, but not the term sequoia. Use too many obscure terms, and I think you risk losing the reader. Admittedly, the dictionary feature included with eBooks is great and helps build our vocabulary. Though using it too much can take the reader out of the story. My best practice is to keep it simple but not too elementary, a delicate balance.

Another quirky rule is when to use the terms top/bottom and first/last. I associate top/bottom as vertical and first/last as horizontal. Not always, but in general. I think it’s because I’m a visual person, and I have an overbearing sense of logic. Maddening at times, figuratively, of course.

At times, I tend to be a perfectionist, and the struggle with word choice is real. Sometimes, I agonize over the right one, spending far too much time looking for the elusive word. To remedy my fixation, I’ve learned to drop in the best word that I can think of at the time and highlight it for future consideration. I also add alternative choices as a side comment. Usually, the right word will come to me when I come back to it as part of my endless editing. And it’s a beautiful thing when it does. The difference between an unremarkable sentence and a work of art that stirs the emotions or moves the soul.

I wonder if any other writers are as meticulous as I am about word choice…

Inspiration: Story Idea

I recently had a discussion about story ideas with another author. It spurred me to share the inspiration for my work in progress, The Venerable Dawn: Ascension.

In August 2019, I took a writing class after being eliminated from a Corporate America job for the third time in my career. The first homework assignment asked us to browse through Discover Magazine and find an article that captured our imaginations. The piece I found was “They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code and Found a Secret Society Inside.” Two parts grabbed my curiosity.

First, this article told how a linguistic specialist used algorithms to crack the Copiale Cipher. But it wasn’t the use of computer technology that interested me. Instead, it was who created the code, the Oculists, a group of ophthalmologists loosely tied to the Freemasons. Throughout history, freethinkers like these doctors formed secret societies to escape the suppression and persecution of the Church, who deemed such groups as heretical.

I’ve always been fascinated by such well-known groups as the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians. Many people are familiar with the Freemasons from the National Treasure movies and the Illuminati from Angels & Demons. Another clandestine group, Priory of Sion, is featured in The De Vinci Code. Nowadays, there are many collegiate not-so-secret societies. The Ivy League groups such as Yale’s Skull and Bones and the Quill and Dagger at Cornell are some of the most notable. Look them up; they are interesting and fun to see who former members are.

The cracking-the-code part of the article caught my attention because of my interest in armchair treasure hunting. It began in a roundabout way, starting when I discovered that Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass included moves for a chess game in the narrative.

Like most everything with me, this fascination dovetailed into the discovery of two incredible books, Masquerade and The Secret.

Masquerade is a picture book by Kit Williams, published in 1979. It includes clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in Britain. The answer to the elaborate puzzle is hidden in fifteen illustrations. The whereabouts of the gilded woodland creature remained unknown until 2009.

The Secret is a treasure hunt created by Byron Preiss. The clues were included in the book published in 1982. The quest involves searching for twelve boxes buried at secret locations across the US and Canada. The author would reward the finder with a precious gem in exchange for the chests. Only three of them have been found as of October 2019. Some speculate that the remaining boxes may never be found.

In many ways, geocaching and Pokémon Go are today’s treasure hunts. Fun stuff for kids and adults alike. I mean, what’s not to love about going on a quest to find a cache and reviewing the log for those who came before them? Or capturing virtual creatures in real-world locations?

I’m so pumped simply writing this post. It tells me that I followed the right path of inspiration for my story. Now tell me about your inspiration. Or let me know what you think about secret or not-so-secret societies and treasure hunting.

Book Club: Ringworld

This month’s book club selection was Ringworld by Larry Niven (288 pages).

First published in 1970, it is indicative of the era for a couple of reasons.

Let’s start with the story and plot. Or lack thereof. The blurb sold the book as a tale about discovering an immensely large circular space ribbon constructed by builders of unknown origins. A motley crew consisting of two humans and two aliens set off to investigate. When their ship crash lands on the said ribbon, they trek across thousands of miles of the Ring’s surface. Based on this description, I expected a story to be about the crew’s adventures during their journey, and ultimately, the discovery of the builders and the Ring’s purpose. Unfortunately, it was anything but what I imagined. 

I heard that Ringworld is considered a book of ideas and a conceptional exploration. It’s a fair description because it has little to no plot. There was no conflict or dramatic question raised. No events leading to the resolution or answer. While the worldbuilding kept my interest for a few chapters, I need action to keep me turning the page. And I’m not a big action-type reader either. I prefer mystery and intrigue blended with action.

Exploring the fantastic concepts such as those put forth by Niven must have been riveting for the mid-20th century readers. For this early 21st century bibliophile, the lack of plot left me feeling unsatisfied. I wondered about some of the concepts, but whole chapters dedicated to the scientific explanations weren’t compelling enough to keep me turning the pages. The reason why I only made it through Chapter 6 (page eighty-five).

Now the characters. Some in the group felt they were adequately developed. I was not one of them. Their stereotypes were created, but not their individualism. Nothing about their backstories made them unique. Hence, I was unable to sympathize and invest in them.

The aliens were very cartoonish to me. As a visual person, I struggled with their descriptions. They were challenging to follow, and I had to read them a couple of times before I got an image of them in my mind’s eye. On the other hand, most in the group liked them because their physical appearances were not conventional. I guess I prefer my aliens to be more literal, more humanoid.

The women characters were the most problematic, the universal consensus of the group and all the reviews I’ve read. First, Halrloprillalar Hotrufan (aka “Prill”) is a surviving member of the builders. She belongs to a guild devoted to providing sexual services, entertainment, and companionship. In other words, she’s a whore.

Teela Brown was the other female character, and her role was more prominent than Prill. At least in the first eighty-five pages anyway. As one might expect, she’s portrayed as naïve and witless. Besides being the mission’s lucky charm, her primary role is Louie Wu’s sex toy. If anything, I enjoyed her “luck” trait. She was bred for it, and it was the only magical, non-scientific element in the story. It got me thinking about what if a person possessed perpetual luck, good or bad. Perhaps, there’s a short story in my future.

Also, the female versions of the aliens are non-sentient. They’re non-responsive to or unconscious of sense impressions. Enough said about the sexist characterization of women in the book. For me, the take-away was how far women have come since then. [1]

It must resonate with some readers. It has over 100,000 Goodreads reviews. Almost 80,000, 4- or 5-stars and another 25,000, 3-stars. Plus, it won the Hugo, Locus, Ditmar, and Nebula awards. No doubt, this favorable rating is from diehard scifi fans who like a lot of hard science.

Let me know if you’ve read Ringworld and your impression of it. Share your good, bad, and ugly thoughts about it.


The next book selections are:
February – Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021, 592 pages)
March – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953, 182 pages)


[1] We’re still not quite on equal ground as men, but it shouldn’t get in the way of any determined woman getting what she wants. Just remember to pick your battles and use the magic of grace and dignity to accomplish your goals. There’s nothing wrong with closing a door and walking away. Nowadays, many open doors are around the corner. Go find them! 😉