Category Archives: reviews

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (5-stars)

This is one of the most remarkable novels of any kind that I have ever read, and a truly stunning piece of time-travel/historical/science fiction.

I started reading Doomsday Book because I’d read Connie Willis’s Blackout earlier in this year and was anxiously awaiting All Clear. I knew that DOOMSDAY BOOK was a Hugo and Nebula winning and I knew that Connie Willis was an outstanding writer, so I figured the book was going to be a good one.

It was a remarkably good one. I’ve come across very few books that are both page-turners, and emotionally jarring as well. There have been even fewer books that have moved me to tears multiple times. But this book was one of them. Connie’s portrayal of the middle ages during the plague is brutal, and made more so by her impeccable ability to make the reader feel for the characters as if you know them, as if you are there with them experiencing the horrors. You almost wonder if Connie has the ability to travel back in time and used that ability to form the research for this novel.

Everything about the work is impressive, from the description and historical details, to the humor she injects, to the style of her writing and the care and effort she clearly puts into it.

Scrivener: the ultimate writer’s tool

Today’s announcement of the upcoming release of Scrivener 2.0 gives me a good excuse to write about my experiences with this invaluable tool for writers.

There are literally scores of positive reviews of Scrivener available online, and for good reason:  it is an outstanding piece of software that allows a writer to focus on his or her primary job, writing.  Philosophically, Scrivener focuses on content.  Since most professional markets (novels, short fiction, plays and screenplays) have a standard manuscript format, Scrivener knows how to take the content a writer provides and turn it into the proper format–so that you can concentrate on writing.  All of my stories since 2007 have been written using Scrivener, including the stories that I have sold to professional markets.

Scrivener uses an innovative “corkboard” that allows you to plan out your scenes on virtual index cards, easily shuffle them around, color code them (by point-of-view, for instance) and visualize your story at a high level.  There are features that allow you to set goals for a story and session.  (I want to write 1,250 words today.)  And there are features that allow you to manage your research.  (Scrivener is even used by students for writing research papers.)  All of these features have been described by others many, many times.  I wanted to describe some of the unique ways that I use Scrivener, in addition to just writing my stories.

Scrivener provides templates for different projects.  I made some small modifications to the Short Story Manuscript template, adding some folders that I use with all of my stories.  There are 3 of these folders that are part of my template: Deleted Scenes, Critiques, Business.

One of the toughest things for me as a writer is cutting my own writing.  But it is a necessary evil and I’m a better writer for the cutting I do.  Scrivener has made this cutting easier.  I have a folder called “Deleted Scenes” and when I am cutting scenes, I simply move them to the “Deleted Scenes” folder.  This allows me to preserve what I wrote (and possibly reuse it somewhere else) without cutting it and losing it forever.

Back in the summer of 2008, I participated in an 8-week writing workshop led by science fiction writer James Gunn.  One of the most beneficial things to come out of this workshop was a trusted cadre of writers whom I trust to give me feedback on my stories. Scrivener makes it easy for me to manage these critiques and keep them associated with the story.  Each critique gets a document in the “Critique” folder (with the person’s name) and in this way, I can keep feedback on the story with the story.

Finally, I have  “Business” folder.  In the business folder goes things related to the business-end of the story.  For instance, if I sell the story, a scanned (PDF) version of the contract would go in the folder.  Correspondence with editors get placed in this folder, and I also put any reviews of the story that I find in this folder.  (I could probably keep a separate folder for reviews, but I haven’t done that at this point.)

The ability to keep everything together for a writing project, from the first index card on which the idea is scribbled, to the contracts and reviews of the published story is one of the things I really like about Scrivener.  The clean, unobtrusive interface makes it easy to focus on the writing.  I used Scrivener to successfully complete NaNoWriMo last year and plan on doing it again this year.  I would highly recommend Scrivener to any writer out there.  (Although that writer would have to be on a Macintosh.)

I can’t wait for Scrivener 2.0!

Review: Other Spaces, Other Times by Robert Silverberg (5-stars)

Wow!  I just checked my list and discovered that I have never, in 15 years of record-keeping, have I rated 2-consecutive books at 5-stars.  Until today.  On the heels of completing Connie Willis’ stunning Blackout, I just zipped my way through Robert Silverberg’s wonderful collection of autobiographical writings, Other Spaces, Other Times.  It was an absolutely terrific book, and if it had any flaw, was too short.  I wanted more!

The book is broken into several parts.  Silverberg discusses his beginnings in science fiction, his writing, provides and autobiography, as well as miscellaneous thoughts on his career.  It is absolutely fascinating reading to anyone with an interest in the history of science fiction, but also to anyone (like myself) who is a writer, or aspires to be one.  In the numerous essays, Silverberg talks honestly about his career, his approach to writing, the challenges he faced, and from this, one gets the sense of an impressive lifetime spent in science fiction.  The sheer volume of writing that Silverberg was doing in the late ’50s and early ’60s boggles the mind.  I thought Asimov was prolific, but even he does not match the quantity produced by Silverberg during this time.

I’ve read numerous biographies and memoirs of science fiction writers.  My favorite has always been Isaac Asimov’s massive 3-volumes.  While Silverberg’s slim book doesn’t go into anywhere near as much detail as Asimov did, what is there is equally as interesting and a sheer joy to read.

The book contains an incredible amount of marginalia: photos, magazine covers, notes, all of which provides additional insight into Silverberg and his writing.  It is a beautiful book, a bit pricy at $29.95, but well worth it.

Review: Blackout by Connie Willis (5-stars)

Connie Willis’ newest novel, Blackout had a lot of things in its favor even before I read the first page: (1) it was written by Connie Willis, whose work I admire; (2) it’s a time-travel story, which is a minor passion of mine; (3) it takes place in London in World War II, a setting which pushes more of my buttons.  When I started reading it, I knew I would not be disappointed.  The story follows three “historians” from Oxford, circa 2060, who are researching aspects of the Blitz in London.  They do this by traveling back in time and embedding themselves in various events.

The story is rich with the setting and details of the period.  The amount of research I imagine it must have taken shows through in the fine detail of what life must have been like during the Blitz.  Having been to London, roamed the city and the Underground, I could picture very well where the events took place.  Connie Willis’ fabulous description, and especially, the little details she adds, helped complete the picture of what it was like 70 years ago, with bombs falling overhead.  The characters come to life, too, and Willis even captures some rather witty examples of the British sense of humor that had me laughing out loud.

But the story has another layer, one which gradually build in tension: time travel itself, and its implications.  More and more it appears that the historians are finding themselves stuck in 1940 London.  The usual methods of extraction do not appear to be working.  And no one knows why.

The writing really helps make the story come alive.  Connie Willis is a master at this.  The words on the page disappear and you feel embedded in the scenes, the sounds of the exploding bombs shuddering your bones, the droning of the airplanes rattling your teeth.  She makes it look so easy, and yet if it were this easy to write a good story, everyone would be able to do it.

I don’t give out 5-stars for books very often.  (The last piece of science fiction to which I gave 5-stars was Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine.)  I don’t have hard and fast rules for this kind of thing, but there are 2 things that clue me in to the fact that what I am reading is 5-star material:  first, it’s a page turner, one that I can’t seem to put down.  I ended up finishing this book between 3-4 am simply because I woke up and had to know how it ended.  Second, if I find myself getting close to the end of a book and wishing there was more, I know I’ve got something that’s worthy of 5-stars.  Both apply to Blackout.  And yet–in this rare instance, my wish is coming true.  For Blackout is really just the first half of the story.  The second half of the story, All Clear is scheduled for a fall release.  So the story will continue.

This leads to one of two minor issues I found with the book.  First, the fact that the story ends abruptly with a cliff-hanger means that people will have to wait to find out how things turnout, and some people may find that frustrating.  Second, it seems there are ways that our stranded time-travelers could make contact with their colleagues in the future–some fairly obvious ones–but those are not considered by characters.  At least not in the first half of the story.  (Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity hints at one possible solution–something that was also used in the Back to the Future series.)

Regardless, this was an absolutely wonderful read and I no eagerly await the conclusion of the story, desperately hoping it will be as good as the opening.

A review of C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich

I posted this review on Goodreads, LibraryThing and Amazon as always, but I thought it was an important enough book to post it here to:

A wonderful romp through Golden Age fandom!

What a terrific book! I’ve long been an admirer of Cyril Kornbluth’s fiction, having read His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth in the past. And I’ve also learned bits and pieces of Kornbluth’s life through both Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl’s autobiographies. But this book gets into the details and does so in a remarkably impressive way. The book is as much about the development of science fiction from its Golden Age through the late 1950s, and a fascinating development it is.

The book is well referenced and many of the notes are just as interesting as the text itself. The cast of characters includes many of the big players of the Golden Age of science fiction. There are even fascinating glimpses of the early careers of writers such as [author:Robert Silverberg] and [author:Harlan Ellison]. But the focus of the book is on the life and career of Cyril Kornbluth. The analysis of his fiction is detailed and insightful, giving a complete picture of the development of a remarkable writer.

Much of the information comes from interviews with the people involved, or correspondence between the people involved. At times, it felt a little intrusive reading some of what must have been private mail. It is nevertheless fascinating and revealing.

The book does not paint a pretty picture of Frederik Pohl, which came as a surprise to me, considering their collaboration history as well as what Pohl had to say about Kornbluth in his memoir. In a similar vain, I was surprised with the portait painted of H. L. Gold. Despite complaints by authors who worked with Gold (including Isaac Asimov), he was a brilliant editor, if not the kindest of personalities.

This is clearly an important book for the history of science fiction and an outstanding biography of one of the Golden Age of science fiction’s brightest lights. I highly recommend it to those inside the genre, and to those outside the genre who wonder what it is like to be an insider.

SF AGE: Volume 2, Issue 2 (January 1994)

Of the five stories in the January 1994 issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, more than half of them are stories that would not, under most circumstances, be considered science fiction. Three of the five stories are fantasies of one kind or another, and as I’ve stated before, I will take science fiction over fantasy any time. (I make an exception for contemporary fantasy; in reality, I am not a fan of epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, that kind of thing, but it is to my discredit, and says nothing of the genre.) I said from the outset that I might not comment on every story in every issue, and there have been a few stories I’ve missed. This is not meant as commentary on the story, simply a lack of time (or lack of time management skills) on my part. In the case of this issue, I focused on four of the five stories, three of which are some form of fantasy. It is therefore ironic that the story that I consider to be one of the best stories ever to appear in SCIENCE FICTION AGE through out its entire run is a fantasy that appears in this issue. Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it.

SF AGE Volume 2, Issue 2

SF AGE: Volume 2, Issue 1 (November 1993)

Set aside for the moment Scott Edelman’s editorial on “recursive” science fiction, or Norman Spinrad’s controversial essay on how fantasy has infected science fiction. The table of contents for this issue includes 7 stories because, as the magazine cover indicates, “Now: More Pages! More Stories!” And among the stories included in this issue are back-to-back tales by Barry Malzberg and Harlan Ellison. Why don’t we see these guys showing up in Asimov’s Analog, or F&SF as much today as they did in SF AGE 14 years ago?

SF AGE Volume 2, Issue 1

SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 6 (September 1993)

I was recently talking about Shakespeare with some friends, and on the same day, opened this latest issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE to read Scott Edleman’s editorial, “Science Fiction is the stuff that dream are made on”, which deals, of course, with Shakespeare. It was a good start to the final issue of SF AGE’s rookie year–and one story in this issue would turn out to be a Nebula-winner.

SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 6

SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 5 (July 1993)

Volume 1, Issue 5 is a very special issue for me for two reasons each of which I will explain below so bear with me.

First, it is special because it is the first issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE that I ever saw and that I ever owned. I came across the magazine by accident, on a weekend during the summer of 1993 (the summer between my junior and senior years at the University of California, Riverside). To kill time, we would head out to the Moreno Valley Mall and while there, I could never resist going into the B. Dalton bookstore, even though I never had much spare cash to spend on books (I was, after all, a college student). On this occasion, however, I recall seeing the magazine toward the bottom of the magazine rack. I was attracted by Piers Anthony’s name on the cover and as soon as I had discovered that he had a short story in side, I willingly forked over the $2.95 for a copy of the magazine.

Which leads me to the second reason why this issue was special. It marked a turning point for me in science fiction and in fandom. Up until this point, my exposure to science fiction was limited. I liked science fiction, don’t get me wrong, but I hadn’t read more than a few authors. When I was much younger, I’d read Madeleine L’Engle‘s 1962 classic A Wrinkle In Time. I’d read bits and pieces of Isaac Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel. I read a few other odds and ends here and there. But I’d read almost no short science fiction. And most of the science fiction I’d read up to that point was Piers Anthony (thus, what attracted me to the issue in the first place).

After reading this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE I discovered just how good short science fiction was. I immediately subscribed to the magazine. Slowly, but surely, I also began to expand my own reading within the genre. When I could, I bought short story collections from the authors that I was most familiar with. One of the first such collections that I bought was Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. I started to learn the history of the genre and within a year of picking up that first copy of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I’d read Dangerous Visions which gave me a much wider exposure to the biggest names in science fiction and lead me in 46 different directions. I read books such as Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Herovit’s World. I read Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. I continued to read Piers Anthony’s books as they came out.

At this point, I had been writing my own stories and submitting them for a little less than a year. After this “expansion” of reading on my part, I noticed a change in my own stories. They were still being rejected, but there was an increased level of maturity in the writing. I attribute this directly to the stuff that I was reading. I was learning how to write from the masters.

There was one other thing that happened. I entered fandom for the first time. Kind of. Because of that issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I wrote a letter to Piers Anthony, telling him how much I liked his story and what I big fan I was. I can’t remember how long my letter was. Within a week or two, I received back a 2 page singled-spaced letter, which was clearly personal and which encouraged me to continue to pursue my reading and writing of science fiction. Since then I have never looked back.

I was a late-bloomer when it came to really diving into science fiction. I shiver to think what might have happened if I never saw that green-bordered issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE on the magazine rack in B. Dalton. But that is an alternate history that I no longer have to worry about. Thanks to this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, I joined a special cadre of people the world over united by a common bond: the love of science fiction.

SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 5

SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 4 (May 1993)

I have had a goal since 1996 of reading on average one book per week. That would amount to 52 books per year and the closest I have ever come is 41 books. It doesn’t sound like a lot especially when I see there are people reading two or three times as much as me. Maybe I’m just a slow (but steady) reader. I am way off my pace this year, and the main part of the reason is that I have been reading and commenting on my SCIENCE FICTION AGE collection. I worried about this through the first three issues. I worried that the time I was spending reading the stories was taking away from other books that I wanted to read–what I considered my “real” reading.

With this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, however, I have changed mind. I had so much fun reading the stories in this issue that I thought to myself, so what if I am not finishing as many books as I normally do? I am deriving so much enjoyment from reading through the pages of these magazines, I am learning so much about what makes a story work, that I needn’t worry about what I am missing. I’m having too much fun to worry about it. And so I finally decided that it’s okay if I don’t finish as many books this year as I normally do. It’s okay because you really can’t beat the enjoyment you get from reading stories like these. Each issue is like a “best of” issue and this one is no different. We have Scott Edelman telling us that it’s time to go to Mars. We have Robert Silverberg demonstrating how we live in a science fiction age. We have Frederik Pohl’s words giving added meaning to Barlow’s amazing illustrations. We’ve got debate on fantasy vs. science fiction. We’ve got scientists telling us, in 1993, that we can be on Mars in 10 years. We even have a poignant review of Isaac Asimov’s last FOUNDATION novel, Forward the Foundation. And all this is aside from the five great stories that appear in this issue.

There’s nothing better than doing what you love and I love going back through these magazines, andante lugubre, reading the best that science fiction has to offer.

SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 4

SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 3 (March 1993)

I meant to get this out yesterday but I had one more story to go and I didn’t get to the story until this morning. So without further delay, here are my thoughts on Volume 1, Issue 3 of SCIENCE FICTION AGE.

SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 3

SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 2 (January 1993)

I’ve finally gotten around to finishing issue #2 of SCIENCE FICTION AGE. It’s been a busy month, since I last posted and thus the delay, but hopefully these posts will come more frequently going forward. It’s amazing how little time there is in a day to do everything you want to get done.

SF AGE Volume 1, Issue 2