Thursday, October 30, 2008

Random Interlude

So I'm driving in to work today, and as I hit the area of 183 & I35, I am suddenly surrounded by brown. I felt like I had driven into the middle of The Italian Job with Coopers no longer very Mini. I counted 22 trucks before I gave up. So tell me, Austin, what's up with the Running of the UPS Trucks?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Life Out of Balance

As I mentioned a few posts back, I've started a new job. It's not something I ever thought I would be doing, but I'm having a great time so far. Of course, part of that is the thrill of simply having a job to go to again--being unemployed sucks. Part of it is lucking into a great office situation; it's always nice to actually enjoy the people you have to spend 8-9 hours a day with, especially in an office with under ten people. But there's another part, too, which is a much bigger deal than I realized: being back in Austin, at least part time.

It's not that I don't love Kenedy. I grew up here, after all. Kenedy is the home of my heart: it's my memories and my history. I fit in here because I know how things work. I know the community, and they know me and we all make allowances because of it. But Austin, Austin is the home of my spirit. I fit in there because there are people like me--people with similar views and hobbies and backgrounds. There's a shared cultural history here that's very different than the one I share with Kenedy.

I don't mean that one is any better than the other, just that my life seems much more balanced when I have both. And what am I doing with my newly-rediscovered balance, you ask? Well, reading more, for one thing. A friend recommended that I take a look at Tobias S. Buckell's Sly Mongoose, a Caribbean-flavored, Aztec-infused space opera. With zombies.

Not only was this my first book-length Buckell, it's the third book set in the same universe. This can be a huge disadvantage. Since I am completely unfamiliar with the previous works, there has to be enough detail to get me oriented in this universe. Take that a step too far and what should be a fairly fast-moving storyline (this is Space Opera with zombies, after all) bogs down.
Luckily, Buckell neatly avoids both traps. I'm sure I would have gotten more out of this book had I read the previous two, but Sly Mongoose stands pretty well on its own.

One of the things I really liked about the book was it's cast of characters. It's not just that they're well-drawn or sympathetic (although they are), it's that they're multi-cultural, with aspirations and motivations drawn from that culture as well as circumstance. For a genre so concerned with epic stories and galactic scale, the descriptions of human culture remain distressingly homogeneous. Authors that make their extrapolations from more varied cultures like Buckell or Chris Roberson really are a breath of fresh air in a genre that can feel rote and stale.

And from the epic scope of Buckell's space opera, I moved to the goofy farce of John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars. This was Scalzi's "starter novel;" the novel he wrote to prove to himself & others that he could really write a novel. He posted it online for free, asking readers who enjoyed it to send him a dollar. Over the years, he actually made $4000. The good folks at Subterranean Press came calling & published a limited edition, which sold out. Now the folks at Tor have brought it out in an exceedingly snappy trade paperback, making this, The Little Practice Novel That Could.

It's not Great Literature, but it was never intended to be. What it is is a fantastically quick, fun read with characters it's a real pleasure to spend time with. The dialogue is snappy, the plot really moves, and if you enjoyed Scalzi's The Android's Dream, you'll be pleased to see another race that communicates by smell, albeit a much less stuffy and insufferable one.

So let's see here: two homes, one familiar that feeds my heart, one dynamic that feeds my spirit, and two books, one epic in scale and intent, one tight and endearingly goofy. Sure, I could just stick with one or the other, but what fun would that be? A little balance is a good thing. A really, really good thing. And that ridiculously long commute I have? Really not so ridiculous after all when you look at the bigger picture.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Writing Class

My return to the ranks of the working poor has also meant the return of my reading jones. I've burned through Tattoo Blues (a quick, fun read in the Hiaasen mode, featuring a farting manatee and the immortal phrase "lesbian clam pirate"), Liz Williams' second Inspector Chen novel, The Demon & the City (I read them all out of order, but this is a great detective series set in a world where Chinese mythology is real), and both Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter (I hate to say it, but the series is better). But my favorite recent read is Jincy Willett's The Writing Class.

Firstly, a confession: I've never taken a writing class. But I know a lot of people who have both taken them and taught them, so I do have some passing familiarity with the beast. Clearly Willett knows some of the same people, because she's got it nailed. The teacher, Amy Gallup, is a woman who was published in her 20's then watched her career slowly fade away. She's cynical, out of shape, and borderline agoraphobic. The students will be instantly familiar if you've spent time around writers, from the serious students to the student with an over-developed sense of self-importance to the students just there to meet someone. But the best part is, as familiar as all of these characters are, Willett takes her time fleshing them out and giving them some reality beyond the stereotypes.

Now add The Stalker, one of the group who starts by making cruel comments on others' papers and escalates into nasty practical jokes and then murder, and you've got a great story. Will they figure out who the Stalker is? Will they be forced to perform someone's terrifically bad play? Will Amy be able to overcome her fears in time to save her life? Will her dog ever actually like her? You'll have to read it to find out, and the answers are well worth it.

Amy Gallup is certainly the heart of this book, and I really liked her. She's smart and clever and a good teacher, but she has some real, albeit understandable, problems. Watching her wrestle with her demons was inspiring, and she also made me laugh out loud.

So spend some time with Amy Gallup and The Writing Class; I think you'll enjoy the coursework.