Food is a pretty essential part of our lives. After air and water, it’s the most important in fact, right before shelter and love.
And since here in America we’ve more or less got an abundance of good shelter, edible food, and potable water (we’re all breathing and trying to figure out how to get the whole love thing right, so we’ll leave those aside for now) it’s not at all surprising to me that our focus has shifted from quantity (ie., “do I have enough to eat”?) to quality (ie., “should I do a balsamic glaze on that and/or add truffles to it?”).
I’m a big fan of food. It’s one of the reasons that more than once in my life, I’ve tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. Jamie and I met, in fact, by way of an at-work lunch invitation, and we’ve been pursuing gustatory hedonism with reckless abandon ever since. (Okay, that might be overstating it a bit. But we both love to cook, and to eat.) There was a period of time, before it became a very hipsterish thing to do, when we even called ourselves “foodies.” (Momentary digression – is the popular cultural distaste for hipsterism becoming a new, reactionary meta-anti-hipsterism? Discuss!) A year ago last week, Jamie and I and the kids embarked upon the Primal Blueprint lifestyle and collectively lost enough weight to equal an entire teenager. We felt better, we looked better, and we didn’t have to compromise on the quality of our food. We did, however, learn that the best food is often the simplest. It’s a lesson that perhaps gets lost sometimes in the pursuit of PhDs in molecular gastronomy.
But there’s reasonable evidence that for us first-worlders, food has become a sort of graven image, an approachable artisan false god sourced from local ingredients and worshiped au flambé. This is evidenced by the fact that we’re a nation OK with the fact that we’re fed an incessant barrage of imagery best described as “food porn.”
About five years ago, my personal obsession was gourmet coffee. It started when I went looking for a good coffee shop that could deliver a taste above the average Green Mermaid experience. I stumbled across reviews for a little place in Clarendon called Murky Coffee. It sounded fantastic, so I went there, and it was absolutely better than I could possibly have imagined. You know how even people who don’t like coffee thinks it smells great? This was a place dedicated to making coffee taste like it smells, and they were remarkably close. The place was mismanaged by the mad coffee genius Nick Cho, and wound up being shut down only a couple years after I found it, but I would still give a kidney to have another one of those lattes. Nobody else in the city even comes close.
At the time, I wanted a piece of that action, and so I went out and dropped about $400 on prosumer-grade coffee equipment and started buying really good beans so I could practice making espresso drinks at home. I was dedicated. It wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to start a coffee shop of my own, and Jamie and I even came up with a business plan and a logo. Seriously:
We were stoked. We tried several times to get the investment capital to make it happen, and on one occasion came pretty close to succeeding, but in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Still, I was all over the third wave coffee movement, because I had become a true believer. I even wrote a piece about the analogous relationship between coffee rubric and religious ritual for a major publication. (And, speaking of food porn, check out the crema on these naked portafilters!) But without funding or specific direction, my dream slipped away and died, and the energy in the coffee movement moved in new directions. People started hyping the $11,000 Clover machine, that supposedly made a perfect cup of coffee. People who were die hard about the French Press method started waxing poetic over pour-over instead. The Synesso Syncra, once the Bugatti Veyron of Espresso Machines, had competition from new players and old. The game continued to change.
And as it changed, I lost track. I had quit my job and moved to Arizona to help out my fellow man and follow the coffee dream, but I got bamboozled in the process. Pretty soon I was too broke to buy a tall black decaf drip, let alone a $22 12 oz. fair trade flavor extravaganza. I didn’t have the energy to keep up with it all anymore. That heartwarming story involves trailer park fires, crazy men burying axes in the side of their homes, tenant battles, ditch digging, fatal drug overdoses, family betrayals, broken job contracts, heroic financial rescues, and an eventual return to Virginia, followed by a long (and ongoing) period of redemption and re-establishment. That’s a yarn I won’t spin here. Suffice it to say, though, that during that period of time my economic reality knocked me off the foodie wagon. And it was a very good thing.
I rediscovered my love of home-brewed drip coffee, made from grounds that came in a can. (This is heresy – beans should be fresh ground in a conical burr grinder and brewed within two minutes of grinding. Further, beans should be no more than 14 days from roast date, and should NEVER go through a drip machine. Press pot, pour over, portafilter or nothing, buddy!) I also got cozy with cheap wine. I learned to pass on that $21.99 a pound brie, except maybe on special occasions. In a way, I guess you could say I broadened my range. I still liked and appreciated the good stuff. But I had learned to love the stuff that had gotten me into my interest in good food in the first place. The basic, economical entries into the world of high food that could, done right, still be made to taste pretty damned good.
And let’s be honest. Some of the good stuff is overrated. Back in the day, when I was at the height of my coffee hysteria, I had heard about a place called Grape & Bean, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a wine bar and good coffee kind of experience. Yesterday, I was out that way, and remembered the place. Pining for the days of coffee sophistication, I headed over there.
The place is situated in an iconic setting. Old Town Alexandria is picturesque, and it fits every aesthetic criterion for foodie culture.
I went in wanting a latte, looked around, and realized they had no espresso machine. Disappointed, I remembered hearing they had a Clover, but didn’t see one of those either. Still, they had specialty coffees, and I ordered a Guatamela Finca el Injerto – Bourbon from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. First, because I saw the word “bourbon” in it (and bourbon always has a positive connotation in my book) and second because the description was enticing: “Milk chocolate fuses elegantly with flavors of lime, melon and cognac in a cup embellished by a cinnamon aroma.”
A dude attired in something along the more professional side of barista-style (ill-fitting suit hanging loosely over gaunt frame, ill-kempt beard, wireframe glasses) came at last to my drink. He ground the beans (which smelled amazing) and then popped them into something called a Trifecta. I had no idea what this was, so I looked it up. It apparently involves hydrolysis. Who knew? To me, it looked like a super-fancy-automated-French-press machine. That spins.
In the end, I wound up with a steaming cup of pleasant, but fairly average tasting coffee. I’m a creamer but no sugar guy, but I tasted it black first. Meh. This was a four dollar cup of something not that special, and I found myself wondering if maybe all this gourmet foodism has just gone too far. We focus so much time, effort, and money on getting the best flavors we can out of something, I think we forget to just enjoy it. I don’t miss spending 20 minutes making a single cup of coffee in the morning. I brewed two cups with less than 2 minutes worth of effort today, and they tasted just fine through my $12 Mr. Coffee drip machine. In fact, I preferred them. It’s not that my palate lacks the sophistication to taste subtle nuances of…okay, actually, maybe it does. Because I can taste that coffees are different, but I can rarely say why. I do better with wines and whiskeys, but even there, you hit a wall at some point beyond which you’re just paying too much money for an almost imperceptible improvement in taste.
In high school, I determined that I needed to learn to like coffee because it was the ubiquitous beverage, offered everywhere, often for free, and I hated it. That seemed impractical. I learned to like it, then I learned to love it, then I loved it too much, and now I’m back to a more balanced appreciation of it. Heaven isn’t something we find in a cup. We have to work harder than that for paradise. I don’t want to have to work this hard on coffee, on food, or anything that’s going to do a quick detour through my digestive system and wind up back in the ground again.
It’s okay to love food that tastes good. I just think we sometimes get a little too crazy about it.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to answer the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
This is strange, because since I was a child I’ve never struggled to find activities I enjoy. I am, first and foremost, a creative person. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made things. As a child I drew pictures, wrote stories, built things out of Legos, recorded audio productions, wrote scripts, made movies, came up with inventions, and generally constructed realities that I enjoyed, then shared them with others.
As I grew older, these habits came with me. I won an all-school fiction writing contest in the 5th grade. I got pretty decent at art. I borrowed video cameras from anyone I could, and created dramas by drafting siblings and cousins into my casts. In college, I studied radio and television production, where I collaborated on some extracurricular student films, had a radio show, and even had a popular column in the student newspaper. During my semester in Europe, I wrote long, serialized journal entries about my travels. These were sent by my mother (unbeknownst to me) to large groups of family and friends via email. I started to gain a following.
As I neared the end of my college career, people would see me at a wedding or a party and take me aside. “You are really talented,” they’d say. “You need to be a writer.” And I glowed inside, because really, that’s what I wanted to do. Since that time in the 5th grade when I won the writing contest – and was awarded a trip to a major publishing house with my dad – I wanted to write novels, and in particular novels of science fiction. This was the genre I had always enjoyed most. As a boy, after all, I had turned those Legos into spaceships. I spent long evenings in the cold, under the stars, searching the sky for UFOs. I tore into novels about cyberspace and robots, and reveled in stories about the great adventures among the stars. I, too, wanted to create worlds that people would love as much as the ones I enjoyed in the books I read, the video games I played, and the movies I devoured. I wanted my own stories to be made into movies, to some day stand on a set and help them better understand some scene or character as my work was brought to life before me. That was my dream. It was woven through all the various layers of my education and experience.
But at some point along the way, I had decided that it was silly. Impractical. As a young man, I was perhaps unusually committed to my Catholic faith and found that I was rather articulate in writing about it. It wasn’t long before I was writing professionally on these topics for national publications. I was also ghostwriting at work for big executives at client companies. Perhaps, I thought, this was where my gift was of greatest benefit. Entertaining people with escapist fiction never felt as important as evangelizing people, winning the war for souls, or practicing good corporate communications. Not to mention that in my opinion, good fiction was rough around the edges. When I wrote, I wasn’t afraid of coarse language or scenes I knew my fellow Catholics might find a bit scandalous, because they felt right in the story. And I could never escape the idea that all those people whose respect I had earned as a Catholic writer would shake their heads at me and think I had lost my way if I wrote from the gut. I also couldn’t help thinking that the people who would like my fiction would wind up reading all my religious writing out on the Internet and turn their backs on me as well. SciFi and orthodox theology make strange bedfellows. It was like my brain was split into two opposing halves. Would I need to write under a pseudonym? Would I have to hide the work I did on each side of the divide from the people who liked what I did on the other? Not to mention, I kept hearing how so hard it was to become a successful novelist. Writers of fiction have to be really exceptional, and also lucky, just to make a living. Plus, there was the doom and gloom about the “death of publishing.”
So when people would ask me what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know.” Because I couldn’t answer with something that wasn’t viable. That just felt stupid. Who would aspire to that? Who would take me seriously? I convinced myself that I didn’t want to do what I had, in fact, always wanted to do.
As has often been the case in my life, I was killing my chances at success long before I ever took the steps to achieve them. I was giving myself permission to give up, to fail, to never pursue a dream I secretly feared was too hard for me to accomplish. I didn’t want my life’s ambition to turn out to be something I wasn’t capable of doing. So I found endless reasons not to even try. Instead, I did other things. I looked for ways to write at work, or design, or create, but these were always paths that took me in another direction from what I really liked to do. These things, I knew, would make me more money. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed them, because I was pretty good at them, and that’s how people make a living.
But I was never really satisfied with that answer.
This summer, I will celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary. My wife Jamie is a truly exceptional woman. She is also a uniquely challenging one. I have a big personality. I can run people over when I want to. I’m no slouch in an argument. I’m incredibly stubborn, and I have a temper. I’ve notoriously been what I call a “realist” and others call “negative” or “pessimistic.” I’m also a physically big man, which can be intimidating to some people. All of this is to say, when I’m on a path and have momentum, it’s a bit hard to change my course. My wife, on the other hand, is physically small. She is generally a calm, happy, optimistic person. She lights up a room with her smile, and brings order where I bring chaos. But she is also tenacious, persistent, and focused. She is a fearsome negotiator. When she sets her mind on something, it happens. She can also transform into a warrior queen. This transformation is only brought about by extreme conflict, usually in circumstances where my stubborn self-defeatism meets her indomitable spirit.
In other words: she will not take any shit from me.
Jamie has never stopped pushing me toward success. She has never stopped telling me to find what I love and do it. She is still practical and expects me to hold down a decent job – after all, we are about to have our 6th child. But she knows I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for, and she won’t let me weasel out of it. And oh boy have I tried to weasel. Always with the making of excuses for why I just can’t. Her, always telling me I need to get the word “can’t” out of my vocabulary.
So for the last two years, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, that’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I have yet to complete it. Last year, I only wrote about 4,000 words by the end. This year, I wrote 15,000. Not great, but hey – progress. And I haven’t stopped. I’m still working. Still plugging away. At this moment, I have committed 23,143 words to (virtual) paper. By NaNoWriMo standards, I’m almost half-way there.
I don’t like my story all that much, but that’s beside the point. This is a learning adventure. I am writing to the end, and then I’m going to revise, and if a workable story comes out of it, so be it. If not, I will finally understand the scope, scale, pitfalls, and problems of my writing process as applied to such a large, complex task. And I will know, at long last, after 30-some years of writing stories, that I can reach. the. finish. line.
And if it still sucks after I’ve given it a big fat editorial makeover, I will write another one. Because I can.
I received a reminder of why this is worth doing when I got an email this week from a certain novelist whose debut book came out in 2012. It’s a science fiction book, and a good one at that. We’ve corresponded in the past, and he approached me to ask if I’d be willing to nominate the work for a Hugo award.
I was touched by the request. He has reached that next level. I’m still working on Big Scary Challenge #1, finishing the book, but he’s made it to Big Scary Challenge #2, recognition. He’s in the next part of the race, the one I only dream about right now. And I realized that I can help him take this next step. I can be a part of that journey, just as others who have encouraged and assisted me have been a part of mine.
This particular author came to writing fiction at the end of a fruitful career in another industry. When I asked how things were going since the book came out, one thing he said really stuck with me:
I’ve just finished my second novel and I’ve started work on my third. I wish I’d done this earlier – I feel it’s what I was made for.
That. Is. Awesome.
That is a feeling I want to know. To finally be doing what you’re made to do. I’ve been kicking this can down the road my whole life. Avoiding doing the necessary hard work (and believe me, writing a novel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do) is one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. I see authors out there like Veronica Roth who already has a mega-major-bestselling series and movie deal at age 24, or Larry Correia who has quickly become my favorite writer and has at least one bestseller out of 8 books currently published and 18 more books coming at age 35 (my age), and I wonder what I’ve been doing with myself. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Maybe I needed to reach this place, this time, this level of experience before I could be ready to do this. Maybe I just wasn’t mature enough before. Maybe I was too damned arrogant and thought I was special and that I’d find some magic shortcut to success without having to really try all that hard. (That last one makes me cringe, but it’s true.) Whatever the case, at long last, I know now that it’s finally time.
I’m done being afraid of my own dreams. I’m over being embarrassed about them. I only get one go round in this world, and I want it to be enjoyable. I want the satisfaction of accomplishing something I can be proud of. In the back of my mind, there’s this voice always telling me to lay it out for everyone, to let them know that yes, I know that I might fail, but this is no time for the hedging of bets. I won’t fail. I will succeed. I may not be good at a lot of things, but the good Lord decided to make it so I could write, and write I shall.
Every morning these days, I have a new prayer. I ask God to give me the strength and courage and ability to be a successful writer of fiction. No more hiding from it. No more feeling like I should be asking Him for something more important, or looking for some greater calling. It’s not my lot in life to cure cancer, but maybe it’s my lot in life to tell the kind of stories that ease the suffering of someone who has cancer, because just for a little while, they can escape their world and go on an adventure in a world I’ve made. I can live with that. That’s a noble enough calling for me.
And with the Hugo awards on my mind, I’ll double down and publicly state another goal: I’m going to get one. I don’t know how long it will take, or when it will happen, but one day I’m going to have that beautiful silver rocket sitting on my shelf, next to the books I’ve written and all the ones that have inspired me, and I’m going look at it every day and grin like a little kid who just made a particularly cool spaceship out of Legos.
In economic times like these, every financial change has an impact. This year, I switched to a health care plan that isn’t costing me anything. The health care change isn’t as good as it sounds, though, and it wasn’t brought on by choice – the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare) has made premiums go up, and my office had to scramble to find alternatives. If I had kept my kids on my plan, my personal premiums would have gone up by hundreds of dollars a month. Even without kids, nobody in the office was allowed to stay on the old plan, because the office contribution was too high. We had to get creative. In my case, I had to shift the kids over to my wife’s private, high-deductible HSA. Since my office covers me, I moved to a more inexpensive plan with poorer coverage. I’ll be paying way more in deductibles and about the same in premiums as I was last year. Not exactly a win.
Setting health care aside for a moment, though, President Obama made it appear that he has had a come to Jesus moment on middle class tax cuts. He told us that his Fiscal Cliff plan had to happen because it was ‘‘the only way to put our economy on a sustainable path without asking even more from the middle class”.
On December 31, 2012, He also warned:
Unless Congress acts, he said, “starting Jan. 1, every family in America will see their taxes automatically go up.”
He went on: “A typical middle-class family of four would see its income taxes go up by $2,200. That’s $2,200 out of people’s pockets. That means less money for buying groceries, less money for filling prescriptions, less money for buying diapers. It means a tougher choice between paying the rent and paying tuition. And middle-class families just can’t afford that now.”
To emphasize that these cuts are a big deal, he asked people to “tell members of Congress what a $2,000 tax hike would mean to you.”
As an official, card-carrying member of the middle class, I agree that this kind of increase is bad. Which is why I’d like to know why it’s OK that payroll taxes have gone back up – even on the middle class – courtesy of President Obama’s plan.
Have you looked at your January paystub yet? Let me tell you about mine. Even with the reduction in health care premiums, I am now making just about $120 less per month, which comes out to $1440 per year. That number is pretty damned close to that “$2,00 tax hike” Obama was warning us about. I am one of the fortunate few who is getting a little cost-of-living bump starting with my next check, so that will help a bit, but the government is still taking twice the amount of my meager raise. That means that even with the increase, I will now make less than I did before I got it. And if you’re reading this, chances are very good you’re in the same boat.
Doesn’t sound like a recession-killer to me.
With the increase, I’m losing about $700 a year. Without that little increase, the situation would have been more dire. The President wanted to know what a tax hike would mean to me, so let’s have a look at the pre-raise impact of the change, which is what most people will be dealing with:
In my family, $120 would cover my choice of:
- Over a week’s worth of groceries for our family of seven
- Three weeks worth of gas for my car
- 6 cases of diapers
- Half a month’s worth of electricity
- New clothes for two children who are outgrowing what they have
- Grooming for my tangled, betaloned hairball of a dog
- Haircuts for my wife, myself, and the three boys
- That birthday dinner I wanted to take my wife out to enjoy this month
- Our Internet, Phone, and Netflix subscriptions combined
- A whole bunch of books (we’re avid readers)
- A whole bunch of art supplies for the kids’ crafts, my sculpting hobby, and the oldest girl’s scrapbooking
- Swim lessons for the three youngest for a month
- Paint, rollers, tape, and brushes for all the rooms of the house that need to be re-painted
- Gifts for the three family members whose birthdays will be here over the next 60 days
- New onesies and supplies for the new baby who is coming in March
- Minimum payments on at least 3 credit cards
I’ll stop there. Because I could keep going all day with what I could do with an extra Benjamin and an Andrew Jackson per month. Taken on a yearly basis, it gets even better, because $1440 would more than cover my choice of:
- A new dishwasher to replace the useless thing in the kitchen that’s been sitting inert for two months
- A new, more energy efficient dryer to match the capacity of the new washer we had to get last year when the old one died
- A payoff on the new washer we had to get last year when the old one died
- A new fridge to replace the one that’s hissing and always popping open leaking cold air into the kitchen
- Repairs on the front end of my car which has had damage for a year because of a high deductible
- New tires for my car, which I’ll need very soon
- A new lawnmower and leaf blower to help me win my never-ending battle against nature
- A new computer to replace my five-year old slow-motion machine
- A new laptop for Jamie’s business to replace the 7 year old scrap-heaps she nurses along
- A whole bunch of listing signs and marketing materials for Jamie’s business
- Our HOA dues for the next 3 years
- A big chunk of school tuition
- A bedroom set for our room with actual places to keep clothes and put lamps on and such
- A living room set so we can replace the broken down, mismatched furniture in there
- Christmas for 2013, including gifts for everyone and a dinner for the extended family
- An actual vacation, which we have never taken in almost 10 years of marriage
- A nice celebration of our 10th anniversary, maybe even some alone time somewhere nice
I’ll run out of time before I run out of things competing for my money. Of course, I won’t be spending that money now because I won’t have it. And neither will anyone else, because they’re all looking at their paychecks this week asking the same questions I am. Even those of us who did get raises have less to spend than we thought we would, and in cases like mine, we still have less to spend than we did in December. That’s not exactly going to boost the economy, is it? It’s time for more belt-tightening.
People will tell you that the money that’s being taken will go to help fix Social Security, and that’s somehow a good thing. Let’s have a moment of self-honesty, shall we? If you’re a Gen Xer or younger: you’re never going to see a dime of the money you put in to that money pit. The math doesn’t work. The system is broke now, and will be nothing but a bad memory by the time we’re old enough to be eligible to get back what we paid in. You just have to kiss it goodbye, and plan to work until you kick the bucket or make really smart investments starting right now. Financial Analyst (and frighteningly accurate economic crisis seer) Peter Schiff dishes out the tough love on Social Security:
My wife and I will find ways to compensate for this. I’ll keep writing on the side. She’ll keep working, even though she’s 7 months pregnant, and she’ll continue being busy even if she has to do it with a newborn strapped to her back and little kids in tow. That’s how we roll.
But not everyone can fit more working time into a day. Some people are already working at more than capacity, and there’s no more to give. Others are sick, or underemployed, or just in general don’t have very good options for earning more income.
Taking more of our money so it can be mismanaged, spent frivolously, or redistributed by a bloated, leviathan government is not OK. I could certainly be making a worse living, but I’m not exactly what I would call “comfortable.” In our household, we don’t have much margin for error. Lots of months, we just scrape by. We often have to manage unexpected expenses using credit cards, which I hate doing. We still owe money to people who have helped us out in the past when we were in a jam. We’re working hard to dig out of that hole, and I really don’t appreciate the government throwing more dirt on the pile. And for what? To help pay for a massive piece of health care legislation that infringes religious liberty, damages businesses and non-profits, and will expedite the already fast-moving ride toward national bankruptcy? To fund a government that wants to take away our 2nd amendment rights by executive fiat? Thanks but no thanks.
I can’t believe we have four more years of this, and we’re only just getting started. I don’t know who will be running for the White House in 2016, but if things keep up at this rate, they may not have much America left to work with.
New features abound at WordPress, and the 2012 blogging report is no exception. According to my report:
- I had 25,000 views in 2012
- Only 59 posts – I will be writing more in 2013.
- Hands down, my biggest post was Is Wheat Bad For You?, which had over 10,000 pageviews on its own for 2012.
- Second biggest post was Why Facebook is Evil, with 1,710.
I’d add to this report that I spent way too much time talking about Social Media strategy and platforms last year. I’ve grown bored of talking about it (I’ve been involved in Social Media professionally since 2006) but it’s a big part of what I do for work, and it was on my mind. I’m going to be moving away from that this year, and back to talking about whatever interests me. Spin the wheel, baby – that can be a lot of different things.
So in a world riddled with debt, school shootings, dangerous regimes, and men wearing leggings, this is news.
In case you missed it last week, the Internets blew up at Hasbro when they responded poorly to McKenna Pope’s petition. McKenna, and about 40,000 other people, would like to see a version of the Easy Bake oven that appeals to boys and girls. She isn’t asking a lot, just some gender neutral styling and colors.
Hasbro’s public relations department responded with some history of the oven, explained that boys do play with their toys, and have been featured on packaging in the past. They stopped short of indicating a uni-sex version was planned, or even possible. As expected, the response went viral and spread like wildfire through Facebook and Twitter and even caught the attention of some celebrity chefs.
Today Hasbro invited Ms McKenna and her family to their headquarters and revealed a new line of ovens available in black, silver, or blue. The official announcement was not be made until the NY Toy Fair in February. It appears that Hasbro has been working on the color scheme for about 18 months and expects it to be on shelves by summer.
Some of my more conservative friends are pretty up in arms about this. They think it’s a bad idea, and part of the long-ongoing emasculation of boys – a thing which I believe is a real problem, so I can’t say I blame them.
That said, I can’t get that worked up about this. My mom picked me up a red and black (boy colors) Easy Bake for 50 cents from a garage sale when I was about six. It looked like this:
As you can see, – ugly as sin, but not remotely girly. In fact, I’m pretty sure this was designed by the same people that gave us the Pontiac Aztek. (Just ask Walter White what a chick magnet that thing is.) Fast forward thirty years, and this is what the Easy Bake ovens look like now. My six-year-old self wouldn’t have been caught dead with one of these things:
So I had this oven now and I decided to take a break from my usual fort building, weapon creating, bike riding, tree climbing, invention making, robot-pretending activities and made a couple mini cakes and cookies – one at a time. Because who the hell doesn’t like dessert? I learned three things:
1) You can cook shit with a lightbulb. How awesome is that? That rocked my world of known physics at the time.
2) That little metal pan will MELT YOUR FLESH FROM YOUR BONES if you don’t use the pusher-thingy to get it out (and it often got stuck in the track, which was fun) which makes point #1 even more amazing.
3) It’s stupid to make baked goods in quantities smaller than you can eat them. If you’re not making enough cookies that you will be sick from eating them all, you’re doing it wrong.
At the end of the day, though, it sparked my interest in cooking, and I kept at it. I ditched the easy bake and moved on to the real deal. My parents started calling me “chef boyar-Steve”. By the time I was in college, all the chicks would come over to my house and eat whenever I’d make dinner. And I could make killer desserts, which most guys never learn how to do because I guess it’s supposed to be girly. Whatever.
I think it worked out pretty well. And I never fell down the slippery slope and asked for a barbie. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I don’t want people pushing barbies, dresses, and jewelry-making kits on my boys, but if they make an oven that looks like an effing killer robot and you bake cookies inside its mouth and they learn how to make them and start feeding them to me when they get good enough at it, I’m on board.
As you may have gathered, I’m an avid reader, particularly of fiction. 2012 has been a year full of particularly interesting reads. According to my handy-dandy Goodreads tracker, I’ve read 26 books this year. Not too shabby. In this post, I’ll recap my favorites. If you haven’t read these books and are looking for a last minute gift for the book lover in your life — even if that’s yourself — this is for you.
Favorite Novel of 2012: Hard Magic, by Larry Correia
Some books, you hear about once and you find that you just have to track them down and read them. Hard Magic was not one of those books. No, this masterpiece of “Epic Fantasy” instead came looking for me, again and again, through my Audible.com account. Every time I was on Audible trying to figure out where to spend my credits, Hard Magic was there being recommended by some inscrutable algorithm that had decided this was the book I most needed to read.
And every time I looked at it, there were two things I couldn’t get past:
1.) This cover:
(You want to see an amazing cover for this book that fits the way it actually feels? Check out the French version by illustrator Vincent Chong.)
2.) That the audiobook version was read by Balki Bartokomous. I shit you not. I saw Bronson Pinchot’s name, and I was immediately transported to my days as a child watching Perfect Strangers.
Finally, with credits I needed to spend and time running out, I went for it. And I let it sit for two months. Which was stupid, because it was the best damn book I read all year, and Bronson Pinchot does an absolutely amazing job bringing the characters to life. He is — hands down — the most talented audiobook narrator I’ve heard yet. And folks, I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks. If you buy only one book this year, this is the one.
So how do I describe Hard Magic? Well, it’s a mix between The Maltese Falcon, the X-Men, Alphas, some kind of Steampunk, and The Rook. (More on The Rook in a minute.) It’s totally unique. It’s noir, it’s alternate history, it’s fantasy, it’s sci-fi, it’s magic and alien forces and ninjas and pirates and sweet guns and superweapons and people with amazing powers and every fun theme you can think of to put into a novel all rolled into one. To me, this is a whole new genre. I don’t even know how to define it.
What I do know is that Larry Correia is a flipping genius. His books are entertaining as hell, and that’s just how I like them. Since Hard Magic, I’ve also read Spellbound (the sequel to Hard Magic) and Monster Hunter International (from a different series and his first published book) and both were excellent. Reading Correia’s books makes me want to write, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to give than to say that an author inspires me to hone my craft and get out there and produce something even fractionally as good.
Hard Magic is good guys vs. bad guys in a world-spanning battle that takes place on a grand scale. Both the heroes and villains have super powers, and they’re not afraid to use them. On the one side is the Grimnoir, a secret society of heroes that is dedicated to protecting the world from evil and using their superpowers for good; on the other, the Imperium, lead by the mysterious and indestructible chairman, conduit of unimaginable connection to the inscrutable power that has altered lives and changed the course of history.
Favorite Novel of 2012 before I read Hard Magic – The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley
In what seems to be a theme this year, my two favorite books are both Sci-Fi with a twist into the realm of almost paranormal fantasy. The Rook is Australian writer Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, and it’s an absolutely stunning first outing.
At turns laugh-out-loud funny, suspenseful, confusing, and awe-inspiring, The Rook is the first book of its kind I’ve ever read. It paved the way for me to enjoy the work of Larry Correia, pulling me out of my usual hard Sci-Fi rut and into something more imaginative and fun, but no less engaging.
From the book blurb:
Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.
As Myfanwy battles to save herself, she encounters a person with four bodies, a woman who can enter her dreams, children transformed into deadly fighters, and an unimaginably vast conspiracy. Suspenseful and hilarious, THE ROOK is an outrageously inventive debut for readers who like their espionage with a dollop of purple slime.
Once again, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mitch Kelly at Hachette Audio for sending me a copy of the audiobook version of The Rook, which I was supposed to review months ago but never got around to. Susan Duerden’s reading took some getting used to — she has a sing-songy quality to her voice and a slightly unusual cadence that is at first off-putting — but once I was used to it, I thought she did a fantastic job.
To describe The Rook, imagine an amnesia story about a super-powered government secret agent who is part of an organization that is filled with people of extraordinary abilities whose job it is to quietly deal with outbreaks of monsters, mysteries, and the paranormal, all while someone on the inside is trying to kill her. I love the characters, which is such a critical part of every good story, and Myfanwy is someone you just can’t help rooting for as she tries to uncover who she was — and has become — while fighting some of the nastiest villains this side of the X-Files.
I enjoyed The Rook so much that even though I had a promotional copy of the audiobook, I went out and bought the Hardcover too. I haven’t seen it since, incidentally, as it’s been making the rounds through my family members. One of these days I might even get it back. Which would be nice, because I’d like to read it again.
Best Hard Sci-Fi Novel – Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey
Do you like space battles? Creepy alien threats? Interplanetary incidents? Massive conspiracies? Then read this book. The sequel to the excellent debut, Leviathan Wakes (which I reviewed here), Caliban’s War is way, way more intense. I couldn’t put it down. One night after work I clocked in 175 pages before I had to force myself to go to bed. It’s absolutely gripping.
Buy it. Buy it now and read it until your eyes bleed.
Best Novel Not Involving Aliens, Demons, Monsters, Spaceships or Super Powers – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a beautiful and heartbreaking book. (And it’s so wonderfully English, too. At times it made me feel like I was reading Roald Dahl for grownups.) Though it ultimately fails to attain deeper meaning in its search for answers, there is an earnest, salt-of-the-earth yearning present that makes me feel as though with a little push, this could have been so much more.
All the same, I am rarely moved to tears while reading a story. This one brought me there several times, and stirred in me certain aches that will not easily subside. You don’t read about Mr. Fry’s pilgrimage, you live it, and all that goes with it, and you will, like Harold, be changed by the journey.
Best Nonfiction Book – Ghost in the Wires, by Kevin Mitnick & Bill Simon
I’ve been fascinated with the Kevin Mitnick story since I was a kid. Reading about his exploits was part and parcel of the emerging world of technology, BBSes, and the nascent Internet I was fascinated with as a teen.
Ghost in the Wires is Mitnick’s memoir of his hacking, cracking, and phreaking days. He recounts in detail his thirst for knowledge of source code, operating systems, and internal phone company workings. He talks social engineering, dumpster diving, and the means by which an otherwise unassuming guy could take control of highly sensitive information and use it for his own purposes. Mitnick also talks consequences, speaking about the dark days he spent in solitary confinement, his cloak and dagger escapes (and eventual captures) in his encounters with law enforcement, and the criminal activities (and media exaggerations) that made him infamous, and ultimately led to him being known as “The world’s most wanted hacker.”
The book is fascinating, if a bit self-serving (he clearly attempts to paint himself as a much better guy than earlier accounts would have led you to believe – it’s up to you to decide who is telling the truth) and I recommend it to anyone interested in Mitnick’s life, or the subjects of social engineering, hacking, or phone phreaking.
I’ve never been particularly good at figuring out who I am, from a work standpoint. I’m good at a lot of things, but passionate about fewer things. Still, I’m passionate about a number of things, and I can’t seem to land on one of them. I think of myself first as a maker, a dabbler in the creative arts. Writing, painting, sculpting, designing, taking photographs — all of these activities give me the greatest amount of satisfaction among the various types of work.
But I’m also a good relationship builder, communicator, researcher, team builder, analyst, and strategist. These skills are more marketable as a professional, but ultimately less satisfying on a human level. They pay the bills, as it were, so that I can spend my free time (what little there is with my brood of children running amok in the world) pursuing the creative arts. To what end? For the joy of it, surely, but also for the elusive promise of commercial success, the ultimate validation of the artist in the modern world.
The Internet has surely changed things for creatives. There are so many outlets for your work, and you feel this overarching need to cram as much of it as you can into as many venues as possible. Some of these venues are for mere exposure or sharing, others are so you can make a buck. Some are professional, others are personal. Right now I write for at least five different websites, have my design work front and center (though uncredited) on my company’s website, have artwork and photos in at least three different places (not including Facebook), have opened an Etsy store for my sculptures (only one little minion in there now who happens to be pretty damn spendy, give it time though…I have a shelf full of them and they won’t all cost that much), and have a bunch of t-shirts and bumperstickers dispersed through several stores on Zazzle and CafePress. None of this includes the creative sharing that’s happening on an almost day-to-day basis on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or the content creation I do through Snip.It so I can hang on to all the bits and pieces I read/view/gawk at to fuel the creative process. Oh, or the 13,000 some-odd words I’ve put into my NaNoWriMo novel this month, which I obviously won’t finish in time but hope to at least finish some time.
It’s like death by a thousand cuts. I put too much effort into too many projects in too many different places, and sometimes I wonder how many times I can go back to the well. I haven’t written in this space since freaking August. That’s crazy to me. In the back of my head, I also have this idea rattling around that I need to re-purpose this space to better reflect all the different projects I’m working on, and this ethos of being a maker of stuff, but it’s all so fragmented I don’t know how to capture it. And it takes so much damned time to do it all myself, pulling together all the pieces and finding the right technology to showcase it and turn it all into something that forms something like a coherent whole.
I’m probably doing something wrong. But this is how I roll. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be more focused. It’s probably pretty neat, but then again, if my mind weren’t constantly bouncing from thing to thing like a crack-addled pinball I don’t know how it would affect my process. I piece together so many disparate sources of inspiration when I make things, and I only do that because I’m all over the place.
Are you focused? Are you not focused but have found tools to help you get there? Inquiring, ADD-riddled minds want to know.
As regular readers know, my blog covers a wide range of topics within my various areas of interest. One theme that has risen to the top lately is literary Science Fiction. It’s a genre I love, and it’s a genre I also dabble in myself in the hopes of getting some work published some day. I’ve taken to reviewing certain books over the past few months, and John Love, author of Faith (see my review) graciously offered to sit down and answer some questions about his debut novel, himself, and his work as a writer. This interview is a first for me, but I hope it won’t be the last.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your novel Faith. This is your first published novel, and this is my first interview with a novelist. You’ve already proven yourself. Hopefully I will be able to convince everyone that I know what I’m doing.
You do, if the way you described my book (see the end of this interview) is anything to go by. But it also reminds me of one of my favourite music industry one-liners, by Keith Richards: “Jesus Christ! These people think I know what I’m doing!”
I’ve read Faith, and I’ve now had some time to digest it. There were parts I loved and others I didn’t, but at the end of the day it was an overwhelmingly enjoyable read, and I think it’s really, in many respects, a work of genius. I hope it becomes a classic of the genre. It’s bursting with a sort of dark and fascinating creativity. At its heart lies a fascinating idea – the notion of just what Faith is and where she comes from. I don’t want to give anything away, but I have to ask: where does an idea like that originate? How long have you been holding on to it?
I can’t answer this as fully as I’d like without the possibility of giving something away. The idea which underlies the ending is something I’ve had since I was a child. Since I first started looking up at the night sky.
The protagonists in your book are…unconventional. They are all people with dark pasts. Criminals. Sociopaths. What made you choose to take this approach, and how did you go about making them relatable?
I didn’t set out to write characters with dark pasts. They sort of grew out of the demands of the story as I was writing.
I set out to describe a battle between two apparently invincible opponents. Two ships, one of human origin and one unknown, locked together in a battle so immense that it almost tears space-time around it. Those in the “human” ship had to be seriously unusual to make them a serious match for the unknown ship which had defeated every other opponent. When I started thinking about how they might become so unusual, it took me down this path: back stories of social or political or sexual deviance, unusually gifted people who are also Outsiders, in the Albert Camus sense. That led me on to some other things which helped thicken the consistency of the book’s universe: how these people were identified and recruited, how their ships were built and named, how the regular military regarded them, how the rest of humanity regarded them, and so on.
Those characters are there because the story demanded them. The natural chemistry between them did the rest. At times I felt they were writing their own dialogue!
I’d like to move away from the narrative a little bit and talk to you as a writer. John Love is an interesting name. It makes Googling your book a bit of a task. Type in the words “Faith” “John” and “Love,” incidentally, and you get lots of unrelated hits, mostly biblical. Is that your given name, or a nom de plume?
Yes, I’ve done that same Google countless times, and come up with the same websites. Some very interesting people out there!
John Love is my real name. My surname is originally Scottish: I think the Loves were a menial subdivision of the McKinnon clan. My publishers originally wanted me to change either the title or my name, as they felt Faith and Love had too many similar resonances. I wasn’t going to change the title, so I offered to change my name if they really thought it was an issue, but I think they sensed my reluctance and they didn’t push it. I never really wanted to write under anything other than my real name.
Over the past year, I’ve discovered an impressive number of new science fiction writers who are producing absolutely fantastic debut work. Are we in a renaissance for science fiction? What influences have helped shape your writing?
About a possible renaissance in SF: yes, some recent novels I’ve read are brilliant. My publishers, Nightshade Books, are responsible for a lot of them; they took a conscious policy decision to showcase new authors. Through Nightshade I discovered Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathan Long and W. G. Marshall. There are others too, but those three are the ones I’ve read so far. I used to be a voracious reader, but one of the unexpected by-products of writing my own novels is that I don’t find so much time to read other people’s.
About influences on my writing: I’ve been asked this before, so I’ve got a prepared list. It covers SF and non-SF authors. It’s long and rather anal-retentive, and I tried editing it down for this interview, but without success. So here it is.
Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of my SF favourites, in all its early forms: the original BBC Radio 4 programme, the equally original BBC TV adaptation, and Douglas Adams’ unequalled “Trilogy of Five Novels.” But not the Hollywood movie. I didn’t like that at all.
Some other SF favourites are:
Alfred Bester: his novels and stories from the fifties.
Ursula LeGuin: almost anything of hers.
Jack Vance: the Demon Princes novels especially (most of his others too, but sometimes he goes on autopilot).
Iain M Banks: almost anything of his.
China Mieville: Perdido Street Station especially.
Brian Aldiss: Hothouse and the Helliconia trilogy especially.
William Gibson: especially Neuromancer, also The Difference Engine and the Bridge trilogy.
Fritz Leiber: most of his stuff.
Frederik Pohl: The Heechee trilogy, and (with Cyril Kornbluth) The Space Merchants.
R A Lafferty: especially Past Master.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: almost anything of theirs.
Stanislav Lem: known mainly for Solaris, but his output covered a huge range. For example, Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum (reviews of, and forewords to, nonexistent future books); the Pirx the Pilot and Ijon Tichy stories (surreal but perfectly logical political satires); Cyberiad and Futurological Congress (more satires, almost Swiftian); and The Invincible (page-turning hard SF).
Non-SF favourites include:
Giant nineteenth-century novels, especially from England, Russia and France. Great literary works, and great page-turners. Crime and Punishment, for example, works equally well as serious literature about Life, The Universe And Everything, and as a whodunnit. Except that the person who dunnit is known at the outset and has a cat-and-mouse game with the equally clever examining magistrate, wanting both escape and capture.
Jane Austen: How did she do it? No sex or violence, mostly just people having tea, but totally unputdownable.
Metaphysical poets: neutron-star language: ultimate concentration of meaning.
World War 1 poets, especially Wilfred Owen.
James Joyce, especially Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses.
Doctor Johnson, or more precisely Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a great bear of a man, a pompous High Tory and High Church figure with opinions on everything – always original and sometimes unexpected, like his opposition to slavery. And he liked cats.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick of course, but also Billy Budd and Bartleby The Scrivener.
Richmal Crompton’s William books: children’s books mostly set in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Great children’s books, because Richmal Crompton used unashamedly literary words whose meaning you could figure out by their context. A good way to learn and remember words. Her style was dry and ironic, with absolutely no talking down.
Shakespeare, for all the obvious reasons, and also some of his contemporaries: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe.
Chaucer, for his characterisation.
Cormac McCarthy: everything of his that I’ve read so far.
Elizabeth Bowen: her stories exist on the tipping-point between the everyday and the mysterious. Her famous story The Demon Lover is only six pages long, but hints at immensities.
Mervyn Peake: the Gormenghast trilogy.
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (like Gormenghast, it defies genres).
Any books which manage to be both literary works and page-turners: too many for an exhaustive list, but titles like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
The thing every young writer is told is, “Write what you know.” You’ve written a story about an encounter that is unlike any normal human experience. How do you approach a subject like Faith? How can you “write what you know” when you are writing about the unknown?
After working for so long in the music industry, I have a pretty good feel for extraterrestrials.
But your question deserves a better answer than that. It’s a question I haven’t been asked before, and it set me off in all sorts of directions. After several attempts to answer it I finally decided on this one.
In your review you wondered whether the author of FAITH might be, in your words, a horny teenager. Then you went to my website and found the photo of a grey-haired apparition. But actually, many of the themes of FAITH (and of the second novel I’m writing now, and of future novels and short stories) were conceived when I was a horny teenager. The unidentified ship is described in the book as “the bastard child of Moby Dick and Kafka, invincible and strange”, and some reviewers have picked up on those literary references. I first read Moby Dick and Kafka in my early – and most horny – teens, and I’ve re-read them several times since. So the encounter I describe is one which I’ve carried in my imagination for years.
What is your process for writing? Do you outline your entire story before you begin? Are you a “pantser,” as some writers describe themselves, figuring it out as you go along?
Boring answer, but a bit of both: Pantser and Plotter. I only have experience of one-and-a-bit novels so far – FAITH, and the one I’m currently writing – but it’s been the same both times. The overall idea comes almost fully-formed and is not altered, but the moving parts (details of plotting, characters, back-stories and so on) can alter radically as I’m writing.
A bit like building a three-dimensional engineering construction: while writing I might have an idea for a back-story or a character-trait which strengthens the construction like a strut, passing through it three-dimensionally and reinforcing every bit it touches. I’m fascinated by the process of fitting it into the structure where it could do most good.
Some writers conceive of stories because of some aspect of setting or plot device that they want to work out. They’re very conceptual. Others think in terms of characters, and want to flesh them out and put them in interesting situations. You seem to have given a lot of thought to both. Do you consider your stories to be plot-driven or character driven?
I think the previous answer covers this. The prime mover for me is the idea, which remains largely unchanged, but within that parameter the characters start to strike sparks off each other and move the story in unexpected ways. It always comes out more or less where the original idea says it will, though.
What about your writing habits? Do you write every day? Do you hold yourself to a certain number of words? How is your workspace set up to minimize distractions?
I like to do something every day. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, I’ll turn to housekeeping matters – checking whether characters’ names sound right, making minor grammatical alterations, checking details of plotting for internal consistency, and so on. It’s probably mildly obsessive, but I like to be able to tell myself that I’ve done something on the book almost every day.
I’m not too fussy about my workspace. But I do like to have some malt whisky, and a cat, within easy reach.
Your bio says that you spent most of your life working in the music industry. Did you always know that you wanted to write if you got the chance? How did you make the transition?
The premise for FAITH came fully-formed, and all at once – I could almost tell you the day it came, what I was doing and where I was. It came years before I sat down to write it, because of the demands of my work.
My work in the music industry involved fighting major legal cases in an abstruse area (copyright) which still had huge financial and precedental risks, and running a £65million, 190-person organisation. I had ideas for FAITH and some other novels and stories while doing this, and I put them on the back burner but never entirely forgot them. The demands of my job meant that the ideas stayed in gestation, although over the years I scribbled things (sometimes only a phrase or sentence, sometimes a few paragraphs) for later use. Those bits of paper are yellow and dog-eared now, but many of the scribblings made it through into the final text.
When I retired I did a few jobs, paid and unpaid, in charities and community organisations. I’m still doing some of them now. Then the ideas came out and wouldn’t be denied.
Music is, in a sense, its own literary world, full of bold and unusual means of expressing themes and concepts. How did your experience with music shape the artistry of your writing?
I have no musical talent whatsoever, and neither does any of my family. I can’t hold a note or play an instrument, but I love music of all kinds and I’m proud to have worked in the music industry. It’s an extraordinary industry, where the business and creative sides are very close to each other. Some people who in more conventional businesses would be regarded as backroom specialists – lawyers, accountants – have bigger egos than performers.
But I was more on the business side than the creative side, and until your question I’d never consciously thought whether any of the music I like had an artistic effect on what I write. Maybe there are features which I’ve admired, as a writer, in some kinds of music. Like a classical symphony, with its combination of soaring emotion and careful construction. Or like the best pop of the Sixties (I was a student then), with its ability to take a well-worn form and transcend it. Or like the first stirrings of punk, an in-your-face political laxative (apologies for mixing anatomical metaphors).
Is there a playlist you listen to while writing, or do you prefer silence?
I don’t have music as background when I’m writing. When I listen to music I like it loud and I like to give it full attention. It’s not something I can relegate to the background while doing something else.
Rumor has it you’re writing another novel. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, I think when I emailed you in response to your review I described it as a near-future political thriller with metaphysical overtones.
I love the SF genre. Whenever I have an idea for a book, SF is the automatic default option for expressing it. The genre gives more freedom to make philosophical or political points – to project features of the present on to the future – and it makes for a good read. It’s not impossible to do this in other genres, but it’s more possible in SF.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about your book, or you as an author, that you haven’t had the chance to talk about in other interviews?
There is something I once wrote in a post for the “Night Bazaar” website run by Nightshade. I don’t think it was picked up in other interviews, and I’d like to quote it again here:
“If FAITH has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”
Finally, is there any advice you’d like to offer to amateur writers working in other industries but hoping to be reviewed as promising debut novelists some day?
One quite specific bit of advice: go to the AgentQuery website and get a reputable agent. The website tells you how to do this – it’s full of good tips about how to pitch and how to recognise disreputable agents. It’s also configured so you can access agents by search criteria: their particular genres, obviously, but also whether they take unsolicited work from unpublished authors, whether they accept only electronic or manuscript submissions, and so on. I have no financial or other connection with the website, but when I was unpublished I found it was easily the best resource.
I don’t know if this qualifies as advice, but it’s something which works for me. I tried to imagine what questions I’d most like to ask someone who’d just read my book. I came up with three:
- Did you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?
- Did you care about the characters? (Not Did you like them? Characters don’t have to be nice to be believable and complex and make you want to know what happens to them.)
- Did you think the book tried to be original and different? If you didn’t, what other book or books did you think it most resembled?
For me, the first question is the most important. I’m always asking, Is this page enough to make a reader want to turn to the next page?
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me today. Your work has earned a permanent place on my bookshelves, and I look forward to seeing what will come next.
Thanks Steve. I know it’s rather unusual to quote a review back at the reviewer, but I was struck by this passage: “This is a book that at first resists you. Then it grabs you. Then it appalls and fascinates you. Then it abandons you. Then it grows on you.”
When I first read that it stopped me in my tracks. It describes exactly how I felt when I was writing the book.
I like to think of my book on your shelves, and I hope sometime I can sign it for you.
My thanks again to John Love for taking the time to answer my questions, and to Night Shade Books for providing me a publicity copy of Faith. There are some really fantastic people working in the publishing industry these days, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to get to know and work with them.
A year ago, I read about an upcoming Sci-Fi novel about a battle between two indestructible spaceships. The novel is called Faith, and according to io9, the Publisher’s Marketplace description of the book was as follows:
a sci-fi mix of Moby Dick and the classic movie Duel, in which an unknown, invincible, Kafkaesque alien ship has returned 300 years after breaking one galactic empire to now threaten the human Commonwealth, and the best and brightest minds that are sent in a invincible ship of their own to stop it, with the only problem being that those best and brightest are also some of the Commonwealth’s most twisted sociopaths and if they win, the human empire may find itself in more danger than ever.
I can’t tell you why, exactly, but I really wanted to read this book. The problem was that the article was posted well before the actual release date of January, 2012. In the intervening months, I kept forgetting the name of the book, the author (John Love – this is his first novel), and where the heck I had saved the information. Finally, early this summer, I tracked it down. It took some searching, but I found the info about the book again. And I contacted Nightshade Books to see about getting a review copy. It took them a while, too, but at long last they were gracious enough to send me one.
Let’s cut to the chase. I finished Faith last night, and to be honest, I’m still digesting it. It starts out incredibly slow – so slow, in fact, that I almost gave up on it. I typically follow a loosely-imposed 3 chapter rule: if you don’t hook me within the first 3 chapters, I’m done with the book. The way I see it, I’m being more gracious than most editors. Word is, if you don’t hook them in the first page, you’re up a certain creek with no oars.
Faith has a story that really doesn’t kick in until 30% of the way through the book. The character and back story development that happens before that feels tacked on, like maybe it was necessary for the author to flesh out the world, but that it should have either been left on the editing room floor, or somewhat more sparsely interspersed throughout the narrative. That’s my first complaint about this book.
My second? Errors that shouldn’t be showing up in a for-publication copy. Typos in a couple spots, but more than that, repetition. Repetition of phrases, or of words, in a way that tells me it’s not just the author flexing his prosaic muscles. The kind of repetition every writer struggles with as they knock out a first draft, but the kind that gets cleared up on a second or third pass. Certainly something that gets taken care of when an editor comes at the manuscript wielding a red pen. Interestingly, most of these errors seemed to show up in the unnecessary initial 30% of the book, which lends weight to my argument that that section needed to go, but it also puts up further obstacles to intrepid readers wanting to find out what Faith is all about. Again, I almost gave up on this book. (I’m glad I didn’t, though. More on that in a second.)
My final complaints are these: at times, Love’s descriptive phrasing left me very confused. I tend to assume that when that happens, maybe I’m just being stupid (like I always was in math class) and I give the author the benefit of the doubt. But when it comes to Love’s use of some of the most mind-bogglingly bad metaphors ever committed to print, I know it’s him, not me. No,really.Try this one on for size:
The sky—a grey inverted bowl shot with high trailing clouds, like the roof of a giant mouth streaked with mucus—had again started to be full of them, like it was last night.
Or how about:
The chimaera breathed heavily and rhythmically as they walked, like masturbating dinosaurs; for them, it was the last stage of a long journey.
Ok wait, just one more:
It was a silver jewel-box full of functionality: drives and weapons and sentience cores, bionics and electronics and power sources, scanners and signals and life support, all packed to almost dwarf-star density. Externally beautiful, but internally dark and cramped, like a silver evening gown hiding ragged underwear.
You see what I mean? Painful. When I read these, I found myself wondering if the book was written by a horny teenager. Then I looked him up. John Love looks like this:
Definitely not a horny teenager. Then I read his bio, which begins:
John Love spent most of his working life in the music industry.
So maybe my assumption was mostly correct. In any event, I had to get all my complaining out of the way up front. These are real issues, and they really do affect the readability of the book. But you shouldn’t let any of this stop you. Because Faith is a brilliant freaking book. It shows more imagination, more creativity, more conceptual thinking than any Sci-Fi novel I can think of. And I read a lot of them.
So here’s where things get a little spoilery. I will keep big revelations to a minimum and just focus on the outline of things.
Faith is about a universe in which humans and other species live in relative peace, but something has gone horribly awry. 300 years before the story begins, a mysterious ship appears and begins decimating one of the most powerful cultures in the galaxy. It only attacks them militarily, never in civilian populations, but the effect is enough to cause their civilization to falter and turn inward, to become a race which is described as “together…always less than the sum total of the individual parts.” A sacred book is written about the encounter, and the entire ordeal shapes the path of this species forever.
Enter the present timeline. The ship – called Faith because:
Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.
On balance, Faith seemed a good name.
I appreciate the irony of the name. It’s an earthy, lived-in sort of irony. It smacks of experience of the dark night of the soul. And the ship that is sent to counter Faith is filled with individuals who know no other type of night than a dark night. Sociopaths all, some even psychopaths, those who crew the 9 Outsider ships strong enough to face this unknown peril are sick, twisted, brilliant individuals. Unwelcome elsewhere, but particularly well suited as instruments of destruction on an all-powerful ship.
The ship chosen for this task – to fight Faith, alone, as is the Outsider way – is the Charles Manson. The name of the ship alone tells a good part of its story.
When the engagement begins, the book transforms from a cure for insomnia to a gripping page turner. Love infuses the battle with brilliance, beauty, and an incredible depth of creativity. These two unstoppable opponents, who communicate not in words but in actions, who seek to anticipate each other’s moves and simply out-know each other, are amazing to behold. It is less a war of attrition and more a war of anticipation. The battle is decided in small, laborious ways. It comes down to who can better outflank, outmaneuver, or out-trick the other. From the outset it is clear that whoever or whatever is piloting Faith is at an advantage, and even the normal rules of physics do not apply to her strategies and tactics.
The book ends somewhat unlike it began: abruptly, surprisingly. The final, decisive battle of the engagement is described almost as an afterthought, but the description of what happened, of what Faith is, how the interaction of the Charles Manson’s crew with her changes them, and how things all shake out in the end is still worth the price of admission.
This is a book that at first resists you. Then it grabs you. Then it appalls and fascinates you. Then it abandons you. Then it grows on you. And it keeps growing on me. If it continues to grow on me, I may just have to buy a physical copy to add to my library, my hall of fame of books that most impress, influence, or inspire me. I know that as a writer, I will be drawing from this deep well for some time to come. Like the crew of the Charles Manson, I feel that my encounter with Faith has changed me in ways I never could have anticipated.
Faith is undoubtedly rough around the edges. But it’s a genius bit of writing, and an absolute home run for first-timer John Love. I don’t know if an author can write a magnum opus like this right out of the gate and ever hope to capture that kind of magic again, no matter how much he refines his craft in the process. I hope he tries, though. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.
UPDATE 8/14/12: Having sent a link of this review to John Love himself, I received the following response:
Thanks Steve. I read your review with a lot of interest.
As you’ve probably seen from my website, responses to FAITH have been extremely good. It’s got a lot of great reviews. There is also a small minority ( a very small minority) of bad reviews. I wanted to write something genuinely different, so I expected the reviews would show strong feelings, either pro or con; fortunately the former have outnumbered the latter. But your review was different from most of the others: it set out a mix of pros and cons, with detailed reasons for each.
I don’t want to get into detailed arguments about the things you didn’t like, because in such a subjective area as this differing opinions can be equally valid as long as they’re the product of considered thought, which yours clearly are. All I would say is that the things you didn’t like, such as the early pacing or some of the imagery, were as much the product of deliberate choice as the things you did like.
And turning to the things you did like: thank you for what you said at the end of your review. And yes, I am writing another novel. Not a sequel or prequel – I’ve never been enthusiastic about them – but a near-future political thriller with some metaphysical twists. My agent wants to start selling it now – commendable enthusiasm, but I’m only halfway though so far. I have at least two more novels, and a few short stories, which I’d also like to write.
Thank you again for your interest in my book, and the consideration you gave it, both in praise and in criticism.
I would like to thank John Love for taking the time to offer a thoughtful response to my review. I feel as though I have a relationship with this book that goes beyond what I have with the many others I’ve read this year. As I said in the review, something about it hooked me when I first heard about it and I knew intuitively it was a must-read. It was not at all what I expected. Upon further reflection, I think it’s safe to say that it was actually much more. The book really is brilliant in so many delightfully unexpected ways.
On another note, I’d like to comment on what an interesting time we live in. As a child, devouring books and perceiving how distant their authors all seemed from where I was, I never dreamed that I would some day have the opportunity to have a dialogue with the writers of the books that were making the greatest impact in my life. It’s a truly marvelous thing. And I hope that if I ever succeed as a writer of science fiction, I will remember the dedication of authors like Mr. Love and be certain I do the same.
Last week, Maria Popova at Brainpickings referenced Tchaikovski, and Jack White, to talk about the marriage of hard work and inspiration in producing art. Both artists in this unlikely pairing have pointed to the importance of showing up and giving creativity a chance. You can’t just sit back and wait for the muses. Says White:
Opportunity and telling yourself, “Oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, and…ANYTHING you want, I mean, that just kills creativity.
Thinking about this more, I realize how much sense it makes. Think about creativity from a strictly biological, evolutionary imperative. Why do human beings need to be creative? When we’re in a situation where conventional approaches stop working. But lets throw some context around that concept. Let’s imagine you’re not in a world where creativity happens in well-lit, air conditioned offices, somewhere near a computer screen and a coffee machine.
When did people need to be creative?
When they were in trouble. When they were in danger. When they were up shit creek without a paddle.
Desperation drives creativity. Forces the brain to engage in a different kind of thinking. Makes synapses connect and see how disparate things interrelate so that you get that solution you didn’t even know you knew – and get it right. freaking. now.
I don’t know about you, but my creativity has always flourished under pressure. Not at first, obviously. At first, you panic. But if you put yourself under a constraint, if you’re up against a deadline, if you’re on the spot in a meeting, if you put something off until the last minute and you absolutely have to deliver, something miraculous happens. The mental block evaporates, and you suddenly find that you have interesting ideas. Things begin clicking into place. Suddenly you’re not just thinking about what to do, you’re acting, and momentum starts carrying you toward the goal.
Silly example: last Saturday I was watching my kids, and decided that rather than let them spend a minute watching TV and rotting their brains I was going to do a project with them. So we sat down, and decided to write a story, illustrating it with toys that we’d take photos of.
This was my grand idea. But when I sat down to actually write, I choked.
I had no clue what to do for a storyline. I was tired, irritated, and not feeling particularly creative. So I punted. I asked my kids to tell me what we should write about. That didn’t work out. One child was telling me, “Do a story about DREAMLAND!!” but couldn’t define what that meant. Another gave me a long, involved, and dull tale about a war between various factions of soldiers who were fighting near a cottage full of innocents. Lots of people were dying, and it was a war of attrition. That went on. And on. And on. The third child in the room was running around making gun and sword noises.
It wasn’t working.
So I scrapped the plan. I told them to each bring me three toys they wanted to feature in the story. I decided to mix things up. I made up a story about a Barbie married to a Transformer who had a pink block for a baby, which was kindapped while playing outside by a nefarious storm trooper.
I kid you not.
And as you might have expect with such epic beginnings, shit got real.
The story is still a work in progress. The kids and I will come back to it when we get the chance, one piece at a time.
Does it make a whole lot of sense? No. Not really. Is it funny? I think so. Will they love it when it’s done? Absolutely.
The point is, I had nothing, zilch, nada. I was grasping at straws, and I couldn’t come up with a project to do with my smart, adorable, imaginative kids. Until I created pressure. I forced myself into a box. I put constraints on the side, and said, “You bring me the ingredients, and I’ll make the pie. It might be an ugly pie, but a pie will be baked, by Zeus!”
And lo and behold: pie. A very strange, mixed-metaphor, slightly disturbing pie, but a pie nonetheless.
You have it in you. Even if it isn’t what you’re expecting, make it happen. Don’t, don’t, don’t make excuses. Ever. It’s not worth it. I’m telling you this because I have a metric ton of experience with this sort of thing.
Go out there and make it happen. And if it isn’t working, apply pressure.