Book Review – Left Behind by Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins

Title: Left Behind
Author: Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
first published 1995
Published: 
(unclear, after) 1998

Left Behind is Christian speculative fiction that builds on the idea of the rapture followed by seven years of tribulation.  This first book in a series of twelve focuses on the initial rapture and immediate aftermath.  For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, it’s the idea Christ’s followers will be snatched up instantaneously, right before an apocalyptic period of great turmoil which will end with the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s restored rule on earth.

This blog isn’t the place for theological discussion, but I think it’s important to note that even the authors have admitted this is an iffy area of scripture.   Even when taken literally, there’s a lot of room for interpretation on the specifics of end time prophecies and in many cases whether the prophecies in question actually refer to the end times or simply a time of great hardship.  But it’s an interpretation that makes for dramatic storytelling.

For metaphoric purposes, the rapture and tribulation work as parallels to death (which can come suddenly and without warning) and hardship (particularly under a controlling regime).  I went through a period of fascination with various apocalypse films during middle school, and in a burst of nostalgia, stopped midway through the book to watch the four Thief in the Night films on YouTube.  While essentially PG as far as language and violence go, that series is still one of the most conceptually terrifying things I’ve seen.  I was struck on my most recent viewing by the similarities between the regime in the film and the repression from Reading Lolita in Tehran which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

I bring up Thief in the Night because it was an inspiration for the Left Behind series, and while hokey in a way distinct to films of the 1970s, I still like it a lot better.  More on that in a moment.

If I take it purely as a thriller, Left Behind struck me as rather mediocre.  It takes about a hundred pages before it starts to get interesting.  And despite lots of potential for action, most of the book seems to involve waiting in lines, phone tag, meetings, and arranging meetings.  The plot structure and sentences are often clunky; many times several scenes were used to do what could easily been done in one.  And way too much time was spent on characters thinking about their feelings.  I really have no problem with head hopping as long as the thoughts reveal new information, but too much of it was redundant.  Actions and scenes that might have been dramatic, even heart wrenching if they had simply been played out, were bogged down by detailed descriptions of obvious thoughts like a character crying because he was really sad.

There are some explosions and enough drama that they might pull a decent film out of this.  So I am curious enough now to watch the movie, one of them at least.  The story is often preachy, but it is Christian speculative fiction so at least that’s relevant to the genre and plot.

Thief in the Night is also preachy with slow bits.  I think what elevated it to awesome in my preteen mind was the protagonist Patty outwitting a soldier, stealing his gun, then staring down the next soldier until he drops his.  The first two films pass the Bechdal test, but aside from that, there’s a general sense of gender equality.  Women are presented as equally competent, equally strong, equally spiritual but also equally flawed and devious as their male counterparts.  Left Behind on the other hand has an underlying thread of misogyny.  It’s not just that the book is told between two alternating male viewpoints, but the three main women portrayed fall into stereotypical female roles: the good wife, the ditzy but attractive flight attendant, the educated but cold college girl/daddy’s girl.  I could write an essay detailing the subtle and not so subtle gender imbalance, but I think this particular incident sums it up:

Our young male protagonist, ace newspaper reporter Buck, warns Hattie the not-so-bright flight attendant that she should avoid meeting an attractive but potentially dangerous man, not because people connected with the man have died or disappeared or that he was at the center of dangerous political entanglements but because he didn’t think Hattie was “that kind of girl”.

There’s nothing openly critical of women as a gender, and towards the end, there was some hope of character growth.  So perhaps later books get better.  But particularly with the abrupt ending, I’m not inspired to continue.

I can understand how certain moments could speak directly to someone having their own spiritual crisis, so please don’t think I’m knocking anyone who found the books inspiring or encouraging.  While the end times details are iffy, many other aspects are theologically or at least Biblically sound.  But I feel a measure of concern when a good Christian is portrayed as someone with a hyper focus on end times prophecy; hyper focus on any aspect or portion of the Bible to the point of downplaying or ignoring other parts is generally not a healthy sign.

This was my attempt to write a short review, and it is the sort of book you could write books about dissecting.  So I give it a solid 3 out of 5.  The writing could be much tighter, but at least I wasn’t bored.

Writer Wednesday – H. David Blalock

Who are you?
H. David Blalock

What type of stuff do you write? (Besides shopping lists)
I have published everything from novels to non-fiction articles, but I mostly write short stories in the speculative fiction genre. I know that’s a broad term, but it covers the majority of my fiction quite well.

What do you want to pimp right now?
My latest novel is the third and final volume of the Angelkiller Triad, Doom Angel. It wraps up the story begun in Angelkiller and Traitor Angel. I believe this series gives a reasonable answer to the age-old question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” in that it explains how, in the war between the Angels of Light and the Angels of Darkness, it was really the Dark that won. Since then, humanity has been conditioned to believe the opposite and has suffered for that illusion.

What is your favorite book? (Okay, or two or three or… I know how writers are as readers.)
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is probably my all-time favorite. Then there is The Traveller in Black by John Brunner and the Slan series by A. E. Van Vogt. I enjoy how each of these writers took ideas of basic human need, greed, and ambition and turned them into something visceral.

What other hats do you wear besides the writer hat?
For the past 5 years or so I have been trying to help other writers through the Imagicopter network (www.facebook.com/Imagicopterand www.imagicopter.com) by keeping them informed of events and new venues for their writing. Hopefully, Imagicopter has been useful to the hundred or so members we have across the country.

What link can we find you at?
My personal website is www.thrankeep.com and I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Writer.HDavidBlalock.

*****

On Rejection, And Stuff…

As a writer for the better part of 40 years and editor of my own and others’ work for at least that long, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection issue. For those of you who are just starting out, there are a few things I’d like to pass along.

  1. You cannot publish what you do not finish. Before anything else, finish what you write. Don’t consider anything else until then. Not who will publish it, not how will it get reviewed, not what will your family think of it. Nothing else. Finish the piece, but remember one thing: finish first, then edit.
  2. Don’t edit your piece until it is finished. Editing as you go along prevents you from doing what you want most, that is, have a piece ready for submission. Even the great masters could ruin a piece by constantly making “just one more improvement”. Trust your instincts. Only critique and edit your work after it’s done.
  3. Do not trust spell check as your only proofreader. There are several ways to double-check your spelling and grammar. I recommend reading your work aloud to yourself. This will give you an idea of the flow and readability of the work. Make changes as you go at this point.
  4. Have a disinterested reader look over the work before submitting it. Don’t give it to your mother, father, sister, brother, or even your best friend. And don’t trust writers’ groups to give you more than a cursory idea of what needs to be done. Most of all, remember that whatever feedback you get from proofreaders is just their opinion. You should carefully consider whether their suggestions will improve or hurt your work.
  5. Research the markets for your work and read the guidelines carefully before submission. I cannot stress this enough. You can hurt your ego and sometimes your reputation by not reading the guidelines. Editors do talk among themselves. They will relay information about writers who do not follow guidelines to other editors. It’s a smaller community than you might think.
  6. Be professional! You are going to receive rejection letters. This is part of being a writer. Not every publisher is going to want your work. This is not personal. Publishers have a business to run and to make that business successful they need to cater to their audience, meet deadlines, word limitations, budgets, any number of other factors. Your work may hit them at a bad time or simply may not be what they want. Do not take rejection as a personal attack. Most of all, do not react unprofessionally to rejection by sending the editor a nasty or snide response. I can guarantee this will be passed along to other editors as evidence of your lack of professionalism.
  7. If and when your work is accepted for publication, check the contract closely and don’t sign anything immediately.It’s easy to get excited about the prospect of seeing your work in print but remember that writers get paid, not the other way around. If the publisher expects you to pay to be published, best pass on that one. Unless you are self-publishing for personal reasons, avoid that kind of contract.
  8. Expect the possibility of further editing for word count or content from the publisher. At this point, it is important to remember the publisher’s job is to sell your work. However, you still have the right to remind them you are the writer and your name will be associated with it. Most reputable publishers will work closely with you to find a satisfactory compromise.
  9. Once your work appears, send a note of thanks to the publisher/editor. A good working relationship is based on courtesy and communication. You have built a bridge. Don’t burn it first thing out.
  10. Finally, be prepared to promote your work yourself. Even the big publishing houses do very little promotion for their authors. Learn about book signings, events, conventions, anything that will get your name and work before the public. Make yourself as available as possible. The success of your career as a writer is, in the end, up to you.

 

imaginarium

Book Review – The Wreck of the Zephyr

TITLE: The Wreck of the Zephyr
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Van Allsburg
FORMAT: Hardcover
PUBLISHED: 1983

In The Wreck of the Zephyr, a boy finds a boat on the hillside and an old man sitting near the boat. He asks the old man about it and then the next 95% of the story is the man telling the story of how it came to be there.
It’s got the same type of ending issues I had with Abdul Gasazi, so again, I’m going to recommend this for older kids (5+).

I liked the story enough, but it was told as a bunch of quoted paragraphs from the old man on the bench. I wish it would have been one of those things where they do a prologue of “how did this boat get here” and then just told the story. I think it lost a lot of the impact it could have had this way.
The illustrations were gorgeous, again done by Allsburg himself, and this time in full color. I could certainly see the appeal of the artwork, although the colors used had the same passive feel as the story.

I intentionally waited a couple weeks to write this review, and really, I can tell you the overall gist of the story, but the details didn’t really stand out. So I’m going to only give this a 3/5. It’s a high 3, but only a 3. Worth reading if you’re reading all of them, but he’s got others that are better.

Book Review – My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic: The Journal of the Two Sisters: The Official Chronicle of Princess Celestia and Luna By Amy Keating Rogers

Title: My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic: The Journal of the Two Sisters: The Official Chronicle of Princess Celestia and Luna
Author: 
Amy Keating Rogers
Illustrator: 
Interior Becky James /  Cover by Ross Stewart
Format: 
Hardcover
Published: 
2014

At the library my nephew insisted on a My Little Pony book, so we browsed the catalogue and thought this looked cool enough to place a hold and wait for it to come in.  The Journal of the Two Sisters gives additional background on the Alicorn princesses from the television show My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic that rule over Equestria and how they came to be in charge of raising the sun and the moon.  The first two-thirds of the book alternates between journal entries by Luna and Celestia, and then abruptly that ends.  The remaining third is a rehash of journal entries and episodes from the television show. 

My nephew, who is 5, was reasonably sated.  I on the other hand was horribly disappointed.  This was such a good concept and so poorly executed. The biggest fail is the character voices.  If you’re going to write first person, particularly alternating first person, capturing the distinct voice of each character is important.  While reading, I found myself wondering if the author had bothered to watch the My Little Pony episodes that feature Celestia and Luna.  She wrote them in a style that I could best describe as stereotypical preteen.  For instance, the first page has Celestia (a normally articulate character) use the word “amazing” seven times, and Luna’s first journal entry has her declaring that her signature Royal Canterlot voice is “silly”.

I’m willing to accept that Celestia might develop a more advanced vocabulary over a 1000 years, but seeing as how her sister was essentially in suspended animation most of that time, there’s no reason Luna shouldn’t sound like Luna. The Royal Canterlot voice thing becomes a symbol of everything wrong with this book.  It glazes over why Luna and Celestia were chosen to be princess, but apparently it’s a surprise promotion given to them for purely genetic reasons (Alicorns are a mix of the other three pony races) but for some reason they were taught the “Royal Canterlot Voice” while they were fillies by the other Alicorns who…psychically guessed they would be chosen over other Alicorns to be princesses?  It’s not clear because the other Alicorns are never really mentioned again.

I know some of you are wondering why I’m taking a book based on a children’s show so seriously.  But there’s a reason MLP is popular with 30 year old men.  The TV show is funny, smart, and well written.  But the book was none of these things.  I had some hope it might tie some of the show’s unique mythology together a little better, but it did little in that direction.

It started picking up some hints of plot about midway through, but then the book abruptly stops, and the last third is an entirely different book or part of a book, “The Journal of Friendship”, which would have been a cute idea if it actually logged all the entries made over the course of the show.  Instead it’s a rather random assemblage of episode scraps and references.

Really the only thing saving this from being one star is that it’s pretty and I’m a sucker for pretty hardbacks.  The interior and exterior artists did a wonderful job (at least through the Two Sisters Section), but the writing just doesn’t stand at the same quality.  To be fair, with a franchise book it’s hard to know where to put the blame, since the writers often have to work under restrictions, but really, even with six to ten year old girls as the primary audience, our kids deserve better books.

2 out 5.

Writer Wednesday – Amy McCorkle/Kate Lynd

Who are you? (A name would be good here…preferably the one you write under)
I write romantic suspense, crime fiction, and gritty romantic suspense under Amy McCorkle and SciFi and Dystopian under Kate Lynd

What type of stuff do you write? (Besides shopping lists)
See question one.

What do you want to pimp right now? (May it be your newest, your work-in-progress, your favorite or even your first)
I’m working on a screenplay right now that I plan on producing and directing called Rain Down On Me, an indie drama about a hard drinking, embittered disabled vet and his relationship with a woman on the run from her abusive sheriff husband. A web soap called Darius and Anastasia about a mob boss and his former CIA bodyguard. And I’m launching Blackout: An Aurora Black Novel and Letters to Daniel Vol. 2 at Imaginarium.

What is your favorite book? (Okay, or two or three or… I know how writers are as readers.)
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

What other hats do you wear besides the writer hat?
Director and producer.

What link can we find you at?
Amy/Kate’s Blog

 

*****

Enter Catchy Title Involving A Boat Here

Alone in a boat. As a writer that’s what you are when it comes to making it in your career. I remember as a kid growing up I wanted to be a writer. Or perhaps published author would be a better way of putting it. I wanted to walk into a bookstore and see my name on the shelf. I dreamed of awards and signing my name and getting paid boatloads of money to do it.

I had no idea how to make this happen. I thought you went to college to make this happen. And you can get your MA in creative writing and set out along that path if you wish. But there’s no more guarantee that you’ll make than if you take my route which is going to conventions and conferences and making connections and being left alone to develop your voice.

But I have to admit my success came by way of the small press. And I picked great house to start with MuseItUp Publishing. They’re an e-press that will consider print after a year of your book being out on the market for a year. They nurtured me and helped me hone my voice as a writer. Lea Schizas had a vision and she has seen it through.

I found her at digicon, a free online writing conference put on by Savvy Authors. I had a fabulous mentor in Julie Butcher. I now have several people who’ve reached out to me along the way and supported my career in its early stages. Stephen Zimmer the boss that he is was big on getting me included in the con scene. Pamela Turner introduced me to Stephen and Fandom Fest.

The most important thing though is, no matter how many people are there to help you, you will get nowhere if you don’t reach up that ladder for the next rung while helping someone up with the next hand. Not only is it just good karma, it makes good business sense. You don’t want to alienate people with a bad attitude. Your success ultimately depends on you. Because your career is the boat and you are the one steering it with you paddles. No one is guaranteed the million dollar paycheck with the movie deal. You must define what is success for you. Compared to February of 2011 I am doing quite well. I still could do better. You can always do better. Be more. Do more. So my advice is don’t ever give up. Keep writing. Keep revising. And don’t be afraid to submit.

Book Review – The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

TITLE: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Van Allsburg
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 1979

To continue my ‘read all the books’ of Van Allsburg, I picked this one up for no reason other than I liked the artwork on the front (all the topiaries are animals).
In the story, a little boy is asked to dog-sit, and of course he messes it up. The dog runs straight into a garden clearly marked as “no dogs” and the magician inside takes the dog.
There is some really cool magic-y stuff that happens in the story, and I like how it ended, although I do have to say that with the ending, it might be suitable for slightly older children (like 5ish?)…

I don’t really have a lot to complain about with this story, so I won’t. I give it a solid 4/5 pages.

Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Author: 
Azar Nafisi
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
2003 (Hardback release)
Published: 
2004  (Paperback release)

(Another take a book, leave a book find…) Azar Nafisi’s memoir focuses on her years teaching English literature in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran during the 1980s-90s and under the watch of a repressive regime.  She has admittedly changed names and shuffled details to hide the identities of her students and colleagues for their own safety.

This book falls under a category which I might call important but far more for it’s content rather than it’s form.  It’s an English professor writing about teaching literature and reads like it was written by an English professor, but with a Persian twist.  Some wonderful and poignant and on occasion overly flowery sentences saturated throughout but often fail to connect in a logical sequence.  To a degree I think this is intentional or at least cultural.  Nafisi herself explains that it’s impossible to write the book in typical narrative form because the times themselves were so confusing, and given her intentional remixing of real life details, it is not the specifics but their combined impact which is important.

Unfortunately, to me, it simply sounded like an excuse for insufficient editing, choppy transitions, and heavy dependence on literary allusions.  The net results is, instead of building a consistent narrative, the book is more like a series of interrelated vignettes.  Once I was able to frame it in that context, reading became easier.

While I tend to love my English teachers as people, my educational experiences convinced me as a whole they are sadomasochistic bunch, taking a perverse delight from misery and genuinely blind to why their students are not delighted by fatalistic prose and the dirty underbelly of fictional characters.  As Nafisi talks about her Western Literature selections for her Persian and predominantly Islamic students, I couldn’t help but wince and go “no wonder they hate us” on more than one occasion.  For instance, her take on The Great Gatsby is that it is about “The American Dream”… She repeats this phrase multiple times and seems to miss why it might make America all that more repellent to a conservative group of students.  While I understand what she meant, as an American, Gatsby is probably the last book I’d like held up as an example of “The American Dream”.

That aside, if you can get past organizational issues and literary opinions, the book is important because it reveals the hidden life inside Iran during a Muslim regime.  Not the political facts of which political leader was in power at which date, but what it was like for average citizens attempting to go about the normal routines of life between bomb strikes and under the watch of morality patrols.  There is a focus on the difficulty of being a woman in the Middle East particularly under radical Islam and shifting regulations.  The t-shirts, blue jeans, and painted nails hidden under veils, black robes, and gloves reveal the impossibility of completely blocking outside influences in a modern age.

Overall, I’d rate the book at 3.5.  Given the subject matter, it manages to avoid being graphic but still portrays the tension and danger of the situation, and I certainly learned things and gained a fuller sense of the world.   So I do recommend it.  But I can’t give it a full five stars, simply because the disordering made it very hard to follow in several places.  If you’re not familiar with at least half the books she covers, it would be very easy to get lost in her literary comparisons.  (Note to self:  Read more Nabokov.)   Some books need to be told out of sequence, but I don’t believe this was one of them.

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