Monthly Archives: May 2014
A while back, my workplace suffered from a dangerous virus that was infecting all the computers in our office. Because we all worked from a shared server, everyone had to stop opening emails, stop using the internet, stop opening files from the shared drives and eventually, stop touching our computers until further notice. This event caused a small amount of chaos. What in the world were we suppose to do without a screen in front of our face?! After the shock settled down, I was impressed with the creativity of the staff to be productive without leaning on our computers. Some people made numbers sales calls, others re-organized their hard files and cleaned their desks. One person even got together a group of people to have a brainstorming session.
Write a short piece with the theme of anti-technology. Like the story above, you could focus on a group of people that had technology taken away from them or you could focus on a single person who has chosen to stay away from–or give up–technology. Perhaps a hiking trip where no WiFi or electricity is present. What happens to your characters? Do they panic or thrive? Do they become more creative? Maybe they stare at a black computer screen for hours. You tell me.
Ping back if you complete the exercise!
Book Review of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Published by Knopf.
I’m often hesitant to read extremely popular fiction because the writing is not always high quality. I should drop this perception, as I know it is a stereotype. I have read countless popular books in which the writing is excellent and Michael Crichton’s writing in Jurassic Park was truly exceptional. I was hooked by the prologue and never lost interest. The pacing, structure and element of mystery were well executed and the research incorporated into the book was fascinating.
Although many of you are likely familiar with the plot of this 1990 bestseller, I will provide a refresher. John Hammond, a wealthy entrepreneur, gets millions—possibly billions—of dollars from investors to re-create dinosaurs using a semi-fictional biogenetic technology. Hammond turns an isolated island near Costa Rica into a park where dozens of dinosaurs roam their cages surrounded by moats and electrical fences. At the insistence of his investors and lawyers, Hammond invites a small group of people to the island for a “test run” which Hammond believes will demonstrate the safety of the island. The group includes two dinosaur experts (a paleontologist and a paleobotanist), a mathematician, the company’s lawyer, the designer of the computer system on the island and his two, young grandchildren.
To say the least, the trip does not go smoothly.
I am becoming more fond of and more impressed with books that implement a significant amount of research. When done well like Jurassic Park, they entertain as well as teach. Crichton’s research shines very successfully in this novel and a lot of that has to do with the way he reveals it. By populating the novel with very intelligent people (they are all said to be the top of their field), he can tunnel his research through the characters, which creates two big advantages.
- The characters feel true to their identity as highly-regarded experts.
- The narrator doesn’t come off as a snobbish know-it-all.
Air of Mystery
The mysteriousness of the story is what hooked me from the first page. Even though I knew what the story held (because I had previously seen the Steven Spielberg movie), the mystery laid down in such a subtle yet focused manner that it immediately hooked me. The novel opens with scenes on the main land of Costa Rica where what seems to be a new species of lizard is attacking and sometimes killing babies. Another mysterious scene occurs in an emergency room on the coast of Costa Rica. A badly injured man is flown in by helicopter. Although the friend of the man says he was hurt in a construction accident, the doctor believes the man has been “mauled.” Too badly injured, there is nothing the doctor can do to save him. Though she takes photos of the man’s injuries, her camera disappears along with the man’s friend.
Another mysterious trick caught my attention later on in the book. When the group of visitors begins their tour of the island, the computer system and how they keep tabs on the animals is explained to the group. Although it seems very thorough and safe, the mathematician sees a dangerous flaw in the program. When asked what the flaw is, he says he will let it will reveal itself during the tour and leaves the other characters—as well as the reader!—guessing. By this time in the novel, the original mystery of what was on the island has been revealed. Crichton timed it so that as soon as that mystery was solved, this new mystery appears.
Another benefit of not revealing the flaw of the island right away allows the reader to enjoy the tour and imagine the possibilities and excitement of an amusement park filled with dinosaurs.
The plot was well thought out and the pacing was very consistent. I expect more of an up-and-down intensity level from science fiction books but Jurassic Park was very steady. The large number of characters in this novel allowed that to happen. Because the characters were separated for the majority of the novel, each in a different high-intensity situation, the pacing of the novel flowed very naturally, constantly intriguing the reader with danger and changing circumstances.
An excellent book! 5 stars! I recommended it to EVERYONE; those simply looking for a good read or writers interested in learning from the best. Jurassic Park is an intelligent, intriguing read that will hook you from the first page.
Check out more of my book reviews here!
Book review on Arkansas by John Brandon. Published by McSweeney’s Books.
A beautifully written book with a drawn-out timeline. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the prose itself as well as the structure (incorporating entire chapters into the second person), I felt not enough pressure was placed on the characters. Still, I recommend this book to all, especially Crime Fiction readers. I also recommend John Brandon’s 2nd novel, Citrus County, which received a stunning review from the New York Times Book Review in 2010. See my previous post on the review and John Brandon here!
Arkansas follows the life of two teen boys who pose as junior park rangers while they make illegal drug transactions for a mysterious drug lord named Frog, whom they’ve never met. Although the boys and their backgrounds could not be more different, they end up sharing this part of their life together. They see many illegal transactions, meet many mysterious people and become those mysterious people themselves. Forced to “clean up” the aftermath of a double murder, the boys begin walking a tightrope that becomes more and more shaky as the novel goes on.
Brandon did a great job of separating his two main characters. Swin was intelligent with very large dreams. He was Hispanic, had a loving family that he left and feels as if he can control where his life goes. Kyle, with no family left in the world, is willing to let life push him in whatever direction it chooses and never thinks about his life 10, 20, 40 years from now as we see Swin do often. While Swin would randomly grab a book and start to read, Kyle would drop to the ground and start doing push ups.
The contrast helps keep the characters separate in the readers’ minds. As the two boys, about the same age, are the main characters we are focused on, it’s important to keep them separate. Even their names, one unique with the other quite common, help separate them.
Even though the boys got themselves into very dangerous situations, I never felt urgency for them. The timeline spread out over many months and when the boys did find themselves covering up a murderous scandal, there were no immediate consequences or change in their lifestyle. The cops were not after them, their lame cover-up story seemed to fool everybody and their attitudes hardly changed at all. They seemed to be unaffected emotionally to the events around them.
I believe the lack of investigation after the murder could be reality because they were in such a remote location but it still doesn’t make it an interesting one. I felt some kind of pressure needed to be added here, like another park ranger investigating where the missing man was.
The Stunning Prose
The prose of this novel is excellent and what kept me interested. It flowed seamlessly and had a great balance of action and description. The characters were very well-rounded, the setting was complete and the structure was well thought-out.
2nd Person Structure
Brandon incorporates entire chapters that used the second-person narrative to make the reader feel like a character in the novel. The structure is similar to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a second-person novel where the unnamed character is trying to escape the chaos of New York City. In Arkansas, these second-person chapters follow a separate character in a separate timeline. This story slowly builds its way into the present narrative where Swin and Kyle are running the park. Although we are given this person’s name right away, we don’t immediately know who he is. The slow revelation of who he is and where he is in the present time was very intriguing. By far my favorite part of the novel!
3 Stars – Recommendation
The prose and second-person narrative gave this a jump for me and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t whole-heartedly stick to romance novels. I especially recommend it to anyone interested in Crime Fiction. I think Crime Fiction readers will thoroughly enjoy the unique timeline of this piece.
How I found this book: John Brandon was my creative writing professor at Hamline University and he gave me the best editing advice. By simply crossing off anything that didn’t improve my work, I learned that prose needs to stay on point and interesting or you will lose the reader, no matter how interesting your plot is.
Check out some of my previous book reviews:
As a reader, specific song titles in the midst of a story can strike one of 4 reactions:
- Indifference because I don’t know the song and want to get on with the story
- Pride because I’m actually familiar with the song
- Curiosity because the song seems important enough to the scene that I should look it up
- Annoyance because I don’t know any of the songs this author is talking about
While 2 and 3 can be a very positive addition to the story, 4 can be just as destructive and every writer should be wary of when they mention song titles, how often they do so, and consider the popularity of each song. In my opinion, the more popular of a song you mention the better, because you’re readers are more likely to be familiar with it. Also subtly mentioning the type of music or character’s reaction to the music can reveal more than the song alone.
Beyond the Song Title
Thankfully, mentioning a song title is only a very small part of incorporating music into your writing. This line recently jumped out at me when I was reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates:
“If there was music in this scene it would be a quick staccato music.” p. 27
It’s so simple, yet so telling. It gave the scene life at a time when I was resisting the urge to permanently put down the book. And it has stuck with me for weeks now, even after I did quit reading the book.
Other ways to incorporate music into fiction:
- Write in a musical rhythm
- Use music to define your character’s personality
- Incorporate musical concerts/events into your plot
- Quote song lyrics
- Incorporate music into metaphors and similes
When I typed “music in fiction” into Google, a Wikipedia entry came up that defined “Musical Fiction” as “a genre of fiction in which music is paramount: both as subject matter, and through the rhythm and flow of the prose; that is, music is manifested through the language itself.”
It listed examples such as Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo, The Wishbones by Tom Perotta and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I recently read The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni (read my book review here!) which I would argue also falls into that category.
Music and Characterization
Music is powerful. It’s a tool of expression, a reflection of our mood and taste, and, possibly the most important of all, it can triggers memories. Ask these music-related questions when creating a fully-round character:
- What kind of music does your character like?
- Does he/she play an instrument? What? How often?
- Does your character sing in the shower?
- What radio station dominates their car stereo?
- Do they attend concerts?
- Were they forced into music lessons growing up?
- Do they wish they were musically enhanced?
- What songs trigger memories for your character? What are those memories?
Don’t you dare write about a teenage girl who’s boyfriend cheated on her because he didn’t know how to tell her it was over. But if you do, it better be so far from the stereotype that it makes me laugh out loud, cry or scream. Stereotypes make me want to hurl.
Write an internal dialogue of someone who has just been taken away from something they love. I encourage that something to not be a person. It could be a family heirloom, a suitcase full of money, an injured athlete who can’t play in the big game. Be creative!