Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Year Zero by, Rob Reid

Human beings are the most musically advanced civilization in the universe. Even our crappiest earworm brings rapture to any alien species who listens to it. This is why aliens have been pirating our music since 1977. It turns out, however, that this piracy has racked up a giant royalty bill that would bankrupt the galaxy if the Earth ever tried to collect it. A group of aliens decides it would just be easier to destroy the earth. A second group of aliens enlists the help of a copyright attorney named Nick Carter to find a way out from under the crushing debt.

A lot of the press about Year Zero mentions it in the same breath as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm convinced that the only people who make that comparison are those who know HHG2G is funny sci-fi, but who have never actually read Guide. The concept of Year Zero is good fodder for a funny book, but the execution was lacking. Here are a few writerly tips about what went wrong with this book.

1) Weighted more heavily toward summary than scene. A scene is showing what happens when two people go on a date. Summary is having a character say "I went on a date last night and this happened". A vast majority of the book is told via summary. You're in the middle of a scene when a character we haven't seen in a while comes on the page and explains what they've been doing while they were away. Some of this is fine, but too often it drags the story to a halt. There were even times where the narrator tells another character what he was up to between chapters. Why not just show it?

2) Over-explaining things. Science fiction is tricky. You come up with an alien species or sweet piece of technology and you have to communicate to the reader enough information so they're not lost. However, you don't need characters sitting around and reading the whole wikipedia entry about the topic. Think of it this way: if a visitor from 1600 shows up at your front door, could you explain how planes fly? Or how the internal combustion engine powers your car? Most likely not. And does the information further the plot? Do you really need five pages to describe X if it doesn't move Nick from point A to point B in the story? If the answer is no, give the reader enough to go on and then move on.

3) Appropriate reactions. This is more of an advanced tip. Early on it's good. Hey aliens show up! Holy crap, what's going on? But at a critical juncture in the story, an ally Nick recruited to help him out vanishes into thin air when it shouldn't be possible. Nick and the other characters shrug, say he/she is probably OK, and continue. Don't be afraid to have your characters freak out if a freakout is called for.

There were other things that annoyed me, but those are more likely a matter of personal preference.

This probably makes is sound like I hated Year Zero, but I didn't. There were parts that worked and parts that didn't. I would have liked to have seen the story handled by a more talented writer, but the book served its purpose.

Your mileage may vary.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Song of the Week: Can't Find My Way Home

This week's song is an acoustic version of the Blind Faith classic "Can't Find My Way Home".

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by, Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch is back and working two cases at once. In his capacity as a private investigator, he is hired by Whitney Vance, an aging billionaire, to find any possible heirs. It's a family saga worthy of Ross Macdonald with lots of twists and turns that I never saw coming. The second case has Harry uncovering a serial rapist while working as a reserve detective for the San Fernando Police Department. This is a straight police procedural and provides the opportunity for some gunplay. The PI case appeals more to my sensibilities, but both were good and riveting.

Another stellar book by Michael Connelly.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Song of the Week: Handle With Care

This is another one circling in my head. I like how the Traveling Wilburys is a complete band, but you can hear all the distinct parts. You've got George Harrison's verse that's fast and in a limited range next to Roy Orbison's soaring falsetto.

Who is your favorite Traveling Wilbury? Is it Jeff Lynne?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Gatekeepers by, Chris Whipple

The Gatekeepers is a fascinating inside baseball account of the Presidential administrations going back to Richard Nixon. You learn a lot about the inner workings of the White House and how major policy things were done. With all the quotes from the principals and some background staffers, Chris Whipple must have spent hundreds of hours in interviews. In some places it's a bit surface and his political biases show through, but overall it's well written and engaging.

Recommended for political junkies of any stripe.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday, May 14, 2018

Song of the Week: Hey! Baby

This week's song comes from Jimmie Vaughan's latest album - Live At C'Boy's. It's a trio album featuring Jimmie on guitar and vocals, Mike Flanigin on the Hammond B-3 organ, and the late Barry "Frosty" Smith on drums.

Here's the classic sing-along "Hey! Baby".

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is a large, sprawling book that inspired a Ken Burns documentary and the American Spirits Smithsonian exhibit that I got to see while in Pittsburgh last week. The book is full of lots of interesting historical tidbits. I marvel at ingenuity of some of the ways people skirted the laws.

The temperance movement grew out of some very real concerns. During the 1800s, American consumption of alcohol grew faster than the population grew. Many Americans were literally drinking themselves to death and religious and other groups wanted to take steps to curb the use of alcohol. In this regard, Prohibition did its job. In the first few years of Prohibition, alcohol consumption dropped 70% and didn't reach pre-Prohibition levels until 1973 (and dropped again in the 1980's). But in every other aspect, Prohibition was a failure.

Rather than dwell on the aspects most of us know about (the open disdain for the rule of law, the rise of organized crime), I'd like to mention some of the other points author Daniel Okrent makes. The push for Prohibition and the 18th Amendment drastically changed politics in America. For the first time, many different groups worked together because they agreed on one issue:  they were dry. Aside from the ultra religious, the other main group in support of Prohibition was women. But as they lacked the right to vote, their power to make change was severely limited. That's why many people banded together to promote women's suffrage. They reasoned that if women had the right to vote, Prohibition would soon follow.

Another reason Prohibition took a while to gain traction was the taxes collected on alcohol. From the early days of the republic (first instituted by Alexander Hamilton) to the Civil War to the Spanish-American War, the government would raise the liquor tax to pay for the war, ,then lower it when the war was over. If alcohol was made illegal, a great source of income would be removed. But after the 16th Amendment created the income tax, another domino fell.

You can conceivably trace women's suffrage, the income tax, single-issue voting, and rallying of minority groups toward a cause to the temperance movement. Okrent fairly presents these items and the issue of wet vs dry without taking sides. His narrative is politically balanced except for his unbridled disdain for Calvin Coolidge.

Overall, it is a great and interesting book on a turbulent time in American history