Book Review: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this right after the first book Curse of Chalion. I liked this one a whole lot more, mainly because I loved that Bujold focused the sequel on Ista, mother of who had been considered mad and is now bitter towards the gods. This story is The Sermon of the Cups, explained in the first book) expanded in the form of Ista’s pilgrimage. I particularly enjoyed Liss’s characterization of a courier girl who becomes Ista’s handmaiden, and breaks all the rules in how a handmaiden is supposed to act. I also loved the interaction between Ista and the gods, which was equal parts exasperation and intimacy. This is a beautiful tale of growth and submission, done from a fortyish woman’s point of view. Lovely!

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Review: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As of late, I’ve been struggling with the question, “Is God speaking to us today? If so, how?” I know He speaks through the Bible–some would say that it’s the only way he speaks. But is that true? Are there other ways he can speak through?

Karen Swallow Prior believes so. In her memoir “Booked”, she lists 8 books and several poems that influenced her faith. Most of the books are classics; the most recent are Charlotte’s Web (the only book I fully read on her list) and Death of a Salesman. She also didn’t have any books from authors of color. But the books she mention are still interesting, and I’ve got many on my to read list.

I think the book worked best when she was in “teaching mode”. I was most struck by how she dove into John Milton’s Areopagitica and used that to form her reading philosophy of how books should be “promiscuously read”: the best way to counteract falsehood is not by suppressing it, but by countering it with truth. Pretty cool coming from an anti-censorship tract. I also enjoyed her chapter on Jane Eyre (dealing with identity), and her chapter on Gulliver’s Travels; having always grown up on the child-sanitized version, I didn’t even know it was originally adult satire…nor did I know about all the innuendos.

The memoir sections took a while for me to warm up to, particularly in the Charlotte’s Web chapter, where she talked about horse raising. And towards the end, it felt like she was running out of things to pull out of her life to put in the book. Perhaps it would have been good for her to include other people stories along with her own. Or maybe used the rest of the book to deal with harder questions–she did this with the last chapter: The Poetry of Doubt, but I felt it could have been expanded…

It felt like my original question: “Is God speaking to us today?” wasn’t answered as I wanted (the answer I came away with was: yes…through classics). Still, it got me to thinking what influenced me in my faith over the years. For me, it wasn’t just books: my faith in God has been shaped through graphic novels and movies, songs of all types and short stories. Even webcomics, I’ve found, can strike me as profound when I’m struggling with a certain issue. And when it’s backed up by Scripture, it makes me giddy. So yes, God is still speaking to us today. At least, from my point of view.

I’m glad I got Booked. At the very least, it gave me some old classics to put on my reading list, and if there was ever a way I could go to a class taught by Prior, I’d do it. This gets 3 books out of 5, and extra points for the phrase ‘promiscuous reading’, even though it is from Milton.

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Writer’s Cafe vs. Scrivener: Which program is write for you? (Ha! I made a pun!)

As most of you know, I do most of my writing using Writer’s Cafe. It’s a great tool I found at the beginning of my writing career when I was looking for something that matched Scrivener, which was only Mac at the time. You can find my write up of that here.

A couple of years ago, Scrivener finally came out with a Windows version. By then, I had become a die hard fan of Writer’s Cafe, so I wasn’t looking to switch. But I was still curious, so I downloaded a demo and wrote a short story using it. There were some cool features Scrivener had that WC didn’t have, but other features WC ruled on that Scrivener was lacking. I decided I was happy with WC enough that I didn’t want to shell out $40 for Scrivener.

Flash forward to this summer. WC hadn’t been updated for a while, and I found that I really missed some of Scrivener’s features. So when I caught Scrivener on sale at Amazon for half price, I snatched it up. I’ve been using it since. But which is the better writing program?

So without further ado:

CAGE MATCH — WRITER’S CAFE VERSUS SCRIVENER. FIGHT!!!!!

(Note—I’m comparing Writer’s Café to the Scrivener for Windows version, which I know is a tooled down version of Scrivener for Mac. Yes, I know the Mac version is better, but seeing that I don’t own a Mac, oh well.)

Similarities: WC & Scrivener are both dedicated to the art of writing. You write a whole book in either of them, write short stories, or do screenwriting. You can import text, edit, and export to an external program. You can keep notes, pictures, websites for research, and both programs come with a "corkboard" where you can view outline of your stories.  And both have really good support, Scrivener with its forums and WC with its Yahoo email group.

Differences: WC has different ‘programs’ within itself that you can choose to do your work via different tabs and/or a desktop that has icons to different parts of yourself, whereas Scrivener keeps everything on one place. WC is geared from the brainstorming and structuring part of writing, while Scrivener’s emphasis is more on the writing itself. I’ll get into more detail starting with Scrivener.

Scrivener’s plusses: As I mentioned, Scrivener is focused on writing. It makes for a great word processor because it has everything there at your fingertips. Conceivably, you can open up Scrivener without knowing anything about how it works and just start writing, because the space is intuitive. You can also make it so that you can block out everything except your writing space. If you’re a writer who works by scenes, Scrivener makes this super easy. You can move scenes around, split documents into separate sections and vice versa. You can also write a story in a single text document without splitting into scenes. There are many shortcuts and functions that mimic Microsoft word, such as comments and footnotes, plus features Word doesn’t have, such as the document and project notes, which I use to store text I’m editing out of a story on the chance I might need to use it again.

scrivener

Another thing I really like about Scrivener is that you can make a "Scrivener Link" to point to any document in the program. So you can make your own wiki in scrivener, make key words point to notes. I really wish this feature was in Writer’s Cafe. It would make cross-referencing my research and notes so much easier.

I’m still working with Scrivener and discovering new things to do as I go, but I already feel I got more than my money’s worth. Scrivener as a word processor and writing tool outshines Writer’s Cafe, which also have a writing processor, but is buried and has bare bone features.

Writer’s Cafe plusses: WC may not do so well for writing stories, but when it comes to researching, planning and outlining, it outshines Scrivener.

WC’s strength is its Storylines feature, which is similar to the corkboard in Scrivener in that you can have cards that show synopses of your story, tags. However, WC allows you to group cards according to "storyline". You can  hide storylines or create multiples storylines. For instance, I have a storyline showing all the plots in my novel, but I also have another storyline showing a timeline of current events, and I have a storyline showing a timeline of the distant past.

WC1

WC’s also has Scrapbook, which like Scrivener, holds notes and websites for research. One feature WC has that Scrivener doesn’t is the ability to double-click on a URL on a webpage and copy it to Scrapbook (very useful when you’re collecting information for research). You can also make a collage…not very user friendly, but good if you want to do a visual character sketch.

wc2

There’s the pinboard, which gives you a unstructured corkboard to brainstorm lists. And of course, there are the notebook and journal features, which allow you to freewrite to your heart’s content. You can use writer’s prompts and write using a timer.

If you’re a freewriter like me, Writer’s Cafe is excellent for brainstorming and planning before you get to the actual writing. WC gives a chance for your brain to play before you get down to the nuts and bolts of writing.

The winner? Scrivener (kind of)

I’ve used Writer’s Cafe long enough that I would go to bat for it in a heartbeat. And I still do. But I have to say, if it boiled down to only one program to buy, Scrivener would be the best program because it’s all self-contained. I’ve completed two short stories in Scrivener, and it was super easy to brainstorm, write, proofread, and export the stories into the right format. Julian, the creator behind Writer’s Cafe, had written about upgrading WC to include many features Scrivener has, including a better word processor to make it easier to focus on the writing of stories, but this has yet to happen. And now that Scrivener for Windows is out, I dare say that overall, it functions as a better writing tool than WC. If you don’t have a writing program and are looking for one, Scrivener is your best bet.

But I can’t completely endorse Scrivener for Windows. I don’t know how often Scrivener updates its Window version, but it seems many of the functions that make Scrivener a superior writing program has yet to cross over to the Windows version. And this is where Writer’s Cafe picks up most of the slack, because while it’s not a good writing tool, it’s an excellent brainstorming and planning too.

So…if you can get both, do it. I was able to get Scrivener on sale from Amazon a few months ago, and I found that while I do most of the writing in Scrivener, I still do most of my freewriting, brainstorming and plotting through Writer’s cafe. Sort of like a left brain/Scrivener vs right brain/WC sort of thing. Both work well together.

Ironically, I’m not using either program to write this blog post. I’m using Evernote, which is a whole different ball of wax altogether. But that will have to be another cage match.

New Story! “Ebb and Flow” up at Daily Science Fiction!

My first SWFA sale! It’s a flash story called “Ebb and Flow” and you can read it now for free at Daily Science Fiction!

I wrote this story for a flash contest, back when I was wrestling with feelings of trying for another child. I’m really glad DSF picked it up. Head on over and check it out!

Review: The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century

The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century
The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard of this book during a Black Tribbles podcast. I never heard of it before, but reading it now, I’m blown away by it. It’s a Frank Miller/Dave Gibbons collaboration, same dudes that did Sin City and Watchmen. It’s not so dark and grim as those graphic novels, but definitely gritty. There’s still violence, there’s still bloodshed. But it’s a fascinating look at an alternative United states, and it’s all done through a black woman’s viewpoint.

Life and Times starts off with Martha being born with Cabrini Green reimagined as a maximum security housing project. Right off the bat mixing unfamiliar with familiar. People sleeping in rows of bunk beds behind locked bars. Living quarters the size of closets. Dirty sidewalks, and rampant crime. The shift of years of the same president, his continuous reign marching from cautiously cheering crowds to arm guards and tanks with guns.

We follow Martha as she goes from Cabrini Green survivor to mental institute patient, to soldier. Interesting that for all her life, She’s not shown with relaxed hair. No black women are. Can’t tell if this is deliberate. But We see Martha with an afro, a buzzcut, cornrolls, locs, and no hair at all.

And the other thing we see–Martha has faith in God. This is something that’s never shaken from her, even though she is sent to war and sees atrocities and wrongs, her belief in God, and her sense that she was put there for a reason, never shakes.

The way Martha is drawn is interesting. Most of the time, she’s drawn unsmiling, a snarl if she’s fighting, or just the badass stare. She’s drawn as a mature woman, and most of the book, you forget that by the time she joins PAX, she’s only a teenager. A good chunk of the story is her as a teenager, and yet she goes through stuff that makes her age quickly into a gritty war veteran.
There’s this one picture of her standing in full uniform, bald and confident, with a slight smile. It is the youngest I’ve ever seen of her. She almost looks…optimistic. Cheerful. Turn the page, and she is shooting a huge gun, muscled arm, gritted teeth, chiseled, torn jeans, a ripped bandanna tied around her head. There’s nothing sweet about her now. She’s got a job to do, and she does it, not with pleasure, or with hate. It’s a job and it needs to be done.

That’s how her story is. Martha makes for a good soldier. Rising up the ranks for her is slow, not because she is incompetent, but because mostly her superiors are corrupt. She keeps her mouth shut and she does her job. Unless it interferes with her values. And Martha’s values are strong. She protects the Brazilian rainforest from being napalmed and is placed under the corrupt sergeant’s contingent, who tries to rid her any way he can, but dang it, she keeps on surviving. She refuses to take blood from an alternate Captain America. And when the people she work for become utterly corrupt, she turns traitor in order to cleanse it, then turns traitor on her allies when they turn corrupt.

Here and there, there are little bits to soften up the hard story. Martha looking down at the Brazilian rainforest and her face going soft. How Martha always treats her mother. How she manages to win over one Valkerie enough for her to become devoted to Martha, developing a crush and always fighting by her side, even though she knows Martha doesn’t feel the same way. There’s even romance, sort of. She meets up with Wasserstein, the only Navajo left. They have adventures along with an enigmatic psychic named RaggyAnn. Too bad RaggyAnn drops from the story with no explanation. She’s an underutelized character.

Miller and Gibbons gives us a United States that fractures, and it’s believable. The Pacific NW is governed by the New Calvinist Initiative, California becomes an Evil Wonderland, Colorado and Arizona are ruled by Fat Boy Burgers, in league with the Mexican terriroty. Texas beccomes an entity of its own (that’s frightening), while Florida is being taken over by Cuba. The east coast is splinted into a bunch of groups that tear each other apart, and the midwest is…well…still considered the united states. Go figure.

At times, the alternative timeliness seemed too insane. The Nazi Gays, for instance, seemed goofy. There also appeared to be a thing where the Ku Klux Klan was populated by blacks. Going for too unbeleiveable. But the constant warring between the states was intriguing. There’s one story where Martha leads her troops over Texas lines into Fat Boy territory to get her and her troops burger and fries, because the sell of red meet is forbidden by the 94th amendment. There’s also the breakdown of technology, which turns into a plot point in itself. Fighting suits break down. Transports blow up.

The only story I felt lacking was the last one, simply because it raised a lot of questions for me. It appears Martha lives to be 100. She explored a bunch of worlds. Supposedly she met God. And yet…who is the black dreadlocked woman with the scar? Why does she call Martha ‘Gannie?” (A play on raggedy ann, perhaps?) Why did Martha go back to earth? What happened to her husband and sons? Who is the enemy they’re fighting against? Why is there a nun when there are no more churches?
Are the dreadlocked woman, and the two other black folks Martha’s Grandchildren? I really, really, really wanted to see that story. And that’s why I’ll only give it four out of five Pax helmets.

And if Siri starts taking the form of a blue skinned woman, we might be in serious trouble.

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Review: A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I read a book that took me to a futuristic Brazil. This month I read a book that took me to a different world altogether.

A Stranger in Olondria is a book you read slowly to savor every sentence. It’s about a young man who travels to a distant land and is haunted by an illiterate ghost, but really, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about the love of reading. How words are a type of magic that conjures images, embodies the heart of a person, indeed, even a person long dead, and transport a reader to a different place and time. Sofia’s descriptions lands of Bain and the Tea Islands were so incredibly rich, it felt at times like reading it was an escape, a true escape, from my real life.

This is not a book you read fast. Mundane moments are explained in rich detail: following Jevick as he learns to read, accompanying him as he travels to long-awaited Bain, experiencing, his wonder, his joy, as he explores the city. Experiencing his fear as the ghost of a young woman he met on the ship starts appearing to him. His attempts to get rid of the ghost, which takes him to an asylum. The characters he meet: The Priest of the Stone, his daughter, the melancholy Tialon, chipper Miros, who humor covers a lovelorn despair, and his uncle Auram, a fanatic who wishes to use Jevick to contact his ghost, or Angel. And then there’s the ghost herself, Jissavet, a force to be reckoned, even after her death, who demands her story to be written. And oh yes, there are stories. Many many stories, not just hers alone. (My favorite is a retelling of a selkie story that I instantly recognized, and felt extreme happiness upon recognizing it.)

There was a point where Jevick bemoans the loss one feels upon approaching the end of a book. I looked to see how many pages I had left, and I felt that loss keenly, it almost felt kind of meta. This is a book lovers book, something to read for the pleasure of reading itself, one mesmerizing word at a time.

Five books out of five, because…I can’t think of any other perfect way to rate it.
Five books out of five, because

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Review: The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, this was a fun read. I love the worldbuilding: the city of Palames Tres, set in the post-apocalpytic Brazil, a city of tiers, ruled by women and defined by the young (wakas) and the old (grandes). And I loved the relationships.

This is not the normal boy/girl YA romance. Artistic June is best friends with Gil, with their share of flirtations towards each other. When Enki, doomed boy chosen to be the Summer Prince comes into their lives, it is Gil, not June, who falls under his spell and has a passionate love affair with him. June struggles with being left out and with her own feelings, for Enki is also a fellow artist. Instead of turning into a love triangle, which most books might do, it becomes a threesome. A tasteful, loving threesome in which all three care deeply for each other.

If Enki was evil or selfish, this would be potential for disaster. However, there is a reason why June and Gil are drawn to him. He is in love with everyone–though he made himself that way (in the future, there’s an app for that). He loves June, he loves Gil, he loves the lowly slums of Tier 8, which he represents and he loves the city of Palames Tres, enough to die for it, which is the fate of every Summer King.

With all the talk of sacrifice, I found myself viewing Enki as a Christ figure. He touches everyone, from the mod bootleggers on Tier 8 to the matriarchal rulers, the Aunties. He knows full well he is doomed. He is also not without his faults. But he works so that his willing sacrifice brings about true change.

I loved the complications in the story. The matriarchal society, created after a long-ago virus killed many men, is just as corrupt and political. Amid growing complaints that the Aunties are hindering technology, other cities like New Tokyo have such advanced technology, they’ve lost their humanity. June’s own conflict with her mother takes a back seat as she works with Enki to gain the coveted Queen’s Award. And slowly, June learns that her own world is not as perfect as she thought it was, and that her own ideas can’t be neatly wrapped up in a bow.

There was so much touched in this book. Privilege. Power. Politics. Technology. Relationships. Art. Leadership and Sacrifice. And all against the backdrop of a Brazilian samba atmosphere that makes me wish someone opted this for a movie. I really, really loved this book. 5 sambas out of 5, and now I must create a playlist of samba and bossa nova to read this book to.

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