Book Review: ‘News Hardcore: Hukbong Sandatahan ng Kahaggardan’ by Manix Abrera

WARNING: This review will get personal.

Back in 2013, when I was new-ish at my previous (and first-ever) job at GMA News Online, I once spent an entire day reading Manix Abrera’s News Hardcore from the first strip to the latest. Concealing my laughter became a struggle.

News-H-cover
Image from Visprint.

News Hardcore at first followed the adventures of a newbie journo and then branched out into the experiences of her co-workers in the difficult but noble profession of news. The comic was only about 150+ strips at the time. Even if I couldn’t (yet) relate to a lot of what was going down in the comics–from the failure to hail a cab to going to work during outrageous typhoons–I told myself and my officemates that this would make a great book and I’d buy it if it was. Little did I know that one day, Manix would email me a strip every week, that I would have to upload these comics onto the GNO website myself, that we would meet in conventions here and there, that he would give me a copy of 14 to review.

Flash forward to 2015, two years and a few odd months later, to the November Komikon. Manix was at the head of a long line of people who wanted autographs on News Hardcore: Hukbong Sandatahan ng Kahaggardan. I was not the same girl who read 150+ comic strips in one afternoon during some downtime from work: no longer naive, no longer a journalist, and preparing to leave my second job to move into my third, I’d left my fulfilling but ultimately toxic media job behind. But I still wished to have a hard copy of News Hardcore because no matter what happened to me next, the fact remains that my time in journalism has become an indelible part of me. (Spoiler alert: I did not buy a copy. Manix gave me a review copy for free.)

The truth is that my last six months at GMA were fraught with anxiety, stress, office politics, and the beginnings of a year-long depression. There came a point when I cried during a car ride to work–my body’s way of telling me that I did not want to be there anymore. Remembering what was good and what I loved about the job became an unreachable dream. In the months after, I even stopped listening and reading to almost all kinds of news because I would remember some small thing that brought on so much boiling anger and resentment.

I read my physical copy of News Hardcore not in one sitting, as during that day in 2013, but in bursts between tasks at work, breaks, car rides, and an hour before going to bed. I noticed that I laughed more during this second reading than I ever did during the first. I could recognize myself and my former colleagues in beautifying yourself after coverage upon coverage; in gossiping about &#%$@^*@#% grammatical mistakes and other ridiculous writing sins committed by contributors; in trying to get HR to reimburse a hellish commute fee. I remember going to work the Saturday after Typhoon Yolanda struck, having to return gifts over P300 in price, pushing through a crowd just to get an assignment done. I remember having moments to myself on the rooftop or in the bathroom, not exactly questioning my life choices but taking stock of my life thus far anyway. I remember all the chats with my colleagues about what we really like to do beyond office hours (actor, writer, photographer, comic artist…there were many of us with other hobbies). I remembered all of it, laughing (and cringing a little).

It’s been a year since I left GMA. It’d be an understatement to say that coping with the fallout, the near-constant rush of triggering memories, the slow climb back to a place that isn’t dark and so far down from an exit, hasn’t been easy. But I have done it, and I just so happened to read News Hardcore in a better frame of mind and under better circumstances. This book helped remind me that there were some good times, great memories, moments I could be proud of. And that yes, there are things I miss about the job, moments when I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed and the situation had been better. This book also helped me realize that that chapter of my life really has ended and that I am done wallowing in pain. Thus, reading this book is a wonderful way to go full circle.

I don’t know if I can offer an objective review of the book and its contents (is there even such a thing as an objective review?). But this is what News Hardcore means to me, and I am so glad it played such a significant part of my life.

Now all that’s left to ask is, kailan kaya yung volume 2? 😀

Book Review: ‘Seraphina’ by Rachel Hartman

If you read only one novel this year, make it Rachel Hartman’s debut novel Seraphina.

I was first attracted by the gorgeous cover of the 2014 reprint edition, and then by this interesting article on inventing gender systems by Hartman herself. When I finally dove into Seraphina, the first book in the duology, it was thankfully much, much more than the projected sum of its parts.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Photo from Goodreads.com
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Photo from Goodreads.com

Seraphina is about a teenage girl with a talent for music and a terrible secret landing a job as assistant to the court composer in an alternate medieval world of an uneasy peace between humans and dragons. Just as she arrives at court, one of the princes of the royal family of Goredd is murdered, and the mystery surrounding his death is a lot closer to her past and family than Seraphina would like. She ends up teaming up with bastard prince Lucian Kiggs, whose reputation as a skilled investigator and position as Captain of the Royal Guard make him the most likely person to ferret out Seraphina’s secrets. Together, they uncover a plot that could unbalance the world they know.

It’s been a long time since I picked up a novel, longer still since deliberately choosing a Young Adult fantasy novel as reading material thanks to a dearth of vampire romances and their copycats, and even longer still since I devoured a Young Adult novel featuring dragons from cover to cover. Seraphina breathes new life into the genre not only with its unique mix of fantasy tropes, but with how it treats the intelligence of its readers, who are supposedly aged 12 and above, with respect: the novel presents concepts in art, religion, philosophy, politcs, race, gender, and love, and fully expects its readers to engage with these.

The goal of any novel should be to prove to readers why they are taking time away from their precious families/friends/significant other/pets/internet/work/food/sleep for its sake. Seraphina accomplished this goal magnificently, in my opinion; every page had a new plot twist and every chapter ended in either a cliffhanger or a stepping stone to a spiraling event, resulting in my going to bed at 2:30a.m. on a weeknight and no regrets in the morning.

The writing itself flows smoothly, unimpeded by unnecessary words (although it does not shy away from big words, especially when dragons discuss math and music). It is also descriptive using only light touches, as with this quote from a Porphyrian philosopher that describes Seraphina’s mind’s garden:

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.” (p. 442)

Which is a feat considering how many rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments the reader is introduced to (and some of which turn out to be actual medieval rituals, saints, cultural mores, and musical instruments, according to the author interview bundled with my edition).

There’s a great balance between exposition and being left to figure out what such-and-such is supposed to be or mean. The society is sufficiently complex: the novel contains some very realistic portrayals of racism and prejudice between the humans, dragons, and even the lesser dragon race of the quigutl, and this is dealt with in different tones. Take for example, this ironic quote:

“I scrupulously hide every legitimate reason for people to hate me, and it turns out they don’t need legitimate reasons. Heaven has fashioned a knife of irony to stab me with.” (p.124)

And this humorous passage:

An aged monk led me to the infirmary. “He’s got the place to himself. Once the other invalids learned there was a dragon coming, they miraculously got well! The lame could walk and the blind decided they didn’t really need to see. He’s a panacea.” (p. 429)

Nuances within each race are also present—for instance, dragons are emotionless (or are damn well trying to be), but that does not mean they are not complex creatures driven by a thirst for knowledge and bound by the philosophy of “ard” or order. Worldbuilding-wise, my favorite aspect is Seraphina’s ever-changing mental garden of grotesques, which houses others of her kind whom she regularly has visions of, and some of whom actually see her and try to reach out to her (not always in good ways). It also seems like an ideal technique for dealing with problems in real life.

Seraphina herself is a compelling character. Her struggle with loathing her body and self completely resonated with me. I think my two favorite things about her is that 1) her actions make her out to be a courageous young woman even though she never once felt courageousness in her bones, and 2) she can take jokes about herself, going so far as to refrain correcting those people and incorporating them into some lie or other that she built around herself. I sometimes wondered if she was snatched out of precarious situations by too many lucky coincidences, but I tended to forget that as I read on.

The supporting cast is full of characters to love or feel compassionate toward. Seraphina’s dragon tutor Orma is an adorable, socially awkward scholar (but then, all dragons are socially awkward, as they still don’t get the nuances of human interaction even after 40 years of walking in their skins and feeling their discomforts). Princess Glisselda could easily have been the typical flighty dimwit, but Hartman also makes her out to be shrewd in affairs of state as well as friendly. Even Seraphina’s lawyer father Claude was not the yelling, antagonistic person I had initially expected him to be.

I want to use Prince Lucian Kiggs’ character as a touchstone of an aspect of Seraphina I absolutely adored and which stood out for me the most: the novel’s treatment of relationships. As someone who plays a lot of dating simulation games and who ends up writing relationship-focused fiction herself, it was refreshing to watch the unfolding of a love story that began from a place of mutual respect and friendship instead of mutual disgust or mutual attraction. Kiggs and Phina’s—as he calls her when he isn’t upset with her—relationship trajectory is just as rocky as any of the great romances, but the bullheadedness and stupidity that often plunges them downward are more borne of the conflicts in their goals and their personalities instead of an authorial need to get the plot going. At their best, their respective intelligences dance in perfect step with each other, more than their actual bodies dancing the pavano, such as when they quote Porphyrian philosophy to each other while speculating or extrapolating on clues.

One of the best scenes starring Kiggs and Phina involved them having a private conversation at the steps of Kiggs’ “beastly tower”, a day or so after Phina insults Kiggs, who once again asked too many personal questions. The word “love” will not make itself seen until some chapters later, but you can really sense over the next four pages that Kiggs and Phina are falling for each other the more they discuss Porphyrian philosophers and their treatises. Afterward, when they bid each other good night and he closes the door, she turns around and stands with her hand on the the surface for a long time, wondering what Kiggs does up there, leaving only when one of her musicians walks by and asks if she’s all right. As I read the novel in both public and private spaces, I had to struggle to contain gigantic grins whenever I read a scene concerning these two (ultimately resulting in some weird facial expressions)—and I’m usually very difficult to impress when it comes to romances.

It isn’t just Kiggs that Seraphina has a strong, complex bond with, however. She also has a strong familial relationship with Orma. They never say the word “love” to each other, but it’s clear that even Orma—who should not be feeling love, as this is considered a disease in dragon culture—cares deeply for Seraphina. Seraphina could also have easily hated Princess Glisselda, who is her music student and romantic rival, and her father Claude for keeping her sheltered most of her life, but she reacts to them with compassion and understanding. Her relationship with her mother Linn, who left her a mind pearl of maternal memories, does have shades of anger in there for her perceived recklessness in falling in love, marrying, and having a child with her father—but that reaction does not end there. Seraphina eventually manages to find empathy for her mother with every new maternal memory she experiences.

These nuanced relationships also reflect on the world at large: yes, Goreddi society is flourishing after forty years of peace with dragons, but that has done nothing to ease the hatred and violence its members commit against the dragons in their human forms (called saarantrai in the plural). Yes, the ruler who forged the peace with the dragons is female and it seems that their long line privileges women in the seat of power, but clothier Thomas Broadwick can still insinuate that Seraphina is a “worm-riding quig lover” who will end up in a sack in the river after he sees her buying a figurine from a quigutl. Yes, Seraphina loves Orma and can understand dragon language and behavior, but she finds newskins or newly transformed dragons appalling to behold and refers to herself often as a monster due to her parentage. The child who picks up this book for the first time will be forced to ask questions while the adult looking for cultural, racial, and political realism will be satisfied—or at least, I was. I was so satisfied that I went looking for other similar Young Adult fantasy novels with the small hope that I would find something just as complex but would induce in me the same amount of sheer joy.

When I reached the end of Seraphina during lunch out with my family, just before diving into the 30+ pages of bonus materials in my edition and some hours before I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy of the sequel Shadow Scale without a second thought, I laid my head on the table and told my sister, “You know that feeling you get when you realize that a book has wrecked you in a good way? This book has wrecked me.

Book Review: ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic’ by Emily Croy Barker

Image via Amazon.
Image via Amazon.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHOY.

I bought this book for four reasons:

  1. Finding this book (and its unusually bright cover) in the usually snooty Literature section of the bookstore,
  2. The blurb from the amazing Kelly Link at the back,
  3. Finding out that the author’s day job is that of a journalist,
  4. And the summary stating that this would be a book about a smart, cynical grad school student caught up in a magical world a la Narnia, Oz, Fairyland.

I even read the first couple of paragraphs in the store itself and thought, wow, looks like it’s off to a good start, even if it’s a little slow–and there are 560+ pages!

But, to my disappointment, the novel doesn’t deliver after that good start. It gets exciting when the protagonist, Nora, literally walks into another world, but the things that happen to her from then on made me want to facepalm in secondhand embarrassment for her.

Nora is the thinking woman of the title. Even though she’s stuck in a rut with regard to her English postgraduate thesis, the fact is, she’s made out to be pretty smart, if somewhat dense in the romance area (she was still kinda pining for her ex-boyfriend, who is going to marry someone else in a few months. He invites her to the wedding and she rightfully gets upset, at least). She adores Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book that becomes a literal plot point, and idolizes Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but she’s not even half as sharp as the former.

Case in point: during a weekend wedding, she immediately gets caught up in the glittering world of the Faitoren, the queen of which, Illisa, regales her with illusions of parties from glamorous eras from her world (like the Hollywood Golden Age). Nora even gets engaged to, marries, and has the child of smooth bastard Raclin, Illisa’s son. Yet things go downhill from there (like, near-murder and a miscarriage downhill, none of which psychologically affect her for long), and she’s rescued by the grim, cruel magician Aruendiel, who begrudgingly takes her in and eventually condescends to “teach” her some magic (not much teaching going on there, really). By the way, when Nora leaves the beautiful illusion of the fey world, she stumbles into another Medieval Europe analogue–complete with castles and pastures and poor peasants, but with magic thrown in.

The first 300-400 pages felt like the author was feeling her way around the world just as Nora was, so not much goes on there except to parse out bits of Aruendiel’s history as Nora falls in love with him. She also falls for him despite the fact that he is, oh, I dunno, 180 years old, half-dead, killed his first wife, and treats her like a simpleton–which she is, considering how halfway through the book, she sees Ilisa again and literally walks right into her arms. Or she would have, if Aruendiel hadn’t saved her–and despite being a simpleton, he also falls for her. I can’t even.

And that ending. You’re warned somewhere that this is the first book in a trilogy, kinda forget it as you plod through the serviceable but ultimately pointless prose (I mean, I did keep reading ’til the end), and then get smacked by the fact of the trilogy at the tail-end of the book.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic wanted to be a lot of things: portal fantasy, epic magical war story, Pride and Prejudice romance, contemporary romance novel. Perhaps it is all those things, and I may have missed a few. But I feel like a better job could have been done in stitching all those together and cutting off so much excess.

Also, it boggles me that Amazon categorized the book under Horror > Occult. There was nothing scary about it (except for the horrifying way Nora kept getting herself into messes that could have been avoided if she stopped to think for a bit), and I am a huge scaredy-cat.

Book Review: ‘How the World Became Quiet’ by Rachel Swirsky

Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com
Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com

Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.

This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.

I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.

I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.

The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.

How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.

I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).

In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.

But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.

I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.

Book Review: ‘Storyteller’ by Kate Wilhelm

wilhelm-storyteller-lg
Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm. Photo from socialistjazz.blogspot.com

I never thought I’d get to read Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Workshop for reasons other than a passive interest in how the Clarion Workshops came to be. But now that I actually stand a damn good fighting chance at going to Clarion San Diego, Storyteller immediately rose to the top of my to-read list.

What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said in much better ways? Nearly every Clarion graduate recommends it to incoming students, often with glowing reviews. I love Wilhelm’s use of clear, concise words to convey her points; her fond, mama-hen-like tones when talking about specific incidents–whether these are about water gun fights or specific workshop sessions. I love how the writing lessons she chooses to include are very nuts-and-bolts, and yet, not at all preachy or technical or jargon-filled. Plus, the index toward the end saved me from having to highlight passages I liked very much.

Best of all, you can apply these lessons in writing, etiquette, love, and life to just about any kind of story, not just Science Fiction or Fantasy.

I came to Storyteller looking for information about the workshop that I wanted to ask and didn’t even know I wanted to ask the coordinator in our email exchanges, that I was often unable to find even combing through this wonderful index of Clarion-related blogs curated by Liz Argall.  For sure, I did not get direct information, but by reading through the slow, turbulent history of the workshops from the 60s and 70s, I think I know a few things already, like which traditions they might have kept. I hope the cafeteria food isn’t as bad as so many people say.

It doesn’t tell you some things, like how to prepare for Clarion way before you arrive, or how to manage your time well, or how many stories you should churn out during your stay, or which events should you attend or skip. I am starting to realize that those are the things you either find out when you get there, or for yourself through trial and error.

I finished reading the book feeling as if I had my fill of the most satisfying appetizer. Can’t wait for the full course in June.

Book Review: ‘Ventriloquism’ by Catherynne M. Valente

The cover of the author's rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com
The cover of the author’s rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com

Reading Catherynne M. Valente’s writing is both like taking in a slow breath and being unable to do so. Her words spiral upward, outward, then close in on you, and you will grow dizzy simply trying to keep up with the barrage of living, breathing, sensual ideas.

At least, that’s how her first-ever collection of short stories made me feel. The rare, out-of-print Ventriloquism encompasses six years’ worth of tales, six years’ worth of experimentation both failed and wildly triumphant. And I must say, whether you love or hate her work, this is one hefty, heady mix.

I didn’t read everything, however, having encountered many of the stories in The Melancholy of Mechagirl or in Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Maybe it’s just me (and it very likely is, as I often pick apart her writing even as I read a story–especially if it’s one of her form-heavy pieces), but I would have preferred it had the stories been arranged according to year published. Part of the joy of reading Ventriloquism was watching/reading someone whom many already consider pretty great improve again and again, even if the story just didn’t do it for me.  There is something about reading her poetic prose, which straddles opulence and unreadability simultaneously, and then recognizing how she scales it back for particular stories, especially toward the end.

I am thinking particularly of the last nine stories in this 35-story oeuvre: “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps,” “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” (which is going to be a novel in 2015, yay!) “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Radiant Moon!,” “Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Elegy),” “Secretario,” “The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World,” “How to Become a Mars Overlord,” “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica,” and “13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time.” Minus the last one (which I’d read in Melancholy) and throw in “A Delicate Architecture” and “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” and you have my favorite stories of this collection.

What do they have in common apart from all having been written by Catherynne M. Valente? I…don’t know. Figuring out what particularly attracts me about her stories is like throwing dice. Whether it’s a detective story of sorts (“Secretario”) or a science fictional elegy about wine and war (“Golubash”) or a retelling of a fairy tale/epic or a narrative encased strange forms (an auction guide, a segment of a collection of folktales, the transcript of a seminar), Valente does not fail to enthrall at best, to pique interest at least.

“Here an author throws her voice—and a family of strange dolls speaks, as if by magic,” reads the intro on the jacket flap. But it’s not just dolls. She can make cities and mirrors and video games and practically anything else she puts her mind to speak, sing, scream. And while she’s at it, she’ll give you incisive insight into human nature, into the nature of story. She’s really good at dissecting patterns then flipping them on their heads for her own purposes.

The only issue I have with a few of them is that a handful feel like novels-in-waiting–and indeed, some of them did turn out so (“A Dirge for Prester John” = The Habitation of the BlessedPalimpsest; and now “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” will be coming out in 2015 as Radiance). I’ve read in a lot of places that some people actually have novel ideas behind their short stories and that one must learn how to differentiate one from the other. Valente manages sometimes, and other times, she doesn’t. I am of the belief that her comfort length is that of the novella (have you read Silently and Very Fast? If you haven’t yet, you should).

And therein lies the problem whenever I review her work: I always end up talking about her range, assessing her breadth, unable to speak about her work on a micro level because I think to do that would take an entire thesis and a dissertation, and then some. The bottom line is, her fiction takes my heart in its lavishly decorated, well-manicured claws, rips it apart, then presents it again to me whole, but never quite the same.

And I cannot wait to read The Bread We Eat in Dreams.

Book Review: ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction’ by Jeff Vandermeer

When I began college, I kept checking out creative writing reference books from the library, or else buying them from bookstoresit’s always a pain to discover later on that the book itself is not actually worth what you’ve paid. I’ve read all kinds: from dubious, purely instructional manuals to the philosophical but rather useless at dissecting technique. Some are essay collections, some are written in chapters.

And very few of them ever mentioned writing science fiction or fantasy, if at all. Those scarce mentions were either wholly unsatisfying single paragraphs (as if the writing of those two genres could ever be distilled in one paragraph) or else much-too specific books (reading about that many generation starships and dragons can actually put you off from writing them).

I was beginning to give up on books on writing when I encountered a mention of Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction on Chuck Wendig’s blog. Not too long a time later, the awesome Charles Tan dropped a copy in my stunned but willing arms (I am indebted to you. Really).

“Wonderbook is unlike any other writing manual you’ve ever seen. Taking a uniquely visual approach, it’s packed with over 200 images and pictorial exercises to stimulate your imagination and expand the reaches of your creativity.” —text on the back cover of Wonderbook

And boy, it does more than deliver on that promise.

Image taken from SFSignal.com
Image taken from SFSignal.com

Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is both everything I wanted in a book about writing and also everything I didn’t know I wanted. Writing advice streamlined for science fiction and fantasy writers? Check. Nuts and bolts approaches? Check. Interviews and essays with favorite writers on their processes? Check. No artificial mention of publishing and formatting? Check.

But brightly-colored graphs on kinds of character arcs? Beautiful cutaway diagrams of marine life that suggest different story structures? A workshop appendix containing LARP and board game approaches to writing? Complicated creative writing prompts and exercises? A website with further anecdotes, essays, exercises, and other supplements that fully embrace contemporary times and alternative learning methods? Oh, my god, GIMME.

And if you’re looking for the kind of writing book that imparts a certain type of philosophy, Wonderbook is that kind of book as well, and it’s philosophy, of course, is wonderonly, the wonder is not simply in blocks of texts and how these are worded. It’s in the multitude of pictures, in the humorous ins and outs of the talking penguin and the woman with the gun, in the examples provided by the strange bird Myster Odd (an oddity in himself), in the hugeness and glossy-paged-ness of the entire package. Wonderbook will make you wonder at itself, but it will also gently turn your gaze outward, on the world itself, and the great alchemical mystery of writing and art in general. If you’re a cynic, it might make you take off your gray-hued glasses. If you’re already someone who imbibes wonder in your every day living, you will feel affirmed.

Wonderbook, in essence, offers you a new way of looking at things by simply turning something you already know upside-down, inside-out, making lines bolder or softening them at need. The tone of the entire book is by turns humorous and contemplative, but never combative or lecturingthe latter two tones being an irritable hallmark of some of the other creative writing how-to books I’ve read (and like I said, I’ve read a lot). I think I was, all this time, looking for such a book that not only advises that your fiction be open and leave room for reader interpretation, but embodies it in its own text. I can count on one hand the books that marry depth and openness to other genres, other structures, other kinds of everything, and Wonderbook is among these.

It’s also a great instructional manual for both amateurs and intermediate creative writersand I daresay, even professionals will find something new for their perusal here.  To be honest, I haven’t even read most of the exercises like I do with other books because I want to be fully-immersed in them, as if I were reading a novel for the first time. Little lessons on the side are indicated by delightfully-drawn help guides such as the aforementioned Myster Odd, the Little Aliens, the Devil’s Advocate, All-Seeing Pen-Eye, and Webinator, according to the needs and nature of such. If these alone don’t stimulate your imagination, then perhaps that muscle needs more than just exercise.

But Wonderbook goes beyond all that. It is so much more than that. Only on eBay and obscure bookshops will carry any writing books that talk about writing about the Other (Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night does this as well), that attempt to pin down style and voice and leave you satisfied even though the feat was not actually managed, that acknowledge the connection between elements of TV and the elements of fiction (and which of the former are bad and good for the latter), that discusses how to handle fight scenes, that exude respect for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

If I were to read only one writing book for my entire lifetime, it would be Wonderbook. If I ever become a creative writing professor, I’d teach from this book, as well. It would also be one of the first I’d dive for in my room in case of a fire (knock on wood).

Looking back on this review, I’m saddened knowing that I did not do this wonderful book any justiceI’m probably going to slap my forehead later, cursing about something I forgot to add and sneakily adding it later on. But that only means that you should see for itself what magic infuses its pages.

With that, I leave you with the quirky book trailer from publisher Abrams Image (that also does not do it justice):