Welcome New Readers

With all four Girls Wearing Black books now released, I have turned more of my efforts towards marketing. Because of that, I’m seeing many of you here for the first time. If you’re new to me and my books, welcome! I’m thrilled to have you here. Here are some things you should know.

1) The most popular post in the history of this blog was the Girls Wearing Black Q&A. I’m about to give a link to it, but don’t click on that link until you’ve read ALL FOUR BOOKS. The link is full of spoilers. After Book 4 came out, I gave readers the opportunity to ask me anything they wanted to know and I promised not to hold back in my answers. There are plenty of surprises in the final half of Book 4 and I’d hate to ruin them for you. So please, come back to this link after you’ve finished the series: Girls Wearing Black Q&A.

2) I’m still at a place in my writerly life where I have capacity to answer every reader email I get. You can email me at spencerbaum75@gmail.com, or like the Facebook page (link on the right) and message me there. I love talking to readers!

3) Unlike many indie authors, my release schedule is SLOW. My novels go through 10 or more drafts before I call them done. Usually by the final draft, I am writing a completely different novel than the one I started with. I write full-time, but still it takes me about a year to write the kind of novel I like to put out there. If you want to know when my next book is coming, subscribe to the Facebook page and/or email list on the right, or subscribe to the new release emails on my Amazon author page.

4) My current project is titled The Tetradome Run. It’s very much in the vein of Girls Wearing Black–a literary thriller set in a world that is an awful lot like present-day America, but with fantasy and dystopian elements. This one will be unique because, in addition to being a novel, I have written a series of companion stories that will be released as part of a transmedia experience through one of the most popular smart phone apps in the world. We’re still not ready to quote a release date on the app, and I’m still too early in the process to give a release date on the novel, but in the coming months, I should have more info for you.

5) Enjoy the books!

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Gone Girl

I think Gone Girl the novel is a pretty amazing work of fiction. Yes, I have some complaints about it (my big complaint is the most common complaint — if you’ve read the book, I’m sure you know what it is), but there’s no denying how fast those pages turn or how amazing that plot twist is!

Saw the movie last night with my wife. I think in many ways watching the movie was an even more compelling experience than reading the novel. Everything about that movie was pretty exceptional, and I am envious of Gillian Flynn’s ability to create such incredible suspense!

 

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The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

In Girls Wearing Black, I attempted to write a book with one foot planted in an established, easily recognizable genre, and the other meandering off wherever it needed to go. The result, a mix of teen vampire fiction and…something else, was pleasing to me, but not to all readers. If you’ve come to this web site because you enjoyed Girls Wearing Black, know that I am immensely grateful we’ve found each other. In a world where an explosion of media has made it possible for all of us to consume only those stories that appeal specifically to us, I’m thrilled to come across people who enjoy reading the kind of books I like to write.

And if you enjoy the books I like to write write, I think it’s not out of the question that you’ll enjoy the books I like to read as well. For that reason, I am recommending Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave series to you today. If you haven’t already read these books, click the link below and download the sample.

5th wave

 

Book 1 of Rick Yancey’s series, The 5th Wave, tells the story of a few young teens who are among the last survivors on earth following an alien attack. Sounds like a story you’ve heard before, I’m sure. What makes this different is the nature of the aliens, who didn’t come down in giant Independence Day saucers intent on blowing up the White House, but instead attacked humanity in successive waves that were impossible to fight. The 1st wave was an EMP strike that took down the power grids all over the world. The 2nd wave, a tsunami that wiped out the coasts. The 3rd, a plague.

Those first three waves have already come and gone before the story of The 5th Wave begins. With much of humanity already dead, Yancey’s aliens begin their 4th wave of the attack, and things really get interesting.

infinite-sea

The 5th Wave came out in May of last year and floored me with its suspense, its humanity, and its superb writing. I wasn’t alone. The book was a huge success and a movie version starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Liev Schreiber is already in production. Book 2 of the planned trilogy, The Infinite Sea, came out last month. I blazed through it in 2 days, furiously highlighting along the way. The writing in these books is just stellar. If you’re looking for a book where the pages turn and the fantastical happens, but also the characters are real and the language is lovely to read, you should check these out.

 

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The Goldfinch – I Liked It

Utah. The San Rafael Swell, as the sun came up, unrolled in inhuman vistas like Mars: sandstone and shale, gorges and desolate rust-red mesas. –Page 356

I’m late to The Goldfinch. Last year, when this novel was really buzzing, I downloaded a sample of it onto my Kindle, but never got to it. The buzz became extraordinary right when I was deep into work on The Bonding Ritual. I was vaguely aware that everyone in the book world was talking about The Goldfinch, but mostly wrapped up in the plot of my own novel.

When I heard book won the Pulitzer Prize I knew I would be reading it eventually. The last time I can remember when a novel was both a commercial smash and a Pulitzer winner was The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and (in my opinion) that’s one of the great novels of our time.

After I finished The Bonding Ritual I turned to the huge to-be-read pile that had accumulated while I wrote the book. Last week The Goldfinch’s turn came up.

Count me among the people who totally get why the world went crazy for this book (as opposed to the people who think the mania is misguided). When I look at this book as a writer, it really sings.

People don’t like that the book is so plot driven. Critics say there are too many unlikely coincidences that move the plot forward. Some critics don’t like the narrative voice.

I have no quibble with any of those critics.

But I do take exception to Julie Myerson’s review of the novel in the Guardian. Among her many critiques was this one:

Every scene, every character’s face and clothes, every new place or aeroplane or bus or room, whether ultimately relevant or not, is described at such voluminous length that you honestly begin to wonder who the writer is trying to convince – you, or herself?

To me, this is like criticizing Beethoven for making the endings to his symphonies so decisive, or saying Mondrian used too much color.

The long, beautiful descriptions are what make The Goldfinch such a special book. Scan the 5-star reviews on Amazon and you’ll see, over and over again, that people who recommend this book talk at length about how much they enjoyed it. If you can set aside whatever it is you want from a heady piece of literary fiction, be it strong themes, compelling characters, biting social commentary…whatever, and instead, just zero in on the question: Did I enjoy it? you allow yourself the opportunity to receive whatever it is the writer is trying to give you. In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt is giving us a lengthy first-person view of life through the eyes of someone who needs art in order to cope with all the world throws at him. Reading it, I am quite certain that Tartt is the same way, and we’re getting a glimpse at life through her incredibly perceptive eyes.

The lead in The Goldfinch is a young man who has a unique relationship with a painting. He is a man who sees the world with such precision that a painting, a piece of visual art, provides great comfort to him. He has a gift. It’s never mentioned that way explicitly in the text, but it is there. He sees much more clearly than most. He feels more deeply.

He needs art to help him cope.

Reading it, I can sense the author’s own struggles with a similar gift. Donna Tartt is someone who sees the world in incredibly expansive tones. How could it be otherwise when she is able to write passages of such beautiful clarity and precision? They’re just everywhere. Every page of the novel is littered with descriptions that most writers can only dream of pulling off. Here are a few, found totally at random.

Lying very still under the eiderdown, I breathed the dark air of dried-out potpourri and burnt fireplace wood and — very faint — the evergreen tang of turpentine, resin, and varnish. –Page 376

I was sitting on the side of my bed, staring out the window onto Tenth Street — people just getting off work, going out to dinner, shrill bursts of laughter. Fine, misty rain slanted in the white circle of street light just outside my window. Everything felt shaky and harsh. — Page 499

Did she ever have the sense of observing herself from afar, as I often did, as if they explosion had knocked my body and my soul into two separate entities that remained about six feet apart from one another? — Page 383

I think it’s just great stuff, and every once in a while, Tartt allows herself to roll with her talents for longer stretches. That’s when the novel really takes flight, like in this passage:

Lexington Avenue. Wettish wind. The afternoon was haunted and dank. I walked right by the stop on Fifty-First Street, and the Forty-Second stop, and still I kept going to clear my head. Ash-white apartment blocks. Hordes of people on the street, lighted Christmas trees sparkling high on penthouse balconies and complacent Christmas music floating out of shops, and weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street of even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like stone. — Page 524

You get the point. You may or may not like The Goldfinch. 800-page works of literary fiction are like that. They speak to some people and not to others. The Goldfinch really speaks to me.

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10 Special Books

My wife hit me in the popular Facebook meme that goes, “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way.” Here are my 10. 

#10 Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.jonathan_strange

Not only is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell an incredible, once-in-a-generation piece of writing, it’s also meaningful to me on a personal level. My daughter was born a few months after this novel came out. She was a colicky baby who would calm down only if we were holding her or if she was in the baby carrier. For weeks, I spent hours roaming around the neighborhood with my daughter in the Baby Bjorn and my hardback copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell open in front of me. I read the whole book that way. It was great.

#9 I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier.

The blurb for this 1977 YA thriller begins, “Imagine discovering that your whole life has been a fiction, your identity altered, and a new family history created.” I-am-cheese-cover

This novel is like the movie Memento, but with 10 times the psychological impact. It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t know how he got to where he is, and slowly begins to figure it out.

And, of course, being Robert Cormier, the big reveal is both explosive and marvelously disturbing. Robert Cormier is the only author who appears twice on this list. I read all his books in middle school and early high school, and it’s fair to say they have all stayed with me.

#8 Disclosure by Michael Crichton.

Do you have a book on your list that you feel like you should apologize for? Disclosure seems like a silly pick in comparison to the others on this list, but I can’t help myself. Yes, it’s a pop thriller that uses sexual harassment in the workplace as a jumping-off point to a huge corporate conspiracy. Yes, critics who say this novel trivializes sexual harassment by making it just another cog in a Michael Crichton plot are probably correct. Yes, the virtual reality scenes haven’t aged well and yes the movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore wasn’t very good. The book is special to me anyway.

I had a few years in my teens where books and reading got pushed into a corner in my life. My friends, my activities at school, homework, more time with friends, girls, after-school jobs, sports…most of the books I read from my sophomore through my senior years of high school were assignments from English class.

A notable exception to all this was Michael Crichton. I loved Jurassic Park and set out to read everything the guy wrote. I came to Disclosure when I was 19, and it reminded me of all the joy I had been leaving on the shelf. It’s a thriller you just can’t put down.

If you’re a reader of my novels, you can thank Disclosure for the Steve Garcia plotline in One Fall, or most of Jill Wentworth’s computer hacking in Girls Wearing Black. What can I say? I want to write novels that keep you up all night, and will always remember when Disclosure did that to me.

#7 The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.

Best biography I’ve ever read.

#6 Holes by Louis Sachar.

The ultimate read-in-one-sitting novel. I think this might be the most tightly plotted book I’ve ever read. Engaging from the first sentence, fun, clever, heartfelt, and with a great message for young people. Even today, 15 years after the book came out, Holes is fresh and surprising. I predict kids will still be reading this one long after we’re all dead and gone.

holes

 

#5 The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

the chocolate war

There’s a book you read when you were young that changed the course of your life forever. We’re readers. We all have one. For me, this is it. I read The Chocolate War in 1988, when I was 12. I still remember the intensity of feelings this book brought out in me. The nature of good and evil in the world, the authority of our parents and our teachers, our entire purpose in this life–The Chocolate War helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with me or the subversive thoughts that began spinning around in my mind when I was a preteen. I think my encounter with this novel was one of the most psychologically healthy events in my life, which makes it all the more infuriating that this book is frequently banned and challenged in America’s schools.

#4 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

fortress

We’re now entering the territory of ‘favorite novel of all-time.’ Every book that remains on this list has been my answer to that question at one point or another. The Fortress of Solitude is a brilliant, dense piece of literature that fills me with envy every time I read it. I wish I had the skills to write this novel. I frequently re-read it to remind myself of what I’m aiming to do when I put pen to paper.

#3 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

Read these opening sentences of The Corrections and enjoy how quickly and effectively Franzen puts you in the mind of a dying man who is powerless to stop his world from coming undone.

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.

corrections

Of course, lots of books start out with a couple pithy sentences. The Corrections is different because that intensity never lets up. On its surface, this novel is a simple story of a family struggling to deal with change. But underneath there is so much more. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. A few sentences later in the book, we’ll learn we are in Minnesota, and the idea of a northern religion of things coming to an end becomes much more meaningful. A change of seasons viewed through the eyes of a man who doesn’t want to accept his own fate becomes both setting and metaphor–there is so much happening in just that one paragraph, and the whole book is like that! This is art with depth to it. Jonathan Franzen is a virtuoso at what he does, and The Corrections is his best book.

#2 Harry Potter by JK Rowling.

The Facebook meme requires us to choose 10 books. I’ve picked 9 individual volumes and one series of 7. Is that cheating?

If it is, then is it cheating to put The Count of Monte Cristo on the list too? That book was originally published as a multi-volume series. What about the great serials of Dickens, which we now read as individual volumes? Or The Green Mile?

Or Lord of the Rings?

harry-potter-books

If you want to know my favorite Harry Potter book, I’ll tell you #6, The Half-Blood Prince, which begins with the author throwing Professor Snape into a bind that we readers can’t possibly see him escaping, and then toying with us about his true identity for the entire novel (and the next one too).

But choosing one book in the series doesn’t feel right. Harry Potter is about three friends who take a journey into adolescence together. I can’t separate out one book from the series when the story is so much more powerful and complete if viewed as a whole.

The plots of these novels are snappy and fun. The characters are memorable and engaging. But lots of authors write books with snappy plots and great characters.

What makes Harry Potter stand out is the setting. Everything in JK Rowling’s universe is teeming with personality. Hogwarts feels real because there is so much humanity inside its walls. The clothes the characters wear, the books they read, the places they go–Rowling thought in fine detail about every facet of her universe, and then used her considerable skills to bring it all to life.

And the fact that she worked to make the books bigger and better as the story went on made all the difference in the world. Having spent the last 3 years of my life working on a series, I have tremendous admiration for the discipline and grit JK Rowling showed us when she kept her story building through seven fantastic novels. In my mind, the Harry Potter series is one of the great accomplishments of our time.

#1 Dune by Frank Herbert.

duneWe read books to entertain us, to enlighten us, to relax us…we read to connect with others, and to achieve understanding. Reading gives us empathy. And perspective. More than any other activity, reading puts us directly in the mind of someone else.

My first go at Frank Herbert’s Dune remains my favorite reading experience ever, because every time I opened that book, it brought me deep into the mind of a genius.

I was a teenager when I picked up a worn paperback copy of this gem at Birdsong Used Books in Albuquerque. I was familiar with the book already–Dune was the bestselling science fiction novel of all-time long before I read it. I had seen the movie too. Everyone saw that movie in the 80s. It was a rite of passage. You watched Dune, then you walked out of the theater and said, “What the hell was that?”

For many of my friends, the strange David Lynch film was reason enough to stay away from this doorstop of a novel. That, and the fact that everyone you knew who read it was totally weird. I spent a lot of time bumming around the campus of the University of New Mexico when I was a kid, and many times I saw a student, professor, or general campus oddball reading Dune, and invariably the reader had an unkempt beard, a ratty comic book T-shirt, and hadn’t showered in days.

I don’t remember the moment I pulled Dune off the shelf and decided to buy it. But I do remember the walk home. I started reading Dune on the sidewalk outside the bookstore and read it during the entire walk back to my house. I was dead to the world for the next few days. The spice, House Atreides, the Bene Gesserit…good grief, just writing those words makes me want to push everything in my life aside and start Dune at page 1. There’s so much to love in that novel!

It’s a hero story about a young man who becomes a god. It’s a space opera with warring families fighting for control of interstellar trade. It’s a thought experiment about ecology and man’s place in the ecosystem.

It’s a psychotic drug trip captured on the page, a treatise on economics and politics, an exploration of Nietzche’s thoughts about “eternal recurrence.”

It’s a book that can turn a normal teenage boy into an unshowered bum in a ratty comic book T-shirt, reading science fiction on the lawn next to the duck pond on a weekday afternoon.

I’ve re-read Dune many times since that incredible first go at it when I was young. It holds up brilliantly. There’s something new to find in it with every read.

And no, I haven’t read all the other books in the Dune universe. I read Frank Herbert’s originals, and found all the sequels paling in comparison to the first, and I read five of the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson books before declaring myself done with them. I’d rather re-read a great book than stumble about in a mediocre one.

I guess that’s what this list is all about. 10 books I adore and am glad to open up and visit again and again.

Thanks for tagging me, Julie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Linking to the Girls Wearing Black Q&A

Linking to a popular post to make it visible. Once you’ve finished the series, read this.

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Hey Look – A Real Author Bio

For a long time, I’ve had a really short bio on the right bar of this web page, and nothing else. A kind person suggested to me that I should tell you more. So, have a look at the menu atop this web page, and click on the Author Bio if you’re so inclined.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

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Recent Reads I Recommend

Highlights from my own reading pile over the last few months:

Libra by Don DeLillo

I’ve already posted about this one while I was reading it. I’m a DeLillo fan, and am closing in on completing his entire catalog. Libra, a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald in the years leading up to the Kennedy assassination, was marvelous. I’m calling it my second favorite DeLillo of all time, after Underworld. Recommended for people who don’t mind diving into the sort of dense, heady book you might get assigned to read in college.

 

Lacuna by David Adams

lacuna cover

Sci-fi novel about the world fighting off an alien invasion with a fantastic geopolitical twist. The US military isn’t front and center in this operation. Instead, the author represents many cultures of Earth in the fight. It’s kind of the opposite of the Independence Day model, where Will Smith does everything, and then the rest of the world gets shown for a 1-minute montage. Recommended to people who like space opera and military sci-fi, especially to those who (like me) had a childhood fondness for Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Sample for book 2 downloaded on my Kindle!

 

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This was a re-read of one of my favorite books. Still one of my favorites. Not easy to read though. This is one I turn to so I can crawl inside the head of a genius and see all the messiness, wacky humor, and huge ideas.

 

The Gauguin Connection by Estelle Ryan

gauguin coverRecommended in a comment on this blog by Girls Wearing Black super-reader Betsy, and now recommended for all fans of Girls Wearing Black by me! Who doesn’t love a great heist novel? If you enjoyed reading about Jill Wentworth sneaking around in vampire mansions so she could hack into their computers, you will love this one. AND…it holds a very special place in my heart because the protagonist is on the autism spectrum. As I type this, I am wearing an Autism awareness T-shirt. One of my little ones is on the spectrum as well. I love the way this writer zeroes in on the unique strengths of those with autism, because it’s true that someone on the spectrum would make a fabulous investigator! So many good things to say about this one. I’ve got the sample for Part 2 on my Kindle and am certain I will be clicking the Buy button when I get to the end of it.

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2 Quotes About Writing

An Internet meme showed up in my Facebook feed today with a bunch of quotes about writing. Two of them really jumped out at me.

The first was from George Orwell.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

I have felt that way more than once during the process of creating a book, particularly a few months in, when I’ve got hundreds of pages and I feel like I can’t use any of them.

But still I do it. Still, I’m being truthful when I say I love to do it. I think it’s because this quote is true for me too.

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― Ray Bradbury

I would modify that thought to include reading too. The world of books and writing is a source of constant strength for me. I’m betting it is for you too. It’s just how readers are.

EDIT: Okay, re-reading the meme, I see there’s a quote from Neil Gaiman in there too that just reminds me why I love him so.

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.― Neil Gaiman

If you’re a Neil Gaiman fan like I am, watch this:

 

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Hey You! Finish Reading That Book!

The Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting piece last month called The Summer’s Most Unread Book Is…

The article creates a scoring system based on number of reader highlights near the beginning and end of various books. The more highlights there are near the end relative to the sales, the more we can assume readers are getting to the end of the book. The higher the score, the more likely it is that people are finishing the book.

Here’s the score on some popular books:

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt : 98.5%

A very high score. Lots of people finishing this book.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James: 25.9%

A surprisingly low score, or maybe not that surprising. I expect a lot of people start this book and then decide it’s not for them.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%

The lowest score ever. This one makes me smile. What did you think you were doing when you paid $20 for a 700-page scholarly book on economics? Did you at least read the whole sample and enjoy it first?

A few years ago, I listened to Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson as an audiobook. It took more than a month to get through it, but was well worth it. I thought it was a fantastic book.

Two weeks ago, I saw Cryptonomicon in paperback on a shelf of used books my local library was selling. I bought it. Today I opened it at page 1 and started reading. I remembered why I loved this book so much and fully expect to spend the next two weeks reading the whole thing again.

When I got to Page 24, I found something curious. The page was dog-eared.

Now, this could have been nothing at all. Things happen to used books. They get pressed and squashed and put in luggage and who knows what else, and sometimes the pages get wrinkled.

But this page was neatly folded at a perfect right angle. Here, have a look.

Did a previous reader give up at Page 24?

Did a previous reader give up at Page 24?

I think the last person who owned this book got to page 24 before being done with it. I mean, it is the sort of book that someone could give up on. Nearly 1000 pages, jumping between history and the present, with all sorts of cryptography and even some math jokes tossed in there. The first few chapters are hard to understand. The humor is quirky and easily missed.

If you’re not willing to give this book your full attention, it isn’t any fun to read at all.

But man, when you do read it…what a masterpiece! To you, previous owner of my copy of Cryptonomicon, if you really gave up on Page 24 you missed out.

And to you, reader of this blog post, what are you reading right now? Are you thinking of giving up on it?

If you’ve just started, and the book is terrible, then sure, set it aside and read something else. But if it was a good read that has lost your attention for a bit, I encourage you to try it again, this time with your full attention focused on the book as you read it. No background noise. No reading only when you’re tired. Take that book with you somewhere, like a park bench, or a library, and give it your all.

Most books have their best scenes near the end. And all books are better when you finish them.

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