Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The central event in Big Little Lies is something that, in a different book or story, could be summarized in two or three pages of exposition. It’s a dramatic sequence, to be sure, but the trick of Liane Moriarty’s cunning novel is to tease this moment, then back away and rewind, then slowly peel back layers until the full context and complexity of the moment can be understood. Thus, when the scene finally happens, the impact of it and the shocking, fascinating, deliriously entertaining chaos of it are keenly understood and richly felt. It’s a master class on building tension.

The event in question is an unspecified tragedy that takes place at a fundraising function (a Trivia Night) for a public school in a small Australian beach town. The introduction teases the Trivia Night from a remote point of view and then backs up six months and focuses on the stories of three of the night’s key players, each of whom take turns with a deeply intimate third-person narrative style that I can only describe as arresting. As the story unfolds from these distinct points of view, Ms Moriarty takes great care to skip to just the most pertinent or character-revealing moments, and while the book is long and detailed, it has short, punchy chapters and is never, ever a slog to read. Throughout, reality-show-style confessional transcripts appear, discussing the events leading up to the Trivia Night, the night itself, and its aftermath in cleverly obscure language from the perspectives of some of the people involved.

These flashback-y transcripts are a gimmick, sure, but they’re one of the most effective gimmicks I’ve seen. The book reads like a screenplay, with sharp directorial cuts and a phenomenal sense of pacing. But don’t mistake this book for a disposable summer beach page-turner quickly forgotten once the back cover is closed. Ms Moriarty uses her ability to capture the reader’s full and suddenly ravenous attention to open the door wide for her remorselessly bladed and often downright hilarious insights. This may be one of the finest satires I’ve read since Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and the book’s commentary about the politics of public schools, the collective hallucination of suburban existence, and the messy necessity of true friendship is so on point it pricks and draws blood. It’s scathing, laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely horrifying all at once. There are so many insights on the inner lives of women: working mothers, single mothers, stay-at-home moms, women with supportive husbands, women in terrible marriages, directionless women, women with dark secrets, dark pasts, dark thoughts, personas, nuances, layers, contradictions, fears, truimphs. Big Little Lies’s characters are alive in ways most authors only wish they could manage and it’s all done in such an insightful, delightful manner that you don’t see it happening until it’s done.

The book is not utterly flawless. Ms Moriarty takes liberties with her three central protagonists when several of them appear on page together, hopping sometimes confusingly from viewpoint to viewpoint. She occasionally structures sentences in ways that tripped me up, and I found a bit of the transcript gimmick and a lot of the early character-introduction sequences needlessly confusing and overwhelming with lots of new names and relationships. Eventually the key names and connections did sort themselves out but there are places where a minor character reappears at a key moment and there’s a few minutes of disorientation until something re-contextualizes them. But it’s worth noting that there is another version of this novel that could have been written at twice the length wherein it might rival a Russian novel in terms of characters with their own point of view chapters. And next to the scope and skill on display everywhere else in this book, these are very minor complaints indeed.

I’ll say simply that I loved this book. I tore through the last two hundred pages at a breakneck (for me) pace, completing them in a single evening, and was thrilled to see the conclusion met every one of my sky-high expectations. I’d recommend this book to anyone, but I kind of especially want to recommend it to male readers specifically for the way it draws attention to the multifaceted ways that women view each other and themselves. After so much pop culture time spent distilling and generalizing women down to a set of simple stereotypes for the sake of “comedy” it’s so refreshing to see the real unpacking of women’s thought processes and self-aware complexities. And, it happens to result in genuine laughs that are much funnier than any of that other reductionist crap you usually see. It’s refreshing, dark, honest, hilarious, thrilling, heartfelt, and completely satisfying. Put it on your to-read list and thank me later.

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At the end of last year, we pulled into the station on a full twelve months of the 200 CCs experiment. The safest thing I can say at this point is that it’s been quite a ride and nothing like what I expected. It feels like it’s worth reflecting a bit and being as forthcoming as I’m able to be about the future of the endeavor.

What’s Past

I learned an awful lot last year as an editor. The first is that editing is richly rewarding, but also that it’s powerfully demanding. My own writing suffered in 2016 as a direct result of my work on 200 CCs. Now, that was a possibility I considered going in, but way back in December of 2015, my writing wasn’t going very well anyway so I felt good about the change of pace.
But, writing is (for me) a cyclic undertaking. By the time I felt like I was starting to get my mojo back, I was well embedded in the commitments of the 200 CCs project. The way this manifested was a total ball-drop of the zine aspect. I don’t know how many readers were enjoying the monthly issues, but once I hit the mid-point of the year (which I had been calling Volume 1), I could no longer maintain the schedule. Volume 2, Issue 1 slipped behind, then Issue 2 slipped behind that, and the collected Volume 1 edition stumbled as well. By the time it was late in September I was four issues behind and had to sort of quietly resign myself that zine editions would probably not be coming for Volume 2 at all.
Part of that slow burial behind the mounting work was a fresh output of new writing I was producing. I still liked the idea of the monthly issues, but I had the mounting sense they were redundant. The stories were already available here on the site. The tighter layout controls and guest editorials and so forth were fun and (I hope) aesthetically exciting, but it wasn’t always clear how much value those digital-only versions added.
The other factor that cannot be overlooked is that I bit off just slightly more than I could chew financially speaking. Sure, I had funding for the project as it was initially conceived: a weekly microfiction story and a few themed contests. But as the scope grew to twice a week and the contest prizes grew to accommodate the large number of wonderful entries, I had to dip past my reserves to cover costs. Given that the whole thing had zero revenue potential (and was originally just an excuse to keep fresh content on the website—paying for freshness with cash instead of time), there was no way to offset any of the expenses.
I don’t mean any of this as a complaint or an excuse. Most of the pitfalls I foresaw as possibilities and wasn’t blindsided by them. But, they do play into the future of 200 CCs as an entity and I’d be stupid to ignore or downplay their significance.

What’s Present

As much as I’ve loved having lots of great stories to post on the site and have enjoyed the increased traffic to ironsoap.com, I have to admit that none of it has made this site—ostensibly devoted to my own writing—a better place to come and find out about the writing of Paul A. Hamilton.
But a few things remain as true today as they were nearly a year ago when I cooked up this idea. One is that I still love microfiction—in particular the loose 200-ish word format that I’ve focused on. Seeing the expertise at which my contributors have displayed in wringing every last bit of pain and beauty out of those precious few sentences never ceases to thrill me.
Another is that I still crave a collaborative creative outlet where I can stretch beyond word-monkey and exercise my visual design skills, my eye for talent and execution, my photography, my editorial instincts. And lastly, I still crave the means and opportunity to pay writers for strong work that speaks to me (and hopefully others).
That all being said, I can confidently say that at this point I know I have one final trick up my sleeve for Year One of 200 CCs and beyond that any further exploration of this kind of endeavor will have to involve the following:
  • A sufficient infusion of cash to maintain the minimum semi-pro rates I’ve offered to date.
  • A separation of the microfiction stories from the ironsoap.com site.
  • A new schedule, format, or process that does not involve a nonstop cycle of twice-a-week publication (plus any other format variations).

What’s To Come

The one sure thing is that Year Two of 200 CCs won’t look like this past year. I don’t know exactly what that means, only that you shouldn’t expect twice weekly microfiction stories posted on ironsoap.com. My early visions include a lot more guest editors, zine editions first, and more like a bi-monthly schedule.
But all of it depends on that final trick I mentioned above. I’m currently putting together a 200 CCs Year One print edition, featuring (nearly) all the stories from the entire year. There will not be an ebook edition available to the public. The only way to get all these great stories in one place will be the book.
And the catch is that the proceeds will determine the funding for (or even the existence of) 200 CCs in 2017.
The experiment is pretty straightforward: if enough people buy the book to fund another year, I’ll make 200 CCs Year Two happen, in some form or another. If not, well, that’s the way it goes.
I hope it’s successful, but in a way there’s no chance that it won’t be. Even if nobody buys the book and we can’t fund future forays into 200 CCs, there will at least be a collection of last year’s wonderful experiment available, and I can’t think of a more fitting legacy to the project than that.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So how do you get a notoriously slow reader to rip through a 260-page book in under a day, in the midst of a busy week planning for a birthday and a party and putting the finishing touches on a mile-long, post-move to-do list?

I guess you write like Lindy West does.

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Signal to Noise
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re thinking about reading this book, the first thing I recommend is that you check out either this Spotify playlist (created by your humble reviewer), and/or this YouTube one and familiarize yourself with some of the songs featured in the novel. In fact, you should probably do that even if you’re not going to read the book because it’s a very good soundtrack.

Anyway, the reason for the homework is that Ms Moreno-Garcia’s coming of age fantasy novel is set in part against the mixtape-and-vinyl music scene in the 80s. The book doesn’t require a comprehensive knowledge of the songs mentioned within (and you can tell from the length of the playlists that there is a lot of music featured), but certain scenes will make more sense if you’re familiar with key tracks. Being familiar with “En Algun Lugar” by Duncan Dhu, for example, will give a better insight into protagonist Meche’s state of mind during the 80s flashback sequences that take up half the novel. Knowing the melody and lyrics of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” will speak volumes about the relationship between Meche’s parents and crystalize a particular scene late in the novel. That sort of thing.

Because music in the book isn’t just a bunch of pop cultural references tossed in to give Meche a memorable quirk, it informs the book’s magical element. Once Meche learns she can use records and dance and music to cast spells, she draws her two outcast friends Daniela and Sebastian into a growing obsession with overcoming their teenage difficulties. This arc is the basis for the 80s sequences, all of which inform and tie into the present (or recent past I suppose, as it’s set in 2009) where Meche finally returns to Mexico City after a long absence to attend to her father’s funeral. It’s worth noting that neither the 1988-89 nor the 2009 segments are necessarily stronger than the other. Sometimes in split timeline novels one or the other will be more interesting which gives the other a filler quality where the reader is impatiently waiting to get back to “the good part.” Not so with Signal to Noise.

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Station Eleven
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it’s really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.

There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it’s impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn’t necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn’t defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.

I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it’s hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor’s second ex-wife who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the events or happenstances both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.

There is nothing, I don’t think, about the progression of the book’s plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.

It’s a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended.

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Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I was impressed with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Having now finished Oryx And Crake, I’m falling in love with her storytelling.

To a certain extent, this is a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, wrapped in a similar framework of intersecting flashbacks all building toward the action set in the post of a post-apocalyptic (or post-dystopic in the case of Handmaid) world. Where Handmaid fretted about gender roles, Oryx fusses about environmental concerns and genetic/pharmaceutical research gone awry, but they’re really two means to the same end. They show a world not too distant from our own right before everything falls apart and then they show the aftermath. The effect in each case is deeply affecting and grim.

Where Oryx And Crake is, I think, a better book, is that the story is more compelling. The central mystery of how the pieces presented in the flashbacks come to result in the Robinson Crusoe-like existence depicted in the novel’s opening chapter is deepened by the conflicts that twist around each other like DNA backbone. The central characters of Snowman, Crake, and Oryx are all rich and fascinating. The way the whole thing converges into such a magnificent climax where all the pieces—past, present past, present future, and future—collide is like a master class on How It’s Done. It doesn’t feel forced that these three are pivotal to everything, it feels right.

Granted, as with Handmaid, the ending is abrupt to the point of absurdity. Unlike the earlier novel, Oryx has a couple of sequels so hopefully at some point there is a real resolution. But it’s not a complaint, it’s more like a promise.

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Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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