Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Travels in Elysium, by William Azuski

Travels in ElysiumTravels in Elysium by William Azuski
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Despite glowing Kirkus and reader reviews, I'd have to say Azuski's Travels In Elysium is a poorly researched, inconsistently written novel.

The story ostensibly revolves around a young man, Pedrosa, who takes up the position of a lifetime, to work with the legendary archaeologist Huxley, on a dig of epic proportions.

And that's where everything goes badly wrong, from a research point of view. Azuski presents a lost Atlantis as the foundation of his story, set in the Greek Islands, completely overlooking the research and news of 2011 which alleges to have found the lost city of Atlantis in an environmentally protected swamp in the south of Spain.

Further, Azuski's knowledge of archaeological technologies and procedures is naive, bordering on Indiana Jones gonzo exploration, so that characters are bulldozing, drilling and hacking away with glee through meters of ancient ash and lava without a clue as to whether their digging will produce any hope of finds. There is no use of geophysics technology, no radar, no sonar, no magnetic sweeps, nothing. Just frantic and erratic digging which sweeps away all the earlier layers of history and dumps them into the sea in the quest to find the lost city.

Then couple that with the fact the characters in the novel are digging on an active volcano, with poisonous gas leaks through vents in various unearthed buildings, and the entire credibility of the story falls apart. People are hallucinating on toxic fumes, experiencing metaphysical journeys to the Isles of the Blessed, when in fact they'd be falling into coma and dying.

Later, when the volcano finally begins an eruption, people are walking around through volcanic ash falling so heavily it's like snow. Again, Azuski demonstrates a complete lack of regard for any type of research, so that there are no ill effects whatever from these volcanic ashfalls. No one is burned. Everyone breathes perfectly fine in the shadow of the volcano. Boats at anchor experience no difficulty with being top heavy because of ash and pumice accumulating aboard.

As to the writing itself, although Azuski demonstrates evocative phraseology, his use of tense often shoots off in inconsistent directions, so that within one paragraph we're reading a narrative in past tense, then present tense, and back again.

Apparently the author has a penchant for fishing, because there are so many red herrings used in the first half to two thirds of this overly long novel, that the reader after awhile is ready to give up. First there is an allusion to vampires. Which turns out to be nothing. Then there's an allusion to a return-from-death cult which may have the privileged and decadent scrambling to inhabit both the temporal and metaphysical city being unearthed. And that fizzles. Then we have political unrest and thuggery, which fizzles. Then we have paparazzi swarming for a scoop on illegal export of priceless artifacts. And that slides off the pages. An addiction to staring blankly into the beyond within a certain temple in which people allegedly experience the metaphysical and live alternative lives. Which turns out to be gassing, which should have in fact meant death. And then, and then, and then....

Until the very end in which Azuski pulls the most amateur and novice stunt of all: it's all a coma-induced dream of the protagonist, Pedrosa.

Over six hundred pages. And it's all a dream.

What Azuski really needed was a developmental editor, someone to say get rid of the smelly fish, cut this novel in half, stick to a plot and revise, revise, revise.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Story genesis and writing environmental detail

Recently a dear friend and colleague (Robert Runte) and I were discussing the craft of writing, which happened concurrently with a similar discussion I was having with my husband, Gary. In particular we discussed story genesis, and how to create meaningful environment detail and description in literature.

For example, I mentioned to Robert a story on which I'm presently working, that all I had so far was mood (eeriness) and one element (an owl). He wondered how I could start with two such nebulous concepts, rather than a solid character and an event, as example, and mentioned I must feel my way through stories rather than plot.

I had to think about that for a moment, and realized that indeed I sort of feel, yes, but more think.

For me, thinking about mood/emotion gives order and reason to chaos, and I suppose is a subliminal underlying theme in much of my writing. Reason over passion. Being aware of the effect of environment and cause, and reasoning your way to logical and beneficial effect. So it is a writer can come up with two concepts -- eeriness and an owl -- and from that shape a story. Those concepts set up a chain of thought processes: Why is the ambient mood eerie? Is there something metaphysical happening? Is there an impending storm? Is it the call of the owl? That can certainly be eerie. So, yes, the eeriness will derive from the mythology around owls (greatly undeserved given they are known to be as dumb as doorknobs). So given they are not clever birds, why eerie? They are known to be near-silent flyers, powerful. They have an ability to echo-locate and so navigate dense woods with ease. They have those strange rotating heads, which can raise the hairs on your arms with ease. Their calls are often heard during the twilight hours, which has always held a mystique in the human psyche.

And so it goes. You can see how a story can build from these elements. It's like germinating seeds. Before you know it you have a garden, which is your story.

Which then brings us to environment detail. I'd never thought about how I write environmental detail until both Gary and Robert queried me regarding that process. The only meaningful metaphor I came up with was that it's like echo-location, to borrow from my owl-friend. You are the centre of your universe, so all you know and do is based upon the data you pick up from environment. In order for the reader to understand the character, it is necessary to use echo-location in order for the reader to understand the character's place in that environment. 

Robert in particular has had an interest in a specific passage in my novel, From Mountains of Ice. 

He heard whispers, dry and chittering, looked up sharply into the dust and gloom of the warehouse. Only the scuttle of a mouse. In the distance a horse whickered, followed by the firm but gentle command of an ostler. A burst of laughter then, plainly from the traders viewing Danuto's horses. Whispers again beneath his hand, fading like a breeze lost in leaves. A swallow swooped along the vaulted ceiling, blade-like wings almost silent. Almost. Like the voices in the boxes beneath his hand.

In the scene above, we start with two points: Sylvio, and the fact he needs to think, which prefaces the quoted paragraph. As a result of the fact the main protagonist needs to think, he's in the warehouse, taking time out, but he's still very much connected to his environment by virtue of the fact he's a living, breathing human being, and in order for the reader to get into Sylvio's head, the reader has to be aware of what he's experiencing. 

So, just as you or I would do in real life, I describe that environment in writing not through slavish and sterile descriptions that are like an inventory, but through his own sensory awareness, his own echo-location, if you will. Thus he looks up both physically and through his senses from his thoughts, from that myopic state of both inner and within arm's reach environment, and receives input, information: a sound which turns out to be a mouse, out further to the light beyond where he stands, which takes his senses out to the courtyard where there are horses, becomes aware of the movement and sounds there (you see how the sensory waves are pooling out?), and then, because his vision and hearing have reached their limits, pulls back, like a receding wave to the point of origin, himself and the box on which his hand rests, to the immediate pressure and concern that has brought him to the warehouse in the first place, and so hears what no one else can, the voices of the dead in the box of bows under his hand. Echo-location. And now the reader has a better understanding of what's going on not only in the world around Sylvio, but his inner world.

I did a similar thing in the opening paragraph of my novel, Shadow Song: 
I remember the summer I met Shadow Song was so green it hurt my eyes. It was as if the world were carved from jade – something sacred and equally fragile. I, Danielle Michelle Fleming, was to become mesmerized by this world. This land, this Upper Canada, was a place where I would learn to breathe.
Although I'm not dealing with specific environmental detail, I have immediately established what is to be the tone, place and environment of the novel. We know right off the novel is named for a person who will have a significant influence on the main protagonist. Why? Because he is named immediately, given pre-eminence. We know it's going to be a land that's verdant because of the import of the colour green. We also know that environment is somehow going to cause hurt or harm to Danielle because of the fact the colour hurts her eyes, that perhaps there is bane in bounty, and that no good deed goes unpunished, or that perhaps the yin/yang factor is going to come into play. Whichever it is, the reader is immediately set up for possible tragedy. We know this world is going to be precious to her, and also fragile, and because she is writing these things in past tense that the story is going to be a memoir of something once precious now broken and lost. We also know that despite pain, Danielle will fall in love and under the spell of such bounty. We are also given a glimpse into her history by the simple mention that she would learn to breathe in this new world, indicating her life until then has been suffocating, perhaps restrictive. 

That's a lot of information to pack into 54 words.

You will notice in both passages I've refrained from giving measurements, cataloguing specifics. By doing so I've still created environment, but also allowed the reader interface, allowed their imaginations to paint in the colour around the lines I've sketched in. I've established a dialogue, and by doing so have invested the reader in the story. 

Equally, I've also sustained or established tension and the momentum of the plot, preventing the reader from closing the novel, perhaps permanently.

Certainly I cannot claim invention of this technique. It is used with ease by some of the great masters of literature. The first time I became aware of it was as an adolescent of 14,when I read Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles. I realized how well Hardy married environment to mood and character, that one was shaped and fed by the other. Later I found the same technique used in Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, in particular one of the first passages in which she describes Ofglen walking along a sidewalk, stepping over worms that have risen in the rain, how they look like bloated lips. In that moment I knew this was going to be a story about love and sexuality gone horribly wrong, and I was cognizant of the deftness of writing that allowed Ofglen's inner world to bleed out into her environment, so that what she saw was a reflection of her inner thought process.

Candas Jane Dorsey, Rohinton Mistry, Joseph Boyden, Caitlin Sweet and many other writers whose work I study and admire employ this sort of echo-location and environmental detail.

How to employ that technique yourself? Try meditating in an environment of your own and practice that sort of echo-location. Start with your inner world, the sound of your heart, your breathing, allow your senses to swim out. What do you perceive next, second, third, and at what point do you return to the self and the origin of your thoughts? And how does your inner world affect your perception and reception of the outer world? It's amazing how the same environment can be described differently depending on mood and personal stresses both physical and emotional.

In a way it boils down to what I'm always advising writers when I edit their work: BE YOUR CHARACTER. Allow yourself to get inside their head and then write the story as if you were them. Do that, and you'll refrain from telling your reader a room is 20' x 39', made of dressed stone. Instead you'll describe how your character feels the chill of the room, wishing there were tapestries on the stone walls to temper their grey and harsh welcome, how in a room of this size the fireplace and the fire in it are miserly, not even room for an inglenook in which to sit and dispel the dampness.

To put it simply, open your senses. If you're going to be a writer, you have to be a conduit for not only the temporal world, but the metaphysical world you're creating.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A short story sale

It was a pleasant way to start the day, I must say. Opened my email to find correspondence from Sean Moreland at Postscripts to Darkness 5, in which he stated "We unanimously love At Union."

So, the story is sold to the anthology. Not sure as yet about the publication date. 

Very gratified about the sale because it seems the editorial team there are all about discovering the literary in genre fiction. Sounds like a divine match to me.

I think I'm liking the way 2013 is shaping up.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Review: A Barcelona Heiress, by Sergio Vila-Sanjuan

A Barcelona HeiressA Barcelona Heiress by Sergio Vila-Sanjuán
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sergio Vila-Sanjuan's A Barcelona Heiress has all the ingredients for a great novel, following in the tradition of early 20th century writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. There is the hotbed of political unrest during the Crown-supported dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, anarchists bombing Barcelona, a growing discontent of the country's poor and working classes.

Into this the author introduces a protagonist based upon his own family's history, an indigent aristocratic lawyer who moonlights as a reporter, and through the lens of that individual a series of seemingly disconnected characters and events.

All these elements could have been riveting, for certainly there is enough intrigue and danger in Spain's 20th century history to inspire even the most mundane minds. The execution, however, of that narrative tended to drag, partly because of long passages of exposition and political rhetoric, and partly because the author is so familiar with the history of which he's writing that he forgets to inform the reader. Historical characters walk on and off the page like old familiars, without giving the reader any reference or landmarks, which would be fine for a Spanish audience, but alas not for an English-speaking one, even one as familiar with Spain's history as this reviewer.

Transitions between scenes often runs to abruptness, leaving the reader adrift, although certainly the use of metaphor and language is accomplished. Overall, the novel needed the guidance of a good developmental editor, at least in this reviewer's opinion.

Worth reading? Indeed yes. Why? Because of the historical background if nothing else. Memorable? Not so much.

View all my reviews