Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

My new novel, The Plain of Bitter Honey will not be released for another month, but it already had a stellar review, and since Tuesdays are the days I showcase my work on this blog, I thought I would share that review. The reviewer is Jennifer Lavoie and her reviews can be found here.

  Twins Aaron and Hayden Swann are fighting a corrupt government taken over by ultra right-wing Fundamentalist Christians in 2055 America. Each brother fights in his own way, Aaron with bullets, Hayden with words. Then one night their world is turned upside down when they are caught in a government sting and they must both flee north into the badlands between San Francisco and Canada, where the only safe haven is a place called The Plain of Bitter Honey, a refuge where heads of the Resistance operate. But the brothers don’t know that government agents are tracking them to the hiding place of the   Resistance. Can they find the inner strength to survive?
There are some books that are really easy to write reviews for. And there are others that are difficult. Not because they’re not great books, but BECAUSE they are great books. This is one of those. I cannot write my typical spazzing out sort of review for this book because it just wouldn’t do it justice. And this book deserves a lot of careful thought.
The Plain of Bitter Honey takes place in the not too distant future. The America that is painted for readers is very grim. At least for some. For some people, they might like the fact the Christianity has taken over and the States have become a Christian nation. However, it is hell on Earth for many people in the book. If you do not agree with the views of those in power, or if your life and loves are different from what they think it should be, you are placed in ghettos.
I’ll flash back to history here, because what the author has done is draw on the Holocaust. There are many allusions to what happened in Nazy Germany during World War II. It is done masterfully, because it shows just how horrific the world has become.
Aaron and Hayden Swann are identical twins that are part of the resistance. At least Aaron is. Hayden, it seems, is off in his own world of literature. As a gay man, he has to hide the fact that he loves his boyfriend Julian, for fear of either being placed in the ghetto or being treated. While Aaron is very hard and driven, Hayden seems so carefree.
Looks can be deceiving.
What follows is an incredible journey to save the twins, the reistance, and everything they hold dear. There were times when I thought for sure all hope was lost, but the beautiful thing about how is that it’s always within reach if you just keep believing.
The author also weaves in some beautiful moments of magical realism as well, such as when Aaron is training with Twig and he learns to blend into the trees and become a part of them.
The conclusion of the novel is ultimately heart-breaking and beautiful. It is full of hope and you want the characters to succeed. I stayed up past one in the morning to finish because I couldn’t stop, and when I finally came to the conclusion, I put the book down, curled up in the fetal position on my bed, and just cried.
Such a wonderful novel from Alan Chin. He has a way with words that will leave you thinking and praying that this is not the future that we are headed towards. Frighteningly enough, with the current state of our country, it at times feels that way.
I look forward to many more books from this author.
This book will be released in June, 2013, and will be available from Bold Strokes Books and Amazon.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Disney leading the way in Japan Same-sex Equality

I ran across an interesting article on the web this week. The headline reported:
Japan: Thousands march in Tokyo in support of LGBT rights

Yes I did enjoy reading that 12,000 people marched in the lgbt Pride Parade. That is welcome news in itself, considering how Japan frowns on gay people. I’ve spent a lot of time in Tokyo and Kyoto, and know first hand how closeted and secretive the gay people must be there. The culture does everything to make gay people invisible. So it warms my heart that so many people marched in the Pride Parade, and that it is a week-long celebration.

The thing that really interested me, however, was that the parade organizer, Hiroko Masuhara, and his partner, Koyuki Higashi, became the first gay couple to get married at Tokyo Disney last month, undeterred by the lack of legal recognition for same-sex partnership in Japan. That was startling news, not so much that they got married, but that the Disney corporation decided to go against the wishes of the Japanese government and perform same-sex marriages at the park.

I have long known that Disney has positive attitudes and policies for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. But now my level of respect for Disney has taken a huge leap. I’m very proud that an American corporation is taking the lead in helping bring equality to a nation that oppresses its gay people.

One step at a time, my brothers and sisters. We will gain equality for everyone on the planet, one step at a time. Let’s all just keep marching toward the goal. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Scribner (2001)
Pages: 273

Set in Ireland during the early 1990s, Declan is dying of AIDS. With the help of two gay companions, he leaves the hospital to spend a few days at the seaside home of his grandmother. There, at the crumbling place of his youth, his sister Helen, his mother Lily, and his grandmother Dora gather after a decade of estrangement.  The three women had no idea Declan was gay, let alone terminally ill with AIDS. Once they recover from the shock, their primary goal becomes caring for Declan, who had always been the binding force in this dysfunctional family.

Like six castaways on a desert island, from different generations and with clashing beliefs and lifestyles, they are forced to face their own dark histories in order to deal with each other to achieve the common goal of keeping Declan alive and comfortable.

The Blackwater Lightship is predominately a story of three generations of iron-willed women from a divided family who reunite to help each other face a tragic situation. It is beautifully told in luminous prose, and with all the tenderness and insight that readers have come to expect from this superlative storyteller. Toibin takes the reader deep into the hearts of a family at war with itself in order to explore the nature of love. It is an emotional study of people grappling with the love and resentments that bind them, and ultimately it is a story of hope, showing love (or perhaps tragedy) has the capacity to heal the deepest wounds.

This is a tragic and moving journey, not for the faint of heart. It is, however, a destination well worth the effort. It moves slowly for the first half of the book, and then builds in intensity until I couldn’t put it down. It is not simply a wonderful story; it is a literary achievement.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Meaning of Life Through Writing

I read a quote this morning shortly after logging on:

The meaning of life is creative love. Not love as an inner feeling, as a private sentimental emotion, but love as a dynamic power moving out into the world and doing something original.
-       Tom Morris, from his book 'If Aristotle Ran General Motors'

It occurred to me that if this is true, then what I do, what all writers do, is driven by love. We take emotions, ideas, and life experiences that originate inside our minds, and drive them out into the world. And, hopefully, that work is original.

I believe that Tom Morris is correct. Why else would I spend so much of my life sitting at my laptop creating plots and characters and settings, and wrestling with ideas and words for so little financial reward? It simply must be an act of love, a loving devotion to one’s art.

This notion that love motivates my work changes nothing. But I do like the idea. I’m a firm believer in Karma. So when a soul spends their life creating work built on love, the world will respond in kind. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Writing Tip: Make the Protagonist Save a Cat by page 5

This has been on my mind the last few days because I’m reviewing a novel that has kept me at a distance from the protagonist. The result is, that after reading sixty pages, I’m bored to tears because I don’t care about the lead character and I don’t understand exactly what her problem is. And although the writing is beautiful, I will likely not finish it and I will certainly not review it due to lack of interest.

Here is an interesting description of plot, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredit:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”

I love this description, but the key element I want to focus on is “A sympathetic lead character…”

A reader doesn’t have to like or even find the protagonist sympathetic, but a read MUST be interested in the main character and understand what his/her problem is, and it is important that the reader somehow empathize with him/her.

Readers are desperate to attach to somebody from the moment the story begins, and you want them to attach to the protag, since it’s the protag’s story. It’s that attachment, that emotional connection, that deepens the reader’s interest in the story and keeps them turning pages.

But how does a writer establish that connection early on? By writing what Blake Snyder calls the “Save the Cat” moment. In the first few pages, make the protag do something nice (like saving a cat from a tree), or interesting, or funny – something that will push the emotional buttons of the reader so s/he can connect on a deep level with this character. You want to hook the reader on this character, and the bigger the emotional content, the deeper the hook is set. Saving a cat from a tree sets a smaller hook than rushing into a burning building to save a baby. The general rule of thumb is: this save the cat moment should happen the first time we meet the character, that is our first impression should be a positive and deeply emotional charge for the protag.

Once the reader has established this emotional investment in this character, then you can start lowering the boom on the protag. And when s/he get knocked in the head, the reader feels it, the reader cares, because you established that connection up front. The reader wants the protag to win, needs for him/her to win, and will stay hooked until s/he does win.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Special Letter From a Fan

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today I’d like to share a letter from a fan, and also my response to her. I actually get a lot of fan mail that I never share, but this one touched me deeply, and I thought others would be touched as well.

Dear Alan,

This is the first time that I am writing to an author whose novel has moved me deeply.

I am referring to "The Lonely War" and the feelings of joy, sadness, hope and dismay it has stirred in me. Although my knowledge of writing techniques is nonexistent, your style and your attention to detail transported me aboard the
Pilgrim then to the Changi concentration camp where so many of its residents became familiar to me. Of course, like so many other readers I'm sure, I fell in love with Andrew for his relentless  selflessness to the point of self-destruction, for his inner beauty and the purity of his thoughts. My question is:"Can such a human being exist?". I want so much to believe that they can.

I will continue reading your work. Thank you.

I responded to her by saying:

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about The Lonely War. There is nothing a writer loves more than to hear from readers, and your note made my day. Heck, your note made my whole week. 

I want you to know that, yes, Andrew (like most of my protagonists) was based on a real person, someone I met and loved twenty-five years ago. I still carry him in my heart, and talk to him every so often. His soul is as beautiful now as it was then.