A Feast of Reading

I’ve had several weeks holiday recently and read a number of fiction books. In this post I’ll provide some of my thoughts on them – some touched on briefly, and others with more detail. This list includes Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey, The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly and Murder Mile by Linda La Plante.

I couldn’t help myself, there are some spoilers.

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Living Water: Lessons from Esau

When I was reading the excellent Living Water some months ago I’d planned to write blog posts for each chapter. After discovering Kindle didn’t allow chapter-only exports I had to delay my plans. Because of this post #1 on Repentance sat alone for a long time.

Chapter 2 of Living Water is entitled ‘Lessons from Esau’. Months ago I sat looking at this chapter, trying to extract my blog post. It wasn’t coming to me, no matter how hard I tried so I planned to skip writing about the chapter. And yet, now as I see my post for chapter 2. Clearly my heart or mind wasn’t in the right place at the time. This post, therefore, is chapter 2, ‘Lessons from Esau’ (which relates to Genesis 25:29-34).

The chapter starts by quoting Revelations 3:11-13, 19. The first two sentences stand out to me.

“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”

If Jesus tells us to ‘hold on’ and ‘to overcome’ then there is an adversary who is trying to take ‘our crown’ from us. Satan will do all he can to steal our identity in Christ, to weaken our faith and to make us ineffective spiritually. I don’t think he cares how he does it: it could be through physical distraction, emotional injury or spiritual apathy. We need to realise the tug of war is real, ongoing, and the costs of losing are personally high.

Verse 19 says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

Godly rebuke and discipline is given to us because of God’s love for us. But discipline is only beneficial if we accept the correction. I paraphrase that, ‘Listen carefully and respond accordingly.’

When I was first trying to find my ‘post’ I was looking at the chapter too narrowly. I read it as primarily talking about sexual sin, pride and greed and how they’ve derailed so many high-profile Christians. However, that isn’t what Yun’s talking about. He writes, “Satan is an expert at tempting us to fall.” I’ve heard it said before that Satan isn’t all-knowing, but he’s had plenty of experience in working out which buttons to press. Yun recounts from his own life how his pride resulted in him being imprisoned in Myanmar because he stopped listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

It doesn’t matter what our weakness is, we need to guard against the enemy exploiting it. As Yun writes the following (taking Esau’s bowl of stew as a metaphor):

“There may be a bowl of stew in your life as well. If you make a wrong decision and partake of it, it can destroy your life and bring you untold misery and pain.”

Which raises the question, what are the ‘bowls of stew’ in my life? What are the things that are more likely to distract me from the things of God? I think it’s important identify the areas of vulnerability and bring those areas before God in prayer and surrender. It could be rewards (e.g. promotion, money, fame) or pleasures (activities, sports, relationships) or even attitudes (cynicism, independence from God, selfishness). Yun advises,

“This doesn’t mean that we control ourselves, but it means we must submit to the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us and who helps us to fear God and hate sin. …it is only the grace of God that can help and train us to overcome temptation.” (italics his)

I know that there are areas which I need to reflect on, and take to God. Two scriptures stand out to me.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This passage does not say that there isn’t a speck in our brother’s eye, but that we first must see clearly before we can reliably help our brother. And also,

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6,7).

It is all too easy to get tied up in worry, even worrying about ‘good things’. We aren’t supposed to worry; we should take things to God. Worry crushes our spirit, faith that God’s looking after something can give us peace and confidence.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Some time ago, the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I sat down to watch The Expanse on Netflix. Being a bit of a scifi fan, I’m always keen to try something new. I’ve probably mentioned it before, with new shows we have a three-episode rule. That is, a show has three episodes to prove itself to us. In my recollection, The Expanse didn’t get a fair hearing; Mrs Ezard opened the airlock and jettisoned the show part way through the first episode. Which of course doesn’t stop me from watching the show, but it does make it less likely (as I tend to do it when she’s not around).

When season 2 of The Expanse came out, I thought I’d give it another go. A show that makes it over the first season obviously has some chops. (As was my theory at the time, although now I think about it there are plenty of shows which I think are terrible and are multi-seasons. Like Lost… in which a whole host of people find themselves spending hundreds of hours of their life to watch a show which actually has very little in the way of coherent or honest-with-the-audience story).

So anyway, I digress. When season 2 came out I gave it another go, and this time really liked it. Perhaps at the time when we originally watched it we just weren’t in the right frame of mind.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the noir detective type characters. The underdog who ends up saving the day, and is a bit uncouth while doing it. One of my partial drafts sitting in my metaphorical manuscript drawer is a noir detective.

And then one day at work I was on a resupply run (coffee) and saw someone reading a book that mentioned The Expanse. She very helpfully explained that The Expanse was based on a series by James S. A. Corey and that in fact the books were better than the show. (FYI: James S. A. Corey is actually the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Always on the lookout for a good series to sink my eyes into, I made a note of the name and said I’d come to it after I finished reading The Wheel Of Time series.

Then the time came and I bought the book and started reading it, devouring the book within a few days. Leviathan Wakes (which is obviously book 1 of the series) is an excellent read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would describe the book as a blend of space-based detective novel with a light-dusting of military scifi.

(Seems to how I’m recommending the book as a good read, I should add there is significant swearing. Fu: 89, Sh: 106 Bi: 13, Ba: 29. Perhaps it speaks to how engaging the book is, I didn’t really notice the swearing much as I was reading it. I’ve already read the second book and will be posting more about the language in that post).

I’m far from an astrophysicist, but the descriptions of gravity, space travel, space battles and the constraints placed on non-Earth colonies seemed good to me. There was enough detail that it sounded authentic, without me needing a science and maths degree to comprehend what they were saying. The conditions that the people lived in actually changed their lives. For example, the locals in ‘the belt’ had developed bodily-movements which replaced facial gestures (because when you’re in a space suit, facial gestures don’t work).

It was a real book-onion skin pages bound in what might have been actual leather. Miller had seen pictures of them before; the idea of that much weight or a single megabyte of data struck him as decadent.

It’s little things like differing behaviours and perspectives, which don’t actually effect the plot-line but do give the story depth.

I’ve previously written that I thought cliffhangers at the end of every chapter were a bad idea. This book has changed my position on that. Every single chapter ended with something that had me checking the time to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. A cliffhanger – or better described – something that makes me want to know what happens next is a good thing. (Also note the chapters are small ~normally a chapter was about 10 minutes reading time).

Speaking of chapters I noticed that the chapter titles follow a pattern e.g. “Chapter 1: Miller” will be from Miller’s point of view. However, even though the chapter title tells us who the Point Of View (POV) is, very often that is still re-iterated within the first sentence or two. Which I think is a good practice.

Interestingly, every chapter perfectly alternates between the two main POVs, the prologue and epilogue having a different POV. The same character never gets two chapters in a row.

Here are a few of my favourite highlights:

Descriptors:

  • Alex and Amos drank like sailors; a finger full in the bottom of the cup, tossed back all at once. Alex had a habit of saying “Hooboy!” after each shot. Amos just used a different profanity each time. He was up to his eleventh shot and so far had not repeated himself.
  • When Alex threw down the throttle and a roomful of elephants swan dived onto his chest.

Dialogue:

He hesitated for one second, then pressed the button to execute. The ship failed to vaporize.
“I guess Fred wants us alive, then” he said. Naomi slumped down with a noisy, extended exhale.
“See, this is why I can’t ever be in command,” she said.
“Don’t like making tough calls with incomplete information?”
”More I’m not suicidally irresponsible,” she replied.

And

“There’s a right thing to do,” Holden said.
“You don’t have a right thing, friend,” Miller said. ”You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.

“He looks at his soul, sees the stains, and wants to be clean,” he said. “But you? You just shrug.”

And some interesting words:

  • iconography
  • quixotic
  • pogroms
  • microcephalic
  • annealing
  • penumbra
  • flagellum
  • sclera

Escaping

In the last couple of weeks I’ve made significant progress in my revision of Escape from Hell, my faith-based story. When I announced the re-write I mentioned my goal was to lengthen the story in order to smooth out the abrupt ending, which almost universally caught readers by surprise.

(Side note: Now that I think about it the abrupt ending was kind of ironic given that the character dies abruptly at the beginning of the story… and that our own deaths can come equally without warning. The unintentional irony works with my dark sense of humour; but that doesn’t mean it makes for a good writing quality).

The story has gone from approximately 9,000 words up to 23,000 in this first draft. I expect it to contract a little as I tighten my prose. The original story wasn’t formatted for chapters; now there are a total of 7 chapters, 3 of which are entirely new content.

The most important question though: is the story better for it? That’s the question I’ll be asking myself (and soon, alpha readers) as I let it’s melody play in the foreground while I do another editing pass. There are definitely elements in which the story has improved: the story has more depth and the ending is smoother now that it has more of a story and character arc. And yet, I’m still a bit apprehensive.

The first few chapters (the pre-existing chapters) that I wrote while highly inspired sing to me. I’m not sure yet if the other subsequent chapters are singing in harmony.

Even my choice of metaphor is suspect: who’d think I’d ever be any kind of singing conductor…

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

I’ve recently finished reading the non-fiction Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In the book, Diamond applies his extensive background and strong intellect to try and explain why and how the world has developed as it has. For example: why is it the West colonised Africa instead of Africa colonising the West? Why has technological advancement been more apparent in some regions than others?

It is an informative book under-girded by substantial research and well thought-out hypothesise. I particularly appreciate how Diamond often discussed several competing academic ideas, comparing and contrasting them. Diamond deserves congratulations on his research goal and the depth of approach he takes to answer it. Though a challenging book to read due to it’s dense subject matter, I feel as though it is a condensed master class on many topics.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to dot-point his findings and reasoning as best I can summarise in a short fashion. I’ll not be caveating, so it’s true only in broad-brush terms.

  • Only some crops can be domesticated, and they were not evenly distributed in the world. Land-masses that are stretched East-West favour crop-spreading better than a North-South orientation due to lesser climate changes.
  • Only some animals are suitable for domestication (which is different to taming). On some continents the large animals became extinct before the opportunity to domesticate them. Domesticated animals provide important protein, labour (farming), transportation and military advantages.
  • The spread of crops and domesticated animals is affected mainly by climate and geography, lesser by trade. Inhospitable environments and impassable terrain provide natural barriers.
  • Agricultural societies with crops and domesticated animals produced substantially more food than hunger-gatherer societies. This means a far denser population, and some members of society are freed freed from the food-production role. This enables them to specialise: giving rise to technologies, better organisation through bureaucracies and religion and (eventually) professional military.
  • Hunter and gatherer societies were often displaced, subsumed or eradicated by agricultural societies due to their higher population (‘the weight of numbers’).
  • A denser human population in close proximity to animals develops diseases (and then immunity to them). When these people come in contact with more isolated peoples’ disease often wiped out more than were killed militarily.
  • The development of writing facilitated “political administration and economic exchanges, motivating and guiding exploration and conquest, and making available a range of information and human experience”.
  • Technology is most often iteratively developed, and seldom from a single “brilliant” person. However, a greater population with more education is likely to develop more technology.
  • All of these factors snowballed and built-upon themselves to grow the power of the state: the larger groups often overwhelmed the smaller.

A couple of other interesting points Diamond mentioned:

  • Environment plays a huge factor. “In ancient times, however, much of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece, was covered with forest. The region’s transformation from fertile woodland to eroded scrub or desert has been elucidated by paleobotanists and archeologists. Its woodlands were cleared for agriculture, or cut to obtain construction timber, or burned as firewood or for manufacturing plaster. Because of low rainfall and hence low primary productivity (proportional to rainfall), regrowth of vegetation could not keep pace with it’s destruction, especially in the presence of overgrazing by goats. With the tree and grass cover removed, erosion proceeded and valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation.”
  • Political decisions have ramifications. “The end of China’s treasure fleet gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between AD 1405 and 1433. They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions of the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents). The former faction had been identified with sending and captaining the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public electric lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries, all motivated by local political issues. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards.”
  • The modern keyboard layout was actually designed to be inefficient. Originally for typewriters where too much typing speed meant the typewriter would jam. Faster keyboard layouts exist, but the current layout is so ubiquitous that we are resistant to change.

Plotting by Pen

I’m a fairly hi-tech writer. Generally speaking I like to use my computer heavily for all-things writing. It’s a by-product of being a nerd; I use normal software (Scrivener, Word, OneNote) and my own programs and beefy spreadsheets to keep track of everything.

However there are also times when I break out ye old pen and paper and work through problems by sketching, writing, arrows and scribbles. I’m not sure why moving away from the keyboard helps my thoughts flow more freely but it is sometimes helpful.

As an example, I’m going to share a section of my novel Vengeance Will Come (available on Amazon). This post contains slight spoilers. Regent Danyel Abudra while frantically searching for his missing wife has a confrontation with a criminal kingpin named Zekkari.

If you can read my writing…

Originally my plan was to have Danyel kill Zekkari during an interrogation. This would begin a moral slide for Danyel who had always been a man of integrity. You can rescue your wife, but it’s going to cost you style plot device. This eventuality raised several questions of world-building and plausibility.

Would Danyel, as Regent of Tador, be held accountable for killing Zekkari? What are the laws surrounding the treatment of criminals who are yet to be found guilty? How much immunity from prosecution does a ruler have? What is the relationship and interaction between Tador’s laws and the planetary Regional Assembly judiciary?

More importantly, is it plausible, even under the significant duress of his wife being abducted that Danyel would kill Zekkari? The more I considered it the more I realised he couldn’t. Granted, if I saw someone harming my wife they’d find themselves in not-insignificant danger — but that is different to “I suspect you know something about my wife’s disappearance and you’d better tell me.” I just couldn’t see a cultured, intelligent person resorting to murder on such circumspect evidence. Perhaps of equal importance it didn’t fit who I wanted Danyel to be.

So initially, as the result of my pen etchings I decided that Danyel would accidentally kill Zekkari. An accident is far more plausible than intentional murder.

While my example in this picture is fairly clean it is not uncommon for me to have a half-dozen possible solutions and write the pros and cons of each approach down.

As it happens, that’s not exactly how the story plays out — but I did promise no spoilers…

Distracted

With the rare exception, I have written a blog post every week for a long time. Except it’s been over a month since my last post. So what has happened?

Distraction. Some of what has distracted me has been good-distraction in-and-of-itself. Like maintaining and strengthening relationships, or good stewardship of what I’ve been given (i.e. maintaining the garden), or beneficial long-term (i.e. occupation focused work). Other distraction has been less-good and less productive: gaming, avoidance and other time investments that will never pay dividends.

There’s also been a big block of stress during that period, which mentally constipated me and had me reaching for any mind-numbing procrastination as though it were Valium. And more recently illness that quite literally put me on my back. Thankfully both of those issues have now been resolved.

The truth is the distraction began earlier in the year. At the start of January I was more focused on the things of God and faith. And then like a man heading out for a distant port, I heard the siren’s song of temptation. I started to have more ideas for stories, and my hunger for other hobbies grew too. Now I know that God has given me giftings to use for his glory but that doesn’t mean they should overshadow my desire for him. These were not his blessings, but the enemy’s temptations. I have allowed these other activities to absorb more of my time, thoughts and heart than they had any right to. It’s time for me to re-evaluate my priorities.

I have recently been pondering this passage from Colossians 3:


1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

What does this mean for my life? How does it translate to how I spend my time? On if and what I write? If I am God’s servant, his adopted child, how is my life different in a day to day, hour by hour fashion. My life is not my own, I was bought with an incredible price.

That’s actually a danger that I face as a creative person. My mind can spin a dozen ideas out of thin air – and each of those ideas could easily absorb hundreds of hours of writing time. But I want to make sure that I’m not spending my life on something inconsequential.

All that matters is that which lasts for eternity.