Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Four-Star Review of Seven Point Eight, The First Chronicle, by Marie Harbon.

This is a complex novel written in concept like a television series. I gave it high marks for imagination, which is the real reason we read Sci-Fi, but did have some difficulty following the story, as detailed below. Please note: in order to tie up “loose ends” I found in the story, I made assumptions that unknowns would be revealed in future chronicles. Those assumptions might or might not be true.

When I completed Seven Point Eight, The First Chronicle, I was driven to ask, “What did I just read?” The novel did not reach a conclusion, and everything in the storyline seemed unsettled—it seemed incomplete. That was frustrating, so I started over with the objective of outlining events in chronological order. That helped, because scattered throughout the book are six excerpts from another story that occur in another place and at another time. Once I time-ordered my outline notes, I could see the first of the six excerpts takes place twenty-one years after the book concludes, but the first excerpt appears almost at the beginning of the book. The remaining five “other-place/other-time” excerpts appear in random chapters throughout the book. People who pay more attention than I do might not need to make an outline, but I did. Chalk that up to a weak mind. Anyway, when I understood the structure of the book, then I had to ask myself, “Why did the author do that?”

Here’s my guess. The story is about multi-dimensional time and space, and one hypothesis offered in the book is, “The future exists simultaneously with the past, and simultaneously with the present. All is one. The difference between past, present and future is an illusion.” A being from another dimension also asserts, “Time is a construction of human artifice…to prevent everything from happening at once.” Therefore, the structure of the book could be one attempt to demonstrate a hypothesis of the book. Because the six excerpts do not tell an independent story, they could be from the next novel in the series, Seven Point Eight, The Second Chronicle, due out in the summer of 2012.

But it wasn’t just the six excerpts that confused me. From the beginning there are events that beg for answers, like a woman wearing an exquisite red silk scarf who spontaneously offers information about the U.S. military’s secret “Philadelphia Experiment” during one of Dr. Paul Eldridge’s unclassified lectures, and then the woman simply vanishes. Paul’s own diary (which he starts writing near the beginning of the novel) clearly states “the mysterious woman never re-appeared”, but the scarf certainly does. On New Year’s Eve, 1967, Paul purchases the scarf and gives it to the heroine, Tahra. Later, the scarf re-appears, as if by magic, in Ava’s handbag in Oct 1988. Ava is a character in one of the six excerpts mentioned above. How the scarf gets from place to place and time to time, assuming it is the same scarf, is not revealed.
So let me try to summarize this complex story before I try to tie Ava, who ends up with the scarf, and The First Chronicle together.

Dr. Paul Eldridge is a particle physicist who accepts the task of trying to quantify the human soul in quantum terms. He works with “gifted” individuals who have exceptional abilities to “remote view” (take their consciousness to other places, an out-of-body experience), see the future in some form, sense emotions and the like. Measuring the electromagnetic field associated with the most talented member of the group, Tahra, the heroine, Dr. Paul determines consciousness leaves her body for remote viewing at 7.8 Hertz. Dr. Paul wants to use Tahra for remote space exploration, and eventually builds a machine to amplify Tahra’s ability to view things remotely. That’s when the fun begins, although unanswered questions abound. Tahra and Paul both have vivid dreams that impart information to them. In fact, some of the “dreams” might actually be physical instantiations from the future, but that is not explained. In all cases of receiving forward-looking information, Tahra and Paul chalk it up to dreams. Most of the time the characters accept their revelations, but not when Tahra gives Paul a stern warning in what seems to be a clear case of physical appearance from the future – “Don’t go beyond 65% power on the machine.” Paul ignores that warning, to his dismay.
Near the end of the book, Tahra takes a dozen people with her to go “star hopping” to new and untested dimensions, and Paul boosts the machine’s power to 75% to accommodate all the people. It’s a bad trip. Only Tahra returns normal, and that brings us to the six excerpts.

The twelve “passengers” end up in a sanitarium. One of the twelve is Maria Martinez, the sister of Ava Kavanagh. Ava finds the red scarf in her purse in Oct 1988 after a visit to the institution where Maria remains in a vegetative state. Ava has been dating a man named Michael, who disappeared mysteriously, but, as a later excerpt shows, Michael was likely a “plant” to spy on Ava. An attempt on Ava’s life is also detailed, by injection of Ebola virus into her neck. Ava survives due to incredible natural immunity, but who Michael works for and the reasons for the attack on Ava are not revealed. All we are told is an undefined group is studying an electromagnetic anomaly on Long Island, where one of the sites associated with Tahra’s remote viewing research is located. Answers to these questions might be provided in the next book.

I give Seven Point Eight, The First Chronicle, a four-star rating for its interesting story, imaginative descriptions of multi-dimensional space and clever way of switching back and forth between third person limited Point of View (POV) and first person POV. I was never confused by the change in POV, but I would caution that the book is British and so is the spelling. I adjusted to the lack of “zeds”, but not to the dozens of comma splices, run-on sentences and unusual use of semicolons. I put those distractions aside and plowed through the story to see what happened; however, I must read The Second Chronicle to know for sure.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Finding Your Writing Groove, by Melissa Foster

I'm delighted to welcome award-winning author Melissa Foster to my site. I recently enjoyed reading and posting a review of her novel, Chasing Amanda. That review appears immediately following Melissa's blog. I've also posted a link to Melissa's Summer Blog Tour. Welcome Melissa!
Thanks for having me here James. Let's get right to it.

I am often asked about the process of writing; how to do it, when to do it, what ifs, motivation, etc. I’m not an expert on writing by any means, but I am happy to offer my two cents of advice.

If you are writing, you are already a writer! Whether you are writing for a magazine, local newsletter, corporate handbook, or creating your first novel, makes no difference. Writers write. Period. You should think about yourself in those terms, and begin calling yourself a writer, if it is appropriate. Once you have faith in your work, the rest will follow.

Some people feel that books should be written based on outlines, while others use index cards, timelines, and other types of “visual” assistants. I believe you should do what comes naturally to you, and what you are most comfortable with. When I wrote Megan’s Way, I did not use an outline, index cards, or formal timeline. Megan presented herself very forcefully and guided me through the story. After Megan’s Way was complete, I created a timeline—insuring that the story flowed in a smooth, true-to-life fashion. When writing Come Back to Me, I had a rough outline for the entire story, because that’s what felt right while writing that book. No one single way to write is the best way to write. That’s how I write. You might find that creating an outline keeps your thoughts organized, rather than letting the story evolve in its own direction during the writing process, and that works for many authors. Do what feels right when you are writing.

The time of day or night that you write is completely personal. My writing schedule revolves around my children’s schedules. When I was editing Megan’s Way, I often worked at night, and sometimes until two o’clock in the morning. That’s what worked for me. You’ll find a schedule that works for you, too.

What if nobody likes my book? That is a question that I am often asked. I think every author has that fear. I’m not sure that the fear of failure will go away with the number of books that you have published. I believe it lingers just below the surface. Life is fluid, and so are people’s interests, therefore, someone who likes your writing style today, may not like it tomorrow. Writing a book, I’ve often said, is like standing on the corner naked—you’re not sure if people will whistle or throw tomatoes! Every writer should have beta readers; people who will read your early manuscripts and give you solid, unabashed, criticism and reviews. We learn from constructive criticism, and often times we, as authors, need to step back from what we’ve written and have fresh eyes read and provide feedback. I also believe that if you do the best that you are capable of, then what ifs should not come into play. Go with your gut feelings. If you feel that your work is ready for publication, go for it!

My motivation is derived from my characters coming to life and my desire for readers to connect with them. If your goal is to write—you have a story bouncing around in your head—then sit down and write. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait for someone else to validate your desire. As Nike says, “Just Do It!”

 Melissa Foster is the award-winning author of three International bestselling novels, Megan's Way, Chasing Amanda, and Come Back to Me. She has also been published in Indie Chicks, an anthology. Melissa is on the advisory board for the Alliance of Independent Authors and is a touchstone in the indie publishing arena. When she’s not writing, Melissa teaches authors how to navigate the book marketing world, build their platforms, and leverage the power of social media, through her author-training programs on Fostering Success. Melissa is the founder of the World Literary Café, Fostering Success, and the Women’s Nest. She has been published in Calgary’s Child Magazine, the Huffington Post, and Women Business Owners magazine. Melissa is currently collaborating on the film adaption of Megan’s Way. 

Melissa hosts an annual Aspiring Authors contest for children, she's written for Calgary's Child Magazine and Women Business Owners Magazine, and has painted and donated several murals to The Hospital for Sick Children in Washington, DC. Melissa lives in Maryland with her family. Melissa's interests include her family, reading, writing, painting, friends, helping women see the positive side of life, and visiting Cape Cod.

Twitter: @Melissa_Foster
The Women’s Nest, women’s social network: http://www.TheWomensNest.com
World Literary Café: http://www.worldliterarycafe.com
Facebook Melissa Foster:  https://www.facebook.com/MelissaFosterAuthor  (Fanpage)




Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review of Chasing Amanda by Melissa Foster

I usually like to let a story simmer a bit before writing a review, but this time I am making an exception because Chasing Amanda by Melissa Foster is exceptional. What a marvelous and uplifting story. The writing is superior to nearly all novels I have read, and the editing left few issues to trip over as I traversed the story.
Molly is the Chasing Amanda heroine, a woman plagued by complacency guilt. Her “gut” told her to intervene in a potential child abduction eight years past, but she lacked faith in her own feelings and hard facts on which to act. After the child, Amanda, is murdered, Molly blames herself. Consumed by guilt, she becomes so depressed and dysfunctional that she nearly destroys her marriage and family. In an attempt to rebuild her life, she and her family re-locate to Boyds, MD. Over several years, she manages an incomplete and a shaky recovery, but is then confronted with a similar situation when another little girl, Tracy, is kidnapped. Once again, Moly is confronted with “The Knowing”, paranormal visions that enable her to feel and “see” the terror experienced by the missing child. She vows not to fail Tracy, as she had Amanda, and is determined to follow the powerful seizure-like visions that grip her body when The Knowing overtakes her. The police and her husband believe she’s losing her mind, but her son has faith in her … and visions of his own.
The writing is superb; the novel is spellbinding. I especially enjoyed the dialog between Moly and her son because Melissa Foster nailed it. The vernacular is current—the exact phrases and expressions one would expect from a young man. I also enjoyed the third person presentation that enabled me to know what each character was thinking. I could literally feel Tracy’s terror as she was dropped into the “bad spot”, a deep hole that her abductor covered with plywood and dirt as part of a behavior re-shaping program. That scene still makes me shudder.
I will not give the plot away, but I will say two things about it. First, I had no idea who the perpetrator was until near the end of the story. I thought I did, a couple of times, but I was wrong. Somehow Melissa Foster managed to cast a cloak of suspicion over lots of innocent people. I did not feel intentionally misled, but I wouldn’t want to play chess with Melissa Foster either. Second, the story is an emotional roller-coaster. If tears don’t slip down your cheeks several times as you read Chasing Amanda, especially near the end, then you probably need professional help.
Chasing Amanda has an intricate and well-developed plot, and the characters are so vivid they could be real. I give this book a strong five-star rating; I’m delighted to have read it.

Please note: I will have Melissa Foster as a guest blogger on this site on Wednesday, 16 May 2012. Please plan to drop by and show her some love.

Thank you for reading,

James L. Hatch

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Virtual Affair

 Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Zvi Zack to my site. For those of you who watched the recent Nova show about Watson, the IBM “thinking machine”, vs. former Jeopardy winners, Zvi’s view of Artificial Intelligence isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, Watson beat all the former champions, showing without question the Watson program’s ability to understand complex insinuation in the questions and incredibly fast reaction to human nuance. So here he is … Zvi Zack:
Thanks for having me here today, James ... or is that Miss Havana? Whatever.

Alan Turning is a name familiar to many modern science fiction fans even though he passed away almost sixty years ago. He was one of the founders of computer science and a cryptologist whose efforts helped speed the end of WWII. Also, he was gay, and because of this, he was prosecuted for “gross indecency” and given the choice of female hormones or jail. He chose the former, and died two years later in 1954 at age 41, possibly from suicide. In 2009, the British government apologized for their disgraceful treatment of him, but he wasn't around to hear it. The government refused to grant him a posthumous pardon. Who knows what other contributions this man might have made if not for organized homophobia.

Turning is perhaps best remembered today because of the Turing test which he devised to determine whether a computer could think. This crops up in several science fiction stories about artificial intelligence. For example, in the excerpt from A Virtual Affair, Arnold, a psychologist, and his friend, Jack, are talking to Bambi, a computer program. With the aid of an anatomically correct virtual reality suit, Jack is having an affair with Bambi, though the conversation below takes place with an ordinary computer monitor. As you can see, Bambi sounds almost human—almost—but there's a lot she doesn't understand. Here’s the excerpt.
Arnold eyed Jack, then turned back to the computer image. “All right. Bambi, I’m going to give you a modified Turing test. Okay?”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Do you know what a Turing test is?”
“It’s to see if a computer program can think like a person. Jack said I was a computer program.”
Arnold raised his brow. “Let’s start then. Bambi, how do you feel about your mother?”
“Typical psychologist,” Jack said.
“She’s a sweet, affectionate woman, though sometimes a bit flighty.”
Arnold nodded. “Where are you now?”
“I don’t know. I thought I was in the meadow, but I don’t see grass or trees, or anything.”
“Does that worry you?”
She smiled again. “No. Why do you ask?”
Jack grimaced. “‘Why do you ask?’” he mimicked in a falsetto tone. “The question sounds human, but it’s only an investigational routine designed to improve the answers to questions.”
Arnold ignored him. “Many people would be afraid of something bad happening if they didn’t know where they were.”
“Nothing bad can happen to me,” she said.
Jack muttered, “Oh to have such confidence.”
Arnold continued the questioning. “What is ‘learning’?”
“Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge.”
Jack interrupted. “Arnold, don’t jump from one question to another. Run the bloody scale in its entirety.”
“I don’t have time for a full test.”
“Let me talk to her.” Jack turned towards the monitor. “Bambi, listen to me. You never went to college, and you don’t have a mother. Those are memories we took from someone by asking questions, recording her brainwaves, and downloading the results into you.”
“Jack, don’t. You might destabilize her circuits.”
Jack waved him to be silent. “Yes, really.”
“Is that a puzzle, like when you said I was a program in a computer?”
“Yes. It’s like a puzzle for you to figure out.”
“The boy I made love to in Minnesota, was he a downloaded memory also?”
“How interesting.” She smiled again.
Jack said, “So you remember our talking about being human verses being a program.”
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, just like you told me to, but I still don’t know what you meant.”
Arnold and Jack looked at each other.
Jack said, “All right, Bambi. We’ll talk more another time.”
“Jack, when will you come visit me again?”
“I’m visiting you right now, Bambi.”
She laughed. “I mean visit me here in reality.”
“In reality?”
“You’re in reality?”
“Of course, and you are in virtual reality. Oh—is that what you meant when you said I wasn’t human. Is it that humans live in virtual reality?”
“No!” Jack said loudly. “I mean, well, maybe yes. I’m not sure. We’ll discuss it later.”
“Okay Jack. I’ll see you later. Bye, Arnold.” The monitor turned black.
Jack tapped on the desk. “Close audio input.” He looked at Arnold. “Well, what do you think about her as an individual?”
“Bambi is software, not an individual.” Arnold scratched his chin. “Though I see how you could think of her as an individual. That comment about us living in virtual reality amazed me.”
“Lord, if that wasn’t original thinking, what is?”
“Maybe she’s right. Maybe her reality is the actual reality, and ours just an electronic construct.”
Jack snorted. “Very funny. Do you think she’s developing a personality?”
“She’s just instructions in a computer, for God’s sake.” Arnold drummed his fingers on the desk. “But you’re right. She’s showing unexpected spontaneity.”
“Right. That’s a detail we never test for. Our Turing scales analyze software responses without letup, but never ask if the program initiates conversation on its own. They’re stuck in the era when the interface was a keyboard and a printer.”
“Maybe that’s why Bambi’s comment about reality is so intriguing. It wasn’t a response to anything we had said.”
“Most interesting was her asking when I would ‘visit’ again. That was completely spontaneous.” Jack sighed. “I need to talk to her more, and in her reality.”
“Jack, I agree entirely. I think you need to revisit her in her world with all its sensory details, and not just through a monitor.” Arnold winked.
“Shut up, Arnold.”
“What’s wrong? I’m agreeing with you.”
“Just shut up, will you?”
A little about Zvi: I've been writing on and off for decades with little luck in publishing. Evidently, there was too much off and not enough on. Internet workshops like sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/ and www.critters.org improved my work enough to sell a few short stories, but what I really wanted was to publish a book.
Thanks for being a guest here, Zvi. I wish you the best in making your dream a reality! For readers, please feel free to leave Zvi a comment.