Posted by: mlawrencekey | May 5, 2014

Review: Titan

Titan by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll go ahead and admit it right now: I skipped through most of the beginning of this book, finding the political intrigue on Earth tedious and boring. I wanted to get into the Titan stuff as fast as possible.

I’ll give Baxter this: he’s done his research, and I was continually impressed with his descriptions of a possible voyage to Titan and what landing and exploring this alien world might be like. Ultimately, I found myself feeling oppressed and a bit depressed by the futility of life on Titan for the intrepid astronauts who survived the voyage and managed to eke out an existence there.

The final chapter or two are the weirdest part of the book (no spoilers here), and while I appreciated seeing what Titan might be like a few hundred million years in the future, the whole thing ultimately felt empty and meaningless to me.

The final message of the book: life will go on, somehow, somewhere, though in strange and entirely unknown forms. And maybe that’s a message of hope for some. For me, somehow, I was looking for more.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | September 5, 2013

If I could speak into the ears of American power


Please thoughtfully read this heartfelt letter written to American power.

Originally posted on Mike Niconchuk:

In light of the recent escalation of Syria talk, war talk, and war violence, I can’t help but cry out from the middle of the places that men in far away desks ceaselessly write about and talk about.

If I could speak into the ears of American power…

3 September, 2013

Amman, Jordan


Last night I sat on my rooftop with a friend from Damascus—my “brother by trauma” you could call him. The temporary calm in the air sufficed to make it a great evening.

Two days before, I was sitting in Zahlé, Lebanon, the Christian-majority gateway to the Beka’a Valley. Posters of Hassan Nasrallah lined the streets of villages that lead to the city. I remember clutching my passport as I passed the first sign, unsure if it would be wiser to keep it close, or to keep it far.

I was meeting two Syrians in Zahlé…

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | December 1, 2012

My new online writer’s portfolio

I just finished creating an online writer’s portfolio at It will increasingly serve as my main clearinghouse, along with my Facebook page, for updates on my writing and publishing endeavors. this means that this blog will serve that end less and less and may eventually become a valley of bones.

My new writer’s portfolio is hosted at:

Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 27, 2012

Review: Stardust

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” –C.S. Lewis

In his acknowledgements at the end of this book, Neil Gaiman alludes to this C.S. Lewis quote, and it is appropriate for this particular fairy tale, which is at once childlike and also possesses a deep wisdom and maturity at its core.

It is the coming of age story of a young man who finds his true Heart’s Desire and his destiny, though not where he would expect it. In fact, as in many tales like these, it is the journey itself that reveals to him what his heart’s desire truly is, and also forms him into the kind of man who can walk into his own destiny.

Filled with fantastic encounters in the beautiful and perilous world of Faery, Stardust is the kind of book that inspires awe and wonder again at the numinous all around us, perhaps hidden just around the next corner, if we care to look with open eyes and a thirst for adventure.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 21, 2012

Review: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bradbury is in a class by himself as a science fiction writer. Art and beauty come first, with science a distant second, and I love him for it.

I just re-read this and I still love the stories in it (most of them), though I will admit that the little sections he wrote to cobble all of them together into some kind of narrative feel forced at times.

Most of the stories are classics, previously published in the 1940s and 50s, and it shows. Yet the deep exploration of what it means to be human, set against the backdrop of the mysterious Red Planet, still holds up excellently today.

I have read many of these stories in other collections, and one of my favorites (Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed) is actually missing (maybe he couldn’t get the rights back for it?) from this one. Ah well.

Still, it’s a great sampling of Bradbury’s work. I have always maintained that he was always a better short-story writer than he ever was a novelist. If all you’ve ever read of his work is Fahrenheit 451, I invite you to sample what I believe to be his best work in the form of his short stories. If you don’t like science fiction, don’t worry–this is barely what you might think of as science fiction. It is the best of artful and thoughtful prose simply placed into an otherworldly setting.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 21, 2012

Review: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good but not great.

Speaker for the Dead is a continuation of the story of Ender Wiggins, now Speaker for the Dead, a quasi-religious vocation which involves going to various locations and telling the very honest life story of someone who has just died as they would have wanted it told, no holds barred.

He is called to a small colony world which was colonized by Catholics and is also inhabited by another enigmatic aboriginal race called the Piggies. Ender, along with help from local anthropologists and an AI called Jane, is able to solve a possible murder mystery and avert a galactic crisis, all while finding peace for himself and his own tortured past.

I found the story somewhat interesting, but not engrossing. I think that Ender and the other characters felt so foreign to me that it was hard to really enter much into their world and who they are as real people. Even Ender’s Game, which was extremely well-written, struck me this way.

Would I recommend it to others? I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. It was a somewhat enjoyable read, but I doubt I’ll be foisting it on anyone else.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | May 12, 2012

The Book is Out

ImageThe book is out.

At Home in Amman, the expat guidebook that I researched and wrote, has just been published by Turning Point Books and Mango Street Press. 

Here’s a blurb about the book’s content from the publisher: 

Turning Point International is pleased to announce the launch of its city guide series, starting with our second title, At Home in Amman. Bursting with up-to-date cultural and practical information about daily life in Amman, this new book is an indispensable guide to living in Jordan’s capital city. 
Each chapter is packed with well-researched recommendations, with 12 chapters in all: Jordan in Brief; Moving to Amman; Getting Settled; General Services and Information; Education; Children; Working in Amman; Health; Shopping; Entertainment; Sports, Leisure and Culture; and Discovering Amman and Beyond. 
Much like At Home in Beirut, this new release is filled with valuable advice and great insider tips, helpful fact boxes, bright color photos, and useful address and telephone directories. This comprehensive and matter-of-fact guidebook is an essential tool for anyone wishing to better understand this beautiful city.

I’m pleased to finally see all of my hard work in print. It’s currently available online here, and should be available in local bookstores here in Amman soon. If Turning Point follows its usual pattern, the book will also eventually be available from 

I feel that this guide is an important practical resource for expatriates who are moving to Amman or currently live here, especially for those who’ve never lived in the Middle East before, filling a gap not covered by tourism guidebooks. If you live in Amman or are about to, make sure you pick up a copy to add to your library! 

Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 11, 2011

Finding an online critique group

Today, I decided that I might be about ready to start shoving my baby birds out of the nest. That is, I’m ready to start sending my unpublished stories out into the wide, cold world again, hoping to find them good homes where readers might enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

I don’t expect to make much money doing this, but I do want to experience the thrill of acceptance and recognition that comes with being published in an actual magazine. I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before.

Naturally, I need to get them all out, dust them off (metaphorically speaking) and edit them. That’s where the title of this post comes in. I’m a decent editor, and I’ve got my wonderful wife, who is always willing to be my first reader. However, there comes a point where any author wants to have someone else read his or her work, someone who isn’t related to him or her, someone who will tell him or her with completely honesty what they think.

Enter the online writer’s critique group.

Several years ago, I was part of a group called the Writer’s Workshop at I really enjoyed the camaraderie of that online community and the feedback I got there for my writing. However, I eventually left the community for a couple of reasons. First, I felt that ideologically, it was a bit too constraining for the kinds of things I wanted to write. Second, even though I got some good feedback, it ultimately was from too small a pool of writers and wasn’t specific enough in some ways for my needs. The way the critique system was set up was too free-flowing and subjective, which meant that many critiques ended up being less than helpful.

Another group I joined a bit later was That one was much better, and its critique system was (and is) one of the best I’ve seen on the internet. In fact, the only real criticism I might have for them was that there were too few “serious” authors there in their ranks and the pool of available critics was too small. I still have a free membership with them and may eventually upgrade, but I’m holding back to see if they grow some more.

Today, I decided to give another online writer’s community I’d heard about before another try: Scribophile. This community works on a similar system to Review Fuse (and other groups) by giving you “points” according to how many reviews of others’ work you do, which you can then spend on uploading your own work for others to critique. Scribophile, however, has a much larger community than Review Fuse, so there’s a much larger pool of potential “serious” writers who have experience with writing at a level that is publishable by book and magazine publishers. Since I have the goal of being published on a regular basis in the larger royalty-based publishing world, these are the kinds of people I want reading and critiquing my work.

I’ve gotten really good feedback on my stories so far from the first two communities I mentioned. That feedback has been invaluable for keeping me encouraged and moving forward, as well as helping me improve what I’ve written. However, I think it’s time to take things to the next level, so to speak, and enter a larger pond.

Admittedly, it’s not quite as comfortable, but that’s fine. I need to get used to being the small fish, if I’m serious about wanting to be published in the larger “mainstream” publishing world.

Again, the point is not to be published, but to be read, to have my voice heard and recognized in a very large world. I’ll keep posting here on my experiences at Scribophile as I try it out.

Today, I ran four of my short stories through I Write Like’s online analyzer and came up with some interesting if varying results.

Apparently, one of my short stories was written in the style of William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame), two of them were written like Chuck Palahniuk (whom I’d never heard of before I got compared to him), one of my short stories was a bit like Harry Harrison’s work (the guy who wrote Make Room, Make Room), and finally, and most surprisingly, I got compared stylistically to Gertrude Stein.


Turns out there is something to all of this. After all, the story that got compared to William Gibson really was written in cyberpunk style. That was my short story “Soul Mule,” a favorite of mine that I hope to get published someday soon. Though I didn’t intend to do so when I wrote it, I can see some resemblance in it to some of Gibson’s work.

As for Chuck Palahnuiuk, I have no idea. I think “Woman is Cipher” and one other were both compared to his stuff, though since I’ve never read anything of his before, I couldn’t say. My story “Faery Lights,” a tale of two men stranded on a station on the ice moon of Enceladus, seems to compare favorably to the style of Harry Harrison, who wrote the novel (Make Room, Make Room) which became one of my all time favorite movies–Soylent Green (starring Charleston Heston). So I’m happy to be compared to him and to William Gibson.

It’s the Gertrude Stein one that gets me. That one feels really random and contrived. I’ll admit I haven’t read much of her work, though I did read a lot of what Hemingway felt about her in A Moveable Feast. Can’t say she came away with a favorable image in my mind.

Anyway, I did some digging and it turns out that even if you type random gibberish into the analyzer, it will give you an author that it compares you to. For example, one guy typed in nothing but a string of z’s and it told him that his writing was similar in style to Douglas Adams. Now if I weren’t a Douglas Adams fan, I guess I could see that, but there were other similar examples. Different people who tried out the analyzer by putting in nothing but random strings of letters produced results of different authors. One guy even put in a passage from Mein Kampf and it told him that his writing resembled Kurt Vonnegut’s (okay, maybe I can see that one).

I think that the analyzer works, to a degree. However, the programmers would have done well to create a program that was smart enough to recognize situations when someone wasn’t even typing in real words in a real language (maybe it could somehow have at least an English dictionary integrated into it?) I recognize that the program isn’t meant for serious writing analysis, but just a way to have some fun and to see how your writing style compares with others. Overall, I think it does that passably well, analyzing things such as word length and vocabulary to come up with reasonable results in many cases.

Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 7, 2011

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m re-reading this book after having blazed through its 800 pages earlier this year. It’s safe to say I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Equal parts pastiche of the gothic novel and exquisite fairy tale/fantasy done in the style of George MacDonald, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell hooked me almost from the beginning and kept me enthralled to the last page.

Set in the early 19th century, the novel follows the story of Mr. Norell, a Yorkshire gentleman who attempts to single-handedly revive English magic, which has fallen into obscurity after 200 years of no true magicians practicing it. After two dramatic demonstrations of magic (one of which sets into motion a chain of events that weaves throughout the books’ narrative), Mr. Norrell rises to become a celebrated magician in English society and achieves his goal of helping the British government fight in the war against France.

Enter Jonathan Strange, a second magician, as different from the stuffy and scholarly Mr. Norrell as can be imagined. The remaining two thirds of the novel focuses on the interaction between these two protagonists and their struggles to define the content of English magic for the future. In the background in the beginning but coming more and more to the forefront as the novel progresses, looms a struggle against a powerful and malevolent fairy prince. All of the different threads tie together nicely as the novel concludes.

This book sets an intriguing stage, with it many footnotes about the history of magic and Faery, but it sticks to the rigid style of the gothic novel, making the end result even more fascinating.

Like other readers, when I finished it, I immediately wanted to start reading it again. I hope that Susanna Clarke publishes a sequel or two.

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