Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Instead of my usual book reviewy type post in regards to my latest finished read, Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter, I had an interesting question pop into my head as I was finishing this I wanted to talk out. I’m sure you can guess what that question was, what since it’s the title of this post. (sidenote, Jandar has the best author note ever)

Why do some stories age well?

Jandar is from 1972 and was recommended to me by my dad on my last trip to The Bookbarn, which has come up in the last three or four posts of mine. When John Carter was made into a movie, it made me want to read the book much more than see the green screen fest. My dad picked out this book for me when we couldn’t find any of the John Carter books. It’s similar in genre and style. In fact, Lin Carter dedicates the book to John Carter’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. So what we’ve got here is a forty year old book written in homage to a book almost sixty years older than that. I enjoyed the book a lot. It was straight up fast paced and fun. There’s no deep science to it. Any scientific or fantastical question is answered in the simplest manner and we’re moved on. Pacing and action are paramount on Callisto but there’s some character growth going on too, mostly with Koja, an insect-like alien Jandar makes friends with eventually.

There were some things I found a little bit dated, mostly with the treatment of Darloona, a princess in exile who Jandar gets the warm fuzzies for. We meet her throwing down with a biggun jungle beastie. Here she’s a tough hunter. She’s in a bit over her head since it was a very large beastie but she’s out in the wilderness being awesome. The bad guy treats her like she should be a trophy to be won. Eh… I’ll let that one slide. He’s the bad guy and he’s doing it so he can inherit her kingdom. I’ll bite on that. I just get a sense that the author isn’t quite sure what to do with Darloona, wavering between her being tough and progressive for ’72 and a more ‘traditional’ and dated role.

Even with those faults, Jandar of Callisto is a worthy read, fast and fun. This is a crazy juxtaposition with the book I read prior to this.

His Majesty’s Dragon? Nope. It was Element 79 by Fred Hoyle.

I didn’t even realize this was a book full of short stories until I pinged the Goodreads page. There’s nothing to actually indicate this on the back cover review or in the front of the book. I figured they were just titled chapters, something common in older books. I couldn’t get through the first twenty pages. A bunch of people were abducted by aliens that they never see and are held in captivity on a space ship. They’re pretty much a zoo. Upon finding out this was really a short story, I went and read the end of it… and it was horribly vague with no actual ending. The whole thing is dated from 1967, smack in the New Wave of science fiction. I’m familiar with New Wave, early Zelazny is considered part of it. It’s very cerebral and psychological and barely readable.

So why is one still a successful read forty years later and the other had me tossing it aside in twenty pages? Seriously, twenty. I usually give a book a hundred, although twenty is a lot when a book only has 149.

Adventure tales, like that of Jandar or John Carter, have never really gone away. They’ve always been in the public eye larger than just the SF genre. Just look at Indiana Jones. Even that was created because Spielberg and Lucas wanted to make something reminiscent of when they were kids. It makes the tropes of an adventure story somewhat timeless and universal. Swash some buckles, clang some swords, save the day. That sort of thing transcends time and culture. Jandar fights swarthy sky pirates on a Jovian moon. Indiana Jones fights Nazis. There’s not much of a stretch to that.

It’s still going on today too. I was just talking to my dad on the phone before I started reading this and he was raving about In Fury Born and how much fun it was with the pirate navies and rogue planets and super space marines. He’s on an international road job for work servicing a Navy sub (building submarines is genetic apparently) and said “This book is so good, I had to share it. I gave it to the sailors to put in the ship’s library.”

So adventure books are thriving. Why the New Wave fail? Well I think it has to do with the in vogue science. Social sciences and psychology were big. I think there was a prevailing attitude that in order for the genre to be taken seriously, it needed to be serious. It got smart. I think it got way too smart for its own good. Character and fluid pacing were sacrificed in order to be ‘smart.’ And I don’t think it is just an author thing, I’ve noticed it with other books from the 60s and 70s I’ve picked up from The Bookbarn and then sent right back to them. Things like Kampus and even some of the early Zelazny is tough to digest and he’s my all time favorite author.

I am not saying a book needs to dumb itself down in order to be enjoyable. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, steeped in philosophy and science and math, blurring the lines between them like really high level science tends to do. I think there was just a precedence placed on abstract social science to make itself sound important in these older novels.

What’s going to make a story last? How can we make the SF powerhouse that’s going to last as long as Shakespeare? Well, do like ol’ Bill did and transcend your setting. It sounds slightly pretentious but the human stories are the ones that are going to last. The hero overcoming the odds. The tragic romance. The behind the back treachery. They worked in Elizabethan days. They worked for Burroughs. They worked for Carter and Weber and dozens of other authors I’ve read across all different times and genres. The set dressings still need to be up to snuff. Changing what aspects get the short shaft is a lateral move, not an improvement in writing. But years from now when we snicker at “blazing fast 28.8 modems” or a “futuristic 2020,” we can overlook a dated setting if the rest of the story holds up strong.

It was inevitable.

It only happens a couple times a year but it does happen. I couldn’t make it thought The Map of Time┬áby Felix J Palma.

I really don’t have much more of a lead in than that, so let’s go right to the Back of the Book, what little there is.

Characters real and imaginary come vividly to life in this whimsical triple play of interwined plots, in which a skeptical HG Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

What hapens if we change history?

Felix J Palma explores this provocative question, weaving a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting – a story full of love and adventure that transports readers from a haunting setting in Victorian London to a magical reality.

So there’s really not a lot going on with this Back of the Book. But hey! It’s got time travel. Victorian time travel. There’s some shades of Jasper Fford going on with that too. Most of the back cover was filled with acolades and apparently the author is a big deal in Spain. Spoilers ahead, if you’re worried about spoilers in a book I didn’t care for. I know sometimes I tend to get vague about books when I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but I feel when being critical, specifics need to be cited or it comes off as ranty.

First impression? Skip the first 80 pages. They’re completely unnessicary. Map starts out with Andrew, a wealthy Victorian 20-something who wants to kill himself. It’s a very maudlin opening. Chapters two through page 80 are the backstory leading up to where he is in the slums with the gun to his chin. The backstory plants some promising seeds though. Remember, it’s 1880s London, we’ve got some Jack the Ripper stuff going on here.

So ok, this Andrew is still way too overdramatic and it’s hard to identify with a super rich kid. But between Jack the Ripper and time travel, I’m still working with this. It’s not easy. There’s a very weird tone to it. I think this comes from a combination of trying to sound like it’s old timey and the fact that Map isn’t native to English. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a lot less awkward in Spanish, but I’m not about to get all Rosetta Stone on this. I’m saving Rosetta Stone so I can achieve my goal of telling dirty limericks in near-dead languages like Welch. The odd tone, ok I can get over that. The narrator however, is a different story.

I didn’t mind an extra narrator in Railsea because it felt like part of the story. The narrator showed up right on page one and kept a consistant tone and presence with the rest of the tale. This one didn’t. I don’t know if it’s a cultrual thing. Maybe in Madrid they’d eat that stuff up but it absolutely didn’t work here. The narrator would jump into the middle of a paragraph with things like “Andrew couldn’t have possibley known what I’m about to tell you but my nature is all seeing and all knowing, nothing can hide from me so we’re going to change points of view because Charles knows all about this stuff that’s going down so I’m going to move the perspective over to him because I know you would rather listen to him than me.” Middle of the paragraph, seroiusly.

But I can get over all these things if the story delivers. These dandys plan on traveling through time to throw down with Jack the Ripper and they need HG Wells to do it. After twenty pages of biography of Wells, which really didn’t have much to do with what was actually going on, there’s finally some time travel. Jack the Ripper is killed and Andrew saves his lady friend, who just happens to be the Ripper’s last victim. When he gets back, they use the branching world theory so Andrew can get out of his funk. His version of Marie Kelly is still dead, but there was another version of the universe where they were happily married. On the way out, Charles goes back to Wells’ house and FOOLED YOU! No time travel, they were just fucking with Andrew to cheer him up and keep him from being suicidal.

Wait what? Fooled you?? The time travel was all a hoax, and completely out of the blue too. There were no clues leading up to it. People who read science fiction books are perfectly ok with the fact that someone is traveling through time. The fact that it was all a hoax came off as very condencending to the reader.

So I’m bristled by this. 400 pages to go though and Part Two gives us a new character, a young woman who doesn’t really like being a young woman in Victorian times. They’re gearing up to do the one way travel to the future adventure. Out in the year 2000 there’s a ruined London and a battle between the human rebels and an automaton army. Cool. We’re back to something I can get behind. This woman, Claire, is getting onto the time traveling tram where the whole crowd is told “oh we’re going to keep aaaaaall the windows closed so you can’t see outside becaus big lizards.”

Seriously? Again? You’re fucking with me again aren’t you book? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, what the fuck am I doing then?

I’m not being ranty, but that did deserve swears. I feel like this book is sci-fi written for people that don’t like sci-fi. Which really doesn’t make sence to me but there must people people out there who like it because it was a NY Times best seller. This book was not my cup of tea at all, but I really did try. 300 pages was half of this book and as long as some of the other novels I’ve read. What this comes down to is that I’m not the type of reader that appreciates a ‘Fooled you!” moment. All those other faults I could have slogged my way through, but not that.

Blackbirds

Posted: July 3, 2012 in Reading
Tags: , , , ,

Lately, most of the books I’ve been reading have come from recommendations that other authors I like are also reading. Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig has come highly praised from a whole lot of corners of the internet. Wendig himself is one of this batch of authors I’ve been finding lately on ye olde internets that are selling me as people first, getting me interested in the stories they have to tell long before I hold ink and paper in hand. So in addition to being one of the more interesting people I follow on twitter, his writing is a swear filled festival of awesome.

What time is it? It’s 943. So what?? I type slow and had to feed the infant. But it’s also Back of the Book Time!

Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days he will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people – that only makes their deaths happen. No matter what she does, she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Oh my that sounds like the sort of thing that will mess a person up and holy crap Miriam is messed up. But by no means take that as a knock against the readability of Blackbirds. I don’t think I’ve ever read a protagonist as emotionally broken as Miriam. We don’t just get this emotional fragility first hand, it’s shoved into our faces, uncomfortably close, bleeding and slobbering all over your shirt while saying “eat a dick.”

This in-your-face fragility is oddly endearing. You just want to give Miriam a hug even though she’s swearing like a sailor. Actually out-swearing a sailor. I actually work in a shipyard, a sausage fest of crusty old men, and Miriam could put all of us to shame on our best swearing day. I never felt it was shock value though. Or more accurately, I never felt it was Wendig’s shock value. Miriam wants to shock people as a barrier to keep them at arms reach. Swearing as characterization, not gratuity.

There really is a lot to like about Blackbirds though. The book is mostly Miriam’s point of view, part of the whole in-your-face thing I mentioned above. Wendig weaves in these interludes which provide a bit of a break from the plot with some backstory. There’s a guy named Paul who interviews Miriam. I get the strange sense that he’s the author cameo. The interlude between 32 and 33 is actually one of the funniest chapters in the book. It really shouldn’t be because it’s actually gruesome, but in such a matter of fact tone, it becomes absurdest.

And that’s one of the talents Wendig’s got going here which I didn’t consciously think of until now. He’s taking the gruesome, the brutal, the sleightly horrible, and turning these things upside down. The tone and storytelling wordsmithing makes you ok with hacksawed legs and a fishknife in the brain. I feel like the whole novel is like the most beautiful train wreck you’ve ever seen, moving ever so slowly and getting ever so better looking the throughout.

So waxed prophetically about Miriam’s teetering state of being a lot. But what about the plot? What in the hell is she actually doing this whole time? There’s a philosophical battle with Fate going on. That’s capital F Fate. It’s not Incarnations of Immortality with a physical person acting as Fate, but it’s a very specific force at play here. It has it’s own rule set, even if we don’t quite get to see all of the rules in play. There’s a couple layers to all that’s going on and we get them pulled back slowly.

I feel like I’m shortchanging this book with this abbreviated amount of musing. But there is a very blurry line between talking about this and giving away too much. This book is too awesome to risk giving anything away as spoilers. After all this I’m still left with questions regarding Miriam. I can’t tell you what they all are, but it’s an appropriate amount of questions. I walked away from Blackbirds supremely satisfied. Angry Robot isn’t putting out the sequel, Mockingbird, until August so at least we’ve not long to wait to find out all these answers.

So as much as I have been hamstrung by my aversion to spoilers, all the praise this book has been getting is 143% justified.

As a related tangent, the cover is a work of art. Joey HiFi, out of South Africa who has also done covers for other Angry Robot authors, has set me out on a quest to find a frame to put my book in. It’s the most gorgeous cover I’ve seen in years.

Carpet noodle. Always carpet noodle. It makes sense now.