Jan 28, 2008

Upcoming reviews

I was recently given an ARC of In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling. I loved preceding book, The Sky People. I'll finish off Courts, re-read Sky People, and post a review of both books. This may take a while, so I'll put up a few meta-topic posts in the meanwhile.

Also, if anyone is reading this, is blogging, and links to this blog, let me know. I have no idea who links back here.

In other news, George R.R. Martin is working on another of the new Wild Cards novels. I hope to heck it's better than the last one, which I was fairly disappointed by.

There's also a new Jim Butcher book about to hit ARC radar, Small Favors. I'm looking forward to reviewing it here once I get the chance.

Jan 25, 2008

Childhood's end?

John Clute recently had a write up on Shadow Bridge.

I really liked Shadow Bridge. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that nested stories are something I find really cool. I think Shadow Bridge delivers on that. I loved the bridge world, and how the image of it going on for ever and ever, curling off sometimes, and constantly connecting looked to my imagination. I didn't want the place to have to work with a conventional world look and feel.

I liked the characters too. There's a blend of near-real culture that's sort of real world and sort of not. I've seen is so frequently done with western cultures, so the emergence of pseudo-Asian or Polynesian culture is really fun. There's fox women, island fishing cultures, djinn and shadow puppetry. It's a good thing to read.

Clute saw it as a YA novel, which I wasn't quite sure about. It's certainly got coming of age elements. There's not as sharp a line in what makes a YA novel. I can point to things that certainly aren't, but someone's reading level is a rather subjective thing. Some books are intentionally targeted at younger readers, and it's evident when they are, but I didn't get as much of a feel of that from Shadow Bridge.

Where does YA end, and adult fiction begin? What are YA books that, as adults, we ought to read?

Jan 10, 2008

Scoundrels, scallawags and mountebanks

Why is it that , rather than a young, brawny, honest and goodhearted hero, I prefer my protagonists to be tricky bastards?

I prefer John Constantine to Superman. I prefer Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora to David Eddings Belgarion. Heck, I prefer Raven to Wolf in my native American mythology. I like my heroes smart, but flawed, and more interested in thinking their way out of a fight than bettering the God-Emperor of the Doom Kingdom with a flaming sword, or magic, or whatever.

Which isn't to say that I don't love a good fight scene, but really, I'd rather read a nocel that's all cons and out thinking than a novel that's all fights and no thinking.

Right now, I'm reading Scott Lynch's newest Locke Lamora book, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Locke, the protagonist, is a thief, and a wold class asshole, but true to his friends. And that's the myth of the scoundrel hero. Someone who'll turn those terrifying powers of out thinking people against only his enemies. And make no mistake, deep down, really smart, charismatic people with the ability to manipulate others are the one's we're really envious of. Vast athletic prowess and martial skill is good. But the ability to talk people into doing what you want them to, or to get around them by talking the people who control them to make them do what you want is what really runs the world.

I think, as a whole, people envy that ability to the extent that they don't have it, and want to see heroes who have that talent righting wrongs, and bringing down real villains. At the same time, we want there to be consequences for being that manipulative, because we think it should cause some problems in your life. And also a hero with no problems is boring.

So John Constantine, Han Solo, Locke Lamora, etc... all get into serious trouble with the cons they run. And that makes the books all the more enjoyable.

Jan 8, 2008

A well told tale

Tonight, I'm off to the NYRFS (NY Review of Science Fiction) reading at the South Street Seaport Museum.

Micheal Swanwick will be the first reader there. Having just read Dragons Of Babel, I'm really looking forward to hearing him read from whatever he chooses. His books really could do well red aloud.

Not much to say today. No large post, other than to tell my (few) readers that hearing a book read aloud is a treat you shouldn't miss, especially if you go to hear a live reading. Being in the same room with someone reading aloud is much more fun than listening to an audio book, which can certainly be fun. A reading is a shared experience though. Even if it's only at a mega bookstore in the midst a huge audience.

There's a sense of sharing things with your fellow listeners, and with the reader. You can get captured by the voice of the reader, and transported in a different way than you might if you were reading.

If you cant find local readings, or even if you can, I also suggest reading to friends and family aloud on occasion. It's fun. Try it.

Jan 7, 2008

One of my favoritist books evar

If you get to know me in person and ever ask about what fantasy/science fiction book I'd recommend, without hesitation, I will almost always remember to mention Bridge Of Birds by Barry Hughart. It's absolutely one of my favorite books. Lets get into why.

First off, it's Chinese mythology. I've been into Chinese myths since I became aware of them while living in Singapore. There's a character of over-the-top-ness that Chinese myths have that the rest of the world simply fails at. It's incredibly lurid. The only people I can think of who get close are Millennialist Christians, and they take themselves far too seriously. Chinese myths are constantly making fun of either other myths, or themselves.

Bridge Of Birds was the first, and best book in which I realized that, wow, this could make for some great contemporary books. I cannot count the number of Norse or British myths that were re-worked into some sort of fairy tale, sometimes woven in with Native American myths, blah blah blah. It's not to say that visionaries like Charles DeLindt, Pam Dean or Emma Bull, are doing anything boring. But after a while, I can only take so much of the western perspective before it looses it's sparkle.

Barry Hughart understands on a deep level how the structure of Chinese myths blur into each other. Bridge of Birds has a fairly tale telling us that some elements that the main character takes as legend based on reality are hokum, but that other parts of reality are mythic and beautiful.

The heroes are a strong but shy, and clumsy pesant named Number Ten Ox, who's intentionaly obsequious manner actually shows a remarkable understanding and acceptance of class issues, and a drunken decrepit genius, Li Kao. They're off on a bog-standard quest to find a cure for Ox's village children, who were accidentally poisoned by the village pawnbroker and his companion in crime.

The book is heavy with cons and tricks. Li Kao and Number Ten ox trick themselves in and out of trouble on a constant basis. I've always had a fondness for the con-man as hero. Perhaps it's a drive to see something redeemable and heroic show up in someone that able to trick people out of money.

The search for a cure, which is in the form of sections of a ginseng root that ends up being the physical manifestation of a Goddess meshes it's self with the quest to reunite a pair of (literally) star crossed lover-gods.

Beyond the plot, which is fun, but not too unique, the prose style, pacing, and sheer joy in the story are what really make the book work so well for me. Hughart is an absolute master of the well crafted sentence that evokes his subject matter, and the feelings of his narrator. There's a cadence to the words that's sheer brilliance. Some authors I know tend to go for the "transparent prose" concept as vitally important. Or "grown up". To which I cheerfully make childlike faces at, and point to the XKCD comic that displays my attitude on it.

I like good prose that is constructed in a conscious way that enjoys the flow of words, and uses them as a lens to focus the readers attention on a story. I like sentences and paragraphs that are so close to poetry that you get somehow distracted from the story because the flow of the words is so pretty. The funny thing is that I don't like poetry as much as I like near poetic sentences in a novel.

Bridge Of Birds is quite close to poetry.

Finally, the various plot elements are really simple, and well crafted. The emotional issues that are dealt with are easy to grasp, classic dilemmas and action scenes. There's chase scenes, escape scenes, puzzle solving, confrontations, and dramatic bad guys. The end scene, that I won't spoil for you, is a no-holds-barred schmaltz fest. I loved it. It's rare that a writer has both the guts to go with such blatant emotional pulling, and has the chops to pull it off in a way that's both cognizant of what the story is doing, and gleeful in it's exploration of it. Horror writers do it well when trying to scare people, and romance novels do it well when talking about love, but the climax scenes of so many fantasy novels are not really blockbusters so much these days. Sometimes I miss that.

Jan 6, 2008

Go forth and proudly read crap if you want to

One of the things that my wife Rose who works fo Publisher's Weekly brought home recently was the Neil Baron "Fantasy And Horror" guide. It's absolutely jammed full of interesting information and a few informative essays on the genre. It's great to have in that it listls so may authors, their influences, and synopses of well known books.

It's also full of disdain for a lot of non specified authors who cashed in on Tolkein's popularity. In fact, it completely skips any critical analysis of what those works mean to readers, and to culture. I like beig a snob as much (if not more so) than any other snob you might meet. But even if I think McDonalds is crap, if I'm talking about the American diet, I can't ignore it's cultural impact and focus on Emeril. More to the point, just because I'm snobby about my consumption of something doesn't mean I disdain people who consume what I consider crap. Sometime I want a McDonalds french fry. There's nothing like them. I can't stand the burgers, but I figure if I crave the fries, who am I to say anything about people who crave the burgers?

I think Piers Anthony, for example, is pretty schlocky. He's also got a bit of creepy older man going after younger woman theme in his books that squicks me. But hey, if you really like his work, or Terry Brooks, or anyone else who writes what might be described as formulaic genre stuff, I say enjoy it proudly. I read Laurel Hamilton and Simon R Green for goodness sake. I read them *because* they're silly schlocky and fun. They're McDonalds French fries, and love them.

Back when he was getting realy popular, Stephen King was being dismissed for writing schlocky fun thrillers he came out to proudly proclaim himself as the iterary equivilant of a big mac and fries, which is where I get my metaphor from. King does well. He tells enjoyable stories, and he's popular. Some of his stories, like Dreamcatcher, are so over the top, I can't realy enjoy them. But some are just fun reads for me. They're not deep or meaningful, but I'm not reading him in search of deep meaning.

Reading just for fun, and not to search for deep meaning is not bad, or wrong. You're not contributing to the pollution of a genre if you read and enjoy schlocky stuff. Furthermore, historians and analysts of the genre who ignore the schlock are not doing thorough investigations. These books need to be examined, and the people who read them need to be considered as part of the real audience of a genre.

For example, really can't stand most of Kevin J Anderson's books. I find them totaly lacking in depth in a way that even Simon R Green manages to avoid. But the books themselves are important to note in that they sell OK. Anderson puts them out them at a frightening pace, and they get bought reliably.

Media consumption is an industry, just like art consumption is. Prity and high art can coexist with schlock. Neither is "better" in some moral sense. Sure, Shakespeare wrote better, more beautiful lines that give deep poetic insights into the human condition, and Dumb And Dumber was not as deep. But Dumb Ad Dumber has an place in culture, and should be examined in analyzing comedy. If you enjoyed it, and I didn't, big deal.

What I like about the mystery genre

I'm not as voracious a reader of mystery novels as I am science fiction or fantasy, unless you count cross genre mystery/fantasy or mystery sci fi. Consequentially, I'm not so up on trends in the genre.

I tend to go for classic styling - gumshoe detective type stuff. I like Rex Stout and Robert Parker. These are thinking mans detectives, but they're tough. At least Archie is tough. Nero Wolfe talks tough, an has an attitude. A smart person who's able to solve crimes and right wrongs is an important person for me to look to when wanting escapism.

There's also a sense of connection to and respect for some of the underworld in at least Parker's books. Spenser, the most used character, has a best friend who's a thug and a mercenary. It's the adherence to a code of ethics that bonds the two of them, along with shared work, and a love for one particular woman.

In a way, the books are like soap operas for thugs. Only there's a few characters who are by nature noble, an everyone else is probably corrupt and weak, or dishonorable, or both. They're usually set straight by the main characters in some violent way, or killed, or defeated.

Nero Wolfe, of course, is just a triumph of intellect over villainy. He rarely uses force, an when he does, it's by people in his employ. He's even more cultured than Spenser, but less self aware, and more egotistical. He's flawed, and Rex Stout makes clear the reader knows it.

I'm not sure why either of those series are so appealing, but they are. If there were well written books with technologically savy characters who're like Wolfe or Spenser, it might appeal to me more. Sadly, I don;t keep up with mystery as much, so I'd have to go on recommendations. If anyone has any, let me know.