Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reading Highlights of 2009

I read a lot. My entertainment time is dedicated to reading. I watch almost no television. I seldom play computer games, just a few ancient ones now and then. It has been well over a year since I've watched a movie. My primary use for the Net is to find things to read (and occasional T&A). Furthermore, I'm omnivorous in my reading. I believe even honest crap (as opposed to bullshit) has interesting things to say about humanity and that so-called Great Books are often pernicious nonsense (often, certainly not always).

The second half of this year, I made the conscious decision to read more books (including digital books) and fewer articles. Consequently, I will easily average more than one book read per week this year. There are tradeoffs in this decision. Reading fewer articles implies less knowledge of current events. Books, on the other hand, provide more context, but it's easier for me, at least, to wallow in light fiction without really intending to do so. Light fiction isn't bad; it is a window into popular consciousness, but a steady diet of it tends to become somewhat nauseating, analogous to eating too much sugar.

The fiction book of the year is Jonathan Strange & Mr Morrell by Susanna Clarke. This is what literary fantastic fiction should be. To hell with the "magical realists." If you like fantasy at all and haven't yet given it a try, I urge you to do so.

The most delightful book of the year is Life With Father by Clarence Day Jr. It's a memoir about the author's parents, especially his eccentric father. Most of the stories in the book take place near the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Besides being one of the funniest things I have ever read, it is informative about life in the upper middle class of that era. I give it my highest recommendation. (It can be found online at the Project Gutenberg Australia site.)

The most enlightening book of the year is The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. It makes a strong argument that not only is human evolution ongoing, it has greatly accelerated since the invention of agriculture. If you want to understand what is going on with the human race, you need to understand the information in this book.

The most disappointing novel of the year is The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I suspect that the book makes sense if one can crack the code of the symbolism, but I couldn't, so it made little sense to me. I suppose I failed because Chesterton was a Catholic apologist and I'm not religious. I find symbolism enriching if it fits the context and is also meaningful on a mundane level, but the symbols in this book had to carry most of the weight of the narrative. Ultimately, I found the novel annoying and over the top. (It is easily available online.)

The most disappointing nonfiction of the year is Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The subject has interested me since sixth grade, on and off, and the information in the book wasn't disappointing. Much of it was new, and the book provided deeper context for things I had already known. Burkert, furthermore, appears to be the living expert on the subject. The writing itself, though, was dry and difficult. (The book is a translation, so it might not be all Burkert's fault.) A glossary of persons and of the many Greek terms he throws around would have made the reader's task much easier, too. I can only recommend the book to those with a large amount of background knowledge or who are willing to work hard. Google and Wikipedia, most likely, will be your friends if you tackle this one.

The best long Web fiction of 2009 are the continuing serial Tales of MU by Alexandra Erin and the ongoing series of novels about newly teenaged Bec by the pseudonymous BarBar. Both projects have been going on for multiple years. Also recommended is the written "television series" Shadow Unit. (In reality, it's a series of novellas or novelettes.) The project is led by Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear, two fairly well known names in speculative fiction.

Finally, the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris and the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich are both a lot of fun. I prefer the Sookie Stackhouse books. I like the protagonist and the genre better. Ms. Stackhouse works at her full capacity more often than does Ms. Plum, so she is a more engaging character. The Stephanie Plum novels are more comedy oriented, if one is looking for a laugh.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jonathan Stange & Mr Norrell

Ten years in the writing, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a masterpiece. It is one of the finest fantasies ever written. It is one of the best books I have ever read. My copy is 1006 pages long, and I enjoyed reading every single one of them. If you are a regular reader of fantastic literature and you have not yet read this book, I strongly recommend that you do so.

For someone who is not a regular reader of fantasy, the setting is mostly an alternate England during and shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. The two most important characters are the gentlemen in the title, two magicians with the goal of bringing magic back to England. Their characterization is contrasting, well rounded, and complex. All of the important characters are well rounded and believable. There are no cardboard cutouts. There is no melodrama.

The dialog is often witty, sometimes in a dramatically ironic way. The book contains an immense amount of dry--positively desiccated--humor. Those susceptible to it will find the humor alone makes the book worth reading. As I read, I often found myself grinning and chuckling aloud.

Ms. Carke's writing is clear and clean. For this novel, she chose to use the omniscient viewpoint, and the narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly. It's an old-fashioned technique decried in modern writing manuals, but the author uses it skillfully, conveying much of the humor through observations in the narration. Personally, I didn't find it obtrusive, and it didn't interfere with my reader's trance.

Readers who might want to avoid the novel: As stated above, it is one fat book. Those who read to get to the end will have a long journey. Despite the length of the book, it does not have a large number of superfluous side plots, but still, the novel sprawls a bit. Those who like tightly plotted, straightforward action should probably give the novel a pass. Obviously, those who believe fantasy is puerile shouldn't bother reading it.

Fantasy readers who stick to gaming-based worlds or paranormal romance, and who are uninterested in expanding their horizons, probably would not like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. On the other hand, kids who grew up with Harry Potter but who are now adults might want to give it a try. (I think it's a whole lot better.) For serious fantasy readers who have not yet read it, I can tell you that I think Ms. Clarke's creation might be an even grander achievement than Neil Gaiman's American Gods. That's how good I believe it is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Very Hard Choices by Spider Robinson

This is a cross posting of a short review I did for Goodreads.

I'm having trouble thinking of a way to describe this book without giving away too much of the storyline. One thing I can say, despite the title, I don't believe the characters faced many hard choices. They face some incredibly painful choices, but those aren't quite the same thing.

As an example of what I mean that isn't an incident from the book, suppose one has a beloved pet that is dying in agony. What does one do? Surely the choice is painful, but is it difficult? The decisions that the characters make in the book strike me as similarly inevitable. They hurt, but given the set up in the story, I don't see how they could choose anything else.

Two more complaints are that I found the ending anticlimactic and the big plot twist predictable. I'm being vague so as not to give any spoilers. It's clear from the start, though, that potential plot twist is there. The only question is whether the author chooses to do it.

Another annoyance is the political tone of much of the book. Modern liberals will like it, especially those who still like weed. Free-market libertarians will like parts of it and feel picked on in other parts of it. Paleoconservatives will feel even more picked on. Neoconservatives will hate it.

I also think there is some paranoia on parade, but I don't know if it the author's paranoia coming through his characters or the characters' paranoia honestly depicted by the author. In any case, I found it absurd enough that my willing suspension of disbelief failed. The reactions of other readers will doubtless vary.

On the more positive side, I didn't hate the book. Spider Robinson's warm authorial personality still shines through, which rounds off the sharp edges of the many irritations. Although there are two or three places where a parenthetical statement gets so long that I forgot the opening of the sentence and had to go back and look, the writing is mostly smooth and clean. There is a lot of humor, some good jokes, a number of entertaining anecdotes, and a few painful puns.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Recommended Reading: William Poundstone

I've just found this blog owned by William Poundstone. He's one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I've read eight-and-a-half of his eleven books (I'm in the middle of reading one), and all of them have been good. He writes a lot about the implications of mathematical ideas, but it's in an entertaining way, not dry at all. He also likes uncovering inside information (secrets).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Recommended Reading: Life With Father by Clarence Day

Find it here. Laugh a lot.

Recommended Reading: His Dark Materials

I finally got around to reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. It was marketed as "young adult" literature--a marketing category to which I have never paid attention--so I didn't hear about it when it first came out. When I did hear about it, I was in no great rush to read it, but I eventually saw it being sold at a discount, picked it up on a whim, and added it to the to-read pile.

Now I have read it. If I hadn't known it was marketed for kids, I never would have guessed. It doesn't much read like books for kids, other than the most important characters being young. Furthermore, I'm surprised that the publishers chose to market the trilogy to children. The subject matter is heavy, and the message is strongly anti-religion.

Anyway, Pullman is inventive, and the narrative is absorbing. The third volume, The Amber Spyglass, doesn't tie everything together as tightly as I would have preferred, and I'm not convinced that some of Pullman's narrative choices were necessary, but the books are nevertheless excellent. To my taste, they are far better and more creative than Harry Potter, which I suppose, in its later volumes at least, is the most obvious fantasy series for comparison. (The Narnia books might be an even more natural comparison, but I haven't read them.)

Christians of a more dogmatic sort probably should avoid the trilogy. It will upset them. Also, despite the marketing, I would hesitate to give it to anyone under fifteen or so, and only to someone that young if they are relatively well read. Pullman draws upon Christian texts considered as mythology, Christian apocrypha, Greek and Roman mythology, Gnosticism, animism, archaeology, anthropology, modern physics, and no doubt stuff that I failed to recognize. Therefore, much in the books will be over the head of someone who has not done a lot of reading. For people who are familiar with most of the stuff in the preceding list, or have picked it up indirectly by reading the canon of fantasy literature, I recommend the trilogy highly.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lack of Progress Report

My apologies to everyone who has been reading Magician's Integration. I feel tapped out physically and mentally and incapable of doing anything creative. I'm declaring the story to be on indefinite hiatus. Sorry.

I'm glad that I didn't leave it on a cliffhanger.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chapter 10 Is Up

Chapter 10 of Magician's Integration is up.

Getting this one out was like donating a quart of blood, one drop at a time. I hope Chapter 11 arrives a lot easier.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bunny Shop Ads

Is anyone being bothered by the Bunny Shop ads currently running beside the serial? I don't want to ban advertisers, but I also don't want to drive off readers. Thoughts?

Progress report: approx. 2000 words.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Progress Report and Recommended Reading

I have about a thousand words of Chapter 10 written. I don't know when it will be finished, but at least I've started to make some progress again.

If you are looking for something to read, Emma Bull is leading an interesting Web project here. I've read four of Ms. Bull's novels, plus one more she wrote with Steven Brust, and I enjoyed them all. The writing on Shadow Unit isn't as polished, but it's entertaining nevertheless.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What's Going On

I've been waking up tired and spending all day kind of drowsy. It has not been a condition conducive to writing. I have faith that it will pass eventually.

I have not abandoned the story.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 09 Is Up

Chapter 09 of Magician's Integration is up.

I started this one, and then I slept on it to make sure that it was going in the direction I wanted. I'm still not sure. I hope it doesn't blow up in my face.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Chapter 07 Is Up

Chapter 07 of Magician's Integration is up. It took me longer than expected to get it finished tonight.

I've felt off all week, both physically and creatively, but I'm hoping to get at least one more chapter done before Monday. No promises.

I did manage to get some more of Magician's Merger re-edited, chapters 24-28. I've now given those and chapters 1-6 various amounts of rewriting and polishing. I want to get the whole thing done so that I can start making it available in assorted types of ebook. I'm strongly considering posting it on Smashwords.

If I do post it, it won't be offered for free over there, but I don't intend to charge a whole lot, either.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Progress Note

Chapter seven finally is coming along well. I'm going to try to get it up before I call it a night. Mistake catching is appreciated.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bec by BarBar

I don't think I've recommended this yet: Bec by BarBar is webfiction of the highest quality. BarBar is one of the Web authors who is writing at a nearly professional level of competence. Actually, I've read conventionally published fiction that was much worse.

The novel is about an unusual adolescent girl, a protagonist that I doubt would put off anyone who has been reading my serials. The story is non-fantasy, but the title character is interestingly weird. So is her mother. Highly recommended.

The site linked is Storiesonline, and they publish some stuff that is frankly pornographic, so you might want to take that into consideration if you read at work. Storiesonline demands registration from their readers, but they've never spammed me. I suspect they do it as a form of self-defense, because of some of the material they have.

Bec itself, in my estimation, is probably suited for a teen audience and older. The sexual content is very mild.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pssst, Brits

Would you normally say "trouser pocket" or "trousers pocket"?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Visualization, But Broader

Does anyone know a word that is similar to visualization but inclusive of all senses simultaneously?

Chapter 06 is coming along well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chapter 05 Is Up

Chapter 05 of Magician's Integration is up.

I write this stuff, and I think to myself, This is getting boring. Someone should smack someone with a sword or throw a fireball or something.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Progress Report

My dad is out of the hospital. He still has some outpatient tests he needs to have done. He at least looks better than he has for a while.

I have about 1600 words of Chapter 05 of Magician's Integration written. I don't have any feel for its ETA. Methinks it needs some more action.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chapter 04 of Magician's Integration Is Up

Chapter Four of Magician's Integration is posted.

Happy birthday, Arthur.

My dad had to go to the hospital Friday night with a low hemoglobin level. He was admitted, and of this writing, I don't know when he'll be released. We're all hoping that it was just an accidental overdose of warfarin. He's in the ICU, but he's lucid, and no one seems particularly worried. One suspects that tests are scheduled for tomorrow, but Dad wasn't sure. I imagine I'll know more tonight.

As one might expect, writing a Web serial wasn't a priority. Nevertheless, I managed to finish Chapter Four this afternoon, when my nerves settled down. Don't be overly eager for Chapter Five. :-)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It's for the Children

Children’s books burn, courtesy of the federal government.

I've heard that this might happen, and now it has started. If you care about books, reading, knowledge, and good stuff like that, you might consider spreading the word.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Insomnia last night has rendered tonight useless for writing. For what it's worth, yesterday I managed to write about 1100 words of chapter four of Magician's Integration.

Chapter Six of Magician's Merger has received a quick edit. It looks like Chapter Seven is going to take more extensive work.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chapter 3 of Magician's Integration is up.

Chapter 3 of Magician's Integration is up. As always, mistake catching is appreciated.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing-Editing News

I've given chapters four and five of Magician's Merger an editing. They weren't bad enough to need a rewrite. (Yay!) I have a bit more than 1000 words written on chapter three of Magician's Integration.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Magician's Merger, Chapter 3, Rewrite

I've posted the rewrite of Chapter Three of Magician's Merger. I don't think the third chapter was as horrid as the first two, but it was still awful.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Magician's Merger, Chapter 2, Rewrite.

I've posted a rewrite of Chapter Two of Magician's Merger. It's still a horrifying infodump, but I think I made it somewhat more entertaining.

The Horror, The Horror

Oh, man. I've been looking at the last several chapters of Magician's Merger to refresh my memory as I work on Magician's Integration. Those chapters strike me as not being too bad.

Then I decided to look at the first several chapters. They are utterly awful. The passage of time makes their total suckitude stand right out for me, now. I'm astonished that anyone has stuck it out to read that thing.

Anyway, I've given Chapter One of Magician's Merger yet another rewrite.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Chapter 1 of Magician's Integration Is Up

Chapter 1 of Magician's Integration is up. Please see the Author's Note and Warning before you decide if you want to read the new serial.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thinking Evil Thoughts

I'm starting to believe that the only way I'm going to get more writing done is to just write and post as I did with Magician's Merger, which is itself an example why that method is not ideal. The plot is imbalanced, and it has several dangling threads and false starts.

On the other hand, trying to write in advance hasn't been getting me anywhere.

I'm kicking around the idea of just writing, calling it the alpha release, and warning people that they are reading at their own risk. It might not get finished. It might fall apart.

Perhaps I should take a page from Alexandra Erin's playbook and make it an open-ended Web serial with no ending promised. Lots of comic strips and television series do it.