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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Books I Read: November - December 2010



Ariel by Steven R. Boyett

This is the kind of book I want to write. They say if you can come up with one truly original idea, you've accomplished a great deal. I know I'm no good at that, but I love genre-mixing, both writing it and reading it. Ariel is one of those books that is actually urban fantasy. Not oppressed vampires, bare-chested werewolves, and leather-bound bounty hunters. A unicorn and a boy journey from Atlanta to New York, surviving the apocalypse. There are dragons and gryphons, and there are skyscrapers and cans of beef ravioli. It's a got a street-smart unicorn and a samurai swordsman.

I can tell it was written linearly. It never goes back to previous plot points and there are parts that sit necessary, but interesting, such as the dragon-hunting boy. That's not something I like in a novel. I like the treats scattered around to reward you if you're paying attention. But I guess writing on a typewriter means you can't page up to a previous section and insert so easily.

The fascinating thing is the deus ex--the Change. It's never specifically explained. The reader never knows why it happened or what it exactly is. All we know is that technology has stopped working and there are magical creatures around. You can't shoot a gun, but you can start a fire. Bicycles don't work, but wind-up watches do. But the funny thing is, I don't care. The author never explains it, and I never batted an eye. Why? Because the author pays you with an interesting story in exchange for the flawed premise.

That's why this is the kind of book I want to write. It shows you can get away with a somewhat implausible background if your characters and ideas are compelling. I like to think I have compelling ideas, and I'm hoping that this book proves I can get those ideas published.


The Sword of Truth #2: Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind

I hate that these books are so damn long, but so damn fun to read. It's like, "I'm reading a Sword of Truth book. Better clear my calendar."

I thought that book 2 would be shorter because all the exposition was out of the way. Nope. This one's almost 100,000 words longer. That means 100,000 more pages of the world's most unlikeable fantasy hero.

Well, unlikeable isn't a good word to describe him. If he was that unlikeable, I'd stop reading. His problem is he has no humility. Mere humans are no longer problems for him now that he's the Seeker and a wizard and got the Sword of Truth and he caught all the Pokemon. The only things he fears are losing his girlfriend and dead people he previously killed who can mess his shit up. If you aren't one of those things, you are an ant.

It's not that he does evil deeds. He does good deeds. But he does them in such an egotistical, "I-know-this-will-never-fail" way that makes him a jerk. Like if Superman was more realistic. He does things without consideration for consequences. And he feels it's his duty to right every wrong. He has no no sense of humor and never considers consequences before acting. It's like he's forgotten that he's human, that even the most subtle wizard will still fall to a knife between the shoulder blades. Who knows if I would become the same under the same circumstances. But he's so dynamic that I can't stop reading about him.

And then there's his love interest, Kahlan. For the majority of the book, they stay separated. Except for a large chunk in the beginning that plays out much like the entirety of the previous book. "Oh, I love you." "I love you too." "But we can't be together." "I'll die without you." "I'll die if I'm with you." "Let's die together." "We almost died... together." Would you just fuck and get on with it. It's like you have to say it enough to convince yourself of it.

And the other thing is this author must hate women. There's not a woman in this book who's a nice, normal person. Everyone's either a dominatrix, a lesbian witch, a tribal amazon, or a school teacher quasi-nun (in both slutty and non-slutty varieties). They're all dumbass flirts or power-hungry witches. The dragon's the nicest woman in the book.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Every once in a while, along comes a book that you can't put down. That puts a character in your head you can't help but fall in love with. A book that does everything simply, but never THAT simply. A book that gives you everything you need, but leaves you wanting more. Like a restaurant that has the best food ever--you leave satisfied, but you're sad you can't eat anymore. I've only read a few of those books: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Jumper, Tigerheart, The Darkness and the Light, and Harry Potter. This is another one of those books.

Pudge (an ironic nickname) is our main character, and he has selected to go to boarding school in order to seek a loftier experience more his current education allows. The author never tells you why this happened, what the character's motivation in doing this is, or much of his past history at all. That bothered me at first, but I came to understand that's not the point of the story. The point of the story is the friends Pudge makes, including Alaska Youngman (same Alaska as in the title).

The book is divided into halves with an ominous countdown to the split-point, and no clue as to what said countdown is counting down to. In the first half of the book... well, basically, all I can say is, I wanted to be there. I wanted to have friends like the scheming Colonel, the beat-boxing Takashi, the cute foreign exchange student who you are set up with, and the crush on the unattainable Alaska. I wanted to go to this school, be these people's friends, and live this person's life. I wanted to live in this world.

The second half... well, I can't talk about that.

It shares a lot of the same themes and motifs that "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" does. The same YA setting with the unrequited crush, lovable best friend, observant main character, and g/f who doesn't work out. But it's not the same story, not by a long shot. Let me just say this. I got this book from the library. Then I bought it, because I loved it that much. And there aren't a lot of books that go into "Eric's Archives".


Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The second of the Hunger Games trilogy. What I expected from this book is a narration of the aftermath of Katniss's actions. I expected her to become reluctantly and accidentally involved in the rebellion. The second would tell her transition from citizen to revolutionary, and the third would cover that revolution.

I sort of got what I expected, but at a slower pace. It didn't tread the same path, but it got to the same destination. I guess I should be thankful for that--it would be boring if everything was what I expected. It didn't build on the Gale/Peeta love triangle like I thought it would. Sometimes I wonder if it's put in there just to give the girls something to gush over. It seems Katniss worries too much about what these boys think of her, when she's got bigger problems. Most of which is that she is forced into a second Hunger Games.

This is what disappoints me, because I felt we were retreading old ground. I got the feeling that either the author was A) appeasing fans by inserting what made the first book so popular -- bloody deathmatch arena-style or B) using the opportunity to use some unused "Hunger Games" ideas. I get the feeling it was a bit of both.

But as the second part of a trilogy, not bad. Personally, I like trilogy part II's (Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Attack of the Clones, Spider-Man 2, Temple of Doom). This wasn't as good as I expected, nor as suspenseful as the first, but I get the feeling it blends into the third nicely.


The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III

Dear Mr. Dubus III, I recently wrote some macros that help in the revision process to trim a novel down for readability's sake. Please write to me so I can send them to you. One of my favorites is the one that highlights a sentence that is more than 20 words long. Although in your case, I would have to tweak it so that when you run it, your CPU won't smoke. Also, your paragraphs aren't supposed to be more than one page.

This book feels like vomit on a page. The author just started writing and writing and writing without having any idea what he was writing about or where the plot should go. It takes halfway through the book until there's an actual game-changing incident.

It takes place in a strip club in Florida where there are three main characters. The main one is April who was forced to bring her daughter to work. She ends up giving a private dance to Samir (I forget his real name), a muslim extremist who will NOT SHUT UP about how he hates America, thinks we're all pig-dog whores, and how Allah is truth.

The third is A.J. an alcoholic who got his hand busted in an incident in the club. And we get to follow his repetitious drunken rantings about his wife and kid (who have a restraining order against him) as he drives back to the club where he finds April's daughter wandering around lost and thinks it's a good idea to "save" her. He doesn't know what to do with her when he realizes he dun goofed and ends up ditching her in someone's car. The police catch him after he finally succeeds in faking his hand being busted on his job site (for workman's comp), which he has not shut up about since the beginning.

I hate this book. I hated it when I was reading it. I hated it when I was done. I almost stopped several times. I should have stopped. But I figured A) Stephen King recommends it B) I should read some literary fiction once in a while. I should've known better. These days, King is wordy, setting-driven, and pretentious. I should've expected the stuff he reads to be even moreso. I hate all the characters. No one is sympathetic, no one is worth redeeming, and no one will shut up. They're all so self-centered and ignorant. This book should be called "The Garden of Bad Decisions".

The problem is that no one wants anything. Well, the characters all want something, sorta. In the general sense that April wants to "get out of the business", A.J. wants to see his boy again and get to the job site so he can fake his injury, and Samir wants to shove his muslim self-righteousness in everyone's face. But there is no central plot, no goal everyone's working towards. And then the icing on the cake is that Samir turns out to be one of the 9/11 bombers. That just makes everything tacky, like 9/11 fan fiction.

The tension in this book is like a hand squeezing a stone or egg. There is little indication that anything is happening, until a small crack appears. You can't see the pressure building. I want a story more like someone throwing a ticking bomb in the air. You can see where it's going, but you're not sure where it will land, if anyone will catch it, and if it will explode.


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This month it was my turn to pick a book for book club and this was my selection. I picked it because A) it brings up a lot of important points for discussion (or as I call it, stuff for people to talk about) B) it's a subject near and dear to my heart (computer stuff) C) it's YA and a fast read. I was hoping this book would give some insight about the stuff I deal with everyday -- computer security, passwords, networks, etc.

Reading it through a second time was just as fun and just as quick. It also marks the first time I took full advantage of the CC-licensed nature of it -- reading it in paper, on my computer, and my iPod Touch -- which let me finish it in time.

When it came to discussion, we talked a lot about the subject matter more than the book's narrative -- airport security, DHS, the violations of privacy. The first thing they said was that teachers would not want to use this in the classroom because of the (non-explicit) sex scene. I find that sad, and maybe not so true. People teach Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, Judy Blume and those have sexual stuff. I hope there are some teachers out there bucking the system, or they'll end up like the one in the book who loses her job. Plus, it's important to have that stuff in a book, because that's what kids do.

Some called it preachy, and extremely leftist. But also informative about technology and it's role in national security (both as bad guy and good guy). I'm hoping it opened their eyes and got them to ask some questions. That's all I can ask for and all I really wanted.


The Art of War by Sun Tzu (unfinished)

I thought I'd try this one out because it was free and so many quotes come from it. What I discovered was that most of those come from the beginning, describing the philosophy of war and the nature of conflict & leadership. After that, it's all advice on what to do in certain types of lands and terrain, when to retreat, what to do during downtime, how to fight under such-n-such circumstances. All stuff that if you were fighting a real war would come in handy.

But I'm just a computer programmer, and that sort of thing doesn't come up much when playing Left 4 Dead. I guess Sun Tzu didn't have to fight zombies. As a writer, I thought I should read it, but I don't write war novels (yet). But when I do, I will give this one a try again. It's short, so it would be worth it. But only when I need it.
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