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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Books I Read: March - April 2014


Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanDerMeer

It took me a looooong time to read this. It's built like a textbook, but I don't think I'd ever see this is in a classroom. The illustrations are pretty, but all the same style, and a lot of them aren't relevant. I was hoping for more charts, but there's more "weird art" (which makes some sense, since the author's wife was the editor for Weird Tales). It's definitely comprehensive.

Does it say anything new? Here and there. The exercises in the back look smart, but complex. The best part of the book are the essays from other writers like Neil Gaiman and Ekaterina Sedia. They make the purchase price almost worth it. I think the next book should be just that -- essays on writing from current authors, ones who'll probably never publish an "On Writing" book, but we all want one from.

Do I recommend it? Well, if you haven't read any other writing books before this one, I'd say yes. Be warned, it's a heavy read. Nearly everything in it is helpful, but it provides no succinctness for the newbie. New writers still struggling in the novice stages might be overwhelmed, except the most dedicated.


Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

It's exactly what it says on the tin. A man makes a bar bet to hitchhike around the coast of Ireland, toting a mini-fridge with him. Hilarity ensues. To a degree.

It wasn't as funny as I was promised, but I'm a hard man to make laugh, so take that with a grain of salt. I think the problem is that, like most travel writing, there is little conflict and little rising action. It starts with some pleasant anecdotes, but then halfway through it starts getting repetitive. He went into a pub, made some friends, and found a ride to the next city. The comedy has to be provided by the writer, not the experiences. And comedy in books is hard.

Instead of the fridge being a hindrance, it actually endears people to pick him up. The local radio station has been broadcasting his story every day, local news did a spot on him in their search for human interest stories. So there's no difficulty in him achieving the bet. Nothing super bad happens except some rain. Everyone in Ireland is super friendly, and gets drunk all the time. (So much for breaking stereotypes.)


Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

The third in the Tiffany Aching series. I liked this one a little better than the last, but it also felt like the plot was even more scattershot. The Wintersmith refers to the actual antagonist of this plot. But much more text is dedicated to Tiffany's time with the witches, specifically one she doesn't like too much and is very, very old. The ending is a little stronger, but still vague. Kinda like Labyrinth. Some characters get more fleshed out, but I'm still having trouble matching names to faces. And still not enough Feegles for my taste, but it's nice to see Tiffany's relationships with others, like boys, getting more complex. There's no reason to skip this one if you're a fan of the series.


This Blinding Abscence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I was a little surprised I finished this. It's a book where very little happens.  But I don't blame the author -- what else could you imagine from people locked in a windowless prison, unable to go outside, for eighteen years. It impressed me that it had as much content as it did. I guess the little things matter a lot when you're in that situation. A bird perching up in the ceiling, remembering past times, one's relationship with God, personality conflicts with prisoners.

It's surprisingly diverse and interesting. But depressing. (Again, as you'd imagine.) You get a lot of time to think in prison, philosophize on why you're here and the nature of power and soldiers and feeling sorry for yourself. And there isn't a story here. More of a summary of those eighteen years. Thoughtful reflections on the world from the bottom.


Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The best thing I read this month. It's a YA book about a boy born with a severe facial disfigurement.  He's going to public school for the first time. The adults are attempting to make it go well, to the point that they're coercing fellow students into being his friend.  The interesting thing is that it doesn't stay in his POV.  You get to see perspectives from his older sister, another student, and even his older sister's boyfriend.

It's great. Entertaining, intriguing. I would have rated it five stars, but it gets really cheesy at the end, like on the level of a Disney Channel movie. Wonder Boy gets an award for courage, everyone likes him, the bad guy leaves on his own, they get a new puppy. Seems a little too perfect. Nothing ends that well, especially when you have a facial deformity that I couldn't even google.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
(unfinished)

I feel bad for not finishing it, but I just wasn't having any fun. Neil Gaiman keeps mentioning it as one of his favorite books, but it's way too traditional for me. Old English style. It's very much like a modern Dickens story. But that was fine for it's time. I think it's me, I'm just not into that kind of book, one that evokes classic literature.

The main plot starts with old, stuffy guys on a council when one old, stuffy guy talks to another stuffy guy about bringing back real magic to England because it seems to have disappeared, except at a stuffy academic level. So then they go see some reclusive old, stuffy guy who does a little magic for them, and then he leaves the council to go to London where even more old, stuffy guys live.

I tried really, really hard. But I just couldn't finish it. I'm sure it's a good book, just not for me. I can't stand the constant discussing and talking, the lack of stakes, the impersonal relationships.  I have no problem reading a big book (The Name of the Wind), but you gotta make something happen in it.  Does this mean I can never write a Hugo work if I can't read one?
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