Category Archives: Reading as a Writer

A nightmarish utopia

Okay, so I just finished Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future. At first glance the premise —a book on the future of science that was actually written by a scientist— sounded appealing enough… unfortunately I have to admit that I wound up being appalled instead.

Oh, I can understand where the man is coming from, but his triumphalist ode to a hypothetical future in which science solves all of humankind’s problems, and his depiction of what he honestly seems to believe is an ideal society will probably give me nightmares for months to come.

Series interrupted, the Millennium Trilogy

Okay, so I finally tackled the Millennium Trilogy. I admit it’s not exactly my cup of tea, that was why I had been putting it off for years, but seeing how crazy the past couple of weeks have been I decided that now would be a good time to give it a shot. Anyway, over all I have to say that I enjoyed the first book. The second one was interesting enough, though at times I felt that my suspension of disbelief was pushed past its breaking point. The third book I found downright annoying.

But let’s take things one book at a time.

As I said, the first one was a pleasant read, the story was reasonably well told, and over all I found myself being drawn into the plot. Oh, there are a couple of plot holes that can be more than a little annoying when the book is considered in the context of the series (without getting into too many details, and keeping things deliberately cryptic to avoid spoilers, Lisbeth’s financial dependence on Bjurman makes no sense whatsoever once concept of the Republic is introduced), but if the book is read on its own those can be reasonably dismissed.

Book two too has an interesting premise, though there were a few too many coincidences for my liking (Sweden comes across  like a tiny village in which everyone knows everyone else, rather than a country of nearly ten million), there were some loose ends I felt could probably have been trimmed, and it also got a little preachy at times. Still, those defects were not serious enough to detract from the main plot line.

Book three, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess (and I apologize for the mild spoilers in what follows).

To begin with there are a couple of subplots that take up a good chunk of the book, but don’t add one lick to the story, such as the whole story of Berger leaving Millennium (and then coming back), and the relationship between Blomkvist and Figerola. In addition to that the dramatic tension depends, to a large extent, on a really absurd plot hole, namely on the fact that, when confronted with a gross miscarriage of justice, the government cannot interfere because the judiciary is supposed to be independent (let me count the way to get around that one without breaking the law), thus leaving the heroine’s fate in the hands of a desperate legal ploy that was cooked up by the valiant hero. Finally there is the fact that the preaching is also amplified to a ridiculous extent… and the fact that a story that begins with the protagonist standing almost alone against the power of a corrupt government agency, ends up with a ringing endorsement of that government, where the bad guys turn out to be just a few bad apples. That last bit was the one I found the most annoying one.

Now,  I realize that the first one of those complaints -the one having to do with the pointless subplots- may have something to do the fact that this trilogy was never meant to be a trilogy in the first place, but rather that these books were supposed to be part of a much longer series, and that the author could reasonably have been laying down the groundwork for a future story, unfortunately the other issues are harder to excuse.

In short, I would recommend book one, as that one can stand alone, but seeing how much of a mess book three is, and how intertwined books two and three happen to be, I am more reluctant to recommend the rest of the series.

And in the end 2013 was a pretty good year

Another year is behind us and in hindsight I have to say that it was a good one.

  • I published six books (one revision, three translations and two new ones).
  • I began work on three new ones (one of those is being revised, while the other two are in the rough draft stage, though they seem to be coming along nicely).
  • I read 126 books.
  • I did my best not to forget three languages.
  • I allowed my curiosity to get the best of me at times.
  • and best of all, I adopted a dog (or maybe I should say he adopted me)

No, it was not the year in which I found commercial success (in fact that was one of the things I didn’t even try for), but in the end that doesn’t matter.


Modern ratings and the classics

I was reading an article about a new kind of film rating that is being introduced in Sweden: one that is meant to address the problem of sexism. It is one of those things that sound like a good idea until you start thinking about them. I mean, encouraging writers to include more female characters, and to have them talk about something other than men is a great idea (sorry guys, you are not that central to our lives), but the problem is that that places a number of artificial restrictions that can be downright ridiculous under certain circumstances.

After all, if a movie has to feature at least two female characters, talking to each other about something other than men to get a passing grade, what would the rating for a classic such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) be? Well, on the positive side we can safely say that the movie got part of it right, as none of its female characters can be accused of wasting their breath talking about men. In fact, in three and a half hours (or more, depending on the version), there is not one single word that is actually uttered by a female character (come to think about it, I don’t think there are any female extras either), and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The reason: given the nature of the plot -and when and where the story is supposed to take place- their absence felt appropriate. That in turn brings me to the reason why a rating that is meant to police a ratio of male to female characters, and dictate how those characters are supposed to interact with each other is a bad idea: the fact that different plots call for different things, and I’d like to see writers and directors retain the right to tell their stories as they see fit without being penalized for it… even if that calls for a movie that is well north of the three hours mark, and in which women are nowhere to be seen.

The scent of the past

Yesterday I stumbled upon one of my very old books… and by that I mean one of those my mom used to read to me when I was only a couple of years old, long before I could read them myself. The thing was falling apart, and there was some evidence that it had been patched up more than once. In other words, it showed all the signs of a children’s book that has been ‘well-loved’ (read ‘thoroughly chewed’). When I saw it, I was overjoyed. It was such a seemingly insignificant  thing, but it brought back so many memories. I spent a couple of hours getting reacquainted with some I hadn’t really forgotten (though I admit I was surprised to realize that that little book included The Three Astronauts, a very short story by Umberto Eco) and getting a little teary eyed.

It was, in other words, a wonderful experience… and then I started thinking about kids today, who are learning to read on a tablet, that will get replaced and discarded in a couple of years, kids  who will never have a chance to stumble upon an old friend as I did yesterday, and I couldn’t help but to think that they will be missing something… and the worst part is that they’ll never even notice.

Oh, I’m not denying that there are plenty of advantages to technology, but it is a trade-off, and the kids that are growing up glued to their tablets will never know what they are missing. They will never know the joy of stumbling upon an unexpected treasure in a pile of old books, they will never wonder about the hands that held the book they are currently reading a hundred years ago. In short, we are heading into a world in which there are no first editions, and in which getting your favorite book autographed by its author is no longer an option. Granted, moving half a world away with a library comprising thousands of volumes is bound to be easier with a tablet or an ereader than with thousands upon thousands of pounds of dead trees (I’ve done it, and I’ll be the first  to admit that it is not much fun), but there is a certain kind of magic to the printed page. Cracking open an old book brings back a scent of the past… and that is a scent that is on the brink of being lost for good.

The List

About three years ago I made a list of books I really wanted to read. It was a long list, featuring literally hundreds of titles. At the time the task ahead of me seemed daunting… there were so many books! Some were books I had never read, others were books I felt had crossed off my list a little too early (think of all those books you were forced to read in high school because they figured that, if they didn’t cram them down your throat then, chances were that you’d never pick them up on your own)… a few were books I remembered fondly. As you can imagine, I wound up loving some books and being sorely disappointed by others (rereading old favorites can be wonderful, but at the same time there’s no denying that revisiting childhood friends may wind up shattering some of your fondest memories).

I am done with that list now, at least with that initial version. The good news is that there are still plenty of books out there that I’m itching to read, that the list kept expanding itself (I added other  books by an author I fell in love here, a friend recommended a new title there), but at the same time as I made my way through it I became increasingly aware that my list was, almost by definition, one that was limited by my own knowledge, by the connections I have been able to make up to this point… and I wondered about those books that should have been in there, but weren’t, about the books I’ll never read and that I might have loved if only I’d known about them.

Of course, in addition to those books I long for but am unaware of, I also wound up taking a few chances, adding books that I knew of, but wasn’t sure I was going to like. Some of these chances paid off, others didn’t. In a couple of instances I was tempted to break my self-imposed ‘no desertions past the first chapter’ rule. I also tackled a few best-sellers that were not really up my alley in an attempt to see what all the fuss was about. That didn’t turn out too good.

The one thing I wound up getting out of the whole experience was a better understanding of who I am and what I like as a reader. Oh, in a way I have always known, but it was an instinctive knowledge, now it seems to be more narrow, more defined.

As for where my reading will take me in the future, I’m back out in the wilderness now. I don’t have a grand plan any more, I only know what my next four or five books are likely to be… plus there are a few books I’m still trying to hunt down and a few classics that should probably have made the list but didn’t. There is one in particular that I haven’t quite dared to tackle, one I still find a little too daunting but that keeps calling me. The problem is that, as was the case back in high school, I don’t think I’m ready for it… in fact I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready. That book? It’s The Mahabharata.

Thoughts on amazon’s purchase of goodreads

NOOOOO!!! That about sums up my first reaction when I heard that amazon had purchased goodreads… at least as a reader. As a writer, and as an author that is actually published by CreateSpace, I know this may actually turn out to be a good thing, but the truth is that I was there mostly as a reader. In fact goodreads was the only social network I was sort of active in, now I am left to try to figure out what am I going to do about it all because the keyword in that statement is ‘was’.

As far as I am concerned there is a pretty big difference between connecting over books with other readers via a relatively small, independent network, and opening my reading nook to a large corporation. To me that’s a game-changer… and on top of that I have to admit that my experiences dealing with amazon properties have been decidedly mixed. As a customer I admit they are extremely effective, as a writer my experiences with CreateSpace have been great, but when it comes to their AuthorCentral, the property that most resembles goodreads itself, my experience was a total nightmare, so much so that I decided to end my affiliation with that service… only to be told that I was not allowed to do that, that once I had signed up, so I was basically screwed. It is that experience, that inability to terminate my affiliation with their program, that now makes me so wary of continuing my affiliation with goodreads.

So what am I going to do? The truth is that I’m not sure. For now I guess I’m going to be moving mostly to lurker mode, I may also choose to delete some of my personal information, not that that’s going to do me much good at this stage, and I will abandon the reading challenge. Yes, I will go on reading, and I would love to be able to keep sharing my thoughts on what I read, but I would much rather do this without the mighty amazon looking over my shoulder, so any comments I write will be now restricted to my own blog, where I can be certain I will remain in control of my content.

Still, in spite of everything, and of the fact that I am mourning the death of the goodreads I used to love, I consider this a lesson learned: small private networks may seem like a great alternative to behemoths such as facebook, Google and company, but successful, small. independent networks are also attractive targets for takeovers by large, greedy corporations, and that means that choosing to participate in a small network doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself suddenly in the clutches of a large one… whether you want to or not.

Oz grows up

And almost a month later I am still going over Baum’s Oz books, though I am nearing the end of the line (I am currently reading The Magic of Oz, meaning that I have only Glinda of Oz left to go). One of the things I’ve noticed in these last few books however, is that while there is no getting around the fact that the books remain children’s books, the tone seems to have grown a little more serious, and the plots a little more complex. This was particularly apparent in The Tin Woodman of Oz… and that is particularly interesting because it is the first one in which in the preface the author acknowledges the existence of adult readers. In a way I guess it was only natural, after all the guy had been releasing Oz books for eighteen years by then, and that meant that a whole generation of adults that had grown up reading these stories, plus some grandparents who may have come across these books while reading them to a child only to find something in them that resonated within them.

Anyway, even though reading this book can leave you feeling a little lost at first if you haven’t read all of the previous entries in the series, a quick trip to Wikipedia will probably enable you to work around that one, and if you like children’s classics this book is a nice way to spend one afternoon.


After thinking it over for a while I decided to tackle the Oz books. Like a lot of people I grew up being familiar with The Wizard of Oz, only when I read it a few days ago I realized that the version I had read as a child was an adaptation (apparently someone had decided that the book had to be dumbed down even further, and as a child I was unaware of that fact). In addition to that my memories of the book had somehow managed to get tangled with those of the movie, and the end result was that all of a sudden I found myself being confronted with a book that was not like I had been expecting it to be. No, it’s not great, but it is still an interesting read, and I realize that complaining that a children’s book comes across as being a little childish for my liking is more than a little silly.

Anyway, once I was done with The Wizard of Oz I moved on to the rest of the series. So far I have only read a few titles (most of them can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg), and while at times I find myself itching for something that is at least a little more challenging, coming in the aftermath of my rereading the whole Discworld series, these books make for an interesting precedent. Sure, there are a number of significant differences, and I can already hear the howls from the Discworld fans at the mere thought of this comparison, but in a way it is not that much of a stretch to see the Oz books as the grandparents of both the Discworld and even the Middle-earth (and yes, like all grandparents, this one too can come across as a little embarrassing at times). The imagination is there, and I can see a lot of potential, but in a way that is what makes these books so frustrating: yes, the pieces are there, now if only the author would do something with them.

Well, like I said, grandparents can and do come across as rather old-fashioned at times, so I guess that is to be expected… and the bottom line is that, as embarrassing as the can be, there is no denying that knowing our grandparents can help us understand who we are and where we come from. No, I’m not sure these books would be appealing to children who are old enough to read them nowadays, and for adults they are mostly a curiosity, but if you are into the history of fantasy and children’s lit, these books are definitely worth it (and from what I have seen so far I suspect that The Wizard of Oz is not the best one of the lot).

Two worlds merge into one (The flatland chronicles, conclusion)

Okay, now that I’m done rereading the Discworld series the thing that jumps at me is the fact that even though this is supposed to be a single series with a number of different protagonists, in a very real sense it could be said that these are two series that take place in what is nominally a single universe, and I don’t mean just because of the different protagonists.

Sure, we have the wizards, the witches (including Tiffany Aching), DEATH, the City Watch and the Moist von Lipwig books, plus a number of stand-alones, and in a way the presence of these different protagonists serves to mask the fact that there is a far more significant division: On the one hand we have the wizards, the witches and to a certain extent DEATH, while on the other we have the City Watch, the Moist von Lipwig books and some of the stand-alones (such as The Truth). Books on the first group deal mostly with the Discworld as such, while those in the second are focused primarily on the societies that inhabit that world (especially Ankh-Morpork), and in quite a few instances the nature of the world doesn’t even rank as a footnote.

Oh, the distinction is never all that rigid. The wizards are an integral part of Ankh-Morpork society, the Librarian is a member of the City Watch, and one of the many parodies of modernity is HEX, but over all I still feel that that distinction holds. Still, in the end I have to say that one of the things I enjoyed the most about the series as a whole was the way in which the author was able to handle the fact that he had basically outgrown his original premise.

These are books that are well worth rereading, though like all books they both lose and gain in the process… though in this case I have to say that the gains were more significant than the losses.

Have children really changed that much?

Remember how I few days ago I mentioned I was going to be tackling some children’s ‘classics’? Well, I’ve already begun and the truth is that at times I find myself wondering if somehow we switched species sometime in the last hundred years or so without realizing it. Oh, the book I am currently reading is not one of the best known stories ever, but rather one that one of my uncles, who is considerably older than my mom to begin with, recommended. He said it was a book he had enjoyed as an adult, so I was really looking forward to it, but so far I have to say that it’s been a major disappointment. Still it is an interesting look at the past so in that regard I guess it’s still worth the trouble, but honestly did kids ever behave that way?

I just finished reading ‘Snuff’

And I just finished reading Snuff. That means that in a couple of days you are probably going to get stuck with a final entry into The Flatland Chronicles. Over all I have to say that rereading the Discworld books was well worth it, as it allowed me to see some things I had missed the first time around and it provided me with a different perspective. Unfortunately it also had a bit of a downside, though I realize that saying that as I went over them again the books feel somewhat predictable would be silly.

Reading update

And I am halfway through Snuff, That means that I will be finishing the Discworld series before the year is out. I will follow with the Nomes trilogy and Nation, but in spite of that I have a bit of a problem: what should I read next. Oh, I know there are plenty of books out there, but I usually start the year with some remedial reading that makes sense as a whole (either books I should have read or books I had crossed off my list because some high school teacher figured that s/he might just as well get us to read the thing while we could still be ordered to do it). For the time being I’m inclined to try to sort out a list of 50/100 fantasy or SF titles, but I’m not really sure… of course I could tackle just one book and read an unabridged version of the Mahabharata but I’m not sure I know enough about that particular culture to tackle that one, and I really don’t want to just cross it off my list (of course, I’m not sure I’m ever going to know enough to tackle that one).

Well, I’m sure I’ll come up with something!

Verne, revisited

Okay, this is just a little update. A few months ago I posted that while trying to reread 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I had realized just how bad the standard English version happens to be, and I also posted a link to the revised version, which is thankfully freely available from Project Gutenberg, but still I wanted to read it in the original. Today I decided instead to do something different so I headed to (a pretty solid repository of free French audiobooks) and I downloaded it. I think listening to it is going to be an interesting exercise and I’m really looking forward to it.