Category Archives: Reading as a Writer

Of books that were never written (another flatland chronicles interlude)

I am currently reading Making Money, and I have come to realize two things. The first is that I love the Moist von Lipwig books (maybe because there are only a two of them), the second is that there is a book that is missing in the Discworld series, one that chances are will never be written but that I would most definitely love to see, and that is one around the character of Harry King!

Flawless

Lately I’ve been going over some of my earlier posts about the books I am reading and I have come to realize that at times I come across as more than a little arrogant. Yes, the whole point of the exercise is supposed to be to explain what I like and what I don’t like about each of these books, how I see them and so on, but at the same time I am all too aware of what goes into writing a book and I am afraid that there may be some instances in which I wind up sounding both hypercritical and disrespectful. After all, one of the things all the authors I write about have in common is that they have done a lot better than I have… not to mention that all the books I write about are books that have moved me in one way or another (okay, I admit that there are a couple of them, such as Crash and The Land of Mist, that moved me in the sense that they really, really annoyed me, but those are the exception rather than the rule, and at least when it comes to Crash I freely admit that a good chunk of my problem with that one has to do with my personal preferences rather than with the book itself).

Anyway, I suspect that part of the problem is that most of the books that make it to my blog are not the ones that take my breath away and leave me saying ‘flawless’ (unfortunately there’s very little one can say after that unless one wants to tack a rather boring list of superlatives after that), but rather those that leave me saying ‘I love it  but…’ and to make matters worse an inordinate amount of attention tends to be lavished on that ‘but’, so today I’m going to be doing something completely different, I am going to be sharing a list of a few of those books that left me saying ‘flawless’, keep in mind that this list is not extensive and the books are featured in no particular order. Continue reading Flawless

I stand alone (The Flatland Chronicles, part 4)

Okay, unless something jumps at me in the near future this is probably going to be the last entry into the Flatland Chronicles for a while. Yes, I intend to keep on reading these books, in fact I will probably reread all 39 volumes in the Discworld series, but what I wanted to address when I set out to write these posts was the genesis of that universe as seen with a bit of hindsight, and by now at least two of the three main story lines are firmly established. The wizards are pretty much fully formed and the same goes for the witches. The watch is still a bit embryonary, I’ll give you that, and neither Tiffany Aching nor Moist von Lipwig have made an appearance yet, and neither has Susan Sto Helit for that matter, but then again those three are not as critical as the others to the Discworld universe as a whole. In other words the basic framework is clearly in place… so now I would like to turn my attention to those stories that don’t quite fit. By that I mean the stand-alones, the misfits. Continue reading I stand alone (The Flatland Chronicles, part 4)

An cure in search of an ailment (The Flatland Chronicles, part 3)

And after a few interruptions we are back to the Discworld theme. In fact now we come to Moving Pictures. The movie buff in me absolutely loved it, the reader in me… not so much. Oh, it was still hilarious, don’t get me wrong, and I loved all the little nods at the history of film, but there was still a level at which somehow I felt that this book failed to connect, the problem is that I am not exactly sure why.

Maybe it is the fact that there are some rather superfluous subplots that I found somewhat distracting (like the whole thousand elephants thing), or maybe it is the fact that the ‘almost mirroring our world’ jokes were repeated once too often for my liking (‘banged grains’ anyone?), I’m not really sure. In fact it may just be due to the fact that, with the exception of Rincewind and the Librarian, I have always had a little trouble relating to the wizards as a whole, and at times I feel like they are one running joke that has been kept running for a bit too long. Sure, they are entertaining enough, but there is only so much you can do with slapstick comedy, and compared with the other characters in this particular universe I feel that they lack a certain depth. They are the wizards, but in a way that’s all they are, they don’t really contribute anything. The City Watch is a link to the city of Ankh-Morpork as a whole and a mosaic that offers us a glimpse into its different cultures in microcosm, the Witches and Tiffany Aching are a link to the folklore of the Discworld and Death is death… even the couple of stories in the Moist von Lipwig series have a clearly defined aim, but at times the wizards come across as little more than a source of comic relief. The problem is that to be able to provide that comic relief there has to be something bigger than they are –something for them to provide comic relief from– and if that something is missing they can easily wind up dragging a whole story down. That is what I suspect happened in Moving Pictures. If it had remained as a mostly standalone story with the character of Victor, and maybe the Librarian, as the only links to Unseen University this would almost certainly have been one of the best books in the whole series, instead it ends up falling somewhat flat, and that is particularly frustrating because the first half of this thing was great.

Of course, I realize that my not-quite-dislike of the wizards is a matter of personal preference that may well say more about me than it does about the books and characters, but it is an issue that does play a role in how I perceive this series, and seeing how this is supposed to be my blog, well, my personal preferences are bound to come into play.

On six feet dwarves (The Flatland Chronicles, part 2)

And now for the second installment of ‘the flatland chronicles’. As I mentioned the last time around, I am currently rereading the Discworld series, and a couple of days ago I finished ‘Guards! Guards!’ Seeing how this is the first book in the whole ‘City Watch’ series it is also probably among the best suited to serve as an introduction to the Discworld universe as a whole. Yes, the members of the watch still have some growing up left to do (Carrot’s commas are almost invariably in the wrong place in this one), but at least the characters that are actually there are clearly recognizable, and the Discworld itself comes across as being more fully fleshed than it was in ‘The Colour of Magic’.

As for the book itself, one of the things that caught my attention was how Monty Pythonesque some scenes actually were. A perfect example of this would be the first secret society scene, which I felt would have been right at home in either ‘The Life of Brian’ or in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Yes, it can be said that Monty Python is one of Pratchett’s most obvious influences throughout the series anyway, but in addition to that there is something about the Watch’s storylines themselves that makes them particularly well suited for such treatment (or at least that was the case at first, though even as the book progressed and the author grew more comfortable with his own characters that influence seemed to become a little more nuanced).

Oh, the fact that an author will grow more comfortable with a book’s characters as s/he becomes more acquainted with them is not really all that unusual, but the sheer extent of the Discworld series, and the fact that there wasn’t a single overarching story that the author wanted to tell when he set out to write this whole thing in the first place, combined to give him an unusual degree of freedom, and it also provided the rest of us with a particularly interesting case study in character maturation. That is, as far as I am concerned, one of the things you can get out of rereading this series (in case you need an excuse beyond the obvious entertainment value of the books themselves, that is).

The Flatland Chronicles (part 1)

After thinking it over for a while I decided to go back to the beginning and reread at least the first few books of the Discworld series… though I’m not ruling out the possibility of going over the whole thing again (in case you were wondering, I am currently in book 7, Pyramids). So far I have to say that it has been a very revealing experience, one that has given me an interesting perspective to how that particular universe has developed. One of the most interesting details that jumps out on a second reading is how vague Terry Pratchett’s idea seems to have been when The Colour of Magic was first published (or rather how far has his original idea come since then). Oh, there are some familiar elements. The Luggage is there, as is a prototypical Rincewind, who at times is barely recognizable… okay, he is not quite irrecognizable but he is clearly different from the character he will eventually become (in fact it could be argued that it is not until we get to Sourcery that he becomes the wizzard we know and love). As for Ankh-Morpork, the city is barely outlined, if at that… but then again, even though Ankh-Morpork serves as a starting point, it is not the main stage for this one.

On the other hand, while Rincewind and Ankh-Morpork are embryonic at best, the nature of the Discworld as such is front and center in a way it is not in later books. This is not surprising considering that the nature of that world is the starting point of the whole thing, and I suspect that one of the best decisions the author ever made was precisely the one allowing that nature to fade into the background. Sure, that nature never really goes away, and it remains a critical element of the story throughout –the series is called, after all, Discworld— but as amusing as the basic premise happens to be, by itself it probably wouldn’t have been enough to carry an almost forty book series. It was only when the disc was set aside that the world as such, with all of its assorted characters, was allowed to flourish.

Dodging the past

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and over all I have to say that I really enjoyed it. No, it was not the most original story I’ve ever read, but it was amusing and engaging, and in that regard it certainly deserves a five stars rating. I also like seeing Terry Pratchett stretch beyond the familiar confines of the Discworld.

In this particular instance he tackles the Victorian period with an interesting cast of characters and an entertaining adventure. As several of his other works this one can also be seen as a coming of age story, one that is full of literary references… and if anything it is when we come to those references that we run into a bit of an issue. Continue reading Dodging the past

Hungry for more

And now that the DVD is out, I finally gave in and watched the film version of The Hunger Games (and that in turn means that you get stuck with a series of post on the subject, regarding both the books and the film). Over all I have to say that the film was a pretty big disappointment, though in a way it was also an interesting example of some of the difficulties inherent to the film portrayal of what is a first person narrative. Simply put, film is, almost by definition, a third person medium. In the book we see the world through Katniss’s eyes, in the film we actually see her and her interactions with that world, and that is a significant difference that is not easy to overcome. But let’s go over some of the differences between both versions, and what those differences mean for the story itself.

Two of the most obvious differences that are a byproduct of the change in perspective are the way in which in the film we have the characters of Claudius Templesmith and Caesar Flickerman filling in some background info that must still be communicated somehow –such as the details about the tracker jackers– and the way in which Haymitch included explicit notes with the gifts from the sponsors, whereas in the book we have Katniss working out their respective meanings on her own. Of course, in this second instance this has an unfortunate side effect in that it diminishes the character of Katniss to a certain extent. Continue reading Hungry for more

And the monster is…

A few days ago I finished John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes. The book was written in 1953, so some elements come across as being rather dated, though for 1953, and for John Wyndham, the lead female character comes across as being surprisingly modern, especially considering that the book is set in the present rather than in a distant future. Over all I would describe it as an interesting book with a good build up but a rather disappointing ending. It is on the slow end of the spectrum, but that too feels like a deliberate choice. The story is similar to H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, but seeing how the threat here comes from the deepest parts of the sea, the author is free to go for the old ‘the scariest monster is the one you can’t see’ trope. Anyway, the first two parts of the book, while well written enough, didn’t appeal to me all that much, however that changed when I reached the third and final one (even though this post is rather short, I’m inserting a break here because the rest of it contains spoilers). Continue reading And the monster is…

Un Lun Dun… highly recommended

I just finished reading China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and over all I have to say that I really liked it. Sure, at times I found it a little too childish, but then again kids are the intended audience. In fact the biggest problem I may have had to do with the fact that this book came too highly recommended. Funny how often that turns into a problem when someone recommends a book. What I mean is that I was expecting to be completely blown away so somehow that ‘I really liked it’ seems mild… and it also leaves me wondering whether or not a less enthusiastic recommendation would have led me to enjoy it more (or if it would have caused me to send it to the pile of books I intend to read ‘someday’).

So to begin with let me say that I had never read anything by China Miéville before, but I had come across a review that described Un Lun Dun as a cross between Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Seeing how those are two of my all time favorites I couldn’t resist. The thing is that while the influence of both of these works is apparent throughout the book, I find it lacking some of their depth, and it also has a far more explicit message that at times is a little too ‘in your face’ for comfort, a fact that marks a pretty stark difference.

On a more positive note, I liked the characters and some of the concepts. I loved Hemi and how Deeba grew up as the plot unfolded, I liked the concepts of the unchosen one, the utterlings and the unGun… and how can you go wrong with a book with a reference to A Wasp in a Wig? (and if you are wondering what this wasp in a wig thing happens to be, you can find it here). Anyway, while some points did come across as a little too overdrawn for my liking, I realize I am not part of the book’s target audience, so that may be a problem that has more to do with my own perspective than with the book itself.

In other words, even though this review is coming across as a little too negative for my liking, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book a four stars rating. As I said, I definitely enjoyed it and I would most definitely recommend it, just don’t go in expecting to fall in love with it… who knows, maybe if you don’t expect to fall in love with it you actually will!

Novel, Treatise or Manifesto?

Today I finished Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that this isn’t a novel, it is more of a treatise or a manifesto, though seeing how this is supposed to be science fiction those labels don’t quite fit either. Well, whatever the correct noun happens to be, this thing is way too long and wordy for my liking.

Okay, as you may have guessed by now I would rate this book as a major disappointment, especially considering that Sirius has long been one of my favorite SF books of all times, but at the same time I think I understand where the author is coming from, after all, the book was published in 1937, when the world was still struggling to move past the horrors of World War I and even a blind man could see that World War II was right around the corner. Of course, the fact that I do understand doesn’t mean I have to like it. The problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is that somewhere along the line, and before he even sat down to write this thing, the author seems to have forgotten about the need for such trifles as characters and a plot. Yes, in its own kind of way the book does offer a glimpse at how that particular period was perceived by those living in it, but its attempts at allegorizing, if they can even be called that, come across as more than a little ham-handed, not to mention that as the book progresses it grows in both arrogance and pseudo-mysticism until it becomes almost unbearable.

So does this thing have any redeeming qualities at all? Oddly enough the answer to that question is yes, and those go back to what is missing, namely characters and a plot. What can I say, writing a 272 pages ’novel’ unencumbered by either of those things seems to me like a pretty remakable achievement (that, and the fact that I feel like I should probably give it some leeway because, as I mentioned above, I can see where it is that the author is coming from, and I realize that some of my objections may have more to do with my poor understanding of what it meant to be alive in that period than with anything else).

The Sins of a Fan of Fantasy Lit

Okay, I’ve had this one written for a while, but up until now I hadn’t dared to post it. You see, I am about to confess to what amounts to a sin for a fan of fantasy literature, are you ready: I am not a big fan of The Lord of the Rings (and by that I mean the books, not the movies). Oh, I’m not denying their importance as one of the foundational works of the whole genre. In fact I freely acknowledge that it is probably the most influential work of the twentieth century. I know that without it I probably wouldn’t be here, or rather that I would not be writing the things I write, and I realize that it is very well crafted, but even though I have read it a couple of times hoping to develop a taste for it, I just can’t seem to get in the spirit of things. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but when it comes to its big brother I have a number of problems: Continue reading The Sins of a Fan of Fantasy Lit

One of the best films you’ve never heard of

Yes, I usually talk about books, but this is about one of my favorite films of all times, one chances are you have never heard of: Strings, a 2005 movie directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund. I first saw it with no expectations whatsoever. Someone just handed me the DVD without a word (and without the box). Within five minutes I was hooked. The movie is an unusual one to say the least, and even though the ending came as a bit of a disappointment (I felt like the director had tried to force in an ending that was consistent with the story he had set out to tell without realizing that the film had soared so far above it that it no longer fit), it just took my breath away. It is beautiful, shocking and haunting. An epic tale of war, peace, love and hate that had me from the opening scene. Yes, the performances can best be described as ‘wooden’ but that is what makes them absolutely unforgettable, and in a world in which CGI plays an ever increasing role in film production this one does serve as a sort of wake up call. Five stars, and that is just because most review systems don’t allow me to give it six.

Victorians in Spaaace

Last week I read Stephen Baxter’s Anti-ice… and at times I felt like it was Professor Challenger redone (if you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of those books you are probably aware that, as far as I am concerned, that is most definitely not a good thing). Yes, the science was a little better, and –annoying as they were at times– the characters themselves were more or less consistent with what we find in the literature of the period. That was not the problem. That boiled down to the fact that there were a number of elements I just found to be unnecessary, grating and poorly handled, like the leading character’s infatuation with a mysterious woman. Over all the book felt like a concept in search of a plot. That is, at times it seemed to me like the author had had an interesting idea –what would have happened if, in the XIX century the British had come into possession of a powerful technology that would have enabled them to make a technological leap of close to a century?– but then he either didn’t know just what he was supposed to do with it, or he decided to try to force it into a pattern that didn’t quite fit.

I had been warned that this was one of Stephen Baxter’s weakest works (unfortunately I got that warning when I was reading the first chapter, and seeing how I don’t like to abandon a book once I’ve started it, I soldiered on), though in a way the fact that I wasn’t expecting much may have served to lessen the disappointment.

In short, if you are a die-hard Baxter fan, this one may be worth it (and chances are that you have already read it, so this post is likely to be redundant). If you are not, you may want to steer clear of it. No, it’s not dreadful, and it certainly doesn’t plummet to the level of The Land of Mist, but that is not much comfort.

Everything-But

I just finished reading Diana Wynne Jones’s Archer’s Goon. Over all it was a pleasant read, and the story was well told, though there is one spot in the middle that comes across as a little heavy-handed (one of those instances in which the author seems to have gone to such lengths to ensure that an unexpected twist comes as a surprise that it doesn’t quite seem to fit in the story as a whole). The one thing that stayed with me, however, was not so much the plot as the concept of the Everything-But drawer. That is one of those concepts that describe an everyday reality that is so plain and ever-present that when you come across it for the first time you find yourself wondering how come you’d never heard of it before. The everything-but drawer –of which I suspect there is at least one example in each and every house as a matter of law– is that drawer in which you can find everything… except whatever it is that you are actually looking for. Continue reading Everything-But