Tag Archives: good books

Books for Non-Readers (and a small rant)

Go look at this list and before you go I’ll give you my opinion: this list is mostly BS. It always strikes me as strange how it seems always to be women giving advice on ‘reading-reluctant boys’ or ‘how to be a gentleman’ I sometimes wonder if this isn’t because men don’t care; but rather because a lot of women are nosey-parkers who don’t feel right unless they are giving advice to males… Whew! that wasn’t very nice of me, was it…

Let me continue complaining for a bit: ‘reading reluctant boys’ is actually fairly offensive. To make up a euphemism for someone who doesn’t like to read, and then talk about it only for boys is, well, forgetting that girls don’t read anything either. (…and thrill-loving girls, says the sub-title.) It is also a bit dumb to imply that boys need anything other than a well written, interesting story which is the exact same thing that a girl who doesn’t read needs. How about instead: books for children who haven’t learned to like reading? Or, books for anyone who doesn’t like to read but might want to give it a whirl… I guarantee that a large number of adults don’t read either.

As for books recommended for those who don’t like to read, The Woman in White is NOT one of them. The Woman in White made me almost want to give up reading as a pastime it was so boring and irritating. Also, the Horatio Hornblower books are formulaic and badly written. The only winner in the bunch is Dracula by Bram Stoker, and perhaps A Princess of Mars, which was entertaining, though perhaps neither are what I would recommend for someone who doesn’t really like reading yet.

So I will make two lists, one more tailored to young-ish audiences and one for adults who say ‘Oh, I don’t read…’ The criteria are very simple. In fact they are so simple that I have the same criteria for both lists.

1: Interesting 2: Well-written 3: Worth the time

That’s it.

Young-ish

#5 Farmer Giles of Ham

Dragons, common folk doing uncommon things… an intelligent horse… and a dog that talks vernacular (while the people talk Latin… 🙂 )

#4 Sure, let’s leave Dracula on the list

The original bloodsucker. Who 1) tolerates sunlight just fine and 2) is indisputably evil. None of the anti-hero BS.

#3 Ender’s Game

The movie misses the book entirely in pacing. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but the movie should have been less accurate to the book. The pacing and the moving around works for the book, but the movie is mostly a jumble.

#2 Nightmare City

Perhaps one of the best YA fiction. I read it without knowing for sure that is what it was intended for.

#1 A Journey to the Center of the Earth (Or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Jules Verne is the best. After this one, and 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea, you should definitely pick up The Mysterious Island

‘Oh, I don’t read-ers’
Well, maybe sometime, when you wonder what do do with a tad bit of leisure, pick up one of these and try reading again: not for school, not because someone told you to read it, but because it will actually be fun. and worth the time. (As opposed to TV which may be fun, and is almost never worth the time.)

#5 Hey let’s put Dracula here too!

Yay! Dracula.

#4 The Scarlet Letter

I included this one because so many people think they know the story. So many people think its about sin and unjust societal retribution. In fact, it is about forgiveness and the human condition. And it is well written, and it is interesting… and obviously worth the time 🙂 This is, in fact, the first book I ever sacrificed sleep to read. I read the entire book starting just before bedtime, and (not wanting to sleep) I read it after bedtime until around 2 am to finish it. I think I was 12(ish).

#3 Just after sunset

A collection of short stories/ novellas that are fast paced, interesting. I especially recommend ‘N’.

#2 A Killer in the Wind

This book is also a fast paced thriller (duh, read the title) but it is also perceptive and philosophically deep without ever losing the thriller pacing. quite an accomplishment.

#1 Out of the Silent Planet

C.S. Lewis has to make every list at some point… (perhaps we can leave him off the ‘brilliant physicist list… 🙂 ) Read this one, then read Perelandra, then you will be ready for That Hideous Strength.

Zombies

After a long hiatus of vacation, it is time to talk about zombies. I have never really liked zombies for monster stories, there are so many issues, like the fact that something that spreads via biting is perhaps the worst way for a disease to spread. From an author’s point of view, you cant just infect large amounts of people by having unknowingly infected walking through an airport… very convenient for flu pandemic stories, but Zombies… Also there is the problem that as corpses they should decay into static threats very quickly in summer heat. I always say that the way to survive the Zombie apocalypse is to lock the door and let the sun do the work. if everyone did that, there would be no zombie hordes to knock the doors down.

But upon reading this post from Michael Totten (Not even zombies can save the middle east) He is talking about the international griping that Israeli’s are portrayed positively in the movie World War Z, and this line stuck out “Most of the kvetchers are tired and predictable, are they’re over-reacting. World War Z is a popcorn movie. It doesn’t even pretend to be a serious geopolitical film. The novel is complex and brilliant.” that coupled with this piece of information: ‘In the film version, Israel is one of only two countries that survives the initial zombie outbreak. The other is North Korea. Pyongyang pulls out the teeth of the entire population in 24 hours, making it impossible for the virus to spread. But Israel is not a totalitarian police state. The Israelis survive the initial wave intact because they have a clever intelligence tool at their disposal that no other country in the world possesses.’ made me want to read the book. The horribly accurate portrayal of what a totalitarian regime like N. Korea might do in a zombie outbreak made me curious. And the Kindle edition was only ten dollars.

Well, I must say that the book is complex and brilliant. What I found most impressive was the strong feeling of reality, that countries were behaving in a manner consistent with both the individual cultures of the countries and with the commonality of human nature. (What follows might be construed to be mild spoilers… but its a zombie apocalypse story, of you can’t predict 80% of what will happen, you need to pay more attention to what you read. Also, despite the general framework of the zombie apocalypse story being generally as expected, the story is unique, another discussion for another time.)

The outbreak starts in China. Why China, well because this solves the problem of spreading the zombie disease. Also, because it works really well. If the outbreaks had started in Topeka, Kansas, it would have died in Topeka, Kansas. everyone for hundreds of miles is armed, and everyone would know what to shoot on sight like everyone used to know about rabid dogs in short order. However, China is all about fact suppression and secrecy, the government’s power depends on it, an lo, the author uses the truth about the world to further the story. the story is fragmented, but essentially, China had an all out epidemic without anyone really knowing. China even starts a small shooting war to give reasons for its zombie suppression teams reasons for their movements. Also, in the real world, the source of most black market organ for illegal transplants is China… any guesses to a disease spreading mechanism? Also, for a long time in the story, China is undergoing the epidemic and its neighbors are absorbing refugees not knowing anything… So at least some of the zombie spread is reasonable.

Another interesting incident in the story is the result of about 5 million Americans fleeing to Cuba, the infection of freedom that they bring. There is a line that says:

‘Freedom isn’t something you have for the sake of having, you have to want something else first and then want the freedom to fight for it. That was the lesson we learned from the Nortecubanos (the Americans who fled to Cuba). They all had such grand dreams, and they’d lay down their lives for the freedom to make those dreams come true.’

Anyway, the story is also exciting and interesting. It is rather episodic being a ‘compilation’ of ‘interviews’ rather than a linear plot, however the interviews make up a well formed plot, with humankind as the protagonists and zombies and selfishness and chaos as the antagonists. If you enjoy apocalyptic type stories, I think this one plays on the same field as  Alas Babylon and The Postman. I guess I will have to give the movie a try too, and see if it is a decent popcorn film…

A Problem with Stephen King

It is all summed up in the handy chart below (source linked to the image). You see, at some point he started referring to his own works a little, and fans thought it was great, all sorts of stuff was happening in the same ‘world’ but ultimately I think it is a sign of staleness. This and yet another ‘Dark Tower’ novel really shows only one thing: none of these are really new ideas, they are tumors on one or two original ideas that were very cool indeed. The very first Dark Tower novel ‘The Gunslinger’ is really quite good, the whole series is far too long. The story is like a radical regenerative from Orson Scott Card’s Treason. It has a lovely arm or face, but it also has 4 legs and three other arms and an extra head growing off its spine… You can chart below to pick stories, anyone you don’t find on this chart like The Green Mile (or only has one outbound connection like The Eyes of the Dragon or Lisey’s Story is perhaps its own story. (Links obviously.. should be obvious… go to Amazon since those three books are actually worth reading. Insomnia doesn’t get a link because it is terrible and I could only manage a few pages before my insomnia was cured forever…)
Stephenh-King-Universe-FLowchart-900px

One final note: the fact that most SK works take place in Maine and even similar places in Maine is not, in itself, any problem. He knows Maine well, and so he writes about the people convincingly….

A Canticle for the Vatican

This article at National Review Online really struck a history buff nerve. It also reminded me of one of the great pantheon of ‘Good Books I Like’… The Vatican Secret Archive Unveiled.

Some of the documents — written on such various materials as parchment, vellum, paper, and birchbark (the medium for an 1887 letter from the Ojibwe Indians to the pope, “the Great Master of Prayer, he who acts in Jesus’s stead”) — bring to mind epic moments and historical turning points across ten centuries: the handwritten records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition; Pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter Cetera (which might be translated, “Among Other Things”), dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal; the 1530 petition from dozens of members of England’s House of Lords, asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the Tudor king might marry Anne Boleyn; Gregory XIII’s calendar of 1582 with the “missing ten days” in October, an excision that rectified the inaccuracies of the earlier Julian calendar; a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to Sixtus V just before her execution; Polish king John III Sobieski’s 1683 letter to Innocent XI, reporting his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna; letters from Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln to Pius IX during the U.S. Civil War.

My favorite is the letter on Birchbark… but this all reminds me of the fantastic book ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz‘. In the book, mankind has decided after a horrific nuclear war that knowledge and learning were the ultimate cause of the war, and so, with true human blindness, they burn every book, and kill every scholar. (Although the book is set much later, the events of this time are very interesting to me.) Basically, a man named Leibowitz founds an order of Catholic monks to preserve as much knowledge and books as possible. Eventually, in one of the books three parts, the world’s new scholars come to a monastery of these monks to learn what is left.

And now back to the Vatican archives. They should strike a reminder that rather than suppress the truth of history, the Church has been a consistent ‘rememberer’ of the past. I am sure suppression of the truth has happened in the Church… obviously, the church is made of people. But by and large, the church was the repository of learning and reading and writing and what history they could keep during the dismally dark and horrific time when the Roman armies were no longer keeping the barbarians out of what is now Europe. And now again, we have a whole class of people who would rather forget the past which is embodied in these documents.

Well,  A Canticle For Leibowitz has much appeal, with deep understanding of the flaws of mankind, and the work of God in Sanctification. Also, the depiction of mankind returning and ever returning to the same bad and evil ideas is very compelling. At every stage, God saves His remnant. It is a good book, go read it, its summer… you should have time 🙂

The Harloth-tìrath: and Other Rules of Fantasy

In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…

Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time.  Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.

Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)

1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)

In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.

This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché.  (And I usually like O.S.C.)

So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.

2. No invented languages

Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klåkkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.

3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.

Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict.  For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.

Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.

Charles Williams (War in Heaven)

If you are looking for a new author, here is one you might not have heard of/ decided to read. Although he was an associate of C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams for some reason has managed to escape the notice of many. This is a great shame. His novels are strong, brave, philosophical and complex. For now, though, I will write a little bit about my favorite, because this is my blog 🙂 For beginning with Charles Williams I suggest War in Heaven.

War in Heaven is about a war to protect the Holy Grail in modern (at Williams’ time) England.  The battle takes place between an unlikely set of men called to be guards of the Grail, and a man much like Dr. Weston from C. S. Lewis’ ‘Out of the Silent Planet’.  The best distinction here, however, is that Lewis’ character is scientific who is taken over by supernatural evil, Williams’ character starts with the knowledge that the supernatural exists, and seeks to take and use it to his own ends. This same character shows up in the book ‘Many Dimensions’ as well.  This character uses different tactic and means to steal the Grail.

I don’t really want to discuss the plot or hash it out. I do want to comment on two things that are more generally related to Charles Williams than perhaps War in Heaven. These are 1) The archetype characters and 2) William’s treatment of the spiritual, the supernatural, as real, everyday experiences.

First, the characters. These characters are so solid, so true to the kinds of people you meet, that they are living breathing archetypes. (Like when the Archetypes get lose in The Place of the Lion also by Williams.) Characters are not exactly like real people, (Not like Mr. Micawber anyway) but the sum up people very well. In fact, I would swear that a character in War in Heaven is modeled after me (and my Mom would too) if it weren’t that I was born an 30-40 years too lat (At least) and an ocean away.

Second, and perhaps more important, is Williams introduction of spiritual warfare as humble. Unlike the spiritual warfare one finds in Frank Peretti and so forth, these spiritual warriors are not special. They live with flaws and as if God’s grace really is sufficient for them. Another import aspect is that sometimes they are required to do things (Like Ransom finally has to actually physically fight the un-man in Perelandra.)

I guess this is a bit short. My mind is a little pre-occupied with a few sonnets I am trying to write, to crush my opposition. But, if you want a new author, Charles Williams is a great place to start. Other than War in Heaven, I think All Hallow’s Eve, The Place of the Lion, Many Dimensions, and Descent into Hell, and The Greater Trumps, to be great… ok, that is probably most of them except Shadows of Ecstasy which, quite frankly, I will have to try again. I sort of felt I missed something the whole time. (Might have been the shadows… or perhaps I never saw the ecstasy….)  I guess every author one reads probably has at least one book that has that effect on any given reader… (Like Chesterton’s Manalive…. Just never clicked for me)

Book List

I generally eschew genre labels, since they mislead and prejudice the reader’s mind. So here is a list of good books to read in the best order I can think of… as they come to mind.

Lisey’s Story, Stephen King
War in Heaven, Charles Williams
All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams
The Sands of Mars, Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Youth, Isaac Asimov
Phantasties, George MacDonald
Lilith, George MacDonald
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
Desperation, Stephen King
The Worthing Saga, Orson Scott Card
Salem’s Lot, Steven King
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
A Sense of Reality, Grahame Greene
In Freedom’s Cause, G. A. Henty
Roverandum, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Smith of Wootton Major, J. R. R. Tolkien
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, Robert Lewis Stevenson
Kidnapped, R. L. Stevenson
The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott
The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
The Flying Inn, G. K. Chesterton
Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis
The Red Rover, James Fenimore Cooper
The Pilot, James Fenimore Cooper
The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
If I Forget Thee, O Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
The Green Mile, Stephen King

Of course, this list is not exhaustive at all, I just felt the need for some list making…