cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
I liked quite a bit about Havemercy (in particular, the role-play sensitivity training exercises for the Dragon Corps, which was very nicely done), but it also has its problems. Chiefly, plot (but also gender), and my issues with this tie in with an in-progress email I’ve been failing to send to [ profile] alecaustin about writing fanfic vs writing original fic. It’s probably unfair to make Havemercy bear the brunt of my criticisms, but it was a useful focus; I will try to use it as an example rather than as an exemplar.

My argument in my unfinished email is about how writers think about stories, and that in the main a lot of fanfic writers start with the characters (and hopefully a situation) whereas original fic writers usually start with the situation (and hopefully the characters). I'm not sure how much of this is personal style – personally I skew much harder towards the start-with-an-idea side (probably why I find writing fanfic very difficult) – and how much is what they're writing, as you can't write a lot of fanfic about original characters and expect an audience. I think you can write a good story with a heavy bias towards one side or the other, but I think the approaches have different risks in terms of (potential) failure.

I think (and I’d be happy to hear differing opinions) that writers who start with character, whether they're writing original or fanfic, can run into problems with dropping plot & setting *or* falling so far in love with their characters that the characters distort the story and the author fails to realise they have not given the reader any actual reason to like their moody long-suffering protagonist (I have this second problem with Felix in Sarah Monette’s Melusine, Alec in Ellen Kushner’s Swordpoint, Hannibal Lecter in everything Thomas Harris has gone near after Red Dragon, and pirates in pretty much everything). I think writers who start with ideas can end up with default or cardboard characters, or a very mechanical research-heavy story (fond memories of reading Peter Hamilton space operas. Not.)

A lot of what I’ve seen come out in genre (especially fantasy and YA) seems to come from the character-driven side of the spectrum. Much of this, particularly trilogies, seems to be lacking in adequate plot, and what there is is obvious and reactive, where “reactive” for my purposes means that events wait for the characters to be ready for them; yes, characters should drive events, but the converse is also true, and all too often other characters conveniently fail to act or interfere. In Havemercy there are many sources of potential tension, action and complication that are just ignored or left hanging, which is frustrating for me and bad for the book, because it makes the characters look stupid or lazy, and slows down the pacing so that these faults become even more apparent.

Havemercy. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
Martin McDonagh, The pillowman (playscript). I saw this in the UK three years ago, and although it’s not a perfect play it was very well performed, and in addition it is a difficult, edged (and edgy) piece that got thoroughly stuck in my head, and I eventually gave in and bought the script. Quotes largely from memory, as I’ve packed the book.

Katurian: “Are you telling me that you don’t know that if you chop the toes off a little boy and put razors down the throat of a little girl, you don’t know that they’re gonna die?”
Mikhal: “Well, I know now.”

This is (obviously!) black comedy, like the other Martin McDonagh things I’ve seen (a valiantly attempted but rather bad amateur production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the film In Bruges, which I really wanted to be about Brendan Gleeson’s character rather than Colin Farrell’s, and have more killing (I am already too far inside these parentheses, but if you’re going to write about hit men I think there need to be deaths that are not there solely to act as massive plot triggers, not that I necessarily wanted hails of bodies) and fewer dwarf jokes), but unlike the pieces referenced in that massive aside this is about writing; the writer’s responsibility for the stories they tell, and how their readers respond. I think this is what hooked me, and why I eventually ended up buying the script, to think over it again.

The Pillowman )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
Nibbling away at my backlog with some re-reads; for these ones, either the books or I have changed since our first encounter.

Tanya Huff, Summon the keeper (re-read) and The second summoning. )

Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Freedom and necessity (re-read). )


Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:29 pm
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (grass by durer)
A friend of mine gave me back the stack of books I’d lent him. Holding up volume 1 of Takehiko Inoue’s Real (wheelchair basketball manga, brilliant, am trying to find v2): “Genius”. Holding up Terry Pratchett’s Nation: “Genius.” Holding up Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (still on my waiting for write-up list): “Absolute genius”. Holding up volume 7 of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service: “You know, this was very good, but…” This is the disadvantage of lending people all your really good books/manga, in that one that’s merely excellent suffers by comparison.

And Terry Pratchett’s Nation is indeed genius, and one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s set in a slightly different version of our world (something nasty seems to have happened to Australia on the map), and involves a meeting between Mau, a member of a small pacific-island (the Nation) dwelling tribe, and Daphne, a well-brought up English girl who gets shipwrecked. It’s funny, heart-breaking and unpredictable in all the right ways, and it made me cry very early on (I’d just ordered lunch, and when the waitress brought it to me she was terribly apologetic about its lateness, which was non-existent but was probably easier for her to assume as a possible cause). It is scientific (I love the bit where Daphne is talking about checking the efficacy of sacrifices to gods by leaving different amounts of fish on the altars) and spiritual, and things go wrong even when people have the best of intentions. I will write more about it including vastly extensive spoilers in my end-of-year post (which is going to be a mid-January thing anyway), but if you’re hesitating over last minute Christmas reading for yourself and others this would be a great place to start.

More YA

Dec. 23rd, 2008 05:10 pm
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
27 degrees today (80F for my international readers) and I am now trying to pack winter clothes, thus creating a mild cognitive dissonance. The main problem I have (well, currently) is coats, in that I can have a coat that is a) waterproof or b) stylish or c) warm, but I only have two coats that manage even two of these, both of which will take up significant amounts of packing space and one of which is about 18 years old. Hmm. Maybe I should see this as an excuse to go shopping.

Heather Quarles, A door near here. )

Ysabeau Wilce, Flora’s Dare. )

Vivian Vande Velde, User Unfriendly. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
I think this leaves me with about 27 books to write up, two of which are definitely on my list for best I've read all year and so are taking me longer to write about than they did to read (possibly a slight exaggeration, but I'm certainly spending more time procrastinating about writing them up than I did reading...).

Marjorie Williams, The woman at the Washington zoo. )

Neil Shusterman, Unwind. )

Angela Bull, Wayland's keep. )

Ruth M Arthur, On the wasteland. )

Christopher Isherwood, Prater violet. )

Helen Barber, A Chalet School headmistress. )

William Sleator, Boltzmon! )

Caroline Stevermer, A scholar of magics. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (rhino)
I am currently on a roll, which is unusual enough to take advantage of. This first book is an interesting example of how two major faults can effectively cancel each other out, so that I finished this book in a state of Zen-like calm that was quite far removed from some of my earlier reactions. I am going to spoil the ending quite thoroughly, though, so consider this an advance warning.

Brian Falkner, The tomorrow code. )

Michelle Magorian, Just Henry. )

Ellen Wittlinger, Hard love. )


Dec. 21st, 2008 03:29 pm
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
Saying I'll catch up by the end of the year will almost certainly doom this to failure (especially as I will be travelling), but I can at least try to get down to a pending review pile of reasonable numbers (hmm. Having just looked at it, "reasonable numbers" will probably have to be defined as less than 20, although I'd really like to get that down to less than 10.)

MT Anderson, The Astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation: volume 1, The Pox Party. )

Sherman Alexie, The incredibly true diary of a part time Indian. )

Maurice Gee, Salt. )

John Francombe, Tip off. )

Lennon, Jun, Gravitation: voice of temptation. )

Charlie Higson, By Royal Command. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (grass by durer)
The following reviews may be a little hazy on details (or even wrong) due to a) the title of this entry and b) the fact that while somewhere on my harddrive there are some partial reviews of some of these, I appear to have given the relevant word document a completely unrelated title. Anyway.

Marian Keyes, This charming man. )

Junot Diaz, The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. )

Catriona McCloud, Growing up again. )

China Mieville, Un Lun Dun. )

Alan Gratz, Samurai Shortstop. )

Nancy Farmer, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (grass by durer)
I'm not sure how well clumping all my outstanding books by historical period will go, but there are at least two obvious entries. The main problem with putting them all together like this is that now I desperately want to re-read Patricia Anthony's Flanders, and my copy is very firmly boxed somewhere.

Pat Barker, Regeneration (re-read). )
LM Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside (re-read). )
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong. )
Eva MacLaren, The lady with the torch

Lady Frances Balfour, Elsie Inglis

Leah Leneman, Elsie Inglis

For an essay, rather than a sudden obsession. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
I have a clutch of about ten books I rather liked and did not write about at the time waiting for me to catch up with them, which as I don't own them will be somewhat challenging in terms of actual details. I may have to settle for making up the protagonist's name and other minor trivialities. Anyway, for things I have read and have handy...

Shannon Hale, The Goose Girl. )

Cynthia Harnett, The load of unicorn. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (grass by durer)
Or, an assortment of apocalypses, but that's not entirely fair, as only the Pfeffers are really making a concerted effort to destroy most of modern civilisation. Even then it's pretty US-centric, although Australia does have all its coastal towns destroyed by giant waves (something Canberrans (Canberrese?) will no doubt be thrilled about).

What I like a lot about the first one of these (Life as we knew it) - before I go into more plot-revealing detail - is that it avoids the two main plots of this genre. No doubt completely contradictory examples will occur to me after I post this, but most immediate post-apocalyptic fiction that I've read propels the action forward by giving it a quest structure, with the characters struggling to get to a place (or sometimes a person - I keep thinking of The Stand here) that represents either something of the old world or a new beginning. Sometimes it's not a map-crossing quest so much as an attempt to construct a new society, an idea I would like much better if I didn't keep running into rather dodgy libertarian ones with very dubious gender politics (and no, one Sheri Tepper does not make up for Heinlein, Pournelle and rather too much SM Stirling). Anyway, if it's not a quest or a rebuild, it's usually the relentlessly depressing acceptance of inevitable doom (um. Examples would of necessity involve spoilers - how about Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows, a post-nuclear nothing ends well graphic novel that depressed me so much that I have no qualms about spoiling it for everyone else? Read his Ethel & Ernest instead). Life as we knew it does neither of these, and I kept catching myself expecting it to; what works so well is that it doesn't. Nothing will ever be the same, but that doesn't mean that things stop, or become more significant. It's a very ordinary post-apocalypse novel.

Robert C O'Brien's Z for Zachariah might be similar, actually, but it's a long time since I read it. And I'm discounting all the long-time post-apocalypse fiction out there for the purposes of my sweeping generalisation.

Susan Pfeffer, Life as we knew it. )

Susan Pfeffer, the dead & the gone )

Meg Rosoff, How I live now. )

Malorie Blackman, The stuff of nightmares. )

This could possibly be more cheerful. Here, have a link to multiple Beakers singing Ode to Joy. I'm not sure this ends well, either, but at least most of the rest of the world seems unaffected.
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
I wanted to write about a book I loved, for a change, because it’s often easier to complain about things than try and convey how much you really enjoyed something. And then I found myself spoilt for choice, which is a nice position to be in – two re-reads and two new-to-me books that have really stood out. One of the re-reads (Pat Barker’s Regeneration) is for a course, and I will go on about it there, and one of the new-to-me will show up later as well as I hadn’t realised it was a sequel (Morris Gleitzman’s Then – Once, the first book, is still good, but not as good). Also, I am reading so many other things about war at the moment that I thought it would be nice to think about something else for a change. So I picked the other two, and went on (and on!) to discuss both of them in fairly thorough detail - I don't think it's possible to really spoil in Alice in Sunderland, but I'd suggest avoiding the first review if you haven't gotten around to reading Eight Days of Luke yet.

Eight Days of Luke, Diana Wynne Jones. )

Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot. )

I can’t pick up this book again without getting dragged into it, and that’s true for Eight Days of Luke as well. With Eight Days of Luke there’s familiarity with narrative, and with Alice in Sunderland it’s more familiarity with place, but in both of them there’s that feeling of being able to completely trust the author; I don’t know, necessarily, where I’m going or what it all means, but I know they’ll get me there.
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (rhino)
Which applies both to these books as well as most of the theatre I've been seeing. I watched Slings & Arrows (Canadian TV series about a theatre company, excellent) earlier this year and have since then desperately wanted to see a good production of Macbeth, or failing that a decent ensemble cast piece heavy on character interactions. Sadly, almost everything I've been to is either heavy on the monologuing to audience or directed in such a way as to inhibit all character interactions. And they almost all either finish with a fairly contrived death (Niu Sila was particularly annoying in this respect, as I'd really liked it until then) or in media res (True West, whatever the backwards Pinter one was where he justified his adultery and last night's Blackbird), both of which, to me, indicate a problem with endings. I have tickets for a few more things, tho', and will continue to live in hope (or read about Robert Lepage's latest play, now premiering in London, and think pining thoughts).

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The painter of battles. )

Star-crossed, Linda Collison. My overentitled sociopath book. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (FMA)
I have been having problems with my hard-copy prose reading - for the last week I have been trudging through an appalling book with a horribly overentitled aggravating main character, and then I tried to get out of it into, variously, a) a Captain Alatriste novel that spends the first forty pages sacking a Dutch town in a particularly annoying manner b) China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, which is not working for me at all c) Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer (first in a quartet, and the dialogue is irritating). Having failed at all of these I then went off and read vast quantities of fan fiction, which at least irks me in different ways (failure to pay attention to setting and lack of fight scenes, mostly), re-read Diana Wynne Jones' Eight Days of Luke (excellent. Am composing self-indulgent discussion post in another window) and then finally picked this up last night and read it. And I now feel less like giving up on all prose fiction published in the last twenty years, which will hopefully turn out to be the right decision in the long run.

Nancy Farmer, The House of the Scorpion. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
I am attempting to motivate myself into going running before it starts raining again, so this is likely to be the first of a series of updates.

Eleanor Estes, Ginger Pye. )

Doreen Tovey, Donkey Work. )

Dan Stanford, The horsemasters. )

And it's still refusing to rain, so I guess I should go find my sneakers.
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (hare by durer)
I had a tiny moment of rage on visiting the library to find that the young adults’ fiction section has two display stands, one marked “Girls’ books” and one marked “Boys’ books”. I did wonder if they were intentionally problematising this on the boys’ side by having Tanith Lee’s Piratica II and an Alex Sanchez about gay Christians (first two chapters like being hit over the head with a well-meaning brick, so I put it back), but all the girls’ titles suggested a distinct lack of irony. It occurs to me now that I should have put up my own selections, but at the time my inner seething got mixed up with embarrassment at having to pay my overdue fines with a credit card (internet banking timing problem). Maybe I'll sneak back.

Bil Wright, When the black girl sings. )

Lee Child, Bad luck and trouble. )

Haruki Murakami, After Dark. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (grass by durer)
I’m trying to catch up at the moment, and it’s easier to blog about the books that didn’t grab me than those that did, so bear that in mind if the next few posts have an awful lot of “not quite my thing.” Books that I do want to spend more time on, because they were very much my thing: Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, Morris Gleitzman’s Then and Marian Keyes’ This Charming Man, all very good and all recommended; I also have pending posts on a couple of books that either weren’t quite there or annoyed me in ways that I want to spend more time on.

Dodie Smith, I capture the castle (re-read). )

Ken Catran, Lin and the Red Stranger. )

Gerald Morris, The squire’s tale. )

JM Coetzee, Diary of a bad year. )

Dan Ariely, Predictably irrational. )
cyphomandra: fractured brooding landscape (Default)
I picked this up because I know a Toby and because the book is rather gorgeous – the thick brown dustjacket has a map on the underside and it’s all printed in green on rather nice paper, with green illustrations. Much to my annoyance, tho’, neither the dustjacket nor the blurb nor anything before page 392 mentions that this is the first in a series.

(warning: digression ahead) I have issues about series books anyway, but stealth series are the worst. I understand that from the publisher’s point of view they are a brilliant idea – entice your audience in with the first one without telling them it’s not a one-off, and then you have them hooked for the subsequent books (which you can label as next-in-the-series) but from my reader’s viewpoint they suck. I don’t mind if the individual components can stand on their own, but stealth series almost always seem to involve a cliff-hanger ending and be constructed (structure/narrative) as part of a series, with all of the weaknesses that this involves, which are both just added insults. And by weaknesses – inadequate plotting for the length of the story is a common one, leading to padding, but also a failure to risk the world/characters because you (the author) need them later; a failure of imagination when you get to the third or whatever book and you’re trapped by decisions you made earlier. I think publisher-driven pressure to produce is also a problem (after you’ve signed your three book deal, you need your three books, and you need them by this, this and this deadline), and there’s also the spec fic weakness of not wanting to waste all that world-building, but most commonly the story is just not that big. I do like series fiction, but either the structure has to be different (more stand-alone – many detective series, for example, or even Bujold’s Vorkosigan series – or the roman fleuve approach of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books) or the story needs to be worth it (Joan D Vinge’s The Summer Queen opens up and expands on the whole world of The Snow Queen without ever making the first story look small).

And if it’s a stealth series – Lyn Flewelling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin did this to me (had I, in fact, read through all three pages of pull quotes at the front of the paperback the last one did say “I look forward to the next in the series), as did Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain. I haven’t bought or read any subsequent books by them, and I did actually really like The Bone Doll’s Twin – but I bought it specifically looking for a one-off, and I hated the experience of reading the final fifty pages, where either everyone was going to die or it was going to be a cliffhanger. I probably will read the others sometime, but I’m unlikely to buy them.

Anyway. I’m also not likely to buy the sequel to this, although this is also because I wasn’t wild about it. It takes place on a tree inhabited by many tiny people; Toby’s father, Sim Lolness, is an amazingly brilliant scientist with absolutely no colleagues, who discovers a possible source of unbelievable power, but is worried, in a thinly veiled ecological allegory, that it will accelerate the destruction of the very tree that is their home and refuses to share it. Evil people send him and his family into exile (at the bottom of the tree); later, they are all summoned back, and Toby’s parents are clapped into prison while Toby flees through the tree, searching for help.

Toby Alone. Spoilers. )


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