Monday, February 23, 2009

Weird time for reading

Dropped into one of those deep funks where nothing held my attention for long. My reading was mostly the daily paper, my usual gang of bloggers and news sites, some magazines. I started what should prove to be a way-fun book, Anno Dracula. I mean, really, this should have had me captivated. Dracula comes to England, beats the inept vampire hunters and marries Victoria? Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde and Dr. Moreau, come on! This should be like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Widescreen Edition), but, um...good.

(Should I read the graphic novel? The movie was Teh Suck.)

But for some reason, I couldn't get into it. Maybe it was my disappointment over some recent reading choices, maybe it was just the winter blahs. So, to reset my taste, so to speak, I re-read Clan of the Cave Bear. Yes, again. It seems to be working, though, my mind feels clearer. And I am looking at the stack of unread books from PaperbackSwap and feeling more-than-mild interest.

Many thanks to those who joined PBS and listed me as your referral. More books makes me happy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Catching up...

So, I went away for the weekend (will post about that later...) and took a few books with me. I did something I have *never* done before - I actually left Death Du Jour at home, with about 60 pages to go.


Didn't care. Lost track of the characters. I grabbed a handful of books off the "to read" shelf instead.

On the way to Alberta, I read The English Assassinby Daniel Silva, another Paperback Swap book. I liked it - not as exciting as the first, but not bad for a spy novel. I like the main character and his cover as an art restorer, I like the travel and adventures. The title is a bit of a misnomer - there IS an English assassin in the book, but he's kind of a Boba Fett guy. You get a great build up, and then he sort of falls into a pit without a word. Weird.

On the way home (not having time or energy to read while I was actually on the ground) I read Kiss the Girlsby James Patterson. This one, I also enjoyed. I can tell I will be collecting a few more of the Alex Cross books. The back-and-forth between detecting and the POV of the killers is usually a good hook for me, and Patterson gets it just the way I like it. Also, he's got a deliciously sadistic imagination so far. I had to actually google a sex practice described in this book. That's kind of impressive.

I also read Kindredby Octavia Butler. I have long been urged to read more by her; I had tried two other titles before and they left me with a shrug. This one got me. Short, and a very fast read, it's simply the story of a modern black woman who finds herself magically drawn back in time to rescue her white, slave-owning ancestor. No time at all is spent on figuring out why or how, which adds to the magical realism and subtracts nothing from the actual tale.

In such a deceptively brief series of interludes, Butler really hammers home some excellent views of slavery and how it changes things on an individual and on a cultural level. This one is a keeper - now to see what else I might try from her collection.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trying Reichs again

So, after tossing the non-lamented Spartans into the box of books I can't wait to give away, I returned to the other new author I experimented with, Kathy Reichs. In the last book I got, the female lead character, despite being a doctor of all sorts of cool science who had first hand knowledge of the bad things that happen to people when violent crimes are committed against them, repeatedly put herself in danger and ignored her former best friend when she was kidnapped, tortured and killed by a local madman.

I decided to give her another chance anyway. Hey, everyone gets to make one big mistake. So, here I am reading Death du Jour, the second outing for forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, and on page 169, there's this mood-killer phrase:

Later, I wondered why I hadn't seen the signs. It might have changed so much.

That was when I folded over a page and went to sleep. Because really, what's the point? I knew right then that Dr. Brennan was going to, once again, ignore, not notice or downplay the danger another woman was in, for the story purpose of putting her in danger. This time, since the best friend was already dead, we jacked up the stakes and made the target her sister.

By the way, did I already mention that each woman was given several personality traits which would tend to make a reader feel less than generous toward them? Best friend was flaky and flighty. Sister is, um...flaky and flighty. And possibly mixed up with some charismatic self-help guru.

OK, well, I gave the author a try. This is absolutely one time where I can say with complete honesty that I enjoy the TV Show the author is connected to MUCH more than her novels. I like the TV Tempe Brennan better. I like the fact that the TV Tempe actually works with a team and acts as smart as the character is created to be. And I am so over passive heroines and punished victims.

I'll still try to get through to the end of this book, though. And then both of them will hit PBS. Ah, well. Luckily, a few more books have come in recently.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Prehistoric Hissy Fits

Finally dragged my way to the last page of People of the Whine. Don't actually know why I bothered, except maybe I was hoping for some last minute change of direction. But no, these indecisive, puling nitwits of the tundra manage to keep up their pointless bickering, meandering and quasi-new-age (ancient-age?) spiritualism all the way to the last stanza of bad poetry. (Shudder) Stay Away. Notice I didn't bother with the amazon link for my .05 fee for a referral. Really. Keep it.

I had decided to take a chance on this book as a sort of methadone until Auel continues her own opus du paleolithic. And let me say that I can dish Cave Bear with the best of them - I have more bones to pick with The Adventures of Amazing Ayla than she uses to invent the perpetual motion device. (Soon to come on volume 8!) So while I was listing this unpleasant bit of fiction with Paperback Swap, I tried to figure out what the real difference was for me.

Some is fairly obvious. Quality of writing. Descriptive and narrative style. Character development. Storyline. Bread and butter stuff. But what *really* makes the difference for me - I think - is the intelligence and charisma of the lead character.

I want - no, I think I NEED - the hero of a story to be smarter than I am. Braver, sure, more clever, why not, more witty, absolutely. (Where else can I steal from?) But I will happily read about or enjoy watching a cowardly, socially deaf misanthrope if they were just smart.

I admire brains. I like my heroes to have 'em. And what's more, I like my heroes to USE them, especially in interesting ways. Sure, I want to find out that smarts don't always solve the problem in the first chapter or the first segment before the commercial. House would be dreadfully dull if that happened every week. And it's lovely, storywise, if smarts can't solve a problem by themselves - when the emo partner or the amusing sidekick, or time, or tragedy or luck or magic get into the action. That's story that might be worth telling.

What's more, I want my smart heroes to demonstrate their brains not only by coming up with good stuff on the fly, but by learning from experience. That's probably why a lot of "chick lit" doesn't appeal to me. (In addition to the fact that I can't really identify with a lot of the motives the main characters have.) It's just this feeling of "haven't we been through this before?" which pops up in disturbing frequency in relationship books aimed at women. Sex and the City was like a course in anthropology to me - "Socially stunted single women of the Serengeti go shoe shopping." I'd watch, wide-eyed, wondering if people really DID those things, lived like that. Putting out the same signals, making the same demands, the same concessions, the same mistakes over and over again and then, well, whining about the results. Entertaining, in half hour slices. Unacceptable as primary entertainment.

I think it's back to some crime novels for me, to wipe away the bad taste left by this novel.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

People of the Whine

OK, it's official, People of the Wolf (The First North Americans series, Book 1)is not on my recommended list. I'll finish it, but then right back to Paperback Swap with it and no more from the series. What a bunch of whiners! Should we go north? Should we go south? We should have gone with Dancing Trachea! We should have never left Stinky Moccasins! What does this dream mean? There's nothing to eat!

These weren't the first Canadians, they were the first Kvetchers. Not one has spine enough to sit upright, from the beautiful, abused wife of the shaman to the dreaming boy who thinks maybe if they go south, like, maybe there would be food there because, see, this wolf told him so. Or, not. Add a couple of cranky old ladies who both loved the same loser back in the day and wow, this is not to my taste. Plus, they keep eating things that sound terrible.

If you buy this, don't blame me. You were warned.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Stranger, tell the Spartans this book sucked

Yeah, whew, Gates of Fire is going right back on Paperback Swap. Ah, well, one experimental author to cross off the list.

Sadly, the next book I chose based on the "how bad could it be?" standard is also turning out to be disappointing. Anyone who knows how I read knows I have an enduring fondness for Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, aka The Clan of the Cavebear books, aka, Ayla Discovers Everything books. I forgive her for some of her repetitious styles, for her stunningly overblown and dreadfully dull sex scenes, and even for Ayla, well, discovering everything but the internal combustion engine. (Soon to come in Book 8?)

Why? Because man, that woman can write awesome descriptions. Those books are, for me, the guide to that age, in geography, weather, botany, wildlife - in clothing styles and food gathering and cooking and medicine. When I read Auel, I can taste the ptarmigan wrapped in hay and stuffed with herbs, baked all day in a slow oven. I can see the vastness of a steppe and the grandeur of a continent sized glacier. In fact, when I saw my first glacier up close, my first thought was, "It's just like she described."

But because of my fondness for those books and the meticulous research which went into their structure and the inventions of the author, it's hard for me to appreciate other books like them. Every time I would consider buying one, I'd stop and think, "If this isn't as good as Cavebear, I am gonna be very annoyed I spent ten bucks on it."

But now that I am trading books for what is essentially postage, I decided I will take a risk now and then and try another author or genre. This next book is one of the risks. And at page 75, I am not that impressed.

I picked up People of the Wolf (The First North Americans series, Book 1). I figured, hey, it's written by archeologists. They sound like people who would know Cool Stuff. And since it's "the majestic saga of the first Canadians," I won't be amused to find out that the male romantic lead is actually...French.

But so far, what I have is a lot of people named things like One Who Cries and Dancing Fox and for all I know, Motion of Light In Water will come in the next chapter. And I can hardly keep them straight. not a good sign. Give me some clues as to what they look like, who they are, something to differentiate them. And please, save me from the twin brothers destined to be lifelong enemies from birth. (You know the "bad" one has no reason to do what he does - he just has to. As he tells people, over and over.)

Arggh. Dunno if I will last on this one through the whole thing. I like a story with a villain as much as anyone, but at least give me a reason.

I may need a palate cleanser after this one.

I think the worst part of reading books I don't enjoy is that they make me wonder if I am guilty of the things I am complaining about. Am I describing place, time, and persons as well as I should? Do I make people different enough, interesting enough?

Anyway, back to the wolfies for a while.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Still no buggery

Page 240. In fact, there's no sex. Characters get married and have children in the space of a paragraph. I think this one is going right back to Paperback Swap when I am done. It's actually a chore to pick it up to read.

The only interesting thing about Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae so far is the style in which the tale is told. It's recounted by a survivor of Thermopylae, not a Spartan, but a slave who sort of joined up with Sparta after losing everything in some previous conflict. It's a classic structure - orphan wanders with mentor and sister/lover figure, loses both, joins up with the biggest, baddest gang he can find, or else becomes a close friend/servant of some named historical figure. I think I have read at least half a dozen books which start off in similar ways - nah. Many more than a dozen. Hell, John Jakes made his career out of an entire family serving as witnesses to history.

It's interesting to me because I have this idea for a historical fiction book based in the history of my Marketplace world. I hadn't given a lot of thought to what voice to use in writing it, though, and I wonder if a first person account would be right for it.

The trouble with writing in first person (for me) is that I like the ability to shift narrative focus. The omniscient and third voice styles allow me to jump around and give peeks into different ways of thinking and storytelling. It's something to mull over.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Baby, it's cold outside

I know, weather reports are not my thing. But it is true it's been cold out, with snow here and there. My winter malaise spread to suddenly feeling that words without pictures weren't making it for me. Thus, a tour through Neil Gaimen's Sandman collections and some fun time with Cartoon History of the Universe 1 Vol. 1-7 (Cartoon History of the Universe) (Pt.1), and devouring every magazine and newspaper in reach this past week. Also, lots of Google-surfing. Hyperlinks are like crack to me, I can always follow one more link.

The book on my night table has been Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, by Steven Pressfield.

I like historical fiction, and I even like some improbable historical fiction. But sometimes, there's an aspect of what I am reading which acts like a constant irritant. I'm a fairly generous reader, I'll happily take a few inaccurate facts, an implausible storyline or even an unbelievable hero, if the story works in other ways. For example, one of my favorite books to reread is The Physician, by Noah Gordon. It has a lot of my favorite elements of fiction - it's about the history of medicine, there's a lot of travel, and there are Jews. However, I found out that some of the historical aspects of the story, including the hero's name, were not very accurate. (Apparently, the style of his name was not used in that time frame.) Knowing this did not change my enjoyment of the story.

But I am getting a feeling that Gates of Fire will not survive to go onto my re-read shelves. I'm only up to page 90 out of 400 and change, so, things may change. But in 90 pages, the only mention of male-male relationships was a joke about armored loincloths.

Now, I wasn't picking this up to read a hot book about studly Spartans engaged in hearty rounds of buggery - although, you know, I wouldn't be too horrified by something like that. And there is plenty of room left for something to turn up. But so far, reading this book has been a period of waiting to see if it gets better in the next chapter.

Good thing I have a healthy stack of books to peruse when I finish or get tired of this one.