Saturday, October 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of Seanan McGuinn's _A Local Habitation_

"The hero's journey has suffered in modern times.  Once we could've gotten a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue, pennants flying.  These days you're lucky to get a battered changeling and her underage, half-trained assistant, and the princesses are confused technological wizards in towers of silicon and steel.  Standards aren't what they used to be."

A few words in favor of ebooks

I almost made the heading "A few words in defense of ebooks," but that seemed a bit harsh.  I don't think they need defending.  They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.  Beyond the standard necessity for the first amendment, I don't think that they need too much in the way of protection.

My next choice was "A few words in praise of ebooks," but I don't know that I am really being laudatory.  More like pointing out the somewhat obvious or a handy benefit of the versatility of ebooks.  (Not sure that versatility is the right word there.)

Anyway, my point.  I have one, I promise.  I sat down with one, and I am going to get to it.

The other day I wondered "aloud" on my Facebook page what I should read next, and I got a recommendation from a somewhat surprising source.  It turned out to be a rather good recommendation actually.

In the past, I would have made a late run to the bookstore, but instead I downloaded the book to Gertrude the nook and started reading almost at once.  (It is rather amazing how slight a connection is required to download an ebook.)  But that benefit/hazard is already pretty well known.  In fact, it is a major component of most ereader advertising campaigns.

The next day I managed to leave Gertrude at work buried under some papers.  Oh no!!  My reading material for the evening was missing!  What to do?  I considered driving back to the office, but really wasn't excited about that prospect.  I had plenty of reading material.  Surely I could find something else.  But I didn't want to find something else.  I wanted to find out what happened next!

Then I thought to myself, "Well, I could turn on the computer and read the rest of the book that way, even though I am not much good at reading backlit screens full of text for hours on end."  I sighed heavily.  Such tragedy.  To be without immediate, preferred access to my drug of choice.  Woe was me.

But wait!!  There was an alternative!  I have downloaded the nook application not only to my PC and laptop but also to Saraswati the Droid phone (just as any overly-gadgeted geek would do), and the Droid screen can easily be dimmed within the nook application to make reading easier.  Although it was a bit odd to be turning "pages" every few sentences, the smaller screen was actually less of a strain on the retinas, so I was able to finish reading the book from the comfort of the magic chair.

Not ideal circumstances, but I managed to survive the hardship with minimal trauma.  Had I been reading the book the "old fashioned" way, I would have been completely out of luck and would have either had to be patient or find something completely else to read or do with my evening.  Technology saves the day!!  Or at least staves off a few hours of boredom.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Butcher Bird - a ruminative draft

I am sure that I have mentioned being a big believer in and fan of reading the right book at the right time in the right state of mind, but I don't know who might be out there actually paying attention, so I am going to go ahead and mention it again.

The process works one of two ways.  Sometimes I know what I am looking for, and I find the book.  Sometimes I don't know what I am looking for, and the book finds me.

After I read Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey, I immediately wanted more and procured a copy of Butcher Bird.  I started it almost right away but then somehow got distracted by other shiny things.  Probably comics -- Sirens of Gotham City, a four-issue Sam & Twitch series, Haunt, and Marvel: 1602.  Somewhere in there I finally finished reading Shadowglass, which kind of made me think that I should read something a little more wholesome.  So I read the Fablehaven series next.  Once I finished that marathon, I cast about for the next read, unsure of whether I wanted a more "serious" or "literary" (the quotes being included to indicate the vaguery of those notions when applied to fiction) novel or to return to the realm of non-fiction (Appetite for Life is the latest addition to the "in progress" list) or if wanted to stay in a realm of magic and fantasy, potentially dark and urban respectively.

In the end, I picked up Butcher Bird again, and the narrative power was akin to the proverbial train wreck one cannot stop watching.  I'm still trying to decide if that comparison is suitably complimentary.  There were indeed parts -- descriptions mostly, as opposed to actions -- I wanted to look away from and not read, but I didn't want to miss a single gorgeously warped and twisted thing, so I managed a happy medium of reading by not allowing my mind too much freedom to conjure graphic, detailed imagery.

Spyder Lee is just a guy running a tattoo parlor (are they still called parlors?) with his friend Lulu who does the piercing.  Then one night, out behind his hole-in-the-wall bar of choice, he is attacked by a demon and saved by a mysterious woman known as Shrike, and his whole world changes.  He wakes up the next morning cursed with the vision of realization that the world has more layers than most people ever see or even realize are possible.

With realization comes responsibility.  There are demonic creatures claiming his best friend and business partner piece by piece, and intervening on her behalf puts Spyder in their ledger of people from whom they can collect unpleasant, if not impossible, things.  The two friends join Shrike on a quest.  Well, Spyder joins, and he brings LuLu along for her own protection and with the hope of finding a way to release her metaphysical bindings.  The quest leads them, and a few other misfits who join them along the way, quite literally into Hell.

There is magic.  There is mystery.  There is treachery.  And loyalty is found in unlikely places.  One of my favorite parts, because it is so well rendered, is the, for lack of a better way to put it, humanity of Lucifer.  Sure he's a con man and a trickster looking out for himself, but time and again it is clear that he only works with what humanity gives him, although I suppose for most people it is easier to simply write him (or any other "enemy") off as evil rather than recognizing the same potential which lies in each of us.  Man created God.  Not the other way around.  Even so, He/She (in whatever form or religion you choose to believe) is real ... as real as faith and hope and love.  A more accurate way to put it might be that each created the other, and in that creation, man discovered God.  I like that.  God created this spark of life or separated the light and the darkness, sent the universe on its merry way and then sat back and waited for someone to realize what had happened.  Upon that realization, the stories began.

Religious riffs aside, it's not uncommon for book endings disappoint me.  After all of the action and drama and conflict and torment and the moment of truth when everything is explained, endings tend to be kind of a letdown.  Some things aren't explained.  Or the author is at a loss of what to do with his characters once the primary conflict is resolved.  Sometimes there are plot holes or too many loose ends.

Not so with Butcher Bird.  The ending is ... real.  It makes sense for the characters and the story.  It winds down rather than lets down.  It's not happily ever after, but there is closure as well as possibility for the future (and I am not talking about a sequel).  After all, good endings should have the potential to be beginnings of something new.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What makes you pick up a book ... and what makes you keep reading?

The infamous "they" says not to judge a book by its cover, but you have to start somewhere, right?

Before you start calling anyone Ishmael or can nod knowingly that it was in fact the best and worst of times, there has to be a reason that you picked up the book in the first place.  Perhaps it is an intriguing title, a favorite author, or a glowing review that catches your eye, and most likely once it does, rather than start reading right away, you flip the book over or turn to the jacket flap for more information, more reasons to keep going.

Just as it is unrealistic for someone to say, "Check out the intelligence of that girl," based on a glance across a crowded room, a potential reader can't spot a strong hero up on a shelf.

Personally I am as much of a sucker for the feel of a book as I am the sight.  I test the weight in my hand.  I fan the pages to get a feel for how they will turn.  I finger the pages to decide if the quality of the paper appeals to me.  I run my hand over the cover.  (I tend to prefer soft, matte covers to those which are shiny and embossed.)  But I still have to be enticed close enough to the book to pick it up in the first place.

Sure there are recommendations from friends and reviewers.  ("She's got a *great* personality!")  Maybe these friends know your tastes well, and maybe you are familiar with the reviewers, but it is still you who must make the final decision of whether to start reading.

Which has more weight?  An endorsing quote or a summarizing blurb?  Is a few sentences enough to pique your interest, or does the entire back cover need to be filled?  If it is the latest book in the series featuring familiar and beloved characters, do you even want a hint as to the next adventure, or are you willing to take a leap of faith and be surprised?

I recently read the Fablehaven series in quick succession, and after the second book, I found myself avoiding any mention of the events to come in subsequent books.  I wanted to immerse myself in the story, watching as the plot unfolded and the characters grew.

Once your initial criteria are met, and the book has been in your hands for a moment or two, what happens?  Do you stand or sit in the store (assuming that you are not shopping online, of course, which presents an entirely different scenario) and read the first paragraph?  First page?  First chapter?  How long does it take to convince you that you want to get to knows the characters and find out what happens to them?

A common recommendation to writers is to start the story in the middle of the action.  Grab the reader's attention and hold on for dear life.  Somewhere out there is a quote to the effect of telling the author to "grab the reader by the throat and sink your thumbs into his windpipe."  Or maybe it is the jugular vein.  Either action ought to get someone's attention and hold it at least until the person passes out.  If a writer can hold a reader's attention even after the reader has relinquished consciousness, so much the better.

There are probably as many recommendations to begin a story at the beginning.  Once upon a time and all that.

I like it when things are already hoppin', as long as the author doesn't leave me in the dark for too long about the basic backstory of how the characters got to where they were when I joined the fray.

The author's style and vocabulary are major factors for me, too.

I can be hooked by a sentence, a paragraph, or a page, but I try to get through at least a chapter before passing initial judgement.

Then the real work begins for the author.  Once he or she has your attention, the job becomes keeping that attention all the way to the final page (and beyond if there is a sequel or two or six).

For me, it is all about the characters.  Yes, characters need to have something to do, but if I don't make some sort of connection with or have some sort of strong positive reaction to the characters, I don't make it through to the end, no matter how intriguing the plot.  On the flip side of the character coin, if I have too strong of a negative reaction to a character -- even if the character is supposed to be the despised villain -- I'll stop.  (Jean-Claude in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, series is one example.  I get that vampires are evil.  I'm all over it.  But he doesn't even have the stones to be truly, sexily evil.  He's just one more manipulative jerk pressuring a woman into a relationship she doesn't want.  It's not sexy.  It's not attractive.  And once Anita caved, I was pretty much done.  I think I made it through one more book after that.  I think I stopped after book four.  The series is now up to something like twenty.  It's too bad.  I really liked Anita.)  That scenario is a little less common, especially if I am really pulling for the hero.  On the edge between the two sides is when a character I like does something which is completely and unbelievably out of character (and I am not talking about outright deception but rather something to fit a formula or as a plot device) or which derails the plot (which is not the same as a plot twist or surprise).  Usually it happens when romantic/sexual relationships between characters end up being conveniently inevitable without really adding depth to either the story or helping the individual characters grow.  (That subject could be a whole separate rant all its own.)

Balance between plot and character is key to the successful telling of any story, and tilting too far in either direction throws off that balance, but I still look for characters first -- people or creatures who inspire an emotional reaction or connection so that I want to find out what happens to them and how they cope with and adapt to their circumstances. A compelling or intricate plot will not keep me reading if I do not have a vested interest in the characters, but interest in a fascinating character will keep me reading through a less than riveting plot.  I get entirely too wrapped up in the lives of imaginary people and thoroughly enjoy doing it.

Now you know (some of the reasons) why I read and what makes me keep reading.  What starts and keeps you reading?  Plot?  Characters?  Language?  Bragging rights?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Banned Books Week

As today is the last day of Banned Books Week, I am a bit late with this post but decided to go ahead and write it anyway.

Plenty of famous, classic books have been banned.  You have all heard of them and hopefully read at least some of them, perhaps without even knowing that they were banned, so instead I am going to post a link to banned graphic novels.

I can't say that I am surprised that any of these books have been banned or deemed objectionable.  What makes me wonder, even if it does not outright surprise me, is the grounds listed for the objection.  Almost all of the objections listed in this particular article are related to sex and/or nudity.

It continues to fascinate me that the standard objection to "objectionable" material is sex and nudity. Sex and "smut" are going to stunt and warp our children, but violence is not? Is that how it works? Take Batman, for example. Even as the hero of our story, he's pretty dark and violent, nevermind his various nemeses. There is some serious violence and emotional torment and trauma running through those story lines, but the objection comes from the sexual content? I don't think that I will ever understand why naked people are scandalous.

Is the conservative readership really that shallow?  Is it really the sex and nudity that is the problem?  Or is it the idea of literature in various forms that challenges the accepted norm (why it is accepted and how it is deemed normal is a whole other discussion) and sex is just an easy out so that the objectors don't have to think and come up with a thoughtful, reasoned argument.  After all, they apparently don't want others to think.

In my world, it comes down to personal responsibility and choice.  There is plenty of writing out there to which I object, and I am perfectly within my rights to do so.  Simply because I object to it or even find it offensive, however, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be written or published or read.  Therefore I make the choice to not read it.  There are plenty of books I read which many would find objectionable, and I try to be sensitive to the fact that my tastes may not even appeal to friends with whom I discuss and share books.  Some things I keep entirely to myself.  Others I share only in limited circles.  Still others I feel safe sharing or recommending far and wide, but even from within that feeling of safety, I expect anyone who might take me up on my recommendation to make the final choice for themselves.  If I recommend a book to kids, I expect parents to be paying attention to what their kids are reading.

If you read something you don't like or find offensive or makes you uncomfortable, by all means close the book.  Put it down.  Walk away.  Voice your opinion.  Speak up about what you don't like about it and why.  Just please don't close your mind at the same time.