Wednesday, January 28, 2015

10 books that shaped me. Times 3

The "10 books that shaped you" thing was floating around the internet a few months ago, and since I bothered to make a list then, I figured I'd record it here for posterity. In a post about my evolution as a reader (recorded on my other blog), I mentioned quite a few of these, but I also give a necessary nod here to a few I've not mentioned otherwise. A few I've also reviewed (note the links) on this blog.

I tripled the ten, and split it into three basic sections of my life. Because I do what I want.



1. Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson)
2. Maniac Magee (Jerry Spinelli)
3. The Chronicles of Prydain (Lloyd Alexander)
4. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
5. The Pit Dragon Chronicles (Jane Yolen)
6. The Dark is Rising Sequence (Susan Cooper)
7. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
8. Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
9. Thursday's Children (Rumer Godden)
10. The Once and Future King (T.H. White)

"Coming of Age"

1. Dandelion Wine (Ray Bradbury)
2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
3. Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett)
4. Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein)
5. The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
6. Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
7. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
8. Arrowsmith (Sinclair Lewis)
9. The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien)
10. Catch-22/Slaughterhouse-5 (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut)


1. A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking)
2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)
3. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)
4. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
5. The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
6. Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)
7. Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie)
8. Possession (A.S. Byatt)
9. The Giver (Lois Lowry)
10. Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Hyperion

Hyperion (1989), Dan Simmons. Paperback, 482 pages.

Awards: Hugo Award winner (1990), Locus Award winner (1990), British Science Fiction Award nominee (1990), Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee (1992)

Summary: A group of pilgrims journeys to confront a mysterious, remote, but terribly dangerous killing machine that has shaped each of their lives in profound and horrible ways. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine  kilometers high in a violent sky.

Each morning Sol sat by his daughter's bed until she awoke. The first minutes of her confusion were always painful to him, but he made sure that he was the first thing Rachel saw each day. He held her while she asked her questions. 
"Where are we, daddy? 
"In a wonderful place, little one. I'll tell you all about it over breakfast." 
"How did we get here?" 
"By 'casting and flying and walking a bit," he would say. "it's not so far away . . . but far enough to make it an adventure." 
"But my bed's here . . . my stuffed animals . . . why don't I remember coming?" 
And Sol would hold her gently by the shoulders and look into her brown eyes and say, "You had an accident, Rachel. Remember in The Homesick Toad where Terrence hits his head and forgets where he lives for a few days? It was sort of like that." 
"Am I better?" 
"Yes," Sol would say, "you're all better now." And the house would fill with the smell of breakfast and they would go out to the terrace where Sarai waited.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 8/10

Rounded Characters: 7/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10

Overall Recommendation: 8/10

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Divergent (Book one in a trilogy)

Divergent (2011), Veronica Roth. Hardcover, 487 pages.

Brief Summary: A girl struggles to find her place in a brutal dystopian society that separates citizens into personality groups with little allowance for individuality. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

My mother and father would not approve of my kicking someone when she's down. 
I don't care. 
She curls into a ball to protect her side, and I kick again, this time hitting her in the stomach. Like a child. I kick again, this time hitting her in the face. Blood springs from her nose and spreads over her face. Look at her. Another kick hits her in the chest. 
I pull my foot back again, but Four's hands clamp around my arms, and he pulls me away from her with irresistable force. I breathe through gritted teeth, staring at Molly's blood-covered face, the color deep and rich and beautiful, in a way. 
She groans, and I hear gurgling in her throat, watch blood trickle from her lips. 
"You won," Four mutters, "Stop." 
I wipe the sweat from my forehead. He stares at me. His eyes are too wide; they look alarmed. 
"I think you should leave," he says. "Take a walk." 
"I'm fine," I say. "I'm fine now," I say again, this time for myself. 
I wish I could say I felt guilty for what I did. 
I don't.

Writing Quality: 4/10 

Depth of Concept: 4/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 5/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 5/10

Saturday, April 27, 2013


It's been a nice break. But I've been thinking more and more about getting a few reviews out of my system.

This is the back-log of books I have sitting on my desk to review right now, full of dog-ears and sticky notes:
Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Hunter of Worlds, C. J. Cherryh

Able One, Ben Bova

Marsbound, Joe Haldeman

Sabriel, Garth Nix

Sphere, Michael Crichton

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Westmark, Lloyd Alexander

Divergent, Veronica Roth
Anyone wanna offer a vote as to which couple o' books I should tackle first? 

Friday, December 21, 2012

What is the best literary award for literature for young people?

First, head over to the booksluts to see my comic and post for the month of December.

Second, I forgot to include it in my review of The Hobbit last week, but it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and it won an award from the New York Herald Tribune for "best juvenile fiction." Both awards sound like well-respected literary awards for children's fiction, with the Carnegie medal described as "the UK's oldest and most prestigious book award for children's writing," and the New York Herald Tribune's award vying with the Newbery Medal as the most prestigious award for children's writing in the United States. With how popular Tolkien's novel was, you'd have expected it to win for something, right?

The thing is, not all awards are created equal. And an award for "popularity" is very different than an award for literary distinction. Twilight, for instance, was named by Publisher's Weekly as one of the Best Children's Books of 2005. The Hunger Games won the same distinction in 2008, as well as the California Young Reader Medal (voted on by students).

Now, I'll be up front about the fact that I am not an expert on these kinds of awards. Sometimes it's hard to find a description of an award that doesn't sound like the over-excited publisher's blurb on the back of a novel. So, suffice it to say that you'll want to make your own decisions about whether an award is as impressive as it appears from its Wikipedia article.

But I've spent a little time looking around different awards lists, and I've come up with a few that seem like good places to go if you're actually interested in finding great literature within the realm of novels written for young people. (Hint: Anything that included Twilight was a pretty quick cut).

None of the awards solely honor sff stuff, but there's still plenty to be found there. I've put the awards in a very rough order of most prestigious/coolest near the top, and less established or useful ones at the bottom. Do you have any awards worth adding? Any thoughts about the ones listed here?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: The Hobbit

File:TheHobbit FirstEdition.jpg

The Hobbit (1937), J. R. R. Tolkien. Paperback, 320 pages.

Summary: An unassuming hobbit finds himself swept up in a fantastic adventure that tests his loyalty, courage, and ingenuity. This is the one that kick-started the fantasy genre, and that presented a lot of the characters and archetypes that would be copied in later literature. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
     In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.
     Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, but not one of them had done all these things. He had a feeling that the answer was quite different and that he ought to know it, but he could not think of it. He began to get frightened, and that is bad for thinking. Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: "Give me more time! Give me more time!" But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:
Time! Time!
Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer. Gollum was disappointed once more; and now he was getting angry, and also tired of the game. It had made him very hungry indeed. This time he did not go back to the boat. He sat down in the dark by Bilbo. That made the hobbit most dreadfully uncomfortable and scattered his wits.
     "It's got to ask uss a question, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more question to guess, yes, yess," said Gollum.


Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reader poll: How do you define "YA"?

I mentioned a few weeks back that I'm spending some time thinking about literature for young people. At first I called it "YA" literature, but I'll be honest that I don't really have a solid handle on what to call the stuff I'm referring to. It's bigger than "YA." It may at one time have been merely labeled "children's literature," referring to anything not written specifically for adults. "YA" as a label is not necessarily inclusive of all of the great stuff that's been written for younger audiences, and I was really intending to be more inclusive. The Graveyard Book, for instance, is marketed for younger-than YA audiences, even though it's significantly more sophisticated and well-written than, say, Twilight. Here's a snippet of what Wikipedia has to say about the "YA" designation:

The term "YA" obviously gets fuzzy at the edges. But to be clear: YA is a marketing term, perhaps more now than it ever has been. It's used by booksellers and librarians as a crude way to offer a space between things for children and things for adults. It can be a pretty arbitrary division. By it's basic criteria, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird could have been called "YA" novels. But I don't think anyone would argue that those two are in a different league from, say, The Hunger Games or Twilight, both novels that have inspired a slew of copycat teen romance novels that have sort of hijacked the label.

For the moment, I'm going to side-step the tricky and baggage-laden term "YA," and just say that I'm interested in things that are either written for young people, or that hold appeal for them. That includes The Hobbit (review forthcoming!), which includes no characters between the ages of 12-18, but which is beloved by many pre-teen children as well as many adults; it includes Watership Down, which hasn't any human characters at all, much less adolescent ones; it includes The Lord of the Flies, which hits teenage protagonists dead on but which was written for adults, and it includes Never Let Me Go, a novel with characters that start as children and end as adults, but which beautifully details a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and which is as subtle and captivating (and critically acclaimed) as anything else written for anyone. There are obviously a lot of bases to cover. And this doesn't even touch the classic canonical works that teenagers are required to read in school. If a young adult reads them, and identifies with them, can an argument be made that they are "young adult" books?

Having said all this, I've still got to reiterate that I'm no expert on literature written for young people; I've only read a lot of it. This isn't an essay, it's a conversation starter. There are plenty of other essays out there, and a lot of interesting research. I'm just interested to hear y'all's ruminations on how things written for young people can or should be different than stuff written for adults. Why do some people never graduate from young adult literature? Why do others refuse to touch the stuff? And why (if you agree with me) are both cases so unfortunate?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In which I start thinking about YA books . . .

For the next few weeks I'm going to be putting down some of my thoughts about children's and young adult literature. If I had more time, these thoughts would be crafted and researched like an essay; I usually feel uncomfortable about making literary arguments without having spent the time and energy to place my own thoughts within the context of current scholarship on the topic. But, you know, LIFE. Also, STAY-AT-HOME-PARENT. So, whatever, I'm not going to worry about crafting this so much as try to clutch together a few threads that might crudely articulate my thoughts on the subject. Maybe I'll just call it "brainstorming" and if y'all want to jump in, feel free.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station (2003), China Mieville. Paperback, 640 pages.

Awards: Nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel; won the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2001 British Fantasy Award.

Summary: A rogue scientist unleashes a terrible monster on the city of New Crobuzon, and is aided by a motley group of companions in vanquishing the invading brood. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Veldt to scrub to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.

     The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like trogolodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.  

     How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller?  
     It is too late to flee.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Halloween post, excerpted from my dad blog

Someday I'm gonna write sff for a living. For now I'm mostly living it with my two-year-old. Here's a Halloween post to tide you over until I review Perdido Street Station tomorrow.

Light seeps in through the slivered gaps between the window shades, dripping little splashes of obnoxious sunshine right onto your eyelids. You strain to listen, but hear no sounds from the munchkin's room, so you stretch and turn over. Just for a few more minutes.

But despite the cheery transition from sleep to wakefulness, from shadowy night to revealing day, something unsettling tickles the edges of your awareness. You turn again. And then again. Is that a cry you hear? A faint, almost feline sound, too far away to be your daughter. Or is it? It sounds again, seeming to echo forlornly on another plane, a reality just barely touching your own.

Sighing, you haul yourself out of bed. Your wife slumbers still, turned away from you, a pillow shielding her face from the light. You rub your eyes, faint recollections from the night seeping slowly through your consciousness. Something about being chased, and running in slow motion, and then a creature with teeth and claws . . .

You stand outside of the munchkin's door for a minute, head resting on the door jamb. No sound. No faint cries. No whines. You crack the door, just a little bit. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room, and it seems you can just barely make out something glowing, hovering just above her bed. You squint, and crack the door a little further. And then you realize that it is her eyes glinting in the darkness, reflecting back the light in the hallway. She stands in her crib, motionless. Just watching you. Her eyes never seem to blink.

If you'd like to read more, you can read the rest of it at my dad blog, Raised by my daughter. Have a happy Halloween!