Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

Book List 2008 January 5, 2008

Gosh, is it 2008 already? Really? Better get reading…

1. On Writing by Stephen King. If I were a King fan, I think this book would be fascinating. As it was, I found it interesting, somewhat inspiring, and a tad self-indulgent. But I suppose if anyone has a right to be, it’s King. At any rate, he states he reads about 80 books a year. 80 books! And he claims to be a slow reader. That must mean I’m like a glacier (which also means I’m getting faster!). All things aside, this was an excellent book to start the new year.

2. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’d read this many years ago, though I’d forgotten I’d done so. As I started reading, I began to remember bits and pieces. Kay is much too dramatic for my taste. Everything is repeated for the sake of emphasis. Everything. Still, it’s considered a classic. I didn’t get through it the second time around.

3. The Bull from the Sea By Mary Renault. What can I say? She’s brilliant. The more I read of her, the more in love I am with her genius. The emotional richness is just awe-striking. The most amazing thing–I knew how it would end. After all, the plot follows the myth of Theseus. But it was so gripping, so full of suspense, not in the sense of “what happens now” but of the emotional sort. I found myself cringing in fearful anticipation as I got to the end, and yet unable to put the book down. By the finish my cheeks were damp.

4. The Wealdwife’s Tale by Paul Hazel. I don’t know if this is bizarrely brilliant, just bizarre, or incomprehensible dribble. It was a difficult book to get through, seeming full of false starts and rewinds, which somehow is part of the story. At the end, I liked it, but couldn’t tell you what it’s about.

5. Brightness Falls from the Air by James Tiptree, Jr. This book was recommended to m as a study in suspense, and rightly so–I couldn’t put the book down. It’s slow moving in the beginning. In fact, not a lot happens in the first 100-150 pages (the book is only about 400 pages long). And yet as I read I was so aware of the author putting all her (James Tiptree is a pseudonym) pieces in place, like a grand chess master, and the expectations she creates, the potential is what drives the story. You know she’s going to start moving her pieces toward some inexorable conclusion, and in the process she throws in unknown, cosmic factors. A great, moving, surprising book, that ends with a satisfying ache.

6. Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann. The premise is clever–the protagonists are sheep trying to solve the mystery of the murder of their shepherd. At times the book is charming as the sheep try to figure out the human world, and the reader can understand what they can’t. However, I had trouble suspending my belief on this one. It’s not at all like Watership Down, in which the characters were so believable. Here, the sheep would seem to lack memory or insight at the author’s whim, so much as through a well-constructed characterization. Furthermore, I’m left now really knowing what the story is, partly because there are so many protagonists, and the author keeps introducing new sheep. The ending felt unsatisfied–the mystery is solved, partly through the sheep’s doing, partly not, but more terribly, it ends with a different character than I expected. Ultimately, it’s a book about sheep, so yeah, you get a little impatient with their stupidity.

7. Funeral Games by Mary Renault. Disappointed with my previous read, I retreated to the arms of my favorite. I thought this book to be the most sophisticated of the ones I’ve read, but, perhaps, the least rewarding. The story winds to its merciless ending like a serpent to its prey. The sad treachery that etched away Alexander’s great empire is told through the eyes of the many victims. Few characters are spared; consequently, forging attachments to any one is difficult. However, through it all, we feel what the Macedonians of that time must surely have felt, too–the cold shadow of Alexander the Great’s legacy, as if he were a colossus standing over them all. He is dead before the book even begins, and yet his life continues to burn hot throughout.

8. Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley by Alan Garner. A classic children’s fantasy by a celebrated author. It’s clearly inspired by The Lord of the Rings. There’s dwarves, even a Lady Galadriel character, trolls, orc-like creatures, and a run through mines very reminiscent of The Mines of Moria. It’s geared much more for kids, though, and heavily influenced by Norse mythology.

9. Fevre Dream by G.R.R. Martin. Think Mark Twain meets Bram Stoker. Similar to tone as Tuff Voyaging. The main character was even pretty similar. I was a bit skeptical when I started, but by the middle I was pretty well hooked. This book displays his skill in story crafting, something the Song of Ice and Fire is too diffuse to do.

10.Alexander: Invincible King of Macedonia (Military Profiles) by Peter G. Tsouras. Like almost all biographies on Alexander, this one suffers a bit from Alexanderism–Tsouras has a gushing crush on his subject. Who can blame him? Alexander is pretty awesome… Anyway, this book sums up Alexander’s military career fairly succinctly and was a good, neat read.

11. When We Were Real by William Barton. Another example of a story mastering first person POV. Barton’s tale spans millennia and weaves in and out of past and present tense, yet somehow, it’s completely believable. I was buying the story hook line and sinker. A wonderful story about loving against all odds. This is one that will linger with me for a long time to come.

12. Momo by Michael Ende. The book is similarly themed to Ende’s more famous children’s fantasy The Never Ending Story, which dealt with a world that has no space for imagination. In Momo’s world, the world has no time for it. I thought it a gripping read, and realized what makes suspense is when there are so many possibilities anything can happen. The author has set up enough rogue elements that you don’t know what’s going to come in to play when. But the book also feels incomplete… there’s at least one plot thread that’s never tied, and in fact, one of the main characters disappears halfway through the book, in a rather unhappy way, and is never heard from or thought of again, even while the rest of the ending is happy.
13. The Last Amazon by Steven Pressfield. I’m usually wary of books that are “the last” whatever, but I like Pressfield, and I’d read in various reviews that this was one of his best. I still say Virtues of War is, but this one was good. Probably better than Gates of Fire. Very cool imagining of the Amazons. Also, he does a fairly decent job of nesting stories within stories.
14. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Since it’s considered The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel, I figured I had to read it. Now, at last, I grok. A bit ideological and sexist (his women tend to be completely averse to logic and reasoning but act emotionally) but overall a damn good book.
15. The Gambler Fyodor Dostoevski. It’d been a long time since a last read Dostoevski (high school?). This book was much easier, though less substantial both in volume–a mere 180 pages–and substance. Much more tightly focused. Still, a haunting, honest portrayal of a gambler (Dostoevski underwent a brief gambling phase himself, but was able to walk away and never return). There are definite echoes of Manon Lescaut. In fact, one of the characters shares a name with a character of that novel–Les Grieux.
16. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. Alexander the Great. What more need I say?
17. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. A gripping novel. She’s not as compelling to me as Renault but in some ways her story crafting is better. There’s a lot of suspense, though we know that the MC (Merlin) won’t be harmed, there’s the potential of a huge emotional cost.
18. The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart.
19. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart. I picked up both of these books, the sequels to The Crystal Cave sequentially and read them all the way through. Fantastic books. I don’t quite understand how she makes them so gripping, but there you have it. It’s one of those endings that evoke tears, too. Good tears.
20. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Not much to say for this one. It was nominated for a Hugo and ended up winning a John Campbell for best new novelist or something. It took off very slowly, though was engaging enough to keep me flipping through it. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a real easy read. Why do all military novels feel like they have to take you through basic training? What worked for this book is the unlikely hero. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Barton’s When we were real, slow moving, more of a journey than a tight story line with a distinct arc. What’s necessary then is, in this case, setting; in Barton’s, the trailing threads of love and self discovery. Scalzi has some of those themes too, but not nearly as prominent.
21.Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.
22. The Sun and Moon by Vonda McIntyre.
23. Fatherland by Robert Harris. Not as brilliant as Imperium but good. A fast, gripping read. I admire the way he holds suspense. There are a couple stereotypes–the driven investigator, the aggressive American woman–but they work in the story. Towards the end I like how he weaves in historical documents right into the narrative–the text of the letter followed by dialogue.
24. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I’ve decided I’m Catherine Moreland. A fanciful imagination, socially awkward, unaware of the effect she has on people, and attracted to bright, witty men.


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