Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Club for Men

Some friends and I decided to start a book club for men. We all like reading, we all like talking about books, and we all think girls are icky, so it seemed logical. We played it by ear (what's past tense of "wing it"?) for the first four book selections, but now it's time to pick books for the rest of 2013. This way we can start looking for good deals or check them out early from the library to save money for important things like tools, raw meat, and spa days.

We have a few guiding principles for choosing books. First, the book has to be at least somewhat manly. No girly books allowed. No glistening vampires or talking about emotions. Romance is a side plot at the most, and somebody had better die a violent and honorable death.

Second, as one club member so eloquently stated, "I don't want to read any books that will make me a better person." We just kind of nodded when he said that. It was a foregone conclusion.

Third, we're focusing on Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I'll totally re-read Rainbow Six if it gets voted in, but most of us aren't looking for profanity-laden military action novels. We want to read about a world that doesn't exist, with awesome characters, good writing, and good plot development.1 And it's kind of required to have either magic or some technology that is indistinguishable from magic (at least to my primitive mind).

Everybody is supposed to suggest 3 books, so I just spent two hours trying to research good Fantasy novels I haven't read. I already know I love everything Brandon Sanderson has ever published (though I'm unschooled in the ways of the Wheel of Time series), and I appreciate Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles (love his prose, not impressed with his pacing, could do without the sex scenes), but most of us have already read those. We need fresh meat.2

Trying to find reliable Fantasy novel reviews is like trying to find reliable fast food restaurant reviews. Someone who hates Taco Bell could be a food snob, could hate Mexican food specifically, could love a rival (Taco Cabana? Seriously?), or it could be because Taco Bell is actually bad. Without trying it for yourself, you just don't know. Half of you are thinking to yourselves right now, "Taco Bell is awful! Their beef isn't even beef! This is no contest." The other half of you can meet me at the nearest drive-thru in about 15 minutes.

If we can't agree on the quality of a product as simple as fast food (it's the same 8 ingredients organized differently), how will we ever agree on whether a book series is good?

They certainly couldn't agree online:

The book was too slow. - Did you even read the same book? I couldn't put it down! - The plot was derivative, especially where [insert SPOILER here because the reviewer is a giant jerk]. - There were too many characters. - I loved all the characters! - The descriptions were too long. - I loved the way the author's detailed descriptions really transported me there! - It was too straightforward; you don't even have to try to figure things out. - Sure, you may have to re-read it four times to figure out what's going on, but it's worth it! - The series was great, but it's like the author gave up in the last 30 pages.3 - This added nothing new to the genre, so I will discard it offhandedly. - It started slowly, but by the end of the second 1,000 page book, things really started to pick up.

Two. Hours. Of that. And what happens when most people agree that A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) is good? Then I have to google whether it's "clean," and I find that it's "dark and gritty" and also "extremely gory" with "graphic sex scenes," and "will ruin your innocence the way Michael Bay ruined Transformers." I'm not reading that.

So, any suggestions that don't suck4?

1 And did I mention no sparkling vampires?
2 Which is particularly meaningful in retrospect, because we picked a zombie book.
3 Surprisingly, that last review was not with regards to Mockingjay.
4 I really, really, really mean it; no sparkling vampires.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Partially Excused

There was a time when I thought writing a short story was a great idea. I outlined, wrote a chapter or two, came up with a vague idea for the climax, and got distracted by something shiny. Not finishing it has not haunted my dreams1.

Turns out I'm not much of a writer.

That hasn't decreased my love for Writing Excuses, an entertaining and instructional podcast for aspiring authors. The podcasters include Brandon Sanderson (my favorite published author in the entire world), Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Over the years they've proven that they know a lot about writing, and especially about how to think while writing. They've done episodes analyzing each other's work in-depth, and they talk about decisions in their own writing in such a captivating way that I just had to try it all.

Howard's Schlock Mercenary is a web comic, and it's now on my regular rotation. I also take into consideration Howard's movie reviews before deciding whether I need to see something in the theaters2.

I haven't read Mary's stuff yet, but I'm still young3.

Most recently (yesterday), I've been reading Dan Wells. A few months ago, I decided to check out Partials from the local library. There were times when I didn't think I'd finish it before its due date, but I liked the premise and persevered. It is a post-apocalyptic world containing the last remnants of the human race and the Partials, the bio-synthetic soldier race that humanity created. A war with the Partials killed many humans, but is not ongoing. A virus with no known cure killed many more, and those left over are immune, but newborns are not. So the human race is facing a slow, drawn out extinction, and our strong-willed protagonist is determined to find a cure. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wells bridged the gap between Partials and Fragments (book 2 of the trilogy) by releasing a short story called Isolation that quickly fleshed out the backstory of another character. Isolation was absolutely brilliant, and some fans said that this was the quality of writing they'd come to expect from Wells . That got me excited about the rest of the series. I enthusiastically give Isolation 5 stars out of 5.

Then came Fragments. It took me two 14-day check-outs of the e-book to finish Fragments. That's almost an entire month that I spent procrastinating instead of reading4. Writing Excuses talks frequently about following the rule, "in late, out early," which helps keep the story interesting and moving quickly. Fragments asked that rule out on a date, then stood it up and Facebooked about its crush on the whole Tom Bombadil section of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Basking in Isolation's afterglow, Fragments opened brilliantly, then drizzled boredom through the halfway mark. Some plot advancement burst brightly through the clouds for a chapter, and then again left us trudging through the chilly puddles of character stagnation. I didn't feel properly gripped by the story until the climax (93% of the way through, according to my e-reader), and then I spent an hour angrily writing down all the things that the climax did wrong. Characters made key decisions that were out of character for them because the plot required it (there's no Excuse for that), and a key premise of Wells' world was based on smart people making an obvious and massively stupid decision5.


I wouldn't be so annoyed if the premise hadn't captured my imagination.

With the pacing, exposition, and other issues through Partials and Fragments, I can say that the entire trilogy would probably fit better in a single book.

With all that said, because of Isolation, I'm giving Dan another chance. I'll read the last 10% of the third book (Splinters? Crumbs? Very Small Rocks?) because I want closure. He also wrote the John Cleaver series, which I'm hoping will turn out to loosely be a cleaner, Young Adult horror version of Dexter.

Wish me luck.

1 The current nightmare is Manu Ginobli in Miami cooking apple turnovers.
2 Sorry, Man of Steel, Howard told me you use shaky cam for action scenes. That means I'll wait until you cost $6 on eBay, or I may just skip you entirely, like I did with Wolverine, Electra, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
3 Okay, I just did the math (and hurt my back in the process), and it turns out I’m not all that young.
4 Also, sorry that I haven't called, Mom. I've been really busy.
5 Even more stupid and more massive than the current round of Obama Administration scandals.