Open Wounds

Book Reviews

My Favorite Novels of 2013

The only book in order is my top choice for the year and one of my favorite of all time (I know its only been out a few months but I read it over two years ago and it rocked my world then and continues to so do or do so or doe-si-doe). The rest are arranged in the order that I thought of them.

wingerWinger, by Andrew Smith. This is a great book that perfectly captures the voice of adolescence. Ryan Dean’s voice is wonderful and authentic and did I mention there’s rugby in the book? Everyone should read this book. It is poetic and brutally powerful.

The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness (including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men). I’m cheating. This is three books but they really are one epic science fiction story that will make you cry and break your heart and keep you turning the pages right up until the end. This is how great sociological science fiction is written. And it happens to be a YA book. The gender politics (everyone can hear what men think but nobody can hear what women think) and the commentary on the nature of being human cuts through you right from the beginning. Then there’s the alien race and consciousness. Wow.

Railsea, by China Miéville. I have to say right from the start that this author is not everyone’s cup of tea and… I read another book by him that I liked and another that I couldn’t finish (rare for me). What does this mean? The language is difficult to get the hang of but once I did I really found this story of White Whale hunting and metaphor mapping to be a wonder. But the language… stay with it. I found it an original work of really great and unique science fiction.

11-22-6311/22/63, by Stephen King. Two friends recommended this to me. I held off until I was ready to travel to Seattle and had 5 hours on a plane facing me there and 5 hours back. So… I have to say this is vintage King writing historical fiction with a vengeance. I loved the main character and would have followed him anywhere after the first couple of pages. Early hook, King never let me go. Time travel, butterfly effect, the 1960s (I was born in 61) all used to good effect. I was sad to see this one end and I’ve recommended to everyone I know since. It’s a long novel and that is a very good thing.

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King. First know that I love a good western and I love the Dark Tower Series. Given that then you can understand why I loved this King coming of age again story. It is chilling and beautifully written.

outOut of my Mind, by Sharon Draper. The story of a disabled child stuck in a wheel chair, unable to speak or communicate yet incredibly smart and aware of what’s going on around her and nobody knows it. This story is so powerful. It’s told from inside the young girl’s head, how she sees and knows the world rather than  from the outside in and this makes the experience raw and challenging. I especially liked the ending and its realistic, no Disney fireworks conclusion.

The Dust of a Hundred Dogs, by A.S. King. Reality Boy was terrific too (so I’ll sneak in a quick recommendation as A.S. King rocks with all her books) but I have to tell you Dust of 100 dogs just rocked my boat. I’m a sucker for a western but I’m also a bigger sucker for a pirate story. And this is a love story also! This is told from the protagonist’s point of view from three unique angles (many dogs perspectives, a modern-day teenager, and a pirate from the days of swashbuckling). This is not a story for the squeamish (rape and pillaging abound) but man did it grab me. I saw the ending coming but felt so satisfied when it arrived that I didn’t care.

Calico Joe, by John Grisham. I know I know. John Grisham? Hey, what can I say. I really enjoyed this baseball book about father-son relationships. I can’t believe how fascinating this story was. My father-in-law hated this and I loved it. The insight into why players do what they do was terrific.

buddhaBuddha, by Osamu Tezuka (including Volumes 1-8, yes, you read that right, 1-8). I’m cheating but I’m not really cheating. It’s one long epic graphic novel in 8 volumes. And it’s the story of Buddha. And the covers were all designed by Chip Kidd. How can you go wrong? This is the Buddha story with a vengeance. It’s all manga from the grandfather of manga, filled with inside jokes about school in Japan, and part Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s also a deep book about religion, it’s uses and misuses and yes, about why we fear death and how we as human beings can come to terms with it. My son and I read these together. Take your time reading the story and enjoy the pen and ink on the full-page panels. The detail is incredible. This is an amazing lifetime achievement.

The Drowned Cities, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Even more brutal and disturbing than Ship Breaker – more violent if you can believe it. And so disturbing reading about children making war on children. This is total heart of darkness time. Keep one eye half closed as you read, but do read it and hope that Bacigalupi writes another story that takes us back to this world. Just… no more chopping off of fingers, please! Ouch.

Well, that it for 2013.

I’m looking forward to the reading list for 2014.

And my own work moves forward, slowly, but surely. If I can just keep at it I should have two books in to my agent this year. Fingers crossed. Nose to the grindstone.

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10 – Part 2

Here’s my second set of five. Make of them what you will, but in no particular order:

Spartacus (Paperback) ~ Howard Fast (Author) Cover ArtSpartacus by Howard Fast is a great book and a great piece of literature. I read this about fifteen years ago and was blown away by how evocative it was and how many layers it carried on it’s scarred shoulders. I loved the movie Spartacus (I’m Spartacus! The watches on the Roman soldier’s wrists in the big battle. The crucifiction after the horrific fight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis who still sounds like he’s in Brooklyn) and only saw the novel while digging for gold at a used bookstore on 19th street near 5th avenue. I couldn’t put this down. As a piece of historical and political fiction (yes and swords and sandals action – though less than you’d think) it blew me away. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction. Note I’ve also seen the first season of the TV show and had a hard time watching it as the violence was incredibly intense and the story so upsetting. But then when was slavery ever anything but? This is the only novel I’ve read by Fast and it’s a keeper.

stand The Stand by Stephen King is wonderful. I’ve read it twice, once when I was a teenager when it struck me as the ultimate teenage angsty end of the world story. I loved the characters, was terrified and caught up in the story, and completely satisfied with the ending. This is King at his best. Then I read it again some twenty years later when he reissued it with an additional 400 pages in the “uncut” version and I loved it even more. This had one of the most gripping opening 50 pages ever. I can still picture the guys at the gas station watching the car with the… and the guy waking up at the hospital…

 

 

 

captain bloodCaptail Blood by Rafael Sabatini surprised me when I read it. I had seen the Errol Flynn film of the book when I was a kid about a dozen times and knew it by heart. When I wrote my novel Open Wounds I used the movie and the book as key plot points. The first half of the book Captain Blood, is almost word for word the screenplay of the movie. But, and here’s the good part, the second half of the book takes Captain Peter Blood to the edge of madness and home again. You’ve missed out on a terrific read if you haven’t taken this step past what is already a great movie story. I’m a sucker for a good pirate story.

 

 

 

make roomMake Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison is absolutely brutal. The movie Soylent Green (Soylent Green is people food! says Chuck Heston from his stretcher) was made from a small piece of this massive, thought-provoking, and yes, depressing and dark science fiction novel. I picked the book up because it said, “Movie based on…” and because I’d read and liked Harry Harrison (Bill the Galactic Hero is a favorite). This is a gritty and powerful and cautionary tale all wrapped up into a crowded, unable to breathe in, novel.

 

 

 

papillonPapillon by Henri Charriere is a magnificent adventure novel based on the life of the author – the only man to escape from Devil’s Island. Because of Papillon I wanted to get a tattoo (thought my wife wouldn’t let me – I know I know). “Welcome to the penal colony of …” from the Steve McQueen movie of the same name is just about perfect accompaniment also. This was one of the first real adult novels I read as a teenager and it fired my imagination.
There’s the last of my ten. Next week as I lie about on vacation (I will not check my work email) I’ll come up with my ten favorite reads of 2013. Never done it before so it ought to be fun.

The Kingdom of Ass-holes

Assholes: A Theory

I know. I know. But tell me if you saw a book like this in the bookstore, that you wouldn’t pick it up to at least, you know, look.

I’ve been reading a book called, Ass-holes, A theory, by Aaron James and thoroughly enjoying it. James is a Harvard educated philosophy doc and takes a philosophical approach to looking at assholes and you either go with it or you don’t. I did. It reminded me of an extended, funny Monty Python sketch. He’s not going to tell you how to deal with assholes. He’s just going to examine them and identify them, and try to figure out why they appear in our world in such large numbers.

I can honestly say I have never seen the work asshole used in combination with so many other words so many different ways, all in one place, before. For example there is asshole management, are assholes shaped by enabling cultures,  self-aggrandizing assholes, reckless assholes, delusional assholes, an asshole population, asshole CEOs, assholes within, corporate assholes, royal assholes, royal royal assholes, presidential assholes, asshole bosses, smug assholes, boorish assholes, borderline or half-assed assholes, the supreme court of assholedom, kingdoms of assholes, small assholes, full-sized assholes, individuals who have an inner asshole, moral assholes, have a proliferation of assholes, be a mere asshole, or be a part of asshole capitalism. And that’s just stuff from the first half of the book that caught my eye.

James sets up a hypothesis for what makes up an asshole as opposed to a psycho, tyrant, scumbag, or jerk. He likes to work from the middle of the spectrum of assholedom.

Why am I writing about assholes? It occurred to me while I was contemplating reading Ass-holes, that I should buy the iBook version and read it on my iPad – one less book to carry around while traveling. Then I realized once again – for I go back and forth on this over and over again – that if I continued this pattern I would not longer buy books from independent bookstores – which, if they no longer exist, would be the end of civilization as we know it.

Besides, I bought Ass-holes because I saw it in the window of Kramer Books on Dupont Circle in DC – a great bookstore, coffee shop and diner.  They earned the purchase by their display, their wonderful sales help, allowing me to wander through their aisles for an hour, and their all around awesomeness.

So in a way, if I didn’t buy the hardcover I would have been an asshole without a cover.

It’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.


The Dust of Dogs and Human Insight

  I’ve been reading A.S. King and learning how to write. Every one of her books is a meditation on the art and craft of the novel. She is wonderful. I just finished her first book, Dust of 100 Dogs, and her latest, Reality Boy – back to back. I’ve read all of her books inbetween also.

Dust is part pirate tale (female protagonist), part coming of age story, part love story, part dog story, part modern and part historical. How would you take being born aware that you were a pirate and then, because of a curse, forced to the live the lives of 100 dogs, before you were again born into present day remembering each of your previous iterations fully?

The pirate story and the modern story are told in parallel as are a number of dog stories. You know the ending at the beginning but it doesn’t matter because you still don’t know how exactly King will get you there. This is a great technique and very hard to pull off yet she did this with her first novel and in such an engaging way. I was so caught up in the story I kept thinking to myself, maybe it won’t end the way she said. I knew the way the story ended. She’s cursed and lives the lives of 100 dogs. But still… I knew how it ended in general, guessed the specifics, and still felt a lump in my throat when I got to the last page.

reality  Reality Boy is so different and so visceral. You can read the synopsis on Goodreads. I’m not going to give it to you. It’s still too fresh for me. A good book will do that to me. It has to settle. I found tears on my cheeks a few times reading Reality Boy, and not because I felt manipulated but because the authenticity of Gerald’s (the protagonist) situation made me – feel. King is expert at capturing what it’s like to be in late adolescence (17). As an example. Gerald has a developmental insight at one point (he sees the world from someone elses point of view). I know this sounds  mundane, but it’s hard to explain this kind of world view to adults and for me, King really puts us inside Gerald’s head and shows us his realization in such a painful and amazing way. And it is amazing, in a story telling world accustomed to cartloads of over-the-top action, explosions, and gun-play, how powerful a single moment of genuine insight from a character we care about can be.

What will she write about next?

 


Chasing the Moldy Warpe

Product Details

Reading Railsea by China Miéville is like taking a course in world-building.

I loved this book. It is the kind of book that took me 50 pages to get hooked on but I was intrigued enough from the opening line to get there.

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

Spectacular opening line.

The reason it was challenging to get into was the same reason it was so fascinating. Miéville creates a world that is told to us by a narrator using a language similar to English but different enough from it that I stumbled through it until I caught its rhythm. I can truthfully say there are a number of things that I read that I truly still do not understand after finishing the book but I don’t care and it in no way took away from the beauty of the book for me. Actually I liked it even more.

Yes, it’s a dystopian world and I like them. Period.

Yes, it has to do with trains and trains are cool.

Yes, it has to do with Moby Dick and the searching for a philosophy or white whale. I liked Moby, even the whale parts.

And yes, the main character is not a superstar, gun and sword wielding hero. He’s pretty mundane, and every-boyish and that’s what makes him so wonderful.

Look at what Miéville does with point of view. It’s 3rd person omniscient through Sham (the bloodstained boy) Ap Soorap’s perspective through the half-way mark and then the narrator tells us it’s time to switch – as if he’s an actor talking to the audience and breaking the 3rd wall. Then the story splits into three stories until they all converge back into Sham. It’s an incredible narrative risk that works spectacularly.

So listen to his narrative. You don’t even need a context:

“No such animal’s crossed our paths,” she said. “Be assured I know now your vehicle’s name, & at the first sign of that beckoning metal in a sinuate mustelid eruchthonous presence, I shall take careful notes of locations. & I shall get you word. On my honour as a captain.”

And then there’s this one from captain Naphi about her “philosophy” the great moldy warpe Mocker-Jack:

“How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”.

He uses the symbol & instead of the word and, and then two-thirds into the book explains why he does.

From word choice, to the rhythm of the narrative, to the way characters speak, to the characters themselves. This world is built from top to bottom and bottom to top. Read it as a reader for pleasure. Read it as a writer for a course on world-building. Read it for the bloodstained boy and the moldy warpe.