Wednesday, June 25, 2008

100 Classics

Current Reading: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

Inspirational Quote: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." -- Italo Calvino

I picked this up over at Moonrat's place. I try to be well read, and I've often wondered how many classics I have yet to read.

Those I've read are in bold.

So here we go...

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill
75 Ulysses - James Joyce [Yeah, I know... ironic, isn't it?]
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Hmm. An even 22%. Of course, I question the list (where's Frankenstein? H.G. Wells? Jules Verne?), but everything has to start somewhere.

I wonder if there exists a list of 100 classics of SF/F? And then of course, you have to get into arguments about the criteria for a classic...

On the off chance that someone's actually reading these posts, leave your suggestions for classics of F and SF in the comments below.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book Report: The Return of Santiago, by Mike Resnick

I read Santiago, the prequel to this book, more than a decade ago. I found it charming: a retelling of western-style myths in a science-fiction setting unified by a search for the most mythical of all characters.

The Return of Santiago is more of the same, although the circumstances have changed and the story is different. Santiago is dead, so a back-world thief sets out to recreate him. Along the way he deals with characters as eccentric and larger-than-life as anything Santiago ever encountered.

In addition to being as entertaining and filled with action as an early John Wayne movie, it also deals with some weighty thoughts: balancing the benefits of civilization against the dangers of government, the pressures of social evolution producing the people that are needed at the time that they are needed, and the surprising ways that human beings can sometimes become the things that they try so hard to find in others.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Fat, by Rob Grant

The last time I read something by Rob Grant, he was one half of Grant Naylor, the author of Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. That was some time ago, and I confess that I found the book sadly deficient compared to the television show. When my wife brought home "Fat," I was a little hesitant. What I got was not what I expected, but it was great.

The story is an excellent example of not one, but three independent and wholly unreliable narrators. We have a fat television chef with an anger problem, a shallow and rakish PR man, and a teenaged anorexic girl obsessed with the lead singer of a boy band. This last is particularly effective, so much so that I had difficulty reading the sections that covered her point of view. The tone for those sections is juvenile and flippant and the contrast with the horror her life has become makes her situation incredibly poignant.

It is funny without being a comedy. It deals with the fallout from science, but it is not science fiction. It is a work of fiction with all the weight and import of a Socratic Dialog.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Problem with Ratings

Current Reading: Fat, by Rob Grant

Inspirational Quote: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster." -- Isaac Asimov

I was reminded recently about the subjectivity of art. What I love, you may hate. So what does it mean when I give a book from the reading list a 5 or a 0? Only that the rating was my response to the book. Mine. That's all.

Is it good? Is it bad? I don't know. I'm just one guy with a set of tastes so built in that sometimes I make the mistake of assuming that they are shared by everyone. However, I've learned a great deal about publishing in the last year and the most important lesson has been that publishing is a labor of love for the people in it. They love books. I have learned that every single book on the shelves is there because people loved it. Not just the author (vanity presses do not count as publishers), but the agent, the editor, the bookstore purchasing department... a whole host of people loved that book. They loved it enough to push it through a process that accepts only the rare manuscript.

Given that, it is pure folly to look at a work and pronounce it unredeemable. The worst I can do is read it through and pronounce it "Not for me."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Measuring Reads

Current Reading: Fat, by Rob Grant

Inspirational Quote: "All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." -- George Orwell

I've been looking over my posts to this point. To read the Book Reports, you'd think I'd never read a bad book. That doesn't say much for my critical faculties. I have read bad books, but not recently and not since I started blogging. I guess I've been lucky.

So, since my prose tends toward the flattering, I've decided to use a rating system to illustrate my response to the book.

  1. I couldn't finish this.
  2. I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.
  3. I had a tough go.
  4. I enjoyed this.
  5. I loved this.
  6. I'll read this again and again.

The ratings for everything I've read are now in the Reading List in the left sidebar.

Book Report: The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

While I read Old Man's War, I would occasionally read out passages to my wife, who shares much of my taste in reading. Once I finished, I read the preview in the back for Ghost Brigades. It looked good, but I'd exhausted my trips to the bookstore for a while and so hunted up another book that was already lying around the house.

Then Father's Day arrived, and I woke up to breakfast in bed (yay!) and a copy of Ghost Brigades (YAY!). I expected a sequel to Old Man's War, and was surprised when only one character from that book showed up in this one. This was less a sequel and more an independent story set in the same universe as the first, much as Pratchett's Discworld books read well independently and even better as parts of a whole. I was a little put off by this, but even so it only took a chapter to entrance me as thoroughly as Old Man's War had. Once again, great action serves only as a frontispiece for a story about personal choice in a setting rich with military and political intrigue.

I couldn't put it down, finishing the last page only two days (each fully packed with other activities) later.

There is another sequel, and I look forward to it.

Book Report: Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

I enjoyed the last Scalzi I read, Android's Dream, very much, so I thought I'd try some of his other work. This one's his first publication and an award winner, so it seemed like a good place to start.

It was. It brought to mind echoes of both Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's the Forever War in its portrayal of soldiers and combat. Scalzi brings a warmth and humor to his characters that makes them difficult to abandon even when the story finishes, while the plot was tight and the pacing never lagged.

A great read.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Alone Together: A Tale of Give and Take

Current Reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Inspirational Quote: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." -- Elmore Leonard

Faber and Mazlish has made the Current Reading header a number of times. It's not a tough read, but it's an important one. I feel it necessary to take notes, and to read it while the kids are elsewhere doing other things. This slows me down and a book which should only take a weekend has now taken several months.

I've been a member of Critters for seven weeks. One of my short stories has been through the mill, and I've critiqued six short stories and one long opening novel chapter for other readers.


Critters serves up roughly 30 manuscripts a week, from which I choose one for critique. As a result, I don't have a large enough sample to draw any representative conclusions.


So far, I have seen work that varies from mediocre to good. I have yet to read anything truly abominable or anything truly outstanding. In my opinion, every piece has had something missing or something not quite right, but then Critters exists because that is the case with every piece of writing and the only way to find and fix those weaknesses is to have someone point them out.


The effort of writing a critique every week has made me more aware my own weaknesses.

My first story resulted in over thirty critiques, each at least 200 words. That's more than 6000 words on a story just under 2500 words long. That's a lot of reader feedback. Most comments were valuable, confirming weaknesses I already suspected were there. A few were not. They brought up points with which I did not agree. A few other critiques were invaluable. They pointed out flaws of logic, inconsistencies of character and holes in plot that I had completely missed.

In general, I think that if I followed the majority of the advice I received, I would end up with a better, stronger story.


Although it's still very early in the experiment, I believe the broad exposure to critical readers will have a positive impact on my work. I'm certainly thinking more critically about things than I was before I joined. I find 200 word critiques a little short to receive and a little long to write (I'm aware of the contradiction), but I'm going to continue. My next short story comes up in 3 weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing the responses.

Book Report: Chindi, by Jack mcDevitt

The cover reviews for Chindi compare it to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, and that is an apt comparison. The major difference is the presence of a plot in mcDevitt's book, something that was intentionally missing from Rama. It remains an interesting stylistic exercise, though, because the book has an almost trip-diary feel: this happened, then this happened, then this happened with each incident of more or less equal weight until nearly two thirds of the way through. Like Rama, the mystery of the spacefaring alien race is never fully revealed.

One point of surprise was the death toll through the book. Numerous characters, many of which seemed central to the story, meet their end by accident or as a result of their own character flaws. I was somewhat disappointed by the end. It provided a satisfactory conclusion, but it retreats from the fairly intimate relating of events through a viewpoint character (mainly Patricia Hutchins, space pilot), to a third-person POV for a grand summary of events that followed the end of the story. It took me out of things at a time when I really wanted to know the emotional/spiritual impact of events on the characters, not just what they ended up doing.

An excellent read with good pace and scientific detail enough to fall firmly into hard SF territory.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Book Report: The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi

I picked up this book because I've come across Scalzi's name a number of times. I've checked out his blog and been intrigued enough to wonder what his work was like.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the title, from the Philip K. Dick story, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" That told me that I was in for something a little unusual, and I always like that. When I read the first bit, in which two people die and an interstellar war almost breaks out entirely because of a nefarious use of intestinal gas, I was hooked. This book is remarkable. The plot twists are absurd, the pace is furious and yet the characters and the story itself never cease to be believable. It is funny. It is packed with action. It is easy to follow, and yet complex.

I had difficulty putting it down, and when I finally finished it, I wished for more.
I don't think there is any praise higher for a book.

Book Report: Archaeology Magazine

If I hadn't become what I have, I think I'd have loved being an archaeologist. I don't mean the "Indiana Jones" kind of grave robber, but the "I divided the field into 1' grids, and I've just unearthed a pottery shard at about the 12th century level" type. There's a thrill to uncovering the leavings of a civilization, wondering what they did and why, how they lived, what kind of people they were, that appeals to me.

Thus, every once in a while I pick up a copy of Archaeology. This one had articles about crystal skulls (for obvious reasons - the tie to the 4th Indiana Jones film), the preservation of Chinese alleys and the caves of Lascaux. As a whole, the magazine balances the accessibility of a "Popular Science" approach with the more rigorous and academic "Scientific American" approach. You can read it as a layman and feel that you're getting a bit of an education in the academics as well.

It's also great fodder for the imagination of anyone looking for non-epic fantasy settings.

Monday, June 2, 2008

In Belated Memoriam... Sorta.

Current Reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Inspirational Quote: "Quit obsessing. Write well." -- Miss Snark

An oversight on my part that needs to be corrected...

A little over a year and a week ago, the blogosphere lost one of its most treasured resources: Miss Snark.

For those of you unfamiliar with the stiletto-heeled mistress of the clue gun, Miss Snark was (and no doubt continues to be) an agent who blogged anonymously about the world of publishing. It's true that she was not the first to do so (although she was one of the first). Nor did she offer insight that could not be found in other venues (I enjoy reading agent blogs, and a list of some of them is on the sidebar).


Armored to nigh invincibility by her anonymity, Miss Snark dared to tell writers the truths they needed to hear in a voice that brooked no argument and pulled no punches. That it was often done with humor and sympathy for the poor clueless writer was only slightly less important a facet of her genius than the depth and breadth of her commitment to share all she knew about her job and her industry. She didn't attempt to be gentle. She didn't attempt to be kind (thus her nom-de-web). I like to think that, because of these things, her advice (commands, actually) penetrated the thick skulls of a few more writers than diplomacy could have reached.

I came to her blog a few months after it went dark, following a link from Writer Beware. I missed the opportunity to publicly proclaim my joining the devotion of Snarklings, but join I did. I loved reading her posts so much that I went back to the beginning and read everything. Some of it twice. In the course of a little over a month, I learned more about publishing than I had in the previous two decades. I laughed a lot, too, which would have been valuable in itself.

She has left her blog up so that her words might educate others who arrive late, and I'm glad she did. I cannot recommend reading her blog highly enough to anyone with a desire to sell their books. Go forth, ye, and be enlightened.