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Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Giving Plague

recommended: "The Giving Plague" (David Brin)

Forry is a pathology researcher, and he hates the ALAS virus. In The Giving Plague, he tells us the story of ALAS, its discovery, and its impact.

The beginning of the story was jarring for me. An angry Forry narrating to a virus was a little strange. And Forry was so angry that I didn't like him, especially when he demonstrated that he was also cynical and selfish. However, then fellow researcher Leslie Adgeson appeared and hooked me. In contrast to Forry, he's generous and insightful, and the more Forry talks about him, the better the story becomes. In fact, as the story progressed, the contrast and personality clashes between these two characters added a compelling flavor, and because of Leslie, Forry became a more likable character to me.

As for ideas, an integral ingredient to every science fiction work, this story bleeds them. And they weren't just small ideas, either. It asked questions that left me thinking, and I will probably never again see diseases in quite the same way. This is the primary reason I'm recommending the story. If a story can expand my mind like this, then it's a worthy read.

As with other Brin fiction I've read, it is strong on the science. However, Brin is very good at describing scientific ideas and theories in an accessible way, and does not rely on flashy or obscure terms. While some hard sci-fi can bore or annoy me with excessive technical jargon, Brin has yet to do it, and that's great!

An added bonus is that the story is free, and you can get it online. I found it linked from the Biology in Science Fiction blog, in particular, this article. It's also a quick read, which is nice when you're staring at your computer screen.

Get The Giving Plague over at www.davidbrin.com.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Recommend interesting sites...

Billy Goat and I are trying to join the science-fiction and fantasy literature community. We think there is lots of room for a "recommendations blog" (hey, that's us!), but we like to read what other people have to say.

We're starting to add a few links on our blogroll - please feel free to suggest some more in the comments!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bad Grawp! Down, boy!

Mrs. Troll and I made it to an early showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We had a nice time, but I think we agree it wasn't so great.

Perhaps a variation on Rule Number One? No series of movies is ceaselessly brilliant? (Well, they weren't ever brilliant, but they were fun.) Order of the Phoenix was just a little bland.

I think the real problem is that the books have gotten insanely heavy. They're not possible to cut down to movie size - too many things are happening, and we can't learn anything about the characters.

That's my two cents! I hope you enjoy it more. Please discuss amongst yourselves in the comments...

Little, Big

Recommended: Little, Big (John Crowley)

Little, Big is an odd but rewarding book.

The story starts out with Smoky Barnable, walking to a place called Edgewood, where he is soon to be married. For two years he's been courting Daily Alice Drinkwater (yes, this book is filled with interesting names). From here, we are introduced to the mysteries of Edgewood through Smoky's eyes.

Soon after, the story meanders, and it sketches out the lives of multiple generations of the Bramble/Drinkwater/Barnable family tree. Looking back at the story, I find that the family tree illustrated at the beginning of the book evokes the structure of the narrative, which is tangled and sprawling. It moves back and forth through time, and focuses not only on Smoky and Alice, but on their ancestors and children as well.

At times, it has an atmosphere that reminds me of the tales of Merlin and King Arthur, but set in modern time. Fairies hide around corners, just waiting to be photographed. A sprawling house of indeterminate architecture, a mansion fashioned of memory, a stolen child, a doppleganger, a magic fish, and other strange creatures, places, and people all conspire to make the modern and mundane magical, and thus fun.

There are also your usual dramatic trappings of lost love, family conflict, personal failings, and their consequences. These draw out the characters, in particular Smoky, Alice, and their son, Auberon. And despite the magical elements surrounding them, the characters and their challenges are still all very human.

The length of this book, as well as the plotting may put off some readers. I see this as an unfortunate consequence of its nature as a generations-spanning story of a family. However, it manages its form quite well in my opinion, and much better than some other books I've read that follow a similar pattern (Anne Rice's The Witching Hour comes to mind, ugh).

I greatly enjoyed what this book had to offer in terms of atmosphere and plot. These are the aspects of the book that really stick out to me. It gave me a reading experience that was much different than what I have come to expect from the fantasy genre, and that's a good thing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Green Hills of Earth

Recommended: "The Green Hills of Earth" (Robert Heinlein)

Robert Heinlein wrote some pretty weird science-fiction novels. Classic Heinlein novels are long, bizarre, and seem to revolve around sex. And free love. The protoganist (almost always male) suggests a certain auto-biographical flavor... So was Mr. Heinlein a randy old goat, or are these stories just his sexual fantasies?

(Let me emphasize that was a rhetorical question, in case any commenters know more about his personal life than I want to know!)

All this to say that Mr. Heinlein was, I think, a strange man, and he wrote strange books. At times, however, his work is inspired. Stranger in a Strange Land is great (although, there's not as much sex in this one). The Number of the Beast is very fun (it's fan-fic; fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Frank Baum should enjoy the palpable love Mr. Heinlein has for Barsoom and Oz.).

But his early work swings to other end of the spectrum. A collection of short stories (also titled The Green Hills of Earth) displays the usual outrageous patriarchal world-view fantasies of '50s television. The stories were written earlier in his career, during the late 40s and early 50s. Perhaps he wasn't a committed swinger yet, or perhaps he needed to sell stories that publishers would actually pay for.

These are very simple stories. Sappy Man-Stories. Women characters, although always treated with respect, fade into the background. I can make up a plausible plot in five minutes: "Hey Pops, can you teach me to fly the rocket?" "Not until you raise your grades in algebra, Junior." "Aww, Pops!" So of course Junior takes the rocket out for a spin anyways, Junior's little sister sneaks on board, danger ensues, but in the end Pops rubs Junior's crew cut with fatherly pride.

I made that plot up, but it sounds just like one of Mr. Heinlein's stories. Seriously. These stories *are* that bad. And this guy won the Hugo Award? Five times?

But who said stories had to be good to be recommended? I think these are fun stories. "The Green Hills of Earth" is as manly, simplistic, and sappy as any of the others. The story tells the history of an old blind spaceman named Rhysling, who cadges his way around the solar system, lugging his accordion and yowling out doggerel:

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth
Let us rest our eyes on fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.


Think for a moment what your life would be like, if you spent the next several decades working in asteroid belts and on strange moons. Do you remember what it's like to be away from home for weeks... months, years? Have you felt the quiet pull of familiar lands, of the home whose memory still floast through your dreams?

The homesickness pours through this story--it's a story of love, loss, and yearning for home. And that is what makes it beautiful.

That rare gift, to make the pages of a story sing out with emotion, that gift is Mr. Heinlein's.

The Green Hills of Earth is back in print. Hunt through your local bookshops, or try your library. Yes, you can get it cheaply from amazon.com, but even so, it's not a book you'll read more than once.

More sex Heinlein!

  • The Hugo Winners: Double Star, Farmer in the Sky, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

  • It's almost like it's a Heinlein-festival! Mindy at ProperNoun agrees with me. Also, visit Biology in Science Fiction for some more about sex and Heinlein.

  • I like Mr. Heinlein's science-fiction. The science isn't emphasized (people and relationships are first and foremost), but he does throw in little sciencey-details now and again. Hooray, science!

  • There's something very interesting about female characters in his work, even if they rarely emerge from the background. Always--always--the female characters are capable, independent, and strong. They do frequently assume stereotypical gender roles (as do the men), but that is not an hindrance to independence. For example, in "Space Jockey", Phyllis must nervously wait at home, twisting her hands on her apron (yes, an outrageous housewife stereotype), while Jack earns the bread flying dangerous rockets and rarely coming home (a manful gender role). Yet Phyllis begins to contemplate divorce because she's not willing to ignore her emotional needs. It's a very small point in the story (Phyllis herself isn't a major character), but you can see little details like these crop up even in early Heinlein. Good for him.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

How (Not) to Write an Amazon.com Review

The Amazon.com sci-fi or fantasy book review is an art form all to itself. It can artfully spoil the best books, and invoke a beautiful confusion over who is more worth reading: the latest Hugo award winner, or the author who puts an S&M scene and a thwarted prophecy in each and every one of his bloated, cliched, 1000+ page novels. Writing an Amazon.com book review that lives up to these standards can be difficult to pull off.

Here are some tips to pull it off in style.

Gush

Gushing shows your immense love for the book. It also demonstrates your belief that everyone must read it! Tell us how much you love the book. Then tell us how you wrote and asked the author to make beautiful children with you. Also make sure to tell us about your fanfic crossover novel with the characters from Buffy, Alias, your Dungeons and Dragons game, and this book. We need this info to gauge your devotion, because your devotion indicates to us the worth of the book.

Compare to Tolkien

Everyone knows Tolkien was the best, and it's the highest form of compliment to compare an author to him. All the professionals already do it on book jackets, anyway, so you should too. It is a compliment that will never, ever grow stale or become cliched, and will be forever meaningful, even if it is applied to every author and his dog.

Go Into Lots of Detail

Tell us as much about the plot and characters as you can. This is very entertaining, and summaries are meant to be long (the "sum" in summary means "add" after all), because there are lots of important details to include. Plus, you are probably a better writer than the author who put years of effort into the work, and can describe her plot and characters better than she did.

Start a Flame War

If you hated a book, starting a flame war about it is the best way to save readers from themselves. Tell us why you hated the book in the most inflammatory way possible, and explain why your favorite author is ten times better. If someone tells you that you didn't understand the book, or didn't "get" it, go after that person with your best insults. One technique for revenge is to reply that you are pursuing your Master's degree from MIT, and are thus smarter than all those who "get" it. I read a post like this once, and I was immediately struck by the realization that, indeed, this person's shining intellect dwarfed my own. My respect for MIT's admissions policy was likewise affected.

Use Big Words from Your Thesaurus

If your review is too highbrow for me to understand, the book must be too awesome for me to comprehend.

Spoilers Rock! Properly Use The Three Types of Spoiler

There are three types of spoiler, and it takes a master to use them correctly.

The Implied Spoiler: This spoiler does not explicitly give anything away, but it tells the reader roughly what is going to happen. Even the pro reviewers use this one, so you should, too! Readers hate surprises, and you can use this technique to subtly reduce the impact of those surprises. Here are some examples:

"The book has a great twist at the end!" Now the reader knows to be on the lookout for it! Good job!

"Follow his journey into the darkness and back out again." It's a good thing he gets back out of that darkness. Darkness is scary!

"After being dumped, she chases her love interest back and forth throughout the book. Will she get him back in the end?" Now the reader can skip to the end if he wants!

The Full Monty Spoiler: If you tell the reader how the book ends, then he doesn't have to read it. Efficiency at its best! Or he can read it, and be emotionally prepared for all the twists and turns. Chicken Soup for the emotionally brittle soul! You deserve a medal.

The Fake Spoiler: "Frodo and Sam DIE! LOLZERS!" Fried comedy gold. This one works even if it is the only line of the review.

Conclusions

You'll find many of these techniques artfully used in the jungle of book reviews that is Amazon.com. To compete, you'll have to sharpen your intellect, hone your maturity, and use these techniques wisely. If you do this, you too can become a prince or princess among reviewers.

Your masterpiece reviews may alternately confuse and annoy those readers not sophisticated enough to appreciate them. Take this as proof of your mastery of these techniques, as well as your inherent genius.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Grim and Deadly Winter

Recommended: The Wolf of Winter (Paula Volsky)

Prince Varis is the timid, bookish third son of the ruling House of Haudrensq. His brothers alternately despise him and pity him, and he has little hope of ever amounting to anything more than a petty noble, looked down upon universally for his lack of social graces. That is, until he discovers the secrets of Necromancy, the art of summoning and commanding ghosts.

His family rules over the land of Rhazaulle, a land that can be described best by the prologue of this peculiar story:

In the northern land of Rhazaulle, society is shaped by two great influences; the severity of the climate, and the sometimes disruptive activity of the necromancers. The hunger of winter personifies itself in the legend of the fabulous Ulor. Heraldic beast and national symbol of Rhazaulle, the Ulor is a gigantic, white, winged wolf, whose yearly flight from mountain lair, across the realm and back again, marks winter's onset. Flight concluding, the Ulor returns to its nest, there to slice its own throat open upon a shard of ice. White blood spurts from the wound. Each gout striking the snow swells, sculpting itself into the form of a winged wolf cub. The parent expires. Throughout the long winter, the cubs thrive and grow upon a diet of ice. When they are old enough to long for stronger meat, they turn upon one another, killing and devouring until at last the strongest alone remains alive to become the new Ulor, an assumption of power traditionally bringing winter to an end. So firm a grip has this legend taken upon the national imagination that Rhazaulle's ruler is officially known as the "Ulor."


This is a twisted, dark tale, as foreshadowed by this haunting prologue. The imagery is likewise rich and foreboding throughout.

It's a story about Varis's transformation, revenge, and lust for power. He is the central character of this tale, even though the book jacket mentions two other major characters, Varis's niece and nephew, Shalindra and Cerrov. Don't get me wrong - their roles are critical, and Shalindra provides a perfect lens through which to further view Varis, but Varis is the star.

Speaking of characters, I found the cast of insane necromancers to be especially fun to read. Colorfully named "spifflicates" (from the word "spifflication," an old word that means "intoxicated") they have been driven mad by overdosing on the consciousness-enhancing drugs required to practice Necromancy. Watch for Clotl and his gang of freaks.

It has ghosts, magic-enhancing drugs, murder, and madness. What more could you want in a story?

If you like this book, you will probably also like Volsky's Illusion. It seems people other than me like Illusion better, and it definitely has its charms. It's pretty obviously (to me) inspired by the French Revolution, which was interesting. I've heard that The Wolf of Winter also has a historical influence, namely the Russian Tsars, but I don't know enough about Russian history to verify that. The names and snowy climate of the story have a definite Russian feel, however.

The Princess Bride

Recommended: The Princess Bride (William Goldman)

If you're reading this recommendation, then as Goldman puts it, "dollars to donuts you've seen the movie." And what a movie! A few years ago I learned that the movie was based on a book. Those were poorer days, but as soon as I scraped some money together, I went and bought the novel.

After all, books are always better than movies, right? Hmmm. In this case I have to declare a tie.

The movie follows the book closely, so even in the book we have all the great swashbucklery, the spirited dialogue, and the outrageously stereotyped characters we know and love. In reading the novel, you'll also get a little extra depth of character as well as the Zoo of Death.

The Zoo of Death is Prince Humperdinck's - oops, I shouldn't give that away, should I? Guess you'll have to read the book after all.

The only edition of The Princess Bride available in the U.S. is Goldman's "Good Parts" abridgment. Purists may have criticized this as an evisceration of Morgenstern's incisive political satire, but you know what? Damn the satire! We can't always be force fed morals in our reading. I don't read books to be influenced by propaganda; I read books because I want fights! Revenge! True Love! Rodents of Unusual Size!

And boy, does this book deliver.

You should have no difficulty finding a copy of this novel, but you may have to order it through your library or your bookstore. Although I can't speak for the original version, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition has an absolutely gorgeous color inset map of Florin and Guilder.

Billy Goat's Contribution

My Role on this Blog

When we're not busy reading or recommending books, Mister Troll and I occasionally chat about our ideas. Two months ago, I told him about some blogging ideas I had. Well, that led the conversation back to his old website, which was, as he said, "a blog before there were blogs." We talked about it, and he asked me if I would co-write a similar site with him.

I agreed, so here I am.

On Taste

Mister Troll and I have different tastes, but we like many of the same things. We may not agree on everything, but we trust each other's taste well enough that we're recommending books together. Everyone has his own taste, but you may find that you generally like what Mister Troll, or I, or both of us like. If you do, then maybe you'll like the books we recommend that you haven't read yet. If you don't, maybe we can convince you through our hearty recommendations to give one of them a try anyway.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is my favorite author. I probably own more than 80% of his collected works. I own books about his works. Now that you know this, I want you to know that despite what Mister Troll says, I do not believe Wolfe breaks rule number one. Also, I realize that he is not for everyone. For this reason, I will limit how much I discuss his work. Mister Troll's library only has room for a few Gene Wolfe books.

What I Want out of this Site

  • I want to talk about the books I have enjoyed.
  • I want to learn about great books that I may have missed from Mister Troll and you, our reader.
  • I want to write articles about books, writing, reading, and various related subjects. I'm an aspiring writer, and I'm an avid reader, so these subjects interest me.
  • I want to engage in literary analysis on occasion.
What I Don't Want
  • I don't want to write book jacket covers. I want to tell you why I liked a book, or why you should read a book, not give you a warmed over summary filled with platitudes and flowery praise.
  • I don't want to waste my time writing about books I disliked or hated.