1.30.2010

All I know is, it went dark

I finished reading Servant of a Dark God last week and have been sitting around thinking of what I could say that could do this book justice. Or thinking of how I could say how awesome it was without using flimsy words like awesome.


Servant of a Dark God, by John Brown (his website is here), is principally the story of a young man who learns he has special powers or abilities that must be developed and controlled before a dark and evil force can steal his soul.

Does that sound kind of like Star Wars? Harry Potter? The Sword of Truth? Mistborn? Nancy Drew?

Yes, this book is one of those. But it is also so much more . . . just like you know that, while the Harry Potter books and the Star Wars films follow an archetypal pattern, Harry and Luke have very different stories.

What makes Servant of a Dark God stand above other, more mundane samples of this archetype is the combination of excellent storytelling and fine writing, plus a well-rounded cast of characters, including my requisite strong female character. I've said it before (if not here, then somewhere else that I can't remember right now, only I know I've said it before): some authors are good storytellers, but not very good writers. (cough!-Dan Brown-cough!) And then there are those who have talent as writers, but not so much as storytellers. John Brown has both. There are, of course, different kinds of good writers. Some use language like a paintbrush, others like an etching tool. Both are equally effective if the end product is good. And the writing in Servant of a Dark God is good. I'm not going to give examples. I'll just say that my internal copy editor, which unfortunately never sleeps (and that may be why I'm critical to the point almost of insanity), had nothing to do but be appreciative. Not once while reading did I think, "Oh, that was awkward. He shouldn't have used that word" or "Wow, he should've put that sentence together differently" or "Wha--? I'm confused." (My internal proofreader, on the other hand, was flipping out. Someone somewhere along the production line has got to start proofreading more carefully.)

As for the storytelling, there is so much action in the book, along with so much artfully accomplished characterization (which I guess really belongs in the writing skill category), that people you hardly know but suddenly care very much about get caught up in events beyond their control, and you dread the possibility that they may not survive the encounter. When they don't, you are troubled by the loss, and when they do, you barely have time to register relief before they are off into some other kettle of fish.

Anyway, the book was so exciting, I read it all in only three days, which also made me happy because I felt almost like that lady who finishes a book a day because she reads while watching tv.

I was trying to think of some sort of scale that I could use to rate the books I read. I mean, I could use numbers from 1 to 10, or I could use the 5-star scale, or something similar. But that seems so mundane. So the other day I was talking to Adrien about a Neil Gaiman book she'd read that she wasn't much impressed by, and I mentioned that was odd because everyone nowadays seems to think Gaiman is the greatest thing since sliced Shakespeare. Shakespeare, to me, is the ne plus ultra of writers, so I think he makes a perfect standard against which to gauge other writers. I haven't worked out a system, so I can't tell you right now how many slices of Shakespeare Servant of a Dark God gets, but I'll be sure to let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, go read Servant of a Dark God.

PS 10 points if you can tell me the source of the quote used for the title.

1.26.2010

Okay, kids, let's settle down and review the important information

A couple of months ago, I saw a book at the Bottom Shelf that looked like it might come in really handy: Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read.


See, I participate in two book clubs ( the RS Book Group and the Library Book Club), and it seems like many times the members of these groups are always choosing these depressing-but-ultimately-uplifting real life stories based on horrible historic events or conditions. I guess the purpose is to reaffirm to oneself the resilience or the indomitability of the human spirit. But my opinion is that I get enough depressing real life stories from the news and sometimes even from the people around me, so I don't necessarily want to spend my leisure time reading more of the same. If I read about the indomitable human spirit, I want it to be because the people involved have survived the oppression of, and ultimately overthrown, some evil sorcerer who has ruled them with an iron fist and a really large army of space trolls for a thousand years.

Well, last week the Library book club met to discuss Sarah's Key, a novel which centers mostly on the Vichy French government's roundup and deportation of Jews during World War II. I had already read about this event in a non-fiction context, and I wasn't eager to revisit it in fiction. How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read would have come in really handy. Unfortunately, the day I saw it at the Shelf, and just as I was about to snag it, another volunteer spied it and picked it up for himself.

So, when faced with Sarah's Key (and with a couple of other books we've discussed in those groups in the past), I did what anyone else reluctant to read the book would do in an effort to keep my sanity while still appearing to be familiar with the reading material: I looked up a plot synopsis on a couple of book review blogs. That helped with the basics, but there were several issues I had to find out about in a little more detail if I didn't want to be responding to comments and questions with blank stares of incomprehension (which has happened in the past and was kind of embarrassing). For instance, I thought it important to be familiar with the following concepts:

a) what was the fate of Sarah's brother?
b) what was the fate of Sarah herself?
c) what was Julia's decision regarding her pregnancy? and
d) what is this key everyone's talking about anyway and why did Sarah have it?

So, in addition to the reviews, I also read some of the comments about the book on goodreads (a valuable source of spoilers).

Because of this preparation (which took less than an hour), I was thus able during our meeting to appear intelligent, or at least cognizant, when these matters were discussed, as well as to provide our group with the insight (gleaned from one of the blogs I visited) that the key and the locked door were symbolic of things locked in the memories or in the past of several of the characters, and that they needed to find the key to access these things in order to move on with their lives (SPOILER: or in the case of Sarah, not).

So I was able to use principles (apparently those from section III of Bayard's book) for talking about books I haven't read from a book I haven't read.

Of course, there have been times when I told the members of the group that I thought a book sounded stupid and I just wasn't going to read it. That also works.

1.23.2010

Explain again how sheeps' bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes

I was thinking the other day that, not counting a handful of nursery rhymes, I've never read a book about sheep. Dogs, yes. Cats, yes. Mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, pigs, ducks, horses, elephants, lions and tigers and bears, oh yes. Sheep, no. It's not for lack of material: there are plenty of sheep books out there. But the closest I've come is watching movies like Babe, The Sundowners, and Blade Runner. (Blade Runner is based on the classic science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. By the way, it seems that everyone thinks Blade Runner was this great and wonderful, groundbreaking sci-fi film, but I thought it was boring and kind of pointless.)

The reason I have been pondering sheep books, and my lack of having read them, is because of a present I got in my Christmas stocking last month:

video

I think there's a reason that "sheep" rhymes with "creep".

PS 10 points if you can identify the source of this post's title.

1.18.2010

You will be subject to immediate de-resolution

I had two New Year's resolutions this year: first, read more books by reading faster; and, second, update my blog at least once a week. I have already failed at both.

In all truth, I did pretty good with the first resolution, but that was back in December, before it was an actual resolution, so I don't think it counts. Still, I read two and a half and a half books (not a typo: I read two complete books and half of two other books) in the two weeks just before Christmas. I think it was mostly because I was on a cruise, though, and there wasn't much to distract me during the sea days.

The first book I read was Robert V S Redick's The Rats and the Ruling Sea (the UK title), which is the sequel to The Red Wolf Conspiracy.

UK paperback cover

I loved The Red Wolf Conspiracy. As soon as I read it - no, while I was reading it - it became one of my favorite books ever. So I couldn't wait for The Rats and the Ruling Sea to come out in the US (which it does on 16 Feb, with the shorter title of The Ruling Sea), and I ordered it from the UK.

US hardcover

I read it, as I said, whilst on a cruise, and it kind of added to the experience to be reading about the ship on the waves of the sea while I was actually on a ship on the waves of the sea - especially the first couple of days, when the waves were a bit unruly. (I didn't get seasick, but some people did, but that's a story for another time.)

The Rats and the Ruling Sea continues the story of Pazel and Thasha and their friends in their efforts to thwart the destruction of their world, at the hands of either the master spy Sandor Ott, who wants to start a war that he will manipulate so that his country of choice will win, or of the sorcerer Arunis, who for some reason just wants to destroy everyone. There's action aplenty, and humor and love and suspense and betrayal and despair, and plots within plots, and an incredibly well-developed and detailed world for it all to happen in, and all that is good, but the main reason I love these books so much is because of the characters. Each one is so distinctive and well-rounded, and I want only the best for these guys. The good ones, I mean. (I'm sad, though, because one of the main characters from the first book dies in the second book.)

Also, and I've said this before, Redick is a very good writer. He has a control of language - beautiful to the point of poetic, yet always to the purpose - that I admire (finding it so infrequently in many other writers), and he's so compassionate toward his characters.

I want to share with you an example of Redick's skillful writing. I will preface my example by saying that, a couple of months ago, I was listening to a book on tape while traveling in my car. Though not the kind of thing I typically read (or listen to), it started out all right, and the plotting, though predictable, was interesting enough to keep me from falling asleep and killing myself on the highway. However, not far into the book, I noticed that this particular author frequently used really unwieldy similes and metaphors. Either they were obvious to the point of annoyance, and therefore unnecessary, or they went on and on long after the author had made his point. Here are a couple of examples:

"the trees and stony outcroppings seemed to float past as if they were only dream images without real substance"

Okay, that's not so bad, but it is redundant, because dream images are understood to have no real substance.

"his death weighed as heavily on them now as on the day they had lost him, like some colossal moon looming in a low orbit overhead"

If there was a colossal moon looming in a low orbit over my head, I wouldn't feel like something weighed heavily on me. I'd feel like I was on Endor. Besides, I think death weighing heavily on someone is pretty much as heavy as it gets.

There were more instances - many, many more - some so-so, some bad, some worse than my two examples, but I can't share them because I don't have access to the book. I just remember some of the similes going on and on, like a toddler's squawking toy duck being pulled by a short-haired puppy with the string caught on a canine tooth in its mouth as it runs in circles chasing its own tail, while the toddler who owns the toy duck sits nearby, crying from frustration and lack of awareness of how to get the toy away from the puppy; or like a widowed and lonely uncle, white-haired and elderly, brought against his will by his overbearing son to a biennial family reunion in a tree-shaded park and parked beneath a shade tree where he clings tenaciously, like a monkey in a hurricane, or like somebody who really doesn't want to let go of something, to the glory of his military past and tells and retells the storming of the beach to anyone who happens to listen. Or like a river.

So, that's what raised my awareness of unnecessary and unwieldy similes. Naturally, I started seeing them everywhere. While I was on the cruise, one of the activities offered for passengers to participate in was a book club. The ship's librarian loaned those of us who were interested a copy of the book Moloka'i. (This is one of the books I read half of.) It was all right, and well enough written in an adequate sort of way, but nothing special, and I was having trouble maintaining interest. Then I came across this phrase:

"the little steamer was lifted on the next swell, the wave rolling beneath it like lava squeezed from the cracked earth"

I stopped reading and thought, "Why can't the wave roll beneath the ship like an ocean wave rolling beneath a ship? Why can't the author just say the steamer was lifted on the next swell?" Maybe I was being picky (who, me?), having been sensitized by my previous reading experience, but that phrase was one of the factors that contributed to my giving up on the book a few chapters later.

Now for Robert Redick. Here are two of his similes, so adept at doing what similes do, so purposeful and so vivid, that I bookmarked the pages as I read them so I could share them later.

from page 303 (wherein Pazel is being strangled): "A faint sound escaped Pazel's throat, like the squelch of a deck-rag being twisted dry."

from page 374 (wherein Thasha sees a group of ghosts haunting the ship's captain and says to herself): "Is my father dead, and calling me from the land of the dead, and giving me a way to see him? Is he searching for me right now? The thought was like a bone in her throat."

Do you see the difference? Do you see that the last two similes actually give you a sharp image of what you are reading about? Do you see that they do it with an artistic economy of words? "The thought was like a bone in her throat." Brilliant.

The Rats and the Ruling Sea ends with a shocking discovery, and now I shall have to wait, like patience on a monument, till the third book is released, for impatience will be as well rewarded as impatience generally is.

I'll talk about the other books I read (or partly read) in my next post.

PS Points to the first person who can tell me where this post's title comes and can correctly identify all the literary and film quotes and allusions in this post.