Archive for December, 2007

Recommended Books Read in 2007

December 26th, 2007

This list came about because Vaquero asked the members of our e-mail list to send us the titles of books they most liked reading in 2007. This wasn’t a round-up of 2007′s best published books, but rather, whatever the members had read and thought worth recommending to others. Here’s my list, broken into fiction and non-fiction. That all the titles are linked to amazon isn’t because I’m enrolled in their kickback program (I’m not.) Don’t care if you buy from amazon or anyone or at all. But their database is there, and it is convenient for all of us to use.

Fiction

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra is a huge novel — nearly 900 pp., packed with characters, and flashbacks. It never drags, is always interesting; you are always wanting to know what comes next. It’s a policier-detective-mystery-gangster novel, written by an Indian author, all characters Indian, all locations foregrounded in India. It is also, appropriately, considering India’s cultural and political history as the jewel in the British Empire’s crown, a conscious inheritor of the grand English Victorian 3-decker novel, notably, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

There’s a glossary of names and vocabulary that is as long as a slim modernist novel itself, both necessary and worthwhile for the reader, as well as interesting in itself. As another signal of how good this book is, you wish the author had made the glossary longer, because, as with a Tolstoy novel, after some chapters when you’ve become familiar enough with the characters and the milieu, and you no longer need the glossary, whole new sets of questions are set off in the reader’s mind that call for yet more glossary entries.

This novel is the one of all those I’ve read in the last 5 years perhaps, that I’ve enjoyed the most thoroughly, on the most number of levels, particularly because it throws open windows and doors into unfamiliar worlds, which is what fiction can do better than anything else, particularly if taken in tandem with the food and what makes the people, for whom those worlds are common reality, laugh. There is a lot about food in Sacred Games, and a lot of laughing.

With the exception of the Díaz and Chandra titles, these novels all are what the publishing industry categorizes as genre — sf/f, mysteries, historical. These are shelved by bookstores, and libraries too, in sections separate from each other, as well as safely segregated from the shelves labeled “literature and fiction.” These novels may not appeal, then, to those without a taste for the genres; on the other hand, since 9/11 there are fewer novels published outside of genre that this reader can be bothered with; notably, there’s no stomaching any in the cascade of novels that is currently being published about 9/11, in the competition among our ‘literary novelists’ to own the catastrophe that signaled the end of the world as we knew it.

So, it’s worth noting that the Junot Díaz novel informs us of the Dominican Republic’s cruel history via constant referencing sf/f genre and pop culture, and that Sacred Games was lauded by those who review ‘serious’ fiction and literature, because Chandra, like Díaz, has a prior reputation as a ‘literary’ author with ‘critical acclaim.’

Another point of interest is that hardly anyone sent in fiction titles. However, two others did include The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as Vaquero and myself, and another list member recommended Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. Perhaps genre fiction is more highly regarded, and of greater interest to the general reading public than some might believe.
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What Works on an Author Website?

December 19th, 2007

I’m currently in the process of reworking my Infoquake website to conform with the new cover design, and creating a MultiReal website to match. I feel like the Infoquake website design hasn’t held up particularly well as I’ve made changes and additions to it. The new one will be much snazzier, I promise you.

But at the moment, I’m more concerned about the content of the sites than their visual presentation. And so I’m evaluating lots of author websites to see just what works and what doesn’t.

Today I was poking around the website for Brandon Sanderson, author of Elantris and Mistborn. Careers in the science fiction and fantasy world don’t start much better than Brandon’s. You may have heard recently that he’s been hired to finish off Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which is kind of the fantasy novelist equivalent of being asked to pinch hit for Mickey Mantle in the bottom of the ninth. I started digging through Brandon’s website and discovered a massive amount of chapter annotations for his debut novel Elantris. Go ahead, poke around yourself — these annotations are detailed. Obviously a lot of thought went into this.

So my question today is this: what do you find useful on an author’s website? I think we can all agree that excerpts help, and at the very least, having a blog doesn’t hurt. But what about the rest? Do you read additional material like chapter annotations, deleted scenes, and first drafts? Do you actually refer to online glossaries and the like? Does this stuff make you more likely to buy the author’s work? (And when you do buy her work, do you appreciate having lots of links to bookstores that carry it?)

If possible, name an author website that’s directly influenced you to buy that author’s work, and why.

New Wild Cards website live

December 16th, 2007

I’ve been mentioning it earlier about the new book coming out, but Tor has just launched the new website for Wild Cards, www.wildcardsbooks.com

There will be more added in the coming weeks, including bio with yours truly, but the preliminary launch is focusing on Inside Straight, which is coming out next month and as with all things publishing, may have early copies in some stores now.

There’s also a newsletter to sign up for and a story from Walter Jon Williams which is sort of the proto-Wild Cards tale.

What’s Wrong with “The Golden Compass”?

December 10th, 2007

I just went to see The Golden Compass, along with a couple other friends, who all decided to see it despite being advised by one friend that the movie made no sense and by another that he didn’t want to see it because he hadn’t liked the book.

I have the book, but on the “I’ll read it when I get around to it” shelf. But it was a nice outing with friends and I wanted to see airships and Nicole Kidman in a series of improbably lovely costumes. And going in with such low expectations, I was not disappointed, except by everything else.

First off, well, my biggest criticism is what I said after the movie was over: “I suppose it will all make more sense after we read the book and watch the expanded version on DVD.” This was after watching a nearly two and a half hour movie, mind you. I’m not certain whether to blame the screenwriter, the film editor or both, but there seemed to be a concentrated effort to shoehorn in every significant scene in the book, regardless of the exposition or transition or set-up for character motivation.

As it stands, the movie has the worst case of “beloved child” syndrome I’ve ever seen. The protagonist, Lyra (and I’m probably wrong on the spelling), wanders around and simply bumps into people who decide to fight and die for her “Just because.” I can understand it with the head witch, since she’s at least got a prophecy to go on, but she’s still canny enough to check out whether the kid can read the Golden Compass. But Sky Captain Wild Bill? I’m blanking on the name of character, but if you took an old American character actor, had him play Wild Bill as conceived of by someone who’d only seen British Wild West shows, gave him a jackrabbit familiar (voiced by Cathy Bates) and then made him an airship captain…well, that’s who we’ve got, who not only immediately takes a liking to this random kid, but offers to take her along in his airship, and also tips her off to the location of an alcoholic talking bear, who is less entertaining than he sounds. The bear decides to follow the kid because she finds his armor, but the only reason they aren’t immediately blown away by the Cossack police is because the sea gypsies keep randomly appearing whenever the cavalry is needed. Even in the middle of the frozen glacial wastes.

Then there’s the Magisterium. I understand it’s supposed to be the unholy spawn of the Catholic church and Big Brother, but if you’re going to spirit away kids to do insane arcane medical experiments on them, there must be a more convenient place than an ice sheet in the middle of the Norway analogue. But more than that, why steal children when you can just buy them? Or get parents to give them to you for free? There must be a few parents who’ve already drunk enough of the Kool-aid that they’d hand over their children no questions asked, rather than steal the child of the well connected sea gypsy matron? Or the kitchen boy from the university where there are loads of nosy people just looking for a mystery to crack?

Of course, the number of brain dead people is pretty amazing. There’s horror movie stupid. Then there’s opera stupid. Then there’s this. One really wonders what the scholars are thinking to let their child of prophecy go running around rooftops with the cast of Oliver at the beginning of the movie. One also sort of wonders whether a world with all sorts of arcane science wouldn’t be able to figure out who poisoned a wine decanter if just by taking fingerprints. And the uspurping Bear King? Does he know that “gullible” is not in the dictionary?

Then there’s the trouble of giving your protagonist an amazingly useful power and forgetting to use it. Lyra gets a Golden Compass, which once she figures it out is basically a deluxe Magic 8 Ball that can answer any question, no problem. So when later in the movie, the wicked Mrs. Coulter says “Lyra, I’m your mother!” wouldn’t it be prudent or least sensible to twiddle with your Golden Compass and ask “Is that psycho really my mommy?” Of course this scene may have been left on the cutting room floor, so it’s not possibly quite at the level of the recent Heroes finale where Peter forgets he can walk through walls if he wants to and instead dramatically uses his telekinesis to rip the door off a bank vault, getting a nosebleed in the process. But still….

I should probably not get into the other troubles but the line “Tell the children to get their warmest coats!” is going to stick with me for a while. You get a bunch of kids who were spirited away to an icy wasteland via airship and you expect them to walk to safety? Of course an electrocuted traumatized child was able to walk all the way to the next valley and hole up in an unheated trapper’s cabin without freezing to death, so I suppose anything is possible, but….

Yargh.

Spinner Racks

December 7th, 2007

Tom Doherty’s blog on the vanishing mass market paperback should be required reading for anyone who is serious about writing genre fiction (or fiction generally, or anything generally, actually). Disclaimer: Tom is the Publisher and President of Tor Books, and I was his assistant for nearly five years. Tom knows mass market publishing better than just about anyone, and more to the point, he is passionate about publishing and books. Not book-shaped salable widgets, not product, but books.

For years Tom has talked about the diminishment of the mass market in places like supermarkets and drug stores. We used to swap stories about the allure of the spinner racks. When I was a teenager and we’d moved out of New York City and into rural Massachusetts, the drug store was my life line to genre fiction. The local libraries didn’t have much by way of SF or fantasy–lots of historical fiction, Regencies, romances of every stripe, but SF and fantasy were still a sort of untouchable literary caste. But in the drugstore there were spinner racks, and every month I’d go (I got so I knew when the stock would be refreshed, and show up that afternoon) and pick up as many new paperbacks as my allowance would permit (in the days when books were fifty cents to a dollar and a quarter you could actually do that). I encountered Suzette Haden Elgin, Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Donald Barr, Robert Silverberg, Terry Carr’s wonderful Years’ Best anthologies, as well as Asimov and Heinlein and Herbert and other Usual Suspects. I found writers I would not necessarily notice today because of the sheer volume of SF and fantasy books that are out there. When there are four genre books a month on the racks it’s easier to buy all four; I didn’t worry about whether a book was my kind of SF because I was so happy to have any SF at all. I was forced by circumstance to read whatever there was, and I was the richer for it.

I love bookstores. I loved bookstores when I was a teenager but even then I bought differently at Barnes and Noble or B. Dalton than I did at the drugstore. I’d encounter a new writer at the drugstore, and after that seek that writer’s work at the bookstore. The books from the spinner racks were the doorway drug that led to the harder stuff. Nowadays when I buy a book it’s most likely on a recommendation from a friend, or it’s by a writer I already know, or something I’ve seen reviewed. What I don’t get too often is surprises, that great feeling of opening a book with no idea of what I’d get. Of course some of it was lousy, but a lot of it was at least entertaining, and some of it was really good.

How do you find new books? Do you get any surprises? I think Tom’s right, that the demise of the spinner rack has a lot of impact on my career, on the sorts of people who might once have picked up a book of mine from the spinner rack but now don’t get a chance to do so. There are other ways to get in touch with potential readers (this blog, after all, is one of them). But that surprise is rarer and rarer, and I, for one, don’t know how to replace it.

Why don’t we love science fiction?

December 2nd, 2007

It’s a little early for us here in NYC to be in the Deep Freeze, but here it is. Plus maybe a half inch of snow, which fell sometime this a.m. before we got up; now the weather’s undecided as to whether it shall snow more or — something.

Nice that the larder is so nicely and well stocked.

Cabin fever shall certainly ensue any moment now. I’m kind of like dogs this way. The need to Go Out builds and builds until it becomes unbearable.

Morever, this is the weekend the U.S. and Brit book review sections are doing “Christmas gift roundups.” Feh. I want Real Reviews of Real New Books! Not roundups about books I’ve already read about. Feh2. Especially on a shut-in day. Feh3.

Ah, the London Times comes through with an article about Science Fiction that is occasioned by the publication of a new edition of Brian Aldiss’s A Science Fiction Omnibus, “a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s.” Surely we’ve all read that one? I did, anyway.

There is much of interest in this long article. Here’s a sample:

“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant. I disagree. In such a climate, it is the conventionally literary that is threatened, and SF comes into its own as the most hardcore realism.

There’s a great deal in this article that I personally do not agree with, but it is worth reading, maybe just because of that!

Love, C.