James Talks (Mostly) Books

What it says on the tin, really.

Things That... Just No

Self explanatory, man.


1. Zombie Romance


    Impractical, if nothing else. Also, ick.


2. Sparkling Vampires


     If your boyfriend sparkles, he's a dancer, not a vampire.


3.  Bollywood


     The other things here borderline offend me, but this just puzzles the hell out of me. I love musicals, but there are limits. Bollywood disagrees, leading to cyberpunk musicals, among other puzzling specimens.


4.  Highlander Knock-Offs


     Can we have an official remake, if only to get rid of the 800 "Scottish Immortal Romance" books that come out every year? Please?


5.  Female-Led UF Where the Man Takes Charge



Random Thoughts

The title says it, really:  Just a few random semi-bookish thoughts for y'all.


1. Shared universes are a thing right now, so how about a late-30's one. The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom and Dick Tracy, maybe have The Spirit be a trainee under Tracy who gets killed and goes after the Syndicate? Would I be the only person in the theatre to see Doc Savage team up with the Phantom in South America?


2. I miss swashbucklers. Who would you like to see replace Errol Flynn as the swordsman of the times? Is there a new Fairbanks? I think Orlando Bloom might/could, but he just doesn't have the savoir faire, y'know? Still, let's get a Captain Blood remake, stat!


3. The Easy Rawlins novels are among my all-time faves, in mystery at least. Who is your favorite detective (of any sort), and  who would you have play him/her? (Denzel was a solid Easy, but Don Cheadle as Mouse was PERFECT! You  know I'm right because I used caps.)


4. What poem or lyric would grace your tombstone? For me, the last verse of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", or the last stanza of Frost's "Stopping By Woods..."


5. I'm asking for interaction, which I haven't before. How does that make you feel?


That's all for now!

Why PopLit Isn't All Bad, or, James Patterson Serves a Purpose

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown 1st to Die - James Patterson The Twilight Collection - Stephenie Meyer Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James

So, for the last week I've been at the mercy of someone else's library. We've all been there: You're on vacation, staying with friends and you forgot your eReader, you didn't bring print because... You get it.

Anyway, spent a lot of time reading over the last week, and little of what I read would have been on my list. (It wasn't all bad though; any week where I read six Tor shorts and a Dick Francis is a success.) And I spent a bit of that time reading best-sellers, as you do, specifically books by James Patterson and Dan Brown.

And I almost enjoyed it.

Look, this is not my first go round with either of these authors (I was young, they were popular...) and I'm not trying to attack them or question the tastes of the public that has made these men millions of dollars. Instead, I'm going to try to explain it (to myself, more than anything, so you can skip this if you've an excuse from your mum).


1. The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown  It's Fun to Feel Smart


    Dan Brown makes relatively simple puzzle thrillers, often historic and/or artistic twists to them. They are flawed, sure, but Brown does a few things brilliantly: He uses patterns to help is readers solve the puzzles with his characters; he foreshadows his twists enough so they're comfortable, but doesn't spoil them; and he expertly uses controversy when it rears it's head.

I'm going to focus on the puzzles. What Brown does is give you a very difficult puzzle to start, then walk you through it, step by step. Then, later, he'll give you a simpler variation on the same puzzle, then a harder one, slowly escalating until you're solving problems at the same time and skill as Langdon himself. It's rewarding and addictive, and makes the reader feel good about his books. Hence, repeat sales.


2. 1st to Die - James Patterson   It's Fun to Be Surprised


    James Patterson is another author who gets tons of sales and no respect (except from Larry King), but he also has a few awesome tricks up his sleeves: Short chapters and paragraphs, leading to a constant sense of accomplishment; constant cliffhangers and foreshadowing, to keep you reading; and a lot of twists, so you don't get bored. Ever.

That's the big one, because most people think of reading as either work or boring. If you can get around that, people will love you for it.


3. The Twilight Collection - Stephenie Meyer  Female-Targeted Pseudo-Porn!


    Cracked.com talked about this in their Ninja Turtles episode of After Hours, oddly enough. Lots of talk, something resembling empowerment, and just enough sexuality to make you feel happily naughty. (Don't worry, I didn't actually read this one, which is why I refuse to mock it... except for the sparkles. Fuck that shit.)


4.  Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James   Wish Fulfillment; Also, PORN!!


     The success of this series has been debated all over the place, but it's not complicated: Everybody wants to get off; everybody likes feeling superior (speaking here of the grammar and spelling errors); and everybody wants to win the lottery (or have a rich, gorgeous person pop in out of the blue and say, "Fuck me right, and you'll be well-compensated," except, you know, suave).

Nothing wrong with that.

7 Great Fantasy/Urban Fantasy Series

Storm Front - Jim Butcher Something from the Nightside - Simon R. Green The Gates (Samuel Johnson, #1) - John Connolly The Rook - Daniel O'Malley Moving Pictures - Terry Pratchett The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle, #1) - Patrick Rothfuss On a Pale Horse - Piers Anthony

At this point, it is no surprise to anyone that I am a fantasy fan, specifically urban fantasy. I like magic, monsters, adventures, etc. I also like revisiting characters and worlds, which means I'm definitely a series guy. I like a good standalone, mind you, but they are rarely as immersive as a long-running series.These are a few of my faves, and why. I am excluding the ones I discovered last year, as I've already discussed them elsewhere.


1. Storm Front - Jim Butcher  The Dresden Files - Jim Butcher


First Book: Storm Front (2000), ongoing


One of my all-time favorites, this series follows Harry Dresden, a professional wizard based in Chicago. It starts out as basically a PI series with magic, but dives much deeper into the lore starting with book 3, Grave Peril. Fast, funny, and exciting, this is the big daddy of modern UF, hitting #1 on the NY Times list a few times. There are 15 books in the series thus far, plus various shorts, novellas, and comics.


2. Something from the Nightside - Simon R. Green   The Nightside series - Simon R. Green


First book: Something From The Nightside (2003), completed


This series takes place in the titular Nightside and follows John Taylor, PI, ne'er-do-well

and prophesied heir to the Nightside, as he solves crimes, learns about his birthright, and challenges the Powers That Be. The writing can be a bit repetitive, and there are a couple lesser books among the twelve (thirteen including a collection, which is fun but inessential), but some of the characters are just flat awesome, especially Walker and "Shotgun" Suzie Shooter. Can get a bit gruesome, but the humor is always spot on.


3. The Gates (Samuel Johnson, #1) - John Connolly  Samuel Johnson series - John Connolly


First book: The Gates (2009), completed.


A very funny combination of demonology and theoretical physics, intended for YA readers. A great trilogy about a young boy whose town is frequently treatened with demonic takeover. I'm not usually a YA guy, but this just flat rocks.


4. The Rook - Daniel O'Malley  Checquy series - Daniel O'Malley


First book: The Rook (2012), ongoing.


Another fun UF series, this one told, thus far, from exclusively female perspectives. There are many people in the world born with strange abilities and, in the UK, it is up to the Checquy to handle them. Very funny, often gory, and occasionally thought-provoking. As the second book, Stiletto, mostly abandons the lead from the first book in favor of two new characters, it will be interesting to see what happens in book 3.


5. Moving Pictures - Terry Pratchett  Discworld - Terry Pratchett


First book: Color of Magic (1983), completed.


Confession time: I've only read six or so of these books and feel no pressig need to complete the series. I will read more of them, and happily, but am in npo rush, nor do I feel any need to read them in any particular order. There are about forty books in various subseries, plus various addenda, and, while there is continuity, flitting around has worked fine for me thus far.


6. The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle, #1) - Patrick Rothfuss  Kingkiller Chronicles - Patrick Rothfuss


First book: The Name of The Wind (2007), ongoing.


An epic fantasy in the traditional vein, with great characters, beautiful writing, and interesting magic systems. This series follows Kvothe first as a student, then on various adventures. Stories within stories, an unreliable narrator, a school story, this is as interesting structurally as narratively. Am desperately anxious for book three.


7. On a Pale Horse - Piers Anthony  Incarnations of Immortality - Piers Anthony


First book: On a Pale Horse (1983), completed.


Both the worst-written and most structurally ambitious of all these series. this deals with mere mortals who, in various ways, become incarnations of various concepts, such as Death, Time, War, etc. Originally intended as a quintet, then extended to eight books. I never bothered with the last three books because the first five tell a complete story. Said story is not told sequentially, as the books take place at around the same times. Instead, we get the same occurrences from different perspectives, slowly deepening context, and a growing sense of the underlying conflict. The writing isn't particularly strong, but the ambition is laudable.

Currently Reading and February TBR(?)

Swag - Elmore Leonard The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Diana Burgin, Katherine Tiernan O'Connor The Wolf's Hour - Robert R. McCammon The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead - Max Brooks World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks The Song of Roland - Anonymous, Dorothy L. Sayers

I am currently reading three books, and hope to read at least seven this month. I'venot been reading much, though, and generally suck at sticking to TBR's (I tend to see a  shiny, get distracted, and run off chasing flutterbies and pretty new books), so don't expect to see all of these books come my monthly wrap-up.


1. Swag - Elmore Leonard  Swag - Elmore Leonard  - Currently Reading


    A couple of low-level scumbags start committing armed robberies in pursuit of the good life in 1970's Detroit. Fun thus far, but not one of Leonard's best. I've been told the ending's a pip, though. I'm about a hundred pages in, and it is picking up.


2. The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov,Diana Burgin,Katherine Tiernan O'Connor  The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov,Diana Burgin,Katherine Tiernan O'Connor   - Currently Reading


    One of my occasional stabs at reading a classic, in this case Early Russian Magical Realism. So, the Devil comes to Stalinist Moscow to see what Hell is really like. There's also a giant talking cat named Behemoth. Not a quick read, only fifty pages in, but delightfully bonkers.


3. The Wolf's Hour - Robert R. McCammon  The Wolf's Hour - Robert R. McCammon  - Currently Reading


    Or, The Bourne Lycanthropy. A WW2 set spy thriller with a werewolf in the lead. Not as campy as it sounds, but doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, either. This is the second McCammon for me, after Boy's Life, which I didn't like as much as I wanted to. Still, the first hundred pages of this have been nifty, so...


4. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead - Max Brooks  The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead - Max Brooks  - To-Read


    Have read bits and pieces (heh), and it seems fast, fun, and funny. Cool.


5. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks  World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks  - To-Read


    Seems like a natural next step, yeah?


6. The Song of Roland - Anonymous,Dorothy L. Sayers  The Song of Roland - Anonymous,Dorothy L. Sayers  - To-Read


    Because, deep down, I want to be the guy who reads classics for pleasure, even if that means reading epic poetry. Besides, wouldn't it be funny if I, a life-long mystery fan, read Sayers's translation of this before any of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels? I thought so, anyway.


7. TBD


    Look, I have hundreds of books, as well as access to book stores. I'll think of something.

January Wrap-up

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books - Nick Hornby Shadows Linger - Glen Cook Dark Visions - Conversations With The Masters of the Horror Film - Stanley Wiater Dark Entries - Robert Aickman Indemnity Only - Sara Paretsky The Fifth Profession - David Morrell

Okay, I read six books in January, half of them re-reads. Not my best month, but oh well.


A quick note on my ratings:  *****,  great; ****, quite good; ***, decent; **, mediocre; *, dreck.  You won't  see many * or ** ratings because I usually DNF them. If I don't finish, I don't review, partly because it wouldn't be fair, but mostly because they aren't worth my time.


1. Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books - Nick Hornby  Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books - Nick Hornby   *****


    My only five-star this month, and a rerun. I love Hornby's non-fiction, so a collection of his book criticism for Believer magazine is perfect for me, and seeing him struggle with the magazine's "acid-free" policy is hilarious (I couldn't do it, myself, as you'll see shortly). Plus, a loot of great recommendations, albeit in a more mainstream vein than my usual tastes. Still, any book that got me into reading Sarah Vowell is aces.


2. The Fifth Profession - David Morrell  The Fifth Profession - David Morrell  ***


    Another re-read, this from one of my favorite thriller writers. Alas, not one of his best. This is a silly book, but a lot of fun. It involves bodyguards, espionage, psychosurgery/brainwashing, the return of Japanese imperialism, insta-love... Like I said, silly, stupid fun. Would have made a good camp movies tarring Michael Biehn.


3. Dark Entries - Robert Aickman  Dark Entries - Robert Aickman  ****


    My first short-story collection of the year, and a damn good one. Most of the stories are oblique, many to the point where I'm not quite sure what, if anything, happened. Still the atmosphere was great, and "Ringing the Changes" is an all-time classic for a reason.


4. Dark Visions - Conversations With The Masters of the Horror Film - Stanley Wiater  Dark Visions - Conversations With The Masters of the Horror Film - Stanley Wiater  ***


    Really, 2.5 rounded up. It is a series of interviews with actors. writers, directors, etc. Many of the people are interesting, but Wiater is a bland interviewer. There are few, if any, tough questions, the creative and technical sides of film are left unexplored, no personal insights... Well=written, with the occasional fun nugget, but often dull.


5. Shadows Linger - Glen Cook  Shadows Linger - Glen Cook  ***


    Second in the fabled Black Company series, and just as uneven as the first. Glum, grim, and yet still engaging. I will read book three, as I own it, but am in no rush.


6. Indemnity Only - Sara Paretsky  Indemnity Only - Sara Paretsky  


    First in the V.I. Warshawski series of P.I. novels. First published in 1982. it hasn't aged well. Also, the lead is difficult, though understandably so. Still, it's well-written and often funny, and deals with white-collar crime, a rarity for the sub-genre.




All in all, not a great month, but not terrible. Hopefully, it was better for you folks.

7 Great Short Fiction Collections

Strange Wine - Harlan Ellison The Shawshank Redemption - Stephen King Tales from Nightside - Charles L. Grant Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders - Neil Gaiman Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two - John Connolly Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman (Volume 5) - Manly Wade Wellman 20th Century Ghosts - Joe Hill, Christopher Golden

I am a big short fiction reader, and have always been. I love being able to hop in, geta full experience, and move on in a single sitting. Or take a long, hot bath and read an entire novella. That kind of thing.

These are all single author collections, as opposed to multi-author anthologies. I prefer collections, in general, because, while they may vary wildly in terms of content and quality, they tend to be more cohesive, less jarring. Not to say there aren't some amazing anthos (this is what foreshadowing looks like)...

You'll also notice that these are mostly horror. I feel horror is often best at shorter lengths, giving short, sharp shocks before disbelief can set in. Novellas please me because you have just enough space to flesh out a few characters and give your story depth, but not enough to wander too far off  course.

Anyway, a few faves...


1. Strange Wine - Harlan Ellison  Strange Wine - Harlan Ellison  


    My first Ellison, recommended by Stephen King in Danse Macabre. Contains some of his best, weirdest works, but any Ellison is worth picking up. Still, this has a story about a nice Jewish boy whose dead mom is still trying to run his life. For his own good, of course. How can you resist?


2. Different Seasons - Stephen King  Different Seasons - Stephen King  


    Four novellas, all amazing. Yes, my favorite is "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," but"The Breathing Method" is a close second. I love club stories, and this is one of King's rare forays into that sub-genre. 

This is, to my  mind, King's most consistent collection. All of the others have at least one dud. Not this one. There's a reason three of these four tales have been made into great movies.


3. Tales from Nightside - Charles L. Grant  Tales from Nightside - Charles L. Grant  


    Another one highly recommended by King (he wrote the intro), and another that introduced me to one of my favorite authors. One  of the masters of "quiet horror," Grant wasn't much one for gore, preferring to imply some truly terrifying things. Dark and disturbing, with a few weird turns here and there.


4. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders - Neil Gaiman  Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders - Neil Gaiman  


    I love almost everything I've read of Gaiman's, but this is my favorite of his collections. Not much more to say about it, really, it's just great.


5. Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two - John Connolly  Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two - John Connolly  


    Read this last year, and loved it. Everything from literary fantasy to Ligotti-esque horror to true-life hauntings, all in one beautifully written package. Still need to read more Connolly.


6. Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman (Volume 5) - Manly Wade Wellman  Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman (Volume 5) - Manly Wade Wellman  


    All of the Silver John stories in one place. One of my favorite series characters, John is an itinerant balladeer who confronts various bizarre happenings during his wanderings through Appalachia. There's nothing quite like this out there.


7. 20th Century Ghosts - Joe Hill,Christopher Golden  20th Century Ghosts - Joe Hill,Christopher Golden  


    If this only had the title story and "Pop Art," it would still make the list, but there's so much more, too. Those two are sweet and sad, but the rest gets pretty damn dark while still keeping a bit of wonder.

7 Horror(ish) Novels That Set My Tail A-Waggin'

The Arabian Nightmare - Robert Irwin Needful Things - Stephen King The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson, Laura Miller The Off Season - Jack Cady The Tomb (Adversary Cycle, #2) - F. Paul Wilson The Club Dumas - Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Sonia Soto

Okay, I've established that I like me some horror. I don't really like definitive "Ten Best" lists (writing them anyway; I love reading them), so I'll just talk about seven I really like. Some are only loosely horror, but it's my list, so there!


1. The Arabian Nightmare - Robert Irwin  The Arabian Nightmare - Robert Irwin  


    What a weird-ass book this is. A young Englishman comes to medieval Cairo during an epidemic. The victims fall into a never-ending nightmare that they can't remember if and when they wake. Balian, our protagonist, runs into various bizarre characters, such as Dirty Yoll the story-teller (who is also our narrator), possibly comes down with the nightmare, is victim of various conspiracies... It gets very strange, not least when the narrator dies, but keeps telling the story, and then gets better... maybe.


2. Needful Things - Stephen King  Needful Things - Stephen King  


    Look, I know many people think of this as one of King's worst works, but I love it. Besides, do you need yet another person extolling the virtues of ITThe Shining, or 'Salem's Lot? Of course not.

So, the devil comes to Castle Rock, promising the citizens their fondest wish if they'll just do him one small favor... The premise is awesome, the characters incredible, and some of the writing (particularly the prologue) is the best King has ever published. Scoff if you must, I love this  book.


3. The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg  The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg 


    Four college kids go to the desert, seeking the cure for mortality. Two must die, so the others may live forever. Dark, hedonistic, philosophical, and amazing. Told from four different, first-person perspectives in such a way that you never get confused as to who is currently narrating. Brilliant.


4. The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson,Laura Miller  The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson,Laura Miller  


    If you know anything about horror fiction, you've heard of this. Do yourself a favor and read it. Probably the best haunted house novel I've ever read.


5. The Off Season - Jack Cady  The Off Season - Jack Cady  


    Another strange one. A wanderer comes to town, along with a cat who purrs in several languages. A Victorian-era madman comes back to life, promising to help the citizens make mucho moolah in the tourist trade by exploiting their many ghosts. There's a parsonage that never stays in the same place, only to become  a flying fortress during the final battle. Whoa.


6. The Tomb (Adversary Cycle, #2) - F. Paul Wilson  The Tomb (Adversary Cycle, #2) - F. Paul Wilson  


    First, and best, of the Repairman Jack series. Jack is hired to retrieve a strange necklace for an ancient Indian woman as all hell breaks loose in NYC. Action-packed with many memorable characters.


7. The Club Dumas - Arturo Pérez-Reverte,Sonia Soto  The Club Dumas - Arturo Pérez-Reverte,Sonia Soto  


    Got into this book after seeing the movie The Ninth Gate, which was loosely based on this.

A rare book dealer is hired for two different jobs: to track down the manuscript of a certain chapter from The Three Musketeers; and to find out which, if any, of the three remaining copies off an evil tome is the original, for unknown reasons. Dark, funny, suspenseful, this introduced me to one of my favorite authors. If you like swashbucklers, check out his Captain Alatriste novels.

7 To-Reads That Make Me Very, Very Nervous

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake Don Quixote - Roberto González Echevarría, John Rutherford, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra The Fireman: A Novel - Joe Hill 11/22/63 - Stephen King Peace - Gene Wolfe The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights Volume 1 - Malcolm C. Lyons, Ursula Lyons The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Hell, Volume 05 - Dante Alighieri, Gustave Doré, Henry Francis Cary

Like a lot of people, I have a few books that, for various reasons, I haven't gotten to yet. These are ones that just flat scare me.


1. Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake  Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake  


    The first of the Gormenghast novels, I very much want to read this because it is a genre classic, heavy on character, rich in language, and deeply weird. I've dipped in a couple times and, frankly, ,the dense prose and deeply strange people  scare me a bit. Still, on the bucket list.


2. Don Quixote - Roberto González Echevarría,John Rutherford,Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra  Don Quixote - Roberto González Echevarría,John Rutherford,Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra  


    Obviously, it's a stone classic. Also, it is a satire of the chivalric romances that has come to epitomize them. Irony! It scares me because nobody makes it past the windmills.


3. The Fireman: A Novel - Joe Hill  The Fireman: A Novel - Joe Hill  


    I loved Twentieth Century Ghosts and Heart--Shaped Box, liked Horns, and never finished NOS4A2. Those conflicted feelings, plus my general dislike for post-apocalyptia, equals a long stay on the TBR shelf.


4. 11/22/63 - Stephen King  11/22/63 - Stephen King  


     So much frigging book. I started this around the time it came out and got something like 250 pages in. Solid, but slow, and some of the timey-wimey stuff was a bit off to me. Plus, bigger King is not always better King.


5. Peace - Gene Wolfe  Peace - Gene Wolfe  


    Combine dense language with mind-fuckery and I worry. Also, a lot of people say multiple readings are necessary to truly appreciate it. I'm sure it's excellent, but it seems like a lot of work.


6. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights Volume 1 - Malcolm C. Lyons,Ursula Lyons  The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights Volume 1 - Malcolm C. Lyons,Ursula Lyons  


    I own all three volumes of this translation of the Calcutta 2. This is a hard one for me, because The Arabian Nights is a huge part of me as a reader (Hell, I've even read whole books on it's provenance and influence, namely Irwin's Arabian Nights Companion), influencing my love of nesting stories, but there are many nasty undertones. On top of that, we're talking about 2,400 pages. Yes, this is a more modern-reading translation than the classic Burton, but still...


7. The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Hell, Volume 05 - Dante Alighieri,Gustave Doré,Henry Francis Cary  The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Hell, Volume 05 - Dante Alighieri,Gustave Doré,Henry Francis Cary  


    I have a coffee-table edition of the entire Divine Comedy, illustrated by Dore. It's huge, it's gorgeous... It's epic poetry.


I will read all of these, but no promises as to when, as I am a coward.

Pet Peeves

This is self-explanatory, really, but these are a few things that make me want to throw a book at a wall. 1. Breaking Character This is one of the bigger ones, and it's not complicated, but is it ever easy to do, and sometimes hard to avoid. Basically, breaking character is when you have a character do something they wouldn't, and without enough apparent motivation to make it fly. Simple, yeah? Well... Character is tough. Some writers create real people (as close as they can, anyway), put them in a series of situations, and write down what happens. This makes for stronger characters, but can be hell on plotting. Other writers craft the entire story, then slot characters in to serve the plot. Upside, all of those twists and setpieces you've planned stay intact. Downside, you risk cardboard characters. Most authors seem to take a middle ground, along the lines of crafting an outline, creating a character who fits their needs, and then letting them grow and breathe while having events guide them to some extent. This is where you breaking character comes in, because sometimes, as the character becomes a person, they make decisions that don't gibe, You can try to make events guide them where you need them (risking deus ex machina), or just make them do what you want, regardless. That's laziness, but what if the author thinks the character would do something, but readers just don't buy it. That's what beta readers are for. If the majority of your betas cry bullshit, either you didn't lay out motives well enough, or there's disconnect, meaning you're going to have to go back and create a character moment or be more direct in the character-building throughout. Either one can be a bear. All of this adds up to make this a pretty common issue, but no less of a deal-breaker for readers. When this happens, we feel betrayed, and a character we may have loved before can become alien to us. Not good. 2. Homophones Another common gripe, but my inner Grammar Nazi (or Alt-Write, if you prefer) gets marching every time I see this. This is why most writers keep a dictionary in their office, and why most WP programs have a dictionary function. 3. Repetitive Descriptions Use a freaking thesaurus, people. 4. Gutting Female Characters (Not Literally) This is something I've seen a lot, and it is related to my first point. Basically, you have a strong female lead only to sideline her at the climax in favor of the male love interest because, I mean, no one's going to believe a chick could/would do that, right? This is bullshit. Ellen Ripley was created almost forty years ago, and since then we've had Sarah Connor, Leelu, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski... The list goes on. Hell, even slasher movies know better than to do this crap. How is this still a thing? This is an abbreviated list, of course. What ticks you off?

What I Read, and Why

If you've read any of my other posts, you've probably figured out a bit about my reading habits already. Still, I want to talk about it in a little more detail.


1. Horror


I've told this story before, but one of the first things I remember reading was Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. It was an oversized, illustrated edition (give me a break, I was five). This was the laying of one of the cornerstones of my reading. After that, I would get horror collections from the school library and used book stores (anybody else remember all those Alfred Hitchcock's... collections? I had something like six of those...).

At age eleven, I picked up my first Stephen King, Thinner. That was fun, but The Dark Half and Needful Things really sold me on him (they're still two of my faves). Then Koontz, and then one of my mom's friends turned me on to Lovecraft (thanks Cathy!)...

Really, though, it was something that was always going to happen. I remember looking at books about film history in my school library (I snuck into the Older Readers section) and seeing pictures of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight and Phantom of the Opera, Max Schreck in Nosferatu... Listening to older kids in the locker room talking about Freddy and Jason... Drawing creepy pictures... The list goes on.

I still read, and watch, horror, though Koontz and Lovecraft are no longer staples of mine. Okay, Lovecraft's a tricky one, because I read a LOT of stuff set in his worlds or heavily inspired by him, but very little by the man himself. King, though, I still revisit frequently.


2. Mystery


One of the other books I remember reading young was a Sherlock Holmes story, though I'm not 100% sure of  which one. My mom had a collection of all the stories, with the original Paget illustrations from The Strand. Super cool, that.

My mom is a huge mystery fan, and had trouble with me from time to time. She felt I needed more male role models, so she started me reading the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, starting with Early Autumn. That is the one where Spenser basically adopts a boy and teaches him to be responsible and self-sufficient. My mother's real subtle.

Still, that and Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress (thanks again, Cathy!) hooked me on PI novels for good. When I'm in a reading slump, a Mosley or a Parker are still the books most likely to bust me out of it.

From those, I worked my way back to Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane, while at the same time finding newer authors like Deaver and Lehane. Whilst bored in Texas, found the Keller and Burglar books by Lawrence Block, as well as Kinky Friedman's quirky, drug-laced series, which led me to similar, though darker, works by Crumley (The Last Good Kiss still has the best opening sentence in mystery fiction, IMO).


3. Fantasy


Another genre my mom loved, and she started me on it with the Narnia books, then the Incarnations of Immortality by Piers Anthony, then his Xanth books, as well as series by David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey. Mom's love of fantasy pushed me towards my love of short fiction as well, as, among her many DragonLance books were a couple Tales books.

But it  was Cathy, again, who introduced us to something that would hugely influenced our reading, urban fantasy. I discovered Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and Nancy A. Collins through her. Then because of a Butcher blurb on the cover, I picked up the first Nightside novel by Simon R. Green (I now have over forty of his books).

Along the way, I had lost interest in your classic, swords-and-horses, traditional fantasy, but the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks brought me back (You want to get my attention? Assassins. The Nightfall books by Reichert, the Keller books, The Butcher's Boy... Assassins and con artists are the best ways to get me interested in your book or movie). Then came Martin and Rothfuss, and now Goodreads has gotten me interested in more series/authors than I'll ever be able to read.


4. Thrillers/Suspense


This was Stephen King's fault. In Danse Macabre and On Writing he mentioned David Morrell, whose First Blood I eventually picked up, and who later edited a collection of essays on thriller novels, which gave me a shopping list, basically.

The thing is, I'd never thought of thrillers as a discreet genre, with it's own tropes and basic structure. After reading a few of the books found in that collection, I realized that it is a great genre with great variety in subject but often a common structure. Still, I read a lot of thrillers and their less violent cousins, suspense novels.


5. Nonfiction


Easy. I like knowing things. If I like a critic or artist, I want their opinions for pointers, which has  led me to so much art that I love.

I like learning where things came from, the creative process and the history. I like seeing how things work, and how people think, and don't. And I like useless trivia.

So I have a lot of books on history and science, tons of criticism and 100 Best books, and a fair few essay collections. With the other genres, there's a general timeline I can trace, but this is much more random. I see something nifty, grab it, read it, and move on.



Jeez, this was a long one. Thanks if you made it this far! Hope you weren't bored.

7 Favorites of 2016

Bone - Jeff Smith The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard The Fisherman - John Langan

Yeah, it's a little late, but these are my favorites of the books I  read last year. I'm only listing one per author/series, and I am not including short stories, but one novella did make the list, as did one graphic novel. So, in no particular order, my favorite books read in 2016


1. Bone - Jeff Smith  Bone - Jeff Smith  


    Easily the longest book I read  last year, and the one I'd been wanting to read the longest. I remember reading an interview with Smith when this was first being serialized about twenty years ago. Basically, if Carl Barks (of the old Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge comics) had written LOTR... It's gorgeously drawn, and surprisingly deep, epic and hilarious in equal measure. Despite being over 1300 pages long, I read it in a day. It is truly that compelling.


2. The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle  The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle 


    I read a lot of Lovecraftiana in 2016, but this was easily the best example. This novella is an inspired retelling of "The Horror at Red Hook," easily one of Lovecrafts most racist stories, that flips the whole thing on it's head. The main character goes down some dark paths, but you always understand why. This tale both celebrates and excoriates HPL while telling a great story in it's own right.


3. The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch  The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch  


    The first, and easily best, of the Gentleman Bastards series, this introduces us to a spectacular crew of conn artists as they take on a huge job in a fantastic city reminiscent of Renaissance Venice. Told in both flashback and present day, with truly remarkable characters, this book should be read by any fantasy fan. The rest of the series thus far has been a case of diminishing returns, but still fun. Either way, I'm in it for the long haul.


4. The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay  The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay  


    Loosely based on Song of the Cid, this is a flat-out gorgeous novel that deals with heavy themes while still being very funny and entertaining. Thhis also may have been the best-written book I read last year.


5. The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding  The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay Book 3) - Chris Wooding  


    I read and loved the entire Ketty Jay series in '16. Still, this penultimate volume was the most epic and exciting, while also having several of the best character moments. It is almost too easy to describe this series as a steampunk-fantasy Firefly... So that is exactly what I'll do.


6. The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard  The Fear Institute - Jonathan L. Howard  


   Another great Lovecraftian piece, albeit one deeply involved with old HP's Dreamlands, an aspect of his work too often ignored in favor of his Mythos. This is the third in Howard's Johannes Cabal series, and the first to feel like a genuine horror novel. This is my favorite of the five books in the series thus far.


7. The Fisherman - John Langan  The Fisherman - John Langan  


    True, there are other books I rated higher, but this one makes the list, if only for the novella that serves as the novel's centerpiece. The rest of the book is quite good, but Der Fischer is possibly the single greatest piece of cosmic horror I have yet to read. It is indebted to Lovecraft without using any of his actual narrative inventions, instead using Talmudic, Cabbalistic and Biblical sources for it's horrors. Truly amazing.


1. What is the LAST book you would want your parents to walk in on you reading? Any straight-up erotica, really 2. It’s storming outside, and you’re home alone for the night. What book would only make matters worse? Many people take this question to mean creepy, but depressing is more likely to get me, so... Nietzche. Seriously. 3. Have you ever read a book simply because of the controversy surrounding it? Yes, The DaVinci Code. It was okay. 4. What is the most cringe-inducing romance or sex scene you have ever read? In Callahan's Legacy, Fast Eddie's story of seducing his uncle. Ick. 5. What book has made you question the author's sanity? Sex, Money, KISS by Gene Simmons. Proffering a misogynistic screed as a self-help book? Fuck you no. 6. Have you ever put down a book and not finished it because the content was too much for you? Pet Sematary by Stephen King. The cat got creamed... Nope. 7. What fictional character do you have the most NSFW thoughts about? There have been a couple “heroines” in paranormal/UF series I would have fed through a wood-chipper. That counts, right? 8. Most NSFW book cover (or drawing/photo inside a book). Have a couple vintage Vampirella comics that make me blush a little. 9. Have you ever read something from the erotica/romance genre, and what did you think? My mother wrote paranormals for a while, and that was awkward. I've proofed some erotica for friends... Also awkward. 10. You stumble across a portkey. What fictional world would you NOT want to be transported into? Any hellscape, really. That may be a cop-out, but I really don't want to go to Hell.

7 "Gotta-Get" Books

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies - John  Langan Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay Assassin's Apprentice  - Robin Hobb The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction - Neil Gaiman Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared - Christopher Fowler The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune - Stuart Galbraith, Stuart Galbraith IV The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

Thus far, I've been talking about books I already own that I need to read. As much as I want to focus on that, there are quite a few books out there that I very much want to get and read this year. These aren't new releases, rather books I just haven't gotten to yet. Some are from legends in their respective fields, some are from fave authors, and some just seem nifty.


1.The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies - John Langan  The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies - John Langan  


    Just recently, I read Langan's The Fisherman, and was quite fond. Though I liked the book as a whole, the centerpiece story-within-a-story just floored me. As well, Langan's "Red Death" riff that I read in a Poe-inspired anthology was fantastic. As such,I want to get into more of his shorter works.


2. Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay  Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay  


    I read two of Kay's novels last year, and adored them. So I'm going to pick up at least this one in '17, possibly another as well.


3. Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb  Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb  


    Hobb is well-known and loved in the fantasy scene, and this is the first book in the trilogy that launched her over-arching world. I have a love-hate relationship with high fantasy, but this just sounds fun.


4. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction - Neil Gaiman  The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction - Neil Gaiman  


I am a massive fan of Gaiman, have been since reading American Gods far too many years ago. Also, I dig pop-cult essays a la Hornby and Vowell. So this is a no-brainer.


5. Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared - Christopher Fowler  Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared - Christopher Fowler  


    I dig books about books, and stories of near-success are often more fascinating than either pure success or failure. And, I like history.


6. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune - Stuart Galbraith,Stuart Galbraith IV  The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune - Stuart Galbraith,Stuart Galbraith IV  


    I love movies, how they're made, who makes them, the whole shebang. Also, I like exploring unfamiliar cultures. Mix two strong personalities with long, interesting careers, post-war economics and fears, and various technical and creative challenges... Dude, I am so there.


7. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith  The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith  


    Like many people, I read and loved the Harry Potter series. Combine that with the fact that I am a long-time mystery fan, especially P.I. novels, as well as the general praise heaped upon this series, and it's surprising I haven't read  this yet. That changes this year.

Intimidating TBR Tag, and Tags in General

So, on YouTube, BookTubers pass around video tags, where they answer various book questions. These are fun to watch, and also answer. So I figure I'll do them sometimes, to amuse myself. I'll start with this one, because it's short and, unlike many BookTube tags, is not romance- or YA-heavy. Intimidating TBR 1. What book have you been unable to finish? The Name of The Rose, Umberto Eco. It's great, amazing, intriguing, and by God is it dense. Love it thus far, will continue, not holding my breath. 2. What book have you yet to read because you just haven't had the time? So many, but I'll say the three-volume Penguin Classics edition of The Thousand-and-One Nights. Over two thousand pages total. 3. What book have you yet to read because it's a sequel? Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson. Third in the Mistborn series, I'll get to it when I eventually finish book two. 4. What book have you yet to read because it's brand new? An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson. Just haven't gotten to it, yet. 5. What book have you yet to read because you read a book by the same author and didn't enjoy it? More Horowitz Horror, Anthony Horowitz, because I rage-quit the first one. 6. What book have you yet to read because you're just not in the mood for it? Catch-22, Joseph Heller, as a satire about war and madness is rarely what I want. 7. What book have you yet to read because it's humongous?  The Fireman, Joe Hill. There are several that could fit this question, but it;s certainly true. 8. What book have you yet to read because it was a cover buy that turned out to have poor reviews? A Passage to Shambhala, Kevin Costner et al. 9. What is the most intimidating book in your TBR pile? Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes.

TBR List, or 7 Owned Books to Read in 2017

Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Hurley Twilight of the Empire - Simon R. Green Little, Big - John Crowley The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke Ghost Story - Peter Straub Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons

Like most readers, I have a boatload of books I own that I have yet to read. This year, I will read 25 of them. Here are the musts.


1. Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges,Andrew Hurley   Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges  

    I've read a bit of Borges, and have deeply enjoyed it. That's why this is here.


2. Twilight of the Empire - Simon R. Green    Twilight of the Empire - Simon R. Green  


   The Deathstalker series is the only one I have yet to read by Green, and these are the novellas that introduce that universe. I own the whole series, so I should maybe get started, yeah? Besides, Space Opera rocks!


3. Little, Big - John Crowley  Little, Big - John Crowley  

   I've started this a couple of times, and got distracted. Not this year! It's la lyrical beauty that can't be rushed, but I will make the time.


4. The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly  The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly  


    I've read and loved the Gates series, as well as Connolly's second collection, Night Music. I started this one years ago, and will actually follow through this time.


5.  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke  


    Another one I got distracted during (are we sensing a theme?), this is a serious beast of a book, but I've loved what I've read, and the depiction of Faerie is unique, to say the least.


6.  Ghost Story - Peter Straub  Ghost Story - Peter Straub  


   A genuine horror classic that I've been threatening to read for about a decade. There is no reason I haven't read this yet.


7.  Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons  Carrion Comfort - Dan Simmons  


   Another big mother(shut yo mouth), this fell into the must list after I read The Terror last year. That one started slow, but was frigging awesome. I'm hoping this one kicks in a little quicker.


There's my seven must-reads from my ridiculous TBR pile, but there's a lot more where those came from. At least 18, some even more imposing.

As imposing, anyway.