Archive for the 'Fiction' category

 | March 3, 2011 7:33 pm

Note: One of their weekly segments on the NPR Books Podcast is entitled, “My Guilty Pleasure,” and offers authors a chance to talk about the indulgence books they are currently reading. Over the past month, I’ve found that I have my own guilty pleasure. This entry explains why.

Empire in Black and GoldDragonfly FallingBlood of the Mantis

For the past month, the “Shadows of the Apt”, written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, has been my guilty pleasure. I’ve now read four of the books and purchased the last two. I simply cannot put them down. At my current rate, I’ll finish the whole series by this weekend, and, I’m sure that I’ll enjoy every moment of it.

Shadows of the Apt has all the things that I demand of a book. The characters are real, the action is convincing and it has a compelling story to tell. Nothing seems contrived; the consistency is excellent. All well and good, nothing to be ashamed of.

Then you get to the book’s premise: a world where tribes of people (kinden) inherit the powers of specific arthropods. Or, put another way, giant killer insect men and the bugs they love.

Now do you see why I’m calling this a “guilty” pleasure?

Yet, Tchaikovsky actually goes places with his somewhat absurd ideas. There are also glimpses of humanity and surprising depth in his characters. He even touches on universal human themes such as racism, classicism, and fears of the other. But, of course, this being fantasy, all of the heavy stuff is layered in with crisp and witty dialogue, fight scenes, sweeping battles, and hokey moments of giant killer insect men.

It’s positively electric. More importantly, though, it shows that hokey stories of giant killer insect men can be immensely and brilliantly satisfying. Even if it might be an over the top indulgence.

Salute the DarkThe Scarab PathThe Sea Watch

 | December 16, 2010 5:15 pm

imageNote: Still working on the book.

For regular readers of this website, you might be aware that one of my favorite authors is Neil Gaiman.  I like his books, I like his comics, and I avidly read his blog.  And while there are many things that I enjoy about his writing – the  masterful use of prose, dialogue, and black humor – there is one aspect that appeals to me more than any other: the way which he weaves myth, fable, and fairy-tale into modern life.

Whether it be the denizens of “London Below” or Egyptian death gods working as undertakers (in Cairo, Illinois, no less), Gaiman has a gift for taking old things and working them into modern life as new and magical ones.

Even better, the ways which Gaiman plays with old myths is subtle, and, if you aren’t looking for it, you may miss the allusion or reference.  This may be why Gaiman’s work gets better on subsequent readings, rather than tiresome.

imageThis morning, while working through the RSS feed, I was thrilled to see a new Call for Papers for a project entitled “The Mythological Dimensions of Nil Gaiman.”   It’s from the same people who brought us the “Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who”, and if their previous work is anything to judge by, it should be fantastic.

Call for Papers: The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman

Submissions are sought for the forthcoming second volume of the critical essay series: The Mythological Dimensions to be published by Kitsune Books in 2012. This second volume will be on the subject of the Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman with a mind toward the incredible opportunity for multidisciplinary discourse on his work.

The works of Neil Gaiman are as diverse as clouds in the sky. To say that Gaiman is just an author would be doing both him and his work a disservice. Although he is best known for his books, his expertise is in the realm of myth, rather than any one medium. Gaiman’s name has also been attached to film scripts, comic books, and graphic novels, even a much anticipated episode of Doctor Who. He’s influenced songwriters and artists of all stripes. He’s been at the forefront of the graphic novel movement and has fought for the rights of comic book artists, being a board member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The goal of this volume is to explore the worlds tapped into by Gaiman. While authors like Lewis, Le Guin, and Tolkien spent time creating a secondary world separate from our own, Gaiman amends our world. It can be said that Coraline’s space beyond the door, the Sandman’s realm of Dream, the land beyond the Wall, even the Gap between the subway stations are all Gaiman’s ‘secondary world’ creations—and they are—but they are also extensions of our own primary world.

Prior to submitting for this volume, each potential contributor should be familiar with the overall style and format of The Mythological Dimensions primary volume, The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who. The motto of this series is “written by fans for fans” and we will hold strict adherence to this rule. All essays will be expected to adhere to scholarly standards of analysis but at the same time be accessible to the interested fan who is not an academic by trade. Therefore successful abstracts will be judged as much on content as writing style.

Each contribution must demonstrate knowledge of Gaiman as an artist. We are looking predominantly for contributions that examine: how Gaiman transcends stereotypes, ideas, and symbols within his work; how Gaiman’s characters eradicate boundaries, or create new ones; how Gaiman views old myths through a fresh lens.

Essays can relate to, but should not be limited by, the following suggestion topics in relation to the mythical:

  1. In “An Introduction” to his collection Smoke & Mirrors, Gaiman discusses the nature of story being like “mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.”
  2. The relationship of Gaiman and his characters to modern culture. Have Gaiman’s characters molded modern culture in any way? Are his characters a mirror of our culture—“A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality….”
  3. Gaiman readily admits that he wished he had written The Lord of the Rings. Throughout Gaiman’s work there are side-jokes and wonderful references to Tolkien’s work. Purposefully examine Tolkien and Gaiman, going beyond a mere comparison/contrast. Examine how intrinsic Tolkien’s work was/is to Gaiman. Could Gaiman have written a word without Middle-earth backing him up?
  4. The influence of “real world myth” into Gaiman’s explored realms. Again, such an examination should endeavor to go beyond simply noting that Northern myths (like Sigfrid or Beowulf) inspired certain of Gaiman’s tales. More than a simple source study.
  5. In “The Mapmaker,” Gaiman links the tale told to the map drawn. “One describes a tale best by telling the tale…The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map which is the territory. You must remember this.” Examine Gaiman’s concepts of dreamland territories, mythological or mythopoeic maps, and worlds that exist beyond the edges of the drawn map, the known world, the experienced territory.
  6. Gaiman’s penchant for ‘rewriting’ myth; how does this re-envisioning of mythic tales from Beowulf to Anansi to Oðinn to Snow White affect modern approaches to these myths? Critics of his vision of Beowulf cringe at the idea of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, but was Gaiman too far off when looking at the original tale? How does Gaiman preserve the integrity of a myth while refracting it in his “distorting mirror?” Is the integrity preserved at all?

We will give precedence to pieces which demonstrate a range of Gaiman’s work, or take a character, particular story, or single facet of Gaiman and explore it in regards to the work of another author/artist. The Editors would discourage a singular case study of any of Gaiman’s characters, and would like to dissuade any submissions from concentrating on any individual work of Gaiman’s to exclusion. We would also like to note that this collection will explore a large swath of Gaiman’s work and in order to accomplish the collection’s goals, we cannot accept multiple submissions on topics; so we encourage you to send your abstracts in a timely fashion.

All submitted abstracts and papers are to be sent to mythicdocwho@gmail.com

Abstracts of 500-750 words should be submitted, along with complete contact information for and a biographical paragraph about the submitter, by email to the editors by February 15th, 2011.

If accepted, articles should be completed as Word documents with MLA formatting.

Complete submissions should be sent electronically to the editors by July 1st, 2011 to mythicdocwho@gmail.com

All deadlines are firm.

Editors:

Dr. Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University
Larsen@mail.ccsu.edu

Jessica Burke, College of Staten Island
JessicaBurke23@gmail.com

Anthony S Burdge, Northeast Tolkien Society Co-Chair/Independent Scholar
anthonyburdge@gmail.com

 | July 27, 2010 11:10 pm

McKean Stamps - UnicornIn general, I’m horribly clueless about advertising and marketing.  Sure, I know some of the general principles and basically how it works.  I know that it peddles in subtlety, perception and elegance.  I also know that these are not my areas of core strength.  (I have about as much subtlety as self-restraint, which is to say, not much.)  And that is about it.

But ignorance aside, I have a tremendous appreciation that advertising/marketing are important, and in most cases not nefarious.  I know that they’re not really about manipulating people into making a purchase, or about separating them from their money.  I even know that at its best, advertising (like propaganda) can be very helpful.  It can expose you to new ideas and products you wouldn’t otherwise consider and help you to locate needed services.

(There is, after all, a reason why Google has significant amounts of money and I do not.  Their soul sucking ads are a very effective way to find people who might be looking for something to buy.)

Which makes my ignorance all the more distressing.  Advertising is important, I don’t understand it, yet I often find myself in a position where I need to promote goods, products and miscellaneous services.  And of course, I’m terrible at it.

(In most cases, I can’t even effectively promote myself.)

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 | July 14, 2010 8:30 am

Summer-Path_thumb[3]One of the many things for which I use my Audible.com account is to track interesting books.  Whenever someone sends me an interesting review, or mentions a book in passing, the very first thing I do is add it to the “Audible.com” wish list.  After all, every month I get to download two new books, and keeping the list stocked ensures that I’ve always got something interesting on hand.

In the (nearly) ten years that I’ve been a member of Audible, I’ve accumulated quite a list.  it includes fiction books and non-fiction books across all genres.  You can find science fiction and fantasy (what can I say, I’m a whore for space ships, explosions and swords) in addition to titles covering history, business, science, religion, economics, New Age enlightenment and genres that I’m not sure I can even put a name to.

(Due to the Audible subscription and aforementioned two books a month, I’m a great deal more adventurous than if I were actually paying full price.)

As I browse the list, I can tell you where most of the books originated from.  Some are from the recommendations of friends.  Others I saw mentioned on blogs.  Still others came from browsing the Audible site and reading the reviews.

But even though I know where most of the recommendations originated, there are a few that I just can’t place.  Logically, I understand that I must have put them there, it’s just that I can’t remember doing it.

(Which means that I shall blame it on elves, fairies, or aliens; because those explanations are infinitely more interesting than merely saying, “I don’t remember doing that.”  Logic be damned.)

Sometimes these books are tremendous surprises.  God is Not Great (How Religion Poisons Everything) was one such find.  I passionately disagreed with nearly every word, and had a marvelous time doing so.  (Plus it’s written and read by Christopher Hitchens, who is one of the greatest essayists writing in the English language.) As was the Historian, a ridiculous vampire novel with spectacular research covering the life of Vlad Tepes, the fall of Constantinople and the destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire.

And sometimes these books are disasters.  Summer’s Path, by Scott Blum, is one such disaster; and it’s not a small one, either.  It’s a full Hindenburgesque monstrosity with plot implosions, brain sucking aliens and everything.

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 | March 9, 2009 12:54 pm

Anathem

What can you say about a Neal Stephenson novel?  Really.  The man is a bit like J.R.R. Tolkien, he feels the need to go out and re-invent the wheel simply because he can.  As a result, no amount of critical analysis, commentary, or old fashioned smack is really able to do his work justice.  If you want to experience a Stephenson novel, you just have to go read it.

So it is with Anathem, a book about a place which isn’t Earth and a time that isn’t now.  Though it certainly feels like both.  Anathem is s a big book which contains big ideas: the observations of classical philosophers, rules of logic, and ultimately a polycosmic theory of connected reality.  You know, light reading.  It’s also a brilliant though extremely frustrating piece which simply defies any attempt at summary.  The first third is spent drowning in detail, the middle third in quiet contemplation, and the last third in monumental disillusion.

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 | February 21, 2009 1:08 am

One of the best parts of having a blog is the ability to speak directly to and interact with readers. This is true even on such a small and under-read blog as Apolitically Incorrect. In the past few weeks, I have received a number of fascinating e-mails from readers who took some issues with an essay that I published, entitled “Eragon Shadeslayer: Sociopath.” In this essay, I looked at how the principal hero of the Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini, had progressed from a hero archetype toward something else: a dangerous sociopath.

As might be expected, this particular topic proved to be somewhat controversial and generated a surprising amount of e-mail. My opinion on one of Eragon’s actions in particular, the murder of a young soldier who was begging for his life, evoked some particularly strong responses. While some of the correspondence was hostile, more often the letters were extremely thoughtful and asked all kinds of excellently difficult questions. While there were various writers, nearly every letter raised at least two common questions which I would like to try and give an answer to. First, why am I so hard on Christopher Paolini’s notions of good and evil? Second, why should we attempt to cling to moral absolutes and high minded ideals in an amoral and relative world?

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 | January 21, 2009 8:23 pm

While the timeless struggle between good and evil has been at the center of Western literature for nearly three thousand years, modern psychology has given us an insight into why some people devolve into heroes and others into villains. One important framework is provided by the mythology of the sociopath. Sociopaths are marked by several important characteristics: impulsivity, irritability and aggression, deceit or manipulation, lack of concern for the safety of others, irresponsibility, or being unconcerned about hurting or stealing. Sociopaths have lost their conscience and soul. They are evil because they can be. Sociopaths don’t come with baggage, don’t need a back-story or some greedy motive. They just are.

In Christopher Paolini’s, Brisingr, we get something rather unexpected: a sociopath in the role of hero. Brisingr’s author never explicitly states that Eragon, the novel’s main protagonist, is an unfeeling void; quite the contrary, actually. The omniscient narrator, the cast of supporting characters, and even his dragon laud Eragon’s actions as careful, considered, and just. A careful reading, though, doesn’t reveal this. Rather, nearly every action shows either rash judgments or cold calculation. This represents somewhat of a departure of Paolini’s earlier work (Eragon and Eldest). Despite the weaknesses of the earlier books, the character of Eragon was at least likable. Of course he was brash and headstrong, but he at least tried to do and say the right things.

In Brisingr, however, we are presented with another person. Eragon has little mercy or understanding for anyone around him (either friend or foe). This trend only gets worse as the novel progresses. Steadily, we proceed from actions which are merely foolish to those which are profoundly disturbing. Consider how Eragon acts in the first few hundred pages of Brisingr. In the opening chapters, Eragon commits genocide. He later circumvents justice in order to condemn and abandon a man in the desert. Last, he kills a child in cold blood while the boy is begging for mercy. In this essay, we will look at these three scenarios in detail and show that Eragon has lost his way, his conscience and his soul.

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 | January 12, 2009 10:59 pm

In their heart, storytellers are liars. They take the boring details of a mundane existence and make them interesting. Storytellers fold and rip apart reality, giving it an interpretation, angle, or even direction. While most might don the storyteller hat (at least for a little while) when they spin yearns of office conquest, the encounter with the co-worker they don’t like, or the latest fight with their boss they typically embellish or embolden. Yet, there is an enormous difference between someone who occasionally bends the truth and the masters who revel in their own deviousness. Masters storytellers are more than liars, they wear deceit the way most people wear underclothes. They don’t just wrap up existence or give an interpretation, angle or direction; a master storyteller can use their lies to tell the Truth. This places them within the realm of the gods. They can create, destroy, and instruct.

William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and Robin Hobb are masters of their craft. Inside their stories we find the reality of our own world reflected back at us. Lady MacBeth, Frodo Baggins, Prince Caspian, Shadow and Fitz feel like real people who walk in a world that might fall off the page. Rather than a lie which has been sloppily papered over with the truth (the realm of reality), we get truth that has been masterfully and regally clothed in lies (the realm of imagination).

The Truth has been given many names (of which archetype and allegory are only two) and while the names may shift, they still convey the same idea; underneath the style and glamour, there is something inherently correct and right about what is being portrayed. Truth is beautiul, but only as long as it remains pure and … the Truth. There is nothing quite as dangerous to Truth as an “almost truth.” We often, euphamestically call the untruths, “White Lies” or “Half Truths” and they are deadly.

Big lies hold about as much danger as a bear that has been painted neon green and mounted with enormous strobe lights and warning sirens. Sure, they can still eviscerate and do awful things to the various bits that you should probably keep on the inside; but you can see and hear them coming from a long way off. The smaller lies much are more subtle in their nefariousness.  They can have a presence similar to that of your best friend … right before he pushes you in front of a bus. They can can be beautifully seductive. Sometimes they are things that we wish were true and merely shatter our faith when we learn they are not; but more often they are as dangerous as a deeply flawed keystone at the moment that it accepts weight and shatters under the load. For these reason, half-truths are much more dangerous than their bigger brethren.  Unfortunately, they don’t come equipped with the helpful entourage.

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 | 10:39 pm

There are some books whose influence and impact stay with the reader long after the last page. The ideas, stories and possibilities continue to haunt the imagination like so many restless specters. JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is one such work. It fills the head with ageless elves, far-away places, and terrible villains. Christopher Paolini’s Brisingr is also such a work. Unfortunately, the ghouls it conjures are of a different type than those that haunt Tolkein’s.

Brisingr is the third book in Paolini’s “Inheritance Cycle.” Once believed to be a trilogy, with Brisingr at its conclusion; the Ineritance Saga will likely be a quartet with Brisingr as its penultimate volume. In trying to review the work, it is probably best to start with the “short” and then proceed to the “long.” E.A. Salinas’ provides a nice summary on Amazon.com:

“Brisingr” may be the “ancient language’s” word for fire, but Christopher Paolini’s third novel doesn’t really have any. Awkward, plodding and lacking a real plot, this flame was out before it even started.

If you haven’t surmised, the short is this: the book is terrible. For those that have already read Brisingr, my sympathies. For those who are wondering if they should, there is far better work, even in the realm of trash fantasy.

Paolini commits all the stylistic sins of consequence: he’s boring, long winded and trite. The main plot is particularly egregious, as the novel doesn’t really have one. The subtitle of the book tells you nearly everything you need to know: “The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjatskoler.” Brisingr moves from one promise to the next without a central storyline to connect them. The novel might have been more effectively organized as a volume of “loosely connected” short stories, since it essentially reads like one.

Paolini’s commits a far more serious sin than being scattered or dull, however. Brisingr struggles to be “Literature” and in the process sags under the weight of politicking and pretentious moral preaching. While many of the questions Eragon ponders barely rise to the level of interesting cocktail banter, there are some issues to which Paolini’s characters come to surprisingly disturbing conclusions. One of Tolkien’s greatest accomplishments was using his writing as a medium for moral thought experiments. It is somewhat ironic, then, that someone who compares himself to Tolkien spends much of his time contradicting the values and ideas which make The Lord of the Rings great literature. Some of these “ideas” so greatly bothered me, I felt the need to more directly wrestle with them.

To understand the great weaknesses in Paolini’s work, it’s first necessary to understand the small ones. Let’s start with the minor sins before looking at their heavier brethren. As I alluded to above, there isn’t much to enjoy in this novel; not at a technical, literary, or philosophical level. While some of the linguistic errors might be resolved with a good editor, many of the other errors are stylistic or structural and are much more intractable. Paolini devotes pages to unimportant minutiae, drowning the narrative in lengthy and ponderous description. At one point he spends twenty-two pages to describe the forging of his sword from space metal. Twenty-two pages!

Following Paolini’s prose is an effort which isn’t made any easier by the moded style that he has chosen to adopt. Rather than sounding timeless or like “the lyrical beauty of Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf,” the language is pretentious and stupid. Good writers use complex language to provide illumination. Paolini sounds like he is attempting to get off using his thesaurus. If the prose is pretentious, the dialogue is even worse. It fails to approach realistic much less elegant. Consider one example where Eragon and Roran share a particularly gag inducing conversation prior to assaulting the Ra’zak, “Even we, who were boys but a short while ago, cannot escape the inexorable progress of time. So the generations pass …” Paolini continues on like this for another ten pages.

While listening to the audio book version of the work, I often wondered if the narrator (Gerard Doyle) needed to pause and ask, “Did Paolini really write that?” There are telling transitions in the narrative where the sentence begins in one tone and ends in another. While such moments were obviously due to the combination of different edits, each awkward combination practically begs the question, “Did Doyle just lose it?” As a listener, I could barely stomach the prose. I can only marvel at the discipline required to record it.

As goes the language, so goes everything else. In typical Paolini style, Eragon skirts from one misadventure to another and from one useless subplot to the next. Fans of Paolini’s might be better served reading the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages. There isn’t much of interest in the middle. Better yet, read the Wikipedia entry and save yourself the pain completely. This might just save you from wondering if Paolini gets paid by the pound for his books.

 | November 18, 2008 3:45 pm

I saw this last night and thought that it should be passed on.  But I need to give some sort of explanation as to why it is so cool.  In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a published writer, and while I am (after a fashion); I am not aware of many who daydream of writing scientific treatises.  Such daydreams usually focuses on a carreer as a novelist, playwright, or journalist.  Even though my writing as a more, non-fiction bent, I have a great deal of respect for those whose stories are not so firmly nailed down.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that I enjoy reading, audiobooks and just about everything related to the written (and spoken) word.  I have a particular wakeness for fiction and have filled my various cellphones (and now iPods) with thousands of hours of programming (thank you to Audible subscription program!).  I am also an absolute whore for podcasts and recordings which tell stories well.  Some of the very best of these come through this thing called The Moth.  If you don’t already subscribe to their podcast, you really should.  As in … You. Really. Should.  It is that cool.

Once a year, the Moth has a get-together called “The Moth Ball.”  They also have an auction.  So, I am going to give a shameless plug.  One of my absolute favorite authors is a Brit by the name of Neil Gaiman.  He wrote Neverwhere (which is absolutely brilliant), Stardust (which is really cool), and American Gods (which is simply amazing).

Apparently, he is up for auction.  Or … an afternoon tea with him at The Players is.  This is one of those things that you should bid for.  It’s a great cause and an even better prize.  If you don’t want to go, you could always bid and give it to me!