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The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

by Jonathan 2 Comments

I’m very excited about this early Christmas gift from my wife:

Known as the greatest traveler of premodern times, Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta was born in Morocco in 1304 and educated in Islamic law. At the age of twenty-one, he left home to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. This was only the first of a series of extraordinary journeys that spanned nearly three decades and took him not only eastward to India and China but also north to the Volga River valley and south to Tanzania.

What’s not to like?

In addition, I received The Arabian Nights (Norton Critical Edition), Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology, The Iron Council by China Mieville, All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers by Larry McMurtry, The Hero Has a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and Cruising Paradise: Tales by Sam Shepard.

Before I get to reading, let me leave you with this trailer for Journey to Mecca:

Cronin the Barbarian, Usurper of Titus Groan

I know, so many of you, as usual, are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. I’m not quite sure myself. All I know my friend Mike since sixth grade (*waves* Hey Mike!) was gracious enough to send me his copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Mmm. That sounds good. I'll have that.

Suddenly my doorstop of the Gormenghast novels was on the floor next to my bed amid the dog hair and dirty socks.

It was like I had been dating this nice, but weird girl that I wasn’t even really sure I liked and then the girl I had a crush on for the last year not only noticed me, but asked me out. Hello The Passage. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even bother changing my Currently Reading widget in the sidebar.

I wasted little time tearing through Cronin’s first foray into speculative fiction. Six days later I emerged.

Cronin’s writing reminded me of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy mostly. For me, that was a good thing as I find both of those writers eminently readable as well as engrossing. The first 200 pages turned everything up to 11, bringing on viruses, experimental human subjects, prostitutes, punk frat boys, otherworldly children, nuns. The only thing missing was a Federal agent who was too good at his job. No wait, there was that too.

And then Cronin hit me in the face with a frying pan, forcing me to regroup. I was a little resentful, but eventually fell into the story that picked up almost 100 years after the events from the first part of the book. I read one review that essentially called those 200 pages a prologue.  Ah.

Once it got rolling again, I could not put it down. I’ve read a review that called the middle section baggy (to be fair, the reviewer loved the book). While I don’t disagree, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t want to leave the story. Fortunately, The Passage is the first of a planned three post-apocalyptic vampire novels. I’m in.

Now normally I don’t go for vampires. Twilight sort of reaffirmed my stance, but I’ve never gravitated toward the vampire story, except maybe the whole Vlad Tepes thing behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this Justin Cronin guy, he does it all up right. There’s no sparkling, no suave Tom Cruise guy. This is more Nosferatu meets 28 Days Later: Creepy ass, fast moving, and brutal creatures.

But The Passage is more than gore and horror. Cronin sucks you in deep with his characters. And for me, I very much enjoy the Iowa Writers’ Workshop sheen to it all:

Amy’s father was a man who came in one day to the restaurant where Jeanette had waited tables since she turned sixteen, a diner that everyone called the Box, because it looked like one: like a big chrome shoe-box sitting off the county road, backed by fields of corn and beans, nothing else around for miles except a self-serve car wash, the kind where you had to put coins into the machine and do all the work yourself. The man, whose name was Bill Reynolds, sold combines and harvesters, big things like that, and he was a sweet talker who told Jeanette as she poured his coffee and then later, again and again, how pretty she was, how he liked her coal-black hair and hazel eyes and slender wrists, said it all in a way that sounded like he meant it, not the way boys in school had, as if the words were just something that needed to get said along the way to her letting them do as they liked. He had a big car, a new Pontiac, with a dashboard that glowed like a spaceship and leather seats creamy as butter. She could have loved that man, she thought, really and truly loved him. But he stayed in town only a few days, and then went on his way.

There Cronin’s just getting started, but you get the idea.

There’s been much made of the quality of Science Fiction and Fantasy, most of it pointing to the substandard presentation of story in exchange for cool space ships or monsters or worlds. Those who read those genres widely are well aware that there is plenty of what writers and publishers would call “literary” speculative fiction.

I thank Justin Cronin for listening to his then-8-year-old daughter’s suggestion that he write a book about a little girl who saves the world. And for not being afraid to utilize old vampire and dystopian post-apocalyptic tropes. You just don’t mind going over the well-worn ground because, after all is said and done, his writing carries the day.

The Lord of the Rings

by Jonathan 19 Comments

Ballantine's 1965 The Lord of the Rings covers (Art by Barbara Remington)

I grew up in a family that adored all things Lord of the Rings. When I was 7 or 8 the poster that you see above hung in my room, though I really had no idea what it was all about. I remember watching The Hobbit (Rankin and Bass) on our Zenith. The only channel we got was NBC (WGAL TV out of Lancaster, PA) and thankfully, they carried The Hobbit.

I loved the story. To an 8-year-old, it was perfect. Fairly uncomplicated, dwarves, villains, dragons and, of course, hobbits. About that time, my father purchased this for my mother:

It was as heavy as any bible I’d ever seen and the pages were just as thin. It was pretty, but beyond the sweet foldout maps, the whole thing seemed beyond me.

I was around 12 when I actually read The Hobbit. This edition:

I loved this even more than I enjoyed the animated Hobbit.

And the maps! I couldn’t get enough of Tolkien’s maps. See for yourself:

From The Hobbit collectors edition - how cool are those runes?

All of Middle Earth right there at your fingertips.

I thought I was ready for The Lord of the Rings when I was 14 or 15. I delved into The Fellowship of the Ring. I think George RR Martin sums up the beginning best:

Dipping into the fat red paperback during my bus ride home, I began to wonder if I had not made a mistake. Fellowship did not seem like proper heroic fantasy at all. What the hell was all this stuff about pipe-weed? Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party. And these hobbits with their hairy feet and love of ‘taters seemed to have escaped from a Peter Rabbit book. Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking…

Yet I kept on reading. I almost gave up at Tom Bombadil, when people started going, “Hey! Come derry dol! Tom Bombadillo!” By the time I got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me.

from Dreamsongs Volume 1, pp.365-366

I kept reading as well, and I was hooked. The pace picked up: Bree, Weathertop, The Mines of Moria and so on. But then everything came to a grinding halt after “Helm’s Deep” chapter. The Dead Marshes seemed interminable and I put the books down. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that I really had no idea what the hell was going on between the action. What did I care about Eowyn’s inner turmoil or Arwen’s struggle between immortality and death? I’m not sure I was even aware of those things.

In short, I got bored.

I felt immense guilt.  How could I not love these books? My whole family loved them. They named their cats after the characters. I’d sat through the Bakshi movie (I’m not sure that helped). Why wasn’t this resonating?

About six years later I started over again and finally read the whole thing at the urging of  my friend Jesse. And I enjoyed it.  However, it was when I read it again after seeing Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, almost ten years later that I finally grew to appreciate what Tolkien had done. I couldn’t get enough of Middle-Earth history. I read the Silmarillion — and loved it (well, after the creation myth anyway). I thought it would be cool to be a Tolkien scholar and immerse myself in that world.

An aside: In preparation for the movie, I had my wife read Fellowship and we went to see the movie. Unfortunately, I had thought Boromir died in the Fellowship book and she was not prepared for that whole thing. Wish I had caught that one.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twice more since then and with each reading grow to love it even more. Certainly the lens of time helps a great deal to fully appreciate Tolkien’s work. But I also think reading it more than once goes a long way as well. Like any good work of art, you find things you didn’t notice the first time around and it’s always a pleasant surprise.

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Podcasts

And now for your listening pleasure...

Books on tape have gotten me through thousands of miles of driving and countless hours of mowing. When I started writing short fiction over the past year, I checked out the online outlets for Science Fiction and Fantasy in order to study the form.  There are a slew of podcast fiction sites, but only a handful really offer free podcasts of top-shelf fiction read by great readers.

If you’ve ever listened to books on tape or podcasts, you know the reader can make or break a story. I’ve delved into Librivox recordings of public domain works read by volunteers. It’s definitely hit or miss. But, because it’s all volunteer, I can’t complain and it gives me access to works by Lovecraft and Poe and Dickens. At the very least, Librivox makes me appreciate those sites that work at the craft of podcasting great short fiction.

The sites I feel are offering the best short fiction, both writing and reading, are:

The cool thing about PodCastle is you get two new stories each week. Authors such as Cat Rambo, Rachel Swirsky, Holly Black, and Greg van Eekhout show up at PodCastle. PodCastle is part of a trio of audio fiction podcasts. Its sister sites are Escape Pod and Pseudopod. Recommended story:  Wolves Till the World Goes Down by Greg van Eekhout

Clarkesworld features Kate Baker behind the mike. Her reading is well-polished and she does a fantastic job of conveying each story’s mood. With a consistent reader, listening to the Clarkesworld podcasts is like visiting an old friend week after week. Clarkesworld features writers such as Tobias Buckell, Catherynne M. Valente, N.K. Jemison and Lavie Tidhar. Recommended story:  A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias Buckell

Beneath Ceaseless Skies seeks out what they consider to be Science Fiction and Fantasy of a literary quality.  Here is a quote from their site that should give you a pretty good idea of what they mean:

We love traditional adventure fantasy, including classics from the pulp era and the new wave of post-Tolkien fantasy. But we also love how the recent influence of literary writing on fantasy short fiction has expanded the genre, allowing writers the freedom to use literary devices such as tight points-of-view, round characters, unreliable narrators, discontinuous narratives, and others. This sophisticated level of craft has made fantasy short fiction more powerful than ever before.

We want stories that combine the best of both these styles—adventure fantasy plots in vivid secondary worlds, but written with a literary flair. Beneath Ceaseless Skies will feature exciting stories set in awe-inspiring places that are told with all the skill and impact of modern literary-influenced fantasy.

Recommended story:  Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed.

Starship Sofa bills itself as The Audio Science Fiction Magazine, and for good reason. Not only do you get great fiction–think Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer–but also interviews, news and other SFnal goings on. And, Tony C. Smith, your host, has a nice thick Scottish brogue that makes it even more fun to listen. Recommended story:  The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Tor.com offers more quality authors such as Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Charles Stross, Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, and Terry Bisson. In some cases, the authors read their own material. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not so much. Recommended story:  Catch ‘Em in the Act by Terry Bisson.

SFFaudio was created in 2003 by Scott Danielson and Jesse Willis. Their goal was similar to what I’m doing with this post, only they’ve done it way better. The site creators just want to  spread the word about great audio fiction that they’ve enjoyed. They believe audio is the best medium for Science Fiction literature and drama because of its ability to  transmit story, mood, and ideas.

And there you have it. If that’s not enough to keep you out of trouble, than there is no hope for you. If you have any recommendations you’d like to add, feel free to post in the comments. Otherwise, enjoy!


by Jonathan 10 Comments

Milk - and giving up reading - was a bad choice.

Have you ever made an effort to give up something with the idea that you would be better off?

A couple/few weeks ago I thought it would be a good idea to dial back my reading in order to make serious headway on my manuscript. I usually read at night for an hour or two before bed and I thought I could use that time for writing. In addition to my normal daily writing time.

Did your sacrifice ever wind up being not only not helpful, but actually detrimental to that thing you were trying to help in the first place?

It did for me.

Turns out I can only write so much in a day and still maintain consistent production (of some quality) over the course of a week. Finding that out was frustrating. Pile on top of that the frustration of not being into some book or another and there was one cranky dude wandering aimlessly around the house.

Once I got rid of him, I realized I was at serious loose ends without a book.

My thought is that I need that constant fuel of other writers’ work to feed my own (not directly, ideally). I use reading to keep my subconscious active, to spin off ideas, to provide grist for the mill.

And now I know. And, as a good friend once told me:

"Knowing is half the battle, young man."

I may deprive myself of other things in the name of writing, but I shall never again forsake the one thing that made me want to write in the first place.