It is always fun to read science fiction and see how the author predicts the future. This is especially true for older books. Not only was our technology not nearly as advanced back then, but we can also truly see how it all turned out. For instance, a lot of writers still had us using cassette tape forever. Now there are plenty of blogs and articles out there that will give you a list of books that made “predictions” that came true. I am going to go in a slightly different route and just talk about some books that I have read and what wonders I found in them. Some you will have heard of, and some you probably haven’t. Hopefully some of them you will want to read.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984). It is an eerie feeling when you read something like this and realize just how close he came. Gibson’s protagonist Case is a former computer hacker and current petty criminal. Drug addicted and despondent, he searches for a way out and gets caught up in a tangled scheme that allows him to once again use his Internet skills. Now, look at that summary again and notice the publication date of the book. Although it is called the “Matrix” in the book, it really is the Internet. He coined the term cyberspace, after all.
Neuromancer isn’t always an easy read (although it is a very good read), and cyberpunk isn’t that popular of a genre, but it is an important book. It is one of those that you kind of feel embarrassed about not having read, so if you haven’t already please add it to your list.
Impossible Things by Connie Willis (1986-1992). I suppose you could say that in a short story collection the author has more chances to hit a successful prediction. Whether that is true or not, I found a few interesting ones in here. “Last of the Winnebagos” has characters accessing the “Lifeline” to pull up info on people, such as their schooling and employment history and hobbies. Sounds a bit like Facebook to me. “Even the Queen” has tablet computers, which isn’t that noteworthy since Arthur C. Clarke had those in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But it also features a Mandela led South African government, and optional genetic surgery.
You also get things like a Humane Society run amok, PC (political correctness) run amok, and ruminations on who really wrote Shakespeare’s play, which is a debate (of sorts) that still goes on. The fact that there are multiple award winning stories in the book means that you shouldn’t read it for the predictions but for the great writing.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (1959). Video games are something this blog hasn’t talked aboutenough. One of the premiere game franchises of recent times is Halo. When I read the first chapter of Starship Troopers I thought to myself “this is Halo”. Then I checked the copyright on the book and had one of those stereotypical jaw dropping to the floor moments. The beginning of the book details a human attack on an alien city, with soldiers wearing fully mechanized armor complete with an onboard computer system and multiple weapon packages. Just like in Halo. And the movie is better than you remember.
Star Trek. The many TV series and movies has become well known for using many types of technology that have become reality. Let me point you to a couple of pieces on that, here and here. I think it is a good reminder about how wonderful it is to live in this day and age and to have access to this stuff. 3D printing technology, for instance, is truly amazing and is revolutionizing the way people do things. And remember, there are lots of great Star Trek novels, such as Imzadiand Spock’s World.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). Okay, this is a famous book. But did you remember the earbuds in it? Montag’s wife Millie uses them while watching her flat panel TVs.
The Wonderful Future That Never Was by Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics. Okay, so they don’t always get it right. Popular Mechanics started out in 1902, and over the years gave many scientists and writers a chance to predict the future. This fun book compiles many of the misses, and gives credits to some of the hits too. You can get more recent issues of Popular Mechanics at the library.
The Stars My Destinationby Alfred Bester. This is a classic, and while the main new technology in it, teleportation, hasn’t come into reality it is very interesting to think about the ramifications of such a thing. In the book it causes economic disruption substantial enough to start wars. Similarly, when reading newer scifi it is interesting to contemplate how the fictional technologies portrayed might affect us if (or when) they become real.
The Voyage of the Space Beagleby A. E. Vogt. Besides the tech predictions it is fun to read books that inspired future stories. Such is the case with this one, which like many books of its time was actually a compilation of four stories originally published in magazines. The Ixtl seems awfully familiar to those who have seen the Alien movies. In fact it was familiar enough that Vogt sued. The Couerl has appeared in many Final Fantasy games, and also became the Displacer Beast in Dungeons & Dragons. Classic fantasy is rife with elements that made their way into D&D, as is evident by reading authors such as Vance, Moorcock, Howard, and of course Tolkien (which also led to litigation), but I suppose that is a conversation for a future blog.
A lot of people shiver in anticipation waiting for Random Book Day. Sure, it is a day I made up last year, and no one knows when it happens, or even if it will happen. SPOILER ALERT! It is happening! Right now! So brace yourselves. Seriously, we are heading for 3000 words.
This year I have selected 15 titles for your enjoyment. Since several of them are similar to each other I have separated the books into 8 helpful categories. You are guaranteed to love each of these books, the guarantee being that if you don’t you can let me hear all about it in the comments section.
Category 1: Fantasy
As I mentioned in my fave kids books post, which exists in the future, I started reading fantasy novels at a young age. This trend continues today, although I certainly read many things other than fantasy. One of my favorite all time fantasy books (and series) is The Black Company, by Glen Cook. This book mixes gritty, militaristic narrative with epic, mighty magics, and does so seamlessly. Told by the viewpoint of a surgeon and historian for a mercenary company, it features characters ranging from lowly soldiers to an Empress and her array of world-shaking sorcerers. The series goes for 10 books, told by five different narrators, and never disappoints. I’m also partial to Cook’s more light-hearted Garrett, PI series, which is crime noir set in a fantasy world.
There was a time when books based on games and movies and such were rare, other than the “official” novelizations. TSR, publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons game, was an early leader in changing this. One of their earliest book projects was the Dragonlance Chronicles, a series that was intended to tie in with simultaneously released game adventures. They looked at several established fantasy authors (such as Philip Jose Farmer), before settling on the in-house talents of Tracy Hickman (a game developer) and Margaret Weis (a newly hired book editor). They collaborated on the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. TSR, unsure if sales would warrant future books, insisted that this volume, meant to be the first in a trilogy, have a definitive ending. Well, the book sold well enough for the trilogy to proceed. And another trilogy. And another…and now we have over 200(!) DL novels, written by many, many authors.
Anyway…Dragons of Autumn Twilight is a great fantasy read. Heroes of varying types fight monsters, battle dragons, and save the day. Until the next book, at least. As one early review said, it at least gives you something to read after Lord of the Rings.
I came late to the Disc World series by Terry Pratchett. Actually, that isn’t precisely true, since as a teen I read his novel Strata, that does interact with the Disc World, but that only sort of counts. I really started with the 31st book in the series, Monstrous Regiment. Polly Perks joins the army in order to save her family’s pub. To do so she has to pretend to be male. As the story progresses she discovers that not only do some of the other troops in her regiment (which include a troll, a vampire, and an Igor) have secrets, but that all of them do. While there are many recurring characters and themes in the series, you can pretty much pick up any of them and be good to go. And by the way, Strata is also a good read, darker in tone and much more science fiction than fantasy.
The final entry in this category is Ariel, by Steve Boyett. I read this in my late teen years, and just recently rediscovered it. It is the tale of a boy and his unicorn. But this book is much more post-apocalyptic than fairy tale. The world suffers a sudden change, when all technology ceases to work and fantastical creatures and magic become reality. Unicorns are rare and precious beings, and the Necromancer wants Ariel’s horn, even if it means killing her.
Boyett, after 20+ years of denying he ever would, finally wrote a sequel titled Elegy Beach. I really liked how he adjusted the world to take into account the technology differences between the times he wrote the books. Boyett also has become a DJ with one of the most successful podcasts on iTunes.
I started pretty early with the paranormal romances. I don’t read a lot of them, but a few series I have really enjoyed. Undead and Unwed, by MaryJanice Davidson, kicks of a 12 book series detailing the exploits of Betsy Taylor, a single, unemployed 30 year old who becomes Queen of the Vampires. This is a very fun read. Betsy is an irreverent character, and can do things that other vamps can, like go in the sun and swear properly. You will also learn a lot about women’s shoes by reading this series. Alas, my ultimate recommendation is read the first few and be done. They go off the rails later, and by off the rails I mean like falling into the Grand Canyon while on fire off the rails.
The story goes that Laurell K. Hamilton, who had a couple of novels out already, had difficulty in getting Guilty Pleasures published. The horror people said it was a mystery, and the mystery people said it was fantasy, and the fantasy people said it was horror, etc. Actually it is a crime noir style of book featuring Anita Blake, a woman who reanimates zombies for money and battles vampires on the side. Once it did get published there was no stopping it, as the Anita Blake series is in the 20s and still going. While the early volumes stayed true to the origins, up until the excellent Obsidian Butterfly, later ones took on a notably more sexual tone, for better or worse depending on your reading preferences. I prefer the early ones, that mix many elements together, giving an elegant look at the gritty undead underbelly of St Loius.
A lot of fantasy and paranormal series start small, as far as the monsters go. You find out in book one that there are vampires, and then come the werewolfs in book two, and then on to all sorts of other lycanthopes and fairies and ghosts and what have you. So one of the things I immediately liked about Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking was that it was a world that already had all of those things out in the open. Rachel Morgan is a “runner”, essentially a bounty hunter for supernatural creatures. While she tends to get the job done, often aided by her vampire and pixie partners, things rarely go as planned. There is some Stephanie Plum influence here, and I mean that in a positive way. Plus the titles are mostly Clint Eastwoodallusions.
Category 4: Token YA Book
I always enjoy finding a Young Adult novel that brings something fresh to the table. Faking Faith, by Jodie Bliss, is the story of teenage Dylan, who is ostracized at school after a sexting incident. She looks for refuge online, and is fascinated by the blogs of fundamentalist home schooled Christian girls. She invents an online persona in order to interact with these girls, who are so different from her, and takes things as far as to visit one of them. Of course her deceit is deceitful and has consequences. It is a surprisingly nonjudgmental book, considering the topics it covers, and gives insight into teens from a fresh angle.
Category 5: Nonfiction
Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most about Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad is the way it was researched. If I wanted to study the epic and important battle I would…well, I would read Enemy at the Gates. But other than that I would be doing a lot of online searching. When William Craig set out to chronicle the battle there was no Internet. It took him five years of studying archival materials and conducting interviews to produce this book, travelling to the Soviet Union (not such an easy things in the early 70s), Germany, Israel, and the UK. His writing is approachable without stinting on the historical accuracy. The Jude Law and Rachel Weisz movie about snipers at Stalingrad is of course fictionalized, but there are real events in the book that are crazier than Hollywood is.
And I suppose we must talk about that statue. 279 feet from the tip of the sword to the base of the feet and made with nearly 8000 tons of concrete, it is truly an engineering marvel. I find it interesting that it is not attached to the base, but is standing on its own two feet. The model used by the sculptor found that she was recognized by her resemblance to the finished product. I hope to see it in person one day.
Category 6: Short stories
I am not always keen on short stories. Sometimes it seems that just when I am getting into the story it ends. But there are some collections that I truly cherish. First off we have 20th Century Ghosts, by the magnificent Joe Hill. These are mostly horror stories, and the opener, “Best New Horror”, is pretty brutal. But get past that one and you will find a surprising variety of high quality short fiction. My favorite? “Voluntary Committal” perhaps, but I think each time I read the book I have a new favorite.
My next book has a title that is true and yet misleading in a way. Geektastic is a YA anthology with stories from a number of acclaimed authors. Yes, geeks are the recurring narrative theme. But the underlying theme here is acceptance. Many of the stories emphasize that no matter what our hobbies and obsessions might be, we are all people. At a cona Klingon (a girl) and a Jedi (a boy) meet, and their friends are horrified at this treason. The couple realizes how absurd that is and head off for coffee. A cheerleader enlists the help of geeks to boost her knowledge of Star Trek to impress her boyfriend, only to discover she likes some of this stuff more than he does. A star baton twirler moves to another state, only to find her skills don’t carry the same popularity at her new school, and so on. Good stuff.
Have you ever read a story, have no idea what is happening in it, yet can’t get enough of it? If not, then give “Magic for Beginners” a shot. The story appears in Kelly Link’s third story collection, Pretty Monsters. Fantastic fantastical writings she does. But don’t just take my word for it. So far eight of her stories have won major awards.
Category 7: Baseball
Is anything as nostalgic as baseball? And if you want to reminisce about baseball years gone by, your go to author is Roger Angell. Not only is he one of the greatest of all baseball writers, but he wrote about different baseball eras, so you can choose the one that best fits your mood. Or go with Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, that collects some of his best writings from throughout the years. And then you can tell everyone about how back in your day things, and especially baseball, were so much better.
Category 8: Gillian Flynn
Back in August I finally read Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl. It was on the shelf at the library at the time. Now, at the end of October, it has 333 holds on it. Ah, the power of cinema. Gone Girl was not her first book, nor was it the first one of hers I read. Sharp Objects was her first book, which I stuck into my horror books blog. Her second book, and the first I read, is Dark Places. This is the story of Libby Bray, who as a girl survived the night her brother massacred the rest of their family. As an adult, still carrying physical, mental and emotional scars of that horrible night, she reluctantly is drawn into an amateur sleuths attempts to prove her brother innocent. The secrets they unearth are surprising and lead to, aptly enough, dark places. Wonderful read, and lets hope that the movie version in production, starring Charlize Theron, lives up to it.
Hmm. Didn’t even get close to 3000 words. Must be losing my touch. Anyway, one of the nice things about Random Book Day for you, the reader, is that you can mention, suggest, or ridicule any book you want in the comments section.
Zombies! They just won’t go away, both in the stories featuring them and in popular culture. Now we could engage in a long discussion as to why zombies strike a chord with us, how they reach a primal part of our psyche, how an unrelenting, implacable, remorseless enemy that cannot be reasoned with is so terrifying, and so on. But instead I am just going to give you a top 15 countdown of good zombie reads.
Whether you like your zombies slow or fast, created by government scientists or plants or space viruses, mindless or intelligent or what have you, there should be something you find…palatable…in this list.
#15 Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber
What better way to kick off our zombie list than with Star Wars. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Set about a year prior to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it tells the tale of poor souls trapped on an Imperial prison barge that is overrun with zombies. The chief medical officer leads the survivors on a desperate mission for escape with the help of a certain scoundrel and his furry companion, a pair well known to all Star Wars fans.
The prequel to Death Troopers, Red Harvest, is set 3500+(!) years earlier. It feels a little more zombieish to me, but the Star Wars setting in that one will be less familiar to most readers.
This is an anthology of zombie stories featuring some top echelon authors, including Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman. As with many anthologies the stories vary in quality and style, but most are well worth the read. The opener, “This Year’s Class Picture”, by Dan Simmons, is perhaps the best.
The second volume I haven’t gotten to read yet, but seeing how it features stories from several authors that appear on this very list I will surely get to it soon.
An interesting thing about zombies is that they are more varied in books and movies than we realize. In this particular case people are driven into a zombie-like madness from using their (no real spoiler here considering the title) cell phones. Those who avoid being afflicted have to fight for survival versus more than one type of threat in a world rapidly disintegrating.
This may not be King’s best work, but is still a good read. And it is notably shorter than many of his other books, so it is a pretty quick read as well.
#12 Devil’s Wake, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
Barnes and Due, both accomplished writers on their own (and also married to each other) collaborate on this solid zombie tale. A group of teens must use all their wits to cross zombie filled territory to reach the promise of a safe haven.
While the zombies at first seem to be pretty standard, virus-infected biting killers, they turn out to be something more. To find out exactly what the zombies are you’ll need to read all the books in the series.
When the zombie outbreak occurs Allison Hewitt finds herself trapped in a bookstore. Not the worst place to start the end of days, I suppose. Allison and her fellow survivors make a good go of living in the shop, but must soon venture out into the world, facing not only zombies but the evil that lurks in humans as well.
If you like Allison’s story you can followup with Sadie Walker is Stranded, Roux’s second zombie book.
A small town sheriff, still recovering from her tour in Iraq, finds herself right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. She has to fight to protect her people (from both zombie and human predators), she has to protect herself, and she has to find her kid sister, who is out there somewhere. Personally I felt that after a pretty good opening this book lost its way in the middle, but the ending makes it worth the read.
In fact the clever and chilling ending has me eager to read the sequel.
#9 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austin
Where do we start with this one? How about with the fact that besides zombies we also get ninjas? Grahame-Smith (who also brought us Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) took Austin’s book and added segments to it, which is where the zombies come in. Turning the Bennet’s into proficient zombie killers, while keeping the original plot intact, is quite an amazing feat. The concept is original, and the writing is sharp.
There is both a prequel and a sequel, written by Steve Hockensmith, but I haven’t read them yet.
#8 Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
The second anthology on my list, and one quite different from the first. In this one Black’s Team Zombie stories alternate with Larbalestier’s Team Unicorn ones. They write an intro for each story, and in the end the reader decides whether zombies or unicorns are better. Choose a side!
The book features stories from some of the best Young Adult writers in the business, including Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot, and Garth Nix. Some top notch writing here, stories that made me want to read more. And I must say that I think Team Zombie scores a decisive victory here.
What a great title! Teen Mary lives in a secluded village in the forest, fenced on all sides to keep the zombies out. Of course things are not all as they seem, and Mary’s curiosity and questioning leads to danger.
One of the things I liked here is that the story is set a couple of hundred years after the zombie apocalypse. It gives the story a very different perspective. The two sequels take us out of the forest and into “civilization”. A related story appears in Zombies vs. Unicorns
Told by the point of view of Andy the zombie, Breathers shows the zombie side of things. Still self aware, Andy falls in love with a zombie girl, and fights against his urges to eat the living, which his parents (who are letting him stay in the basement) appreciate.
While billed as a rom-zom-com, the story stays true to the zombie genre and has its fair share of dark parts.
Appropriately, the heroine of Feed, Georgia Mason, is a blogger. Society is for the most part holding together and keeping the zombies at bay. The chronicles of Mason and her news team catch the attention of senator embarking on a presidential campaign, and they are drawn into a world of political intrigue. Plus zombies.
The first installment of the Newsflesh trilogy, Feed has all the elements of a socio-political thriller as well as satisfying zombie action. And while Grant may not have quite the same knack of predicting future technology that such luminaries as Heinlein, Bradbury, and Gibson did, she does give us an idea of how our current social media habits may evolve in the very near future.
In 2003 Image Comics published The Walking Dead #1, and black and white comic book written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore (Charlie Adland took over the art after issue #6). It kind of became a big thing.
The Walking Dead tells the story of a group of survivors facing one crisis after another. Food, supplies, and shelter are a constant concern, as are bad people and of course the zombies. The comic (which is still an ongoing series, with over 130 issues so far) spawned a hit tv series, and Kirkman has written Walking Dead novels as well.
One warning about this series: it is unrelentingly grim. No real comic relief, just one tragedy after another.
A Southern Gothic zombie novel? Yes, please! While the protagonist here is 15 year old Temple, this is not a Young Adult book nor a light read. All that Temple knows is zombies, having been born after the outbreak. She travels through the south, interacting with both the good and the bad survivors, trying to find her place in the world.
It is these interactions that make up the backbone of this terrific book. The zombies are always there, but the people are what we focus on. And Temple finds that there are consequences to her actions.
I don’t think anyone expected Pulitzer-nominated Whitehead to write a zombie book, but he did. And it is good. In the aftermath of the zombie plague “Mark Spitz” is working on a clean up crew in New York City, eliminating remaining zombies and disposing of bodies. As he works he ruminates on the past, giving us flashbacks of what happened at the beginning, how he survived, and how he came to be called “Mark Spitz”. And of course the zombie plague isn’t as over as we think.
Zone One is as much literary fiction as it is a zombie book, and is not a casual read. Definitely not for everyone. But for those of us it does work for, it works very well.
#1 World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
Well, no one should be surprised at this. It is, to me, the acme of zombie fiction. Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) first wrote the Zombie Survival Guide, a book that described zombies and the ways to defeat them in great detail. This led to WWZ.
World War Z is told in vignettes, as related to an unnamed United Nations agent some 20 years after the war. The vignettes, presented as interviews, fill in the details of the zombie war, from the start of the outbreak, to humanity being pushed to the brink, to the ruthless and startling tactics used to fight back, and finally on to triumph and the clean up.
Some of these stories are better than others, of course, but the scope of the book is breathtaking. From the Kansas woman, now in an asylum, who as a toddler was a lone survivor and can still recall the events in harrowing detail, to the military disaster at Yonkers, to the decisions of the worlds leaders, World War Z leaves no part of the war untouched.
And so that is my Top 15 zombies reads countdown. But it is just my countdown, and is subject to change (Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion, is sitting on my shelf at home waiting. Let’s hope it makes the cut). For fun I took a look at how these books are rated by Goodreads users:
#15) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
#14) Zone One
#12) The Forest of Hands and Teeth
#11) Death Troopers
#10) Devil’s Wake
#9) Zombies vs. Unicorns
#8) Allison Hewitt is Trapped
#6) The Living Dead
#5) Rise Again
#3) The Reapers are the Angels
#2) World War Z
#1) The Walking Dead
Hmm. Some pretty close, and some not. Please share your thoughts on my list, and let me know what other zombie titles need to go on my reading list. Also, do you think we should have a zombie movie list as well?
Chris – Our random books odyssey begins in Italy, with Alessandro Baricco’s Silk (translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman). A short book, it tells the story of a Frenchman who deals in silkworms. After a crop of worms are blighted by disease, he hazards a journey as a smuggler to Japan to seek out new ones. Of course he finds more than he bargained for. Silk is both whimsical (in the writing style) and deeply profound (in the ending), and is one of my all time favorites.
Once, Now, Then series – Morris Gleitzman
Christina – For all those that hate to get invested in a series because you don’t have the time, this is one for you. The books are short, about 200 pages each or less, and the story is so captivating that you’ll find it hard to put them down. Since the subject matter is the holocaust, they’re not for the faint of heart, but they’re beautifully written and well worth the heartache. I pretty much never cry over a book, but all three of these made me tear up.
Go – Chip Kidd
Christina – Graphic design is all around us, and renowned book cover artist Chip Kidd shows us the history of design and why it’s so important. He ends his fun lesson with ten projects encouraging the reader to bring out his/her inner artist (design your own logo, redesign something popular or famous, etc.). Even for those who don’t know much about art or advertising, it’s an eye-opening read, and the graphics are so cool that you’ll be wanting to show them to everyone around you.
The Paladin – C. J. Cherryh
Chris – Often fantasy novels are labeled as being either High Fantasy or Low Fantasy. High Fantasy generally books or series that are epic in scope or are suffused with a lot of fantastical elements, while Low Fantasy ones tend to be more “realistic” and light on the magic. The Paladin, by C. J. Cherryh, is about as Low Fantasy as you can get. The setting is similar to a feudal China or Japan. There is no magic to be seen. There are no dragons or other mythical beasts to battle. In fact, there is nothing really at all to make this book a “fantasy” novel. Nothing that is except for the feel of it.
Lord Saukendar is an aging swordmaster exiled from the capital after a coup. He has been living for years on a mountain with just his horse for company. One day a peasant teen comes to his mountain demanding his help. Saukendar is quite shocked to find that this teen who wants to learn the art of the sword so badly is actually a girl, and more shocked as the girl relentlessly brings him back to life and to the world he left, leading ultimately to a quest to right all the wrongs done to him, and to the people he once served.
Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses – Ron Koertge
Christina – People have been messing around with fairy tales since they’ve existed. Numerous adaptations, inspirations, etc. So why read these poems offering a different look at well known fairy tales and fables?
Well, for one thing, the illustrations are subdued and intense, and the poems offer another glimpse at the well-known characters and stories, adding sympathy to established villains and questionable motives to so-called heroes and heroines.
If you’re still unsure if you should read this, take a look at the last poem, in which The Wolf finally is able to speak his mind:
Let’s get a few things straight. Only a few of us like to
dress up like grandma and trick little girls. Those who
do belong to what we call the Scarlet Underground.
It’s not their fault, so they’re tolerated if not embraced.
The rest of us are wolves through and through. We enjoy
the chase, the kill, a nap in the sun on a full stomach.
Our enemy is man with his arrogance and greed.
The woodsman in particular. Destroyer of trees.
Clearer of land. Owner of fire.
While he drops and burns and builds, we terrorize his
wife, surrounding her as she goes for water. We howl
outside his windows half of the night, and if that doesn’t
drive him away we take him out, leaving just a few
bones so the message is clear:
This is our forest. Perfect before you came.
Perfect again when all your kind is dead.
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Chris – Luke nicely memorialized the great Ray Bradbury before in this blog. My first introduction to Bradbury was The Martian Chronicles, quite a few moons ago. A collection of stories dealing with the colonization of Mars by humanity, it explores and touches on many themes, such as racism, dystopia, nostalgia, nuclear war, exploration, obsession, censorship, and more. As a boy having a Captain Wilder in some of the stories was thrilling. As an adult being able to understand the nuances is satisfying. A special treat awaits fans of Poe in the story “Usher II”. The Martian Chronicles is a true classic by any standard.
Evil Eye – Joyce Carol Oates
Christina – Keeping on with the creepy vibe, we have one of the masters of the unsettling story, Joyce Carol Oates. In Evil Eye, Oates offers up four novellas of “love gone wrong”, but it’s not all romantic love. There’s revenge, murder, obsession, and insanity, all done to perfection, and enough to leave you feeling like someone just walked over your grave.
All the World’s a Grave – John Reed and William Shakespeare
Christina – Speaking of graves (sorry), sometimes writers get creative with public domain works. In John Reed’s case, he created an entirely new Shakespearean play by mixing up characters and dialogue. He sums it up better than I ever could:
Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride – by unnecessary bloodshed – Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered father, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the prince goes mad with jealousy.
Need I say more? All I can add is that I highly recommend this to any fan of Shakespeare.
A Bridge Too Far – Cornelius Ryan
Chris – A Bridge Too Far is one of the most aptly named books you will find. It is the true account of Operation Market Garden: the Allies plan to seize a series of bridges in Holland in World War II in an attempt to bring a quick end to the war. The title kind of acts as a spoiler for the ending. More Allied soldiers were killed in action during Market Garden then fell on D-Day. Ryan’s meticulously researched book is gripping and readable. If only all nonfiction books were written as well as this…
The book was made into a movieof the same name in 1977, directed by Richard Attenborough, and is regarded as one of the more historically accurate war movies out there. The bad news is that it is very long, just about three hours. The good news is the mind boggling cast, including: James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and more. On a side note, it was adapted for the screen by William Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride, which faithful readers of this blog will know is a favorite of ours.
No review can give justice to this brilliant book. Do yourself a favor and read it ASAP. In the meantime, tide yourself over with these awesome quotes:
C-3PO: A droid hath sadness, and hopes, and fears,
And each of these emotions I have felt
Since Master Luke appear’d and made me his.
(After Han shoots Greedo)
Han: [To inkeeper:] Pray, goodly Sir, forgive me for the mess.
[Aside:] And whether I shot first, I’ll ne’er confess!
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
Chris – Jeanette Winterson began writing sermons at the age of six. As she grew older she moved away from evangelism (far away, but that is a different story) and matured into an award winning author. One of those awards was for The Passion, a wonderful and mysterious book that is hard to define. The basic story follows a soldier in Napoleon’s army who becomes enraptured with a mystifying and enigmatic Venetian woman who is looking for her heart. Literally. A mix of history, magical realism, and modernism makes this a unique and captivating read.
And if none of these random titles works for you, consider trying the blindfold method. Or ask your friendly neighborhood library staff for more suggestions.
Christina: Every so often you come across a book or a movie that doesn’t exactly disappoint, but is not what you thought it might be. This might be due to a wrong classification, misleading book covers and/or marketing, or even outright lies, like fiction presented as truth.
We thought we’d take a look at some of these works and see how a deceptive marketing campaign can help or hurt a creative work.
First off, titles. A good title is essential in getting people to remember your book, but not if it’s remembered as being misleading.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson is a good book. What it is not is science fiction. I heard about it through a sci-fi newsletter. Part of the book takes place in a MMORPG video game world similar to Word of Warcraft (and others), which immediately made me think of the fun sci-fi read Ready Player One. This is probably why Reamde ended up on the sci-fi list as well.
The video game world in Reamde, however, is a front for money laundering. The game has a mechanism to allow transfers of real currencies. A group of young Chinese hackers hatch a plot to hijack computers via a virus and then hold the data for ransom. The ransoms are paid by creating an avatar in the game , meeting up with the hackers game characters, and transferring money to them. This is something that could be done easily enough with today’s technology.
Of course things don’t go as planned, and a variety of people get pulled into the story. Stephenson does a neat job of bringing the characters together, flinging them all across the world, and then bringing them back together again for the big shoot out at the finish. This is a long (800+ pages) action packed book, a thriller with espionage elements to it. But it is not sci-fi, and while I did enjoy it and I do recommend it, I think I would have enjoyed even more with different expectations going in.
The cover is eerie – a black and white photograph of a blank faced girl floating in the air – but the book itself not scary or even spooky. Instead, it’s more of a fantasy tale, with some strange tones but quite lacking in horror.
A great cover can help drive sales, and sometimes publishers rerelease classics with new covers in hopes that it will attract the eye of new readers, possibly someone who hasn’t read the book yet. This seems to be the case with the Twilight-esque cover for Wuthering Heights.
The cover change prompted a series of parodies and vitriol aimed at the redesigning of a modern classic. One reporter wrote, “If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar.”
The parodies are pretty hilarious. I’m kinda partial to the one with the giant snake. Also the “new” cover for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is particularly appalling.
Chris: Sometimes the problem is in the marketing. Take, for instance, the movie edition of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Looking at the cover of this printing, one would logically conclude that it was a 300 page novelization or adaptation of the Will Smith movie. But in fact it is the original 1954 short novel that only runs 160 pages. The rest of the space is taken up with some of Matheson’s very good short stories.
So what has happened is that some people have picked it up, started reading it, and were surprised to first discover that the story wasn’t what they expected (there are significant differences between the book and this movie), and then to have it end halfway through the book. Sadly, Matheson recently passed away.
The Princess Bride. This one can confuse people in a couple of ways. First there is the title itself, which sounds are girly. Girly: adj: 1. all pink and frilly 2. so, like, American Girl), something like The Princess Diaries. Second, it is presented as an abridgment of an earlier book by S. Morgenstern. In fact, the complete title is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.
While the title is accurate in that there is a princess bride in the story, it is not a particularly girly book. There is romance, but also plenty of action and adventure: chases, pirates, a brute squad, swordfights, R.O.U.S’s, and more. Heck, Andre the Giant is in the movie, and he is about as ungirly as one can get.
And by the way, there is nothing wrong with girly stuff, generally speaking. The Princess Diaries is a fun movie (I haven’t read the books).
Also, there was no book by S. Morgenstern. It was all made up by Goldman. Most reading the book figure this out readily enough, but others have been fooled, and have been known to inquire at their local libraries and book stores about the “original”.
Ah, M. Night Shyamalan. Doomed by The Sixth Sense, in that every movie he has done since has been held up to that standard. And misguided marketing doesn’t help. Take The Village, his 2004 psychological thriller about, surprisingly enough, a village that is stalked by mysterious creatures. It is by no means a horror movie, though it has its share of tense and dramatic moments. But judging by the marketing you would think that it was a horror movie. How could you not, when seeing posters such as this.
And then disappointment, as the movie fails to deliver real scares, and the subtleties are overlooked. I’m not saying that The Village was a great movie by any means, but it would have been better received (and enjoyed) with better marketing.
Next we have the books and movies that sell you on the fact that they are true. Or inspired by true events, or something similar. Like The Amityville Horror, for instance. I remember reading the book as a youngster and being pretty freaked out by it.
But as I got near the end even my wanting-to-believe little mind became skeptical. And this was about the time I wrote a paper on the Bermuda Triangle, because that was something I believed in. I mean you could read about it in a book from the library. How could it not be true? Of course the reality is that the loss rates of ships and planes within the Triangle are no worse than other shipping lanes. The whole Bermuda Triangle mystery was created in order to sell books.
The Amityville book was considered to be hoax by some almost immediately, and the corroborating evidence does not hold up, but hey, it is still marketed as “true”.
And there are plenty of other examples. James Frey wrote his memoir A Million Little Pieces and had to confess to exaggerations when confronted by Oprah.
Christina: Cracked.com has an interesting piece on five books that were marketed as non-fiction but were fabricated stories. It includes The Amityville Horror hoax and James Frey’s fake memoir. In fact, Frey not only wildly exaggerated his brush with the law, but he also wrote himself into a very real, very fatal train accident so he could make himself look more heroic and sympathetic. No wonder Oprah took him to the cleaners in front of millions of people. Things got so bad for Frey after the Oprah fallout that a federal class action lawsuit was brought against him and Random House, who published A Million Little Pieces.
Chris: Sybil launched a whole branch of psychiatry only for it to turn out that there is no such thing as multiple personality disorder. A good breakdown of Sybil can be found here, and you can also read Sybil Exposed for more info on the story.
Go Ask Alice is a cautionary autobiographical tale written by an anonymous teen author. Or it was. Now you can find it in the fiction section of your local library. It was written by a woman who was in her fifties.
Christina: Beatrice Sparks is also the author of a few other “true” cautionary tales, dealing with AIDS, suicide, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders. Snopes even has a page up about the “diaries” she’s helped to pen.
Chris: Nobody thinks that The Blair Witch Project is true anymore. But they did. I remember having people trying to convince me of this when the movie first came out. This was a case of clever marketing, that helped take an unknown film with a miniscule budget and turn it into one of the most profitable movies in history. Of course the fantastic and truly scary ending helped.
Interestingly enough I just read Last Days, by Adam Neville, a good new horror novel that draws direct inspiration from The Blair Witch Project.
Christina: So what’s the moral here? I think it’s “know your audience”. Don’t give your book a funny, whimsical cover when it’s about suicide. Don’t make your love story out to be horror, or vice versa. And oh yeah, don’t lie to Oprah. Ever. Ever ever. Stay true to yourself and your story, and you’ll do fine.
Here’s a quick literary tidbit: the modern short story is an art form pretty much developed by American writers. This is not to say that the first short story was written by an American, far from it. However, the short (anywhere between 5 and 50 pages), carefully sculpted piece of fiction that we today call a “short story,” became art because of 19th Century Americans like Poe, Twain and Gilman, and 20th Century writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and O’Connor.
I’m a big fan of the short story. Although I’ve read short stories throughout my life, I sort of “discovered” them when I first read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Each of these tiny masterpieces had a huge effect on me. It was much later, in college as an English major, that I learned about the significance of the short story in American (and World) Literature. These days I can get my weekly short story “fix” from one magazine. I have been a subscriber of The New Yorker magazine for about 25 years (with one small break during “the lean years”). Though I love to read the in-depth articles and profiles, the “Shouts and Murmurs” humor pieces and the “Critics’ Notebooks,” what I really look forward to is the new short story included in every issue. Each story is a little gem. Some are by writers I’ve never heard of, but most are by quite accomplished fiction writers (this week, by the way, a new short story by Haruki Murakami is available, even for non-subcribers).
The New Yorker online also has an amazing Fiction Podcast in which a current writer is asked to choose a classic story from the The New Yorker archives, read it aloud and discuss it. I’ve been listening to these since they started the series in 2007 (I cannot believe it’s been over four years). You can listen to Anne Enright read and discuss a Cheever classic, Orhan Pamuk on Nabokov, or hear a contemporary writer, Junto Diaz, admire the work of another contemporary, Edwidge Danticat.
Another great place to hear a short story read out loud is at Selected Shorts which also has a podcast. This weekly radio broadcast features celebrated actors reading/performing a great short story. Here in western North Carolina we can listen each Saturday morning on WCQS.
Of course, you may want to actually read a short story out an actual book. Well, if this is the case, then Fontana Regional Library has got you covered! Here’s a short (in no particular order and not in any way comprehensive) list of books of short stories by masters of the form: