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So, my yearly binge of “Zero-G chair-sloth” & reading fiction has come to an end. I managed 2.5 books – and one of those books was pretty massive. I DO have minor spoilers in my reviews, so stop reading now if you don’t like to be spoiled. Anyway:

Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson

This was recommended by a friend & colleague a few years back. Seeing as how I finished it, I can say I’m grateful for the recommendation.

We start the story with a leper living in what I can only assume to be America in post Depression, maybe pre-WWII era. He’s on his way to the Bell Telephone company to pay his phone bill. While that may not seem noteworthy, it actually *is* noteworthy for our “hero”: Thomas Covenant. As a leper, his community has tried to ostracize him – going as far as paying all his bills and arranging his groceries to arrive at his house – all in an effort to keep him out of town and out of mind for his fellow citizens. He finds out that he cannot pay his bill because it is already paid through the year. Defeated, he crosses the street and gets hit by a police car.

And awakens in a magical realm. He finds his leprosy waning and he knows it’s just a dream. So much time is spent by the author on the topic of leprosy, and how Thomas takes extreme measures to cope with his disease. Thomas believes his mind is assaulting him, trying to give him false hope. His defense mechanisms have kept him alive for many years – so he cannot afford to “believe” his dream. He knows he’s in a hospital somewhere and he also knows he only has 1 chance to awaken with his mind intact: he cannot believe the very believable dream.

So, he names himself “The Unbeliever” to the people in his dreamland. They expect him to save them from the great evil – Lord Foul. But Thomas only goes along with everything because he feels he must “go through the motions” of the dream in order to reawaken on the other side. So embarks a fantasy journey to defeat a great evil and recover an item of power — pretty standard fare. With the twist of Mr. Covenant, of course.

I liked this story, mostly because Thomas was an interesting & believable character. I liked the play between the seeming “reality” of Thomas’s new world and his resistance to the people and events around him. I found the whole experience personally touching, because I did the same thing when I was in a coma after my cancer surgery. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the time to build the defense mechanisms Thomas had from his years of leprosy. But I certainly slipped into some very believable “worlds” during my coma and subsequent morphine haze which lasted almost a month. I found the lines between what we call “reality” and my own dream worlds to be quite blurry. And at the end of it all, I actually forgot who I was for at least a few hours (maybe a few days). I was aware of my own body, but all sense of “self” was completely erased until I slowly recovered my sense of self-awareness. Until that moment, I was simple existing in my skin, a personless bag of skin & bones.

And the author captured that struggle perfectly. The main character knew his fate would have been like mine, and that in his weakened leprosy state – it would kill him or send him over the edge of insanity. Brilliant work, really.

One more note: This author is a freakin’ master at metaphors & personification. I wish I had written them down as they dazzled me – but alas, I had only thought of that after I had finished.

The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson

After Lord Foul’s Bane, I proceeded to The Book Barn in Niantic CT to pick-up the next book in the series. $1 paperbacks, baby!

Unfortunately, I only made it about halfway through this book. Though we delved into other points of view in Lord Foul’s Bane only a few quick times – I wrote it off as nothing to worry about. However, in this book we spend long stretches with other characters… and that bothered me. I was having fun along with Thomas and his unbelieving – and I personally identified with that story element. And it got taken away from me.

So, I put the book down and frowned – all my enjoyment went down the drain. It was a personal decision and doesn’t reflect the quality of the work at all. Great book – it just took a turn I personally couldn’t follow.

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

It’s kinda funny that my summer was full of Fantasy books… and I rarely read fantasy these days. Anyway, this one also came under a friend’s recommendation.

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like it. A vast majority of the book is character back story – the main character is telling a historian about his roots.

Blarg. Boring.

… But it WASN’T. Quite the opposite. I was engrossed once I gave it a chance. Mr. Rothfuss is a talented storyteller. Kvothe is an amazing character. Kvothe’s world is masterfully built, follows its own rules and enthralled me.

What’s extra-cool about this book is: it flies in the face of all the “conventional” fiction writing wisdom. Blowhards (me included) who try to dole out advice will tell you that a “back story” book would never work.

Anyway, I’m glad to see it succeed so brilliantly. If you thought you “might have liked” Harry Potter, but didn’t like it – go read this. If you like character-driven fantasy – go read this. If you like well-written, clever fiction – go read this.

So that rounds it out! As a full-time consultant, part-time writer, near-full-time gamer and full-time dad/husband — my “reading time” is always limited. Camping gives me a chance to “unplug” and read some books… so, I’m grateful and I hope y’all had a great summer!

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More on P-L-O-T

I reviewed Hunger Games recently and I left this bit out of my review. Mainly because it would have spurned me into a tangent from which I may have never recovered. There are less spoilers here than in my review, so it’s quite safe to read if you haven’t gotten to the book yet.

As I mentioned in my review, I liked this novel. Despite my subjective wants (a more fitting ending) and personal tastes (I wasn’t too invested in the POV character), I still enjoyed Hunger Games.

But.

There was one little thing that irked me once I put the book down. One nagging tug at the back of my writer’s brain that refused to be ignored. And you may not agree with me here, but I believe this is a perfect example of why I believe fiction shouldn’t be plotted & planned.

I find the entire premise of “The Games” to be complete and utter bullshit.

Hear me out. And for those of you who haven’t read the book, knowing this shouldn’t spoil your fun.

The “Hunger Game” in the novel is a televised sporting event, of sorts, where the oppressive Capitol selects 2 contestants from each district to pit into mortal combat. It’s like the Thunderdome, but with more people and less Tina Turner. 24 people enter, 1 leaves victor.

Matt, that doesn’t sound so bad!

I know. Just wait.

Okay, so I’m kinda digging the premise and where this author (new to me) is going to take it. And then we get more detail and I actually put my phone down to wrinkle my nose. Did I read that right? Double-check and yup, I got it: The Games are orchestrated by the Capitol as a punishment for the other districts, who lost a civil war against the Capitol ~75 years ago.

Yes, the ruling government comes to each district once a year and selects 2 contestants to send to their deaths as a reminder of how much control the Capitol wields and how powerless the districts are to challenge that authority.

Hmmm, really? I’m not sure which part stresses my ability to suspend my disbelief more: the unbelievable douchebaggery of the Capitol or the idea that a government can basically murder innocent civilians each year without repercussion? Take your pick.

Now, I suppose the winner’s district gets rewarded when they win, so there is some amount of “sport” and chance for gain. It’s maybe not outright murder, like in The Lottery. But, the premise of The Lottery made more sense – too many mouths to feed (that, and it was allegorical). I just felt the believability factor was reduced in The Hunger Games by revealing that everybody seemed to know of the supreme evil behind the Capitol’s motives.

This is exactly what I mean when I continually say “don’t plot your stories.” Without this act of utter what-the-fuckness by the dystopian government, much of the tension and need to see the villain (the Capitol) punished wouldn’t exist. I cannot stretch my disbelief far enough to accept this premise, I’m sorry but I can’t.

If the coal miners, their families and all those who do business with them have been oppressed in this way for 70+ years, wouldn’t that district do something a little more believable by now? Like, I dunno, tell the Capitol to mine their own coal? (or grow their own wheat, etc etc) Can any government destroy their own people to the point where they cannot function as an organized body?

Or, if the Capitol just has that much control and nobody dare oppose them in the slightest, is everyone living in the clean Capitol a total douche? Are they all okay with the televised, sanctioned slaughter of their neighbors in the districts? I would perhaps buy this if so many people in the districts weren’t so moved to sadness by The Games. It’s clear the social mindset isn’t full of bloodthirsty arena-goers just yet. The Capitol even forces everyone to watch – as further reminder that they can do whatever they want to the districts.

With so many rickety supports for the basic premise, my brain tells me that there is just no way the people in the Capitol nor the people in the districts would have allowed The Games to continually rape the population. Sympathizers from within and massed workers from below would have put a stop to such an overtly evil act long ago. When every citizen knows that The Games are just a way for the Capitol to exert its dominion, I just cannot swallow it.

Actually, this is the same problem I have with many good vs evil, overthrow the government works of fiction. To believe a government is evil right down to every last soldier is just not good fiction. I have many current and former military friends. If their commanding officer told them to shoot a 12 year old American citizen “because it will be fun to watch them die,” I’m pretty sure none of them would follow that order. To me, it’s just like asking that same soldier to go round-up a citizen to bring to an arena “because it will be sporting to watch them die.”

I think I would have “bought it” if the people of the Capitol/districts were portrayed as truly believing some sort of lie – that these games are needed for some functional purpose. That taking your 12 year old daughter from you was somehow mandatory for the continuation of the society. Then, I could look upon this work as an allegory and marvel at the lessons within.

Instead, I’m asked to swallow a too-large pill (for me – your mileage may vary). Disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer – this is just my takeaway from the book, perhaps the author meant for different feelings to be impressed upon me.

I’m going to end with stating that I did enjoy this book. The writing was clean, quick and entertaining. In the end, I got over myself and had a great time in this world. I just think the premise is a tad contrived and I think it makes an excellent case study in the evils of p-l-o-t (a 4-letter word in my house). Don’t rip your readers from the fabric of your story with manufactured plot. Get them there naturally, naturally.

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Well, I’m back from a very lazy week on my camping chair.

Just like I did last year, I crammed some reading in-between naps and chasing the kids around. I read 1.5 books on my new iPhone and 1 paperback from the legendary Bookbarn in Niantic CT. The reviews below only contain minor spoilers, though likely less than a “typical” review. Anyway…

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve had this book on my list for quite some time now – it’s post apocalyptic and a #1 Kindle book. That’s awesome stuff!

I wasn’t terrified of the Young Adult (YA) categorization. Unlike many readers, my ability to enjoy a book isn’t limited to the audience it was intended for. That, and I’m not about to look down my nose at a work just because it was intended for younger readers. A novel need not be full of heady ideas to be enjoyable.

Well, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get down to it!

I was quite entertained by this book. The dystopian setting had me intrigued as we caught glimpses of it while moving along. The author doesn’t bore you with a heavy prologue tho – setting details are revealed by showing their impact upon characters… good stuff!

The story was also very interesting to me. Though I have a severe distaste for “survival” post-apoc (you know, where every fire lit is described in gory detail), this book has a good amount of “hunting” and “survival” passages/descriptions. In the end, it didn’t bother me. Since these things were intertwined with more than just a struggle to keep breathing, I think it all worked well for my strange taste. Where things got going for me was with the whole play between the oppressed citizens/POV character and the heavy-handed “Capitol” (the collective villain here). I was tantalized by what the characters would do to give the Capitol their come-uppins and it kept me engaged.

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the story, it also let me down at the end. Everything was setup for a truly spectacular ending and I was frothing at the mouth when it seemed I would get the finale I was hoping for (ala Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.). But sadly, the YA mark left its stain on me a little because it finished with a gigantic puss-out. While my wife would like the ending, I was left feeling a tad cheated.

Don’t get me wrong, I still highly regard this book and the author’s skill in entertaining me… I was just bummed by the fizzle at the end. I almost bought Catching Fire, the next book in the series, but I refrained. Why? Not because of the ending but more due to the fact that I didn’t identify with any characters, thus leaving me not caring too much what happens to them next. I left this last bit till the end because I realize this is an entirely subjective opinion. I see where Katniss would appeal to the YA reading crowd (coming-of-age girl who dazzles the world with her uncovered beauty, smarts and irresistibility). But I just didn’t find her engaging enough to me to continue.

So, while I enjoyed the book contained within itself, I was too let down by the ending and not invested in the characters enough to continue through the series. However, I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys post-apoc! 

West of Eden by Harry Harrison

My good camping buddy picked this book up at the Bookbarn and lent it to me when I was finished with Hunger Games. He thought the title might interest me, so I gave it a read – I’m glad I did!

The whole premise is this: what if the dinosaurs never went extinct? How would reptiles have evolved alongside us mammals?

I started reading and at first I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Lots of large paragraphs and sparse dialog. Plus, I’m no fan of the omniscient point of view – I find it very distracting. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the story finally arrived.

Our hero, a pre ice-age boy Kerrick, gets captured by evolved lizard people, the technologically advanced Yilane. Surprised by this form of mammal, and its ability to apparently speak, the Yilane decide to teach him their language. I’ll leave the motives behind this decision to you to discover, but I will say this: the Yilane society and characters are fantastic. My disbelief was thoroughly suspended as I read about them, and of Kerrick’s views on how they differed from humans. Superb stuff!

The whole “cold blooded lizards evolved in the tropics and the mammals in the north were left alone to evolve into humanity” premise was intriguing. I’m no life sciences expert, so the idea works for me. When they clash, the reader sees it all through the omniscient POV and it is satisfying/believable. Maybe I should lay-off my criticism of omniscience for a little while.

I did labor through some of the long descriptions of both Yilane and human life. How they lived, hunted, crafted, etc. Blech.

I think I would have liked to spend a tad more time with Kerrick and some of the other hunters. I felt the cast was quite large and it’s tough to get too attached to anyone when we’re popping around so much. But, that is a minor gripe… And barely noteworthy.

Raised by the Yilane, Kerrick has no home and this is stressed many times. Though I would have preferred more dialog and less internal thoughts on Kerrick’s struggle as an outcast to both societies, I think it worked. My favorite part of all of that was the fact that Kerrick wasn’t taught the ways of the pre ice age hunter until he was a grown man. Because he is the “hero”, we expect him to win his fights… But he doesn’t. Well, sorta. I’ll let you discover this on your own as it is very well done and believable. Kudos to Mr. Harrison for keeping our hero within the bounds he set.

Though the climax was awesome (one of the best endings I’ve read in quite some time), it did tickle my gamer’s mind a tad. In Master of Orion and Civ, we utterly destroy our opponents. It’s the only way to be sure. With the extreme hatred between the humans and Yilane, I was a tad surprised by a decision at the end, but not enough to leave me unsatisfied. If you can plow through the walls of text, West of Eden is an enjoyable read.

So, that’s that!

Last year, I didn’t like the books I read, so I’m glad to report better entertainment value this year. I’m also currently re-reading Neuromancer and enjoying my ride so far. It’s been many years and it still deserves more recognition than it gets. Perhaps I’ll review it once I’m done.

 

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