Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Historical Fiction

Book Review: Lancelot

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter. This is because authors tend to be interesting people with interesting things to say, and because I like to hear about writing from people who do it for a living, but it also has the benefit of allowing me to hear about new books. A few months ago, I saw a tweet from the historical fiction author Giles Kristian, seeking bloggers who write about books and offering to send a copy of his new book Lancelot. I had already heard good things about the book and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I responded, and shortly thereafter I received a package from the UK with a signed trade paperback copy of the book!

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a really cool book cover that fits the tone of the book perfectly.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about the book! I really enjoyed it. It is a historical fiction retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Lancelot as the main character. It’s set in the years after the downfall of the Roman empire, when Britons are fighting against invading Saxons. For fans of Arthurian stories, don’t expect this book to follow exactly the stories you might be familiar with. In my opinion, this is a good thing: when retelling such a familiar story, it can be tempting to follow the well-worn ruts laid down by previous authors, and end up sounding the same and not really adding much. Kristian manages to avoid this. Lancelot stands on its own, primarily because it focuses on the character of Lancelot, fleshing him out in a way that I haven’t seen before. He’s still the Lancelot that we know and love: obsessed with Guinevere, practically unstoppable in battle, with a “complicated” relationship with Arthur. But that is now supported by a tragic backstory and a fierce (and flawed) personality that fits with the legendary character but humanizes him.

The story doesn’t follow the legends exactly, but as someone who is pretty familiar with them, it was really fun to see how this retelling portrayed different famous characters and events. There’s a special thrill when you realize that the horse warrior in the shining scale armor that is being introduced is Arthur, or the wiry old druid with tattoos and a cloak of raven feathers is Merlin.  Many other familiar knights of the round table and other characters make appearances throughout the book, and it was great to see this version of them.

This novel walks right on the borderline between low-magic fantasy and historical fiction, which is an area that I wish more authors would explore, and one that I often gravitate toward in my own fiction writing. There are hints of magic at times, and of course the source material is mythology rather than history. But at the same time, the details of the setting are historical. The lingering influence of the Romans is felt in their ruins, and in some cases in the lineage of certain characters. The details of the battles feel authentic (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure) even if the battles themselves are invented. Likewise the smaller everyday details that can really make or break historical fiction. Sometimes a little detail will jump out and ruin the suspension of disbelief (I am thinking of one Roman historical fiction book where they repeatedly mention fields of corn, a crop from the Americas), but there was none of that here for me.

If I have one “complaint”, it is that I never really got a feel for the bigger picture. There are a lot of names of kings and kingdoms bandied about, but I never really felt like I understood the geography of where they were or what their relationships were the way I do for something like Game of Thrones. Part of this is because of the unfamiliar names (Karrek Loos yn Koos, Caer Gwinntguic, Cynwidion, etc.), and part is simply because this is really a much more focused story of one man so the bigger picture doesn’t actually matter as much. (I should note: there is a perfectly fine map in the front of the book, but I was lazy and didn’t refer to it much.)

I’ll finish by noting that this book reminded me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series. Even though Cornwell’s books are set centuries later, the basics of medieval warfare didn’t change very much in that time, and both stories feature a headstrong but extremely skilled warrior fighting for a king who is trying to unite Britain against an invading force.  Both stories  depict a bloody, gritty, world of shield walls and gruesome wounds and personal rivalries. Kristian acknowledges the influence of Cornwell’s writing in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in particular Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series, which is its own take on the Arthurian legends. I haven’t read those Cornwell books so I can’t compare directly, but the influence is undeniable. It’s been a few years since I read anything by Cornwall, but in my opinion Kristian’s prose is better: a bit more imagery and flowery language than I remember from Cornwell, but not so much that it is over the top.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this book, and I really appreciate the author being kind enough to send me a copy! For anyone who is a fan of bloody and gritty fantasy or historical fiction from authors like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell, I definitely recommend giving Lancelot a try.

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

A while back I discovered that I had accidentally accumulated a handful of Audible credits, and so of course to get the most bang for my buck I used them on audiobooks books that were either not available from the library, had a long wait list, or were as long as possible. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson weighs in at a respectable 42 hours, and had been on my to-read list for quite a while, so I bought it and finally started it when I had a long road trip for work back in January.

The book is a huge epic, with a good-sized cast of main characters and two separate but related story lines. Half of the book is set during World War 2 and the main characters are Lawrence Waterhouse, a brilliant math prodigy code-breaker who works with Alan Turing, Bobby Shaftoe, a resourceful marine who ends up in all sorts of interesting situations as the allied powers try to hide the fact that they have broken axis codes, and Goto Dengo, a Japanese mining engineer who ends up involved in a plot to bury tons of gold the axis powers have looted from conquered countries.

The other half of the book takes place in the 90s. The main character, Randy Waterhouse, is the grandson of Lawrence and is a computer hacker who is part of an internet startup trying to establish cryptographically secure internet communications including an anonymous digital currency. He ends up working with the various descendants of the other WWII characters in a plot to recover the buried gold.

In typical Neil Stephenson style, Cryptonomicon is prone to long-winded asides about a wide variety of technical topics, particularly computers and cryptography, but also other stuff, such as completely unnecessary parametrization of things in daily life into systems of equations. I guess this is supposed to dazzle readers with how smart the characters (and the author) are, but I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I was not already familiar with a lot of the topics covered. Some of these asides are interesting, or at least charming, and many that seem irrelevant at the time end up being relevant later on.  Some of these asides have also aged quite poorly. The book was written in the late 90s, and so it has a number of breathless explanations of computer-related things that the reader is clearly supposed to be amazed and impressed by, which nowadays are just normal boring parts of life.

There are also a few that have aged poorly for other reasons. One in particular stands out: Randy is at a dinner party with his (soon to be ex) girlfriend’s academic colleagues. The girlfriend is a caricature of the “bitchy feminist” and her colleagues are (shudder) social scientists (who are, the text makes clear, lesser forms of life compared to hard science, math, and computer geeks). Randy gets in an argument with a dude who has become famous for raising difficult questions about the rise of the internet, and in particular how inequality in society means that poor people will not have the same chance to benefit from the internet as rich people. Instead of responding to the actual (very valid and still very relevant point), Randy leaps to the defense of the internet by criticizing the “information superhighway” analogy and  flaunting his impressive credentials as… a UNIX sysadmin I guess? I guess we’re supposed to be impressed by that? The “best” part of the chapter is when the academic points out that Randy, a white male from a long line of well-to-do math whizzes, has benefited from privileges that others may not have shared, and Randy (a) claims the he doesn’t have privilege, and (b) it’s clear that the reader is supposed to side with him.

That one chapter basically turned me off from Randy and his whole story line. These days it’s just not that fun to read a story glorifying tech-bros who are inventing bitcoin (even if that story improbably leads to all sorts of adventures in the jungles of the Phillipines). I mean, all due credit to Stephenson for linking cryptography and the potential for digital currency back in the late 90s: that’s some good sci-fi future prediction, even if Cryptonomicon is naively obsessed with the need for a gold standard to back such a currency. But too often I found that the book, especially the modern story line, seemed to glorify white male nerds in a way that doesn’t sit quite right nowadays, when stereotypical white male nerds, especially those obsessed with “individual liberty” and cryptocurrency have become one of the most toxic segments of the population on and off the internet. (I should also mention that Randy’s interactions with and thoughts about women do not help the situation. There’s a “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” vibe that doesn’t age well. I found his romance with Amy Shaftoe extremely far-fetched: at some point in the book she goes from strong, independent woman to emotional and needy potential girlfriend, and it’s entirely unclear why she would be interested in him.)

On the other hand, the WWII storyline is really good. Still prone to long, often gratuitous, tangents, but I enjoyed the characters and the story much more. Lots of interesting people jetting around the globe, getting into and out of trouble. And it also focused on a part of the war that I did not know much about, the southeast Pacific, so I learned at least a little real history mixed in with the fictional parts.

When I finished this book, I wavered on how to rate it on Goodreads. I love giant doorstopper epics, and it has some great moments and memorable characters. It tells a heck of a yarn, and the way the past and “present” story lines are interrelated is pretty well done. But it also has the issues I mentioned above. In the end I went with three stars. I think there is a four or even five-star book buried in there, but Cryptonomicon is badly in need of an editor willing to mercilessly wield her red pen to trim down the considerable bloat and improve the modern storyline. Lacking that, it’s uneven and too-long. I’m glad I read it, but I’m always disappointed when a book isn’t as good as it could have been.

 

Book Review: Blood Meridian – or – The Evening Redness in the West

I have mixed feelings about this book, which I am pretty sure is exactly the idea. Like other Cormac McCarthy books, the prose in Blood Meridian is great, as long as you can tolerate lots of arcane and antiquated uses for words and don’t require frivolous punctuation like quotation marks and apostrophes. The book is full of evocative descriptions of the desert southwest, from the details of tiny Mexican villages to the size and desolation of the desert. However, that same gorgeous prose is used to describe some of the nastiest violence and depravity that I’ve ever read, so it is absolutely not a joy to read.

The book follows The Kid, who wanders west in the 1840s and gets caught up in a gang of men roving the Mexican border killing and scalping Indians. They quickly realize that it’s awfully hard to tell whether a scalp comes from an Apache or a Mexican, and end up just killing indiscriminately. They go from being hailed as heroes to hunted as monsters.

As far as plot and characters go, this book is pretty weak. The plot is pretty repetitive, and in some places barely makes sense, and most characters are little more than names. In fact, most don’t even have names. Even the Kid, technically the main character, is basically only there to provide a point of view on the events. The only real character is The Judge, fascinating and monstrous both in physical bearing and in deed, who by the end of the book is revealed to be more a symbol than an actual character.  The whole book, even though it is based on real historical events, is written in such a way that it feels freighted with symbolism and half-perceived meaning.

When you get down to it, this is less a novel than a treatise on the human love of violence in the guise of a novel so that it is more “palatable” (which, to be sure, is a generous term to use for this book). It is a sort of dialog between the author and the reader that goes like this:

 

Author: Do you like westerns? Cowboys and Indians? You like the idea of a past when men were men and the frontier was there to be settled by those who could handle its hardships?

Reader: Yes, that sounds great!

Author: Ok, here you go.

Reader: Oh. No, no, that’s horrible! So much death and cruelty. And really, dead babies too? Was that necessary? Why are you showing me this?

Author: You say it’s horrible, but you’re still reading.

Reader: Well, there is some great writing here. But there’s something wrong with you.

Author: The reader dost protest too much, methinks. I think you like it. I think you know you’re supposed to say you hate this but it also excites you. If there’s something wrong here, is it with me, or with you? Or both of us?

This is not a fun book. Both the plot and the characters are lacking. But despite that, having had a few days to reflect on it, I think this is a very good book because it forces the reader to have that internal conversation. This book would probably reveal hidden symbolism and meaning with a second read through, but I don’t have the stomach for it. Heck, I don’t blame people who can’t make it through a first reading. It is not for everyone. You don’t read this for fun, but if you do read it, it sticks with you and makes you think.

 

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.

 

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!

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  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.

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  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.

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  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)

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  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.

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  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

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  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.

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  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.

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  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.

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  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

Book Review: Shaman

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If you’re like most people (or at least, most sci-fi fans), you know of author Kim Stanley Robinson for his epic Mars trilogy about colonizing the red planet. So, it might surprise you to hear that among his many other books is Shaman, a story about early humans in Europe 32,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. It is admittedly a different sort of story, lacking the epic scope and huge cast of characters and political maneuverings. But it does have this in common: it’s clear Robinson did a ton of research into the latest science before writing, and then filled in the gaps with plausible speculation to tell a compelling story. And it deals with some similar themes, such as: what would a society look like where you’re starting almost from scratch?

Shaman focuses on a young man named Loon who is being trained to become a shaman by his mentor and adopted father Thorn. There is eventually a quest-type plot, but much of the book is just a leisurely exploration of what life might have been like back then. It’s not especially fast paced, but it is fascinating. This is a time when humans are not the only sentient apes on the planet: neanderthals still exist at the fringes of human territory, sometimes as friends, sometimes as foes. It’s a world where humans are not yet at the top of the food chain, and wolves are not quite domesticated into loyal dogs yet. Heck, humans barely think of themselves as different from animals: Loon doesn’t call his kin group a “tribe”, he calls them a “pack”. And at one point, he refers to his fingernails as “claws”.

But the great thing about the book is that despite the primitive setting, and the “cave man” characters, they are humans just like you or me (except way tougher…I don’t know about you but I couldn’t go out into a winter storm, naked, with no tools of any kind, and come back alive days later with food in my belly and wearing clothes). Yes, they struggle to hunt and gather enough food to survive the winter, something you and I (hopefully) don’t have to worry about. But much of the conflict in the story comes from very familiar difficulties: Does she like me? Will my friend be jealous if I kiss her? What if I don’t want to do the job I am expected to when I grow up? Is the boss making good decisions? Can this stranger be trusted? And the characters are not dumb. One of my favorite characters, the old crone Heather who is sort of Loon’s adoptive mother, represents the potential for humans to figure out the world they live in. She has basically figured out the fundamentals of the scientific method and she uses it to test different herbs for their medicinal properties. There’s a charming scene where she is helping Loon to design a better pair of snowshoes where she explains to him the idea of making and testing multiple different prototypes to find which one works best. But there’s also a poignancy to the book’s exploration of these early hints of technological advancement. At one point this is brought to the fore when a character dies, and in reflecting on their death, Loon laments all the knowledge that person had which is now lost forever. As a modern reader, we know that writing would not be invented for another 29,000 years or so, and almost everything in between, every Heather who has started to figure things out, is simply…lost.

The other interesting thing that the extremely ancient setting allows for is a sort of stripped-down look at human culture, with all of the baggage of 32,000 years removed. I read some reviews of this book that said that it talks about sex too much, but I think their actual complaint was that it is talked about so frankly and openly. Sorry, but humans just think about sex a lot. Trying to hide that under layers and layers of taboos and cultural norms (many of which are more recent than most people realize) doesn’t change the fact. Heck, some of the oldest examples of human artwork are “venus figurines” depicting voluptuous women. It especially makes sense for Loon, a teen-aged boy in a society that doesn’t see sex as shameful at all, to think about it quite a lot.

There are also some great scenes about cave painting, where the author tries to imagine what was going through the artist’s mind while painting the various animal figures that populate the walls of ancient caves. In particular, these scenes do a great job of demonstrating that although the paintings look simple, a lot of thought likely went into them: using the roughness of the cave wall to make the animals appear to move in flickering torch light, adjusting the shading to draw the eye to certain animals. Drawing partial forms or extra limbs to depict motion.

Another major theme of the book is our species’ knack for survival against all odds. Without giving too much away, I will say that a large chunk of the book’s climax deals with a protracted chase, with the protagonists trying to escape from enemies. The chase goes on and on, and the heroes have to keep going despite lacking food or shelter, and despite injuries that would send a frail modern human crying to the emergency room and convalescing for weeks or longer. Even after they escape from enemies, they have to withstand nature as it does its best to kill them. It’s actually exhausting to read, but it does a great job of illustrating how difficult survival was back then. It’s amazing to think that humans are tough enough to withstand what is described, but the truth is we are.

Anyway, overall I really enjoyed Shaman. It’s a little weak on plot, but it is about such a fascinating subject that I didn’t really mind. It does a great job of transporting the reader back to the dawn of modern humanity, in all its brutal and beautiful wilderness, and in the process examines what makes us human.

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Book Review: Outlander

Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_cover

I had heard a lot about Outlander, the famous romance novel involving a nurse from the 1940s who travels back in time and falls in love with a handsome Scotsman. Many of my female friends love the book and its sequels, and I heard the TV show being lauded as Game of Thrones, but for women. So I thought it would be educational for me to read the novel and see what all the fuss was about. I’ve never really read much in the romance genre, which always seemed like a shame because surely there’s some good stuff there that I am missing out on. Outlander is often given as an example of a great romance novel, so I figured I should try it.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge up front that I’m decidedly not the target audience for Outlander. I get that. That was actually part of the appeal: so much fiction is written with “white straight male” as the target audience that I wanted to see what it would be like to read something that wasn’t “for me”.

Sadly, I have to report that I really didn’t like it very much, and I am shocked that women do.

The first half of the book was fine. I read it in one huge gulp while traveling overseas, and while the writing wasn’t amazing, it was a pretty good story. But then two things happened. First, I wasn’t traveling anymore so my chunks of reading time were much more fragmented, meaning I could only read smaller passages at a time. This always leads to me being more picky about the quality of writing, no matter what I’m reading. When you aren’t fully sucked in, it’s easier to spot the odd word choices or sentences that fall flat, or minor inconsistencies. But more importantly, at around the halfway mark in the book, Jamie the sexy Scotsman beats the main character with a belt. And then, within a matter of days, she has basically forgiven him. And then he rapes her (but it’s ok because after she says “No, Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” and he keeps going and says he “means to make you mine” and that the marriage vows included the provision that she must “obey”, she eventually says “yes”, so it’s definitely just kinky sex that leaves her battered and bruised definitely not rape). And that was when the book lost me.

From the way the book is written, it’s clear that this incident is supposed to be forgiven and Claire (and therefore the reader, because Claire is very nearly a blank-slate of a character upon which the reader is supposed to project herself) falls madly in love with sexy Jamie the sexy Scotsman. But for me, the moment he beat her and then raped her, the logical behavior on her part would be to try to escape as quickly as possible and go back to her loving husband in the present. You know, the one she chose voluntarily and who does not abuse her? The book from that point on should have been about getting away from this barbaric man, and this barbaric time period and back to the man who she supposedly loves. But nope. She goes to the standing stones that sent her back in time and then decides that she’d rather not go back to 1945 and all of its relative safety and comfort. Her husband in the present, Frank, is a slim academic type who Claire finds ever so boring as he goes on and on about his historical studies. Nothing is so unappealing as an intelligent man who is passionate about his academic pursuits. Much better to stay in the past with Jamie, the big, buff, virile Highlander whose favorite pass-times are (1) finding any excuse at all to be beaten (seriously, like half of this book is about all the times Jamie was beaten in the past, or gets beaten in the present, or is recovering from being beaten, etc.), and (2) sex.

Also, let’s talk about the antagonist in this story “Black Jack” Randall. In what is surely the most subtle subliminal message ever, the bad guy looks just like Claire’s husband from the present! Hmmmm! “Golly, I wonder if she will go back to her pathetic, skinny, nerdy husband who also happens to look like the vile, raping, antagonist?” How do we know he is not just a rapist, but the bad kind that we hate? (because it’s already been established that beatings and rape are ok as long as the victim deserves it and eventually stops protesting) Why, because he’s a homosexual of course! By my count there are two gay men in this book. One is a minor character who, of course, molests little boys. The other is the antagonist, Jack Randall, a pathetic and evil man who gets off on torturing and raping Jamie toward the end of the book.

For most of the book, Claire is an extremely passive and boring character (the better to allow the reader to project onto her).  She goes from place to place, obeying what others say, listening in on important conversations without being part of them, making very few decisions for herself. At the end of the book I was excited that she was finally taking initiative in attempting to save Jamie, reversing the damsel in distress trope by having the woman save the man. But of course we can’t have that, so she ends up being held at knifepoint and Jamie saves her by giving himself up as a plaything for the bad guy. Then Claire gets tossed out in the snow, and in a ridiculous scene, wins in hand-to-hand combat with a starving wolf by breaking its neck against the corner of a building (I mean, I know WWII nurses were tough, but come on). And then she gets rescued by some men, who then actually rescue Jamie, somehow, through a plot involving unleashing a herd of cattle in the dungeon? Oh and she kills a man by severing his brain stem with a knife. Because that’s easy to do for someone with very little training or strength.

And then at the end of the book, they flee to Normandy, and Claire (a) very nearly converts to Catholicism for some reason (mostly so that there can be a scene where a priest hears her confession and absolves her of any guilt about leaving her loving husband Frank behind in the future), and (b) cures Jamie of his severe bacterial infection AND his PTSD by sending him into an opium-induced hallucination where he thinks that she is the bad guy, and he fights her, and then they end up naked on the floor? Yeah, I don’t know what that was all about.

And finally, the book ends with some sexy sex in an underground hot spring and the revelation that Claire is not infertile, as she once thought! The powerful sperm of the sexy Scotsman, clearly superior to the sperm from her boring, skinny nerd husband, managed to impregnate her. Hooray!

Phew. Ok, so clearly I didn’t much like this book. The only reason I kept with it is because I wanted to see what all my friends saw in it. Maybe my problem is just that I’m the opposite of the target audience, but I really can’t comprehend why so many of my feminist female friends like this book. And just to be clear, I don’t mind the loving detail used in describing how sexy Jamie is: I expected that and it didn’t really bother me. Certainly plenty of books that I read are guilty of the opposite: describing female characters in great detail (making sure to mention something about breasts), and then oh yeah also there was a dude standing next to her and he was tall or something. And it’s not even that the writing is mediocre: I read plenty of fantasy and historical fiction books with just so-so writing. It really all comes back to the fact that I don’t get how a relatively modern woman is supposed to just forgive a man who beats her with a belt for “disobedience”. I don’t care how handsome or charming or honest or self-deprecating he is, or how much he tells you about all the times he was beaten as a kid (har har, isn’t it cute how he got beaten so much because he’s stubborn and disobedient? After all, “boys will be boys” and the only thing to do about it is beat them. PS: Claire, Jamie wants to make it clear that if you have kids he’s totally beating them too.) If this book is supposed to be a woman’s fantasy (and for the vast majority of the book it clearly is), then why make the love interest beat her and rape her? I just don’t get it. I’m very uncomfortable with the potential conclusions that could be drawn from that. But then, I don’t understand why so many women apparently enjoy reading 50 Shades of Gray either.

In any case, let’s just leave it at this: I’m glad to be done with this book and very much looking forward to reading something new.

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