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Just Read: 419 (Will Ferguson)

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

I just finished reading 419, Will Ferguson’s new novel. It’s about Nigerian e-mail scams and related topics, and I recommend it. Ferguson became one of my favourite writers because of his books on Canadian history and culture, but he’s also done a couple of travel books which I liked. I suppose there was some chance of his becoming the Canadian Bill Bryson, which wouldn’t be too bad of a thing to be, but he’s taken a left turn by switching to fiction. His first novel, Happiness^TM, won all kinds of awards although I really didn’t care for it. Second up was Spanish Fly, which I thought was tremendous, and now 419.

One interesting but frustrating thing about Ferguson’s books is how eager his publishers seem to be to retitle them:

Hokkaido Highway Blues was retitled Hitching Rides with Buddha
Generica was retitled Happiness^TM
Spanish Fly was retitled Hustle

Anyway, at the start of 419, this one character dies. Now, I don’t want to do the work for you here, but I believe that Ferguson was being very very careful and clever when he chose the name for this character. It’s a name that has appeared in fiction before, and in a context that contrasts very neatly with the themes of 419. I’m sure he did it on purpose. You go read 419–you’ll like it, it’s good–and then look up what other character had the same name as the dead guy, and think about that. It’s pretty neat. I like it when writers do stuff like that.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

Talk Amongst Yourselves

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Tyrion Lannister and Miles Vorkosigan: compare and contrast. Discuss.

Read: Agent to the Stars; Old Man’s War

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently I started reading John Scalzi’s blog, and eventually worked my way all the way back through the archives. That inspired me to try his actual books, which I’ve also been enjoying. Just last week I polished off Agent to the Stars and Old Man’s War, two of his earlier works.

They’re very different books in many ways, but they share some virtues: they’re extremely readable, they’re entertaining, they have admirably direct plots, and they both have something for you to think about (specifically, they’re both concerned with the nature and preservation of human identity, among other things). They’re in the highest tradition of genre fiction. And Scalzi makes it look easy.

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Read: Riddle of the Ring

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the books I enjoyed reading when I was really young was Karin Anckarsvard’s The Mysterious Schoolmaster. Anckarsvard was a Swedish author, and the book was about two kids, Michael and Cecilia, who come upon a mystery in their little Swedish town, and get to the bottom of it by being plucky. There were sequels, but I could never get them all in the right order.

Fast forward to about a year ago. I determined to track down all these books and read them in order and see if I liked them as much now as I did then. There were four of them: The Mysterious Schoolmaster, The Robber Ghost, Madcap Mystery, and Riddle of the Ring. I was able to order the first three from a used-books website, but not the last one. That was okay; I’d get the last one some other time. But then I read some kind of suggestion someplace that Riddle of the Ring wasn’t a Michael-and-Cecilia mystery. So when I finally did order it earlier this year, I was curious about just what the deal was.

Turns out that the deal is that RotR does take place in the Michael-and-Cecilia-verse, but the main characters are Tommie, another girl in the same town, and Henrik, Cecilia’s younger brother. Since Madcap Mystery, Michael and Cecilia have grown up and gotten married. Michael has joined the navy, and is therefore hardly ever home, and Cecilia has had a baby, and they’re very happy.

Nothing against the story of RotR, which was perfectly serviceable. And nothing against Tommie and Henrik, who were engaging enough characters. But what I wanted was more of Michael and Cecilia. In particular, if they were going to fall in love and get married and stuff, I wanted to read about it. Even worse, I think it sucks that Cecilia goes from solving mysteries to being cooped up in an apartment with a baby and acting like she likes it.

Oh well.

I imagine Cecilia’s not as good in a fight as Lisbeth Salander. But she’s better company and just as reliable.

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28/4/2011 Superhero of the Day: Doctor Camelot

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Read: Silverwing, Sunwing, Firewing

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s a fantasy series by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. It’s about bats. It would probably not be completely out of line to say that this series is to bats as Watership Down is to rabbits. Except that Watership Down is an all-time classic, and this series is generally decent.

Maybe my problem was that I had a hard time identifying with the bat characters, because after all bats are pretty unlike humans in a lot of ways. But then at the same time Oppel tries to write them as close to human as he reasonably can, and that also takes me out of the story, because I just don’t buy it that they’re like that. It’s tricky. He’s achieved a legitimately good adventure story, which I have to give extra points to because of how unconventional it is… but I had a hard time getting it down anyway.

Oppel has written other stuff I’ve liked better, like his steampunkish adventure series about young aviator Matt Cruse and young scientist/heiress Kate de Vries (consisting of Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber); recommended. And then he did some books for much younger readers, including Peg and the Yeti, which I got a kick out of when I read it to the kids. So Oppel is okay by me, but the bat trilogy isn’t my favourite. There’s a prequel, Darkwing, that I think I will not hunt down; enough is enough.

Categories: Books Tags: ,

Read: The Ghost of Dibble Hollow

April 18, 2011 2 comments

Patience is important. That’s what I really want to say. Patience is important.

See, there’s this book, The Ghost of Dibble Hollow (by May Nickerson Wallace, whom I know exactly nothing about). It’s a kids’ adventure book from 1965, about a boy who spends the summer in the country, in a house that’s long abandoned but has been in his family for a long time. He meets the ghost of his great-uncle, who died as a boy way back when. Not a great book, but enjoyable and readable. I had a copy when I was young but I don’t know what happened to it.

I decided a few years ago to try to track down another copy, partly because I liked the book and partly to use for inspiration for this one project I’ve had on the back burner for a while. And it turned out to be really hard to find. When I checked on abebooks.com and alibris.com, all I could find were copies for like $50, $80 bucks. Which, forget that.

So I bided my time and kept my eyes open. And earlier this month I was at a used book sale where I plucked a copy of The Ghost of Dibble Hollow off one of the kids’ tables for a buck.

Math: $50 cost + patience = $1 cost.

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17/4/2011 Ded & Sac Update

April 17, 2011 2 comments

I haven’t posted recently on my writing progress. I’m still wrestling with Chapter 7, which has turned out to be a monster. But that’s good, because if I get enough accomplished in Chapter 7, it means that after Chapter 8 I can jump forward in time a little bit, and if I don’t start jumping forward in time, this book is going to be a couple thousand pages long, and I bet that’s not the best way of doing it.

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Funniest Novels of All Time

April 16, 2011 18 comments

Every now and then I type “funniest novel” or “funniest writer” or something into a search engine to see if I can find any ideas for what to read next. And I’m always shocked at how much stuff comes up that isn’t funny at all. Or, often, there’ll be some things that are sorta funny, but not primarily funny. Like Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s great, and he does clearly have a sense of humour, and he uses it in his writing, but he’s not writing comedies. So if (say) Snow Crash is on your list of the funniest books you’ve ever read, well… you haven’t read that many funny books.

So here are mine, anyway (fiction only, roughly in order), in case someone else out there is doing the same kind of thing that I did. Hope the list helps; if nothing else I can promise that these books are supposed to be funny. (I’m more interested in bringing attention to things I like than in arguing that my list is actually definitive.) I’ll group the entries by author so that it’s not just a list of Wodehouse novels.

(There are some frequently cited books that I don’t have on here. I’ve seen lists that rank Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim highly, for instance. I read Lucky Jim about ten years ago and I remember liking it okay but I don’t think I got any good yoks from it. And then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which I couldn’t stand.)

19. Greg Costikyan: Another Day, Another Dungeon. First book in a planned fantasy trilogy that makes fun of Dungeons-and-Dragons-style adventuring. Lots of nice touches in it. Costikyan wrote the second book; it was okay. There probably won’t be a third.

18. Chris Moore: My favourite part of Chris Moore’s collected works is the scene in Island of the Sequined Love Nun where Tucker is pleading with the FBI guy. Sometimes I take the book down off the shelf just to read that one page.

17. W.E. Bowman: The Ascent of Rum Doodle. Parody of, what shall we call it, expedition writing.

16. Connie Willis: More of a science fiction writer than a comedy writer, but her To Say Nothing of the Dog is clearly meant to be funny from start to finish, and Bellwether is kind of similar.

15. Larry Doyle: I Love You, Beth Cooper. One of those last-night-of-high-school stories, but the key thing here is that Doyle doesn’t seem to have any limit on how outrageous he’s going to let things get.

14. Douglas Adams: Sure, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is famous and funny, and I like it too, and the first three sequels, but it was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency that really impressed me; fits together like a Swiss watch. The sequel doesn’t work quite as well but is still worth a look.

13. Lisa Lutz: The Spellman Files and its sequels. Tales of a quasifunctional family of compulsive private detectives. Great stuff. Only problem with these is that the comedy/mystery ratio skews so heavily to the comedy side.

12. Terry Pratchett: Pratchett is a fantasy writer who uses humour a lot. It doesn’t always work, but a) he’s a good fantasy writer, and b) he keeps the jokes coming, so they don’t all have to be winners for the books to be a success. Mostly I’m talking about the Discworld series, but he’s got other worthwhile books too.

11. Sherwood Kiraly: California Rush. Kiraly’s written four novels and seems to have stopped there, which is a shame. They’re all good, but his first one is his funniest. It’s a baseball novel about (this is my take) just what it would take to make a stadium full of fans go completely berserk.

10. Roy Blount, Jr.: First Hubby. Blount is one of my favourite writers. He’s written all kinds of humour stuff, but this is his only attempt at fiction. One of the things I like about it is that he sets up this one joke, a pun, so far ahead of time that you’d never know that that was what he was doing, and the pun is a good one but obviously not worth all the effort. I admire that.

9. O. Henry: He did write one novel, which I couldn’t get into; he’s most famous for his short stories, which are, as they say on Primer, handstakingly hilaripus. I don’t mean they were funny back when he wrote them and we can still smile politely at them now; I mean they’re still really funny.

8. Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm. This one works better if you’re familiar with the books it’s making fun of, D.H. Lawrence and stuff like that. I’m not very familiar with them, but I used my imagination and got by okay, so you shouldn’t have a problem either. Plus, Flora is one of the great characters of all time; never gives an inch of ground to anybody.

7. Anita Loos: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and, if you want, its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes). A classic.

6. Saki: It took me forever to start reading Saki. I don’t know why. You’d think somebody would have recommended him to me. Anyway, he’s about like P.G. Wodehouse (see below) in a lot of ways, but with more of a mean streak.

5. Joe Keenan: Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz, and Lucky Star. Modern farces, I guess you’d call them. A top songwriting team gets mixed up in all kinds of confusion, intrigue, and deception; hilarity really does ensue.

4. Jean Shepherd: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; A Fistful of Fig Newtons, for a start. You know the movie The Christmas Story? Based on Jean Shepherd’s books, which I guess aren’t completely fictional, but they can’t be all true, either. Despite Shepherd’s affection for the past, this is not nostalgia; it’s got too much of an edge on it for that.

3. Donald E. Westlake: Westlake is most famous for his “comic crime” novels, which are basically caper novels. In particular he had a series of books about ill-starred criminal mastermind John Dortmunder, who is basically about halfway between Professor Moriarty and Eeyore. Those are very good, and so is his other stuff (some of it funny and some more serious), but my favourite is his story Dancing Aztecs, about the frantic hunt for a valuable statue in 1970s New York.

(3b. Jay Cronley: Quick Change. Could totally be a Dortmunder novel.)

2. Dennis Hensley: He’s written two novels, Adventures in the (213) and Screening Party (which isn’t exactly a novel, although the aspects of it that are novel-like are what makes it so likable). Adventures in the (213), about wacky Hollywood hijinks, was pretty good. Screening Party, about a group of friends who get together to snark on movies, had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe more than once. Which basically never happens.

1. P.G. Wodehouse: I hope it’s not controversial to name Wodehouse as the funniest writer in the history of the English language. Not everything he wrote was great, but well over half of it was; some titles to look for are Right Ho, Jeeves, The Small Bachelor, Leave it to Psmith, and Barmy in Wonderland. There are lots, though.

I guarantee as soon as I post this I’ll think of three more books I should have included.

Categories: Books Tags: ,

14/4/2011 Superhero of the Day: X-Man

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

X-Man. Not the Marvel character; a different one. Logogenesis, what a cool power. I wonder what it’s really good for.