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Taste in books, then and now

Nathan Bransford first offers a post in which he critiques the idea that in those halcyon days of yore the general public loved highbrow literary fiction, while today cultural tastes have degenerated.

Nathan’s take: “Personally, I’m very skeptical of golden era attitudes toward the past. While books have had to cede cultural ground to other media with the rise of movies, TV and the Internet, I also don’t know that there was ever an exalted period in the past where everyone in America was reading literary fiction and arguing about Proust vs. Flaubert at the dinner table, or even that there were more people who did that in the past than do now.”

Then! To explore the issue, he also offers:

A list of the best-selling novels every year this century, and, for good measure,

A list of the best-selling nonfiction books every year this century.

But I don’t know! Much as I admire Nathan Bransford, I’m afraid that for me, having Dan Brown appear twice in the past ten years is, um, not a positive sign. Also, having Fifty Shades as the 2012 bestseller kinda adds weight, all by itself, to the thesis that cultural tastes in books have degenerated in the modern day. Is there anything half as bad in the first 15 years of this list, as the bad ones in the last 15 years? And here I mean “badly written,” not just “pornographic.”

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A Finnish Spitz can bark 150 times a minute

Do you want one?

Pretty, aren’t they? But they are also called “the barking bird dog” and in Finland, their fanciers actually have barking contests for them. If you’re going to get a puppy — or even just put a dog in your book — then it would be nice to know something about dogs and about the breed, right? (I really like Ilona Andrews’ dogs; they clearly do know their breeds!)

If you want esoteric information about random topics, well, there’s an expert for everything, right? Here’s a post about that. I hadn’t actually heard of the Joys of Research list, but these days there are all kinds of resources for a writer who wants to know something weird and random.

My favorite bit from the post linked above (from Book View Cafe) is actually this from the comments:

“A thriller writer friend of mine once phoned a local chemical supply house. How much hydrochloric acid would it take to fill a bathtub? What concentration should she buy to dissolve a piece of meat that weighted, oh, 180 lbs? Could she carry the carboys in her truck? Would it be necessary to reglaze her tub? What about the sewage system? The clerk was perfectly informative and told her everything she wanted to know.”

Which made me laugh! Wouldn’t YOU sort of wonder about someone who called with these questions?

I actually have called my brother to ask things like:

How many men would be in a typical medieval army?

How long would it take to go 100 miles on horseback?

Which saint would be a good patron saint to protect you from werewolves?

I’m not obsessive enough to maintain a list of People Who Know Things, but I’m definitely interested in sources of expert information. Every now and then you come across a site like this , for example, and forever after make sure your swords weigh two pounds, not twenty. And that gives you one fewer thing that will annoy any of your readers who happen to know that swords weren’t actually super-heavy.

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I think today is a good day to start a revision

I’ve taken more than two weeks off! And technically I have time to take more time off, because when the deadline is next spring, well, not like it’s going to be an effort to get this project in on time.

I hope.

Anyway! I have read a lot of books in the past couple weeks and I have started to get to the point where I’m okay with turning my back on the TBR shelves for a while. I am even almost sort of looking forward to starting this revision! (That won’t last.)

I don’t know that I’m in the mood to write anything extensive about the books I’ve read most recently, but:

I like the Kushiel’s Dart series better than the Naamah’s Kiss series. I think I just prefer a spy-courtesan to a Girl With A Destiny, but there were also stylistic things about the Naamah series that bugged me a little that I don’t remember from the Kushiel trilogy. Maybe I was not such a critical reader when I read the latter, I don’t know. Plus, wow, are we re-arranging the entire world or what? China AND Russia AND Central America, among others. Wow. Maybe that was a little much of a muchness for me. I did like Moirin’s kinder, gentler sex life better than Phaedre’s S&M thing, though.

I like Bansh from The Range of Ghosts better than Kasimir from All the Windwracked Stars. They are not really comparable, though, since Bansh is a horse who is only subtly magical, whereas Kasimir is a character in his own right — an angel shaped like a horse. Or something. I had some trouble visualizing him. Antlers AND horns? (He has two heads.)(Apparently both heads are the heads of horses, but one has antlers and one horns?) What is that based on, anybody know, and I will try to google up an image.

I also liked Range of Ghosts better just overall. To me, Muire, in All the Windwracked Stars, is too ineffectual and weak and too stuck in self-loathing to really appeal to me, until the second half of the book. In contrast I truly loved all the pov characters in Range of Ghosts.

I really am enjoying Margaret Maron’s mystery series, which starts with Slow Dollar. I needed something contemporary to intersperse with those big fantasy novels, and these were perfect. I like the protagonist, Deborah, and I particularly like the second book of the series, where she admits to herself that she has fallen in love with the guy she thought she was marrying just as a convenience. (He was already in love with her, though he was trying not to let on.) I love the setting and characters and so far I don’t think I’ve ever found the murderer super obvious, either.

However, I’m switching to nonfiction for a few weeks or a month. Gotta knock this ms into shape so I can send it to my agent without being embarrassed.

To get into the mood for revision, this, from Terrible Minds.

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Not that you would ever lie about having read a book —

But here‘s an entertaining list of the top ten books people do apparently lie about having read. Which seems strange to me, but then I’ve read the actual unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, so I have big-book cred despite never having read War and Peace.

I’m surprised James Joyce’s Ulyssesisn’t on here. I hear it’s basically unreadable. Never looked at it myself, so I wouldn’t know.

I’ve read five of the books on this list and actually very much enjoyed two of them. I only read Jane Eyre so I could better appreciate Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborne.

I can’t say I have ANY desire to read 1984. I mean, we kind of know how that one comes out even without reading it, right? No, thanks. I’m grateful to have got off without reading it in high school.

Any of your favorites / least favorites make the list? Truly?

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Process and publishing

A bit late discovering this post, but Merrie Haskell first makes all kinds of behind-the-scenes library work sound surprisingly interesting and then ties the idea of “process” work to publishing:

I learned how processes work. How production works. I learned how to do knowledge work, information work at production work speeds.

And that is also how I learned why it’s important to follow publishing guidelines–for agents, for editors, for contests, for slush piles. . .

Even more than that, the slush pile cost-benefit ratio is way lower than the line at Blimpy’s or my queue of incoming requests. At least each burger at Blimpy nets them some profit. At least each request we process in interlibrary loan brings the department $15. The last time I heard an agent express how many gems they found in the slush each year? It was like… 5. Five new authors in a year. Out of hundreds of requests a day.

It’s an interesting post, and includes a moral. Read the whole thing.

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Recent Reading: The Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Okay, so far Merrie Haskell’s written three books: The Princess Curse, which I really loved, Handbook, which I enjoyed but not as much, and Castle Behind Thorns, which isn’t out yet but which is the most unusual and I think my favorite of the three.

If you’ve read it, you know that The Princess Curse is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, with a dose of Beauty and The Beast thrown in. It’s really charming and I definitely need to re-read it soon. I loved its protagonist, Reveka, right from the beginning; I enjoyed her thoughtfulness and how her view of the world expanded during the course of the story.

Castle Behind Thorns is a Sleeping Beauty retelling – did you see that coming from the title? – and a brilliant and unusual retelling it is, with exactly one character on stage alone for a third of the novel. I don’t need to tell you that the choice of telling the story this way put some unusual demands on the author. I loved the rough draft version of this story – seriously, on a scale of one to ten, I’d rate the rough draft as an eight and a half. I expect to rate the finished version, which I haven’t read, as a nine or nine and a half – practically perfect. (I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but I REALLY look forward to comparing the finished copy to the draft I read.)

Okay! In comparison to the other two, The Handbook for Dragon Slayers is fairy-tale-ish, but it is an original story, not a retelling.

Handbook pulls in plenty of fairy tale elements – the princess, the nasty villain who wants to take over her lands, magic horses, dragons, the Wild Hunt (I’m a big fan of the Wild Hunt). What an adult reader will notice that a kid would probably miss is the depth of research that went into the book: a pfennig for your thoughts, for example, and the stories of saints killing dragons with the sheer power of their holiness, and tidbits like the mistress of the land owing servants one new dress at Christmas. We get a real sense of time and place here, unusual for fairy tale retellings, which I think more often draw on a more generic setting. The plotting is nice and tight, with minor characters introduced early turning out to play more important roles than is immediately obvious. I mean, I didn’t see the bad guy coming at all, or at least I totally didn’t expect his plans to include, well, never mind, but it was nice to be surprised. I enjoyed the way Haskell catches the ends of all her loose threads and pulls them together.

The protagonist, Tilda, longs for peace and quiet to read and write, but is constantly interrupted to deal with her responsibilities as princess; worse, Tilda was born with a deformed foot, widely considered a sign of a divine curse, which makes it harder to discharge her obligations and in fact harder to want to. I mean, when the servants make the sign of the evil eye when you go by, it’s hard to care very much about their problems, right? These are the pressures that drive the story.

I took longer to connect with Tilda than I did with Reveka in The Princess Curse, and in fact never liked her as well (though I did like her just fine, so don’t get the wrong idea here). On the other hand, her handmaid, Judith, was a wonderful secondary character – and I appreciated the clever choice to make Judith rather than Tilde a kind of apprentice dragon slayer. The relationship between Tilda and Judith was, for me, the best part of the book. The male lead, Parz, is a perfectly decent foil for the two girls, but definitely secondary to the two female characters. There is only the faintest hint of romance in the story, which is after all MG rather than YA.

This story starts off slowly, which is normally not a problem for me and which I didn’t mind this time, either. I personally like a story to take its time setting the scene and drawing the world, but I know not everybody feels that way. Then, about sixty pages in, Tilde gets kidnapped and gets away and everything kicks up a notch. We get dragons, and the Wild Hunt, and the magic horses, which of course I enjoyed, because hey, magic horses! And more dragons. I loved the dragons, but I don’t want to give too much away about them, so I’m restraining myself here. I will just say that they don’t quite think like humans and that the difference is important.

Other opinions:

Charlotte from Charlotte’s Library

Thea and Ana from The Book Smugglers

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Oh, look, the Hugos

I am behind the times with this, but here’s how it worked out:

Redshirts by Scalzi took the novel category. While I enjoyed this one, I didn’t think it had the depth and ambition I look for in a major award recipient. As far as I’m concerned, only 2312 was actually a deserving contender. But whatever, I’m sure there’s no point in rehashing old this-is-the-lineup-seriously? issues now. And Redshirts is clever and fun.

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson took the Novella award, YAY because I thought it was BY FAR the best entry in the category. I am surprised but very pleased to see this outcome!

“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan, won for Novelette, which also makes me happy because I was definitely my favorite in that category — humorous, non-grim, well-put-together, clever.

“Mono no Aware”, by Ken Liu, won the short story award, which again I am pleased about because I thought it was a pretty good story, better than “Immersion” which got more buzz (that I saw), and besides I utterly DETESTED “Mantis Wives”.

And it won’t surprise you to know that The Avengers won the long-form film category. Well deserved! Great movie! Now I really want to see it again and of course I don’t actually have it on DVD. A lack I must rectify one day.

Anyway, that’s as far as I read, but if you’re interested the whole list is here.

So overall I’m pretty pleased with how that all fell out. I don’t know that I’ll vote next year, but then maybe I will, because it IS interesting to see these outcomes and be familiar with all the stories.

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