On my Shelf

As I mentioned in About Me, I read more non-fiction than fiction but I read a bit of both, usually several books at once. Here’s what’s on the shelf for now and what I pull from these books for my writing.

Empires and Barbarians by Peter Heather

Not as easy a read as his earlier The Fall of the Roman Empire, it is still quite fascinating. While targeted at the lay reader, it has more nods at the uncertainty and divergent views of professional historians than usual for a main stream history book. This slows down the narrative considerably (I must confess I’ve been digesting it in small chunks) but on the other hand, the evidence is murky and the author does do a great job of presenting the various views and then offering his own opinion. (I really hate those authors that just throw out the conflicting views without giving their opinion. They have one, let’s hear it.).

Writing link: I’ve always been fascinated by the fall of civilisations and use that trope frequently in my RPG games as well as stories. This book is quite the eye-opener for the careful reader on how invasions start: most often warbands scope out the opportunity before a “migration of peoples” happen and despite the shift in professional historians against the “migration of peoples” theories Heather presents a good case that it does happen at times. This book is, however more about the nations, peoples and mechanisms behind the invasions. For a history of the period itself, see his earlier book.

Harry Potter #5 (Order of the Phoenix) by J.K. Rowling

This one I’m reading to my son (after #1-4, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit over the last three years or so!). This is my second time through the series, third time for some books, and I still enjoy it.

Writing Link: It’s always good to study a blockbuster, especially one that I enjoy so much. There’s much to learn, both from the things that she does very well and in particular appeal to me, as well as the things that are best not mimicked. At the risk of seeming blasphemous, here are a few:

  • Engaging characters, those who love these stories probably enjoy the characters most of all. Too much for me to summarize because this is really the heart of the books but watch how she introduces Harry and immediately establishes sympathy from the start.
  • The character names: this is a plus and a minus for me. As a positive take-away names do matter and hints about personality in the name when subtle can be powerful. As in Professor Snape: short, sibillant, and of course snape->snake. Same for Hagrid. Some of her other names would be a bit silly for more “serious” fantasy novels.
  • A place that is its own character: Hogwarts.
  • Lots of magic: while some of the magic is, like the names, on the silly side and works for the target audience and setting it may not work in most fantasy novels. But for me most fantasy novels have too little magic, not too much. She at least had the courage to imagine what a world with a lot of magic might be like rather than the much more common “it’s European Middle Ages with such a small dash of magic that I don’t really need to re-imagine much”.
  • Speaker attributions that rely too much on said (or the equivalent, of which there is much too much). It could have used more “beats”, actions that identify the speaker: “Hermione twisted her hair. ‘I really don’t think…’ “
  • Attributions with adverbs. There was one place in book 4 where there were 6 “he saids” in a row, each with their own adverb. He said, archly. She said, snidely. He said angrily. It makes me feel like I’m watching a tennis ball go back and forth in a match. Many of these are unnecessary as the emotion is already clear in the dialogue. The rest would be improved with stronger dialogue rather than an adverb. But this doesn’t bother my wife so much so perhaps a pet peeve (although one frequently called out by writing coaches and a pet peeve of many agents and editors as well).
  • Uneven pacing with plot twists hidden by a lot of words. That is, the plot twists don’t tend to be too surprising they are just typically hinted at early on then drowned out by lots of other prose.
  • Know your genders: Rowling has Ron and Harry in a snit almost every book. Boys do get into snits but the constant and protracted falling-outs have two problems:
    1. You know they are going to be friends again so there is no drama here. You just endure it until it ends.
    2. Boys have falling outs but they don’t take the form of protracted snits. Ron and Harry seemed more like elementary school girls than boys when they acted like this. Boys are more likely to have a short falling out quickly forgotten or break the relationship forever without agonizing over it: “over, forgotten,” not “I hate yet but I still want to be friends.”

That’s not to say I don’t love the books. Just that as a writer, it’s good to have both positive and negative examples and frankly, it’s great to see an author can do so well without being perfect because otherwise, I give up now :).

Last Call, the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

Okay, this one is hard to tie closely to my fantasy writing. The best I can say is that it provides a lot of interesting character sketches and a “much more than gangsters” view of Prohibition. The really interesting parts are how Prohibition came to be and how it was repealed. I’d always assumed a majority of Americans thought it was a good idea. They didn’t. And the parallels to modern American politics are quite striking.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

A spoof of Star Trek and similar shows, this one isn’t really grabbing me and I probably won’t finish it. (But never say never; it might make a good read for a trans-oceanic flight). My wife loves this one but after the first few pages, it kind of gets repetitious.

Writing Link: the constructs it mocks aren’t limited to Star Trek episodes. In addition to a good laugh, it’s not a bad read for things to avoid as a writer.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I started this after enjoying Old Man’s War but it’s been a slow go and I’m not sure when I’ll pick it up again. Old Man’s War had some interesting concepts although the protagonist had it very easy and the fun was more about the setting and less about the plot and characters. By the second installment, the focus on concept over plot and character gets old for me but there are many people who like this. Might be worth a look.

Writing Link: interesting series that shows how you can be successful on a more concept-driven story. On a negative note, the thinly disguised survey of the author’s opinion on contemporary science fiction books and movies in The Ghost Brigades was very off-putting for me. Some folks like that but author intrusions like that really rub me wrong: I want to read about the characters not the author.