August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

September Reading List

Water for Elephantsborn_standing_upcurse_of_chalionvalentines_castleend_of_timerestless

These are some of the books I plan to read over the next month. I like buying most of my books second-hand if I can and I’ve had a lucky run on eBay during the last few weeks; all of the auctions I’ve bid on I’ve won and I even found a couple of hardcovers I’d been trying to find all year.

The two books I’m looking forward to reading most are Water for Elephants and Restless; I’ve heard good things about both Gruen and Boyd but haven’t read them before. I’ve also had Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time since last year and haven’t read it yet; Bear is one of my favourite authors and this seems like a return to his best science fiction.

I probably won’t be able to read all of them due to my health but if I can read two or three in the month, I’ll be happy. I’ll post some reviews when I’ve finished them as well.

I wonder what you’re reading at the moment?

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

First Impressions: Unusual and beautiful. A dark, romantic story set primarily in a circus during the Great Depression; Rosie is a beautiful, sympathetic character as real as any of the human performers. Excellent so far.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin

First Impressions: Steve Martin’s memoir. Martin is one of my favourite comedians and a gifted writer. Should be a fascinating, insightful and funny look at his life and inspirations.

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

First Impressions: The first in Bujold’s Chalion series. Bujold is one author I’m not that familiar with, although she’s well respected in SF and fantasy. I thought I’d try this before her Vorkosigan novels.

Lord Valentine’s Castle
Robert Silverberg

First Impressions: Silverberg is one of my favourite authors and this is supposed to be among his best novels. In tone it feels a little like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’ll be interested to see if I like it as much as The Book of Skulls, my favourite of Silverberg’s.

City at the End of Time
Greg Bear

First Impressions: Bear’s latest and his return to hard science fiction. Bear is one of the few highly literate writers in SF and so far this looks very good, although I’m not sure I understand the concept yet. But that’s not unusual with Bear. I’ll read it next.

Restless
William Boyd

First Impressions: I know almost nothing about Boyd, although this is actually his ninth novel. He strikes me a little like John le Carré and Graham Greene, at least in tone. Looks excellent; an absorbing historical spy novel.

literacyliteracy3

Just a quick note as well: next Tuesday is International Literacy Day and bloggers are being asked to write a post to highlight the falling standards of literacy in the world. It’s estimated that one in five adults around the world is illiterate, with more than 65% being women, and more than 75 million children are out of school.

As a writer literacy is very important to me, particularly indigenous literacy in Australia, and this is something I would have done even if it wasn’t being organised. If you’d like to take part as well, you can sign up here.

These Are the Voyages…

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Click here to take the “Which Star Trek character am I?” quiz

This is just a quick update as it’s been a while since my last post. To be honest I didn’t realise it had been so long; I’ve had a lot on my mind these last few months and haven’t felt up to blogging until now.

I haven’t been feeling well for several months; my health has been very poor and I haven’t been sleeping well again. While I am coping, this last year has been exhausting as it’s just been one thing after another… I’ve had to cut back on the amount of time I spend online to adjust.

We also recently learnt of the death of an old friend. Belinda was like an aunt to me when I was younger and was a dear friend of my mother; it’s brought back a lot of memories and we’re all feeling her loss.

But I’m trying not to dwell too much. I’m feeling a little better now and tomorrow I’m seeing the new Star Trek film with MQ, which is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I grew up with the more recent Star Trek series but it’s always been the relationships between the original characters that made me a fan and have defined Star Trek; to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy again after all these years should be a lot of fun.

Star Trek has needed refreshing for a while now and it looks like they’ve found the right dynamic with a young cast and a new approach. This Trek can have a wide appeal and it reminds me a little of Batman Begins; build word of mouth for a sequel and hopefully that will do even better once people realise that this isn’t the same kind of Trek.

The thing about Star Trek, which a lot of people don’t get if they think it’s geeky and boring, is that what it’s actually about isn’t science but humanity. Star Trek at its best gives us an optimistic view of humanity; it was born out of the 1960s as a counterpoint to issues like racism, sexism, communism, and war, showing us that whatever our differences, we can overcome them and unite in peace, a view that was well ahead of its time.

That’s the message which has always made me a fan; that the future can be better, if we want it to be. It looks different but as long as the new film keeps that message in some way, then I’ll be happy. And I think it will. That message of hope is just as relevant now, in a post-September 11 world, as it was in 1966.

This is one of the few films I’ll probably be able to see this year, but hopefully it will be the beginning of a new era for Trek. So I thought I’d post a fun quiz as well to celebrate the release of the film.

I wonder which character you are? Apparently I’m most like Spock. I guess that makes sense; I do tend to be quite logical. Not sure about the ears, though. I don’t think they’d suit me. 😉

Update: Just found a fun website that can change your photo into a Star Trek character. Mine is here. As I said, the Vulcan ears definitely don’t suit me!

Update #2: Just got back from seeing it a few hours ago. It was excellent. Even better than the hype, actually, which was a surprise. I’ll post a review on my other blog tomorrow but it’s very different and probably the best Star Trek film so far. Highly recommended.

The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

I’m happy to announce I’ve just passed a small milestone. This post marks my 200th post! About time, eh? 🙂 While I know it’s not that many posts, considering I wasn’t sure if I would continue blogging that long ago reaching 200 posts is something I’m quite pleased with.

I’ve known the 200 was coming for some time and it seemed like a good time to change my blog as well. I’m now self-hosted. After several experiences on WordPress, I felt it was time for a change; I have less time for blogging and this way I can enjoy writing at my own pace. I’m looking at it as a chance to explore some new ideas, so I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

I wanted to do a special post for my 200th and decided to save the second part of my books project for the occasion. I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out so far. It’s been fun revisiting these books again.

This second part is more about the books that have shaped my philosophy. There’ll be one last part to end the series next week, a profile of the three books that have had the biggest impact on my life. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. I wonder which books have changed your life?  😉

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral is one of those novels that leaves you reeling. On the surface it’s about two parents whose idyllic life is destroyed when their daughter sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War. But beneath that Roth examines the morality of objectivism (Merry becomes a Jain, concerned about murdering germs while oblivious to the deaths she caused) and the bond between fathers and daughters. Swede’s world falls apart and Pastoral left me wondering how far we’ve really come in 40 years. Which is Roth’s point.

The Speaking Land by Ronald and Catherine Berndt
I’ve been interested in Aboriginal mythology since I was young, particularly the stories of The Dreaming and the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginal culture dates back over 50,000 years and The Speaking Land is the best collection I’ve read; it gives a real sense of the beliefs behind the myths, the reverence Aboriginal people have for the land and the spirit. It showed me an Australia I didn’t know, one I wish more people could see.

God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
God Said, Ha! is remarkable in that it deals with big issues like cancer and death in an honest way and never feels depressing. In the mid 90s Julia Sweeney had just begun to look forward to a new life, but then her brother was diagnosed with cancer. As she started to care for him her parents moved in – and then Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s a sad memoir and yet incredibly funny and insightful. It shows how laughter can get us through even the most difficult of times.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I first read Nietzsche in high school but didn’t try again until a few years ago. As a critique of society Beyond Good and Evil is still relevant but it’s Nietzsche’s development of the “will to power” I find interesting. It’s often interpreted as violent (or fascistic) but that wasn’t what Nietzsche meant; rather it’s about overcoming individual weakness, explaining the motivations of individuals and societies and their actions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read and has influenced my writing many times.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I first read Kafka at about the same time as Nietzsche and I loved the absurdity of Metamorphosis. The idea of waking up one day as a giant insect makes the story so surreal but also very human. Kafka is less interested in the science of the transformation than in how Gregor tries to adjust to his new life. In the end it’s a very sad, tragic story, and yet darkly funny. Which makes its critique of society and our loss of humanity all the more poignant.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was one of the first SF books I read. It’s about an alien race that suddenly appears on Earth, promising to help humans reach their full potential; and yet reaching that potential means losing everything that makes us who we are. Clarke uses the story to explore the idea of utopia and what the loss of inspiration means for society. The depth of ideas in the novel is staggering and it leaves you both a little wiser and sadder for having read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it; I was too young but I was stunned when I reread it. It’s a moral fable, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, and it has a feel of history to it that makes it all the more troubling. Set in an America where women are property and the Handmaids’ only role is to have children, Handmaid is eerie when you think about the role of women in some countries. Atwood’s other novel Oryx & Crake is almost as powerful.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
It’s hard to decide which is the better novel between Animal Farm and1984 but Animal Farm, with its complete disdain of power and those who abuse it, has always left more of an impact on me. As a novel critiquing social and political power it’s unparalleled, but also in the way it continues to raise concerns about the way we exploit animals and their conditions. In the end it’s a pessimistic novel but it’s ironic as well that by turning Stalin and Trotsky into animals, Orwell actually succeeds in making them more human.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Of all of Hemingway’s works it’s The Old Man and the Sea that I’ve always related to the most. It’s exquisitely written and such a simple idea, a battle of wills between an old man and a marlin… yet it’s so much more than that. It represents the maturity of Hemingway and his writing; how rather than have Sargasso return victorious as a young Hemingway might have written, instead he returns with no more than a skeleton. It’s a lesson about life and courage and I’ve learned more about writing from Hemingway than any writer.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Like Childhood, The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first SF books I read. The story revolves around Genly as he tries to convince the inhabitants of Winter to join the Ekumen, but it’s really about gender and friendship. The Gethenians are hermaphroditic and the friendship between Genly and Estraven forms the heart of the novel. Darkness was one of the first SF novels to create a world convincingly, with believable characters. It influenced much of my early writing and still does today.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger had a huge impact in the 1960s, introducing “grok” to the English language. It follows Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after a failed mission to Mars. When he returns to Earth and learns about humans, Mike begins to spread his Martian philosophy, forming his own church, causing others to begin to see him as dangerous. Stranger is a brilliant idea-driven novel and one of the few SF novels that’s genuinely literate; reading it is like getting a high of ideas and the scope of the novel is breathtaking. It’s the kind of novel I’d love to write one day.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’ve always enjoyed old myths and my favourite myth is the legend of King Arthur. When I first read White’s version what struck me about it was the tone; it starts playfully but by the end it’s mirthless. Yet that’s what makes it so strong. White uses the legend as an allegory for World War II, filling it with the realities of war and an examination of communism and socialism. It’s as much about human nature as chivalry, Arthur struggling to find a philosophy that fits his (and our) world. It’s a sad, beautiful novel, one I reread regularly.

The Books That Changed My Life (part one)

I have some news. No, unfortunately I haven’t found an agent yet (although hopefully soon!); I’ve decided to start a second blog. I’ve spent the last few weeks setting it up, so feel free to have a look and let me know what you think.

It’s called Modern Classics and came about when I decided to move the book reviews from my blog; they don’t really go with the rest of my content, so the new blog collects them all in one place. I still plan to talk about books on this blog as well; I just haven’t had much to post about recently and I think separating the content will help both blogs in the end.

So to celebrate I thought I’d do a couple of posts about some of the books that have changed my life. This first part looks at the books that changed me as I grew up; the second part will be the books that have shaped my ideas about philosophy and life. I’ll post the second part in a couple of days so it won’t be too long to wait. I wonder how many you’ve read? 😉

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
I first read Anne Frank’s diary in high school and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s one of the most haunting accounts of the Holocaust I’ve experienced and what still strikes me about it is how mature a writer Anne was; she made you feel like you were in the warehouse with her, and her family felt like your family… that’s why her loss feels so devastating to anyone who’s read it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
I had all of the Narnia books as a child but Wardrobe was my favourite; I must have read it at least 50 times. It was one of the first books that brought my imagination to life, of Narnia and other worlds… in many ways it was the first book that made me want to write. It made me dream and that’s something I’d love to do for someone else one day.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit was my favourite book as a child; one of my teachers recommended it to me and I still remember the feelings of sadness and loss that ran throughout the story… it was beautiful and unlike anything I had read, the perfect fairy tale. I still have my original copy; I plan to pass it on one day.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I read Shelley’s novel as a teenager and admire it even more now. As a work of science fiction it’s virtually flawless and still one of the most unsettling novels I’ve read. Its examination of the ethics of creating life has influenced me many times in my own writing. I always found the monster rather pitiful… with the developments in genetic engineering, it’s still very important today.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Holmes series has been a favourite since high school; I enjoy the novels but it’s the stories I like best. They’re so well crafted (particularly The Adventure of the Speckled Band) and rarely feature superfluous details; I learnt a lot about structuring short fiction from Doyle. The character of London from the 1890s has always stayed with me as well; like looking through a window at another world.

The Children of Men by PD James
I’ve read a few of PD James’s books but The Children of Men is unlike anything James has written; a dystopian novel centring on mass infertility… yet it has the depth and characterisation of any of her works. The detail in James’s world is unsettling, but in Julian there’s a sense of hope as well… it’s easily one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read, and the kind of novel I’d love to write.

Blood Music by Greg Bear
I read Blood Music when I was fourteen and since then have read all of Bear’s novels. It’s one of those few novels that deals with science in a realistic and accessible way, using human development as a vehicle to examine the nature of consciousness and life. It was one of the first SF novels I read and had a big impact on me; the final scenes as the last humans transcend is breathtaking.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Stewart’s novel was published in 1949 and is one of the most haunting novels I’ve read. It follows what happens after the fall of society, what knowledge survives as life tries to go on; it’s really a lament for humanity, a warning against excess. It’s just as relevant today as when it was first published.

On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing is Stephen King’s memoir and guide to the craft. King covers everything about the process; from brainstorming and developing ideas, to plotting and characterisation, to finding an agent and accepting rejection. For writers it’s a priceless resource; I’ve learnt more about writing (and editing) from this one book than from any other I’ve read.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is one of the most difficult novels I have read but it’s also one of the most important novels of the last 30 years. McCarthy’s prose is so stark, so beautiful, it touches your heart; the characterisations so poignant that they come to life even though you don’t know their names. I challenge anyone to read The Road and be the same; it’s devastating… one of the few works of fiction that makes you look at the world in a different way.