Sunday, May 27, 2012

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley

I don't know if it's very wise to risk offending a fifth of the world's population when you're trying to sell books, but Christopher Buckley went ahead and threw caution to the wind with They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

When Congress denies funding for a new commercial jet-sized unmanned military drone known as Dumbo, one of the executives of the company that was going to be making them enlists the help of Bird McIntire to try to ignite anti-Chinese sentimentalism throughout the world in order to ensure funding for their next military project. But that's harder than it sounds. During the Cold War, it was always easy to get Americans riled up about the Soviets, but Americans just don't care much about issues dealing with China, with one notable exception -- the Dalai Lama.

Americans love the Dalai Lama and when he's laid up with a stomach bug from eating a bad clam, Bird decides to start the rumor mill going with reports that it was an assassination attempt by the Chinese. In fact, the poison he says they used was created by extracting a deadly enzyme found in dead panda livers. When His Holiness passes away a short time later (from circumstances wholly unrelated to pandas) anti-Chinese sentimentalism, reaches a fever pitch, and Bird is right there to try to take full advantage.

I love satire, and Buckley is one of the best writers of it. Puppies is smart, topical, unapologetic, and will offend more than just the Chinese--members of the Ann Coulter Fan Club: beware.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Rook

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
(The Checquy series #1)

I love it when a book has a fantastic beginning. It immediately gets me excited for the ride I'm about to take. Daniel O'Malley's first book delivers with its opening line: "The body you are wearing used to be mine." Myfanwy Thomas has no memories of who she is or how she came to be standing in a London park, surrounded by bodies, holding a letter she apparently wrote to herself.

The book itself defies a simple description, but that's a good thing in this case. The letter Myfanwy is holding at the start of the book is the first in a series of many letters her predecessor wrote to herself knowing that she would soon need them to reintroduce herself to her own life. Myfanwy is a Rook, a high-ranking official in a Torchwood-style British agency called the Checquy that monitors supernatural and extra-terrestrial events in London. Members of the Checquy each have a set of extraordinary abilities that help them keep the United Kingdom safe from the continual threats that the general population is oblivious to. Myfanwy herself has the ability to tap into other peoples' minds and bodies and control them. While one of her counterparts, Gestalt, is a single person divided up into four different bodies (three male and one female) who controls all four bodies with one collective consciousness.

The letters reveal to her that someone within the Checquy is a traitor and is responsible for the erasure of her memories. She must somehow discover who that is, while simultaneously discovering who she is; all while dealing with an imminent invasion of Grafters.

The Rook is a lot of fun to read. It's part X-Men, part Men in Black, part Torchwood and Doctor Who. It got me with that opening sentence and I enjoyed every one of them that followed. O'Malley has been added to my list of authors to keep tabs on.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, May 11, 2012

Brandon Sanderson Interview

Have I mentioned before how much I really enjoy Brandon Sanderson's books? Even if I have, I'm going to mention it again. I really enjoy Brandon Sanderson's books.

He writes fantasy novels, but they're wholly original fantasy books--no dwarfs, dragons, elves, or orcs. Not that those types of books are bad, I just think they're stereotypical. And with the exception of Tolkien, I've never been interested in reading them. Sanderson's books on the other hand are packed full of action, his characters are very well developed, his dialogue is witty and humorous, and there's always a system of magic present that blows me away with its originality.  

His books are New York Times bestsellers and what is probably the biggest testament to his writing abilities . . . he was selected to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series following the author's death. One day I need to read those.

Here's a brief interview with the author.

The first time I went to one of your book signings, it was for your second book Mistborn and I was able to walk right up to the table and get my book signed. I think it took about two minutes total. The last time I made it to one of your signings it was for The Way of Kings, and it was a zoo at the bookstore. How much of the increase in your popularity do you attribute to your opportunity to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and how much is because your own books have increased in popularity?

First of all, thank you for coming to one of my signings in the early days where I had to try to convince people to come over and let me tell them about my books! I really appreciate people like you who stopped by. As for your question, it's honestly hard to separate which sales come from my Wheel of Time involvement and which sales come from my other books.

However, I did get two huge boosts in sales. When the announcement was made that I would be finishing The Wheel of Time, all of my books jumped up to having 'first week' sales again. Most entertainment mediums follow the same slope. Huge first week sales, then a tapering off on a steady curve. (Sleeper hits and new books by first time authors don't follow this.)

When The Gathering Storm came out, I got another big boost, which was again a kind of 'First week' sales thing--though in that case, the bigger boost came around Christmas. It seemed that people bought Gathering Storm, read it, thought about it, then asked for one of my books for Christmas.

In the long run, it's going to be very hard--as I said--to separate how many readers tried me out because of the Wheel of Time. As books take on lives of their own (as Mistborn did) they gain a readership through word of mouth. However, how much of that 'taking on a life of its own' happened because of the initial WoT boosts?

I've read interviews with you where you've mentioned the numerous books that you have yet to write. By the sound of it, the next twenty years of your writing career sound mapped out already. Is that the way you see it?

I have more ideas than I could ever find the time to write about and I'll always have random side projects here and there that aren't necessarily planned, to keep me fresh, but for the most part, I have my future books planned out. I wrote a blog post about it awhile back that explains things in more detail (a few things have changed since I wrote it, but not too much.) Here is a link if you haven't seen it.

Do you devote all of your writing time to the current book you're working on? If not, how much time do spend on books that won't be coming out for years to come either outlining, world-building, or even writing them?

Because I'm trying hard to finish The wheel of Time right now, all of my writing time is spent on that. However, at other times I might be writing one book, revising another book and brainstorm a third. As a writer I'm essentially always writing or thinking about writing pretty much all of the time.

I first heard about Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles series from one of your blog posts and absolutely love it. Are there other writers or books that you think are flying under the radar that you'd recommend?

Some of my favorite authors are Anne Mcaffery (If you haven’t read her books I don’t know why you’re reading mine. You need to go and read her’s immediately!) I like Guy Gavriel Kay’s works quite a bit. Tigana is a wonderful work. Melanie Rawn is a great author, I especially like her epic fantasy, I haven’t read her urban fantasy but Dragon Prince is one of my favorite books of all time. And Terry Pratchett (start with the books in the middle of his career, not the beginning because his books get better and better as he goes along.)

On your website, the completion status for the next book in the Stormlight series has been stuck on 0% for too long in my opinion. When do plan to get it written? And is there any hopes that Michael Whelan will do the cover?

I plan to jump right into the next book in the Stormlight Archive series as soon as I finish up with The Wheel of Time. I feel extremely honored that Michael Whelan came out of semi-retirement to do the first cover so I can't rightly expect him to paint the next one but we'll just have to see what happens. It was a dream come true to have him do the cover of one of my books.

Thanks so much for your time.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A. J. Jacobs

A. J. Jacobs is not the type of person who takes his goals lightly. Several years ago he made a goal to improve himself mentally, spiritually, and physically. He chronicled each of those self-improvements its own book. For his mental improvement he set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year; which he wrote about in The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. For his spiritual improvement he devoted a year of his life to living every commandment in the Bible; which he wrote about in The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. With this book, he completes his trifecta of self-improvement and focuses on his body. For a little over two years Jacobs spends every waking moment and conscious thought on how he can achieve perfect health.

To start out, this book is not the memoir of a 600lb man who shed the weight and now walks around in a saggy suit of skin nine times larger than his body. Jacobs was not obese. He was what he called "'skinny fat’ — a body that resembled a python after swallowing a goat." So the book is not about weight loss. Instead Jacobs chooses to spend a couple weeks at a time trying to obtain optimum health for one specific part of his body at a time: heart, lungs, stomach, immune system, feet, teeth, bladder, ears, etc.

The true joy of this book, along with his previous ones, is Jacobs's self-deprecating sense of humor as he describes the various health experiments he subjects himself (and by association, his saintly wife) to. Like buying a device to be placed over the toilet bowl, which allowed him to achieve the squatting position he learns is the most ideal for the healthiest removal of waste. Or jury-rigging a treadmill into a writing desk so that he could be walking while writing the book (he walked 1,200 miles at a 2 mile/hour pace).

Jacobs tries veganism, Atkins, juice cleanses, along with dozens of other diets. He tries Cross Fit, anti-gravity yoga, and there's a very entertaining account of him attending a pole dancing workout class where he was the only man among fifty women wearing high heels, and sporting an inordinate amount of cleavage.

The book is entertaining and it's informative. It made me laugh and it made me think about the way I treat my own body. It's not a life changing book, and I don't think Jacobs meant it to be. But I challenge anyone to read it and not come away with some ideas for at least a few changes they're going to make in order to take better care of their body.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sacré Bleu

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore
There's only one author alive that could get me excited about reading a book about the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements in France--Christopher Moore. Moore has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (a book I unwisely chose to be reading while my wife was laboring with our first child--the never-ending giggling and frequent outbursts of loud laughter were not appreciated at the time and are still brought up whenever the birthing experience is discussed.) As much as I enjoy Moore though, I'm very selective about who I recommend his books to. They're not for the easily offended. Nevertheless, they're fantastic!

Sacré Bleu is not your typical Moore book (if a typical Moore book exists). It's not uproariously funny like his previous ones have all been. But that's not to say that it's not funny. But with Sacré Bleu, I think Moore has spread his literary wings and written a book that can stand up among the best books being written today. The amount of research he did is phenomenal and the story has considerable depth. He even created an online chapter guide that includes pictures, paintings, and historical details that I would highly recommend readers include in their reading of the book.

Sacré Bleu is about color, specifically ultramarine blue--the color most prized by artists because of its cost and difficulty in creating. The color was reserved chiefly for painting the robes of Mary and the Christ child during the 14th and 15th centuries and for many years its use was seen as a sort of status symbol of either the painter or the painting's commissioner.

The genesis of the story for Moore was the death of Vincent Van Gogh. Why did the man shoot himself in the chest and then walk a mile to a doctor's residence to seek treatment? Could it have been something other than a suicide attempt? The story that that question led Moore to write takes awhile to unfold. For the first half, I really wasn't certain what was going on, but by the end I was wholly engrossed and highly recommend it. But reader beware, Moore is hilariously crude at times.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Matthew Pearl Interview

Matthew Pearl is a New York Times bestselling author of four historical novels: The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens, and the recently released The Technologists. Several years ago I picked up his first book, and despite knowing very little about Dante, enjoyed it a lot and realized that Pearl was an author I didn't want to forget about. Fortunately for me I didn't, because his next two books dealt with two of my favorite authors (Poe & Dickens). I recently read and reviewed his latest book and was excited when he agreed to a brief interview.

First of all, I've enjoyed reading your books. I think historical fiction appeals to me because of the alternate version of historical events and individuals that it offers. I would imagine it's not the best genre for a writer to choose if he or she is not willing to go through extensive research during the writing process. What type of research do you go through when writing a book?

I'd guess it all depends on the writer and his or her goals, which within the historical fiction category can differ very much. That said, research has definitely been part of each of my novels and, as you say, it's extensive enough that you have to know what you're getting into. The type and amount of research changes with each book, and varies within the book's aspects. It can range from digging up historical maps and blueprints to going through newspaper articles to reading travel guides, novels, memoirs and other full length books contemporary with your setting. I've been fortunate enough that for the last couple of books, starting with The Last Dickens, I've found a great research assistant who helps me out with collecting some of the material and strategizing my approach to the research. There's a fair amount of tension sometimes when to concentrate on writing and when to concentrate on researching, and whether interrupting one midway will cause problems. It's a juggling act, definitely.

Your first three books revolved around events in literary history, with The Technologists you transitioned away from that. Why the change? and can we expect to see more books from you in the future that deal with literary events?

Yes, my next (fifth) novel will be back to literary history and, for whatever reason, the majority the ideas I have deal with literary history one way or another. There's even some literary references that slipped into The Technologists, for instance a character who appears who is in a theatrical production of a Dickens novel. But as you say The Technologists--and its focus on the rise of what seems to the world to be dangerous science--is a change for me. After three novels it felt like a good time to stretch myself in a new direction, although of course the 19th century Boston setting, and a story that you'd call a thriller, carries over from the other novels. I had a great time with the new elements.

In the short story that you contributed to the collection Sherlock Holmes in America, you brought the famous detective to Boston to solve a crime. I was wondering if The Technologists originated during the writing of that story since I think Holmes would have been impressed with the deductive methods used by the MIT students.

You're on the money! I had the idea for an MIT novel years before, but it was while writing "The Adventure of the Boston Dromio" for Sherlock Holmes in America that the idea came back to me. I was trying to think where Holmes would visit and thought of MIT.

I think all of your books so far would translate very successfully to movies. How likely is it that that might happen?

Well, I appreciate the thought. The truth is, historical stories, especially set in a large city like Boston, would cost so much to produce -- well over 50 million dollars -- it's pretty unlikely. There have been almost no 19th century thrillers as movies, at least until the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, but those are made because of the Holmes brand, sort of in spite of the setting.

Have you started writing your next book? If so, is there anything you're willing to say about it at this point?

I have started on the fifth novel. In addition to mentioning that it's literary history, I could add that it revolves around a "bookaneer," the sort of literary bounty hunters I introduced in The Last Dickens. So far, it's been fun to work on.

Thanks so much for your time.