Reading

November 19th, 2004 § 2 comments § permalink

Being the book addict that I am, I couldn’t help but be pleased when I came home the day before yesterday and found six new books waiting for me. I can’t compare the effects of the smell of new books to that of cocaine, since I never used the latter, but judging from the things people say about it, I guess the former has a similar result on me.

From the six books, I had already read two, borrowed elsewhere. I decided to buy them because my wife wanted to read them, and they were part of a promotional package in the online bookstore I use at the time. Unsurprisingly, those two books are The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, both by Dan Brown.

Some months ago, since I kept hearing and reading about them everywhere, I decided to get them and see if they were really good as people were saying. I got them and read them in a couple days and I have to say that I, too, enjoyed them. Both books have their merits; they do entertain the readers, and that’s more than can be said about a lot of more respected works. They are not deep, there are lots of flaws in Dan Brown writing style, but their pace is fast, and they manage to keep the reader interested to the very end.

What’s more impressive about the books, of course, is their success. The Da Vinci Code has been on The New York Times’ best-selling list for eighty-six uninterrupted weeks already. Almost every day, wherever I go, I see people reading or carrying a copy of one of those two books. Conspiracies really sell, it seems. Dan Brown must grin from ear to ear every time he awakes. Considering that the books are a hodgepodge of crazy theories (most of them incorrect, as we know from their historical context), he’s doing extremely well.

Together with them came one of the thousand books devoted to the analysis of The Da Vinci Code. I wasn’t really interested on it, but without it I couldn’t get the promotional price so I bought it anyway. Amusingly enough, this book was written by a pastor associated to the Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the most respected Baptist seminaries in the world. Considering that I’m a Baptist myself, I’m curious to see what the author has to say about the subject.

The other books are the complete new trilogy by Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle. Neal Stephenson is one of the authors you can’t find in Brazil, except by importing his books, so, albeit his fame, I have never read one of his books. I own a digital copy of Cryptonomicon, which I purchased at Fictionwise, but I didn’t read it yet.

The events in the book happen amidst the big political and social changes that dominated the late 17th and early 18th century, including the big scientific advances that took place in the period. Many of the characters are historical, including Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, whose conflicts are part of the plot. The plot, by the way, is said to be colossal, which scared some readers. Me, I like them big plots.

Now I have four voluminous books by Stephenson (the smaller is over 800 pages long) to read on my (probable) vacation by the end of the year. Judging from the reviews, I think I’m going to like them. The book titles are interesting by themselves: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Intriguingly, the covers are silver-, bronze-, and gold-colored, respectively.

As soon as I finish reading them, at some unspecified time in the future, I will review them here. Recently, I’m not taking time to review the books I’m reading because I’m too short on personal time, but there are some authors I found recently that deserve the effort. Philip Pullman and China Miéville are two names that come to mind.

So, what have you been reading?

The Runes of the Earth

October 20th, 2004 § Comments Off on The Runes of the Earth § permalink

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a huge fan of Stephen R. Donaldson‘s writings. His Covenant Chronicles are one of the finest pieces of fantastical literature in my opinion, with a depth that rivals works like the Dune novels and exceeds even cherished books like The Lord of the Rings.

Since I read the Chronicles for the first time, I had hoped that Donaldson would write a conclusion to the saga. That wish became reality this week with the release of The Runes of the Earth, the first book of four in his The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. I’ve read the first chapter (PDF) of the Prologue in his official site, and it blew me away. Few writers can capture such range of emotions and attain such a balance in their writings. If the first chapter is a guide, the book will be more than wonderful, delivering more than any fan could have dreamed of. I’m ordering it as soon as it becomes available in the bookstore I use to buy imported books here in Brazil.

The most interesting thing about Donaldson’s books is that they rarely fit any conventional genre description. Whether they are science fiction books, fantasy books, or mystery books, he always manages to break away from the mold, both in his choice of themes and in his mastery in exploring the intriguing — and often disturbing — issues that arise from those themes. It’s impossible not to react to what he writes. A passage in one of his books made me so angry that I wanted to throw the book away and stop reading. Needless to say, I finished the book and I still consider it one of his best works.

Donaldson’s official site is also a treat, featuring now a gradual interview with him that has been running for almost a year where he talks candidly about his books, his life, and his opinions about the issues he holds dear. The site also features some of his poetry and articles, interviews with him, literary analysis by him and others, and other appealing items. It’s really worth a visit — daily, of course.

Anyway, if you have not read any of his books, I highly recommend that you pick any of his series, although, in my opinion, the Chronicles are still the most interesting of them. You will not be disappointed.

Zones of Thought

September 8th, 2004 § Comments Off on Zones of Thought § permalink

A few days ago, I finished reading Vernor Vinge’s two novels set in the Zones of Thought Universe, namely: A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep. I’m still completely overwhelmed by breadth of imagination displayed in both books.

Vinge is probably best known for his essay The Technological Singularity in which he argues that the growth in technology will lead to a singularity point where the growth has accelerated beyond the ability of humans to understand it. The concept is becoming a staple of modern science fiction with a new generation of writers repeatedly exploring such post-human scenarios in their novels — Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross being two notable examples. » Read the rest of this entry «

Opening Hooks

September 2nd, 2004 § Comments Off on Opening Hooks § permalink

Opening Hooks is an interesting site where people can enter the opening lines of textual fiction. Reading some of those openings, it’s hard to contain the urge to run to the nearest store and buy the books.

It’s not there, but I can’t help but remember the opening paragraphs of Dan Simmons’ Ilium, which it’s at the top of my buying list. It’s one of the best opening I have ever seen in SF&F:

Rage.

Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry — poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage may be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.

e-Books and Fictionwise

August 13th, 2004 § Comments Off on e-Books and Fictionwise § permalink

Books in Brazil are expensive. There are many reasons for that, including social and economic ones, and I could talk for hours about them. But that’s not the point of this post. It’s enough to know that our book market is very elitist — after all, only people with enough resources can consume books regularly.

A side effect of that elitism is that some genres are virtually ignored by the book industry here. Science fiction and fantasy are the most perennial examples in the circles that discuss this kind of thing. As SF&F are the markets in which I’m most interested, I’m often disheartened by the lack of good books to read. Except for the current US best-sellers, few books get translated. Neuromancer, for example, only hit the shelves here in late 2003, nearly twenty years after its publication date — and that only because the Matrix trilogy created enough interest in the topic.

Since there’s virtually no SF&F market, the solution is to import books, an even more expensive process (and slow as well) that depends on an ever-changing dollar/real exchange ratio — which, by the way, only goes up. And most of the times, shipping is so expensive that you end up importing a book for three or four times the price of an equivalent hardcover edition here.

Given all those facts, I’ve been interested in e-books since I first read about them. Mainly because I like their portability, but also because of the price factor. As there’s no shipping involved other than a download, they bridge part of the price gap. When I bought a Palm, a few months ago, the first think I did was to test the book reading programs available for the platform. As I soon found, they’re still far from providing a really good reading experience, but they are good enough to be used.

Anyway, this whole explanation was just to recommend Fictionwise. Fictionwise is by far the best e-book seller in the market. Not only they have the biggest offering in the market, but they also have the best prices — and weekly site-wide and individual promotions to boot. Most e-books are in a price range equivalent or inferior to their paperback counterparts, and e-books above that price range are usually from publishing houses that seem to think that e-books must cost the same as paper books.

One of the most interesting things about Fictionwise is that they are committed to non-DRM books. A lot of their offering is available in multiple formats without any DRM whatsoever. Granted, most of the best books are in the so-called secure formats, but that’s a bit inevitable in the e-book market today.

The site has a lot of interesting features, one of the best being the Micropay accounts. Since Fictionwise sells many books below the five-dollar price range, and credit card payments that low incur in added processing fees, Fictionwise created special account you can “deposit” money using a credit card in five-dollar increments, and later use at will to buy e-books without incurring in any fees. That’s specially interesting for short-stories, most of which cost less than one dollar.

They also have excellent support, and are committed to their users — for example, when one of their DRM service provider changed it DRM scheme and left users to sort the mess by themselves, Fictionwise archived the affected e-books their customers had bought and will continue to do so, allowing users to download them at will, instead of forcing them to download once and risk losing them eventually. Of course, I’d rather have the e-books released without any DRM, but that’s not Fictionwise call.

Unlike many other companies, Fictionwise newsletters are good as well. They’re customized for each customer, based on his or her buying history, and often feature special discounts for e-books they think that user will like. As the user rates the e-books he or she has bought, the accuracy of the newsletters goes up.

So Fictionwise is a good place to buy e-books. For me, it has the added appeal of allowing me to buy books I would not otherwise find here in Brazil unless I imported them — and at a much better price as well. All in all, I recommend them to anyone interested in buying e-books.

Book series

May 24th, 2004 § 12 comments § permalink

Regular visitors probably know I’m an avid reader. I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. I never can have enough of books. If you are thinking of sending me a gift, please send me a book.

When I was younger, I used to read two books each day. The librarians at the school’s library didn’t believe I could read so fast — even if the books were not that big — and sometimes wouldn’t let me borrow more books after I had returned the ones I was reading at the time. My love for books is one of the few constant things in my live. I have to avoid going into bookstores lest I spend excessively in books.

Of course, I have my favorite genres — namely, science fiction and fantasy. I grew up dreaming of becoming a scientist, and daydreaming about faraway places in distant pasts, remote futures, and imaginary worlds. Life eventually decreed I would follow a different path, which I’m still trying to see clearly.

Anyway, this is a rant from a book lover. Few free to ignore it. I had been intending to write it for a long time, and now I’m glad it’s off my chest.

I’m going to talk about book series. » Read the rest of this entry «

The Solitaire Mystery

September 19th, 2003 § Comments Off on The Solitaire Mystery § permalink

The Solitaire Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder, is an interesting and modern fairy tale written in a style that will please young and adults readers alike. For young readers, it also serves as a light introduction to philosophy. Gaarder, the author of the best-selling Sophie’s World, writes in an enjoyable humorous way that makes for a good and funny reading time.

The book tells the story of Hans-Thomas, a twelve-year-old Norwegian boy that, in his father’s company, travels from his home to the land of the philosophers — Greece — in a quest to get back his mother, who had abandoned him eight years before to “find herself.” Hans-Thomas’ father, who is an amateur philosopher himself and a collector of Joker cards, seizes the opportunity to initiate his son in the rudiments of philosophy. During the trip, a midget in gas station gives the boy a small magnifying glass. Hans-Thomas doesn’t understand the purpose of the gift until, in the next day, in a small village, he is given another gift: a tiny book that can be read only with the help of the magnifying glass. The story of the book will reveal itself to be fundamental to Hans-Thomas understanding of the trip and of his own life. From those elements, Gaarder builds a good tale that explores the issues of destiny and existence.

Although I don’t often like stories told in first person, I liked that one. Gaarder manages to turn this point of view interesting enough by making the reader identify itself with Hans-Thomas as he tells about the trip, reads the tiny book, and muses about his life. I enjoyed that introspective quality of the narrative; it didn’t sound fake as many other first person books.

Overall, I recommend this book. The plot is fun and interesting. Although some of the events in the story are predictable, Gaarder often surprises the reader with some new developments that make up for the eventual predictability of the story. For a good afternoon reading session, the book is a good choice.

Wizard’s Bane

June 21st, 2003 § Comments Off on Wizard’s Bane § permalink

Wizard’s Bane is the first installment in The Wiz Biz series, by Rick Cook. The series, as the name of the first book implies, belongs to the fantasy genre. However, a single detail makes it much more interesting than it would look at first: the main character is not a wizard, but a programmer directly taken from the Silicon Valley. The end result is an unorthodox and extremely funny story loaded with insider jokes and references that will appeal to fans of the genre and programmers alike. » Read the rest of this entry «

Childhood’s End

May 11th, 2003 § Comments Off on Childhood’s End § permalink

Childhood’s End, by Arthur Clarke, is another of the science fiction classics, and many consider it Clarke’s masterpiece because of its vision of humankind. The books belongs to an older era of the genre, and even if it contains some dated elements, it remains sufficiently current to arise the curiosity of a modern reader. Although the book wasn’t awarded any of the great science fiction prizes, this fact can be justified by its publication date, which predates some of those prizes. Even so, the book frequently makes its way in lists of the greatest science fiction works of all times.

Written in 1953, the story begins with the arrival of great silver ships belonging to an unknown alien race just in time to end the space race and save humankind from its path to self-destruction. The aliens immediately take control of the government of an astonished human race, demonstrating their power in the process and so achieving the title of Overlords. As it’s quickly found, the Overlords’ domination is benign and they lead humankind to a never-seen time of prosperity and peace that the human race would never be able to achieve by itself. Nevertheless, some great questions present themselves to humankind. Firstly, who are the Overlords? They refuse to show themselves saying that they hide for humankind’s well-being. Secondly, what is their purpose? Clarke weaves the narrative leading the reader to the solution of those two big mysteries in one of the most elaborate plots of the classic period of science fiction, ending with an interesting and satisfactory twist.

Clarke writes in his characteristic direct and precise style, telling a good story. He shows humankind in a context rarely used at the time, in which it’s just small part of a big universe. Even so, the book didn’t appeal so much to me. The ending is quite interesting, partially open to the reader imagination, but I guess I have read many books from Clarke with a similar idea, and the theme is not as interesting to me as it used to be.

Anyway, the book is good, and can be easily read in a couple hours. For science fiction fans, it’s certainly a good choice because of its place in the genre’s history.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

April 22nd, 2003 § Comments Off on A Canticle for Leibowitz § permalink

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, is one of those books that cause a feeling of uneasiness in the readers. That feeling comes from the way the author deals with the main theme of his work, which is one of the greatest fears of our generation: the apocalypse that can be unleashed by unchecked nuclear power.

The story begins six hundred years after a global nuclear catastrophe that virtually wiped mankind from Earth’s face. After the disaster, which inundated the planet in a flame deluge, the few survivors seek to destroy the scientific knowledge, considered by them as one of the causes of the hecatomb, and eliminate the men responsible by that knowledge, plunging humanity in an era of barbarism and savagery. Nonetheless, in the dark years following the holocaust, a monastic order, whose protector is Saint Leibowitz, struggles to preserve remnants of the lost science through the Memorabilia: scientific texts copied uncountable times waiting for some person to integrate them in a new Renaissance. In an ocean of ignorance, those monks are like a small boat seeking for a distant and illuminated shore. As time passes, and mankind regains the lost knowledge — thanks, in part, to the effort of those men — a question arises: is the memory of the nuclear holocaust enough to prevent a new tragedy?

The book — which won a Hugo award in 1961, and would probably have won a Nebula if it existed at the time — causes a lingering impression on its readers due to its vividness and complexity. Miller weaves a subtle plot that absorbs the readers, leaving them in a permanent disbelief of mankind’s motivations. This is, in fact, the book’s greatest quality. Far from being an apology of progress, the book questions the values behind the technological advances of our society, although it’s not against science itself or its development. Thus, the author calls the readers’ attention to the really important questions in our acquiring of scientific comprehension.

Since I read it for the first time, many years ago, A Canticle for Leibowitz, earned a place in my preferred science fiction books. It’s one of the books I read from time to time because of its literary richness, and it’s certainly worthy of figuring in any compilation or library of the best science fiction books of all times. In short, strongly recommended.

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