Today’s tour starts with Robert J. Sawyer‘s Red Planet Blues. What a terrific title. To paraphrase the great Orson Welles,* with a title that good, forget the book, just release the title! Fortunately for us, Sawyer released both.
Sawyer no doubt requires no introduction to readers of this blog. Carol Birch, on the other hand , probably does. An English writer of (at last count) 12 books, she’s the author of the next novel on this section of the shelf, Jamrach’s Menagerie. What a tale this is, with plot elements lifted from the real life story of the whaling ship Essex. If you don’t know anything about what happened to the Essex, great! Don’t go looking. I’m not even going to link to it. Read Jamrach’s Menagerie first, and only then look up the true story. A haunting, unforgettable, riveting tale that will stick with you, and probably dissuade you forever from a career in whaling.
Almost hidden behind that cute little bear up there is The Moon Panther by local Whitby author Jason Shannon, a book I have not read yet. Since writing my own books, I have attended a number of book fairs, and met a lot of other indie authors like me, and if I like them, I generally purchase at least one of their books. This has resulted in a lot of books to read! And I feel tremendously guilty not having read them all yet. This is why, whenever anyone purchases one of my books, I always give them at least ten years to read it, and I’m very good about extensions. But I do very much like to support local indie authors, and I would encourage you all to do the same.
Alongside Jason’s book is Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaimon, as though Rudyard Kipling requires an introduction. This book was given to me by my youngest sister and her husband back when I broke my ankle to give me something to do, as I guess they figured I’d have a lot of time on my hands. As luck would have it, thanks to technology and the nature of my job, I just wound up working from home, so I didn’t have as much time on my hands as expected. Just the same I managed to read many of the stories within, and appreciated the chance to catch up on my Kipling.
I found this copy of I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy along the atrium in the CBC Toronto Broadcasting Centre. It looked interesting, so I picked it up, but haven’t read it yet.
Last year, at CANCON, a writer’s convention in Ottawa, I was about to purchase a book in the dealer’s room when I spotted the author of that book. It’s a friendly conference so I thought, oh, I’ll just introduce myself to the author and tell them I’m about to buy their book and maybe they’ll sign it for me and then I’ll have fond memories of our brief encounter while I’m reading the book and forever more. I did so. After informing the author that I was about to purchase their book, my impression was that they could not wait to get away from me. We did not chat and they did not offer to sign their book. So I put the book back and did not purchase it.
Immediately afterward I met the author C. L. Polk, who was as friendly as could be, so I bought her book instead, and she signed it for me. As an author myself, if somebody told me they were about to buy my book, they would have my full and undivided attention, not to mention gratitude. Now, I get that everyone is fighting their own battle, and maybe this other author was having a bad day, or was in a huge rush, maybe really had to pee or something, but… too bad. I bought C.L. Polk’s book instead, and it’s C. L. Polk’s book Witchmark that I’m reading RIGHT NOW instead of theirs. (Well, not exactly right now… when I finish writing this blog post.)
The Knowledge: How to rebuild our World From Scratch, by Lewis Dartnell is the book you want in your hands when civilization finally crumbles, which, from the looks of it, could happen any day now. I bought it thinking it would be handy writing a post-apocalyptic novel, which I’ve always wanted to do. Now I’m thinking it might come in handy in a month or two. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flip about our collective possible fate. I’ll just add that to the growing list of other things I shouldn’t do either, such as walk in the house with my boots on. Shh! Don’t tell my wife.)
Stephen King, a couple of books in the Dark Tower series. Gradually working my way through this one. I was lukewarm on the first book, but quite liked The Drawing of the Three, another clever title, I realized, once I completed the book.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. Another absolute classic. If you haven’t read this book already hie thee to a book store immediately (or, um, as soon as the pandemic is over) and pick this one up. You won’t regret it. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend another, lesser known Haldeman book as well: Camouflage, which won the Nebula Award in 2005. Just a great read.
Born Standing Up is an autobiography by comedian Steve Martin. This is also a great read, really interesting insight into the man himself, the nature of comedy, and his somewhat sad relationship with his father.
An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. Haven’t read this one yet, but looking forward to it. Some day, when I have the time. Maybe after I retire!
And finally, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, a neat little SF tale, with a tragic story at its core, that I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
*Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovitch told Orson Welles he was thinking of changing the title of his film adaptation of the novel “Addie Pray” to “Paper Moon,” but wasn’t sure whether the new title worked. Orson allegedly told him, “With a title that good forget the film, just release the title!”
Welcome to the fourth stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour of 2020, which I hope you find a bit of a distraction during these unusual times.
First up on today’s tour we have the books of illustrious Prince Edward Island based author Susan Rodgers. Susan Rodgers, you should know, is my sister, younger than me by one year, one month, and three days. I call her Sam because her initials are Susan Ann Mahoney, or at least they were before she married that Rodgers guy.
I could write an entire book about her, and our fabulous childhood together, including that incident where she heroically defended me from a pack of bullies who had stolen my mittens, and the time we got trapped on a cliff-face together (she made it off first), and so on, but that’s not what this tour is about. This tour is about books, and if you want books, Susan has written something like eighteen of them. I’ve lost count. My wife and I once marched into a bookstore and bought all of them, back when there were only nine. There, we’re done, we’ve supported her, we thought. Then she promptly wrote nine more. We’ve yet to pick those up. But we will. Maybe. Someday. Anyway, if you like angsty books about love and relationships and music and Prince Edward Island, you will LOVE Susan’s Drifters series (and related books).
Sitting in front of Susan’s books is one of my favourite books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie. A few things about this book. It was a thoughtful gift from a friend, which makes it special. I love everything about the design of this book, the illustrations in particular. If you look inside you will see that it is positively littered with the craziest drawings and sketches, all speaking to the nature of the content. I’ve long wanted to produce a book myself in this style. The book is about creativity and leadership, and it has many sage notions about all of that. There isn’t a much in the way of information online about MacKenzie himself. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure, but video of him does exist. The books is based on a talk he used to give, which you can see online (and when you do, you’ll see just how much of the book is based on the talk). Curiously, despite the cult status of this book, hardly anybody has viewed MacKenzie’s online talk (145 views as of today). Something else I love about the book: it was originally self-published before Viking (Penguin) picked it up.
Next up, Robert J. Sawyer‘s Rollback. Rob has written even more books than my sister, and has known great success. I’ve known Rob since before he published his first novel, Golden Fleece (which I understand wasn’t actually the first one he wrote). I met Rob working on an episode of Ideas for CBC Radio. He was a guest contributor and I was the tech. He told me about his upcoming publication and that he wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. Little did he know that it was actually ME who was going to be the professional science fiction writer! Unfortunately, I turned out to be a lazy slug of mediocre ability, whereas he is a juggernaut with a big brain and actual talent. Which explains why he’s written so many successful books and I’ve written two, one of which COULD be considered successful if you fudge the criteria for success a bit.
Fast forward a few years (ahem; that would be a Sawyer pun there, if you know the man’s oeuvre). I decided to make a radio show featuring science fiction called Faster Than Light. I asked Rob if he would host it, and he agreed to. The pilot was wildly successful, but the network didn’t pick it up as a series, the Director of Programming at the time telling the Acting Head of Radio Drama that “if we put a show like that on the air, we’ll never get it off.” Oh well.
Fast forward a few more years. Rob writes Rollback. Some of the novel involves the CBC. Rob asked me to read the third draft of the novel to fact check the CBC bits. I did, and was surprised to discover that not only was the main character based on my profession at the time (a CBC Recording Engineer), but I was actually a character in the novel! So you can see that this is kind of a special book for me, beyond being an excellent story, well told, of a man restored to youth, and the impact on those around him.
And sitting beside Rollback up there is another Sawyer novel, Hominids, the first in his well-regarded Neanderthal Parallax series. I’ve actually read many of Rob’s excellent books, though not all of them are on this bookshelf (I do have other bookshelves in the house, and at the office), and I heartily recommend them all.
One day when I was about twelve I had just finished reading a good book and was looking for another of comparable quality, so I asked my father if he could recommend one. He led me downstairs to one of his bookshelves and picked out Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley by Peter B. Kyne, published in way back in 1916. What a yarn! I loved this tale of a crusty yet loveable shipping/lumber magnate and the feisty young sailor Matt Peasley he puts to work and torments on one of his boats. I’ve read it many times since. Kyne, incidentally, also wrote The Valley of the Giants (upon which the movie is based), among many other books.
Moving on we have another ancient tome called Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1926. It was recommended by fellow writer Dale Sproule (former editor of the magazine TransVersions, with Sally McBride) and I’m so glad he brought it to my attention. It’s an adult fantasy about fairies that as many observers have pointed out pre-dates Lord of the Rings by many years, and quite possibly influenced such magnificent works as John Crowley’s Little, Big and Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, both of which I also loved.
Hmm. Lots to write about on this shelf! Next up we have another book by a friend, this time Thrice Burned, the second novel in Angela Misri‘s excellent Portia Adams mystery series, which I reviewed on this very blog, favourably, I might add. And beyond her a medical thriller by yet another friend, Stockholm Syndrome, by Melissa Yuan-Innes, writing as Melissa Yi. This is one of Melissa’s Dr. Hope Sze‘s books, selected as one of the best crime books of the year by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter‘s Mystery panel.
And finally, kinda hard to make out there at the far right, we have The Lost Millennium, by Floren Diacu. This is a fascinating book, exploring the premise that history might be off by oh, say, one thousand years. That what we think of as the dark ages might be dark because they actually never happened! Whether this is true (spoiler alert: it’s probably not) this terrific little book provides great insight into how history is actually recorded and conveyed to the rest of us. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as you might think.
Third stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour, intended to be a tiny, inoffensive distraction from the strange, science-fiction-come-true travails of our lives these days.
We’re on the second shelf from the top, a land of books guarded by a friendly looking bear, a fox who appears asleep on the job, and some tiny owls. I dare any evil-minded entity to get past them. Starting on the far left, I see a Farley Mowat book I’ve yet to read. The bear is in the way and I’m too comfy on the couch to go downstairs and see what the book is called. I just looked all his books up online and still can’t figure out which book it is. He wrote a lot of books! Later, if I’m ever able to move again, I’ll wander downstairs, identify it, and name it in the comments. If I remember. Okay, never mind, I had to get up to feed the animals: turns out it’s No Man’s River, and it’s supposed to be pretty good.
Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity. A terrific piece of popular fiction, now a movie series, but the book is much better, I promise you. There because I’ve read it at least twice already, and probably will read it again.
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. Contains all three books in the series. Just finished this one about a month ago. I thought it was quite an accomplishment. Not perfect, still a heck of an achievement. Original story, memorable characters, adventure, a bold premise that would have had him burned at the stake in any other century, a smattering of science in an otherwise fantasy, and most importantly, I felt what I was reading. It’s all about emotion, you know. That alchemy of your emotions intermingled with the characters’ emotions that produces magic. Pullman achieved some magic, here.
Which brings us to Ultra, the first of the books on my shelf by a friend and colleague, in this case David Carroll, who also works at the CBC. This is David’s first book, about a young ultra-marathon runner, and it’s an excellent book. David’s an ultra-marathoner himself, so he knows of what he writes. I bought Ultra because I like to support my friends, as they have supported me, and I kept it because it’s a good book, which I will re-read one day.
Tales of Time and Space, edited by Ross R. Olney, is a collection of science fiction short stories that my parents bought me when I was a kid. There are some great stories in here by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Jack Finney and so on, but my favourite is The Last Command by Keith Laumer. When I was choosing a radio play to adapt for CBC Radio’s Faster Than Light way back when, I selected The Last Command as an alternative to The Cold Equations, but the powers that be favoured The Cold Equations (which was fine, as it’s another favourite).
The rest of the books on this portion of the shelf are by Lois McMaster Bujold, all of them part of (or leading up to) the Vorkosigan saga. If you haven’t read this yet you don’t know what you’re missing. Miles Vorkogisan is one of those characters who leaps off the page. The least of them is eminently readable, the best of them special indeed. Standouts are The Warrior’s Apprentice (not here because I gave my copy away) and Memory, but try to read them all in order.
And let me know what you think.
Yesterday I began a virtual tour of my main bookshelf, because I know that’s what these troubled times call for: knowledge of my bookshelf. (Take that, out of touch celebrities! Nonsense from an out-of-touch ordinary person).
Moving on from where we left off yesterday (John DeChancie’s Starrigger) brings us to another of my personal favourites: Megan Lindholm‘s Wizard of the Pigeons. I love this book of a homeless man who may or may not be a wizard, or who may just be mentally ill, whose life is beginning to fray at the edges. I love it despite the book’s deeply flawed ending. It’s as though Lindholm abruptly decided “I just need to end this sucker” and then turned what had been a fascinating, evocative, poignant tale into an action thriller belonging to a completely different, rather inferior book. But don’t let that put you off: it is a testament to how terrific the rest of the book is that the ending doesn’t completely undermine it. A conceit from this book has informed much of my life since having read it: that we all possess little bits of personal magic. I have three myself that I have always been able to count on, which I would divulge, but then they might go away. And it’s when your personal bits of magic go away that your life begins to fray. Megan Lindholm, incidentally, is rather more popular now writing as Robin Hobb.
Next up, On a Beam of Light by Gene Brewer. This is Brewer’s follow up to K-Pax, which I first discovered as a movie starring Kevin Spacey. Not as good as K-Pax, it’s still worth a read to see where the story goes, but may not survive the next great purging of the bookcase. Where is K-Pax on my bookshelf, you might ask? I probably gave it to someone. I give a lot of books away, because I believe that they’re better served in the hands of other readers, rather than simply languishing on a bookshelf somewhere. And I never loan books: I give them away. That way my friends don’t have to worry about getting the book read and back to me. They can take their time, deciding which book to read next, and then reading the book I gave them when the time is right, so that it can be properly enjoyed.
Roger Zelazny. I first heard of Zelazny when my roommate at the time, one Paul Darcy, shouted at no one in particular, “You bastard!” and slammed the book he’d been reading shut. It seemed Zelazny had finished his book on a cliffhanger. Paul explained to me about the Amber series, which I immediately read (Paul has rarely steered me wrong. Did I say rarely? I mean never.) My favourite Zelazny book, though, is Lord of Light. It is said that Zelazny, who died too young at 58, never quite fulfilled his promise, never quite wrote the magnum opus expected of him. They are wrong. That magnum opus is Lord of Light. A book, legend has it, conceived around a terrible pun buried deep within (it may be true; the pun is there, all right, as terrible as the book is brilliant).
Stephen R. Donaldson. This guy’s one of my favourite authors. You either love him or hate him. My first exposure to Donaldson was Lord Foul’s Bane, of the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. I found it in a bookstore in Summerside, PEI, read the first three pages, was immediately captivated. Took it home, read as far as a certain infamous scene, and then bit it as hard as I could and threw it across the room. Or at least, thought about doing that (Paul Darcy told me he did that once reading a Margaret Atwood novel). I persisted, read the rest of the series, and recently reread them. I consider that first series genius. So genuinely character driven, all hinging upon the protagonist’s psychological make-up.
Sitting atop these books are two by Jack Campbell. I haven’t read these yet. The novel I’m trying to write right now (when I’m not procrastinating by writing lengthy blog posts) is pure space opera, so I’m reading the competition to make sure I’m up to date. Campbell is supposed to be good at space battles using real universe physics, something I’m interested in incorporating.
That’s that shelf. I ask again: what’s on yours?