Top Ten Tuesday: Vivid Settings

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week we will post a new Top Ten list that one of our bloggers here at The Broke and the Bookish will answer. Everyone is welcome to join.

This week I’m listing my top ten place books – books that had such a realistic setting that I felt like I was there, no matter when or where that setting was.  Whether or not I’d actually want to be there is a whole ‘nother issue.

1) The Arena, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.  Even more so than “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” made me feel like I was struggling through the arena with Katniss.  The arena designed for the Quarter Quell is unique, terrifying, and scarily easy to visualize.

2) Paris, The World at Night and The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst. Atmospheric settings are Furst’s specialty, but he writes about Paris with a dark and aching nostalgia that stays with you.

3) New Crobuzon, “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville.  This grimy mashup of Cairo and Industrial Age-London is built beneath the towering ribs of a giant dead creature.  It’s inhabited by eagle-people, bug-people, cactus-people, people-people, genetically modified people, crime lords, artists, prostitutes, totalitarian soldiers, and scientists.  It’s hot and smelly and sprawling.  How all of this came out of one dude’s head is beyond me.

4) Battle school, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card.  Assuming you weren’t Ender, and you weren’t responsible for defending Earth from alien invaders, and no one was out to cause you terrible injuries, having organized battles in zero gravity would probably be pretty awesome.

5) Salinas Valley, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.  The valley’s varied colors, unpredictable weather, and precarious relationship with water make it a beautiful, timeless, and ever-so-slightly ominous setting.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Theme Songs For Books

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week we will post a new Top Ten list  that one of our bloggers here at The Broke and the Bookish will answer. Everyone is welcome to join.

This week’s theme is books we’d assign theme songs.  This turned out to be a bit difficult when you rule out the soundtracks from movies based on books.  “Pride and Prejudice!”  “Lord of the Rings!”  “Harry Potter!”  Okay, maybe it’s only a problem for me because I have a thing for soundtracks, but still.  It could have been so easy.

1. “Hymn” by Bond
For: “The Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkein.
  This song always makes me think of the farewell scenes in “Return of the King,” especially the Gray Havens.  Sniffle.

2. “Uprising” by Muse
For: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.
  In my mind, this song was the trailer music for “The Hunger Games” movie.

3. “Howl” by Florence + The Machine
For: “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer.
  I hate myself for this, but the song makes me think of Twilight books.  They’re kind of perfect for each other.

4. “Never Let Me Go” by Florence + The Machine
For: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.
  The song which is so central to the book’s plot is fictional, but Florence’s haunting melody makes a good substitute.

5. “Crusaders” from the “Kingdom of Heaven” soundtrack
For: “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  The book and the movie share a similar early-medieval setting (give or take 400 years), and the “Kingdom of Heaven” soundtrack offers some beautiful songs that make for good reading music.

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Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books That Were Out Of My Comfort Zone

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, which lets me go back and answer a prompt that I’d missed out on.  This is one of the first TTTs I read and it’s an interesting prompt to think about since books can push our boundaries in different ways.  For me, the two main reasons a book was challenging were because of its especially thought-provoking content or unique writing style, sometimes both.

1. “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. (Content) I can’t remember which teacher thought it would be a good idea to cover this book in high school, but it scarred me for life pretty effectively.  The kid strangles a kitten within the first few chapters.  It was only marginally easier to read when we studied it again in college, after we’d had time as human beings to absorb more information about ongoing racial issues.  I don’t think this is an easy book to read at any age, but it’s an important one.  When taught by the right teacher at the right time, it can be truly eye-opening and provoke further investigation.

2. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner.  (Content, Style) I had to drag myself through this one, but by God, I finished it.  I will probably never read Faulkner again.

3. “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. (Style) Having been turned off of Hemingway early by a high school reading of “Old Man And The Sea,” I groaned at the idea of having to read more in college.  I did not hate this book, though, and I wasn’t even very bored by it.  It’s on my “go back and read more thoughtfully” list so I can try to get more out of it.

4. “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie. (Style) I saw a theory somewhere that no one has actually read “Midnight’s Children,” and I’m willing to believe it.  The blurb was so promising: all the children born at midnight on the day of India’s independence have superpowers.  I think I made it one hundred pages and there was no sign of any superchildren.  Instead, there were many many boring pages of a man and another man on a boat and the woman the first man wants to marry.  I couldn’t finish it.  At first I felt like a failure of an English major, but when I discovered the above theory, I felt better.

5. “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville(Style) Reading this book was a little like being mugged by HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Guillermo del Toro, then waking up several months later to discover what they’ve stolen from you is your sanity.  “Perdido Street Station” is enormous, dense, and inventive to the point of hallucinogenic.  It features ordinary people, bug-people, cactus-people, eagle-people, frog-people, and genetically-altered people who all discuss politics, art, ethics, genetics and biology, philosophy, and probably several other issues and subjects that my brain just doesn’t have room to store.  It was really cool – except it was really long and it had a really unfulfilling ending.  I’m willing to try more Mieville, but only after a stiff drink.

6. Sandman by Neil Gaiman. (Style) I’m working my way slowly (very slowly) through this series, and each book is a challenge.  The art is trippy and the story only occasionally follows a main story arc.  Sometimes the main character doesn’t even show up.  The stories, though, are uniquely wonderful.

7. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. (Content, Style) This might be sort of a cop-out because McCarthy’s books exist out of everyone’s comfort zones.  I can’t think of many people who would be comfortable reading long, grim descriptions of an ashy post-apocalyptic wasteland where the only survivors are a man, his young son, and hordes of cannibalistic bandits.  Still, it was somehow beautiful, if you’re up for feeling terrible for a couple weeks.

8. “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman. (Content) For a book about magic and escapism, it sure makes you hate life a little.  I can’t remember the last time a book made me question so deeply who I am, why I’m here, and what I’m doing with my tiny scrap of useless existance.  (See?  Life-hating.)  Quentin, a magician, suffers a tragic character arc of Shakespearian proportions and emerges jaded, self-centered, and kind of an asshole.  What actually made his character arc tragic is even harder to read.  However, I actually enjoyed the sequel – like, really found pleasure in reading it, rather than just that masochistic joy of fighting through it.  Quentin finally learns to have feelings, namely remorse, and while he’s still pretty self-centered and mopey, he goes through some real soul-searching and finally figures out who he wants to be, which has been the running theme through both books.

9. “Intimacy” by Hanif Kureishi. (Content) This is one of the two books I read in college that I can remember absolutely hating.  Loathing.  Detesting with every fiber of my being.  It took a great deal of self-control to not start shrieking “WHY ARE WE EVEN READING THIS” during class.  Because it was terrible.  I hate this book the way I hate the movie “Crash:” because it concocts a contrived, unrealistic story of people who do not act like real people, in order to tell us how terrible people are, and then offers no solutions for how to not be terrible.  “Intimacy” did not have cutting commentary on loneliness or love or modern relationships. No, it was not a blazing, raw portrait of the collapse of a modern family.  And no, it is not a scathing critique of the modern male, because if I was a male I would be straight-up insulted by the author’s assumption the all men hate domesticity and think being married is like being imprisoned.  This book is just a couple hundred pages of the narrator (a semi-autobiographical extension of the author) acting like a four-year-old because he can’t have sex with more than one woman at a time anymore.

10. “Mumbo Jumbo” by Ishmael Reed. (Content, Style) This is the other book I hated.  Hidden somewhere amid the graphs of WWII bomb tonnage and other unrelated illustrations was probably an interesting and relevant story about the Harlem Renaissance.  There was also something about a conspiracy by a secret society to keep folks from dancing.  Unfortunately, the secret society and the irrelevant graphs and the felony-grade neglect of punctuation made it nearly impossible to learn anything from this book.

Read the other, less angry entries here!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Recommend To Non-Science-Fiction Readers

I can remember talking about Ray Bradbury with some very well-read classmates and the professor during a creative writing class.  We were all discussing our favorite authors, and he’s one of mine.

“Isn’t he dead?” someone asked.

“No!  He’s like, ninety, but he’s not dead.  I would know.”

“He’s kind of crazy, though.”

I would have argued, but the professor was nodding sagely, as professors are wont to do.  They told me about his “Ray Bradbury Theater,” which admittedly sounded a bit crazy.

“But ‘Fahrenheit 451,'” I protested to unimpressed ears.  “‘Illustrated Man.’ ‘Martian Chronicles.’  Some Twilight Zone episodes!  The guy practically invented science fiction as we know it.”

It turned out the problem wasn’t entirely with Bradbury – it was with science fiction itself.  They (like many) didn’t consider it literary enough.  Even the genre itself occasionally hides under other names, like “speculative fiction,” in attempt to disassociate from the pulp stigmas of “sci-fi”.  As a result, and as in many genres, some readers overlook it entirely, and they miss out on some incredible works that have shaped not just the genre, but other books and pop culture as a whole.

So for today’s Top Ten Tuesday, here are my recommendations to people who think they’re too literary to try science fiction.  A huge flaw in this list is that I haven’t read many of the genre’s greatest – primarily Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neal Stephenson, or Philip K. Dick.  I can’t really endorse them, having never read them…but I’ll endorse them anyway, especially Asimov and Dick, since many popular sci-fi movies are based on their stories (“I, Robot,” “Minority Report,” and “Blade Runner,” to name a couple).

1. “The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury.  If I was trying to win someone over to Bradbury, this is the book I’d force on them.  A mysterious tattooed man takes shelter with the narrator, and his cursed tattooes come to life and tell stories of space travel, nuclear apocalypse, Martians, and robots, complete with themes of discrimination, religion, censorship, human purpose and destiny, and family.

2. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Oh, dystopias. What is it about them that makes us actually enjoy reading them?  Is it because we’re safe in our comfortable non-dystopian world?  “Handmaid’s Tale” will destroy your comfort within a couple pages, but the beauty of speculative fiction is that it won’t necessarily happen…right?  Right?

3. “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville.  You want literary science fiction?  Give “Perdido Street Station” a try and let me know when your pulverized brain makes it to the last of its 623 pages.  The city of New Crobuzon is neither a utopia nor a dystopia – it’s a city, a grungy, Dickens-in-Marrakesh city full of artists and criminals and politicians and cactus-people.  It touches on just about every theme it’s possible for a book to touch on, and it does so with refreshingly little exposition – what?  There’s cactus people?  No explanation given.  Deal with it.  Your disbelief has been suspended and you didn’t even realize it.

4. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  The world has been ravaged by an unspecified disaster, and an unnamed man and his son struggle through a dead, gray, brutal wilderness towards the coast, for no other reason besides needing a destination and the tiny glimmer of hope it provides.  It’s exhausting and sometimes painful to read, but the characters in “The Road” never lose faith, and they don’t let us, either, in spite of everything.

5. “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.  Giant Martian tripods annihilate nineteenth-century England and all its Victorian sensibilities.  There’s no Will Smith with big guns or Doctor Who with a sonic screwdriver to help save the day – it’s just one ordinary dude, trying to stay alive and find his wife in a world gone utterly to hell.  I yearn for a steampunk-ian period film adaptation, although I did enjoy the surprisingly faithful Tom Cruise version – the death rays, an attack at a ferry crossing, and crazies who want to fight back are all from the book.

6. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.  Okay, I never managed to finish these books either, but that’s because I tried to read them when was twelve or thirteen and “Red Mars” was just too boring.  Maybe I’ll put them on my 2013 reading list…

7. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.  I found this easier to read than “1984” (another one I never finished – I suck!).  I think what drew me to it was its more morbidly compelling “positive” dystopia, where the people don’t even know they’re repressed, as opposed to a “negative” dystopia where people are aware of their forceful subjugation.  People in the world of “Brave New World” are genetically engineered and sorted into castes, then further controlled via drugs and orgies.  This was essentially the first dystopian novel and it addresses many of the concerns of the 1920s when Huxley was writing it, like increasing consumerism, loss of individuality in an industrialized world, and the international political uncertainty following WWI.

8. “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut.  An American POW is abducted by aliens later in life and spends the rest of the book time-traveling and/or going crazy.  If you’re literary-minded, you’ve probably read this anyway.

9. “Dune” by Frank Herbert.  Come on, it’s “Dune.”  It’s like the Star Wars of science fiction literature.  It’s a coming-of-age tale, a religious allegory, and a courtly intrigue all in one huge, imaginative package.

10. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. At first glace, you won’t even know this is science fiction.  Then the mysterious dystopia beautifully unfolds itself, Atwood-style, and you realize this near future has a horrible, tragic secret.