The Best and Worst of Urban Fantasy Boys

Guest writer, Rhiannon J. Taylor, writing for the Best and Worst series. Chirp!

BEST: Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Okay, now anyone who happened to read my review on Storm Front and Fool Moon will know that I didn’t have the best experience reading Jim Butcher’s first two Dresden Files books. That ought to say a lot about the other guy.

But let’s start at the beginning of why Butcher’s Dresden Files wins my Urban Fantasy recommendation. The series is one of the best urban fantasies out there for a number of reasons. First of all, it brings a perspective that isn’t often found in Urban Fantasy: a male first person narrator. And while I enjoy most books in the urban fantasy genre, I tend to prefer a male narrator to a female one. Perhaps because I relate better to men, or perhaps it automatically breaks the Urban Fantasy norm, who knows, but for whatever reason, if the book has a male narrator, I’m giving it a shot.

Next, you can’t have a best read without an interesting premise and Butcher delivers. Harry Dresden is a wizard in Chicago working as a pseudo private investigator and Lost & Found box. Occasionally, he’s brought in as a paranormal consultant with the police for his magical expertise. It’s a nice change from the wizardly norm—you know, bushy beard, graying, and hanging around in sleazy taverns looking for bored young men to send out on pointless adventures. Continue reading

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[ Best and Worst ] Little Lo & Big Blu

Incidentally, both the best and the worst books I’ve read were courtesy of the same professor. One was an unassigned, personal recommendation, and the other required for class. One of these books I’ve read so many times in the intervening three years that I’ve inadvertently memorized the first chapter. The other I will never, ever forgive my dear professor for implanting in my memory.

Best: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, I return to my original Lolita, with its ailing spine, peeling cover, and well-thumbed through pages. It’s the 50th Anniversary Vintage Edition, with fleshy pink lips gracing a cover that I know Nabokov would abhor. The précis, which I am fairly sure Nabokov would decry as a clumsy, cliché, and cursory sketch of his most complex novel, reads:

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

When I learned that half my task was to write about my best read, it took less than a millisecond for Lolita to burst to the forefront of my prefrontal cortex. It was instantaneous, reflexive. I’m not even sure it came from my memory, but rather my spine. However, it took only another half a second for me to say to myself, “No, Whitney, you cannot write about Lolita. I forbid it.” Continue reading

[ Best and Worst ] Best Book of All Time–And I’m Not Gonna Tell You!

Although this post is part of tCR’s excellent “Best and Worst” series, I’ll neither give you my best nor my worst read. It’s simply impossible. It can’t be done. Forget it.

My all-time best read is impossible to pick because, dear readers, I’ve grown old and my memory has faded. Or is that just an excuse? Perhaps it’s a commitment issue?

And the worst book is impossible to pick because frankly, if I really don’t like it, I don’t read it.

Here’s what I am going to do… I’m going to admit to something totally embarrassing. Much more embarrassing than just reading bad books. I’m going to admit to what kind of books I read that I actually really, really enjoy! Continue reading

Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World

Reading is an experience. I have fond memories of re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses while sitting in St Stephen’s Green and the delightful coincidence of being introduced to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged while travelling the USA by train. Name a book I’ve read, and I can tell you about the when and where. Choosing the best and worst reads came down to choosing the best and worst reading experience, which is why I’m going to do it backwards. My Worst Read Ever is seriously depressing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

Feed by M. T. Anderson

In 2011, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction for my studies in Children’s Literature. Spending a year reading books about various ways the world ends and how we’ll be left rotting in a dystopian landscape definitely does something to a person. It was Feed that left me crying for weeks whenever I saw anything that even remotely reminded me of the characters and world constructed in the novel.

Feed is set in an eerie imagined future in which corporations run everything (including SchoolTM), advertising is everywhere – including in your head – and language is coming to… you know… that thing…

Told from the first-person perspective, it tells the story of adolescents in an apathetic world driven by consumerism. If you’re not a consumer, then what use are you to society? Titus, the main character, reflects that the power of the corporations isn’t ideal “because who knows what evil shit they’re up to? Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not”.

Which begs the question: at what point do we stand up and say “hang on, I don’t need this, and you can’t keep doing what you’re doing?”

As the world of Feed deteriorates, so do the people. Physically, their bodies decay – the severity of which is concealed through excellent media campaigns making it “cool” to have lesions. Emotionally, they struggle to express themselves as society gradually loses the ability to construct meaning through language.

Scared yet? Then you should probably get your hands on the book I’ve chosen as my Best Read Ever, instead. Continue reading

[ Best and Worst ] The Desert Gem, and One Steaming Pile

The Best: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert is the best book of all time. I know this to be true, because reading the saga of the desert planet left me dehydrated and sleep deprived. For a couple days one summer, as my mouth grew dry and my skin shrank against my bones, I felt sure I was on Arrakis without a Stillsuit. But what are basic needs next to uncovering the political machinations of an intergalactic struggle?

Let me be clear: I do not often step into a science fiction book and leave my suspension of disbelief behind. Dune was different – disbelief was never an option.  I could feel the desert, and the story has a symbiotic relationship with the environment. No other book has quite so thoroughly created a rich ecology and political hellscape. It’s great. Every conversation is full of lies. There are assassins on both sides of the battle. There are badass females who do mind control with their voices. Nothing is safe in the book – even walking normally can summon monsters of the deep sands.

In brief, the House Atreides is appointed to rule the Spice-rich planet Arrakis. But when the House settles into the desiccated, sandworm-ridden dustbowl, chaos ensues. Clashing cultures, politics, betrayal, religion, and assassination attempts bring violence and awesome. Paul, the heir, rises to become the least annoying messianic figure in sci-fi/fantasy literature. Think Avatar, but less Pocahontas and more desert perfection. And way more awesome. How awesome? You’ll pass out from dehydration before it occurs to you to put the book down and get a glass of water.

So. Awesome.

And then there’s Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck P. is one of those writers. You love him or hate him. I loved Fight Club. I loved the thriller aspects, the antisocial and dissociative identity disorder bit (though psychologically dubious), and the casual mayhem. The book was easy to connect with. Counterculture, slick, and disillusioned. The 99 Percent who want to punch someone in the face. So I was thrilled when Anchor Books gifted me a copy of Choke. The back blurb looked promising. A sex addict med school dropout turns historical interpreter and moonlights as a con artist. All to pay for his mom’s elder care.

Little did I know that the book would be horrendously boring. My prior exposure to Chuck P. was limited to Fight Club and ‘Guts,’ the flinchworthy story from Haunted, which Jessica Jonas called out for its disgust and shock value in her best/worst post. For me, it was a brilliantly executed piece of transgressive fiction.

Choke attempts to follow in this tradition, using shock value to make up for a whiny and unpleasant narrator, a lack of suspense, and predictably unrealistic plot twists. Around the point that the narrator’s three-days-stuck anal beads and backed up organic matter are exploding all over the interrogation room, I yawned. Chuck tries to shock new readers while amusing jaded ones, but he has been too successful in the past to get by with this approach. Choke is all cough and no asphyxiation.

It all comes down to suspension of disbelief. Dune is a marvellous example of sci-fi transcending the genre norms and spawning a fully realized and habitable world. Whereas Choke takes the real world and makes it utterly unconvincing, ugly, and boring. Dune creates a realistic ecology, politics, and intergalactic drama so filled with tension you can’t put it down. And the impact each has on pop culture is telling: Choke was turned into a barely noticed movie.  Dune has had a pervasive pop cultural influence with a movie, miniseries, massive number of sequels, and enthusiasm that continues long after it was published. Everyone, including Christopher Walken, knows that one must walk without rhythm and it won’t attract the worm. Instant win.

That’s my best and worst—now what about you? What book suspended your disbelief and refused to let go?


[ Best and Worst ] That Book You Love–and Hate

This week on our Best and Worst series, we have Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, co-authors of a science fiction suspense novel, Fate’s Mirror. But they’re not here to talk about their book, no. Yang and Campion are here to share a couple of the best and worst reading experiences that shaped them as readers and writers.

There’s an eerie similarity between the two books.

See if you can spot it…

Yang’s Best:

Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

In high school, my favorite class was church history, which I took for all of 11th grade at my Catholic high school. The subject was basically European history where it intersected with the Catholic Church, which it did every five minutes or so. I loved that class. The dirty politics! The wacky people! The really weird shit that happened! It was awesome.

I’m telling you this to explain that the history and scholarly theories in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code were not new to me. I’d heard it all before. But that’s okay. For most of the reading public, the stuff in The Da Vinci Code was not only new, it was so new it changed their world view. They thought about church history and even about their religious beliefs in a new way, all because of a work of pure fiction. I think that’s pretty cool.

I loved that Dan Brown crammed so much history and art history into a thriller package. I always thought the “thrill” in thrillers had to be based on spying or politics or war. I never knew that it could be based on history and art and religion. Sure, the entire novel is one big chase scene, but the heroes are racing to solve puzzles, not to shoot things.

I also appreciated that The Da Vinci Code was a fast read. I read the entire book in two or three days. The cliffhangers at the end of every chapter made me want to read just a few more pages (which of course ended in cliffhangers themselves) until I’d raced through the book. I didn’t mind the flat dialog or the shallow characterization or the silly coincidences, because man, that book moved.

The biggest problem most people had with the book was the way that Dan Brown took liberties with the facts, blending them with theory and speculation and stuff that he plain made up. Entire tomes were published soon after The Da Vinci Code trying to rebut it point by point. These people just didn’t get it. Blending fact and fiction is what thrillers are supposed to do. For example, nobody criticizes Tom Clancy’s books for being unrealistic. Readers know that a Russian naval officer can’t steal a nuclear submarine and defect with it. They go along for the ride, knowing it could never happen, but loving how the story made it seem possible. I knew perfectly well that Dan Brown was telling me a story, but every single page perched right on the edge of probable. And isn’t that what we read novels for?

—-Margaret Yang

Campion’s Worst:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code did not get my back up because it provided glib talking points for pseudo-history buffs who don’t actually read history. It did not rub me the wrong way when it proclaimed in pompous, matter-of-fact tones only the most sensationalized tidbits gleaned from Biblical apocrypha. It did not even grate my ass like a hard cheese when its characters bumbled from one serendipitous focal point to the next with the grace of a child drawing a line from one numbered dot to another using a ruler and an unsharpened crayon.

No, I have to say Dan Brown lost me early on when he decided to manhandle his exposition with a gratuitously-placed flashback. Professor Landon clumsily recollects a few moments spent with one of his Harvard classes. In that scene, the professor engages in witty repartee with his students about the Fibonacci sequence while they gasp and goggle at him with rapt sycophancy. Landon’s efforts (and Brown’s) are rewarded with the info-dump chanted back at him like verses from a well-trained Greek chorus.

Jesus…Brown got paid for that.

It’s probably because I’m a teacher, but the scene bore about as much resemblance to an actual teaching environment as Sookie Stackhouse bears to Mina Harker.

Also, I’m convinced that the commercial success of The Da Vinci Code somehow made National Treasure a marketable franchise—some things I cannot forgive, even of Nicholas Cage.

—-Harry R. Campion

Where do you land, canaries?

[ Best and Worst ] How Twilight Saved and Inspired Me

It’s time for Canary The First to cough up and share her best and worst reading experiences. Before writing this article, I made a rather lengthy list of top and bottom books.

Of the best, there was Master and Margarita with its demonic, gun-wielding cat. Frank Herbert’s Dune for taking my first trip into elaborate, multi-tome science fiction. Zelazny’s sword and sorcery sent me tailspinning into that genre, and The House of Spirits showed me how brilliant magic realism could be.

On the worst side, there were books like the Name of the Wind, where even a masterful audiobook performance couldn’t save my brain cells. There was Ivan Vyzhigin, a 19th century Russian bestseller, complete with blatant racism and sickly sweet romantic themes. Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Middle School did unspeakably boring things to my soul.

But in the end, I realized that my all time best reading experience was… Continue reading