There and Back Again

The Hobbit was one of the first books I read as a kid and probably the first one I re-read. The version I had contained illustrations as well, and my mind filled with the daring of dwarves, the majestic terror of the dragon Smaug, and the relief that came from the last minute save by giant eagles. As a kid, it was difficult for me to make friends, so I devoured books like the Hobbit instead, escaping into fantasy worlds and imagining myself fighting off hordes of goblins. When I lost that initial copy of the Hobbit, I replaced it as soon as I could with the 50th anniversary edition despite how badly the cover wanted me to put it back on the shelf. You know which one I’m talking about. You know.

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Yep. The closest thing that is to a burglar is the Hamburglar, and if by “game of riddles with Gollum” you mean “a horrid demon is about to thumb my rear in a damp cave despite my brandishing of a knife I clearly don’t know how to use”, you’d be right. Still, I broke the spine and wore the pages down and it had it’s own special spot in the center of my bookcase.

When I got a little older, I decided it was far past time to return to Middle Earth. I was skeptical of The Lord of the Rings at first. I wanted clumsy homebody Bilbo back. Who was this Frodo kid? How could he possibly live up to the adventures his uncle had embarked on. But soon I was captivated by the mysterious Strider and the trash-talking between Legolas and Gimli as they each tried to outdo the others in orc murder. I was tense while I read about Frodo’s growing corruption, and I was saddened by Boromir’s sacrifice.

These books meant a lot to me, and though it’s been some years since I’ve had a chance to read them, they mean a lot to me still.

I was thirteen when The Fellowship of the Ring came out and it was everything my young mind could hope for. It was unusual, to me, because I can’t recall there being any genuinely good fantasy films out at that time. I was reading Dragonlance novels and The Sword of Truth, while I found science fiction to be lacking, while in cinema it was the opposite. Alien and Terminator were favorites of mine, but there was a dearth of quality sword and sorcery stories.

Then Fellowship came out of the gates like a cave troll, smashing the competition to pieces. The costumes look worn, the Uruk-hai were terrifying to behold, the action was choreographed brilliantly and the set designs were gorgeous. What better way to illustrate the natural beauty and range of terrain than use the beautiful spots of our own planet? OH MY GOD. A BALROG.

I watched Fellowship multiple times in theaters. I watched The Two Towers and gawked at the Ents and railed at Christopher Lee’s sneering menace as Sarumon revealed his true colors (still white, but…an evil white?). I was transfixed by Andy Serkis’ excellent portrayal of Gollum arguing with himself. I cheered at the flooding of Isengard.

I watched Return of the King multiple times in theaters, and let’s be honest, I didn’t give a shit about Legolas surfing on a titanic elephant because Eowyn declared that she was no man, and I didn’t mind the gazillion endings because I didn’t want the movie to end. I wasn’t ready to leave Middle Earth!

So of course I bought all three extended editions when they came out, and I wish this was a joke, but I watched them my girlfriend at the time over the course of three nights and halfway through Return of the King, I rebuffed her sexual advances because there’s only 90 minutes left, Jesus.

It would be nine years before The Hobbit got the cinematic treatment. If you ask me, it was worth the wait.

Now, let me be clear: The Hobbit films are more CG heavy, which is kind of a bummer, but locations like Rivendell and Erebor and Mirkwood still look absolutely stunning. People complain about the way the dwarves all seem to blend together, with a few notable exceptions (namely Thorin, Kili, Balinese [the old one] and Bombur [the fat one]), but that was the way it went in the books, also, with a handful of character traits being sprinkled amongst them through the course of the book.

Some people also claim that they’re too silly or cartoonish as compared to the Lord of the Rings, which 1. The books are largely considered the same way, and 2. As you get into Desolation of Smaug and Battle of the Five Armies, that’s most definitely not the case. There isn’t anything silly about the deaths of Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Perhaps the biggest complaint, though, is that there films felt unnecessary. Bloated. I thought so, too, at first. But then I thought about the reasons it works.

1. A lot happens in the Hobbit. It’s only a 300 page book, but that’s because it’s designed to be read in brief by younger, more easily distracted minds. Even so, there’s the initial congregation, the troll encounter (which was showcased in the background of the LotR, and added treat for anyone watching the movies chronologically), Rivendell, capture by and escape from the goblins (this Misty Mountain sequence also showcases the stone giants throwing boulders at each other, a nice detail from the book), the Gollum riddle scene, the spiders of Beorn, the spiders of Mirkwood, capture by and escape from the elves of Mirkwood, Bard and Laketown, confronting Smaug, the destruction of Laketown, Thorin’s growing insanity, and of course the climactic final battle of five armies.

Sure, that was all written into 300 pages, but to actually develop them and do them justice takes more time. Oh, so there’s a bowman in Laketown who kills a dragon. Who is he? Why do we care? The time spent in Laketown makes it feel more like a thriving community with real people and real families. In fact, this time and care is shown in the goblin kingdom and Mirkwood, too.

We get movie-stealing sequences with Gollum and Smaug that work because they’re not rushed. They’re paced brilliantly and the performances that go in it are done so with panache. The final battle feels like a war, and it feels desperate. The paired battles feel earned by that point, and while they’re a little over the top, they were fantasy gold and it brought to mind my favorite Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

By taking the time to develop each step of the journey, it made it feel like more than “and then they went here, and then they went there”  but instead like an actual adventure with numerous varied perils.

2. The added stuff develops Middle Earth even more. There are parts of the Silmarillion in the movies. These parts add the extra lore and background into the varying races and conflicts. This is a land with history and blood feuds and fallen kingdoms. And we get just enough of a peek into it as to help us immerse ourselves in this world again. It adds complexity and tragedy to some of our characters.

Tauriel, on the other hand, is a brand-new character. Some purists decry her presence as unnecessary, but without her, the only women in the story would be Galadriel in her brief scenes and random citizenry here and there. Tauriel adds the Eowyn affect, being part of the conflict without disrupting the main story. Her presence excused the appearance of Legolas, but Legolas’ inclusion also added more weight to Thranduil’s involvement and general vindictiveness. We see how far he comes from his absolute racism towards dwarves to his grudging acceptance that banding together can sometimes accomplish a greater good.

Now, these first two things are necessary under a Peter Jackson direction. Jackson’s LotR trilogy and the Hobbit movies have a scope that feels epic when you watch it. The world is big, their journey is long, the battles are energetic. Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to do two Hobbit films, likely could have condensed it. He tells more personal stories, more tightly focused, and between that and his excellent creature designs, I believe they would have been excellent films, but they wouldn’t quite have fit in the same realm as Jackson’s trilogy.

And that works, for the books. The Hobbit is one kind of animal, light in tone and a swift romp for a rainy afternoon where Lord of the Rings is heavier material with deeper consequences and greater stakes. That’s fine.

But on film, we’re talking about two grand adventures, and a legacy that passes from uncle to nephew. When Jackson came back, with his scope and the expansion of the adventures, three films make sense, because…

3. They’re a perfect companion saga to Lord of the Rings. You have Bilbo’s full story and Frodo’s full story and they complement each other well. You see how two little Hobbits each adapted to a large world with very different types of conflicts and experiences. Bilbo is given as much time to grow and endure and adapt as Frodo is, and both films have their perfect beginnings, middles and ends. They bookend nicely. The comparisons are heart-felt while the contrasts set the two apart well enough that you don’t feel bored and you don’t feel like you’re running over the same ground.

At the end of the day, maybe The Hobbit films aren’t a great adaptation, but I don’t think that’s fair or even entirely correct. There is extra material there, but it supplements the Hobbit story which is recreated in pretty stellar detail. I do think that the Hobbit films are top to bottom the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen. The action is tight, the world feels real, the monsters are amazing, the quest feels fun. They’re as well-developed as any science fiction film.

Taken as a whole, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films are full of heart and adventure, and they’re either going to inspire people to read the original books and decide for themselves which they like better, or they’re going to be accessible for people who don’t like the older, drier style of writing Tolkien used. I don’t think that people who read the books should be so purist as to pick the movies apart.

I grew up on the books. They introduced me to fantasy, and fiction like it got me through hard times throughout my life. I was just excited to see these things I love so much translated on film, liberties and all. I was so excited to see these things that as the final credits rolled and Billy Boyd sang The Last Goodbye, I teared up in the theater.

And no matter what you say, this is one of the most perfect music videos ever made.

Recap Redux

I’ve written or shared a hundred posts now, and it has been an absolutely rewarding experience so far. From being able to experiment via short stories set in worlds I plan on exploring in more detail later to reflecting on my life/my relationships/my family and friends, what started out as sort of a trial outlet for my thoughts and creative endeavors has turned into a cathartic routine.

Even more so, by sharing it online and via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve received a number of comments and personal messages expressing a wide variety of emotions. That’s good! That has been the point of this. I want you to be able to experience my type of art. I want you to think and to feel things, and if you’re going through an experience or feelings similar to something I’ve gone through,  I want you to be know you’re not alone.

Every fifty posts or so, I’ll create one of these as sort of a recap. With so many posts coming out of me and with no real regular schedule,  there’s a chance you may have missed something that pertains to your interests. This is meant to act as a quick guide to the posts, separated more or less into different categories.

If you read something you feel particularly thought-provoking or touching or infuriating or garbage, I encourage you to share it with others.

First off, you can find a quick recap to the first 49 articles here: FIVE OH.

Then:

About Me:
My Own Worst Enemy
I’m a Man Who Was Raped
Oktoberfest, Or That Time I Crippled Myself
Vagabond
Distilling Who I Used to Be
The Metal That Gave Me Mettle
Hundo
I Fell In Love
Playing the Doldrums
Kisses Have Pictures Beat
Office Space
Story Time With Grampa Jered
Just Plane Silly
The A Word

Family and Friend Profiles:
Go Out and Get ‘Em, and a Birthday Note
Mama Mia
Blondie
Father Of Mine

Writing Tips and Opinion Pieces:
Six Reasons Why 50 Shades of Grey Sucks, and Why It Doesn’t
Ten(ish) Books That Tickle My Fancy
Getting the Gang Together
Things I Love: The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Thanksgiving: A Better Christmas
No Place Like Home

Miscellaneous:
The Best Medicine
The Beautiful Last Breath of Day
Remembrance
The Wedding Bells Are Ringing
The Carolina Reaper

Fiction:
A Nice, Slow Day
Satori and the Key
The Wrong Kind of Flop
The Velvet Anchor
Love and Bullets
The Balloon Trick: An Absolute Zeroes Story
The Owl Part I: A Curious Shoppe
Trixie: A Flatliners Story
Yellow
The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

Poetry:
Shadow Hurt
Stoke the Fire
She, Of the Pale Stars
You Know
I Could Write
The House In the Ocean

Guest Entries and Shared Posts:
Life Is a Coping Mechanism by Jessica Michelle Singleton (follow @JMSComedy)
10 Tips and Tricks For Creating Memorable Characters by Charlie Jane Anders (follow @charliejane)
As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders
How to Create a Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story by Charlie Jane Anders
Cars. Booze. Central Oregon. by Robert Brockway (follow @Brockway_LLC)

So there you go. Hopefully you’ll find something you haven’t seen before that you like, or you’ll have a convenient way to link a friend.

Thank you to everyone who has followed, shared, commented, read, or even encouraged since Word Whiskey has started. It means the world to me.

Things I Love: The Malazan Book Of The Fallen

In the 90s, Canadian writers and archaeologists Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont created the Malaz world to play a role playing game in. Erikson would go on to take the characters and history of the world and craft a novel out if it, Gardens of the Moon, the first in a ten book series collectively known as The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Since then, Erikson has written a couple novellas also set in the world and Esselmont has joined him as an author by penning some novels of his own detailing other events and characters that help flesh out the world and the thousands of years of lore that define it. But I haven’t read those yet.

The ten giant tomes that Erikson scribed, however, are some of my favorite pieces of prose ever written. Often overshadowed by George R. R. Martin’s hugely popular A Song of Fire and Ice (another grim fantasy epic with a complex and well-defined history), the 3 and a half million words composing TMBotF are every bit as steeped in realism, every bit as filled with legacies and lore and ancestries, has characters every bit as conflicted and nuanced and evolved, and does as great a job of world-building in a fantasy series as any else.

It does also have the advantage, though, of being complete. All ten novels tell one story, starting with a motley soldier crew called the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a failed siege at the city of Pale and a counter-attack by Moon’s Spawn, the massive floating city that rested above it, and ending with a multi-army battle to prevent the extinction of mankind and redeem the souls of those who fight for it.

I don’t need to tell you about how amazing A Song of Ice and Fire is. It’s the most-watched show on HBO, shattering records every year.

I do need to tell you about Ganoes Paran, the green commander who takes over command of the Bridgeburners from Whiskeyjack and his men, to their chagrin.

I need to tell you about stocky assassin Kalam Mekhar and his shifty mage friend Quick Ben, whose relationship is much more trusting and full of far less bickering than that of sappers (saboteurs) Fiddler and Hedge.

I need to tell you about the tragic stories of expert spear-fighter Trull Sengar the shorn and Toc the Younger who lost an eye when a piece of flaming rock fell from the sky and melted it out of his face.

I have to tell you about Coltaine and his army of tribal horsemen leading thousands of slaves across a desert for an Empire that hates him while being attacked by an army that dwarfs his own, and of Itkovian who brings peace to others by absorbing their souls into his own, and of Anomander Rake, who wields Dragnipur, a sword that collects the souls of those it kills and binds them in another plane to forever drag the carriage they are chained to.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Let’s go over a few things that make the series so great:

1. The World and Its History

Steven Erikson has worked for years as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist and he utilises both of his professions to resounding success here. There is a tremendous difference between the Malaz Empire and the Letherii Kingdom, with the first being an expansionist, disciplined culture and the latter centered around greed and debauchery. Each of the tribes have distinct rituals that they perform, from color-coded armors to masks where the number of black marks showing denotes their prowess as a warrior.

Each of the armies are different, from the mercenary and seemingly immortal Crimson Guard to the religiously devout Grey Helms.

Not to mention the varying races. There are humans, yes. But gone are traditional fantasy races like elves and dwarves. The closest things to the elves would be the towering, ebon-skinned Tiste Andii, the honor-hungry and shadowy Tiste Edur, and the righteous-minded, arrogant light-skinned Tiste Liosan. There are the elder races: the ogre-like and powerful Jaghut who have a surprising dry sense of humor; the T’lan Imass, an undead army that can dissolve and reform itself at will; the K’Chain Che’Malle and the K’Chain Nah’ruk, a matriarchal society of lizard creatures with bladed hands; and the terrifying Forkrul Assail.

There are the barbarian Toblakai and the Trell who descended from them into a powerful but more human culture.

And with ALL of these, these races and empires, kingdoms and villages, there is thousands of years of history. Civilizations that have risen and fallen, cities that are patchworks of different times, deserts that were oceans. Rivalries and genocides. And over it all, a complex pantheon of gods (Ascendents) that rule different warrens, each for a different kind of magic and some more unruly than others.

2. The Realism

Like A Song of Ice and Fire or any of Joe Abercrombie’s novels, these books are not for the faint of heart. There is murders borne of passion, and rape, and slaughters, and tortures. There are large-scale battles that dart from character to character as they fight and bleed and die. Victories come at a cost, and losses are felt deeply. There is emotional turmoil and character growth. Karsa Orlong, Ganoes Paran, Onos T’oolan (Tool) and many others are virtually unrecognizable at the end of their journeys from the characters they were when they started.

There is beauty in these books as love is found and friendships are forged. There is anguish in these books as lovers are driven apart or characters are brought to their mortal coil. You will find yourself caring more about a character in scant paragraphs than some characters in an entire novel written by a lesser author.

The humor is real, and the panic. The fear and relief. The jokes cracked in the middle of a desperate situation because what else can you do? The incredulity at the task before them or the miracles that save them.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of quotable lines that capture the human spirit perfectly, and others that echo the uncomfortable sentiments from cynics or zealots or the hopeless.

These books are compelling because though the settings are fictional, and the races are fictional, the world feels real and familiar. And a huge chunk of that is because of…

3. The Characters

There are a LOT of characters throughout the Book of the Fallen. A handy Dramatis Personae in the front of each book, organised by faction, helps keep them familiar and manageable. Each of these characters are unique amongst each other still. Take a look at two trios of brothers: the Beddicts and the Sengars. Hull Beddict is the eldest of his siblings and is a sullen man who feels betrayed by his city. He seeks to turn on his own people in order to make up for the ways he failed the more tribal peoples he had parlayed with. Tehol Beddict is homeless, sort of. He’s a quick-talking, ambivalent soul who seems to have no direction or purpose, which suits him as it masks his brilliant mind. Brys Beddict, the youngest, is firm with discipline and an unparalleled swordsman, but his youth makes him naive. The three brothers love each other.

Instead of just being carbon copies, the Sengars are different. Fear Sengar is proud of his family and holds to tradition. He tries to bring his younger brothers to heel. Trull Sengar, meanwhile, is outspoken and crass, railing against the traditions of his people. Rhulad, meanwhile, holds Trull in contempt. He is brash and impetuous and quick to action before thought.

From familial relationships to differing ideologies, from the changes these characters go through upon meeting the peoples they had long hated or disrespected or held in low regard, from the brash and hilarious commentary amongst the marines in the Bridgeburners, each character is given life. It easy to love and to hate, and thus to invest yourself in these men and women.

You’ll find yourself hurting for ever-loyal Mappo, chortling at fat man of mystery, Kruppe, cheering for jaded mercenary Gruntle, oohing and ahhing at assassin-god Cotillion the Rope, reviling Kallor, the immortal destroyer of empires, and being bewildered by the necromancer and serial killing duo of Korbal and Broach.

4. The ‘Holy Shit’ Moments

I have talked often about those moments that stand out in books and films, the moments that make you gasp and swear and that stick in your mind. The moments you tell your friends about or can’t wait until they get to so you can talk about it together. This series is FULL of them.

From the opening of Gardens of the Moon, surveying the burnt and bloody landscape in the aftermath of the siege of Pale to Coltaine’s labored Chain of Dogs, to massive battles in Letheras, Coral, the blue city of Darujhistan, to Ygahatan, a city that already held a dark military history. There are plenty of awe-inspiring moments, moments of bad-assery and displays of power, shocking deaths and betrayals and sudden routs and pained victories. There are moments that will make you weep for these characters and other moments that will make you pump your fist. I don’t want to go any further into detail. These are moments that should not be spoiled but experienced with fresh eyes.

5. The Complexity

These are not books that will spoon-feed everything to you. Steven Erikson has faith in the patience and intelligence of his readers and in his own work. With a world as rich with history and filled with deities and power structures and differing cultures, there is a lot left unsaid or only alluded to, or teased before paying off much further down the line. There are relationships that spur snippets of conversation that might seem strange or out of place until a piece of history is further revealed down the line. There are mysteries in the first book that aren’t solved until the tenth.

There is also a load of symmetry throughout the novels, and a lot of symbolism. The series is rife with details you might only notice on a second or third read. It can feel a little overwhelming.

Also potentially overwhelming is how his books skip around some. The first book introduces you to loads of characters that you become invested in over hundreds of pages. When the second book begins, you’re introduced to an entirely new cast with only a handful of exceptions. Your mind will want to wander, wondering what became of the survivors of Gardens of the Moon, but before long, you will have new favorites and be invested in this new story. As you continue through the series, it all draws together neatly.

Still, that seems like a lot, which is why I always recommend the novels but waited until now to write a blog post about it. Why now?

6. The Read-Through

The lovely people over at Tor publishing house do read-throughs of varying series. They take it a book at a time, one chapter at a time, updating one to three times a week. It’s read by Bill Capossere, who checked the series out for a second time, catching things he missed the first time around; and Amanda Ritter, who read it for the first time with fresh eyes, and whose reactions are as new and genuine as many of yours will be.

They went through all ten of Steven Erikson’s main Malazan novels (and three of Ian Esselmont’s: Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, and Stonewielder), and you can find the entire archives of their recaps, reviews and discussions here. Now you don’t have to wait until the next update, or feel pressured to catch up immediately. You can read at precisely the pace you want.

I implore you, if you love fantasy, or war, or great characters, or intriguing settings, or history, or reading to pick up these novels, read them a chapter at a time, and then check out those recaps. They’ll help you pick up on things you missed, appreciate the parts that stood out, and keep your head from exploding. Do yourself a favor.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen novels in order are Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper’s Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, and The Crippled God.

Ten(ish) Books That Tickle My Fancy

I was asked by a friend to list ten books that have meant something to me. I wasn’t going to do it because I wasn’t sure I could come up with a full list. Then inspiration hit me (and I needed to update my blog, besides).

1. The Hardy Boys series by the Stratemeyer Syndicate/The Indian In the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks: I don’t remember which came first, but these were the books that really kickstarted my love for reading. When I was young, my grandparents would take me to their home in small town Red Lodge, Montana for a month or so at a time. I would get homesick after a week or so and found myself in the nice old library downtown. It was two stories tall and filled with rows of scratched and faded bookcases easily fifty years old. The building smelled of old books, vanilla left on a sunny lawn for a generation of happy summers.

Whether it was the first of Banks’ five entry series or a random selection from the Hardy Boys’ many mysteries, they transported me from the loneliness that comes from being too far from home to worlds of magic and intrigue.

2. Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This is the book that kicked off the world of Krynn, one that I visited many times over many years and which has been built upon, expanded, devastatingly changed and rebuilt by dozens of authors. While it doesn’t hold up as well now as it did in my youth (it’s based on their tabletop experiences and it reads in places like a recounting of their session instead of more natural storytelling), it is still one of my fondest series.

Not only that, but my love for that setting eventually led me some text-based role-playing chat rooms set in Krynn. It came during a rough patch in my life, led to a ton of very important friendships, and let me experience a ton of adventurous stories. But that’s a blog post for a different time.

3. Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Obviously my love for the Dragonlance saga led me to find other things that the duo had written. Dragon Wing is the first novel in the seven book Death Gate Cycle. Each of the first four novels explore a different world, each rewriting the rules of magic and societal structure of the three typical fantasy races (dwarves, elves, humans). It also opened my eyes to complex characters. While the protagonists in Dragonlance had distinct personalities, doubts and backgrounds, they each more or less fit an archetype and stuck with it. At their core, they were also all good people (except Raistlin, who really is just a dick).

In the Death Gate Cycle, Haplo is our protagonist and he has an agenda, but he’s not a great guy. He’s racist (he was brought up that way), he’s cruel, he’s petty and he’s self-absorbed. These things all change through the course of the series as he realises nothing is quite the way he was brought up to believe. You learn with him, feel his frustration and his betrayals and his fierce protectiveness. Plus his powers are so fucking cool.

I also felt special reading these because nobody else I knew had ever heard of them.

4. Attack of the Mutant by R.L. Stone. I devoured all of the Goosebumps novels, the Goosebumps 2000 novels (meant for teenagers), and the show. I played the little video games on their old website and bought t-shirts. They were fantastic horror stories for kids with a wide rang of monsters and settings. Above all, though, Attack of the Mutant was my favorite due to its mixture of horror (which I enjoy) and comic books (which I love).

5. The Invasion by K.A. Applegate. This book is picked specifically by sheer virtue of introducing me to the Animorphs series, though it wasn’t my favorite from that series overall. There’s an excellent little piece about the quality of the series over at Tor Publishing House’s site.

6. Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Like the book above, this one served as an entry point to the author’s series (Sword of Truth). This was also one of the better entries and while there were more mediocre books and repetitive themes throughout the series than good ones, it ended with three very strong novels. I haven’t read any of his newer books set in the same world as sort of a second-act, but the initial series was pretty awe-inspiring to me.

I was 11 when I read Wizard’s First Rule and, well, I shouldn’t have been reading it. Don’t get me wrong, my dad let me watch R-rated movies and my step dad owned strip clubs and nude magazines, so I was far from some end-user innocent, but this book is a far cry from even the most brutal parts of Dragonlance. This was fantasy for adults and it was awesome. It made me realize just how far the genre could go.

7.The Stand by Stephen King. This book was on my friend’s list also, because he has good taste. I have read quite a bit of Stephen King and enjoyed most of it, but this isn’t just my favorite book of his, it’s one of my all-time favorite books period.

It isn’t just the bleak apocalyptic world. It isn’t only the excellent soundtrack or the many varied characters. It isn’t the overall creepy supernatural battle between good and the corruptive force of evil (the amazing Randall Flagg). It’s that King took his time with this book. I read the ridiculously long restored version of this book, but man… he really develops just about every character in this book in ways he usually doesn’t. Every long stretch of existence leads to a major event or turning point. It was a simmer that led to a series of boiling pops until it finally all explodes.

I fucking love this book. Oh, and if you like it, go read Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon.

8. The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais. I was a huge fan of fantasy and science-fiction growing up. I liked the spectacular, the impossible, the unbelievable. It didn’t occur to me that there was excellent stories told in a grounded, realistic way, too.

This book – and I don’t know who recommended it or how I stumbled across it – was my first foray into crime/thriller fiction. Elvis Cole and his less seen (until later novels) partner Joe Pike are private detectives. Cole’s investigations are interesting, his wit is hilarious and the action is tight. Robert Crais is who got me hooked on writers like John Sandford, Lee Child and especially Michael Connelly.

James Patterson can sit and spin, though.

9. Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Let me be clear: I know this series has a lot of fans and I’m glad you like what you like

I do not like this book. I think it’s dumb, I don’t think it’s particularly inspired, I don’t think Eragon being one letter from “dragon” is more coincidence than sheer laziness, and I own the movie anyway. Everyone was talking about the fucking thing, so I had to read it. Once I read it, I had to see if the movie was any better.

Meh, I say. Meh to both.

I also freely admit that part of my distaste is because of sheer, petty jealousy. Paolini became a best-selling author at 19 years old with a book that I didn’t find particularly compelling. I wanted that success. I wanted people to buy my stuff. I was absolutely frustrated.

Eragon is on this list because it made me absolutely sure that writing was what I wanted to do.

Which leads to…

10. Wired by Skyler Martin and K. Jered Mayer/Waypoint by K. Jered Mayer.

This is absolutely a cop-out, but the request was indeed for books that meant a lot to me.

Wired is a novella that Skaz and I wrote my senior year of high school. I wanted to do something special for my best friend Chelsea, so I thought, hey, why don’t I write a romantic-comedy? Girls like that. I can make people laugh.

Then I thought, hey, I’ve never written a romantic-comedy or anything over ten pages before HAHAHA WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING? So I asked Skaz for help. I don’t know why. He had never tackled the genre before, either. I just knew he was also a writer.

Well, he and I hit it off quick. He’s the best co-writer I’ve ever worked with and our senses of humor and intuition played off each other really well. We ended up cobbling together a 40k+ story that I was able to send off to Chelsea to hopefully enjoy.

That book needs to be polished up some and released for sale at some point, but I haven’t found the time to do it yet because I got inspired to work on Waypoint, a story of my own creation.

I’ve talked about that book at length in other posts, so I’ll leave it at this: I wrote that book at one of the lowest points of my life. It was the longest piece of work I had ever completed. I was terrified when I finally released it for sale. It’s been received exceptionally positively since then and reaffirmed my love for writing. It’s my baby, and I’m a proud mother.

That’s it for me, for now! Feel free to leave your ten books in the comments!

Six Reasons Why 50 Shades of Grey Sucks, and Why It Doesn’t

A couple years ago, I tried to write an article for Cracked about a SUPER HOT TOPIC at the time. They weren’t biting and I dropped it. But with the release of the 50 Shades of Grey trailer and the fact I have a blog now, I thought I’d resurrect it. Here’s the original article:

Straight up: before writing this article I read both Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, I did it sober, and holy shit was that the worst idea I’ve ever had. But once the migraines subsided, I tucked back my man-bits, took some Midol and pretended these books were marketed towards me. This is how I came to my conclusions. Note there are spoilers to follow:

1) It’s Fan-Fiction!

For those wondering why I bothered to read Stephanie Meyer’s abortion of literature for a 50 Shades article, let me enlighten you: 50 Shades of Grey started its rags-to-riches fairy-tale life as a rip-off of someone else’s fairy-tale life. Because of that, it’s impossible not to draw a few comparisons. They’ll pop up. I had to be educated.

The fact remains, 50 Shades of Grey was once a humble, smutty, Twilight fan fiction titled Masters of the Universe and I can’t begin to tell you how pissed I was when searching for He-Man/Fisto slash stories and coming across this bullshit.

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Fuck with the universe, the universe fucks back.

Now fan fiction is not a new thing. If you don’t believe me, Google it! Actually, maybe don’t. There’s a lot of dark shit on the Internet. But while it’s not uncommon, the attention this one got was insane.  What’s more surprising is that it hasn’t happened before. There have been thousands of stories at least of Harry Potter getting Bunghole Expanidicus’d and none of them have come close to drilling the oil of Hell and making the author a veritable tycoon.

But it happened with this. 50 Shades of Grey got kick-started by Edward dark-fucking Bella and thousands of people liking it. It’s like a porn parody that doesn’t know it’s a parody.

But it’s not so bad because…
           
Once Stephanie Meyer’s people started shoving Cease and Desists so far up E.L. James’ ass that her off-brand Wheaties tasted like law, she took down Masters, took a second to reflect, and overhauled the whole damn thing.

Seriously. 50 Shades is almost completely different. All you need to do is read them both to see. There are some similarities. Edward and Christian both get their Elton John on with their own pianos and serenades. They’re both abrasive, distant and thrumming with danger. They both rescue their loves from a speeding vehicle (Anastasia’s was an eager cyclist; Bella only had to worry about a truck).

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I vampired the shit out of that truck with my glitter-pecs.

And that’s about it. The relationship is different, save for the “I’m not right for you, so pick someone else, but I won’t really let you” cliché that exists in every romance with a “bad boy”. But in Twilight, you have Edward, a 107-year old vampire who’s been hanging out in high schools because… who the fuck knows? He’s like the Van Wilder of statuatory rape. On the other hand: Christian Grey, a mid-twenties ridiculously rich entrepreneur who has equally questionable tastes but is far from an undead confessed murderer. Their relationship is not predator-prey, but master-servant. There’s no real danger, unlike Edward’s overt threat that he will murder his lady friend and ditch her body in a different state. (Page 214. And 255. Romance!)

And unlike Bella’s repeated carelessness and indifference in the face of danger, Ana feels, recognizes and addresses her fear. There’s no super-nature, there is thinking characters, and a mostly private romance with a public figure as opposed to a public relationship with a mostly private figure. At most, it’s close to a total opposite, like a picture negative. The same, but different, and that’s no worse than anything already being vomited and re-digested in all forms of media.

2) The Pacing

The cadence of this book is more bi-polar than a sexually confused penguin. It starts out at a pretty speedy pace, devolves into sexy hijinks that are… dubious… and then it fucking draaags for a good third of the book. My god, once you get to the banging, how can you just write a hundred pages of, uh, not banging?

The most egregious example of Rapidash-level plot advancement is our opening. After Anastasia Steel interviews Christian Grey, we’re met with a “the rest of the week” style fast-forward. Using context clues, we can deduce that, at the earliest, Ana interviewed Grey on a Sunday. Assuming that’s the case and following the narrative from there, it is twelve days at the most before 21-year old Anastasia- who has never wanted to kiss a man before in her life – lets Grey be her first sexual partner.

What?!

The only things that could drop a virgin’s panties faster than Christian Grey are gamma hydroxybutyric and the Rapture. Maybe the Flash, but he’s a real hero… and the friction burn would be terrible.

But it’s not so bad because…

E. L. James wanted to leave her mushroom print on literature, so she introduced us to naïve but willful Anastaia and cold-but-sexy-hot boner owner Christian quickly, a little faster than we’re used to. It felt wrong at first, but… so, so right. Then she blew our minds, hard and enthusiastically, with the sex. Then sure, it went slower, but we knew it’s because she was going deeper.

See, the pacing is a little jarring at first only because James hooked us by jumping right into the deep end with no floaties. We got our characters, our basic set-up, our hard sex, all at once. We’re not used to it happening so quickly with anything that doesn’t have “co-ed” or “turkey baster” in the title. But once it’s out of the way, we can slow our thudding hearts, take our hands away from our parts and get to the juicy meat of the story.

3) The Story

But the story fucking sucks. We’re not just talking about the plot, though we doubt the verisimilitude behind a prudish virgin rocketing towards nymphomania at a speed so fast Mr. Fahrenheit would finally let someone stop him. The book is essentially the film Eros zip-tying Never Been Kissed and taking her to Pound Town.

But more than that, the writing style is atrocious. It just hammered home phrases like “Don’t bite your lip”, “inner goddess” and “baby. Oh, baby.” I haven’t seen so many unconvincing usages of the word ‘baby’ since Little Man, most memorably after he romantically removes her tampon, slips it in and says, “That’s right, baby.”

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No it’s not ‘right’, baby.

I haven’t swooned so hard since The Notebook. And by “swooned”, I mean “recoiled” and by “The Notebook”, I mean “Ichi the Killer”.

The crowning achievement of this masterpiece comes after Grey gives Anastasia Steele a laptop so they can e-mail each other and she’s flustered when the first one arrives. “I got an e-mail from Christian Grey.” Gasp. First off: Lady, you deep-throated the man in his bathtub after less than two weeks of knowing him, you can stop being surprised. Secondly, here are what some of those e-mails entail:

CG: I do hope you had a good day at work.
AS: I had a very good day at work.
CG: Delighted you had a good day.

Fuck you, E.L. James!

But it’s not so bad because…

Like a Rubik’s Cube with Asperger’s, the characters and underlying plot are surprisingly complex. Christian Grey’s disposition and predilection for rough sex are a result of his being seduced (read: statuatory raped/dominated) by an older person at the ripe age of fifteen. No, it wasn’t Edward Cullen.

A big chunk of the book focuses on Anastasia’s sexual curiosity, the chances she takes and her growing experience all while wrestling with the commanding nature of aggressive sex and Christian’s mood swings. They talk to each other, a lot, and in those conversations, they learn about each other and begin to build a connection that starts the crumbling of Christian’s walls. Ultimately, the book even closes on a downer, which is a little unconventional, even for the first book in a trilogy.
 
And yeah, some lines are groaners, but let’s look at some other romance novels:

Lora Leigh’s Nauti Deceptions: “…sent a shard of sensation tugging at the forbidden entrance to her lower body.”

Roxanne St. Claire’s Barefoot In the Sand: “Still looking up, still holding him with her eyes and her mouth… and her heart.”

Laurell K. Hamilton’s Narcissus In Chains: “It was tight, thick, like he plugged a hole with his body…”

ROMANTIC.

Compared to Twilight, which reads like a blind spastic was flailing frantically at a keyboard, 50 Shades is fucking Shakespeare. Plus it has the term “just-fucked pigtails” and the sentences, “I don’t remember reading about nipple clamps in the Bible. Perhaps you were taught from a modern translation,” and that shit is gold.

4) The Misogyny

Do a search in any engine asking if 50 Shades of Grey is misogynistic and the results will come back as an overwhelming “Fucking Duh”.

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Christian Grey’s whole thing, his schtick, is that he likes to dominate and control women. He orders them around, refers to them as his property and physically abuses them. He wants to make Anastasia sign a strict contract on what she can and can’t do with her own body, including her diet, sleep regiment and masturabatory practices, like the Hitler of handjobs.

He makes Anastasia cry on multiple occasions, spanks her – one time with a belt! – chastises and demeans her. And she takes it. And she doesn’t tell anyone about it because he made her sign a non-disclosure agreement, meaning she has to ask permission before she can ask her best friend all the new sex questions she’s got running through her mind. Anastasia is Reverse Rosie the Riveter, a stunning sample of alliteration that will stir the loins of any chauvinist readers.

But it’s not so bad because…

Misogyny: noun: hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.

Hatred is a… pretty harsh word. And while Christian Grey mistrusts women, he mistrusts everybody, but there is little in the book to support a claim that he hates Anastaia or even dislikes her or even likes her discomfort and distress.

And as far as the distrust goes, the entire book is about how he learns to love and trust her while she trusts in him as he frees her of her sexual inhibitions. So it’s more about the removal of misogyny, if anything.

Shit, if we’re definining misogyny as being wary around people or making them cry, any man who’s ever hurt his girlfriend’s feelings (or vice-versa, you femisogynists) is guilty!

If it’s about the fact that he likes to control and smack her around… I can see how that can be taken the wrong way. But while I would never condone domestic abuse (except in the case of the Muppets and the Flintstones), that’s not what’s going on here. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s analyze the book a bit.

Christian Grey’s got the personality of sexy sandpaper, probably because his mom was a crackhead and he was burned by cigarettes as a kid. But beneath that uncaring visage is something more humane, something that makes him protect Ana from her would-be date-rapist/friend Jose, take care of her when she’s black-out, Exorcist-expulsion drunk, bends over backwards to provide for her, frets for her safety, showers her with gifts, confides in her and makes exceptions with his lifestyle that he’s never made with anyone. Hell, I want to have sex with him now.

The abusive stuff, the debasement and bondage and spanking? The only things that happen outside of her contract signing are asked for and verbally encouraged. The non-disclosure agreement was only to protect Christian Grey’s image, probably because – for some reason – he doesn’t want everyone to know he’s got Marquis de Sade’s wet dream in his penthouse.

The sex contract on the other hand is detailed in pages 165-175. Ten pages. The thing reads like a dissertation and outlines their relationship, the length (a three month trial period) and everything else that will be involved. Anything she doesn’t like or feel comfortable with, she negotiates away. And the debasement and abuse she’s agreeing to? Here’s a list: spanking, whipping, biting, genital clamps, hot wax, paddling, caning, nipple clamps, ice.

Now, while the genital and nipple clamps seem rough (she denies them and he agrees), the rest of that is pretty fucking tame…. wait a second…..

Ice?!

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You sick bastard.

5) The Sex

Here it is. The most talked-about aspect of the book. That’s because when it comes, it is graphic. Believe it or not, that’s partly why it sucks. It’s not a book so much as literotica (from the ancient Celtic phrase “book porn”). And while it’s detailed, it stays just vague enough to be kind of bad.

There are a whole lot of “down there’s” that make it almost sound like she’s getting her ankles fucked, and the “babys” and “inner goddess” references keep on coming and kill the joy faster than John Wayne Gacy. That fucking inner goddess… she grates like Fran Drescher.

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Imagine sex with her voice. You’re welcome.

And it’s all so… weird. Hell, Grey’s completely indifferent to de-flowering his new toy. He approaches taking Anastasia’s virginity in the same manner one would use when scraping the ice off of their windshield before sticking their dick in the car.

The bondage aspects are talked about but only weakly explored. Zip-tied, for God’s sakes? The guy who shoplifted a box of lamb-skin condoms got that far when security fucked the center of his back with a knee.

Dispassionate and unambitious, it’s a watered down Penthouse letter with a plot written by an angsty ninth-grader who sees it as the only way to get the senior prom king to fall for her… and she still imaginary-begs for it.

But it’s not so bad because…

Clumsy sex is still sex. That old phrase, “It’s like pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still good”? It’s true here, too, if you’ve got the imagination for it. And there’s a reason soap operas have been around for decades. They’re addictive because there’s that dramatic relationship, and in 50 Shades, that same relationship makes each new sexual encounter more passionate, more exciting, especially as Ana’s inhibitions lessen. It’s “Shades of Our Lives”.

That’s actually why this book is so great with sex. Remember when we said earlier that it wasn’t misogyny but something else? That something is the BDSM fetish. It’s been around for a long, long time, and it stands for “bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism” and you should be able to gather from that it’s all about the master-slave thought process. And guess what? It goes both ways; plenty of men like to be “punished” as well.

BDSM has already been portrayed in plenty of movies (Pulp Fiction, Eurotrip, Secretary, to name a few), but the book has done tons for exposing the fetish on  a mass scale simply by virtue of the millions of copies sold. And for those who like being spanked, choked, cuffed, scratched, bit or called filthy things (whore, shitheel, Tila Tequila) during sex… this is part of that. 50 Shades lets those people know, if they didn’t already, that it’s okay to have a fetish and it lets the inexperienced live a fantasy vicariously through Anastasia Steele.

Just don’t get carried away and kill someone.

6) The Lack of Vampires

Do you know why everyone’s writing about sexy vampires who learn to love? Because who doesn’t want that? Vampires are handsome, charismatic, dangerous, mysterious, like to bite and are powerful. Despite that last thing being the only quality separating vampires from Jeffrey Dahmer, the not-quite Draculas just open the goddamn flood gates. Hell, Anne Rice made a kajillion dollars off of it.

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Lestat de Lioncourt. Edward Cullen. Eric Northman. Angelus. Jerry….you know, from Fright Night. What the fuck kind of vampire name is Jerry?

Whatever. The point is that they’re alluring. They’re surreal, something more than the average Jerry, er, Joe, and when they so gently nibble on your neck, it’s easy to forget they’re capturing your heart in a more literal sense as well.

50 Shades, despite being a Twilight rip-off, has no vampires. It’s just a handsome, mysterious, powerful, dangerous, charismatic guy who likes to bite but is ultimately just a man.

But it’s really okay, because…

Yeah, just a handsome, mysterious, powe… look, you get it. He’s all the great qualities that make vampires appealing, but his “danger” comes from his aggressive sex acts and not the fact that he’s trying to EAT you.

Romanticized vampires are done to death. Twilight was the worst offender when Stephanie Meyer wrote out the vulnerability to sunlight and added diamond sprinkles. That’s not even a fucking vampire! That’s a, a… a glampire!

Even having sex with them has grown stale. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake has been slutting up literature for ten years to the point that she’s not so much a vampire investigator anymore, or even a “fang-banger” as True Blooders would say, but a depository for the supernatural as a whole.

What happened to Nosferatu? Dracula? Dhampir? Do you remember the last movie that made vampires terrifying? No. No one does. Not even Josh Hartnett’s abs could save that movie from flopping so hard it snapped its own spine.

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“’I can smell your blood.’-sexy when Edward says it, apparently.

By keeping Christian Grey human and giving him a whole different and completely regular fucked up mental issues, the story is more relatable and all-around better for it. And as a planet, we can start trying to inject some fear back into our kids with real monsters.

So does 50 Shades of Grey suck or not? I don’t know. I thought I did at first, and it’s certainly better than Twilight, and there is this:

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A Christian Grey rendering, apparently. “Don’t bite your lip.”

But comparing the two is like comparing paraplegia to quadraplegia: you’re still not walking anywhere. What do I know, though? I’m fifty shades of fucked up.