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I was tagged by Chance. I'm not tagging anyone, but if you want to write fifteen things about books, I will only encourage you.

1. A partial list of writers I read while growing up: Arthur Ransome, Nicholas Fisk, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Johanna Spyri, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Isaac Asimov, CS Lewis, Willard Price, John Wyndham.

2. A partial list of writers I have read this year: Kelly Link, Justina Robson, F Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kim Stanley Robinson, Margo Lanagan, Tricia Sullivan, Charles Stross, Mary Doria Russell, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe, Michael Chabon, Ken Macleod, Matt Ruff.

3. There is no iceberg. I do not read nine times as many books as I write about. What you see is more or less what you get.

4. Don't ask me why I mostly read science fiction, and mostly read contemporary books. Don't try to tell me, either. I can make guesses, but I don't really know.

5. 'Genre' is a loaded word because it means both 'marketing category' and 'content', and though books in the marketing category will have the content, the reverse is not true. When I say 'I like science fiction' I almost always mean the content (or, I should say, more accurately, the mode, until someone can define science fiction by content in a satisfactory way) rather than the marketing category.

6. I am increasingly aware of how small and how big the world is, how much of it is far away from and unfamiliar to me, and how many stories lack any sense of that perspective. I don't ask that all stories sprawl--although I tend to like ones that do--but increasingly I think I need some self-awareness. This is perhaps particularly true of sf stories.

7. I wrote upwards of 35,000 words about books this year. Writing reviews doesn't feel like an obligation; it's something I do because I enjoy it, because I want to be and enjoy being part of the conversation. This week, for the first time, I was paid for a review I wrote. I'm not complaining, but it felt weird.

8. When I write a review, I don't have a mental checklist of things that I look for in a good book. I start with 'did I like this?' and then try to work out 'why?'

9. A corollary of this is that I can't think of a single characteristic that all the books I like share. I do not, for example, think that a story has to have great characters to be a great story. It has to have decent characters, but there are other virtues--plot, perspective, style, setting, subject--that can raise a story to greatness. (Equally, of course, a story can be great by virtue of its characters.)

10. Characters are other people's guesses of how other people work. We judge whether a character is convincing by validating them against what we know--'does this portrayal of an internal experience match my own internal experiences, or seem plausible as a model for the experiences I have seen others go through?' If the answer is no, the character will seem unconvincing. If the answer is yes, the character will seem convincing. Note that creation of a good character is dependent on the writer and the reader; different people will therefore find different characters memorable. Very good writers may be able to make characters convincing even if they are outside our personal experience, and will likely make us think about the experiences they go through in a way we hadn't done before.

11. I have to go and collect a parcel that couldn't be delivered earlier this week. I hope it contains books. UPDATE: It did! Although for Strange Horizons rather than for me.

12. Getting free books in the post is never, ever going to get old.

13. Books are comforting. I have piles of books all over the place. I tell myself this is because I don't have enough shelves--and that's true, but I suspect that even when I do have enough shelves I'll still have piles of books all over the place.

14. I've been putting off and putting off starting Stephen Baxter's latest, Transcendent, until I've got a clear run at it. At this rate, that will be sometime in 2006.

15. I always wish I read more nonfiction, but almost every time, when I'm wondering what to read next, a story seems more tempting. Maybe it's that I get my nonfiction fill from individual essays, or from work. Having said that, the last book I read was The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, which was brilliant.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Having said that, the last book I read was The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, which was brilliant.

It is. (It was actually the book I was going to make you read when you don't read How to Supress Women's Writing. Dammit, now I have to think of something else.
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Yay! I'm glad you liked it.

Thankyou for the recommendation. :)

Which was your favourite story/element?

I don't think I can say what I said above about perspective without picking 'Carbon'. (Look! Annotated!)

It is a book I know I will reread at some point, and there aren't many books I can say that of.
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I think the magic of 'Carbon' is that it at the same time conveys a sense of immense scale and the importance of the tiniest thing. It's like one of those camera shots where the centre zooms in and the edges zoom out. And there's the way it sums the book, and puts the whole period he was writing over in a frame. And yes, the last sentence is one of the most perfect last sentences I've ever read (probably my other favourite is 'And at that thought (thinking about it) he began to laugh' from Pacific Edge.)

Have you read any other Levi? I notice he wrote a book of sf short stories ... :)
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So I should put 'Pacific Edge' on my to read list then, should I?

Oh yes. That's my comfort read. Wonderful book. :)

(by Kim Stanley Robinson.)

I think I found out about the sf stories one evening while browsing the sf encyclopaedia. Made me do a proper double-take, but based on the evidence of The Periodic Table I think I'll definitely have to check them out.

But The Gold Coast is still my favourite of the Orange COunty books - I just loved the way he dropped in a line or two Japanese form poetry and took away paragraphs of description...
Getting free books in the post is never, ever going to get old.

I think I've hit that stage. The problem with free book is that I have no control over their quality.
Technically you don't have much control over the quality of books you pay for, either ...
I have quite a bit of control. I know, for example, that I'm never going to walk out of a bookshop with an Eric Brown novel.
But you don't have to agree to review Eric Brown novels, either.
They arrive unannouced in jiffy bags though!
Really interesting post, thanks :)

A corollary of this is that I can't think of a single characteristic that all the books I like share. I do not, for example, think that a story has to have great characters to be a great story. It has to have decent characters, but there are other virtues--plot, perspective, style, setting, subject--that can raise a story to greatness. (Equally, of course, a story can be great by virtue of its characters.)

I agree. I really discovered things about what I like in a book, what makes a book better than another book, by judging the Aurealis Awards this year. I had to directly compare books.

I'd always thought character was the key thing for me: the holy triumvirate of character action, character motivation, character development. The three are tightly intertwined and the balance for me has to be equally on all three. The character must act, the character must have reason to chose one action over another, the character must learn from the outcomes and consequences of their actions. They have to support each
other, and any single one out of harmony in the main protagonists introduces a discordant note which can't be overcome by otherwise positive aspects of a book.

So, in The Scar, Bellis Coldwine lacks character action, though her character motivation is character inaction -- a sleight of hand that works to distract the reader for a while about her lack of action. But The Scar is still a book I'd consider good -- so it's not just about character.

What I didn't know, but discovered through this reading and award process, is how important the structure of a book is to me. When and how the plot points occur, the way in which the plot is ramped up and down. The readability of the book, in essence, as distinct from the readability of the prose. If a book has interesting characters, and readable prose, but is structured poorly, then it doesn't make it up into the "good" category. And by good here, I don't mean a quality judgement, but an enjoyability and recommending to others kind of good.

I can read really derivative books and enjoy them if the structure is good. Anne Bishop is reader-crack for me: her character development is a balanced triumvirate, she has readable prose, and her books are structured really well. The books are derivative enough that the moment she drops the ball on any one of those, she loses me.

I've chatted a bit about the intersection of readability, character and strucutre to G, but I haven't refined my thoughts into a larger thesis of what makes books enjoyable yet. It's synthesising in my brain though. Hope to get some interesting insights out of it; as writer and reader.
I have a perfect formula for enjoyable books, but this comment is too small to contain it.
Hee!

This comment brought to you by Neil "Fermat" Harris.
He could do a post on it instead...