Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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These are not the cavemen you are looking for

The things one learns! While I juggle writing jobs (having divided my day in three chunks – morning, afternoon and after-dinner), I am reading – mostly at lunchtime – and looking for missing bits of documentation. And considering I am revising a neolithic-style story, I thought it might be fun to check out a few novels about the primitive world. I love Burroughs’ Land That Time Forgot and Pellucidar series, and I think I have already mentioned Lin Carter’s Zanthodon. And then, in a totally different league, there’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman.
But I am game for more – this might be the right time to go to the library and check out a copy of Clan of the Cave Bear.
Is there anything else? Let’s look around for some new reading stuff.
Well, this is the twenty-first century – so I googled “caveman books”, and I found a big fat list on Goodreads, twenty-five pages and… oh!

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Relic/The Relic (1995 & 1997)

Often it’s all a matter of timing. I read Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic when it came out in 1995, having read some good reviews. I was in the Air Farce at the time, and that probably did not help me enjoy the book, that I read during one dull weekend while holed up in the switchboard bunker, plus a late-night train ride home. That, and the comparison to The X-Files – a series I did not enjoy very much – did not help putting me in the best disposition. I liked the set up, the setting and the premises, but I found the main protagonist Agent Pendergast absolutely insufferable. I came out of the book with very mixed feelings.

Also, it was pretty obvious one of the authors, that had been an employee of the museum in which the novel is set, had an ax to grind with that sort of environment, and while I can appreciate it – I do have my own set of axes to grind with the world of academia and research – and I certainly approve of using fiction to kill the people we hate, the revenge fantasy element in the novel was to me a little too evident.

So, OK, I sort of liked it but I wasn’t crazy about it – to the point that I have a stack of other Preston/Child books here in my emergency box, and I’ve never been desperate enough to try another – despite the excellent reviews the books had from people I respect.

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Poetry for real men

In the end the instigators were, of all people, Robert E. Howard and Stephen Fry, quite an odd couple if you think about it. And weird things might come out of all this. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let me give you a bit of background here.

For the best part of my life I only owned three books of poetry: a selection of verses by John Donne, a collection of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and one of haiku by Matsuo Basho. And this was it. My generation was taught a lot of poetry in school – but that amounted basically to learning verses by heart and then writing essays about what the poet meant by writing what he wrote (and not, strangely enough, the way he wrote it). It is reasonable to say that we learned more about metrics and rhythm and all that from the radio, by listening to rock’n’roll.

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Ursula K. le Guin’s dreams and explanations

As expected, reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Dreams must explain themselves is proving a highly satisfactory, sometimes baffling, and thoroughly humbling experience. And while I expected it, it’s still hitting me hard.

As I have always said, I prefer Le Guin’s non-fiction to her fiction – and the massive volume collecting about thirty years of articles, speeches, reviews and introductions is perfect for someone like me that so far accessed Le Guin’s non-fiction digging into magazines, or in slim volumes published in the ’80s.

It is impossible to ignore, while going through these papers, how Le Guin changed through the years – and progressing through the collection her approach to narrative, fantasy and the politics thereof became more sophisticated, more demanding and more complicated. Her approach to fantasy remains strong and illuminating, and it leads me to ask myself a lot of questions – like, am I writing good stories, or am I just trying to please a certain sector of the readers.

Because Le Guin is clear – pleasing the readers is only part of the game, and her definition of hackwork is chilling, when you’ve been writing fast and loose for two years. This is probably the biggest take away from the book – writing fantasy is serious business ad pleasing the readers is not enough.

Another (minor, probably) thing that appears evident is how Le Guin was dismissive of Roger Zelazny – which probably explains why I prefer her non fiction to her fiction, and Zelazny’s fiction to her fiction.

But Dreams must explain themselves is like a breath of fresh air, and the demonstration that there exists a serious criticism of fantasy that is not mummified in academia and can provide insight and ideas and not just ramblings about post-modernism. Well worth the money and the time.


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A few books for indie authors

This post is the product of a few exchanges I had over the last two weeks with a few friends and colleagues, about writing and in particular about writing as a freelance/independent/mercenary writer.

I am convinced one can learn anything from a book, and thank goodness there’s a lot of great books out there. I am listing a fer here that represent, to me, the minimum library for the independent writer. This is not of course the Word of God – it’s just my personal list of favorites.
Your mileage might vary.

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Abraham Merrit’s Birthday

Truth to be told, it was yesterday, but better late than never, right?
Merritt was one of the great fantasists of the first half of the 20th century, and he had an incredible influence on his contemporaries (the Weird Tales generation).
Highly imaginative and wildly eccentric, he produces a number of works that are highly recommended.

Virgil Finlay, The Ship of Ishtar

And today, remembering his birth, why not check out my favorite Merritt work, The Ship of Ishtar?
It was originally published on the Argosy All-Story magazine in six episodes, in 1924. You can find it for free on the Gutenberg Project of Australia.

Virgil Finlay, The Ship of Ishtar

Virgil Finlay did some beautiful illustration for the story in 1949, and here are three examples.

Virgil Finlay, The Ship of Ishtar


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Night in Glastonbury

While I go through the usual mix of frustration and bad mood that hits me when I have a new story (or a series of stories, really) growing, I am spending my nights reading The Chalice, a supernatural thriller by British author Phil Rickman.

I first discovered Rickman in the ’90s with the novel The Man in the Moss, and I had acquired his whole back catalog of standalone horrors a few months back. Rickman can be classified, probably, as folk horror, and he’s very good – tight, twisting plots, interesting characters, and a strong sense of place.

The Chalice is set in Glastonbury, the alternative spirituality capital of the UK, and hinges on a number of local legends and historical characters. It is a fun read, and it also struck a strange chord.

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