Stoner by John Williams - Book Review by S.C. Barrus

Book Review – Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams is an absolutely beautiful novel. Perhaps the best novel I’ve read this year. I’ve tried to share it with several people, but I think the appeal is lost in description. It’s a quiet, understated, sad novel, but it will make you feel deeply.

[You can also read this review on Goodreads. Follow me there for frequent updates on the books I read.]

Your heart will split for William Stoner as he quietly goes about his day, taking life’s blows like a reed bends to the wind. He’s not a strong-willed guy, not heroic or wise. He just tries to do what he loves and makes little effort to change the world.

As his life slowly becomes more difficult due to his family relationships, he approaches his work as a literature professor with more vigor and love. This passion brings him a brief time of fame within his university but results in a confrontation with a student that sends his professional life into a downward spiral as well.

He does rally from time to time both in his personal and professional life. The moments of accomplishment and happiness feel all the more powerful for the quiet sadness that envelopes most of the pages.

And the ending… This was the first book in some time that made me shed literal tears. I cried for the final two chapters. They are beautiful and devastating.

You should definitely read this book. As I stated in the opening, Stoner is a difficult book to sell because a lot of its value is the depth of emotion you’ll feel for this simple man. But give it a chance and you’ll absolutely fall in love with perhaps the best book I’ve read about the life of a simple man.

Recommended Reads after Stoner by John Williams

If you read and enjoy Stoner by John Williams, then I recommend reading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger which was recently featured in a recent blog post on nine books that changed my lifeJohn Williams has also written a western called Butcher’s Crossing which I intend to read in the near future.

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Stoner was an excellent read which I consider among the best of the best. I’m adding it to the Books That Changed My Life list on Kit. Check out the other books that made the list right here.

Nine Novels that Changed My Life

I also filmed a video version of this blog post. Watch it on YouTube.

Most readers can put together a list of life changing books. I have my own. A list of novels that shaped me in some way. Some of they expanded my perspective of the world, others inspired they way I write my own works. So today I’m sharing a list of nine life changing novels.

This is an abbreviated list. If I were to list every novel that affected me, we’d be here for days. So I set up a kit, an ever-growing list of books that changed my life. If you want more life-changing books, check it out too.

Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Treasure Island was one of those early books that encouraged my love of reading and writing. While I started reading illustrated abridged versions of young readers, as I grew older I revisited it several times. Unlike other novels (and movies for that matter) of my younger years, this one held up because of it’s fun and fast-moving plot, engaging characters, and standout villain.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is an inspiration (buy his complete works). I continue to draw from his works again and again, but never live up to anything he’s accomplished. I love King Lear and Titus for the passion in their protagonists. There’s something so compelling in watching a person at their height brought low. The Tempest is surreal, and Othello is captivating. If you haven’t seen a live Shakespeare performance, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Generally speaking, people tend to talk about Catcher in the Rye as J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, but I personally think it pales in comparison to Franny and Zooey. The novel is mostly dialog, so we Perdidoget to know these characters. If you’re looking for a study in dialog to improve your own writing, you can’t do much better than this.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Doesn’t it have a fantastic title? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time follows a young autistic boy as he investigates the murder of a dog in his Perdido yard. But it goes much deeper than that as we follow him day by day and see everything through his perspective. It does a great job of immersing you in a characters head that may be very much unlike you, which is why it affected me so much.

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days heavily influenced the writing style in my first two books, Discovering Aberration and The Gin ThiefI love the way he strings a sentence together, so when I set to writing a steampunk novel, I thought a voice similar to his would make a great fit. Not only that, but his novels are pure fun. Sure there are a few boring sections here and there where he get’s overly specific on how technology works or how an economy functions, but if that bores you, simply skip a paragraph or two and you’re back into the adventure.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hess

In my college years, Hermann Hess affected me more than any other writer. I felt a real connection with him that I haven’t felt with a writer since. While everyone reads Siddhartha, a book that’s fine, most don’t move on to his real masterpieces like Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, or The Glass Bead Game. All of these novels shaped the way I think permanently, gave me perspective on life, sex, religion, and art. If you’re looking for the standout author who really changed the way I view the world, it would be Hermann Hess.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

The grand achievement of this book is the fact that as soon as I finished reading it, I started again from the beginning. I don’t think I’ve done that before or since. It’s world is so utterly engrossing, and so wildly different from our own. If you’re searching for a fantasy that throws out all of the genre norms, builds a world fresh from the ground up, and tells an engaging and dark narrative, look no further than the masterpiece that is Perdido Street Station.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

It is the first book of a now famously unfinished trilogy. The fact that it’s unfinished doesn’t bother me a bit, and it shouldn’t bother you either. Let genius work. Time has always been a major ingredient in the writing of these books. Anyway, The Name of the Wind is an outstanding novel that drops you into a characters head as he goes about life, grows up, learns magic, and seeks revenge in this fantasy world. It all sounds fairly typical of a fantasy novel, but in its execution, it really stands out. I’ve read it several times and will read it several more.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is a novel with perfect prose. I’ve never read a more perfectly written novel. It’s astounding. Blood Meridian is an extremely dark tale that will stick with you well after you put it down. There are scenes that get etched in your mind. I’ve loved some of Cormac McCarthy’s other books, such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, but even those fantastic novels don’t hold a candle to Blood Meridian.

The Third Law - The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

Book Review: What’s Wrong with Joe Abercrombie’s The Third Law Trilogy & How to Fix It

I just finished reading the mammoth First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie consisting of The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. [You can read this review on Goodreads too]

Let’s map out how I felt through each novel.

The Blade Itself – This book shows some promise. If it keeps getting better from here, then this may be a fantastic series. Can’t wait to read more.

Before They are Hanged – What an awful title, but that doesn’t mean anything. The narrative is slipping a bit, the journey is overly long, and I’m starting to get tired of all the characters catchphrases, but this series has time to recover. I’m sure book three will make up for any missteps.

Last Argument of Kings – This is it? Really!? This is what we were building toward? WTF. It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s depressing as all hell but not even in a good way, more in a “how did I waste so much time reading this garbage” kind of way. How did such a great start get brought so low? Do I even want to keep these books on my shelf anymore?

Let’s go over what made this series end up sucking so hard.

The First Law - The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

It’s too damn long — There’s nothing wrong with a long book or series as long as knows where it’s heading, is interesting along the way, holds a sense of purpose, is well paced, or is at least somewhat enjoyable.

But The First Law is none of these things. It’s an overly long meandering story featuring mostly bland two-dimensional characters whose actions have no tangible consequences.

Character actions don’t really mater — One character gets hurt one time, and it gave the books an illusion that mistakes matter. But as cities fall resulting no negative consequence at all, plot armor is revealed in all other interactions.

Yes, there are times that character A is transported to place B, and they being there saves the day. This happens a lot. So much so, that whenever situations look bleak, there’s no tension because we know someone is just around the corner, especially if they haven’t been featured in a few chapters.

One of the worst crimes in story telling is showing the reader the author behind the curtain pulling the strings, but once you see it, you cannot unsee it. We saw the strings in book two, and they just get more pronounced as the story goes on.

It’s too damn boring The Blade Itself was entertaining enough. See my mostly positive review here. Before They are Hanged had its moments, though the long journey was loooooooong (spoiler: and fruitless). Last Argument of Kings was 300 pages of battle sequences, some of which had fun moments, but mostly it just dragged on and on and on till I didn’t care anymore.

For me, books are not the best medium for hundreds of pages of: “And he swung his sword, and she parried and threw a blow in return, and he ducked and hit her in the head, and she rebounded and kicked him in the shin”. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Action in books is best when executed with building tension and a quick release. The first book does this well. But this technique is lost near the end of the second book, and completely ejected from the writing process by the third.

I had a bit of a crises while writing this book review. Follow this thread to watch me make up my mind to write reviews on books I don’t enjoy, or read about the decision here.

Characters are two dimensional — The only exception to this is Glokta. He’s fantastic in the beginning, and the only reason I didn’t prematurely throw the book against a wall. But I grew bored with even him by book three. All of the inner monologue that provided depth in book one became a tired, repetitious exercise.

Logan had as much depth as a murky pond. His gimmick of uncontrollable blood lust became predictable, and whenever it was about to have real consequence, he was deus ex machina’ed out of it.

All the other characters were wastes of paper and ink. They were flat with one-track minds and the simplest of motivations. The fighters fight because the fight. The revengers revenge because they revenge. Most of these characters have absolutely no depth, and the ones who do, such as Biaz, are so convoluted they grow boring.

And a note on Biaz. While he’s written as this wise man, [spoiler] by the time it’s revealed how much of the world he controls, I was left wondering why he didn’t handle things better in the first place. Oh, that’s right, Joe justifies it with a short aside about Biaz being distracted because he was reading books for a while and forgot about the world, or something. Kind of a lame thing to pin a trilogy’s entire plot on.

And the catchphrases — “You can never have too many knives” was probably said a bajillion times. “Say one thing about the third law, say it’s prose are repetitive.” “I want vengeance fool!” These catchphrases add nothing, and become grating 400,000 words in. Cool it with the catchphrases. This isn’t a sitcom.

Maybe it’s my fault? I’ve heard about Joe Abercrombie for a long time now, and I looked forward to reading his work. Maybe my opinion is sullied by anticipation? I don’t think so, but maybe.

I don’t know, maybe you’ll like it. The series currently averages around a 4.3 rating on Goodreads. I don’t get it. Some people seem to love simple characters swinging swords and talking about vengeance for 900 pages. If that sounds like your cup o tea, then dive in. You’ll probably love it.

How I’d fix it — While I didn’t enjoy The First Law, I do think there’s a good story hidden within if you’d be willing to go haywire with a hacksaw. Here’s what you do.

Forget every character except Glokta and Biaz. Rip them all out, you won’t miss them. Now we follow Glokta along basically the same plotline, with only glimpses of Biaz and occasional confrontations as the tension mounts. And as Glokta digs deeper into the corruption of the empire, he discovers by himself (ie. the information isn’t handed to him!) that Biaz is the puppet master of a vast conspiracy. Now it’s up to Glokta to bring him down or fail trying.

I think that could a compelling, tightly plotted 100,000 words fantasy noir.

I wish so badly that was the story I read. Or anything else with that didn’t string me along for so long. But instead I got the equivalent of a blob of rambling fiction with nothing compelling to say, nowhere compelling to go, which now takes up space where better books should be my shelf. What I’m I going to do with those books? They were expensive.

Why I Chose to Start Writing Reviews for Books I Don’t Like

Lately I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma which can be summed up in one simple question. What is the point of a book review?

This question grabbed hold of me after I finished writing a particularly negative book review. Should I publish it? Why would I publish a review of something I hated? What’s to gain out of it? This brought me around to the original question: what is the point of a book review in the first place?

On the surface level, the answer seems obvious. We write and read book reviews to discover new books and share the books we love. We didn’t start writing reviews because we hated something. We started because we loved it and needed a forum to talk about it.

It wasn’t until later that we were faced with the dilemma. What do we do with books we dislike?

For a long time, I would keep quiet about these books. My thought process was, I don’t want to hamper the career of a fellow writer. I got in it to share the love, not to bring people down.

But now I realize that there is more to book reviews than simply sharing the love. As a writer, when reviewers are critical of my work, I learn something from it. I understand my weaknesses which gives me a chance to grow. Without feedback, both good and bad, how will I ever fulfill my goals? I don’t think it’s possible.

Beyond this, a negative review isn’t necessarily going to send all readers to the hills. Some of my favorite novels are controversial. People love it or hate it, and they leave reviews accordingly. Furthermore, if all readers thought like I did, then bad books would skew high because those who didn’t enjoy it were silent.

The top review on Goodreads on Blood Meridianperhaps my favorite book ever—is 2 stars. The top review of the book I recently finished and was so disappointed in was 4 stars. They average about the same rating.

Due to these factors, I’ve decided to change how I operate when it comes to critical reviews. If I dislike a book, I’ll now tell you about it, explain why, and dive into what I might change to make it better. On this note, I’ll be sharing my final review of The First Law Trilogy next week.

Thank you to everyone who discussed this topic with me on Twitter, effectively changing my mind. You all rock!

How R.L. Stine & Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing

What makes a novel great?

I’ve been sucking on this questions like a breath mint for months. What makes a novel great? I don’t mean good, entertaining, or popular. Those are all worthwhile things.

What makes a novel great? Not good, worthwhile, or popular, but great? Maybe it's all about timing. #books Click To Tweet

But I’m seeking greatness. I’m seeking works of fiction that will stick with me long after I put them down. Books that’ll change my mind, make me feel different from before I picked them up.

On this hunt for greatness, I’ve made a few discoveries. And over the next few months, I’m going to explore what I found.

Sleeping with Goosebumps

When I was young, novels like Goosebumps granted me a safe place to find thrills, mystery, and a little danger. I still remember bits of It Came From Beneath the Sink and Monster Blood.

Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.

You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Die today, I doubt it would have the same effect.

Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos

The make-out years

I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.

Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.

The book that changed everything

During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled itThen again and again…

Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.

First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.

I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.

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All About Timing

Outside influences

This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the RyeI don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.

Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.

Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.

Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.

So maybe greatness is all about timing.

Fight Club fifteen years later

I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.

Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.

What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.

So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.

So maybe I’ll try to pick up A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man again. Maybe last time I tried the timing was off.

How R.L. Stine and Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing Click To Tweet

I consider Fight Club a book that changed my life. If you haven’t read it, it’s probably about time. Consider supporting this blog by purchasing the paperback, ebook, or audiobook.

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.

[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]

While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.

The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.

We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.

No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.

“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.

While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.

Apparently there’s a comic book adaptation too. Neat.

Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.

Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.

All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.

So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.

On Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian. I don’t know where to begin with this book.

It’s a western, or an anti-western. I’ve heard it called the greatest work of southern gothic lit out there, if that helps at all. It follows the kid (he has no name, always referred to simply as “the kid”) through 1850’s northern Mexico who joins the Glanton gang as they go on a scalping spree.

It’s fantastic. Maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. Definitely provocative, controversial, often difficult to read, eye-opening, mind changing, terrifying. The prose is sparse, gripping, often perfect, I mean really truly perfect as if some greater power wrote through Cormac McCarthy. What a novel. What a novel.

So many people have written about Blood Meridian, throwing my hat in the ring hardly feels justified. Doesn’t matter, I’m giving it a shot. My goal isn’t to be illuminating. I don’t think I can help you fully comprehend this novel. I just want you to read the damn book and wear the same look of shock on your face that I did during the three months it took me to soldier through it.

Sketches by JaradOwen of characters from Blood Meridian.

No it’s not a long novel. But it demands your full attention and concentration. Sometimes reading it was so taxing, I had to put it down for several days before I had the energy to pick it back up again.

And you should read it. No matter what I say throughout this piece, remind yourself that you owe it to you to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

What’s it about? Professional American scalpers in 1850’s Mexico. The Glanton gang who butchered Indians for a buck, then Mexican villagers and American soldiers. They get consumed in the violence before getting consumed by the violence. Saying Blood Meridian is violent is kind of like saying water is wet. It’s a stupid sentiment because it’s so clearly evident from page 1 til the end.

Eye gouging in chapter one is the least of the atrocities. Scalping becomes commonplace. There are several massacres. The violence is never exciting. It’s never thrilling or fun. It is a gut punch until you grow numb to gut punches. By the end of this novel, you’ll form a callous around your heart. You’ll walk through life in a kind of stupor, replaying scenes in your mind over and over again. Will you gain a greater understanding? Probably not. But it will consume you, that much is certain.

Found this on Pinterest. Could not find out who the artist is… If you know, let me know, and I’ll link here.

There is a kind of illumination in the violence. Illumination of what, I don’t know. Was the novel written in defiance of God? I don’t know. Was it written with hands blessed by God? It could go either way. More than once I found myself seriously considering whether Cormac McCarthy is extremely blessed or cursed, sanctified or damned. I still don’t know. But God is in this book, and so is the devil.

The devil, in fact, makes perhaps the most literal appearance in the form of The Judge. But I’ve read convincing arguments that The Judge is in fact God. Who ever he is, he’s chilling.

The prose often require some effort to gain a full understanding of any given paragraph. Here’s a quote showing how difficult some paragraphs are to read, but you can’t deny the imagery these words conjure. This is perhaps Blood Meridian at it’s most difficult, but I personally didn’t mind:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Holy shit! Did you read what I just read? Damn it, I might need to give up the craft. That’s the kind of thing you’ll be reading throughout Blood Meridian. For some, this is enticing, but it may dissuade many. Do not let it. This book is worth it. Trust me.

Another quote:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

I mean, come on! It’s beautiful, dark, enlightening and nearly indecipherable on first reading.

There are scenes that will linger in your mind long after you put the page down. Such as when the Judge lifts a meteor over his head in defiance of the universe. Such as when the Glanton Gang make gun powder of piss and bat guano and lava rock, then gun down their pursuers with their crude recipe.

There were sentences so perfectly wrote I threw the book down and cursed because I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to write half this well. It’s infuriating to see someone using language near perfection, even when it’s contained in a few short lines describing the way spit evaporates in the desert and how the lizards will drink it up before it bubbles and dries.

A Blood Meridian poster I found on Red Bubble

And that last paragraph. If you’ve reached this point, and you’re convinced that you’ll never read Blood Meridian, you owe it to yourself to read that final paragraph and see if it doesn’t give you chills. Even removed from all context, the final words of this novel will make your blood curdle.

I loved Blood Meridian because it more than once made me pause and think “How was that written by a person, a human being like me?” Can a man really be that good a writer? I don’t know. Can I ever be that good a writer? I don’t know. Probably not, and even typing that makes me sad.

It does, however, give me something to strive for. I’ll revisit this novel, of that I’m certain. And when I do, I think I’ll type out the best of pages word for word just so I can see how it feels to mimic what I can only describe as perfection. I have so much to learn from Blood Meridian.

Read it. Just read it.


I highly recommend Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I consider it a book that changed my life. If you’re thinking about reading it and want to support this blog, buy it in paperback herebuy the hardback edition I own here, or listen to the excellent recording on audible.

Book Review – Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

My life has changed since I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon: blog and twitter worth following. I think this is the best praise I can give a book. Not in an insubstantial way, but in the day-to-day. I spend my time differently.

Somehow this book got me excited to share my work. I’ve hated marketing for a long, long time. Funny considering I was an internet marketer for two years. Worst job ever. However, Show You Work altered my perspective. It taught me how to share my work, and for once I’m actually enjoying it.

Check out this book review of Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. If you aspire to greatness in a creative field, this might be the book for you. Click To Tweet

Show Your Work is a quick read brimming with quality ideas that are simple to execute. Austin Kleon argues that one of the best ways of “getting discovered” and building an audience is to share behind the scenes information in a way that is interesting or helpful for others. On page 2, he says:

I think there’s an easy way of putting your work out there and making it discoverable while you’re focused on getting really good at what you do.

Sections like “Be An Amateur”, which focuses on embracing and celebrating your amateur status, are inspiring. Or “Become a Documentarian of What You Do”, which encourages you to open your creative process up to the world.

There are sections touching on the practical side too, like the facts that you should be sharing something daily. And common sense advice like build a mailing lists (if you’re an artist who isn’t do this, now is the time to start). None of the technical aspects presented anything new, but they pieces of time-honored advice and definitely worth mentioning.

He never dives deep into the technical. Rather, he tells you what you need to do, presents his case for each point, and leaves the rest up to you. In this way, Show Your Work is an overview. It focuses on your mindset, your platform, and daily actions you should focus on, but leaves the specifics on execution, platforms, social media, etc. up to you.

I liked this. It’s not a bible, but it doesn’t need to be. Even I, a slow reader, finished Share Your Work and got inspired to boot. Time will tell if the changes I’ve made will have any lasting effects on my platform. But I’ve started to document my creative process much more than ever before. I’ve started scheduling social media posts with trickles of information and tidbits about what I’m doing. I’ve become more deliberate about what I’m writing about on this blog. And lastly, this book inspired me to start drawing again. For good or bad, who knows, but drawing has become a daily part of my life now and I don’t plan on giving it up.

If you’re a creative looking for an audience, or needing a kick in the pants when it comes to sharing your process with the world, then I highly recommend this little book.

Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

What to read next

Picking my next read is a task brimming with possibilities. So many things to consider, so much to gain from a good choice, so much disappointment from a bad one.

I’ve been thinking about what I want from my next reading experience, but am torn in several directions. One of my goals this year is to read more difficult but rewarding books, a bill that was filled by my previous two very different reads Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and The Iron Council by China Mieville. Both definitely work to get through, but both were amazing in their own unique ways.

I also want to read more unique post apocalyptic novels, because 1) I enjoy them, and 2) I’m writing in that genre and need to scope out the competition. I’ve read a few post apocalyptic books in the past (my favorites being The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and is Roadside Picnic considered post apocalyptic(?)).

I’ve narrowed my next book down to four very different choices, and I want your input. Pick from one of the options below, click on the tweet thingy and fill in your choice of book with one reason why. It can be any reason, even if you think it just has the best cover.

The choices are:  Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Pulp by Charles Bukowski, Stoner by John Williams, or My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Let me know what I should read next by filling in the blanks in the tweet below:

You should read -FILL IN BOOK- next #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

Why these books?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven Book Cover by Emily St. John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven while googling for “best post apocalyptic novels” or “best dystopian novels” or something like that. I saw it mentioned more than once, thought that was a good sign (though I have read terrible books from ‘best of…’ lists, so you never know).

This came up and I mentioned it to my wife. “I’ve only heard great things about that book” she said, and then, “Read it ’cause I want to read it and we should read it together!” But she’s currently reading something else so it’ll be a while before we can read this together? Should I get started early? Probably because she reads SO MUCH FASTER than me.

Really, that’s all I know about Station Eleven. I haven’t looked at its goodreads page, I haven’t even cracked it open. All I know is it’s supposed to be good and it shares the genre that I’m currently writing in. Should I read it?

You should read Station Eleven by @EmilyMandel #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

You can follow her on twitter @EmilyMandel

Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Pulp book cover by Charles Bukowski

I’ve never read a Charles Bukowski book. I think many people consider that a crime. I don’t know much about him except that he’s highly regarded and wrote books with titles like Ham on Rye. To be honest, I don’t know what’s kept me away from Bukowski for so long.

Anyway, I only own one of his books, Pulp. I have a feeling that it’s not the Bukowski book you’re ‘supposed’ to start with, but it’s the one I own. So there.

For some reason I put Charles Bukowski in the same camp as Kurt Vonnegut (one of my all time favorites), but I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. They just seem to exude similar vibes. Am I wrong? Should I read it next?

You should read Pulp by Charles Bukowski #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner book cover by John Williams

Stoner, I have heard, is one of the best American novels ever written. This is a novel that’s been floating around my periphery for years. I think I heard about it first from an article from a publication like The Guardian or something. It wasn’t this article but it was a similar one to this.

I forgot about it for a while, then rediscovered it through this YouTube video by Better Than Food, the book recommendation channel by Clifford Lee Sargent @BksBtrThnFood. He gives it about as high of a recommendation possible, which has me intrigued. Should I listen to Clifford and read it next?

You should read Stoner by John Williams because @BksBtrThnFood told you to #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle book cover by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I only recently heard about My Struggle. This one I also learned about from Clifford Lee Sargent (there, I think I linked to all of his things, lol) while bingeing his channel. The same day I watched this video I went to Half Price Books and found the book in the staff recommendations section. It felt like a fatey type of thing, so I bought it.

It’s been a few months since then and the details as to what makes this book great are escaping me now. All I know is that some people who I think have decent taste like it, so hopefully I’ll like it too. Should I read it next though?

You should read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard because @BksBtrThnFood told you to #scbarrusreads Click To Tweet

So which should it be. They all seem to be very different books. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on twitter @scbarrus