Free Gifts = Happiness

We’ve written about the Folio Society‘s beautiful books here before (I should probably ask them to sponsor me for plugging them so often…), but I’ll say that one of the nicest things about them are the free gifts that arrive with most purchases.

The first couple of times I bought from them I received totes, which were cool and are paticularly useful in Argentina where stores are prohibited by law from giving people bags (which is probably the dumbest new law I’ve seen in a long time, and illustrates once again how good intentions pave roads to hot places).  I’ve also timed a couple of purchases to ensure that I receive the Folio Diary (in fact, last year, I actually bought a book I wasn’t necessarily planning to purchase just to receive this one).  The diary is usually illustrated with plates from books, and organized as a weekly agenda, with the week’s activities on the odd side and the illustration on the even. It is a beautiful thing and my wife loves them.

Folio Society magazine march 2014

My own favorite gift is the Folio Society magazine, Folio.  This onesometimes arrives with the books and, since it isn’t advertised, you never know if you’re going to receive one or not.

They’re a treat because, in much the same way as how you don’t know you’ll get one, you also won’t be able to guess what’s inside until you read them.  Of course their main function is to get one interested in other Folio titles but they also include a lot of content unavailable elsewhere.  I own the March 2014 and September 2016 issues (as I said, prety random) and can report that  they are the product of extremely thoughtful collation.  I think there’s something in each for any book lover – I myself enjoy them a lot.

Folio Society magazine September 2016

They’re not big – you can probably consume each in a lunch hour – but, as little bite-sized breaks from routine that remind of why we enjoy books so much, they are wonderful.  The March 2014 issue is especially nice because it discusses book arts and speaks to the artists.  Fun stuff.

Anyway, thought I’d share.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer and an all-around lover of books.  He is the author of the well-received Siege.


The Collaboration Effect

I recently read a thriller by Tom Clancy and Peter Telep entitled against all enemies, which got me thinking about collaborations between colossally famous writers and relative unknowns.

The book, entitled Against All Enemies is a good one.  It pits a classic Clancy-esque lone wolf hero against everyone from the Taliban to Mexican drug cartels.  How cool is that?  (Answer: it makes for a very entertaining book which is definitely better than this one).

Tom Clancy Peter Telep Against All Enemies

It’s a successful collaboration which, having read some of Clancy’s later solo efforts, makes one think that Telep did most of the writing.  It also makes one thankful.  Clancy had, either because no one dared to edit his work in his latter years or simply because his writing had deteriorated, become a bloated bore in books such as The Teeth of the Tiger.

But basically, these aren’t collaborations between two bright stars.  For a brilliant example of that, check out Good Omens.  No, these books are built this way for the simple purpose of bringing a steady revenue stream to a needy publisher.

Simply stated, before his death in 2013 Tom Clancy was (and if he’s anything like Robert Ludlum, he still is) a cash cow for his publisher.  But for whatever reason, Clancy couldn’t push out all the books the publisher wanted.  Enter the “created by Tom Clancy” and “Tom Clancy’s Op Center” or whatever.  A similar (albeit not identical) approach works really, really well for books sold under James Patterson’s name.

These books sell.  They adhere to the brand and they give customers what they want.  People know what they’re getting with these. So… are they a good thing or a bad thing?

The people who say “no” will argue that the time wasted with these is time that could be better spent reading the classics.  Or the newest truly deep modern novel which finally explains the human condition.

I beg to differ.

I ascribe to the  school of thought that says that anything that gets people to read is a good thing, even if these books are essentially brain-off beach reads.  That’s fine.  Reading is reading and it isn’t staring at a cel phone to see if anyone has posted something a little less stultifying on Facebook.

And, now that Clancy isn’t writing them, they seem to be reasonably decent books, too.

And besides, afer reading The Stranger, I was ready for something a bit more entertaining!


Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, which, if you like a good thriller, should be right up your alley.

Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.

Books About Writing – There is At Least One You Should Read

When non-writers learn that you are a writer, the reactions are generally classified into two major groups: the ones that think you’re some kind of celebrity who bathes in champagne and is airlifted everywhere on specially modified helicopters and the ones who assume (based on the fact that they haven’t seen your books at their local bookstore window) you are an unpublished novice who needs all the help you can get.

That second group wants to assist, so they tend to give you writing books as gifts.

I’m certain that there are newbies out there who call themselves writers who genuinely need these books.  In my own case, I never told a soul about my writing until I had a number of published stories under my belt (published by other people, not self-published), so I was pretty familiar with messrs Strunk and White (even though I never read their book until much later) when my friends started giving me writing books.

Writing books, I’ve found, are mostly aimed at the writer who’s never sold a word of prose in his life (I assume there are similar tomes aimed at the aspiring poet, but I have no first-hand knowledge of these).

Still, other writers will know that writerly self-image–even those of people who have published a lot–tends to be a fragile thing, so I always read the ones that people give me.  Can’t risk having hubris make you miss the piece of advice that turns you into the next gazillion dollar bestseller.

The latest batch I read included two books.

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

The first was Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (since updated to 55 it seems – god, I hope that the one I need to become a gazillionaire isn’t one of hose extra 5!)  This one is one of those that I consider a standard writing guide.  My impression as that it’s a solid primer that lists the things you need to do to avoid embarassing yourself and cut down on the unnecessary rejections (as well as the unfinished projects and the badly edited work sitting in your hard drive).

Perhaps the main thing I can say about this one is that it’s a great guide to what you need to learn and an even better list of the rules you have to break once you learn them.  A friend of mine says that you need to transcend the rules, not merely break them.  For that, I guess you have to know them first.  This is, as far as I can tell, a reasonable place to start.

Published authors may want to give it a miss, though.

The second book is the one writeng book I’d recommend to absolutely everyone.  The author starts by saying that he doesn’t know s**t about what works and what doesn’t and goes from there.

Stephen King On Writing

Most of you will already have guessed that I’m talking about Stephen King’s On Writing.

I won’t pretend that I’m an expert on King.  I don’t read that much horror, so I’ve read three or four of his books at most, and find his style accessible to point of annoying me at times…  but no one who can’t tell a story extremely well will have sold as many copies of any genre as he has.  Any writer who doesn’t respect King is likely either a snob or a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no clue what publishing looks like.  He has earned the right to make us listen.

And his writing book is marvelous.  He doesn’t try to tell us what we have to do.  He tells us what he did, and what he does.  He tells us his life story, and how he came to be a storyteller.  He tells us what it felt to make a life-altering (at least on the economc front) sale. He tells us how important it is to have a support structure in place.

Then, in the least interesting part of the book, he goes on to tell us what works and what doesn’t, contradicting himself, but giving us value for our money.  “If this is what works for Stephen King…” we say, and try to do it.  Even these bits are well written and a lot less dry than most writing books out there.  So, yeah recommended.

Anyway, if you’re just starting out, then read both of these.  The Clark first.  But if you know what you’re doing, and haven’t done so, pick up the King.  It is so much more than just a book on writing.  It’s the writing memoir you wish you could have written.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  If you followed a link here because you saw Stephen King’s name on the post, and are a horror fan, you might like Gustavo’s story Pacific Wind – available for Kindle at 99 cents!

The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).


Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

The Fantasy Series Elephant in the Room

Readers of this blog have probably read my recent posts on large fantasy series and enjoyed them but, at the same time, they’ve been asking themselves the question: “These are all very good series, but what about the big one?  Why are you avoiding tackling that one?”

Depending on who one talks to, there are only two possible definitions of “the big one” in this context.  The first group are what I call the genre traditionalists, and they’re talking about Papa Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, after all, was the series that started the modern popularity of doorstop fantasy books.

This first group will likely be satisfied by the fact that I’ve been commenting on the History of Middle Earth series, so that leaves the other big one.  The one on HBO that your friend who would never pick up a fantasy book for any reason keeps pestering you about.  The one that has become a central part of popular culture.

Yes, that one.

Cersei and jaime Lannister

What the rest of the world calls A Game of Thrones is known to long-time fantasy readers as A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’ve been reading it since long before the TV show started and you will not be surprised to learn that I have an opinion which, having recently finished reading A Dance with Dragons, I will foist upon you.

A little background first.  I started reading this series in the early 2000s because I had recently started reading both the Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth and was enjoying both.  I knew that George R. R. Martin’s series was supposed to be the one that completed what was then the holy trinity (having read them all, my opinion is that The Sword of Truth, though certainly good, is a step beneath the other two).

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

So I read A Game of Thrones and was immediately hooked.  Here was a writer who created a brutal world in which the weak didn’t somehow overcome – the weak were prey to the strong, just like in real life.  And no character, no matter how beloved, was safe.  Martin wasn’t killing off token main characters for emotional effect–he was going through characters that were supposed to be critical at a spectacular rate.

I put down that first book in disbelief.  There were conventions in fantasy.  The assistant pig-herder was supposed to overcome incredible odds to become the king o the land.  In this series, though, Martin, had he written an assistant pig-herder, would have had the poor lad run into a large knight having a bad day, who would have eviscerated him and left him for the birds to peck on while still barely alive.  So much for that trope.  Had the pig herder been a young girl, he might have had the knight kill all her family and then sell her into slavery on the next boat, never to be heard from again.

That lack of sentimentality meant that you had to keep reading.  Though the author might not have feelings for his characters, the reader most definitely did.  We wanted to know whether the ones we like survive.  And in many cases, they didn’t.  Stronger characters did, even if they were less likable.

Another thing that makes this series attractive is that the author isn’t trying to be the morality police.  Whether you are a noble soul who wants the best for others or a despicable rapist who rules through terror makes no difference at all in your odds of survival.  In fact, the second character might live longer, as he is clearly a stronger man more suited to that particular jungle.  Again, just like in real life.

In hindsight a series that sets aside conventions about what can be written about and what can’t and who can and cannot die is a no-brainer.  People can use this to escape a culture that insists on punishing people according to its modern morality and see a realistic depiction of a medieval society.  Can you imagine a character in this one prissily saying: “please leave aside your toxic masculinity”?  The mountain would cleave him or her in two without even stopping to discuss it, and that is so refreshing, it’s hard to put into words.

Another advantage is that this can’t be imitated.  The whole point and differentiator of ASoIaF is that it defied conventions.  That’s what earned it the massive readership is enjoys.  Anyone coming after this will elicit shrugs and accusations of being derivative.

Also, there’s a second reason we only need one of these: while it’s fun to escape from the overly protective nature of today’s society for a while, too much realism can also be a downer.  Those conventions in fantasy exist for a reason: people like them and it’s fun and comfortable to know the rules and to read about how the good guys, in the end, will win the day and most of the beloved characters will be there to see it.

As for A Dance with Dragons, my feeling is that, over the last couple of books, I see Martin softening a bit.  He’s letting characters survive stuff that would have killed them in the earlier installments.  That may have been his plan from the outset, or he may be reacting to pressure from fans of the series… or, and one can hope, he’s planning some kind of massive bloodbath at the end.

Whatever the reason, I only have one favor to ask: can someone please feed that annoying dwarf to one of the dragons?  Thanks!


Gustavo Bondoni has recently been named a finalist in the Jim Baen Memorial Award, which has him truly excited.  He is also the author of Siege, a well-received space opera novel about human survival in extremis.

Why Write?

On more days than I care to admit, I sit around and try to understand why writers write.  There are probably as many answers to this as there are internet sites devoted to writing out there, but I still wonder.  The fact that many sites title themselves with names such as Writing and Other Forms of Insanity (this is just an example I happened to see today, but many writing sites have a variation on this title) should be a pretty strong clue that even writers aren’t quite sure why we do it.

Is it the fame and fortune?

Sorry, I’m back.  Had to stop and laugh.  Even writers with a long career and several excellent books to their name, published by the right houses and available on bookshelves aren’t precisely rich.  Other than the hyper-famous ones, the lucky writers make about the same amount of money as anyone else does from their job… but with less benefits.

As for fame, I personally know a los of brilliant, successful authors whose names, if you mentioned them to a random stranger on the street, would elicit a single word reply: “Who?”

All right.  Yes, Stephen King exists, and so does J.K. Rowling.  It’s possible to become rich and famous through writing in a way that you probably can’t by pursuing a career as an accountant.  The golden dream is always there, but most writers who start along the path chasing these things exclusively abandon their ambitions for some easier way to make a buck.  You may get there through writing, but it will be neither easy nor quick.

So it’s not money and it’s not fame.  Recognition, then?

Again, some starry-eyed folk might, armed with their mother’s kind words and their college professor’s admiration, embark on a publishing career expecting unlimited praise and adulation.  That usually lasts until the first rejection.  If they can get up after that, the next ten usually finish the job.

What the world thinks of your book

Then why? (Btw, I have a print of the above cartoon sitting on my desk)

All I can give you is my case.  I’ve been telling stories since I can remember.  I had a brother who is two years younger than I was who had to listen to a lot of them when we were kids.  He still reads my novels because I give them to him, so he is likely to be canonized once his story gets out.

And then, I discovered that, when not sweating blood over a keyboard (yes, this happens), I often enjoy writing.  Yesterday, for example, I wrote 1800 good words without even realizing it (this is in no way, shape or form normal).  I had fun and wrote a scene which made me chuckle.

But it isn’t all fun and games.  Now I have to write the next bit, and I have no clue as to what comes next.  Time to sweat those bullets.

So, habit and occasional enjoyment.  Is that it?

Probably not.  The sheer joy of getting an acceptance email has never disappeared.  I no longer dance down hallways as I did when I learned of my first sale, but I still have a nice warm glow that lasts all day.  Kind of like when you drink Irish Coffee in front of a roaring fire.

That many writers give up before experiencing this is a true tragedy.

Also, no matter where you are on your writing career, there’s always another hill to climb.  You sold a story to a magazine?  Great!  Now sell another to a bigger mag.  Published a novel?  Cool, now publish a better one, or sell one to a bigger publisher, or hit the NYT bestseller list.  Already a millionaire bestseller?  All right, but are you a critical darling?  If not, that could drive the next book.

In my own experience, it might have been possible for me to stop when I was just writing for fun – I might not have stopped completely, but I might have just written occasionally for a laugh – but once that first acceptance happened… there was no question of ever giving it up.  Worse than crack, better than sex.

So there’s something.

And finally, there’s the fear of death.  The fact that our writing, even if it was just printed in a photocopied local rag, has the potential to connect with people long after we are gone.  If just one copy of one story survives to be puzzled over by scholars in a few hundred years, it will have left a much greater mark than several lifetimes of accounting or marketing or managing a restaurant.

To incorrectly quote Queen:  Who doesn’t want to live forever?


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores immortality in a much different and less obvious way than this post.

Reading Pratchett, Tinged with Sadness

I’m going to be honest.  If I was allowed to take the complete works of one humorist with me to a desert island, that writer would be P.G. Wodehouse.  For my money, he is the funniest author ever to grace the English language.  And I do mean grace: his sentences are a thing of beauty.  Without ever getting in his own way or using obtuse vocabulary, he managed to build perfect gems of writing… in almost every single sentence.  I can’t overstate the difficulty of managing that.  Sometimes you just want to write a sentence to get you from point A to pint B, but Wodehouse never allowed himself that.

If I had to keep ranking them, the second on my list would be Douglas Adams.  The perfect distillation of the English sense of humor.  Sadly, his oeuvre is too small to keep me entertained for an indeterminate period of time out in the south seas after a shipwreck but it is more intense.  He is more laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse is.

But though he doesn’t top my list on the pure humor and entertainment front, Terry Pratchett is by far the best novelist of my three favorite humorists.  He was the man who picked up the torch left by his predecessors and decided that he would not only write humor for humor’s sake, but he would break Wodehouse’s rule about writing a novel and make the books about something.  And they would be funny.

So, you get social conscience and human foibles and difficult topics with your humor.

I’ve read widely, and I’m here to tell you that only Pratchett has managed to handle that particular volatile mix without having it blow up in his face.

Most humorists fall into two camps: the ones that exploit the human condition for a few laughs and the ones who attempt to make us care.  The first group doesn’t really give a damn about humans as a group (or at least they aren’t there to make us think about humanity).  They just want their humor to be relatable enough so you’ll laugh at the right time.  The second group is usually preachy, holier-than-thou and so, sooooo concerned.  They are anything but funny.

Pratchett pulls it off.  You end up caring deeply about the issues in his book without ever having the sense that the writer is obsessed, and that the issues have taken over his work.  (actually, this happens to issue-driven books in any genre, not just humor.  When the agenda pushes the plot and characters aside, it’s a recipe for disaster).

So it’s with great sadness that I am reading the final few Pratchett books for the first time.  One can enjoy a book upon re-reading, but you never have the same sheer joy of discovery as you did the first time you encountered the words.  Since his death, a Pratchett book that I hadn’t read before became a priceless treasure.

Over the last year, I’ve consumed three of those treasures.

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

A Blink of the Screen is a rare treat.  It collects Pratchett short stories.  Some of them we’ve all read before, but many are early work published in tiny magazines or very local newspapers.  They show a master at work before he was a master, with flashes of the genius that made him world-famous, but without the skill at weaving it all together.  Still, there are some gems in here, and punchlines that will make you chortle.  I enjoyed it.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff made me even sadder.  It’s a Discworld novel.  If having any unread Pratchett book is a treasure, a Discworld book is like having the Crown Jewels and the Romanoff treasure all at once.  To make things even better, this is a Sam Vimes book.

A side note about Vimes.  While there are many amazing characters on the Discworld, Vimes became the most important of all after Pratchett discovered him halfway through the series.  He represents the everyman, but also the fatalist.  I have a friend who swears by the witches, but it’s Vimes who serves as the backdrop to Pratchett’s most mature work.  I like him even more than I like the Luggage and Death, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The only consolation I had when I finished this one was the knowledge that Raising Steam is still safely buried somewhere in my TBR pile.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

The last book of the three I had to hand was The Shepherd’s Crown. The Tiffany Aching books fall in the Young Adult category and are a lot less funny.  Pratchett’s sense of humor is still there in the background, but these aren’t meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, but a coming-of-age story for a young witch growing into her powers.  All of Pratchett’s humanity is on display in these, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone out for a laugh.  However, it is to Pratchett’s eternal credit that he manages to make a Young Adult story aimed at girls compelling to a not-particularly-young adult male who (as attested to by earlier entries) is more likely to pick up a spy thriller than a book about a teenage witch.

I don’t think we’ll ever see another writer quite like this one for a while.



Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad coming out on March 22nd (it can be pre-ordered through this link).  If you enjoyed reading Pratchett, you will likely enjoy this one.  Also, the title comes from a very rude word in Greek, so there’s that.

Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!


Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege. 

We Need to Talk About Dan

If you’re a writer, critic or just a general cultural pundit, there are certain literary truths that you must accept… or else.  Joyce was the greatest writer of the 20th century.  Postmodernism isn’t stupid, it’s just that billions of people don’t get it.  Rhyming poetry died with the dinosaurs.

And Dan Brown in history’s worst writer.  He makes Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James look, respectively, like Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Since Classically Educated makes no pretense of being anything but unabashedly elitist, I suppose one would expect us join the choir in denouncing Brown’s crimes against literature.  One would be wrong.  We’re here to say reasonably nice things about his books.

Ah, I hear people say, a guilty pleasure.  Er, no.  Elitists don’t do guilt.  We do pleasure and leave the guilt to the hand-wringing middle classes and insecure academics.  I’m not looking to be forgiven for enjoying the Robert Langdon novels, but to try to analyze why I (and a lot of other people) enjoy them, despite the criticism of the limitations of the writing – which, to be fair, are pretty reasonable.  There is a bit of lazy writing in there.

So, having recently read two of his more recent Langdon novels, The Lost Symbol and Inferno, I thought it was time to bite the bullet and discuss why I’m still reading these.

For starters, I’ll tell you about my introduction to Dan Brown.  Like everyone else on the planet, my first contact with him came through The Da Vinci Code.  I had badly miscalculated the number of books I needed to take with me on a trip to the Middle East in 2005 and found myself flying back to Argentina via Spain with precisely zero things to read.  The one book that every single bookstore in the world–even in Spain–had on hand at that time was Brown’s, in English, in mass market paperback.  I picked it up with some trepidation.

I was immediately hooked, read the thing without stopping (and made demonic at the nice people whose attempts to give me airplane food were interrupting my reading) and put it down wanting more.  I don’t remember exactly, but I probably bought Angels and Demons immediately after the jet lag wore off.

Not once did I stop to criticize the prose.  Stuff which, if discovered in my own writing would have made me blanche and question my right to continue living flew right by.


Your mileage may vary, but I think it was two things.

The first factor is an old cliché: pacing and suspense (yes, I know they’re two different things, but they work best when they work together).  Simply stated, these novels keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next.  Will the characters make it, what is the solution to this or that riddle, etc.  There are things that keep you hooked both emotionally and intellectually.

Even better, is the fact that the pacing doesn’t bore you or make you wait.  It gives the solution within a few pages, but by the time you have it, Brown has introduced another question or risk or riddle for you to agonize over.  He does this extremely deftly, which ensures that absolutely no one (except perhaps a critic paid to look pretentious) is thinking about the man’s prose.

The second factor is the spectacular use of every conspiracy theory known to man.  Brown does his research on them.  Like the people trying to convince us that aliens have already landed and are in control, he uses just enough evidence to make a convincing, seemingly watertight, case, and leaves the deeper research–the stuff that puts the rest in context and makes it much less sinister–out.  So his books have whatever it is that attracts humans to conspiracy theories.

Umberto Eco famously said that Dan Brown was one of his characters.  He was, of course, referring to Casaubon in Foucalt’s Pendulum.  We’ve spoken glowingly about that book here, mainly because all good elitists are either skeptics when it comes to conspiracy theories or members of the Illuminati pretending to be skeptics.

What he meant by that was that Brown seems to have read all the same books that Eco did, but Brown took them seriously while Eco has them in his famous collection of fakes and lies.  He did clarify later that Brown was only using the same material for a different purpose and that he, Eco, had no evidence that Brown was a believer, but the glee he showed when throwing out the initial phrase means that we’ll take it as the true meaning.

I will postulate that Brown doesn’t use the old writings as a true believer does, but uses them as a good writer does – with the bottom line in mind.  Cynicism aside for a second, the bottom line in this case isn’t money (OK it isn’t only money) but readability and page-turningness.  In the case of his first two books, he realized that people love to read about dark plots within and around the Catholic Church and the New Testament.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

For The Last Symbol, he spread his wings a bit and went after the Freemasons, which had the added benefit that he was able to set his novel in Washington DC, a place as rich in symbolism as any renaissance town – remember that Langdon solves these things in large part by interpreting symbols.

Inferno Dan Brown

After that, he asked himself “What group of conspiracy theorists am I missing?” and decided to write Inferno, set it in Florence (another good choice) and write about a guy developing a super-germ to wipe out humanity.  Also, he makes a brave choice with the ending…  something that shows that story, to him, is more important than just printing unlimited amounts of money.

I still haven’t read Origin, but, so far, and to his everlasting credit, Brown has resisted the temptation to complete his conspiracy bingo card by adding aliens to the mix.  There’s only so much we can defend here after all.

In the end, the books are widely read because of their strengths, not despite their weaknesses.  In this context the weaknesses (aka uninspired writing), to a reader, become invisible.  The story takes over and pulls you along, not accepting any excuses.

There.  A critical apologism of Dan Brown and a call for his work to be appreciated.  For my next trick, I may need to find arguments to show that  Hitler was actually a perfectly nice guy if you got to know him or that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was well-intended but got a little out of hand.

Nah, that sounds like a lot of work; I’ll probably just do another movie review.  Everyone likes those.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 stories published in seven languages (mostly in English).  His latest novel, Incursion, sets new standards in throwing characters under the bus.  His characters start the book thinking they’re on a suicide mission… and then it gets worse.