The Ghost Brigades (part the second, finally), John Scalzi

The crap thing about being sick is that it’s never completely clear whether you’re at the bottom of it (as I thought I was last Tuesday), or if there’s still further to fall (spoiler alert: there was). I thought I was spending my sick day reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel, but really, I was spending a day when I felt mildly cruddy reading the last Sookie Stackhouse novel. The real sick days were still in store for Thursday and Friday. Lucky me.

I find it difficult to read on days when I feel truly terrible. I seem to be the only person I know who has this particularly nasty springtime cold, and all I really wanted to do was watch BBC exclusive shows on Hulu (apparently, my tablet still thinks we’re in London). I rarely have time to read on the weekends though, I knew I still had about 200 more pages to read in The Ghost Brigades, so I made myself a deal. For every ten percent of the book I read, I could watch one episode of nope I cannot reveal this to the internet the show that shall not be named.

This actually worked for me surprisingly well. I could lay around sluggishly watching some brainless British drama for half an hour, and then I would spend about forty minutes reading and drinking copious amounts of juice, generously supplied by my amazing neighbor. I stayed hydrated, I finished the book, and I got through almost two seasons of wouldn’t you like to know.

When I finished the book, I was completely satisfied, and I could see how perfectly Scalzi had set me up to want to go out and read Zoe’s Tale. Unfortunately, when I took to the internet to make sure it was the next book in the series, it turned out that no, it was actually the fourth book in this collection, and furthermore is a retelling of the third book from a different point of view so I definitely couldn’t skip ahead. I enjoy Scalzi’s novels (enough so that I’m definitely going to see him speak while he’s on tour this month, even though I haven’t yet read the book he’s promoting), but I have so many other books that need to be read! There are still two more Flavia deLuce stories that I’m keeping myself from devouring. I have a spreadsheet full of titles I want to read, and then there’s the much-neglected To-read shelf that I haven’t even glanced at since I returned from my trip.

The thing about Scalzi’s older books is that, while they’re culturally rich, well-peopled, and scientifically intriguing, they aren’t particularly fast-moving. And I’m fine with that. In fact, because it is the number one challenge I face when writing novel-length stories, I find great comfort in seeing Scalzi’s literary progression – it gives me hope (also, I unabashedly like in-between action scenes quite a lot). I often wish my favorite books and shows would spend more time on quiet, human moments, and by the time Scalzi wrote Redshirts, he had nailed the balance between character development and pacing. I couldn’t put it down and happily listened to the audio version on a car trip only a few months later – it was that good. These earlier novels simply require a little more patience. They’ve paid off every time, and I look forward to reading another one, but I can’t quite commit to it right away.

What inevitably brings me back to his books, though, are his characters. He has an uncanny ability to create people I care about, and he doesn’t focus solely on main characters, but fleshes out the supporting cast as well. Personally, I could write hundreds of my own “novel” pages where nothing ever happens outside of a character’s head, but where worlds rise and fall on the thoughts and imagined actions of others. Scalzi manages to make me believe he has written all those pages too, but then has carefully cut around the edges of the character and found him or her a home inside an actual story. It’s a delicate surgery, to be sure, and it’s possible he does nothing of the kind to create his books. It’s not really important whether he does or not though – what’s critical is that he makes me, the reader, believe that he has done it. That is a rare gift, and one I appreciate greatly every time I come back.

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