Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 3s of 2009

Its time for the end of year lists. I thought I'd do my reader's a kindness and keep my lists to top threes. I have several categories that may be surprising in a blog devoted to spec fic (for example, non fiction, video games) but I think spec fic borrows heavily and influences other genres.
A disclaimer: my lists reflect the top three's in each genre that I have read this year. They may or may not have been published in 2009, and in some cases have appeared twenty and thirty years earlier. Literary fads wane and wax, some books dip below the horizon into earned obscurity, and others remain fixed points in the sky for reasons not always easy to understand. As a reader I reserve the right to only pass judgments on the books as they have appeared to me. I defend my subjectivity.
I don't like commercialism and its rapacious twin consumerism. I think it slightly consumerist to only reflect on books of the year. If in the future The Wise Man's Fear is eclipsed by a rereading of The Lord of the Rings, oh well. A book that earns high praise on a second reading is even more impressive. (Of course, having gone through three rereads of the The Name of the Wind, I have the feeling the Wise Man's Fear will fare just fine)
Here we go then:

Top 3 Videogames:
#3: Halo Odst: Semper Fi Spartans. Parts of the game annoyed me(the infrared spectrum made me feel like I was playing an updated version of asteroids), but overall the storytelling arc and game play were impressive. Plus its always nice to have old Firefly friends voice acting.
#2: Assassin's Creed 2: Gorgeous backdrop and open world. History as gaming, and a cool storyline to boot. A little too much of the guido in the accents(which I can say because I am Italian) but the best parts of the game were the uncovering of Ezio's past.
#1: Borderlands: Took my two favorite genres: FPS and Role-playing, and combined them in one endlessly replay able, storytelling feast. Also the look and feel of the game, like being inside a graphic novel, added a whole new coolness dimension.

Top 3 Non Fiction books:
#3: Shame and Necessity, by Bernard Williams. The classicist philosopher's account of values and ethics in the ancient societies provided me with a whole new way of viewing our own. Eye opening book.
#2: Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas. Whether or not I ever get published, this book awakened me to what actually works in a well made book: constant tension, ramping up the stakes, characters who are worth giving a damn about. Great book not just for aspiring writers but for anyone who reads and believes in fiction.
#1: Soldiers and Ghosts, by J. E. Lendon. The scholar's account of how battle technology actually was in continual tension with the archaic past, rather than a straight linear process of development, should be required reading for every historical novelist. And written in a non dry prose that conveys its excitement for the subject without being pedantic.

Top 3 YA Novels:
#3: Frontier Wolf, Rosemary Sutcliff. If you want to experience the mindset of the ancients, without it being filtered through a lens of nostalgia, or cleaned up by current ideas of ethics and right behavior, then read Sutcliff. The ancient world was nasty brutish and short, but people also really believed in things like honor. Although not the way we moderns might think of it.
#2: The Land of Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer. Young boy in the middle ages who grows up to be a bard. Continues the story from The Sea of Trolls. Witty, humorous, and told with a real sense of the historical. Good read.
#1: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Not much I can say that others haven't except one of the most life affirming books ever. Give it to a surly teenager and they will be in danger of being less surly.

Top 3 Graphic Novels:
#3: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, by Bill Willingham. A cool spin on the Arabian Nights. Kept me engaged till the end.
#2: Fables Volume 8: Wolves, Bill Willingham: The resolution of the Snow White, Bigby Wolf love story was an "aww" moment I rarely find in fiction. At least in fiction I can take seriously. I have the feeling Bill Willingham is actually a descendent of the brother's Grimm. He writes graphic novels about fables with the same maturity and adult understanding of the darker places in our psyche that the brother's Grimm had.
#1: I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelley and JM Ken Nimura. This book actually made me weep. In a bookstore where the staff who see me regularly were concerned enough to ask if I were ok. One of my more embarrassing moments.

Top 3 Non Genre Novels:
#3 Freddy's Book, by John Gardner. A little annoying in the setup, but Gardner tells a very human tale. Worth reading.
#2 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Richly deserved all the awards. Oscar's story was truly tragic and the failure of his friends and family to understand and appreciate him made the story even more human. Also a statement of warning for all the genre fiction haters: next time you think Sauron is just a fantasy, think of Trujillo.
#1: Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig. 85 pages long but just perfect. A masterpiece of what a system can do to a soul.

Top 3 Fan Blogs:
#3: Adventures in Reading: The author has an honesty and an everyman quality to his reviews that inspire trust in his opinion. Not a lot of fancy academic jargon, but reflective and well thought out. Turned me onto the Fables series and others gems.
#2: Grasping for the Wind: Informative, analytic, and up to date without being sycophantic. A reviewer I trust.
#1: The Wertzone: If the publishing industry were smart they would pay this guy to be the archivist of all things Sci Fi and Fantasy. His writing is analytic, humorous and penetrating. He reminds me of an 18th century encylopaedist whose ambition is to catalogue, describe, and understand the world. Or in this case the spec fic world. He doesn't kiss ass, and if he doesn't like a book or a show or a game he is honest. He also is the most informative blogger on the genre I have ever read. Games, toys, movies, books, tv, nothing escapes his eyes. He is the true archivist of the genre.

Top 3 Author Blogs:
#3: Patrick Rothfuss: He doesn't write often lately (for which we forgive him because of the revisions, oh yea and having a kid J), but when he does he is straight up hysterical. He is the fantasy version of Robin Williams. Give him a subject and stand back and hope not to be hit by the verbal shrapnel. Favorite Post: soon after Rowling revealed Dumbledore was gay he dressed up for Halloween as Dumbledore and his girlfriend Sarah as Harry Potter. Pics on the blog included him groping her. I think the morning coffee came out through my nose when I saw that.
#2: Neil Gaiman: Because when the dream king speaks we listen. He gives great insight into the creative process and his humility and gentlemanliness are refreshing in an industry of gigantic egos. Plus the weirdness factor can be high. Did you catch the blog where he and Amanda Palmer were interviewed in a bathtub?
#1: John Scalzi: Scalzi said he didn't manage to write a novel last year. I don't care. He is opinionated and outspoken but disturbingly articulate. He has a built in bullshit detector that is refreshing and you feel smarter just for reading him. He blogs not just to sell books, or to network, but because he genuinely loves writing and enjoys his readers. The series he blogged about the criminal pay scales publishers were putting out should be enough to award some type of honor at next year's conventions. I only started reading this year but can anyone possibly match "I have to tape bacon on the cat" ?????

Top 3 Spec Fic Novels: Ok, the meat and potatoes.
#3: Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie. A series that begins with The End and ends with A Beginning. It’s a novel that was intended to kill cliché's. Not just that but he is probably the most gifted character author. He writes with an understanding of EVERYBODY. In terms of the traditional fantasy series he brought new twists on every page. But always believable and well written. For this book alone I'm like a prisoner in Glotka's cells, Im condemned to keep reading his books.
#2 Peter and Max, by Bill Willingham, I know, it’s a book made from a comic, but what a book. Like I said earlier, Bill Willingham is an honorary Brother's Grimm. He writes with an understanding of the darker places of the psyche as well as masterful skill as a storyteller. Crazy serial killers abound in fiction, but how many can make you afraid? Afraid because you find yourself frightened to realize you can kind of understand where they are coming from. That plus how he updates, comments, and reinvents all the classic fairy tale stories is enough to convince me the book deserved a top ranking for this year.
#1 Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay. What the f was I reading when this was published? Probably something life affirming and fun like Derrida. Had I read this wonderful novel when it first came out I would have been a different person. As it is now, I can say I am different and better for having read it now. I don't know how to offer higher praise for a novel than that. We can analyze all we want but fiction is as much about emotional impact as it is intellect. The sense of loss, the families destroyed, the nightmare of history, he brings it all down to the level of the gut and what it means to be human and to have lived through these things. And, in a very believable way, to continue to live beyond them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas.

And here's a thought: Does "A Christmas Carol" count as spec fic?

It does have ghosts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Highly Anticipated Books for 2010

Some of these have been out already and I haven't been able to read them. Some of these have been promised to be delivered on a yearly basis(yes I see you Rothfuss and Martin, putting your heads down and shuffling toward the exit) but have thus far been no shows. Still, we keep on hoping.

Soon I'll post my picks for best reads of the year. But for now these are the titles I most want to read in 2010:

The Whale Road, by Robert Low because when Joe Abercrombie recommends a book and an author, I pay attention.

The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie

The Sequel to The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Ok I dont honestly know if this was promised to be released in 2010 but I'm hoping anyway.

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, I'm starting to wonder if this isn't all some sort of elaborate pun on Rothfuss's part: The Wise Man's Fear is that book two will actually be released.

A Dance with Dragons, GRRM, maybe he should retitle it A Dance With Deadlines.

The follow up book to Sussanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. No release date but Clarke said the book will focus on the characters on the lower spectrum of society. I agree with Lev Grossman, this was probably the fantasy book of the decade, did things with fantasy no one had ever done. The sheer daring of what she attempted should be enthusiastically applauded at every fantasy conference.

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, Volume One of the Stormlight Archive, if this guy publishes his grocery lists I'll probably run out and buy them. He's that good.

Whatever Neil Bloody Gaimen wants to publish. Because he is also that good.

Anything by John Scalzi, or Richard K. Morgan, or R. Scott Bakker.

And probably the book I'm most anticipating: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: For the sheer beauty of his sentences, the impressive intelligence behind the curtain of words, and the true poet's touch, he is the best writing today. The descriptions of the book hooked me. His situations are the most unique and at the same time so very universally human. He is the modern master of fantasy.

Books I have that I am going to read: Brian Ruckley's The Godless World series, R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing; Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm, The House of the Stag by Kage Bakker, The Black Company books by Glen Cook, Sergei Lukayenko' Night Watch Series, and Ken Scholes Psalms of Isaak series. Also, its time to explore the expanded HALO universe of Books. And I am going to sit down with My reader's companion to the lord of the rings and go through the books.
Thats pretty much it. I'm sure I'll find way too much to read at the local borders.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie, 632 pages, hardcover. Published 2009.

2 LINE SUMMARY: Kill Bill meets the Lord of the Rings meets Assassin's Creed 2. If Machiavelli and Quentin Tarentino co-wrote a novel this would be it.

PLOT: Monza Murcatto, raven haired, buxom, passionate leader of a band of mercenaries is stabbed, tossed out a palace window and left for dead on a garbage heap(this all in the first ten pages). She spends the rest of the novel enacting vengence on the seven men in the room who either helped gag, stab, and toss her, or watched without assiting. Monza is rescued and recovers with the help of a creepy bone thief/grave robber who specializes in human anatomy. As she heals she becomes addicted to a painkiller opiate that throughout the novel she will struggle to overcome. To help her revenge she hires a poisoner, a barbarian, a torturer, and an ex convict serial killer. Each brings his/her special talents to bear on the job at hand. As the novel progresses she murders the guilty as well as the innocent to acquire her revenge. Ethical and moral questions are asked by people who have no ethics or morals, and no satisfactory answers are found to the problem of revenge: That one often causes more damage and destruction in the act of revenge than the initial act of violence created. Turnabout follows turnabout and the story has several suprising moments that genuinely shock despite the cynical worldview the novel presents. The ending is not entirely unexpected nor is it predictable. Abercrombie is adept at structuring a plot well, and bringing all the various subplots and narrative threads together quite masterfully.

ANALYSIS: I don’t really know why I like Joe Abercrombie's novels. In all reality I shouldn't. The cynical world view, the lunatic fringe characters, even the magic systems don't necessarily convince(again, more or less pulled from a dungeons and dragons guide) was conspicuously lacking in this one. I've heard it said some people take a secret delight in the twilight series by stephanie meyer(I’m not delighted by bad writing so I have no real interest in the books) and that they can neither explain nor understand what it is that so motivates them to keep reading. I feel that way about Abercrombie's books. He writes about the way the world is, and he writes about people who try to be better or change and often fail. In that sense he mirrors the "real" world, where the bad guys often win. In a way in Abercrombie's books no one wins, and if they do they don’t do it for long.

His characters are scarred, or rejected, but mostly just plain lost in world circumstances they didn't create. I think that may be the reason why I do read his books. Many of the characters have a sense of "thrownness" to misuse Heidegger's phrase. They are trying to find a moral or value system that will allow them to survive the violent times they exist in and nothing really suffices. Abercrombie is a close student of history, as is shown by his blog and he often mentions the books of history he has read. I think that may be his ultimate point. History is a nightmare, as Stephen Daedalus once famously said, and Abercrombie may have added : and there is no waking up from it.

Another reason I enjoy his novels are the characters, their interactions, and the humor. His comic timing is perfect and his use of images to comment on deeper themes has grown since the first law trilogy. For example, in one stunning scene Monza sword fights with one of her targets in a stream. The character's scarf gets tangled in a mill wheel. It pulls him under then lifts him up out of the water again and again until Monza throws a piece of wood in to jamb the mill and hold the character at the zenith of the circle. While there he speaks about the things he's done, she's done, and what they've all done to survive. Monza kills him anyway but the idea of the renaissance wheel of fortune leaps to mind and Abercrombie uses it to comments on the idea. The only way to get off it is to die. No one stays at fortune's favor for ever.

His next novel, according to the blog, is titled The Heroes. Of course, how can it help but be sarcastic. But he is never completely cynical. His characters do come away from their experiences with some measure of self knowledge. They learn, they make connections with other characters, and they understand more than they did at the novel's beginning. That self knowledge may not be enough to save them from the historical situation they've been born into, but it is a minor victory nonetheless.

SCORE: 8/10. Well plotted, great characterization, richly detailed world. Sometimes it wallows a bit much in its own violence and mayhem and for that I took a few points off.

SIMILAR BOOKS: The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan.

Friday, December 4, 2009

November Books Read

-Fables 8: Wolves, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay, fantasy novel

-Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guinn, historical/magical realist novel

-The Scene Book: A Primer for Fiction Writers, Sandra Scofield, writing reference

-Peter & Max, a Fables Novel, Bill Willingham, fantasy novel

-I Kill Giants, Joe Kelley, graphic novel

best reads of the month: pretty much everything. With the exception of Lavinia. Didn't like the the main character. She comes across as not so much pious as opportunist. Biggest surprise of the month was Peter & Max. Now my candidate for best fantasy novel published this year. Joe Kelley's I Kill Giants was a warning to be more careful what I choose to read in a bookstore. I started tearing up at the end and had to go to the restroom to collect myself. Some tough guy.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Book Info: Tigana. Fantasy Novel. Stand alone. 676 pages. First published 1999. Tenth Anniversary Edition with an afterward by the author.

Author Info: Guy Gavriel Kay, Canadian novelist, poet, and lawyer. Other books: The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emporers, Last Light of the Sun, A Song for Arbonne, Ysabel, Under Heaven(forthcoming). Was retained by the JRR Tolkien Estate to assist in the editing and publishing of The Silmarillion. Website: www.brightweavings.com

Plot Summary: Prior to the events of the novel two rival kingdoms invade a peninsula composed of independent city states. Each of the invading armies is led by a powerful wizard who uses magic as well as strategy, and political subversion to ensure the conquered populace do not rise up. One of the wizards/rulers, Brandin, lost a son in subjugation of the peoples. He then laid a curse on that province, Tigana, to be removed from the memory of men. Tigana can not be heard by outsiders, nor can anyone outside the province recall anything of the inhabitants. The inhabitants remember but cannot speak of their past. They are cursed to watch as time slowly erases their history and culture from the minds of the world.

The story opens with a cast of characters who seek to rise up and remove not only the curse but the invaders and their armies. They include a former prince, a troubador in a well respected performing troupe, an actress, a wizard, a former stone mason and an exiled and disguised Duke. The novel follows their attempts to free the people of the palm, the name for the peninsula, from the invaders.

Analysis: Tigana has set a standard for what a fantasy novel can do. It is at the same time a sound political commentary on the attempt to rewerite history by a conqueror, as it is a psychological study of revolutionaries who decide to remove an invader though life itself has changed little. In fact, in some ways, life improved. There is an inventiveness, combined with a musical ear for well turned poetic phrases that resonate long after a reading.

As I delved further into the book I found that I compared this novel often with Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy, and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. In both those books a cynics worldview prevails and any attempt to pursue a noble or high minded goal is quickly ridiculed, and often fails. While both books are to me a true presentation of the way life is and humans treat each other, I found Tigana to be genuinely tragic, in a way that the previously mentioned series were not. In Tigana, there are no simple classification of good guys and bad guys either, but nor is there the assumption that all men are, to quote Jean Paul Sartre "bastards and liars." The invaders are portrayed with insight, realism and human motivation so much so that as readers we find that we can't necessarily call up the hatefulness we feel is appropriate response to their actions.

The magic system in Tigana was unique and did not read like it was culled from the pages of a Dungeons and Dragons Guide. There were several scenes which jumped out for sheer inventiveness: an archer/assasin who uses a bow from which hangs a lock of his victims hair, the night walkers, their battles, and most especially the binding of wizards to princes.
A fantasy novel with not just heart, but intelligence and excellent characterization. I am now going to read all his books.

Similar Reads: For theme, the dangers of the past and its curse of the present: Ysabel, by Kay; Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott. For poetic magic: The Name of the Wind, by Pat Rothfuss. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Buried Treasure

So yesterday I'm at my Mom's helping her reassemble the house after the work crews have finished putting down the new floor tile. They had to do the closests as well as the regular spaces, so many things were boxed up that I hadn't seen in years: old clothes, weightlifting gear, hunting equipment, and a box of very old books. Among them was the above volume.

Can you believe it? Robert Jordan. A Conan novel from 1982. Little did I know.

I have a dim recollection of reading the book. Im almost positive I bought it at a Waldens. I was in junior high and going through a Conan phase. One of my cousins had sent me the entire set of Conan stories edited by L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter and I was hungry for more. I remember being dismissive of the cheap imitations. Yeah, I really thought that: cheap imitations. If I'd only known.

When I finish the wheel of time catch up Im going to reread the book. See if I can glean any hints of the masterpiece to come.

Its interesting to me now that Jordan learned his craft with the Conan books. I remember shortly after beginning the Wheel of Time series that he had publised several Conan novels. This greatly surprised me because the wheel of time was such a vast and complicated tapestry whereas the Conan books were a ready made world. I then thought that Jordan had been slumming in the Conan world. But an older and hopefully wiser me imagines that he learned a lot about characterization, plot, structure and constructing novels from the experience.

I remember reading an article where Neil Gaiman described one of the most formative writing experiences he had was a series of Batman comics when he was younger. He said it taught him a lot about characterization because he had to take this well known character and find a way to bring him to life beyond the usual cliché's.

I want to read the Conan Chronicles to see how Jordan did this. Just looked on Amazon and have added all Jordan's Conan books to my wish list.

As if I didn't have enough to read. I wonder if the above book has a value now that Jordan is so famous? Probably though I am skeptical. I doubt I'll part with it regardless. Not so much sentimental value, as it is a symbol of closure, of having come full circle
I know the quality of the above pic is fuzzy but its the best one I could find online.

Monday, November 2, 2009

October Reading

-The Land of the Silver Apples, Nancy Farmer, YA Fantasy novel, 496 pages

-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, novel, 335 pages

-Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean Paul Sartre, philosophy, 91 pages

-This is Me, Jack Vance, Jack Vance, biography, 189 pages

-Crossroads of Twilight, Robert Jordan, fantasy novel, 822 pages

Another poor reading month. Sheesh. I cant seem to get back into my reading groove. For November: getting up to date with the wheel of time series. More Sartre(he doesn't depress me, instead I see more options in life after reading him). I'm also in the mood for historical fiction. Buying a car this month has temporarily wiped out my book money cache. Which means I read what's been lying around. Speaking of which the stack of books on my desk is so tall it has a gangster lean. There is also the local library, but that means paying off fines. Just a sample of the books waiting to be read that I own: The House of the Stag, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Lavinia, Selected Short Stories of Dickens, Essays in Existentialism. And though I blush to admit it, The Malazaan series up to Reaper's Gale. Ive only reached the middle of Gardens of the Moon. Also, Best Served Cold, which because of the upcoming release of Assasin's Creed 2, I feel like reading.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Book Info: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, novel, 335 pages

Author Info: Junot Diaz was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, raised in New Jersey, educated at Rutgers, is a professor at MIT, and lives in New York City. Author of a previous collection of short stories: Drown. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is his first novel.

Plot Summary: The book's narrator Yunior, who is later revealed to have been the title character Oscar's college roomate and fellow writing student at Rutgers, recreates the formative years of Oscar's childhood and adolescence, as well as the history of Oscar's immediate family: his mother, sister, father, aunts and uncles. The narrator also chronicles the atrocities of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, and its impact on Oscar's family and expatriate community in New Jersey.

Analysis: This book is not properly speaking a work of speculative fiction. The reason I am reviewing on a spec fic website is because the book impressively draws connections between some of the common tropes, themes, and characters of genre literature to enable the reader to grasp and confront the more horrible aspects of human nature revealed during the atrocities of the twentieth century. Real world issues like genocide, systematic rape and tortue, killing squads, kidnapping, political assasination and breeding programs are all detailed in the book and the long term effects it has on the generations to follow. What is truly astonishing is the way the author uses genre literature as a tool to help him cope and endure what happened in the Trujillo regime, and in so doing provides himself and his readers a powerful tool for healing.

The title character, Oscar, is a classic sci fi fantasy loving D and D role playing 300 pound nerd whose uppermost desire in life is to get laid. Unfortunately for our hero, being three hundred pounds, and a nerd, and unathletic, and whose large and pompous sounding vocabulary tends to alienate rather than impress the females around him, the likelihood of it ever happening is dismal, and makes his quest to get some toto by turns comic and sad. In a sense it becomes a kind of antithesis quest to getting the ring back to Mordor. And the narrator has great fun satirizing Oscar as much as he does learning to appreciate what Oscar tried to do with his life. Oscar's uppermost desire in life, besides getting laid and falling in love, is to become the Dominican Tolkien. His steady diet of sci fi, fantasy, and other forms of genre entertainment provide him with a creative outlet for his fears and frustrations.

But Oscar is not entirely the escapist we think. During the course of the book, as he learns his family history, and the horrors of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, he learns to look squarely at the evil he sees around him as well as to confront the legacy of the evil and damge done by those in his employ. One thing Oscar has, one weapon as surely as sharp as an elven sword, is language. And when Oscar decides to express himself and comment on what he sees, he can be precise and passionate and as shocking as the cocking of a gun.

In the end Oscar attains his heart's desire, attains it briefly, and in doing so provides an education in belief, beauty, and love to those around him who have grown cynical. He redeems those who loved him in a surprisingly unforseeable way.

Other thoughts: The most astonishing aspect of this book, and for this it truly deserves the Pulitzer, is the way the author brings a reader who probably has little or no interest in genre fiction, and shows him just how bizarre and unprecedented the real world antics of Trujillo's regime were. Trujillo can only be described and understood as evil, and the narrator, as he recreates the atrocities finds that using the fantasy references provide him with a touchstone, a way of grasping what really defies understanding: evil. Trujillo is flat out evil, as evil as Sauron. The most disturbing aspect, when you confront your supposedly twentieth century enlightened self, the one that believes that pure evil is just the stuff of outdated religions, that the only way to cope with a Trujillo(or for that matter Stalin, or Mussolini, or Hitler, or Milosevic), is to label them evil, and work backwards from there Genre lit has quite a few things to say about the nature of evil that modernist fiction has kind of refused to touch for fear of seeming unrealistic. The narrator Yunior will toss out lines like: "Homegirl understood that when Gondolin falls you don't sit around waiting for balrogs to tap on your door, you make fucking moves." How else does one cope with the military coup de tat, and the attendent death squads? There is a solace and solidarity in the books that modernist and mainstream authors are hard put to reproduce.

In the end, after finishing the book, I see that the author's purpose was to show that genre books, as much as literary or mainstream books are all about building communities. We share common tropes and metaphors and in these we use as tools to help us survive the worst that can befall us.

Similar Reads: Crap, I don’t think I can think of a single title to compare it too. Although from what I have read Diaz's short story collection, Drown, supposedly reimagines the Odyssey from the perspective of the Telemachus and Penelope, updated to a modern setting of course. Other than that the books mentioned in the story bear re reading or at least a first reading: Octavia Butler's novels, the Dune books, and of course The Lord of the Rings.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Random things

Haven't had much time to post but I have been reading. Two books specifically: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the Pulitzer, and The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer. Reviews forthcoming. Also reading a book of essays on Joss Whedon's show Serenity written by writers and fans. Actually a very good compilation. Mercedes Lackey has an essay that really nailed the subtext of the show: freedom. She asks if any character on the show really has it, or just lives the illusion of Freedom. Even though Mal and his colleagues live on the fringes and claim to be under the heel of no one, they are actually fulfilling a necessity of supplying the outlying planets with goods that a resource stretched out alliance can't.
Trying to figure out what to read next: A Black Company novel, Lavinia by Ursula Leguin, or a Samuel R Delany fantasy novel. Also sitting on the shelf is Kage Baker's The House of the Stag.
Decisions, decisions.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Books Read in September

This was one crappy month for reading. Autumn has arrived in PA. The weather is cold, damp, and miserable: perfect for reading. A hot cup of coffee, a soft chair next to the radiator, and I'm back in business.

-Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Druss the Legend, David Gemmell, heroic fantasy novel, 334 pages
-Fables 5: The Mean Seasons, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Fables 6: Homelands, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams, classical studies, philosophy, essays, 164 pages
-Frontier Wolf, Rosemary Sutcliff, YA historical novel, 254 pages
-Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman, children's fantasy novel, 117 pages
-The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke, fantasy short story collection, 235 pages
-Fables 7: Arabian Nights (and Days), Bill Willingham, graphic novel

Best fiction: Frontier Wolf
Best Comic/Graphic Novel: Fables 6. I will finish the series this month.
Most intriguing read: Shame and Necessity.
Biggest Disappointment: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

For a long time I wasn't a fan of short stories. I felt when I read them they were just sketches for novels and that the writer was either lazy or trying to make a quick buck. The stories I read as an English major were painfully boring and perhaps scarred me. Anyone who has ever suffered through an O Henry story knows my pain.

Over the years I did develop an appreciation and respect for several masters of the craft: Borges, Joyce, Chekov, Turgeniev. But in fantasy lit I generally wasn't interested. If the writer had a world to show me via fantasy, I didn't want a sample via a short story. I preferred a world painted on a vast canvas.

But since reading The Hedge Knight in Legends I revised my opinions on what a fantasy short story is capable of. The Hedge Knight, though brief, conveyed enough about the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that I was moved to read the whole series. Here was a story that hinted at worlds within worlds. Characters who were real portraits. Like a master painter who uses a few brushtrokes to convey a lot, GRRM conveyed much in telling detail and brought the story to a convincing conclusion. I read it in a Borders fueled by three café' mochas. After finishing the story I found all four volumes of the series and purchased them on the spot. I also purchased the copy of Legends and resolved to read more short stories.

I first read Susanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell two years ago. It was a sheer delight. The copious notes, the Regency setting, and most of all the magic system swept me up. I remember it was one of the few books I actually limited the amount of pages I would read a day so I could savor the experience.

The creation of the Raven King was brilliant, as were the very human themes she explored in that book: courtship, love, war, madness, and figuring out what one is supposed to do with one's life.

When I discovered there wasn't a sequel, and there wasn't likely to be one in the near future I grew despondent. So despondent I considered rereading harry potter. I discovered he short story collection and dutifully bought it but it sat on my shelf for years. Until of course the Hedge Knight experience.

The world of the collection is the world of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. That is, an imaginary northern England where magic works and the fey folk are every bit as dangerous and real as cold winter. Strange even makes an appearance, as does the raven king. There are many new characters and surprising turns and events.

Overall the book did not astound me in the way the novel did. The stories were well constructed, and there were a few surprises, but for the most part I wished she had just written another novel, or expanded on a story to make a novel.

A few of the pieces are just sketches and would not be served in a longer format: The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, Anticks and Frets, and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner. In these cases she is clearly imitating fable form, and keeps her narrative compressed. No long witty laugh out loud drawing room conversations or extended narratives concering the internal lives of characters, both of which I felt were the strong features of the novel. She can set up a drawing room and map out it conversational progressions and all the while still make you feel surprise at the turns, twists and revelations. But in these stories I felt she was contributing to the mythology of the world she was creating. It was a feeling much like reading the appendices of the Lord of the Rings(but written SO much better), she was filling in the corners of her world.

The longer stories, though, seemed to be incomplete or rushed. I thought Mrs Mabb, Mr Simonelli, and Tom Brightwind each could have benefitted from a longer treatment. Tom Brightwind especially seems trapped between the compressed narrative of fable, and the narrative format of a novel in which events unfold and are followed. Mr Simonelli is the strongest story in the book, filled with twists and turns similar to the novel but the main character was not described in enough detail. His history, ancestry, and how he came to be in that place and that time were all touched upon, but I had the sense there was more she could have done. His career at Cambridge, his history, his life as scholar and the other lives he touched while there. I felt that was one of the big let downs of the book. Here was a character as interesting as Strange yet at the end of the story I felt I hardly knew him.

All in all I enjoyed the book because I enjoyed the novel. But if her task was to somehow make a form that was an intersection between fable and a modern style narrative(which she does do brilliantly in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell) then I don’t think she succeeded. The longer stories that were concerned with manners and morals seemed hindered by the fable like elements she tried to interweave in them. The stories that were simply fables and had here and there a touch of the drawing room she was more successful with.

Still, I'd recommend the book for the pleasure of the company of the characters.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review of Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff

I like to keep reading rituals.

One of them is every year on or around my birthday(september 17) I read or reread a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Sutcliff was a writer of YA historical novels mostly set in Roman Occupied England, or right before. What distinguishes her novels is not so much the amount of historical detail that she manages to convey without being tiresome, as the tribal/mythic/mindset of the characters in that mieliu.

Frontier Wolf is the story of a Roman commanding officer, Alexios, of mixed heritage(Greek, Italian, and native British stock) who has through family influence achieved a high ranking post in Germania defending the frontier. In the first section of the book Alexios makes several judgemental errors that cause his men and fort to be wiped out by attacking barbarians, with only a handful surviving. Through family connections he is spared execution, but is also cast out by his family. As punishment he is sent to the Antonine Wall(north of Hadrian's wall and not so well defended) to preside over a group of auxiliary cavalry scouts known as the Frontier Wolves.

They are a rough group. Recrited from native tribal stock as well as Roman soldiers throughout the empire they have a history of killing off whatever commanders they don't like. The wolves also have their own traditions and rituals and Alexios, cosmopolitan Roman that he is, at first looks down upon such barbarism, but later comes to appreciate and share in their love for the worldview and its connection to the land.

He grows to see the tribesmen as defenders of their land and customs and also participates in their rituals. The rituals are the most fascinating aspects of the book. Sutcliff has done her homework and writes about tribal customs in such a way that the reader is taken in and made to feel they are participating. At the end of one ritual I recalled thinking that made perfect sense, but how in the hell would you recreate that in today's world. What experience could you possibly have that would reaffirm your belief in the stability of the cosmos and the unification of all things.

She does the job of putting a reader in touch with the ancient world. Or, to steal a Wallace Stevens phrase: "An ancient thought touching a modern mind." And when I say that she incorporates the tribal I mean the tribal. There are sacrifices, it gets pagan. She doesn't shy away from the bloody. It was a violent dangerous era and the characters all live it.

But the use of Alexios as an outsider who learns to love the strange yet familiar world was a brilliant narrative technique. Alexios is Roman through and through. Though he was born in the south, near Londinium, he is an alien in that northern land. A wonderful detail Sutcliff uses is how she describes his olive skin as standing out against the pale skins of tribesmen at a feast. But the Romans are not irreligious. They have their own customs and beliefs. Alexios daily sacrifices to Mithras in an underground temple(and this is a YA book, how freaking cool is that?).

When I first read Sutcliff's novels I was jarred by the tribal practices on both sides. The Romans, obsessed as they were with order, were every bit as superstitious as the barbarians they conquered. It was this side by side pairing of reason and myth that so moved me. Being an American and good student of the age of enlightenment I assumed the two were incompatible. But the more I read on the subject the more I realized that she had really captured the worldview of both sides.

The reason I read or reread her books once a year: Her books are very much about rebirth. Very much about personal loss, surviving it, and finding wholeness again. Granted there is something of the Four Feathers going on in Frontier Wolf, but the same basic themes dominate in all the books: surviving tragedy, the need for belonging and the place of ritual and myth in life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Bitchness

I've wanted to write this one for a while. However, you don’t just wake up one day and decide to elaborate on the likes of Neil Gaiman. On the other hand after much thought and anxiety I decided it might not be a bad thing to fill in one of the corners on this discussion.

The title of this blog of course refers to the now famous post Gaiman put up in response to a fan's whining about how he wished GRRM would just hurry the hell up and finish Dance and the rest of ASOIAF. He was tired of waiting and couldn't understand why Martin was being so lazy.

Gaiman's response was the now famous "GRRM is not your bitch." In essence he said he didn’t sign a contract with you personally to write the rest of the series so that it would be available at your convenience. He is producing art and that takes time. Get a life, read another author, reread the series but do something other than complain. He hasn’t let anyone down. He hasn’t violated any contracts. He is trying to make the work the best he can.

After reading the initial post I agreed and I still do. Some fans try and translate the consumer culture out there to the world of books. Afraid it doesn't work that way. Liking an authors work is a compliment but expecting them to produce on demand is another thing entirely. That is expecting someone to be your bitch. And it is wrong. Anyone who has ever tried to write seriously knows just how hard it is to produce day after day after day. Salute George R R Martin for continuing to work in the face of such misunderstanding. He has been described as an incredibly nice man. I'm sure that is true, and furthermore I am sure he would have to be in the face of fans that think that writing novels is a form of pay per view.

But there is an aspect to the discussion I have wanted to address. Gaiman touched on it when he said "Hope that the author is writing the book you want to read, and not dying, or something equally as dramatic."

And of course I thought of Robert Jordan. As I believe that was Gaiman's intent.

As I understood it Gaiman's message was that if the writer is dying and can't write the book you want then think about how bad it is for him as a human being. Don't selfishly think about how bad its going to be for you because you can't read the rest of the series.

But when Robert Jordan died I did think about the series, as did his legions of fans. I remember feeling the loss of the individual, though I did not know him. Everything I read pointed to how devoted he was to his family and friends. And the private loss of those people I could empathize with though I could not share because I had not known him in that capacity. I had lost loved ones to cancer and could empathize with what the family went through. His death saddened me and I did pray for them.

But what authors do is a tricky thing. Through their writings they can make you feel as if you know the people in their books as well as you've known any individual in the "real" world. In a sense when Robert Jordan died he took a lot of "people" with him. Characters in a book yes. Not real people yes. But still something that we as readers and fans have invested time and energy in. And as Freud said anything one invests time and energy in, whether professionally or as a hobby, becomes a "loved object." The loss of a the loved object triggers psychological responses. Some of them very deep.

Look at the behavior of individuals who have lost something they have invested time and energy in: a kind of depression and sadness sets in that through time the individual works through. And so becomes stronger for the next time.

Many of my generation, when we started reading Jordan, had cut our teeth on the lord of the rings, the shannarra books, the Earthsea and Narnia series, and others. Most of them complete by the time we read them. The sheer scope of Jordan's project both thrilled and amazed us. "Twelve books! R U Serious!" is what I remember emailing a friend. I remember once in a journal entry where I marked off where I was when each book came out. The completion of such a project in all its infinite complexity was something we eagerly awaited. One of those moments we all wanted to stand around together and say we were here when he did it. We followed along, and watched. An "I was there " moment.

And now we wont have it. We will have Brandon Sanderson's completion of it.

Brandon Sanderson, a writer I genuinely admire and whose career I have eagerly followed since Elantris(for sheer magic systems, he is hard to top, as well as pacing and characterizations, the fight scenes in the mistborn series are like a matrix movie fight for the mind's eye, I hope somone films them someday), is more than capable of finishing the series. I am going to buy the books when they come out, devour them and enjoy the hell out of myself in sheer thankfulness that we have them. I am entirely certain that Sanderson will follow the notes and instructions Jordan left behind, and will complete Jordan's vision of the series.

What I will also be thinking is it’s a shame the author couldn't be the one to have completed it. Some would say that we will have the author's book. Sanderson is writing as Jordan would have.

There's the rub. He is, but he isn't.

He's completing Jordan's outline and descriptions. He is finishing the book as the author originally imagined it and left instructions for its completion. But it isn't Jordan completing the book, and that is a difference. Not better, or worse, but it would have been good to see the final book and say, this is the author's complete work.

Some fans are greedy and just want to be entertained. Most of us though genuinely feel that anxiety that an author may not stick around to complete the works we enjoy and admire them for. That latter feeling, that anxiety is natural and a sign of how well the author has done his/her job. We have our own lives: if the work isn't completed we will move on and do other things, read other books, live our lives. But there will be a sense of loss there. Not personal, but a sense of loss nonetheless.

That is why sometimes I find myself thinking come on George get on with it, even though I know I'm not being fair, or understanding. I know art can't be rushed but still, part of me inside is chewing my fingernails. I'm not being a crass consumer, I would just rather not lose another thing I've invested time and energy in. And I think that is the way some fans feel. Its not bitchness, its an anxiety.

As Chaucer said "The life so short, the arte so long to learne." All authors are working against the clock. There is never enough time to finish, make the book as good as you want it. As fans I think the majority of us understand that. But we would hate to lose that sense of completion also.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New book in the mail

I know, its not exactly speculative fiction. But I will be reading this off and on for the next few weeks. I feel like I owe a debt to football and its kind of a shame I never understood or followed it: family legend has it my great grandfather played for the Pottsville Maroons, and my dad was an all state fullback(though not athletic I took up powerlifting so my dad wouldn't have to hide at family reunions). I should at least learn and learn to appreciate the game. And in a way it will remind me of my dad, who I do miss.

Besides, now I'll understand what GRRM is talking about on his blog.

Now that I think about it, my dad's favorite team was the Giants too. Hm. If I ever am fortunate enough to meet GRRM at least I can open with something that may not bore him.

As far as favorite team: the Bills. I dont know about T.O. but the happiest I've ever been has been when I lived upstate. Besides, I like underdogs and almost rans.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My Life As Literature

This one has been appearing all over the blogosphere so I thought I'd chime in(as I have nothing better to do right now). The idea is to answer the question only with the books you have read so far this year.

Describe Yourself: A Feast for Crows

How do you feel: The Burning Man

Describe where you currently live: The Graveyard Book

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Ysabel

Your favorite form of transportation: Old Man's War

Your best friend is: The Silent Blade

You and your friends are: The Black Company

What’s the weather like: Mistborn

Favorite time of day: Passage to Dawn

If your life was a: Well of Ascension

What is life to you: Last Argument of Kings

Your fear: Batman: Arkham Asylum

What is the best advice you have to give: The Lie that Tells a Truth

Thought for the Day: Shadows Linger

How I would like to die: Before they are Hanged

My soul’s present condition: The Blade Itself

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Books Read August 09

-Fables 1: Legends in Exile, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-Foundling, D M Cornish, YA fantasy novel

-Fables 2: Animal Farm, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-The Magicians, Lev Grossman, fantasy novel

-Old Man's War, John Scalzi, science fiction novel

-Fables 3: Storybook Love, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-"New Spring," in Legends, by Robert Jordan, fantasy short novel

-"Dragonfly", in Legends, by Ursula K. Leguin, fantasy short novel

-"The Burning Man" , in Legends, by Tad Williams, fantasy short novel

Thanks to the Adventures in Reading blog for clueing me into Fables. By far the best graphic novel series I've read in a long time. Best book of the month: can't really say. Both Old Man's War and The Magicians were exceptionally good. Most dissapointing was Foundling. Started out with great ideas but the writing felt lacking. He created this complicated intriguing world but it felt like we were ushered through rather hurriedly instead of being allowed to explore. Sometimes info dumping is ok in fantasy novel. Legends was a bolt from the blue: now I have to go get all the Earthsea and Memory Sorrow and Thorn books. Jordan I've already read up to book ten where I stalled out. Scheduled for September: Winterbirth, Best Served Cold, The Stranger and parts 4,5 and 6 of Fables. I dont think I'm going to review Fables until I at least get to at least the half way point, say after book six.
Good month. New work schedule allows for more reading time. Having a four day workweek is doing wonders for my intellectual aspirations.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last Argument of Kings, End Notes

End Notes on Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie:

Sheesh. I guess I've put this off for too long. I should really get it over with.

I didn’t like Last Argument of Kings and I'm somewhat embarrassed by that fact. In fact I'm embarrassed that I'm embarrassed: a reader should follow their instincts and their opinions regardless of how popular or unpopular a book may be. The fact is I waited to see if I would change my mind. This admission conjures up a picture in my mind of Logan, Black Dow, and the Dogman kind of shaking their heads at me and cursing me for a spineless coward. Which, in an ironic way gives evidence of just how well written and memorable the characters were.

I didn't like Last Argument of Kings because of the way it ended. It ended badly. Or to put it another way, it ended empty. No, I'm not referring to some inherant structural flaw, nor do I think the writer hastily wrapped up the book in a deux ex machina ending. Quite the contrary. The final convergence of the many elements including characters, plot, setting, motive, and background history to the world, were brilliant. The characters moved forward to the resolution of their conflicts with a sound internal logic and inevitablilty that for all my imagined brilliance I did not see coming. Kudos to Abercrombie on pulling some wondrous eye popping reversals and recognitions that screamed well made story.

As for sheer technical brilliance the story is a masterpiece of "gritty fantasy." That new sub sub sub genre where fantasy looks at the real world, looks at the fantasy world, and says "right, need to make this a bit more realistic." People you get attached to die, the girl you think would make a perfect match for the right guy sleeps with someone else, and the most unethical of the villains comes out on top because, well, he's better at manipulating people than the good guys.

What I didn't like was the nihilism of the ending. People died, people struggled, people sacrificed, and in the end nothing really changed. The characters went back to their lives, or died. Some had a new set of circumstances, some had a new wife, some had wealth and power and money. And in the end no one really knew why it was they struggled the way they did or what the purpose of all that effort was.

To put it bluntly: nihilistic. No easy answers about the rightness or wrongness of the world, the characters or the actions. No one really changes. Except the torturer, who after mutilating dozens and killing far more, gets a beautiful woman and a promotion. The "hero" is mutilated, attains a beautiful lesbian bride who cringes at his touch and has to watch the woman he loves marry someone else. The toughest of all, the manic, goes back to the violent dangerous world he left after trying to escape neither changed in character, nor materially better of than when he started.

The ending did not satisfy. Call me a foolish devotee of Aristotle and company, declare my sense of story and structure paleolithic, and my view of human nature as childish and naïve(although after ten years teaching juvenile delinquents I would tend to disagree), but I stick by my internal sense of what I feel about the book. The ending is a let down. There is just something not satisfying about the ending, and I don’t mean I want the hero to run off with the heroine into a brilliant sunset to rule a kingdom and hump happily ever after and produce dozens of heirs until the minions of the dark lord rear their ugly orc heads again. I mean there was something from the story I find lacking, or missing.

I wish I were a good enough reviewer to put my finger on it but for right now I just cant. I will repeat that the book was brilliant technically, and I look forward to reading many many more of Mr Abercrombie's work. The man can write, and can tell a good story, and for the sheer mixing of horror, comedy, imagination, and violence he is probably unparalled. At least in my reading experience. I think Martin is his master but he excels in ways Martin doesn't. He is funnier, but manages to do so without losing his sense of the gravity or danger his characters face. Martin's characters have a sense of humor but rarely resort to it to help cope with the horrors they face. Abercrombie's have humor hard wired into their worldview.

John Irving said that a reviewer should read everything written by an author, even if he is only reviewing a single novel, or collection of short stories. He said you may not like a book, you may not like a style of writing, the writer may not succeed at everything he is trying to do, but you had better appreciate the fact that someone took years of their lives to spend on this project, and treat the review of their work with the appropriate respect. I've tried to keep this as my motto. Regardless of what I review or read, I try to remember the amount of work that went into the writing and that regardless what I may think, the fact that they are published is significant. They've been edited, forced to reconsider their work, redo it, rewrite it, cut it, improve what they imagined was perfection, and had to do it as many as six or seven times.

Abercrombie may not have succeeded in making the ending satisfying for me, but on so many dozens of other counts he scores 9.0s and 10s.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hugo Award For Best Novel

This was a bit of a shocker. The Graveyard Book was up against intense competition. Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, Saturn's Children by Charles Stross. These guys are all heavyweights with lengthy and respectable publishing histories.

Alas, the only one I actually read was The Graveyard Book(because it was in my local library. Financial times being what they are I cant read everything I want. I'd end up taking a second job just to support a reading habit I would no longer have time for).

Despite my apologia I do intend to read the other novels. And not simply because they are on someone's list. Nor do I intend to Monday morning quarterback and raise a fuss over who SHOULD have won. A quick review of each (on Amazon) show them to be uncomfortably relevent to our times: technology as a double edge sword, the journey of youth to arrive safe and whole from their home planet of childhood to the usually drabby but occasionally fascinating shores of adulthood, and the always unsettling question of what if we humans weren't here anymore?

At first I was struck by the idea of a YA novel taking an award as prestigious as a Hugo. Then after researching the history of the award I saw that there have been YA novels that have won before (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). After some further research involving reading a few spoiler free book reviews I see that YA designation could as easily be applied to Little Brother, and Zoe's Tale. Which in my mind argues that YA may just be a designation for booksellers but not for readers. When I finished The Graveyard Book I wasn't thinking YA I was thinking holy shit that was good. It did what a good book always does: makes me relfect on my own life and the possibilities implicit when you simply keep breathing, keep waking up, keep making plans.

But that's quite enough of talking about books I haven't read. Not a wise thing to do for an aspiring reviewer. Suffice to say I will read each of them. And if nothing else, the Hugo's served a purpose in making me aware of their existence.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Books Read in July

-The Lie That Tells A Truth, John Dufresne, writing reference, 298 pages
-Bleach: Volume 8¸ Tite Kubo, manga
-Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie, fantasy novel 636 pages
-Chess Story, Stefan Zweig, novel, 84 pages
-The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman, YA urban fantasy, 307 pages
-Bleach: Volume 9¸Tite Kubo, manga
-In the Suicide Mountains, John Gardner, fantasy novel, 155 pages
-The Black Company, Glen Cook, fantasy novel, 217 pages
-Shadows Linger, Glen Cook, fantasy novel, 229 pages
-The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman, writing reference, 197 pages

Good Reading month. The Black Company and Shadows Linger were the biggest surprises. Biggest disappointment was In the Suicide Mountains. Gardner just tends to repeat himself in the later books. Book that was most disturbing: Last Argument of Kings. I didn't like it as much as I imagined I would, based on the previous two volumes in the series. The conclusion was satisfactory but bleak. Not sure how I feel about the whole Quentin Tarentino of High Fantasy.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Before They Are Hanged, End Notes

7/3/09 End Notes on Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie.

Say this for Joe Abercrombie, he has balls.

A good fantasy novelist nowadays had to write against certain genre expectations. That is, a fantasy novelist who wants his work to resemble real life in all its messiness should write against certain genre expectations. And he has to do it without disappointing the reader who comes to the work expecting certain things from his chosen genre.

So lets review: you have to write against what people expect without writing against too much what people expect because some of their expectations are what brought them to your book in the first place and if some of those expectations aren't met they wont finish your book and won't buy the next two or three in the series.

A bit like balancing six spinning plates while someone lights all your clothes on fire. The plates need to keep spinning no matter what.

Some writers do this quite well: Tad Williams, Patrick Rothfuss, the great Glenn Cook and of course GRR Martin is a downright master. (I still maintain that the Red Wedding is one the most brutal and terrifying things ever written. It is right up there with the harsher parts of Macbeth). Fantasy, modern fantasy, mirrors the messiness of real life in order to speak to a broader audience but also for the sheer art: characters in war die, yet how many characters in the Lord of the Rings come through the battles with little or no damage? I think a life of Rangering would make Aragorn a bit meaner than he is. And please, there is not one mean spirited female in LOTR. No real beheadings, no one dies at a young age. Even Shakespeare knew an Iago will do some real damage, and he lets him, and we as audience can't look away because life is like that.

In real life people often go in search of things they don’t find. I've gone to walmart and been disappointed. I've crossed a continent for a woman and been dissappointed. I've gone across the ocean for a job and been dissappointed. But in a fantasy it seems to be a cliché that when you go on a quest you find the thing you're questing for because, well, that's what is supposed to happen in this genre.

Well, not anymore.

Abercrombie takes you all the way through book two in search of an object with his characters and they fail. They fail miserably. They return empty handed, broken, beaten and frustrated. Some are disfigured. Some are broken hearted. They don’t return with the magic "thing" but they return with something else.

Self knowledge.

Which is often an unexpected bonus. And for some of the characters its bitter, for others its welcome, but for each of them its not why they left in the first place.

And strangely enough I didn't feel cheated. I felt, you know what, I did learn something about myself when I went to the other side of the country for a woman, or to England for a job. Even when I went to walmart: I learned I didn’t really need a dozen hershey bars(I threw up). Life is like that.

More to come when I write my review but for now I'm glad this guy is writing fantasy.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Before They Are Hanged Commentary

6/29/09 pg 387. I started this book and then got quickly caught up in the pace of it. It moved too fast for me to take a moment to write about it. I really didn't want to tear myself away from the page to stop and think. But with over half the book done now I have to stop and catch my breath and write something otherwise I miss out on the whole experience.

First off I have realized something. Joe Abercrombie is the Quentin Tarentino of fantasy. Or, for my fellow English Majors out there, the John Ford. Im sure this is conscious on his part. He has spoken of Tarentino's films informing and contributing to his work and overall outlook on life. His work, like Tarentino's, definitely has overtones of the moral ambiguity inherent in violent acts and a violent life. A character like Logan is never really sure of the effects of his violent lifestyle on his own life or the lives of those he has been around. He is not proud of what he is, but then again, he is not entirely ashamed. His toughness and hard outlook on a hard world has made him able to help the likes of Jezal and Ferro, so he cant be categorized as simply good or bad.

This poses a bit of a problem for me because I don’t really like Tarentino's films. With the exception of Reservoir Dogs which, with its long shots, fuck you dialouge, and complete and total oh no you didn't plot twists, made me take notice that something truly different had appeared on screen. Pulp fiction, which was praised for its fragmentation of chronology to emphasize the arbitrariness of modern existence and violence (havent any of you people read Faulkner?) didn’t strike me as a comment on gratuitous violence as really just being gratuitous violence.

Kill bill 1 and 2 were…well, still more gratuitious violence.

But Before They Are Hanged takes our characters even deeper into the moral no man's land that rules their world. I said in my end notes last time that I was impressed by how much the characters had changed through the course of the book and I was pleased to see that the changes are still in effect. Jezal, though still whiny and self centered in the beginning of the story, does at least retain the ability to empathize. Glotka more than ever asks himself why he does what he does and recieves less and less assurances from the dark corners of his mind as to his motivations. All of which prompts him to commit some serious faux pas in the torturing world(I'm quite sure if there were a torturer's handbook rule number 1 would be "don’t let anyone escape on purpose").

Logan is sick of violence and fighting for the sake of fighting. He wants to find a reason to go on beyond just fighting to survive. Ferro still just wants to kill people.

What really impressed me thus far though is the way Abercrombie builds on the growth in book one and makes the characters continue to grow in self knowledge. Its almost as if he were saying look, avoiding violence may just not be possible in the real world, but avoiding self knowledge is an even worse fate than violence. Violence, and the threat of violence may be bad, but it has this quality of making what's important in the world leap out.

And understanding leaps out at the major characters with a viciousness. For Jezal it takes the form of a mace to the side of the jaw and some broken limbs. (I was impressed here with Abercrombie's technical knowledge. A medieval soldier wielding a mace would have struck his downed opponent a few more times and inflicting further injuries like those described to Jezal).

The merry band of adventurers are heading for a city in the middle of nowhere. Mostly they all hate each other at the start and through much violence and several attacks they learn much about their fellow adventurers and acquire a measure of respect about each of them. Though they primarily still hate each other.

At this point in the novel Logan and Ferro have fallen into a pit, Jezal's face is healing nicely(for nicely read his jaw and mouth are at a weird angle and he looks f'd up), Bayaz is withering away, Glotka is trying to escape a city he was sworn to defend(and signed his life away for). and the dogman and his crew are trying to protect major west who has just committed a treasonous act.

There was a well done battle scene earlier in the book which conveyed the sense of futility as the untrained troops of the union fought against Bethod's barbarians(sound's like a football team name). Abercrombie did an ok job of describing the noise and confusion of war but not as well done as say Suzanna Clarke did describing a battle in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. Still impressive though. In the Clarke book I had a palpable sense of dread as I read the battle scene. It made me squeamish(much like the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan). In the Abercrombie book the battle scene was more of pathos and loss at the wastefulness.

One hundred plus pages to go.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Commentary on The Blade Itself, End Notes.

June 20, 2009 Running Commentary on The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. End notes. I finished the novel a few days ago and now have to write from strictly memory. I lent the novel to one of my voracious, book rabid students. I couldn't very well make him wait. He's locked up for the first time and is turning to books to entertain himself and make the time pass faster. A wonderful side effect is discovering his own imagination. He's been with us for three weeks and has already read five books. On the outside he never picked up a novel.

In thinking about books I sometimes like to go back to the exercises I learned as an undergrad to provoke thoughts. Sometimes the exercise can be as mundane as what was the theme, or symbol hunting, or in this case list the characters that changed, and the characters that didn't, and why and how.

Logan, Jezal, Glotka, all change in the course of the book. Or strictly speaking, some of the them change, and then because of their circumstances, their history, and their surroundings have to revert to being the characters they were in the past. Logan wants to stop living such a pointlessly violent life. He's witnessed first hand the arbitrary nature of power. He's gone from fighting against Bethod to fighting for him to fighting against him. He's teamed up with enemies and made enemies of friends. He's witnessed the first rule of power politics, hold on to your own power base regardless of the consequences. He takes a good look at himself, his life, the death and destruction and sees it all as absurd. He wants to break the cycle of violence but doesn't quite see how he can.

Jezal changes from a pompous rich spoiled brat to at least being capable of empathizing with another human being. For the first time in his life he realizes he has to prove himself and to the people around him he is worth something other than just being the spoiled son of a noble. And once decided on his quest to change he pursues it nobly, without whining. He fights hard and wins but in a masterful stroke by Abercrombie he ends up winning not under his own power, but with supernatural aid. He still believes he won under his own power and this boosts his self esteem. What will happen in the second book in the series when and if he learns he really didn't do it on his own?

The aspect of Jezal's change that I liked was the way he finally understand the trials his friend West went through. His hard work and sacrifice, his struggle to get better. All of which made Jezal feel like the super shit he is. Or was.

And Glotka. Did Glotka change? Maybe not, maybe its too late. But there is a glimmer there that possibly he can change. When he realizes West came to see him after he returned home from being tortured, but that Glotka's mother sent him away two times because West was "low born," he understands though the world may be bad through and through, there may just be things like real friendship in it, and loyalty, and last but not least, empathy.

The questions to be addressed in the next book is: have they changed, are the changes permanent, or will they revert back to their old selves?

But first The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. For some reason, I seldom like reading trilogies straight through. I don’t know if its I don’t like being stuck in another author's style, or I get claustrophobic with the characters, but I find a book in beween keeps me fresher.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6/14/09 Running Commentary on The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

I'm almost finished with this novel and wanted to record some thoughts. I find that daily writing about what I'm reading sharpens my perceptiveness and prevents me from saying embarrasing and stupid things in reviews (uhm, yeah, I remember the part where Frodo, Sam and Pippin have dinner at Farmer Maggots, sure do. Just because I failed to mention it in a review doesn't mean I didn’t' remember it. That one took a lot of creativity to get out of). There are spoiler's here and I don’t feel the tiniest bit guilty about it. I see this blog as more of a reader's journal that is made open for those who want to share and compare. I just wish I had thought of the idea of daily posting commentaries on what I read before I actually started this book. One of my professors used to say that reading without written reflection is like sex without the orgasm. You can have a fun old time doing it but you're missing out on the complete experience. (I think she might have had issues, she used this joke a lot)

I'm at the part of the book where Glotka, Jezal, Bayaz, and Logen are standing before the Maker's tower. They've just inserted the lock into the door and its working. The lock of runes is spinning like a roulette wheel gone insane and even the cynical Glotka can't help but wonder what's next. Intriguing place to stop I know but I have papers that needed grading. I wonder sometimes why it is that other people' education so often interferes with my own. Society expects me as a teacher to be well read and well spoken but never seems to want to allow me the time to pursue these things.

I like the characters, I like the story, I also like the cynical and smart assed handling of it all. In the interviews I've seen on Abercrombie he cites George R R Martin as an influence. And I can see it. The heroes are trying save a world in which the wealthy and affluent don’t really give a shit. They could care less whether the world is destroyed as long as they hold on to power.
If there were one overriding theme of the fantasy novels that I've read this past year I would say the theme of holding on to power for the sake of power itself seems to be a major one. Beauracratic monopolies on power that are based on privilige and wealth rather than talent, ability and a solid work ethic are a central concern to most fantasy novelists. Brandon Sanderson uses this in Elantris and the Mistborn books. Patrick Rothfuss does it in The Name of the Wind, with sometimes nail biting and teeth gnashing results. Martin of course is a master at it. The barbarians are at the gate and all Cersei cares about is getting the oafish and disgusting Joffrey on the throne.

Whence comes this? Methinks we need look no farther than Messers. Bush, Cheney and company. True, beauracracies have always been with us but since when have they been this lethal, self centered and downright inept(FEMA, 911, the Iraq War, Gitmo).

Still, Abercrombie handles it well. One of the differences I've noticed between this series and Martin's series is that A Song of Ice and Fire tends to focus on characters that are the center of power. There are minor characters but they are seldom peasants or even small land owners. Most of the characters are in some way or other among the major players for power and the throne.

In Abercrombie's book though, and granted, I'm only partway through it, the characters exist on the periphery of the central power locations. Jezal is nobility but has a snowball's chance in hell of gaining a throne, and would hardly know what to do with it if he attained it. The only thing on his mind is getting laid and fencing. Logan knows too much about power politics and is sick of that life. He wants nothing to do with power but is close enough to it that he is understands the inner workings of the barbarians power systems. Though here too he is unlikely to ever gain complete control, should he even desire it. Glotka is in too much pain to want control, and is unpopular enough that he will be continaully passed over for it. Out of all the characters his world weariness is most paplable. And Bayaz. Well, he seems to already be in power, but only in the wizard or cleric way. He handles power differently than the court officials and nobility. He uses it for a purpose, to keep peace, for protection, to serve. He does not seek to eliminate those who pose a threat to him.

If I have one criticism of the book so far it’s the myth system requires checking and rechecking to understand. J.A. seems to have a healthy fear of info dumping but I think he takes it to an extreme. I think readers will tolerate info dumping or even a glossary so they can be clear on what the mythic allusions the characters discuss constantly are about. He does do a good job as an author as making the mythic references embedded in the dialogue and internal monologue of the characters. But with so much else going on in the story it becomes tedious to flip back through the book to find the conversation which explans for example, just who juvens is and what the maker did.

I think of J.K. Rowling and how she never had a glossary but also she had written the books for a character who is learning about his world from the start. Each new piece of info he gets on his world and his story is part of the narrative, the narrative of his education in the wizarding world.

That, and there were dozens of websites devoted to the background info.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review of Mistborn

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy novel, 643 pages.

Mistborn is unconventional. Instead of knights, dragons, and damsels in distress we have metallurgists, kung fu fights, and factories. Sanderson believes in bending and changing the heroic fantasy genre, as was shown in his debut success Elantris. Every book he writes pushes past stereotypes to create strange yet familiar worlds peopled with memorable characters. The sheer inventiveness of his world building makes readers stop and simply ponder the enormous effort of invention that went into the creation of his backgrounds.

Mistborn, the first book in his first trilogy, gets high marks for sheer effort. Sanderson abandons the tropes of fantasy like swords, witches, wizards, and orcs and creates a world that seems to have more in common with the Russian Revolution than the medieval backdrop that is the common setting of heroic fantasy.

If world building were his only talent he would still be read avidly. But his characters, and their unique situations and conflicts, add a further layer of not just verisimilitude, but the simple unexpected joy we find when a novel hooks us and we "just want to find out what happens to this or that character."

Sanderson creates characters whose web of relationships are reminiscent of the high Victorians: George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens. In Sanderson's novels family and the lack of it are as much a catalyst for the plot as the magic systems.

The main character of the series, Min, is reminiscent of the waif's found in Dickens novels. Self consciously so I believe. It is as if Sanderson were asking: What if Oliver Twist woke up one day and realized he could toss Fagin, the Artful Dodger, or Bill the murderer around the room without even lifting a finger. Of if he could pick a pocket from a mile away? Imagine what would happen if say Little Nell, or Little Dorritt, were given the power to kick the living shit out of the bullies and hypocrites that have plagued her life. How would life change if she could fly through the night, enhance her muscular strength to ten times that of a normal human, and have her senses sharpened to the point she could perceive conversations and faces from miles away. What would the story be like if she also learns she has been born with the kind of power that comes along once in a millennium? Commoners speak her name in whispers and even emperors secretly fear her.

What if she was trained like Oliver Twist to pull off heists and capers. She has these amazing powers, but before realizing them she worked her way up a heist gang to become a proficient burglar. She could become rich beyond her wildest dreams and not need anyone's help.
Along with her newfound powers she has a severe case of Reactive Attachment Disorder from life on the streets. Whenever Min finds herself getting close to someone in the novel she pulls away to avoid getting hurt. Or her powers flare and she finds she hurts people without meaning to.

The novel opens with Min serving as the low person on a gang of thieves in an industrial city. A scarred stranger recruits her to the revolution forming against the Lord Ruler, a being whose reign is repressive but who, we learn along the way, may simply be the lesser of evils plaguing the land. Killing him may do more harm than good.

Min is slowly drawn into the circle of the revolutionaries(who at one time were professional heist men) and the story begins to resemble ocean's eleven. She is expected to fulfill a minor role in the plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler but her co conspirators learn more about her power along the way and her importance in the novel grows from least likely to survive, to most likely to actually kill the Lord Ruler.

If Sanderson has one fault as a fantasy novelist it is that he is too good at world building. His worlds are rich and filled with complex, yet never boring, histories where the past is not just the past, it is the here and now. Events have as much bearing on the present as they did on the day they occurred.

Unfortunately for a reader this means that you find yourself following a plot line and the movements of characters but want to stick around and listen to the rest of the story. Its like when you went to the natural history museum and your parents pushed you through the exhibits but you gleefully wanted to stay and hear the whole story of the cro magnon man and his mate while your parents looked at their watches.

The ending of Mistborn left me with wanting more. And Sanderson does the professional novelist's job of using this book to sell the next book. You do want to find out more about the characters fates, you are emotionally involved with a child who should not have survived but seems to have done so not due to chance but to fate. And in the final pages of the novel you learn, much to your surprise, these characters and their fates have much to teach you about your own.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Books read in may

Decent month for reading. Having a week off in the middle of the month did wonders for my biblioaspirations.

Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas, Writer's Reference

The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson, Fantasy Novel

Freddy's Book, John Gardner, Fiction

The Trojan War, Barry Strauss, Classical History

The Silent Blade, R A Salvatore, Fantasy Novel

Soldiers and Ghosts, J E Lendon, Classical Military History

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ludis Inventio (What the f is this?)

This is a blog for readers of speculative fiction: fantasy, sci fi, magical realism, also including classical authors such as virgil, homer, statius and others. Graphic novels, comics, and manga are also reviewed from time to time.

One of the things this blog does not aspire to do is be a thinly disguised publisher's advertising site, giving away free copies as well offering to promote books. Though there are plenty of good websites out there reviewing spec fic I am squeamish when said writer of a blog decides to give away free copies of a book on the site. Or to hold contests to give away books a reviewer may not have read. I think it compromises the ability of the blogger to write an unbiased review of a work.

The title of the blog is latin for school of invention. I believe that one of the trademarks of good speculative fiction is the use of inventio, a classical rhetorical phrase that applied to original discovery and the organization of any literary work. Dr Johnson called invention "the faculty by which new trains of events are formed and new scenes of imagery are displayed."

That idea, the work as a discovery, and something new, is how i percieve speculative fiction. I believe what speculative fiction does is present a new way of seeing the world. It may be a new world altogether, but the world presented in the work usually has the virtue of removing us from the world we live in and allowing us to percieve it in a new way previously unnoticed.

There are several works I have read so far I believe have done this. One example is Neil Gaiman, whose books American Gods, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and Stardust all show the knack, or trait or ability, to take the known and what is human and present it in a new way, to startle us into something that mixes recognition with surprise.

I also percieve it in Homer, particularly in the Odyssey, where every line tells or shows something new. The scenes with the tree in the bedroom, the bow and axeheads, or even the sight of poor O weeping on the beach every day for seven years, shows an author who understood a things about what it means to be human, and found a creative and new way to present it. After three thousand years and countless works of fiction, the poem stil shocks us with something recognizeable and new.

Currently I'm midway through Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. I finished the first book Mistborn and am now two hundred pages into The Well of Ascension. I began reading Sanderson when I learned he was contracted to conclude Jordan's Wheel of Time books. (Personally, I found it validating that he admitted on his blog he had stopped reading after book ten. Precisely where I stopped.) I started with Elantris and enjoyed it. Startled and surprised at the characters, the situation, but more than anything impressed with the pace. Most beginning fantasy writers start with a trilogy and progress with a liesurely pace. Sanderson wrote a compact, tightly structured book, with fresh characters and situations. Also, as Orson Scott Card suggested, he seems much wiser about life than his age would seem to indicate.

He also impressed me in this book so far with his ability to introduce fresh twists and turns in the plot at precisely the right moments: when the book seems flagging. I dont want to spoil the book but I will say reading him is like watching a rookie player in the big leagues. He makes the right moves at the right times. Moves you would only imagine a player with more experience would know when and how to do.

Longish post. Will try and write a little every day. Try to turn up a gem from reading every day.