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.