The OF Blog: September 2007

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Review of Catherynne M. Valente's Yume no Hon

For many people, dreams are the stuff of our innermost selves. They entice us, tempt us, draw us forth, before pulling us back from the brink of destruction. We wallow in them, seek them out, aim to manipulate or to control them, making something intelligible out of what seems nonsensical. Dreams evoke memories and impressions and perhaps in no other way do we live as much as when we dream and relate those dreamings to others.

Catherynne M. Valente, in her 2005 book, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams (published by Prime Books) has a series of short (rarely more than two pages in length) dream-like impressions that revolve (or at least so it appears at first) around the Mountain. The titles of these impressions, which like their namesake dreams are ever mutable, are taken from the Japanese calendar and there is a sense of a greater story behind the events of these dreamings that has much more to do with the myths and legends of that country than they do with our own rich past and its legends.

Readers of her 2006 WFA-nominated work, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, will recognize some of the storytelling techniques that she used in that excellent work, while those new to Valente perhaps will be struck by her expert command of the English language and how adroitly she works in all these hints of a deeper mythological past in ways that will surprise often even the most well-read of readers of those myths. Although Yume no Hon is much smaller (at a slim 150 pages) than her 2006 release, it perhaps will serve as an easier introduction to her beautiful and complex tale-weaving style, as there are not as many threads with which to keep track. However, I highly, highly suggest that readers read both Yume no Hon and the other Valente work that I mention above, especially if you enjoy losing yourself into a story that is so beautifully written and devised as Valente's.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Review of Zoran Živković's Steps Through the Mist

In a genre where the readers often equate the value of a book with its size or how exhaustive the author details the scenery (or "worldbuilding," as many now call this recent phenomenon of trying to make an imagined setting feel as "literal" or "real" as possible), there is something to be said for an author who writes in a shorter, more sparse style and who eschews dictating everything that is to be seen or to be read into a piece of fiction. In Serbian author Zoran Živković's latest mosaic novel to be translated into English, Steps Into the Mist, his five interconnected stories are deceptively slight, with only just enough detail to allow each story's plot to flow to conclusions that surprise the reader in the depth of meanings and reactions that they can provoke.

"Disorder in the Head" begins the sequence and with its bland, vaguely-described setting, the impatient reader might be quick to dismiss this as being an insubstantial short fiction that fails to grab the reader's attention. Such a reader would end up being gravely mistaken for trying to apply the "show, not tell" mantra to this tale, because the lack of specific description actually plays a major role in setting up the plot twist that turns this tale into a provocative opener. In addition, the "mist" of the title makes its first appearance and will be seen in other guises in the remaining stories.

The second story, "Hole in the Wall," contains a short but revealing passage that reveals in part what this "mist" might be, perhaps:
"Until recently, that was the same attitude I had toward the future," she [Katarina] said in a voice full of understanding. "What will be will be. A person has little influence, if any at all. We enter the mist, not knowing what awaits us there. Then, after the accident, everything changed."

In this particular story, the "mist" has a threatening overtone, as if it were of innumerable futures that contained pain and misery and discontent, among other, opaque features that frustrated the characters. This overtone, ominous as it sounds, is not the only way of interpreting this symbolic "mist" of the stories, however, as the following pieces reveal.

"Geese in the Mist" has a quality about it that takes many pauses and re-reads for one to be able to grasp it fully. It is a story of a woman on a ski lift and a mysterious stranger appearing and telling her of a momentous change, similar to the Chaos Theory aphorism of the butterfly beating its wings and through that action triggering a chain of events that might prove cataclysmic elsewhere, that would occur with which route the woman would choose down the ski loft. As the woman (and by extension, the reader) is left wondering as to what to do, Živković slyly has us consider the possibilities before having the story take a route that perhaps might be unexpected, perhaps be totally outside the bounds, depending of course upon the reader's expectations.

The fourth tale, "Line on the Palm," is perhaps the most tragic of these tales, but it is also one of the more powerful stories in this excellent mosaic novel. Set in a palm reader's shop and with a wink and a nod to the skeptic who dismisses such things as feel-good foolishness, this tale deals with fate as a notion and perhaps as an actual force and how our actions, similar to those of the characters in the ancient Greek tragedies, often cause our own fates to be as bad as we believe them to be. The "mist" in this tale is as much a tragic symbol than it is anything actual.

The final tale, "Alarm Clock on the Night Table," contains a deep and sad metaphor in its middle:

"These two gears here are broken. They're worn out. Unfortunately, they are highly important. You might say they are the heart of the clock. And nothing can work without a heart, isn't that so? If this were a newer model it would be easy to replace them, but no one makes spare parts anymore for such old models. The manufacturers are better off selling you a new one." He [the watchmaker] sighed and turned to look at the wall covered with silent clocks. "Just like your clock, all of these could have kept time and woken people up, if only there had been parts for them."

In this, the final tale, the "mist" perhaps could stand for things outside of our everyday, timed existences. However, there are more layers to this than what such a trite summation as that would reveal. Živković's purposeful vagueness, akin to the ever-morphing "mist" of these stories, serves to point out just how so often we feel as though our lives are but journeys in which each step is shrouded in a fog-like cover, obscuring not just our destination, but also our origins and desires. There is a dreamlike quality to each of these superb tales, with multiple meanings awaiting those who are willing to imagine instead of awaiting for authorial explication.

Summary: Steps Through the Mist is a mosaic novel of five thematically-connected stories, each narrated by a different female character, that explores in a detached and surrealistic fashion many of the doubts and fears that we have about our everyday lives. Živković writes with a minimal amount of detail, but his writing is much stronger for leaving so much for us to flesh out in our own imaginations. With these multiple possible takes on the tales, comparisons to Borges or Calvino would not only be likely, they would be apt. Highly recommended collection from this World Fantasy Award-winning author.

Publication Date: September 2007 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Aio Publishing Company

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Interesting swag

Sometimes, receiving review copies of books involves much more than just a press kit and, depending upon how close to the release date the book sent is, the book itself. Occasionally, the reviewer receives a little token, perhaps a bookmark or something related. In the case of my review copy of Rafael Ábalos's upcoming YA book, Grimpow (October 9 in the US, already available in the Spanish original), I received a keychain in the shape of Ouroboros himself (see book image to left for how it looks).

While I certainly am not going to be persuaded one way or the other as to what to make of this book, I just thought it was a very cool bit of swag that I received today and since it has been a while since I've posted anything here outside of the RIP post for Robert Jordan/Jim Rigney, it might be best if I just posted this little bit to serve as a reminder that not only do I live, but that I shall soon return to a more active posting/reviewing status here.

Also, there shall be a number of reviews, many of them relatively short, for books I've read over the past few weeks. Expect a review of some of the following:

Lucius Shepard, Softspoken

Zoran Živković, Steps Through the Mist (mosaic novel)

Catherynne M. Valente, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams

Jeffrey Ford, The Empire of Ice Cream

Glen Hirschberg, American Morons

And of course, a few others over at my personal blog that are not spec fic in nature.

Monday, September 17, 2007

RIP Jim Rigney (Robert Jordan) 1948-2007

It has been a little over 12 hours since news started to spread, first at Dragonmount, then at wotmania, and now in various blogs and media outlets (Patrick Nielsen Hayden's entry covers a great many of the links. Edit: Here's a touching one by Neil Gaiman posted this morning). Jim Rigney, 58, known to millions under the pen name of Robert Jordan, after a near two-year struggle due to complications from primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy, according to the Associated Press.

It is difficult to know what to write or to share at such a time. Most people who knew him only knew him through his books. There are millions who are mourning the loss of the stories, just as there are those who are mourning the person whose personality could be gleaned from the eleven main volumes of his groundbreaking The Wheel of Time fantasy series. Even more than just the reading enjoyment that many got, for tens of thousands of his readers, his fictional creation and, in the past two years of his life, his all-too-real fight against an implacable disease have served to create quite a few bonds.

Speaking strictly for myself, this blog itself would never have come into being three years before if I and four others hadn't read at least some of the WoT series and if we hadn't joined wotmania during the 2000-2003 period. Regardless of how divergent personal tastes may have become, it cannot be denied that there was something in his fiction (and as I reflect back upon the author's blog entries both pre- and post-diagnosis, something in his personal reflections and comments) that brought people of many different languages, cultures, and from diverse parts of the world together. That is something that cannot be overlooked.

I know that if I hadn't picked up a copy of his seventh book, A Crown of Swords, in a local Krogers back in late October 1997 as a diversion while prepping for my MA exams (not knowing that it was really dependent upon the previous 6), I probably would not have come to know someone I consider to be my soulmate, or another with whom we "adopted" each other as brother and sister despite living on separate continents, or the lovely lady whom I love dearly. Not to mention the hundreds of friends and acquaintances that I made during my seven years at wotmania. All of this due in large part to a Vietnam War vet who decided to write what probably is the largest single story that exists today in the English language (or perhaps in any language).

So in closing, I'll leave comments as to the literary status of Jim Rigney's work for another time and place. I'd rather just honor the person behind those words and to note that his writings and the personality behind those words have come to affect so many of us today. Requiescat in pace.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

New acquisitions

Short post this time, mostly just to list books that I've received in the past week or so (either via purchase or review copies sent by publishers), but I will note that I will have a bit more time over the next week or so for reading/reviewing for reasons I don't care to go into detail now, except to say that I've come to the realization that I need a new career path. But enough of that and on with the spec fic-related books received this month:

Forrest Aguirre (ed.), Leviathan 4: Cities

Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers (eds.), Infinity Plus: The Anthology

Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke, Firstborn (ARC)

Alan DeNiro, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead

Edward Whittemore, Nile Shadows; Jericho Mosaic

Glen Hirshberg, American Morons

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade; Black Powder War; Empire of Ivory (review copy)

M. Rickert, Map of Dreams

Geoff Ryman, Air

Jeff Somers, The Electric Church

Jo Walton, Farthing

This is in addition to about another half-dozen or so non spec fic fiction and non-fiction books that I've purchased. Lots of things to read during what is shaping up to be one of the more difficult times in my "melodramatic"-sounding life story. But tomorrow shall be a better day. Unless my recent troubles with my vision are worse than typical worsening of myopia, but that'll be a worry for another day.

Brian Ruckley, Winterbirth

Winterbirth is the first book written by Brian Ruckley, and is the first novel in the Godless World series. The book debuted in the UK a year ago, and was published this week in the US.

One of my favorite aspects of this story is the basic setup, the world, the hinted at history, cultures, and the revealed world of the current. Through a few quick paragraphs to open the prologue, Ruckley paints an intriguing and stark picture of a world and the peoples that live there. The land and some of the people are heavily influenced by Ruckley's native Scotland, which is well rendered.

This is a world where there were Gods. They created a race of beings. Destroyed it when they committed terrible crimes. The Gods started again, creating a number of races. When several of those races banded together to destroy a third, the Gods left in disgust and despair. Centuries later, a cult rose up amongst a people that called themselves the bloods, something like medieval Scottish clans. This cult claims that one God remained, the God that holds the book of life and death, and that all lives are written in that book, a book that foretells the return of the Gods. The Black Road. Of course, this led to a split in the bloods and a war, which the Bloods of the Black Road lost.

The current story revolves around the beginning of winter, and the Winterbirth celebration. There are a handful of various PoV characters spread out over the land. Each are involved in different conflicts of politics, war, religion. However, the primary story is that of a new war and the Return of the Bloods of the Black Road.

Reading this novel, I am reminded in part of Martin's ASOIAF and Tad Williams' MST stories. While Ruckley never managed to replicate the height of either authors' series or style, Winterbirth can be described as a good fusion of both. The world, action, and politics take a grim and "real" approach that Martin has made so popular recently, while some of Williams' storytelling and worldbuilding style is also evident. People who enjoy either work, might well find themselves engrossed by this novel.

I find that my opinion of this book is very mixed. There is a great deal of potential with the world, the introduced plot points, the political and cultural dynamics being explored. However, Ruckley fails to truly connect his characters with his readers. It seemed that Winterbirth served as one very long prologue to a story that is just about to start. Ruckley also falls prey to some very old conventions in his storytelling and development: noble savages; freemen being dirty, dangerous, and weak... to name only two. The Characterization is flat at best, weak often, but it is interesting that all the characters have a good deal of promise for later stories.

That being said, there are chapters and sections of the story that are completely engrossing and entertaining. At the end of the book, I was left looking forward to what Ruckley has in store for his readers in book two. That says a lot about a book... especially a first novel.

Winterbirth might not be brilliant, but it is a decent first novel that introduces an interesting conflict set in a fascinating world. Anyone looking for a new author to read, keep the name Brian Ruckley in mind.

Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley
Published by Orbit

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some odds and ends from a peripatetic reviewer

Although I do plan on still doing longer reviews of recently-released books, due to my new teaching job (teaching sophomore English in addition to US History leads to a rather unique course prepwork, to say the least) there will probably be more entries over at my personal blog on non-genre works than on genre fiction for a while. Not to say that I'm neglecting reading spec fic works, only that by necessity my non-genre reading load will be increasing quite a bit. But since that means that I'll get to read some outstanding short fiction in the coming months, I cannot help but view this (and the huge pay raise from my last teaching position) as being anything else but an unqualified good for me.

But I have had more reading time these past few weeks, due to my room being used during my planning period, so I used that wisely to read some fiction that might be hard to classify. Here are some brief capsule-like thoughts on a few of the more genre-related fictions which I read in the past week or so:

M. John Harrison, Signs of Life - I know Pat teases me about my "MJH love," but he is one of the relative handful of SF-associated authors that intermixes strong characterizations, dream-like landscapes, with a story that feels more like the unfolding of that wonderful mess called life than being a mechanistic plot unfolding. Out of the three MJH books that I've read in full (this, Light, and The Course of the Heart), Signs of Life just felt more "real" and tragic as one of the more secret and strong desires of the heart, that of a "flying away from it all," is just turned upon itself and shredded to devastating effect. This was one of the more moving stories that I've read so far this year.

Stepan Chapman, The Troika - I have heard Jeff VanderMeer and Jay Tomio, among others, pimp this as being one of the best books of the past decade, so after years of forgetting to get my hands on it when I was purchasing used books online, I finally snagged a copy a week ago and almost immediately dove into it. It more than lived up to its billing. A very surrealistic tale involving three personas that apparently are trapped in a shifting purgatorial world, The Troika intermixes quotes from Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland to achieve a work that is challenging, thought-provoking, and just as importantly, just so fucking weird and fun to read that re-reads are practically guaranteed to cause new reactions and considerations, which is the rarest and highest of compliments that I can give a book.

Jay Lake, Trial of Flowers - This was at times some fucked-up shit that I was reading about the City Imperishable, its maligned dwarves being sewn or slashed in boxes, and all sorts of searches for a secret (and lost) Master amid a siege of the City. Everything felt so "alien" at times and I was thrown out of any sense of "comfort" that I might have drawn from the false impression that it might be set in a world similar to umpteen medieval-lite fantasy worlds. But this was a good thing and by the end of this 263 page novel released late last year by Night Shade, I was thoroughly enjoying what was happening and was eager to see what would happen next. Lake's writing is excellent and as I said above, the setting is superb, along with some truly original applications for dwarves (although there are a few places that might make the squeamish a bit uncomfortable). Highly recommended.

Cherie Priest, Four and Twenty Blackbirds - Nice update on the Southern Gothic/mystery genre, starring a biracial heroine, Eden Moore, and her new ability to see (and talk with) dead people. Set in Chat Town (Chattanooga for the non-TN natives), Priest really does a good job in setting the scene and laying out a very faithful rendition of Chattanooga and its environs, while working in some of the funniest (and true!) comments on I-75 area Georgia south of Macon that I've read in quite some time (trust me, the places there are begging for sarcastic commentary about their trashy signs). The plot was quite basic (threat of murder to Eden's beloved aunt), but Priest develops this into a very enjoyable story. I have her second Eden novel, Wings to the Kingdom, that I shall be reading shortly.

E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros - The cod-medieval epic written a generation before Tolkien by another Oxford don (and apparently an Inkling along with Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, among others) is not something that I would recommend for the beginning fantasy reader (or for any readers who are not advanced in their reading skills). The writing is deliberately archaic, but in a way that is more faithful to some of the stylings of the previous one thousand years than what I've seen from post-Tolkien copycats trying to ape the "feel." The story is that of a series of quests, with some working better than others. While I had little difficulty with the language and did recognize some of the poetry that Eddison "borrowed" to highlight certain scenes, I don't think this is really "essential" reading for fantasy readers, as a combination of the archaic-to-be-archaic style with a rather plot quest-by-numbers approach left this reader feeling more appreciative that the genre has grown more nuanced in the intervening near-century than for what Eddison brought to the table.

In addition to these first-time reads, I re-read Zoran Živković's excellent 2006 collection, Seven Touches of Music. Back in February, I wrote elsewhere about an amazing event that happened (I believe) due to a classroom reading of "The Whisper." I decided last weekend that it was high time that I re-read the rest of that excellent collection and I cannot help but wonder how it was not up for WFA consideration this year.

Also, there will be a few non-genre reviews coming up in the next week or so over at Vaguely Borgesian, namely for David Anthony Durham's first two novels, Gabriel's Story and Walking Through Darkness, with maybe a brief bit on John Knowles classic A Separate Peace. But I cannot end this post without a link to a very intriguing (and drool-worthy) book sale that Jeff VanderMeer will be having around Tuesday of this upcoming week. Feast your eyes on these pictures, people. Multiple editions of Edward Whittemore...ymmm....

And now I bid you adieu for a bit - lots to do reading-wise this weekend in preps for this training session for administrating the TN Gateway Exam for English II later this month. Hey, at least I'm being paid to read and discuss stories, no?

P.S. Just found this interesting NY Times article on books and shelving that might of interest to some. Thoughts?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Brief comments on the Hugo Finalists for Best Novel

I originally toyed with the idea of writing 5 reviews of 600-800 words each, but decided that for purposes of unity, that I would keep it under 250 words for each entry and focus much more on what I felt worked/didn't about each story. I'll start with the order of finish:

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (winner)

This book had the makings of being a very strong book that would combine not just a possible vision for the near-future (say 20 years from now) with a look at how such technologies are impacting human lives, but also combine that with a subtle look at how personalities can and are affected by physical traumas. But as I was reading this novel last week, I couldn't help but get a sense that Vinge perhaps should have choked back a bit on the technological bits (impressive as some might appear to many reading it) and focused a little bit more on Robert's connections with his son and others who knew him before his bout of Alzheimer's. It just felt at times that the narrative wandered in the middle and that has led me to downgrade it to a good book that could have been much better. I just don't think it was the best book of 2006.

Charles Stross, Glasshouse (2nd place)

I do not like Stross's writing style and when reading this book late last night, I had to fight the urge to skip ahead. This tale was set in the 27th century and revolved around some ability to transfer personalities both within machines and humans and how one of these people with a murky past has had "his" memory altered and he doesn't know much behind these reasons. This character, "Robin," ends up participating in an experimental facility meant to mimic "dark age" (read, our time) social settings within a particular body. The usual hijinks and struggles for freedom occur. Lather, rinse, repeat. Stross still cannot write a compelling tale for me and I felt this was the worst of the bunch.

Naomi Novik, Temeraire: His Majesty's Dragon (3rd place)

This was the one fantasy book on the list and out of the five, the one that comes closest to executing its apparent aims. A story that combines Napoleonic War Europe with dragons, it was a very enjoyable story that passed the time nicely, achieving what its author probably aimed to accomplish. However, it wasn't a very "deep" novel and that I feel is what hurts it not just in regards to these awards, but also because it just isn't the type of story that will stick in one's head for long. Novik did win the Campbell Award for Best New Writer at this convention, so it's not like her writing is without merit, only that her story felt so out of place compared to most of the other finalists in recent years in regards to theme and substance.

Michael Flynn, Eifelheim (4th place)

Out of these five books, Eifelheim likely would have received my vote for 1st place. Expanded from the original 1987 Hugo-nominated novella (which comprised the "Now" sections of this book), Eifelheim combines certain multidimensional mathematic approaches with narrative and philosophical looks at human life to look at what possibly happened at this one Swabian village during the time of the Black Death in Europe. While the "past" and "now" parts separately were interesting in places, I felt that some of the character interactions were forced in places (Tom in particular annoyed the hell out of me with his exclamations and unexplained usage of expressions in Latin, German, French, and Hungarian) and that the two parts could have been tied together better. However, on the whole, this was an enjoyable book that came just a teeny-bit closer than Vinge did to accomplishing its apparent goals.

Peter Watts, Blindsight (5th place)

This almost was a great book, with interesting ideas and characters. Almost, but alas it was not. This story about exploration of this mysterious ship and neurological phantasms that affect our senses and thus our "realities" was close to being great. But there were vampires added with an odd physiological problem (the crucifix glitch) and that intruded subject, probably meant in part to serve as a symbol for how our minds can be altered in ways to change us from "human" to "something else," just served to make the last half of this novel to be a complete mess. It ranked with the Stross as being one of the more poorly-executed books in my opinion and its fifth-place finish is deserving.

So, if I had to rank these in order of preference, it would go as follows:

1. Eifelheim

2. Rainbows End

3. Temeraire: His Majesty's Dragon

4.(tie) Blindsight


But would I have ranked these higher than say the upcoming WFA nominees? Let's just say that I certainly would have had Wolfe and Valente (who didn't receive even a single nomination for the Hugo this year, shocking almost) ranked either than any, the Lynch would have been around the level of the top three here, and I've yet to read the Kushner and King works that were nominated.

Later, I'll try to read/review the Novellas, Novelettes, and Short Stories, perhaps over the next few weeks, before I devote time for individual reviews of the WFA-nominated books (since I have two months to read those, instead of the bare week that I alloted to read the Hugo ones).

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Hugo Award Winners Announced and Initial Thoughts

Now later today and tomorrow and possibly through into Monday, I plan on writing/posting reviews of the five finalists for the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel (in the coming weeks, time permitting, I'm going to read the online versions of the nominees in most of the other fiction categories and possibly review them in short form here). But today, I thought I'd just post a link to the final results.

I've read the winning novel, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, and while I'll weigh in later with much more commentary as to that particular book's perceived strengths and weaknesses, it just didn't have that "feel" that an award-winning book ought to have, or at least for me anyways. But what struck me was the extremely low number of votes - only 471 valid ballots? That is only a slight bit higher than what would happen if one of the more-visited fantasy websites or author blogs were visited and people had the chance to vote. In this day of instant access and hundreds of people weighing in at almost any Joe Schmo's site/blog on most anything (the recent SFWA snafu being a prime example), the continued relevance of the Hugos as being some form of "the fan's choice" is probably going to be questioned. But I have already weighed in on this before, so I'll just let this link speak to a long-term concern many of us have had.

But despite all this, I suppose the Hugos are still valuable in forcing some of us to take notice of books that we would probably never have given a second thought to if a few hundred others hadn't felt a strong enough affinity for them to place them into the finalist round and thus to the attention of thousands of more people. I just don't know if this is a better system than a juried award, though. Only time will see, I suppose.
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