The OF Blog: December 2007

Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 in Review: Things Liked, Things Not-so-Liked

By now, there are numerous posts on the blogosphere and on various forums listing one's favorite fictions from 2007. In most of those posts, the writers proclaim 2007 to have been an "excellent" or "outstanding" one for fantasy/SF/etc. They'll rattle off 5-20 books that they enjoyed, perhaps give a sentence or two of explanation behind the choices, and then the post is done. All well and good for their intended purposes, no doubt, but I keep wanting to read something "more" in such "year in review" posts.

Before I explore the book side of matters, I want to take note of certain authors who have died in 2007. Between April and October, three authors that I had read at various points of my life had died. The first (and perhaps most prominent to mind, although coverage in certain sectors was lacking) was Kurt Vonnegut. Although I have read only two books of his to date (Slaughterhouse 5 and Timequake), I remember reading many of his short stories and essays throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Witty, irascible, and often dead-on with his writings, Vonnegut's words spoke to some of my unease with the daftness that makes up our so-called "reality." He will be missed.

In August, Madeleine L'Engle died at the age of 88. Like Vonnegut, she had lived a "long and full" life, but my memories of her are closely related to my sixth grade teacher (long since retired) who, more than anyone during my time in primary or secondary school, encouraged me to read fiction. She especially urged me to read A Wrinkle in Time, but at the time (I was 11, remember), I was too easily distracted. But yet that book stuck in my mind and earlier this year, I read it start-to-finish for the first time. There was a "magical" quality about that prose, even though its intended audience was for my former 10-13 year-old cohort group, that appealed to me. So when a few months after reading this that I heard that she had died, I was saddened a bit, thinking at the time that we needed more people like her who would just imagine things and write from there with a sense for the trepidation that lies behind our seeking for making the world a better place.

Finally, epic fantasist James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (better known under his pseudonym of Robert Jordan) died after a battle with a rare blood disease. I first read his The Wheel of Time books (then numbering seven) in late 1997 while I was seeking a distraction from my MA exam studies. At the time, they met a need and despite the many problems with pacing and characterization, I continued to read the books fitfully through the present. Indirectly, I came back to reading genre fantasy (and later branching out from that into the styles you'll see below represented in my choices for the Best of 2007) due to a chance encounter with his writings and for that, it does bear noting that his death was a loss for millions of spec fic fans. But out of death arises hope on occasion and it was announced earlier this month that Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn trilogy and of Elantris, will be completing the final WoT novel, A Memory of Light, with an expected Fall 2009 release date.

This year has seen much more than just author deaths. There have been new imprints emerge in the past couple of years, such as Orbit US, Pyr, and Solaris to name but three of many, that have published things that have made somewhat of an impact on the genre. Although there has been a steady growth the past few years, apparently 2007 was viewed by many as being the year where SF review blogs became worthy of notice for their role in influencing buying and reading patterns. Perhaps there is something to it, but I am cautious about this, considering that blogs such as mine might not be as much the avante guard in proclaiming certain books and trends as being rather the reflection of already-present trends in public reading consumption. Then again, perhaps my choices for best of year will belie that.

When I started compiling lists for the various categories listed below, I was struck by a realization similar to the one Jeff VanderMeer had back in October in regards to short fiction. There weren't too many "bad" books that I read; a great many of the 2007 releases had elements to recommend them to others. However, there just were not many releases that I read that had that je ne sais quoi element of "magic" to them. I am not a reader who is comfortable with reading various permutations of a particular formula; I want something that at least attempts to be "inventive" and "challenging." Mind you, this does not mean that I wanted an X or Y style of writing, as the inventiveness and challenge can come in a great many styles and varieties within widely disparate genre forms.

The books that I chose for each of the categories (Best Novel, Best Collection, Best Anthology, Best Debut Spec Fic Novel, Best YA Novel, with certain others appearing on my personal, non-genre blog) in virtually all cases had something to them that made them stand out from a crowd. By that, I do not mean wiseass mo'fo spouting off pithy lines inside the framework of a "traditional" SF or epic fantasy novel, but rather that the authors chosen attempted different perspectives, displayed high proficiency in using language to create a certain mood, and for some, the stories were laid out in such a fashion as to be unsettling and provocative. My choices will not be popular with many who read this blog in addition to certain others, I know. In many cases, these stories are not "accessible" and they are going to cause all sorts of problems for readers accustomed to taking a more passive role in the reading game. M. John Harrison alludes to this in his recent essay on "worldbuilding" (the quotes serve a purpose here) in talking about the intertextual "games" that transpire between Author, Text, and Reader, with the Text serving as a constant field of interpretative action. Not all readers (sadly, not even close to a majority) want to engage themselves with the writing - they want things spelled out, as clear as if they were viewing something rather than interpreting the word-symbols (which is but of course the foundation of language and communication). For those readers, many of the books that I have chosen for these lists will be unappealing, frustrating, and perhaps "bad" in their eyes. So be it, as after all, this is a very subjective list, albeit one grounded in providing some reasons at least for including these books here in the various lists.

But enough of the essay writing. I have things to do. On with the show. In the following sections, I'll list the full shortlist and then choose 1-3 for further commentary regarding why these were chosen. Let's see how many of you (besides the lucky 2 out of 81) are surprised by my #1 selection for Best Novel.

Best Spec Fic Novel of 2007:

4. Gene Wolfe, Pirate Freedom
5. Dan Simmons, The Terror
6. Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish
7. Lucius Shepard, Softspoken
8. Sarah Monette, The Mirador
9. Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen (Black Man)
10. Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon's Arms
11. Emma Bull, Territory
12. M. John Harrison, Nova Swing

3. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

As a kid, I remember watching "Fractured Fairy Tales" on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. While Valente's stories certainly are not satires, that title would fit the sort of storytelling that is taking place in this second half of her The Orphan's Tale duology. Various myths and folklore from around the world, with bizarre and yet somehow familiar characters of all shapes, sizes, and hues, all feeling as though they were distillations of our shared cultural pasts. This led to a very enjoyable reading experience in which I felt that magical quality called "wonder." I like that, I want that, I even need that fix. Valente delivers that here.

2. Michael Cisco, The Traitor

This was a very challenging but rewarding read for me. There has been some interesting discussion on that elsewhere, where Cisco answers the email of another who read this work and had struggled to grasp its meanings. The Traitor is a feverish, confessional tale, replete with repetitions and apparent contradictions to this tale of a tortured prisoner's various betrayals. It is in many ways akin to Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground and when I approached it from that angle, the story revealed even more layers to it, belying its slim 150 pages. Cisco is not "accessible," but damn was he ever worth the read for me.

1. Shaun Tan, The Arrival

So I picked a book that has no intelligible words for my top 2007 release. Why? Because in those images that evoke flashes of Ellis Island or many other ports of entry for immigrants over the years, one gets so many powerful images. Wonderment. Despair. Confusion. Hope. Frustration. Sadness. Joy. And in a genre in which it does seem at times that authors almost force readers to consider only one way to approach a story (which is why I sympathized to an extent with MJH's arguments, and don't let people like Pat fool you into thinking Harrison didn't have valid points to consider), it was so refreshing to have to imagine what is transpiring behind those images. Fantasy is as much about readers engaging their own imaginations as reading a writer's imaginative exercise and sometimes I feel that this has been lost in tales that borrow too heavily from the past imaginative exercises of others. Tan drew some amazing pictures that told so many stories at once that it'll take a lifetime to exhaust the possibilities there. For that, he deserves the top choice here.

Best Author Story Collection (Single or Collaborative):

I had six very strong candidates to choose from here and not much separated them from one another. In a couple of cases, having more stories (Cisco, Rambo and VanderMeer) would have improved their status perhaps, as the sample was not large enough for a full spectrum of stories. Regardless, I'd heartily recommend each of these for those who like the quirky and unpredictable to appear in their stories.

6. Michael Cisco, Secret Hours
5. Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories
4. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes (US edition)
3. Sarah Monette, The Bone Key
2. Tim Pratt, Hart & Boot & Other Stories

1. Richard Parks, Worshipping Small Gods

When I read this collection back in the summer, I said the following in summation:

Richard Parks' Worshipping Small Gods is a collection of 14 stories, most of which have been released in various genre magazines, with three new stories included. Each of these tales touches upon our desires, fears, and hatreds in a way that makes each story stand out as its own creation but yet with some common threads that connect it to each other.
I still hold to this opinion and it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see this collection up for a World Fantasy Award in 2008. One can only hope.

Best Anthology:

The anthology choices were harder for me. In many cases, such as The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (which I might review in full in a few days, time/energy permitting), the strong stories were counterbalanced by some rather dull, "competent" stories that made for an uneven experience. In other cases, such as with Logorrhea, the uniting theme was not strong enough in places and the stories did not feel as though they were parts of a whole. But sometimes, the editors got it right and the winning entries showcase this.

7. George Mann (ed.), The Solaris Book of New Fantasy
6. Peter Wild (ed.), The Flash
5. John Clima (ed.), Logorrhea
4. Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (eds.), The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
3. Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers (eds.), Infinity Plus: The Anthology (US edition)

And in a tie for first place:

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Best American Fantasy (prior review)

Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.), Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

In each of these two anthologies, there were stories that grabbed my attention, made me reflect upon matters, and which contained those "magical" elements that I look for in stories of all stripes and genres. I could not easily decide which of these two I liked best, so I chose them both for the top slot. After all, some of you will consider reading these excellent works, right?

Best Young Adult Fantasy Novels:

Doubtless, this list is rather spare and lacking in comparison to others, although I do hope to rectify this in time for next year's Review post (any publishers reading this: I do read and review YA literature when it's brought to my attention, as I think it's underrated in many circles).

4. Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow: The Invisible Road
3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
2. Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors

1. China Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Although this isn't Miéville's best work (for that, I consider his novella The Tain to be his strongest work of fiction), this was a very imaginatively-done story. As a child, I remember making up creatures and all sorts of nasty surprises that could lurk around city corners and it was a delight to see an alternate London done in a similar fashion here. Although there were some rough places here and there where the intended audience might not have been considered well, overall, Un Lun Dun contained nice twists and Miéville's usual penchant for scary monsters. Good stuff.

Best Spec Fic Debut Novel:

Although one author on this list has had some well-received historical novels, writing genre fiction (whatever "genre fiction" might mean, as it's akin to "obscenity" in its definitions, it seems) is a different matter.

3. Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors
2. Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

1. David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein

For a fantasy debut (again, I know Durham's written three historical novels and I've read the first two, as a glance at the link above to my non-genre Best of 2007 lists will show), Acacia was a good read. I typically get bored with the patchwork arrangement in secondary-world fantasies, as it seems at times that the authors do not focus their attentions adequately to certain story mechanics, but Durham did an excellent job in getting me engaged with the mechanics that underlay this opener to a trilogy. As I jokingly told him a few days ago, Acacia was "lucky #13" on my Best of 2007 Countdown, as it was the last book to be removed from that list. I removed it with the expectation that as he grows more accustomed to writing in a "created world," his characters will continue to show the nice development that I noted in my earlier review. For this, it was the best spec fic debut novel that I have read this year out of the 2007 releases that I own.

Final Notes:

I have read through 356 novels to date and have only a few pages here and there to finish of two others, so I will have read 358 novels this year. Of those, roughly 80 were 2007 releases and a bit over half were in the spec fic umbrella. Not many of those (fewer than 10) were epic fantasies and many contained elements of "magic realism," which is a preferred style for me. I will be posting my final 2007 reading list tomorrow or Wednesday on my other blog. I welcome any questions and comments in regards to my choices, as well as listings of your own favorite 2007 reads. I hope you enjoyed reading this and took something from my comments, even if it might have been a distaste for 99% of the books I selected. Thank you for reading and I hope that each of you has a Happy New Year full of wonderful book reading that will contain at least one "Book of Gold" for you.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some anticipated 2008 releases

I thought now would be an appropriate time to list some of the books I'm looking forward to being released in 2008. Although I have read two them already (Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge; review in a few days, as well as having read a draft form of R. Scott Bakker's Neuropath back in early 2006), this list represents just some of the books that I know are most likely to have a 2008 release that caught my eye first. There are doubtless many that I shall discover in the coming year that perhaps will be better than any of these, but just to whet your appetites, here's my list, in no particular order:

Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge (January 15) and its sequel due out in August, Lord Tophet

R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath (supposedly a spring 2008 UK release)

Gene Wolfe, An Evil Guest (no firm release date, but if a draft is already available, there is hope for a 4th Quarter release); Memorare (limited-edition signed novella coming out any day now by Wyrm Publishing)

Tobias Buckell, Tides from the New Worlds (limited-edition signed story collection, again from Wyrm, scheduled for a Spring 2008 release); Sly Mongoose (August - third novel in a sequence)

Paul Melko, Singularity's Ring (February - looked this up and it seems like it might be a nice mixture of styles and influences, but I know little more than that, so I'm very curious)

Jeffrey Ford, The Shadow Year (novel, March); The Night Whiskey (collection, September)

Ursula Le Guin is adapting/co-opting the Aeneas's story with her Lavinia, coming out in April

Richard K. Morgan has a new fantasy series coming out in 2008, starting with The Steel Remains (August)

Andrzej Sapkowski's second book to appear in English, the novel Blood of the Elves, is also scheduled for an August release in the UK

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have a few collections coming out in 2008: The New Weird (February); Steampunk (May); and Best American Fantasy 2 (July)

Lucius Shepard has a collection of his shorter fiction, The Best of Lucius Shepard, coming out in August.

Steven Erikson is scheduled to release his eighth Malazan Book of the Fallen book, Toll the Hounds, in August in the UK and US (for the first time), while his collaborator/friend, Ian Cameron Esslemont, will have a wide-release of his second Malazan-related novel, The Return of the Crimson Guard, around the same time in the UK (no known US publication date or publisher)

And finally, I see where there's a new Kelly Link collection (yay!) coming out in September called The Wrong Grave and Other Stories

So there you have it, just a few of the books I'm anticipating for the coming year. I wouldn't be surprised if the final list surpasses 100 this time next year. Any books that you expect to be released in 2008 that I failed to mention? If so, feel free to list them in the Comments section of this post.

Best of 2007: YA Titles

I managed to read a few more Young Adult titles this year than in years past, enough for me to have four decent selections out of the ones I've read to date (there are a few unread ones, unfortunately, that I hope to have read by the end of the first quarter of 2008). Here they are, listed below:

Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow: The Invisible Road

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Best of 2007: Anthologies and Story Collections

I made it my goal this year to read more anthologies and short story collections by particular authors. Although I still have a few stories here and there to finish in some of these, I have read enough of the following to justify splitting this into two separate categories, one for anthologies and one for collections by one or two authors. I'll announce my Top 3 picks in each category on Monday in my Best of 2007 writeup.


Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), Best American Fantasy

George Mann (ed.), The Solaris Book of New Fantasy

Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.), Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

John Klima (ed.), Logorrhea

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

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant (eds.), The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet

Peter Wild (ed.), The Flash

Story Collections:

Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes

Sarah Monette, The Bone Key

Richard Parks, Worshipping Small Gods

Michael Cisco, Secret Hours

Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Tales

Tim Pratt, Hart & Boot & Other Stories

I have some very tough decisions ahead. Oh, and in the coming days, do expect some reviews of some of those works above that I have yet to review here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Crazy People, "Well-Adjusted" People

Jeff VanderMeer has an intriguing post up about authors coming to realize that they've been writing about "crazy" people. The discussion about this has included a related question that had been eating at me earlier in the day, about how come a reader will rarely encounter a truly "well-adjusted" character in a novel. I highly recommend that all people reading this to click on the link above and to read through the discussion that ensued, as I think it's something worthy of further exploration. Also, if you have any thoughts on my question, I'd love to hear them as well.

Charlie Huston, Half the Blood of Brooklyn

I don't like him.

I don't like the way he smells. I don't like the way he looks. I don't like his shoes. If I stuck a blade in him and drank the blood that shot out of the open wound, I wouldn't like the way he tastes.

But Terry told me to be cool.

So I don't kill the guy.

That was my introduction to Charlie Huston's third Joe Pitt novel, Half the Blood of Brooklyn. Told in short, staccato bursts of dialogue and thought reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler, this slender, 223 page novel is bursting with action, but with an extra layer of introspection that adds a depth of meaning to what otherwise would be a simple quest-plot novel of achieve mission X at all costs. I have not read Huston's other novels, but based on my experiences, it is not too terribly difficult to pick out the backstory.

Joe, like most of the other characters in the novel, has been infected by a "vyrus" that has turned them into "vampyres" (like the traditional model, just with an edgy "y" spelling). Living in a dark, violent New York City divided into territorial clans, he is a sort of a combination of a hit man and a private eye. Due to circumstances such as an ever-shortening supply of blood and his girlfriend (human) suffering through the terminal stages of AIDS, Joe has joined forces with the Society Clan. As the scene quoted above indicates, he doesn't care much for the person he has to work with, but dammit, he's in need of work and all the usual gruff, "manly" stuff that follows.

Huston does a good job in outlining the initial mission, but he then embellishes it with certain information about the Vampyres that makes for a compelling read. However, I have to admit that I found the use of "fuck" to be close to overdone, even taking into account the character and his supposed streetwise background. There were times that I was jarred from considering the action at hand by such repetitive talk and while it doesn't ruin the story for me, it just made me aware all the more of the inherent limitations of using such characters as protagonists.

Although these type of novels are not my normal reading fare, I believe I can safely say that those who are fans of Huston's prior work will love this continuation of the Joe Pitt character. Those who are new to his work, such as I am, will likely find it intriguing at times, but may be put off by the staccato feel of the dialogue. But if you love the hardboiled detective/hit man type of novel, then I would suggest that you at least consider reading Half the Blood of Brooklyn.

Publication Date: December 26, 2007 (US), tradeback.

Publisher: Del Rey

Trailer for Tobias Buckell's upcoming novel, Sly Mongoose

I saw this on Buckell's site and I couldn't resist posting it here. By the way, Sly Mongoose is one of the books that'll be featured in Sunday's post on my Most Anticipated 2008 Release. So consider this post a sneak peek for that as well!

Best of 2007: A look back at the Best of 2006 Debut Novelists

There were three authors making their fantasy novel debuts in 2006 that I lauded in my Best of 2006 review. I thought before I announce the top three for 2007 that I would take a look back at these three novels (Hal Duncan's Vellum; Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora; and Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain) and see what each author managed to accomplish this year with their 2007 releases.

Hal Duncan, Vellum.

This book also made my overall Best of 2006 list at #2 due to its rich, multilayered prose. A complex but yet mostly rewarding story of a near-future event in which certain individuals gain the ability to travel here and there through a Multiverse-like setting of 3D time and space called the Vellum. Each is looking for the fabled Book of All Hours, which permits its holder literally to rewrite history by an erasure here, a scribble there. Over the course of the novel, we are introduced to archetypical characters such as Jack, Phreedom, and Seamus, among others. What each means in the end is revealed in Ink.

While I loved Vellum, I was not as enamored with Ink. Although a re-read almost certainly will improve my opinion of the work, when I read it soon after its February release, I couldn't help but feel that Duncan lingered a bit too much on the exploration of the Vellum at the expense of developing the end story and concluding this truly epic battle of Heaven and Hell under other guises. However, the characters continued to develop and ultimately we get to see more of the archetypes behind the seven characters that appear in this duology.

Ranking of 2007 Effort: Second

Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

This was more of a "popcorn" read, in that it is best to be read without trying to think too much about the characterizations or the plot development, since invariably there would be quite a few places for the nitpickers to go to work. It was apparently intended to be a "fun" read and using that as the main criteria for judging it last year, it mostly succeeded, despite a few ragged places around the middle and the choppy ending that perhaps ought to have been revised further to make it flow better. That being said, I enjoyed this novel.

The second novel in The Gentleman Bastards sequence, Red Seas Under Red Skies, I did not enjoy much at all. The "fun" elements were repeated too much for my liking, making for a duller and less enjoyable experience. Add to that the interminable plot to steal from the Sinspire and the ultimate downer of yet another pirate cruise, and I was very underwhelmed by this effort.

Ranking: A very distant third

Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain

While at first glance this might seem to be the most shallow of the three (due to its relatively slender page count of roughly 350 pages compared to the 500+ page counts for the other two), Buckell displays a nice ability to cut to the chase and to lay out the story and the characters in a quick fashion without skimping overmuch on developing both. This is an adventure/mystery story (the mystery revolving around the lost memory of the main character) and the ending was satisfying. I thought back a year ago that this was a good, solid opener that held promise for future development in succeeding novels.

Well, my expectations were met and even exceeded a little bit when I read Ragamuffin this June. Expanding the story far beyond the planetwide scope of Crystal Rain, introduces a whole new layer of backstory and a host of new and interesting characters. While events here ultimately are tied into the events and characters of the first novel, I felt that Ragamuffin itself is little more than just the first true showing of what seems to be a very promising SF series. Of the three 2006 debuts that had 2007 follow-ups, this was the only one to show improvement over the first.

Ranking: First

And what about the candidates for the 2007 Debut Novels? Here are the names I'm toying with listed below. Keep in mind that I'm going to be thinking of a spec fic debut and not a general one, in case one wants to ask why a certain author made this list despite having three previous award-winning novels:

David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein

Jeffrey Overstreet, Auralia's Colors

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best of 2007: Books Arriving Too Late to Make the Countdown

Since I started preparations for this on the 10th, there had to be a cutoff for books that could qualify for the list. I have since received some books that I believe potentially could have made the list, so in the name of fairness, I thought I'd list them below:

Sylvia Kelso, Amberlight

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Christopher Barzak, One for Sorrow

Ekaterina Sedia, The Secret History of Moscow

Nick Mamatas, Under My Roof

Expect reviews of these in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Two more articles on "worldbuilding"

I remember near the beginning of the year when M. John Harrison posted a blog entry called "Very Afraid," in which he talked of the "clodding foot of nerdism" in reference to a certain type of fantasy fiction. Although I mostly agreed with his comments, I posted a link to his blog to see what others at Westeros and wotmania would make of it. To say there was a vociferous disagreement would be an understatement. There were a few pieces said here and there on the blogosphere, of course, the usual arguing akin to that of dogs over a meaty bone recently discovered.

It is now late December. Harrison has closed down his blog for the most part, but I see he posted an extensive article back on the 21st in which he outlines his position in a much greater detail than before. Whether or not you agree with him (again, I mostly do), it is well worth the time it'll take to read it (it's quite a few thousand words long).

The second link I have is to a brief interview that Canadian author Caitlin Sweet did with renowned artist John Howe. Although she submitted this back in October, it was not "live" until a week or so ago. In it, she discusses her frustrations with her attempts to write a third novel and her resolutions, some of which get at the heart of the "worldbuilding" issue for me: If you become so meticulous and devoted to crafting something that the "life" and "magic" of the writing/reading experience is drained from it, have you really "created" something of worth, or have you just ordered others' imaginations like a puppeteer does in a puppet show?

Best of 2007: The Next Ten

For those who may have wondered why Book X or Y failed to make my Top 12 Countdown list, I decided that I would post a list of ten others that I considered adding (again, there will be a separate list for short story collections and anthologies in the coming days), but ultimately decided not to for various reasons. Hopefully you'll find these works to be worthy of reading and discussion in the near future.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, A Companion to Wolves.

While this was one of the few animal companion stories that I have read and enjoyed (the few others that come to mind are too treacly for my tastes), not to mention the authors have constructed a multilayered society fraught with political, social, and sexual tensions, I ultimately decided against having this book appear on the Countdown for a very simple reason: I did not want to have multiple novels by the same author appear on the Countdown. Besides, any of these ten could have made the Countdown if I had chosen the list another time.

Tobias Buckell, Ragamuffin.

While I'll say more about this book and its author in an upcoming post on the three authors who made my 2006 Debut Author list, I can say that I believed that Ragamuffin showed necessary plot and characterization growth from 2006's Crystal Rain. I enjoyed this tale and its broadening of the storyline universe, but I decided to exclude it from the list more because I am expecting even more goodness from Buckell in his upcoming third novel, Sly Mongoose. It's just hard for middle volumes in any genre or storytelling form to win the prize (I think Monette's The Mirador was the only middle volume work I had on the Countdown), but like the others on this list, Buckell's work certainly would have been a worthy candidate for the Countdown.

Hal Duncan, Ink.

I loved his first volume of the Book of All Hours duology, Vellum, when I read it back in July 2006. It was full of interesting archetypes and the 3-D concept of time/place was done quite well. So it was with great anticipation that I preordered Ink, eager for its February release. I read it over a couple of days, but ultimately, it felt a bit "flat" to me, as if a string or two had broken in the performance. While far from a "bad" book, Ink for now (as I suspect a re-read might increase my opinion of it) is just merely a "very good" read, thus dropping it off of my personal Top 12 for 2007.

David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein.

Durham is not a new author; he has published three excellent historical novels (Gabriel's Story; Walk Through Darkness; Pride of Carthage) and in this opener to the Acacia trilogy, he brings a lot of the historical fiction tools to this secondary world setting. We see all sorts of links and chains that bind the Acacian ruling family to sordid things such as slavery and the drug trade, things not often talked about or shown in such books. While the more removed third-person limited style was a bit off-putting for those readers who wanted to immerse themselves in every sweaty, dank moment, I think it was an appropriate voice to capture the "historical" feel that I suspect Durham wanted this volume to have, not to mention that it made it possible for this story to be told in one 576 page volume rather than being sprawled out over multiple volumes. This book was one of the very last ones cut from the list (I originally was contemplating a Top 15) and I dropped it more because I am awaiting to see how the characters develop in the following two volumes. I suspect those volumes will be even more rewarding than this one.

Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss

This was an emotionally draining but powerful story of an aging photographer from the punk scene in the 1970s who has been having some nasty flashbacks from her past. More of a psychological horror novel than anything overtly "speculative" in nature, this was a very well-written and gripping narrative. The only reason it didn't make the Countdown (or even get a full review from me when I read it last month) is that I was left numb at the end - not the dull sensation caused by inferior prose, but rather that it was so overwhelming in places (having worked with and known teens that are going through the same stages that Hand's main character does) that I think it'll take time and a re-read later for me to be able to write a succinct review.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Rothfuss certainly knows how to incorporate elements of oral storytelling forms into his story, as I got this sense on occasion that I was being "told" the story rather than just reading it. Kvothe was an intriguing character and there is much promise for the next two volumes in this trilogy for it to become a classic in the years to come. However, there were some rough patches in the characterization and the narrative flow. Not enough to damper the enjoyment much, but just enough for me to leave it off of the Countdown. Rothfuss, however, does have the potential to write a book that might make a future edition of the Countdown.

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: The Well of Ascension

Despite having a tepid, lukewarm reaction to Sanderson's debut novel, Elantris, when I read it in January 2006, I found myself enjoying the first two volumes of the Mistborn trilogy when I read them back this summer. The characters weren't as wooden, the action was better-plotted, and the premise of "What would happen in the world if the Dark Side won?" made for an engaging opening volume. While I enjoyed The Well of Ascension almost as much as I did The Final Empire, it suffered a bit from the usual middle volume problems of lacking a defined and separate introduction and conclusion. For that, it gets an honorable mention but no place on my Best of 2007 Countdown.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin

For those who aren't familiar with Tolkien beyond The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, this expanded narrative (pieced together from various drafts by his son Christopher) of a dark, tragic First Age tale might seem unsettling with its "historical" feel and its rather nasty ending. I enjoyed reading this tale a lot in abbreviated form over the past 20 years and I thought Christopher Tolkien did a nice job in constructing a good narrative from all the bits and pieces his father had written over the years. However, this edition was little more than a compilation of drafts that I had mostly read elsewhere over the years, so it's mainly for this reason that I decided not to include The Children of Húrin in the Best of 2007 Countdown.

Daniel Wallace, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

Although I have not read Wallace's other works (Big Fish being the most famous of those, I believe), I will try to correct that in the coming year as this was an excellent sleight-of-hand telling of a backroads circus performer and his tragic life. There are hints that the "negro magician" might actually have made a deal with the Devil for actual magical powers, but in this shifting narrative told by those who knew him best, the truth becomes buried under layers of artifice until a rather surprising history is revealed. I enjoyed this novel quite a bit and had the privilege of hearing Wallace read from it when he was in Nashville on my birthday back in July. It didn't make the Countdown more because it was hard for me to decide between that and a couple of others and ultimately those other tales stayed in my mind just a tiny bit more than this excellent tale did.

Zoran Živković, Steps Through the Mist

Serbian author Zoran Živković has written some delightfully meditative and interconnected stories over the years, in arrangements that he calls "story suites." In this collection, there are five women who have various interactions with a sometimes-metaphorical, sometimes-very real "mist," each of those encounters occurring at a pivotal point in the stories. These were very well-written, but not as moving as his earlier collection, Seven Touches of Music. For that reason, I decided to leave this work off of my Best of 2007 Countdown, although I certainly would recommend it to most people, especially those who are fans of Živković's earlier work.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Artwork for the reprint of Jeffrey Ford's The Well-Built City trilogy

I've been a fan of his work since I first read this trilogy back in 2002. Sadly, it's been out of print for about that long, but in autumn of 2008, Golden Gryphon will be reprinting the trilogy (The Physiognomist; Memoranda; The Beyond) with each book containing part of this stunning artwork done by John Picacio (click on the image for a larger view). Even though I have the original edition works, I'm strongly considering getting this, at least as a gift for at least one special person in my life who I think would enjoy this story immensely (not to mention this outstanding piece for the cover art).

For more, you can visit Jeffrey Ford's LiveJournal site.

More End of Year goodness

You've probably noticed that I've only focused on novels (mosaic or regular) in my Best of 2007 Countdown. While certainly novels are the biggest sellers in the market today, I do indeed have plans for other categories in the coming days leading up to the Best of 2007 winners to be announced on New Year's Eve. So here's the plan for the next few days:

26th - A listing (with short descriptions) of those handful of 2007 releases read that didn't appear on my Countdown but which I feel are worthy of consideration.

27th - Devoted to those books I just didn't have time to read this year, but which I anticipate will be enjoyable reads in 2008

28th - A look back at the three debut novels on my 2006 list and what each author accomplished with their second novels in 2007

29th - A listing of some of the anthologies and short story collections I read in 2007. Think of this as a condensed version of a Countdown for books in these categories.

30th - Anticipated 2008 releases. Just a few of the books I hope to get/read in 2008. Doubtless there'll be dozens more in 2008 that I'll read/enjoy, perhaps more than these to be listed here.

31st - Best of 2007 List. Ranking of the novels, collections/anthologies, debut novels, and a few other odds and ends from this year.

Hopefully, these categories and the posts to come from this (yes, some of these will be multiple posts) will spark some debate and other such projects. Most importantly, it's a fun project at heart and while they will reflect my own personal tastes, I believe there'll be things of value here for each and every one of you reading my blog.

And of course, since today is the celebration of Christ's birth, I do wish each and every one of you a blessed and Merry Christmas, not to mention wishes for a happy and joyous new year to come.

Best of 2007 Countdown: Gene Wolfe, Pirate Freedom

It is rather fitting that on the twelfth and final day of my countdown of the twelve best 2007 releases ends on Christmas Day with this particular book. Over his long and illustrious writing career, Gene Wolfe often has mixed in elements of Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection in symbolic and/or allegorical forms into many of his most famous novels. And here in his latest, Pirate Freedom, the Christian elements stand out the most.

As I said in my earlier review, the main character, Christopher, is a priest from the early 21st century who somehow finds himself transported back to the Caribbean world of the late 17th to early 18th century. A world full of cultures clashing, mixing and mingling to form outlaw bands on its murkiest and most hidden shores, this provides the setting for a tale that not only explores the development of the pirate mythos, but it also deconstructs many of the legends that have grown in the succeeding three centuries. But more than even that, there is this sense of a Confession here, not just of Father Christopher confessing his deeds and misdeeds as Pirate Crisofóro, but that of a deep sharing of one's life for another to behold and to judge. While that might sound like a harsh bit, it is far from it and this sense of Christopher's life being laid out for us to judge makes for a more straightforward tale than what is usually Wolfe's wont.

Pirate Freedom is not Wolfe's deepest or most powerful work. But it is an extremely well-done work and is more "accessible" for the general reader than many of his longer works. It is for the typically high quality of the prose and characterization, not to mention the sometimes poignant confessions that occur throughout the novel, that it has made my Best of 2007 Countdown.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Catherynne M. Valente, In the CIties of Coin and Spice

Atmospheric, often dark, full of shadows and odd lights peeking around the corners, often inhabited with odd creatures or even versions of ourselves. The best fables and fairy tales across the globe have these in abundance. Who can forget the dark and tangled forests in the Grimm Brothers' adaptations of medieval-to-early-modern French and German tales? Or the djinn of The Arabian Nights? Or the mysterious and often malicious fox-like shapeshifters in certain Japanese tales?

One of the things that immediately drew me in to Catherynne M. Valente's 2006 WFA finalist effort, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, was her use of language to create a similarly vivid dreamscape populated with shapeshifters and all sorts of people (this is not a typically pasty white's only tale, it bears to be noted), reflecting so many of our wonderfully diverse oral traditions. In her sequel, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, Valente continues this. I'm going to quote two opening paragraphs, one from the first frame tale (In the Garden) and the second from the first of the tales told in this volume. Notice the way Valente sets the stage in each:

The paths of the Garden were wet with fallen apples and red with their ruptured skin. Rag-clothed winds trailed over grass blanched of green; scarlet swallowed up the thrashing trees until all the many groves stood in long rows like bouquets of bloody flowers with long, black stalks.


The pebbled beach was wet and cold, each gray stone slick with rain and lake and mist. Nothing grew save a thin green mold at the water's edge, no sandpipers pecked at the shore for mites or worms, no cattails knocked against the bitter and scentless wind. Two figures were black against the heavy woolen sky, which leaked a slow, sullen light like wrung sweat. The shapes were featureless save for their curved backs - the one hunched and bone-twisted, the other bent under his satchel. Slowly the one approached the other, until from a distance there was but one great black shape where the two men met and spoke.
Descriptive scene openers such as this lead into explorations of myth, human relations, questions of mortality and so many of the other questions of life with which we have engaged ourselves over the millenia. For the artful way that Valente has constructed these tales to reflect other, more ancient fables, she has earned a place on my Best of 2007 Countdown.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Shaun Tan, The Arrival

Unlike the other books on my Best of 2007 Countdown, Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a picture book of sorts. Tan tells the story of an immigrant to a strange land, filled with odd creatures, different customs, with an indecipherable writing system. Throughout the tale, we see not just the images that the nameless immigrant experiences, but we also see him interacting with others, hearing their stories (which we "see" via very vivid images, some of them quite violent in nature).

When I read this back in October, I could not help but to think that this was the closest I had yet come to experiencing a strange setting. The creatures were fantastical, the buildings just a bit "off" as to be unsettling, and the entire story left me feeling as though I had been displaced - something that some of the best stories in the speculative fiction branch of literature ought to do. But instead of wasting more words on this, let me paste here a few images that Tan himself has made available via his website:

Hopefully these images will give you more insight into why I chose The Arrival to be on my Best of 2007 Countdown.

Best of 2007 Countdown: Dan Simmons, The Terror

Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. Above him - above Terror - shimmering folds of light lunge but then quickly withdraw like the colourful arms of aggressive but ultimately uncertain spectres. Ectoplasmic skeletal fingers extend toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.

The temperature is -50 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. Because of the fog that came through earlier, during the single hour of weak twilight now passing for their day, the foreshortened masts - the three topmasts, topgallants, upper rigging, and the highest spars have been removed and stored to cut down on the danger of falling ice and to reduce the chances of the ship capsizing because of the weight of ice on them - stand now like rudely pruned and topless trees reflecting the aurora that dances from one dimly seen horizon to the other. As Crozier watches, the jagged ice fields around the ship turn blue, then bleed violet, then glow as green as the hills of his childhood in northern Ireland. Almost a mile off the starboard bow, the gigantic floating ice mountain that hides Terror's sister ship, Erebus, from view seems for a brief, false moment to radiate colour from within, glowing from its own cold, internal fires.
This opening passage serves to illustrate the many horrors that await the crew of the ill-fated 1847 expedition to the Canadian Arctic in search of the fabled Northwest Passage (ironic that in this very year of publication, the Arctic has warmed enough to make this dream of a shipping lane across the northern bounds of the hemispheres into a reality fraught with future international treaty disputes). From the image of the "celestial ghosts" flitting about in the skies above to the very real dangers of -50ºF temperatures to the ever-present night, Simmons puts these images into very palpable forms here and throughout the novel. Captain Crozier over the course of months witnesses how these elements, combined with another, nameless terror on the ice pack which has been stalking his sailors as prey, have doomed the Franklin Expedition to a very nasty and frozen death.

I am writing this passage in the minutes before dawn here. The wind is blowing, howling really, outside. Although the temperature will not drop below 40ºF today, the wind's whistling by my upstairs window makes for a fitting accompaniment to this passage. I felt cold when I first read this book back in late February and even now as I skim through its pages again, that sense of a stalking, freezing terror momentarily overcomes me. It is a testament to Simmons's descriptive writing as well as to my now-foreknowledge of what awaits at the end that makes this novel an easy choice for my Best of 2007 Countdown.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Links to other Best of Year lists

I've been meaning to post these for a while now, but I've been quite sick the past two weeks. Regardless, there might be something for most everyone here (and considering that barely 50% of the readers here have epic fantasy as their #1 choice, the variety in these lists might appeal to them as well):

Kirkus Reviews has their Best Fiction of 2007 list ready. One of those was David Anthony Durham's opener to his Acacia trilogy.

SFF World has the first half (fantasy) of their Best of 2007 lists, drawn from a half-dozen bloggers as well as two of their Admins. Although this part is epic fantasy-heavy, there are some quality reads on this one.

Fantasy Magazine, affiliated with Prime Books, has a very nice list up, including titles from Durham, Dan Simmons, and Elizabeth Hand (who'll be the subject of a related post next week here).

Aqeduct Press's blog, which concentrates on feminist fiction, has a series of Best of 2007 lists by many prominent spec fic authors and critics. Cat Rambo, Nicola Griffith, Cheryl Morgan, and Cynthia Ward are but four of the women represented here.

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has Pat's Top 10 of 2007.

Neth Space has a Top 11 2007 Reads (not necessarily 2007 releases) by a colleague of mine at wotmania, Neth/kcf.

The Bodhisattva has had its list up for around a month now, but I've been slack in linking to Jay Tomio's list until now. Some good stuff on it.

Although doubtless I've missed a great many lists, hopefully these can serve as a starting point for consideration for new purchases, if my own list isn't deemed worthy enough of consideration!

Best of 2007 Countdown: Lucius Shepard, Softspoken

Some works of horror involve sympathetic characters trapped in a ghastly world; others involve hard-to-like characters whose ultimate fates end up making the reader feel more conflicted than anything else. And then there are those tales in which the boundaries of the "real" and the "imagined" are blurred to an extent and the horror might be that of even a "gray" character suffering in ways that we cannot be 100% certain if they are true or not.

When I read Lucius Shepard's Softspoken a little less than three months ago, I felt this sense of unease, not for sure if this updated version of a Southern Gothic novel was "real" or if it might be the product of Sanie Bullard's harrowing experiences warping her mind. I still am not 100% sure and I feel as though a re-read in the coming months might be in order to make certain, if that is indeed possible. But if/when I do, I know that I can look forward to enjoying Shepard's smooth prose again. In my original review (linked above), I quoted a passage from the beginning of this 179 page novel to give a hint of the "flavors" found within. Here again is that passage for those who haven't read Shepard before:

Like many people from North Carolina, Sanie considers most South Carolinians to be either snooty and pretentious (Charleston types) or low-class and ignorant (the rest). The irony attaching to this point of view is not lost on her, yet she adheres to it, and the next morning, in keeping with her attitude, she wriggles into a pair of cut-offs and a raggedy T-shirt, Daisy Duke redneck-slut drag, prior to walking to Snade's Corners, a general store and gas station that lies at the end of the dirt road leading to the house. She means to engage the citizenry in visual terms to which they can relate and thus bridge the cultural divide. She seeks to infiltrate, to access secret hick lore that may come in handy for the grad-level creative writing workshop she intends to take once she and Jackson return to Chapel Hill. But either her disguise is ineffective or some behavioral tic gives her away, because when she reaches the store - a one-story structure of brown-painted boards, with a peaked roof that extends out over the gas pumps - and steps to the counter to pay for her Diet Pepsi, the cashier, a thirtyish, prematurely balding lout with a potbelly the site of a watermelon and a face remarkable only for an unfortunately Fu Manchu and soul patch, says, "You Jackson Bullard's wife, ain'tcha?"

Sanie acknowledges this is the case, though she hates the name Bullard. Sanie Bullard sounds to her like the name of a character in a story by a writer whom she would not admire, a faux-Southern regionalist with a faintly malodorous literary cachet.
It is this combination of excellent prose and an increasingly spooky situation that made for a very good read. Softspoken certainly belies its name and thus has earned a place on the Best of 2007 Countdown.

Best of 2007 Countdown: Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish

As I said back in my July review, Andrzej Sapkowski has been one of those authors that has been dangled in front of me over years, mentioned in passing by Polish readers at various forums where I visit, both English and Spanish-language alike. But until this summer, I was unable to get a copy, due to the prohibitive import duties on the Spanish-language books (pushing the total cost to around $50 per book) and the lack of availability in English. But when The Last Wish, which is rather a collection of interconnected tales than a single unified novel, was released, I quickly moved to snatch a copy. I was not disappointed.

I enjoy stories that evoke images of fairy tales and myths, especially those of places with which I am not familiar, so the hints of Slavic rusalka and strega in these stories made the hunter/Witcher Geralt's quests all the more intriguing. Add to that a wry sense of humor and a compassion for those who often are villified for appearance alone in traditional questing tales, and the stage was set for me to have an enjoyable read. Here is an example of Sapkowski's writing that captures this sense of humanity:

"You've not changed a bit, Stregobor." Geralt grimaced. "You're talking nonsense while making wise and meaningful faces. Can't you speak normally?"

"I can," sighed the wizard. "I can if that makes you happy. I made it all the way here, hiding and running from a monstrous being that wants to murder me. My escape proved in vain - it found me. In all probability, it's going to try to kill me tomorrow, or at the latest, the day after."

"Aha," said the witcher, dispassionately. "Now I understand."

"My facing death doesn't ipress you much, does it?"

"Stregobor," said Geralt, "that's the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hand from trees at the roadside, brigands slash merchants' throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I'm used to it. So why should a death threat impress me, and one directed at you at that?" (p. 82).
When I finished this book, I was left wanting to know more, not just about Geralt and the "monsters" he would face, but rather about how Sapkowski would use these scenes to illustrate certain (often) uncomfortable truths about how humans treat one another. This made for one of the more pleasant and challenging reading experiences this year, thus landing The Last Wish on my Countdown for Best 2007 Novel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen (Black Man)

When I first reviewed Thirteen back in June, I began that review with a certain quote from a Morgan interview done years before. For purposes of explaining why I chose this book to appear on the Best of 2007 Countdown, I'll reproduce it below:

Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.

These themes of exploitation and oppression of the masses have been a constant thread in Morgan's previous four novels, but here in Thirteen, I believe he has extrapolated them further in an attempt to get readers to question just what in the hell is going on in the world today and if our actions today might engender such a world as the one depicted in this novel. Couple those elements with some fast-hitting scenes and the very intriguing title character of Carl Marsalis and the novel becomes something that a reader either enjoys immensely or dislikes due to the sources of those ideas. It is not a "safe" novel and in a publishing market that seems awash in them at times, Thirteen stands out. It is for this reason that Thirteen made my Best of 2007 Countdown.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Sarah Monette, The Mirador

Sarah Monette has had quite a prolific year, with releases of her third book in her The Doctrine of Labyrinths series, The Mirador, a collaborative effort with Elizabeth Bear (A Companion to Wolves) and a short-story collection of ghost stories/mysteries (The Bone Key) all being released since August. While I enjoyed all three, I felt that The Mirador was the strongest of the three and most deserving of some consideration on my Best of 2007 Countdown list.

While I reviewed The Mirador back in August, I just want to reiterate here (mind you, these Countdown posts are just recapitulations in shorter form of earlier reviews in most cases) that Monette has taken some interesting risks here in this third installment. Whereas before in Mélusine and The Virtu the story was told via the sometimes-conflicting dual first-person narratives of the disgraced wizard Felix Harrowgate and his thief/assassin half-brother, Mildmay the Fox, Monette has added a third voice, that of a certain lady-friend/actress who first appeared in The Virtu, Mehitabel, to the mix. For the most part, her wry comments on both brothers serves as a prism by which their characters can be broken up and their component parts seen with more clarity.

As I said in my original review, the "action" takes place mostly through character conflicts, both external (Felix and Mildmay, Mildmay and Mehitabel, Felix and Gideon, etc.) and internal (Mildmay dealing with issues of guilt being the prime one). Some might find this boring, but I found it to be a welcome deepening of the plot dynamics and a promising hint of things to come in the final volume in the series, Corambis, which ought to be released sometime in 2009. Since I'm one who favors dynamic characters over big-bang battles, explosions, duels, etc., it ought to be little surprise to those who know my tastes that The Mirador made the Countdown.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon's Arms

I held the pin up against the sunlight. It caught a spark of light, threw blades of sunshine at my eyes. It had gotten warped over the years, forced into service to hold up Mrs. Winter's loose drawers. It used to be a decorative pin for wearing on a blouse, its gold wire looped in the shape of an ornate C, T, and L: Chastity Theresa Lambkin. My girlhood name. Mumma'd given me that pin for my eighth birthday. Years ago, after they'd declared Mumma dead and we'd had the memorial service for her, little Chastity-girl me had noticed it missing. And missing it had stayed; no time to look for it in all the commotion of the hearing, of moving to my aunt and uncle's, and the children at school whispering to each other whenever they saw me.

This passage from near the beginning of Nalo Hopkinson's fourth novel, The New Moon's Arms, introduces not only an important plot element (the "finding" or "returning" of "lost" objects from lead character Chastity - now Calamity's -life), but also gives a bit of the Caribbean/West Indies "flavor" that features so prominently in Hopkinson's novels. Chastity/Calamity has recently entered menopause and at her father's funeral (where the quoted scene takes place), she finds a pin lost in her childhood. Over the course of the novel, she begins to rediscover a sort of "finding" power that she had lost when she first menstruated.

The New Moon's Arms is the sort of fantasy for those who claim that they don't read fantasy but who might be caught reading Beloved. Things happen, but the focus stays squarely on Calamity and those patient friends/family of hers. She is not the nicest of people. She can be quite rude and hateful, with twinges of self-doubt and pity mixed in. A very honest liar, Chastity has dropped her Christian name for that of Calamity to signify just how turbulent her life is. But when a little two year-old child is found washed ashore, covered in seaweed, Calamity is forced to confront a lot of bothersome things about herself. Hopkinson does this quite well, making the focus of the story the continued growth and struggles of Calamity as she tries to raise little rescued Agway.

The various relationships (good and bad alike, with Calamity often playing the villain with certain characters) are well-drawn and the "magic" in the discoveries (culminating with the discovery of a mysterious young boy abandoned on the shore of Calamity's fictional Caribbean island) ties in directly with issues of maturation and the changing effects that loss can have on an individual over the course of a lifetime. While the "magical" elements in The New Moon's Arms are low-key and not explained, they provide an extra layer of meaning to a coming-of-maturation tale that is among the finest that I have read this year.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: M. John Harrison, Nova Swing

Many of the finalists for my Best of 2007 list have written works that either have vivid characterizations or contain imagined vistas that are so strange and warped that it is impossible to think that the "normal" laws of physics (or anything else) can be presumed to apply. M. John Harrison's kinda-sorta-but-not-really sequel to 2002/2004'a Light, Nova Swing (released in 2006 in the UK but only in October here in the US) is an excellent example of the second.

In turns an exploration/detective novel and a dark comedy, this novel goes further into exploring the weirdness that emanates from the mysterious Kefahuchi Tract, as one part of it has somehow "split off" and fallen to Earth, in a place called the Saudade Event Site (more on this place's etymological meaning in my first review). But since this is a post about elements that appealed to me, I'll let new readers glance through my first review while I cite a passage from page 40 in the US paperback edition:

Among the litter in the apartment Vic kept a Bakelite telephone with cloth-covered cables and a bell that rang. Everyone had one that year; Vic's was as cheap as everything else he owned. Just after he finished shaving, the bell rang and he got a call from a broker named Paulie DeRaad, which he was expecting. The call was short, and it prompted Vic to open a drawer, from which he took out two objects wrapped in rag. One was a gun. The other was harder to describe - Vic sat by the window in the fading light, unwrapping it thoughtfully It was about eighteen inches long, and as the rag came off it seemed to move. That was an illusion. Low-angled light, in particular, would glance across the object's surface so that for just a moment it seemed to flex in your hands. It was half bone, half metal, or perhaps both at the same time; or perhaps neither.

He had no idea what it was. When he found it, two weeks before, it had been an animal, a one-off thing no one but him would ever see, white, hairless, larger than a dog, first moving away up a slope of rubble somewhere in the event site, then back towards him as if it had changed its mind and become curious about what Vic was. It had huge human eyes. How it turned from an animal into the type of object he finally picked up, manufactured out of this wafery artificial substance which in some lights looked like titanium and in others bone, he didn't know. He didn't want to know.
Passages such as this are not going to appeal to everyone. Those who like meticulous explanations for everything under the sun will not be enchanted by Harrison's narrative; they will think it bunk and might just loudly declaim it to those of a like mind. But for those of us such as myself who find themselves caught up in the rhythm of these passages, fascinated or horrified by such "monstrosities," reading a book such as Nova Swing becomes a real delight. It is for this reason that I added this book to my shortlist for the Best Novel of 2007 (US release, again, obviously).

Whatever, nevermind

And I forget
Just what it takes
And yet I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard
Its hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind

- Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
This is going to be one of those rare (or so I hope) posts where I step out of the reviewer role and speak directly to the fourth wall. There's something on my mind and I think I'll just write it out here, consequences be damned and all that.

This morning, still stick from an upper respiratory infection that's left me homebound for the past week, I woke up and started to flip through the channels. First thing that caught my attention was a program on the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network about a guy who collected images of religious graffiti and artwork done out there in BFE America. From scrawings underneath bridge overpasses to images of La Virgen de Guadeloupe on storefront walls, so many images of a particular faith, most of them done by the salt of the earth. While certainly there are times and places that such images become a bit hokey, there is a sense of authenticity about these expressions of belief.

After that, I flip through the channels and come across a documentary on DirecTV's "101" (formerly Fuse) on a particular video that helped change pop culture, albeit only for a time. As you might have guessed from the introductory quote, it was over Nirvana's seminal 1991 video "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I don't know too much about the people who read this blog, but as someone who was a high school senior when that video came out, that video just nailed the fuckin' Zeitgeist of the early 1990s. High unemployment, no fuckin' clue about what to do, seemed like that damn hallucinogenic "American Dream" was little more than just another marketing tool that the stylists and the con men would use to cozen us and make us feel that there was something beyond the despair that often follows ennui; we weren't buying that bullshit back then. It truly was like, "oh, yeah, whatever man." We wanted something "real."

And for a time, seeing a HS dropout, dressed as if he had come to a garage rehearsal, it was pretty damn close. No slickly-produced videos, no teased-up hair, nothing but rawness. Our time, our values, I suppose. But yet I, like millions of others my age, experienced the second of our two traumatic events (the first being the Challenger explosion back in January 1986, when many of us were finishing up our space projects in preparations for the "lesson" that Christa McAuliffe never got to give) on April 8, 1994. Yep, the Cobain suicide. Yeah, whatever. Fuck that shit.

And why share this here? Sometimes, I just get that longing to see something of "substance" in the spec fic genre. Something that reflects images of faith or a DIY-type ethos about what's happening. A daring to spit in the face of convention and a rebellious attitude sometimes can lead to things of beauty. Watching the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video for the first time in years felt like the 17 year-old and the 33 year-old versions of me had somehow merged for those five minutes. There was something in that, something that I've experienced only fitfully in the books I've read. The book I mentioned yesterday in my Countdown, Michael Cisco's The Traitor, has that in its narrative style. That je ne sais quoi that screams "What about me, motherfuckers? Maybe I got something to say here as well, even if it won't be palatable for your conditioned ears." Another book on the Countdown, Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, has a sense of this ethos in how it just takes the fairy tale/storytelling models and just throws it in the cultural mixer with all the various ideas, faiths, etc. that all of our cultures have developed over space and time.

But maybe it's just a generational thing. Maybe a search for "authenticity" is just another Quixotic quest. Or maybe it's something else. Yeah, whatever, nevermind.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Best of 2007 Countdown: Michael Cisco, The Traitor

I will write down now who I am and some of my story, not so that you who read this, if there is anyone there, may understand me, since, in any case, you can't understand me; there is no way my story could make you understand me. I'm writing my story to prove that I understand it, and I can't help repeating it over and over to myself simply because that is all there is left of me. I favor it more for the useless details that remind me of how I used to be, not that I miss anything. Now I am nothing at all like I was, although I believe I am now what I had originally intended to be.

I write this first so I may arrive at my testament through these memories, as I arrived at where I am now through these times I'm remembering. If I don't write beautifully, it's because I'm trying to be honest, and because the taste of blood in my mouth reminds me how little time remains for me, how litle time there is to polish words.
Nophtha, the first-person narrator of Michael Cisco's The Traitor, is a spirit eater, charged with bringing spirits into himself, preventing malady and madness while allowing people to let go of the spirits of the past. He was commissioned by his government to hunt down a soul burner (one who consumed the spirits for personal aggrandizement rather than for the social good) named Wite. However, as Nophtha's fevered and deranged journal will show, Nophtha ends up betraying his commission, instead seeking to become like Wite (now like a force of nature), but failing rather miserably at the end.

While the paragraph above gives a skeleton outline of the novel, one has to read this with a mindset similar to what one would need for reading and appreciating Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. Like Dostoyevsky's nameless narrator, Nophtha is a spirit being consumed from within. The passages contained within this short 149 page novel are full of sentiments such as the one I quoted above and this one:

I will die and die and die but I am ready, I'm going stronger than I came, I will die spitting the saliva of my outrage at them, moreover coughing the bloody pieces of my testament at them, my gentle guards and the soldiers down below, the city all around and the palace out of my sight and their brainless music-box of a King. I won't die cowering I have my Wite and Tzdze Tamt and "blunder" Illan and Voy, Xchte and uncle Heckler and tired dying imaginary Nophtha on the floor writing in his cell and seizing you at the last moment, I'm rising for the last time to seize you for one more moment, the gleam of Wite's spectacles is hovering over your shoulder! No one will be spared, whatever so-called good deeds you've done, your tepidity and every so-called evil soul in the world will be devastated all the same.
In the end, this "traitor" has performed so many acts of betrayal on so many levels, that a close reading of this fevered narrative will almost certainly inspire reactions ranging from empathy to outright disgust in the reader. The Traitor stands out among the 2007 releases that I have read due to its vivid imagery and the masterful way that Cisco uses the deranged first-person narrative to create a world that is full of shadows (light as well as darkness), hinting at a profoundness that goes deeper than the narrator's own twisted pathway to a personal hell of his own making.
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