The OF Blog: December 2010

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review: Thirteen Most Intriguing Books

I chose not to call this a "Best of 2010" list (despite it being labeled as such for consistency's sake with prior years), but rather a "Most Intriguing" list because these are works that for various reasons are most likely out of the 2010 releases read to date that will stick with me in the years to come.  No further explanation than that will be given here, unless you want to ask me in the comments if I have lost my senses.  Then I might unleash a rabid Serbian reading squirrel on you, just to see what carnage might be inflicted...

1.  Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel 

2.  Carlos Gardini, Tríptico de Trinidad 

3.  Michal Ajvaz, The Golden Age

4.  Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps 

5.  Michael Cisco, The Narrator

6.  Patti Smith, Just Kids 

7.  Emma Donoghue, Room 

8.  Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms 

9.  René Belletto, Dying 

10. Zoran Živković, Escher's Loops 

11.  Lionel Shriver, So Much for That 

12.  David Mitcell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 

13.  Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World

Yep, quite a bit different from my 2009 list, which differed from my 2008 list, and...well, you get the point.  Very curious now to see what 2011 will bring me.  Two of my first reads will be Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale and J.M. McDermott's Never Knew Another.  More on those later, after 2010 officially ends here in three minutes or so.

2010 in Review: Non-Speculative Fictions

In my previous essay, I discussed my general attitude toward 2010's speculative fiction releases.  What I failed to mention there, which I shall address briefly here, is how those books were chosen.  For the past several years, I have received hundreds of review copies from genre publishers.  Only a handful of them tend to be superb books; the rest are mediocre or of no interest to me.  Yet I have felt uneasy at times over the past year or so about receiving so many books that seem targeted toward audiences other than myself.  I refuse, with very few and notable exceptions, to host any "giveaways" or to do the usual publicity hooey.  I just can't promote books that I myself would not recommend to those whose reading tastes are similar to mine.

When it comes to non-speculative (realist, "literary," "mainstream," Naturalist, etc.) fictions, the situation is reversed somewhat.  I have no publicity contacts to speak up with lit presses, outside of those forged for the purposes of gathering materials for the stillborn Best American Fantasy 4 anthology.  What I've had to do is learn how to sift through reviews and find books that are of interest to me.  I also have depended, perhaps too much, on literary shortlists to fill out my non-speculative reading this year.  This is something I will change for 2011.  But yet despite the differences in book acquisition, I've found that I've been happier with the majority of the non-speculative reads than I was with the speculative fiction I read in 2010.

One prominent book that I pre-ordered was Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms, the twenty-five years later sequel to Less Than Zero.  A fan of the prior work, I was curious to see how Ellis would approach revisiting an LA scene that he made (in)famous in 1985.  I never wrote a formal review of the book, but if I had, I would have discussed the murky layers of characterization, plot, and theme (particularly that of how the once-young deal with the young world that is passing them by) and how well this novel complements its predecessor.  Ellis' work is not for everyone, but for me, Imperial Bedrooms was a disturbing read which I hope to re-read in the coming year.

Robert Coover's Noir is a story of "postmodernist" (I use the scare quotes with some bemusement) noir that contains a surprising amount of humor.  Some of the elaborate structures that are devised and then detonated did not work as well for me as I thought they might, but it certainly is a challenging work that I hope to revisit in the years to come.

David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a historical novel that straddles the lines between the fantastic and the mundane.  Set during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars in the far-away Dutch outpost off the coast of isolationist Japan, Mitchell's latest novel bears little resemblance in form to his earlier works, particularly Cloud Atlas.  Yet the third person limited PoV narrative suits this tale of cultural clashes and quasi-romantic tragedy (among a great many other things) quite well.  Wish this book had made the Booker Prize shortlist.

Earlier, I praised Grace Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, so I see no need to repeat myself, other than to note that it was a memorable work that blurred several genre bounds.

I did not do a separate section for translated fictions this year, but if I had, René Belletto's Dying certainly would have been praised for its intricate plot and how well it was executed.  I wish more writers would take narrative chances like he did.

As I noted above, I read each and every book on the National Book Award and Booker Prize shortlists (Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America appears on both lists).  Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question and Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule won the Booker Prize and National Book Award respectively.  I vehemently disagree with the judges' choices, as I felt each was at or near the bottom of each of the shortlists of 5-6 novels.

If I were to rank the National Book Award finalists, first prize I would award to Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel.  Set in San Francisco around the aging International Hotel, this book is a series of ten interconnected novellas that feature this hotel as a backdrop to momentous action from 1968-1977, when the hotel was condemned and its residents forcibly evicted.  Yamashita utilizes a variety of literary styles and techniques, including graphic novel scenes and play script in order to tell the various stories of the Asian-Americans who grew up with the I Hotel as a cornerstone.  This book, the longest of the finalists, never felt bloated due to the various ways the residents' stories were told.

Another strong National Book Award finalist was Lionel Shriver's So Much for That.  At times a bit too maudlin and bleak, this novel tells the trials and tribulations of a soon-to-retire worker who planned on using his $1 million nest egg to live out his life in Africa, until his oft-self-centered wife comes down with terminal cancer and he has to keep his now-miserable job in order to pay for the cost of her chemotherapy.  It is a very sobering look at the American health care system, but it is also a testimony to how people adjust and adapt (if they do) to such pressures.  The ending some might think is tacked on, but I found it to reinforce the messages found within the first three-quarters of the novel.

Nicole Strauss' Great House was a novel that I reviewed back in November.  I found it to be a solid novel that was worthy of consideration for the National Book Award, but here I consider it to be third-best out of the field.

Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America seemed too much like a dull reimagining of Tocqueville's writings on 19th century America, until toward the end.  The writing is good, the characters of Parrot and Olivier are well-drawn, but the plot lagged for most of the novel, until toward the end, when some of the observations struck me as being not so much a reproduction of Tocqueville but rather a satirical look at what became of the US.  The conclusion raised this novel to decent enough for award consideration, but I consider it fourth out of the National Book Award finalists and fifth out of the Booker Prize finalists.

The actual National Book Award winner, Gordon's Lord of Misrule, was a choppy, sloppy affair.  While I got that the novel dealt about the seedy world of racetrack trading and gambling, I was not as enamored with the characters as some other reviewers have been.  Combine that with one of the worst sex scenes I have ever read (the "moist portal" of a woman's asshole being one of the worst metaphors I have ever read in literature) and this was just a disappointing read in comparison to the other finalists.

The Booker Prize finalists were mostly on par with the National Book Award shortlist.  My two favorite books there were Emma Donoghue's Room, which I reviewed earlier this year, and Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, which started inconspicuously but built up to a moving conclusion.  Both works contained memorable characters and the settings, vastly different as they were, contributed greatly to the story.

A slight step below these two was Andrea Levy's The Long Song, about a Jamaican mulatto house slave during the last years of slavery on Jamaica.  It was good, solid, but ultimately felt too derivative.  It lacks the power of earlier slave fiction narratives like Alex Haley's Roots and there was no redeeming quality to make up for this sense that this was just a retelling of a sad, tragic narrative that had been told before (and just as well) by several other talented writers.

Tom McCarthy's C was entertaining, but ultimately it just felt a bit flat to me.  The final bit of the "codes" dealing with Egypt I found to be weaker than the preceding section, which dampened my enjoyment of this otherwise fine novel.

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question was ultimately one of the emptiest novels that I've read in years.  My recent review I think says quite well what I still think of it, so just read that if you want to know more why I found this to be the weakest shortlist book by a fair margin.

Despite a few clunkers, 2010 certainly had quite a few enjoyable non-speculative releases.  Hopefully, 2011 will bring even more to my attention.

2010 in Review: Speculative Fictions

Earlier today, I thought I would not have enough time to write this essay, another one on non-speculative fictions, and a "list" post before midnight CST.  However, I changed a few plans and decided to get the personal reflective parts of this 2010 in Review series done before 2011 begins, so on with the show.

This essay will not be as in-depth as the other ones, at least not in regards to individual books.  Rather, this and its companion essay will be devoted to reading patterns and the changes in my reading preferences over the last few months of 2010.  Since I am limiting myself to 2010 releases in these posts, I will not touch upon the 300+ books that I've read this year that were originally published prior to this year.  Perhaps in the new year I'll write about those books, but for now, I'll content myself with newer releases.

If you listen to several other reviewers, you might get this impression that 2010 was some sort of "banner year" for speculative fictions.  Then again, it might be a matter of perspective; several have only been blogging for 1-2 years and it might be that with the greater exposure to newer releases that some got from receiving review copies and the like, that things are skewed toward conflating the expansion of reading opportunities with an actual increase in quality works.  I have been doing Best of _______ posts/awards/etc. ever since 2002, first on the defunct wotmania and since late 2004 on this blog.  If you want to see an evolution of approach and reading, be sure to read the late December posts made every year from 2004 to 2010.  If I had to "rate" 2010 in terms of its speculative releases, I would have to say that in general, the epic fantasy releases were generally mediocre, the more "weird" stories were comparable in quality to some of the decade's earlier releases, and that there are fewer works that I truly enjoyed this year that could in any form or fashion be considered "speculative."

Epic/secondary world fantasies have not had a precedent of place in my reading for several years.  I tend to have lower expectations for this subgenre than perhaps others do, in large part due to the somewhat conservative conventions of this subgenre.  Rarely have I read epic fantasies that have impressed me with their use of prose, theme, or characterization; too often, the authors use a bland, so-called "invisible prose" style that flattens out so many things that might be interesting if developed otherwise.  Here are very brief thoughts on several of the 2010 epic fantasies that I read:

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Stonewielder - Inoffensive in its presentation, plot, and pace, but a rather dull reading affair once the "wow factor" of new locations and explanations for prior stories was removed.  This was actually better than most of the other epic fantasies released this year, however.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Shadows of the Apt series (vol. 1-4 in US) - There were a few interesting twists to the usual "ward off the hostile invaders" trope, but it was merely a mediocre read that lived down to my middling expectations.

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings - The writing improved somewhat from his earlier efforts, but it sometimes is rather clunky and bland.  I might read future volumes to this planned ten-volume series, but it'd be with some trepidation. 

Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan, Towers of Midnight - This thirteenth volume in The Wheel of Time series was a narrative mess,

Steven Erikson, Crack'd Pot Trail - This short novel was actually entertaining; one of the very few secondary world efforts that was so.

I've already said at length elsewhere what I thought of Alexey Pehov's Shadow Prowler (garbage) and hinted at what I thought of Blake Charlton's Spellwright (OK, inoffensive read).

I hesitate to count this in this category since its focus differs greatly from other secondary world fantasies, but Carlos Gardini's Tríptico de Trinidad was simply outstanding.  Its compact, philosophical story stands out in sharp relief against the mediocre to crappy epic fantasies that I read this year.

In regards to SF, I did not read many 2010 releases.  Kay Kenyon's Prince of Storms completed that four-volume series, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by its conclusion.  Odd, since her writing and characterizations were very good for most of the series.  Likely burnout at the time of reading that novel this spring.

There were several steampunk offerings this year; I usually stuck with the anthologies (Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded; Vaporpunk), but I did read the steampunkish paranormal romance satires that Gail Carriger wrote, Changeless and Blameless.  While both were fine in and of themselves, I did detect signs of weariness with this series, so it might be a bad foreboding for future volumes in this series.

Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs I thought was a very good, solid effort, but for some reason, the characterizations were not as appealing to me as they were in her three previous SF efforts.  Might be a personal thing rather than a true problem with the prose, since I seem to recall reading this while under the weather back in March.

Ian McDonald's The Dervish House I found to be a step down in quality from his recent near-future/developing powers SF novels.  Just did not buy the premise of 2027 Turkey being such a regional power, nor did I find the plethora of characters to add to the narrative.  Sometimes, less is more, I suppose.

Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death was her first "adult" novel and I liked the premise for the most part, although there were a few slow moments in the middle of the novel.

I've already weighed in elsewhere about how China Miéville's Kraken was a very disappointing read for me.

Portuguese writer David Soares' O Evangelho do Enforcado, on the other hand, was excellent and hopefully some of his fictions will be translated eventually into English, as his blend of horror, historical novel, and "weird" elements has made for some captivating reads for me this year.

Finished reading Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World a few days ago.  Better than his previous two efforts and I am very intrigued to see what he comes up with for the future.

Two more translated fictions, Michal Ajvaz's The Golden Age and Zoran Živković's Escher's Loops, were much better than virtually all of the books I've read this year.

Hiromi Goto's Half World, published in the US for the first time in 2010, was an impressive novel that mixes Japanese cultural elements with a quest narrative, producing a fast-paced narrative that was a joy to read.

Michael Cisco's The Narrator might be his best work yet and I've been a fan of his for three years now.

Looking back, it seems I favored novels that were set in either very "weird" locales or which had some connection or the other to the "real world."  Perhaps it's as much a disinclination to read more of the same than it is that several of the reads just plain sucked hairy camel ass, but I suspect this shift in attitudes might be a portent of something to come in the near future.

A squirrel feeding on my deck

It is what it is.  You know you want to watch squirrels in action, being all wild and squirrely.

2010 in Review: Short Fiction Collections and Anthologies

Before I beginning writing about the 2010 short fiction collections and anthologies that I read, I want to encourage readers to read the list I posted of stories I had longlisted for possible consideration for Best American Fantasy 4, as there are several stories published in the first half of 2010 that are contained in several outstanding literary journals and magazines that deserve greater attention and readership from those who enjoy fictions that blur the boundaries between realist and speculative fictions.

It is difficult to discuss collections and anthologies in short paragraphs.  Either I'd devote most of that space to a single story or two, or I would end up failing to cover anything specific.  What I've chosen to do here is to choose Scylla over Charybdis and discuss impressions over specific stories; themes over individual plots, more or less.  Many of these books contain original fictions, while a few will be reprint anthologies.  Must note that as much as I enjoyed reading the Kevin Brockmeier-edited Best American Fantasy 3, I do not include it in the discussion below because of conflict of interest.

Back in January, I received a review copy of the George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois-edited anthology Warriors, an original anthology consisting of various takes on what it meant to be a warrior.  There were several stories that I enjoyed here for their takes on the subject matter and I chose Peter Beagle's "Dirae" to be on the BAF 4 longlist.  Simply put, this anthology was one of the strongest original anthologies I read this year and several other stories would have been under consideration for BAF 4 if they weren't over 15,000 words.

Another original anthology read this past spring was the Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan-edited Swords and Dark Magic.  This was a more uneven anthology than Warriors, with Caitlín Kiernan's "The Sea-Troll's Daughter" being by far the best of a mixed bag of stories.  I have a love/hate relationship with Sword & Sorcery tales and I felt that many of the newer authors published in this collection focused too much on the fighting aspects and missed some of the subtler elements often found in the best S&S stories.

I have already covered my thoughts on the Luso-Brazilian original steampunk anthology, Vaporpunk, in my previous essay, so just read that essay rather than expecting me to copy/paste here.

One reprint anthology that I did read (besides BAF 3) this year was Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II:  Steampunk Reloaded.  I wrote a review of it earlier:

In both anthologies, the VanderMeers do not attempt to provide a definitive description of what constitutes "steampunk"; it would be a Sisyphean task.  Instead, what they do is cull a selection of representative short stories (and in addition, a steampunk comic and steampunk-inspired layout) and present these to the readers.  Some fictions, such as the Kiernan story I quote above, tackle the social inequalities inherent in the 19th century societies from whence most steampunk fiction draw their inspiration.  I quote Kiernan's first paragraph to her excellent "The Steam Dancer (1896)" because I found her story to be exemplary of the particular subtype of steampunk fiction I prefer most:  the social commentary that uses the dressings of alt-steam to explode myths from the Victorian and Edwardian eras of Anglo-American history.  Behind the mixture of the familiar and exotic found in Kiernan's story lies a shrewd commentary on social and gender stratification, one that is all the more effective because of its alt-world setting.
 Speaking of Jeff VanderMeer, I also read and enjoyed his short fiction collection, The Third Bear.  I discussed the overall collection and two stories in particular in an e-book that was recently published as a sort of festschrift.  So read that, okay?

I mentioned this book earlier when I covered debut authors, but Rachel Swirsky's Through the Drowsy Dark is an excellent debut collection that ought to delight quite a few regulars here at this blog.  Slightly more in-detail thoughts found at the link above.

Earlier this month, Richard Parks had his third fiction collection, On the Banks of Heaven, published.  His second collection, Worshipping Small Gods, was my favorite collection when it came out a couple of years ago and this latest effort matches it in tone and quality of prose.  Parks mixes humor in with frail, gossamer-like vistas that feel like the stuff on which dreams are made.  Simply a delightful collection to read and re-read in the years to come.

I also read some short, almost flash fictions (not all of them are of that length, I should note) this year.  This month alone, I read Amelia Gray's Museum of the Weird, which was a bit uneven for me.  There were times that I thought she nailed a particular mood and juxtaposed that with some very weird settings and events, but the prose was a bit uneven, creating stories that were at times on the level of "Oh, that's interesting, I guess" rather than anything that truly grabbed my attention.
Robert Lopez's Asunder, however, was borderline brilliant in how adroitly he used the English language to create scene and character.  In this 179 page collection, several characters would reappear.  We would see into their thoughts and the strange events occurring around them, and then things would shift, often in surprising and yet understandable fashions.  One of the best interconnected short fictions I have read this year.

Lopez's use of language reminded me somewhat of Matt Bell's How They Were Found, which I co-reviewed back in November with Jeff VanderMeer and Paul Smith.  There was a measured pace in both that when utilized properly can create a disturbing effect within the reader.  Here is an excerpt from my review of Bell's collection, which I found to be good but more uneven than Lopez's:

The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, "The Cartographer's Girl."  Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4.  From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other's life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell's story captivated me.  The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became "lost," both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position.  Bell's more intense, forceful conclusion reinforces the sense of distant confusion and slight obsession that are hinted at in the beginning.  "The Cartographer's Girl" is one of the better-structured and executed short stories that I have read this year and it certainly is a testament to Bell's potential as a writer.

However, several of the other stories in this thirteen story collection are much weaker than "The Cartopgrapher's Girl."  The second story, "The Receiving Tower," starts off promising, as there is a hint of a deceptive identity within the first-person narrator's point of view, but Bell drags out its execution, weakening the power of the narrative.  "The Receiving Tower" is also emblematic of some of the weaknesses in Bell's short fiction here, as there is so little variation in the PoVs of the characters that populate his stories that after reading several of them in a sitting, the overall effect can be monotonous, dulling the impact that might have been felt if some of his narrative techniques (detached, cool characters, horrific situations couched in ordinary language, intense moments clouded by off-hand, sometimes wry narrative asides) had not been repeated so many times in these stories.
 All in all, a fairly good group of writers here.  I hope to continue reading short fiction like I've managed the past couple of years, although I do plan on shifting my focus a bit for the upcoming 2011 reading cycle.

2010 in Review: Foreign Language Fictions

Over the past decade, ever since I took an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) social studies teaching position in South Florida in 2001, I have had a growing interest in other languages and non-Anglo-American literatures.  I first began reading Spanish-language novels in 2004 and my fluency has steadily improved.  Over the past couple of years, I have managed to learn enough Portuguese, Italian, and even a bit of French to the point where I could understand most, if not all, of what I've read.  As I said in the introduction to my 2010 in Review posts, I became a freelance translator this year, in both Spanish and Portuguese.  It has been fun working in these languages and a few others which I want to learn how to read proficiently.  For this past year, I read 100 books published in Spanish and another 25 published in Portuguese, Italian, French, and Serbian (with the aid of a dictionary and English and Spanish translations).  The majority of these books were published prior to 2010, but there were nine books released in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian this year that I read and, for the most part, enjoyed quite a bit.

Back in March, yet another posthumous work by Chilean writer/poet Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich), came out.  This "trunk novel," apparently written sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, showcases some of the techniques that Bolaño later developed in Los detectives salvajes and 2666.  However, the plot is not as complex or as refined as those two latter works and I felt that the work could have used more editing to smooth out some of the prose and plot inconsistencies.  It is, however, a book that Bolañonistas should consider picking up in the near future in English or other languages if they cannot read Spanish.

In July, I read Argentine writer/translator Carlos Gardini's Tríptico de Trinidad, which was one of the best speculative fictions that I've read this year.  Here is an excerpt from my August review:

Basilisca habla, Séptimo escucha, Ostremón mira los frisos de la sala conciliar. (p. 117)

Basilisca speaks, Séptimo listens, Ostremón looks at the friezes of the conciliar room.
There is almost a chant-like rhythm to passages like this and Gardini employs this to great effect later in the novel.  This creates a greater awareness of the philosophical and cosmological questions that are being raised throughout this novel.  This greater awareness in turn causes the reader to focus not just on the story at hand, but the underlying motives behind the story.  Gardini's poetic repetitions thus serve to create a sort of ripple effect through the narrative, as little scenes end up being magnified due to how they are presented and this in turn adds a gravity to the work that would otherwise be lacking if it were told in a more conventional fashion.

It is very difficult to discuss this novel without wanting to devote thousands of words to its themes and their applications throughout the text.  Constrained by the limitations of reviews as opposed to literary critiques, I find myself circling around the edges of this book here in this review.  Not wanting to "spoil" the reading experience for those bilingual readers such as myself who may be curious about a "deep" fantasy work, all I can say is that Gardini is an extremely talented writer who has created one of the deepest, most philosophical fantasy novels that I have ever read in any language.  There are no real good comparisons to what he has accomplished here.  Perhaps I could cite some of Gene Wolfe's works, but those are more oblique references to human cosmologies than what Gardini has written here.  In less than 300 pages, he constructs a vivid setting, introduces some intriguing conflicts, and then tops it off with a conclusion that has the reader wanting to re-read the entire book in light of what is revealed.  If that is not a strong testimony to what Gardini has accomplished here, then I would be hard pressed to think of anything better to describe this outstanding novel. 

Around the same time, I read and reviewed Portuguese writer David Soares' O Evangelho do Enforcado, which was also a very impressive mixture of historical and speculative elements.  Here too is an excerpt from my review of it:

And I, what is it that I have?, thought Maria.  They say that I am beautiful, that all the men want to fuck me...But what is that worth in the hour of death?  It's not possible to eat beauty.  She shook her head.  There is no good death.  Death hurts.  It is cruel.  It makes us pass away in shit.

Where is this promised resurrection?  We will rise up on the other side?  A side more luminous than this?  Heaven.  So that hunger is turned into an insupportable light.

Perhaps all of us go to Hell.

They say that the whores are going to Hell.

If it exists, it is a whorehouse, she thought.  But how?  Then, is it possible to have hunger in Hell?  Is this the punishment for the sin of luxury?  Then what is the punishment for gluttony?  If I were a philosopher, capable of great thoughts, perhaps I would find an answer for this, but I am no philosopher.  I am not capable of great thoughts.  I only want to find something to eat.

Whether it is a focus on Nuno's increasingly capricious behavior that fuels his artistic genius or if it is a look into the complex relationships between the royal family, there is a sense throughout this novel that the Devil is lurking somewhere in the vicinity.  He may not appear directly, but when, in the guise of Geronte, he does show up, the developments that have occurred take on an aspect that can be frightening at times, especially considering how well he develops his characters and setting.  In many ways, O Evangelho do Forcado is a morality play writ large, using the Portuguese court and its most enigmatic genius, Nuno Gonçalves, as its actors and actresses.  The result is a gripping story that has a broad appeal, whether it be to those who enjoyed the late medieval period pieces of say an Ildefonso Falcones or the historical-slash-metaphysical stories of a Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Soares is equally comfortable with both the historical and supernatural aspects of this tale and each element blends into the other, creating an exciting story that likely will be featured at the end of the year in my lists of best 2010 novels.  Hopefully, there will be a publisher willing to take a chance and translate this into English, as it is the sort of story that I think can be marketed easily to Americans wanting great, dark historical fantasies.
Another intriguing summertime read was the 2010 Premio Alfaguara novel, Hernán Rivera Letelier's El arte de la resurreción.  Set in the Chilean mines in the early 1940s, it is a story of a worker who becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.  Letelier's portrayals of this potentially inscrutable character are mostly spot-on and the developments by the end of the novel give the reader much more to consider than what might have been expected after beginning the work.

In early October, I finished reading Brazlian author Max Mallmann's O Centésimo en Roma, a historical novel that I reviewed later that month:

Set in Rome in the months and year following Nero's "suicide" in 68 AD, the story revolves around the centurion Publius Desiderius Dolens, a veteran of the wars on the German frontier, and what he experiences after he arrives in Rome.  Known as the Butcher of Bonna, Dolens discovers that his previous deeds have created a mixture of awe, respect, fear, and hatred among the Roman populace.  Ambitious, Dolens reaches for the Equestrian rank, but he discovers that there are some dangerous currents swirling in the Eternal City, currents that can be deadly for those caught up in them.

From this premise, Mallmann has developed a fast-paced, exciting story that unfolds at a rapid pace across nearly 400 pages.  Mixing in excerpts from an apparent fictitious work called Vita Dolentis with Dolens' "present" story, Mallmann constructs a vivid rendition of first century Rome in the years immediately following the Fire.  Via his extensive use of these quotations from the Vita Dolentis, Mallmann manages to develop finely-described snapshots of Roman politics and society during this time around Dolens' story of ambition and political survival.  For the most part, this juxtaposing of montages with the main action works well, as the rapid-fire alternation between the two creates a sense that not only is the story moving rapidly, but also that it contains both breadth of action and depth of characterization and events.

In mid-October, I received a copy of the Luso-Brazilian steampunk anthology, Vaporpunk, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Luis Filipe Silva.  Along with Fábio Fernandes, I helped translate the opening paragraphs to the eight stories in this original anthology.  Consisting almost entirely of stories that would be novelettes or novellas, Vaporpunk was both a joy to read and an absolute bitch to translate due to several authors writing in an nineteenth century idiom that is far more florid than what twenty-first century readers may be accustomed to reading.  For the most part, these stylistic choices added to the narratives and the emphasis on the alt-history aspects, particularly surrounding the Kingdom of Portugal and the Brazilian Empire of the 19th century, made this anthology stand out from the majority of steampunk novels and collections that I have read in recent years.

Toward the end of October, I read and reviewed 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa's newest novel, El sueño del CeltaI reviewed that one as well:

The result of this "middle ground" approach is the portrayal of Casement as neither saint nor devil.  Vargas Llosa presents him as a conflicted, complex individual who warred with his own self as much as he did in his latter struggles against the forces of imperialist aggression, whether they be present in the Congo River valley, the interior of Brazil, or Ireland after the latest round of Home Rule talks had been suspended on the eve of World War I.  Vargas Llosa's prose is elegant but never verbose.  He does not eschew criticizing his subject whenever Casement's actions warrants such treatment, but he also portrays this historical figure as containing admirable elements.  Through it all, Vargas Llosa chooses to emphasize the humanitarian aspects, even when those aspects falter in the face of Casement's many personal demons.

El sueño del celta works as a historical novel because Vargas Llosa keeps the focus squarely on Casement and his internal and external struggles.  Despite the jumping back and forth in the narrative between 1910 and 1916, there is rarely confusion about the sequence of events.  If anything, the "present day" scenes serve to reinforce the developments shown in the extended flashback sequences.  The end result of this is a vivid portrayal of a fascinating historical figure, told in crisp, evocative prose that adds vitality to the scenes without distorting what happened during this time.  El sueño del celta may not be one of Vargas Llosa's greatest novels, but it certainly is a very good piece that compares favorably to most of his outstanding œvre.  Highly recommended to both Spanish speakers and to English readers whenever the translation comes out in the next year or two. 

In early December, I read Umberto Eco's sixth novel, Il Cimiterio di Praga, in both the Italian original and the Spanish translation (just as backup, as I did understand most of what I read in Italian).  I have chosen to forego reviewing this book until the English translation is published in a year or two, in order that I could then write a review that centers as much on the translations as it does on the text.  However, I will briefly note my initial reactions.  This novel, written in the style of late 19th century sensationalist novels, with its paranoid, Anti-Semitic lead, epistolary sections, and imitation 19th century illustrations, fails at the end to have the full conspiracy theoryish impact that Eco perhaps would have liked, simply because the protagonist is portrayed perhaps too well in his nasty, vile Anti-Semitic writings and devising.  However, that perhaps might be exactly the point and it might behoove the reader to consider this novel not just from the context of a conspiracy theorist at work but rather from the vantage of how does a contemporary reader interpret what is happening in those scenes?  Nineteenth century Europe certainly contained quite a few skeletons in the closet, to say the least.

Finally, I read Spanish writer (and Professor of Ancient Greek) Javier Negrete's Atlántida.  Set in the near future, it is simultaneously a thriller involving the discovery of the lost city of Atlantis (Santorini) and a warning about human meddling with nature.  The action is fast and furious and although the characters weren't as well-developed as I would have liked, for the type of story that Negrete was writing, that is mostly forgivable.  Not the heaviest of stories that I've read, but certainly a well-told SF thriller that provides just a little bit of food for thought for those who want to ponder longer some of the implications of a few of the scenes found within the novel.

Now that I'm slightly behind with these writings, hopefully the next few will be briefer in length, as I do hope to have things finalized before midnight CST.  Was going to do two separate posts on speculative and non-speculative readings, but I believe that each would easily be twice the length of this one, so it'll be short fiction collections and anthology and then a post discussing intriguing reads from this year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 in Review: Non-Fiction

For the first twenty-three years of my life (and truly since the age of 5, when I began reading), non-fictions dominated most of my readings.  While the majority of those readers and bloggers at SF/F-oriented blogs probably had some sort of "gateway" fantasy (Tolkien, Brooks, Feist, Donaldson, McKillip, etc.) in their middle school or high school years, for me it was always about histories.  I would check out all of the narrative histories that my small town library had or I would read and re-read my dad's high school world history texts (I found, and still find, American History to be less exciting).  When I went to the University of Tennessee, I actually read the vast majority of the books assigned to me in my history classes.  Up until the end of grad school, I was pretty much a non-fiction junkie.

Then I burned out on my studies.  Since December 1997, I have read maybe a couple dozen non-fictions combined over those years, none of them really true histories.  Lately, however, I have felt the love for those real places and spaces, for those oddball and utterly banal human lives, return.  Although I still did not read many non-fictions this past year, I did read at least twice as many 2010 non-fiction releases compared to most any single year since 1997.  Even better, each of the six non-fictions I read entertained me in some form or fashion.

The first 2010 non-fiction I read was Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Those familiar with Ligotti's short fictions know that his stories are dark, disturbing tales whose power is contained not so much in the actual events of these horrors but in the implications these acts have for us and how we interact with the world.  In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti has written a measured, reflective practical philosophy that examines the fallacies and delusions that beset human beings.  In the chapter "Who Goes There?," Ligotti discusses the research of neurologist Thomas Metzinger has done into human consciousness and the self-delusions the human mind has done.  The passage quoted below is representative of this book and Ligotti's approach toward several sensitive topics:

Even in the twenty-first century there are people who are incapable of abiding Darwin's theory unless they can reconcile it with their Creator and His design.  Losing hold of these shielding eidolons would make them honor-bound to become unhinged, so they might say, because the world as they knew it would molder away in their palsied arms.  Unprepared to receive the evidence, they run from it as any dreamer runs from a horror at his heels.  They think that when this horror closes in on them they will die of madness to see its shape and know the touch of what they believe should not be.  No doubt they would survive the experience, as so many have done before them.  We have already weathered torrents of knowledge we were not meant to know yet were doomed to know.  But how much more can we take?  How will the human race feel about knowing that there is no human race - that there is no one?  Would this be the end of the greatest horror tale ever told?  Or might it be the reinstatement of the way things had been before we had lives of our own? (pp. 112-113)

Even though it has been nearly a half-year since I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, some of its postulations trouble me even today.  It certainly is a book for those who want to read a non-fiction in the vein covered by Scott Bakker's Neuropath, but with deeper and more troubling issues than raised in that quasi-polemic novel.

In early October I read Tucker Max's Assholes Finish First.  Although I am uncertain to what degree he might have embellished some of his outrageous escapades, all I know is that I laughed and laughed aloud even at several passages detailing just how much of an asshole he could be to people, particularly shallow, insecure women who wanted to sleep with the idea of the celebrity Tucker than with the actual, complex human being.  It certainly is not a book that I would recommend to the majority of people, but for those who are in touch with their Inner Asshole and who have a sometimes-deviant sense of humor that can be devoid of that so-called "political correctness," then Assholes Finish First might be the sort of book for you to read and enjoy as a (not-so) guilty pleasure.

In November, after reading a brief bit about it on Jeff VanderMeer's blog, I ordered and read John Vaillant's The Tiger, which is a true-life event recast into a novel form, similar to how Norman Mailer wrote his 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning true-life novel, The Executioner's Song, from recorded interviews and documentary evidence.  In The Tiger, the weeks leading up to and surrounding a Siberian Tiger's attack on a remote Russian village in the Far East region of the country are told in a vivid, moving way.  Vaillant intersperses references to the scarcity of the Siberian Tiger, its connections to local folklore and religious belief, as well as telling the backstories of the principal characters involved in this tragic hunt.

While I was reading Vaillant's book, I alternated chapters of ethnologist and "last speaker" recorder K. David Harrison's The Last SpeakersFor years I have been fascinated by the complexity and near-endless variety of grammars, syntaxes, and semantic expressions found in the thousands of extant human languages.  Harrison's stories of various languages on the edge of linguistic extinction and how "last speakers" across the globe have preserved their languages (and with them, elements of their traditional cultures) through dominant culture pressures is fascinating.  Certainly a work that has me curious to read more of Harrison's books on the subject, as this was a general survey of his chosen field of study.

Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, detailing her life from 1967-1974 with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is very worthy of that august honor.  Smith tells a touching tale, lyrical at times in her descriptions of life in New York City during a tumultuous period of radical culture shifts and changes, of her once-lover Mapplethorpe and his struggles to understand his sexuality and what it meant for their relationship.  It is bracingly honest without devolving into accusations, embellishments, or perceived cover-ups.  It is a romance that belongs as much to agape as to eros and for that, it is a memoir that truly lives up to its etymology.

Finally, I just finished reading Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, which is a biography of the 16th century French writer whose Essays changed the very meaning of the word "essay."  In the twenty-one chapters of this biography, she explores each of the Essays in light of Montaigne's life and how his experiences were reflected in his writings.  Historical biographies risk being irrelevant, if not outright boring, if the biographer cannot connect the audience with the subject.  Bakewell does an outstanding job making Montaigne relevant and portraying his Essays as being vital and of paramount importance to us over four hundred years after his death in 1592.  It might just be the best historical biography that I have read in the past decade and it certainly is a fitting conclusion to a series of strong non-fiction reads that I had in the past couple of months.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 in Review: Debut Authors

If my previous essay highlighted my deficiencies in reading 2010 releases in the graphic novel and YA fiction categories, this essay will note a bounty of debut authors whose first books were published in the US in 2010.  Some of these authors I have covered before, while some will be discussed at length for the first time here.  The quality varies greatly, as some of the debut offerings I read were total crap (as I noted in my essay on Disappointing Reads), while a few were above-average or even outstanding literary offerings.  Although due to reading some of the review copies sent to me and a lack of awareness elsewhere the majority of these debut works fall solidly in the SF/F genre market classification, not all of the works listed below would be shelved in the SF/F section of most bookstores.

In my previous post, I discussed briefly my thoughts on works by Blake Charlton, Alexey Pehov, Mary Robinette Kowal, Sam Sykes, and Anthony Huso.  I will not repeat myself here, except to note that although I listed Kowal's book as a "disappointing read," I judge it to be only a disappointment relative to what I think she could have accomplished with that story; her tale is worlds more enjoyable and accomplished for me than the other authors listed above.  That being said, most of the other authors which I saw discuss briefly below produced more interesting work.

This past spring, Pyr Books released the first four volumes of British writer Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series.  Although originally released a couple of years prior in the UK, it was interesting to read the first three volumes back-to-back-to-back.  The first volume, Empire in Black and Gold, by itself was mere prologue that was competent but nothing attention-grabbing.  However, reading Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis so soon after it made for a more favorable impression, as each builds upon the few interesting quirks established in the first:  the totemic relationship between the various human groups and their insect "Kinden", which imbues each group with certain distinct characteristics befitting those who model themselves around various insects such as Ants, Bees, Spiders, Wasps, Moths, Mantis, Beetle, and so forth.  By the time I finished reading the fourth volume (which closes a major narrative arc for this planned ten-volume series), Salute the Dark, a few months ago, I had decided that Tchaikovsky's novels were decent popcorn flick-level reads that were solidly told, even if they lacked much in the way of narrative innovation or snazzy prose.

Around the same time that I read the first Tchaikovsky novels I finally got around to writing a review of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, although that book was the first book I finished reading in 2010.  Here are some extracts from that review:

Jemisin plays upon reader expectations of clashes between Light/Dark by creating a third, mediating element that forces readers to reconsider any previously-held preconceptions they may have held about the two (male) gods that still exist when the novel opens.  Furthermore, by having this third, mysterious goddess/element in the background, Jemisin creates a plausible mythology that not only is explored within the narrative, but which provides an interpretative scheme for the novel that may satisfy those such as myself who like multifaceted, challenging narratives.  As noted above, the three god/forces dominate the novel and Jemisin's skillful exploration of their motivations and their roles that infuses The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with a compelling storyline which concludes strongly at the end in a fashion that will be simultaneously surprising and long-expected.  Love is such a strange creature and its mutations can affect so many.

Although The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is but the opener for a trilogy, it is virtually self-contained.  There is a definite, full narrative arc executed over 400 pages with a conclusion that brings all storylines but one introduced here to a close.  The only open arc is introduced in the closing chapter and it sets the stage for a completely different sort of story to be explored in the second volume.  It appears this trilogy may rely more upon thematic cliffhangers than narrative pauses to keep readers anticipating the next volume.

So how well did I like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?  For the first half, as I stated above, I found myself being annoyed slightly by things such as Yeine's seeming digressions, the perceived lack of focus on what might be the book's central element, and the sometimes-distant, passive point-of-view character who sometimes failed to make what was transpiring vivid.  But by the time that the gods' conflict emerged as the central focus, Jemisin's prose became more taut and the sometimes languid pace of the earlier chapters picked up in such a fashion as to make the final ten chapters or so very riveting.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very promising and intriguing debut novel, one that despite its flaws felt more polished and nuanced than the vast majority of debut novels I have read in recent years.  Jemisin has set the stage for what appears to be a redemption story and that alone would make me want to read the sequels. Knowing that, minor stumblings aside, that she has the writing chops to accomplish this leaves me anticipating the next volume more than I do most pending volumes.

This past summer, after reading a passing comment on Jeff VanderMeer's blog praising her book, I picked up Caribbean-raised writer Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo.  Based in part on West African folklore, this tale of a wife and her buffoonish husband morphs into something else toward the end of the novel.  Lord's use of humor was judicious and her prose is excellent throughout this short novel.  It is a novel that is a pleasure to read and I suspect I will enjoy re-reading it several times in the years to come.

Another talented debut author that I read this past summer/early autumn was Charles Yu, who wrote How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  I did not write a full review of it, in part because I want to re-read it again to be certain of a few points that I suspected were major undercurrents, but I will say that its core, dealing with issue of loss and identity, made it a touching read.  Plan on re-reading this one sometime in 2011 or 2012.

Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month is an unusual book.  It is a collection of stories set around and based upon the author's reaction to the various blends and varieties of honey that she sampled over the course of a month.  Several of these short fictions do not go past a couple of pages, yet within these short spaces, vividly-imagined vistas are created that hearken back to the synethesia brought about by the sampled honeys.  Simply a delight to read and a book I gave to a dear female friend of mine so she can enjoy imagining what El-Mohtar has set up in her tales.

Brian Conn's The Fixed Stars is a small press debut title whose prose I enjoyed more than I did the plot, which I found to be somewhat lacking in comparison to the prose and characterizations.  A similar experience occurred when I read Darin Bradley's Noise.  Neither were poor works, just merely solid first efforts that leave me hopeful that their sophomore efforts will dazzle me. 

Although she has yet to have a novel published, Rachel Swirsky's debut collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, published by Aqueduct Press, is well worth reading just for the stories and poems she produced before she released two favorites of mine, "A Memory of Wind" (which I had highlighted for consideration for Best American Fantasy 4) and "Eros, Philia, Agape," which was up for a Nebula Award this past year.  Not a single dud for me in this slim collection.  I truly believe she'll be a major star in the near future.

Finally, my favorite debut novel this year was Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps, which I co-reviewed back in early October.  Here is a sample from that review:

The Orange Eats Creeps contains so many levels of reaction and interaction within its 172 pages that sometimes tangled knots appear.  There were times that the blurred lines between the narrator's dreamtime and her waking moments became so intertwined that it was difficult to pick out just what was really occurring, although it should be noted that this seems to be precisely Krilanovich's intent, that of exploring what happens when events crash together and are subsumed by the internal conflict of the narrator.  Sometimes, the intensity of the narrator's thoughts and the passivity she took to some horrific events overwhelmed certain elements of the story; the drug-induced ESP and the connections alluded to in the blurb quoted above to the Donner Party girl were neglected for large stretches of the story.  Yet despite these moments of confusion and underdevelopment, on the whole The Orange Eats Creeps was a horrific, visceral novel that grabbed my attention and made me confront several unsettling aspects about the banal evils that surround us.  The emptiness of the hooking up and of the consumption of speed reminded me too much of my youth and of those I knew in my teens and early twenties.  Krilanovich captures the negative vibe that so many members of the Latchkey Generation experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s in a take no prisoners-style approach.  Twist it just a little bit, away from the concretized metaphor of the bleak, brown-and-orange wasteland and toward the bland, soulcrushing nature of teen life during this time period and it could read almost as a superbiography for so many of us that endured those years while seeking to find our way and ourselves through the haze of drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships.

Although it is far from a cheery novel, The Orange Eats Creeps contains enough elements of hope to keep its readers going until the end.  While I cannot truly claim to have "enjoyed" this novel, I certainly can say that it is one of the most powerful, moving, and unsettling stories that I have read in quite some time.  The fact that this is Krilanovich's debut novel makes this novel a greater accomplishment than the fine work it already is.  It feels as though it is a story that has been "lived" and in witnessing this, we are changed as a result.  It is truly a remarkable work, one that will leave me thinking about its uncomfortable truths for a long time.

Fourteen debut authors, over half of which I would read a second (or fifth) novel by them soon after release.  Not too bad for this year.  Fitting that my favorite debut novel is one that cannot be classified easily into a single market genre.  Sometimes, the better stories are those who blur or even erase perceived boundaries and this certainly was the case for Krilanovich's novel and a couple of others discussed here.

It would be nice if some would stop "monkeying around" when reviewing

I do a quick browse just now through the usual blogosphere chatter and apparently there was a bit of a stir when on Twitter Jonathan McCalmont said in response to looking for a good review of a particular SF work the following:

The genre blogosphere : tangible proof that dozens of monkeys at dozens of keyboards can't produce meaningful sentences.

When taken in context, it's just a mild, general complaint about the lacking quality of some reviewing.  But then I see it led to this post over at Floor to Ceiling Books.   Not going to say too much about the particulars of that post (you can read it and judge for yourselves), but I do have some tangential thoughts related to some of the comments there.

Yes, people have different reasons for blogging, just as certain people have different talents when it comes to expressing in written (or verbal) form just what it is about a work that moves them so.  I must admit to being somewhat bemused at seeing my name mentioned in a response, apparently as a representative of a sort of "weighty" "essay" approach to reviewing.  It is odd being viewed as this sort of super-erudite reviewer, to be honest.  If anything, I probably "dumb down" several of my reviews, for a variety of reasons. 

What I think should be a better discussion topic than whether or not one ought to take offense at a general comment about the uselessness of certain review styles for certain readers is whether or not reviewers ought to stop "monkeying around" and taking the easiest approach to reviewing a book.  There is no prescriptive approach to reviewing, but there certainly is a world of difference between a reviewer putting his/her most into a review, regardless of the chosen format, and someone who half-asses it.  As an occasional review reader, I know those who seem to disengage themselves from the story being reviewed tend to be those whose reviews I disregard in the future, if I bother reading those blogs in the future.  So rather than fretting about what someone thinks about a particular review style, how about y'all just write to the best of your abilities within that chosen format?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Just learned that a former boss died suddenly today

No details other than his son found him this morning.  Always kept meaning to give him a call, especially after mutual friends said he had been asking about me.  Just never remembered on the weekends until it was too late in the evening...and now it's too late forever.  I'll miss him, as he endured my teasing about my Vols beating his Vandy football teams virtually all the time, or about squirrels.  December is just a cruel month this year, having lost earlier a beloved former teacher of mine and now this :(

2010 in Review: Reading Blindspots (Graphic Novels, YA fiction)

In my previous essay, I discussed works that for some reason or another were "disappointing reads."  For this third installment, I want to turn the tables a bit and highlight areas where I as a reader fell somewhat short this year.  I may have catholic tastes, but this does not mean that I am going to be inclined to cover various subgenres as much as others.  Leaving aside paranormal romances, the newer style of "urban fiction," and other fields that I've stated several times in the past that do not interest me at all after several attempts to enjoy them, I think it might be illuminating, both for myself and for certain readers, to see just how woefully short my reading was in the fields of graphic novels and Young Adult fiction, both of which I do read and enjoy on an occasional basis.

This past year saw a decrease in reads in both categories for me, at least in terms of 2010 releases.  I began the year reading the second volume of G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker's Air, followed by their earlier graphic novel, Cairo.  However, these are pre-2010 releases and as much as I enjoyed Perker's illustrations and Wilson's storytelling, for some reason I have yet to order the third volume, which came out this past spring.  It is a series that I would recommend several trying (Cairo is standalone), but yet I have neglected to keep up-to-date with it.  Another graphic novel, 2009's Noir:  A Collection of Crime Comics, edited by Diana Schutz, was an entertaining, albeit uneven series of short noir pieces illustrated and told in comics format.  Yet it too was not a 2010 release.

Still in January, I see in my reading log that I re-read Italian illustrator/storyteller Sergio Toppi's retelling of the stories of The Arabian Nights, Sharaz-De (two volumes).  Although these two volumes are not yet (as far as I know) in English translation, they are outstanding in terms of their mixture of art and story.  But alas, it too is not a 2010 release.  In late January, I re-read Italian writer Dino Buzzati's Poema a fumetti, which is a retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth in modern Italy.  But yet again... Same goes for Adam Rapp's 2009 graphic novel, Ball Peen Hammer, which I reviewed in February.

In fact, it wasn't until August that I read my first 2010 graphic novel, Kazu Kibuishi's Flight:  Volume 7 anthology, which contained several amusing, diverting stories interspersed among more serious pieces.  I found it to be a fitting addition to a graphic novel anthology series that I've enjoyed, more or less, for the past three years.  And that is that, as there were no other graphic novels/comics that I finished reading in 2010.  It is well below my 2009 performance, when I reviewed over a half-dozen releases (and left several others out of that list), or even my 2008 readings, when I first began to try and read graphic novels.  No excuse really for this poor reading performance, so perhaps I'll aim to read and review at least a dozen 2011 graphic novel releases, time permitting.

Poor as this showing was, it pales in comparison to my 2010 YA Fiction reading.  For someone who tries to read at least a few new releases each year, there was only one 2010 release read, Paolo Bacigalupi's National Book Award-nominated Ship Breaker, which I found to be a much smoother and more interesting read than his 2009 novel, The Wind-Up Girl.  Outside of that, the only pre-2010 YA releases I read were the first two volumes of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (which I found not to my liking, as it was a bit dull for long stretches) and Walter Moers' Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures, which I adored.

Sometimes, patterns shift without the reader being at first aware of the change.  Such was the case for me this year.  I had thought I might be able to do individual summaries similar to what I had done in 2008 and 2009 for these two categories, only to discover that between the two of them, I could count the number of 2010 releases read on one hand and have the majority of the fingers (and thumb) available for use.  I suspect part of the reason why the numbers dropped were a combination of receiving fewer graphic novel review copies and not seeing as many graphic novel or YA novel recommendations from those few critics whose opinions generally inspire me to explore those titles mentioned.  I will try to do my best to reverse this trend later, but for now, these two categories mark major "blindspots" in my 2010 reading.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

2010 in Review: Disappointing Reads

In previous years, I had eschewed doing a "Worst" or "Disappointing" category in my year-end summaries because I would have to devote energy thinking about books that were either utterly forgettable or were (in rare cases) truly heinous; neither would add to the overall theme.  However, I changed my mind for this year, since these year-end reflective essays are meant to give a more representative sample of what I've read and experienced this year.  Hopefully, there will be some value in reading this (if only to provoke visceral reactions), because I found it surprisingly difficult to muster the energy needed to write about works that, in the majority of cases, deserves to rot unread on shelves or to be pulped.

Back in March, just after I had been laid off, I decided to read some of the backlog of review copies that had been sent to me.  Two of those books were Blake Charlton's Spellwright, which I found to be decent, albeit derivative, non-offensive fare, and the translation of Russian writer Alexey Pehov's Shadow Prowler.  Even taking into account my occasional antipathy toward hack-and-slash derivative "epic" fantasy knockoffs, Pehov's book truly was my first horrendous read, one that disappointed even the very low expectations I had for it.  Here's an excerpt from my review of it:

Magical items, talismans, wielders of magic who may be distant and mysterious for no other reason than to appear to be practitioners of arcane arts.  This book is chock full of them.  None of it resonated with me.  It just felt as though I had read this before somewhere in the past.  Nothing really new.  No real depth to any of the characters presented.  This was disconcerting, considering that a large percentage of the novel was told in first-person PoV from the perspective of thief Harold.  His character just felt stilted and contained little narrative tension.

Perhaps "lifeless" is the most apt description of this novel.  It apes the mannerisms and characterizations of older epic fantasy novels, especially those of a "high magic" nature.  Yet there is nothing really exciting about it; it is merely the repeating of well-worn epic staples without really adding anything to the mix.  Without this sense that Pehov had anything different to offer, my mind switched to auto-pilot.  I was not engaged as I had hoped to be engaged.  This novel was not for me, simple as that. 
 Moving into April, I see after reading through my annual reading log that I read the first two volumes of a series by Australian writer Joel Shepherd, Sasha and Petrodor.  I declined to write a review at the time because I found the entire construction, from the prose to the plot to the done-to-death plucky, feisty heroine character, to be dull, uninspired, and lacking in any quality that might encourage me to give it any consideration at all.  The third volume I have declined to read because my disinterest is that high after my disappointment after struggling to care (and ultimately failing) while reading the first two volumes. 

Skimming through my reading log, it seems I rarely read any 2010 releases between April and July.  However, within the span of a single week, I read two works that disappointed me in different fashions:  Amelia Beamer's debut novel, The Loving Dead and China Miéville's Kraken.  I chose not to review either one of them at the time because I had such lukewarm reactions, reactions that have steadily cooled upon further reflection.  With Beamer's novel, I believe much of the disappointment comes as much from false expectations that I had as anything to do with the actual novel.  I am not a fan of zombie fiction and I thought perhaps that it would be more "subversive" in a fashion other than it being a commentary on sexual politics.  That certainly dampened my enthusiasm, plus the story itself was only solidly told, with little in the way of distinguishing wit or narrative flair.  Yet others might enjoy this first novel on its own terms, rather than experiencing the disappointment that I felt reading a novel whose themes and presentation were not all that palatable for me.

Miéville has long been a writer who frustrates me.  Much as I have appreciated his first four novels, particularly the Bas-Lag novels, in each of them there were always elements that seemed to be underdeveloped or just ill-executed.  His latter two novels, The City & The City and Kraken, did not endear themselves to me as much as they did to others.  With the former, I found the execution of the narrative conceit to be clunky and not as gracile as it perhaps should have been in order for the full impact of its thematic and plot elements to be felt.  With Kraken, however, the entire ordeal was devoid of anything truly interesting, minus the mysterious squirrel (hey, sometimes even squirrels can't carry an uneven novel).  The humor was a bit forced in places, the "fun" element just didn't click in, likely due to a very weak narrative structure.  Sure, Kraken might be a sometimes-amusing play on conspiracy theories and Lovecraftian elements, but its execution just fell flat.  Certainly the most disappointing Miéville novel that I have read.

In August, I read Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, another debut novel.  As is the case with several of the novels mentioned here, I did not find it to be complete and utter dreck, but rather a disappointing novel which lacked a certain "life" that would have made it something special.  As it is, this play on an Austenesque Regency novel with Magic! was a rather lifeless affair.  Try as she might, Kowal just did not display the narrative wit and humor that makes Austen's novels memorable.  While her characters and situations were decently drawn and developed, the prose just felt flat and devoid of that je ne sais quoi quality that distinguishes the competently-written from the superbly-constructed novels.  This is not to say that I will not read more stories by her, as I do believe that with more time and experience, those tiny little qualities that distinguish the great from the merely acceptable stories might be developed sufficiently.  However, Kowal's first novel simply lacks those qualities and it is this perceived lack that makes this debut such a disappointing read for me.

Not to bang the drum too much, but a common thread in this discussion of Disappointing 2010 Releases seems to be difficulties that debut authors have in nailing down certain narrative aspects that would make their stories stand out more.  In September, I read Sam Sykes' debut novel, Tome of the Undergates.  This was a very underwhelming novel for me, even when I had been forewarned about some of the difficulties that other readers had had with this epic fantasy opening volume.  Some readers are going to enjoy long, drawn-out, extended battle scenes; I am not one of those readers.  Yet a full third of this novel concerns itself with such a prolonged scene, peppered throughout with characters forced to work together who would rather gut and decapitate his or her so-called "companion."  I found the situation and the characterizations to be rather trite and lacking in interest, although again this might be due to my difficulty in enjoying epic fantasies of any stripe these days.  Regardless, this novel was a dull, plodding affair, one that did not leave me desirous of re-reading it in the near future.

There was only one truly disappointing 2010 release read in October, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's Towers of Midnight.  Here is a snippet from my review:

I am not by nature someone who trusts wholeheartedly my first impressions; too often they change with time and further reflection.  I have found this to be the case with this now-thirteen-volume epic fantasy series.  When I reviewed the twelfth volume (and the first where Brandon Sanderson wrote most of the material in place of the deceased Robert Jordan), The Gathering Storm, in October 2009, I perhaps was a bit too forgiving of that book's shortcomings because I reviewed the book after not having read most of the other volumes since 2000.  Certainly my memory did not jibe too well with my experiences re-reading the first eleven volumes this past spring and writing commentaries on my impressions.   In short, it was a slog re-reading this series.  Not merely because of the myriad subplots nor because there were repetitive and yet shallow social commentaries, but also due to the creaky, non-graceful prose and uneven characterizations that often left me feeling cold.  Despite the change in authors and the plot developments that one might expect in the penultimate volume of such a ponderous multi-volume series, Towers of Midnight, after some reflection, is a flawed volume in a very flawed series.

Truly one of the most disappointing reads of this year.

Finally, there was one final disappointing 2010 release read this year.  It was of a book that I just finished earlier today.  Yet another debut novel, Anthony Huso's The Last Page does not merit the comparisons that I've read elsewhere to China Miéville or to any other writer who has a distinguishable writing style.  This was an absolute trainwreck of a story to read.  Huso's prose is simply execrable.  He attempts to ape the mannerisms of more proficient stylists, only to fall far short of his goals.  He lacks the ability to write compelling descriptive prose.  Below are examples of how maladroit he so often is:

Once, the Dunatis Sea had filled all of Stonehold, a prehistoric saline slab that crushed the hills under gradients of darkness many fathoms deep.  Back then, the Duchy had been a black icy waste of glacia sediment and mollusks and mud.  Sloshing against Kjnardag's feet, licking at the mountains' boots, the great sea had retreated slowly, pulled into the Duchy's pit over epochs like a slavering beast on chains. (p. 288)
His use of simile is atrocious.  Several times throughout this novel he creates bewildering, baffling comparisons that are nothing like the sun, nor anything resembling flowing prose.  The below example might be one of the more confusing and off-putting similes I have read this side of a Robert Stanek self-published work:

Outside she could smell summer blooms like tender-loin girls:  pink-petaled skirts ruffling in the wind. (p. 132)

What.  The.  Fuck?  These asinine similes, coupled with choppy sentences that did not suit the narrative nor the plot of the story, ruined for me a story that could have been intriguing if it had been competently told.  The Last Page is just simply a clusterfuck of a novel, one of the singularly disappointing novels that I have read in 2010.  Perhaps I have saved the worst (minus reading pre-2010 releases from Terry Goodkind and Stanek) for last?

Hrmm...nearly 10 disappointments out of roughly 80 books released in 2010.  I suppose that's not too bad of a percentage.  Would add one more, Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, but after a handful of chapters, I stopped reading it in March, as I was totally disinterested in what appeared to be one of his weakest novels since Free Live Free.  But since I didn't complete it and since Wolfe often improves on a re-read, I'll just add this as a coda to this discussion of Books That Sucked in 2010.  Now that this is out of the way, time to start planning what will be covered in the next few essays.

2010 in Review: Introduction and General Commentary on the Passing Year

A few days ago, the earth was at its perihelion; winter began in the Northern Hemisphere.  The oak leaves have fallen and Anno Domini 2010 is drawing to a close with the end of the first day of Christmas for those who follow the Gregorian Calendar.  With the passing of these cycles comes another, somewhat newer and undoubtedly less important event, the posting of annual reviews and yearly superlatives.  Already several newspapers, online sites, and personal blogs have begun posting their 2010 in Review and Best of 2010 lists.  Some of them are worthy of consideration (I often find value in what the Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Omnivoracious, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other large sites, print and online alike, have to say, in large part because there are many books on their lists that capture my attention (especially when there are provided links to applicable reviews).

Of course, with the proliferation of review blogging comes the inevitable decline in quality control.  I have read several dozen year-end posts on dozens of blogs over the years whose lists were as helpful to me as a dog turd in my path.  Doubtless, some may have felt the same about some of my previous annual summaries, since tastes do vary wildly.  Nonetheless, I think some have missed the opportunity to create something that is simultaneously personal in approach and learned in breadth and depth.  While not everyone is going to have had the opportunity (or time) to read several dozen or hundreds of new releases, it might behoove those bloggers who have read a handful or two of 2010 releases to write just a little bit more on why books X, Y, and Z proved to be memorable enough that you chose it to be worthy of consideration by others.  After all, sometimes going the extra mile can make one's list stand out more in the crowd of bland, numbers 1-10 (or 20/25) lists.

Between now and December 31, I plan on writing a series of essays where I will discuss those new releases that have proven intriguing enough that I want to mention them at the end of the calendar year.  To date, I have read around 80 books that were released in 2010 (out of a current total of 419 completed books; several more shall be complete in the next six days).  I believe those 80 books (and the 340 or so pre-2010 releases) for the most part are worthy of more consideration than "Book A was #1 while Book B was #2 and..."  Sometimes, that pesky question of "why" ought to be addressed.

Before I set out to write these essays (varying in length between 750 and 2000 words, or so is the plan right now) on my experiences with graphic novels, Young Adult fiction, Debut Novels, Foreign Language Fictions, Translated Fictions, Speculative Fictions, Non-Fictions, Realist Fictions, Most Disappointing Reads and Favorite Reads, I just want to begin with a little general commentary on the passing year, as it has been a true annus mirabilis for me.  It was around this time last year that I received an inquiry as to whether or not I'd be interested in working on a particular project and from there, other projects opened while some closed.

For the first half of 2010, I spent a lot of time reading dozens of literary journals, genre publications, and various and sundry magazines as part of my duties as the new series editor for the Best American Fantasy series.  Although I didn't keep a strict count, I believe I must have read at least 500 short stories (as well as several dozen poems, just in case one was magical enough to justify consideration for this reprint annual anthology) between January and early July 2010.  Although BAF had to be discontinued, I am forever grateful for the opportunity that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, as well as Matthew Cheney, the founders and original editors of the BAF series, gave me to experience the reprint editing side of book publishing.  Not only was I exposed to a wealth of talent that is published in journals and magazines that rarely surpass a couple thousand subscribers, I also discovered some literary circles of which I was ignorant until this past year.  This has had a major impact on my reading preferences for the latter part of this year, a point I will discuss shortly.

2010 was also the year where I became a paid, freelance translator.  Back in May, Jeff VanderMeer, during the midst of working on the massive reprint anthology, The Weird, that he is co-editing with his wife Ann (publication has been pushed back into mid-to-late 2011), contacted me and asked if I would be willing to translate Augusto Monterroso's short story, "Mister Taylor," for publication.  I said yes and over the next couple of months I translated, revised, and then hashed out a final translation with Jeff that I believe is a stronger, truer translation than the previously-published translation (I'm still young and arrogant at heart, mind you).  That translation led recently to another opportunity, this time with a Brazilian author/translator friend of mine, Fábio Fernandes, to translate snippets of the recently-published Luso-Brazilian original anthology of steampunk fictions, Vaporpunk, which was published online at Beyond Victoriana.  I was very pleasantly surprised by the mostly-positive comments I've read (in both English and Portuguese) about the translations, since I am far more comfortable translating from Spanish to English than I am at the moment with translating from Portuguese to English.

This year has seen a continued proliferation of review blogs and social networks.  Although I began using Facebook for "networking" (OK, just chatting about weird squirrel and/or Scots-related items with writer/translator Gio Clairval, among others) back in 2008, I finally got sucked into trying out Twitter back in May.  While I was unemployed, I would use it quite a bit to pass the time between reading, working out, and translation/editing duties, but I have rarely used it since returning to teaching back in mid-September.  Although I had no true negative experiences with it, I did find it difficult to have a substantive conversation about anything.  In addition, I just found myself needing a bit of a breather so I could regain a "critical perspective" and "distance" that I find to be necessary when discussing a variety of topics, including reviewing and commentaries on certain reading-related topics.  It was also during this time that the short-lived SFF Masterworks project imploded; I still am not an ideal "team player" it seems.  Perhaps the others will renew it in the new year and fulfill its promise of providing a variety of perspectives on one publisher's list of SF/F "masterworks."

One continuing hot topic this year has been the distribution of Advance Review Copies, or ARCs, for review purposes.  I have received them since 2004 (when I received a few materials from Penguin Canada at the urging of Scott Bakker), but never put quite as much stock in them as apparently several other bloggers (and their and my readers) did.  I did have an annoying, somewhat embarrassing kerfluffe back in October over what was and what wasn't covered under this "review embargo" for the latest Wheel of Time book, which resulted in me becoming irritated enough with some of the more outrageous commentaries being said that I just flat-out stated that I would never ask for a review copy again nor agree to any more "embargoes" or anything else like that unless I had personal, prior dealings with certain people working in the industry.  Two months later and I'm happy with not receiving as many review copies as I previously had. 

What that experience crystallized for me, however, was that I wanted a change in my reading/reviewing for some time and that I was letting other factors influence my reading a bit too much.  To be honest, this past year was not a great year when it came to new genre-marketed releases.  I will discuss this in much more detail in upcoming essays, but I found myself being baffled at seeing the absolute dreck and subpar efforts being peddled around as being "best of year worthy" by certain parties that I began to wonder if they had become too involved with the publicity side of the reading/publishing field.  Perhaps this insidious thought is related to my own worries about losing my perspective "distance" due to my own paid entanglements (a concern which I have discussed with a few in recent months),  but nonetheless, it was a feeling that I had and toward which I reacted.  I stated above that my experiences being the BAF series editor had influenced my reading likes.  Well, lately, I have noticed that I would much rather read a so-called "literary fiction" or non-fiction piece than read another fantasy.  I suspect this will be a trend that continues into 2011, as the reading wheel seems to have revolved; I was a non-fiction/"literary fiction"/classics reader long before I began reading speculative fiction in my mid-to-late 20s.

2010 indeed has been an interesting and potentially transformational year for me, both as a reader and as a potential second career option.  I have learned a lot more about myself, even if the information learned might not have been exactly what I would consider to be "positive."  Now that this long-winded exploration of the person behind the list is out of the way, perhaps this lengthy introduction will shed some light on the thought process which underlies the essays I will compose in the coming days.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Book and Gift Porn 2010

Received a few items for Christmas (or Christmas Eve, since my immediate family opens ours that night, since we travel much of the afternoon to relatives).  I'm collecting the 100 books in Easton Press' 100 Greatest Books limited-edition, leatherbound series, so I gave a list of books I'd like to acquire next and these are the four that my family got for me.  They are a pleasure to hold and to read, I must say.

Here are a few more items that I've bought or received these past few days.  The Easton Press edition of The Pilgrim's Progress was a purchase I ordered a week or so ago.  Received an advance copy of J.M. McDermott's upcoming book, Never Knew Another, from the author himself (this will be one of the first handful of books I read in 2011, with it maybe being the first review posted then as well).  Another January 2011 read and possible review will be a monograph called The Sacrament of Language:  An Archaeology of the Oath.  Intriguing premise, no?  Also bought the 2010 restoration of the famous German silent movie, Metropolis, now containing 98% or so of its original 153 minute cut (something like 5-6 minutes are still lost), so I'll be watching it again over this weekend.  And finally, I received a pair of binoculars for Christmas from my mother.  When I asked her why I received them, she said, "So you can squirrel watch."  Yes, my hobby/worship has become known to my family.

So, what did you receive for Christmas?
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