Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Pprobably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.
April Review Round-up
The Autumn Republic, by Brian McClellan: In the round-up I wrote on my 2014 reading list, I said about Brian McClellan’s then-unfinished Powder Mage Trilogy, “I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale …” As it happened, I ended up buying the last chapter just as promptly as I did the middle, and read through it as voraciously as I did the first. The Autumn Republic delivers in every way I would have wanted: action, intrigue, epic scale, old gods, and new regimes. A very satisfying ending to a highly entertaining series. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Birdman: In her Oscars round-up post back in February, NPR’s Linda Holmes had this comment about Birdman:
Birdman is an offbeat film in many ways and has real visual inventiveness, but it also has hugely familiar themes: the lone struggling genius misunderstood by the world, yelling at his daughter about social media and defending the importance of real art. (IMDb)
The thing is, I’m not sure Birdman is that movie. I mean, it might be. Certainly the main character, Riggan Thomson—played by Michael Keaton—would describe himself as a lone struggling genius, and his story as one of defending art. But then, the film also goes to great lengths to show Riggan’s insecurity and ego, and ultimately his patheticness. When his daughter (Emma Stone) verbally takes him apart, shouting that he is irrelevant, so get used to it, she’s completely right.
So, which is it? Does Birdman praise the independent artist or skewer a self-important blowhard? It swings back and forth between the two, and the famously strange ending doesn’t really help resolve the question. I think, in the end, it’s going to be whatever you want it to be, and so while I found it interesting, I can’t say I really loved it.
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss: Long-time readers may have picked up on the fact that I have a lot of anxiety about my eventual death. So the fact that the opening chapter of this book describes the daily routine of an old, lonely man who is basically waiting around to die very nearly put me into a panic attack. I had to put the book down for a few days and come back once I’d calmed down. I’m glad I did come back, though.
The History of Love is the name of a book that the old man, Leo Gursky, wrote when he was young. It is also the name of a book written by a Polish emigrant to Argentina named Zvi Litvinoff. It is also the name of a book, the main character of which provides the namesake of a girl named Alma. Throughout The History of Love, we follow these three viewpoints—Leo, Litvinoff, and Alma—as their stories unfold and eventually converge.
The Litvinoff sections read like something out of Borges or Kundera. The Alma sections reminded me a bit of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—in feel if not in the details—or perhaps some of John Irving’s teenage longing. It is, as the title suggests, about love. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the human desire for connection, the ways that we try so hard to know the people near us, and the ways that they nevertheless remain a mystery to us. It’s a beautifully written, very affecting novel, and although it was at times difficult for me to read, I highly recommend it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi: I’ve been reading military SF since middle school, and though my tastes have broadened a lot since then, I still find myself coming back to the genre. It’s just so much fun. This one, John Scalzi’s first novel (published back in 2005), is energetic and entertaining, just like I’d want from a space war story. It does hew a bit close to Starship Troopers structurally, but trades the semi-Randian political philosophy for a sardonic sense of humor and a lot more sex. It’s a quick read—I finished the whole thing in a day—and after finishing The History of Love it was exactly what I needed. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham: One of the things that Daniel Abraham does really well is write characters who are flawed—sometimes deeply so—but still somehow relatable. The central characters of this series are a young woman who is a brilliant banker with scrappy, underdog beginnings and also a certain lack of empathy or self-awareness and a tendency to drink too much; a mercenary captain who is highly skilled but tends only to thrive when he’s at his worst; and a bookish young nobleman who turns out to be a self-deluding monster. Each of them—as well as a few others—get time as the viewpoint characters, and because we see things from their perspective, there’s a natural tendency for each to become sympathetic. Especially in the latter case, that winds up being seductive but misleading; the guy really is a terrible person.
Another thing that Abraham does well is find new ways to come at existing genres. In The Long Price Quartet that meant coming up with a very novel magic system and a setting that wasn’t a stand-in for medieval Europe. In The Expanse series, that means incorporating tropes from a different second genre into the overall science fictional arc with each new book. And in this series, it means taking all of the hallmarks of traditional epic fantasy and entwining it with a highly nonstandard motive force: money and banking. Abraham has said before that a big part of the origin of this series came from his research into Renaissance banking practices, and it makes for a pretty interesting take on a kind of story that’s been around for quite some time. The first four volumes of this series are well-paced, interesting, and populated with great characters, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens in the fifth. (The Dragon’s Path: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The King’s Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Tyrant’s Law: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Widow’s House: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett: Man, this was a good book. I’m not sure how to describe it in a way that makes sense, though. It’s a fantasy novel, but set in a world that’s roughly technologically equivalent to the 1920’s. This is a world where the gods were real, and their power allowed one nation to enslave the entire world. But it’s also a world where the gods were vulnerable, and were killed in a slave uprising that overthrew the existing order, and whose deaths caused a cataclysm that reshaped an entire continent. But all of this is backstory.
Yes, it is a fantasy novel. But in its plot, City of Stairs is really more of a cloak-and-dagger thriller. In the aftermath of the uprising and war I mentioned before, the former slaves have come to rule their former masters, burying the old oppressors’ attempts to rebuild their civilization under a mountain of bureaucracy. Eighty years later, a visiting professor who is investigating the history of the Divine and their old empire winds up dead under questionable circumstances, and a woman—an operative—named Shara arrives to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more huge the conspiracies become.
City of Stairs features amazing world-building, wonderful characters, and not a little commentary on the nature of politics and nations and power, but all of that is done so skillfully and naturally that it never feels forced or heavy-handed. If you like contemporary fantasy, I can’t recommend this book any more highly. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
By Ann Leckie
One of the things that struck me the most about Ancillary Sword as I was reading it is that it is more overtly political than the first book, Ancillary Justice was. Of course, Ancillary Justice, itself, was quite a strong feminist statement, but, as I mentioned in my review of that book, its political function was mainly executed in the narrator’s voice and particularly her use of pronouns, rather than through the plot, and thus was more subversive than overt. That examination of gender politics is certainly still at work in this second installment of the trilogy, but author Ann Leckie also uses the main action of the story to look at class and economic power structures. Of course, with that kind of overtness comes the danger of being overly didactic, but I think that Leckie has done quite a skillful job of creating a book that both has a message and is also a good story.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq—the AI protagonist from the first book—is given command of a ship of her own and sent to a distant planet with orders to maintain peace there against the brewing civil war that began at the end of Ancillary Justice. As it turns out, the planet is a major source of tea, a staple agricultural product of the space empire in which the series takes place, and as so often is the case even in our real world, there is a huge disparity in wealth and power between the owners of the planet’s tea plantations and the people who actually work the land. Numerous intertwined plots and schemes arise, and Breq has to find a way to both maintain vigilance toward the larger events of the coming war, as well as work toward social justice for the downtrodden people of the planet and station where she’s been assigned.
The economic significance of tea in the universe of this series underlies much of the fundamental power structures in this book, and I was reminded at times of Arrakis and the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune. However, where Dune is a story about revolution and war (among other things), Ancillary Sword sees its tensions play out in community activism and legal drama. Again, it would be easy for this sort of thing to drift into heavy-handedness, but Leckie really does bring it all together quite impressively, and the result is a tight, well-paced story that manages both to advance the overall series and still delivery a pretty sharp commentary about power and class in our own world.
Of course, this sort of commentary is not particluarly new in the world of science fiction—the genre has been used to examine contemporary issues since its inception. But that this is not a new phenomenon is by no means a criticism; rather, I’d say that Leckie carries on the tradition proudly.
Ancillary Sword is a very different feeling book from its predecessor, so readers looking for something to hit all the same notes may find some disappointment there. But taken on its own merits, I think it’s a damn effective book and I highly recommend it.
Started: 1/28/2015 | Finished: 2/9/2015
The Slow Regard of Silent Things
By Patrick Rothfuss
This book is not going to be for everyone. I don’t say that to take anything away from the author, Patrick Rothfuss—indeed, he’s quite aware of it, as he spent the entire afterword discussing his acute awareness of how “not for everyone” it was. To begin with, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a side story from Rothfuss’s best-selling (and as yet unfinished) trilogy The Kingkiller Chronicle, and it requires familiarity with the main story to make any sense. The bigger obstacle, though, is that not much happens in this book. As Rothfuss himself admits, this is the type of book where he spends eight pages describing the protagonist making soap. Put those together and you have a bit of a problem, since my feeling is that most epic fantasy readers will expect a more plot-heavy story.
So, as I said, it’s not going to be for everyone. And yet, it certainly was for me. I loved it.
Slow Regard is a week in the life of one of the more eccentric—if that’s the right word—side characters in The Kingkiller Chronicle, Auri. Auri is a young (or perhaps young-seeming) woman who lives in the catacombs beneath the wizard school featured in the main trilogy. She’s an odd character, of the type you often see in epic fantasies: ostensibly insane (in a quirky, mostly benign way) but also possessed of a deep wisdom, as though she sees truths about the world to which mundane folk are blind.
Now, a character like that makes for an interesting foil to a typical protagonist, and, indeed, that’s how she’s used in Rothfuss’s main novels. Here, though, she is the focus of the story. Showing things from her perspective is tricky, and requires a light touch. Too weird and you lose the audience, but too normal and you lose the magic and mystery that made her interesting to start with. I think Rothfuss strikes just the right balance, his lyrical prose and tight viewpoint making her both relatable and alien.
Not a whole lot happens, it’s true, but Slow Regard is compelling and beautiful nonetheless. Hauntingly so. Rothfuss somehow manages to make cleaning a room and making soap into something like poetry, all the while hinting at both the events of the trilogy and Auri’s own past. It’s really quite a remarkable book.
I don’t know whether or not you will enjoy this book. But I absolutely loved it.
Started: 1/15/2015 | Finished: 1/19/2015
By Ann Leckie
I made up my mind to read Ancillary Justice when I saw Kameron Hurley tweet that her book The Mirror Empire (which I read and loved last year) would never have gotten published if not for the success of Ancillary Justice. The author of the weirdest and most innovative fantasy of the past decade is tipping her hat to this book? I’m in.
One of the first things that anybody will mention about Ancillary Justice—at least, the first thing that everyone has mentioned to me about it—is the way gender is treated. Or rather, the way it isn’t treated; throughout the book, the narrator simply refers to everyone using feminine pronouns. As becomes clear fairly quickly, this is because she is an artificial intelligence, and moreover one that was created by a society where gender differences aren’t recognized. It makes for an interesting tension in spots where she has to interact with people who do care about gender, but the most impressive thing about this choice is how little it ends up mattering for most of the story. That is, I was forced to look at how my biases color my perceptions when everyone in the book is a “she,” but in terms of the arc of the story, it mostly doesn’t factor.
Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera and revenge tale, told from the perspective of a person who used to be a spaceship. Now, that sounds completely bonkers, and I suppose in some ways it is, but accepting an AI as a protagonist turns out to be a lot less mind-bending than dealing with the central premise, which deals with the concept of a consciousness being spread out over many individuals. In this universe, you see, a huge space empire (reminiscent of Rome in many ways) has been conquered using sentient spaceships who control large groups of “ancillaries,” which are essentially human bodies whose brains have been connected to the ship’s AI. But the ancillaries are not only controlled by the ship, rather, the ship’s awareness and “self” is spread across all of those bodies simultaneously. This leads to a few scenes—including some of the most tense and exciting ones in the whole book—that become a little difficult to track, as the narrator speaks of an “I” that is both singular and multiple.
Indeed, the whole motive force behind Ancillary Justice’s plot comes from this idea of multiplicity, and author Ann Leckie explores some really intriguing ideas about identity and consciousness over the course of the story. Moreover, she does it in a way that’s not only intelligent, but also highly entertaining. The whole thing is just really well done, which ought to be obvious of a novel that won both the Hugo and the Nebula in its year. Despite the fact that the pile of books on my nightstand is still quite tall from my Christmas haul, I couldn’t resist running out and picking up the sequel, Ancillary Sword. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Started: 12/17/2014 | Finished: 1/14/2015
2014 Book Reviews
Here we are at the beginning of a new year, which means it's time for my now-traditional round-up of everything I read and saw during the past one. In terms of quantity, I had a decent reading year: my final count stands at 23. Of those, most were fairly entertaining, a few were a little flat, and a few were quite good. In chronological order:
The Daylight War, by Peter V. Brett. One of the downsides to waiting until now to write these reviews is that it's been almost a year since I finished this book, so most of the details are fairly fuzzy. I read the first book in 2010 and the second in 2012, and mostly what I recall of this installment is that it was fun and worth the wait. One interesting thing about this one was how Brett went back and provided a more detailed backstory for one of the interesting female characters, Inevera, giving her a lot more depth as well as fleshing out her culture a bit more. The next book is due out in March, with the final one expected some time in 2018. So we've got a ways to go, but I'm still interested to keep reading. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Tattered Banner, by Duncan M. Hamilton. I found this one via a Buzzfeed list, which sounds like it wouldn't be a particularly reliable source except that it also included several others that I enjoyed quite a lot. Sadly, I didn't find this one to my liking—the writing felt clunky and the characterization thin. The story follows a young man from a hard-scrabble life in the streets to a chance encounter that gets him into a prestigious fencing academy, and then beyond as he embarks on a career as a soldier and starts to discover some mystical secrets about his past. It seemed like pretty standard high fantasy fare to me. As noted in the Buzzfeed article, there were a lot of sword fights, which I would normally find quite entertaining. In the end, though, I just didn't have a lot of fun reading this book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. If you are a certain type of nerd, born in the mid-to-late 70's who enjoyed Devo and Atari and Zork, this book is written for you. The story is set in a dystopian near future where the real world is mostly gone to hell but everyone spends the bulk of their time in a virtual reality simulation called OASIS. The protagonist is a teenage boy who gets caught up in a quest created by the inventor of OASIS, wherein he has to use his knowledge of esoteric 80's pop culture trivia to solve a bunch of riddles that will give him the keys to the virtual world. Writing that out, it sounds kind of stupid, and in some ways the book is kind of silly. But, as I said, if you're the right kind of nerd, this book will push your buttons. The pop culture references are thick on the ground throughout the book, often to no particular purpose, and neither the prose style nor the story structure are particularly innovative. But it's fast-paced and quite entertaining—I read the whole thing in two days. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Powder Mage Trilogy, by Brian McClellan. This is probably my favorite new fantasy series, in terms of sheer enjoyment. Brian McClellan's debut series combines a whole bunch of things that are right up my alley, some of which I've never seen done before in high fantasy: a pseudo-Napoleonic-era setting; an innovative magic system that, in part, involves "powder mages" who use gunpowder to enhance their strength and speed; a well-developed world history which, of course, comes to bear on the events of the novel; intrigue, war, private investigators, and ancient gods. I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale, which comes out next month. (Promise of Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Crimson Campaign: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I'm not going to lie: this book is a lot of work. When you slip off the case, you're presented with what appears to be a library book from the 50's, called Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. (That author and his works are all fictional.) It's an impressive facsimile, down to the fake library stamps, the old-style binding, and even the way the pages appear to be browning with age. Ship of Theseus is a relatively opaque novel about an unnamed protagonist who finds himself caught up in a socialist revolution that takes him through some apparently Eastern European and South American settings, as well as through time itself.
Ship of Theseus is actually interesting in its own right, reading a bit like a Kundera novel. But the overall story of S. occurs in the margins. Literally. Scribbled into the blank spaces around the edges of the pages are notes between two strangers who pass the book back and forth by leaving it in an out-of-the-way spot in a university library. In that story, a whole shadowy world of international conspiracies, plots, and codes unfolds, as well as the growing relationship between the two scribblers. In this story there are flavors of Borges and Umberto Eco. What makes it difficult is that the notes are not in linear order. As you would expect might happen between two people passing a book back and forth, re-reading it several times in the process, their comments get added whereever appropriate to them at the time they were writing. The book helps you out by presenting the marginalia in different colors, as though the two people were using different pens each time they came back. But it takes some doing to unravel it all.
Ultimately I wasn't completely able to decide whether I thought S. was completely genius or pretentious wankery, or perhaps a little of both. But there was definitely something there, and I think it was worth the time I spent trying to figure it all out. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It's hard to know exactly how to talk about this book without spoiling it, even though the book and movie have been pretty thoroughly discussed everywhere else. What I will say is that I was completely sucked in by this book, and the major turn at the halfway point caught me entirely by surprise. The characterization and use of voice were very skillfully done. I'd say it deserves all of its popularity. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz. A co-worker of mine lent me this book, which is sort of a grown-up Sixth Sense detective story. The title character can see ghosts, whom he helps move on into the afterlife by solving their murders, and so on. It was interesting to me to compare this to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, the other urban fantasy detective series I've read recently, and which started around the same time (Odd Thomas in 2001, The Dresden Files in 2000). This book was more than adequate, but felt smaller in many ways than Butcher's novels. In part, this book feels more like a standalone story as opposed to the Dresden books, which are clearly episodes in a larger series (though, of course, this one is also the first in a series). There was no real connection to a larger, ongoing narrative, which is something I enjoy about Butcher's series. On the other hand, though the story was less grand, that also made it feel a bit more intimate. I'm not sure I'll be rushing to pick up all of the sequels, but I certainly enjoyed this book just fine. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Expanse novellas, by James S. A. Corey. Looking back over my archives, it appears that I've never written a real review for any of James S. A. Corey's Expanse books, which is a shame because they're pretty damn great. The main series is four books long at this point: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War (which, for some reason isn't anywhere in my reading notes), Abaddon's Gate, and Cibola Burn, each of which I read as soon as it came out (2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively). (Actually, I read the first two early because one of the authors is a friend of mine, but that's neither here nor there.) The series is a mid-future space opera set at a point where humanity has spread out across the solar system, but as science fiction goes, things are fairly low tech. There's no faster-than-light travel, no laser guns, nothing that's that far outside what we can do now, actually. Several of my friends like to describe it as "mechanics in space." The main series follows the adventures of James Holden and his crew through interplanetary political machinations, war, and even humanity's first contact (by proxy, sort of) with an alien species. It's one of my favorite SF series of the last ten years or so.
In addition to the main series, Mr. Corey (actually a pseudonym for the partnership of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has also (so far) written three novellas set in the same universe, which flesh out the backstories and side stories of some of the supporting characters. None of them are necessary to understand the main series, but they're all fun, and getting the extra dimensions for these characters adds a lot to the experience, particularly—in my opinion—with The Churn. Franck and Abraham started writing these in 2011, but I had let them sit until this past spring, when the waiting for Cibola Burn got to be too much and I had to get a little taste of the Expanse universe. At just a dollar a piece, I more than got my money's worth, and if you're a fan of the series, I can easily recommend these to you. (The Churn: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Butcher of Anderson Station: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. Gods of Risk: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
Growing Up, by Russell Baker. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher assigned us an essay to read by Russell Baker, entitled "No More Orange Motorcycles." It's a piece that's always stuck with me, a wry, funny look at the aging process by way of looking back on the progression of Christmas presents Baker received over his life. The combination of wit, nostalgia, and observation in that essay are something that certainly influenced me early on as a writer.
On a whim, I looked up Baker again this past May, having not read anything of his since that one essay, twenty years ago. I was delighted to find that he had written an autobiography, so I checked it out. As it happens, while the book is the story of Baker's own life, the real stars are three strong women in his life: his grandmother, his mother, and his wife. The book covers his upbringing during the Depression, showing how his mother's grit and determination were largely responsible for his success and character. After I finished it I discovered that Growing Up won the Pulitzer for autobiography in 1983, which came as no surprise. It's funny, insightful, at times poignant, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey. As I mentioned above, this past spring I found myself jonesing for some Expanse stories, since this fourth installment in the main series didn't come out until early June. I finally picked up a copy at a book signing when the authors came to San Diego, and it didn't disappoint. Cibola Burn picks up at a point in the series just after Holden and his crew have unlocked an ancient alien "gateway" that gives access to distant star systems. Humans have rushed through to begin colonizing the new worlds. The first colony is meant to be on a planet called Ilus, but ahead of the official expedition, a group of independent homesteaders have started their own settlement, which predictably leads to friction. Holden and his team are sent in to mediate between the two sides, and along the way uncovers new clues about what happened to the alien civilization that left the gateway.
One of the interesting thing about this series is that each book is conceived of as an intersection of science fiction with another genre. Leviathan Wakes was, in its bones, a noir detective story. Caliban's War was, as the title suggests, a war story. Cibola Burn is a Western: a stranger comes to town to settle a dispute between two factions that represent freedom and order. Based on conversations I've had with friends who've read it, whether this book works for you may depend on how much you enjoy these tropes. Most of the people I know who disliked it specifically mentioned that they tend to be sour on Westerns; I, on the other hand, can't get enough of them. Still, that aside, the engaging characters, tight plotting, good writing, and exciting action I loved from the previous novels is all present in this one. I reckon, though, that if you've made it this far into the series, you're not quitting any time soon. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. I probably wouldn't have been aware of this book if not for the fact that it was turned into a movie. I haven't seen the movie, and based on what I've read I may never do so (though, Neil Gaiman liked it), but I'm glad that I read the book. In that blog post I linked, Gaiman made a reference to John Crowley's Little, Big, which was one of the best books I read in 2012, or, indeed, in any year. There are certainly echoes of Crowley's book in Winter's Tale—both can be described as magical realism, both are set in the United States—but where Little, Big is more of a fairy tale (or, perhaps, faerie tale) in both its story and its writing, Winter's Tale feels more American. Indeed, as much as it is a story about its characters, it is also very much a story about America, and in particular about New York City. In that respect I was reminded very much of Pete Hamill's Forever.
The story is sprawling and epic, following a number of characters over a span of about a hundred years. Among them are Peter Lake, a mechanic and thief in New York near the turn of the 20th century; Beverly Penn, the consumptive daughter of a New York printing magnate, with whom Peter Lake falls in love; and Virginia Gamely, a young woman from the Brigadoon-ish village outside time, Lake of the Coheeries, who comes to the City to make her fortune. So much happens in this book that I couldn't even really summarize it, but suffice it to say that reading it was a profound experience. The prose is lyrical, by turns whimsical and passionate, often dense but packed with emotion. It's a book about family, love, and an America that never existed literally but still lives in the stories of ourselves. It's a story about cities and justice and magic and history. All in all, an amazing book. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. It's funny that in the same year I read Ready Player One, the book that would first come to mind when I thought of "fan service" would be this one. To be sure, The Queen of the Tearling had a lot more going for it than just that, but as I read it, I did often get the feeling that Johansen was reaching out to "her people." Which, as one of those people, I both appreciated and felt was a little silly. The titular queen is a young woman named Kelsea who has just ascended to the throne after having been raised in seclusion for her entire life. Knowing nothing about her mother and little about the recent history of her country and its relations with its neighbors, she has a lot to figure out in a hurry, and with little more than heart and good instincts, she starts on her journey toward becoming a legendary leader. That fate is foreshadowed by an interesting framing device: each chapter begins with an excerpt from an in-universe historical text written in the future of the events of the novel. It feels like a debut novel (which it is) in that the writing has both a certain exuberance as well as a few hints of inexperience, a few clunky bits. But overall I found the book entertaining and I'm interested to see where the series goes. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. This being the fifteenth novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, anybody who is in a position to read this book more or less knows what she's in for. So rather than write a lengthy review, I'll just say that I enjoyed this book pretty much exactly as much as I enjoyed all the rest of them, which is to say: a lot. Butcher doesn't seem to be losing any steam, and if and when this series ever does conclude, I'm going to be sad. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's an interesting bit of juxtaposition that the very next book I read after Skin Game was Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Both are the fifteenth installment in a long-running, best-selling series. However, where Jim Butcher's fifteenth Dresden novel is just as entertaining and fast-paced as the other books I love in that series, Bujold's fifteenth Vorkosigan book is pretty flat. I'm hoping this isn't a pattern for the future of the series, because the previous one—2011's CryoBurn—was also kind of disappointing. My complaint about that one was mainly that it felt shoehorned into the series, and didn't really need to include the main character. Unfortunately, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance didn't improve much by mostly leaving out that character. The story follows series protagonist Miles Vorkosigan's errant cousin Ivan Vorpatril as he unwittingly gets caught up in a coup between two Houses of the pseudo-crime-syndicate society of the Jackson's Whole system. Unfortunately that description sounds a lot more exciting that the story actually is; it mainly turns out to be a light romance between Ivan and the "princess" he "rescues." This isn't a particularly new sort of story for Bujold, who has done similar things in her Sharing Knife series and even in some of the earlier Vorkosigan books, notably in 2000's A Civil Campaign. Though, it's worth noting that that last was one of my least favorite books in this series. What I tended to enjoy about this series was the frenetic genius of Miles, the action and intrigue, and the exploration of different societies. There is some of that here, but the Jackson's Whole culture just isn't interesting or alien enough to warrant much interest, and for the most part there isn't much in the way of plot to Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. I'm sure I will pick up the next book whenever it happens to come out, but at this point I mostly hope Bujold finds some new direction to go in. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. Howard Zinn's revisionist history of the US is a pretty famous and influential book at this point, so I'd been meaning to read it for some time. Note that I use the term "revisionist" not in a pejorative sense, but rather to indicate the fact that this book takes a different interpretation of the subject matter than the standard history textbook. Rather than the received wisdom of America being the land of opportunity, he examines the history of women, racial minorities (especially Native Americans and slaves), and the working class in America, revealing the inequities that have been part and parcel of our nation since its inception. For me, though, I'm not sure if it's just because I'd already had a lot of exposure to these ideas in other reading as well as in some of my college coursework, but Zinn's book just didn't give me much new information. Things like the extermination of the Native American nations, the systematic oppression of women and blacks, and the explosive clashes between labor and capital in the early 20th century were already well-known to me. As a comprehensive overview, though, I can't think of any other books that cover it all in a single volume, so if you have an interest in an alternative perspective of American history, you could do a lot worse than A People's History. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. To give you an idea of how much this book worked for me, I'll say this: within the first ten pages, I almost cried twice. As it happened, at exactly that point I was working on pulling together my "All Good Things" and "It Forgets You" photo series for a portfolio review, and those bodies of work deal specifically with the passage of time, ephemerality, home, nostalgia, childhood, parenthood, and family. So The Ocean at the End of the Lane pretty much hit me right where I live.
Gaiman is, of course, a wildly popular figure in contemporary fantasy, albeit a somewhat polarizing one. I have no idea whether a person who normally dislikes his work would like this one any better, but to me it was a near perfect distillation of what works about his writing. Ocean is told as a memory that comes over the narrator as he revisits his childhood home, a memory that he's long forgotten about a dark, mystical episode in his childhood, and the fairy-like family who lived on the farm next door. It's a short little book, one that took me only a few hours to read, but which just crushed me with how well it expressed so many feelings that I'm examining in my own life right now. If there's anything about my photography or my writing that resonates with you, you may very well find the same thing in this book, only better. For me, it was easily the most moving thing I read all year. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Magicians series, by Lev Grossman. So, imagine that you want to write a Harry Potter novel but where the point-of-view character is a wiener and a bit of a douchebag and self-absorbed and casually misogynist in the way nerds so often are—you know, like a real teenaged boy. And then use that as the way into a contemporary Narnia story, but where all of the characters are drawn with the same realism. That's basically what you have with Lev Grossman's Magicians series. It's always an interesting experience reading a story where I dislike the protagonist, and it usually doesn't work well for me. Where it does, either I have to find some other character or characters to root for, or I have to be able to find some core of decency in the main character. What's intriguing to me is the way in which both of those things are present in this series, and yet neither is. As I mentioned, the main character is selfish and whiny and tends to play the victim, vacillating between wanting to be a better person and wallowing in ennui and self-pity. But the book never really lets him off the hook, and though pretty much none of the characters are sympathetic ones, they all have their moments, particularly when calling out the protagonist for his bullshit. I started reading this right in the midst of taking in a lot of new information about patriarchy and misogyny and feminism, so in a lot of ways I ended up questioning whether the world really needed another story about the redemption of a shitty male character—which is ultimately what this ends up being, plotwise—but even so I did really like this series, and if nothing else, it was a fresh take on an old formula. (The Magicians: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician King: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Magician's Land: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley. The person who recommended me this book describes it like this: "This is the weirdest thing I've read in ages. You should try it. You'll see." I don't think I can do better than that. But, look, if you want to read probably the most innovative epic fantasy I can think of, this would be the one. In the broad outlines, the story isn't so new—invaders from a parallel world threaten to destroy civilization as its known to the protagonists—but the broad outlines are never where innovation happens in genre fiction. What's immediately unusual about this book is the way it sets up a world in which the gender binary is not just rejected, but is not even acknowledged. What makes it both skillful and somewhat opaque is that in the worldbuilding, the author refuses to hold your hand; nothing is explained unless the character would actually need it explained, there are no info dumps and precious little exposition. But what makes it gripping is how utterly brutal the author is to her characters. Look, just go read it. It's really weird. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Tome of the Undergates, by Sam Sykes. I really wanted to like this book, which I bought because its author is highly entertaining on Twitter. It ended up not really being for me, though. The story is a sort of D&D-reminiscent quest where a group of adventurers (this is the word that's used in the book) are hired to retrieve the tome mentioned in the title. And, granting that it's only the first book in a trilogy, the plot still felt meandering and unresolved, and most of the character beats in between the plot and action points felt repetitive and uninteresting to me. I gave it my best shot, but ultimately quit halfway through the second book. A fair number of Goodreads reviewers had almost exactly the opposite impression of me, particularly appreciating both the plot and characterization, so your mileage may vary. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
In 2013 I read the most books of any year since I started keeping a reading log (39); I saw about the same number of movies as I have every year since Jason was born (8); and I wrote fewer reviews than I have in this history of this blog (2). By now, I'm past pretending that there will ever be a regular review column here anymore, but I nevertheless find it somewhat comforting to take time now and then to reflect on the stories and pop culture I've taken in. Thus, here are a few impressions of the previously unreviewed movies and books from 2013:
The Engineer Trilogy, by K. J. Parker: A number of people whose opinions I respect spoke highly of K. J. Parker's work in general, and of this series in particular, so I was excited to finally check it out. But although I do agree that Parker's writing was excellent, I nevertheless found this story quite unenjoyable. As I put it to a friend when I was midway through the second book, "If I am not interested in any of the characters, why should I care about anything they do? If I don't care about any of the characters or anything they do, what is left to care about in a narrative story?"
Abbaddon's Gate, by James S. A. Corey: I have really enjoyed seeing how this series has progressed from its pre-publication roots to this latest installment, and I'm really looking forward to the next one. In terms of balancing entertainment and literary value, this was probably the best thing I read all year.
The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: I started reading this series in middle school, and gave up on it in college, at which point it was still only about two-thirds finished. Coming back to it as an adult was interesting--on the one hand revisiting the places and characters I had loved as a kid was very nostalgic, even comforting. On the other hand, the poor writing was much harder to look past. Still, it was nice to finally get some closure on it.
The Gentleman Bastards series, by Scott Lynch: I don't think I would ever have thought to put a series of caper stories into a high fantasy setting, but the results were highly entertaining. I'm very much looking forward to where this series goes next.
Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson: Sanderson has been kind of hit-or-miss for me, but I think that the fact that this story is explicitly for a YA audience makes it work a lot better for me than some of his previous work.
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: I used to go back and re-read this along with The Hobbit every year, so this was probably the tenth or so time I've read it. It's been quite a while since the last time--almost a decade--but it remains one of my favorites.
The Dresden Files, books 7-14, by Jim Butcher: I read these eight books in two weeks, and the only reason I stopped there is because the next one hasn't been released yet. Loads of fun.
Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik: I'm not sure that Novik's worldbuilding has been very consistent across this entire series, but nonetheless her stories are pretty entertaining. I'm in for the long haul on this series.
Quartet: This was a small and, as far as I know, fairly unknown movie, but for all that I think it was probably my favorite of the year. A really lovely story about aging and music.
Admission: Going into this one, I expected it to be boring, predictable, and mostly unfunny with a sprinkling of excruciating awkwardness. And although that turned out to be more or less correct, getting to have dinner and a movie with Juliette is always nice.
Star Trek Into Darkness: After this one ended Juliette asked me if I liked it, and my response to her was that it wasn't really a Star Trek movie but, all the same, I still enjoyed the heck out of it. I'm not sure it will hold up to repeat viewings, but the writers knew just how to hit me, a lifelong fan, where I live.
Monsters University: I ended up liking this one much more than I thought I would. I still don't know that it was really necessary--few sequels and even fewer prequels are--but it had its moments, for sure.
Planes: It's funny how a completely mediocre and forgettable movie can be made so much better by seeing it with your five-year-old son.
12 Years a Slave: This movie was brilliantly acted, beautifully filmed, and near perfectly executed. It is an important film, one that has been and will continue to be rightly showered with awards. I think I may be a better person for having seen it. And I never, ever want to see it again.
Anchorman 2: There was simply no way that this movie could ever have the impact or quotability of the original, but despite the fact that it recycled a bit too much from the first one, I still laughed my ass off quite a few times.
I read the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series last spring, and as I noted in my very brief review it was a lot of fun. As regular readers of this site will know, I have soft spots for both fantasy and Napoleonic-era British historical fiction, so the combination of the two would be right up my alley--indeed, I can only think of one other book that falls into both categories, and I gave it a positive review, too. In any event, I'd been meaning to return to Novik's series, so after Christmas when I had some spare cash, I picked up the second and third books. I liked those so much that I went ahead and bought the remaining four, and tore through all six in just over three weeks.
The series imagines an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are real, and the major world powers all have aerial corps made up of dragons and their aviator crews. It is, I suppose, sort of a silly concept, but it's an extraordinarily entertaining one, too. Over the course of the seven books, we follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his dragon companion, Temeraire, through war, diplomacy, intrigue, and exploration across five continents and even more cultures. There's action, of course, and the old-fashioned style was spot-on for me. But more than that, I found myself quite drawn in by the ways in which Novik explored the different facets of how life and history would be different if there were a second sentient species, and I found her alternate universe to be interesting and well-realized.
It's not serious or weighty "literature," but I found the Temeraire series thoroughly enjoyable, and if a light, fantastic adventure is your idea of a good time, I recommend it.
If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
Catching Up: Books
I always have the best of intentions to remain current with my reviews, and yet half a year has gone by again with nary a one. So it goes. Let's see what we can do to catch up, shall we?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: The friend who gave me my copy of Manhood for Amateurs also gave me this one. Oscar de Leon is an overweight, painfully nerdy Dominican-American boy, and, as you might guess from the title, this is his story. But it's also the story of his sister, his mother, and his grandparents--the Cabral family, suffering under the weight of a generations-long fukú--a Dominican word for "curse." It's also the story of the Dominican Republic, itself, with long asides and footnotes about the country and life under Trujillo regime. It's also the story of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York. It's a lot of things. Though I think the style--making heavy use of footnotes, as I mentioned--and the interjection of Dominican slang, and the density of science fiction and fantasy references (some of which even I had to look up) might serve to alienate some readers, it's nonetheless a powerful and moving story. (Read 8/22/11 - 10/26/11.)
The Chalion Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: From reading her Vorkosigan novels, I already knew that Bujold was adept at creating both interesting, well-rounded characters and intriguing worlds, but I wasn't sure how it would translate to a fantasy setting. As it turned out, not unlike a few of her Vorkosigan stories (Cetaganda and Falling Free come to mind), the setting is what I found most captivating about this series. The three loosely connected novels (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) explore different facets of what I found to be a unique cosmology, wherein gods are real but can only act through humans who willingly consent. Bujold won the Hugo for the second one, while I personally enjoyed the first the most, but all three are well worth the read. (Read 10/27/11 -12/25/11.)
The Desert Spear, by Peter V. Brett: I read the first book in this series back in 2010 and immediately groaned at the prospect of having to wait. Of course, in the meantime I found ways to occupy myself, but I was pretty happy when the same coworker who loaned me his copy of The Warded Man dropped the sequel on my desk. Where the first book spread its focus between three main characters--Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer--this one spends much of the first half developing the backstory of a fourth: Jardir, the desert leader we met in the first book. Jardir's sections were reminded me a bit of Dune and the Aiel portions of The Wheel of Time. In fact, thinking back over the series so far I would say that Robert Jordan seems to be a pretty apt comparison, though without the endless branching and subplot after subplot after subplot. Indeed, everything I loved about The Wheel of Time when I started that series (as a teenager, mind you) seems to be present here, and reading this series kind of makes me feel like a kid again. I'm very much looking forward to the third book.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher: I've now finished the first six of these books and I think I can fairly say that I'm going to get to all of them eventually. The four that I read since I last reviewed the series (Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, and Blood Rites) follow the same formula as the first two, and it's predictable enough that perhaps reading a bunch back to back isn't the best way to go, but I found that even after six of essentially the same book, I care about the characters and am interested to go back for more. (Read 1/15/12 - 2/8/12.)
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher: Despite what I said about reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's books in succession, I actually went and read ten of them in under a month. The same coworker who loaned me the first two Dresden books also let me read his copy of The Furies of Calderon, after which I went out and bought Kindle copies of the rest of the series (Academ's Fury, Cursor's Fury, Captain's Fury, Princeps' Fury, and First Lord's Fury). The way the series follows the life and career of the protagonist reminded me a bit of Forester's Hornblower novels, though of course the setting is completely different. I will say that Butcher has a few writing tics that become apparent after reading a bunch of his books--he loves to end chapters in cliffhangers, for examples, or with people passing out--but he also plots tightly and writes memorable characters. The fact that I blazed through this entire series in just over two weeks ought to say something about how much I enjoyed it.
The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie: Just before I started reading this series, I solicited opinions about it on Google+, and this is one of the responses I got: "I think Abercrombie is a very good writer -- from a style perspective -- and very enjoyable, but he's gratuitously cruel to both his characters and audience expectations." Having finished it now, I completely agree. In my opinion, Abercrombie is a very skilled writer, and it's clear that with this series he was trying to subvert the tropes of the high fantasy genre and play off the audience's expectations in order to do something novel. And he succeeds in doing that, but at the end of it all I sort of felt like I'd been toyed with. In this way he reminded me a bit of China Miéville, though the series as a whole felt less like a raised middle finger than Perdido Street Station did, at least to me. I found the world-building to be first-rate--what backstory we did get on the history of the world was, for me, the most interesting part of the series, and I found myself wishing I could have read that story instead. Intellectually I appreciated what he did here, but I don't see myself returning to this series. (Comprises The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings. Read 2/9/2012 - 2/22/2012.)
The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara: This one has been on my list for a long time, and I'm happy I finally took the time to read it. I suspect that an interest in the Civil War may be a prerequisite for enjoying this story, but I found Michael Shaara's account of the Battle of Gettysburg to be gripping, and all the more so for how human he made it. Unlike the historical fiction I often read, this story is based on real events and, as much as possible, on the writings of the men who were actually there. Thus, there isn't much larger narrative to the story--that has to come from the knowledge the reader brings with him. Given that the book chronicles only the battle itself and the events immediately preceding and following it, I think a lot of people wouldn't find it to their liking. I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not only did Shaara bring the events of the battle to life, but in presenting it from the point of view of the men who took part in it, he painted an amazing picture of the end of the war. (Read 2/27/12 - 3/1/12.)