Thursday, December 26, 2013

The 10 Best Things I Read in 2013

I thought I'd close out the year with a list of the ten best books I read in 2013.  Note that these are books I read in 2013, not books that were published in 2013.  Also, look, I learned to post images!

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son, Jack, who have been trapped in one small room his entire life.  It's told from Jack's point of view, and it's the best job of an author authentically impersonating a child's voice I've ever encountered.  Room is a harrowing read at times - Jack is in moderate danger at one point - but well worth it.  It's an authentic, original, and engaging story.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Ah, science fiction! My first love.  If you're interested in reading Wool, look for an omnibus edition - it's split into several parts that would be tedious to have to track down separately.  It's a post-apocalyptic tale of a siloed society - literally.  Everyone in the world lives in an underground silo, because the environment outside the silo has become too toxic for human life.  They grow their own food, pump and refine their own oil at the base of the silo (their power source), and manufacture everything they need.  And this society has existed for at least a few hundred years.  As you can imagine, the silo is starting to break down.  Wool is about what happens when people start to question whether they really can't go outside.  I'm reminding myself in the course of writing this to put the two sequels, Shift and Dust, on my to-be-read list. 

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski 

House of Leaves is one the strangest books I've ever read; I couldn't put it down.  I actually first encountered it about 12 years ago - my now-brother-in-law was enthusiastically recommending it.  I flipped through it, noted the weird page layouts, page-long footnotes, and variously colored text, and put it aside.  If only I had read it then!  In part it's the story of a man who discovered a physically impossible room in his house - a door appeared one day in an external wall, leading into a cavernous space that didn't exist from the outside of the house.  And in part it's the story of a possibly crazy old man who documented the story of the man with the crazy house.  And in part, it's the story of the young man who is going through the effects of the old man (who dies near the beginning of the book) discovering the story of how the old man discovered the story of the impossible room.  The young man is definitely crazy by the end of the book - perhaps driven to that state by his examination of the documents.  Parts of it are nigh-unreadable - the old man's story is dense with academic and philosophical discussions.  I'll tell you a secret - I skipped those parts.  You don't need them for this to still be a compelling story.  It was also interesting to me because, like an medieval illuminated manuscript, the text itself and the layout of the pages helps to tell the story.  The last thing I'll say about House of Leaves is that it's the best kind of horror story - you never see the monster, and nothing is ever really explained.

Mirror Kingdoms, by Peter S. Beagle

Mirror Kingdoms is a collection of the best short fiction of Peter S. Beagle.  I'm sad to say that I never read anything of Beagle's prior to this, although his best-known work, The Last Unicorn, has been on my to-be-read list forever.  (I know, I know, how dare I call myself an SF&F fan having never read Beagle?  Send an angry mob with feathers and tar.)  The stories cover a range of subjects, genres, characters, and perspectives; the only thing they all have in common is that I loved them.  (Particularly "Lila and the Werewolf.")  Don't make the same mistake I did (and am frantically rectifying) by missing out on this fantastic author.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

So, in general, I don't like post-modernist novels.  They're typically overwrought and not as clever as the authors think they are.  Cloud Atlas actually lives up to it's hype.  It consists of six different loosely connected narratives, ranging from a tale of adventure on the 19th century Pacific, to a far-future technocracy in which cloned slaves are the moral issue of the day, to a post-apocalytic Hawaii where the natives have reverted to their folkways after the demise of advanced, technological society.  You get the first half of five stories first (sometimes stopping in the middle of a sentence to switch narratives), then the whole of the sixth story, and then the second half of the first five stories.  I won't say anything about the ways in which the stories are linked, because I think recognizing the connections and parallels is part of what made this book so enjoyable.  Two warnings:  the dialect of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiians is atrocious.  Just do your best to get through it.  Second, the abrupt switch in narrative is jarring the first couple of times; contain your confusion and just keep reading.  All will be made clear and delightful.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans

I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I approached it with some indifference; what could it have to tell me, a life-long churchgoer with 20 years of Sunday School and bible studies under my belt, about what the bible says makes a good woman?  And, as I thought, there wasn't anything surprising about the parts of the Bible that Rachel used to conduct her experiment.  Rather, it was her reaction to and thoughts about how those rules could and should be applied in modern life that were interesting.  I liked how she corresponded with faithful women of other traditions, and how she described certain (often overlooked) Biblical heroines.  Rachel had a thoughtful, balanced approach to interpreting the "rules" that the more extreme Christian sects insist on applying literally.  On top of that foundation, she adds her humor, including some  funny glimpses of her relationship with her husband, who was not all comfortable with his role as "lord and master" in Rachel's experiment.  It's an interesting and worthwhile read, even for those of us who thought we had already heard everything there is to say about being a Christian woman.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloane 

This book is what would happen if Dan Brown decided to write one of his thrillers set, not in Europe, but in Silicon Valley, and to incorporate lots of 21rst century technology.  (Oh, and miraculously develop talent, cause Brown's kind of a hack if you ask me.)  Mr. Penumbra tells the story of a down-on-his-luck web designer, who happens into a job clerking at a small, independent San Francisco bookstore (the eponymous Mr. Penumbra's).   But all is not what it seems to be; the store only has a few regular clients and they never buy anything.  Rather, they borrow thick texts of unintelligible gibberish.  "Why?" you may ask.  You'll have to read this delightful combination of 100-year old mystery (complete with a secret society!), timeless romance (just a little of that),  and usage of spanking new (literarily speaking) technology to find out.  Bonus: you get a fascinating look at the inner workings of Google (the company, not the search engine) as well as a mini-lecture on Renaissance printing technology.  It's a fun, easy, fast-paced read.  My one complaint is that I'm not sure that the method by which the mystery is ultimately solved really works out...but you'll have to decide that for yourselves.

 Unveiled: The Secret Lives of Nuns, by Cheryl L. Reed 

This is the one book on this list that I picked simply because it contained so much interesting information I did not previously know.  For instance, did you know that not all nuns wear habits anymore?  Did you know that not all nuns take life-long vows?  That the proper term for a community of nuns, or the building where they live, is a monastery, not a convent?  That some orders of nuns still practice flagellation (beating themselves) in expiation of the sins of others?  That still other orders of nuns practice perpetual adoration of the Eucharist (that is, 24-7-365, someone is praying before a Communion wafer)?  Those last two really boggled this Protestant girl's mind.  This book is chock-full of factual information such as I've described above, plus thoughtful discussions of what nuns are and should be, and interviews with sisters about what they do, why they do it, their relationships with each other and with Catholic church authority, why they became nuns...on and on and on.  It was fascinating.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

The Speed of Dark is told from the perspective of an autistic man, Lou, in a near-future society where autistic people have become a large enough fraction of the population that social structures have been put in place to support them.  (I mean, much better and more effective social structures than we have in place to assist disabled people now.)  New techniques for correcting the cause of autism in utero have been developed, which means that there are no more autistic people being born.  Lou is of the last generation born before those techniques became widely available.  Lou lives independently in his own apartment; drives a car; has a small circle of autistic and non-autistic friends; and supports himself by working at a job that his autism makes him uniquely talented for.  Told from Lou's perspective, the story explores how autistic people see themselves, how society sees them, and the resentment that some "normal" people have toward any accommodations made for those different from themselves, and which group of people are really handicapped by their ways of thinking.  An experimental procedure has been developed that might - might - cure autism in adults; and Lou's boss is considering forcing his autistic employees to take it or be fired.  Following Lou's thoughts about the cure is fascinating - he goes from "Can I really be forced to take this cure?"  (he can't, not legally), to "Why should I take this cure?  Autism is part of who I am." to "Maybe I should do it after all?"  This brilliantly written book gave me a lot of insight into autism and autistic people.  And I believe Elizabeth Moon has an autistic child, so I'm inclined to view her as an authoritative source.  An excellent, thought-provoking read.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The final book on my list is the third in the Gentlemen Bastards series.  If you are a fan of swashbuckling high fantasy, I'm telling you - go get them all, right now.  They're set in a elegantly realized, complex world that reminds me of medieval Italy - little persnickety city-states that are constantly sniping at and trying to one-up each other - with just enough fantastical details thrown in to satisfy the reader.  Magic works, but it's not overused; and additionally there's real magic and then there's alchemy (which is kind of like chemistry, but less logical).  There's also a long ago race - the Eldren - who left behind amazing structures of unbreakable Elderglass; but where they went and why they left is a total mystery.  (I think the author is finally winding the story around to telling us more about the Eldren in the fourth book, which I really cannot wait to read one minute more.)  Beside the setting, these stories are peopled by wonderful rogues with hearts of gold and clever tongues.  Please read these complex, original, inventive, entertaining books, so that Scott Lynch keeps writing more of them!

That's it!  I hope something in my list caught your eye.  Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Black Jewels Trilogy, by Anne Bishop

The Black Jewels Trilogy – Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, and Queen of the Darkness – is actually the work that gave me the idea to write this blog, many moons ago.  (It took me about five years to actually do something about creating this blog – yup, I’m slow.)  And the thing I want to talk about regarding the Black Jewels books is what I’m going to call unrealized potential.

First, a little background.  The books are dark fantasy (definitely not for kids and also not for a lot of adults).  They're set in the universe of the Blood – a subset of people who are able to use magic.  Each of the Blood’s strength in using magic is determined by the color of the Jewel they wear, from White, the weakest, to Black, the strongest.  The Jewels serve as a reservoir of power that their owners can draw on.  The Blood are also able do magic independently of their Jewels – stuff like communicating mind-to-mind and “vanishing” objects into some kind of personal pocket universe for handy storage.  The Blood are a female-dominant society – women are heads of their families, and their government is series of territorial courts that are each ruled by a Queen.  There are three castes into which each gender falls – Warlords, Princes, and Warlord-Princes for men, and Queens, Black Widows, and Priestesses for women.  When a Queen wears Black Jewels, she may become the ruler of all the Blood.  All the Blood, regardless of gender, are incredibly temperamental; they always seem to be riding a razor edge between fairly normal and insane killing rage (more on that in a minute). There's a lot more interesting details to the world of the Blood - the kindred, the three Realms, the dragons - that I won't get into here because to do them justice would require several paragraphs.

So anyway, the trilogy (and the books that follow it) tells the story of Janelle, who is the only person in the history of the Blood to wear Black Jewels as a child; and Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar SaDiablo, all Warlord Princes who wear, respectively, Black, Black, and Ebon-gray Jewels.  Saetan and Daemon are the only men ever to wear Black Jewels; the three of them are the most powerful living men in their society.  In Jaenelle’s time, the Blood have been infected by a creeping social taint that is turning their normal gender relations, and the checks and balances that keep this powerful and temperamental race from destroying themselves, upside down.  Men are willing to subvert and dominate the normally more-powerful women by any means necessary, and women are willing to use any available method to protect themselves from these predatory men.  Trust between the sexes is gone, and the social and moral contract that they live by is rapidly decaying into anarchy.  Janelle has the power to create change for the better in Blood society; but the problem is that she doesn’t really want it.  She doesn’t want to be Queen or rule a court, but she can’t set her inherent power aside.  Isolated from, feared, and misunderstood by most of her people, Jaenelle’s power is both trap and freedom for her. 

So if I’ve done a good job of describing the premise of this book, and you have a taste for this kind of sweeping fantasy, you’re probably pretty interested in getting your hands on these books.  And you should; they’re worth reading.  (Fair warning – one of them describes sexual abuse of several children. I don’t want to be accused of sending anyone out unprepared.)  But they could be so much better.  Here’s where we come to my complaint about unrealized potential.

In the universe she created for the Blood, Anne Bishop achieved an interesting, layered world with it’s own culture, history, and problems.  She came up with a compelling story idea – an unusual child growing into a woman, desperately wanting love and friendship but set apart by the very qualities the make her special.  And there’s an epic problem to solve – how to save the Blood from themselves.  But the way she went about telling this story is, well...crummy.  She overshot passion by a mile and landed smack in melodrama.

For one thing, everything, EVERYTHING in Janelle’s world is influenced by (1) sex and (2) violence.  Apparently a man can’t say hello to a woman in this world without it being taken as a prelude to rape.  When the Blood’s mind-to-mind communication is described, it’s always in terms of “spear threads” and “distaff threads.”  Guess what the “spear” symbolizes.  You can only read “Saetan sent to Daemon, spear-to-spear, ‘Where is Janelle?  Protect the Lady!’”  so many times.  And Daemon is so incredibly sexy that women will risk their lives for the possibility that he might be willing to hop in bed with them, despite his literally murderous temper.  I don’t care how hot you are, guys, a little nooky isn’t worth getting my head ripped off because you’re feeling cranky.  Sex, sex, sex – that’s what the Blood spend 90% of their time thinking about.  It gets boring, frankly.

For another thing, I’m not impressed by temper tantrums, which seem to be the Bloods’ main method of communication.  There’s a scene in one of books where a group of men who are all connected to Janelle in one way or another are meeting for the first time.  They’re all trying stake their claim on Jaenelle and show that they belong in her inner circle of friends.  One makes some kind of lame, getting-to-know-you joke to another; the second guy’s response is “I’ll accept any challenge a male wants to make!”   (The conversation doesn’t even really make sense.)  The actions and traits that the author seems to want to us to accept as being confident and masculine are the very ones that I would describe as insecure and childish. 

So there’s my summation of the Black Jewels books – great world building, good concept, good characters (in theory), full of potential, but poorly executed.  Jaenelle is one of the few really powerful female characters I know of in the fantasy genre, whose power is inherently her own, not conferred on her by who her father or husband is.  Think of the Rowan, from Anne McCaffrey’s series of the same name, for a sci-fi parallel.  Jaenelle and her story deserved to be written better.  I’d love to see another author – say, Juliet Marillier or Jacqueline Carey – rewrite the Black Jewels trilogy, or write independent stories set in the universe of the Blood.  If only that wasn’t completely impossible because of various copyright laws.  A girl can only dream. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Quick Reviews of Other Books I've Been Reading

The Real Downtown Abbey, by Fiona Carnarvon
      Being a fan of the show Downton Abby, I thought I'd give this book a try.  It's written by the current Countess of Carnarvon; she and her husband own and live in Highclere Castle (the estate that is used to film Downton).  The first third of the book was very interesting, telling the story of the fourth Countess, whose history parallels some of the characters and events in the TV show.  The second third of the book bogged down a bit - the bits about the Countess' involvement in nursing World War I solders were interesting, but much of this section retold the general sweep of the war and was only distantly connected to Highclere.  The last third of the book picked back up, recounting how the fourth Earl worked with Howard Carter to open Tutankhamun's tomb.  Worth reading if you're a Downton watcher, but keep your expectations moderate.

A Tale of Sand, by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.
      I hated this book, not to put too fine a point on it.  It's a graphic novel based on a screenplay that Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrote many years before Jim's death, but it was never picked up for production.  It's an absurdist tale of a man dropped into desert landscape and forced to run for his life for no particular reason.  And the twist at the end is dreadfully predictable.  (It could be that I'm judging this harshly because I've never been able to like surreal, absurdist literature; maybe if that's your cup of tea, you'd like A Tale of Sand.  But it wasn't for me.)

Among Others, by Jo Walton
Among Others tells the story of Welsh teenager Morwenna Phelps, whose twin sister was recently killed under mysterious circumstances and who has been packed off to boarding school.  Morwenna is: (1) left with a permanent limp from the same accident that killed her sister, (2) an avid reader of science fiction, and (3) able to see and talk with fairies.  I enjoyed it a lot, not only for Morwenna's story but also for the myriad references to classic works of SF.  Having been a nerdy girl who loved to read and had easy access to a vast collection of fantasy and SF (my dad's), I could easily identify with Mori.  It's an engaging story and Mori's voice rang very true to teenage life (at least, as far I remember).  The only thing I didn't like about this book was Mori's stereotypical relationships with her parents; her mom was a vague fount of evil and her dad was a distant, absent, only partially involved figure.  "My parents don't love/don't understand me" has only been done a few thousand times.  But overall it's a very enjoyable book, especially for those of us who grew up on Asimov, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Zelazny, and Heinlein.  In fact, there's the test I'll suggest for whether you should read this book; if you're familiar with at least four of those names, read it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Girl Who Cirumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catheyne M. Valente

So, Catheryne Valente has this series - five books planned, through published to date - about September, a girl from Nebraska who is transported to Fairyland once a year and has an adventure there.  The titles all start with "The Girl Who..." and conclude with some act performed in Fairyland.  Oh, how I love this series.  I hope that someday it take a place alongside The Chronicles of Narnia as one of English literature's best examples of the "child has adventures in a magical world" theme.  However, I seriously doubt that it will.  Let me tell you why.

The Fairyland the Catheryne Valente has created is a singular place.  Fairies, reindeer, Winds, living machines, stifling bureaucracy, and djinni who live unstuck from the normal movement of time are all found in Valente's made-up world.  And somehow, she makes them all fit.  This Fairyland doesn't have a single unifying theme (except maybe unfettered imagination); it doesn't have a logical set of rules (you kind of make them up yourself as you go along); and sometimes the magic looks a lot like science.  Or maybe the science looks a lot like magic.  Anyway, it's a delightful place, wonderfully realized, unlike any other Fairy realm I've encountered before.

And September, the Girl of the title, is an extraordinary main character.  She is snatched away from her ordinary late-1940's Nebraska home and embarks on her first adventure with hardly a backward glance.  She is bold, and daring, and smart, and thoughtful, and caring.  She has a romantic interest, but their relationship develops with subtlety and care; there's no love-at-first-sight Disneyfication here.  She struggles, and has doubts, and the occasional selfish thought. And that's why I think these books, however wonderfully written they are, won't ever reach the heights of Narnia or Harry Potter; September is just a little too real to fit what most people want from a fairytale.  And similarly, Valente's Fairyland itself isn't a saccharine fantasy of unicorns and rainbows; there is real trouble, real fear, real danger, and real courage in Fairyland and in September and her friends.

I hope, if you have some space in your reading list, and you like a good children's story that also appeals to adults, you'll give Fairyland a try.  My favorite character is the Ell, the literate wyvern who believes his father was a library.  An excellent dragon if you ask me; Ell could hold his head up next to Smaug and Temeraire with pride. 

Hey, speaking of Temeraire...I'll have to put his series on the list for a blog post.  Go look him up if you can't wait!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

At the Mouth of the River of Bees - Kij Johnson

For the inaugural post on H&MLTR, I’m going to review Kij Johnson’s collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.  I read her novel The Fox Woman a few years ago and loved it, so I was excited to come across more of her work.  She often writes about Heian Japan, which is a fascinating time period and culture.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees shows Kij Johnson’s depth and breadth as a writer.  I found every one of the stories included original, creative, and engaging.  Four of the stories reflect her interest in Heian Japan and other Asian cultures (“Fox Magic,” “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead,” “The Empress Jingu Fishes, “ and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”).  Many of the stories involve animals.  But those are about the only similarities I can find.  The settings of the stories range from the real world, to ancient Earth societies, to totally invented fantasy worlds.  The tone, voice, and structure of each story is different; some read like fairy tales, one reads like a Edwardian gentleman’s diary, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is almost a novella. 

Synopses of a couple of my favorites from this collection (it was hard to choose):

  • “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” – Aimee inherits a monkey act from a random stranger.  Twenty-six monkeys of varying ages, sizes, and species perform tricks in the show, with the finale being all of them piling into a bathtub and disappearing.  The monkeys reappear after every show, trailing into the tour bus where they and Aimee live.  Where do the monkeys go?  How do they get back? 

  • “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is the story of a young cat living in ancient Tokyo.  After her home is destroyed by one of the great Tokyo fires, she sets out on the Tokaido, the great road that ran from Tokyo all the way to the northernmost prefecture of ancient Japan, looking for a new one.  It’s a charming little adventure story, convincingly told from a cat’s perspective.

  • Finally, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” tells the story of an engineer sent to a rural area of his country to build a bridge over a river of mist.  There’s a water river below the mist, but the mist dissolves everything it touches except the fish that live in it.  This long story chronicles his slow absorption into the community of the area, the building of the bridge, and the effects that the bridge has on both sides of the river.  I can’t even really say what struck me so much about it; it was just a charming and well-written story.  I didn’t realize how much longer it was than the other stories in this book until I looked back at the table of contents and noticed the page numbers.

There are few short story collections that I can honestly say I like every single story in.  This is one of them.  I recommend it with no reservations.