What I Read in May

May has been an interesting month in terms of my reading. I read some really good books. And I read some stinkers. To be honest, I think I am in a mood for more science fiction and fantasy rather than realistic or literary fiction. I am also reading more books for research. And finding good and useful research texts is hit or miss.

Anyway, here is what I read in May:

I already reviewed Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (which I loved) and The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (which I hated).

The best book I read in May was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. It gets everything I want in a fantasy novel right. Just an awesome book.

I followed Kings of the Wyld up with Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele and Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. Both books are disappointing. I enjoyed Steele’s reboot of Captain Future better than Vandermeer’s phoned in biopunk new weird novel.

I reread Sappho translated by Mary Barnard. I enjoyed the poems, but the don’t have the same impact they once had.

Keeping with Greek mythology, I read Colm Toibin’s House of Names. There is so much wrong with this novel. Especially the lack of consistency in narrative perspective. A worthy competitor with The Night Ocean for worse book I read this month.

I reread two novel by Kawabata Yasunari this month. Thousand Cranes and Master of Go lack the impact that they once had. This is similar to my experience with the poetry of Sappho. Maybe I am turning away from the literature I once loved.

To round out my fiction reading, I attempted The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. I like what I read. But taking a few days off to read other things ruined my desire to return to the book. I will return to it in a few months. Hopefully I will love it on the second attempt.

Before I touch upon the research texts, I want to skim over the graphic novels I read. I was not fond of Titans volume one “The Return of Wally West” (I do like the art though), Apocalypse Wars (a terrible idea in three comics), and Wonder Woman volume two “Year One” (the only part of Rucka’s jettisoning of the New 52 Wonder Woman I like is Nicola Scott’s artwork).

Now, what research books have I tackled?

The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder is a disappointing look at Arthurian myth. The First Decadent by James Laver is a disappointing (and likely dated) biography of J.K. Huysmans. The Road from Decadence, a collection of Huysmans’s letters is useful for Huysmans scholars, but not for what I want to write. I did enjoy the very useful Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman. Less enjoyable and useful is Janine Chapman’s The Quest for Dion Fortune. A. Norman Jeffares’s W.B. Yeats is an interesting if very dry biography of Yeats. The Etruscans by Raymond Bloch is not exactly what I want from a book on the Etruscans. Maybe a newer study/ history is in order? Another disappointing look at an ancient people is Jean Markale’s The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture. 

I also read Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise. I enjoyed the book. Nichols raises many interesting and cogent concerns about current American culture. But I can’t help but point out that Nichols’s writing is hampered by repetition and the settling of political scores (who else is writing outside of their area of expertise besides Noam Chomsky, hmm?)

Finally, I want to return to novels before I close out what I read in May.

I am in a bit of a gay erotica craze at the moment. To satisfy my craze, I read Brad by Ken Smith. Where do I begin? I have so many issues with this novel that I want to do a detailed review. But would anyone want to read a review about a gay erotic novel?

That is what I read in May. On to June.

 

 

Ranking Star Trek

In honor of Star Trek Discovery  debuting sometime later this year on CBS/ CBS All Access/ Netflix, I want to rank the Star Trek films and television series to date (save the animated series which I have never seen).

Let me begin with the films, from low to high.

13. The Motion Picture is very dull. I’ve watched it once or twice and feel nothing for it. I wouldn’t mind never seeing the film again.

12. The Final Frontier. Has some interesting bits. But Spock’s brother and his search for God is lackluster.

11. Star Trek. The Abrams helmed reboot is a disappointment. Pretty effects? Yes. But that does not excuse the fact that this film has horrendous world building that leads to a horrid plot.

10. The Search For Spock. It has its moments. But a poor follow up to a much better movie.

9. Into Darkness. The reboots need an original plot. And to not whitewash Khan. I do like that the supporting characters are branching off into their own subplots (which the original series’s films never did).

8. Insurrection. The worse of the Next Generation films. My problem with this film is that it takes place during the Dominion War. And the Enterprise is not engaged in the war? Really?

7. Nemesis. A clone of Picard really? Cool battle sequence. And I love the fact that the Romulans realize their mistake and aid the Enterprise in preventing genocide.

6. The Voyage Home. I really don’t like this film. But I do like the fact that characters other than Kirk, Bones, and Spock have subplots, if only minor.

5. Generations. An okay movie. My favorite bit is Lursa and B’Etor. And Whoopie Goldberg.

4. First Contact. I love the exploration of Picard’s character, the Ahab comparison and touches of PTSD are excellent. I even like Data’s continued exploration of his nature. But I wish other characters had gotten more chances to shine. (Data is my least favorite Next Generation character.)

3. Beyond. Damn I like this movie. The effects are well done. The villains make more sense than they usually do. And the cast has finally made the characters their own. And the crew stand on their own separate from Kirk, Bones, and Spock.

2. The Wrath of Khan. What? Number two? Yes. I love Wrath. It is one of the best example of space opera on film. But. . .

1. The Undiscovered Country. I really love this movie. It is my favorite Trek film. I love the usage of politics in the film. The acting is really good. The themes are incisive and well executed. Just an amazing example of space opera on film.

Now. What about the television series? Again from low to high.

5. Enterprise. The third and fourth seasons are good. Unfortunately, the first and second seasons are disappointing in the extreme.

4. Star Trek. Blasphemy! I know. I just am not too terribly fond of the Original Series. There are great episodes. But there are also some terrible episodes. The problem with the Original Series is that it hasn’t aged well (which is a problem with a lot of science fiction over time).

3. Voyager. There are good episodes. And there are bad episodes. I enjoyed it when I was younger. But revisiting the series recently, I must admit that it does not hold up well.

2. The Next Generation. My first experience with Star Trek. I like the series. But I’m not sure how well it holds up. Introduced me to Wesley Crusher.

1.Deep Space Nine. By far my favorite series. It has, honestly, improved with each viewing. I love the extended plot arcs that typified the later series. There are some issues. The Mirror Universe episodes are terrible. The Ferengi episodes are disappointing. But over all, I love Deep Space Nine.

I am a fan of Star Trek. I don’t consider myself a Trekkie, though. But I do hope Star Trek returns to form and produces more excellence. More Trek is always needed.

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

The Hexarchate is facing a catastrophic defeat. To stave off a crippling loss, Kel Cheris recommends using the tactical genius of Shuos Jedao, an infamous general who slaughtered his own troops to achieve victory centuries ago. Damn, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is freaking awesome. Yoon Ha Lee has crafted an amazing blend of intellectual science fiction, military science fiction, space opera, and weird fiction.

The world building is excellent. And quite weird. Melded with real physics is a sort of consensus physics by which many exotic effects are achieved through adherence to various calendars. To rebel against the hegemonic calendar is to enact heresy, which threatens the entire fabric of the society of the Hexarchate. And many of these exotic technologies have become essential to the continued existence of galactic society.

Which explains why the Hexarchate is a very authoritarian, brutal culture to live in.

Several reviews I have read remarked upon the difficulty of following along with the weird/ exotic science Lee develops for Ninefox Gambit. But I do not agree. I find no problem understanding the science, even if it is weird.

In fact, I had no problem following along with the cultural world building either.

Ninefox Gambit is a relatively slim novel that packs quite a punch. Especially during the siege and battle that takes place over the last third of the novel. The Siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles is one of the best science fiction battles I have ever read.

My one criticism, though, is that I wish the Neo Liozh Heresy had been more of a match for Jedao and Cheris. I wish more had been done with Vahenz (whose communications with Liozh Zai are delightfully hilarious) to make her a more credible antagonist.

The characterization is subtle and very well done. The reader feels for these characters. The readers rage at Kel Command with Cheris, feel for the soldiers fighting in the battle (and often dying), and come to recognize the ignored importance of the servitors. The characters, no matter how short their appearance, come across as multidimensional.

My one major criticism is that Ninefox Gambit is only 317 pages in the edition I have. I want more. I want to know what happens to Cheris after the end of the Siege. I want to see her next moves.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

Did H.P. Lovecraft write the Erotonomicon, a diary of forbidden sexual desire and experience? Did R.H. Barlow fake his suicide in Mexico City to live a new life in Montreal? Who is L.C. Spinks? What drove Charlie Willett to suicide. That is what Charlie’s wife, Marina Willett is determined to find out. But will Marina’s quest drive her to the madness that claimed Charlie? If you want to find out, read The Nigh Ocean, Paul LaFarge’s own Lovecraftian pastiche. Or is it parody? In either case, I would urge a prospective reader to pull back before it is too late.

The Night Ocean is not a good novel.

The plot is ridiculous and convoluted, surviving on the audaciousness of the salacious implication that H.P. Lovecraft may or may not have been fond of teenage hustlers. And R.H. Barlow. Before readers jump to Lovecraft’s defense (and spoiler alert!), the Erotonomicon is revealed to be a forgery. Like the rest of the various narratives designed to evoke Lovecraftian paranoia and madness.

It is all a bunch of hot air that does not even capture the evocative power of Lovecraft, even at his worse.

The characters are all flat and unrealized. Especially as the novel is told second and third hand.

Are there any redeeming features of the novel?

Yes. There is one.

I did enjoy the scenes of Barlow’s life in Mexico City before his suicide. That is, for me, the sole interesting thing in the novel. Pity the novel is not about Barlow in Mexico City.

Otherwise, this is just a truly terrible novel.

 

2017 Book Haul Two

I’m late on this post. I intended on going to Golden’s Book Exchange the first week of March and picking up some books on sale. But circumstances prevented me from going. I’m hoping I can go in June (or earlier). We will see.

Anyway. While I did not go to Golden’s, I did accumulate quite a few books from Amazon and Alibris over the past few months.

Here they are.

From Alibris, I bought:

Brad by Ken Smith

The Black Halo by Sam Sykes

The Skybound Sea again by Sam Sykes

The Third God by Ricardo Pinto

Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Hawkmoon by Michael Moorcock (an omnibus edition including The Jewel in the SkullMad God’s AmuletThe Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff)

The Black Unicorn by Tanith Lee

Starring Miss Marple by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including The Body in the LibraryA Murder is Announced, and They Do It With Mirrors)

Five Complete Poirot Novels by Agatha Christie (an omnibus edition including Murder on the Orient ExpressThirteen at DinnerThe ABC MurdersCards on the Table, and Death on the Nile)

From Amazon, I bought:

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Mirrored Empire by Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Almost Infamous by Matt Carter

Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Blood on the Sand  by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Kings of the Wild by Nicholas Eames

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

The Vagrant by Peter Newman

The Malice by Peter Newman

Amberlough   by Lara Elena Donelly

The Garden of Stones by Mark T. Barnes

The Obsidian Heart by Mark T. Barnes

The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett

The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

A pretty impressive amount of books, I should think.

What will I haul next? We shall see.

 

What I Read in April

My April reading has continued the general trend of my readings over the course of the year so far. But, there have been rays of light. I know what has been plaguing me. I’ve been forcing myself to read a lot of literary fiction. And I’m just not in the mood for those books. Instead, I am hungering for science fiction and fantasy. Also, I have cut down on the massive numbers of books I’ve checked out of the library at any one time. Not having so many books lessens the pressure on me to speed up my reading.

Any way, what did I read this last month?

The best two books I read in April, and contenders for the best books I’ve read this year, are Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente and The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard. Both books are awesome. And I posted reviews of both novels Monday.

I also finally read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and Burger’s Daughter to a disappointing end. I talked about my feelings for both books in a previous post as well, so I won’t spend much time on either of those.

The first book I read in April was The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales. I can’t say much about this collection except that I was less than impressed with it. What is it about literary speculative fiction that so often falls flat?

The second book I read was Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. This novel is definitely not my cup of tea. I never connected with the characters or the writing.

Next up was Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. I really enjoyed “Jump” and a few other stories. But other stories were not terribly compelling.

I also read Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge. I didn’t care for it at all, I’m sad to say.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift was boring. Why did I have it on my to be read list again?

I really liked The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The story of the people who fell in love with octopuses is touching and well done. But I wish more attention had been paid to the octopuses.

Finally, I read Ismail Kadare’s Broken April. This novel is evocative and haunting. I enjoyed this story of early twentieth century Albania.

That is what I read in April. On to May’s readings!

Review: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

In a shattered Paris ruled by fallen angel dominated houses, House Silverspire is fading, its past glories departed with its former master. A dark power rises, intent on shattering Silverspire’s very foundations. So begins The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Boddard.

I love this book.

The world building is amazing. The incorporation and realization of so much mythology into the world is extremely well done. The postapocalyptic look of Paris is stunning in its magically induced state of perpetual ruin. The magical systems on display are eclectic, differentiated, and well thought out.

The writing is lush and gorgeous. The narrative subtly differentiates itself depending on narrator, which is so rare to read.

The characters are especially strong. Each character is fully realized and amazing in their own right. The three lead protagonists particularly so.

Selene, the last apprentice of Morningstar, struggles in a role she was never intended for: head of Silverspire. She must balance her innate compassion and moderate nature and the ruthless demand of her position as she confronts the greatest test Silverspire has faced since Morningstar’s disappearance. Selene’s arc is amazing as it is frustrating, in a good way.

Madeleine, the alchemist of Sivlerspire, goes through the motions of killing herself through the abuse of a magical drug. On the run from Hawthorne, a rival house to Silverspire, Madeleine finds herself drawn into the threat facing Silverspire, only to find herself drawn inexorably back to Hawthorne.

Phillippe, a seemingly young man from Annam (the name of Vietnam in the text), is a mystery to those around him. Originally part of a gang and openly hostile to the Houses, Phillippe finds himself drawn into the fall of Silverspire when he becomes psychically connected to Isabelle, a recently manifested fallen angel.

Of the three protagonists, Phillippe is the most interesting. It would be so easy to romanticize Silverspire and the courtly politics and intrigue of the Houses. But Phillippe puts a cold stop to that. His rage and impotence is raw and clawing. His desire for home, for what he has lost, is powerful. And heart breaking.

But, Phillippe is a frustrating character in both good and bad ways. The reader struggles Phillippe, forced to think about losing one’s place in the world, colonialism, post colonialism, and the struggle to survive.

Phillipe is also frustrating because he is impotent. There are moments in the novel where I, personally, am screaming at the book for Phillippe to be more active, to fight back. Especially when he has the power to do so.

This is where my big problem with The House of Shattered Wings comes in. I wanted Phillippe to be more active. I wanted him to fight back. I wanted him to leave Silverspire to its well deserved fate. But he doesn’t. Like so many other initially unhelpful antihero protagonists, Phillippe’s connection to Isabelle forces him to go back to Silverspire to attempt to save the day. Even if the narrative description of his internal struggle to help or not is not convincing.

Despite my criticism, The House of Shattered Wings is amazing and fun. The frustration is a good thing. It forces the reader to think about things that are so easily glossed over in most fantasy. And fantasy needs more of that.

Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

In an alternate universe where every planet in the solar system is inhabitable, Severin Unck, documentary filmmaker, vanishes while filming in a mysteriously destroyed Venusian village. What follows is an amazing homage to old Hollywood and science that never was through the lens of the weird.

I adore Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. But how do I write a glowing review?

The book is amazing, the best thing I’ve read so far this year bar none.

But talking about why I like it is so damn difficult. There is no one thing that I can point to. And many of the elements of the novel may be off putting to other readers.

Catherynne M. Valente is a difficult writer. She melds science fiction and fantasy with a highly experimental literary sensibility. She does not always succeed. But when she does, the work is amazing.

The writing for Radiance is gorgeous. It is baroque and ornate and fits the social milieu of the characters like a glove.

The structure is amazingly well crafted, telling the story through textual home movies, diary entries, film scripts, radio scripts, transcripts, and the ever changing novelization of a film that will never be made. All the narratives combine to create both a powerful homage to a lunar Hollywood that never was and a complicated narrative of grief and the search for solace.

The characters are amazingly realized even as the artificiality of the movie industry transforms the characters both physically and mentally.

My words cannot do this novel enough justice. Just know that if you want to read a novel that reaches the heights science fiction can achieve when it marries literary ambition and experimentation, Radiance might just be the novel for you.

 

 

Atwood and Gordimer

In January, I bemoaned the fact that I did not get into Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter. My failure bugged me in the following months. In April, I couldn’t take it any more and rechecked the two books from the library. I finally read them. And came away with the same opinions I had in January, which sucks. But, to be fair, no book is going to appeal to everyone. Atwood and Gordimer are great authors. One deserves her Nobel. And the other should have gotten a Nobel already.

I struggle with Margaret Atwood, to be honest. I first read Atwood’s The Robber Bride in my senior year of high school and reread the novel again about two or three years later. I enjoyed The Robber Bride greatly. Maybe it is the acceptance, at the end, of a minor character’s coming out. Maybe it is the fact that the three protagonists are amazing women struggling with an amazing antagonist. Maybe I was just in a phase of my life that favored literary novels over science fiction and fantasy. I don’t quite know. But, I haven’t reread The Robber Bride in over ten years.

Subsequently, I’ve read or attempted to read other works by Margaret Atwood. I read her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips and found it rather uneven. And I attempted to read The Blind Assassin while still in college. I did not like it and dropped it. Later I tried reading Cat’s Eye several times over the course of a few years. And recently, I have wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace (for my historical novel reading challenge). As anyone who read my January reading post knows, I hated The Handmaid’s Tale.

On to my thoughts now that I finally finished Cat’s Eye. The novel is, for me, a dull affair that really doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. It does have similar themes to The Robber Bride, but I don’t think Atwood quite captures the emotional power. I just really never connected to Elaine’s midlife identity crisis/ reformation or her obsession with Cordelia and her role in Elaine’s later character formation.

At least I’ve finally read Cat’s Eye. Sucks that I never got into it.

I am less familiar with Nadine Gordimer’s work, but I first read her novel The House Gun in my senior year of high school. And really enjoyed it. I just never really continued to read her work even as I bought her short story collection Jump. In January, I wanted to correct that oversight.

Burger’s Daughter is an experiment. Gordimer is transitioning from traditional dialogue to a more difficult and complicated, for author and read, technique for conveying conversation. In this regard, Burger’s Daughter is rather successful, but it does not work completely.

The key is characterization and maintaining each character’s individuality.

My problem with Burger’s Daughter is just that, Burger’s Daughter. Rosa Burger is defined by her father. And by her father’s struggle. She never quite comes into her own as a character. She is always defined in relation to her father. Even in the end, one must wonder how much her decisions are based on what she wants or what has been instilled in her to want.

The problem is that Rosa Burger is rather flat. Her characterization is, honestly, timid. Rosa Burger never quite emerges as a compelling character.

I am disappointed that I didn’t like Burger’s Daughter. But I am glad I read it. It is inspirational, though perhaps not in ways Gordimer intends.

Will I continue to seek out Margaret Atwood and Nadine Gordimer’s work? Yes. I might not like some of their books, but I am willing to bet that there are several of their books I will enjoy.

My Problem with Marvel and DC

It is common wisdom that Marvel Comics is nosediving in sales while DC is enjoying a current spike in sales. The most repeated and nauseating explanation is that Marvel is mired in off putting progressive politics and obsessed with removing and replacing classic heroes in the name of diversity (while a lot of heroes have been replaced recently, these changes are not likely to stick, they never do). Meanwhile, DC has learned its lesson and is retrenching in “classic” stories, which explains its recent spike in sales. I do not agree with this. There are numerous reasons why Marvel is declining. And numerous reasons why one should not expect DC to enjoy success for long.

I personally am displeased with the direction Marvel and DC have taken over the course of the past few years. Many of my reasons align very closely to those discussed by Comic Book Girl 19 (do check out her video “Controversy: I’m a part of the Marvel Comics Sales Slump.” Personally, I think her arguments are very cogent and well argued). (Another good article expounding a very good theory as to the problems plaguing Marvel comes from a Vox article titled “The Outrage Over Marvel’s Alleged Diversity Blaming, Explained” by Alex Abed-Santos) But I also have issues with Marvel and DC that are my own.

Personally, I think Marvel and DC’s problems lie with continuing fallout stemming from the comic book bubble bust twenty years ago. Neither Marvel, nor DC, have ever recovered. Ever since the market collapse, comics books have become a niche market struggling to survive. A dark age of comics, indeed.

Like CBG 19, I love the years and decades long narratives that comics provide. I agree with Faust of It’s Super Effective that comics are often best when there is a significant amount of soap opera mixed into a superhero science fantasy. CBG 19 is right when she points out that years worth of reading builds relationships with these characters. I like this long term relationship. And I miss it now that it is gone.

Again, like CBG 19 and numerous other fans, I bemoan the fact that so much narrative is devoted to annual or more frequent events that take valuable story telling time, especially when books get cancelled or relaunched every two years or less. There is no stability.

The constant reboots and relaunches are, honestly, money grabs rooted in neither Marvel or DC (or comic book retailers) learning their lesson from the burst comic book bubble of the 1990s. Yes, as CBG 19 points out, new number ones sale better than post number one issues. But does it really matter when issues two and three and beyond decline spectacularly? Even the best selling books?

Seriously, what is so wrong with just jumping in? I did with no problems. CBG 19 did. Thousands of comic book fans have.

And don’t get me started on the price. If I wanted to buy Marvel comics, I couldn’t afford many titles. I pity comic book journalists who have to buy every title. That has to be expensive.

Marvel has been singled out for a lot of abuse lately. But DC isn’t a ray of light. Many of the problems plaguing Marvel plague DC. Indeed, DC enjoyed Marvel’s unenviable position a few years ago.

DC Rebirth plays at being a return to “classic” stories. But I see it as just another reboot. Another cash grab. Some fans are buying in. And some aren’t.

I, honestly, don’t see a return to “classic” stories, whatever the hell that means.

But despite all the doom and gloom lately, there are rays of light. There are genuinely good books that have attracted a lot of fans, new and old.

In the end, the comic book industry have been dangling on the precipice for decades and they are still around. There is no reason to believe that either Marvel or DC will fall now even with all of their problems.