Category Archives: Books

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

We all know what a portal fantasy is, even if we’ve never heard the term. The Chronicles of NarniaAlice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Magicians, etc. We all know the beginning of the adventure. We all know the adventure. But what about after?  What happens to the boys and girls who go on impossible quests and return, irrevocably changed?  That is story Seanan McGuire’s short novel Every Heart a Doorway seeks to answer.

Nancy Whitman is the newest student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school/ sanitarium for children who have disappeared and returned claiming to have been whisked away to another world. In Nancy’s case, she has returned from the Halls of the Dead where all but five strands of her hair have turned white. She is desperate to return, though return is a very rare thing. But the desperate often turn to extreme measures to get what they want. Even murder.

I want to like Every Heart a Doorway. I really do. But while the short novel has a good central idea, there are too many flaws that suck out any real enjoyment I have.

The writing is flowery and literary in a young adult style. It works for readers who like that style, but for readers who are not terribly fond of the young adult style, the writing can be off putting.

The biggest problem with Every Heart a Doorway is that McGuire tries to condense a significant amount of ideas into too small a narrative space. Part of the story is orienting Nancy to her new school. The majority of the story, however, deals with surviving a serial killer running loose in the school. Neither story thread gets the space it needs. The orientation provides only sketches of characters save for the eventual (spoiler alert) antagonists. The horror story is very predictable. Ultimately, everything falls flat.

(A part of the problem, I think, is that Every Heart a Doorway is trying to be a literary fantasy, which focuses primarily on explorations of character and character growth, but cannot escape the fact that it is a fantasy and must have a more exciting plot than portal fantasies being nothing more that living metaphors of the individual’s psyche).

Another major problem with the story lies with representation. The main character is asexual, although said asexuality had to told to the audience rather than shown in a very clumsy scene that also revealed one of the four boys in the school as being transgender (transforming the scene into the young adult equivalent of Jerry Springer after the fact).

Furthermore, the explanation as to why there are only four boys out of a school population of forty is deeply problematic. And I will leave it at that. (Though if any one wants to comment with their interpretation, please do so. Just remember to be respectful and not abusive or bullying).

In conclusion. I found the story to be deeply unsatisfying and poorly constructed despite the good ideas. Perhaps if the story had been split into two stories of nearly two hundred pages each, I might be writing a far different review.

2017 Book Haul One

The books I have bought recently have started to pile up. Therefore, I need to sort them and put them in my bookshelves. While I’m doing that, I thought it might be fun to list all the books I got recently.

From the book sale nook at West Waco Library:

Dr. No by Ian Fleming

Pursuit of the Screamer by Ansen Dibell

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

From Golden’s Book Exchange:

The Mirror Prince by Violette Malan

The City in the Glacier and The Destiny Stone by Robert E. Vardeman and Victor Milan

From Alibris:

Miss Marple Meets Murder by Agatha Christie (an omnibus that includes: The Mirror Crack’dA Pocket Full of RyeAt Bertram’s Hotel, and The Moving Finger)

Finally, from Amazon, I picked up:

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Hero by Perry Moore

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

An impressive haul, if I do say so myself. I’m aiming for my next haul to come in April after I’ve hit Golden’s during their bimonthly half off sale.

 

The Books I Read in February 2017

February has been another disappointing month in terms of my reading. On the whole, it was better than January, but not by much.

Again, a part of my problem is I am still using a TBR list that I made when I wanted to read more literary fiction. And I don’t want to read literary fiction.

Anyway, here is what I read this past month:

I started the month with The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. I wanted to like this collection. But beyond a few poems, I found myself uninterested.

Another book of poetry I read was Amiri Baraka’s Transbluency. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling with Baraka’s homophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. Baraka is an important poet, but his early work is hard to get into for contemporary readers.

The first novel I read this month was Kindred by Octavia Butler followed by The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. I didn’t particularly like either of these books. I struggle with Butler’s work. And I am disappointed I didn’t like Naylor’s first book. I really enjoyed her novel Mama Day.

I attempted Paul Austers’s 4321. This book is bad. Just bad.

I also attempted Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer. I really wanted to like this book. I really did. The world building is awesome. The plot has potential. But the protagonist is weak. I love Unar’s ambition. But the plot directed stupidity she routinely displays makes the novel ultimately disappointing.

The second to last novel I read this month is Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman. This novel is wonderful. It is beautifully written. Almost poetic. But it is also boring at times.

The final novel I read this month was Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. This novel is a marked letdown from Leviathan’s Wake. Avasarala is a nice addition to the POV roster (indeed she steals the book). But I can’t say the same for the other new POV characters. This novel struggles, I think, to hide the cultural problems of the world building and some problems with the plot. (I want to write more on this after I’ve read more books in The Expanse.)

The best things I’ve read this month, actually, have been collected volumes of superhero comic books. I read: the first two volumes of Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Totally Awesome Hulk by Greg Pak, Scarlet Witch by James Robinson, and Thor by Jason Aaron. I loved all of them. Though my favorite must be Scarlet Witch and Thor. The reveal of Thor’s identity and her motivation is amazing. She is what a true hero is. And Scarlet Witch is all sorts of awesome.

February was disappointing. I hope March will be better.

Cozy Reading Night

Friday, I had a cozy reading night. The idea for cozy reading nights comes from the booktube channel “Lauren and the Books.” This was my first cozy reading night. I enjoyed myself. But I also discovered a few things.

A cozy reading night needs to be an event. There need to be snacks. There need to be drinks. There could be soft music or a fire whether real or artificial. There needs to be a comforting atmosphere.

One person alone does not make a party. Okay, one person could make a party. But I think I would have had more fun if I had visitors to read with me. A reading party if you will.

I read from seven to ten. I took on two novels and a short story. The short story was David Brin’s “Temptation” (from The Space Opera Renaissance) and the two novels that I started were: Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman and Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey. I enjoyed all that I read but I did realize something.

I don’t like to switch between multiple books. Rather, I like to sit down and binge an entire book. If I don’t like it, I will put it down, dnf it, and move on to the next. So I think I will pick a selection of possible books and pick one to read for the duration of my next cozy reading night.

My first cozy reading night was fun if not as successful as I hoped. But it did reveal somethings about myself. Mainly, I need to get out more.

The Books I Read in January 2017

I’m not happy with my January reading.

I wanted to start the year reading more literary fiction. I wanted to start the year off with a Margaret Atwood binge. Nadine Gordimer got in on the binge. I wanted to try Louise Erdrich. And I decided that I finally needed to complete a T.C. Boyle novel (after failing to finish Water Music and The Road to Wellville). ( I also added a few other books here and there. Too many honestly).

I started off with LaRose by Louise Erdrich. I read fifty pages. The novel started strong. I liked what I read. But gradually, an emotional dissonance in the narrative and a sojourn in 1839 (compared to the 1990s setting) threw me out of the novel.

From that defeat, I moved on to Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This is a difficult novel about a young woman who has devoted herself to her parents’ political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. I really should try this novel again when I am in a mood for difficult and great literary fiction.

As far as Margaret Atwood is concerned, I tried to read Cat’s Eye for the second time (and was not into it) and The Handmaid’s Tale (which I will not get into- not a fan of dystopia).

I also tried Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes and really did not like it. Which is a shame.

As far as literary fiction is concerned, I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. It is a powerful story about violence and what drives people to violence. I would give it a solid four stars. But the novel is not without flaws. I feel that Sarah, whose story starts out strong, falters as the narrative progresses, becoming little more than an appendage to Adam/ Colter’s story.

I also reread Wislawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand. I first read this selected collection over ten years ago and loved it. But this past reread has cooled my passion for this collection of poems. To say I am frustrated should be obvious.

The problem, I am sure, is that I allowed a form of unintentional peer pressure to create a desire to binge read too much literary fiction. Which ultimately put me off of the whole thing.

In addition to the above books, I also read three comic book volumes. I first read Midnighter volume 1 (“Out”) by Steve Orlando. The book was okay. I enjoyed it. But the art is disappointing, the narrative is disjointed (and not in a good way), and the final confrontation with the villain is beyond disappointing (I expected so much more from Prometheus). I later read Thor volume 1 (“Goddess of Thunder”) by Jason Aaron. I  really liked this volume. I am sold on Jane Foster as Thor. I want to see what happens to her. But, I feel Thor is too good too fast. She can do things her predecessor never did without any training. And every damn villain is a straw man misogynist. I also read Doctor Strange volume 1 again by Jason Aaron. I hated this comic book. Aaron not only rips himself off (the plot is basically Doctor Strange’s “God Butcher” arc) but also attempts and fails to capture Loki magic by imitating Gillen and Ewing. And the art is terrible.

Finally, as I wandered around my favorite library, I checked out Nick Harkaway’s  Angelmaker  and James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. I hated Angelmaker. And fell in love with Leviathan’s Wake on my second attempt.

I love this book now. Leviathan’s Wake is wonderfully written and exciting and enjoyable. I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to see them succeed. I yearned to see the mystery of Julie Mao solved. A solid four and a half stars.

There are some flaws. Miller is, perhaps, too much of a hard boiled dick stereotype (down to falling in love with the subject of his investigation). Julie Mao is a woman in a refrigerator who I feel could probably have taken over Miller’s role. But on the whole, I really like the novel.

So that is what I read last month. Again, I’m not happy with it. I want to read more. And finish more books. And like more books for that matter.

Hopefully February will be a better month.

 

December TBR List

Since my last post, November has sucked. (Okay, November has sucked since my trip to the Waco Friends of the Library Book Sale). I’ve moved. My brother is in the process of moving (which is a production of some considerable frustration that I’m not going to go into).

The only bright spot has been my completion of three Agatha Christie novels: Death on the NileThe Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and Evil Under the Sun. Those three novels have reinvigorated my reading after some disappointing reads. I’m hoping my December to be read list will be as productive.

So, what is my December TBR?

First, I want to try and reread The Magicians by Les Grossman. I know I should binge the entire trilogy, but I honestly have a love hate relationship with the first book. I like the magical world Grossman creates. I like the Ellis/ Tartt inspired style. I can’t stand Quentin Coldwater. I really can’t stand Quentin.

Following The Magicians, I want to tackle, again, The Grace of Kings before reading The Wall of Storms (both by Ken Liu). I was planning on tackling the two after I bought The Wall of Storms, but circumstances force me to check it out of the library.

After the current installments of The Dandelion Dynasty series, I intend to tackle Otherland by Tad Williams (again). Hopefully, I’ll have better success this time.

I also have a history of the Medici, The Space Opera Renaissance, and a book on oil pastel to read.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a sizable dent before January. I have an Atwood/ Gordimer binge planned.

Friends of the Library Book Sale Haul

During the first weekend of November, the Friends of the Waco- McLennan County Library holds an annual book sale. The sale is massive. Usually, over a hundred thousand books are on sale. I always go crazy, buying far more books than I should. This is no exception.

Here is my haul.

For my step niece and my nephew’s Christmas presents, I bought:

The Doll’s House by Lothar Meggendorfer (a pop up book that my nephew will love and tear up).

Senor Cat’s Romance by Lucia M. Gonzalez illustrated by Lulu Delacre

Squids will be Squids by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Non fiction I picked up:

A Survey of Historic Costume by Phyllis Totora and Keith Eubank

Wind in the Tower by Han Suyn

Feudal Society vol 1 by Marc Bloch

The Medieval Foundations of England by G.O. Sayles

The Celts by Jean Markale

Science Fiction and Fantasy I bought:

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Conan the Valiant by Roland Green

Conan the Savage by Leonard Carpenter

Vellum by Hal Duncan

The Standing Dead by Ricardo Pinto

and by David B. Coe:

Seeds of Betrayal

Weavers of War

The Sorcerer’s Plague

An impressive haul, I think. And it only cost me $17.50!

 

Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror A Review for the Fantasy Writer

I first heard mention of Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror by Waller R. Newell in a post on Black Gate. I was intrigued and sought it out. But, as Tyrants is a new book, I had to wait quite some time to request it through interlibrary loan. Recently, I received a copy and have since read it. The book is a thought provoking read. I found my assumptions challenged quite persuasively in some passages. But I cannot help but feel the book does not adequately cover its subject. While I might not recommend Tyrants to a scholarly audience, I do think, with caveats, this book is useful for fantasy writers.

Tyrants is divided into three parts. While the introduction presents three types of tyranny, the book itself takes the chronological approach of ancient, early modern, and modern. The result is that garden variety tyrants are an afterthought(or addendum) to reform and millenarian tyrants.

Part One is, perhaps, the weakest part of the text. Newell focus on Classical writers interpreting, engaging, and condemning tyrants of garden variety, reform variety, and mixed variety hues. The problem, however, is that he does not engage with the origin of tyranny. For that, one must delve deep into the great Bronze Age world monarchies/ great states (Egypt, Hittite, Assyria, Babylon, and Mittanni) as well as the Persian Empire.

It must also be noted that I caught a number of factual errors in Part One. The war between the Olympians and the Titans is called the Titanomachia not the Gigantomachia (which deals with the Olympians fighting the Giants, not Titans). Athens is located on the Attic Peninsula not the nearby Peloponnesian Peninsula. Harmodius and Aristogeiton change places within a few paragraphs. And Cleopatra did not order the death of Pompey, her brother did (otherwise I doubt Caesar would have supported her let alone begun an affair with her).

Part Two explores tyranny in relation to state formation in late medieval and early modern Europe. There is a heavy component of period political theory by which the various monarchs are judged. This is, honestly, a very interesting part of the book.

Part Three is where Newell shines and is at his most persuasive. His examinations of the millenarian tyrannies of the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Nazis are very good and very terrifying. His tying of the the extreme Left with the extreme Right is convincing. His exploration of the rejection of the Enlightenment and the creeping radicalization of intellectual circles is thought provoking.

Newell does, however, lose some of his persuasiveness as he delves into Third World Socialism because, in part, he does not engage with useful concrete examples. The discussion is mostly relegated to the theoretical with a few practical examples.

After Third World Socialism, Newell turns to the merging of Third World Socialism and Nazism: Jihadism. Newell’s analysis is good, but I wish he had delved deeper. These final explorations seems rushed.

Despite my problems with Tyrants, I do think that the book is very useful for fantasy writers. It will provide, I believe, a firmer grounding and foundation in political and literary theory when it comes to world building. It must also be said that a writer does not have to agree with his sources or inspirations. I have (obviously) numerous arguments with this book. But that does not stop me from having being inspired or using what I learned to better help me with my writing.

Try A Short Story

I recently started watching booktube on Youtube. One of my favorite booktubers, Savidge Reads, posted a video a few weeks ago in which he gathered several short story collections and read the first story in each book. I enjoyed the video and decided I wanted to try it.

I don’t have that many short story collections in my personal library. Fortunately, I also want to read more books housed by the branch of the Waco McLennan County Library I patronize. I visited the website, typed in short stories, got a paper and pencil, and started writing down titles and authors. On my next trip to the library, I hunted down those books. The first five I found joined The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu as the books I would read. The following week, I added four more books. I really wanted to read two of those four (they were checked out during the hunt), I wanted to add another dedicated science fiction and fantasy collection, and I never read Alice Munro.

I have read the first story in each collection. I have ranked them. And the top ranking books get read to completion. The others get returned to the library on my next trip.

Here are the books with my thoughts on the stories (in the order I read them).

“A Burglar’s-Eye View of Greed” from Catch and Release by Lawrence Block. A very short story in which a burglar bemoans the state of the world from the used bookstore he purchased with his ill gotten gains. It is a good story. But it is dull and a bit flat.

“William Wei” from You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale. A very compelling character study of a man’s relationship with a woman he met on the phone. Enjoyable. But the style is a bit weird. In a good way.

“The Book Making Habits of Select Species” from The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. A bunch of alien species make books in some very weird and compelling ways that reveal interesting truths about how we communicate. This story is amazing. Just amazing.

“Nemecia” from Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade. A little girl grows to resent the beautiful, but abusive, cousin who has lived with her family before she was born. I love this story. It is really good.

“Paradise” from Problems with People by David Guterson. A widower and divorcee begin a tentative new relationship while dealing with memories of the past. It is a well written story. But not terribly interesting.

“Weird” from Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip. A couple enjoying a picnic in a bathroom tell stories of the weird. Not very good. Bland writing.

“Brace for Impact” from Are You Here For What I’m Here For? by Brian Booker. A high school senior recovering from an illness is taken to a house in which he meets a disabled survivor of a plane crash. I love the first part of this story. I love the narrator. I love his voice. But the story falls apart towards the end. And ends on a rather confusing note.

“Home” from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. A woman and an older man interact. I really did not like this story.

“The Pier Falls” from The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon. You guessed it, a pier falls. Well written description of a tragedy. But what is the point?

“Dimensions” from Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. A woman enters into and is rescued from an abusive relationship. A very good story. But it does lag, though the time shifts keep the lagging down to a minimum. Doree is an amazing character.

Those are the stories. How do I rank them?

One: “Nemecia”

Two: “The Book Making Habits of Select Species”

Three: “William Wei”

Four:” Brace for Impact”

Five: “Dimensions”

Six: “The Pier Falls”

Seven: “A Burglar’s- Eye View of Greed”

Eight: “Home”

Nine: “Paradise”

Ten: “Weird”

So, there is the rankings. I must say I enjoyed this. I will definitely keep an eye out on several of these writers.

 

 

 

Golden’s Book Exchange Haul

Golden’s Book Exchange is my favorite used bookstore in Waco, Texas. Every even numbered month, Golden’s has a half off sale for the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the month.

Here is my haul.

The Grey Mane of Morning by Joy Chant. I really need to break down and read her work

The Iron King by Maurice Druon. I’ve heard great things about Druon. Time to check it out.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre. I’ve wanted this book for years. Finally!

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. I really need to give him a new look.

Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook. The first three Black Company books in omnibus form. I freaking love omnibuses.

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare. I need to try some YA.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I’ve forgotten how much I love the Queen of Crime. I was hopping for some Poirot or Miss Marple omnibuses, but And Then There Were None is a good second choice. (I’m still kicking myself in the ass for getting rid of my Christie books years ago.

The Aeneid by Virgil. I got rid of this book years ago and have scolded myself for it ever since.

Finally, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I love this book. But it is not for me. It is for my niece.

A pretty good haul for a great price. Now I’ve got ten short story collections from the library I need to read for Try a Short Story. Expect a post on that soon.And expect another book haul November 5. The Friends of the Library Book Sale approaches. So exciting.