Category Archives: Books
My reading continued to be a disappointment in March, but I am enjoying more of the books I’m reading. So, not everything is doom and gloom.
I already reviewed Every Heart a Doorway and The Collapsing Empire, so I will just mention them here.
On to the rest of the books.
I started the month reading Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. It is a retelling of The Tempest. I read the first chapter or two and set it aside. I am not a fan of Carey’s style.
I also didn’t care for Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fanfiction. Colfer isn’t a terrible writer, but he needs to rein in his camp and metafictional fanboy impulses. I genuinely hope he improves.
Wanting to read some classic science fiction, I tried Sherri S. Tepper’s Grass. The descriptions are lovely. The story is boring.
I finally read Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiesta. I enjoyed the collection very much. I especially liked “Nemecia” and “Mojave Rats.” I will keep my eye on Valdez Quade’s future work.
My success with Night at the Fiesta inspired me to seek out a number of short story collections (with much less success). Among these books are: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Tenth of December by George Saunders, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, The World to Come by Jim Sheppard, and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Keeping with George Saunders, I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo. Oh my, that book is weirdly structured.
After my success with Leviathan Wakes, I moved on to Abaddon’s Gate after Caliban’s War. I grow less impressed with The Expanse as the series progresses. A lot of my issues lie with the world building. But I also feel James S.A. Corey fall into the George R.R. Martin trap, too many point of view characters disrupt the narrative.
I’ve been wanting to read Brain Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades for years (ever since I listened to a podcast interview with Staveley). I finally got around to it. I feel a world building rant coming on. And I wanted to like this book. Damn it.
I had the most success this month, honestly, with several history books I read for research. These books are: Life and Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce, Byzantium Greatness and Decline by Charles Diehl (translated by Naomi Walford), and Lords of the Horizon by Jason Goodwin. All of these are good. The best book is by far Life and Society in the Hittite World. Byzantium Greatness and Decline is outdated (but hey, it is what my local library has). And Lords of the Horizon is a good popular introduction to the Ottoman Empire.
I also had some success with the comics I read this month. Among those are: Scarlet Witch Volume 2 World of Witchcraft by James Robinson, The Mighty Thor Volume 1 Thunder in Her Veins by Jason Aaron, Batman Volume 1 I am Gotham by Tom King, Detective Comics Volume 1 Rise of the Batmen by James Tynion IV, and Wonder Woman Volume 1 The Lies by Greg Rucka. I really liked Scralet Witch. I enjoyed The Mighty Thor though I am tired of the Roxxon Malekith plot, disliked the handling of Loki, and have issues with Aaron’s world building. I am not a fan of either Batman comic I read. I would much prefer James Tynion IV writing a dedicated Tim Drake book. And the first volume of Wonder Woman Rebirth surprised me. But I am not a fan Rucka’s rewritting of Wonder Woman’s history so soon after the last rewritting of her history. I just really liked the handling of Cheetah. I feel a comic book rant coming on.
That is all I read in March.
On to April!
The Flow, the sole means of traveling faster than light, is shifting away from the human occupied worlds of the Interdependency. Can the heroes wrangle competing factions to save humanity? The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi has the beginning of the answer. (What do you expect from the first book in a series?) A fast paced space opera, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read with some serious issues (mainly I have major nitpicks regarding the world building).
The Collapsing Empire is fast paced. Amazingly so. The reader zips through the story wanting more.
The plot is fun. Reading how the protagonists work their ways into position to start the process of saving humanity against entrenched political corruption, sociopathic ambition, and endemic structural weakness is, honestly, a joy.
The main protagonist is Cardenia Wu, or, as she is formally styled, Emperox Grayland II. The bastard daughter of the previous emperox, she finds herself thrust into saving humanity from a position of power she never wanted.
Supporting her are Kiva Lagos, from the wealthy Lagos Guild, and Marce Claremont, a flow physicist on the run who has key information on the Flow’s shift. A foul mouthed force of nature, Kiva comes close to stealing the book. All three major characters are fascinating, but standard space opera character types.
(The villains, again, are standard character types. And very obvious.)
The biggest problem with The Collapsing Empire is thinking too hard about the world building. And the scientific process.
The Collapsing Empire takes place, at the least, in the 3500s. The Flow has been the fundamental bedrock of human civilization for over a thousand years. The Flow has shifted at least twice, stranding two worlds (one of them Earth) from the rest of humanity. In all that time, and with the home world of humanity lost, the Flow is still little understood? Really? Come on. The Flow should be far more understood than it is within the context of the novel.
An added complication to the study, or lack thereof, of the Flow is the obvious problem with the scientific method and peer review presented in the novel. Peer review is mentioned twice in key moments. One character is criticized for not peer reviewing her findings. The chastising character even references the fact that he, himself, needed peer review to prevent himself from making the same mistakes. But, he is satisfied with his work being peer reviewed by only one other person and treats it as sufficient. Should not peer review be more extensive (and therefore alleviating some of the political problems that arise in the novel)? Then again, that would kill the plot.
(To be fair to Scalzi, a lot of space opera, and science fiction in general, have serious problems when it comes to actual science.)
Humans, again, are vastly more advanced in 3500 than they are in 2017. Even in the harshest environments, humanity should be either able to terraform their new home worlds or adapt themselves to their new environments. The fall of the Interdependency should not result in humanity eventually dying out except for those on End, the only world humanity occupies that is in any way similar to Earth.
These world building problems are necessary for the plot to work, however. The immediacy of the collapse of the Interdependency is lessened if the coming shift in the Flow is widely known about. And, again, the economic structure of the Interdependency makes it impossible for humans to survive on their own even if humans should be able to adapt to their new environments.
Clearly, the world building bugs me to no end. I wish it did not. But it does. And consequently, my enjoyment of the novel is lessened by asking these world building questions. The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. But can it escape the collapse of its world building? For me, it cannot.
We all know what a portal fantasy is, even if we’ve never heard the term. The Chronicles of Narnia. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The 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.
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
Miss Marple Meets Murder by Agatha Christie (an omnibus that includes: The Mirror Crack’d, A Pocket Full of Rye, At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Nile, The 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.
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!
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.