Books Read- 203 Books to Read-282 Percent Complete- 41.86%

Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I'm going to write a review for 'The Masks of Time' by Robert Silverberg.  It's kind of an odd book in that I can't actually say what the merit of the novel is with any objectivity, but the book has had a pretty profound influence on me personally.  I read it when I was pretty young, and while I imagine large portions of the book would be almost laughable now, to a fourteen year old kid they could be downright life altering.  I should have the review up pretty soon.

I've been trying to put up ads on the blog recently.  I don't know how it's going to work, and if I don't like how it's going I'll take it down.  Really I would just like to be able to put a link to Thriftbooks at the end of each review that a person could click on to guy buy the book from them.  I love thriftbooks and actually just recently bought a whole bundle of SF from them.  It's one of the best (cheapest) sites I've found to buy books online and I recommend everybody buy books from them.  They're much cheaper than the competitors, and the shipping is always free.

I had told myself when I started doing this blog that there was no way I would put ads up unless I got at least five hundred site visits in a month.  When I started doing this it seemed impossibly high, but apparently I had too low of expectations because I've more than hit that number this month.  We'll see how the ads work out, if they don't I'll just shill for Thriftbooks for free.  I'll try to put the review up soon.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I've just finished Mary Robinette Kowal's 'Shades of Milk and Honey.'  I think I'm going to give it a few days before I try to write a review for it, and I hope to stick with my previous plan of reviewing some past SF Masterwork before reviewing anything more modern.  I still feel like I've been writing too many negative reviews, and I'm not entirely sure I won't have a few negative things to say about Milk and Honey.

Not that it's a bad book by any means, but having finished it I can honestly say that it just really wasn't my cup of tea.  Just like I said when I finished Jo Walton's 'Farthing,' if you set out to read all the novels ever nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award you're occasionally going to run across something that just doesn't interest you that much.  Milk and Honey is a sort of Magical romance set during the British Regency based loosely on the novels of Jane Austen.  There's nothing wrong with Kowal's story or her writing, I'm just not that interested in Historical novels set during this time period.  I know a lot of people see it through rose colored glasses but whenever I read a story set in this time period I just imagine all the racism and mysogyny going on behind the curtains.  I don't like it very much, or the idea that the greatest thing a woman can hope for is to be someone else's wife.

Though Kowal did suck me in with her little love triangle.  By the end I was blazing through the novel trying to get to the conclusion.  I'm a sucker for romance.  So, the novel wasn't all bad, but I'm going to wait a little while to write a review so I can get the bad taste of Regency Britain out of my mouth.  No sense taking my dislike of something out on an unsuspecting author, my lack of enjoyment is my fault not the author's.

I've noticed that I've had quite few new site hits in the last couple weeks so I figured I'd lay down once again what I'm trying to do with the blog.  I'm reading all the novels ever nominated for the Hugo or Nebula Awards for Best Novel.  It's something I've been trying to do for quite awhile, though I just recently started blogging about it.  I'm about 40% of the way through all the books at this point.  I'll publish reviews here in the blog but I immediately store them in the links at right.  I try my best to mention when I'm going to write a spoiler for something, but I treat the reviews like actual reviews, I'm commenting on what I've read not trying to sell something.  I wanted to create a space where people could really examine all these nominees without just reading opinions of them.  Treat the blog like it's spoiler free and the reviews like they're full of spoilers and you can't go wrong.

I've read quite a bit of modern and classic SF and I try my best to point out what the precursors were to something you might have read, and when some otherwise unremarkable novel was actually the start of some random cliche.  I have an excel spreadsheet containing all the nominees I've read and all the ones I haven't, I just don't really know how to link to that quite yet, but I'll figure it out soon.

Not a whole lot of people have been commenting on here, but I'm betting there are plenty of people out there who have views different than mine, and I'd love to hear about them.  There have been some books that I've hated that I just know are fan favorites, and some books I defend (like 'Ender's Game') that people detest these days.  If someone has a different viewpoint feel free to write all about it in the comments.

I try to update as often as I can, but it can get difficult trying to read as much as I can while writing about it at the same time.  I'm thinking my next review might be for something by Ursula K. Leguin, my favorite author.  I'll review 'The Left Hand of Darkness' if I can figure out a review that isn't just me typing how much I love it over and over.  I'll try to have it up in the next few days.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

There's a new review for Saladin Ahmed's 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' below.  I really liked the novel but wished the author had taken a little different approach in describing the city.  That's the spoiler free version of the review, basically. 

I feel a little bad because I always seem to rag on Fantasy novels whenever I review them.  I admit I don't read nearly as much of it as I do regular SF, but it just seems like the genre needs a little shaking up to stay interesting.  There are too many books out there with the same old knights and wizards, on the same old tired quest to find something or other to prevent some kind of something from doing whatever.  I don't want to read about it, and if I did there are plenty of great older novels covering the topic, and doing it better.  That doesn't mean I don't feel bad about constantly bashing Fantasy novels everytime I write a review about them. 

Crescent Moon does a good job of avoiding those same pitfalls.  I kind of compare it to N.K. Jemisin's 'Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' in that it's a Fantasy that isn't built on Western Mythology, avoiding the trap of Tolkein and King Arthur entirely.  Crescent Moon has it's faults, but it's definately not the same old Fantasy novel you've been reading.

I'm still working on on 'Shades of Milk and Honey.'  And I'm afraid I'm not going to write a very good review for that novel either.  Not that it's bad in any way, it's just not my cup of tea.  I kind of compare it to Jo Walton's 'Farthing' in that I can recognize that I'm dealing with a well crafted novel, it's just not one I'm particularly interested in.  I'm getting really tired of giving the novels I review poor marks, I'm starting to feel like I only point out flaws in the novels without giving them points for what they do that's good.  I know my last three or four reviews all had bad things to say and I'm starting to feel like one of those jerk reviewers who thumbs his nose at everything.

I think I'm just going to have to dig a little deeper into the list of books I have read to find something I can't say anything bad about.  It's not that hard to find one, 'Gateway,' 'Neuromancer,' 'Invisible Cities,' anything written by Ursula K. Leguin.  I think I'm just going to have to pick something great and hope I can do it justice in a review.  When I set out to do this I was hoping to do a lot more comparison between books, pointing out what something might have been the precursor of, or to, and a lot less pointing out flaws or bashing on poor writing.  That's just life I guess, I'll pick something older to review next.

2013 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee- 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' by Saladin Ahmed

I bought this as an e-book so this is
the first I've seen of this cover.

There seems to have been a minor trend in Fantasy novels over the last decade or so to branch out from the mythology of Western Culture to more Eastern, African, or Middle Eastern Mythologies.  Which is none too soon as far as I'm concerned, I went over this a little in my review of N.K. Jemisin's 'Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,' but if I read another book with Knights and Wizards and epic quests that doesn't bring something new to the table and just retreads the same tired old story I think I'm going to throw up.  I understand that everything is new to everybody at some point, but there's no need to keep retreading the same used up Fantasy tropes over and over again, for people who are interested in that sort of thing there are fantasy novels stretching back to the Thirties that they could dig up and bring to light..  Michael Moorcock was saying the same thing as far back as 1978 in his essay 'Epic Pooh.'

Where Kingdoms took some of the mythology of India and crafted an interesting story 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' deals with the mythology of the Middle East.  It makes for a very interesting setting.  There are some other SF books that deal with Middle Eastern themes, notably Effinger's 'Marid Audran' series and Ian Mcdonald's 'The Dervish House' (though that was set in Turkey).  Both of those novels take place in the future and have a distinct Science Fiction vibe to go along with the Arabian Mythology.  Crescent Moon is the only Fantasy novel I can think of off the top of my head that takes place in an imagined past full of Middle Eastern Mythology.

Ahmed makes good use of that mythology too, drawing much of his subject matter from 'The Thousand and One Nights' but re-purposing it here for a more straightforward package.  Many of the elements within the novel will be vaguely familiar to Western Fantasy readers, the Djinn, Ghuls, Dervishes, and Sheiks are all familiar, but Ahmed puts just the proper amount of spin on the setting and layout to really entertain the reader. 

I can't speak enough about the setting Ahmed lays out here.  The city of Dhamsawaat is an interesting place. and the author obviously has a fully constructed world here.  Whatever other flaws the novel might have, the setting he has constructed more than earn him both the Hugo and Nebula nominations (and possibly the awards, we'll see in a few months).  I'm glad that the people giving out awards at least recognize there's something of an originality problem in Fantasy and they need to encourage more people to branch out more.  There's still a lot of mythology out there that hasn't really been covered, too much for us to still be reading about knights and orcs and dragons.  So whatever other flaws Crescent Moon might have I am totally behind it as far as the nominations go.

If there are any flaws to the novel it is in the characters anyway, not in the setting or the story being told here.  Several reviews have described it as a cross between The Thousand Nights and Dungeons and Dragons.  You can definitely see the influence of D&D in the characterization.  The mix of characters could almost have come out of an old Saturday morning cartoon.  You have basically a Ninja (the Dervish), a girl who can change into a lion, a healer, an all powerful wizard (coupled with a built-in excuse for why he can't use his power to solve every problem), and their leader, a grizzled veteran ready to retire from monster hunting after this one last job.  Except for the powers of the veteran leader who defeats monsters through scripture none of these are powers readers haven't seen before, and there is nothing so exceptional about them as to bowl the reader over.

This only becomes a problem in that we experience the majority of the novel through the eyes of these characters, rather than being led around it by an omniscient narrator.  I was disappointed in Ahmed's choice of third person subjective/limited for narrator.  The characters here are not as interesting as the city of Dhamsawaat and the overall setting of the novel, but we get much less of the city than we do the internal monologue of the various characters. 

It's not often I will fault a writer for spending too much time developing characters, but that seems to be the case here.  As the various characters traversed the city I found myself getting lost as to where they were in the city, and much more curious as to what color the bricks were on the walls or what the place smelled like than the what the characters were thinking about as they walked around.  I would have liked to experience Dhamsawaat in the same manner readers experienced New Crobuzon in Mieville's 'Perdido Street Station' or how readers met Istanbul in McDonald's 'The Dervish House.'  In those two novels the authors realized that it was the setting itself that made the novel special, and placed it at the forefront, the main character in McDonald's 'Dervish House' is not a man, but Istanbul itself, I wish Ahmed had taken the same path in Crescent. I wanted to be fully immersed in Dhamsawaat, and I only got glimpses of it here and there around the (not as interesting) thoughts of the characters.  An omniscient narrator to guide us through the city, spend some time and really flesh out the details would have been nice.

Ahmed plans to write two sequels to the novel, turning this into the first part of a trilogy.  Unless there are some major stylistic changes coming our way I don't expect the author to depart from what he accomplished here and write in a more detailed form.  Rather than complaining about what Ahmed doesn't do I should just be thankful for the great things he actually does, the brief glimpse of the city Dhamsawaat that we are allowed is more than enough to draw the reader in for the rest of the tale.  Ahmed leaves behind those tired Fantasy tropes (they're exhausted really and need a break) and gives the modern reader something new and refreshing. 

Perhaps this review said it best, Saladin Ahmed has given us a new Fantasy novel that 'Bouyantly fails to suck.'  Whether or not the rest of the books in this series receive any nominations I think people are starting to see that Fantasy needs to branch out some more, and even without those nominations I'm probably going to read the sequels too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

It's been too long since I wrote a review, and in the time I've been slacking I've finished off two more books.  'Captain Vorpatril's Alliance' by Lois McMaster Bujold and 'Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas' by John Scalzi.  I'm always eager to read a new Vorkosigan novel by Bujold, and it's nice that she's willing to branch out and embrace some of her smaller characters, Ivan has always been sort of hanging out in the background so it's nice to see him getting his own novel.  Also I'm really enjoying watching the whole Vorkosigan crew age and grow up, while their adventures might be less exciting than Bujold's first few novels they're certainly more fulfilling.

I didn't think I would enjoy Redshirts as much as I did.  I had a good idea what the story was about, and while I knew it would be a clever take on the subject I did have my worries that it would be something of a one note gag.  This is actually addressed in the novel and afterword and Scalzi did a pretty good job in capturing the reader's interest for the duration of the novel, and he was as entertaining as ever.

Also I finished 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' by Saladin Ahmed.  I should be posting a review for it in the next couple days.  I both really enjoyed this book, and was immensely disappointed at the same time.  I've always been a big fan of fantasy that has it's roots in a mythology not native to Western Culture, it's one of the reasons I've enjoyed so much of N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy.  The novel was good but flawed, and probably the biggest flaw was that the novel could have been so much more.

So far 'Shades of Milk and Honey' doesn't really seem like my cup of tea, but it's looking to be a pretty quick read and I should be done with it in a few days.  Also I need to finish it off because the sequel, 'Glamour in Glass' was nominated for an award this year.  I hate getting backed up on sequels, I've got a whole slew of Jack McDevitt novels I need to read stretching back to 1999.  The worst part is that the first few novels in those McDevitt series just aren't all that interesting, but no one can shut up about how great the later novels are. 

Anyway, I'm not so big on Milk and Honey.  So far, I should say, I'm barely getting started.  I've never really been able to get into fiction dealing with the British Regency.  I know a lot of people really like 'Jane Eyre' or whatever but every time I read one of these books I just end up asking myself, 'What the hell did they do for a living?'  None of these people seem to have jobs or anything.  There's plenty of fiction that deals with settings in which women are much more subjugated, more prevalent racism, and worse aristocracy than Regency Britain, but none of those settings are quite as celebrated and gloried over as this one, and it kind of creeps me out.

Like I said I've still got a long way to go.  Maybe I'll change my mind about Milk and Honey.  And I'll try to get a review for Crescent Moon up pretty soon.

Friday, April 5, 2013

My review of 'Kiln People' by David Brin is right below this post, and I need to say it contains some pretty big spoilers.  I've tried to keep my reviews open to whatever I think is important to note about a novel, and I've tried to keep my posts pretty general and not delve too deep into the specifics of a novel.  The problem is they're all posted right here, one after the other.  So if you don't want to know any secrets about 'Kiln People' don't scroll any further down. 

I stumbled across Kiln not knowing anything at all about it, and I've got to say it's an interesting way to approach the book.  There's some problems there for sure, but overall it's a really fun read.  Though I would say to read 'Earth' first, Brin's novel from the early nineties.  There are some similarities between the two and I think it would be important to read that other novel before starting Kiln.

I've moved on to reading 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' by Saladin Ahmed.  I feel like I need to read all the nominees for his year before I can complain about 'Caliban's War' not being nominated for anything.  So, it looks like if I want to complain about any sort of award snubs I need to get to reading.  Prepare yourself for all sorts of complaints here in like six weeks, so long as I don't end up thinking all these books are better than Caliban.  We'll see.

2002 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Kiln People' by David Brin

'Kiln People' has a lot going for it.  David Brin crafts a very original novel here, and adopts just the right tone to pull it off.  The concept of dittos, short term clones that can be created and absorbed by anyone,  is an interesting one, and the way in which Brin implements the concept is just as original.  While reading the novel I gave it a pretty favorable comparison to another Brin novel, 'Earth,' in that both showed the future in a positive light, rare for an SF novel.  Having completed Kiln I can say that the comparison holds true, almost to a fault.

You can't overestimate the importance of writing style and tone in SF, and pretty much any novel.  But, I think it is especially important when an author tackles a subject that's a little off the wall.  In my review for Malzburg's 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' I point out (correctly I think) that an improper choice of tone is what threw that novel off.  It seems an author either needs to commit fully to an offbeat premise, like Spinrad in 'The Void Captain's Tale', or let the audience in on the joke, winking at them to never take anything too seriously, think Philip K. Dick in... just about everything he wrote.  If an author is going to write something truly bizarre they need to be extra careful to keep that tone precisely where it needs to be, if you break that suspension of disbelief just one time it's gone for good and not coming back.

Brin takes the second avenue in Kiln, writing the the entire novel with a wink and nod, always letting the reader know that they're in on the joke.  There are a few laugh out loud moments in the novel, and even as the novel grows serious and finds itself a theme close to the end, Brin never lets go of the humor that he began with.  That humor can be especially helpful in the opening chapters when the reader is still scrambling to keep track of where all the Albert Morris' are, and which copies POV we are witnessing at a given time.

It can be difficult to keep track of the action in the novel.  The concept of "dittos," while amazingly original, might not lend itself easily to the written word.  There is little to differentiate between the multiple copies of Albert Morris barring the header at the start of each chapter.  This can be especially difficult in the opening chapters before the copies each begin to physically deviate from the original Albert.  I've read a few reviews by people who gave up on the novel for that very reason, while I don't agree that it's irritating enough to put the novel down, it can be off putting for the first hundred pages.

Like one of Brin's previous novels, 'Earth,' Brin explores the idea of a transparent society, and the possible future this might bring about.  It's interesting mostly because Brin imagines a world improved on our own.  It's a rare thing to see in SF of any decade, the near future novel that imagines our world getting better and not being obliterated in a fiery inferno.  While we may not like the future that Brin imagines in either Earth or Kiln, with constant surveillance, security being open sourced, and a complete lack of secrecy, it's obvious that Brin presents a future that is both more likely, and more optimistic than his fellow writers.

It's refreshing to find an SF novelist willing to believe that humanity can handle whatever problems might be on the horizon, and at the risk of comparing this novel too much with 'Earth' I'd like to include his preface from that novel, where Brin acknowledges how rare this might be:

"As writers go, I suppose I'm known as a bit of an optimist, so it seems only natural that this novel projects a future where there's a little more wisdom than folly . . . maybe a bit more hope than despair."

Kiln tackles some of the same issue as 'Earth,' but stops short of making the same wild amount of predictions as that previous novel.  Understandable considering the premise of Kiln.  It is interesting though to be welcomed back into that same optimistic future of 'Earth' considering the novels were written twelve years apart, the problem is that Kiln might follow that novel a little too closely.  The ending of 'Earth,' in which God quite literally shows up and helps our heroes win their battle, is repeated in Kiln.  While I'm more than willing to buy into an author's use of a supreme being (in the case of 'Earth' I should more likely call it "Gaea"), but I do feel like it's a well that an author can only dip in to once.  The second time around it just provokes giggles.

Brin had crafted a meticulous plot, carefully getting his characters into a tense situation, he did such a good job of drawing out the suspense that I almost would have preferred a total let down to the deus ex we receive here.  It feels as if Brin couldn't come up with an ending he felt was "big" enough for the novel, and turned again to the ending of 'Earth,' and had a supreme being show up to help win the day. 

It's difficult to write about the ending of either of these books without making it sound ridiculous, and maybe the two endings are, but they don't read too terribly insane in the context of the novel.  It's not the novelty of the ending I dislike anyway, it's the fact that Brin does it twice when I didn't feel it was necessary in the context of Kiln.  Brin was closing in on an entertaining and satisfying conclusion to Kiln without resorting to a concept he had already exploded in a previous novel.  On second thought, God showing up is a ridiculous way to end a novel, and doing it a second time isn't twice as ridiculous, it's ridiculous squared.

Nevertheless 'Kiln People' is an entertaining read, and Brin is a fantastic writer who can often be spot on with his predictions for the future.  I don't believe that's totally what he was aiming for with Kiln, as we really would be through the looking glass if I found I could transpose my soul onto a piece of clay and bake myself a clone.   But, Kiln is worth the time if only to meet Brin's cautious optimism once again, something often missed in SF.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

So the Hugo Award Nominations came out a few days ago and I'm a little disappointed in some of the nominations.  I'd hoped to see 'Caliban's War' by James S. A. Corey receive a nomination for something this year but it was snubbed.  As promised I'm going to review it anyway and start up a folder for other books that I think were snubbed for the major awards.  The other books I'll put on that list are 'The Stars My Destination' by Alfred Bester, and 'Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand' by Samuel Delany.  I don't mean to say that Caliban is by any means as good as those two, it's unbelievable that those two books weren't nominated for awards, but Caliban deserved some kind of recognition I thought.

Lois McMaster Bujold shows up in the nomination list again for another Vorkosigan novel which is always pretty cool.  I haven't read that book but I knew I would at some point, and John Scalzi gets a nomination for 'Redshirt,' a take on the classic Star Trek cliche where the guy in the red shirt always gets killed.  I haven't read it either (I'll just come right out and say that I haven't read any nominees for this year, Hugo or Nebula, I'm reading 'Throne of the Crescent Moon' now because it was nominated for both).  I didn't really expect to see Redshirt nominated for any awards, I was under the assumption that the whole thing was one long gag.

I guess I'll reserve any judgement on the actual nominations until I've read them all, but I am a little disappointed that Caliban didn't get any recognition.  Though maybe I'm wrong and those books that did get nominated over it are all more deserving.  We'll see once I've finished them all.

I'm done reading 'Kiln People' by David Brin.  I compared the novel earlier to another of Brin's novels, 'Earth' in that they both presented a fairly optimistic view of the future.  Having finished it off I can say that statement holds true, but in the end I believe the novel resembled 'Earth' a little too closely.  There were a few laughable similarities between the two novels.  Since even listing them here would constitute spoiling both novels I'll hold off on studying them until my review.  I'll get a review up for Kiln here before the end of the week.

Nominee season is also kind of a downer for me in that it takes away a little bit of the progress I make in finishing off all the Hugo and Nebula nominees.  I think I'd just cracked being 40% complete when all the nominees came out, and now I'm back down to 39.38%.  That's just part of the deal when you set yourself this kind of goal.  Every year you set yourself back a little bit.  The equation I use to see how far away from being finished is: (294+11X)/40=X.  294 being the number of books I have remaining now, and 11 being the maximum number of books that can be added every year, the 40 comes from my assumption for what I'll read each year.  If you solve the equation it comes out to be about ten years, which is discouraging.  I take a little solace in the fact that there are almost always some crossover between Hugo and Nebula nominees so eleven books are never added every year, and I think last year I read more like sixty nominees.  So that means I could be all wrapped up some time in the 2020's right? Right?

If anyone wants to point out to me that my math is wrong and I'll actually be done much sooner go right ahead.  If anyone wants to tell me it will actually take me much longer they can keep their facts to themselves.