Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Annihilation

Jeff Vandermeer
Completed 4/18/2015, Reviewed 4/23/2015
3 stars

This is the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy.  It’s a dark, creepy, short novel about a group of explorers investigating a quarantined tract of land within which something rather catastrophic or apocalyptic may have occurred.  It reminded me of “Hyperion”, not for the “Canterbury Tales” aspect, but for the exploration of something horrifying.  The writing is very uneven, but the mystery gripped through the end. 

The story begins with four women, members of the twelfth expedition to investigate a land that has been off-limits for years.  No one knows the results of the other expeditions.  The women don’t even know their own mission’s expectations.  By some unknown means, they are transported into this land, set up camp, and begin exploring.  The first thing they find is a tower that seems to be shoved into the earth.  Inside, the left wall is covered with some kind of mossy plant life, growing in the shape of words.  Not just words, but Old Testament-ish prose of warnings and condemnation.  This continues down into the dark depths, evoking fear and anxiety among the team.  But of course, they have to find the writing’s origin.

I’ll start with the writing.  It is the best part of the book and also the worst.  When Vandermeer is describing action or engaging the characters in conversation, it flows beautifully; it’s incredibly readable.  The problem is the descriptive prose.  Good prose is very important to me.  It should move the reader between the scenes, setting the mood, tension, and pace of the book.  Instead, it grinds the reader down to a halt.  The book’s first sentence alone nearly made me put it back on the shelf.  I trudged on and was rewarded with tense personality conflicts, heartbreaking backstory, and tragic horror. 

Lately, I’ve been doing more research on the books I’ve been reading, perusing other people’s reviews and plot summaries for insights I may have missed.  I opened with a comparison to “Hyperion”, but many readers have noted that the horror is very Lovecraftian.  I have yet to read any of his work (hangs head in shame) but I understand a bit of the Cthulu mythos and have seen some effective films based on it.  Yeah, it has that feel.  The progression of discoveries in the creepy environs is almost as effective as the original “Alien” film. 

It’s a surprisingly short book, only about 200 pages.  In that small space, Vandermeer crams an excellent main character, the narrator, giving her backstory and motivation, but no name.  In fact, none of the four characters know each other’s names, only their occupations.  It creates a lack of intimacy that keeps them, and the reader, in a state of constant tension.  And there is a sense that the narrator is unreliable.  What she calls a tower, the rest call a tunnel.  In fact, all the characters are hypnotized to help them deal with the stressful nature of their mission.  This calls into question the narrator’s interpretation of the whole experience.  But she’s a great character, remarkably well-developed in such a short amount of space. 


I don’t know anything about the next two books in the trilogy.  I liked the horror premise enough that I’m willing to bear the bad prose for some more terrifying experiences.  This book was nominated for a Nebula.  As I blog this, the award hasn’t been given, but I don’t think this should win.  I liked it a lot, but the writing is just too uneven for me.  I’m giving this book three stars out of five.  Good, but I think it in better hands, it could have been great.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Countdown City

Ben H Winters
Completed 4/15/2015, Reviewed 4/21/2015
3 stars

“Countdown City” is the second book in Winters’ “The Last Policeman” trilogy.  It’s another mystery featuring Henry Palace, the former Concord detective who is still investigating cases even though the world is about to end.  In this book, the asteroid is only 77 days from colliding with the Earth, and Palace’s case involves the missing husband of his nanny from childhood.  People are still running away on bucket-list adventures, hopelessly committing suicide, hording stashes of food and ammunition.  The economy has collapsed, electricity is out, and running water is coming close to shutting down.  But Palace still has an insane commitment to getting the job done, even though the old police force has been disbanded and the town is being protected, barely, by scary federal police. 

While I liked the first book, I found this one much more engaging.  I haven’t been able to place why exactly.  I think the primary reason is that the science fiction aspect is coming more to the forefront.  The world’s population is much more desperate with the end getting nearer.  Now that scientists have deciphered that the asteroid will hit the Indonesia region, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing that hemisphere and trying to enter the US.  Scam artists are selling living space bunker communities, guaranteed to save you from the apocalypse.  And terrible acts of violence are being committed despite the special police force.  It made post-nuclear Florida in “Alas, Babylon” look like a cakewalk.

I think I’ve come to like the main character as well.  It may simply be because Palace has a backstory and feels familiar now.  It makes his stoic persistence more endearing.  I expect it of him.  There’s one great scene where he and his sister bicycle to the new Free Republic, the recently seceded University of New Hampshire, trying to follow a lead on his missing person’s case.  Before entering the campus, Palace changes into a suit, just like a detective would, oblivious that he would stick out like a sore thumb on a college campus turned revolutionary new society.  That’s just Palace.


This is short review, but it’s a straight forward book.  It’s fun and suspenseful and it drew me into wondering what would happen to society if such a disaster was imminent.  My own imagination on this frightened me a bit.  But I’m quite looking forward to seeing what Winters comes up with in the last book.  I still give it three stars out of five, though it’s better than its predecessor, but not quite a four star.  If I used half stars, I’d use one here.  I don’t, so it stays a three.  Read it.  It’s quick and leaves you wanting more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien
Completed 4/12/2015, Reviewed 4/15/2015
4 stars

Most Tolkien fans probably know that he had trouble finishing his work.  Even with the books he finished, he revised later editions.  This was because he was constantly developing his universe.  Rather than simply writing a new story in the universe and moving on, like many contemporary writers of multi-story universes, he jumped around the timeline, making additions and changes, evolving the characters and situations as his own understanding evolved.  “Unfinished Tales” presents stories which he never quite finished, or had multiple or partial rewrites.  In addition, his son Christopher adds lots of commentary to help the reader understand the details and discrepancies in each piece.  The result is a m√©lange of amuses bouche which while tasty, will leave the unprepared reader only partially satisfied.


Like “The Silmarillion”, I dove into this book with full ammunition: an open mind, “The Atlas of Middle-Earth” by Karen Wynn Fonstadt, and 13 podcasts from Professor Corey Olsen from tolkienprofessor.com’s Mythgard Academy.  In general, I found the book generally enjoyable, even the chapters where there were almost as many pages of notes as there was text. 

My favorite and perhaps the easiest read is the story, or probably more accurately, the essay on the Istari, the order of which Gandalf and Saruman were a part.  It doesn’t answer all the questions, but even Tolkien’s own lack of definitiveness is incredibly interesting.  By contrast, “The History of Celeborn and Galadriel” is not as satisfying as one would think.  Within this text are three differing collections of information about Galadriel’s life and role in Middle-Earth.  At times I had to stop and look back to realize the story switched gears.  What helped me the most was Prof. Olsen’s analysis of the evolution of Galadriel, from her conception for LOTR to the last treatment Tolkien gave her near the end of his life.

I also find my appreciation growing for the epic story of Turin Turambar.  “Unfinished Tales” gives a more detailed narrative of the beginning and end of his tale than “The Silmarillion”.  It’s an incredibly tragic story, but marvelously conceived.  It’s actually inspired by a story from the Kalevala, the ancient epic Finnish poem, and integrated into the mythology of Middle-Earth.  After my first exposure to it in “The Silmarillion” I was pretty bummed by it: murder, suicide, incest, making Macbeth seem YA.  Now after reading this treatment of it, I’m greatly anticipating the full novel version that Christopher put together a few years back.

About the only part of the book I really didn’t like was the section on the formation of Rohan, mainly because it mostly consists of detailed battle scenes.  My regular readers know that that’s not my favorite type of reading.  No matter how hard I try, my eyes glaze over and the next thing I know, I’m a few pages further and completely lost.  The reward of this chapter, though, is that the success of these battles creates the original alliance between Gondor and Rohan.  That part is beautifully written, and worth getting through the tough part.


Ultimately, the nature of the book is frustrating because the stories are, well, unfinished.  No matter how much I prepared myself, when the stories just stopped or histories revised multiple times within twenty pages, I was left unfulfilled.  Thank goodness for the maps and the lectures.  They helped me regain my perspective.  And I think you have to maintain a strong balance between fan and academician to read any kind of unfinished work.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.  Experiencing Tolkien at this level is great, but is probably not for everyone.  It’s even less accessible than “The Silmarillion”.  The nature of the book does not lend itself to the emotional punch I need to give it a full 5 star rating.  I think jumping back and forth between story and notes kept that dampered.  But now that I’ve gotten this far, I’m just hungrier for more, and am not put off by how difficult the twelve-volume “History of Middle-Earth” probably is.  So yeah, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a fanboy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tales From the Perilous Realm

J.R.R. Tolkien
Completed 3/30/2015, Reviewed 3/31/2015
5 stars

 Reading this book is a cheat for me.  It is comprised of several of Tolkien’s works that appear in “The Tolkien Reader”, plus two more.  I read these two stories immediately after finishing “Reader”, so of course, I’m also giving this 5 stars out of 5.  The two additional pieces are simply wondrous.  In addition, it’s illustrated by Alan Lee, the artist and genius behind the production design of the LOTR films, adding a glorious ethereal quality to the book.  In this review, I only review the pieces that were not included in “Reader”.


The first story is “Roverandum”, a children’s tale about a dog transformed by a wizard into a toy, owned as a toy by a young boy who loses him, then is transformed back into a dog and has adventures on the moon and under the sea.  Tolkien created the story for his own son who lost such a toy dog while at the beach.  He used the story to console his son over the lost toy.  As a children’s tale, it is simply marvelous.  While reading it silently, I could hear the intonation of a British narrator, much like Sebastian Cabot in the Winnie the Pooh films.  I began this book late one night and actually put myself to sleep with the narrator’s melodic voice in my head.  Of course, it is a silly story, but it signifies Tolkien’s fondness for his children as well as his art of storytelling. 

“Smith of Wootten Major” is a very different story.  It takes place in the realm of Faerie, the “perilous realm”.  In the town of Wootten Major, there is a celebration for children every twenty-four years, featuring an enormous cake baked by the town’s baker, filled with coins and little presents.  One particular celebration year, the baker (who was not the best bakers the town ever had) inadvertently adds a small faerie star to the cake.  It’s eaten by a boy, the son of the Smith.   As he grows up, becoming a Smith himself, he discovers that he has the ability to travel into the realm of the faeries.  This story exemplifies Tolkien’s take on the fairy story, as described in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, featured as an appendix in this book.  The realm of Faerie isn’t a pastel colored world of little Tinkerbells.  It’s a whole other world sitting at the boundaries of our reality, and it’s ruled by the Faerie King and Queen, who can say who is allowed to enter the realm and who cannot.  Because of that star from the cake, Smith is one upon whom this grace is bestowed.  “Smith” transports you to this magical realm, conveying its reality through mood as well as by the plot.  Like Smith’s ultimate fate, when you have to leave this realm, you are left sadder, though extremely satisfied and moved at the opportunity allowed you.


So which book do you read, this or “Tolkien Reader”?  My answer is both.  This book comes in hardcover, so the font is larger and easier to read, and the art is glorious.  “Reader” features other art, more primitive and whimsical and has the more traditional smaller mass-market paperback fonts.  For a lover of Tolkien, reading all the works found in these two books is a simply a must.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tolkien Reader

J.R.R. Tolkien
Completed 3/3/28/2015, Reviewed 3/30/2015
5 stars

It seems like I’m handing 5 stars out of 5 for all of Tolkien’s works these days.  In my defense, I think I’m just in “Tolkien Mode”.  Everything I’m reading by him seems magical and alive.  The pieces in this diverse collection of his works simply feed into that.  This book contains an essay, a play, a novella, a short story, and a collection of poems.  Let’s start with the fiction.

“Leaf by Niggle” is an allegory about art and death.  Tolkien regularly professed his dislike of allegory.  He faults it with diverting the reader from the art of the story itself, causing them to focus on what it represents what instead.  So it’s interesting that he would write one himself.  Niggle is a painter who spends too much time on his art rather than on helping his neighbors.  He’s distracted by responsibility and details.  Suddenly, he has to go on a journey, leaving his art behind, and disgraced by the authorities for not using his masterpiece’s canvas for his neighbor’s leaky roof.  Besides the obvious death allegory, it seems to me that Tolkien is describing his artistic process as well.  Niggle starts his “masterpiece” with one leaf, then more leaves, then the tree, its roots, the birds, the forest, and the mountains.  This piece consumes him.  He even patches other paintings onto this piece even though they didn’t start out as being a part of it.  And he’s never finished with it.  Besides being distracted by neighbors, he’s distracted by the details of the paintings.  Looking at the whole of Tolkien’s work on Middle-Earth, knowing that he left lots of fragments of the stories from it and grafted unrelated stories he had already written onto it, it was easy for me to conclude that this was autobiographical.  It’s a wonderfully charming story in itself, and Niggle conjures the personality of Bilbo.  When you get to the end, you simply feel like you read something very personal about the author.

“Farmer Giles of Ham” is a wonderful little story about a non-descript farmer who is thrust into the limelight by accidently fending off a giant wrecking the village.  Praised by his neighbors and even the king, he ends up conscripted to fight a dragon who also comes a-rampaging.  It’s another story about unexpected bravery and growth against overwhelming odds, a la “The Hobbit”. 

“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” is a collection of poems about Tom Bombadil and other Middle-Earth lore.  I’m not much of a poetry appreciator and initially had trouble comprehending the poems.  I decided to read them aloud, and it made a big difference.  I got the point of the poems, the humor, the horror, the gallantry, the irony.  “Cat” was one of my favorites.  It was simply fun.  “The Sea Bell” and “The Last Ship” nearly made me cry.  They made a great end to the whole book.   

“The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorththelm’s Son” is play and a poem based on an old epic poem of an English battle.  The two characters are searching the dead from a battle for the body of Beorhtnoth.  It’s very short.  At first, I didn’t know what to think of it.  Again, me + poetry = I don’t get it.  But upon reflection, it seemed to be a statement of war and heroism in a macabre little package.  Then I realized it left me quite uncomfortable and quite aware of the tragedy that war is. 

The last piece to mention is the essay “On Fairy Stories”.  It’s a wonderful discussion of Tolkien’s view of fantasy.  He shows that the fairy story is art, answering his detractors, and should be valued as a very high form of it.  He discusses the difference between fantasy and the stories about the world of Faerie, and the transformative power of it.  It’s a bit long, and sometimes academic papers can be a bit dry, but it is also often amusing, and provides a glimpse into his mind.  It made me more interested in reading his collection of letters. 


I have to say I didn’t think I would enjoy this collection, as I wasn’t sure I’d be interested in anything outside Middle-Earth.  This book showed me that I really appreciate his writing in general.  It’s very warm and welcoming, even his essay.  I’m hoping that when I get to the rest of Tolkien’s posthumous work, I’ll rate something below a five, just to demonstrate that I haven’t lost all my critical edge and just simply worship him.