Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Year in Review

This is my first look back at a year in some time, and the first for my blog.  I want to focus on my SF/Fantasy experiences for the year, but I also wanted to acknowledge some of the good experiences and challenges in my personal life as well.

The most profound event of the year began in 2012 with my partner’s cancer diagnosis.  The surgeries and recovery extended into this year, and the effects on our lives has been profound.  I could wax poetic on how screwed up heath “care” is in this country and how his illness has affected us, but suffice it to say that recovery from a traumatic health crisis is a long, difficult process, and it is not helped by the minimal and indifferent aftercare experience.  

The most joyous event of the year was driving my mother-in-law down from Alaska to Oregon.  We got to visit Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St Elias National Parks, see the glories of the Canadian Wilderness, relax on the ferry through the panhandle’s inside passage, and experience a little of Vancouver, BC and Seattle.  We went to a lot of really amazing museums.  And yes, we saw bears and whales.

One of the most fun experiences of the year was meeting Peter S. Beagle on his tour of the remastered animated feature The Last Unicorn.  The tour came through Portland in November, and it gave me the opportunity to see if for the first time.  My partner and mother-in-law also came along, and they got to see it for the first time since its initial release on the big screen.  Afterwards my mother-in-law and I waited in line to have Mr. Beagle sign our book (Jacob had a prior appointment right after the movie).  We waited for an hour and half.  The cause of the long wait was all these unicorn merchandise tables before Mr. Beagle.  Granted, unicorn bling probably provides more revenue than the movie ticket sales alone, and I’m sure the cost of the remastering and the tour were not cheap.  But this held up the line so much, that from where we were standing, we could see Beagle checking his phone, looking bored and tired, waiting for fans to get past his aggressive salespeople.  When we finally got up to him and started talking about our favorite parts of the book, he perked up, became gregarious, and engaged us in a wonderful conversation.  It really made me aware of how much Mr. Beagle appreciates his fans, loves to talk about his books, and just banter gregariously with people.  And that warmed my heart.   

I was unemployed more than I was employed this year, which is how I was able to read 55 books this year.  This reading experience, and the encouragement of my partner, prompted me to begin writing book reviews, which eventually lead up to my beginning this blog.  I was hoping I’d blog about feelings and experiences besides reviews, but maybe this entry will be the beginning of being more comfortable writing about personal things.  

My greatest achievement this year was having three of my reviews from my blog featured on the Worlds Without End genre fiction site blog.  The three books were Summer of Love by Lisa Mason, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and Among Others by Jo Walton.  They were books I read for the WWEnd Women of Genre Fiction challenge:  read 12 books by women authors of genre fiction who you’ve never read before.  I found many gems through this challenge.  When I started my blog, I never thought I would have more than a couple of hits from people who were close to me, and from some of those blog watcher sites that give you a hit as soon as you post.  Through the recognition of WWEnd, I’ve had the opportunity to share my voice with a few more people than I would ever have expected.  I have a lot of thanks to WWEnd for recognizing my efforts.

Okay, finally, onto my favorite books of the year.  I found so many treasures this year, you might just go to my Hugo List and WOGF list pages and look for the 4 and 5 star reviews.  This list is the most noteworthy of them, and they are not in any real order:

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord
The Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
Summer of Love – Lisa Mason
Way Station – Clifford D Simak
Dreamsnake – Vonda N McIntyre
Redshirts – John Sclazi
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

My favorite of the year:  The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

Special Mention: A Canticle for Leibowitz– Walter M Miller Jr.  This was my third read of this book and will always have a special place in my heart.  

I don’t have my reviews posted for the Willis and Gaiman books yet, but just so you know, they made my eyes dewy.  

And what SF/Fantasy year end review would be complete without another expounding on the latest installment of “The Hobbit” films.  I thought “The Desolation of Smaug” was better than “An Unexpected Journey”.  As much of a Tolkien fan as I am, but not being a purist of many things, I believe it is a good film in its own right.  I can appreciate Jackson and company’s attempt to pull in from other sources (including themselves) and make the connection to the LOTR films a little stronger, even the throwing of Legolas into the mix, which I know many people despised.  My complaint with the movie is that it lacks the heart and intimacy that the LOTR films had.  And that to me is what separates a good film from a great film.  There was more emphasis on the action than the characterization.  I loved, cared about, or hated all the characters in LOTR.  I don’t have many feelings one way or the other about the characters in The Hobbit films.  I can watch Sir Ian McKellen read a phone book, but even Gandalf seems terribly two dimensional.  Despite all this, I will go see the last installment.  I just wish it was better.

Other things of note.  Jacob started his own blog, Speak To Make It Out, to release some of the feelings about his struggles this past year.  I broke the 1000 pageviews mark on my blog.  I found some other great SF/Fantasy bloggers, Stainless Steel Droppings and The Hugo Endurance Project.  I regularly participate in three drumming circles, and made my own frame drum.  I had a good time at Faerieworlds again.  We saw Mumford and Sons in an awesome concert.  There was no Kings of Poland t-shirt booth at the Polish Festival this year, so instead of selling shirts, I just ate a lot of Polish food.

My goals for next year?  (1) Finish my quest to read all the Hugo winners.  I have 5 to go, plus 5 more that I read over 10 years ago which I’ll have to reread to write reasonable reviews.  (2) After reading the Hugo winners, read some of the books and authors that I’ve stumbled across but have been postponing until after the Hugos, including more Simak and Willis.  (3) Post the rest of my already written reviews to my blog. (4) Be less judgmental of others opinions at my local SF book club.  (5) Write more, in general.  

Happy New Year everyone!

WOGF Review: Sorcery and Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Completed 12/22/2013, Reviewed 12/31/2013
4 stars

Sorcery & Cecelia is a wonderfully fun young adult novel written in an epistolary form which I don’t think I’ve ever encountered.  The authors wrote the story by actually writing letters to each other in the voice of their respective character.  According to their afterward, they did this as a game.  The result is a delightful romp with young Victorian women who dabble in a little magic.  Some reviewers call this a cross between Jane Austen and Harry Potter.  I think it’s maybe more of a Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for teens.  But neither comparison does justice in conveying the amount of fun you’ll have with this book.

The story is about Cecy and Kate, two young cousins writing to each other bemoaning how they are separated for the Season.  Kate is in London while Cecy is still in the country.  While at an affair, Kate stumbles into a magical garden and is mistaken by an old woman to be someone named Thomas under disguise.  The woman invites Kate to have some chocolate from a gloriously blue chocolate pot.  Normally clumsy, she spills the chocolate and watches the splashes eat through her dress.  She narrowly escapes this scene and writes to her cousin about it.

The strange incident leads Cecy and Kate into a mystery with roots in both London and in the country.  The two of them unravel the clues through their letters, discovering a deadly plot involving two evil wizards, the “odious” Thomas, his friend James, and that dratted chocolate pot, all while navigating beneath the radar of their magic-hating guardians, Aunts Elizabeth and Charlotte.

I can’t help but use adjectives like wonderful, fun, and delightful to describe this book.  Cecy and Kate are wonderful characters, vividly drawn through their letters and antics.  There are a lot of fun little gags, like the oft-referenced incident with the goat and a scene involving one aunt and “the vapors”, which all take place in this manners-conscious Victorian setting.  And the humor adds to the pace and excitement as the two cousins make their way through the dangers of dealing with the evil Sir Hillary and Miranda. 

This book is a great read.  It’s not deep or heavy, but it’s irrepressibly fun, exciting, and fast-paced.  I discovered this book when it was offered but rejected as the recent fantasy selection for our SF book club.  Between the title and the book club leader’s brief description, it sounded fun, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Four stars.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1961 Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M Miller, Jr
Read in fall semester 1981, late 2012, and completed again on 12/18/2013, reviewed 12/18/2013
5 stars

How do you review a book you love so much that you read it multiple times and after each reading, hold it in complete awe?  Canticle for Leibowitz is that book for me.  I find so many themes, ideas, and questions in it that I don’t know where to begin my review.  So I’m just going to start writing and see if I can communicate the profound effect this book has on me.

“Canticle” was originally written as three distinct short stories.  When Miller converted the stories into a novel, he made heavy revisions to create continuity while keeping each story distinct.   The first story is set in the post-apocalyptic dark ages of the 26th century.  Somewhere in the American Southwest, Brother Francis, a novice monk at the Albertian Order of Leibowitz abbey, finds what might be relics of Isaac Edward Leibowitz and his wife.  Leibowitz was an engineer who, after a great nuclear war, and coming to the conclusion that his wife was a casualty of the war, converts to Catholicism and starts a monastic order whose mission is to save books which are being purged by the angry rabble left in the war’s wake.  Leibowitz is discovered and martyred as one of the intellectual elite who contributed to the buildup of technology that caused the war.  The relics may lead to the canonization of Leibowitz.  The story details Brother Francis struggle as the discoverer of the relics and receiver of a possible vision of Leibowitz himself.

The second section is set 600 years later.  The abbey is at the center of controvery over its guarding of the ancient memorabilia of the 20th century.  Thon Taddeo, a brilliant scientist from a nearby kingdom, goes to the abbey to inspect the documents himself, discovering that the monks themselves have discovered how to generate electricity and create a light bulb based on the memorabilia and Thon Taddeo’s work.  The world appears to be at the dawn of new Renaissance.  But like the Renaissance of the 15th century, there is fighting between the kingdoms, conflict over the new discoveries, and a potential schism in the Church, not unlike that Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England.

The third section takes us another 600 years into the future.  Now the abbey is coping with a world on the brink of another nuclear holocaust.  The current abbot, Dom Zerchi, has the task of selecting some of his monks to leave the earth in the event the war comes to fruition, taking the holy ancient memorabilia with them and keeping the Church alive on one of earth’s colonies.  Zerchi must also deal with the question of euthanasia for severe victims of radiation poisoning, and whether the second head of woman with a genetic mutation has its own soul. 

The three stories create a future history of the earth, covering a second dark ages, renaissance, and nuclear age, mimicking our own history after the fall of the Rome.  Once again, the Church saves science, although this time, it’s not Plato and Aristotle, and Euclid, but Newton, Einstein, and Leibowitz.  No one may still be able to understand the past, but the Church works to preserve it.  What’s different this time, at least according to the novel, is that the Church isn’t burning what may be heretical.  It’s the common people who are burning books, all books.

When I first read this book, I found it to be a criticism of Christianity.  Now I’m not so sure.  As another reviewer noted, it’s hard to tell if this is a critique of or a love letter to the Church.  For example, I initially thought the suffering of Brother Francis and the road to Leibowitz’s canonization was a statement about Church hagiography.  Now it feels more like an homage to stories like St Bernadette of Lourdes and the early missionary martyrs.  If you’ve seen the old film “Song of Bernadette” with Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price, might get the Lourdes analogy.

Another good example of my quandary is Dom Zerchi’s fight over euthanasia.  I can’t tell what side of the issue Miller was on.  In fact, the whole third section initially felt like he’s criticizing the theology of pre-Vatican II Rome.  But on my third read, I felt more like he was siding with the Church.  It seemed more like he was really speaking to the Church’s lack of moral authority in the secular present.  Yet, if Miller was siding with the Church’s stance on euthanasia, then the more ironic is Miller’s own death from suicide. 

Probably the most confusing point is his description of New Rome.  It is full of all the splendor and vulgarity of our Rome.  But upon closer inspection, the plaster is cracked and falling, the paintings are faded, and the pope’s vestments are worn and moth-eaten.  Again, at first I thought he was describing the fa├žade of Rome in the late ‘50’s.  It looks wondrous, but is it really just lipstick on a pig.  And is the pope just a nice, old, friendly guy, or is he just a doddering fool oblivious to the hardship of life on the plains?

I don’t have answers to any of my questions.  I just know it makes me want to read it again and again, and maybe even do some real research on Miller… I mean, besides Wikipedia.

Miller’s characterization is very strong.  I found that I could fully experience the viewpoints of all the main characters.  Brother Francis is my favorite character, maybe one of my favorite characters in all of SF.  He grows from being a terrified novice to a deeply spiritual monk.  His journey is at times comical, but is more often poignant and incredibly touching.  His innocence and reverence serve as a stark contrast to Abbot Arkos’ fear and cynicism.  As much as I love the whole book, I could read a whole novel just of him.

The hermit is an awesome character.  I love the question of whether or not he is Lazarus, as well as the mystery of a resurrected being.  If Lazarus was raised from the dead, then shouldn’t he be immortal, and what is the implication?  Here, he gets to be a comical character, offering interesting perspectives, often like a Greek chorus. 

I do not want to dissuade potential readers from discovering the magic of this book because of my quandary over what Miller’s message might be.  It is a brilliant book.  As I have read through all the Hugo winners, my experience with this book was the standard against which I held all the others.  This is what a 5 star book should be.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1979 Dreamsnake

Vonda N. McIntyre
Finished 5/2/2013, Reviewed 5/2/2013
5 stars

There is a warmth to this book that is wondrous.  It had the same effect on me as did “Jonathan Strange.”  Whenever I picked it up, at home when I had time, or on the train to work for 8 pages at a time, the prose of the book put me in a wonderful place. 

The basic plot is that of a quest, but it is so much more than that.  First, it’s the quest of a woman, the first female main character in a Hugo winner, if memory serves me correctly.  Second, the woman is a healer who produces vaccines and cures through the manipulation of venom from snakes.  She is a doctor in a post-apocalyptic world that fears snakes.  Third, through her journey, she heals those around her mentally and emotionally, while trying to heal herself.

There are several analogies that are easy to make.  It’s about power of and struggle against addiction.  That one is obvious.  It’s about the hoarding of knowledge and the breakdown in society because of it.  It has a ring of Christian mythology, the journey of a “miracle worker,” dying to one’s self, being lowered into the depths of hell, and even a crucifixion/resurrection motif. 

Despite all these themes that run through the book, it all comes down to the main character.  She is strong, determined, compassionate, charitable, and loving.  She is also flawed and filled with self-doubt.  Within the first chapter of the book, I loved the character.  I wanted to see the journey to the end.

There is only one complaint I had with the book.  The last chapter was a little too “nice”.  I don’t want to write a spoiler, so suffice it to say, there’s a happy ending.  But I didn’t count this against my final rating of the book.  I just did not want to put it down.  I got the book the day before my first day at a new job.  After the first chapter, I was angry that I hadn’t gotten the book while I was still unemployed, when I would have had time to finish it in just a few days, instead of a week.  That’s how much I enjoyed it!  Five stars.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1994 Green Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Completed 12/11/2013, Reviewed 12/13/2013
3 stars

I think it was a mistake to read “Green Mars” right after Red Mars.  Reading two massive tomes about the Martian landscape one after the other became a little tedious.  The books are structured the same.  The saga of living on Mars is told from a different character’s perspective per chapter.  Where the first book was more about the colonization of Mars, this book’s plot is the terraforming the planet and the formation of an independent Martian government.  Some action and characterization takes place, but once again, the primary focus is tons and tons and tons of descriptions of the environment.  Instead of actors chewing the scenery, the scenery does the chewing.

The book began well, picking up the story of the remaining first 100 colonists after the war of 2061 and hiding out in the southern hemisphere, and being told from the perspective of one of the first children born on Mars.  I was excited.  The characterization of Nirgal was great, and the tone was markedly different from the first book.  But by the second chapter, the perspective changed to one of the adults and narrative returned to the same pattern as the first book. 

Several large chapters of the book are simply travelogues.  The premise of one is to drive around the planet and visit the refuges of the Martians hiding from Earth’s transnational corporations’ security forces.  Another is to drive around and sabotage transnat installations.  The third is to drive around to all the refuges again and keep them from openly revolting against the transnats until a coordinated effort can be made.  The key phrase here is “drive around”, giving the author way too many opportunities for descriptive prose.  I have to say the prose is good.  But it just got tedious.

One character I really liked this time around was Sax.  We get a whole chapter of him geeking-out on biogenetics and the planting and development of his genetically engineered plants.  It may sound tedious as well, but there was something about his intensity that really engrossed me. 

I had a love-hate relationship with Hiroko.  She was the lead biologist in the first book who disappears into the southern hemisphere to become the leader of a Martian nature cult.  She becomes the Mother of Mars, promulgating a unifying energy among the splintered refugee groups.  She is the only person who can, at least temporarily, bring together terraformists and anti-terraformists, the radicals and the less-radicals, the old and the young.  At one point, she walks through a huge crowd painted head to toe in green while her followers get the crowd to chant the names of Mars in all languages.  It’s a weird and powerful scene.   I loved the fact that she is a crazy embodiment of the Mars experience, but I hated that the character is one dimensional.  There are no interpersonal interactions with her that tell you who she is.  Did she really go off the deep end and become a goddess, or is there still a human being in there somewhere?  We don’t get to find out.  She’s simply a colorful enigma. 

Nirgal, her son, is also an enigma.  We get a good picture of him growing up in the first chapter.  We also find out he has a strange gift of temperature regulation.  He gets to use it once.  He stays relatively prominent through the first half of the book, but then becomes one-dimensional as the story continues.  And there is only one more reference to his gift.  I was hoping Nirgal and his gift get a little more focus, maybe adding some magical realism to the story.  Maybe we’ll get more in “Blue Mars”.

The conference of refugee groups trying to build a self-ruling, free Martian world community really worked for me.  It was an interesting way to incorporate a political/philosophical debate into a novel.  And it drew a very realistic picture of how difficult it is to get people to come to agreement about what freedom means.  Not everyone has the same concept of how to create and Eden, and people seem more willing to fight about a few differences than agree about the similarities.

I gave this book 3 stars.  I wonder if I would have felt differently if I had read it two years after Red Mars, the time between the publications of each.  It’s a really good book, but I just didn’t feel it as much as I did for the first book.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF review: 2012 Among Others

Jo Walton
Completed 5/17/2013, reviewed 5/24/2013
4 stars

It’s great that a Hugo winner is a book about a science fiction fan.  The attraction to science fiction, for many of us, begins when we’re young, feeling outcast, different, or otherwise disenfranchised from the mainstream.  We find it a solace, a place where we can believe that there’s something else out there, something better, something more real than our cruel reality.  The main character of this story is one of these fans, a teenage girl whose turns to SF to escape from the cruelty and craziness in her life. 

Morwenna has a crazy, abusive mother from whom she’s escaped, an alcoholic father who she’s just met, and goes to a private boarding school where, of course, she doesn’t fit in.  She is also the surviving twin of a car crash caused by her mother.  However, she finds her peace in SF, and has read an unbelievable amount of SF and fantasy, mostly by some of the most esteemed and prolific authors.  To her joy, she also finds an SF book club at her local library.  She gets to do a little growing up through new relationships she forms with the members of the club as well as with other book lovers.

One other thing, Mori can do magic and can talk to the faeries.  She spends most of her time protecting herself against the bad magic of her mother.  She is originally from Wales where she often spoke with faeries.  Now living with her father in England, she can see them, but doesn’t have much interaction with them.

Mori’s story is told through a diary.  The format made it easy to read as well as immediate and profound.  It follows her through the meeting of her father to the final confrontation with her mother. 

I loved almost every aspect of this book.  While the plot is linear, it does not really develop like a standard novel.  Some things happen out of the blue.  The ending, for example, doesn’t have any real build-up.  It simply happens.  But that was okay for me.  I like the fact that we were learning about Mori as she reveals herself to us in a non-formulaic way. 

The magic was interesting too.  It was more akin to magical realism than a “normal” fantasy containing magic.  I liked that as well.  It wasn’t constantly fantastical.  It was simply part of her everyday life. 

There was only one part of the story that bothered me.  Her father, in a drunken stupor, tries to climb into bed with her and kiss her.  It seemed extremely out of context.  Sure the father is an alcoholic, meeting her for the first time since she was an infant, and struggling with having a relationship with her.  But what point does the scene make?  None.  There’s no further mention of it, no repercussions, no tension.  It just happens, and then it disappears.  To me, it was totally unnecessary.  I think the uneasiness I felt because of it prevented me from having a more profound experience with the book.  Without it, I think I could have given this book 5 stars, a rating I only give to books which profoundly move me. 

I loved the insipid step-aunts, who bear some resemblance to Hamlet’s wyrd trio of witches.  I also liked the development of her relationship with a boy from her book club.  It came across as real, and not melodramatic.  I also liked her portrayal of the librarians.  They are the modern stereotype of librarians:  book lovers who have a better understanding of the world, who can see life through eyes different than most adults, because their minds are expanded by the books they treasure, and can see into the soul and needs of their patrons.

I gave the book 4 stars because, despite the incest scene, the story is awesome, the characters are wonderfully developed, and I felt like I really got to live inside Mori’s skin for a while.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1971 Ringworld

Larry Niven
Read 4/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
4 stars

I had trouble starting this book.  I had heard so many rave reviews of the book dating back to friends from the 70’s.  I was a little afraid of the hardness of the science fiction.  The fact that a sequel was called Ringworld Engineers brought up my less than admirable feelings towards the engineering students I rubbed elbows with at the University of Colorado (the Math department and classes were located in the Engineering Center). 

The book started well with Louis Wu’s 200th birthday, but stumbled for me with the introduction of the two main alien characters, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals.  My first impression was that they were too cartoonish.  Again, it raised my distaste for alien species based on earth creatures and their earthly characteristics (here, a horse and a tiger, respectively).  But by the middle of the book, I was hooked.  I had made peace with my bias, and found the aliens to be the perfect such aliens of this genre.  They grew on me as their personalities grew and fleshed out. 

I made peace, too, with my bias against engineering and hard sci fi.  The description of and journey through Ringworld was amazing.  It reminded me at times of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle.  In general, I think I find it difficult to read descriptions of and imagine huge complex entities, such as the outside of Ringworld, or large spaceships, or complex civilizations like the layout of Luna in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”  But once getting through that struggle, I was able to explore the rest of Ringworld and enjoy it.

I liked Louis and Teela, as well as their relationship.  At times, I was a bit put off by Teela’s simplicity, raising my easily ruffled sensitivity towards portrayals of women in science fiction.  But I found myself accepting her as being not a typical woman, because of her “gift” of luck.  And I loved how she grew through the book.

I also enjoy the whole concept of engineering/interfering/experimenting with life.  It was done well here.

My biggest criticism was that flycycles seemed a bit to amazing to be real.  They flew hundreds of thousands of miles with an undescribed energy source (unless I missed it somewhere).  They had tons of controls, including the ability to make food.  Given the amount of my suspension of disbelief in their existence, it was then hard to believe that they could crash.

When I was done with the book, I was glad I had read it, and wished I had read it back in the 70s or 80s.  Although at the time, I don’t think I would have had as critical an eye.  4 stars.