Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mistborn. The Well of Ascension.

I’ve been finished with this book for a few days now, but summoning the energy to revisit it, even if it only is in the way of written commentary, has proven difficult. For me there was an overwhelming amount of drudgery in this novel. It didn’t go anywhere. It moved forward with the haste of US forces trying to get out of Iraq. Generally speaking in most all narrative fiction there is a central conflict that is built upon for the better part of 80 percent of the book. When that moment arrives it is a big deal to the reader and the resolution has a profound effect. Usually this central conflict is hinted at and indeed built upon in many subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. This concept holds true for Well of Ascension but the lethargic pace and somewhat dead setting (for Sanderson this is somewhat of a compliment that I’ll explain later) combined to help me read the book with nothing short of complete and total apathy.

The majority of the book is very interesting, well written and woefully unimportant to the events that comprise this trilogy. I can say this without even having read the third book yet. There is not a lot of material to work with here. The essential dull cast from the first book are back again doing exciting things that manifest themselves as mundane only because the bulk of the events going on lack a tie in to a central theme or relate to the novel’s pivotal climactic moments.

To say this book felt like a place holder would be a stretch but I am left wondering if I left this book out and skipped to the third would I still be rewarded with comprehension? Perhaps even greater enjoyment?

I had started reading Robert Jordan’s famed Wheel of Time series years ago. I stopped around the sixth or seventh entry because I felt nothing happened in an entire 700 plus page book. In the penultimate book that I read, I still distinctly remember placing a post-it note inside the front cover should I ever want to consult the book again. I wrote on that note the only two events that I felt were important to the entire story. Upon reading the next entry and experiencing the same feelings I promptly started reading other things. Upon finishing Well of Ascension I felt I could place another post-it note on the inside of this book as well.

Reading a series with all the books in hand as opposed to waiting for each entry's publication is a bit different than the norm. My single biggest contention was the constant recapping the book provides of the events from the previous entry… the entry I had just read. This redundancy only added to Sanderson’s still persistent form of repetition. Perhaps other readers will be able to empathize when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s trilogy comes out next year; each book will be released in successive months.

Feruchemy takes Allomancy’s place in terms of reader education and general ‘bogging down of events.’ And now characters are associated with the same cliched word each appearance they make to help hammer home the repetition: Vin, mist; Breeze, wine; Dockson, ledger; OerSeur, contract. And my final point of the written repetition: I pray that the third book makes no mention of Inquisitors with metal spikes through their eyes. (Who could possibly forget an attribute as distinct as that!?)

Forgive me. I don’t use exclamation marks causally. When they happen they take even me off guard.

There were a few awkward moments where the speaker attributive contained an adverb. Something I always thought was a, “no, no.” Not only is it insulting to reader intelligence but it is a cover for weak writing; and Sanderson is not a weak writer. A couple of previously taciturn characters are now chatter boxes only to be called out by other characters as, “quiet” within a few pages. Oh yeah, and a dog constantly shrugs his shoulders.

I’ve been a dog owner and I’m pretty sure the action is physically impossible.

Despite my ranting all is not doom and gloom. My compliments to Sanderson remain the same as my first comments on The Final Empire. He can craft tension and drama as well as anyone but getting there can be a chore and it’s only worth the experience if you actually care about the people involved, and these characters are a bit stiff.

His world-building is nothing short of phenomenal which was also my primary praise of Elantris, his first novel. Considering the book takes places in or around only one location is a further testament to his ability.

I think it’s easy for me to be hard on Sanderson because I am predisposed to liking him. If you enjoyed the first book then you should pick up the second. I, however, am going to take a break before exploring the series end in The Hero of Ages. Amidst all the excitement action and intrigue their is a great, dull presence that I shall call ‘mist.’ At the moment, I need to clear the air, take a break, and read something else.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Where are the women on my book shelf?

I’m going to assign myself a challenge: seek out the best female writers regardless of genre and… read their books. I don’t think I’m sexist--actually I like women a lot--but for whatever reason the only book I currently own written by a woman in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And so, I turn to you dear readers…

I’m open to suggestions. My prefenreces in reading lean toward nineteenth century Russian literature (for whatever reason most stuff written by English speaking writers from the same time frame really turns me off: Wilde, Dickens, Conrad, ect.) I like intelligent fantasy--which I find increasingly more difficult to come across--anything that can make me laugh out loud, and whatever else might define a good book. My ideal love story is Bram Stokers’ Dracula, I love things that make me question my own life upon completion and anything I, the reader, get to take an active role in the reading process. I hate writers who spoon-feed me everything.

I won’t allow Toni Morrison as a suggestion as I already plan to delve into her works. I have tried Patricia McKillip and Mary Gentle and both were strike outs for me.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Who cares about Holden Caulfield?

Catcher in the Rye is being talked about a lot these days. (Perhaps it’s time I read that book…) I feel that I can understand Salinger’s feelings and I think he has a legitimate grip. What I think needs further evaluation is the relevancy of Catcher in today’s literary canon.

Some books, like Catcher are time sensitive: Notes from Undergroundwhat I think is Dostoyevsky's most intelligent work , and the more recent The Reluctant Fundamentalist are two others that come to mind. It is not to say that these books are irrelevant to later generations but the bulk of their clout is going to be felt be readers at the time of the works writing. While I always think that Catcher will be regarded as a great work for reasons I hope to experience for myself shortly, I do think it’s star is fading.

Salinger is ninety and in declining physical health. The readers that the novel so heavily affected aren’t to far behind. With this passing of a generation I wonder about the credence given to a work like Catcher. To those who read it within a few years of it’s publication especially readers around Holden's age they were moved and felt they found a spokesman of sorts: some one who thought like them and expressed everything they couldn’t and acted as they wish they had the guts to do. Those same readers make the best teachers to todays generation when it comes to explaining the novel and it’s appeal. Because of that strong connection and identification that they experienced they can better relate the message of the novel to other young readers. It’s a bit like listening to someone in their late fifties tell you about the how great the Beatles were. (Well perhaps not, Salinger’s writing actually does have substantial merit.)

My contention with classics of the arts in any medium: be it literature, music, or visual art--is that in today’s age of declining interest in classical arts the classics do more damage than good. We make kids today read Catcher and Wuthering Heights because they are great and everyone should appreciate their quality. Twenty years ago that may not have been a big deal but today getting kids excited to read a book is a chore in itself; tell them they are reading a “Classic of Western Literature” and watch the eyes roll and try to gauge their boredom in metric tons. What faster way to turn off interest in reading is there?

If we are going to force kids to read give them something they want. Let them read all the pulp fiction that they can get their hands on. Let them enjoy it before we turn them off to it. Everyone’s taste change in time, some even mature. You can’t force escargot on an eight year old and demand that they like because it is fine dining. (An extreme example; I know.)

Furthermore, has there been absolutely nothing of note written since Catcher that may have literay merit and appeal to todays youth? Perhaps coming of age stories are dead--I sure as hell don’t like the genre. Perhaps children today come of age earlier in life than in Caulden’s time. Yeah, I can see how the internet would work like that.

I’m not saying bury the classics but with the constant forcible promotion of, “This is a great book goddamnit!” I feel we are doing more to stunt the interest in reading than promote it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bargain books

I’ve found a new book store with a ‘bargain bin’ section that took me more than an hour to wade through. I managed to walk away with only three. You can’t imagine the restraint I displayed to hold myself to this number.

Michael Chabon is a name I’d known for awhile but never looked into. The Yiddish Policmen’s Union is his newest and seems like an easy entry at less than five dollars. Here’s to hoping that the words on the page are less of an eye sore than the cover. One of the reasons I love hardback books is because you can take the cover off: you can’t judge a book by it’s cover if it doesn’t have one, and this one is headed for the trash.

Alex Haley’s genealogical wonder Roots has been on my ‘list of stuff to read’ since I was a teenager. The cost of entry for this Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award winner was three dollars and change for the thirtieth anniversary edition in a nice trade paperback. While I am very excited about this book, coming off the epic page count of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn I may hold off on these nine hundred pages and catch my breath with some shorter works.

I am hoping that The Dog Said Bow-Wow a collection of short stories by Michael Swanwick is the prize pick of this litter. I read his short story Urdumheim in a collection earlier this year and knew right away he was someone I needed to follow. This was an odd one to find in the bargain bin, but I’m not complaining.

I’m feeling pretty good about picking these three up for the less than twelve dollars.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mistborn. The Final Empire

I previously blogged about how much I like Brandson Sanderson (here and in various other post as well) so I'm not going to sugar coat things. This is not a "review" as such, rather commentary on the work of a favorite author of mine.

The two biggest surprises I had upon finishing this book were that in many ways, it could stand alone even though it is the first in a trilogy and that it was pretty much standard, run-of-the-mill fantasy; anything but what I would expect after reading Sanderson's Elantris.

The pacing of the novel is extremely well controlled: never at break-neck, page-turning speed nor does it limp along; the cruise control is set at a comfortable, if not slightly unhurried, tempo. While he can create tension and conflict as well as anyone else, I wasn't so much left feeling drained only wondering why there was fifty or so pages left after what I found to be the primary climax. Controlled pacing is to be admired but as events rarely got to the point of maddening page-turning and the conclusion was as satisfying as it was, I have to wonder how many readers Sanderson lost for the trilogy after the first book. While I appreciated the lack of a cliched cliffhanger leading into the second entry, Sanderson left me with precious little substance to look forward to.

There is originality here and it comes across in Allomancy, Sanderson's system of 'magic.' The price of originality seems to be convolution and repetition. The principles of Allomancy are beaten into the readers head to the point that upon completion I could have passed a written exam on what was presented in the book concerning Allomancy's rules. While the readers' understanding is essential, the better part of most all action sequences were explanations of who was doing what, with which force, to whom. Rarely confusing, but frequently tiresome passages made up the bulk of the action. Every time a physical conflict came about I couldn't help but say to myself, "Here's the review lesson for the test I'll take tomorrow on Allomany."

Characters may have influenced most of my shoulder shrugging. I don't expect David Gemmell-esque, larger than life, people to populate anyone else's books, but I do have to care about the characters or the setting enough to make a connection. The "A-List" hero fell flat for me and while the endearing apprentice is positioned for greater things, she didn't quite tug at my emotions enough to make me anxious as to her fate.

The characters names certainly didn't help anything: Felt, Sazed, Ham, Marsh, Breeze, Clubs, Spooks. Did Sarah Palin win a contest that allowed her to name Sanderson's characters? Granted Ham was short for Hammond, but in general it was as if the names, much like Allomancy, while original came across as the author trying to hard.

I recall Sanderson using italics to set off interior monologue in Elantris but no where near to the extent he does in The Final Empire. I found the sheer amount used to be an eye sore, and compensation for not finding a different (better) way to express how his characters were feeling.

Swords and sorcery, action adventure fans are sure to be satisfied, as was I, even if I was constantly wanting something more substantial. Either I've matured as a reader since Elantris or for whatever reason it struck a special chord with me, either way Mistborn is worth the time despite my long list of personal peccadillos.

It's difficult to form an opinion as this is book one of three and perhpas in the next installments all that I love about Sanderson will be on the pages before me. If not, I fear my commentary for the second and third books will read just as this one has.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Commemoration of Dotage

Why do we celebrate birthdays? I understand the need of keeping track of age but it is the party--the recognition--that I am calling out specifically. Particularly when we are past the age of twenty-one where anything truly “substantial” happens, what’s the point in celebration?

A celebration of the accomplishments made in a year or significant events seem more relevant to me in terms of having a party. It’s not exactly as if birthdays are exclusive or rare: everyone has one, once a year, and while it’s true that we don’t all live to the same age is there anyone out there who is truly so happy to be forty that they feel the need to have a party about it? To the best of my knowledge the sentiment of getting older is vastly different to a five year old and a twenty-nine year old.

Most parties are for a unique accomplishment: winning the Pulitzer Prize, elected President of your country, or a special academic achievement, but any old regular nobody can, and usually does, celebrate their birthday like it’s something special.

Perhaps I’m odd.

Oh yeah, happy belated birthday to my blog. I guess I’ll call a few friends and go out for the evening...


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Words I don't Like

This is a sensitive matter. I think my taste in fiction has changed. Perhaps in my seemingly vain attempts at publication my writing skills have helped to make me a more discerning reader, or I’ve matured in what I call ‘quality writing’ as I’ve exposed myself to more literature. I’d like to think it is a combination of the two.

My quandary at the moment is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. A few years after the final book’s entry and I’m just now making it around to reading the series. I loved Elantris when I read it a few years back and sang Sanderson’s praises. That’s why with Mistborn I was hoping for something… not necessarily different, but more substantial and not quiet so genre fantasy.

In addition to Sanderson’s writing, I’m heavily inclined to liking him as a person. I passed up on meeting him in person at some convention that had to deal with Robert Jordan, but I have written the guy; he wrote back. Not an in depth correspondence but honest communication on multiple occasions. He encouraged me in my writing efforts, was very humble about my praise of his, and as best I could tell seemed like a regular guy who has a great gig going for him. Someone that I admire.

We are a good ways away from being family, in truth not even ‘friends’ outside of a couple of causal emails, but I still find it hard to say anything negative about him.

I’ll be finished with Mistborn ,The FInal Empire book one by this Friday. (While I don’t intend to start doing reviews in a traditional sense I will write more on this book upon completion, as I plan to do for the other two entries.) In every possible way I feel this book is a step back for Sanderson’s writing when compared to his previous work in Elantris. If I didn't know otherwise, I would guess that Elantris was written after Mistborn.

The dialogue is regularly cringe inducing: characters talk about things that are common knowledge to the people they are talking to. The repetition--both repetition of words, and ideas--is either offensive or I'm supersensitive to it. The subtleties that made me wonder about events in Elantris are all explicitly spelled out for me in Mistborn. The general intrigue and uncertainty that drove event’s forward in Elantris seems to be missing in Mistborn.

I understand that all of my gripes are personal and that others may disagree. I encourage everyone to read the books and make up your own mind. I don’t want to be the gospel for anyone concerning what is good or bad to read.

I’ve said my piece on books in a series many times. Mistborn is not helping me feel good about starting other fantasy trilogies like Joe Abercrombie First Law or Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind. The latter of which has been heralded as the greatest thing since rum.

I guess my predisposition to liking fantasy, Elantris, and Sanderson makes it harder than it should be, but I was really expecting something more ‘literary’ from Mistborn. (There. I said it.) Perhaps it kicks in later...

Anyone have suggestions on literary fantasy?