Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

My past reading experience with Brandon Sanderson has taught me that his strongest writing ability is in making the idea of magic feasible.  Such a feat take time (perhaps this explains the author's always staggering page count) and he never does so upfront--that is how he keeps you reading--but at some point in Sanderson's tale readers understand the concept of magic as the author has created it and it makes sense to us even though we know such things aren't possible in our boring mundane world.  It is in part that by convincing us that magic seems tangible that readers get caught up in plot events.

In Elantris, his first novel, I was convinced that if I were in that world, and blessed with the gift, and studied hard enough I'd be a badass: scholarly aptitude yields badass magical ability.  Simple.  In the Mistborn trilogy ones body processes certain substances in a way that produces a certain affect: ingest this metal do this with it...  By the time events concerning magic grew complex in both of these stories I was so well versed in the theory (theory of concepts that aren't possible I should point out) that everything seemed logical.  That, is a strong ability as a writer.  In Warbreaker, everyone has a 'Breath' and ones Breath in combination with colors yields something that would pass in our world as magic.

This particular magic system was very very weak; not merely compared to other systems Sanderson has devised but it didn't stand alone very well; hence my difficulty in trying to explain how it worked and further explaining my difficulty in connecting with the heart of the story.

Siri, and her sister, Vivenna come from the monochrome kingdom of Idris where they, ironically, worship the Austre: the god of colors (I never made sense of this).  Vivenna has been groomed all her life to be wife to the Hallandren God King in his lands where ostentation and color abound in terrifying quantity and the people live in decadence, and the glow of a host of living deities.  Despite the impending wedding, war looms between the two nations and it Siri who is sent to marry Hallandren's all-powerful in a political move to buy time.

Sanderson's characters feel solid and tangible if not a little bit stereotypical.  Siri is the younger rebellious sister, Vivenna is the prim and proper one.  Lightsong, a Hallandren God is flippant and carefree and there are a host of devout priest who can't explain their faith but have firm beliefs.

My primary problem with the book isn't the characters or the magic system--which all things considered felt unnecessary to tell the tale Sanderson told, not exactly forced but certainly not needed--is the sense of central conflict.  It's odd as there is tension on every-page, a la John Grisham.  I never once felt like putting the book down yet at the same time I never got a clear impression of what events were building towards.  The resulting feeling was one of reading without direction: this insures surprises and interest but there is no real payoff as the climax happened but I didn't really know it for what it was. Furthermore, while the characters are enjoyable, it's was difficult to grow attached to their dilemmas as I couldn't see how the fragments would affect the whole of the story.  Much of my angst is with the book's political intrigue: Sanderson focuses so much on obscuring the man behind the scenes and the true bad guy that when he arrives both the characters and their motives feel premature. 

War is threatening from the first page and yet the stakes never felt very high.  Surely, that should never happen in a novel.  Warbreaker deals with a lot of character and Sanderson seems to try to give them all equal screen time.  I felt this was a mistake.  Unlike most fantasy I read I wouldn't use my blanket comment of, 'the book needs to be two-hundred pages shorter.'  Nothing is inflated in Warbreaker, but much of what is given sure doesn't seem necessary.  Lightsong developing an interest in being a god and politics could have been conceived much faster.  Vivenna's character turns out to be wholly 'unimportant', never offensive but I certainly wondered why we were made to bother with her at all.  Finally with a primary character called 'God King' and with so much centered around him; man was that guy ever irrelevant.  Without certain story elements I felt greater focus on the events that mattered could have been given.  Some of the tension and central conflict could have been instilled.  Six-hundred pages is a lot of writing just to coast along.

This is easily the book I'm most ambivalent about this year.  It's OK.  Not horrible; not phenomenal; but easily could have been much stronger.  Okay I'll say it, 'The book could have been two-hundred pages shorter' and under an expert editorial eye we may have been left with something special.  Content editing aside, there were a lot of typos here, and I'm not allergic to typos but there were enough to merit me making mention of them.  Also there were some really awkward sentences that may not be real sentences: "Of one thing remained firm."  Some improperly used question marks and an extraordinary overuse of italics rounds out to what I have to admit were minor annoyances.  I liked reading it, only I wanted more of what I liked.  Alas... Should you feel inclined to read Warbreaker, like me, you may enjoy what's given, but it's hard to not wonder about 'what could have been.'      

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In lieu of a real post

I give you an awesome entry by someone else!  The link is awesome not so much due to the writer rather the people being interviewed: Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz; two of the best.  Oh and if you're sensitive to the f--- word you may want to get over it.  Fast.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Generally speaking I don't read books that deal with World War II in any but the most cursory capacities and it's extremely difficult to be cursory about so weighty a topic.  There is quality to be found in the setting and tension a plenty.  It's a personal quark of mine rather than a feeling that it's not possible to tell a good story within the confines of World War II.  In every story of that time there are people living their lives in every walk of life with happiness and drama and then the bad things start to happen that we all already know: war, soldiers, crimes against humanity and always at some point, 'The Nazis are coming!'  

The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax was the last book set at the time of WWII that I read, and it was excellent; it's been at least five years or so since then.  I've no recollection how The Glass Room came to be on my list or what put the author's name on my radar.  I'm profoundly happy I didn't know the first thing about this book when I started reading because missing out of this wouldn't have been like missing so many good books set in the time but truly missing out on something special.  

I'll contradict myself in a moment but for now bear with me.  There is a bit of deceit at the beginning of The Glass Room.  The book isn't about WWII (that truly never is the focus), like all good books it's about people.  Newly weds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, of the very successful Landauer automotive cooperation, set out to build their dream home and trust their vision to Rainer von Abt, an architect or rare inventiveness and contemporary foresight.  Their home is suspended from the ceiling and the crowning jewel of von Abt's architecture to date.  The Glass Room: a large space with three huge wall of glass, an over abundance of natural light, and solid onyx wall in the back is the most prominent feature in the house that sets the standard for new contemporary living.  The effect of the room stuns all who see it, no matter how often they visit the space, and indeed, such is Mawer's writing that the glass room continually has an effect on the reader as well.  The author's ability to describe the mundane, let alone extraordinary, is profound.  He captures the minutia of life in concise vibrant ways as if what is being done is interesting as opposed to commonplace.     

We see Viktor and Liesel, the family they start and the friends they make and how the house plays a role in the lives of so many, and then as the threat of war becomes more and more tangible we slowly come to see that the book, while about people, isn't necessarily about the Landauer's no matter how much we have come like them.  Nor is it about Hana, Liesel's promiscuous best friend and one of the most believably strong female characters I've come across, nor even is it about Nazis.  Big surprise, the book is about the glass room.  People come and go, develop, grow and some pass away, but the only constant in the novel is the house and how it affects people.  

The glass room represents transparency, exposure, and incongruously, sustainability to all who know it.  It isn't so much a mirror rather a place that allows people to be at their most natural state.  Not merely that all is exposed but rather when one is there there is no need to hide or obscure what is real.  Purity and universal contentment are what is most commonly seen when people are in the glass room.    

There is a very blatant sexuality to the book: from Viktor and Liesel, to Viktor and his mistress (and even between the mistress and Liesel), Liesel to Hana, and Hana and everyone…  Writers of whatever literary fiction is can't seem to merely say 'they made love' but have to carry on with the most absurd metaphors and imagery.  Mawer turned me off as a reader a few times (if ever you're writing and find yourself rambling in what you think is beautiful figurative language for genitalia, just stop) but then again, I never would have thought that sex could have been a metaphor for all of the unknown that preceded WWII, or that such a metaphor could be done so well to such a strong affect.  

There was one particular lovely comparison to sex and plums that made me close the book and think for a moment.  (I can be naive at times...)  I love those moments, especially when I figured everything out and made sense of it.  Then the next paragraph it was all spelled out in detail and I felt stupid--robbed--as if my intelligence as a reader were being undermined.    There weren't many, but there were more than one of those moments.  

Eventually, the Nazis do come and it is at that point the book's themes really come to the forefront: contrast, change, adaptability.  It is odd when a little past halfway the Germans come and do all the things Germans of the times did and all the characters we have known go away and yet the story keep going with new characters, popping up by the handful and at every new page, because, again, the book is about the people who inhabit the house and not necessary the Landauners.  The family is more of a starting and ending point than the focus of the story.  

I'm not sure why this one is proving so difficult for me to talk about.  It's a very simple, straightforward story, Mawer's voice and language are beautiful and there is tension on every page.  There really aren't individual moments that I would highlight or parts of prose I would quote that may sway one to read the book, rather the summation is greater than the parts that comprise the novel.  Nonetheless, it's an excellent book that will stay with you long after reading.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Absurdity of my Anger

So I've moved.  It happens.  Not particularly happy about it but I'm over it.  New county; new library; so I need a new library card.  I stop in today at the local branch, which is part of the Atlanta-Fulton County system, which is phenomenal all things considered, only to be told that they are making-over their check out system and they can't issue any new library cards for at least a week.

"It will be at least a week.  Perhaps ten days.  Call before you come back."

"Okay.  So what can we do right now; as a temporary fix?" I ask with my stack of books on the counter between us.  She gives me a hopeless stare but can't hold my gaze.  I don't get angry and I don't act a fool (I was tempted).  I just left.  That was all I could do.

It's irrational that I should be angry in this situation only because of how many unread books I have (that was the first box unpacked in the new place).  But I don't own what I want to read right now.  

I'm a bit frustrated to say the least.  I don't know what I'll sit down and crack open in a few moments; I'm sure it will be good and I'll enjoy it (optimism is so foreign to me).  But I still want those books I had to leave at the library.


Unrelated to anything, did anyone else see the article in the Saturday/Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal in the review section called 'My 6,128 Favorite Books' ?  Because that was awesome.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Firebirds edited by Sharyn November

Last year I was remiss (too lazy) to properly cover Firebrids Soaring, the third and hopefully not final original anthology from the Firebird imprint.  I can't make the same mistake again with Firebirds because I love it as much as Firebirds Soaring.

I'll start with my favorites.  Flotsam by Nina Kiriki Hoffman left me wanting more, both in terms of pages worth of story and content from what was presented.  Becky finds a young, seemingly homeless boy, and decides to take him home, get him cleaned up and fed.  She quickly finds out that Poppy, the boy, has lost his home, parents, family; everything.  I kept waiting for a poignant connection between Becky's broken family life--her parents separated after the death of their eldest child--and Poppy's but it wasn't meant to be.  What was given, was an exceptional story about strangers (extraterrestrial strange in Poppy's case) and treating people as we should, and not merely acting in accordance with propriety.  Flotsam was also one of the most powerful and best uses of title in a short story in all that I've come across.  

The Baby in the Night Deposit Box by Megan Whalen Turner is not only a phenomenal title but an equally wonderful story.  The story is as bizarre as you would imagine: a family owned local bank starts renting safety deposit boxes to its customers saying, 'Your treasure will be safe with us.'  Well one family decides it's most valuable treasure is a baby... and they'll be back to pick it up in eighteen years.  This one is both hilarious in it's realism and absurdity and a joy to read from start to finish.

The anthology's most odd inclusion may also have been its best in addition to one of my favorites.  Max Mondrosch by Lloyd Alexander is really only pseudo-fantasy.  It deals with the nightmare of unemployment and all one must go through to land a successful job: the exaggeration, outright lies, areas of interest covered.  This one hit a bit close to home and it was written in 2003 added to which the story itself is historical fiction.  (Perhaps phantasmagoric nightmare fiction is a better qualifier.)  I'll say this: it was good enough to make me dig up other works by the author.  There is a comparison to a master of short fiction here that is on the tip of my tongue, but I need a bit more before making such bold claims.  (Think big and awesome and you'll be really close.)

Beauty by Sherwood Smith, Mariposa by Nancy Springer, and, to a lesser extent, Medusa by Michael Cadnum all deal with similar themes of attraction and what it means to have self-confidence in one's looks and the disparity in what we see when we look at ourselves and what other people see when they look at us.  The variety among such similar stories worked really well: the first is standard secondary world fantasy, the second is contemporary if not slightly futuristic in that Michael Swanwick 'is this fantasy or sci-fi?' kinda way that I love and the third is based off the myth, only part of the story most readers won't be familiar with.

I've decided that I love Patricia A McKillip's short fiction and not so much her novels.  Odd as it sounds, I feel that way about a lot of great writers.  Byndley is excellent fairy tale; nothing exceptional but all the parts are done well.  Little Dot by Diana Wynne Jones was the one story that I was most surprised at liking: it's about cats...  A lot of cats... And a wizard... and a Sphinx.  It was awesome.

I've tried--with no success--to dig up new or newish information on the Firebird imprint.  It's really sad.  Their mission statement was to publish excellent original fantasy and science fiction.  In my mind they overachieved.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I told you not to do that!

No one listens to me... We've already been here before, and here we go again. 

I'm complaining about the misuse of musical terminology in fiction; again.  Writers take heed, for this seems to be the most popular abuse of a word ever: nothing can rise to a crescendo, the crescendo itself is the rise.  A crescendo takes us from one dynamic level over a specific amount of time (i.e. composer's instruction) to a new, louder dynamic that existed before the start of the crescendo.  Something can rise to a new dynamic; a louder volume; higher level of decibels; or escalate to a cluster-fuck of daunting proportion; but, nothing can rise to a crescendo. 

Simply put: a crescendo doesn't rise to a crescendo.  "The drama was intense and events rose to a crescendo."  Authors: insert your own nouns, but stop writing that line.  It Is Wrong.    

For the purposes of fiction, writers are allowed--even implored--to make fanciful figurative analogies to a idea with a very concrete definition.  However, this particular word, crescendo, needs to be called out and placed in check as it has been made abundantly clear that most writers have no clue what it means.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had initially thought that when I started discussing young adult literature I'd have to alter my approach: not swear so much, embrace idioms the intended audience would find desirable, adjust to a younger reading mind that might not be so quick to call shenanigans or identify what I would perceive as a flaw in other fiction.  I couldn't have been more wrong and Graceling is proof.  Just as I do with every other book I love, I get to rip Graceling to shreds while telling you why it's awesome.  It seems that's just my way. 

Graceling is exactly the kind of secondary world fantasy that I've been trying to get away from for the past two years, but it seems my self-imposed literary masochism has great foresight: before I could walk away from fantasy I had to explore every facet and I had yet to land of young adult fiction.  It's a good thing I did as I found the adventure, fun, and the pure escapism that has eluded me in so much of the fantasy I've put myself through in the past two years. 

Katsa has a Grace.  A Grace is a rare and unique ability very few people possess.  Some are practical such as an exceptional ability to cook.  Other are virtually useless like being able to hold one's breath for an inordinate amount of time.  Katsa's Grace is the ability to fight.  She is The Archangel Michael, Diomedes, and Superman wrapped into a small mass of teenaged insecurity, and identity.  She is used by the King, her uncle, to do his more unpleasant tasks when he feels the need to assert his authority.  She grows up under a cloak of self-pity doing horrible things at the King's bidding until she meets Po, who has a similar Grace as she, and she starts to recognize that she, and not her uncle, is in control of her actions. 

Growth is the primary theme and the focus is given solely to Katsa as Po is worlds more mature.  Development of their respective Grace is also subtly established and initially I was disturbed that no one noticed Katsa's Grace extends far past her ability to fight and that Po, while undeveloped, is just shy of an all knowing God.

While she can issue 'The Hurt' to just about anything under the sun, Katsa's not too bright.  She's so self-absorbed that she doesn't have the slightest sense of awareness to the people around her or her environment.  I think she kicked something on every page for the first half of the book.  She throws her hands up in frustration; a lot.  In the span of two pages Po vomited a ocean's worth of fluid; it never stopped, he never dry heaved, he continued to spew water enough to end a desert drought.  Repetitious issues aside, Katsa is immune to hypothermia; that was the only issue that taxed my belief.  She has the strangest views on marriage--captivity, chains, subjugation--and, what I saw (as a shameless thirty-two year old male of questionable integrity) as an inexplicable angst concerning a possible hook-up/friend with benefits.

It's amazing how subdued the plot is considering how wrapped up in the novel one becomes.  It's really really sparse.  There are political conflicts, a pseudo-ground, home grown network of do gooders, but there never seems to be that one driving force that compels the reader forward yet still the pages fly by.  Over time we do learn of a man with a Grace too easy to not abuse: all those who hear him speak fall under his control.  One does as he commands, it becomes interesting as we see that even Katsa would be useless against such a Grace. 

There are some questionable scenarios that arise and considering the book's stubborn linear progression (and in conjunction with the true nature of Po's Grace) I can't help but feel the book should have been written in first person.  Katsa is that strong of a character and unfortunately every single second of everything that happens revolves around her.  Another issue for the cause of first person is that Cashore excels at the intimate moments, or perhaps that's more of what I enjoyed than then broader picture.

Last gripe (I swear!).  The contraceptive plant... that didn't feel right--you know me, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that--but it sure felt convenient as Katsa not only never wants to marry (I loved the ending resolution to this matter) but also doesn't want children.  It was subtle and gently thrown out there; much like Bann, Prince Raffin's bff, and the nature of their relationship.  The book is more socially aware of at least a couple of contemporary issues than I was expecting.    

There's a Jane Eyre moment at the end that made me all kinds of mad until I realized that I got exactly what I wanted Po's grace to truly be.  Sorry, I know that's vague but I don't do spoilers.  Read the book, then report back with your thanks.     

Overthrow the mad king and save the land.  Strong independent female heroine curbstomps everything in sight, justice is restored and de facto but bittersweet 'happily ever after' mind set comes together at the end: the cliches are there if you wanna look for them.  Only they are buried under so much narrative and character development and not feed to the reader by way of exposition as to stand out.  (And yes, strong female heroines are officially as cliched as their male counterparts.  Maybe more so...)

Cashore, and I'm inclined to think all young adult writers of her quality, defy every preconceived expectation that my mind settled on when I think 'Young Adult Fiction.'  It's not light and fluffy, the sun isn't always shinning, nor is it filled with so much angst as to make me want to cut myself.  There is a story and characters.  Reality and drama.  Conflict, suffering, resolution and in the end clarity and understanding.  Isn't that what makes any work of fiction good? 

I didn't so much read this book as I lived it over the course of three days that it took me to finish.  I loved every word and while I'm pretty sure it's not the best book I've read this year it is without doubt my favorite.  Last time I felt this strongly; this good about a book that I wanted to force it in people's hands was after reading The Magicians.  I bought publisher's remainders at Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million by the numbers divisible by ten.  Literally.  Birthday gifts, holidays, 'Hey how ya doing presents,' I was pimping out Grossman's book like a... okay I won't finish that thought.  It didn't work.  I lack the ability to make someone read what gets me hot and bothered.  That said, I don't think my past failure will stop me from trying again with Graceling

Monday, October 1, 2012

Month in Review

This particular post is almost entirely born of my favorite book of the year.  Even I'm eagerly anticipating my own commentary of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.  If you've ever read any of my commentary before for a book that I really really liked you'll know I do a lot of complaining.  I'm not sure why this is, but I don't plan to buck the trend with Graceling, because it's awesome.

I'm too old to read this book, but I didn't know that until I was half way through and hopelessly committed to reading not just the rest of the book but probably anything else the author sets to paper.  I'm too old; too experienced; and far too jaded and cynical to identify with Graceling as the intended age of the book would.  Somehow these differences are only making the experience more enjoyable for me.  I have to finish this book soon or it will drive me crazier than I already am.

I actually did a fair amount of reading this month and discovered a new absolute joy in young adult fiction.  I think this discovery will help establish a balance from all the stuffy stuff I read and inject some hardcore fun into my reading.  YA fiction seems to be simpler, it doesn't take itself as seriously, it's all about the story (and really isn't that the point?) and I've yet to get a sense of the author trying to impress me with their craft.  In the stuffy adult literary fiction when all of the preceding is done with subtlety and style in conjunction with telling a story they are welcome and readily appreciated.  There is bad fiction in all genres but it seems to me that bad literary fiction is worse than the bad in any other genre and I'd rather spend time with mediocre YA books that at least yield story and shallow connection that slog through pages of self-indulgent, more often than not over-wrought, pretentious, blah that plagues so much of literary fiction.  Whew... I feel better having said that.   

Happily, I haven't read any mediocre YA books (yet). 

Aside from Clockwork Angel, Gracleing, and a handful of Lemony Snicket's offerings, I also read The Glass Room by Simon Mawer which I'll get around to posting comments for soon, (Yeah, I've said that before) and the decidedly not children's book--yet still awesome--My Cross to Bear by Greg Allman.  I can't endorse this past month's reading highly enough.     

I'm sure there is a lot more to talk about but honestly I'm so caught up in Graceling that I can't quite focus on anything else.  It is either definitively the greatest book ever written or something I'm ridiculously obsessed with at the moment.  I don't really care which.