Saturday, October 31, 2015

One Sentence Reviews: October

I started Actually Writing again, so my free time is limited--both for reading books and for reviewing them. Which is a shame, because I have read some great books this month! Please consider everything rated 3 stars and higher to have my recommendation, and pick yourself up a copy while I work on proper writeups.

Except for Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente. Wait for the review on that one. It's not a book to be approached casually.

October 2015

  • The Coyote Trilogy by Allen Steele (2002, sci-fi)
    • Political dissidents steal the first interstellar colonization ship, so that the next human-inhabited planet will be settled by lovers of freedom. -- It might have been good, if the author hadn't recoiled from any scenes of actual tension or resolution. 2.5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Gifts by Ursula K. LeGuin (2004, YA fantasy)
    • Border chieftain fighting to protect his village with magical talent blinds his own son to limit his destructive capacity. - A smaller and warmer story than I expected, focusing on the dynamics of inheritance and disability rather than on magic and adventure. 3.5/5 stars.
  • A Week To Be Wicked by Tessa Dare (2012, historical romance)
    • Unorthodox spinster recruits local rake to ruin her reputation, thereby sparing her sisters, in exchange for the prize money she plans to win at a paleontology symposium; kissing ensues. - Hilariously convoluted shenanigans still turned into a charming, silly story. 4/5 stars.
  • A Lady By Midnight by Tessa Dare (2012, historical romance)
    • Birthmarked servant girl is eagerly adopted by potential noble relations; local grouchy ex-soldier suspects foul play; kissing ensues. - Apparently only every other romance I read is worth the giggles. 1/5 stars.
  • Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear (2015, steampunk)
    • House of prostitutes band together to protect their own from a cruel politician and a serial killer. - The character development never deepens past first impressions, but it's a great adventure and a fresh flavor in steampunk. 3.5/5 stars.
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (2011, historical fairy tale)
    • Traditional Russian folklore becomes even more bleak seen through the lens of Soviet culture and the siege of Leningrad. - One of the most masterfully executed novels I have ever had the good fortune to read; also the cruelest, and not for reading lightly. 5/5 stars.
  • Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (2007, fantasy)
    • (Sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora) After two years setting up an elaborate heist, con men are blackmailed into political schemes involving pretend piracy and real chaos. - The sequel is as fun and white-knuckle intense as the first, doubling up on the danger and the heartache (and the number of female characters!) 4.5/5 stars.
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002, contemporary)
    • Teenager murdered by a neighbor watches from her unsatisfying heaven while her friends and family struggle to come to terms with her death. - The sort of book that blows the mind of people who don't read very much and are amazed to find a story more interesting than their high school reading assignments, which is not to say it isn't interesting. Just not very impactful. 3/5 stars.
(Thanks for sticking around for another year of Book Grumps!)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Series Review: "Coyote" by Allen Steele

With Earth in political and ecological ruin, the discovery of a new habitable planet means a second chance. On Coyote, humanity can start over--or retread the same bloodstained paths it always has.

The United Republic of America has spared no expense--and no few lives--to develop the first interstellar colony ship. But a group of dissident intellectuals is determined that the Coyote colony will not be under the thumb of the corrupt regime.

The conspiracy to steal the URSS Alabama goes all the way to the top. On the eve of launch, Captain Lee smuggles rebel would-be colonists aboard. It is an all-or-nothing chance. Whether or not the new planet can support human civilization, they will learn the hard way--with no hope of return to Earth.


The Coyote Trilogy by Allen Steele (2002)
2.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, ambient misogyny, ambient racism
Overall Response: The author fails to really grip his topic, and skims over plot and characters.


More Thoughts: I'm hard up for good science fiction. Sci-fi westerns? Even better. When I read a delightful short story of Allen Steele's in the anthology Year's Best SF 9, entitled "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield," I raced to get my hands on the full series that inspired it. 

As it happens, the Coyote series makes for good plane reading, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

One Sentence Reviews: September

I have now sat upon my review of Mary Renault's The Charioteer for two months, like a hen with an egg. I begin to wonder if it will ever hatch... or if I've been incubating a rock this whole time.

In the meantime, I read a lot of classics and war stories this month, most of which deserve a thumbs-up! If you haven't read some of the 4- and 5-star rated books of this month, I highly encourage you to give them a go.

September 2015

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015, historical fantasy)
    • Local wizard claims village girls to help him fight the spread of a haunted forest. -- A worthy addition to the ranks of modern fairy tales. 4/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (2008, supernatural thriller)
    • Society has more or less adjusted to the pandemic of temporary demonic possessions, but one man struggles with the suspicion that he has never recovered. -- The book started strong with a compelling premise and a narrator I enjoyed, but crumbled over time. 3/5 stars.
  • Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates (1990, historical fiction)
    • A white girl and a black boy are the only witnesses to a murder, which distorts the rest of their lives. -- Neither as lyrical nor as moving as her short stories. 2/5 stars.
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895, historical fiction)
    • Inexperienced volunteer has high expectations of his own bravery and prowess entering the Civil War, and is disappointed. -- I remain convinced that the "classics" of early American literature only maintain a spot on the list because there is so little to choose from. 2/5 stars.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929, historical fiction)
    • Isolated from the society that sent them to die, German soldiers salvage what food and what peace they can. -- Required reading for high schoolers, but in my opinion, this should be handed out again a year after college for a new perspective. 5/5 stars.
  • Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque (1936, historical fiction)
    • German WWI veterans enjoy the small slice of life left to them. -- Thoughtful, meandering, and comforting, like a slow-cooker stew. 3/5 stars.
  • The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke (1905, poetry)
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008, historical fiction)
    • Two accidental criminals are offered a reprieve in exchange for an impossible task: to find a dozen eggs in Leningrad, a city starving under siege. -- It's too ghastly to be as funny as it is, yet somehow succeeds. 4/5 stars.
  • Year's Best SF 9 collected by David G. Hartwell (2004, sci-fi anthology)
    • One good story by Octavia Butler had me wanting more; one or two others were temporarily engaging; the rest were entirely forgettable. 3/5 stars.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012, historical fiction)
    • Captured wireless operator agrees to tell her Nazi captors everything she knows, in the form of a story about her best friend. -- Gross Sobbing About Female Friendship And Unreliable Narrators: The Book! 5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2006, fantasy)
    • High-society thieves in a complex fantasy underworld take on a job that may prove too clever and deadly to pull off. -- I didn't know how much fantasy literature needed the "heist" subgenre. 4/5 stars.
  • A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird (1879, memoir)
    • English lady traveler chronicles the American West and her accidental romance with a mountain desperado. -- One of my personal "comfort" reads, both for the historical exploration of places I've lived and for the charm and ache of the real-life Hollywood love story. 4/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013, historical fiction)
    • (Sequel to Code Name VerityTraumatized female pilot struggles to describe the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. -- Without an appealing or sympathetic narrator, this laundry list of horrors failed to be a good story. 2/5 stars.
  • White Space by Ilsa J. Bick (2014, YA sci-fi)
    • Ensemble cast of teens are plopped into a series of existential nightmares as a result of their (fictional) author's supernatural meddlings, and die variously. -- A hot mess of a book, the reading of which felt like someone shaking you and shouting "Are you freaked out yet?!" at the top of their lungs. 1/5 stars.
  • The Dickens Mirror by Ilsa J. Bick (2015, YA sci-fi)
    • (Sequel to White Space) Ensemble cast of teens reappear in different roles in an apocalyptic Victorian London, and die variously. -- The author prides herself on being "challenging" in an awkward self-insert scene, but mistakes "incoherent" for "insightful." 2/5 stars.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: "The Book of Hours" by Rainer Maria Rilke

Every aspiring writer, at some point in their studies, will get Letters To A Young Poet quoted at them. This is a fact and a certainty, much like the sun rising in the east or the line at Starbucks Coffee. For most, that is the only contact ever made with German writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

A month ago, I stumbled across Stephen Crane's magnificent poetry and realized that I have never once read The Red Badge of Courage. It turned out that I preferred his poetry. But this got me reading other war novels: All Quiet on the Western Front, City of Thieves, Code Name Verity... and since I have the brain of a ptarmigan hen (to quote the latter), I mistook Erich Maria Remarque for Rainer Maria Rilke and added The Book of Hours to my library list.

This progression--from poetry to war novels and back to poetry--may have been accidental. But, like falling into a pit and discovering an ancient king's tomb, it led to glorious things.

It is difficult to recommend a collection of poetry, and impossible to summarize. Preferences of subject matter and style are more personal and specific in poetry than in fiction. One cannot say with any confidence "You will like this, because you enjoyed this other thing." So I do not know, dear reader, whether you will relish Rilke's odd, fluid, spiritual poetry as I did. I only know that to not offer it to you would be a failure on my part.
Your first word of all was light,and time began. Then for long you were silent. 
Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still. 
Are you about to speak again?
I don't want your third word. 
Sometimes I pray: Please don't talk.
Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means. 
Be our refuge from the wrath
that drove us out of Paradise.
Be our shepherd, but never call us--
we can't bear to know what's head.
The Book of Hours is composed of three sets of poems, each written over a series of few days, many years apart. They are short and conversational. They read best altogether, each set at a time, since the poems are often continuations of an earlier "thought" rather than a discrete creation. Word choices and structure call back and forth between the pages.

For someone with ambivalent feelings toward faith and spiritual things, Rilke's poetry is staggering. The subtitle of the collection, "Love Poems to God," is more accurate than can be conceived. In Rilke's poetry, dogma and ritual have no place. It is like a kaleidoscope, transforming familiar images into radiant new shapes. It asks deep, strange questions about what the relationship must look like between a creator and a creation.

The collection has an infectious passion about it. It changes how one sees the very idea of God, and of oneself. After reading just the first set of poems, I was left thinking: we expect so little, and we understand nothing at all.

This all starts to sound rather "churchy" as I read over it, so let me pause: there is no "church" to be found in The Book of Hours. There is, instead, a strange and moving portrait of someone infinite and lonely. Rilke's ideas are unique and daring. He envisions his deity as a son rather than a father, for "it is sons who inherit, while fathers die;" he worries about his immortal beloved as a figure almost of pity, who is left abandoned when the poet himself dies.

I keep using the word "strange," because to fully express how this poetry reads to me would require a full orchestra and a light show. It is lyrical, emotional, transformative. It is affirming in a way I have rarely found in spiritual poetry.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night,
These are the words we dimly hear: 
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
I look forward to owning a copy of the poems. I look forward even more to memorizing them. I would dearly love to know if they have the same effect upon you, dear reader. Take my accidental stumbling into The Book of Hours as a favor to yourself and seek out these poems purposefully. Let me know what you think.

(The particular translation I have, published in 2005 by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, includes the original German text alongside the English verse. I know just enough German to be occasionally vexed by their decisions, but it ultimately deepens the experience.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: "The Last Unicorn" by Peter S. Beagle

The unicorn has dwelled in her quiet woods for centuries, untouched by the passage of time and unconcerned with the world. She is disturbed when passing hunters mention that all other unicorns have gone--if they ever existed. Reluctantly, the last unicorn leaves her woods to find her kin. She promises to return quickly, but already the leaves begin to fall from the eternally blossoming trees.

Unicorns are not questing beasts, and the world no longer recognizes her. Those who do know a unicorn when they see one aren't young and innocent at heart, but hungry and desperate. The only magical beasts remaining are monsters. But despite the Red Bull, King Haggard, and the Midnight Carnival, the greatest threat to the unicorn come from the people who want to love her.


The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: none that I can think of
Overall Response: The prettiest book in the English language and a must-read for any lover of fairy tales.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, are you familiar with the original novel of The Princess Bride by William Golden? It begins with the line "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." That is how I feel about Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

Of course, I have read the book, and dog-eared every corner, and written a fourteen-page thesis about it for my own amusement, and, most recently, read the entire thing aloud to my audiobook-loving former roommate in a 48-hour timespan. (Pro tip: The attempt to pull off a proper "King Haggard" voice may result in permanent damage to one's vocal cords.)

Even so, every time I read The Last Unicorn, it feels like the first, most wonderful time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

The Wood by Agnieszka's village is full of horrors. Over the years, it has swallowed up both peasants and queens, and its haunted trees grow over the ruins of ancient kingdoms as well as villages like her own. The Dragon keeps the Wood at bay with his wizardry as best he can. In exchange, he takes one girl from the village every ten years. After a decade in his service, the girl is set free--but she never comes home again.

Everyone in Agnieszka's village knows that her friend Kasia will be the one the Dragon picks: she is beautiful, charming, and brave. But to everyone's surprise--even to his own--the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)
4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: horrific imagery, attempted sexual assault
Overall Response: I really love fairy tales.


More Thoughts: I don't know what to say when people ask my favorite fiction genre. When I was younger, I would have said "fantasy" without hesitation. These days, my reading list includes very little fantasy. I eye airbrushed swords-and-sparkles covers with deep suspicion. Lists like "How To Tell If You Are In A High Fantasy Novel" make me cringe even as I laugh.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted (read on the heels of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn) makes me suspect the trouble: I don't enjoy fantasy as much as I enjoy fairy tales.