The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Fantasy/Science Fiction’ Category

Is there some kind of secret underground sanctuary that churns out these dinosaurs?

Those of you who pitch science fiction to wives and girlfriends who do not enjoy it are probably saying something along the following lines: “Space ships! Alien monsters! Men in tights!” Instead, for women who find that sort of thing distasteful, talk about it as a fairy tale–only a fairy tale with science instead of magic. The basic emotional space it taps is the same.

My head hurts. (via The Elegant Variation in case you think I actually read “The Atlantic”.)

I’ve got new posts coming up for you soon, I pwomise.

I completed nine books in May but posted few reviews so I thought I’d get you up to speed on my literary exploits. You know how I felt about the Rothfuss book. I thought I knew my position on John Wyndham until I read Chocky (any connection to the horror film franchise?) which underscored all of my reservations on how Wyndham wrote female characters. (Niall was wise in his reservations.) Lots of bullshit about women depending on instinct while the good ol’ boys relied on reason. And Wyndham didn’t do much with the story — just used it as a playground for daft gender theories and cool speculations about what gadgets an alien race might have. He tucked in a creepy scene near the end — he does creepy very well — but it couldn’t save the book. I abandoned my first draft on his work in order to start another to factor in my reassessment. The Chrysalids, The Trouble with Lichen and The Day of the Triffids still rock. (Lizzy has been reading some Wyndham as well.)

Earlier this year Anne of Table Talk transformed my idea of what could be considered Young Adult literature with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Desperate for a good fantasy I recalled one of the books she had suggested about which I’d been curious: †Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess. Well, she did it again. Periodically throughout the book I’d put it down, lips agape, and mouth to the air around me, Come on, now, this is YA? The prose and plot development are simple enough and the focus on young twins, a boy and girl, who are 14 at the beginning, and how Burgess depicts them are recognizably YA. During the first few chapters the only thing that raised my eyebrow was that the father of the twins had married his daughter off to a man described as being “not yet thirty”. Trifle young, isn’t she? I thought, shifting uncomfortably.

Burgess, in his wisdom, revealed an Icelandic saga story was his inspiration at the back of the book. Think violence, ambition, betrayal, incest, meddling gods, all ruled by fate upgraded with unholy 20th century modifications. Think human and animal hybrids, called “halfmen”, genetically engineered on demand, solely built for warfare, which means that in addition to having claws or hands eminently suitable to certain weaponry, for example, the creature may also be geared to understand negative emotions and ideas like hate, made to be aggressive and loyal to his creator but lack pity or love. The process wasn’t perfect so quite a few of the creations went crazy and “pure” humans scorned them so they lived on the edge of human communities, munching on any bodies (of any kind, human or not) that were flung out to the outlying boundaries.

All that madness aside, and there’s a lot of it, the most compelling and heartbreaking element was Signy Volson’s fate. Readers follow her journey from her start as a violent, independent, bold and loyal but in many ways still very much an inexperienced 14 year old girl. She is the only daughter of Val Volson, an ambitious, brutal gang lord who owns half of London. It’s a dystopian future in which the “Old London” is a prison in the wilderness, miles away from the smoothly run, advanced, civilised England (which I assume is more like our present-day) by a stretch of halfmen-inhabited land and a high wall enclosure. To further his ambitions of uniting London, defeating halfmen and taking on the rest of country, he marries his daughter to his rival Conor, who owns the other half of London, as part of a treaty.

Signy follows orders under protest but, to her surprise and her twin brother Siggy’s disgust, she falls in love. What follows is betrayal on the most awesome scale, mass murders, incest, pogroms, fratricide, gods who appear as one-eyed bulls or sly red foxes and gift magical weapons or facilitate the establishment of dynasties with a tell-tale mischievous style. Signy’s initial passive role as virgin sacrifice belies how subsequent events both horrible and poignant force her to take on a more decisive role, one fuelled by a disturbing, heart-breaking mix of love, hate and complete self-absorption. The woman we see at the end seems almost nothing like the idealistic young girl who dreamt of her and her husband building a new Jerusalem. And though she is a mover and shaker on the other hand Burgess strongly implies that all characters are working towards a destiny they had no real control over which just raises the volume of the booming doom drums as you read along.

He manages all the story’s elements with ease and a certain flair. He changes narrative perspective periodically among an omniscient 3rd person in an observational role (also used to do a little foreshadowing) and first person with major and minor characters. For the halfmen he adopts a slang that forms onomatopoeias that fit what whatever animal the human is mixed with (whether pig or dog) which, combined with clear grasp of personalities, makes for some memorable, signature passages. (This is begging for a quote but the book was recalled. Silly library readers.)

Burgess gave me hope so I cautiously moved further into fantastical territory with Patricia A. McKillip’s with The Changeling Sea. A short novel published in the late 80s it explores the usual McKillip themes of self-discovery and -realisation and love’s painful consequences. (Romantic, and to a lesser extent familial, love is always torturous in McKillip’s books, sometimes a destructive force.) More fairy tale than faux D&D princess + GRRRRL power fantasy, at its centre is a young woman called Periwinkle who loses her father at sea and then her mother to it as she, deep in depression, gives her attention to little else but any window from which she can look out to the water. Angry at both the sea and her mother’s surrender to it she moves to a friend’s abandoned home. It once belong to an elderly woman who, among other things, taught her some useless spells. Unaware that she is mired in a funk herself she trudges from her floor scrubbing job at the local inn to her isolated new abode, taking detours to curse at the sea and check on her mother. It takes a (solid gold) chained giant sea-dragon, a charming, mysterious young magician and a tortured, dark-haired prince (is there any other kind?) of mixed heritage to disturb the girl and the entire sea-side town.

McKillip works better with redone or fairy tale inspired stories that focus on a few characters rather than conventional mage + long lost king/queen + quest with an ensemble cast. They suit her metaphorical prose and minimalist plots. In The Changeling Sea she doesn’t waste time on explicating the setting so that we can identify which bastardized medieval Europe we’re getting this time. She doesn’t hurt our ears with awful attempts at archaic English phrasing. It’s only some brief descriptions of the royals’ transportation and clothing that hint at a pre-modern time, but it’s pleasurable to imagine the book with a more indiosyncratic mix.

The relationship between the prince and the scrubbing girl is similar to the one in Winter Rose — their doomed love for each other causes as much pain as pleasure. Again, it is the girl who has to help save the prince unearth who he really is. Lighter touches come with a prince less emotionally blocked and a young wizard more ironic than old and grave. There’s the usual cast of humorous villages, a trope McKillip manages well by not trying too hard. It all comes to a mostly bittersweet ending with a couple of bright spots.

For McKillip magic is never simply thunderbolts and levitation, another reason why she works best with fairy tales. Characters express their anger and hurt through spells, enchantments represent identity issues and familiar secrets. These are the domestic conflicts of broken couples, depressed widows, broken homes, survivor’s grief. The dark magic cannot be broken until parted couples forgive and compromise, feelings resolve and closure is found. This is not the thwarted ambitions of would-be tyrants and long-lost princelings. Others do that well but not McKillip, or so I thought until I read The Riddle-Master trilogy.

I wonder what age group it would be recommended for if it got age-banded.

I just left Dan Green’s blog where Augustine complained about blogs being “Bookworm MySpace” which makes me feel rather guilty about this post. (Sort of. Mildly.) But I’m still pissed about being duped by this Rothfuss fellow’s hype machine, at myself more than anyone else. So, before I take a long trek to the bookstore in order to purge all my negative feelings before I get my $7.99 + tax back, I’d like to poke more fun at what is basically a writer among legions ‘doing’ other people, doing Tolkien. They [are] faint photocopies. You get these great big books which are set in a medieval kingdom that is basically somebody’s impression of what they liked about Tolkien, combined with what they enjoyed about playing Dungeons and Dragons as a high schooler. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. Maybe I’ll try one of your books after all.

In this scene our wearied hero walks home with his drunken friends after the beaaauuutiful girl of his dreams turns out to be dating one of his school colleagues.

In the fullness of time*, and with considerable help from Deoch and Wilem, I became drunk.

Thus it was that three students made their slightly erratic way back to the University. See them as they go, weaving only slightly. It is quiet, and when the belling tower strikes the late hour, it doesn’t break the silence so much as it underpins it**. The crickets, too, respect the silence. Their calls are like careful stitches in its fabric, almost too small to be seen***.

The night is like warm velvet around them. The stars, burning diamonds in the cloudless sky, turn the road beneath their feet a silver grey****. The University and Imre are the hearts of understanding and art, the strongest of the four corners of civilization. Here on the road between the two there is nothing but old trees and long grass bending to the wind. The night is perfect in a wild way, almost terrifying beautiful.

The three boys, one dark, one light, and one– for lack of a better word — fiery*****, do not notice the night. Perhaps some part of them does, but they are young, and drunk, and busy knowing deep in their hearts that they will never grow old or die. They also know that they are friends, and they share a certain love that will never leave them. The boys know many other things, but none of them seem as important as this. Perhaps they are right.*******

*Ugh! I don’t care if he’s even trying for a but of humour here. Unless you are at a writing level no lower than A.S. Byatt do not use this phrase. Not even ironically.

**Wtf does that mean?

***No. I would have liked to accept this, it makes marginally more sense than what came before, but is this all flowing from the boys “weaving” before? That makes it a “no”.

****I’m getting nitpicky now but can stars give off that much light, really? I’ll give it a pass on the assumption that I could be wrong, so accustomed I am to city living, and that in Faux Medieval Europe all things are possible.

***** You never have any better words. Never. Ever.

******This entire paragraph was maudlin sap and the chapter should have been nixed because it adds absolutely nothing to the story and there are no great ideas or show of style here that justifies its existence. Nothing in this book justifies its existence.

Well. I feel a little better now. Slightly.

How are you, dear readers? If any of you still exist :P. The premature summer heat of spring (which has now returned to seasonal temperatures) burnt away any and all interests in blogs and blogging. I decided to go with it until it ran out. My reading was not similarly effected. I’ve read the first two in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War…series? for he will continue to write for it as long as he is so inclined and sales are encouraging. One of the local stores brought in a pack of John Wyndham releases so I’ve spent a few days, eyes wide open, reading through The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids (whoa, just…whoa) and I hope to be able to share some thoughts with you about them in a few days. Wyndham appears to be fascinated with man’s ability to change and adapt to new ideas, new environments and the consequences of those who cling to static paradigms. And for an old SF writer his female characters aren’t bad at all. (Unlike others of which I recently learned.)

I don’t know if I’ll be able to write anything much on the Scalzi. I found them fun and entertaining (with The Ghost Brigades guilty of some wearying pages long info-dumping) but they didn’t seem to be saying anything. Not that Scalzi is obligated to do so but novels about such a militaristic society complete with very liberal bioengineering kinda beg for a little something but from what I observed he kinda dances around it, dips a toe in, and then jumps into another action plot line. I am unsure of myself, though, because I theorised that my limited SF experience may hinder my perspective, somewhat. For instance it is common knowledge that the novels were heavily influenced by Heinlein fiction but I’ve never read the guy.

How the Dead Dream proved elusive on a first reading so I’ve chosen to reread it again. Worries that it would read too familiar were not confirmed for reasons I have yet to refine. I find Lydia Millet’s characters, her main character at least, eccentric rather than quirky (the silly, unnecessary, waste of space, for-giggles type) because she takes that one extreme feature, places it immediately before, and explicates how it’s an extension of the character’s basic personality in a very non-showy yet arresting manner. She doesn’t try to wear you out with circus tricks. Because of this her humorous moments work a lot better because at first it’s unexpected. And though a critic described those moments as “asides” are more integral and necessary — without them this would be a boring, didactic lecture with unfulfilled potential.

Is it too late to comment on that Slaves of Golconda read? I couldn’t finish it. Cristina García did not seem so much interested in writing a novel as a series of character profiles (complete with headings) strung weakly together by a basic, uninteresting plot. (Uninteresting to me, at any rate. Woo woo Cuba-communist-intergenerational clash-fish-out-of-water-immigrants-in different country. Tell me something I don’t know or at least try and do something different with the damn thing.) Stuck in the middle of that was an amateur YA novel wherein a young girl struggles with her domineering, restrictive mother, giving readers the right dose of teenage rebellion and oh-so-unconsciously deep insights into human nature. Snore. I’ll try to see what the others got out of it as I think I’m the only one who wasn’t enamoured.

Villette: Nope. Sorry, I know some of you are fans but Brontë was in preacher mode far too often throughout the narrative. Things would just start to get interesting and then she would push Lucy Snowe aside to interject some pages long sermon on the follies of Catholicism and the wonders of enlightened English Protestants; also how stupid and frivolous the French are and how smart and noble the English. She even gave that stupid, self-absorbed English doctor — I count it a miracle that she managed to engage in near Austen-like sarcasm every so often — and her precious pet English whateverhernameis a charmed happy ending. Near the end I skipped pages just to see if the prof jumped Snowe or not. If Shirley is anything like that I’ll abstain.

I’d like to say the writing made up for it but some of her passages were uncomfortably close to Emily Brontë’s exhausting melodrama in Wuthering Heights when it came to depicting Snowe’s depression. That is what led to the skipped pages — near the end Snowe woke up in the middle of the night after being ineffectively drugged (I think?) and escaped out of the house wandering the streets. I thought to myself, Oh holy…I’m not going through one of your damn deranged moments again. Do the prof, slit your wrists, or I’ll slit mine. Later on I picked up that whatever festival she experienced during that night was an actual occurrence. No doubt it’s important but you’d have to pay me to get me to read it for any significant thematic developments.

I started The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. (Curse my inability to keep to my F/SF moratorium.) It is the latest fantasy sensation purported to be “one of the best stories told in any medium in a decade…Shelve [it] beside The Lord of the Rings…and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals.” (Name of reviewer hidden to protect the hoodwinked.) I am at chapter eight. Let’s start ticking off the clichés shall we?

  • Famous, brilliant, exceptional assassin tortured about his horrible, horrible past – Check
  • Inn as prominent setting – Check (Seriously? I saw it on the first page and thought, Oh god not another faux medieval European setting, please [insert favourite deity here]. [Your favourite deity] didn’t listen.)
  • Assassin accompanied by best, loyal buddy who is “dark” so of course he had to be graceful, moving like a dancer and blah blah blah. I bet he’s also noble and respects nature? Sidekicks are allowed that much. – Check
  • Ignorant village locals – Check
  • Dull looking sword that belies its true value as it is no doubt really famous and/or powerful – Check
  • Innocent children’s rhymes that turn out to be totally true and significant! No one saw that coming! – Check

All of this would be forgivable — all of it– if Rothfuss made something new with those elements. Take it to a different place. Aforementioned hoodwinked reviewer implied this is what he does as the book is “a brooding, thoroughly adult meditation on how heroism went wrong”. In a 700+ pages it may be too early to expect all of this to pop up by page 63. The problem is that the writing is so mediocre, at times verging on hysterical, that I may not wait long enough to find it. Ursula K. Le Guin (who was no doubt threatened) wrote that “It is a rare and great pleasure to find a fantasist writing…with true music in the words”. Let’s have an example of this musician at work. (All formatting mine.)

Sunlight poured into the Waystone. It was a cool fresh light, fitted for beginnings. It brushed past the miller as he set his waterwheel turning for the day. It lit the forge the smith was rekindling after four days of cold metal work. It touched draft horses hitched to wagons and sickle blades glittering sharp and ready at the beginning of an autumn day.

Inside the Waystone, the light fell across Chronicler’s face and touched a beginning there, a blank page waiting the first words of a story. The light flowed across the bar, scattered a thousand tiny rainbow beginnings from the colored bottles, and climbed the wall toward the sword, as if searching for one final beginning.

But when the light touched the sword there were no beginnings to be seen. In fact, the light the sword reflected [Ed: *&#$$*# sword -- it's the second in 20+ small pages that he's given us this " old dull sword" routine] was dull, burnished, and ages old. Looking at it, Chronicler remembered that though it was the beginning of the a day, it was also late autumn and growing colder. The sword shone with the knowledge that dawn was a small beginning compared to the ending of a seas: the ending of a year. [Ed: It shone with what?)

Do you see what he’s trying to get at there? Not me. Something about…no can’t fathom it. For a “thoroughly adult” book he does not think much of our intelligence. I get that fire might something to keep an eye on in the book but if I read one more line about fires snapping, crackling, blazing, flaring, spitting or glowing I’m going to burn…a fake copy of this book because I still have the receipt for the real one and the return window is still open. Whether you like Tolkien’s prose or not it’s difficult to deny that he had a particular style that showed its influences while seeming authentic rather than imitative. There is nothing that stands out about Rothfuss’ prose, much less anything musical. The best thing I can say is that he avoids writing any poetry for the most part, sticking to cute childish limericks.

That’s another thing. The different peoples presented are poorly costumed facsimiles of real world counterparts. So the main character’s people are gypsies with a different name and they meet up on a dour community who are costumed Puritans. I’m becoming quite bored with religious folks being used as the predictable resisters of all joy and intellectual curiosity. Wyndham has them in The Chrysalids but he makes the community’s philosophy work as an understandable, natural reaction to the events rather than a story element he hit with a dart on a story board. It’s FANTASY, Rothfuss. Be inventive! Go crazy! Maybe make the religious folks curious and open-minded, eh? Maybe make the non-believers rigid and unwelcoming? LOTR’s appeal was that while its influences and source material were obvious on a conceptual level Tolkien went to great lengths to make something completely new — or to make it appear so. It’s the difference between the good ol’ days of remixed music when the artist gave it such a different setting that a new side to the music was exposed, a new angle provided — not these days when a “remix” means asking a rapper to add a verse.

High fantasy is not for me. Tolkien and Kay were flukes in a genre filled with flawed heroes spouting cheesy lore. At least in romance the tortured alpha heroes are sexy.

How many books have you downloaded from the Tor free e-book programme?

Four but only two should count as the books by Scalzi and Wilson were the only ones in which I was truly interested. The others were I-know-I’ll-hate-this-but-it’s-free-surely-there’s-other-good-books-in-this-deal. So far I’ve tried one of the latter group and it was about as horrible as I expected (cheesy high fantasy).

How many have you read?

One and one-thirds.

How many books will you own written by the two authors combined by this time tomorrow?

Five or six. I already own Spin by Robert C. Wilson which I promptly leant to one of my SF-reading pals who hadn’t heard of the author before. I’m in the middle of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War e-book and about a minute ago said out loud to myself, “I have got to get this book in paper form.” The local Chapters has two out of the three books in his trilogy plus The Android’s Dream and I plan to get all three. I’ll try the local indie on the latest OMW release in hard cover plus any Wilson books but I’m not optimistic because it’s not the place to go for genre fiction (unless it’s of the YA variety). So whatever isn’t bought at the indie store will be purchased online. I don’t know which Wilson books I want just yet if that be the case. I figure I’ll put the other titles in a box and make a blind selection.

In conclusion, does this make Tor’s programme evil?

Yes. I was so good at not buying book’s for weeks and weeks and weeks and then look what it did!

(Yes, I know, countless geeks online have had this discussion ad finitum.)

Astonishingly, I think I may become one of those SF readers who hold to the view that one can’t simply plop a space ship into your novel and automatically ascend into the ranks. Take Star Wars, for instance. I know that genre fans place it in the SF romance pile but as Robert C. Wilson has led me to a new fascination I can’t afford, the Lucas films look nothing so much as a mishmash of Lord of the Rings and Camelot. It occurs in space and they get to fly around in beat up space ships and zing around fancy swords but does the technology impact their understanding of themselves, their philosophies, anything? Do we even have to know how any of it works beyond plot utility? The asthmatic whats-his-face’s Deathstar may as well be the ring of doom, except with less flexibility because a gun is a gun is a gun.

This is unfair to Star Wars because the sequels aspired to be nothing more than great B movie shlock but films are what make up the bulk of my SF experience so far. I also blame SF fans who have hollered long and hard for the genre’s distinct identity separate from (and superior to) fantasy. If I read a SF work and don’t find my mind operating in a notably different way I tend to lose interest; while I hold an innate interest in elves, gods and sea monsters, well-lit flying saucers and oogy green men don’t hold a similar basic appeal.

By the by have you read any Georges Simenon? He wrote some weird little thinkers (or roman durs as he preferred to call them). Norman Rush, in the introduction to Tropic Moon, rightfully brought up Graham Greene’s work and his attitude towards it, but after I finished the very short novel (133 pages) my thoughts fell on Joseph Conrad. If I can allow Simenon the legitimate investigation in colonization’s effects on the colonizer with less focus on the colonized why can’t I do the same for Conrad? Maybe if his book had a better title; I’m so over the “Dark Continent” bullshit.

Which reminds me of a little rant I’m brewing about the Virginia Quarterly Review and the angle they choose to pursue when covering different peoples. I must get over my ire about the cover choices first and, you know, read the content before I can make any substantial complaints. But perhaps you can see the difficulty. I don’t need to tell you which ones are the African issues. We all know (sub-Saharan, because who needs those random countries up top there…somewhere? Are we even considering them a part of the continent anymore?) Africa = misery. As if it has any art and culture to put on the cover. (Or to put within its pages judging by the need to get Art Spiegelman, as an example, for certain issues and not for others.)

Sure, we've got problems, but there's more to us than that -- who knew?

Oi! We're dying! Let's have a lot of foreigners telling us what's wrong! We don't have enough artists to help fill a whole issue! If only we were somehow physically linked to *North* America...

Readers who keep up with any part of the science fiction online community are probably aware of Tor’s ebook giveaway — a superior version of HarperCollins tentative lame duck. I’m not a big SF reader but I am a years long subscriber to John Scalzi’s Whatever so when I read that his Old Man’s War was among the freebies I signed up for the newsletter — the only condition Tor lays on participants. I registered in time for his, couldn’t sum up the energy to unsubscribe, and ended up downloading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin the next week. (I passed on last week’s Lackey co-authored text. I know that she’s supposed to be great, at least in that one Arthurian novel, but the interchangeable winsome cover maidens with piercing stares who gaze from cliffs/behind veils/from luxurious beds in boudoirs turn me off.)

I tried Scalzi’s and changed from relieved interest — hate to think that I like the blog writings but not the fiction — to annoyance at clumsy phrasing all within the first page. I really, really want to like the book so even though I closed the window one minute after my negative reaction — I have less patience for fiction on screen than on paper — I had already decided to try again at some future date.

Wilson got me on board from the first sentence. His is the first honest-to-goodness full-length SF novel I’ve ever been enthused about (or likely to read to the end, for that matter). Yes, Sarah Hall’s latest is “dystopian” and it is set in a future world but the dystopian setting worked as mere trappings, presented and dispensed with for most of the novel. Most of the technology Hall uses for her story is decidedly retro: centuries old farming techniques and tools. It’s easily the sort of novel persons uninclined to SF could enjoy without feeling any curiosity about the rest of the genre because none of the novel’s offered pleasures rests in any significant way on the dystopian elements. Not really. This is not a mark against Hall just the way it fits into my limited ideas about SF.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t count for me either, perhaps more inexplicably. The cloning plot line played a central role so I cannot convincingly persuade myself that he only used it as a launching pad. But, again, he focuses on the effects of the cloning and little (or nothing?) on the science behind it. I need it to be obvious. Give me labs and aliens! The fantastical fabrications! Global warming and cloning is so now — spice it up a bit, damn it. (Maybe this is because of my fantasy background.) Anyway, I liked the novel as I read it but it left nothing behind but a blank white mental space.

There was The Chrysalids in boarding school but all I remember is something about kids and a spaceship.

Wilson writes about the stars disappearing, the earth suddenly covered in a protective shield put in place by some unknown intelligence to protect the earth’s inhabitants from a “temporal velocity” that’s occurring beyond its barrier. The beings, so speculation goes, slowed down earth’s time relative to time beyond its sphere; millions of years transpire in what for earth is only a decade (for example). Without the shield sun light would reach the earth’s atmosphere at speeds beyond the filtering capacity of ozone layer and we’d all fry. Conversely, without a sun we’d freeze so the (probably) aliens put up a fake sun and moon.

Here’s the science that was rumoured to exist in the genre. Being a SF there has to be, I suppose, some smug pronouncements on most people’s “pre-Newtonian” understanding of astrophysics — the smugness does fit in with the character’s personality — and, of course, the only reason our narrator has a clue what his genius pal is discussing is because he reads SF novels. I forgive the earnestness since everything is going well, so far.

*****

Finding a Girl in America, the story collection by Andre Dubus is proving to be a mixed offering. Or not mixed so much as not the transcendent experience I expected but author’s must find it difficult to produce uniformly magnificent fiction with each new publication. One or two stories have weak spots but a less-than-awesome Dubus is still an excellent affair, more rewarding than what most authors could manage.

The familiar subjects are here. Couples or families are disrupted by death or divorce. Military men and their families or loved ones deal with the occupational stresses. Dubus never writes of them in battle, at least I’ve never come across it, it’s always the before and after. Baseball. I get the impression that Dubus is a huuuuge baseball fan. :) I’m not one but he makes it compelling. If any writer is North American, specifically of the United States, who crafts stories that embody the people and the landscape, who captures the text, taste, rhythm and essence of their life, it’s Dubus. That’s one of the things that always struck me about his writing and what I find attractive about it.

I’m fascinated by war stories too, specifically the actions and reactions of the soldiers’ and their family, even of their home community. Nations gung ho about their military are, I think, at the core pretty ambivalent about it (how can they not be?) and I’ve always been curious about how soldiers function when they know that combat guarantees psychological damage of some sort. And we require it of them. Or just the problems of distance, months and months away from the spouse, fiancé, girlfriend. Sometimes it’s about the widows or the children left behind. Sometimes it’s not particularly about the man’s military life (always a man, never woman). Dubus’ soldiers tend to have fought in the Korean or Vietnam war.

Onwards

Posted on: January 8, 2008

Last year, I dared only to briefly acknowledge the existence of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne whenever it was mentioned before scuttling to another mental destination. I’d like to say that I did so for a number of years but the pathetic truth is that I saw A Cock and Bull Story with no clear idea that it had anything to do with a book until the reel started. From then on I gathered enough to understand that it was one of those difficult, intimidating texts that I’d probably never get around to until retirement age when I’d have nothing better to do than read. (I’m saving Ulysses for that time, too.)

But the last few months have been a rather dismal time for me and novels. Between October and December I read over ten and only found 3 or 4 (if I stretch it) that were outstanding, wholly satisfying experiences. I’ve become more cautious in the new year, more anxious for important, challenging fare that will get my head and stomach all jumpy with excitement. Hence, it’s a retreat to canon; one item from the canon, anyway. I have a chronic curiousity that refuses to ignore the more lightly trod literary byways. I browsed through Broadview Press‘ catalogue because I knew it published a lot of the lesser known pre-20th century female novelists; and I settled on two after I went through the library stacks and read the first page of the books that were on my short list: The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy and The Pool in the Desert by Sara Jeanette Duncan. (There was something in the latter’s description on the web page that made me include it even though it was published in 1903.)

The canon pick was the Laurence Sterne. I bore myself when my “classic” picks are inevitably 19th century. And…well, I don’t know, but I suddenly found myself in the mood to try it. There was some thought involved in choosing which edition to get. I was averse to getting a cumbersome hardback so I browsed the shelves of a neighbouring university to take a look at their paperbacks. I put aside the Penguin because it was too battered and was left with a definitive scholarly edition by Odyssey Press and the more accessible “aimed at the general reader” Riverside.

I lifted the first, deemed it a good size, not shabbily put together with its neat grey cover and thick pages, but perhaps a bit more thoroughly edited than I would like? I recently came off Broadview’s edition of the James Hogg which was saddled with a very, very dull introduction, quite informative, but a trial to get through if you’re not expecting to be examined on it in three months time. The one for the Levy novel was equally innervating — lots of gendered gazing, the importance of woman in connection with public transportation, female education etc. At times I really wanted to be interested, especially with the passages on photography, but dear Susan Bernstein’s prose resisted all my good intentions. Did I want to set myself up for another humdinger (one that looked a little longer than average, I anxiously noted) by the no doubt learned and respected James A. Work? He promised detailed footnotes — did I really want them?

The Riverside edition smiled at me with its happy brown cover and light illustration on the cover. It was a friendlier trade paperback size, thinner than the Odyssey Press’ shorter, very thick paperback. The words on the back assured me that Riverside editions series was “distinguished by its textual purity and authoritative editorial material”. I skimmed the introduction’s first page and it seemed to be more my weight. I flipped through to see what the editor, Ian Watt, did with the annotation and was there stopped short. Work’s was the “indispensable” edition, he said, the one scholars should turn to as his was only for the general reader. Well, I consider myself a general reader, I thought, but do I often like or identify with what literary academics tend to associate with general readers or find much satisfaction with the efforts they make for them? No. Shit, maybe I should read the Work one, his is “indispensable” and there’s something to be said for being thorough…I can skip over what I don’t require whereas with the Watt I will be wading in ignorance….But look at the brown cover…it’s so nice! And it’s much handier to carry around…I am a general reader and should not think differently. Look at what happened with that other Broadview, all you grumbled about was how Bernstein seemed more concerned about how history was reflected in the book rather than its intrinsic literary worth ie why the hell I’d want to read it in the first place if I’m not writing a thesis on Victorian middle-class women and their experiences with the damn bus….

I left with the Riverside and the ISBN of the Odyssey in case of emergency.

Another part of my “Caution 2008″ plan is that I am seriously considering take a break from F/SF books unless they’re written by Diana Wynne Jones or Tolkien. (I’d like to reread Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay but I’m afraid it won’t be as good as I thought it was.) I’ve noticed some bloggers mentioning the trend towards “movie novels” ie books that often read like scripts, expanded film treatment, or that borrow many film conventions to the book’s detriment. I never really knew that they were talking about having not come across it myself until My Swordhand is Swinging by Marcus Sedgwick.

I’d never heard of the author or the book before but this is his seventh novel and, bewilderingly, it’s managed to get on a children’s award shortlist. It’s bewildering because I find it to be a pedestrian, mundane effort that reads like any mediocre vampire movie. There is the requisite opening scene of some dude being chased down by a figure he cannot see but sense until the last moment when he’s taken down by bloody fangs. Then we have the kid with the dead mother (who died giving birth to him, of course) and a drunken father with a past shrouded in mystery. Blah blah isolated Eastern European village, blah blah, noble and not so noble gypsies, blah blah magic sword. Love interests are barely developed before the “couple” part in anguish and new ones glow promisingly…there just seems to be a lot of things missing, as though this were some kind of story plan with a few fleshed out scenes that surely Sedgwick intended to work on later…?

And there’s a stupid recurring song about a shepherd marrying a beaaaautiful princess in the sky. (OK, it’s not stupid so much as pretty uninspiring piece of work that is supposed to be shrouded with mystery. Our humble but intrepid hero is absolutely albeit unwillingly fascinated by this straaaaaange ditty and here I am, not giving a fuck.)

The most interesting things in the novel are the small illustrations of small slices of winter forest. That person has some talent, at least, and his/her work soothe my brain as the pictures are always better at evoking the lonely, menacing, night-time forest than any lines Sedgwick could come up with. (Not that being better would be a hard thing to accomplish.)

If I do read any it will be the classics. I may try T.H. White or go all the way back to frickin’ William Morris.

Caribbean fiction is the only area of interest that remains unscathed. Escape to an Autumn Pavement by Andrew Salkey is winging its way to me as I type. Then it will be time to pay attention to female writers. Erna Brodber should be my pick if I stick to Jamaica but this may mark the point where I climb over my national ego and look to other islands — Jean Rhys and Maryse Condé would then comprise the next reading selections.

Wretched holidays! I sighed, frowned, grumbled, then tossed my pouty demeanour aside long enough to reach for Mélusine by Sarah Monette. I first read about this book and Monette’s quartet almost a year ago. I recently happened upon her blog and a post of hers on Scalzi’s Whatever. Save me, Monette! I thought my cry would be heeded. Let me quote the first paragraph in Melusine‘s introduction.

This is the worst story I know about hocuses. And it’s true.

Four Great Septads ago, back in the reign of Claudius Cordelius, there was a hocus named Porphyria Levant. The hocuses back then had this thing they could do, called the binding-by-forms, the obligation d’âme. It happened between a hocus and an annemer, an ordinary person, and it was like an oath of loyalty, only a septad times more. The hocus promised to protect the annemer from everything, including kings and other hocuses and basically anybody else who had in interest. The annemeer promised to be the hocus’s servant and do what they said and no backchat, neither. And, they renounced their family and all their connections, so it was like the only thing in the world that mattered to them was the hocus. And then there was a spell to stick it in place and make sure,you know, that nobody tired to back out after it was too late.

It’s so hackneyed and transparent, isn’t it? It’s not horrible but that meagre feint at a dramatic opening line, the tired sentence structure (Blah blah Septads ago) and that narrative cue that set the book’s tone and form are begging to be mocked. That quoted passage alone would make this a book I’d never recommend to a SF/F newbie because it would recall every lazy assumption that person ever made about the genres. That’s topped off by one of the main characters’ name used as a section header. That split narrative done in that way is so ho hum. (Why couldn’t she do something like VanderMeer did in Shriek? Or Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year? Am I being pissy for no reason?)

So the dude’s name is Mildmay and he gets to “speak” very casually with a lot of contractions (“aints” and such) to show he’s your regular low class, smart alecky thief. Gee, where have I read that before? Next! Here’s a quote from Felix’s section (he’s the other star).

“Darling,” I murmured in Shannon’s ear, “your brother is scowling at me again.”

Shannon glanced over his shoulder. “Nonsense. Stephen always looks like that at soirées.”

“I made allowances for that. Trust me. He’s scowling.”

Shannon’s smile lit his entire face. “You are incorrigible.”

“I try,” I said, smiling back.

You would think that people from an entirely different world could get their own overused dialogue to hit me with.

What’s probably supposed to be wowing me is the OMG gay characters; gay characters into BDSM! Admittedly, this plot element made the book especially interesting when I first read of it. (Not a popular fantasy trope.) Emma Holly, AlanHollinghurst and Derek McCormack have each given major space to homosexual characters and their concerns in genres (romance and literary fiction) in which they don’t get much (mainstream) play unless there’s something about AIDS or coming out. I derived real pleasure from reading about that in the same way I relished the African and Native American influences in theSo Long Been Dreaming anthology.

Monette? First off I was too busy giggling at Felix who, in sincere anger, called someone else a “verminous weasel” to notice it much. She makes it a fairly non-descript issue, an approach with its own virtues. Unfortunately, Felix is at the centre of most of the gay sexual intrigue so far, and he’s an angtsy , violent, self-pitying, self-destructive character, practically from the moment he graces the page. He’s a Lord Wizard sleeping with a member of the royal family when a scandalous titbit about his red light district past is spread about in court. This development hits him so hard that in a little over 24 hours he argues with and hits his royal lover, rents a young prostitute before he changes his mind and in a fit of self-loathing returns to his former sadistic sexual master, Malkar, (another powerful wizard) who delights in psychological, verbal and physical abuse — he is cartoonishly attached to calling Felix all kinds of creative insults in reference to his past prostitution but only manages to come up with “sluttish”, “slut”, “whore” and “cheap whore” –, goes to court with Malkar afterwards and publicly insults a well-meaning friend (with a carefully aimed attack at a sensitive, ’till then unacknowledged issue), gets high again on a drug called phoenix — oh yes, did I mention that Felix used to be a drug addict too? Fell right back into it in his first aforementioned reunion with Malkar –, and then gets brutally raped by Malkar in a secret magic room shackled to the floor in the middle of a pentagram drawing during some evil magic spell. Oh, and Melkar turns into a dog (or something). All this before page 50.

What does it mean when one laughs at a rape scene? The whole thing was getting too ridiculous for me. At that point an Elvis impersonator could have joined in a three way and I would have only blinked twice. Heather Lewis is ten times better at the wrecked-characters-involved-in-brutal-sex thing. Sorry.

I do believe things could be looking up. There was an honest to goodness gripping action scene with Mildmay, a female client and a blood witch in a cemetery. Also, a Felix brutally sundered from his powers, now little but an empty shell of shock and hate is a far, far more intriguing, worthwhile character than Goth Felix. Maybe this was intentional?

The one bright spot in my reading life SHOULD be A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett except that someone “borrowed” it from study carrell at the library and has not seen fit to return it. That partly explains my Christmas grump this year. I’ve retrenched into classics and am pleased to note that The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg has started out with laughs, pious runaway wives and jolly, old Scottish lords. The backcover blurb and the dry, dry, dry as the desert academic introduction by Adrian Hunt did not even hint at the novel’s ridiculous side. I do like surprises.

And holidays. I do hope you’re all enjoying the season, whatever you celebrate. I’ll provide future grumpiness at a later date.

Last Christmas I was grumpy about something and this year it is no different. I’ve been having a rough time with fantasy novels since the marvellous Stroud trilogy in August and have yet to recover. The two McKillip novels besides Winter Rose were stunted efforts: stories with a great idea strangled by other stupid, generic plotlines; the Tobias Buckell debut was an interesting enough novel in which I lost interest halfway through; I moved no further in Kay’s pedestrian “alternate” historical fiction (the “alternate” bit was apparently enough to get a “fantasy” label).

Two feeble bright spots were So Long Been Dreaming by various authors and Breakfast with the Ones You Love by Eliot Fintushel. The first is feeble primarily because of my subdued response to anthologies. For this novel reader the disadvantage of a short story’s length is made up for many times over in a single authored collection. One mind’s varied looks, experiments with form and characterizations, themes, the discernment of an overall pattern , growing knowledge of the author’s primary concerns — all of this and more comprises short stories’ pleasures. This effect is fractured when reading an anthology and compounded by the inevitable dross placed besided the excellent. I can tolerate, forgive, even be intrigued with an excellent author’s medicore efforts; if a previously unknown author’s short piece is of the same quality I am dismissive. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spoiled: my previous short story experiences were with Roger Mais, Vladimir Nabokov, Mercé Rodoreda, Andre Dubus (who made me respect the form), and A.S. Byatt. It’s hard to compete with that.

Fintushel’s novel was a SF I won from Matt Cheney, who previously defended Fintushel from accusations of pretentious incomprehensibility. Breakfast with the Ones You Love was weird, odd-ballish and goofy enough to gain some of my affection and goodwill. (I finished the damn thing after being road-blocked by two SF/F books in succession.) He pulled on Jewish religion and culture to create a story about Lea Tillman, a teenage girl with fatal microscopic vision and her sort of bf, Jack Konar, who believes he’s one among 13 chosen ones who will be taken up into a spaceship when the Meschiach arrives and enter the Promised Land. To prepare for this momentous day he had to decorate the six surfaces in his room, situated in an abandoned, sealed off section of a Sears and Roebucks store, with shiny gold material and naked girly pictures among other things.

The plotting reads kinda shaky if not intentionally wayward and aimless (although Fintushel does wrap things up in the end) which I appreciated in a novel written in a genre that hangs on plotting, even if it’s towards an open, ambivalent conclusion. The book only lost points for its typical YA heroine — written in the first person, of course — who is tough as nails and a smartass but whose personal journey allows her to reconnect with her softer innards. Fintushel gives her a distinct (what I imagine to be) NYC Yiddish accent, a notable element I liked because it’s not one I come across often and it really helped to cement her presence on the page. Paul Kincaide at Strange Horizons thought it could have made a great short story, an opinion with which I don’t necessarily disagree. IN any case, although I liked the story well enough, it did not dazzle and I wasn’t rushed to seek other Fintushel fare.

Enter Ingo by Helen Dunmore, a YA fantasy and the first in a trilogy I’ve been excited about for some time. It’s one book I started this Christmas that was recommended in last year’s “Best of…” lists. I might have read past page 50 before I threw it aside in acute frustration. Frustration at its complete lack of originality, of uniqueness, of anything that screamed or at least mewled for the book’s necessary existence. I guess the merpeople angle is neat enough and it’s no doubt based on some North England tale (with older sources) about humans abandoning work and family to live in the sea. “The Little Mermaid” is one of my favourite Disney films; I have a love/hate relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale; I like all that Mélusine influenced stuff. I should be sold on this thing. Instead, I was disgusted at coming across yet another first person female narrative, or more pointedly at the fact that Sapphire was bland. At page 50 (or whatever) she was already getting into trouble but I couldn’t give a damn because Dunmore had given me no reason to care.

That’s something you have to do in fiction: make me care about a) the characters or b) the writing. I’d prefer both but I’m flexible and it all depends on what an author is trying to do; typically, I’m willing to suss that out. Dunmore’s no literary virtuoso (or she’s hiding her light under a bushel for kids) so it’s all on her characters who are woefully inadequate for the task. Sapphire’s father, the only interesting character (ie he seemed rather kooky about mermaids, was frustrated and driven about something, had DIMENSIONS and stuff) went and dove into the ocean. I’m left with his bland daugther , a vaguely sketched older brother, and an anxious, nagging but truly loving mother who’s reentering the dating pool to her daughter’s irritation. Then, you know, oo la laa, the kids are being drawn to the water too, look, a cryptic, arrogant merman who deliberately evades Sapphire’s questions about her brother’s curious and frequent disappearances. Dum, dum…zzzzzz.

I am a very cruel reader. You cannot write a story as if it were under the “Light a Candle” column in a local newspaper that regularly features good samaritan stories or some charity tale to which the expected response is a sympathetic “awwwww” because they’re actual events, and if I didn’t then I’m a horrible human being. Put your back into it Dunmore! Or not because I’ve thrown your book aside and I don’t care to know where it is.


Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers