09 December 2016

Books: Moonglow By Michael Chabon (2016)

Moonglow is a faux memoir of Michael Chabon’s maternal grandfather who had a life of an engineer, was a veteran, and even a felon. At often times hilarious and heartbreaking, this novel shines with Chabon’s typical lyrical-ism of language, metaphors, and existentialism. 

“In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession, made to his grandson, of a man the narrator refers to only as ‘my grandfather.’  It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.”

The novel is in many ways a tour-de-force of speculative fiction. As a reader, you know that some of what Chabon writes about does happen, but under his prose style, he expands the stories and creates new narrative that blurs the lines between fiction and biography. One of the novels major themes is that we sometimes don’t know the full story of family. “Truth and lies, family legends” are built on a house of cards and it seems all it takes is the knowledge of impending death to release the hounds of yesterday onto the world. 

Moonglow offers a dark look into Chabon’s family past, but it carries some morose humor with some often gripping, and poignant scenes as the writer “Michael Chabon” unwinds the vines of the past in this fictional non-fiction autobiography that unfolds like a Russian nesting doll.

01 December 2016

Books: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington (2014/2016)

We reached a point in fantasy literature, I think, where the writers of the late 1970s, into the 80s and the early part of 90s who were influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien are now having newest generation of fantasy writers being inspired by them. James Islington, born and raised in southern Victoria in Australia, grew up reading the works of Robert Jordan and Raymond Feist (again, influenced by Tolkien). He then went onto more modern writers like Patrick Rothfuss and, of course, Brandon Sanderson.

Deciding he wanted to create his own fantasy world, he self-published The Shadow of What Was Lost back in 2014 (and now picked up by Orbit Book and released this fall). This is the first book in a trilogy called The Licanius. And while it generally offers nothing new to this well worn genre, Islington does give us a worthy start. But would I continue reading on?

“It has been twenty years since the end of the war. The dictatorial Augurs - once thought of almost as gods - were overthrown and wiped out during the conflict, their much-feared powers mysteriously failing them. Those who had ruled under them, men and women with a lesser ability known as the Gift, avoided the Augurs' fate only by submitting themselves to the rebellion's Four Tenets. A representation of these laws is now written into the flesh of any who use the Gift, forcing those so marked into absolute obedience. As a student of the Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war fought – and lost – before he was born. Despised by most beyond the school walls, he and those around him are all but prisoners as they attempt to learn control of the Gift. Worse, as Davian struggles with his lessons, he knows that there is further to fall if he cannot pass his final tests.  But when Davian discovers he has the ability to wield the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything. To the north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir. And to the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is.”

It has occurred to me the reason that Lord of the Rings trilogy was successful was because it never was planned to be a trilogy. It was the publishers that forced Tolkien, who wrote it as one book, to have it split into three. This worked because as he was writing it, Tolkien did not have to create a natural act break, or cliffhanger to get people to continue reading a second book. The publisher just found natural areas at which to end one book and begin another. But these days, with series books breaking out of the natural trilogy format into six, eight, ten, or more volumes, we know all the revelations happen towards the end and that the reader will spend hundreds of pages of set up just so we can be left with a huge cliffhanger. 

And while I found this book to more accessible than Robert Jordan’s overlong, mostly bloated Wheel of Time series, it is still way too long –by at least 150 pages. The book falls into the same chasm as Jordan’s series: it needs a better editor who can tell the writer they need to tone down the rhetoric and get to the point of the story. The whole reason I think Jordan’s series flew past the original seven it started out was because the writer married his editor. Yes, I think there was huge conflict of interest here. 

Islington’s fondness of capitalizing everything quickly grows weary. He has characters mention multiple conflicts which, I assume, is designed to give his world a long history, but I find little point in them. It’s just (capital) words that really adds nothing to the story. He also has the tendency have characters start a story only to have them suddenly say, “the rest is for another time” or “respect my wishes when I say I did this for some blah, blah reason.” 

He does have some impressive world building here, and some interesting characters such as Davian (a really well defined character that truly seems confused about what is going on) and Asha (whose political storyline at the homefront, so to speak, is much more fun than anything else in the book). But everyone else has some secret agenda or are not who they say they are, which bogs down the prose, flirting with a sort of soap opera-ish style dialogue that borders on parody.

The book takes the long road to get to its point, but long before then, I figured out who one character was (yes, no surprise there). But did I enjoy it? A little. But I don't think this series holds any more surprises for me.

24 November 2016

Books: The Palace Job (Rogues of the Republic, Book One) By Patrick Weekes (2012)

Much of what I like about The Palace Job, the debut novel by Patrick Weekes, who is known for his work on the Mass Effect video game series, is that while it carries the DNA of the fantasy genre, it adds something I’ve not seen since David Eddings The Belgariad and The Malloreon series, humor.

While Piers Anthony did the same with his long-running Xanth series, it devolved into bad puns and a formulaic structure that made me eventually give up the series around the tenth book (which has ballooned into forty novels as of October of 2016). Even Terry Brooks Shannara series had some humor, but it was the success of the drama filled and very serious Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson and the launch of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series made sure that the humorous fantasy was going to take back seat. Since then we’ve seen many epic fantasy novels from next generation of writers like Brandon Sanderson (who while successful in his early days, won the lottery when he was assigned to finish Jordan’s overlong and very bloated series after that writer passed away in 2007) and George R. R. Martin’s (who had been around for a while, I admit) Song of Ice and Fire series. 

I’ve whined for a while that I’ve yet to find a fantasy novel, or series, in my more mature state of mind of my 50s that takes me back to the halcyon days of my late teens and early twenties when writers like Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, Tad Williams where producing fantasy series, while wholly indebted to J.R. Tolken, were still fun. Listen, I have no problem with serious fantasy, but my issue with today’s writers comes from that fact that most of these books are overlong, are sometimes paralyzingly tedious and often got me thinking that publisher needs to get a stronger editor for the writer or anyone else who can help tone down these writers rhetoric and force them to get to the point of the story. 

While The Palace Job relies on tropes of the genre, Weekes takes a page from science fiction, and adds a bit modern day social and political issues to make this first book in a series more easily identifiable. So what we get is an Ocean’s Eleven (as its been described), blended with some original ideas along with a great dose of humor and tongue placed well within cheek that pokes fun at the genre as well. 

“Loch used to be a soldier but is now serving a prison sentence on the underside of the floating city of Heaven’s Spire, cleaning the crystals that keep it suspended. It’s a dangerous task and the prisoners are not meant to survive it for long, but Loch and her former attendant Kail manage to escape, driven by Loch’s single-minded goal of retrieving a priceless manuscript that will insure them a more than comfortable future.  To this end they enlist the help of the most ragtag crew ever imagined: a shape-shifting unicorn and a virgin -bumbling teenager named Dairy; a failed mage with a penchant for illusions; a skilled lock-picker and her gravity-defying companion, and a death priestess, who used to be a love priestess, and her talking warhammer.

The plot gets a bit complicated as it proceeds and there are a ton of twists that I did not see (though there just as many as I did), but what works for me (again) is that the world Weekes creates is very different from others –it’s some combination of standard fantasy ideas with steampunck tropes thrown in for good measure. And Weekes does not go out of his way to explain how this sort of higher technology that depends on magic actually works, which (for some reason) I found very charming.

Then there is modern politics, class, and racial issues that populate the tale. And while the agenda of Weekes is evident, he does not hit you over the head with his metaphors, though I suspect many of the anti- SJW groups will hate the idea that the hero is female and black.

And while Silestin is really a James Bond villain out to destroy the land for his own profit, in post-2016 elections, he can easily be Donald Trump. His speechifying, his plans, his dark agenda, and backstabbing mirrors a lot of what is currently coming from the president-elects mouth and Washington.

In the end, this is a series I know I will continue.  Now I just have to order them.

18 November 2016

Books: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)

“Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.”

Fantasy novels have always served the same basic premise, that of “restoring order to a kingdom, returning a rightful heir to the throne, or defeating some dark power that threatens to unbalance society.” What N.K. Jemisin does here is sort upends the apple cart, creating a vivid world where the things are not always so cut and dry as one expects from the genre. Yeine is capable, three dimensional protagonist in the opening book of The Inheritance Trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She faces a few challenges –even if a few of the solutions are fairly easy-, including a potential romance with a god. There is some fine mythology that Jemisin created here, and I was intrigued that castle a typical fantasy novel would be the home of light and goodness is really just about the most terrible places a reader could imagine.

 I was often reminded of the my early years of reading fantasy, were writers like David Eddings wrote more straightforward tales that were not as dense and overtly complicated (though the books premise about god and goddesses and the unmaking of the universe is fairly complex here). Plus they were not over-bloated epics of 800 plus pages. A good fantasy series locking in around four-hundred pages gives me more pleasure and a better likelihood I’ll continue on.

It’s not perfect, but I found the pacing and the ideas –especially ones that challenge the status quo- more rewarding than I’ve seen in a while in this genre.  

15 November 2016

I'm Not Back

I’m not back. But I may be back, but I’m still processing how my life may change with Trump as president. 

My statements from a week ago, while brutal and maybe even hurtful, are still very much how I feel. I’m hurt, disappointed, and totally discouraged that as nation we could let this man and the Alt-Right Movement take over leadership of the United States. 

HRC was undone by her own hubris, mostly, I think because she seemed not only confident she could easily win, but everyone else thought as well. Everyone bought into, assumed, and even made fun of (especially in those SNL sketches, which now seem more of a mistake than ever) that fact that Trump could never get elected based on his misogynistic, often racist rhetoric. And it’s clear that Bernie Sanders would’ve failed as well had he been there instead of HRC. We all missed the boat on how angry a lot of white (mostly male) voters were. 

But I was always ambivalent, which was why I never posted anything with the I’M WITH HER images. Part of that was superstition, something I will admit I am, and partly because the more I poked around the internet, the more it seemed possible Trump could win, despite everything that vomited out of his mouth.

As pointed out by dear friend JT, I have an opinion and I should not let this step back stop me from saying anything. I would even hope to have a rational conversation with Trump supporters and Jill Stein folks, but it needs to be based on facts, and not assumptions, or conspiracy websites, or made up stories about how HRC has killed dozens of people. What this election showed was that it was NOT rigged, that voter fraud –what little there is of it- did not change the outcome.

It illustrated how a showman could easily convince a lot of people that it was rigged. That by saying it again and again, by calling HRC Crooked Hillary and by vaguely stating things he planned to do and by saying only he could change the course of America, he was swept into office. As always, if you say a lie a number of times, people begin to believe it is fact. Hillary Clinton was not the Lex Luthor of politicians both Trump and Stein painted her as, because if she was, she would be the president-elect. 

Nope, they just told the same lie again and again and people started to accept as truth

So I will be cross posting from this old blog to Facebook. But it may be a while before I fully come back to it. I'm on Twitter as well, which I find less aggravating mostly because the people I follow are ones I chose. 

But if there is to be an discussion, as I noted, it will need to be like a college dissertation, with legitimate footnotes to back up your argument. If you cannot, then it's just an opinion and opinions are not truth, are not facts. They will be mocked.

Peace for now.