Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Fifth Season

Intrigued. Curious. Disturbed. After last year’s Hugo Award controversy, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read this year’s nominees. After reading The Fifth Season, the first book in a new trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, I'm so glad that I didn't give in to my disillusionment.

The world building alone made it worth reading. The ideas are fresh. Yes, yes we are told that this is a story about the end of the world. But, why is the world ending? What has caused “Father Earth’s surface [to be] cracked like an eggshell?” Fifth Seasons are “ages in which the earth has broken somewhere and spewed ash or deadly gas into the sky, resulting in a lightless winter that lasted years or decades instead of months.” People band together in “comms” to try to survive the normal upheavals and possible fifth seasons. The world is populated by ordinary humans, but Jemisin also introduces Orogenes, Guardians, and Stone Eaters. The Orogenes, who are the main characters in the novel’s various plots, have the ability to control the movement of the earth. They are despised and feared, considered “not human,” and kept under control of the Guardians. But, who really are these characters? Jemisin slowly unwraps the world.

Jemisin also slowly reveals the novel’s plots.  First, a woman discovers that her husband has murdered their son. As she searches for her husband and daughter, she is also confronted with the prospect of a probable fifth season. Second, a little girl is rejected by her parents and given to a Guardian to take to the Fulcrum, a place where Orogenes are trained and controlled. Lastly, two Orogenes, one fairly competent and the other extremely masterful, are sent to clear coral from a harbor, on what appears to be a fairly mundane mission. How do the three major plotlines fit together?

Because I was so driven by curiosity while I was reading The Fifth Season, I did not spend a lot of time dwelling on the parts that were disturbing. The abuse of the Orogenes is inhumane. Their raw power is terrifying.

By the end of The Fifth Season, some of my initial questions were answered, but I picked up more along the way. Needless to say, I am going to read the next novel in the series. I don’t need anyone or any award to convince me of the value of this novel.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Man Called Ove (Novel)

Friendship. Love. Community. Neighbors. Soulmates. Family. Reconciliation. Cars. Heroes. Cats. Loss. Purpose. Principles. Grief. Men in White Shirts.

While reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, a number of times my body was confused, trying to laugh and cry at the same time. My continuing reading mission is to find books with “good heart. A Man Called Ove has “great” heart, which allowed me many moments of emotional catharsis. I have loved and lost. I too long to have someone who won’t give up on me, who would love me despite my flaws.

Most of us know someone like Ove. Someone we will go out of our way to avoid, who constantly criticizes and seems to find nothing right with the world. In the beginning of the story, Ove feels incapable of living without his beloved wife. He wants only to be reunited with her. But, the world keeps on interfering with his plans. The first distraction in the novel comes in the form of Ove’s new neighbors backing their trailer into his mailbox. The wife, Parvaneh, is pregnant, has two daughters, and has a husband who is DIY challenged. The novel describes the blossoming of Ove’s relationship with the family as well as the other human and feline intrusions into Ove’s life. The novel also tells Ove’s backstory. Backman helps us understand how Ove became “Ove.” We also learn about the unlikely love between Ove and his wife, Sonja. While Ove is the main character of the novel, Parvaneh is the hero. Her fierce refusal to give up on Ove, despite his unpleasantness, is what drives the novel to its heartfelt climax.

After I finished reading A Man Called Ove, I pondered it for a few days. I was reminded of my uncles, who were often brusque but always willing to help. I thought about friendships that had deteriorated. I thought of the cantankerous people in my life, some who I understand and some who I don’t. This would be such a good novel for getting people to talk about some of the heartfelt experiences in their own lives. We so seldom have a place to talk about the things that really matter in our lives.

Monday, January 18, 2016

T!m G!nger (Graphic Novel)

Why does Tim live alone in a trailer in the desert? Why does he have to wear an eye patch? What is his tragic backstory? What does his future hold? In the graphic novel T!m G!nger, Julian Hanshaw masterfully interweaves words and graphics to tell the heartfelt story of Tim Ginger. Hanshaw explores such grown-up themes as being childless by choice, dealing with the loss of a soul-mate, revealing a well-kept secret, and being true to oneself while still being open to love.

Those of us who read comics decades ago have grown up and so has the graphic novel, at least some of them have. Here, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, was my favorite book that I read in 2015. T!m G!nger continues my excitement for the medium. I appreciated the good storytelling. I also experienced feelings that I am not sure that I would have had by just reading words. While I will always love more or less traditional novels, graphic novels have made my world a bit bigger.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Familiar 2: Into the Forest (Multi-genre Novel)

Evocative. The second volume of The Familiar, Into the Forest, by Mark Z. Danielewski is a novel that is able to evoke strong emotion in the reader. While the novel could be called “experimental,” I am more comfortable calling it “multi-layered." Typography and some other visual effects are used to add depth to the story. Two subplots quickly come to mind. One is Xanther trying to cope with the threat of bullies at school. Another involves her mother, Astair, trying to recover after a failed dissertation. In both cases, I had almost a visceral sense of what these characters were experiencing.

Into the Forest is a direct sequel to One Rainy*. I could argue that Into the Forest is just another chapter in what may be, according to an NPR interview, a 27 volume novel. (Okay, this seems a bit insane.) Like One Rainy Day, Into the Forest has multiple story threads, which interweave. In this second installment, we learn a bit more about how some of the storylines are related to one another. There is some violence. There is some graphic sex. But, for me the main plotline(s) was a beautiful story about family members trying to cope with their lives. Xanther is an awkward, sickly girl who takes comfort in a “kitten” that she mysteriously found. Anwar, her dedicated stepfather, tries to protect her while dealing with a professional and financial crisis. Astair tries to not only raise three children, but also to salvage a rejected dissertation. Then there is the “kitten,” which is not only not the dog that Astair had planned to buy, but is also not a kitten.

Because so much of the plot remains a mystery, the genre of the ever-growing The Familiar also remains a mystery. It seems to be part science fiction, part horror, perhaps even part cyber or urban fantasy, I am still a big fan of The Familiar. When I read about the projected length, I have some concerns. Will I be able to recall the “story up to this point,” when each new novel/volume comes out? By volume ten, will I be in a place in my life that I even care? Still, I’m looking forward to Volume 3, which is scheduled for a summer release.

*Note: while I am publishing my reactions to One Rainy Day and Into the Forest a few days apart, I actually read One Rainy Day in June and wrote a first draft of my reaction a few days later. I went through a five month periods of not feeling comfortable blogging about books.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May (Experimental Fiction)

The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski contains good story telling. While it is easy to get caught up in labels like “experimental fiction,” the bottom line for me is whether the writing was good and I was emotionally moved by the story. Yes. The non-traditional techniques –like using different font types, manipulating the space on the page, and using unfamiliar language—add dimensions to the multiple storylines of the novel.

The novel takes place on one rainy day. The storylines take place in multiple locations –a number in Los Angeles. Some of the stories are dark. Others touching. The major storyline is about a twelve year old girl, a sweet misfit, and her loving step-dad. For me, each storyline contained some level of mystery, confusion, and/or uncertainty.

Because this is the first novel in a longer series, the book only hints at how the storylines might relate with one another. I was left with more questions than answers. I want more. Now. Certainly the reader that starts in on reading book 1 before the other books in the series are published will have a different experience than readers who can read synopses of later books. Is this fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror? How do the storylines fit together?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Clockwork Lives (Steampunk Novel)

I love a good “Hero’s Journey” story. Clockwork Lives, by Kevin J. Anderson & Neil Peart, caught my eye from the moment I came through the doors of my local library and approached the New Book bookcases. I noticed the deep red cover, which was embossed with a clockwork design and alchemical symbols, on the New Book bookcases. “Oh, what are you about, my darling.” I didn’t bother to check to see whether the novel was part of a series. Nope. And I’m glad that I didn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, and now I can go back to the library and find the novel which inspired them and introduced the clockwork world.

The premise behind the journey is simple. Marinda has spent much of her life taking care of her sickly father. He loves stories and inventions, but she is a very pragmatic woman. “…she was content with her quiet, perfect life, setting her ambitions low enough so that she met every single one of them.” After he dies, she goes to the solicitor, assuming that she is going to inherit the home in which she and her father have lived. And she does, sort of. She must first complete a task. In the will her father writes:“At first you will hate me for this. Then you will love me for it.” The solicitor hands Marinda a blank, alchemical book and a golden needle. By pricking a person’s finger and putting a drop of their blood on a page of the book, the person’s true story appears. Before she can again live in her home and inherit her father’s other wealth, Marinda must first fill the book with stories. To start off the book, her father has included a tiny vial of his own blood. Marinda is given five days before the house is to be boarded up for safekeeping. She is also give a small stipend to live on until she completes her task. How hard can filling the book be? “The sooner she filled this book with its life stories, the sooner she could be back to her normal schedule.” She thinks that she might even be able to fill the book with stories before the five days are up. But Marinda soon discovers: “Some lives can be summed up in a sentence or two. Other lives are epics.” So, she is compelled to go off on a journey to find stories, and, of course, in the process she is changed. The book is a mixture of other people’s stories and Marinda’s own adventures.

I felt very contented when I finished reading Clockwork Lives. I once heard a Jungian say that we are biologically encoded for the archetypal hero’s journey. I loved Anderson and Peart’s world building. Even though many of the stories were a bit on the tragic side, they were all enjoyable. Part of me hopes that Marinda will collect even more stories for me to read. As for me, I am going to read Clockwork Angels, so that I can enjoy the clockwork world more.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters (Novel)

The Canterbury Tales. Mothers and Daughters. Death. Forgiveness. Healing. Stories. A Pilgrimage. Friendships. Death. Relationships. Lovers. What Women Want.
Okay, I thought. Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have a mother, or a lover, or a phone, or any fucking clue of why I’m here, where I’m going next, or what any of this means.
Kim Wright, The Canterbury Sisters

When Che receives her mother’s ashes, there is a note attached, a last request: take the ashes to Canterbury, “It is never too late for healing.” Che would have ignored the note, except that her boyfriend had also sent a note. He was breaking up with her and would call her to work out the details. So, to fulfill her mother’s last wishes and to avoid the inevitable conversation with her now ex-boyfriend, Che books a flight to London. When her private tour guide becomes ill, Che finds herself on a pilgrimage (run by Broads Abroad) going from London to Canterbury with eight other women. In the tradition of The Canterbury Tales, each woman is to tell a “love story,” whether true or fictional. Through the pilgrimage and the stories, Che finds the healing that her mother wanted for her.

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright gave me the same pleasure that I associate with the sight of a well-planned, well-maintained garden. There was the pleasure of the description of the walk to Canterbury, based upon Wright’s own experiences. There was the pleasure of the skillful writing.The description of Che’s mother’s ashes in the zip lock bag and then in the fish and chips bag is wonderful, both amusing and touching. The women’s stories and the narration of their experiences on the trip gave me insight into the lives of women and their complexities. Che is a bit snooty and at the same time vulnerable, making her an appealing character. My only major criticism is that part of the ending seemed contrived.

I rarely read non-genre –science fiction, mystery, fantasy– fiction. I’m not sure it is in my true nature. But, this novel does make me want to read more novels by Kim Wright.