Wednesday, December 7, 2016

2016 read #90: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle.

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
238 pages
Published 2016
Read from December 4 to December 7
Rating: ½ out of 5

I wonder how much more I would have enjoyed this novel, had I been more able to enjoy anything these days. That said, I don't feel like this was anywhere near Beagle's best. It left me feeling equivocal, bored even, especially during the first half, which felt at times closer to the urban fairy tales of de Lint than the sensitive and emotionally weighted musings I've come to expect from Beagle's longform stories. That first half read like a somewhat more intelligent but entirely formulaic urban fantasy of a fey being improving the tap water and ameliorating the Pacific Northwest weather with her mere presence, something I would have eaten up a couple years ago but can't get excited about anymore. Interludes of a main character, in his silver years, attaching himself to a blues-harmonica outfit did nothing to cultivate my interest. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't catch on to the identity of the magical stranger until roughly the halfway point, when a certain mythological connection was referenced by name. But that's also about when the book (or at least my interest in it) picked up noticeably.

What follows is a complicated knot of inadvertent betrayal, understandable hurt and pettishness, some light stalking, and a coda of heartbreaking realism. The last couple of pages at long last punctured my Trump Age anhedonia to move me the way I expect a Beagle novel to move me.

Friday, December 2, 2016

2016 read #89: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
304 pages
Published 2016
Read from November 21 to December 2
Rating: out of 5

Meh. I wanted to like this book. The concept -- a corps of spiritualist mediums channeling the ghosts of British soldiers killed in the First World War, to gain instant intelligence of German action on the front -- is entirely my sort of thing. I mostly enjoyed Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, which showed authorial potential up until the blatant set-up-the-series coda. And Ghost Talkers' opening chapters, while establishing the characters and setting with such efficiency that they could have been generated from a step-by-step "How to write a fantasy novel" guide, presented a decent hook and a moderately appealing cast. But after that... I dunno. It's hard these days to discern whether my lack of enthusiasm for a book results from a mediocre story or from my ongoing post-election anhedonia. I just could not stay engaged with the narrative for any length of time. The initially promising plot -- ghosts! traitors in the ranks! emotionally moving scenes! -- devolved into the main character trotting around pell-mell, first to the front tranches to have a gratuitous encounter with one Lt. Tolkien, then to a book store, then to a train that she thought was going one place then turned out to be going to another place, then a detour to unmask an obvious plot twist, and so on and so forth, like a farce getting played for drama. After a while, I got to the point where I could only read a few pages before losing interest and gravitating toward my D&D manuals.

I don't want to blame my lack of engagement on the book, necessarily -- I haven't felt especially interested in any of the other three books I'm currently working through. Nor do I have anything more substantial to say about this one. I mean, I do like bits and pieces (two words: poltergeist battalion), but the overall effect is just... meh.

So much for being able to finish a hundred books this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

2016 read #88: Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin
89 pages
Published 1976
Read from November 17 to November 20
Rating: ½ out of 5

Only an urge toward completionism motivated me to pick up this book. Aside from Always Coming Home, Malafrena, Orisinian Tales, Four Ways to Forgiveness, and a whole bunch of short story compilations, all that remains of Le Guin's work for me to read is her juvenile fiction; this isn't the sort of book I'd select if it weren't for the drive to read everything. I'm happy for the prompt, however. Prosaic as this tale of an introverted, self-proclaimed high school intellectual may be, Le Guin brings her characteristic insight and deep compassion to the work. Giving into received social expectations leads to heartache and frustration as our narrator disregards what he knows and feels in favor of some half-conscious capitulation to conformity. The emotional fluency of Le Guin's prose, examining adolescent longing with detached yet heartfelt honesty, again and again delivered lines and moments of perceptive clarity.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2016 read #87: The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull.

The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull
356 pages
Published 2016
Read from November 15 to November 16
Rating: out of 5

The first couple years I maintained this review blog, I had something of a fixation for novels of Faery. I was still new to fantasy in those days, having discovered how dreary and repetitive modern sci-fi can be after a lifelong allegiance to that genre, and something about a well-done Faery tale hit the right nerves -- for a while. Nowadays I can't even remember the last Faery novel I finished, let alone the last one that really stood out and stuck to me. (An archive search suggests Drink Down the Moon or, possibly, The Book of Atrix Wolfe for the former, possibly as far back as War for the Oaks for the latter.) I can't even list all the Faery novels I began and abandoned only partway in the last couple years; I've reached the point where another solitary, bookish girl stumbling between the worlds has lost any sense of freshness or enchantment.

Catmull's Summer and Bird was a wondrous and strange fairy tale (not, please note, Faery novel), and I was excited to read more of her output -- that was my sole motivation to keep reading after the sustained meh of Road's opening pages, with its condescending, omniscient narrator and constant second-person asides: "Or the Halloween feeling -- you must know that one -- the feeling of dead leaves and chill and early dark..." Even though Road's POV character is older than her counterpart in Summer, Catmull appears to have had a much younger audience in mind. With juvenile fiction, there's always a risk that an author will talk down to their audience, which is aggravating to read as an adult (and probably aggravates its intended audience as well, though I for one never read YA when I was young), and in those first few pages, I worried what kind of slog I'd be in for.

I'm glad I persevered, however. While The Radiant Road doesn't produce any staggering or delightful new addition to Faery lore (I'm doubtful, at this point, that anything new remains to be done with Faery), Catmull spins out a worthwhile and enjoyable sojourn in its halls. Her imagery here doesn't approach the vividness and creativity it displayed in Summer, but glimpses of that talent do emerge: to a much lesser degree, Catmull here does for trees what Summer did for birds, elevating them into the lexicon of fantastic imagery.

Monday, November 14, 2016

2016 read #86: A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
159 pages
Published 2016
Read from November 11 to November 14
Rating: ½ out of 5

The previous Wilson novella set in this story universe, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, was a modern take on some old sword-and-sorcery cliches. A Taste of Honey moves closer to the science-fantasy of Butler's Xenogenesis series or Le Guin's Hainish books, full of godlike aliens mingling their genetic patterns and psionic powers with a human race seemingly reverted to an Iron Age existence. In both cases Wilson fans new life into the respective subgenres but nonetheless seems bound by their limitations, at least to some extent.

In its structure, plotting, and pacing, Honey is a more assured undertaking, slipping forward and backward through Aqib's life exactly as needed to pull the story along, without the occasional wobble Sorcerer suffered. The characters are richer here, the tragedy more compelling, yet to be honest, I preferred the fantasy elements of Sorcerer (dated as they were) to the rote technobabble here. A better balance between the two influences would be superb, though for me, that balance would rest closer to the fantasy side of things.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

2016 read #85: The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper.

The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper
202 pages
Published 1978 (includes "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," originally published 1976)
Read from November 7 to November 11
Rating: ½ out of 5

I'll forever remember this as the book I was reading when a spray-tanned reality TV clown, riding a wave of nativism and fascism throughout rural America, won the White House. Set a thousand years from now, in a feudal future after man-made climate change has melted the ice caps and Britain is flooded into a series of island kingdoms, where the Church Militant hunts the heretics who preach brotherly love and Universal Kinship, The Road to Corlay is also appallingly apropos to the events of Tuesday.

Corlay is a fixup of two novellas. "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is a predictable but sweet little number, the ending of which was spoiled for me (majorly) by the back cover blurb. That blunted the ending's impact, to put it mildly, but I enjoyed the novella nonetheless. "The Road to Corlay" is longer, more ambitious, and also more muddled, getting sidetracked with what I would consider to be a very 1970s plotline: Near-future technobabble experimentation (sample: "From my experience I'd say that what takes place in the pineal zone of the human cortex is beyond the scope of our natural philosophies") sends an English scientist on an out-of-body experience inside the head of a religious fugitive in 3018 AD. It's all quite silly and detracts from whatever merit the rest of the story might have.

At this point I can't parse out my feelings: Was Corlay a middling effort, failing to live up to its setting and the initial promise of "Piper," or am I merely numb and nihilistic over the future we face?

Friday, November 4, 2016

2016 read #84: The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin.

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin
418 pages
Published 2012
Read from November 1 to November 4
Rating: out of 5

This book, when compared with Jemisin's debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, neatly represents maturation in the craft of a fantasy writer -- or at least a step in that general direction. Where Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy relied upon first person narration and (for the most part) introduced readers to complicated fantasy exposition through the handy trick of an outsider's perspective, The Killing Moon tosses readers into the thick of things, starting in media res with third-person limited perspective as our characters react to events that occurred before the first page. It's an ambitious leap in storycraft. As an inadvertent side effect, alas, I didn't feel much investment in either the characters or the story for the first hundred or so pages.

Jemisin is a consummate worldbuilder, which I appreciate as a writer, but as a reader, I feel more ambivalent about that tendency. Especially in the early going, Moon suffers from too much attention to the cosmic details of its made-up world, much like Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods. The exposition is doled out at a comfortable pace, rarely too much at once, but there is just so damn much of it to absorb that it becomes hard to care about the story. The book is, perhaps, richer for it in the long run, but it takes an unfortunate length of time (and book) to reach a balance between caring about the characters and knowing what the hell is going on. The ending is fairly predictable, but nonetheless moving.