Posted on | December 5, 2013 | No Comments
Recommendations by friends are a weird beast. The number of hits and misses is pretty evenly matched, and the difference between these two is indicative of the rift between who I really am, and how others perceive me. As writerly types, my buddies are pretty standoffish with their recommendations, and understand that even near-universal praise is no guarantee of universal appeal, much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, though doubtless well written to the point of Pulitzer, just failed to push any buttons with me. So the recommendation for Kelly Link’s prose came with huge caveats – and not merely due to this rift, but also the fact that Link’s writing lies in an odd little zone of its own.
Stranger Things Happen is a collection of short stories. People describe them as a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism, with a dash of fairy-tale as a spice, but to me they read almost like poetry in prose, words that skillfully paint pictures and atmosphere, almost like little tableaus that are now permanently lodged in my mind. The opening story in particular, about a dead man struggling with his memory on a dislocated beach, is one that I frequently return to during gray, autumn days (or ones that feel that way).
It would be silly and probably counterproductive to attempt to describe the plot of the stories, because they are not about plot, anyway. One thing that does need to be said, though, is that Link’s writing is very much hit or miss on an individual level – you will either love it, hate it, or remain utterly indifferent, so the best thing to do is to pop over to her site and get a taste of it – much of her work is accessible under a CC licence in a variety of formats, and most of the stories are relatively short, so it will not take much of an effort to see if she hooks you or not.
Posted on | December 4, 2013 | No Comments
Book-wise, 2013 started off with a veritable bang. Despite Shepard’s reputation for being an absolutely brilliant, yet terribly underrated writer in the genre during the eighties, I must confess what really drew me to this book was the cover – if it weren’t so gorgeous I probably would have kept “Life During Wartime” on the “to read” list in perpetuity. As it was, I cracked it open and remained mesmerized for the next 432 pages.
The novel tells the story of David Mingolla, a grunt serving in a future war in Guatemala, one fought not only with conventional weapons, but also special commandos utilizing psychic powers to fight the enemy across a wholly different kind of muddy, rotten battlefield.
Before becoming a writer, Shepard lived a rich, varied, adventurous life, and it really shows in his prose. It is not only rich and florid in style (but never to the point of being tacky), it is filled with vivid, relatable characters, believably captured on paper, even when he segues into brief digressions and anecdotes, sketched vignettes within the overarching narrative of the novel.
Everyone and their mother will tell you this is an allegorical tale about the Vietnam war, a post-colonial treatise in the guise of a magical-realist science fiction or science fantasy novel, and of course, they will be right. This is not you average pulp skiffy, nor is it modern SF trying desperately to be highbrow literature – this simply and naturally is highbrow literature, and the effortless way in which this is achieved really shines through.
There are also those who will say that it has an odd structure, with a strong, almost self-sufficient opening which then slows down into a seemingly bogged-down slow meandering rhythm before delivering the strong closing chapters, and they would also be correct. However, the structure and pace, to me at least, seem intentional and well thought-through, following the meandering adventures of Mingolla as he searches for answers in an increasingly bizarre world where he can’t trust anyone, including himself.
Posted on | January 18, 2013 | No Comments
Pro: Vivid, dynamic, brutal and different fantasy story about a battle and its consequences, and a grim cast of characters with no real good guys to be found.
Contra: Occasionally slips into slight cliché with the characterization, the initial battle description feels slightly gimmicky at first, but these objections are completely irrelevant.
Pro: Beautifully written story of very alien, yet recognizably human beings, uplifted almost to the point of incomprehensibility, yet with multidimensional characters one can relate to, topped off by solid faux science.
Contra: No serious objections, but avoid the sequel like it’s rabid.
Pro: Gorgeous worldbuilding, non-US-centric future global politics, surprisingly well captured atmosphere of imminent wartime.
Contra: Occasionally too wordy in large, descriptive passages, particularly regarding scientific or faux-scientific tangents with little bearing on the plot.
Pro: Beautiful, poetic tale of growing up as a bookish and generally different child, told after the main story seems to be over, in a sort of anti-hogwartian style of boarding school story. Oh, and the way the magic works – or doesn’t work – is lovely.
Contra: The constant references to classic SF titles do become somewhat tedious and slightly forced after a point.
Pro: A thoughtful, layered and brutally unflinching meditation on the nature of humanity, both its positive and negative sides, from the perspective of descendants of a crashed ship on a thoroughly alien sunless planet.
Contra: Occasionally our primary hero manages to achieve certain things just a wee bit too easily.
Pro: Beautiful love story and wartime fantasy unfolding in the arctic wastes of Alaska, revolving around an actual cloud atlas and Japanese firebombing of US mainland during WWII.
Contra: Not sure why, but the wife lost interest in the book very early on, claims “nothing happened for a long time”.
Pro: Perfect books for relaxed reading on the beach. It has space zombies, so I’m not sure what else needs to be said.
Contra: Pulpy style, so not good if you are looking for “serious” or “intellectual” books. Also, preemptively ripped off my novel idea, so yeah.
Pro: Vampiric apocalypse and post-apocalypse that is exquisitely good even when it gets a bit stupid.
Contra: Becomes serious pulpy on occasion, and becomes exquisitely stupid sometimes even though it is still rather good. The second book is slightly worse than the first.
Pro: Weird amnesiac adventure after our hero wakes up from the perfect dream into the nightmarish reality of a broken-down generation ship where almost everything is out to kill him.
Contra: Slightly derivative – the opening is almost exactly the same as Pandorum. One of the most interesting characters is underdeveloped.
Pro: Mix of economic and lovecraftian horror that opts to make you extremely itchy instead of extremely frightened. Spot-on Brooklyn atmosphere.
Contra: Certain details are predictable, such as the fact that some of the characters will turn out to be evil.
Pro: Twisted tale of a different type of warfare style set against old military structures, presenting a deep clash between hierarchical modes of thinking set against mesh-type conceptualizations.
Contra: The action moves on in a relatively linear fashion, some of the exploits of our hero are sometimes really unfeasible.
Classic Standing Strong:
Pro: Seriously disturbed mythological fantasy/far future SF full of dark humour and whimsy, a gorgeous literary experiment that was never meant for publication and all the more beautiful for it.
Contra: In a few rare spots it tends to show its age, particularly in the chapters regarding the computer powered by orgasms.
Posted on | January 13, 2013 | 1 Comment
Most of you will not like Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, and probably shouldn’t even try to read it. I am not aiming for condescension, but simply the mindset when I say there is a lot of science in his fiction and most of it well and truly fictional. This opinion is borne out by a number of reviews online, but there is, as a vocal minority of reviewers indicates, a slice of the reading public that will truly, fully, enjoy what he provides, and I am smack dab in the middle of it.
The Quiet War is not a true eganesque mathematical fandango where if the reader can’t keep up with the math and/or physics, they are reduced to skimming pages and assuming things happen by “magic”. This novel is relatively easy to follow, its several points of view speaking with distinct voices and perspectives as we follow our heroes trying to halt, mitigate or initiate an interplanetary war with Earth’s colonies on and around the satellites of Saturn. However, McAuley does enjoy stopping every now and then to describe, in minute detail, the fictional biomechemistry or construction of surface domes or, even, as boring as it may sound, soil composition and layering. To me, most of these longwinded description passages were fascinating, serving as breaks between brief and frequently violent outbursts of action.
Apart from these digressions, McAuley also occasionally stumbles in style and even, as if lacking a good editor, grammar, however, these minor issues were overshadowed by the very believable universe he created, along with the all-too-familiar atmosphere of societies gearing up for, psyching up for, and initiating a pointless, aimless, ideologically driven war, and individuals caught in the web of History breaking right across their shoulders.
Posted on | January 10, 2013 | No Comments
They tell me The Crying of Lot 49 is Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible book, which might be part of the problem; the writing here is perhaps too transparent to truly wrap me up in the story and never let me surface for breath, as was the case with the utterly brilliant Gravity’s Rainbow.
Inasmuch as Pynchon novels have a coherent plot, this one concerns Oedipa Maas, named executor for the will of her former lover. As she delves into his past, she slowly uncovers a shadowy secret alternate postal service at war with the regular Post, becoming obsessed with their existence, yet unsure if it is real, or just her going slowly insane.
Despite the fact that I found it weaker than Gravity’s Rainbow, it is nevertheless still a brilliant piece of countercultural writing. The paranoid, narcotic wanderings of Oedipa as she delves ever deeper into the (possible) conspiracy are very vivid and filled with cultural references, which is, perhaps, what made it slightly less enjoyable for me – the Beatles-like quartet that accompanies her annoyed me and was so very Scooby-doo that to an extent they kept pushing my brain out of the narrative. However, the clash between Tristero and Thurn und Taxis was so engrossing, it kept pulling me back in, much like it did with Mrs. Oedipa Maas.keep looking »