Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Book Rave' Category

Links and Recommendations

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

As if you don’t already have enough distractions…

I failed to post here at my blog for almost the entire month of February, so I’m making up for it with a flurry of posts in early March. (If posting regularly is the key to building a blog readership, well, that explains a lot.)

Recommended Audiobooks

Hyperion by Dan SimmonsHyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons:
These are science fiction classics that I loved back when they were originally published, and they are just as amazing today. Instead of re-reading, I listened to the audiobooks and was extremely impressed by the production. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for only about nine months, and early on I got into the habit of listening at a slightly faster than normal speed, usually 1.25x, unless I really wasn’t enjoying a book and then I would shift to 1.5x. But with these books I downshifted to 1.0x because every word is worth hearing. Truly amazing writing, characters, and world building. I’ll be moving on to the next book in the set, Endymion, before too long.

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerThe Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff Vandermeer:
Audible had all three volumes of the Southern Reach trilogy — Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance — in an omnibus edition, available for a ridiculously low one credit, so I decided it was high time I familiarized myself with these much-acclaimed novels. I’m not entirely sure what I expected of the Southern Reach, but I was surprised at what I found. These are “literary” novels. They engage with fine language and description and, especially in the first two books, there is much time spent exploring the odd and troubled pasts of the main characters. At times I found it slow going, and early on I tweeted this:

What kept me going was the truly amazing writing, and a wonderful cast of narrators. As above, I slowed this one down to 1.0x speed, to catch every word, and as the story proceeded, I began to feel I was drawn into a spell of words and insight. I also felt that the quality of my own writing was improving as I continued to listen — a very nice side effect!

Of the three volumes, the third was my favorite. I found it the most engrossing, as some of the mysteries are being worked out. Some reader reviews complained that the ending was too abrupt, but I didn’t find it so. Highly recommended.

Links

• In midFebruary SF Signal published a piece by James Wallace Harris called Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction. I found it to be an interesting look at how the idea of what constitutes “cutting edge” technology shifts over time and how technologically based science fiction responds to that, especially since this is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. James suggests that writers wanting to “extrapolate about the impact of real scientific knowledge … can’t let older science fiction cloud their vision.” I think this is a very important point. The post was surrounded by controversy though, because none of the books cited as examples were written by women. I wish it had been different and that the post had included a more varied list of examples. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting perspective.

• Yesterday Charles Stross published a very entertaining and thought-provoking piece called Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera, in which are listed several hundred “already seen it” tropes from science fiction. To my mind, this list is asking a similar question to that above: what’s new? and what’s left to explore in a literary sense?

• And finally, just for fun… this was making the rounds a few weeks ago, but if you haven’t seen it yet, check it out, and know that we are doomed:

The Revenent — (the novel)

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

The Revenant by Michael PunkeI just finished reading The Revenant, the 2002 novel by Michael Punke which inspired the 2015 movie of the same name. One reviewer described the novel as “plainspoken” and I found this to be true. The style of writing struck me as old fashioned, in that it felt like books written in the fifties and sixties that I’d read as a child. It reads more like a biography than a novel, and a few chapters in I paused to check that it actually was a novel. The narrative voice is omniscient, moving from the head of one character to another without hesitation or transition, and several times moving from one time and place to another without so much as a helpful blank line to cue the reader.

All that said, I found The Revenant to be captivating.

Long before I was interested in science fiction, I had a childhood passion for frontier fiction, and reading The Revenant has been a welcome chance to revisit that — and to discover that I am just as fascinated now by the vast and amazing landscapes of the American West, and by the dangers and the clash of cultures on the American frontier. In short, my love of adventure fiction began early, and I have never outgrown it.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie (I haven’t!), The Revenent is the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who was horribly mauled by a grizzly and then abandoned by his companions when they feared an attack by Arikara warriors was imminent. It depicts a level of strength and endurance that feels almost superhuman to us feeble modern folk, and it depicts in fairly good detail a way of life long gone away. If your reading requires women characters, you won’t be pleased with The Revenent. Women are background elements. I’m not sure that even one ever comes on stage.

This is a short novel and in my opinion well worth reading. From a writer’s perspective, it’s good to be reminded that there are many ways to tell a story, and that the scene-by-scene, show-don’t-tell style of modern novels is not the only option. In the end, it’s the story that matters, and the story told by The Revenent has made this novel a success.

Book Recs & a Link

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

I admit:
It’s happened more than once over the years that I’ve picked up a popular, acclaimed novel in the genre and completely failed to see the appeal. This is a disconcerting experience. It makes me question myself and my place in the field. How can my tastes be so different from the majority? Do I really understand this genre? Is my concept of what makes a good story too out of date or too far afield?

But then I’ll pick up another popular, acclaimed novel, often one I’ve hesitated to read for some reason or other, and discover that it totally works for me — which always makes me happy.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne GilmanSilver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman is the first example. This is a 2015 novel that has received rave reviews, but I hesitated to pick it up in large part because it was described as a “weird Western.” I’d never before heard of “weird Westerns,” but I think of weird fiction in general as the sort of horror that leaves me feeling like I need to clean my brain out; in other words, the sort of horror that I avoid. I’m happy to report Silver on the Road is nothing like that. This is a coming-of-age story of a young woman growing up in a fantastical version of the American West in which magic is commonplace. Early in the story, she makes a decision that will determine the path of her life to come — and that path is far more harrowing than anyone expects. The story does an excellent job of presenting both characters and landscape, and makes a compelling read. It’s the first of a series.

The Nebula awards are voted on by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Prior to the period when books may be nominated for the ballot, SFWA keeps a Nebula Suggested Reading List, with the suggestions made by members. This is not a “long list.” It’s just a list of titles that members feel are worth a look. This year, for the first time, the suggested reading list has been made public and you can find it here. Take a look at it! Notice something? I’m not going to count them up, but I think it’s safe to say there is a large preponderance of fantasy novels near the top of this list. (Come on, science fiction writers! Represent!)

Vicious by VE SchwabHonestly, I’ve begun to feel overwhelmed by the number of fantasy novels out there, and yet so many are so very, very good. I hate to admit it, but fantasy is the real backbone of the genre these days. VE Schwab’s Vicious is an example of why. This is a 2013 novel that, like Silver on the Road, garnered enthusiastic reviews, but as I recall, some of those reviews talked about “superheroes.” Like “weird fiction,” “superhero fiction” is a term that makes me take a step back and look for something else to read. But I was finally inspired to try Vicious and all those enthusiastic reviewers were right — it’s a very good book! That said, it’s not a book for everyone. It’s violent, and pushes the boundaries of antiheroes (hmm…not unlike my Puzzle Land books). It’s also very well written, with intriguing characters, excellent descriptions, good pacing, and a style of nonlinear story telling that I really liked.

So those are my recommended books.

And here’s the promised link:
If you’re a writer, or just interested in the way things work (or don’t work) in Hollywood, check out Matt Wallace’s post over at SF Signal “The Pelecanos Proposition and What it Means to SFF Authors” wherein Matt makes the case that we writers give up control of our work too easily, and that we should do more than just deposit the check on the option. Matt quotes novelist and screenwriter George Pelecanos, who is speaking about writers when he says: “…what a producer told me one time is, ‘We can’t control you guys.’”

Book Rave: City of Stairs

Monday, December 28th, 2015

City-of-Stairs-Robert-Jackson-Bennett-2Best-of-the-year lists and award-nomination lists are fun to talk about and it’s awfully nice to have your work appear on them. But these lists are also valuable reminders that we have diverse tastes and that our reasons for reading — and for choosing what we read — are all very different. And I think it can be interesting to take note of what’s not on these lists.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, some of it 2015 books, and some books from earlier years. Several months ago I posted about Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which was one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times. Ignore the cover. Seriously. And read it. After I finished, I was amazed at how little I’d heard about this book, and that it had not put in an appearance on either the Hugo or Nebula ballots. (It did win the John W. Campbell Memorial award.)

I just finished another 2014 novel, City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett, which is also a terrific book that, in retrospect, I am surprised I didn’t see on 2014 award ballots. (Yes, there were complications with the Hugos, but not with the Nebulas! And it may have been on best-of-the-year lists, last year, I don’t know.)

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Book Rave: Ashley’s War

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Full title: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield

Ashleys War by Gayle Tzemach LemmonAshley’s War, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, is a nonfiction account of the first wave of women in the US Army who volunteered to be part of the “cultural support teams” that accompanied Army Rangers and Green Berets on missions in Afghanistan.

These teams were developed beginning in 2011 because it was felt that women soldiers could interact more effectively with Afghan women, most of whom are forbidden from interacting with men who are not immediate relatives. The program proved successful. Women soldiers came to be seen as a “third gender,” one whose presence didn’t threaten the social status of Afghan men.

But Ashley’s War isn’t about Afghan culture or the politics of war. Instead it’s firmly focused on the stories of the American soldiers who volunteered for this program, and who survived the brief but rigorous training. These women came from diverse backgrounds. Some were regular army, some were National Guard. Some were on their own from a very young age, some came from strong families. Some were from families with traditional military backgrounds, and some were from civilian families. All were athletic and determined, and most joined the military because they wanted to be soldiers, and to experience combat.

As the story develops, it’s fascinating to see these women coming to terms with what it means to be a “strong woman character,” as we so frequently discuss in fiction:

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Book Rave: All The President’s Men

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

All The President's MenYes, I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, and no, I haven’t seen the movie (though I plan to).

All The President’s Men is the nonfiction memoir of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, originally published in 1974. It recounts their investigation of the 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in, and the gradual revelation of scandal surrounding the 1972 presidential election, that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.

These events took place when I was a child, too young to follow the slowly breaking story in detail, but old enough that nearly all the names in the book are still very familiar to me. I picked up the ebook of the 40th anniversary edition, which happened to be on sale for a ridiculously low price — and I found it fascinating. (more…)

Book Rave: The Flicker Men

Monday, October 12th, 2015

“All realities are constructed in one way or the other, are they not? Either through the work of some will, or arising as an emergent property from a system’s own underlying laws.”

flickermen-KosmatkaTed Kosmatka’s The Flicker Men first came to my attention last summer when the publisher offered to send me a complimentary copy. I failed to follow up on that, but I kept hearing good things about the book, so last week when I was looking for a new audio book, I decided to give it a try.

It took me a little while to get hooked. The opening chapters introduce us to the first-person protagonist, Eric Argus, a young and brilliant quantum physicist struggling with alcoholism and depression, along with a past that’s only gradually revealed. But once Eric latches onto a new project, the book takes off.

The Flicker Men is a philosophical thriller. There is a lot of discussion of quantum theory and its implications, and especially the double-slit experiment. That may sound dry, but in the book, it’s utterly fascinating. It turns out that a lot of readers, myself included, are inspired to do a little outside research on some of these subjects.

Ted is a terrific writer. The story moves at a good pace, and by the standards of modern novels it’s relatively short — a big plus for me as I’ve reached a point where I greatly prefer shorter, more tightly focused books.

The audio book was very well done, but I’m sure The Flicker Men would be just as compelling if I’d been reading instead of listening.

Book Rave: War Dogs by Greg Bear

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

I picked up this book when it came out last fall, but didn’t read it until a few days ago. During the interim, I didn’t hear a lot about it, and what I did hear wasn’t all that enthusiastic, so I was a little ambivalent at the start — but that ambivalence quickly vanished.

War Dogs is told in first person, in the voice of Master Sergeant Venn, a “skyrine” — a marine delivered by orbital drop to the Martian battlefield. So why are humans fighting a war on Mars? Because an enigmatic alien race known as the Gurus insinuated themselves on Earth, got the planet addicted to their highly advanced technology, and then asked us to fight a war for them against another alien race engaged in setting up a beachhead on Mars.
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Book Rave: The Black Company

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

There are times when I begin to think I’m jaded with fiction, that there isn’t much that can really seize my interest and draw me into a story anymore — but then I’ll find a book to change my mind. Those are the books I write about here. I just finished reading Glen Cook’s The Black Company — and I loved it. I was honestly amazed how much I enjoyed it, and how compelling it was.

I’m going to guess that most of you who are into epic fantasy first read The Black Company long ago. It was published in 1984. That was three years before my own first publication – a little short story in the magazine Analog Science Fiction & Fact — and at the time I wasn’t reading epic fantasy at all.

The reason I picked up The Black Company now was because of a post at tor.com Message Fiction: Politics in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Literature in which “The G” (@nerds_feather on Twitter) describes it as “a forebear of the gritty turn in epic fantasy and sword & sorcery”:

The Black Company explicitly and directly rejects the simple good vs. evil dynamic that has traditionally defined heroic fiction, whether fantasy or not. The Company’s war is not one of righteous truth or glorious conquest, but a war of survival and a war of profit. It is a civil war, and one whose primary victims are unarmed civilians—the exact kind of war, one notes, that has predominated in our world since 1945.

How could I resist that?

The writing style used in The Black Company is unusual in my experience, especially at the start. The storyline jumps about at times and much of the background is not explained. Imagine stepping into another world. Everyone already there knows the critical history and they assume we know it too. So like a child we are left to piece together that history from comments dropped here and there. This can be frustrating, and at times I wondered if I’d missed some critical part or if this wasn’t actually the first book in the series—and yet it works very well. I was forced to pay attention, and my interest never flagged.

The narrative voice, a physician-warrior named Croaker, is wonderfully done. And as is always the case in a compelling tale, it’s the positive relationships between the characters that power the story. The Black Company are mercenaries. Croaker recognizes their faults and sins. But in the midst of a grim and bloody civil war they are devoted to one another, and Croaker’s ruminations on good and evil add a necessary philosophical balance to the action.

Book Rave: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Friday, April 10th, 2015

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire NorthThere’s been a lot of controversy regarding the Hugo awards lately. My problem with the Hugos, the Nebulas, and many other lists is that books as amazing as Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August don’t make the short lists.

According to Amazon, this novel was published in October 2014. Maybe it came out earlier in the UK, I don’t know. But if I’d read it a few weeks sooner, I certainly would have nominated it for both a Nebula and a Hugo. As it is, I didn’t hear of it until just a couple of weeks ago, when someone casually mentioned it on Twitter. Perhaps I’d heard the title before, but not with the enthusiasm and repetition that would cause me to sit up and take notice – and that’s truly unfortunate.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is about exactly what the title says. Harry August is a man who is born, lives, dies, and is born again exactly where and when he entered the world the first time. He is not the only so-called “Kalachakra,” and the lives he actually lives are never the same, one to the next. And there are complications, and there is a cause.

I love the character of Harry, with his curiosity and understated emotion. North portrays him convincingly as an increasingly brilliant man who has explored the world living his many lives and pursuing many experiences – and this despite the fact that North herself is not yet thirty years old.

I also love the way the story is written, with its gently detailed descriptions that make myriad places come alive without slowing down the story in an excess of detail, and with its nonlinear mode of telling. We shift continuously forward and backward in time and yet I never felt lost or impatient.

This is not a book about magic. It takes the fantastical element of repeated lives and extrapolates consequences in this world that we know, taking a major interest in the development of technology.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a wonderful achievement and I’m looking forward to reading more novels by Claire North.

Oh, and it did make the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist for best science fiction novel published in 2014. So well-deserved congratulations to the author on that!