Friday, December 29, 2017

Best Books of 2017

Of the thousands of books published in speculative fiction in 2017, I read twenty-two, which is a slight drop compared to previous years.  Many of the books I wanted to read I was unable to get my hands on for whatever reason.  But there were still a number of good novels—Eleanor Lerman’s Stargazer’s Embassy, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, John Kessell’s The Moon and the Other, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and R. Scott Bakker’s The Unholy Consult among them.  As the year drew to a close without a clear front-runner, I was considering giving a joint award to Kessel and Yuknavitch’s books given the engaging, intelligent, and complementary pair they form.  But then in December I read a couple of books that had spotlights from the heavens shining down upon them...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Like the two world wars and the effect they had on everyday people trying to live everyday lives in the 20th century, one of the greater crises happening in the 21st is the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the effect there on normal people trying to live normal lives.  Western media often focusing only on the drama, violence, and terrorism, the lives of ordinary people who want no part of the conflict get overlooked.  That is, until they start appearing on Western shores in search of help.  Nailing this quotidian view in a fully human story is Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West.

The cultural climate being what is in the West today, it’s important to step in now and forestall any potential eye-rolling: ‘Here we go, another victim narrative…  In the strictest sense of the expression, yes, Exit West is a victim narrative, but it’s a victim narrative in the same vein as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—the American classic.  Prose and setting differ, but both Steinbeck and Hamid attempt to portray ordinary humans caught up in circumstances beyond their control who then try to retain a sense of normalcy and survive.  In Grapes, drought pushes the Joad family to leave Oklahoma for California, and in Exit West it’s war that pushes Saeed and Nadia to leave the Middle East for Europe.  But neither group of characters is utterly imprisoned by their circumstances.  Each uses what instinct and knowledge they have to attempt to carry on—to extend the normalcy as best they can in a new setting.  Thus Exit West, like Grapes of Wrath, is not a bleeding heart liberal narrative akin to a Fox News human interest story.  Hamid restraining himself, it is a story about real people (in the illustrative sense), nothing exaggerated or overstated.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of Strange Weather by Joe Hill

As that thimbleful of regular readers will know, I am largely dismissive of horror.  There are books that buck the trend, for certain, but generally I find it’s a restricted scene.  As such, there are many writers who go in one eye and out the other when looking at lists of upcoming publications, best ofs, or recommended reading lists.  Despite never having read anything by him, Joe Hill was one such writer.  But then I read “The Devil on the Staircase” in the anthology Stories: All New Tales.  Experimental in form and mythopoeic in substance, it’s a superbly written human story that made me ask myself whether I’m missing out on something by not reading Hill.  When his 2017 collection Strange Weather popped up on an upcoming publication list, I took the chance.  More than just the best collection of the year, I’m thinking of putting it as my best book published in 2017… 

A small collection in terms of quantity (only four stories), Strange Weather remains substantial given all are novellas (the collection totals 400+ pages).  In each, Hill wonderfully combines engaging storylines, tightly defined characters, relevant commentary on contemporary social and political issues, and meaningful outcomes—pretty much everything that tickles my reading fancy.  I would have to go back through my library, but suffice to say it’s been a while since I read a collection that was of such consistent yet dynamic quality.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In today’s cultural climate, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 The Underground Railroad is a difficult book to trust reviews of.  Many on the left are likely to blindly champion the book simply because it addresses race, while many on the right are likely to be equally blind, but out of a desire to distance themselves from race discussion.  Equally distrustful of both sides, I hope this review falls in the middle.

Cora is a young woman raised as a slave in Georgia in the mid-1800s at the start of The Underground Railroad.  Owned by a misanthrope who beats, rapes, kills, sells at will, and in general mistreats his slaves as he pleases, Cora’s upbringing is about as bad as we can imagine slavery to be.  And she becomes a little crazy for it.  Approaching womanhood finds Cora living alone, her fellow slaves wanting no part of her personal life.  But an opportunity to escape arises, and Cora jumps at it.  Catching a ride on the underground railroad out of the plantation, she discovers worlds she never knew existed—for slightly better and worst.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Pinball Arcade

Perhaps the last generation to have the opportunity, pinball was part of my growing up.  The latest fighting and racing games dominated the arcades in my area, but always in the corner were two or three dinging and flashing pinball machines.  I pumped many a quarter into The Addams Family, Terminator 2, and Lethal Weapon.  With Pinball Arcade on the Playstation 4 not only am I able to play those very tables and dozens of others, but can do so in as authentic a fashion as the virtual pinball allows.  FarSight Studios, developers of the game, clearly aimed to make the experience as 1:1 as possible, from scoring to sound, individual table characteristics to the different types of flippers and plungers, even the usage of forefingers (as opposed to thumbs) for gameplay.  

Pinball Arcade is available as a free download from the Playstation store.  However, there are only a couple of machines which can be played for free.  Available individually or in a bundle, the other machines can be played up to a point limit but must be purchased to have the full, unlimited experience.  (It is possible to join tournament mode and play tables that normally must be paid for, but this is limited to schedules and tables selected for the tournaments.)  For what it’s worth, the main table provided free with the game, Tales of the Arabian Knights, is phenomenal, offering hours and hours of twitching fingers—which, after all, is the addiction of pinball.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Nod by Adrian Barnes

Catastrophe fiction, so popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has in recent decades kind of, sort of, given way to post-apocalyptic fiction—what happens after rather than during the catastrophe.  Perhaps because all the obvious ideas have been taken—drought, floods, carnivorous plants eating people blinded by an alien meteorite shower—it’s a bit strange these days to see a book that reverts to so simple a premise.  But such is the case with Adrian Barnes’ 2012 Nod.  Like Ballard, however, Barnes (thankfully) focuses his book on something more human than the details of cataclysm.

Paul is a poor, introverted writer of quirky books about etymology who lives with his bread-winning girlfriend Tanya in Vancouver.  A golden dream visiting him one night as he sleeps, he wakes to discover that Tanya hadn’t slept a wink.  Arriving home from work that evening, Tanya reports that nobody else she knows slept the previous night either, that Paul is somehow part of a 1% of the population able to get a night’s rest.  A novelty at first, the situation worsens, however.  Night after night, only the tiniest fraction of humanity are able to sleep.  The insomnia getting so bad, the government makes the drastic decision to shut down all telecommunications in an effort to remove potential interference.  But nothing helps.  Cut off from the net and phones, society dissolves, leaving Paul to navigate a city of sleep-deprived madness, and survive.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Buying a sequel published several years after its wildly successful predecessor is a risky venture.  The reader never knows whether the writer is simply trying to cash in on the popularity (aka ‘desperately attempting to revive a flagging ouevre’), or has produced a story that genuinely fits within the context of the predecessor.  Examples can be found on both sides.  Thus, going in to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, first book in The Book of Dust (a prequel trilogy to the original His Dark Materials… trilogy), I didn’t really know what to expect.  About a quarter of the way through, my concerns were assuaged, however.  La Belle Sauvage is genuine.

La Belle Sauvage is the name of fourteen-year old Malcom’s canoe.  Son of an innkeeper in an alternate-world (steampunk-ish) Oxford, he’s a smart, good-mannered young man who helps his father around the inn, as well as the nuns in the priory across the river when time allows.  In the midst of serving a small influx of VIP guests at the inn, including some shadowy members of the Magisterium’s secret police, an infant is secretly brought to the nun’s priory for hiding and safe keeping.  A tiny little girl named Lyra, Malcom falls in love with her while helping the nuns one day.  Spring rains incessant, however, the river separating the inn from the priory swells, making Malcom’s trips across in La Belle Sauvage dangerous.  When Malcom witnesses a rough man with a hyena as a familiar attempt to kidnap Lyra from the priory one night, the action is on.  And when floods break out, it’s anybody’s guess as to the fate of the little girl.  Malcom’s canoe may prove just as precious if she is to survive.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of Stories: All New Tales ed. by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio

Given the sheer volume of text appearing online in the past ten years (not excluding this blog), it’s fair to say the answer to: ‘What makes a good story a good story?’ is different for many, many people.  For some, it’s the marriage of political or social themes to setting, event, or character, while for others it’s non-stop action.  But for certain, what all sides appreciate is flat out, good storytelling.  Well told stories simply resonate beyond the borders of genre taxonomy or reviews would put on them.  Attempting to capture this magic is editor Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantino’s 2010 anthology Stories: All-New Tales.

Dazzling with the stars and lights of a 20’s jazz club in the desert, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford A drop dead gorgeous bit of storytelling, is.  Ford proving mood matters, this tale perfectly captures the essence of action and romance without being either of those things. The neon of this story will burn in memory.  The shortest story in the collection, “Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers is about a dead twin trying to get back into the world through the writing hand of her sister.  Setting the tone for the collection (edgy, apparently), “Blood” by Roddy Doyle is about a everyday man who develops a thirst for blood—or at least seems to develop, the tendency possibly having been there all along.  The story walking a strange, unpredictable path (from raw meat to parallels with Ozzy Osbourne antics), the man is not able to keep his thirst a secret from his wife, but they do come to a common agreement, which is the biggest surprise of all.  About demon twins, “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates traces their paths through life from the very different dispositions they begin with.  One weak and frail the other strong and virile, it takes the ending of the story to confirm the relationship.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of fiction.  Subtlety its middle name, the book presents the quiet limitations we impose on ourselves (versus those imposed from external sources) in poignant, elegant fashion that speaks to the true nature of humanity.  The story of a butler so focused on his sense of duty that he denies himself the basic aspects of existence, it’s one of the main reasons Ishiguro recently won the Nobel for literature.  Equally subtle but less believable in execution, Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is another strong reason.

Plot-wise, Never Let Me Go is straight-forward: three young people grow up in what is essentially an orphanage, coming of age with the idea they are clones who will someday be organ donors for ordinary people.  The real meat of the novel is found, however, in the interaction of the three and the perspectives of the world as they evolve.

Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is highly introspective, integrating the tiny but telling details of quotidian life and relationships.  The story is told through the eyes of Cathy, an intelligent, sensitive young woman trying to fit in yet retain her identity among the other young people at their boarding home.  Having a troubled relationship with a fellow student Ruth, the two, through a series of events and compromises, form a strong but strange friendship.  The third primary character is an emotionally volatile young man named Tom who is initially bullied by the other boys, but after realizing certain things, comes into his own and is able to form stronger relationships with others.  The art the young people produce of odd importance to their overseers, Ishiguro slowly unveils the underlying logic to their situation in the boarding home, all the while the young attempt to reconcile their state state as clones with the wider world beyond and themselves.

Monday, December 4, 2017

2017: Starcraft 2 Year in Review

I had other plans this evening, but after reading Liquidpedia’s 2017 Starcraft 2 awards, I was called to action.  

Generally speaking, Liquidpedia got the year right.  In the past I have found myself sometimes blinking in surprise reading a mizenhauer write up, but given he was consolidating award input from Liquidpedia staff, the results are more balanced.  But not without some oversights I believe, hence the call to action.

The first award was to Special as ‘Breakout Player’.  My first instinct was that it didn’t feel right, but slowly came around to agree.  First, Special didn’t win anything.  His best showing was a top-4 at Blizzcon, which, to be fair, is a major accomplishment and indeed the best showing of his career.  Otherwise, he failed to get out of all the GSL round of 32s he qualified for and did not win any other Premier tournaments—Dreamhacks, IEMs, etc.  At the same time, none of the other options feels right either, for example Elazer, Gumiho, Stats, and Rogue.  An argument could be made for each in comparison to their past performances.  But in the end, I think the greatest distance covered was indeed by Special.  A new id for a new mindset, we now call him Special instead of Major.  And for sure he put in a huge effort this year, so good to recognize him.

'Strategy of the Year’, meh, whatever.  Better to give one per race, not one overall (if at all), but what do I know?  ‘Biggest News Event of the Year’ was awarded to Starcraft 2 being free to play.  Sure, why not?  It’s as good a pick as any—and beats “KESPA offices raided by police on suspicion of corruption”  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Since reading Cloud Atlas a few years ago, I have been on the David Mitchell bandwagon.  But there has always been a nagging sense of incompleteness, of rough edges in the novels I’ve read since.  For as singular the storyline of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, it has a little trouble blending its viewpoints and thus building a holistic plot.  Cloud Atlas is an superb mish-mash of fiction, but has some trouble distinguishing its character voices.  Ghostwritten is an excellent debut, but has issues balancing exuberant prose against focused theme.  With 2014’s The Bone Clocks, however, everything has finally come together, the edges smoothed, and a polished gem the result.  An extremely satisfying read that would seem to fulfill all of Mitchell’s potential, it might just be a masterpiece.

Structured like a pinwheel, the story of teenage-runaway Holly Sykes forms the center pin of The Bone Clocks, while the stories of an unprincipled Cambridge student who eventually faces the most difficult choice of his life, a curmudgeonly British writer who  must face declining sales, a war reporter who has trouble balancing his family life with being in the action, and a reincarnated therapist who must use her centuries of wisdom to combat an evil foe—all form the blades spiraling away from the center of the pinwheel.  Sykes’ story (in old age) forms the final section of the novel, forming a cycle by spinning full circle the events and characters,. Mitchell using this structure to great effect in terms of both plot and theme, The Bone Clocks is innately a questioning of contemporary culture while telling the highly engaging story of one woman’s anything-but-normal life.