Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Books of 2021

Some how, some way, I ended up reading twenty-four books published in 2021, seventeen novels/novellas, and seven anthologies/collections. But I struggled in selecting the best of the year—not for lack of reading, but for lack of contenders. Nothing stuck out, There was a clear best anthology/collection, but nothing 'timeless' in novel/novella form. I flirted with the idea of 'No Award'. and as the end of the year approached, I thought about lowering my expectations. But ultimately I decided to go with one award. Forgetting about length and form, I went with just 'Book of the Year'.

But before getting to the best book, I'd like to sneak in an honorable mention. All of the books below are fiction from 2021, but I would like to call out John McWhorter's non-fiction Woke Racism. Addressing a key factor in the culture wars of the West today, McWhorter's book coherently, respectfully, and practically delineates a position that, if adopted by more people on the extremes of right and left, would reduce much of the nonsense and violence happening today. While the connection may not immediately seem apparent, McWhorter boils down “wokeness” to its component parts, and lo and behold they are akin to religious dogma—which goes a long way toward helping the average, intelligent person's understanding of what is happening in the media and in society today around “racism”, CRT, intersectionality, etc. If you are interested in racism and “racism” in the 21 st century, particularly a view which does not result in victimhood or discrimination, try Woke Racism. And now, on to the book of the year—the fiction book of the year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Culture Corner: Ignorance Is Not Bliss: A Critique of Education in the US

I am an American. Born and raised, I spent my first twenty-three years in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Wanting to see the world, I started traveling, and for the last twenty years I have not lived in the US, save the odd year here or there. Australia, Poland, Czech Republic, China, these and a couple other countries have been homes—not tourist destinations, homes. Less than twenty-three years, yes, but I have spent enough time in these other places to get a good feel for how people live elsewhere. Naturally, my upbringing has been put in a different perspective.

And it is with sadness and condescension I look at the US as of 2021. Family, friends, and places of value to me are caught in whirlwind of information and disinformation. How to tell the difference? That, my friends, is where a person's education becomes extremely important. Ignorance at the political level is not bliss (unless, of course, you are a dictator).

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Review of Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley

Bloodheir (2008), like The Two Towers and some other trilogy bridge books, is difficult to review. It carries forward the story begun in Winterbirth, but doesn't stand on its own. It works only in context.

Bloodheir carries forward the Godless World story at exactly the point Winterbirth left off. And it does so in extremely consistent, just-as-enjoyable fashion. Like Tolkien, it's clear Ruckley wrote the three books as part of one, long story. At the most basic level, if you enjoyed Winterbirth and were looking to go deeper into the characters and world, then Bloodheir fully delivers.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Like many people, I stand by, curious and confused by what is happening in the world today. Social media seeming to have not only opened a window into the dark side of humanity (at least the USA), it also seems to feed it. The global population having crested seven billion and on its way to eight, and with environmental issues becoming ever more concerning, social media makes it difficult to find shelter in the storm—a safe harbor where some sense of factual stability can be found. Looking at this situation through a character portrayal is Richard Power's Bewilderment (2021).

Bewilderment is the story of father-son duo Theo and Robin (Robbie) Byrne. Robin on the autistic spectrum, his challenges in school are exacerbated by the recent death of his beloved mother in a car crash. With difficulties fitting in already, her death gives rise to further challenges, emotional and logical, for the boy. Theo is an astrobiologist. Using the latest in astronomical data, he works to posit the different forms of environment, and as a result life that could/might exist on the planets which deep space telescopes discover. His work filled with imagination and creativity backed by science, he likewise works with Robbie, trying to balance the boy's happiness with events in the wider world. Child rearing proves the more challenging job. But can an experimental new technology help his son?

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Review of Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Different books provide different feelings—and I don't mean the emotions stories draw out of you. Passion project, arte nouveau, winging it, trying to earn a dime—each piece of writing provides a subjective feel as to its origin. Why did the writer choose to spend X days/months/years of their life putting this story to paper? With Brian Ruckley's Godless World trilogy, led off by the novel Winterbirth (2006), the answer seems: to see an idea that had been taking shape and building structure in the author's mind for years, to finally to bloom to life on the page for other readers to take advantage.

While technically epic fantasy, Winterbirth feels more akin to historical fiction. Playing out across a complex society set in a version of northern Britain, the clans battle for honor with a sense of realism that is more like Bernard Cornwell than Robert Jordan. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is an extremely fair comparison (save that Ruckley has completed his series, and done so in consistent, contained fashion). The underlying motivations for each character, regardless which clan they fight for, feels proper. There initially seem good guys, bad guys, and those in between.  Indeed, there are a couple who never achieve status beyond caricature. But as the story progresses, most all feel in between—more human than the vast majority of epic fantasies on the market.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Console Corner: Review of Oxenfree

There are many fans of the video game Firewatch. A Hitchcockian story built on a walking simulator, players traverse (and re-traverse, and re-traverse, and re-traverse) a national park, uncovering a mystery as they go. For many people the game is a hit. For me, it clicked only at the level of understanding. Satisfaction and enjoyment did not follow. There stories are different, but looking at Night School Studio’s 2016 Oxenfree I still see many similarities.

Oxenfree opts for classic horror/paranormal. It tells of a group of teens on a weekend trip to an island with an old military base, now abandoned. (Classic, yes?) Partying on the beach, they discover a nearby cave which is purported to have a supernatural vibe. And indeed, when the main character Alex tunes her radio to specific frequencies, weirdness breaks loose, followed by a blackout. The group of characters wake up scattered around the island, and it becomes the player’s job to reunite them and get to the bottom of the weirdness.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

I think it’s fair to say that every parent, at some point in time, at least daydreams about their child growing up to be a sports star, famous actor, or rock star. We want to believe that we’ve done our jobs to spark our children’s natural talent, and they’ve become a success in the public eye as a result. In 2017, one mother who actually saw her daydreams come true in the form of a rock star son, decided to go to other such mothers and talk about their lives and their musically talented children. From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl is the result.

From Cradle to Stage is the short biographies of nineteen mothers, and their recollections of raising their musical children. Everything is based on face-to-face interviews performed by Ms. Grohl. (Forgive me for calling her Ms. Grohl, but after reading the book and falling in love with her approach to life and raising Dave, it feels natural to call her as such.) On top of this, scattered throughout the book are Ms. Grohl’s own vignettes describing her life and time being mother to Dave Grohl. (For the unaware, Dave Grohl is the former drummer of Nirvana and now leader of the band Foo Fighters.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Review of A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale

It’s a slow process, but a steady process: coming to the realization Joe Lansdale is one of the most consummate storytellers of the past several decades. Each book a chunk of rich plot and characters with its own idiosyncrasies, I’m approaching the point where I’ll buy a Lansdale book sight unseen. Presenting an ultra-believable vision of 1950s’ life in East Texas, A Fine Dark Line (2002) is a fine dark thriller that keeps the pages churning throughout its colorful story.

Stanley Mitchell is your typical thirteen-year-old boy growing up in a small Texas town, Dumont. Comic books, learning about girls, and riding his bicycle, he helps around his family’s drive-in cinema when he’s not being a boy. But things change one day when he and his older sister discover a tin box full of letters in the woods behind their house. Recounting a love affair between two people identifying themselves by their initials, Stanley learns that one of them would go on to be murdered—at least that is the rumor floating around Dumont. Over the course of the summer, Stanley gets to the bottom of the mystery, but not before embroiling himself in some of the most frightening, scariest backwoods scenes small town Texas has to offer.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review of Hard Landing by Algis Budrys

Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Planet of the Apes is a classic of science fiction. Hollywood has since wiped a bit of the luster off the book by rendering Boulle’s universe in less rigorous terms, but that should not detract from the commentary inherent to the book. I will not spoil it, save to say there is a strong reciprocity to the relationship between the humans who come from Earth and the apes they find on the planet Soror. Shifting from atavism to the Cold War, Algis Budrys uses his own sense of reciprocity in telling of humanity’s relationship with a certain race of methane-breathing aliens in Hard Landing (1993).

Hard Landing kicks off in classic hardboiled detective style. Apparently falling from above onto railroad tracks, a body is discovered, dead. But during the autopsy, things quickly depart from classic. The doctor on duty discovering highly unusual aspects of the corpse, he quickly sweeps the info under the rug for the media, in turn reporting the situation to American intelligence. The broader situation slowly peeled back, it seems a secret war has been happening on Earth and elsewhere in the galaxy for some time, and important albeit subtle changes are afoot.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Review of Frost and Fire by Roger Zelazny

There are writers who play in all areas—Ian McDonald, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, among them. And then, there are writers who work with a limited palette—a palette that rarely changes its colors. Jack Vance, Lois McMaster Bujold, Guy Gavriel Kay, and others all use a template working out their stories. Said template clearly flexible enough to allow for success, they nevertheless can be depended upon to produce something familiar. Roger Zelazny is another writer who flows firmly in this vein. Is his formula successful in short form, i.e. repeated? Let’s look at the collection Frost and Fire (1989).

The collection kicks off strongly with “Permafrost”. Possessing a premise similar to Stephen King’s book The Shining, the story features a man living alone on an Arctic planet overseeing the maintenance facilities through a long winter. Said man a classic Zelazny, he finds a peculiar ice statue in a cave one day, and his personal troubles are revealed. Zelazny working with symbolism nicely through one of the foundation stones of human society (male-female relations), it’s an interesting story at a couple levels, and one of Zelazny’s career best (at least that I’ve read).

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Review of The Secret of Life by Rudy Rucker

For some it is religious piety. For some ‘age is just a number’. For some it is to party like there is no tomorrow. For some it is do what mom or dad say (sadly). For some the bottle. For some the next big challenge. Undoubtedly there is a litany of other things people hold as dear: the secret to existence. For Rudy Rucker in his 1985 novel The Secret of Life, it is something more alien, and oddly enough, still very human.

The Secret of Life is the coming-of-age of one Conrad Bunger in the 1960s. An impulsive yet inquisitive teen, Conrad spends his time popping zits, doing his best to fit in despite his awkward personality, chase girls, and otherwise physically survive the accidents of fun and adventure he puts his body through. Conrad also has an abiding interest in existence, particularly of the French, Sartrean, existential variety, specifically raison d’etre (natch). The thought strikes him one day that life is meaningless, and thus he makes it his (admittedly young) life’s ambition to find meaning. A few years of sex, drugs, and college later, he discovers something about himself that is so profound that it changes the very shape of the question. Or does it?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Review of Terminal Boredom by Suzuki Izumi

I get a glint in my eye seeing that a book, a book with several years under its belt, will be translated into English. It means many people believe it still has value. It’s passed the test: Worthy of Time. This is why Suzuki Izumi’s collection of short stories Terminal Boredom, originally published in 1980 and revived in English in 2021, brought a glint. Having finished the collection, the glint should have been a lightning storm.

Terminal Boredom kicks off with a story that ironically feels more at home in 2021 than when it was originally published decades ago. “Women and Women” describes one young teen’s experiences in a matriarchal utopia. Reproduction controlled at specific locations, men are born but kept in lockdown, and as a result only women form society. Very much a precursor to Lauren Beukes’ Motherland and other such contemporary stories, Suzuki explores the idea of a world without men. Though a large topic, the story manages to feel greater than the number of its pages, and gets the collection moving forward in meaty, down-to-Earth fashion: I’m not afraid to address major issues but will keep both feet on the ground.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Review of Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

There are some writers that every once and while you just crave a slice. There are a few on that list for me, and one is certainly Terry Pratchett. You know what you’re going to get, at the same time you don’t know what you’re going to get. You know there will be clever humor of all varieties. You know there will be imagination galore. And you know the Disc will continue to be revealed in all its kooky glory. Last week I had a hankering and went for a slice of Pratchett pie—Feet of Clay (1996) the flavor.

A threat is looming in Ankh-Morpork. First one corpse appears, then another, then another. Each of the bodies bludgeoned in some fashion, the Night’s Watch is called in to investigate—and their detecting skills only become more valuable as further bodies stack up. Captain Vimes hires a new detective, the dwarf Cheery Longbottom, to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, a small army of golems has been mysteriously activated, appearing at odd times in Ankh-Morpork and causing trouble. And if all this is not bad enough, someone has poisoned the city’s leader, Lord Vetinari. Are all these events linked in some fashion? The Night’s Watch has their work cut out for them.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of The Feather Thief by Nick Johnson

Growing up, it was not strange for my father to suddenly pull our family’s vehicle over to the side of the road and pick up a dead bird. Usually partridge, but sometimes quail or other birds spending a lot of time on the ground, he would gently pick them up, put them in a bag or whatever was available, and take them home. Not a morbid fetish or indicator of psychopathy, he had an intended use: the brightly colored plumage to tie flies for trout fishing. Every spring, just before fishing season kicked into gear, he would get his special wooden box out of the closet, set up a vice at the kitchen table, and tie flies until all hours of the night, selecting many of the needed ingredients from the birds he’d found on the road. Looking at the extremes to which this hobby is taken in the real world in utterly fascinating fashion is Nick Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (2018).

The Feather Thief is the real-life story of Edwin Rist. And what a story it is. An American flautist with dreams of playing in the world’s most elite orchestras, he also had a side hobby, the mother of all passions really, of tying fishing flies. Discovering the art of faux flies at an early age, he fell in love with the colors and shapes, and by default the material and ingredients needed to make them, namely different types of feathers. The more exotic the more artistic/prestigious, Rist eventually fell into collecting, buying, and selling expensive feathers on the global market. Through all of this, he achieved world fame tying flies at a very young age. Unfortunately, it was also an age when the blindness and immaturity of youth led him to take a fateful decision: to rob the British Museum of Natural History of some of its most prized bird specimens.

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Cave

There are moments that I perceive my wife to be in some kind of unwritten, unadvertised competition with herself as the only competitor—who is the best at packing for a trip, for example. The demons of necessity and forgetfulness pursuing her, there is high tension ensuring every possible, needed thing is not only packed away, but packed efficiently such that no tiny space in our luggage is wasted. In Adam Kałuża’s The Cave (2012), she finally has a chance against real competitors—the possibility for a few hours of virtual underground exploration the icing on the cake.

A game for 2-5, The Cave sees players exploring a modular cave, trying to collect the most points in the process. Resource and action management key to winning, players must use the limited items they bring with them over a finite number of actions to: take photos of beautiful rock formations, explore underwater pools, squeeze through tight spaces, set up camp, and traverse the lowest depths possible—each activity having its own variety of inherent points. Being modular, each game evolves in its own directions, the final board state looking different than any previous game. Thus if players find the rule set engaging, the possibilities for exploration are endless.