Thursday, March 16, 2017

Obsession, Love Letters, and Book Reviews

Everyone loves their own opinion. Recently I've become convinced that this self-obsession, this overbearing lust to bask in our own perceived magnificence, is very reason the internet exists. The virtually unlimited comment sections and forums are the ultimate medium for people to blather on unedited about any and, well, every topic. Sometimes it is just worthless word soup. Other times, hearty chicken noodle.

I'm no better. For me my opinion is probably the most important opinion in the world (shouldn't your opinion be for you?).  I'm an opinionated person, I admit it. However, I'm not rude about it, like some people, nor am I afraid to listen to what others have to say. I love a spirited debate. And one thing I definitely have an opinion about as an editor, literature major, semi-professional writer, etc, is books.

Admittedly, I'm a little disappointed in myself right now. Book reviews are a probably one of the most common and probably uninteresting topics for a blog post and now I'm guilty of it. There's two reasons for this generic and rather mundane bit of writing:

1) Love letters- Yes, that's right. Books and writing are what I love, so I tend to hammer out a great volume of letters (also words and sentences) about them.

2) Obsession- With my brand new work-in-progress that is. Having reached near crisis levels on all three of my unfinished manuscripts for various reasons, I decided the best option was to put them all aside for awhile and start something new. Against all odds, in poured a new idea that gripped me like a row of serrated teeth. Over the last few days I have been obsessed, hitting stupid daily word counts like 7,000 effortlessly (something that seemed so rare historically for me.) Yesterday I wrote 11,301 words, which I'm pretty sure is a new personal best. In fact, I'm super eager to just get through this blog post so I can start hammering away on my new story again.

So enough jabbering. I'm going to risk sharing my own opinions about a few books I have recently read. Take them for what they are...just another person's viewpoint. Maybe it helps, maybe it's just word soup.


Look to Windward
by Iain M. Banks
Amazon scores: 133 total reviews (5 star: 61%; 1 star: 2%)

The Good:

Imagination- The Culture series is an impressive feat of human imagination. Look to Windward was the third book I've read in the series and in this area it did not disappoint. Banks lays out some seriously creative ideas for the future of humanoid civilization:

  1. Orbitals. Ring-shaped, planet-like artificial constructs that are mobile, controllable and form the new home to most of the trillions of inhabitants of the Culture.
  2. Futuristic extreme sports, like lava rafting. I love rafting but what would make it even more exciting? Friggin' lava!
  3. Unique alien species like the behemothaur, a continent-size flying whale-like creature circling for millennia around inhabitable gas giants. 
  4. Minds. hyper-intelligent sentient AI which run essentially everything about the Culture while the humans bask in post-scarcity bliss. 
  5. Sublimation. Once a species reaches a certain technological level they are actually able to download their minds and souls into an artificially created "heaven."
Complexity- Counter to many examples, both historical and modern, of speculative fiction, Banks's writing borders at times on literary, plumbing intriguing questions of humanity, and forging it all together in tangled webs that resolve in beautiful, but sometimes untidy denouements that feel remarkably poignant.

The Bad:

Over-complexity- Sometimes, and this seems especially true in Look to Windward, Banks gets a little too complex. In Windward, I found it challenging to keep up with the many plot lines. It seemed each time I started to really get into the action, I was whisked away to some other time and place, sometimes another world, having to start back from scratch, learn a new character, try to decipher their motivations, and succeed just in time to be transported away somewhere else. In a relatively short novel (400 pages) there just didn't seem to be enough time to develop it all.

Static characters- Perhaps due to the aforementioned over-complexity and the multiple plot lines, I just never felt like a knew a character long enough to feel the dynamics of their minds, or engage in deep empathy which for me is what makes a novel great.

The Conclusion

All-in-all I would give this novel a 3 of 5 stars. What sticks with me more than the story or the characters was the impressive world-building. This cutting-edge world (or more accurately, galaxy) building took the standard good-against-evil Star Wars-esque space opera and shoved it into a whole new plane. However, sometimes I enjoy a good character-driven story like Star Wars where the plot sinks beneath the interactions of the characters whom you have formed deep empathy for. This lack of character relation, sadly, is where this otherwise excellent book fell short.


The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin
Amazon scores: 416 total reviews (5 star: 71%; 1 star: 2%)

The Good

Refreshing- As fantasy writers there is something we all have to face: the old tropes, the pseudo-medieval world where a young, innocent character is thrust into a large world and becomes a powerful superstar, is tired. Exhausted really. Yes, great examples of this overused idea are still written, published and successful every year, but it is good to breathe something fresh. In some ways, The Fifth Season is not that much different, but it infuses just enough freshly squeezed lemon juice in that stale old water to give it a new flavor. The world building was intriguing and original, the setting was entirely new, the theory behind the magic was unlike anything I'd been exposed to, and the characters were refreshingly non-Eurocentric. 

Interestingly complex- There are three main plot lines in The Fifth Season. To avoid spoiling some great movements within the book all I will say is I enjoyed how they all tied together. It had hints of the literary qualities that push and challenge readers in an interesting way but didn't allow them to become heavy-handed to the point of ruining the story.

The Bad

2nd Person!- When I first saw that this book had sections written in second person, I almost threw it in the trash. I hate 2nd person and almost never see the use for it. At best it is a tolerable distraction and at worst it can completely ruin an otherwise interesting story. Luckily, the entire book is not 2nd person, only about one-third of it, and Jemisin pulls it off fairly well. Still, I would have preferred had she left it out entirely. In my humble opinion, it did nothing to make the story better and it felt like a heavy-handed and unnecessary grasp at originality.

Forced Diversity- I saw on the negative Amazon reviews several people complain about this and  I almost have to agree to some extent. Despite what I said earlier about being glad the book was not centered around a bunch of white, European males, the forced diversity in this novel almost felt like one of those contrived McDonalds commercials where a Hispanic, a white guy, a black guy and an Asian are all sitting around a table together. I have no problems with gay characters, transgender characters, black characters, or people of any other race, size or sexual orientation, but I strongly feel it has to be for the better of the book. Characters are who they are because they exist in a world that should feel real. And though writers have to be mindful of their audience, and the conscious or even sub-conscious ways we can influence the world, I felt in this case like at least some of the diversity was inserted as an afterthought is an attempt to prove she was being inclusive. As a counter example, although Game of Thrones is a strongly "white-dude" dominated book, the inclusion of a small person, a couple of gay characters, a bastard, a tomboy, etc, all felt decidedly important and these characteristics were used in a way that made the story better.  


I really enjoyed this book. It was a rare page-turner for me and I finished it in three days, immediately ordering the sequel when I was done. N.K. Jemisin deserved the Hugo Award for this rather brilliant piece of speculative imagination and I look forward to her future writing with great interest. The above criticism did not distract from the story in a significant way, perhaps only keeping this book at a "I really liked this book" level rather than a "this is one of my favorites." I would give it somewhere along the lines of 4.2 out of 5 stars.


The Color of Magic
by Terry Pratchett
Amazon scores: 969 total reviews (5 star: 56%; 1 star: 2%)

The Good

Creativity- I'm a latecomer to the Terry Pratchett phenomena. The Color of Magic is the first in the Discworld series, which spans some 41 novels that have sold over 80 million copies. It was published the year I was born (1983). The Color of Magic is a parody of the fantasy genre, much like Douglas Adams parodied sci-fi with A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in 1979. While poking fun at fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings it also became a classic itself. And rightfully so. It is unique, creative and funny and provides a breath of fresh air to the usually heavy, good vs. evil structure of so many fantasy epics.

Funny- I love a good comedy. Who doesn't? Life should not be taken so seriously all the time. The light-hearted desire for a bit of laughter is what prompted me into Discworld, and I'm glad I did. Images like in the prologue when a group of observers lower themselves over the edge of the rimfall at the edge of the flat disc-shaped world only to discover they whole planet was propped up by four elephants standing on the back of a meteor-pocked turtle, or the sentient, many-legged trunk (who belongs to the first ever, and lovably naive tourist, to the city of Morpork's) who is prone to biting off the hands of anyone tempted enough to reach in for the bags of gold it carries around, are what make this book the hilarious and fun read it is.

The Bad

Lack of Poignancy- Okay this may seem a bit contradictory because some of the very things I listed as "good" qualities of the book are also some of things that keep me from loving it. While I enjoy the goofy, irreverent humor, I also found its silliness a barricade to my overall enjoyment. I guess I'm a sucker for a book that hits all of my emotions: excitement, fear, sadness, love, joy. In short, I love books that can stir humor into an otherwise serious cauldron. In essence, this notion, that the very goofy nature that gives this book its unique edge also eviscerates the other emotional connections, is the heart of my criticism. While I sort of like Rincewind, the Quixotic and hapless "hero" of this tale, I don't find myself particularly empathetic with his story and I did not care enough about what happened to him in the end.


Take this book for what it is: a goofy break from the legions of dark, serious and mythical volumes of fantasy novels in the modern canon. I enjoyed reading this book, but it wasn't a page turner. And for me I feel I "got the gist" and don't feel particularly compelled to read on in the series.

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  1. It's great to hear how you're powering along on the new project, just make sure you don't fall into the trap of never finishing anything. Finishing things is another skill that needs practice to be mastered.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these books. Btw, don't judge all Terry Pratchett books by his early work. Some are better than others. :)

    1. Yes you are right. It is a real struggle of mine to power to the end. I hope this is the one that I can carry through to the end. Then I can go back to these old projects with a fresh eye. Thanks for reading!

    2. Do you plot at all before you start? I find it much easier to get to the end if I know roughly where I'm going in advance.

    3. Yes I did. I had a rough outline for the full book. Three books actually. I am a bit of a planner. All of my unfinished pieces are complete in the sense that I have full drafts. Some of them I am on draft 5 or 6. By "the end" in this sense I mean to the point where they are ready to be submitted or published.

    4. Ah, I see. Well, perhaps all you need is some time away so you can read them with fresh eyes (and fresh enthusiasm).