nowReading: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to assign a star rating to this one. On one hand, “it was amazing” is an understatement. On the other, “I liked it” is accurate.

The Dispossessed features sprawling moments of brilliance, pure genius word after word, big ideas delivered one after another. The book doesn’t preach; the characters and even some of the ideas are wrong or don’t pan out at times, it’s as critical of itself as everything it else it criticizes, which is quite a lot. It’s easy to say some of my favorite quotes going forward will have been discovered here. My mind was blown again and again.

It’s not a philosophy book but a work of fiction, and Le Guin has, as always, done a good job keeping the story in front of its moral. As far as her Hain books go, however, this one isn’t all that physically exciting. The page-turning comes from a yearning to take in all of the ideas happening, while the actions of the characters are sometimes downright boring. There are (in my copy at least) an unfortunate amount of typos, and certain areas where the writing itself feels like a rough draft. Some things read more as a summary of events than actual events, there are a lot of lists given, and the chapters are too long for their own good. The decision to split each chapter between past and present is smart, but the chapters are so long it can be difficult to remember where the last time frame left off. Shorter chapters would’ve been easily accomplished without breaking the pattern. Too often things are explained as soon as or even right after they’re relevant to a conversation or action; Chekhov’s gun kept firing before it was hung on the wall or, sometimes, even assembled. More things are placed exactly as they should be than not, but the ones that weren’t are noticeable.

It’s a long read, and sometimes a hard one. There’s a lot to take in. Lots of philosophy, lots of symbolism (the last line blew me away). Less physical action yet more lore than any other Ekumen book, it’s possibly the most important in the series, as well as being an important work of American literature.

It’s amazing. I love the book, even if I only like the story.

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nowReading: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The time has finally come. A journey of a few years, which began with me picking up a magazine lying around in the bathroom, has come to a close. Well, a rest stop, at least. I’ve finished reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

(Those wondering what in the world I’m babbling about will find the answer here and here, but the short version is this book’s title caught me by surprise, roped me in, and forced me to sit down and read.)

As I do with most of my reviews, I want to get the bad out of the way before I focus on the good. What can I say? I like to end on a high note. To make a long story short, which is to do absolutely no justice to the complexity that comes from reading a novel, the book didn’t quite live up to the hype I created upon seeing its title. It reads almost like a first draft; lots of lists, lots of descriptions, things are a little sloppy. Characters will drop everything they’re doing and give their entire species’ life story, often times for no apparent reason. Other times, important things happening directly to our main character, September, are glossed over in a sentence or two. Everything is more or less there, but some things feel like they’re in the wrong order, or given the wrong priority. There were also a few typos, and things appearing out of nowhere that probably should’ve been mentioned sooner than they happen.

Another issue I had was in how convenient certain things were. It was like September was never in any sort of danger or peril—a magical person or item would always bail her out at the last second. The real danger of the story, and one that threatens all of Fairyland, isn’t made present until over halfway through the book. In the end it becomes clear why this was intentional, but I’m not convinced it was always justified.

This leads to the main issue I had with it: The first half to two-thirds of the story are a little boring. It reads like a history of Fairyland and Fairyland-Below, but not so much like a story about a girl who has just been spirited away to the underworld of a fantasy dreamscape.

When it does finally pick up, it’s relentless! I couldn’t put it down, I read the last third or so of the book in two sittings, stopping only to sleep. That last bit is as wonderful and magical and heartwrenching as the majority of the first book was.

This leads me to my last comment: It’s worth it, and not just for the third act. Even when giving off random lists or colorful descriptions of things that don’t really matter, there’s so much heart and spirit in the writing. Characters’ histories are interesting and wonderful, even if they’re not immediately important to the story. I wonder if this would have been better as a novella, and if it were accompanied by an actual history book regarding Fairyland, I would pick that up in a heartbeat. But again, to make a long story short: Even when it’s bad, it’s good.

I also found a lot of joy in reading the book’s two afterwords, and, if I might be so bold (and I might; this is my blog and I’ll do what I want!) I would say they are as important to aspiring writers as Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. They’re not as much about the how of writing but do a fantastic job detailing the why, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re required reading for anyone who takes writing seriously.

On the whole, it’s a good book, even if it could’ve used a little more polish.

On to the next one!

nowReading: Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Following is my review of Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. You can read more of my book reviews on my Goodreads page.

Line after line is clever, funny, tragic, or some insane mixture of the three. I had no idea where the story would lead me next, but I’ve seldom been so excited to find out. It’s interesting how relevant the book is over thirty years after it was first published, yet so ahead of its time in other ways.

Still Life With Woodpecker transcends the boundaries of its pages in a fashion similar to House of Leaves, where the physical appearance of the book is itself a reflection of the themes found within. This, however, is more of a comedy (though both books boast a good deal of philosophy).

I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s movies and of Arrested Development; things seem ridiculous at first glance but are actually carefully-placed, often sparks lit to ignite later fires. The ones in Still Life With Woodpecker just happen to have dynamite at their ends.

nowReading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

I first mentioned this book in a post I wrote about good titles. To summarize the relevance: In the back of some magazine or another, I found a review for a book called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. It’s not unusual for me to be captured by a good story, but just by the title? That was new to me. I learned this book was a sequel to a book with an equally captivating title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The story could be about anything, it could take me anywhere. I had to pick it up.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and I suppose the same should be said for its title, no matter how magical, captivating, awe-inspiring. Fortunately, from the first page, the story is as captivating as its title. Nearly every line is full of magic and wit, nearly every scene is crafted as a vehicle to propel the story forward. This is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read.

It isn’t without its flaws. September, our twelve-year-old heroine, doesn’t sound like a twelve-year-old girl from World War II-era Nebraska. She sounds like a young woman from England, to be honest. Well-read or not, she seems much older than she actually is, except for her naivety. This is a small caveat, and one that is easily overlooked.

I was slightly disappointed by the near irrelevance of the title I fell head-over-heels for. After several chapters of pure magic and heart, it’s a little disappointing to find that the titular ship of her own making takes all of a paragraph to make, and isn’t really a ship at all. The circumnavigating also takes only a few pages, and compared to the events before and after it, comes across a little threadbare. However, this is also easily overlooked, as it almost seems like a joke played by the author; the same kind of trickery the inhabitants of Fairyland often pull on September.

I found the cast wonderful. September is likable without being overtly good, almost inhumanly flawless, as some heroes and heroines are. A-Through-L is a fantastic companion, and even meek Saturday, who is barely present, plays a large enough role to stand out. Some characters are also found where you wouldn’t expect them. Sometimes they’re inanimate objects, and not even magical ones. A certain green sweater plays a prominent role in the book, despite September’s inability to interact with it in any traditional way.

Perhaps my favorite character, though, is The Marquess. She’s this book’s Queen of Narnia, or Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts. The Marquess is, however, far more interesting. She’s frightening but oddly charming, and where Catherynne M. Valente could’ve given us a carbon-copy “pure evil” villain, she instead crafts a character who is human, tragic, and more deserving of this story.

At its heart, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a children’s story, and the kind we need more of. It’s important for children to grow up seeing the world not in black and white, but shades of gray; not as good and evil, but as different viewpoints. This isn’t to say that nobody is ever right or wrong, just that right and wrong sometimes take an adventure to come to. Valente treads a path set before her by the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Hayao Miyazaki, but still carves out her own place, her own reason for being in it. (While I’m here, I’ll mention that this book would make a fantastic Studio Ghibli film.)

I had so much fun reading this. Books like this are what made me want to write in the first place: A wonderful, magical story from the first page to the last, and beyond the back cover.

Small Update, and a Review of 11/22/63

I found a healthy way to lengthen my scifi manuscript. It’s still on the short side, but I think it’s solid, story-wise. I’m working on querying, now.

My last post mentioned editing an older project for self-publishing, and that has gone very well. Hopefully I’ll have something substantial to post in the next two or three weeks. I’m pretty excited.

I have another review, this time of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

11/22/63 is probably my favorite non-Dark Tower Stephen King novel. I say this loosely, as almost every one of his books ties into that series in some way, and this one is no exception. It’s not a horror novel, although the elements of it are there. It’s a gripping story, and a heavy one.

We live in a world that all too often demands a happy ending. I admire King’s ability to ignore this demand, but for the right reasons. It’s easy to write a tragedy for the sake of being contrary, but King doesn’t do this. Instead, his story is tragic, but hopeful, and shouldn’t it be? How often does life tie up all the loose ends, pack them into a gift-wrapped box, and send them to us on a sunny day, with all of the “good guys” alive and unscathed and all of the “bad guys” locked up or dead? More likely, the outcome of an event is apt to be a little good and a little bad (and usually a little more of one than the other), as are the people involved.

11/22/63 tells a fantastic tale that, because of the way it’s told, could just as easily be about real people and real events. Few authors do this as well as Stephen King, and while some of his craft decisions leave me scratching my head or even rolling my eyes, I always walk away grateful to have read the book and spent that time with his characters and stories. This one gets five stars from me.

As a side note, this is my first experience with an audio book. I think I prefer the print, but Craig Wasson’s reading was superb. Each character came to life in a unique but not over-the-top way. Sometimes he read things differently than I would have, but I could hardly call the different perspective a bad thing.

Check out more of my reading activity on my Goodreads page.

Small Update, and a Review of Three Hainish Novels

Since the last few posts have been reviews of other people’s work, and that isn’t what my blog is meant to be about, I thought I’d give a quick update before posting my latest review.

I’ve finished the second draft of my latest manuscript, a scifi/cyberpunk-ish novel called The Foreland. Thanks to the wonderful people at QueryTracker’s forums, I think my query letter is ready to go. I’m not querying agents yet (though I am making a list of them); I’m worried my manuscript might be a little too short. I’m currently exploring ways to lengthen the story without adding fluff or nonsense. I only need to add a few thousand words to get it to the “ideal word count” I’ve read about on so many other blogs, but if I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all. I think I’d rather have a good story be a little short than have a fluffy story be the ideal length.

I am, as always, working on writing my next big project. I have a few ideas in the works, but few far enough along to talk about right now.

I’ve also picked up an older project for another round of editing, this one more likely to be self-published. Depending on how much of that I get done in the next few weeks, you’ll probably hear a lot more about it very soon.

On to the review:

Three Hainish Novels is, as the title suggests, a collection of three of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, these ones set in her science fiction Hainish Cycle.

Rocannon’s World is Le Guin’s first novel, and the first in this collection. A lovely tale, science fiction at its finest, and wonderfully told. Some of the paragraphs run on a little long and the story begins to feel exhausted toward the end, but it doesn’t wear itself out and instead comes to a clean, beautiful close. 4/5 stars.

I’m not usually a fan of flowery prose, but in Planet of Exile it’s done so well and in such moderation that it only adds to the story. The story and the writing are both beautiful. Le Guin perfectly captures imagery and poetry in prose form, and this builds up to some moments later that gave me chills and could put most of the horror novels I’ve read to shame. The first few chapters were slow but very much enjoyable, and once I got to the last third or so of the book, I couldn’t put it down. 5/5

The final book, City of Illusions, is the longest, though still not a very long book. I had a little bit more trouble with this one; it’s very wordy, and I had to read over a few sentences a few times to get their meaning, especially when they were full of mythos and things from other Hainish Cycle books that weren’t immediately clear to me. Just as it begins to feel like it’s dragging on, the story takes a sharp turn, and all of that journey leading up to that point becomes clearer, more important. The moral dilemma faced by the main character, Falk, is astounding; page after page I dreaded what would become of him.

This is possibly the first of the three books in which it becomes clear that while the stories in the Hainish cycle take place billions of miles and hundreds of years apart, they are very much a part of one story. It was interesting to see a pebble cast by a character in one book lead to ripples the size of species in another, and there was a very strong thread of emotion connecting characters hundreds of years apart, never knowing each other or their stories, but somehow working toward the same end.

Each book in the Hainish Cycle is like a snapshot, a capture of one moment, one story, only a glimmer of the whole, expansive tale of mankind throughout the millenia. It excites me that there are more Hainish Cycle books to get to, and I can’t wait to see how they fit in. The series being written in one order and taking place in another means that once I’ve finished reading them in the order they were written, I can go back and read them in the order in which they take place, and start to see things new again.

Overall: 4/5 stars. Be sure to check out more reviews on my Goodreads page.

Review: Scott Pilgrim

When Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World came out, I had never heard of the comics. I watched the film, being a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead, and I loved it. I took the next logical step and decided to read the comics, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This might sound strange coming from a writer, but I usually don’t have a problem with film adaptations of other media. Often I like them as much as or more than the source material. For the first volume or two of Scott Pilgrim, I didn’t think I’d like the comics as much as I liked the movie. Around Volume 3 I was proven wrong, and once I got to Volume 4 I couldn’t stop reading.

I still love the movie, but I love the comics in a different way. They’re a lot deeper and a lot more personal, and in retrospect I think the film would have been even better as a trilogy. But I tend to see film adaptations and their source material as separate entities, and I’m comfortable being in love with both.

There were moments in the graphic novels that made me laugh out loud, which doesn’t happen often when I’m reading. I appreciated the style and humor of the comics, the frantic and exciting imagery, and especially how straightforward it was. The biggest problem I have when reading comics is that I sometimes have to stare at a panel for a long time to figure out what’s going on. I was rarely confused this way when reading Scott Pilgrim, but I found myself staring at the panels anyway, taking in the minute details and pop culture references Bryan Lee O’Malley hid throughout. In some ways Scott Pilgrim does right what I thought the FLCL graphic novels did wrong: there is a distinct method to the madness that demands the reader visit the story again and again to pick up on the things they missed the first time through. Scott Pilgrim has the added bonus of lovable scenarios and characters worth revisiting.

The final panels of the final volume were breathtaking in their beauty and simplicity. I wasn’t sure how the comic was going to end, but I wasn’t disappointed.

Final rating: 5 out 5 stars.

For more book reviews, be sure to check out my Goodreads page.

Review: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin

In April I finished the first draft of my latest manuscript, and almost immediately after, a friend asked me to look over one he had recently finished, which I was happy to do, as I like to put some time between drafts of my work. After finishing his and starting on mine, I started to feel like reading something else. I don’t tend to read a lot while revising my own work, but I had spent too long away from the pile of books beside my bed. It was around that time I decided to pick up The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, thinking a short story collection might make for easier reading while I worked on my own writing. This proved to be a miscalculation, as I had trouble putting the book down.

Mentioning Le Guin’s work will most often draw to mind her fantasy, namely the Earthsea Cycle, which would pave the road for the likes of Neil Gaiman, Hayao Miyazaki, and J.K. Rowling. Perhaps less famous (but equally as influential, not to mention good) is her science fiction work, most of which falls under the Hainish Cycle. What most people won’t think of, however, is horror, which is a pity because she is perhaps the best writer at it. I’ve read books and found them disturbing, perhaps creepy, but never have I seen them as more than words on a page, which are not inherently horrific. Some of the stories in this book changed that for me. I would be hard-pressed to argue that the point of any story on the book is to be a work of horror, but there’s no doubt that Le Guin has managed to capture fear. I’m not talking about the gruesome and grisly, or the idea of some grotesque creature coming to “get” you, but the real horrors: Madness, isolation. The realization that you are not alone in a dark room, the comprehension of that which renders us infinitesimal.

“Semley’s Necklace” opens the collection. A short story on its own, it also happens to be the first chapter of Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World. Reading that novel was probably my first experience with the horror Le Guin is capable of writing: At first a mild science fiction work, it slowly works its way toward a terrifying realization. It was the perfect way to open both books.

“April in Paris” offers an immediate change of tone, being a more light-hearted fantasy work. “The Masters” presents the idea of persecution of the scientific, a theme that will recur in many of the author’s works, and contains one of my favorite passages in the book. “Darkness Box” is another fantasy piece, and one I enjoyed. Only a few pages long, it presents a world more rich than ones I’ve visited for entire novels.

“The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” are both part of the Earthsea Cycle. The latter has elements of dark comedy, and in the last sentence returns the horror theme present throughout the collection. “Winter’s King” takes us back to the Hainish Cycle, and while a strong story, I thought it might have been better if it were extended into a full novel. Entire revolutions are passed over in a paragraph, which I assume is because they are perhaps not directly related to the central character’s internal story, but seeing years go by in a sentence was inescapably jarring.

“The Good Trip” provided a nice change of pace, being a short speculative work between two larger science fiction pieces. Following this is “Nine Lives”, one of my favorite stories in the collection. After this is “Things”, another short but very rich piece, and another favorite of mine. “A Trip to the Head” is a much less “conventional” story, being speculative through and through, and I appreciated the story it had to tell and the way it was told.

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” marks the point at which I couldn’t stay away from the book for more than a few hours. Another science fiction piece and part of the Hainish Cycle, this one stands perfectly well on its own. In this story were passages that gave me chills; perhaps for the first time, reading a book terrified me. Yet the story is not gloomy; it is beautiful even at its darkest, perhaps when it is darkest. This is not only my favorite in this collection, but easily one of my favorite short stories.

“The Stars Below” runs parallel to “The Masters” but is perhaps more enjoyable. “The Field of Vision” is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, and one of the most interesting. “Direction of the Road” offers a change of pace, another dark comedy and one of the most imaginative things I’ve read.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was the first of Le Guin’s works I read. After a few years, it holds all the power it did when I first read it, and I was glad to re-visit it. I could write at great length about this story, but for now I’ll just say that I hold this one close to my heart.

“The Day Before the Revolution” solidly closes the collection. It might make more sense to me once I read The Dispossessed, but I did enjoy the story.

Nearly every story left me wanting to start the same story again, so this is a collection I look forward to coming back to time and again. It only grows more relevant with time, and I hope to read it over every few years, noticing things I hadn’t before, taking away lessons that passed me by the previous time. I can tell already that it has a lot to teach.

For more book reviews, be sure to check out my Goodreads page.