On Lorrie Moore’s “Bark”

27 Jan

I used to enjoy short fiction a lot. I respect those who can write it, and I respect those who read it with any kind of frequency, because the form lends itself to a kind of sadomasochism that I just don’t see in other formats: each short story carries in it all the gravity and pain of a novel but in a shorter space. It’s like fitting all the punches of a twelve-round boxing match into three rounds. I feel winded and bruised after reading the eight dour short stories in Lorrie Moore’s most recent collection Bark, and I may need more than ice to soothe my battered soul. (I’m thinking a nice fluffy young adult novel, or maybe a Dr. Seuss book.)

If anything, Moore is consistent. The stories in Bark tell tales of departures: spouses leaving spouses, people dying and leaving behind unimaginable voids in their surviving friends, more spouses leaving spouses. Moore seems to return again and again to the concept of loss, and sometimes to the deathly frightening idea of loss, which can be worse than the real deal. Before you go thinking Moore is just a butt-load of bitterness and depression (that’s only half the butt-load), it’s worth noting that she writes about all this loss with a self-deprecating wit that strongly reminds of Nora Ephron. Each of these stories could be Nora Ephron short films, you know, just without the happy endings.

Protective exterior (Photo credit: "zoomyboy.com")

Fact: The outer bark of a tree is called the rhytidome. Fact: The main ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid, comes from poplar and willow bark. Fact: The word “bark” in connection to trees predates other uses and comes from the Old Norse word brokr, which probably referred to birch trees. (Photo credit: “zoomyboy.com”)

In the first story “Debarking,” a recently divorced father navigates the new-found bitterness of single life with the backdrop of the first Gulf War. A friend sets Ira up with another divorcee, a pediatrician who is alarmingly intimate with her teenage son. Ira fights for a place in his girlfriend’s life and mourns the loss of something that was never his to begin with. The following story title “Juniper Tree” tells a the story of a woman’s lost battle with cancer and the friends who seem to be haunted by her spirit who remains attached to her house and erratically tended garden.

By the fourth story, “Foes,” Moore’s humorous side comes out. A liberal older writer attends a fundraising event in Washington and is seated next to a young, Republican investor. The context is brimming with potential humor, but Moore is subtle; she uses little inside jokes, like writing in the passive voice to “obscure blame.” I imagine Moore writing these stories and chortling to herself with little jarring shakes of her belly. The longest story of the book is her best. “Wings” follows a middle-aged woman as she sets aside her dreams of “making it” as a musician. Instead, she befriends an elderly–and absurdly wealthy–widower, and her life seems to take on new potential. As the elderly man becomes physically and emotionally dependent on her, our narrator’s motives become hazier. The final short stories of the collection, especially the last story “Thank You for Having Me,” are more poignant and lighthearted, so at least I wasn’t left with the bitter taste of loss and separation in my mouth.

"Quote" (Photo credit: "FoundryParkInn")

In “Paper Losses,” a couple on the verge of divorce goes on one last vacation. “As each one lost its heat she could no longer feel it even there on her back, and then its removal was like a discovery that it had been there all along: how strange to forget and feel it only then, at the end ….” (Photo credit: “FoundryParkInn”)

Moore delivers humor in each of her stories with a light touch–sometimes too light. Oftentimes her dark humor is obscured by themes that are repetitive and blunt as a hammer, and even in an eight-story collection, repetitive hammers can make a short book feel like a tome. I know many readers will feel bogged down by the end of Bark, especially if they (like I) tried to read it in a single sitting. I’m not sure what Lorrie Moore has been doing since the publication of her last short story collection, but I’m going to venture a guess and say she broke up and/or divorced a bunch of people. It just seems to me that these days mainstream books tell stories of new love, and literary books tell of love’s death, and Bark is a really, really literary book.

“You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.”

Read It: Do you like short stories? Specifically in collections? If the answer is, “Why, yes. Yes I do,” then read Lorrie Moore’s Bark. As one of the leading American short fiction writers of our time, Moore is worth picking up. A word of advice for this, and any, collection, don’t read it in one sitting. After finishing a story, set the book down before beginning the next one. These stories shouldn’t be read like chapters in a novel.

Don’t Read It: Steer clear if you just battled your way through a messy divorce or breakup, because Bark might pitch you over the edge. Despite the occasional quips and black comedy, this collection isn’t a happy one. You might try something on the lighter side or maybe try hitting up the nearest bar instead, both of which will probably be more uplifting than several of the stories here.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s shorty story Silver Water would be a great place to start after reading Bark. Bloom’s ability to use humor to punctuate rather than diffuse an intense story is one of the skills of hers, and of Moore’s, that I love. Also make sure to check out any films written and/or directed by Nora Ephron for witty dialogue and similar content to Bark‘s.

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.

 

On Michael Punke’s “The Revenant”

20 Jan
The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

There are inspirational books that make you marvel at the perseverance of the human spirit, the resourcefulness of our minds, the strength within all of us that drives us to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds–books that fill you with the warm, fuzzy satisfaction of belonging to a truly dominant and admirable species. And then there are books that remind you that you will never be as badass as that guy. Not ever. Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant.

The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself. In late summer of 1822, Hugh Glass joined a company of Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers in their pioneering journey up the Grand River. Together, the trappers hoped to make their way to Fort Union before the snows set in and, along the way, pick up plews of beaver fur while evading attacks from the hostile Arikara tribe. Easier said than done.

On September 1, 1822, Hugh Glass scouted ahead of the trapping party and finds a campsite by the river. He is ready to take his German-made, silver-trimmed Anstadt rifle to hunt for dinner when he sees two grizzly cubs trundling up to him. We could all learn a thing or two from this scene: “trundling grizzly cubs” is equivalent to “you’re screwed,” because where there are grizzly cubs there are grizzly moms.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there's that.

Glass managed to kill grizzly in one-on-one combat, but not before the grizzly completely jacked up his face and back. As a consolation for survival, Glass was recognized as the Badass of the Week in 2006, so there’s that.

I’ll leave the grizzly details (sorry, I had to) to Punke’s novel, but I’m sure you get the picture of how this turns out. Mauled and a whisper away from death, Glass isn’t given a chance by his comrades. His captain leaves behind two trappers to do him the honors of burying him after he dies, while the others keep to their course. The two scallywags who volunteer to stay behind with the ailing Glass feel the impending threat of the Arikara. While Glass looks helplessly on, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald take Glass’s supplies, his knife, and his coveted Anstadt rifle, and they leave him to die. Only, Glass doesn’t die.

In truth, The Revenant is the tragic romance of a man whose most precious loved one is stolen by another man. Punke sets up the love story himself: “Glass’s rifle was the one extravagance of his life, and when he rubbed grease into the spring mechanism of the hair trigger, he did so with the tender affection that other men might reserve for a wife or child.” Aside from the care Glass gives it, the Anstadt is also the envy of all the trappers. He’s got the biggest, baddest gun of all the men in the crew–the gun that’s going to get all the ladies. So it’s no wonder that Fitzgerald jacks it when he gets the chance, and it’s no wonder Glass traverses hell and high water to get it back. The film adaptation ought to be called Taken 4:The Revenant. Glass’s very particular set of skills is what gets him through hundreds of miles of hostile frontier country to save his only love from the clutches of a perverse, amoral kidnapper.

I mean, who wouldn't cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

I mean, who wouldn’t cover 600+ miles of wilderness with life-threatening injuries in the middle of winter for this beautiful, beautiful gun?

Teasing aside, Punke is careful (or perhaps he’s just oblivious) not to make this a tale of manliness–a self-stroking, exhibitionist’s tale of old school masculinity or a pining for a long-gone era of true American machismo. A story like this could easily swing from super badass to super sleazy in a few clacks on the keyboard. Props go to Punke for resisting. Likewise, the story could also have easily fallen into the tired trenches of white American apologetics when Punke depicts Glass’s interactions with local tribes. The author steers clear and focuses on the story at hand.

Punke’s writing style makes The Revenant an easy novel to consume. The prose is neither lyrical nor didactic, humorous nor academic. In a way, the novel reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article: events and name-dropping dot the book like landmarks on the way toward a destination, and no reader would be able to get themselves lost along the way. Readers are just along for the wild ride that is this mountain man’s insanely eventful life, and nothing stands in their way to enjoying the second-hand satisfaction of Hugh Glass’s survival and quest to get back what’s his.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy's John Fitzgerald in the upcoming film adaptation.

Ladies and gentlemen, gird your loins, because Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass will star opposite Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald in a battle of the beards in the upcoming film adaptation.

Read It: Readers who enjoy historical fiction and historical non-fiction will dig it. The Revenant is filled with dates, landmarks, and references to minor historical figures. The book reads quickly because of the utter lack of art and artifice in its prose, which some will see as a virtue, and which certainly makes the novel accessible to most.

Don’t Read It: Since this novel is based on true events and is written by an author who writes nonfiction, don’t read The Revenant if you’re not a fan of histories. You may be looking for character development or quirky little literary devices or carefully constructed plot points, but you won’t find them here. This is a novel that takes its cues from real historical events and doesn’t stray far from the trodden path. Punke doesn’t let his imagination much of a lead.

Similar Books: The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which looks like it will also get the silver screen treatment with a 2015 adaptation starring the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch and Sienna Miller, tells a similarly improbable story of Col. Percy Fawcett, the last Victorian explorer, who disappears in the Amazonian jungle in the attempt to find the real El Dorado. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is the story of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, and Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is written in the same novelistic style as Punke’s The Revenant, and the film adaptation might star Leonardo DiCaprio, to boot.

Michael Punke--Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador--is pretty badass himself.

Michael Punke–Capitol Hill lawyer turned author turned US Trade Ambassador–is pretty badass himself.

On Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”

13 Jan
The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

What better way to start the new year than with a little science fiction escapism? That was my train of thought until I ended up in the beautifully crafted but horrifyingly and perfectly imaginable post-apocalyptic world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. There’s absolutely no point in escaping a bleak 2015 economy and frightening American race riots if the alternative is a tattered world where the masses live in utter poverty, clawing their way from calorie to calorie to keep from starving, and mega-corporations buy their respective ways into the upper echelons of national governments. Come to think of it, those two worlds seem eerily similar. Out of the frying pan, into the sci-fi political commentary. It seems Bacigalupi is onto something with this entertaining, award-winning 2009 novel.

The world of The Windup Girl is ravaged by the folly of genetic tampering, or “genehacking,” and the lethal repercussions of globalization. Massive “calorie companies” flooded the world with a wave of exported food and biological goods, but this was soon followed by a monsoon of viruses, plagues, and epidemics that fractured the world into broken governments and nearly sent the world back to the Dark Ages. Bacigalupi does an admirable job making readers sink under the heavy heat of Bangkok and gag on the odor of gutters filled with human waste and rotting fruit. The oppression of this new urban landscape is felt in the crush of the author’s prose, and makes reading Bacigalupi a comprehensive experience.

Anderson Lake, a calorie man with AgriGen, slogs his way through this fragrant, darkened Bangkok in a covert mission to find agriculture untouched by deadly “blister rust” or devoured by invasive beetles. Anderson’s corporate agenda winds him up in the local political battle between the global-thinking Trade Ministry and the isolationist Environment Ministry, as well as the dangerous squabbling of slum lords and militant faction leaders.

Bacigalupi's Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we're familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we’re familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Plans are truly upset when Anderson falls in love with a taboo New Person named Emiko–a genehacked woman who was design by scientist to please men in all ways, shapes, and forms. New People, or “windups” as they are derrogatorily called, are feared and loathed by the general population as abominations, but they make a nice novelty attraction in Bangkok’s underground. Emiko is owned by a club that caters to hypocritical white shirts who hunt windups by day and watch them violated on seedy stages at night.

While Emiko owns the honor of being the title character, she features infrequently on the actual pages. Her situation as the uncanny valley aspect of the this future world adds a necessary complication to an otherwise average political thriller, but Emiko is never fully realized as a character. The role paved out for her is two-dimensional and tired: she is the submissive slave who is pushed too far and finds out she has the power to free herself; she is trapped in a cocoon and finally finds out she can become a beautiful butterfly; and when the rape scenes come around, she is the dominated, eroticized damsel in the distress, waiting for a white knight to tell her about her potential.

ngaw

Anderson Lake chases down the genetic origination of the ngaw fruit (rambutan), but it isn’t Anderson who ends ups unraveling the mystery of Thailand’s genetic success.

If this were a film, it would miserably fail the Bechdel test. And when I say, “miserably fail,” I mean it takes the Bechdel test behind the chemical shed and shoots it in the head. Not only do the female characters of TWG think and talk only about men in the few passages in which they feature, but the few times a woman interacts meaningfully with another woman is when a female colleague rapes Emiko on the stage of a club for the entertainment of their patrons. The first positive (and when I say, “positive,” all I mean is, “not rape”) interaction between two named female characters doesn’t show up until 60% through the book.

The most compelling characters of TWG are the supporting cast members and their subplots, which mostly feel severed from the main body of the plot. Hock Seng, Anderson’s Chinese immigrant assistant, battles the virulent racism in the city while trying to rebuild his life after having witnessed the brutal massacre of all his children and grandchildren. Hock’s character development is a novella of its own.

Almost the entire final third of the book is dedicated to another supporting character, Lieutenant Kanya. Kanya is an orphan-turned-white shirt who works under the tutelage of Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, the most feared officer of the Ministry and the greatest enemy to Trade and globalization. Kanya’s stoic self-sufficiency and her conflicted conscience make her the most interesting and the most human character of the novel. In a world where there are no heroes, only villains, Kanya stands firmly in limbo and is one of the few characters faced with making formative decisions.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra--a pre-warlord Kuvira who smiles way less and really likes the color white.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra–ferocious, lethally competent, and filled with idealistic conviction.

Since The Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s first departure from the short story form, it’s understandable how the subplots, smaller stories, and side characters felt so vivid and compelling while the primary characters feel flat in a meandering plot. It’s those fascinating subplots and side characters–along with the author’s immersive descriptions–that makes this novel worth reading.

Read It: If your version of sci-fi escapism is a metaphorical punch to the gut, grab a copy of TWG. This novel won’t be your Asimovian philosophical exercise or Herbertian political saga. It’s an exciting mystery in an exciting setting that leads a reader through a series of tragic events toward a larger, more tragic event. If that isn’t enough to entice you to read this, then I have four words for you: genetically modified working girl. No, but really, the believable vision with which Bacigalupi writes and the well-paced plot makes The Windup Girl a fun read.

Don’t Read It: You may want to avoid The Windup Girl if you’re uncomfortable reading rape. I won’t lie: rape plays a large part of plot, and Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from graphic details. I thought the scenes were gratuitous and distracting from a relatively compelling plot, and not everyone wants to read this level of trauma in what would otherwise be an entertaining novel.

Similar Books: Three books come to mind when reading a science fiction novel about our world’s bleak and entirely possible future: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a mutation has castrated the world, and women are objectified for the sake of survival; Mira Grant’s Parasite, a new and award-nominated novel about the mega-corporations ruining life for people with their god complexes and genetic tampering; and Chaeng-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, which shares some prose styles with Bacigalupi’s TWG. Now go forth with these fun reads, and join me in sobbing for the doomed future of humanity!

Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a prolific writer of sci-fi and suspense. The first book of his I read was the young adult novel Ship Breaker.

LitBeetle’s Top 10 Books of 2014

6 Jan

Another year passes and another ten trillion books made their weaselly way onto my reading list, but I managed to read 39 of them, so Sisyphus ain’t got nothin’ on me. It was a science fiction-heavy year, and this is a science fiction-heavy list, but I’m unapologetic! Bring on the Future! Of the books I read and reviewed in 2014, here are my top ten.

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10. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe goes full Twilight Zone in this Kafkaesque novel about futility. In a nightmarish series of events, a professional man on holiday stumbles into a dune-side village and finds himself a prisoner at the bottom of a sand pit where he must continuously shovel sand to keep from being buried alive.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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9. Seraphina by Rebecca Hartman

Strong female heroine? Check. Compelling subplots of socioeconomic and racial differences? Check. Positive message about body image? Check. Dragons? Check, CHECK, CHECK. Rachel Hartman is building a beautiful universe with Seraphina, the first of this young adult series, filled with complex politics and shape-shifting dragons. Seraphina is a young court musician who must hide her mixed lineage from a bigoted society, but for all her efforts, the young resourceful girl still wraps herself up in a murder mystery and the deadly politics of two nations on the verge of all out war.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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8. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Twilight fiends beware: Dracula is not the inspiration for the glittering, abusive boyfriend of Stephanie Meyer’s blockbuster hit. This is the story of one man’s PTSD after encountering one of the most horrific predators in literature. If you don’t think you can handle the fear, the darkness, the soul-sucking solitude of Bram Stoker’s classic, don’t panic–Dr. Abraham Van Helsing will make sure you survive the night.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

The Sun Also Rises

7. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 There are few things I love to read more than stories wealthy, entitled young people leading lives of wanton excess and torturing themselves with unrequited lust in the heat of the Spanish countryside while intoxicated on authentic leather skins of cheap wine, and in this highly specific genre of literature, Ernest Hemingway is king.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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6. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Three children witness the stars disappear on one fateful October night on Earth. Jason and Diane Lawton and best friend Tyler Dupree all face the post-Spin world differently, but their fates–as well as the fate of the rest of humanity–tie them together as they journey to discover how their entire planet was encased in a physics-defying dome.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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5. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

If there’s one person who can renew age-old stories of revenge, magic, and prophesy, it’s Brandon Sanderson. In Mistborn, the first of a series, Vin, a street urchin and bottom rung of a gang of con artists, wakes up to find her world changed when she meets Kelsier, a legendary Mistborn who can ingest metals and use their magical properties to alter himself and the world around him. Kelsier teaches the gifted Vin everything he knows, and together the two take on the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler and his oppressive Final Empire.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Don’t be fooled by the fact that it took me four years to read and I only happened to finish it in 2014. JS&MN is probably going to find its place among my favorite books of all time, because somehow, probably through some authorly incantations of her own, Susanna Clarke makes 1,006 pages fly by faster than a smoke break on a Monday afternoon. Mr Norrell takes up a personal mission to bring magic back to 19th Century England. His apprentice, the dashing young Jonathan Strange, takes up the same mission but with jarringly different methods. The two engage in the rivalry of all rivalries.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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3. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Criminal Minds meets Star Trek-level space-time continuum plot twists. Lauren Beukes’s dangerously enthralling crime thriller made its way to the top of my list for its originality, unique tone, and sheer entertainment value.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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2. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

My penchant for creepiness extends to all areas of my life, but finding creepiness in a book is my favorite. John Darnielle takes a brief hiatus from brilliant songwriting to grace the literary world with his tragic and grotesque storytelling in Wolf in White Van. Sean Phillips creates a refuge from his horrific past in the form of a play-by-mail role playing game called Trace Italian. When two misguided teens become obsessed with the game, Sean must do what he fears most: face himself.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

 

Of all the book review blogs in all the Internet, this book had to walk into mine. It’s the ultimate, bestest, most favorite book I read in all of 2014:

Ancillary-Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

 No book comes close to generating the enthusiasm I felt for Ann Leckie’s Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning debut novel Ancillary Justice. In a fresh take on AI, Leckie tells the story of Breq, a human body inhabited by the last remaining ancillary of the massive artificial intelligence that operated a battleship and its soldiers. As she unfolds her past, Breq’s current mission of stone-cold space revenge becomes clearer and clearer. Leckie’s brilliant depiction of personhood and perspective come alive in this heartbreaking sci-fi saga about one individual’s terrible loss and terrible thirst for vengeance.  Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

I’m looking forward to a new year and tackling the mountain of unread books that haunt my dreams every night. A huge thank you to my followers and visitors! LitBeetle would be nothing if not for you! Now let me know in the comments which books were your favorites to read in the great year of 2014!

Happy New Year from Seattle!

Happy New Year from Seattle!

On William Gibson’s “The Peripheral” and Gibson in Person

25 Nov
The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson was released on October 28, 2014.

Hankering some hardcore sci-fi with a mystery-thriller twist? Want to get wound up in a story of space-time continua and causality? Daring to depress over desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes and creeped out by human mutation? Guess who’s got you covered? That’s right: Stephanie Meye–HAHA, NOPE! William Gibson! In his latest novel The Peripheral, the living legend Willaim Gibson stays true to form in an epic science fiction story about two people separated by time and alternate realities who both must come to terms with the irrevocable consequences of their effect on each other’s universes. Buckle in for another Gibsonian ride through nanobots and Chinese servers with the usual cast of stupefyingly brilliant future people with cool, monosyllabic names.

In some backwater American town in the near-distant future, everything sucks. Flynne Fisher and her ex-Marine brother scrape by on contract jobs playing rich men’s video games where a win equals a paycheck. Stuck in musty, rusting trailers and living off of fabricated, or “fabbed,” food from the one Hefty Mart in town, the Fisher siblings do what they can to take care of the ailing mother and survive to the next day. When Flynne picks up a job from her brother acting as security detail in an eerie new beta game, the Fisher’s lives and the lives of everyone in their podunk town change forever, because the game Flynne plays isn’t a game at all, and the murder she witnesses their isn’t an assemblage of programming and pixels.

The beta game is, in reality, seventy years in the future. The horrific assassination Flynne watched while on the job was a real horrific assassination. As the only one who saw the killer’s face, Flynne becomes an asset to her futuristic contractors and the main target for an unknown power trying to tie up loose ends. Wilf Netherton, a publicist in London and seventy years ahead of Flynne’s time, is just as much of a pawn as the Fishers–just small moving parts in a game played by political, financial giants. Wilf’s involvement with the victim’s sister ties him inextricably to the growing conspiracy. Now, Wilf and Flynne must team up using futuristic technology, which allows Flynne to virtually tap into Wilf’s reality through the use of a peripheral body and a giant virtual reality helmet.

Let virtual reality take you to the future!

Let virtual reality take you to the future! It’s super fuuuuuuuunnnnn! And nothing bad happens there!

In Wilf’s future world, Flynne’s consciousness inhabits and controls an biologically human body like a player controlling a video game character. Wilf and his cohorts show Flynne’s peripheral a world after disaster, a world completely reconstructed by nanotechnology called “assemblers” that picked up the pieces after a near-apocalyptic era called “the Jackpot.” In Wilf’s past, the Jackpot killed off 80% of humanity, but his involvement in Flynne’s world will change it irrevocably and hopefully for the better. There’s always the chance that his tinkering in her alternate reality could cause an apocalypse worse than the Jackpot.

Beneath layers of complexity and Matrix-level reality shifts, The Peripheral is, at heart, a murder mystery, and–once readers fend off the blunt-force trauma Gibson calls prose and claw their way through an intricate plot that spends the first half of the book confusing readers and the second half answering too many questions–they will most likely have some kind of fun reading this. I didn’t get hooked on this book until the introduction of a compelling side character named Ainsley Lowbeer: an androgynous, all-seeing, law-enforcing extension of the state who, in my mind, was like a gun-toting Tilda Swinton, but for other readers, the hook could be the ever-present Gibsonian nanotech or the mob bosses and drug king pins or the government SUVs with tinted, armored windows. There is plenty of fodder for finding the good in this novel, so while I don’t think it comes near to Gibson’s best work, I think The Peripheral is a fine addition to this established author’s résumé and it was well worth the read.

In Wilf's world, nanobots called "assemblers" destroy and build everything.

In Wilf’s world, nanobots called “assemblers” destroy and build everything, even lives. How can Flynne–just a normal gamer from pre-apocalypse America–contend with this kind of technology?

Read this book if … you need your sci-fi fix and you aren’t afraid to work for a it a little. It’s true that Gibson’s prose requires more intellectual labor than your average genre book, even among other similarly academic authors’ works, but The Peripheral still meets all the requirements for an entertaining read.

Don’t read this book if … your version of “enjoying a book” doesn’t involve slogging through unwieldy vernacular. One can’t help but wonder if Gibson uses language to deter any possibility of casual readers, and I don’t blame people for getting discouraged and throwing the book across the coffee shop gently setting the book down and finding something more accessible.

This book is like … the novels of Greg Bear or Philip K. Dick. All three authors construct their worlds as palimpsests over our own, using their sharp minds and visionary fiction to prophesy our future. Their futuristic stories are both alien and familiar–sometimes eerie for how familiar they are. In The Peripheral especially, Gibson presents a military aspect that Bear uses frequently in his novels.

William Gibson

William Gibson irrevocably changed the science fiction genre (whether he likes it or not) with the publication of Neuromancer and the forging of the cyberpunk sub-genre.

 


 

William Gibson, Reading from The Peripheral

On the evening The Peripheral was released, William Gibson spoke at the University Bookstore of Seattle’s University of Washington, reading to and answering the questions of a packed house. The man’s soft voice belies the hardness of his writing and the sharpness of his wit. While it was hard for me to imagine this voice writing the fast-talking hackers and government conspiracies and gruesome deaths by nanobot he’s known to write, I had no trouble imagining it after hearing the sharp, sardonic wit of his Q&A. Watch the video of his Oct. 28, 2014, reading below.

On Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina” (Seraphina #1)

18 Nov
seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman takes readers to a world entirely believable and logical. It just happens to have dragons in it.

If there’s one thing pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons. And impressive female protagonists (who aren’t played by Katherine Heigl). So if there are two things that pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons and non-Katherine Heigl female protagonists, so thank the saints that Rachel Hartman has appeared gloriously on the scene with her epic young adult fantasy novel Seraphina. In a setting that feels like alternate reality Renaissance France, Seraphina, a young prodigious court musician, must navigate the prejudices and politics between humans and dragons. The land of Goredd is struggling with an uneasy 40-year peace treaty that bind the two species, but old habits die hard. Seraphina has her own secrets and troubles to worry about, but her curiosity, stubbornness, and compassion team up to embroil her in the middle of Goredd’s cold war with the dragons.

Dragons. They're so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Dragons. They’re so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Seraphina’s deep dark secret forms the foundation of the novel’s plot, and is an age-old, very human conflict: racism. Seraphina is a half-breed–her father, a human solicitor, married a dragon. She must hide her partially scaled body and her inhuman mental abilities from a world who would sooner stone her or drown her than accept such an abomination. As the assistant to the court musician, the task of remaining incognito is difficult enough, especially as her renown as a musical prodigy begins spreading, but when Seraphina gets wrapped up in a murder investigation lead by the headstrong Prince Lucian Kiggs, she finds it imperative but nearly impossible to keep her deadly secret hidden.

Seraphina’s dragon half gives her a logical strength Kiggs begins to find invaluable in his search for the cause of his uncle’s murder, but this half also brings nightmares–nightmares filled with grotesque, malformed beings–that nearly cripple Seraphina with their intensity. Facing her grotesques is the key to learning more about her own origins and learning how to reconcile her dual identity.

Music--combination of mathematics and passion

Seraphina’s dragon-like logic and human-like soulfulness makes her the best musician in all of Goredd. Think Mozart, but prettier and without the crazy.

Seraphina is not your run-of-the-mill spunky, female lead who doesn’t care what boys think, who kicks down doors, and takes on the world with her scathing, witty remarks. She’s not your Elizabeth Bennett protagonist. She’s your Fanny Price protagonist. She is ever in the background, trained since birth to stay out of the spotlight. Seraphina is unsure of herself, having never been told her abilities are outstanding, but she is undeniably logical and intelligent. In this first installation of Hartman’s fantasy series, one can only assume this is Seraphina’s coming-of-age story and that her unique, relatable character will only continue to grow. Right now, she is a fledgling hero who steps up into the role because she must. When she discovers a unique ability that ties her to other half-breeds like her, Seraphina knows she must put aside her insecurities to do something no one else in Goredd can do. It’s the greatest sacrifice for a shy, introverted outcast like her: to shirk her ignominy and take up the mantle of “hero.”

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes ... like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina's identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes … like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina’s identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Read this book if … you’re looking for fantasy and/or young adult fiction that breaks molds. Seraphina is a protagonist I can get behind, someone to whom I can relate. She isn’t some world-class hero or unbelievable beauty–just a normal young person who steps up when forced into an impossible situation. My empathy for her and Hartman’s world-building ability makes Seraphina the perfect book for some intelligent escapism. And for the saints’ sake, we need something other than post-apocalyptic teen romances in the YA genre.

Don’t read this book if … you generally avoid high fantasy–with swords and princes, magic and arranged marriages–or if your version of fantasy is more along the George R.R. Martin blood-and-incest stories. Seraphina is definitely a young adult novel, though geared toward an older teen.

This book is like … the lovely novels of Diana Wynne Jones, but without all the silliness and snark, something I have started attributing to the unique qualities of British fantasy authors. Hartman’s Seraphina brings to mind all of my favorite girl protagonists, like Sabriel of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series or Harry Crewe of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword or any lead from a Hayao Miyazaki film. If you’re looking for content with female protagonists, secret hybrid powers, and a bunch of dragons for an older demographic, check out J.A. Pitts’s Sarah Beauhall series: Black Blade Blues, Honeyed Words, and Forged in Fire.

Rachel Hartman's sequel to Seraphina is due to be released on March 10, 2015, and will be titled Shadow Scale.

Rachel Hartman‘s sequel to Seraphina will be titled Shadow Scale and is set to be released March 10, 2015. My horses are being held, but just barely.

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