“She always wondered why there were no screams, no tears, no despair sending her into thrashing hysterics… all she actually did was sit and stare at the burnt stranger in the mirror. Most of her hair was gone, the scalp a mottled relief of red and pink flesh. The flames had caught the upper side of her face, the scars ascending from the bridge of her nose… like an ill-fitting mask worn to scare children on the warding’s night.” (Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan)
I fear that, lately, I’ve been enjoying analyzing, criticizing, and writing about books more than I actually enjoy reading them. I confess that I mostly continued on to this book after Blood Song to see how Ryan handled the tricky mid-trilogy novel with all its associated pitfalls (adding too many characters, getting too broad, not connecting to the over-arching plot, etc). I enjoyed seeing Ryan deftly overcome these challenges slightly more than I actually enjoyed the enumeration of battles and death.
I also have to confess that, as much as the ending annoyed my feminist self, it also delighted me because it provided something to write about. Until this book, Ryan had hitherto upheld the basic principles of epic fantasy, which decree that, if females are included in the main story line at all, they must be perfectly beautiful and irrationally moody. Ryan not only introduced three strong (only slightly moody) women here, but also deformed one of them with horrible burns to her face. This undermining of tradition brought a humanity to that character, and to the whole cast, that isn’t frequently seen in this genre. Yet, throughout the whole book, my inner critic kept nagging: how long can he keep this up? In a world with magical healers, how long can Ryan allow a once-beautiful woman to remain scarred and be at peace with herself? Unfortunately, the answer was: only a few hundred pages.
Though I will be reading the concluding book to the Raven’s Shadow trilogy promptly on July 7th when it is released, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to read an epic fantasy where the author could sustain a fully realized, albeit scarred, female lead.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 601 (audiobook quality: excellent)
Ending: Satisfying, but disappointing as detailed above
Incidental Learning: Throwing knives, survival
If you are looking for a more feminine look into fantasy, I’d suggest checking out N. K. Jemisin
“I’m afraid that what follows isn’t pleasant. If you want to sleep easy in your bed, if you want to look at your kids and think there is a chance they will live in a world better than the one we leave behind, it might be better not to meet him.” (I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes)
My biggest reading pet peeve is when authors don’t respect the intelligence of their readers. Sometimes, authors over-simplify a character or plot. Other times, they over-explain in the end of book wrap-up. Occasionally, as in the case of Terry Hayes, they over-foreshadow so that the reader cannot help but understand the complex web of cause-and-effect that the author creates. Hayes not only predicts/constrains the reader’s reaction to the book with the above quote, but he also foreshadows in real-time, promising the reader that they’ll understand the effect of each action in due course. Personally, I prefer my narratives unadulterated in this fashion – I rather like to pick apart all of the causes and effects myself.
On the other hand, Hayes does take an incredibly complex, multi-layered plot and makes it comprehensible to anyone that might chance to pick up the book. Having forced myself through a number of incomprehensible thrillers/police procedurals, I admire Hayes’ ability to clarify a muddy situation. Though he may make the mistake of over-emphasizing correlation and causation, he keeps the pace even with wry, un-phaseable characters and light, understated dialog. So, don’t read this book for its foreshadowed reactions of sleepless nights; read it for the promises it doesn’t make: the promise of a satisfying ending, and plenty of self-effacing, charming characters.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: Satisfying and wrapped-up
Incidental Learning: Secret Intelligence World, Geography/Customs of Turkey
If you, unlike me, enjoy a lot of foreshadowing, you might want to check out She’s Come Undone
by Wally Lamb and (though nonfiction) Come as you Are.
“All of us are engaged in the ongoing process of cultivating our gardens – digging out the weeds and nurturing the plants we hope will flourish. Often it’s a joyful experience; always it’s deeply personal.” (Come as you Are by Emily Nagoski)
I suggest going to your local library/bookstore and picking up this book boldly. Don’t furtively peer around to check if anyone has seen you. Don’t hide it under your coat until you reach the checkout desk. Do not, under any circumstances, avoid looking at the checkout person. And if that checkout person happens to leer, laugh, or glance up suspiciously, you can feel free to look down on them from your superior height of enlightened feminism.
This book is 1/2 scientific research into female sexuality and 1/2 pseudo-psychology self-help. Fortunately for us, Nagoski first lays out the research uninterpreted, so that we readers can form our own conclusions, and only later layers on her philosophy. Though the self help part is rather inspirational, using wonderful metaphors about a woman’s ‘garden’ and repeatedly telling the reader that she is normal, you really come to this book for the research, which is fascinating, unintuitive, and deftly explained in Nagoski’s casual, bright style.
Buy –Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: A repeated conclusion of ‘what you’ve learned’ – there’s a lot of repetition of what you’ve learned all over this book.
Further Reading: Self-help isn’t my normal genre – I mainly picked this book up because I couldn’t stand to see it languishing on the shelf with of all its stellar 5 star reviews and its bold pink cover. Self-help readers: any tips on where someone could go from here?
The relationship between reading and writing seems clear – reading makes you a better writer. You must observe in order to create. Yet, if this blog has taught me anything, it’s that the opposite is also true: writing makes you a better reader. Trying to write makes you more aware about how and why authors do what they do, and a little awareness and mindfulness go a long way. So, this year I’m going to recommend that you improve your reading life by writing. Start with writing book reviews. Write incomplete sentences on Goodreads, write ungrammatical ones on Amazon, write full ones in a blog, or write whichever way you want in password-protected word documents on your home computer. However you choose to do it – write.
Then, write more. Get yourself into all of the problems writers get themselves into, and write your way out of them. Try writing a well-rounded secondary character. Attempt a perfect first sentence. Write a page of dialog without overusing the word ‘said’. Rewrite every paragraph so that you don’t use the same word twice. Reference literature without sounding arrogant. Remember where commas actually go. Observe how people talk, interrupt themselves, misuse words, and repeat themselves, and then try to write something real.
Not only will failing at all of this (for your will fail, at least at first) deepen your appreciation for great writers, but you’ll also be able to see how each author solves the problems of writing, and how that makes their books good/bad/great/inconsistent/ unrealistic/profound, etc. All the thought you put into solving these problems will then be with you when you read. Instead of merely accepting what is on the page, you’ll be able to analyze the page – thinking about why and how each word or character came to be.
So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 5 Book Lion awards:
Best New Book:
Best 20th Century Books:
Best Genre Fiction:
“Time is as much a delusion as your faith, brother. To look into the void is to see the vastness and smallness of everything at once, in an instant of terror and wonder.” (Blood Song by Anthony Ryan)
This is your typical serious high fantasy. The world needs saving, only one man can do it. You see his ‘creation’ story, his ability with the sword, his struggle with killing, his affinity for self sacrifice. The world and the plot are eerily similar to other fantasy greats (Jordan, Martin, Sanderson, Rothfuss), but Ryan breaks certain conventions, such as having his realm follow a religion that claims ‘A God is a Lie.’ In this way, Ryan delivers the best of genre fiction, providing comfort in familiarity and thrill in breaking traditions.
For all that, I loved this book. I loved every serious, loyal, self-aggrandizing minute of it, as I love all well-wrought fantasy and sci-fi. With a beloved genre, the act of read individual instances of that genre has little meaning. The importance lies in the continued action of genre reading – each book, for all its minor differences, perpetuates the feeling found in the first book. In the case of Fantasy and Sci-fi, that feeling is one of belief. With each iteration, the reader practices believing that good can triumph over evil, that someone will always be there to sacrifice themselves for the world. The hope is that maybe, one day, through all of this practice, you may master the art of believing these things yourself. For they are very comforting things to believe.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 591 pgs (Audiobook Quality: Great)
Ending: Satisfying, slight cliff hanger
Incidental Learning: Swordplay, traditions of fantasy genre
Further Reading: As said above, go for Rothfuss, Sanderson, Jordan, Martin (in that order) if you liked this one.
“‘Hey’, how’s it going,’ Billy said as he took a seat.
‘The meat’s so tough that it got up off the plate and beat the shit out of the coffee, which was too weak to defend itself.’
‘No Kidding’.'” (The Whites by Harry Brandt)
This book is 100% atmosphere. Its tired, aging, loaded characters bounce off one another, trading witticisms and partially senseless metaphors. Its settings, hastily drawn and unexceptionally gritty, take on the shape of the characters they surround. Throughout, Brandt hides his age-old plot behind an overwhelming sense of complexity and expertly worded phrases.
As a self-professed fantasy fan and infrequent mystery reader, I find a certain refreshment in the non-heroism of Brandt’s characters. They don’t have any special abilities to deal with the murderers, sickness, or stalkers they’re faced with. They aren’t superhumanly bright, particularly good at fighting, nor do they have loyal sidekicks. Mainly, they just want to make it through their shifts, check to see that their families haven’t been murdered in their beds, then have a drink. Occasionally they find grace in forgiveness. Other times, they find peace in realizing that there are no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, just people doing what they need to survive.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: Hopeful but realistic
Incidental Learning: NYPD culture, 3rd shift workers
Admittedly, I haven’t read too many gritty mysteries, but this reminds me of the equally atmospheric No Bad Deed
by M. Ryan Seaver.
“Mine is a story of craving: an unreliable account of lusts and troubles that began, somehow, in 1956 on the day our free television was delivered.” (She’s Come Undone by Wally lamb)
At her best, Dolores Price is an aging Matilda, minus the super-brain, but with the same wickedly creative sense of justice. At her worst, she’s Merry from Roth’s American Pastoral, minus the perfect American family and political killing, but with the same incomprehensible adolescence. While Dolores is busy vacillating between these two characters, she also throws 1950’s housewife, crazy convalescent, and hard-to-get single woman into the jumbled mix that is her character. One can’t help but wish that she would just stay her true self – her delightfully foul-mouthed, creatively wrathful, bashfully insightful self – and stop trying to be an every-woman of the 80’s.
If only all books held up to the promises of their beginnings. After the first chapter, I was looking for a book full of razor sharp observations about its quirky characters. As per the mysterious quote above, I was hoping for more much more unreliability and many more lusts and troubles. Instead, Dolores mostly avoids lust, brings semi-boring trouble on herself, and is irritatingly reliable in her ability to describe horribly boring patches of her life. For all that, I did manage to finish this book in only a few sittings because, reliable and un-lustful though she was, I had to find out what became of Dolores (and, perhaps, every woman coming of age in the 80’s).
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 480 pgs
Ending: interesting and hopeful, but not fairy-tale happy
Incidental Learning: Psychiatry, feminism
Further Reading: I’m having a hard time thinking of any interesting coming-of-age story from a female perspective. Maybe this is a boring topic for me. I’d recommend reading ‘Catcher and the Rye‘ and hoping that someone writes a book that interesting starring a girl. That’s the best I’ve got.