Blood Song

“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)

Blood Song Cover

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.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
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.

 

The Whites

“‘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)

 The Whites Cover

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.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR Avoid
Length: 333
Ending: Hopeful but realistic
Incidental Learning: NYPD culture, 3rd shift workers
Further Reading: Admittedly, I haven’t read too many gritty mysteries, but this reminds me of the equally atmospheric No Bad Deed by M. Ryan Seaver.

She’s Come Undone

“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)

She's Come Undone CoverAt 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).

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – 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.

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free

“Digital locks are roach motels: copyrighted works check in, but they don’t check out. Creators and investors lose control of their business—they become commodity suppliers for a distribution channel that calls all the shots. Anti-circumvention isn’t copyright protection: it’s middleman protection.” (Information Doesn’t Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow)

Information Doesn't want to be free cover

Reading ‘Information Doesn’t Want to be Free‘ is like reading the non-fiction book hiding behind the thin veil of fiction in all Doctorow’s novels  (Little Brother, Homeland, etc). Though I love Doctorow’s way of integrating information into his fictional work, I almost prefer his nonfiction straight up and unadulterated. He is so clear and convincing, and his metaphors drive into your brain with the force and staying power of a sledgehammer.

I appreciate that Doctorow didn’t feel the need to flesh out his work to the standard 300 page American book. There is nothing worse than reading a nonfiction work and realizing that the only relevant information was presented in the first 100 pages, and every page after that was written to make a page-count goal. Doctorow writes 192 pages, and every single page, every single sentence, is necessary.

Here’s the bottom line: Anyone interested in technology, the internet, copyright, or making a living as a creative person should read this book. It may get you up-in-arms with righteous indignation for a week or two, but after that, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the world as it is now.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid
Further Reading: All of Doctorow’s books! He can’t help but cover similarly intriguing subjects in all of his work, supposedly fiction or otherwise.

Station Eleven

“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.” (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel)
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Station Eleven CoverFor those of us who love both literature and science fiction, very few books satisfy both appetites. Science fiction books can be imaginative and have excellent pacing, but rarely are they beautifully written. If you’ve ever wanted to read a post-apocalyptic piece that doesn’t focus on zombies and the end of civilization, but instead focuses on hope and a clearly imagined depopulated world, now is your chance.

I can’t remember the last good genre fiction I read without a romance at its center. Mandel focuses on the relationships between family and friends here instead of the ever-present love triangle. Romantic relationships do occur, but they are usually evaluated in retrospect, and with an eye to how they changed the characters. Mandel also offers another rarely seen phenomenon in genre fiction: the strong, feminine female lead. she gives us Miranda, an artist who repents nothing and loves the symmetry of her day job. The book largely revolves around Miranda, and the objects she owns and creates, but she remains out of sight just enough to leave her mostly a mystery – which is a shame, because I could read whole books about her.

On top of everything, on top of not succumbing to the trendy love triangle, on top of writing a spectacular female lead, on top of her beautiful writing, on top of blending literature with science fiction, Mandel also integrates an imaginary book into her plot, in the modern form of a graphic novel. I am just so thankful that this book exists.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 352 pages
Ending: Beautiful and Hopeful (like the whole book)
Incidental Learning: Symphonies, Lives of Celebrities
Further Reading: The only other genre fiction+literature book I can recall is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – wish is Fantasy+Literature.

Golden Son

“I seize him with my hands, raise him high into the air. But I hurt him no more. I will not demean the moment with cruelty like Karnus or Titus would. My condescension is my weapon. I set Pliny back in the ArchGovernor’s chair. I buff his dragonfly pin. Straighten his hair like a kindly mother. Pat him on his tear-stained cheek and extend my hand…”(Golden Son by Pierce Brown)

Golden SonTake a moment to think about all of the trilogies you’ve read. The first book is strong and fascinating. You can feel the author’s excitement and hope. You wait in anticipation until the next book comes out, only to find out that it is merely a bridge between the beginning and the conclusion. Nothing happens. The author looses confidence. The characters stagnate. The plot gets bulky and clunky. <sigh> I’ve been through this far too often. So, it is with an incredible amount of respect that I say – Golden Son is even better than it’s first book, Red Rising.

Pierce Brown manages to keep the pace up every chapter, all without giving too much away. He lets his characters grow, yet forces them to remain interesting. His world gets bigger and more complicated without becoming unwieldy. He doesn’t let himself repeat the same plot and themes, though he had the opportunity. He is obviously a reader – one who took the time to learn from previous book’s mistakes. Now, I can’t wait to see how he’ll treat the third book. Will he do most genre authors before him have done, force half of the conclusion to be a huge, over-blown battle, or will he keep his focus on the characters? I have the highest hopes for the latter.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 464
Ending: Main character takes a big risk, and it seems like it won’t pay off…
Incidental Learning: How it feels to trust a genre author
Further Reading: Can you think of another second book that is better than the first? I can’t. I guess we’re just left with waiting for the third book.

Red Rising

“So this kid is what? A predestined Alexander? A Caesar? A Genghis? A Wiggin?’ I ask. ‘This is slagging nonsense.” (Red Rising by Pierce Brown)

Red Rising CoverThere is nothing better than books within books. Imaginary books, real books. Characters reading them, authors referencing them. All wonderful. This is why, when Pierce Brown references Card’s Ender’s Game (above), I almost die with happiness. Brown not only mentions another beloved sci-fi novel, but actually brings that world into his own, implying that his story could be a potential future of Card’s. With just that one word, he helps me imagine countless scenarios that could connect Ender’s and Darrow’s stories, allowing me to write spin-offs and fan-fictions to my heart’s content. Though the worlds don’t truly connect (Brown later says that his people have never seen aliens), it shows that Brown is one of us – just another reader who grew up on the greats of fantasy and sci-fi.

Red Rising has also been hailed as the next Hunger Games since both books are dystopias with teenaged characters. They are almost similar, except that Pierce Brown is the more reliable author. He is consistent where Collins is not. Collins disappointed her fans by repeating her plots over and over again, not paying attention to her characters, and not valuing her audience. It is always possible that Brown will crash and burn on the second or third book in this trilogy (as many have done before him), but his strong writing makes that seem unlikely. It’s easy to trust an author who builds conflict from the first moment, who isn’t overly protective of his characters, and who doesn’t get bogged down in the details. I have high hopes for the conclusion of this trilogy.
Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBRAvoid
Length: 382
Ending: Hopeful, tense
Incidental Learning: Fate of Ender Wiggins’ world
Further Reading: Read the second book Golden Son immediately.