Friday, July 30, 2010

Beyond One’s Comfort Zone

Against my better judgment, I agreed to participate in an experiment/provocation by author Sam Sykes that he calls The Bravest Challenge. I’ll let his own words explain the problem as he sees it:

If I have one complaint for reviewers, it’s that they occasionally tend to find their comfort zones and settle into them. As such, they start getting a little predictable. We start seeing certain blogs going into routines: they review the same books, they give the same scores and no one’s learning anything.

First, there is inspiration.

Then, there is stagnation.
The truth is that I can’t disagree with his sentiment. This is something that could be defined as a problem if you were so inclined. There are lots of reasons why blogger/fan reviewers fall into this trap, and I don’t really want to get into them here – that’s for a different time and place. In fact it’s a pretty regularly re-occurring discussion around the blogosphere.

So for Sam’s Bravest Challenge twelve blogger/fan reviewers have agreed to attempt to read a book that Sam selects for us that he feels is out of our comfort zone and to post a fair review of said book (as I define it, fair does not necessarily equal positive). On the whole it’s a good idea – challenge some willing schmucks to get out of their comfort zone.

Sam has announced his choices, and this is where I see a problem. Anyone who has followed this blog closely knows that I don’t shy away from expanding beyond my comfort zone, though admittedly it’s not something I do all that often. So, I was a bit anxious to see what Sam would come up with. I was expecting him to challenge me – I’m a rather liberal guy and I don’t hide that fact – so I was anticipating Sam to take square aim at that huge blind spot common to the vast majority of liberals: conservatives. I’ve railed against a few douche bag authors before (that tend to be authors who announce what I consider hateful conservatism on their soapbox), so this was the ‘assignment’ I was dreading. Something that I was sure to hate and disagree with rather than allow to challenge me – as with most, I am rather certain in my beliefs, which is not only big problem but a great source of hypocrisy as I denounce certainty in others. So, what does Sykes choose for me – again, I’ll let his own (flattering) words tell:

Ken, as we all know, is the epitome of the dignified fantasy reviewer: his tastes are refined, his mind is honed to a razor’s edge and his eyes are scrutinizing enough to pick parasites off krill. I’ve never read Arrows of the Queen (though I do like some of Lackey’s other stuff), but an associate of mine who wishes to remain nameless described it as: “Telepathic ponies that are your special BFF!!!! Oh-so-spunky and rebellious heroine! It’s every 12-year-old girl’s fantasy!“ Have fun, Ken.

So instead of throwing me to the likes of Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton, John Ringo, John C. Wright, or Terry Goodkind (yes, he’s Objectivist rather than Conservative) Sam decides that I should read Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound).

I was relieved, dumbfounded and disappointed. Did Sam choose something beyond my comfort zone – probably. Arrows of the Queen does seem to fit a rather classic epic fantasy mold, and as a big reader of epic fantasy, that’s certainly not beyond my comfort zone. It is a book that would in modern marketing parlance fall into the YA category – while I don’t shy away from YA books, as an adult in my mid-30s, it’s not quite a ‘comfort zone’. I’ve also
ranted against using YA as negative descriptor, so I don’t mean to imply that YA is bad, but YA that doesn’t aim to appeal to adults as well as the younger audience is not something I find appealing. I must stress that I have not read Arrows of the Queen (yet), so I am speculating here. The primary audience intended for Arrows of the Queen appears to be adolescent and pre-adolescent girls. Again, as a guy in my mid-30s, it does feel a bit like I’m a vegetarian who was just been recommended the extra-rare tenderloin as a nice meal. Yes, reading Arrows of the Queen may turn out to be different than anticipated and it may offer insight into what young girls are like (something I’ve certainly never understood, especially when I was an adolescent male). But, is this really an appropriate book for the challenge as it’s presented?

My gut reaction is that no, this isn’t really a good choice for a book. It’s one thing to suggest a book to challenge in some way, perhaps even a book that’s whole goal is to be that challenge. But to suggest a book that has a rather defined audience, a book meant to appeal to that audience and more or less disregard those beyond that audience (remember, I haven’t read Arrows of the Queen, so this may or may not be true of it), simply doesn’t seem appropriate. To be extreme, would it be a surprise that I would not enjoy the reading experience of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) or My Big Boy Potty (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound)? These are great books to share with my 2 year-old son, but not something I’m going to pick up and read for myself. Is my reading a book seemingly aimed at 12 year-old girls any different?

Or is the very fact that I don’t think this a good choice an indication of just how good of a choice it is?

I suppose we’ll see when I read Arrows of the Queen (don’t hold your breath, it’ll be a while).

What, good readers, do you think?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Something Completely Different

Wildflower in my backyard - according to the intrawebs it's a Doubting Mariposa Lily (Calochortus ambiguus)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Speculative Horizons edited by Patrick St-Denis

Often one of my favorite parts of an anthology is the introduction by the editor. The framework of the anthology is laid out, the thematic strings that connect often wildly different stories are tied, and I usually learn something. In Speculative Horizons (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, Subterranean) editor Patrick St-Denis does not include an introduction, which while disappointing, doesn’t have much impact one way or another on the anthology as a whole. However, if he had written one, it may have gone something like this:
Speculative Horizons is simply the culmination of my wanting to see some of my favorite authors in the same anthology. I suppose it could be argued that the result is showcase of wide range of possibilities within science fiction and fantasy; however, it is very interesting that this result also managed to form a mostly coherent theme between stories of vastly differing scopes and styles. Perhaps even more curious is the theme itself – love. Whether love between family, lovers, or even the quaint ‘love’ of simple kindness to strangers, each of these stories could be called a love story, though in some cases it would surficially seem quite a stretch to do so. However perverse it may be to view this collection as a collection of love stories, it does hammer home the idea that science fiction and fantasy often deals with the deep connections of people to one another. In the context of love stories, it can’t be ignored just how jaded this anthology seems – love is a powerful emotion and the pain and scars it leaves behind last a lifetime. I’ll leave the implications of that to reader to reflect on, but I can’t help but feel it’s says something about where society is at this moment in time.

Genre’s hackles may often rise in needless defense of itself and it certainly takes a beating from so-called literati, but we should all just relax and let the words speak for themselves.
Speculative Horizons features stories from C.S. Friedman, Tobias S. Buckell, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Brian Ruckley, and Hal Duncan. Editor Patrick St-Denis is best known as the force behind the popular blog Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist and this is his first foray into the editing world. It is also worth noting that much of the proceeds of this anthology will be donated to the American Cancer Society.

“Soul Mate” by C.S. Friedman begins the anthology. In this story a young woman meets the perfect man who turns out to be too perfect. It’s a good beginning and well-written story, though it’s not likely to stick with you for very long.

“The Eve of the Fall of Habesh” by Tobias S. Buckell is a small tale within a larger world that the reader never gets to see. In this world to use magic one literally uses their life up, so either someone only rarely uses small bits of learned magic or people are enslaved and forced to use up their lives. An invading force threatens destruction of the city and one magical enforcer is confronted with a decision.

It’s fun to see Buckell do fantasy while he better known for science fiction. This world is a very interesting creation and the story takes an interesting turn. As with the Friedman story, it’s well written and entertaining, if not the sort to haunt you after reading it.

In “The Stranger” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. a mysterious man on the run invites the hospitality of a family of herders. The inevitable does happen just as you would expect. This is a return to the world of the bestselling Recluse Saga, though if like me, you haven’t read those books you will not be at a loss in spite of perhaps not fully appreciating everything in the story.

“The Stranger” is fun and straight-forward. It is also the biggest stretch from love theme I spoke of above. Unfortunately it bears little in common with the much better known story of the same name.

“Flint” by Brian Ruckley turned out to be the biggest surprise of this collection. Ruckley is best known as a relatively new author of a big, fat, epic fantasy trilogy and to my knowledge is not known at all for short stories. In “Flint” he writes of a small Neolithic clan surviving on an unnamed shore. A young shaman struggling to prove his worth must stop an affliction threatening to kill off his clan, an affliction of the spirit world.

“Flint” is a surprisingly well-rounded story that includes flashes of humor along with darker subjects. Love, murder and pranks are all central to this story that rivals Duncan’s for the best of this anthology.

“The Death of a Love” by Hal Duncan should be the best story of this collection by a long-shot, though it unfortunately falls short of its potential. A detective of Erocide, the murder of love, describes to the reader his world. Duncan’s writing is bitter, pained, and cynical in a creative, free-form, rant and clever discussion of love in the modern world. For anyone only familiar with Duncan via his blog they will be surprised to find his published writing more tame and readable. However, ”The Death of a Love” slowly looses containment as you can feel Duncan and the nameless, unreliable narrator gaining what feels like alcohol-fueled momentum. This is a story that does stick with you, though I think it could have greatly benefited from a more experienced editor.

It’s always tough to judge an anthology, especially one with such a wide-range of contributions. Overall, Speculative Horizons is solid, containing no duds and a couple of gems, though with only five stories, it’s not a big collection. For me it was worth it just to see what blogger St-Denis put together with the bonus of money going to a worthy cause. If that isn’t enough for you, know that the contents are quality, if short of excellent. But the real surprise was the commonality between the stories – it was an unexpected gift that really bonds this group of unusual suspects and makes me think on the implications for the genre as a whole. 7.5-8/10

Friday, July 09, 2010

Something Completely Different

Sorry that the new content around here is a bit sparse lately. Mostly it's due to me not having as much reading time as I'd like and that the last two books I've read were very long. I may have a big trip for work coming up: a 4-6 week field project abroad. These sorts of projects are grueling and rarely leave me with much time, but I'll try and keep things fresh around here if it happens (though the blog may turn a bit toward a travel log for a few weeks - like it did back in 2006 when I traveled to the Czech Republic and Germany for work). Anyway, on to something completely different:

Ripening blueberries in my garden - I can't wait!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks: What I've Read

Since I'm going to be an active participant on the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project blog, I thought I might give an idea to the readers here just what I have read or at least own out of the books added to the Fantasy list (the SF Masterworks list is here). Bold means I've read it, italics that I own but haven't read it, and plain means I don’t own it and haven’t read it. Links will be provided to reviews that I have written, either here or on the SFF Masterworks blog.

1 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe
2 - Time and the Gods - Lord Dunsany
3 - The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison
4 - Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance
5 - Little, Big - John Crowley
6 - The Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny
7 - Viriconium - M. John Harrison
8 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle - Robert E. Howard
9 - The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
10 - The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea - L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

11 - Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees
12 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel - Gene Wolfe
13 - Fevre Dream - George R. R. Martin

14 - Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper
15 - The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany
16 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon - Robert E. Howard
17 - Elric - Michael Moorcock

18 - The First Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
19 -
Riddle-Master - Patricia A. McKillip
20 - Time and Again - Jack Finney

21 - Mistress of Mistresses - E.R. Eddison
22 - Gloriana or the Unfulfill'd Queen - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Well of the Unicorn - Fletcher Pratt
24 - The Second Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
25 - Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll
26 - The Emperor of Dreams - Clark Ashton Smith
27 - Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance
28 - Peace - Gene Wolfe
29 - The Dragon Waiting - John M. Ford
30 - Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe - Michael Moorcock

31 - Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams - C.L. Moore
32 - The Broken Sword - Poul Anderson
33 - The House on the Borderland and Other Novels - William Hope Hodgson
34 - The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers
35 - Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc - Jack Vance
36 - The History of Runestaff - Michael Moorcock
37 - A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay
38 - Darker Than You Think - Jack Williamson
39 - The Mabinogion - Evangeline Walton
40 - Three Hearts & Three Lions - Poul Anderson

41 - Grendel - John Gardner
42 - The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
43 - WAS - Geoff Ryman
44 - Song of Kali - Dan Simmons
45 - Replay - Ken Grimwood
46 - Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories - Leigh Brackett
47 -
The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
48 - The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip
49 - Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
50 - The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales - Rudyard Kipling

What’s the take-home message? I haven’t read very many, which on reason why I signed up for the
SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Gollancz SF Masterworks: What I've Read

Since I'm going to be an active participant on the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project blog, I thought I might give an idea to the readers here just what I have read or at least own out of the books added to the SF list (I’ll do the Fantasy list in a separate post). This list will include books coming out later this year. In addition, the roman numbers indicate books originally released as part of a hardcover subset, so there will be some duplicates on this list. Bold means I've read it, italics that I own but haven't read it, and plain means I don’t own it and haven’t read it. Links will be provided to reviews that I have written, either here or on the SFF Masterworks blog.

I - Dune - Frank Herbert
II - The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
III - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
IV - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
V - A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI - Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
VII - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein
VIII - Ringworld - Larry Niven
IX - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
X - The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

1 - The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
2 - I Am Legend - Richard Matheson
3 - Cities in Flight - James Blish
4 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
5 - The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
6 - Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany
7 - Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
8 - The Fifth Head of Cerberus - Gene Wolfe
9 - Gateway - Frederik Pohl
10 - The Rediscovery of Man - Cordwainer Smith

11 - Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon
12 - Earth Abides - George R. Stewart
13 - Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick
14 - The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
15 - Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner
16 - The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin
17 - The Drowned World - J. G. Ballard
18 - The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
19 - Emphyrio - Jack Vance
20 - A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

21 - Star Maker - Olaf Stapledon
22 - Behold the Man - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg
24 - The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds - H. G. Wells
25 - Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
26 - Ubik - Philip K. Dick
27 - Timescape - Gregory Benford
28 - More Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon
29 - Man Plus - Frederik Pohl
30 - A Case of Conscience - James Blish

31 - The Centauri Device - M. John Harrison
32 - Dr. Bloodmoney - Philip K. Dick
33 - Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss
34 - The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke
35 - Pavane - Keith Roberts
36 - Now Wait for Last Year - Philip K. Dick
37 - Nova - Samuel R. Delany
38 - The First Men in the Moon - H. G. Wells
39 - The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke
40 - Blood Music - Greg Bear

41 - Jem - Frederik Pohl
42 - Bring the Jubilee - Ward Moore
43 - VALIS - Philip K. Dick
44 - The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin
45 - The Complete Roderick - John Sladek
46 - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick
47 - The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells
48 - Grass - Sheri S. Tepper
49 - A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke
50 - Eon - Greg Bear

51 - The Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson
52 - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K. Dick
53 - The Dancers at the End of Time - Michael Moorcock
54 - The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 - Time Out of Joint - Philip K. Dick
56 - Downward to the Earth - Robert Silverberg
57 - The Simulacra - Philip K. Dick
58 - The Penultimate Truth - Philip K. Dick
59 - Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
60 - Ringworld - Larry Niven

61 - The Child Garden - Geoff Ryman
62 - Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement
63 - A Maze of Death - Philip K. Dick
64 - Tau Zero - Poul Anderson
65 - Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke
66 - Life During Wartime - Lucius Shepard
67 - Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm
68 - Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 - Dark Benediction - Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 - Mockingbird - Walter Tevis

71 - Dune - Frank Herbert
72 - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein
73 - The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
74 - Inverted World - Christopher Priest
75 - Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle
76 - H.G. Wells - The Island of Dr. Moreau
77 - Arthur C. Clarke - Childhood's End
78 - H.G. Wells - The Time Machine
79 - Samuel R. Delany - Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 - Brian Aldiss - Helliconia (August 2010)

81 - H.G. Wells - Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 - Jack Finney - The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 - Joanna Russ - The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 - M.J. Engh - Arslan (Dec. 2010)

What’s the take-home message? I haven’t read very many, which on reason why I signed up for the
SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Review: Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip

My review of Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is live over at the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project (this books also goes by The Riddle-Master’s Game or simply The Riddle-Master of Hed, which is the first book in the original trilogy). I liked it quite a bit, though I think that that very style that makes it so great may be a turn-off to many readers these days. Ironically, I noticed that this book is out-of-stock at The Book Depository, even though the stated point of the Fantasy Masterworks edition to keep the book in print. An excerpt of the review is below.

What makes something a Fantasy Masterwork? Did the book challenge society in some way? Does it explore the human condition especially well? Did it originate some fundamental aspect of fantasy writing? Was it the first (or best) example of a new subgenre? Or was it simply a good book with easily obtainable publishing rights? I found myself asking these questions and more as I reflected upon my reading experience. Riddle-Master doesn’t re-invent genre and doesn’t blatantly challenge society. Riddle-Master is post-Tolkien, secondary-world epic fantasy that manages to be non-derivative. It’s a book of beautiful subtly and style, it’s dream-like and can be difficult to grasp, with the reward in the journey. It embraces an innate sense of past and dream, searches for itself, and lingers just beyond memory. Yes, it’s a Masterwork, and for the very reasons that it may fail to appeal to modern sensibilities.
Full Review

Thursday, July 01, 2010

SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project

It’s funny – in the past I’ve made my dislike of group blogs known. I simply prefer a focused, consistent and unique voice to the blogs I read and group blogs typically destroy this. But, there is always an exception to the rule and in this case it’s a group blog that I’ve decided to join. The SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project is the brainchild of Patrick of Stomping on Yeti. The goal is rather simple: read and review all of the books that are part of the Gollancz series of SF and Fantasy Masterworks.

We bloggers tend to focus on new and forthcoming books, leaving those pre-internet books to languish. And it’s simply criminal how many of us bloggers (myself certainly included) have very little foundation in the classics of the genre we love. Hopefully this project will help alleviate that and give those of the internet generation(s) some direction toward reading the classics of genre.

Check it out – the blog went live today and the first review is up. And the list of contributors is quite impressive (and varied).


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