delphipsmith: (GilesLatin)
I might have claimed a prompt over on [ profile] sshg_promptfest. Heh heh heh. And TWO of my prompts have been claimed ::preens::

On another fun note, I discovered something called Starship Sofa: The Audio Science Fiction Magazine. It's narrated by a couple of funny and fabulously-accented (I could listen to them all night) Irish guys, who are also well-read, interesting, and thoughtful in their analysis of various SF people and things. This particular post has a long two-part piece on one of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Donaldson, including a reading of his story "Mythological Beast."
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
I have read and reviewed every entry in [ profile] mini_fest -- woo hoo!!! I always try to do that for every fest I participate in; I love getting comments on the things I write, so I try to return the favor.

Sadly, I have not managed to do so yet for [ profile] minerva_fest or [ profile] sshg_giftfest, but the year is young :) Of course [ profile] severus_snape is coming right up and that will no doubt keep me busy for a bit. Still, it's good to have goals, yes?

I've also been busy reading/posting on a group read of one of my very favorite books: Stephen King's The Stand, over on GoodReads. A lot of the participants have never read it before, and since I've read it probably ten or twelve times it's a lot of fun to see how people see it with fresh eyes. The hardest part for me is remembering where things happen in the book, so I know where to use spoiler tags.

I did manage to get quite a bit of reading done over break:

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesAnother excellent collection from master storyteller Neil Gaiman. Some are horrifying, some heartwrenching, some made me laugh out loud, almost all gave me something I didn't expect. I particularly liked "The Thing About Cassandra," "Adventure Story" (one of the lol ones), "Calendar Tales," and "The Return of the Thin White Duke." As a bonus, for those who like that sort of thing, there is a nice meaty introduction, where Gaiman talks about how and when and where each of the stories was written. He also gives some background for his choice of title:

What we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: enter at your own risk. We need to find out what fiction is, what it means to us, an experience that is going to be unlike anyone else's experience of the story.

...I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child that I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them...They troubled and haunted my nightmares and daydreams, worried and upset me on profound levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it's on the Web or in the word or the world...But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.

I wondered, reading about the college discussions, whether one day people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.

Lammas NightI'd been trying to track down a copy of Lammas Night for ages; it was out of print and super expensive last time I checked. But I got a copy for Christmas from Mr Psmith and ripped through it in about two days. Loved it, though I have two minor quibbles, one related to style and one related to substance. My stylistic quibble is that the book seems to lean more towards tell than show. The tell is done skillfully, and it's hard to see how one might get around it when so much of it turns on historical episodes, but there are parts where it does feel a little slow. I cried at the end; I saw one part coming, hard as it was, but not Richard and Geoffrey volunteering to crew the Prince's final flight My substantive quibble is that I am somewhat bothered by the fact that the sacrifice of the prince is accomplished via a sabotaged aircraft. After all of the emphasis on the importance of the personal connection between slayer and slain, both ritualistically and historically, it felt impersonal to have it happen at such a distance. It met the letter of the requirements -- it was Gray's hand that did the deed -- but it doesn't feel like it quite met the spirit of them. Perhaps if Gray had been piloting the plane and taken it down with both of them aboard? . Those two things aside, I really enjoyed this book. The historical references, some of which are borne out by documented fact (e.g., the popular contemporary belief that Sir Francis Drake rebuffed the Spanish Armada with the help of Britain's witches) are fascinating and make me want to hunt up more information. Whether they were effective or not, I have no doubt that witches of all persuasions across Britain were actively attempting to thwart the Nazis, and Hitler's failure to execute Operation Sea Lion is still something of a miracle.

The Ghost WriterAugh, poor Gerard!! Seriously creepy and entangled, I totally did not see the end coming. I knew it would be something twisty and weird, but did not suss out the specifics. I got a bit lost here and there in amongst all the names, and at times it was hard to tell what was real (i.e., part of the main narrative) and what wasn't (i.e., part of one of the stories-within-a-story), but overall it was really well done. The stories-within-a-story were intriguing, sort of High Gothic, and made me wish Viola had been a real person and written lots more. A great read for a gloomy snowy New Year's Day.

House of EchoesA very meh version of the town with a dark secret trope. There were no surprises and the story moved at a snail's pace for much of the book.

The fact that I found the bad guys MUCH more interesting than the good guys should tell you something, too.

The Mysterious MansionShort story. Gorgeously lush beginning with the description of the decaying mansion. Screamingly horrifying ending. Brrrrr.

What's funny is that not an hour before reading this, I had read a story with a very similar plot: "Black Dog," in Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warnings (see above).
delphipsmith: (Cicero books)
Since I've been Old Unreliable lately as far as appearing online (because real life = new house + dog with pewmonia + hosting Thanksgiving + work craziness + friend worries), I'm taking the easy way out and posting reviews of three books I recently read. If anyone else has read these, I'd love to hear what you think. I also recently read JK Rowling's Cuckoo's Calling which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I haven't written a review of it yet. Maybe tomorrow?

The Night SisterThe Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon: This book gave me horrific nightmares twice (twice!) the first night I started reading it. That hasn't happened in ages. The ending was surprisingly melancholy, and though not quite what I expected (I really thought spoiler )) it was apt, and rather touching. The narrative conveniently skips over the question of why in god's name Rose's mother didn't follow up on Rose's stories about Sylvie, given that spoiler ). The answer, of course, is because plot. Nevertheless, this was a fast diverting read, and good enough that I'll try another by her.

DisclaimerDisclaimer by Renée Knight: Intense, gripping, bewildering, startling; this book is like playing with one of those wooden puzzle cubes where it seems like a solid block until you get all the pieces in play in just the right way, and then the whole things falls apart and you see how it all fits together. As with any good suspense novel, the author hides some things from the reader, but she does it so cleverly that you don't notice; she quietly omits a few crucial points or phrases (in one case simply using a pronoun rather than a name), and the reader effortlessly makes certain assumptions without even noticing it and goes merrily on down the completely wrong path. Really beautifully crafted, with unexpected pokes and jabs around every corner that slowly grow into an almighty sucker punch that leaves your mouth hanging open.

Gothic TalesGothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell: Typical gothic tales, with a lot of family mystery/drama. Some interesting plots, but many of the stories felt too drawn out -- "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread." Wordy isn't bad if the words enhance the story and/or the atmosphere, but overall these stories just felt labored. "Lois the Witch" was genuinely painful to read, since you know pretty much from the third paragraph where it's headed yet it takes something like fifty pages to get there.
delphipsmith: (Cicero books)
Is book reviewing a public service or an art?

Well duh. It's BOTH. Who didn't know that??

This part made me laugh immoderately, because OH SO TRUE!!!

As inert as it might look on the page, the book review is a weirdly pressurized and verbally jeopardized space, crisscrossed with potential errors. There’s a huge pull toward pomposity, for one thing. Drop your guard, mid-review, and you’ll find yourself holding forth like a drunken bishop. “Insofar as our author blah blah blah. . . . ” Book review bombast comes in three flavors: highbrow (“Every page witnesses the overflow of his vast erudition”), middlebrow (“magisterial . . . that rare thing”) or lowbrow (“Wade through burning gasoline to get this book”). And everybody does it, automatically as it were. It’s why blurbs all sound like blurbs.
delphipsmith: (books-n-brandy)
I've been AWOL lately due to being occupied co-writing a fic with someone. This is something I've never done before, and I found it peculiarly satisfying. Partly that was because the other person mapped out the plot and all I had to do was write scenes for it (o lazy me!) but also partly because it was so much fun to see the pieces coming together, to craft the transitions so it read seamlessly (or at least so we hope), and to get immediate feedback on chunks of writing before it was anywhere near finished. I'm quite proud of the end product, which turned out to be by far the longest fic I've ever worked on, and look forward to eventually being able to cop to my role in it when the fest reveals go up.

Refinery29 has compiled a millennials' reading list entitled The Book Bucket List: Books to Tackle Before You're Thirty. I've read fourteen of them, which I guess makes me 28% of a millennial? I'm not sure what criteria they used, since Harry Potter is the first one the list, which is nice but I'm not sure what's particularly millennial about it. Quite a few more are on my ever-growing to-read list, though, so perhaps I'll get to them eventually. Maybe before I turn sixty.

In more book-related news, I recently finished Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which I absolutely adored. (Is it a coincidence that her name is the same as my favorite sushi item?) Not only are the characters three-dimensional and interesting, they're dealing with serious issues (bipolar disorder, binge drinking, etc.) yet in the end its a heart-warming story about family and friendship, and remembering what really matters in our lives. And its treatment of fandom and fanfic is a delight -- what joy to read a story that treats fic writing with the respect it deserves, and recognized the important place it fills in so many of our hearts!

Finally, I have to share this: Ursula Le Guin's acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards. I have no words for how very cool this is. Not only is Le Guin an amazing writer, she's also thoughtful and passionate about our craft.

"...the moment that turned attendees' heads...belonged to Ursula K. Le Guin. In
accepting an award for distinguished contribution to American letters, Le Guin
delivered an impassioned defense of science fiction — and of writers in general..."
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(transcript available here)
delphipsmith: (GilesLatin)
H/D fans, Western Michigan University alum Adam Pasen has written a play that may just be for you. In Badfic Love, fan author Michelle has written a fic about Harry and Draco, parts of which get acted out as part of the play. But she's not a very good writer. Kyle, who belongs to a club whose goal is to protect the public from bad fan fiction (ha, if only there were such a thing!), is so entertained by the story's awfulness that he doesn't want to report her to the other club members. Hijinks ensue.

While the relationship between Michelle and Kyle is flawed, Harry and Draco played by Nick Petrelli and Joey Urreta are very much in love.

Daniel Radcliffe appeared on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me podcast, where he revealed that he apparently has a sizable collection of homemade Harry Potter dolls (now that we've seen [ profile] talesofsnape's latest Lucuis Big Bang entry, I have my suspicions as to where they might have come from...)

Finally, in another amusing note, the upcoming 200th episode of Supernatural will be a musical -- and the title is "Fan Fiction." I'm giggling already.

I'm badly behind on posting book reviews, but here's one I really want to pass on because it was so good:

The Lesser DeadYou have known all along that something in this story wasn't right...Perhaps, even now, you will feign ignorance, attempt to deny your complicity in the construction of this lie...

Indeed. Well played, Buehlman. Well played. ::cries a little::

When I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven, I saw one of the old black-and-white Dracula movies, probably a Hammer Films production. I have no idea which one it was, but the last scene was of Dracula, alone in this Victorian library or parlor, his head slumped over the shaft of the spear through his chest that's pinned him to the wall, the early morning sun streaming in through these huge double-height windows. That scene haunts me to this day, its sense of desolation and melancholy and sadness and, yes, horror (though perhaps not the kind the filmmakers intended).

Something similar washed over me when I closed The Lesser Dead by Christopher Buehlman this morning. This is so much more than a vampire book that it's hard to know how to talk about it.

Here is one thing I can say: Normally I'm one of those rabid page-turners (what's next what's next WHAT'S NEXT WHAT'S NEXT!!) but I found myself consciously drawing out the reading of this book because although I very much wanted to know what happened next, I could sense that something bad was coming. Something I didn't want to see, or know. I was right -- but not at all in the way I expected. Whatever happened next was going to happen by the platform in Union Station, out in the open, under the lights. With an audience...

Which leads me to another thing I can say: This is an excellent piece of storytelling. It's difficult to end a story in a way that is both utterly unexpected and yet still fits all the events that have preceded it, but that's what happens here. Even more challenging is to pull off an ending that makes the reader go back and re-assess everything they just read. That also happens here. Finally, there's a certain level of "meta" as well, since the ideas of narrator, of story, of reader expectations -- not to mention the relationship between narrator and reader -- are played with and questioned in interesting ways.

So...yeah, go read this. Then think about it. Then maybe read it again, knowing what's coming.

(P.S. Stats for the animal lovers in the audience: dogs that die=0, cats that die=1, bird that doesn't die and is well taken care of=1, derogatory mention of insects=many.)
delphipsmith: (George scream)
Yes, I am still alive. Real life has been ver' ver' busy of late, what with freelance editing clients, getting my [ profile] minerva_fest entry in, trying to get caught up on [ profile] hp_silencio (which posted a stunning and heartbreaking Minerva-centric entry on Saturday, thanks to [ profile] teddyradiator for pointing me to it), birthday parties for nieces and nephews, and to top it off my online fantasy/sci fi writing workshop (which I'm now co-modding, and yes we would love to have new members) is running its twice-a-year short story in a week during the month of October.


I have managed to cram some reading in here and there: a YA post-apoc novel about seven young children trying to survive alone following a mass epidemic (Fire-Us #1: Kindling), a highly unusual, meditative and thoughtful post-apoc tale of perhaps the last woman on earth (The Hauntings of Playing God), a mediocre suspense/horror story about a missing Karloff/Lugosi film and a few too many other things (Ancient Images), a beach-read Gilded-Age romance (American Heiress), and a somewhat disappointing Angela Carter novel (The Magic Toyshop) about orphans and creepy puppets. (Links go to my reviews, if I've done one.)

And I'm currently a third of the way through Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), which is quite fun: what if Harry Potter were a child prodigy raised by a physicist and tried to apply the scientific method to magic? Very much AU; all the familiar characters are there with essentially the same characteristics (Dumbledore twinkles and is a bit mad, Hermione is brilliant, McGonagall is proper yet with underlying affection) but everything else gets twisted round in new and interesting ways. The author must know quite a lot about the fanfic world because he works in a lot of inside jokes about various fandom habits and oddities (e.g. the Harry/Draco pairing), but it's all done very affectionately.

I intend to follow it up with Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles, mentioned by [ profile] kellychambliss, a spoof of the series as fundamentalist Christian. Promises to be amusing.

Ah, and last night we saw Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which was fabulous. I sympathized hugely with Vanya's rant about how we used to lick stamps and have typewriters, and the actress who was Nina (over)played her like a young female William Shatner parody, which made me and Mr Psmith laugh immoderately. A good time was had by all :)

So there you go. What's new with you, flist?
delphipsmith: (books)
Her Fearful SymmetryI liked Her Fearful Symmetry quite a bit. It was unexpected in a lot of ways, constantly surprising me by going in directions I did not anticipate, and presenting me with complicated situations and emotions that challenged me to think about things differently. The turn towards darkness was so gradual that I didn't even notice it until all of a sudden I found myself in the midst of the horrifying stuff -- like when the sun starts to go down and it's late afternoon for what seems like hours, and then suddenly it's night.

The Favor of KingsWritten in 1912, The Favor of Kings is possibly the earliest novelization of the life of Anne Boleyn, ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. Bradley's Anne is passionate and lively but also young and headstrong and proud. She initially enters into her relationship with Henry partly out of awe for THE KING! and partly out of a hot desire to revenge herself on those who have insulted and hurt her, seeing him as her path to power at court. She does so with a certain innocence about his character, without fully understanding the consequences, and once in she has no idea how to extricate herself. Once she has begun, she has no choice but to see it through. In this she is probably closer to the real Anne than many later incarnations, which attempt to turn her into either a scheming witch or a religious reformer. (As a side note, the author is the mother of noted science fiction author James Tiptree / Alice Sheldon.)

Tours of the Black ClockI think I liked Tours of the Black Clock, but I'm not at all sure that I understood it. The writing is compelling, almost hypnotic -- I found it difficult to put down -- but I always felt as if the actual meaning was hidden just around the next corner. Or as if the true meaning had trickled out of the sentences just before I got there, leaving only enough shape to hint (or misdirect?) as to what was going on. Mulholland Drive meets Jorge Luis Borges meets The Guns of the South?

This is a story about...well, I'm not just sure. It's about Geli Raubal (but not the real one). It's about Dania, a woman who isn't Geli Raubal (except sort of, in someone else's head). It's about Banning Jainlight, who is in love with Dania (or maybe he just invents her). It's about Jainlight's pornographic stories about Dania (or maybe they're true stories of his love affair with her). It's about "the most evil man in the world," i.e. Hitler, who is obsessed with Jainlight's porn about Dania because in his head it's about Geli Raubal, (and who ends up a sad, pathetic, senile old man). It's about Marc, the son of Hitler and Dania, or maybe Jainlight and Dania, or maybe just Dania herself (or maybe he's fictional too).

All these people cross back and forth between realities, or maybe between reality and unreality, in a weird braiding of time and space. Some of them seem to have doppelgangers, or alternate versions of themselves, like Jainlight/Blaine, or Dania/Geli; sometimes their worlds intersect or bleed into one another; sometimes one is the other's dream. It's never clear what's real and what isn't. The most extreme example may be the silver buffalo, which you'd think pretty much have to be a metaphor since they come perpetually pouring out of a black cave and some people can't even see them, but yet they're substantial enough to trample Dania's mother to death in Africa and rampage through the streets of Davenhall Island off the coast of Washington state. Are they the hours and minutes of one reality pouring out into another?

But the book is also about love and hate and cruelty and pity and obsession and fear and loneliness and forgiveness and good and evil. The main character, Jainlight, refers to Hitler as the most evil man in the world, and about himself and occasionally the entire twentieth century as irredeemably evil, but I ended up thinking that this book is much more about the redemptive power of love/forgiveness, although it's sort of tucked into the corners of the story as it were. I don't know what Erickson's intent was, but I ended up feeling desperately sad for every single person in this story, even crazy senile pathetic old man Hitler.

If all of this makes it sound like the book is strange and puzzling and perhaps unsettling, that's good because it is. Don't let that stop you from reading it. But don't expect a straightforward narrative: it's more like a spiral or a double helix or one of those complicated Spirograph patterns.

(NB: I have to admit the metaphor of the "black clock" was entirely lost on me -- no idea what that was meant to be about. Why black? Why a clock? What is this about numbers falling? Why is Marc listening for ticking icebergs at the end??)
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
The Game of Kings (The Lymond Chronicles, #1)Top-notch historical fiction is hard to find. Top-notch adventure fiction is hard to find. Well-written witty anti-hero protagonists are hard to find. Good historical adventure fiction with a well-written witty anti-hero protagonist is...well, you see where I'm going with this. Game of Kings gets two thumbs up and five stars -- once I started it I couldn't put it down. I can't remember who told me I should read these books; I wish I could because I would send them lots of presents in deepest gratitude.

The story arc is not entirely original: a brilliant but dissolute younger son and a stolid older one with bad blood between them, dissolute younger son turns out to be not so dissolute after all (I shall say no more for fear of spoilers). But Dunnett executes the tale with flair, energy, inventiveness, and a remarkable level of historical detail. The 1500s is one of my favorite time periods for historical fiction -- so much going on in politics, religion, philosophy, science, an immensely active and fertile time so she's got lots to work with.

Part of my love for the book is of course due to the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter. Accused traitor and leader of a band of outlaws, yet somehow one can never quite believe the worst of him; one suspects there is more (oh how I do love a misunderstood hero). If the facts did not prove me wrong I would suspect Dorothy Dunnett of being Dorothy L. Sayers, because Lymond is very much like Lord Peter Wimsey. Lymond is less high-strung and more physically active (as you'd expect in the 16th century!), but both are aristocratic, highly (perhaps over-) educated, single-minded in pursuit of a goal, prone to quotation, chronically underestimated by their opponents, and exceedingly intelligent with a fierce sense of honor and loyalty. Both are also excellent musicians and their own harshest critic.

The supporting cast is just as much fun, particularly Will Scott, younger son of the Earl of Buccleuch, whose evolving relationship with Lymond forms one of the more interesting strands of the book. Will has been off at school in France with detrimental results:

"Moral Philosophy, that's the trouble," said Janet with gloomy relish. "They've taught poor Will moral philosophy and his father's fit to boil...He's quoting Aristotle and Boethius and the laws of chivalry and the dreicher spells of the Chevalier de Bayard on loyalty and the ethics of warfare. He's so damned moral he ought to be standing rear up under a Bo tree. And he won't keep his mouth shut. I grant," said Lady Buccleuch with a certain grim amusement, "that the pure springs of chivalry may be a little muddy in the Hawick area, but that's no proper excuse for calling his father an unprincipled old rogue and every other peer in Scotland a traitorous scoundrel."

As you can perhaps tell from Will's mother's speech above, the book's female characters are also excellent: intelligent, active, strong-willed, sensible, and perfectly willing to go behind their menfolk's backs if that's the most efficient route to the most sensible solution. (Mary Queen of Scots has a cameo as an inquisitive four-year-old to whom Lymond teaches a naughty riddle!)

The interweaving of the adventures of the Master of Culter as he tries to clear his name with the Byzantine twists and turns of Scottish, English and French politics makes for a swashbuckling story complete with duels, spies, pitched battles, cattle raids, explosions, murders, archery contests, mysterious lovers, and more. There's at least one death that will make you cry and the conclusion -- which is in doubt up until about the last ten pages -- will make you cheer.

And yay, there are five more!!

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That HappenedThe subtitle is "unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" and yup, they're all here.

I've been a regular visitor to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half blog for several years and many a visit has ended with me in tears and unable to speak for laughing so hard, so I was delighted to hear she was publishing a book. I was not disappointed :)

About half of the stories had been previously published on her blog, the other half are new for this book. "Depression" parts one and two, where Brosh recounts her struggle with depression, introduces a more serious note than, say, "The God of Cake" but manages to be both funny and poignant, particularly in its blunt illustration of why well-meaning friends and family are so often utterly unhelpful in the case of true depression.

As always, Brosh's artwork (done in Paint, which if you've worked with it you will know the crudeness of the medium!) is primitive but energetic and engaging, at time truly hilarious -- much livelier and more original than the vast majority of graphic novel/comic artwork which all looks very much the same. Nobody would mistake Brosh's alien-looking self-portrait, with its bug eyes, tentacular arms, pink dress, and blonde horns of hair for anyone else's work, ever, likewise her dogs with their tilted heads and mildly panicked gazes.

The stories that accompany the illustrations are endearing, funny, self-mocking, and most of all very human -- her foibles, flaws and difficulties are easy to identify with. Unfortunately I recognized a lot of myself in "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult"!

Painted DevilsEerie, atmospheric, almost Victorian, Aickman's stories are all about hints and omens, tension and suspense. Very few of the mysteries in these stories are solved; instead one is left with an uneasy sense that there are some Very Nasty Things out there. Just around the corner or down the alley. In the dark.

I think my favorite was "The View," in which a man recovering from some unspecified illness goes on holiday, on his doctor's recommendation. On the boat over to the island that is his destination he meets a young woman who invites him to stay with her in her huge estate; he accepts and, although initially installed in a guest room, they are soon sleeping together. However, the ony fly in the ointment is that the view from his window keeps...changing. Between one day and the next things appear and disappear, or move from on place to another...

This collection also includes a classic "living dead" story ("Ringing the Changes"); a ghost story ("The Houses of the Russians"); one, or possibly two, "monster children" stories; the title story, an unnerving tale of a painter, an old woman and her daughter; and several more.

Aickman's stories share with those of H.P. Lovecraft a delicate balance between too much information and not enough -- too much and you get gore/splatter with nothing left to the imagination, too little and you get ho-hum, a story that doesn't compel or intrigue. There is a difference between horror and terror; Aickman is a master of the latter. He takes you by the hand and leads you to the very doorstep of seeing what's lurking out there in the dark...and then turns out the light.

(Bonus: The dust jacket is illustrated by Edward Gorey!)

The Fox WomanThis was a beauty of a book, a mix of myth, fairy tale, love story, and cautionary tale. The kitsune, the fox-woman, is a well-known figure in Japanese folklore and myth; here, Johnson places the story of a fox who wishes to become a woman against that of a young couple whose marriage is faltering under the weight of artifice and constraint. Above, in the house, Yoshifuji and his wife Shikujo communicate by writing each other haikus open to multiple interpretations, neither knowing what the other wants or thinks; beneath the floor Kitsune, the young fox, comes into season and mates with her brother because, well, that's what animals do. Kitsune wants (or thinks she wants) the trappings of humanity: to learn to read, to write, to understand art, to wear beautiful clothes and speak from behind a screen. Yoshifuji watches the foxes from his window and wishes he had their freedom.

Telling the story in diary form allows you to see through the eyes of each of the three main characters in turn, which gives the story both the immediacy of first person and the complexity of a multiple POVs.

Of all of them, though, I felt sorriest for Kitsune's mother and brother, dragged into this transformation mostly against their will; if I had one complaint about the book it's that Johnson doesn't offer a compelling explanation for why they have to pay the price for Kitsune's obsession with Yoshifuji.

Although the ending is left open, leaving me uncertain as to what if anything Yoshifuji or Kitsune learned from their experience (are they wiser? or more determined?), this was a real pleasure to read. Johnson is an artistic writer with a gift for description, evoking seasons, settings and the life and attitudes of Old Japan with a light touch and a painterly eye for detail.
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
Snagged from [ profile] igrockspock. Looks like a good time to catch up on my book reviews.

WindeyeImmediately upon finishing Windeye, I added three or four more of this author's books to my to-read list. That should tell you something.

A collection of did-that-happen-or-didn't-it? and what-just-happened? stories, the tales in this book range from the odd and eerie to the downright horrifying. The author's command of language and range of styles are remarkable, from fairy tale to classic monster/demon to magical realism to the completely surreal, and there's a nice sprinkling of unreliable narrators which are always fun.

In the title story we're not sure whether or not the narrator had a sister, and in a later one a man may or may not have a brother; there's a classically sinister monster tale and a very peculiar piece about what I thought was a spacesuit, but on googling it found out it's actually an old diving suit ("The Sladen Suit", whose nickname apparently was "Clammy Death"!!). There's an fairy tale about a young man whose inheritance of a fabulous horse turns out to be not quite what he expects, and a short-short about bees. All are very different in tone, style, setting, and narrative voice, but all are equally high quality. I highly recommend it.

The Children's HospitalI'm not sure what to say about The Children's Hospital. It's...extremely odd, a combination of surrealism, post-apocalypse, religious rapture, and a really really long, boring boat ride. It was published by McSweeney's, which should tell you something right there. There are so many things about this book that should have turned me off: it's overloaded with medical jargon, the main character is annoyingly passive and her fear that anyone she loves will die is completely irrational, every single thing about the apocalypse is completely opaque, most of the characters are one-dimensional and wholly unlikable, and weirdest of all everyone in the floating hospital seems to just Keep Calm and Carry One despite the seven miles of water and the loss of the ENTIRE PLANET...

And yet, and yet....

I was sucked in. I felt Jemma's brother's pain, even though I didn't comprehend it. I cared about these people, even while I didn't like them very much and was not infrequently irritated by them. And I cried at the end, surprising even myself. (N.B. According to the Washington Post, the author is a pediatrician studying at Harvard Divinity School. That explains a lot.)

The Necromancer's HouseAh, The Necromancer's House. Been waiting for this for MONTHS. I got hold of an advance reading copy of this, so was lucky enough to read it before it was officially released. Well, actually Mr Psmith got the ARC and I had to wait until he was done with it before I could get my greedy little hands on it. Longest two weeks of my life.

Given that the author's previous two books were "period pieces" -- although from wildly different periods -- I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, a very contemporary story complete with classic cars, AA, chat rooms, and the interwebz. Happily, I was not disappointed. The main character, Andrew, is a complicated man with a strong sense of integrity but, one quickly suspects, certain secrets in his past that are coming back to haunt him. This turns out to be true, but in more ways than are at first obvious.

I do love non-obvious.

There was quite a bit of non-obvious in this book which meant that I was frequently surprised -- and for somebody who reads as much as I do, that's not easy to do. The surprises were not so much in the broad arc of the story, which is a classic (and I mean that in a good way) tale of redemption, as in the details and the execution, and in what one might call the inflections of the ending, the way it’s shaped and carried out.

Two things I particularly liked about the book's treatment of magic. First, magic isn't free. One doesn't simply shout some garbled Latin and wave a wand -- this magic takes some serious effort, both mental and physical, to learn, to control, to use (safely), in some cases simply to understand. And there's no question that magic is potentially very dangerous stuff in this world; it can blow up in your face if you're not careful. Second, the story didn't get bogged down in the mechanics of the magic -- recipes, spells, how you do it, how it works. There's just the right amount of detail, and nicely modernized (Andrew’s particular skill is with cars and film footage, for example, while chicagohoney85’s are with computers), that the flavor permeates the story without overwhelming it.

Which is good because, despite the fact that magic is wound thoroughly about this tale, in the end it’s all about the people. And I like these people, Andrew and Anneke (and Chancho and Michael and even chicagohoney85), enough that I want to know more about all of them. (Here’s where I admit that I’m hoping for a sequel, or maybe Michael’s backstory...shhhhh...) They aren’t perfect, but like most of us they’re good people doing their best to muddle through, and deal with their past mistakes in a stand-up way without compromising what they believe.

Oh, and he made my cry over Salvador. Thanks, buddy.

Buehlman’s novels have all been billed as horror, but clearly they aren’t horror for horror’s sake. It’s not about a high body count or creative methods of killing people off (although he’s good at that, and Between Two Fires had a lot of them!). It's about applying horror to characters -- putting them in horrifying situations -- to see how they respond, the way an engineer applies heat or pressure to a substance to see if it will break. "Test to destruction" is how you learn what something is really made of, and this seems to be a recurrent theme, first with Frank Nichols in Those Across the River, then Thomas in Between Two Fires, and now Andrew and Anneke.

I'm looking forward to his next test.

Regina's SongAlas, everything about Regina's Song annoyed me, and I do mean everything. The dialog is flat and artificial, crammed with cliches and bad/outdated slang, despite the fact that the narrator is supposed to be a PhD in English [1]. The characters are one-dimensional and uninteresting, and the male characters consistently demonstrate a condescending 1950s-era attitude towards women (and others) [2]. The plot is full of holes and irrelevancies [3], and a fairly appalling lack of any sort of moral or ethical sense is exhibited across the board [4]. Examples hidden to prevent spoilerage. Although really I'm sure it wouldn't matter to anyone.

[1] "It's not as if we're going to rat him off...He knows that he can trust us to keep our mouths shut. I'm not all that interested in cop-shop secrets when you get right down to it. But we need to know what Burpee's up to. Bob's cut him off at the pass on this case and Burpee's probably eating his own liver by now. Let's face it guys, Bob stuck his neck way out with that protective custody scam, and Burpee's most likely trying to blindside my big brother. If we want to keep Bob on our side, we're going to have to help cover his buns."

That's eight, count 'em, EIGHT, in one speech. And that's fairly typical. If I never read the phrase "hit the bricks" again it will be too soon.

[2] male characters (the good guys, whom we are supposed to like) call female characters "babe" and "sweet-cakes" and "Mama Trish" to their faces. And the girls don't object. Also the girls aren't allowed in on the investigation and do all the cooking while the menfolk do the home and auto repair and come up with good ideas and hunt down killers. Oh, and the one Japanese character is referred to as "an oriental gentleman." Please.

[3] the license plate, the curare, the dogs/wolves (wtf?), a vast plethora of legal irregularities, and the presentation of DNA as a Big New Technology -- in 2002. Srsly? Also, there is no villain. Or mystery. Or song, which made even the title of the book annoying.

[4] The fact that the residents of the boarding house collude to protect a psychotic killer is a little unnerving, but when a priest hears about a murder and actually cheers the killer, you know something is seriously amiss.

Most vexing of all is that all of this derailed an excellent premise that had a lot of potential. The first few pages, with the backstory between the narrator and the twins, is pretty gripping. But it deteriorates pretty fast from then on.

I also read The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, which was excellent but I haven't written a review for it yet, so maybe next week. And yay, I will at last be able to use my "fox sex" tag again!! (It's the little things that can make your day...)
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
Why yes, I have been reading, thank you for asking. Knocked three off my to-read list just this week, go me!

Garden SpellsGarden Spells: A good and pleasant read, but thin: I wanted more on all dimensions -- length, depth (ok, maybe not width). Claire and Sydney were a little too pat as characters: Sydney the free spirit who finds out that freedom is more than just the ability to leave whenever you want, Claire the stay-at-home who discovers that fear of others leaving doesn't excuse never letting them in. I would have liked the book to have started when Claire and Sydney were children, so we could have seen their relationship develop its fraught character naturally, rather than being told about it in flashbacks or conversations. And for sure I would have liked to see more of their grandmother, latest of this long line of Waverley women who know so much about herbs and flowers.

That said, and despite what I found to be a completely non-credible resolution of the problem of Sydney's ex, what is here is lovely and a pleasure to read. The apple tree that's part of the family, a bit like a big shaggy dog that lives in the garden, is an unusual and fun touch. Evanelle, the giver of immediately-useless-but-eventually-important gifts, is just a delight, as is Bay, the little girl who knows instinctively where things (and by "things" we include "people") belong. I'd love to see a sequel that covered her growing up.

The Hill BachelorsThe Hill Bachelors is a collection of short stories steeped in the Irish psyche and landscape. I first encountered William Trevor a few months back in the break room at work, via his short story "The Women" in The New Yorker. Like that one, these stories are intense, focused, acutely observant, and often with some sort of secret or unspoken event at their core. Excellent examples of subtlety and keenness, though more often melancholy than happy. Sort of an anti-Maeve Binchy.

Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (The Flashman Papers, #10)Once again, the unquenchable Flashman is off on a mad, bad, and totally unintentional adventure. While en route home, Flashy is shanghaied by his old enemy John Charity Spring, the Mad Don of Oxford, with the willing (to put it mildly) assistance of Spring's extremely sexy daughter. He ends up in America, where not one, not two, but THREE different groups either pay, strongarm, or blackmail him into becoming the second-in-command to abolitionist John Brown. Brown is in the midst of planning for -- or, more accurately, waffling about -- his raid on Harper's Ferry, and Flashy, depending on which employer he decides to follow, is supposed to (a) ensure it succeeds, (b) ensure it takes place, regardless of whether it succeeds or fails, or (c) delay and sabotage it so it never happens. Well, history takes its course and the raid of course does happen, but along the way Flashy manages to bed a number of women, escape by the skin of his teeth more than once, encounters more than one old enemy, and comes out smelling like a rose, as usual.

As always, the history is top-notch, the characters cleverly drawn, and the adventures harum-scarum. However, Flash is a bit more mellow in this one than in others, and seems to actually feel a bit fondness for "old J.B. and his crackbrained dreams," as he puts it. As a bonus, the story is bracketed by scenes of Flash with his grandchildren: Augustus ("young gallows...bursting with sin beneath the mud"), Jemima ("a true Flashman, as beautiful as she is obnoxious"), Alice ("another twig off the old tree, being both flirt and toady"), and John ("a serious infant, given to searching cross-examination"). Ha!
delphipsmith: (weeping angel)
The AccursedThe New York Times said, "Some novels are almost impossible to review, either because they’re deeply ambiguous or because they contain big surprises the reviewer doesn’t wish to give away."

I'm not so sure about the surprises -- other than one particular thing near the end, it wasn't too difficult to see what was coming, although some of the events were decorated with surprising details. However, there's no question about the ambiguity. (Which strikes me as a rather oxymoronic thing to say, but there you go.) Even after the last page, one still isn't quite sure what happened and what only seemed to have happened.

I have a love/hate relationship with Oates. I've read very few of her books -- more of her short stories -- because almost every one I've read has left me deeply uneasy. I read "Where are you going, where have you been" five years ago, and just remembering it still creeps me out to this day. Obviously this is the mark of a skilled writer, but I don't generally choose my books for the purpose of psychically scarring myself. In addition, she has a tendency to focus on the dark side, and as a result it's often difficult to like any of the characters in her novels. They're just not very nice people, many of them.

This book has many of the elements I love, though, so I thought I'd give it a shot. First and foremost, it's a purported history, replete with excerpts from letters, diaries (including coded ones!), newspaper articles, transcribed eyewitness accounts, and a boatload of historical detail intermixed with straight narrative. Oates does an excellent job creating the very different voices of the writers of these various "primary sources" -- I particularly enjoyed the semi-coherent ramblings of the neurotic Adelaide Burr, who refers to herself as "Puss," reads Madame Blavatsky in secret, and has some serious issues with sex. The narrator himself, one M. W. van Dyck, is great fun, an unreliable raconteur prone to digress into irrelevancies (the history of corsets, the minutiae of Princeton politics) at the drop of a hat. Like all too many writers, he clearly wanted to jam every single bit of his research into his book; in fact, he spends several paragraphs listing all the things he had to leave out.

Second, the story is intricately woven into actual history through the use of real people (Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Jack London, various faculty at Princeton University), places (Princeton University, New York City) and events of the times (Socialists, anarchists, etc.). None of them are particularly pleasant people, but they are real.

Third, it's got solid Victorian gothic chops: a demon bridegroom, huge grand homes, a beautiful innocent young girl, a vicar with a secret, a competition with the devil (or possibly just a minor demon, it's hard to say), an exotic and mysterious European nobleman, murder, suicide, madness and more. All that and a surprisingly high body count. (Like the House of Usher, the doomed Slades don't seem to have much of a future, although that too is ambiguous.)

On the down side, most of the characters aren't very likable and the supernatural parts end up playing second fiddle to the real villains: the upper classes, who can't be bothered to speak out against racism, prejudice, poverty, hideous working conditions, the second-class treatment of women, and other societal ills (although the narrator himself doesn't seem to even notice this, which is kind of amusing).

And it's very, very long.

So be patient, Constant Reader, and expect to enjoy the journey as much as -- perhaps more than -- the destination.
delphipsmith: (all shall be well)
The Ocean at the End of the LaneHow do you do this in only 178 pages, Neil? How?? How???

You know how there are some books that, when you finish them, you don't want to start another one, at least not right away? You don't want the experience you've just had to be overwritten, or diluted; instead you want to cherish it for a little longer. Let it steep, as it were.

This is that sort of book.

The main character is a child, but this is not a children's book, not by a long shot. A healthy dollop of myth, a bit of poetry, a glimpse or two of deep mystery, frosted with horror and seasoned with that pure intensity of emotion that's hard to recapture outside of childhood...

Oh, just go read it, will you? Preferably now, and in one sitting. It's brilliant.
delphipsmith: (books-n-brandy)
Catching up on book reviews, yay!! Also, I will shortly be doing another bookshelf purge and free giveaway, so watch this space ;)

Tooth and Claw"Jane Austen with dragons" sounds like a recipe for disaster, yes? And it could have been, easily. Luckily, however, Walton does a masterful job with this weird mashup and gives us a clever, well-written and engaging tale. All the classic Austen components are there: the maiden sisters worried about their lack of dowry, the centrality of reputation and honor, the rigid ideas of class, an intra-family lawsuit (shades of Bleak House!), a missing heir, even a (slightly) dirty vicar. Then there are the dragon elements: they breathe fire, sleep on gold, eat raw meat, live for hundreds of years, and kill the runts of the litter. Instead of these things just being tacked on like window dressing, however, Walton makes them an integral part of the characters and the story, weaving them into an entertaining and diverting story.

It isn't epic fantasy by any means, but it's great fun and I enjoyed it thoroughly; if she writes more novels set in this world I would read them with relish.

Eye in the SkyPhilip K. Dick's Eye in the Sky, another book that I wanted to like more than I did. One of the difficulties with reading older classic sci-fi is that sometimes you forget how impressive it was when it was first published -- you're jaded by all the amazing stuff that's been written since. I have a feeling this was a remarkable book when it was first published, but it fell a little flat for me.

Which is annoying, because the premise is exactly my kind of thing: a physics accident propels a group of people into another world, where they have to figure out not only the rules of their strange new world but how to escape it. And then they have to do it all over again. And again. The various worlds they fall into and out of are all very different, but each one is so short-lived that I barely had time to suss out what was going on before I was jolted into the next one; there's an abruptness to it that I found frustrating. I wanted more, and more detailed, explorations of the various neurotic obsessions that were externalized as these separate worlds.

The book also suffers a bit from being so very firmly grounded in 1957. Many little clues betray this, the most obvious being that the main villain of the piece is Communism, or rather prejudice against/fear of Communism. It's hard to grasp how enormous and looming a threat Communism was perceived to be in the 1950s; because it was a very specific enemy with a very specific lifespan, this "dates" the story a bit.

Worth a read, mostly as a psychological variant of the "many worlds" hypothesis. Plus I'm amused by the fact that the original cover shows a bunch of expendable redshirts, nine years before Star Trek made them a cultural icon :)
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
Tomorrow there will be pictures of lobsters and sailboats and osprey and swing bridges. Today, the first step in post-vacation catch-up: reviews of the books I read while away.

Mara and DannYou wouldn't think that anyone could make four-hundred-plus pages of trudging through dust and heat intriguing. And yet somehow Lessing does it. The very end was a bit of an anti-climax, and I didn't really find it credible that Certain People (who shall remain nameless to prevent spoilage) could successfully track Mara and Dann across an entire continent that's decaying into anarchy and chaos. But if you can look past those two points, it's an interesting take on a distant-future slow-motion environmental collapse.

Egalia's Daughters: A Satire of the SexesThis is a funny, occasionally warm, sometimes biting, and in places rather horrifying satire on gender. In the world of Egalia's Daughters absolutely everything gender-related (except the actual act of giving birth) is reversed: females are in charge of the government, hold most of the important jobs, and make all the decisions for the family, while males stay home, curl their beards, gossip and raise the children. The reversal extends even to language itself: females are wom (sing.) and wim (pl.) while males are manwom (sing.) and menwim (pl.) -- since it was translated from the Norwegian, major kudos go to the translator for successfully retaining such nuances. Written in the late 1970s during the height of the feminist movement, its historical context is reflected in the story in the form of agitation for equal rights for menwim(!). While I expected story elements like menwim being "homemakers" and wim running the country, the story incorporates the entire spectrum of gender-related experiences, including rape and domestic abuse; in some cases it was downright startling to realize how, even today, society is less appalled by certain behaviors from men than they would be from women. The preceding 200+ pages do such a good job that the last chapter, which consists of the opening paragraphs of a novel the main character is writing about a fantasy world where men are in charge, actually seems weird. Definitely worth a read.

The Savage Tales of Solomon KaneAn energetic blending of the sword and sorcery of Michael Moorcock, the mysterious jungle cities of H. Rider Haggard, and the lonely -- possibly mad -- knight-errantry of Don Quixote, with a smattering of H.P. Lovecraft. Solomon Kane is an incarnation of the Eternal Hero; he doesn't remember where he came from, but he has occasional fleeting memories of a far-distant past in which he -- or some earlier incarnation of himself -- battled the Old Gods of fear and darkness as proto-humanity tried to free itself from their bloody grip. And like The Gunslinger (Stephen King's high opinion of Howard is quoted on the front cover), Solomon Kane doesn't know where he's going, only that he is bound to protect the innocent, battle evil, and go forward towards an unknown destiny. (There is, alas, a discomforting racist element to the stories set in Africa; one paragraph in particular is a paean to the Aryan race's strength, intelligence, military abilities, etc. Like Haggard, he was a product of his times, I guess.) That aside, these are tremendously fun adventure tales in the classic Indiana Jones or Allan Quatermaine style, with a dusting of morals/metaphysics. Evil is always defeated, the damsel is always rescued, and the good guy always wins. (Admittedly, sometimes the good guy is the only one who survives, but hey, he is the hero, right?)

The Three MusketeersI re-read this on vacation last week. I'd forgotten what fun it is :) Milady the thoroughly evil, a sort of 17th-century Black Widow; d'Artagnan so chivalrously romantic, falling in love at first sight; Porthos the lovably pompous goofball, gambling away his horse and inveigling a replacement from his wealthy little old lady; Athos, very obviously A Man With A Secret; Aramis so endearingly bipolar ("I'm going to be a, she loves me!, I'm going to be a priest..."). And oh, the melodrama, the desperate races against time to foil yet another plot, the swordfights and duels and feathered hats! What more could one ask?

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHBest rat-and-mouse story ever, bar none. I so much wish there was a sequel -- I want to know how they're doing in that valley. (And I don't care what anyone says, Justin isn't dead!)
delphipsmith: (gumbies)
The AlgebraistMy first Iain M. Banks novel, and I'm sad to find that I have discovered him only, as it were, to say farewell, since he died last month of cancer. He's best known for a series called the Culture novels, a far-future sci-fi epic series, and also for his literary fiction which he published under his real name, Iain (no M.) Banks. I've got Crow Road on my list to try next, to see how it compares.

So, The Algebraist. This novel was:

a) amusing
b) bizarre
c) complicated
d) decadent
e) elaborate
f) freaky
...[insert g through v of your choice]
v) versatile
w) weird
x) xenophilic
y) yonder, out
z) zany

If you picked "All of the above," you'd be right. FTL travel and secret wormholes let the main character, Fassin Taak, hopscotch across the known universe in less time than it takes a villain to talk too much and get destroyed. The author takes full advantage of this to introduce Taak to everything from sentient brambles to a species that collects dead other species to Siamese-twin AIs that finish each other's sentences and possess some mad superpowers.

Others have complained about the Jeeves-and-Wooster ambience of the Dwellers, but I rather liked it: as with the English upper crust of a certain era, they seem to have unlimited resources and rather too much time on their hands. As a result, they've turned war into a sport, planetary defense into a club activity, and their own children into prey (surprisingly, this isn't as icky as it sounds).

Others have also complained about the exaggerated villain, the Archimandrite Luseferous, but again I rather enjoyed him. Like the Joker and the Penguin from the old Batman series with Adam West, he's in love with his own villainy and you can't help but admire his thoroughgoing EVILNESS. The fact that he's defeated almost indifferently by what amounts to Boodle's Nasqueron Defense Club also bothered some reviewers, but I found it entirely consistent with the overall point -- or perhaps a better word is punchline -- of the book: that everything, in the end, can be reduced to zero. All of Taaks' running and searching and hunting amounted to nothing. All of Luseferous' deep-dyed villainy was thwarted in the blink of an eye. And the mysterious wormholes were right there at the center of the planet all the time.

If Taak had ended by saying to the old Gardener, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with," I would not have been at all surprised.

I was a little puzzled by the subplot involving Saluus Kehar and Kehar Heavy Industries -- he's like a 43d century Tony Stark, all wound up with the military-industrial complex, yet his story never really goes anywhere big. Instead it devolves into a personal, intimate story about cowardice, lust, friendship, revenge. Which I guess could be considered epic, since those emotions have helped power everything from The Iliad to Beowulf to the Bible.

There are some deeper themes threading through the novel (e.g., prejudice against artificial intelligence and the relativity of morality), but for me the fun was in the trip -- and what a long, strange trip it's been.
delphipsmith: (calvin books)
I know, a weird combination of subjects, right? And yet here they are, together on this very page!

First, the man who saved the bunnies: A Marine corpsman stationed at Camp Pendleton found a dead rabbit while out and about on the base, and after exploring nearby he discovered four baby bunnies, which he took home and fed and raised until they were old enough to survive on their own (more pics). This man is my hero :) He apparently also rescued kittens in Iraq, and he also mentions finding a tiny tiny frog which he named Crouton. I don't know why, but that made me laugh hysterically for quite some time.

On WritingOn another note, I'm re-reading Stephen King's On Writing and very much enjoying it. He's straightforward and blunt and some of his observations are remarkably perceptive. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs," he says, comparing them to dandelions (one is pretty, but next thing you know they've invaded everywhere) and advising you to avoid them like the plague. Then he goes on to theorize that writers tend to use adverbs when they are less-confident -- they aren't sure that they've shown what's happening and therefore feel the need to also tell:

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it's got an active verb going for it) but ask yourself if firmly really needs to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you'll get no argument from me...but what about the context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn't this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn't firmly an extra word? Isn't it redundant?

Then he goes on to talk about Tom Swifties and the popular game of making up punny ones (You've got a nice butt lady," he said cheekily.) and closes by saying, "When debating whether or not to make some pernicious dandelion of an adverb part of your [writing], I suggest you ask yourself if you really want to write the sort of prose that might wind up in a party game."

Here is where he talks about his idea of the Muse; it's quite a bit different in detail from what most people might think, but he's got the essence of it correct: that the muse is capricious and you've got to work to catch/deserve their attention.

...if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well...There is a muse,* but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it's fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he's on duty), but he's got the inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know. (pp. 138-39)

*Traditionally the muses were women, but mine's a guy; I'm afraid we'll all just have to live with that.

A few pages later, after he's talked about how it helps to have a place you can go (and if you're starting out, it's especially important that that place have as few distractions as possible!), he says this:

But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hard-headed guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine til noon or seven til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.

Like I said, the details aren't what I imagine (I can't picture a cigar-smoking muse, but Damon Runyon and Ed McBain probably could!), but I agree with the core principles: work hard and make the muse feel welcome
delphipsmith: (this is a vampire)
Mr Psmith and started a revisit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer about a month ago; we began with Episode 1, Season 1 and have been working our way through it, relishing every minute of it, and finally finished last night. I'd forgotten what emotional powerhouses the last few episodes are, just one thing after another: Xander's speech to the Potentials about Buffy, Faith's return and what it triggers, Willow's activation of all the Potentials, and -- of course -- Spike. I cried like a baby for half of the last episode and was totally wrung out by the time we got to the end.

We talked for a while afterwards about what exactly it is that makes Buffy so great: the writing with its clever use of language, the great storytelling, the three-dimensional characters? We determined it's all of the above, but two things in particular stand out. First, there's the constant reassuring sense that Joss knows where he's going with it, where he's taking you. He's never just killing time or floundering about. Almost every episode adds something to the overall structure of the tale: expanded understanding of a character, character growth, fleshing out the Slayer mythos/backstory, propelling the story arc forward (even the musical episode wasn't just a gimmick, it actually advance the plot in important ways), etc. Second, there's the way that so much of the time he's exploring aspects of what it means to be human: guilt, free will, family, love, faith, what it means to be/feel different, what it means to have/not have a soul, can evil be redeemed. Not every episode is all deep and philosophical, but even the funny ones often deal with larger questions. That gives the show overall a substance and a depth that others like Charmed and Supernatural can't quite match.

In other news, I'd gotten sadly behind on my book reviews on goodreads, so I took advantage of having today off (Memorial Day for us Yanks) to get caught up. Rather than posting all of them here, I'll just give a snippet and link through for anyone who's interested. It's quite an assortment: one non-fiction, two Stephen Kings, a psychological thriller, and a kids' fantasy. My reading tastes are a bit eclectic, as you can see :)

Tuesdays at the Castle For me, Hogwarts will always hold the crown for Best Sentient Castle, but I did enjoy my visit to Castle Glower. The title is a bit misleading, since the castle doesn't in fact only change on Tuesdays but rather whenever it feels like it, or whenever it's necessary, but that's a minor point... more

The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius It's tough to decide which story here is the more engrossing in The Spark: Jake the math and physics savant whose mind was nearly lost to autism, or Kristine Barnett the mother and teacher who argues (convincingly) for connecting with children through their passions... more

Alys, Always I picked up Alys, Always off the "New Fiction" shelf at the library; I had never heard of it, it had no jacket so no summary or blurb, but I read the first paragraph and was hooked. I recommend this as the best way to approach this book: knowing absolutely nothing about it... more

Under the Dome Under the Dome is the sort of book that makes you suspect Stephen King has a very low opinion of homo sapiens: a small town is abruptly and inexplicably cut off from the outside world, which causes mundanely bad people to become Very Bad People Indeed... more

11/22/63 11/22/63 is King's take on the classic change-the-past-to-improve-the-future trope (I think Hitler and JFK are probably tied for favorite characters to kill/not kill in this scenario). To power the tension, King employs a variation of the Novikov self-consistency principle in which history actively resists being altered... more
delphipsmith: (bookgasm)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine, #1)I so much wanted to love Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, with its odd photographs and mysterious grandfather and menacing hollow creatures and, well, peculiar children, but I couldn't, not quite. I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. The use of photographs was clever, the idea of living inside a time loop intriguing if a bit fuzzy in its logic, but I had two biggish problems with the book as a whole.

The first is a lack of good pacing/tightness. Ideally a book hooks you immediately, the tension gradually ratchets up as you go on, until you have a nice big finale. In this case, most of the gripping stuff came at the beginning; although the rest has some good bits it struck me as somewhat meandering and unfocused. The second was that the main character, rather than maturing through the course of the book, seems instead to become more childish (perhaps it's a side effect of hanging out with beings that have been children for 80+ years?). I can't recall when/if his age is given, but based on how he's presented at the beginning I would have guessed him to be 17 or 18; by the end he comes across more like a 13 or 14-year-old.

Then there's the fact that it's obviously a setup for a sequel, which I didn't know ahead of time and which was therefore irritating. (Does no one write good standalone novels any more??) So all in all, I give it a resounding "Meh."

Year's Best SF 16Lives up to the title, "Year's Best." The best collection of short-form SF I've read in quite a while. All the stories are top-notch, with a wide mix of voices, settings, topics, length, styles and approaches. There are tales of post-apocalypse, space adventure and genetic modification; there are children and old men and guitar-playing dinosaurs and even a sort of steam-punk female Napoleon.

The only disappointment was the last one, a modern riff on the Benandanti -- I'm a fan of updated/retold folklore and fairy tales and I don't mind unreliable narrators or meta-fiction so I was intrigued at first, but in the end this comes across as too self-conscious an exercise in cleverness by both the narrator and the author.

Now, what to read next?? I can't decide if I want to re-read The Stand (about which Mr Psmith and I had a rousing debate last night, regarding the absence of a religious element among the bad guys) or tackle 11/22/63. I also have to finish Swansea Girl. Lots to do!

(N.B. The fact that I am STILL getting ZERO notifications from LJ, and my ISP apparently can't be bothered to look into it or even respond, is SERIOUSLY vexing me...)
delphipsmith: (live live live)
The Weird SistersPeople seem to be rather polarized over this book; either they love it or they hate it. Well, I loved every bit of it and yup, I cried at the end -- partly due to the lovely unspooling of the story itself, but partly because I didn't want to let these characters go. I wanted to stick around and see Cordy's baby and what happened with Dan, Rose in England and how she blossomed, how Bean learned to be Bean and not some imaginary Sex in the City chick. The writing is clear, vivid, lively; the characters are three-dimensional, believable, so very human; and the situations and interactions are so real -- the warmth, humor and love as well as the anger, fear and irritation. If you have a sibling, you will identify with these people. If you don't, read this and you'll know what it's like.

Each of the sisters -- Cordy, Bean and Rose -- has a distinct, unique personality, but in some ways they are strangers to themselves as well; they've each reached point where the old ways aren't enough. One of the joys of the story is watching each sister unfold new parts of herself, recognize that what she had thought was a strength might instead be not just a weakness but an actual burden, realize that she is free to say, "What if...?", that she has the courage to make new choices, let the old ways go and welcome the new.

My mother is one of three sisters. I plan to buy three copies and send it to all of them...


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