Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Blogger Hop August 31st - September 6th: All Four of the Gaelic Games Have Fifteen Players to a Side

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: What is the one book or series you are dying to see turned into a movie or tv series?

There are two series that I'd like to see turned into movie or television series (probably a mini-series for both of them. Unfortunately, both have been previously made into a movie or miniseries, but both efforts were so atrociously awful that they both disappointed fans of the series' and might have poisoned the well for any further attempts. The first series:

Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain

Alexander's series was made into the execrable Disney movie The Black Cauldron, produced during a particularly weak period for the studio. The movie mashes together The Book of Three (read review) and The Black Cauldron (read review), eliminates most of the characters, eliminates the main villain of the series in favor of his short-lived henchman, and mangles the story into an unrecognizable mess. Needless to say, even as a sixteen year old, I thought it was a terrible movie. And I was the kind of kid who actually liked the Howard the Duck movie (mostly because it had Lea Thompson in her underwear, but even so).

As a young adult series, the Chronicles could be done as a five part miniseries, devoting two hours to each book, which should be sufficient to do each one justice. Each individual book has a self-contained story, and each contributes to the whole. Even some of the short stories from The Foundling (read review) could be worked in to the main narrative, adding depth and flavor to an already great narrative. Coupling a likable hero, a plucky heroine, an endearing sidekick, and a collection of quirky and interesting supporting characters with a series of beautiful, comic, and tragic stories, a well done version of this would be a joy to watch.

The other series that I'd like to see made into a movie or television series is:

Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea

While it may have been long enough since the awful film adaptation of The Black Cauldron to hope that some production company might pick up the series and turn out a decent screen adaptation, LeGuin's works were butchered too recently and too often for that the be a realistic option. In 2004 the SciFi Channel, continuing their barbaric assault upon all things genre-related, did a horrible hackjob of a miniseries titled Legend of Earthsea that the author publicly disavowed. The miniseries mangled the story so badly that it is almost impossible to describe the differences without writing a book length diatribe. Given that the miniseries inexplicably reversed the main character's use name and his true name (true names being a big deal in the series), one has to wonder if the screenwriter, producer, or director actually read even a single chapter from the books. In 2006, the animated movie Tales of Earthsea was made, and while its treatment was not a awful as the SciFi (now renamed to the STD-like name SyFy) miniseries, it didn't tell LeGuin's story, but rather snipped portions from here and there to tell what was essentially a collage of short fiction.

But LeGuin's Earthsea series deserves a serious, thoughtful, and well-done treatment: at least a three movie series, if not a full length television series. The series is a very different fantasy. Yes, it has wizards who carry staffs and fire breathing dragons, but Earthsea is a fantasy in which the main character almost never fights, and only kills a single person and a couple of baby dragons in the course of the series. The series would have to have a brave producer to take it on - the protagonist's most heroic moments are quiet, his greatest failures are often his most dramatic, the ingenue doesn't show up until the second book. The protagonist spends much of his time trying to figure things out. By the later parts of the series the main character has aged into dotage. And so on. But the story is so strong, and so well-crafted that if someone was brave enough to translate it to screen effectively, they would end up with a work of classic brilliance.

Go to previous Book Blogger Hop: My Son Is Fourteen Years Old
Go to subsequent Book Blogger Hop: There Are Sixteen Myers-Briggs Personality Types

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - Dr. Sheldon Cooper Proved That 73 Is the Best Number

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Nette's Bookshelf Reviews and Cheerful Book Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Best Cover? What is the best cover of a book that you’ve read and didn’t like?

I hate book cover questions. I really really do. Being a science fiction and fantasy fan, one learns pretty quickly to mostly ignore book covers, especially since most of them bear almost no relationship at all to the book, and in any case so many are awful that you just have to brush past them on the way to the juicy meat inside the book. Needless to say, this doesn't leave a whole lot of good book covers, let alone good book covers that adorn bad books.

The key to finding bad books with good covers is to find books written by respected authors late in their careers. Because of their legacy of great books early in their career, they usually continue to be published by large publishing houses that can afford to spend money on book cover design, resulting in high production values. Sadly, the output of too many older authors leaves a lot to be desired. Books that are written as sequels to a book that originally written decades earlier have a track record of poor quality. Books written late in an author's career with a much lesser known coauthor also tend to be fairly lousy.

So when Arthur C. Clarke picked up his pen in 1989 and began to write a sequel to his 1972 Hugo and Nebula award winning novel Rendezvous with Rama with coauthor Gentry Lee, it was almost inevitable that the resulting book Rama II would be crap. And because as a result of Clarke's long and prolific career that had established him as one of the "Big Three" of science fiction, the novel was given a beautiful cover. To compound matters, Clarke was a weighty enough figure to get two further sequels, Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed, published as well. These three books are so awful that they almost, but not quite, manage to overwhelm the greatness of the first book. They do have lovely covers though.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review - Treason by Orson Scott Card

Short review: The inhabitants of Treason have been exiled on an iron poor planet for three thousand years, trading whatever they can for iron from off-world. Lanik Mueller is exiled from his country, travels the world, finds a terrible conspiracy, and ends the off-world iron monopoly.

Muellers trade their limbs
For iron from off-planet
Then, magic powers!

Full review: Treason is a rewrite of Orson Scott Card's first novel A Planet Called Treason. In the forward to my edition, Card says that when he set about doing the rewrite, he attempted to do it in a manner that would be reflective of the style of writer he had been when A Planet Called Treason was originally published, merely expanding the narrative and clarifying some points, rather than changing to novel to reflect his changed (and presumably improved) abilities. This seems to me like an odd choice, as it means that the final product is something that Card is declaring up front to be work that isn't his best. It also seems like this has left a large number of questions raised by the narrative unanswered, which weakens the story.

The plot of the story revolves around Lanik Mueller, of the Mueller kingdom on the planet Treason. The inhabitants of Treason are the descendants of exiles who had led a rebellion attempting to put into place a government by the intellectual elite (with themselves at the head of course). Treason is metal poor, and the inhabitants must rely upon matter transmission devices known as "Ambassadors" to trade with the outside galaxy for metal. Trading is simple: the inhabitants place an offering on their local Ambassador (there is apparently one in each "country") and if the galactic government likes it, they will send back some amount of metal, usually iron. There is no communication other than this blind trading scheme. Lanik explains that each nation is trying to trade for enough metal to build a starship and escape the planet, although in practice it seems that the various nations use their iron to make weapons and try to conquer their neighbors. This plot element involving the diversion of metal to warfare is not expanded upon, or even noted, which I think is one of the weaknesses of the book.

The various "countries" on Treason are named after the original conspirators who led the rebellion 3,000 years previous and are populated by the descendants of the conspirator and whoever followers accompanied them into exile. Most of the various countries compete against one another to give gifts to their Ambassadors and acquire iron and conquer one another. Why the original conspirators in the rebellion apparently immediately fell to fighting one another is another unexplained plot element.

Each country bears the imprint of its founder, and Mueller is no exception. Mueller had apparently been a geneticist, and the ruling Mueller elite have all been genetically modified to regenerate wounds quickly, even regrowing lost limbs. This gives the Muellers something of a military advantage, and also gives them their trading goods. A certain portion of Muellers known as "radicals" are born with uncontrollable regeneration that causes their bodies to continue to grow additional limbs, extra sex organs, and other extra body material that is "harvested" and traded for iron. Lanik Mueller, the protagonist of the story, is the heir to Mueller throne and (unfortunately for him) a radical regenerative. This means that his father must exile him to avoid sending him to the "pits" to be harvested.

Lanik is sent to the rival nation of Nukumai, which has apparently found a commodity to trade for iron and is in the process of conquering its neighbors. Lanik, having grown breasts (and avoided an assassination attempt by his own younger brother), impersonates a woman from the matriarchal (and distant) country of Bird, and presents herself as an emissary from that nation. Lanik eventually figures out that Nukumai is trading knowledge - discoveries made by Nukumai scientists - but not before he is found out and has to flee the country (in the process he is gutted and his body grows an entire duplicate, which he attempts to kill and leave behind). And then Lanik's real adventures begin.

Lanik is captured by pirates, and eventually marooned in the land of Schwartz, where the story veers from science fiction and directly into a fantasy tale. Schwartz had been a geologist, and his descendants are able to control rock with their minds and live entirely off of sunlight. They are also able to control almost all matter, and they "cure" Lanik of his radical regenerative nature, and then they teach him how to replicate their powers. Oddly, they are pacifists because the Earth doesn't like violence (an anthropomorphization that only serves to cement the story further into the realm of fantasy). Lanik then tries to return home, only to find that his double (the one he tried to kill earlier) has been fighting on the side of the Nukumai, destroying his reputation in the process, forcing him (and his father and lover) to flee into the land of the Ku Kuei, where they discover the inhabitants there can control the flow of time, another magical skill which Lanik eventually learns.

Having obtained magical powers of time and matter, Lanik needs a magical enemy, which he gets in the form of the inhabitants of Anderson, who can create illusions to deceive the senses (Anderson having been a politician and the leader of the rebellion, apparently that allows one to create illusions). Lanik, with his ability to control time, is immune to their powers, and sets about killing every Anderson "illuder", and then decides that the real problem is the off-world influence on the local nations.

In the end, Lanik and his true love use their time bending powers to slow down their personal time until everyone they know has died and they have passed into legend. This is a common motif in Card's work, showing up in The Worthing Saga (read review) and the various Ender books as well, divorcing the hero from his own time, but in a manner that doesn't actually increase the life span of the hero himself. Calling a book science fiction that actually turns into an out and out fantasy is also fairly typical of Card's works: Children of the Mind, Songmaster, and The Worthing Saga all share this characteristic as well.

On a side note, one has to wonder about the cover artwork. I know that the author usually has no input into the cover artwork of his books, but the picture, a space suited man approaching what appears to be a spaceship, has absolutely nothing to do with anything that actually happens in the book.

Overall, Treason is a fairly weak book. The narrative is extremely linear, following Lanik about as he acquires his powers. The various groups that have obtained magical powers seem to have done so with little or no explanation as to how, they are merely described as having become very familiar with the subject matter of their ancestor and thus generating supernatural effects (except the Muellers themselves, who gained their regenerative powers through gene manipulation). Many of the questions raised by the story are glossed over, or simply ignored, resulting in a fairly unsatisfying reading experience. As a first effort, this is a workmanlike book, but as a rewrite it seems fairly mediocre at best. For a Card fan, it might be worthwhile to read, but for anyone looking to introduce themselves to his work, there are much better options.

1980 Locus Award Nominees

Orson Scott Card     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review - The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card

Short review: Humanity has stagnated because of Worthing's descendants, and the Day of Pain is necessary to change this. Also, several short stories about Capitol and the insidious danger of Somec are included.

Human stagnation
By drug or by mind control
Jason must prevent

Full review: The Worthing Saga is a fix-up explicitly linking the various Capitol stories to the Worthing Inn stories and the Jason Worthing stories. The book also contains a couple of themes that recur in Card's work: (1) characters who extend their lives in a way that divorces them from the flow of time, but doesn't actually extend the amount of time they are alive which shows up in the Ender books and Treason (read review), and (2) magical fantasy dressed up as science fiction (Songmaster, Treason, and the latter half of the Ender series). In the introduction, Card protests that The Worthing Saga is actually science fiction, and he is correct that psionic abilities have a strong science fiction pedigree, but the descendants of Jason Worthing go enormously further than that, to the point where a single individual is capable of controlling the activity on an entire planet, keeping all of its inhabitants safe from harm or sorrow. This steps beyond science fiction into the realm of pure fantasy.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the story of Jason Worthing, how he came to understand his power as a "swipe" or mind-reader, deal with the anti-swipe sentiment of human civilization, and his efforts to establish a colony world under difficult circumstances. This portion of the book is told using a framing story as Worthing and one of his descendants approach a technologically backward village following the "Day of Pain". Apparently, prior to the Day of Pain, no one in the village (or anywhere else) ever suffered injury or sorrow. Shortly after the Day this changed and Jason and Justice show up in the village and recruit the youth Lared to write Jason's story. The story is imparted to Lared by means of dreams Justice gives him.

Using this connecting story, the book assembles the various short stories Card had written about Worthing and his descendants into a single narrative. Card introduces Worthing into the world of Capitol, with its citizen's reliance on Somec, a drug that allows one to age more slowly, but only while sleeping. Originally designed for starship traveler moving about at relativistic speeds, Somec is used by wealthy members of Capitol's society to extend their life spans, although they spend their additional years sleeping. Why this would be so attractive to so many people is never explained, it is simply assumed that everyone would understand why drifting through life in this way would be a universal obsession. However, this is an idea that runs through several of Card's, so I can only surmise that it has some symbolism that escapes me. In any event, Worthing is a "swipe" who can read minds, and encounters prejudice against swipes. He is aided by a powerful politician named Abner Doon, who believes that the Somec-driven culture of Capitol has caused humanity to stagnate, and seeks Worthing's aid to destroy it. The stagnation of human culture is also an idea that runs through much of Card's work, and these stories are among the earliest of his stories in which this theme shows up.

Eventually, Worthing is forced off-world with a group of political dissidents. The method of space travel in the book requires the use of Somec, but also requires that the individual's memories be placed in a computer file and stored separately from the body. Unfortunately, those opposed to Jason and Abner try to destroy Jason's ship, and destroy most of the memory modules, leaving Jason with a shipload of adult bodies with the minds of infants. Worthing undertakes the difficult task of establishing a colony, bringing a few individuals out of Somec-sleep at a time, teaching them to take care of themselves, and then starting the process again. Eventually, after the colony has been established, Jason begins taking Somec and going on hiatus for years at a time, checking back with the colony once in a while. This is obviously a symbolic fresh start for humanity, with the new colony serving as a sort of Garden of Eden replacement, with Worthing eventually being deified by the descendants of the original colony inhabitants..

This being a Card book, there has to be a serpent to disturb Eden, and it takes two forms. The first is the one individual whose memories were not destroyed, and who happens to be a serious political agitator. Worthing agonizes over whether to revive him, but eventually does, with more or less predictably bad results. The other is Worthing himself, when he sets off to build himself a secret place to have his own family, Worthing Farm. Having established his bloodline, Worthing placed himself in Somec induced sleep at the bottom of the ocean, reasoning that until his descendants can revive him he should stay out of the way. The tales of Worthing Farm show how the "swipe" gene is reinforced until it gives rise to a variety of magical powers - the ability to communicate with animals, heal injuries, control other's minds, and so on. Eventually, Worthing's more unscrupulous descendants go out into the world bent on domination, and things go completely awry.

Eventually, Worthing is revived and finds that his descendants have stolen free will away from the rest of humanity by watching over them. The Somec culture that was in danger of stagnating humanity is now replaced by a pain free culture that is similarly stagnant. Of course, Worthing, with the aid of Justice, one of his descendants, sets about changing this. Which brings the narrative back to the beginning of the book. The whole set of stories about Worthing and his descendants seem like a strained allegory for God: Worthing, in the God role, raises his charges from infancy, makes sure they are able to take care of themselves, performs a few acts his charges interpret as miracles, and then goes away until he is brought back in a sort of second coming. The stories, insofar as Justice is concerned, highlight the danger of a benevolent overseer, which robs the humans they watch over of their free will.

The main part of the story ends at this point with Worthing and Justice leaving Lared with his manuscript. The book also contains several stories about Capitol unrelated to Jason Worthing, and a handful of Worthing Inn stories that feature Worthing's descendants that had been alluded to in the main narrative but not fully told. The Capitol stories all revolve around Somec and its effects, but do not explain the attraction of Somec, or why it would become so pervasive that everyone would be desperate to use it. In fact, when reading the stories, I became convinced that anyone who did not take Somec could dominate whatever field of endeavor they chose to enter as they would be able to act more quickly than their competitors, who could only act through intermediaries and proxies for much of their lives.

The Worthing Inn stories are basically pure fantasy. In fact, as Card points out, when he submitted them to Ben Bova at Analog, they were rejected for that reason. Card maintains that they are science fiction, pointing to the entire Worthing back story to support his case, but I don't think that saves them. The powers attributed to the Worthing clan are so supernatural in nature – healing, mind control, the ability to meld into rock, and control the flow of time (all abilities markedly similar to those Lanik Mueller learns in Treason) - that it is hard to swallow the idea that they would have evolved from the ability to read minds, even with substantial inbreeding. (Oddly, the inbreeding seems to have little negative effects on the Worthing clan). They are interesting stories nonetheless, but remain fantasy. Most of these stories, like many of the stories in the main sequence are about forgiveness and the power of virtue, but also about the dangers of jealousy and fear.

Overall, The Worthing Saga is a fairly workmanlike attempt to explore a number of religious and moral ideas using science fiction and fantasy as a vehicle. Card attempts to include too much in a single story, and the connection between the Somec-driven Capitol stories and the swipe oriented Worthing Inn stories is so thin as to make the narrative seem like two unrelated stories mashed together without much cause. While the characters in the framing story are by and large interesting and well-written, the characters in the Capitol stories seem very simplistic, being more or less drawn merely to illustrate a point, and the characters in the colonization and Worthing Inn stories are too idealized (as I suspect they were probably inspired by characters from the Book of Mormon, I haven't read that work though, so I can't be sure). I believe this is because the framing story was written later to connect the various short stories that are linked by this volume, and the better character development in the framing story reflects Card's maturation as a writer. The various stories are a good example of Card's early work, but the book overall is clearly not up to his highest standard, being only slightly above average in quality.

Orson Scott Card     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review - Mariner Valley by James Crawford

Short review: A villainous gang of ruffians goes on the run, so the police round up a posse and chase after them. It turns out that Mars is a lot like the Old West.

A reluctant cop,
A desperate gang of crooks,
A desert showdown

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: With the vast amount of love that is heaped upon the short-lived television series Firefly, it seems inevitable that western themed science fiction would surge in popularity. featuring a big city cop moved to the frontier, an Indian tracker, a hot-headed young gun, and an armed gang of villainous criminals on the run, Mariner Valley is an almost self-consciously self-aware entry into this field.

Ben O'Ryan is a cop working at the U.S. settlement on Chryse. But as the novel opens, it is his last day on the job. He's packing up his office, saying his last goodbyes to his coworkers and friends, and generally adamantly insisting that he will be on the ship back to Earth when it leaves. And, of course, this means that he will get sucked into the pursuit of murderer and generally all-around bad guy Troy Lansing. Ben heading up the resulting posse is predictable because Mariner Valley is a by-the-numbers Western that just happens to be set on Mars.   Ben is on Mars to escape from his past as a police officer in Los Angeles, Jamie is his dependable Indian tracker, Beth is Ben's close platonic friend who might develop into more, and so on. Every character, from the well-meaning drug addict to the hot-headed violence junkie, is drawn straight from the cast of a John Wayne movie.

But even though the novel is loaded with cliche's, they give the book a kind of comforting feel, like an old friend who has stopped by for a visit or a pair of well-worn blue jeans that fit perfectly. After being cajoled into not leaving Mars right away, Ben gathers his posse of stock characters and heads off into the inhospitable Martian landscape under the harsh winds of a sandstorm. By placing the story under the obscuring maelstrom of a Martian sandstorm, Crawford is able to keep the Western motif intact, as many of the technological developments that have transpired between the last half of the nineteenth century and the fictional future envisioned for the book are rendered ineffective, leaving Ben and his crew stuck driving after Troy and his gang without the benefit of aerial support and other similar assistance that would have made the Western posse chase story less tenable.

So the story trundles along. The bad guys head for the border - the Russian border filling in for the Mexican border in this version - although one has to wonder if the Russian territory would have been a safe haven for Troy and his gang given the assistance lent to Ben's crew by the Russians near the close of the book. In any event, the villains wander across Mars trying to lose their pursuers, but still manage to leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. In the meantime, Ben's posse managed to overcome a broken down horse, or rather, a broken down rover, a horse that goes lame in the form of a rover that has developed a leak, a stay at a frontier town complete with the requisite bar fight, and eventually track their quarry down for a final showdown. Each step along the way to the resolution of the story is familiar, but well-executed and enjoyable nonetheless.

The Western as science fiction is a subgenre that works well. And although it is a very standard take on the "posse" story, Mariner Valley is a good example of the subgenre. Full of easily recognizable, but nicely written characters, and with a fun and action filled story, this book is a fun read, and is sure to be well-liked by anyone who, like me, wishes there were more Firefly episodes.

James Crawford     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, August 27, 2012

Musical Monday - When the River Meets the Sea by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold

Jerry Nelson died on Thursday last week. He was one of the "core" group of Muppeteers, originally hired by Jim Henson to fill in for Frank Oz as the right hand of Rolf the Dog. He played several characters on Sesame Street, the most famous being Count Von Count, but also a number of memorable bit parts, including Herry Monster, my favorite of all the monster characters when I was a kid and regular viewer. One of his best bit parts was the long-suffering customer Mr. Johnson who appeared in a number of sketches with Grover as a hapless waiter. He participated in The Muppet Show, but his early participation was limited due to his daughter's health problems. He still created several memorable characters for the show, including Floyd, the bassist of The Electric Mayhem, and Robin, Kermit's introverted and somewhat insecure nephew. When Jim Henson wanted to make a Christmas special out of the Russell Hoban book Emmit Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, Jerry stepped up and played the lead role beautifully. Nelson truly came into his own on Fraggle Rock, playing the lead character Gobo Fraggle, as well as Pa Gorg and Marjory the Trash Heap.

I know how you feel Count. I feel the same way.
Although he spent most of his career singing as various fictional characters, in this video, Jerry sings in his own voice. This performance is taken from Jim Henson's memorial in 1990, where he and Louise Gold helped say goodbye to their friend by singing a song that first appeared in Emmit Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. You can hear him barely able to hold himself together as he sings his farewell to Henson. And it makes a fitting send off for Jerry himself. I hope he's somewhere out there with Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, singing silly songs like a chicken. Jerry's death and looking back at his performance at Henson's memorial reminds me of how many of the Muppet performers we have lost. Richard Hunt, who performed Scooter, died in 1992 at the age of 40. Eren Ozker, best known for creating the character Janice, died in 1993 when she was 44. Jerry Juhl, the head writer of The Muppet Show and writer for other Muppet projects like Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Movie, died in 2005.

The Muppets are, more or less, the music and comedy of my childhood. They are also a gateway to fantasy fiction. Because Sesame Street was a success despite making the unheard of choice to include a full cast of puppets as a regular part of reality (a choice, by the way, that was opposed by child development experts at the time, who thought that children watching would get confused about what was real and what was not), it had dozens of imitators. But none of those imitators were able to capture the magic of the Muppets. Their puppet cast members where just puppets. The Muppets were real to those of us watching the show. And I think this is because despite treating the puppets physically as puppets (Henson, for example, never worried about people being able to see the sticks they used to move the Muppets' arms), as characters they were treated as real. No matter what project they were involved in, the Muppeteers were able to immerse their audience into their mythic reality because they took the mythic reality seriously. In the hands of others, the Muppets would have been just dull puppets. Henson, Oz, Nelson, Hunt, and the other men and women that made up the Muppeteer team made them come to life. And although others may imitate their magic, and even produce entertaining material like the 2011 film The Muppets, I don't know if it can ever be recaptured.

Previous Musical Monday: Oh My Dayum by The Gregory Brothers (featuring Daym Drops)
Subsequent Musical Monday: From the Earth to the Moon Opening Theme

Jerry Nelson     Louise Gold     Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, August 26, 2012

30 Days of Genre - What Novel Has the Best Writing Style, or the Style That Resonates Most With You?

So, even though I wanted to get this post up on Saturday, it ended up being a day late. Oh well, that is the way things go sometimes. On to the Day 10 question of the 30 Days of Genre, which is what novel has the best writing style, or the style that resonates most with you? In this case, I'm not going to pick a single novel, or rather I'm going to pick a single novel that is broken up into four parts. My answer is:

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

Gene Wolfe's series about Severian, an ex-torturer disgraced by his act of granting mercy, is one of the most beautifully and most densely written set of books in genre fiction. Although the world Severian lives in seems at first to be an odd fantasy realm, it soon becomes apparent that it is actually our own world, but far in the distant future. So far, in fact that history almost has no meaning, and the worlds resources have been exhausted. Not only that, the sun is slowly dying and fading away, so that the stars are visible during the day.

The story in The Book of the New Sun is magnificent, but the language that Wolfe uses to tell his tale is even more so. He never makes compromises for the reader - the story is told by Severian, using terms with which Severian is familiar. He wears a fuligin cloak, there are powerful men who hold the positions of optimate or hipparch, Severian deals with the odd creatures called Hierodules, a flower called an avern is used as a dueling weapon. The novels are simply loaded with a rich, otherworldly language that is alien and yet evokes something familiar but slightly askew. For the most part, Wolfe doesn't pause the story to explain to the reader what the various terms he uses in the book mean. Sometimes a good Latin dictionary would help, but most of the time the reader has to figure it out from context. One might wonder why a book full of confusing archaic and made-up terms would be singled out as having the "best" writing style, but by giving us the view through Severian's eyes and telling his story as Severian himself might, Wolfe allows his readers to become immersed in the telling, and strongly identify with the protagonist in a way they might not had he told the story in a more conventional way.

At the same time, this use of language allows Wolfe to convey the very alien nature of the world that Severian lives in while providing just enough that is familiar to remind the reader that as weird a world as he lives in, Severian's world is descended from our own. Even the strangest use of language - the Ascians who are only able to speak using sentences and phrases from the books of "Correct Thought" provided by their governing "Group of Seventeen" - serves to show the world to to be this odd mixture of the familiar and the strange without slowing down the story or intruding upon the characters. So, for creating one of the most beautiful, uncompromisingly bleak, alien, and yet oddly familiar visions of the future, Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is my pick for the best writing style of any genre novel.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Blogger Hop August 24th - August 30th: My Son Is Fourteen Years Old

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: What is your favorite thing about blogging?

I love writing stuff that might get read by someone. I like writing. I suspect many bloggers who stick with it do as well. Sometimes it is like pulling teeth to sit down and put a review together, but it always turns out to be worth it in the end.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - Seventy-Two Degrees Fahrenheit Is Room Temperature

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Book Me! and Awesomesauce Book Club.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Worst cover? What is the worst cover of a book that you’ve read and loved?

Science fiction and fantasy are genres that are rife with horrible book covers. So much so that the blog Good Show Sir is entirely dedicated to hilariously awful science fiction book covers. As a result, anyone who reads in the genre quickly learns to simply ignore the truly bad covers and just flip open the books to get to the actual reading. But just to pick a few, here is a handful of examples of some pretty bad covers that I have sitting on my bookshelves:

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review - The Sundered by Ruthanne Reid

Short review: The world is covered with water that is deadly to humans, but not to humanity's enslaved helpers the Sundered. But the Sundered are dying out. Harry wants to find the Hope of Humanity and change the world.

In a drowned world we
Depend on dwindling Sundered
The Hope will save us

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Sometimes I wonder why I bother to wade through self-published and micro and vanity press published books. So many times when reading indie books you find yourself slogging through stilted prose riddled with awful grammar and spelling describing a meandering plot populated by wooden characters. Then I read a book like The Sundered and remember why. because every now and then you find a book that is really good that you would have missed if you didn't dip into the indie waters from time to time. And The Sundered, a strange dystopian tale of science fiction, intrigue, and destiny, is a book that should not be missed.

The world is in trouble. The blue waters have turned to black. The oceans have risen and swallowed most of the land, leaving nothing but islands and scattered "tufts" sticking up from the murky depths. To make matters worse, the dark water is inimical to humans, swallowing them up and drowning them should they fall into its grasp. Not only is the water deadly to humans, food won't grow and people seem to have forgotten how to do almost anything. Fortunately, humanity is assisted by the bizarre slave-race called the "Sundered", subjugated by mental control, and who can produce food, goods, collect drinkable water, and generally do everything necessary to keep humans alive. oddly, the Sundered appeared at the same time the world was transformed into its present state, although no one seems to know where they came from.

With all the problems humanity has living on the ruined planet, Harry has still more. Harry knows that the Sundered that humanity depends upon for survival are slowly dying out. Despite efforts to figure out why the Sundered's numbers are dwindling, and despite efforts to try to figure out how to breed more, the foundation upon which human existence depends is eroding. Harry also carries the burden of searching for the mythic "Hope of Humanity", an unknown cure-all that will supposedly save the world in some unknown way. The trouble is, Harry doesn't know where the Hope is, and no one else does either. Harry has to rely upon incomplete maps handed down to him from his father and engage in the tedious process of elimination to find the Hope by visiting and mapping the blank regions. Further, Harry has only undertaken this task unwillingly, out of a sense of familial obligation, and doesn't feel up to the task of leadership.

Harry's dismal existence is made more complicated when he stumbles across and takes control of a "first tier" Sundered, the rarest and most powerful kind. First tier Sundered are so rare that they aren't even part of a nursery rhyme used to teach children the attributes of the various "tiers" of Sundered. A "first tier" Sundered is exceptionally powerful, and commensurately valuable, but is also incredibly dangerous and difficult to control. And Aakesh is unlike anything that Harry or any of the other Travelers who make up his crew have ever seen.To make matters worse, he stumbles across a plot by one of the many islands cities dotting the world to seize control of all the others by means of a new weapon, and, it turns out, they are after the Hope because they think it can be used as an even more powerful weapon.

Reid tells her story from a tight first person perspective, focusing in on Harry, which allows her to keep the reader guessing through the entire book. The reader only knows what Harry knows, and because it becomes clear that many things Harry has believed to be true about the world he lives in are actually false, one begins to question everything. Because we see the world filtered through Harry's eyes, when he is confused, we can feel the confusion. When he struggles to understand what he has learned, we struggle along with him. Limiting our window on the world to Harry's viewpoint lets the world feel real while also making it feel claustrophobic and confining. By choosing this style of storytelling and sticking with it, although it means that some threads are left unresolved, Reid is able to tell a mystery and keep it mysterious until the very end.

This is not to say that the book is without flaws. At times, the language of the book slips into a little too much informality even for a book told from the first person - a character should not say "umm, no" as part of their internal monologue. There are only three fully developed characters in the book: Harry, Aakesh, and Harry's former teacher and surrogate father Parnum, but in the end the book only really needs three characters to tell its story. When all is said and done, these concerns are minor, and only slightly detract from an otherwise excellent book.

Set in an alien landscape, with a story that reminded me somewhat of what the world might have been like if the dark water had won in Pirates of Dark Water, Reid has crafted an engrossing story that will draw the reader in step by step along Harry's journey. And even when Harry thinks he knows where he is going, he doesn't understand why, or what he will find there. The answers to these mysteries confront Harry and the reader with the question of just what they might be willing to sacrifice to save humanity or even if humanity is worth saving at all. And having set up the question, Reid pulls no punches and offers no easy solution for the protagonist to take, and once the ultimate decision is made, she shows the full and terrible consequences of the chosen path. In the final summation, The Sundered is an unsettling novel, but it is unsettling in the best way possible.

Ruthanne Reid     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, August 20, 2012

Musical Monday - Oh My Dayum by The Gregory Brothers (featuring Daym Drops)

Sometimes I decide ahead of time what I'm going to pick for a Musical Monday. I should know better. I originally intended to post Marvin, I Love You as my pick this week, to be followed by reviews of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. But I'm not going to do that. Because today I feel like cheeseburgers. Actually, bacon cheeseburgers.

Five Guys is, for those who don't know, a semi-fast food restaurant that serves superlative burgers and delicious fries. They also have hot dogs and grilled cheese for anyone who cares. And they sell sodas. But don't go to Five Guys looking for chicken sandwiches, or fish filets, or milkshakes, or pretty much anything other than burgers, fries, hot dogs, and sodas. And even though Daym Drops is a little bit over the top in his hilarious food review of Five Guys,the only thing I can say is that I understand exactly how he feels. His original video was so fun to watch because of his infectious enthusiasm for the subject. His love of the burger. The cheese, The bacon. The fries. He shows that if you love the subject matter, you will produce something fun and interesting. And then someone else might take your video, auto-tune your voice, and make an even more fun song out of it.

I grew up on cheeseburgers. Or rather, I grew up with cheeseburgers being a much sought after delicacy. In Africa, where I lived continuously from the time I was in fourth grade through ninth grade, and then sporadically until I was in college, cheeseburgers were a rare commodity. I remembers trips back to the U.S. where my brother and I would ravenously consume these delectable treats at a collection of McDonalds, Brazier Burger, and Wendy's across the Midwest that we would loot, pillage, and burn in our wake. When I was in high school, when I was not visiting home in Nigeria, I was attending a private boarding school, so I ate whatever was on the menu, and cheeseburgers were few and far between. When I reached the University of Virginia this all changed, and I estimate that I consumed cheeseburgers for lunch four out of every five days for my first year. Eating them this often did not diminish my love of cheeseburgers, and I probably still have them at least once or twice a week. They are, in my estimation, an almost perfect food.

Five Guys' burgers may not be the best in the world - maybe there is some gourmet burger out there made with truffles or something that would be technically better - but they are the best burgers that most people will get hold of. And their fries are pretty much just as good as their burgers. And they give you a pile of fries with just a regular order, so much so that if I get an order I always have to split them with someone. Or two someones. Or more. My burger is a bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, grilled onion, mayo, jalapenos, green peppers, and barbecue sauce with an order of Cajun fries. And yours is?

Previous Musical Monday: Cosmos by Vangelis
Subsequent Musical Monday: When the River Meets the Sea by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold.

The Gregory Brothers      Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, August 18, 2012

30 Days of Genre - What Is the Saddest Scene in a Genre Novel?

It has been a little over a year since I last visited this meme, and as I said before, no one said that the 30 days had to be in a row. I'm thinking that what will work best would be for me to make this the 30 Saturdays of Genre, which means I'll be posting these for the next twenty-one weeks. I can live with that.

So, on to the question of the saddest scene in a genre novel.

Túrin Turambar's Suicide

Túrin is the most screwed character in all of Tolkien's works. His parents were Húrin, the ruler of the Hador and Morwen. When Túrin was eight, his father led the men of Hador to contest Morgoth's encroachment into their homeland of Dor-lómon, but they were defeated at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and Húrin was captured by Morgoth who places a curse upon him and his entire family. Morwen sent Túrin to safety in the elven land of Doriath. After Túrin went to Doriath, Morwen had another child, Túrin's younger sister Nienor.

After some adventures, Túrin was recured by the marchwarden Beleg and escorted to Doriath. In short order he was adopted by King Thingol because of his kinship with the hero Beren and taught by Beleg, who became his closest friend. After Dor-lómon was overwhelmed, Túrin  sought revenge and, with Thingol's blessing took a force out to fight Morgoth, becoming a scourge of the orcs who identified him by his dragon-helm. Tú was a man, and therefore mortal, and some of the elves made fun of him for this, specifically Saeros. After a dust-up in which Túrin injured Saeros, the elf set an ambush for Túrin, which Túrin foiled. Túrin chased Saeros who attempted to jump a cliff to safety, but stumbled and fell, dying on the rocks below.Túrin fled without waiting for Thingol to decide whether he was guilty or innocent, taking up with a band of brigands called the Gaurwaith.

Thus far, Túrin's life has been difficult, but not particularly so. But he was cursed by Morgoth, and this would soon change. Thingol pardoned Túrin, and Beleg set out to tell him. Beleg found Túrin's band, but Túrin was away and the badits treated the elf badly. When he returned, Túrin gave up banditry and changed his band to a force to oppose Morgoth. They captured the dwarf Mîm, who they forced to allow them to use his dwelling as their base. Soon Túrin and Beleg had an army, but Morgoth figured out who Túrin was and sent a host of orcs to fight him. The orcs captured Mîm and compelled him to lead them to his home, there they ambushed Túrin's forces, captured Túrin, and slaughtered the rest except Beleg, and Andvír.

Beleg and Andvír met Gwindor in the forest of Taur-nu-Fuin, and  tried to rescue Túrin. Unfortunately, when they were cutting Túrin free from the chains that bound him, Beleg accidentally cut Túrin's foot with his sword, whereupon Túrin, not recognizing Beleg in the dark and thinking he was an orc come to torment him, took the sword from Beleg and slew him.Gwindor took Túrin to his home in Nagothrond, where Túrin rose to become the chief counselor to the elf-king Orodreth. Even though Gwindor was in love with Orodreth's daughter Finduilas, she fell in love with Túrin, but he didn't realize it. Gwindor gave Túrin Beleg's black sword Anglachel, which he had reforged and renamed Gurthang. This became Túrin's signature weapon, and he hid his true name and became known as Mormegil, the "Black Sword".

Túrin advised the elves to stop acting in secret and built a bridge so that they could lead armies against Morgoth's forces. Morgoth sent an army of orcs led by the dragon Glaurung and at the Battle of Tumhalad the elves were defeated, Gwindor was mortally wounded, and Túrin was entranced by the dragons Glaurung's power. Glaurung suggested to Túrin that Morwen and Nienor were in danger in Dor-lômon.Túrin abandoned Nagothrond and returned to Dor-lómon, finding that Easterlings under a leader named Brodda had taken his ancestral home. Once there, Túrin discovered that Morwen and Nienor had left Dor-lómon before the Easterlings arrived. Enraged, Túrin slew Brodda and returned to Nagothrond to find Finduilas and fulfill the promise he had made to the dying Gwindor to take care of her. But after following her trail into the forest of Brethil he learned that she had been captured by orcs what had slain her when the men of Brethil ambushed them in an effort to rescue the prisoners.

Túrin found Finduilas' grave and collapsed upon it in grief. He was found and taken to Ephel Brandir and met their ruler Brandir the Lame. Túrin decided to change his name and renounce his ancestry in an effort to escape the curse of Morgoth. He called himself Turambar, meaning "Master of Doom", and stopped fighting with the sword Gurthang, instead taking up the spear and bow in an effort to remain incognito. Soon he was regarded as a great war captain by the men of Brethil, and pushed Brandir to wage open war against Morgoth.

Meanwhile, Morwen and Nienor having journeyed from Dor-lómon and taken up refuge in Doriath, decided to set out looking for Túrin. Accompanied by a band of elves, they searched for him, but were set upon by the dragon Glaurung, who entranced Nienor and caused her to lose her memory and flee both the orcs and elves. Nienor wound up in Brethil where Túrin found her, naked and unable to speak. Túrin called her N&iacuteniel, the "Maid of Tears", and took her to Brandir who healed her, but was unable to restore her memory. Predictably, Túrin fell in love with Níniel and asked her to marry him, agreeing to forsake war unless it was to protect her. She agreed, and soon had conceived a child.

But Morgoth was not finished with Túrin, and an army of orcs led by Glaurung invaded Brethil. Túrin resumed fighting with the sword Gurthang, and led the men of Brethil in battles which scattered the invading orcs. When Glaurung himself entered the conflict Túrin took two companions and set out to ambush the dragon. Hiding under a rock in the ravine of Caben-en-Aras, Túrin was able to mortally wound the dragon with Gurthang, but was overcome by the beast's venom. Níniel went looking for her husband, and found him, but Glaurung was not yet dead. The dragon got his final revenge by undoing his spell so that Níniel realized that she was actually Nienor, and her husband was her brother. Horrified, she threw herself into a river and died.

Túrin awoke and was informed by Brandir that Níniel was actually Nienor, and that she had killed herself when she found out. Enraged, Túrin slew the lame and helpless Brandir and ran to Finduilas' grave, where a helpful elf confirmed Brandir's story. In despair, Túrin returned to Caben-en-Aras and threw himself on his own sword. A lot of Túrin's troubles could be laid at his own feet: his rash and impulsive desire to always meet Morgoth's forces in open war resulted in the destruction of two entire countries and the death of all of his Gaurwaith followers.However, much of his doom was beyond his control. His father was captured by Morgoth before he turned ten. He slew his best friend as a result of a tragic mistake. He married his sister, who he had never met, and only did so because a malicious dragon had stolen her memory. But the hardest truth to face had to be the anguish of knowing that his entire life had been in vain. Despite struggling against Morgoth's forces his entire life, all he had caused was the ruin of those who followed him. His own family had been wrecked. His wife and child died. So, for being the tragic end of the most screwed character in Middle-Earth, Túrin Turambar's death is the saddest scene in a genre novel.

Go to Day 8: What Is the Best Fan Soundtrack?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Blogger Hop August 17th - August 23rd: Thirteen Ghosts Is a Silly Movie, But I Love It Anyway

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: What is the one genre you will NEVER read?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, because I am having a hard time coming up with a genre that I have not already read. I mostly read science fiction and fantasy, with a healthy does of non-fiction thrown in. But I've read horror. And westerns. And mainstream contemporary fiction. I've read romance novels. I've read what could only be described as porn. I've read Christian fiction. I've even read things like the Baby-Sitter's Club and "chik-lit". So I guess that the answer to the question is "none". There simply isn't a genre I can think of that I haven't already read, let alone one that I would never read.

Go to previous Book Blogger Hop: Hercules Endured Twelve Labors
Go to subsequent Book Blogger Hop: My Son Is Fourteen Years Old

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - The Coolest Airplane in the World Is the SR-71 Blackbird

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Book Reaper and Ed and Em's Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What blogger inspires you? It can be any kind, it doesn’t have to be a book blog.

I'm going to pick a few, all have inspired me in some way or another:

Twenty Sided by Shamus Young: I started visiting Shamus' site when he was doing his DM of the Rings web comic spoofing Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies by presenting them as a series of role-playing game sessions. But I stayed for the content. His insightful commentary on video game development. His ability to explain how programs work. His humor. And so on. He is aided by a couple other people now, mostly the other people who appear on his Spoiler Warning show. But what reading his blog inspired in me is the realization that you should blog about what you love, and if you do that, you will turn out interesting and engaging material that will keep people coming back.

Whatever by John Scalzi: Scalzi has been blogging for what seems like forever. His blog archives go back to March of 2002, and extend back to before Old Man's War was published. His blog, however, has been active since 1998, which in blogging terms seems like the Stone Age. I wonder if he had to use clay tablets for his earliest entries. Back to before he was the SFWA President. His blog is a catalog of a journey from an interested fan who happened to be a skilled writer, to a published science fiction author, to the head of the SFWA, detailing all of the happenings that took place along the way. Entries from his blog were used to make the very funny, insightful, and enjoyable book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. Scalzi's blog is named "Whatever", because that's what he writes about. He inspires me to write about what I want to write about with the knowledge that good quality content will be appreciated. He also inspires in me the belief that one can, if one is persistent enough, go from being a good writer of fan fic to being a good published author.

Julia Barrett's World by Julia Rachel Barrett: Julia seems to read and comment on more blogs than I can count. And at the same time, she manages to keep churning out fun posts on her own blog and a number of novels. Julia inspires me to try to do more. Seeing her balance the myriad of demands on her time and still be able to write books as good as Captured (read review) makes me think that I could do more, if I just tried a little harder. Not only that, when she stops by this blog, she always leaves great comments, comments which make me strive to do better when I am writing posts.

Kris Writes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Kris writes about a lot of stuff, but her most interesting posts, from my perspective, are her posts about being a working writer. More than almost any other writer, she is open about how the publishing industry works, how she has dealt with bad contract terms, how she has dealt with lousy editors, good editors, difficult people, and so on. Anyone who aspires to be a published author, or who just wants to be informed about the crap their favorite authors probably have to routinely deal with should read her blog. She inspires me to write more stories, because someday I want to have to deal with the snake pit of the publishing world that she describes.

Parajunkee by Parajunkee: Parajunkee is the doyen of book bloggers, at least among the book bloggers I am aware of. She, of course, hosts this meme, but what she does that inspires me are her Book Blogging 101 posts in which she freely and happily gives other bloggers advice on how to make their own blogs successful. More than anyone else, Parajunkee makes me regard the book blogging community as that - a community. And a large part of the reason it functions as a community are the actions of people like her. Parajunkee inspires me to be nicer and more generous. I don't always succeed, but she inspires me to try.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review - Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher

Short review: You are what you pay attention to, so pay attention to things that matter.

Paying attention
Shapes the world we reside in
And makes us happy

Full review: Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is, more or less, half of a good book. The central claim of the book is that people tend to not just be more successful and productive, when they are more focused, but also happier. To buttress this claim Gallagher provides a collection of anecdotal examples and a handful of studies on the subject, making her case that there is a connection between focus and happiness reasonably well. However, the book seems to fall short of establishing that a focused way of life will cause happiness – it seems entirely plausible that the causal arrow might point the other direction so that happy people are naturally more focused. The book also gives no real advice for how to achieve a focused life other than to say "focus more and you'll be happier".

The concept of "paying attention" is something that most of us take for granted. But for the most part, we only notice "paying attention" when we, or someone we are trying to talk to is not. In Rapt, Gallagher begins by discussing the relatively recent development of the serious study of "attention", and exploring how this psychological phenomenon affects us. Although many people have the idea that even though they don't consciously remember all of the elements of a scene that they have looked at, that all of the information is filed away in our brain somewhere. But the reality seems to be that elements of that scene that we were not paying attention to effectively did not exist for us. Our world is shaped by the limitations of our attention. In effect, the world that we individually live in is created by the limits of our ability to focus.

With this knowledge in hand, Gallagher proceeds to illustrate the ways that focus can make our lives happier. She points out that people who are always trying their hand at new things are required to give their full attention to the task in order to master it, and such people tend to be happier than people who pursue the same mastered tasks ad nauseum. Those things that are new and difficult, but which was can master with sufficient work, our brain is engaged, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it, we "flow", a kind of state in which our perception of time alters as our focus carries us away. Humans, it seems, are happier when dealing with novelty, and when the novelty wears off, what once made us interested and buoyant becomes commonplace and boring. The example is given of winning the lottery – people think that winning a lot of money will make them happy. And studies show that for short periods of time it does. But having lots of money soon becomes the ordinary experience for such people, and the excitement of having lots of money loses its allure. Because one no longer focuses on their good fortune, the money no longer provides happiness. This effect also goes a long way to explain why the wealthy are no generally happier than those of more modest means, and why the impoverished are not generally unhappier. For them, such conditions are normal, and thus cease to factor in their perception of well-being.

People who are told to focus on the "nice" things as they take a daily walk self-report a happier outlook than those who are told to focus on "bad" things, or simply given no instructions at all. In a sense, the reality we experience is bounded by our focus. This can be a useful observation, potentially allowing us to choose to focus on those things that provide us with a happier life. But this reality also poses some potential hazards – those whose focus is consumed by "bad" things will come to see the world as being irreparably damaged.  This kind of myopia can also lead to a person choosing to focus only on those things that confirm their chosen world view. This kind of focused attention may account for the tendency of some people to cling tenaciously to wrong-headed pseudoscience, or untenable prejudices. When one considers the narrowness of focus that we are all subject to, one can quickly see the necessity of the more objective analysis that comes from a communal and testable evaluation, such as that we see in the pursuit of science. Though we harbor the notion that we all share the same world, the reality seems to be that we each live in an individual world of our own choosing, even if our choice is often made unconsciously.

Competing with our focus is distraction. One might wonder if focus is so valuable to us, allowing us to accomplish tasks, and provide the key to happiness, why are we so easily distracted? The answer seems to be rooted in evolution: those of our ancestors who were too focused, missed the signals that warned of danger, and were, presumably, eaten by a lion or some other beast. This also explains why, when our focus is interrupted, our focus can shift so tightly onto whatever it is that distracted us – if the event that was significant enough to pull our attention away from our current task were one that signals danger, it would have behooved our ancestors to pay close attention to it. The difficulty is that until one focuses on the distraction, there is no way to tell whether it is important or not. So we are subject to distractions that are trivial or irrelevant, and our brain often treats them as being just as important as whatever we are doing at the time. And in the modern world, this tendency to distraction means that we are constantly fighting to keep ourselves focused on what is in front of us. Because we have a tendency to treat each distraction as equally important, when we try to multitask, we are unable to focus, and not only are we less effective, we are also less happy.

But the failing of the book is that while it offers the suggestion that a more focused life will lead to a happier self, it gives no particular advice as to how to accomplish this more substantial than "try new things", and "reduce the distractions in your life". These suggestions, while evidently true, are of little practical value. If people could avoid distractions, then they would do so. Simply saying "avoid distractions" is a banal, and mostly useless bit of advice. Perhaps this sort of criticism is unfair to Rapt. After all, if a book was published showing the connection between being unfit and a shorter lifespan, one would not automatically expect that it would also take on the task of advising the reader how to become fitter. But conversely, the author of such a book would also be writing in an environment in which books about diet, fitness, and personal health are commonplace, and thus when writing about the virtues of a healthy lifestyle might possibly feel no need to offer any kind of advice concerning how to achieve such a lifestyle. But with the exception of pop self-help books, there doesn't appear to be much assistance for someone seeking to try to obtain the benefits of a focused life. Consequently, when the sum total of the advice in this book amounts to little more than "operate on the edge of your competence", and "focus your attention on happy things", it feels decidedly unsatisfying.

Understanding how our brains work is one of the most interesting areas of study. Understanding ourselves allows us to better understand the world around us. Looking inward and figuring out how our own perceptions are formed gives us a way to evaluate how well those perceptions match up with the world around us, and if necessary, correct for them. Rapt not only explains how our focus makes us happier, but also reveals that we live in a world defined by what we focus upon. Although the book does not offer any suggestions as to how one could shift one's focus in a manner that would make one happier or more productive, it does offer some real insight into how our focus shapes the world we live in, and by extension, shapes us.

Winifred Gallagher     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review - 21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology by Christopher Golden (editor)

Stories included:
Biters by Mark Morris
Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain
Carousel by Orson Scott Card
Reality Bites by S.G. Browne
The Drop by Stephen Susco
Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
A Mother's Love by John McIlveen
Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green
Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge
The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen
All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow
Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski
Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter
Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry
Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski
Couch Potato by Brian Keene
The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers
Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: 21st Century Dead is, as it says right on the cover, an anthology of zombie stories. The definition of "zombie" used in the collection is very loose, in some cases stretching the definition to the point where it is unrecognizable. This doesn't really degrade the quality of the book, because most of the stories are pretty good, even the stories that feature "zombies" only in name.

The first story in the volume is Biters by Mark Morris, which has a fairly standard take on zombies, depicting them as mostly mindless remnants of humans infected by some sort of virus that can be passed via biting and scratching. But although the depiction of the zombies is standard, the story itself takes place in a society that is adjusting to the reality of living with the zombie plague. Rather than people holed up in malls and bunkers shooting waves of ravenous undead, the story posits a society that had managed to get its zombie population under control and is now trying to figure out a way to manage the crisis, or reverse it. Told from the perspective of a elementary school aged girl undergoing basic education about zombies, the story is intriguing, albeit a little bit maudlin at the end. Another story that imagines a world in which zombies have become an accepted party of the landscape is How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon, which deals with the complex relationship between those that are alive and those that are not quite alive. The story is decidedly darker than Biters, but does have a kind of oddly sweet ending. Well, oddly sweet for a zombie story.

The most "standard" zombie story in the volume is The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen. The story is a stylized depiction of the efforts of an elite team of mercenaries hired to rescue the daughter of a billionaire from a town overrun by the walking dead. The story starts off like a typical action movie with bluster and heroics, but because it is a classically plotted zombie story, it ends up bleak and desolate. On the other end of the scale is Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski, told from the perspective of a dead dog viewing his grieving former owner deal with the loss, but also confronting an ancient evil that he must help hold at bay. The story is one of letting go: for the living to let go of the dead, and for the dead to let go of the living. It is one of the longest stories in the book, and it is also one of the most moving. Another interesting take on zombies is found in Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson, a story like The Dead of Dromore with all of the trappings of a tale of military action, but which flips everything upside down so that the story is told from the perspective of one of the living dead. But in Parasite the living dead are made so by machines programmed to fight a long forgotten war, and which armies seem to repeatedly and unknowingly stumble into, only to be slaughtered and absorbed. In some ways, Parasite is the story of the Borg told as a zombie tale and set in a bleak and frozen Earth.

Some of the zombies stories are mostly excuses to engage in macabre humor. One of the best examples in the book is Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain, a brief little darkly funny story about a mother dealing with a difficult child. Also darkly humorous is Reality Bites by S.G. Browne, a story involving a television producer considering the possibilities of reality shows with zombie cast members. The story is a brutal take upon the television industry and a pretty accurate representation of where interns fit into the workplace pecking order.

There are several stories in 21st Century Dead that play with the idea of what "zombie" means. The Drop by Stephen Susco deals with people hopelessly addicted to the online game Cynapse waiting for the "drop" of the expansion Revenant Pack that turns out to be much more than anyone bargained for. The story first takes two metaphorical takes on "zombie" to lull the reader into a sense of security, and then shows that things can get much, much worse. The story is exceptionally unsettling, and one of the best in the collection. Another story that plays with the idea of what "zombie" means is Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson, which deals with a future society in which people are defined by the clothes they wear, and if one is condemned to wear Pink, Purple, or Orange, then one might as well be dead. Against the background of this dystopian vision, Benson weaves a tale involving designer drugs for the rich that let them emulate various creatures of myth leading to a brilliant story of conspiracy, thievery, and rebirth. Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green also deals with those who are treated as the disposable refuse of society, comparing the homeless with the walking dead. But the story also throws in real walking dead, but in this case, the walking dead are indifferent to humanity. It turns out that even being the detritus of society is preferable to being among the uncaring dead.

One of the most potentially tragic things about a zombie story is that the monsters are not merely ravenous flesh-eating monsters, they are also the remains of people, and in some cases, people the protagonists know and may have loved when they were alive. A Mother's Love by John McIlveen deals with just  this kind of tragedy, as a mother struggles with caring for her undead child. It is a story of bitter choices and, by the end, insanity. It is also deliciously disturbing. Like many of these type of stories, All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow is a tale of loss and regret as a man who has settled into a safe haven with his daughter grapples with the pain of losing his son in the throng of desperate humanity outside. In the end, the story is bittersweet, full of hope for his living child, but anguish over his lost one. The most brutal of the stories that deal with a survivor caring for his loved ones in a world overrun by zombies is Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter in which a man with Tourrete's Syndrome must find food to feed his starving family. Once again, the strain of a post-zombie world has driven the central character insane, but in a touching, loving way.

Of course, knowing who the zombie in front of you was does not always mean that you thought highly of them when they were alive. This is the truth at the heart of Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge, a brutal tale of violence and coldly calculated revenge. Although Jack Porter in Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry is not out for revenge, he is one of the walking dead. Sick for much of his life with incurable cancer, he is doted upon by his mother and smothered with care. But like most stories in the volume that play with the idea of what it means to be one of the "walking dead" there is a twist in the story and Jack gets his secret wish in the end. Straddling the line between serious and humorous, the story is the best of the collection. One of the most painfully sad stories in the collection is Couch Potato by Brian Keene, told from the perspective of a young girl with a mother addicted to drugs and daytime television. The waves of zombies that overcome the outside world don't change Adele's life - her mother is just as neglectful as she was before the plague struck, and even after her mother has been afflicted herself, Adele's life doesn't appreciably change. Of course, her mother, despite being dead, hasn't changed her habits at all. Zombie stories are, at their heart, social commentary, and Keene cuts to the core of the modern obsession with junk television by making the living television addict essentially indistinguishable from the same television addict after they have been changed into a member of the living dead. And, pointedly, it is the child who suffers.

The zombie story is given a different face in Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski in which a former zombie who has been cured must deal with her own past as a baby-eating monster. This story is probably the second-best in the book, and deals with the very core of the idea of personal responsibility: could you live with knowing that for a time you were an uncontrollable creature that fed on the flesh of the living, and if you could, how would society react to you. A similar question is raised in The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers, a horribly devastating tale of a man who has lost his family to the brutal soldiers of a vicious dictator. In this story, the "zombies" are soldiers who had been given a drug that deadened their humanity so that they could be more pliable tools of oppression. The protagonist, seeking to exact revenge, has captured one and spends much of the story trying to make the almost insensate zombie-soldier feel something, so that he could extract his revenge from something more than a mere automaton. But his own rage has distanced him from his own core of humanity, making him as much a zombie as the dead-eyed soldier he seeks to torment. In the end, he rediscovers his own humanity after reaching past the hatred and anger that has consumed him, and is able to rejoin the human race.

As usual, Orson Scott Card's fiction seems to be infused with his Mormon sensibility, and as a result, Carousel is probably the first Mormon-influenced zombie story. Except it isn't so much a zombie story as a story about what would happen if there was a God who simply gave everyone what they wanted and arranged so our loved ones never died. This is sort of a zombie story, but is mostly just a vehicle for Card to push some fairly odd theology. This is the weakest story in the book, which is unfortunate given that it comes early in the book and is by one of the most prominent big "name" authors who contributed to the collection.

With the exception of the Card story, 21st Century Dead is packed full of strong zombie stories. Some are interesting and inventive. Some are comfortably cliched. Some are bleak and disturbing. Some are twisted and darkly funny. But almost all of them are good, while a few are excellent. There is a little bit of science fiction for the science fiction fan, a little bit of fantasy for the fantasy fan, a little bit of humor for the humor fan, and a whole lot of horror for the horror fan. In the final analysis, 21st Century Dead is a collection that any zombie horror fan will love, and which almost anyone else with an appreciation for genre fiction will enjoy.

Christopher Golden     Book Reviews A-Z     Home