The OF Blog

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Non-"core SF" recs for a hypothetical Hugo Awards nomination ballot, or rather, a Best of 2014 in non-"core" speculative fiction

I am unlikely to ever pay any money to be any sort of WorldCon member, but for those who are more interested in such things and who might be curious to see what sorts of works I would nominate for the fiction categories, below is a list of works published by non-genre-specific publishers of authors whose stories, both novels and shorter fiction alike, would be considered for such a hypothetical Hugo ballot.  I am also writing this in case there are those who are going to be nominating works in the next couple of months and who might be wanting to seek out recommended books so that their own ballots might contain as many diverse and wonderful books as possible.


In most cases, I've already written reviews, so I'll just link to those:

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea 

Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. 

Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies

Jeff VanderMeer, The Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance)

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird 

Carlos Labbé, Navidad and Matanza 

Edmundo Paz Soldán, Iris 

Can Xue, The Last Lover 

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters 

Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land 

Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux 

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (writing a short review in the next 24 hours or so)

David Cronenberg, Consumed 

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 

Keith Donohue, The Boy Who Drew Monsters (I'll write a review of this shortly)

Blake Butler, 300,000,000 

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels 

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days 

Short Fiction:  (multiple stories found within each of these collections)

Julia Elliott, The Wilds

Jac Jemc, A Different Bed Every Time 

Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress 

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories & Other Stories 

Hilda Hilst, With My Dog Eyes (novella)

Dorothy Tse, Snow and Shadow 

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation (novella)

David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals 

Kyle Minor, Praying Drunk 

Yes, I know that if this were a real ballot, I would have had to list a Top 5 (something I will not do now, as I would like to maintain some suspense for when I reveal my Top 50 for 2014 over the course of the next 10 days).  But these are some of the best speculative fiction that I've read this year (very few works published by genre imprints would have been considered, but maybe that's a post for another time?) and for those looking for some great stories, I believe these will please the majority of you.  The short fiction categories (collections, unless otherwise noted) contain several really good stories, too many to list here (if I had, the list of noteworthy spec fic stories would have easily exceeded 50).

Hopefully, there will be something for some to consider as they try to make out their Hugo nomination ballots in the coming months.  I certainly hope my lists provide something different and not more of the same for those readers who do want to see just what is being published out there beyond the familiar confines of genre publishing.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Five October and December releases by women reviewed

2014 has seen the release of some outstanding works by women writers.  Over 40% (granted, this is lower than the percentage published this year) of the 2014 releases I've read this year have been by women and by far, the majority of those releases have been at least well-written and entertaining.  If it weren't due for a time/energy crunch these past couple of months, I would have devoted much more space to extolling the virtues of the five works I am about to cover.  Two were considered for the National Book Award for Fiction; two are debuts; and two are short story collections (one a debut).  Each is deserving of a greater readership.  Now onto brief discussions of why I enjoyed these works:

Julia Elliott, The Wilds

Elliott's debut is one of the strongest, most thematically connected collections that I have read in quite some time.  Over the course of eleven stories, each of which contains an excellent mixture of humor, bizarreness, and in-depth exploration of facets of human character and motivation, Elliott confronts readers with topics (such as how we treat the outcasts and less fortunates) that we perhaps might not rather want to consider.  Her use of surreal settings to make the "invisible" more visible is realized almost perfectly in these stories.  Her writing is impeccable, as there is a deceiving sense of effortlessness to her storytelling.  Every element, from the prose to characterization to narrative/plot flow, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.  The Wilds is one of, if not the absolute best, the strongest collections released this year in a 2014 full of excellent short story collections.  It is one of those books that lovers of both speculative and realist fiction could gift to fans of the other and claim it is one of the best examples of that literary genre released in recent years.

 Jac Jemc, A Different Bed Every Time

"Every night I stunned myself with gin.  On one date, a man and I ended up at the airport and ate rhinestones.  We moved fast and real."  This opening to the first story, "A Violence," sets the tone for the remainder of Jemc's latest collection.  She takes no prisoners.  The stories are sharp, embedded with unusual imagery and with prose that can be unfamiliar to readers more accustomed to more straightforward narratives.  But once the reader gets acclimated to how Jemc narrates her stories, the vistas open up and several remarkable moments occur over the course of these 42 short stories, the majority of which are flash fictions under 5 pages long.  The cumulative effect is greater than the sum of each of these short fictions, making A Different Bed Every Time a strong, wonderful collection to read for those who enjoy startling, impression-filled stories.

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award)

Some Luck is the beginning to a trilogy that plans to cover 100 years of an Iowa family over the course of 100 chapters.  It certainly is a promising beginning, as Smiley fills these early decades of the 20th century with characters that reflect the reality of those times:  recent immigrants, suffering from xenophobia due to World War I; the radicalization of some rural families due to the then-popular socialism of first Eugene V. Debs and later Lenin and Trotsky; uncertain economic times due to collapsing food prices during the 1920s; and questions of whether or not "progress" is a noble ideal or a masque for something more nefarious.  Her characters do not parrot these historical realities as much as they live them; each feels like a dynamic, well-realized individual.  By novel's end, I was left wanting to read more, curious to see how the middle decades of the 20th century will treat the Langdon family.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (finalist for the 2014 National Book Award)

There must be something powerful about having Iowa as a setting, as along with Smiley's book, Robinson's narrative set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa was also nominated for a 2014 National Book Award.  The third in a trilogy of books set there, Lila was more of a struggle for me to read.  Not because the narrative is dull (it is not) nor because of bad prose or poor characterizations (the opposite, in fact), but mostly due to me reading this without reading the first two novels.  Yet even after realizing that there were a number of references to other characters whose import I would not understand due to not having read those books, Lila was still a very engaging work, as this hither-to young wife to the other two books' main protagonist proves to be an intriguing, challenging character to consider.  Sometime in the near future, I plan on seeking out the first two books and then re-reading Lila, as I think when placed within a larger context, it might be one of the better historical/family series to be released in recent years.

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium

When I finished reading Elysium a couple of weeks ago, my first thought was, "This was a debut?"  It certainly is a daring first effort, as Brissett tackles issues of gender/sex identities and love through the interactions of two souls, Adrianne/Adrian and Antoine/Antoinette, over the course of several "lives," each of which are seen only as vignettes interrupted by seeming computer code/rebooting.  In each of these iterations, these characters struggle to forge identities and bonds even as their bodies shift and they find themselves in new situations.  In some ways, it is a struggle toward nirvana, although it is never couched in those terms during the narrative.  By the novel's end, the cumulative lessons that these two souls (or perhaps computer simulacra?) have learned makes Elysium one of the best debut novels that I've read in a year full of strong first novels and collections.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Rabbits, Elk, War Hogs, and Battle Rams, Oh My!: Some thoughts on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I believe I have said before that I am far from the target audience for action/adventure movies.  I am generally not impressed with CGI "special effects" and explosions and large, crashing sounds tend to bore me with their redundant repetition.  Dialogue and good acting are worth much more than their weight in gold (mithril?).

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I went to watch the final The Hobbit movie yesterday with my dad and middle brother.  I had seen each of the previous five Peter Jackson adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth tales and found each successive movie to be worse than the one before it.  I am not a "purist"; I understand and accept that literature and cinema are two fundamentally different art forms and that elements which work for one would be disastrous if imposed upon the other.  Yet this does not excuse the filmmaker from constructing a narrative that fails to remain true to its own internal logic.

 The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies opens immediately with the cliffhanger scene from The Desolation of Smaug.  There is no brief synopsis montage to ease the viewer back into the narrative.  Instead, it is a straight plunge into carnage.  Yet this opening fifteen minutes feels disjointed, as it shows just how ridiculous it was to have some of the dwarves to remain in Lake Town, as they don't really even serve as witnesses; this delay/detour was unnecessary and it serves as one of many examples of questionable narrative choices by Jackson and his scriptwriters.

Then there is the closing of the Gandalf/Necromancer subplot.  While obviously there could be no "final battle" due to The Lord of the Rings, the scenes at Dol Guldur felt extraneous.  Outside of the cool visual of the White Council fighting the Necromancer's minions (including the Ringwraiths), the entire episode barely lasted five minutes.  This revelation of what Gandalf was doing, while filling in a gap left by Tolkien not divulging in the novel how exactly Gandalf occupied himself during the time Bilbo and the dwarves traveled through Mirkwood and to Erebor, failed to add anything to the narrative.  If any thing, it detracted from the overall narrative arc.

After a few heartwarming scenes of the Lake Town citizens recovering on the Long Lake's shores and a couple of silly scenes involving the late Mayor's deputy, the story shifts quickly to war, war, and still more war.  While the gathering armies and the pitter-patter between the aggrieved parties was fairly well done and hewed closely to the novel, almost the entire second half of this nearly 150 minute movie was devoted to battle.  Although this is to be expected, considering the title and all, it felt disjointed.  There were CGI mass battle scenes, individual duels, and elves frolicking about hither and yon, but it never really felt coherent.  The backstories of the various armies collapsed during the middle of the fighting, as one group or another would disappear for long stretches with little in the way of narrative explanation.

This lack of coherency is accentuated by some of the weird choices made by Jackson.  As if having a rabbit sled wasn't ridiculous enough, we have Thranduil riding on an elk, Dáin Ironfoot on a war pig (and yes, I thought of Black Sabbath when seeing him on it), and even battle rams running up steep mountain slopes with dwarves atop.  It was just so stupid to watch, along with Legolas running up crumbling stonework as though he were in a Super Mario game.  By the time the movie ended, it just felt as though a few good scenes peppered with fine acting performances (mostly dialogue between Bilbo and Thorin) had been swamped with some of the worst, bloated, pointless CGI sequences ever put into a film genre that its renowned for its devotion to such scenes.  The elements that made the novel an enjoyable reading experience for me at twelve were largely absent.  In its stead was just a poorly-constructed action/adventure trilogy that had only a patina of Tolkien's narrative to dress up its otherwise mediocre cinematic structure.  The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies is by far the worst of the six Tolkien-related movies that Jackson has produced.  Certainly not a movie I ever care to see again in any format.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche

Si me hubieran llamado a declarar, pienso.  Pero eso es imposible.  Quizá, por eso, escribo.

Declararía, por ejemplo, que en la noche del sábado al domingo 30 de marzo de 2010 llegué a casa entre las tres y tres y media de la madrugada:  el último ómnibus de Retiro a La Plata sale a la una, pero una muchedumbre volvía de no sé qué recital, y viajamos apretados, de pie la mayoría, avanzando a paso de hombre por la autopista y el campo.

Urgida por mi tardanza, la perra se me echó encima tan pronto abrí la puerta.  Pero yo aún me demoré en comprobar que en mi ausencia no había pasado nada – mi madre dormía bien, a sus ochenta y nueve años, en su casa de la planta baja, con una respiración regular –, y solo entonces volví a buscar la perra, le puse la cadena y la saqué a la vereda.

Como siempre que voy cerca, eché llave a una sola de las tres cerraduras que mi padre, poco antes de morir, instaló en la puerta del garaje:  el miedo a ser robados, secuestrados, muertos, esa seguridad que llaman, curiosamente, inseguridad, ya empezaba a cernirse, como una noche detrás de la noche. (p. 13)

Like most of its neighbors in the 1970s, Argentina went through a period of socio-political upheaval that led to a right-wing military coup.  The "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 led to tens of thousands of disappearances, mysterious robberies, assaults, murders, and other acts of violence.  Often neighbors would witness atrocities, only to be forced to remain silent lest what they saw would be visited in turn upon them.  It is, nearly forty years later, still a controversial topic within Argentina and there are many groups clamoring even today for justice to be served for those who inflicted such violence upon its citizens.

In Leopoldo Brizuela's 2012 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Una misma noche (On a Similar Night might be an appropriate translation), he explores the issues of fear-driven forgetfulness and subconscious complicity in acts of state atrocity.  Through the eyes of his narrator, a writer named Leonardo Bazán, Brizuela jumps back and forth through two time periods, 1976-1977 and 2010, to probe at just how people could look at a horrific event and manage to rationalize it away from their conscious thoughts.  It is an interesting narrative approach, albeit one fraught with flaws.

The chapters, labeled by letters in the Spanish alphabet, alternate between these time periods.  Bazán at first tries to adopt a more "clinical" approach toward narrating the similarities between the house invasion he and his parents witnessed in 1976 and a 2010 elaborate robbery (which includes, interestingly enough, a member of the local police) in that very name house.  What are the connections between the two?, Bazán begins to ask himself.  Then, as memories are triggered by this 2010 invasion, the question shifts more toward that of what was he hiding from himself all along?

The narrative depends upon the reader's willingness to consider and reconsider details that Bazán raises as he shifts back and forth from memory (some of which seems to be unreliable, as he recalls in different lights the exact same events he discussed in a prior chapter) and "present" reflection.  At times, the split between the past/present becomes a bit too dizzying, as there are occasionally no narrative bridges between these temporal shifts of thought.  This in turn risks missing out on important information or clues into what happened in the original 1976 home invasion and how Bazán's family dealt with its aftermath.

In addition, some of the principal characters, including the Jewish family, the Kupermans, are not as fleshed out as much as they perhaps should have been.  These relatively sketchy characters on occasion detract from the narrative's potential impact as there is not enough information provided about them to enable the reader to form solid connections.  This is a shame, as at times Brizuela's prose, particular when Bazán is contemplating the connections between the events, is sharp and the narrative flow on these occasions is fluid and devoid of the false steps that plague other parts of the story.  This unevenness in the characterizations and plot development dampens the enjoyment that might have been derived from reading Una misma noche.  It is not by any stretch a particularly "bad" novel, just merely a flawed one, one of the weaker Premio Alfaguara winners in the sixteen years since the award was resumed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo/Red April

Con fecha miércoles 8 de marzo de 2000, en circunstancias en que transitaba por las inmediaciones de su domicilio en la localidad de Quinua, Justino Mayta Carazo (31) encontró un cadáver.

Según ha manifestado ante las autoridades competentes, el declarante llevaba tres días en el carnaval del referido asentamiento, donde había participado en el baile del pueblo.  Debido a esa contingencia, afirma no recordar dónde se hallaba la noche anterior ni niguna de las dos precedentes, en las que refirió haber libado grandes cantidades de bebidas espirituosas.  Esa versión no ha podido ser ratificada por ninguno de las 1.576 vecinos del pueblo, que dan fe de haberse encontrado asimismo en el referido estado etílico durante las anteriores 72 horas con ocasión de dicha festividad. (p. 13)

Police procedurals, or "whodunnits," are a very popular literary genre.  If crafted well, each scene, each character interaction builds toward something greater until the final revelations are made and the case is closed.  But what if this murder/mystery tale were wedded to political turmoil and terrorism?  What if coercion and covert sympathy for the offenders were to play a major role in blocking a case from being solved?

Santiago Roncagliolo in his 2006 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Abril rojo (available in English translation as Red April) manages to create a near-perfect melding of these elements.  Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Peru between March 9 and May 3, 2000, Abril rojo is the tale of a state prosecutor, Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, who is trying to solve a series of murders in his hometown of Ayacucho.  What Chacaltana discovers, however, is that the local people may or may not be complicit in harboring some of the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla/terrorist group that had terrorized much of Peru, especially the more Quechua-speaking areas of the mountains, during the 1980s and 1990s.

Roncagliolo develops the action carefully, utilizing several investigative interviews conducted by Chacaltana to provide context for what is transpiring in Ayacucho.  In these scenes, the citizens interviewed reveal only small fragments of information, leaving Chacaltana impeded in his search for justice for the growing number of people dying in the region, most especially during the weeks leading up to Holy Week in late April.  Furthermore, his efforts seem to be leading to more murders, as those who do agree to divulge information appear to be targets for the murderers.

However, there are some interesting twists to what might seem to be a standard tale of nefarious bandits terrorizing the locals.  Roncagliolo also presents a very realistic portrait of the senderistas through some of the testimony provided in Chacaltana's interviews.  This composite portrait, derived from actual court cases according to the author, provides valuable insight into the reasons behind the senderistas becoming dedicated to overthrowing the national government, as well as providing a glimpse into the appeal the Sendero Luminoso had for even the more privileged members of Peruvian society.  It is this sense of veracity within this procedural tale that makes each plot development in Abril rojo feel so vital.

Roncagliolo's writing is sharp throughout the novel.  There is a gradually building narrative tension that rarely suffers from longeurs.  The characters are well-developed and even though some might at first glance appear to be stock characterizations, there is a level of depth to them that often does not appear in murder/mystery stories.  Although the conclusion is slightly weaker than the middle portions of the novel, it provides enough detail and narrative power to make this novel one of the more enjoyable police procedurals that I've read in either Spanish or English in quite some time.  Abril rojo is one of my favorite Premio Alfaguara-winning novels and this re-read after an initial read almost eight years ago confirmed my original high opinion of this novel.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mid-December reviewing plans

It's nine days until Christmas, my usual drop-dead date when it comes to writing reviews for a year.  I have 27 2014 releases left to cover, most, if not all, in 1-2 paragraph length mini-review round-ups.  Starting after work late tonight/morning, I'm going to alternate writing 4-5 book mini-reviews with covering the final five Premio Alfaguara winners that I haven't yet reviewed (depending on when I finish reading them; might make an exception and cover some of these after Christmas). 

Starting with Christmas, I will spend the final week of the year covering various Best of 2014 lists, including a Top 50 out of the 160+ 2014 releases that I've read this year.  I have dozens of short fiction collections, works in non-English languages, debut novels, and other categories to cover, so hopefully this year's lists will be the most comprehensive ones I've posted in the 10+ years I've operated this blog.

Of course, as always with me, things can change...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Interesting article on the "clomping foot of nerdism" and the latest Hobbit movie

This weekend, The Telegraph ran an article that discussed how the over-emphasis on "realism" in fantasy (or to be more precise, the seeming near-elimination of "imaginative gaps"), especially in relation to adaptations/responses to J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, sucks the joy and wonder out of matters.  While I might quibble a bit on the discussions of Tolkien himself (I think it's a more complex case with him, although I agree that LotR has some significant flaws), I do find myself sympathetic with most, if not all, of the article's claims and statements.

Thoughts on the article?
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