The OF Blog

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Planning out my Best of 2014 lists

Although it'll be another four weeks or so before I begin posting my Best of 2014 articles, I've already had to begin laying out some of the parameters for this year's edition.  I have made my job easier and harder by deciding to review virtually every 2014 release that I have read.  Easier in that I have a ready-made set of links to post for those titles that I discuss in various posts on translated works, disappointing releases, short story collections/anthologies, etc., harder in that I have to have some record of my thoughts on each and every work written before compiling the lists.  While I'll whittle down the list of nearly 50 unwritten reviews over the next three weeks or so by writing a series of compilation reviews that'll contain 1-2 paragraph reviews of three dozen or so of those books, I still have to write over a dozen reviews of 800-1200 words each.

In addition, I still have 16 books left to read, including 4 to purchase.  The former will not be much of a problem to finish (I should finish 5-6 of them by Sunday), but I'll have to wait until early December to buy those 4 books.  So it'll take me until mid-December before I am ready to construct final lists.  In the meantime, I think I'll have the categories from last year, only that due to having read a little over 160 books released this year, the majority of which have made some sort of literary or genre list of good/outstanding releases already, I'll do a two-part Top 50 list.  This should allow for a bit more exposure for some worthy and entertaining releases.

Now to just "encourage" those loyal rabid Serbian reading squirrels to read and write the rest of this for me...

Monday, November 24, 2014


I came to the realization this weekend, while finishing (three months after beginning it) the Upgraded anthology, that I'm just burned out on SF/F and SF/F short fiction in particular.  Although I don't read much "core" SF/F these days, I still feel rather disinterested and rather wearied when I finish reading a SF/F book.  Maybe some of it is just seeing example after example of prose that isn't actively bad, but also isn't is beautifully-written either.  Maybe it's wanting closer connections to characters, especially non-bourgeois character types (yes, even in works written by non-Anglo, non-white, non-male writers, too often the characters felt as though they were expressing middle class sentiments).  Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm just not all that into what is developing in SF/F circles these days.

Whatever it is, when I finish writing these 2014 reviews/mini-reviews, I plan on taking months off from reading any SF/F, especially short fiction.  Come to think of it, maybe a break from reading in general will come as well for a few weeks this winter.  The Bible might say that man cannot live by bread alone, but I'm beginning to think that I can't live well as a human being by reading so much and not doing as much as I did in my late teens and twenties.  Beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic reading online discussions, to be honest.  Maybe that's a contributing factor to this sense of ennui and burnout.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels

The queen is dead.

She's lying in the entrance hole, delicate, fragile, her limbs curled up against her body.

I would recognize it as the queen just by the elongated lower body and clearly larger size compared to the worker bees, but there is also a little spot of colour on her back – I marked this female with yellow last year when I placed her in the nest.

Much too young to die.

And why had she left the nest to begin with?

I squeeze a puff from the smoker into the hive, but the bees don't come crawling out.  They should be languid, of course, fat and heavy with honey to protect from this imagined forest fire, but there's no movement at all at the entrance.

My heart is racing now.  I put down the smoker and pry the roof off the nest with a hive tool.  I put the roof on the ground and start lifting the honeycombs out of the box one by one and stacking them on top of it.

The workers are gone.

Every one of them. (p. 13)

After a while, post-apocalyptic stories can become rather wearisome to read.  There's a perfunctory explanation, usually some virus or super-pathogen or maybe a deliberate bio-chemical attack by some human group, followed by blah-blah-blah about the fragility of human civilization or how resilient humans truly are in a dire situation.  Even in the cases of a viral/microbe attack, the focus is not so much on how humans are just another animal species in an incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystem, but rather on human agency and how humans can overcome even their own proclivities for destruction.  It's just a bit too much to presume that any future collapse of human civilizations is going to be the central part of any biological calamity.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I ordered a copy of Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo's The Blood of Angels.  Recently translated into English by Lola Rogers, it was my first time reading this acclaimed writer's fiction in novel format.  The Blood of Angels actively works against several of the presumptions I listed above that are found in other stories of collapse and disorder.  Set in contemporary Finland, it begins with an amateur beekeeper, Orvo, discovering that two of his hives have been abandoned inexplicably, with queens dead and the brood still encased in their protective layers.  Immediately, he think of three dread words that have been uttered more and more frequently by beekeepers worldwide:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

This, coupled with his grieving for the recent death of his eco-warrior son, Eero, leads Orvo to investigate matters further.  In an attic in a nearby barn, he makes a surprising discovery:  a pathway to a parallel world, one in which the slowly spreading ecological disaster caused by the near-total extinction of European honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination of thousands of plant species vital for vast swathes of human and animal food supply systems may have been checked.  As he explores this parallel world and its connection with bees, he discovers that in most societies, bees at one point or another have been viewed as half-mystical, half-divine messenger animals who had come to represent beliefs in an afterworld and in resurrection.

Sinisalo takes some bold chances here with how she structures the narrative.  Orvo's discoveries, taking place over roughly half a month, are interspersed with blog and journal entries from Eero that detail the important roles that bees play in life, both literally and metaphorically.  At times, Orvo's own narrative arc could have been disrupted or overshadowed by these fascinating recreations of actual research into bee life, but she carefully structures these interludes in a fashion that makes their contents serve as deepening echos of Orvo's chapters.  The result is a very scary look at a very possible near-future reality:  one in which mass malnutrition arises due to the inability to find a replacement for these rapidly dying off bee colonies.  Sinisalo's narrative, especially its blog entries, echoes almost too vividly the warnings in recent years about the actual spread of Colony Collapse Disorder and, in the short asides provided throughout Orvo's chapters, the calamities this causes for all creatures great and small.

The Blood of Angels is one of the best tales of Collapse that I have read this year.  It manages to avoid the egregious mistakes that most post-apocalyptic tales make in focusing overmuch on human agency as a cause and effect of these type of global disasters.  Through its well-constructed mixture of a grieving man's search through a parallel world for clues as to what happened to both his son and to the bees, as well as detailed yet never wearisome scientifically-based blog entries written by the now-dead son, Sinisalo invokes a creeping sense of disorder, one in which the collapse of the orderly bee colonies presages much more than a collapse of human societies.  She manages to maintain this atmosphere throughout The Blood of Angels, making this one of the best written and constructed narratives of Collapse published in English this year.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Short reviews of five books

Below are short, paragraph-length reviews of 2014 releases that I've read but for one reason or another did not have the time nor the desire to pad it out to 600-1000 word-length full reviews.  Many of these books are anthologies or short story collections, and most, if not all, I would recommend with some reservations to readers.  In short, these are the works that most likely will not be featured prominently in my Best of 2014 retrospective posts next month, but some may be worthy of reader attention.

David Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Europe in Autumn is a near-future thriller set in a post-EU Europe in which the international quasi-state has fragmented into balkanized mini-states similar to that of the seventeeth century post-Treaty of Westphalia Holy Roman Empire.  Rudi, a courier (someone who conducts semi-legal transnational transports; think a combination of message boy and spy), conducts a series of missions, each of which ultimately delve further into the tangled web of politics and business that has arisen with the demise of the EU.  Hutchinson's strongest with setting and plot, as he deftly weaves interesting situations with vividly-detailed environs.  The characterizations, while solid, are not as successful.  Europe in Autumn is a strong, solid thriller, albeit one that breaks no real new narrative ground.

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black:  A Neo-Noir Anthology

The New Black is a reprint anthology of twenty tales from several of my favorite authors, including Brian Evenson, Roxane Gay, Kyle Minor, and Matt Bell, among others.  I had mixed reactions to the stories included in here, however.  It's not so much that the vast majority of them weren't good or excellent (they were), it was more that the sum felt less than the component parts, as there wasn't much to unify them.  The concept of "noir," especially in its connotation of dark, rough, off-the-cuff style of writing, is not really explored much beyond what each writer chooses to explore; there could have been a stronger editorial direction given that would have allowed readers to make easier, stronger connections between themes found in these diverse stories.  As a sampler of the short fiction of several outstanding literary and genre writers, it is excellent, but it is merely a mediocre themed anthology due to this perceived lack of connecting threads between these strong stories.

Antonya Nelson, Funny Once

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson read a section from the closing novella to her latest collection, Funny Once, at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this past October.  That story, "Three Wishes," was a sharp, penetrating look at relationships, familial and failed romantic, as seen through the prism of a creative writing course and two students in that class.  I remember laughing several times at scenes she read aloud; this largely occurred also when reading this and the other stories in print.  Funny Once is a very strong collection:  I could point out several stories as being excellent written, plotted, and executed.  I've spent nearly a month trying to decide how to go about describing this collection.  Perhaps I should just say that it is a uniformly good collection, with some shining moments, that will appeal to literary fiction readers who enjoy witty dialogue to go along with some poignant scenes.

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Girl Like Us, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, follows the struggles of two soon-to-be-high school graduates, Biddy and Quincy, as they are about to be exited from their special education program.  Each of the girls has her own issues (Biddy cannot read nor write and had to give up a child for adoption due to her circumstances; Quincy was brain-damaged as a young child and is angry at the world, including at times Biddy) and it is their battles, accentuated by Giles' short, staccato bursts of narrative seen through each girl's PoV, that makes this a good read.  If anything, the story could have been even longer, to allow certain situations to unfold less rapidly, but this is a minor quibble to what is otherwise a very solid work of YA fiction.

Kalyan Ray, No Country

No Country is a tale that spans five generations and three continents.  Beginning with the life-altering decisions of two 19th century Irish boys, Padraig and Brendan, and the effects those choices have on descendents, biological or adopted, of the two as they move back and forth across Europe, North America, and India.  It is an ambitious family saga, one that touches upon the issue of the ultimate shallowness of national identity, and for much of the novel Ray manages to craft a narrative structure worthy of exploring such complex, complicated themes and plot developments.  However, there were times that the story lagged a bit, making No Country merely a flawed yet solid effort that will mostly reward those readers willing to devote the necessary time to processing what all is transpiring over the course of these generations and continents.

I'll likely write another set of 5-10 mini-reviews sometime over the holiday weekend.  Hopefully some of these stories/collections have piqued your interest.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Things to do (maybe) this weekend

This month has been a complete trainwreck when it comes to completing any reviewing goals, as I've reviewed only 10 books so far this month.  Much of the blame goes to the kidney stone pain and surgery prep/recovery, as there were several days where I didn't have the energy to do anything other than make short blog posts like this one.  Currently, I'm battling a slight viral infection, likely due to a weakened immune system after the past week's surgery and medications, that has sapped me of energy (I've actually slept more than 8 hours each of the past two days - about 1.5-2 hours more than usual - and I am still more tired than usual).

I have managed, however, to read 140 of the 161 books I have listed on the Upcoming 2014 Releases I Want to Read.  I have few worries about reading every book listed there (might add a handful to the list, but that's uncertain).  However, I still have 51 reviews to write if I'm going to review every one of those books.  That might prove to be unmanageable.  Won't know for another couple of weeks.  If so, I might just write summary-style reviews of the majority of those and traditional reviews of the rest.  I'm undecided on that right now.  What I do know is that I have two hardcover books that arrived today (Brian Francis Slattery's The Family Hightower and Lin Enger's The High Divide) that I plan on reading this weekend.  Maybe reviews will follow shortly.  Depends on my recovery speed from this virus, which has left me with flu-like symptoms, minus the fever.

As with everything these days, time will tell.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A couple of early Best of 2014 lists

Although it's only November, some publications are already starting to list their Best of 2014 selections.  Below are a couple of such lists:

Amazon's Editors' Top 100

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2014

I've read/own about a quarter of the books on each list of 100.  Several selections I agree with, a few I don't, but that's par for the course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2014 National Book Award winners

The 2014 National Book Award winners have just been announced.  Pleased to see that I've already read/reviewed three out of the four winners.  Each of the ones read were excellent.

Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

Non-Fiction:  Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China

Poetry:  Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night

Young People's Literature:  Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
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