Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genli Ai is a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose - and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization, but to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.

I first read this book in 2011 and already then I knew that I would read it again. The timing of me re-reading it wasn't entirely my choice but in the end that didn't matter at all. Because I knew what was going to happen it was as if my brain was free to notice things I didn't notice 2 years ago - the poetry of the language, the beautifully crafted story, the meaning of the folklore and excerpts of historical records inserted between chapters, the echoes of the philosophy of ying and yang throughout the book, the notion of true gender equality and its consequences. I noticed how perfectly the ending of the novel mirrored its beginning, recognizing the similarities between a keystone being placed in an arch to connect the separate sides and Therem Estraven being a similar kind of keystone that would link two separate branches of humanity. I finally fully understood the title of the book, which made me feel that I understood nothing the first time around. I realized that this novel isn't really about Genli Ai, even though he is the narrator most of the time. It is about Estraven, his vision for Gethen, and about following a path which others can't even see.
Like many other science fiction novels this book isn't about the planet or the technology, but rather about people, human nature and everything that comes with it, such as patriotism, love, deceit, faith and Truth. Yes, it's a lot to talk about in a book that is not at all hefty, but that is where Le Guin's brilliance lies. She doesn't need 600 or more pages to ask questions, ponder answers, observe and make the reader think. Half of that does very well.
I'll keep this review short because what I really want to tell you is that this is an amazing book, that I'm buying it for my collection and that if you haven't read it yet you should, even if you're not a fan of science fiction.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When a Civil War veteran John Carter finds himself on Mars, or as the locals call it Barsoom, he discovers that the dying planet and its harsh deserts are home to warring species, adventure at every turn, and Dejah Thoris, a princess who will steal his heart at first sight. But can they overcome the dangers and be together?

Back when I was first looking at Burrough's bibliography and feeling terribly intimidated by the sheer quantity of titles I couldn't make up my mind as to which book of his I should read to see if I liked his work. Fortunately my Coursera professor made the choice for me when he put A Princess of Mars on the Fantasy & Science Fiction syllabus. Thanks, Professor Rabkin!
I can see why Burroughs became so popular back in the day - the first novel he published had adventure, fantastical creatures, a valiant hero and a beautiful heroine, admirable values and a happy ending. It is also an easy and fast read, which makes for a perfect escapist novel. To top it all off Burroughs ended the book in such a way that made me want to find out what happened next, especially since there is obviously a mystery of John Carter's very existence, which reminds me of Wolverine, an immortal superhero with a severe case of amnesia. If his success is any indication his consecutive novels followed this winning formula and most likely improved upon it to keep the readers from getting bored.
I was definitely not bored with this book, what with the plot moving along nicely, Carter constantly getting himself into new trouble and his lady love keeping him on his toes. Even the generally one-dimensional characters didn't spoil the fun, it was much too interesting to observe Burroughs imbue his Martian characters with very earthly traits. And it was definitely interesting to see how our society has changed since Burroughs' time, particularly when it comes to the role of women. I'm sure that if this book was written now Dejah Thoris would not have been sitting there in all her voluptuous glory, waiting to be rescued, she would have been plotting her own escape. It was also interesting to see Burroughs' social commentary on capitalism and socialism with Dejah Thoris' passionate monologue condemning the Green Martians' "everything belongs to everybody" system, making his position that much more obvious.
While I won't rush out to the Project Gutenberg website to get my hands on more Barsoom novels in the near future I will definitely pick up the sequel should I want a few escapist hours in the company of familiar characters.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book-to-Movie: Two New Releases I'm Excited About

I've been full-on fangirling for a while now over two movies that will be released later this year. They're both based on best-selling YA fantasy series and I think it's really cool that all these movies are being made and that their budgets are far from puny. Haters can say whatever they want but I believe that Twilight opened the door for these movies and made it possible for them to be completely and totally awesome. (I did mention the fangirling, don't say you haven't been warned.) But back to the movies.

First up is Sony's City of Bones, due to be released on August 23. It is based on Cassandra Clare's novel by the same name and since the book is the first in the Mortal Instruments trilogy we're pretty much guaranteed a sequel. Plenty of action, magic and general badassery are also guaranteed. Of course Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower aren't exactly eyesores either.

And on November 22 Lionsgate is giving us Catching Fire, which I'm sure needs no introduction. Here's their latest trailer!

I rarely go to the movies but I think I'll make an exception for these two :)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

This collection of short stories is considered to be one of the best examples of science fiction, yet Ray Bradbury himself says that it is not science fiction but fantasy. Pretty curious, isn't it? After some deliberation I decided that it is sci-fi after all - in this bibliophile's universe fantasy has magic and while Bradbury's Martians have some nifty abilities they do not have magic. Sorry, Mr. Bradbury, but that's how you wrote them.
The book is organized as a collection of separate episodes from several decades in the future when humans applied themselves to colonizing Mars, and an attentive reader will see clear parallels with the history of the North-American continent in these stories. In some cases they couldn't be any more obvious. Chicken pox, need I say more? Some characters make multiple appearances which contributes to the cohesiveness of the book, but mostly it's episodes from lives of people who've never met, which makes the account more well-rounded than it would've been with just one or two protagonists and their limited perspectives.
My impression of the book as a whole is not too enthusiastic, although several stories made a strong impression on me. One, There Will Come Soft Rains, doesn't have any characters at all and it reminded me of the 19th century literature where so much is inferred as opposed to being clearly stated. Others, such as Night Meeting and Ylla, are incredibly full of humanity despite the fact that Martians are the key players. And one, The Off Season, left me incredulous: I simply couldn't understand why the Martians would effectively give half the planet to the guy who would destroy their heritage given the right mood. I'm still wondering if they thought his greed would keep him on the planet when everybody else left.
Another reason I liked this book was because of terribly obvious things stated in a beautiful way, making the reader think about the obvious with a fresh mind. In almost every story there was a "couldn't have said it better" moment, all because of passage like this:
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.
This particular passage reflects a common theme for the collection and by the end of the book I had a deep sense of regret when it comes to the destructive nature of humanity because after all it is true, we'll ruin anything with no regard for its history and value beyond the obvious as long as it suits our profit-hungry nature. A sad state of affairs, really, especially if you consider that when all's said and done this book is about humanity, Mars is just an unreal enough place to tell the truth without riling up the masses.
I would have liked The Martian Chronicles a lot more if the stories weren't so obviously deliberately polished, which, strange as it is, is my only real complaint about the book. All the clever turns of phrase and the unexpected similes were great individually but when considered together made it impossible for me to lose myself in most of the stories: I was simply too busy noticing all the cleverness. Bradbury's works are highly esteemed in the field of science fiction and I would recommend this book, especially if the said friend is exploring sci-fi literature.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Blitz-review: The Nine Rooms of Happiness by Lucy Danziger & Catherine Birndorf, M.D.

With self-help books you've got to always remember that it's not going to be a perfect prescription for your individual problems, more like a general guide for where to start digging for the cure. This book is no different, although I really enjoyed that every point was illustrated with examples from real women. It was actually done in the format of "here's my problem" - "here's the solution" so it made the reading experience feel like a group of women sitting around a table sharing stories. I didn't realize it until today but one of the chapters (the one that focuses on the Office, the room where professional growth issues live) gave me the much-needed kick in the derriere and the "Go (with the status quo) or grow" pearl is directly responsible for my decision to take a literature course through Coursera and to join a writing club. My life is much fuller as a result, so as far as I'm concerned it's a great book and definitely worth the read.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

A shipwrecked gentleman named Edward Prendick, stranded on a Pacific island lorded over by the notorious Dr. Moreau, confronts dark secrets, strange creatures, and a reason to run for his life.

I've been curious about this novel for some time now but always managed to put off reading it, which seems to be how it goes with me and the classics: they've been around for a while, the shiny novelty has worn off and there are too many books everybody is talking about today for the classics to manage to get to the top of my reading list. Fortunately it was on the syllabus for the Fantasy & Science Fiction course I'm taking through Coursera so it climbed to the very top, along with some other tried and true novels of years past.
This book managed to surprise me and at the same time it had a comforting familiarity about it, so it was an interesting experience. I didn't actually know anything about the plot before reading the novel so the nature of Dr. Moreau's experiments caught me unawares, and although I suspected that something wonky was going on when Prendick started feeling uneasy about Morris' servant the extent of it was not something I expected from a 19th century novel. My modern imagination did however work out the details before Prendick, for whom even what we now know as plastic surgery was already an advanced and awesome thing.
The comfort came from the circumstances that cushioned the adventure itself: Prendick ends up on the island by accident and when he returns from it he is not entirely happy to be back at home. This is a notion that was present in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and if memory serves Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and is a curious one in and of itself. In a way it remains true to this day and I've experienced it myself: wherever we travel we feel that we are outsiders and yearn for the place that is home, yet when we get back there the adventures abroad have changed us and we are no longer truly at home in our homeland and miss the familiarity of the place that transformed us. The only way I think to avoid that would be to never go anywhere new, but where's the fun in that?
The thing I enjoy about old novels is that the authors tend to manage to create characters who are complex and simplistic at the same time. Take the protagonist himself for instance: he at first seems one-dimensional enough in his decency, but then you think back to his time stranded at sea and you wonder what really happened to his fellow shipwreck survivors, and then all of a sudden he doesn't seem so decent after all. Authors of that era seem to have been a lot more subtle than the modern ones when it came to developing their characters, and taking their usual brevity into consideration I have to admire their skill.
Reading this novel I kept thinking about Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, which explores the idea of similar surgical experiments. I haven't read that novel but Wells made me want to give it a try, although I understand that it is chock full of social criticism of the early post-Revolution era in the Soviet Union and that makes me want to read it less.
This was my second book by H.G. Wells and something tells me it won't be my last. I hear The Time Machine is quite good.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of Maggie Stiefvater. I love her books, I love her blog and I love the persona she presents to the world of a race car-driving, approachable and not particularly mysterious best-selling author. I love that she posts images of her manuscripts dripping with her critique partners' notes. I love that she talks about writing as a craft and hard work, not the product of divine inspiration. I love reading her books because they are fun and quirky and very well-written, because with every new one they get better, and because her fantastical is so thoroughly embedded in the mundane that suspending disbelief is not at all a problem for me. You get the picture, huge fan. So it's not that much of a surprise then that I loved The Scorpio Races. I actually listened to the audiobook, which I almost never do, because obligations are pulling at me from all directions but I really wanted to read this book right now. So I did.
My favorite thing about this novel were the relationships between humans and animals, the fondness that animal-lovers will recognize, where the human will learn to read their four-legged friend, know when to push them and when to soothe them, and when to remember that they are not human and taking a step back is the wise course of action. This partnership and mutual affection came through so clearly in the book that I could almost feel it as I listened to the story.
Another favorite were Puck's and Sean's internal conflicts: for her it was which horse to ride in the race, for him it was a matter of who would win. Puck's dilemma was apparent very soon, while Sean's took time to build, but when they clashed it was the moment when The Conflict became obvious and you just knew that there was no turning back.
I have a soft spot for stories where not everything is spelled out, and here Stiefvater obliged with a few characters whose pasts and futures were more than a little murky when the book ended. The not knowing upped the ante in the tension department and the fact that the reader was left guessing took the novel to a different level in YA. After all, there is always something in life that remains unresolved and undiscovered.
What left me vaguely displeased was the character of Mutt Malvern. I suppose I've been analyzing literature too much lately to be completely satisfied with a purely evil villain, but here it works, especially when combined with the way the book ends. I'm not going to give too much away but the last sentence gave me chills and made me want to get the printed copy and immediately read it (audio is great and all but it's a completely different experience from reading the words on the page).
Once the book was finished I thought back on it and decided that it has a very fairy-tale kind of feel to it, both when it comes to the characters and the story itself. Listening to it was similar to listening to a legend and the fact that it's not only set on an island in Ireland but also crafted in such a way that the location becomes almost a character itself helps support that mythic quality. It all works and I'm looking forward to not only revisiting The Scorpio Races but also reading Maggie Stiefvater's next series, The Raven Boys.