Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Story Craft-- Why Stories Are Important

I would hope that anyone reading this would not argue that stories are devoid of importance. I also would like to assume that none of you might make that extreme argument that stories are just an extravagance that should be abandoned in favor of practical needs. Stories are a form of entertainment, this cannot be denied, and yet it is the power of entertainment that allows stories to penetrate deeper into our lives. With our mental defenses lowered we are quelled into believing a fantasy that dares not only to pass the time pleasantly but also to change our very way of thinking. Which changes our being.

Stories are sneaky. As far as fiction goes, stories are lies that we are led to believe are true as long as we are immersed in them. We know they are not true, at least as a whole, and yet we are drawn into the lives of the players who play out the scenes set in far off places, worlds unknown and unreal, or simply somewhere in your neighborhood. We know they are not true and yet we experience them as if they are. We want to believe they are true. We want to be a part of these character's lives. We want to draw closer to them, understand them, even though we will never be able to.

I had a professor in my undergrad that said the end goal of fiction, at least literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, thriller, horror, romance, etc.), was to allow the reader to gain empathy for someone else, someone different than the reader. The differences can be subtle, one small thing changed from a life that seems just like your own, or they can be vastly different in culture and understand, in what is sacred and taboo. I would argue that even in most genre fiction the goal is to show empathy and I would further argue that the medium of sci-fi and fantasy can do it better sometimes than literary fiction... but that is a topic for another day.

Stories, though, are not limited to fiction. It's the holidays, you and your family are sitting around the table. The food has been eaten or near enough, all of you are content and even restful, and your uncle nudges your dad with a long smile on his face. He begins with, "you remember that time in high school..." or "you remember when dad used to..." and you are all swept away in a story that you have heard a hundred times before. And then when that story ends another begins from across the table, and on and on into the evening, all ranging from the hilarious to the sad reminder that someone is no longer sitting at the table with any of you.

This is the power of stories. To entertain, to remind, to understand, and to make sense. To feel what others felt in their life and to grow closer to them, to understand them better by the stories they tell of the life they lived and how they perceived it. And it is because of these same reasons that the most profound writings are not in essay form but rather in stories. Religion, philosophy, and history are all best remembered not in bullet point summation but in stories. Without stories, true or false, real or imagined, we become dull people. Isolated from the rest of humanity, worn out and forgotten.

Whether than a story is about infamy or virtue all stories teach and change those that read them. So a word of caution to all you readers out there, be careful what stories you take in. Some are good, some are great, and some are just bad. I suppose its a good thing you read this blog to see which stories are which.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Earth Has Music For Those Who Listen...

... Its bright variations forever abound; with all the wonders that God has bequeathed us, there is nothing that thrills like the magic of sound.

This quote from George Santayana echoes the emotion and power found in Silvia Moreno-Garcia's book Signal to Noise. Set in the late 1980's Mexico the book follows three outcast friends: Meche, Sebastion, and Daniela as they discover the magic they have together through music and what drove them apart as Meche returns home in 2009 for her dad's funeral.

The story of Signal to Noise is simple not only in the type of story that it follows while the characters are teenagers but also with the mystery that surrounds their dissolved friendship. Please do not be misled into thinking that something simple is something not done well. The plot is simple not as a hindrance but rather to not become a distraction to the art at work. It is the beauty in the simplicity that makes this story so wonderful to read.  The reader discovers with the character's the magic they can feel and how to use that magic.

The core of the book is found in how the magic works and how it affects the characters. How it brings them together and drives them apart. The magic is based around music but not in the making of music, Rather it is in the picking of an album or tape with the potential for magic, an object of sound humming with magic, then playing that album while joining hands and willing a mutual wish into existence. The author captures the universal draw, the strong nuclear force of music especially as it affects teenagers. Music has a sway, a major influence, a power with young people. It is not a power that enslaves but empowers for the listener. Music encourages and enables like no other art force and all of you reading this cannot deny that power. You remember. The style may have been different then but the power was the same. And Signal to Noise, like a scent that brings back cherished memories, draws the reader back to a time when music had power and rhythm, When music was life.

Overall my score for this book is that: it's good. No, it's very good. I recommend this book for anyone where music was important for sculpting your life or if it wasn't but you want to know what that feels like. When remembering this book and mediating on it, I find that I like it a lot more than I originally did.

Sorry that I did not get that article about the importance of stories posted this week. It will be coming next Wednesday for sure. Also be on the lookout for next week's review over Vicious by V. E. Schwab, an interesting approach to the superhero novel. Comment, share, let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by and have a good, good Friday. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Top Reads From 2015

Here are my top reads from last year. Most of the books were not actually published last year but were drawn from a list of all the books I did read last year.

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  2. The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
  3. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  4. Declare by Tim Powers
  5. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  6. The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan
  7. The Bees by Laline Paull
  8. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke
  9. Dune by Frank Herbert
  10. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  11. Vicious by V. E. Schwab
  12. Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I know this list is a bit late but I wanted to post it here for two reasons: 1. I have been on vacation this week so I have not written anything and 2. because this list will determines the next twelve reviews I do write. Next Friday and for the weeks that follow I will be reviewing each of these books/trilogies starting with the Moreno-Garcia's musical magic coming of age story set in 1980's and modern day Mexico, Signal to Noise. There will also be some extra book reviews in the coming week like my most disappointing read of 2015, or reviews of books I am currently reading and finish, and possibly some additions to my 'bad' book list. There will also be some talk on creative writing to come so be on the look out. I look forward to writing about all of these good (or great) books and I hope y'all look forward to reading about them here.

I leave you with Mitch Hedberg. Have a great day.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Incantation and Invention

Humanity and Nature. Two forces intertwined, and sometimes at odds with each other, ever since humanity began to tell stories. In much the same way as humanity and nature are usually at odds so too are magic and technology. One word belongs to one genre and the other word to a different genre rarely brought together in one story. Which is exactly what Charlie Jane Anders does in her debut novel All the Birds in the Sky. Not only does Anders create a story both grounded in fantasy and science fiction she also ties each side of the magic/technology struggle to the much older struggle of humanity and nature. To the point that the struggle between the two sides overshadows the characters that live out that very struggle.

One is said to be the loneliest number, so to remedy this Charlie Jane Anders gives us two protagonists in her debut novel. Patricia is a witch who discovers her powers by talking to a bird and being led to a tree where the Parliament of Birds resides. Laurence is a computer whiz who discovers a two second time machine schematic on the internet and then makes one. Both kids meet each other early on, going to high school together before departing for college and reuniting years later in a world nearing the brink of ecological and economic downfall. They're shared experience in high school as out casts and yet friends to each other helps to shape the people they eventual become. Patricia a full-fledged witch secretly helping people at night, coordinated with other witch and wizards in the area while working part time by day. Laurence is a part of a think tank of the smartest engineers in the world trying to make a portal device to take a remnant of humanity to another world since this one seems to be dying.

Now if that description along doesn't pique your interest then I'm sure you're a normal human being with different tastes than I. But come on. How could you not be excited about this blend in genres? The fusion of technology and magic and their association with humanity and nature is impressively done and the way these two side of speculative fiction come together in the characters is engaging and interesting. It's just a cool book to enjoy.

sometimes they don't get along

With that being said Anders' novel is not without its faults, at least in my mind. There is a point in the novel about three quarters of the way through that the magical world and the technological one come together in the battle that a majority of the book has been building up to. It feels very much like the climax moment of the book and yet there is still an whole quarter of the novel left and another 'battle between the genres' leading finally to an ending that seemed lackluster in comparison to the rest of the novel. It felt like an ending that left me wanting. A denouement that goes on too long with a abrupt ending that easily wraps up the plot while undercutting the emotional build up for the two characters. Its resolves by fixing all the problems with one small decision, not only for Patricia and Laurence, but also the entire world.

Ending are important to me. The can make or break a book faster than any other part of a story. I have read a few books where it was a slog to get through, though not altogether uninteresting, and yet the ending ties up the whole book, making more of each part, to the point that all the work to get to the end was worth it. The book was worth reading even if almost every part until then suggested otherwise. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is one example of this kind of story. Anders' novel does the opposite. It is so well done and interesting until you get to the end and it soured the experience for me.

So, my overall score for the novel is that it's a good book. Because my experience with the novel was lessened by the ending I had debated whether to give this novel a score of 'okay' instead of good but I stand by my decision. I would still suggest that each of you read this novel. You may not have the same reservations about the ending as I did. I know that many other reviewers out there did not seem to have a problem with the ending at all.

I hope this review was helpful in your adventure to become or even surpass me as an avid reader. If you have any questions about my scoring method please check this post. Have a lovely Friday.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Vikings, Telepathy, And Betrayal... Oh My

All those thing from the title and more can be found in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy. This story follows Fitz, the bastard son of the king-in-waiting for the Six Duchies, as he literally grows up within the politics and intrigue of the royal court. Starting at the age of six in the first book Fitz is taken into the care of King Shrewd, trained as an assassin, fights head on and within the shadows against not only the viking like Red-Ship Raider but against the plotting of Prince Regal who wishes to have the crown for himself. And there's more. Far more than I wish to describe to you. But I will refrain from spoiling too much as I do describe a few aspects of this story that are worth noting for their brilliance within the story, the ability of Robin Hobb in crafting the story, and for their creativity within the fantasy genre itself.

A major draw for me with these books was the realism that Hobb creates with the main character. Fitz is a likable, nay lovable, character a true underdog if there ever was one and yet he reacts to the situations he is put or brought into in a way that is closer to how you or I might react instead of the typical protagonist of a fantasy story. Being the illegitimate son of the king-in-waiting you might think that, though people dislike him, that he rises to the challenge, triumphs over his enemies, and becomes the king that the Six Duchies needed all along. Instead Fitz is not only hated but is actively insulted and injured almost without reprieve or guilt in those that do it and all that Fitz does in revenge is take the punishment and try to live his life as best he can. Now lest we forget the titles of the books in this trilogy, Fitz is able to do survive (emphasis on survive) all of these things by being trained in the only skill useful to a bastard of the royal line: to be an assassin. Well having the Skill magic common to the royal line and the beast bonding magic known as the Wit also helps. 

Speaking of magic. Robin Hobb creates such unique magic systems in this trilogy and especially with the description of the Skill. Magic communication between minds is not new to fantasy but the unique way the Skill works is a lot closer to telepathy as it is most commonly seen in sci-fi or comic book stories. While still remaining mystical the Skill manifest in an assortment of ways in the books like: communicating mind to mind, seeing through another’s eyes even if they are miles away, controlling another person’s actions, making someone feel fear even if they are not afraid of a certain thing, making someone believe they cannot see you even if you are right in front of them, and even torturing and killing someone by the Skill alone. A very useful and diverse magic. The Wit magic, one that bonds a person to an animal, seems less unique to fantasy. Yet the way the Wit works, being similar to the Skill, and how Fitz uses them together to overcome his enemies is not only very fun to read but brings a refreshing and unique take on beast type magics.  

Unique weapon is unique. 
One final thing that this trilogy does that made it so enjoyable to read was it how it broke away from the conventional pattern found in a trilogy. In the first book (or movie) there are evil-bad guys (girls) and they must be stopped and for the most part they are. The second installment has the evil-bad guys (girls) come back and show just how big and bad they are leaving the good-right guys (girls) defeated and sad. Third act/book/movie shows the good-right guys (girls) rallying back and finally defeating those big, bad, evil people once and for all (unless there is a sequel series). That is not quite what happens in the Farseer Trilogy. Instead, though Fitz survives at the end of the first book, ultimately the whole thing still ends in favor of the villains. The second book actually has a lot more positive growth and positive encounters for Fitz up until the end, and in the third book though good triumphs over evil it does not happen until the very end. You are kept wondering the entire book if Fitz-and-gang are going to actually win or not. You even begin to believe, despite not wanting to, that they might not win at all. Even though the ending of each book follows the conventions of a three part story the whole of the trilogy does not and that’s the true beauty of what Hobb has written. She makes us believe the good guys won’t win and when they do it’s triumphant and fulfilling. There is no Deus ex Machina tomfoolery just the ultimate hope you have for Fitz, despite all Hobb does to try and destroy it, come roaring up from the dark pit of defeat into the full light of victory.

My final score for the Farseer trilogy is that it’s very good. A must read for any one whether you like fantasy or not.

Hope you enjoyed this book review there will be one up each week. If you would like to know more about the scoring method click here. If you enjoyed the review than share it with your many, many friend and talk about how much you want to read these books. And if you did not like this review than share it with your friends and mock it endlessly. Have a wonderful Friday.