Saturday, November 30, 2013

2014 Reading Plans

So, here we are, the final day of November. In 14 hours, we'll be in December and on the home-straight to the end of the year (and I've not even had my birthday yet), and it's at this time of year that reviewers and bloggers start to think about the next year and what it may or may not bring. There's a general idea of what books may or may not come out in the coming year, and some like to plan to try to fit those books in. I'm a little different, though.

I think first of all it's good to look at what's coming out next year, and what I'll be getting. I've already got a handful of pre-orders placed for next year's books, and they are:
Baptism of Fire - Andrzej Sapkowski (Gollancz; Feb)
Fortune's Pawn - Rachel Bach (Orbit; Feb) [Note: The US edition is already out, as is UK Kindle. This is the UK MMPB]
Blood and Iron - Jon Sprunk (Pyr; March)
Antiagon Fire - L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Tor US; March) [Note: This is the MMPB, the HC is already out]
Alabaster: Pale Horse - Caitlín R. Kiernan (Dark Horse; Feb) [Note: Re-release/Update of the earlier Alabaster prose collection]
So as you can tell, I've got my first few books of next year down. I'm also expecting we'll see another Drakenfeld novel from Mark Charan Newton, I know L.E. Modesitt, Jr. has another three or four novels out, there's a new Stephen King out in the first half (or so) of the year, and of course there's a fair number of comics/graphic novels to get. Out of the ones I've mentioned so far, I think Jon Sprunk and Andrzej Sapkowski have me the most excited, but I've heard a lot of good about Fortune's Pawn, so that's certainly something to look forward to.

Aside from 2014's releases, I've got a really big plan that I'm hoping I'll actually go through with, and I'm planning to in the first couple of months of the year. Having watched the three extended editions of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings adaptations, the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now waiting on the theatrical release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and on top of that having played The Lord of the Rings Online a little more and LEGO Lord of the Rings, I've decided it's finally time to re-read the core books of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth franchise. I'm going to rebuy the books in their illustrated forms, starting with The Hobbit (w/ Alan Lee illustrations), something I bought ahead of time, and then move into The Lord of the Rings, then - if all goes well - The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin. I won't really go into the rest of the works finished or edited by Christopher Tolkien, because I have to admit that's a lot of material and I'm not sure I'd particularly be able to enjoy it.

I'm also hoping that I'll be able to get The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain and perhaps even Earthsea under my belt (I already own the vast majority of the core reading material for these series, if not all of it), and considering their styles and pre-young-adult positions, they should be fairly quick and enjoyable reads for me.

In terms of more modern releases, I'm going to do my best to press on with L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Saga of Recluce, especially as I've only read three of the sixteen (soon to be seventeen and eighteen) novels in that series, and towards the end of the year I'm hoping that I'll be able to read the second sub-series of his Imager Portfolio (starting with Scholar, ending with Rex Regis). I'll also be continuing with my Stephen King reading, as I have a collection of his books that grows faster than I read them.

Amongst all this, I'll be dipping and diving in and out of series, finishing a few here, starting a few there, reading odd books and so on. I'm certainly hoping I'll get to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian at least.

And there we have it. My vague reading plans for 2014.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

OPINION: Another Review Controversy

Another day, another controversy. Sigh.  It seems like we can't go five minutes without one sometimes, and it's getting a little tiresome, but it's the cost of progress and a side-effect of a system that's ever-changing whilst ever-expanding. Anyway. Today a controversy appeared in the form of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (a favourite author of mine, I must confess) replying to a negative review of one of his books, the 2002 science-fiction novel Archform: Beauty. I think it's worth looking at both the review and Modesitt's replies, because I think this is one of those cases where no-one looks particularly good. Firstly, I'll look at the review and then, with that context done, we can move on to the comments that caused the controversy.

The review, posted on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature, is a fairly negative one. Opening with the score of 2 out of 5, it's clear the reviewer didn't really like it. They're also, shall we say,
dismissive of the author? I'll quote the opening paragraph:
"I had never heard of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. before seeing this beautiful little paperback on the shelf of my favorite second-hand bookstore. Sounded good so I picked it up—one of those blind faith purchases. Surprisingly, he’s been writing since 1982 and has more than forty novels, thirty short stories, and a collection published. At this point in the introduction, I would usually note, “This author is most famous for his…” or “Most notably, this author has written…”, but in this case, all that fails me."
Modesitt is a NYT Best-Selling Author, but he doesn't hold a huge profile in the community, a not-uncommon position to be in. That said, he's incredibly prolific and his Imager Portfolio books once again attracted buzz about his work. What the reviewer is doing here, however, is admitting they've never heard of him or his work, and can't be bothered looking up his most famous works (note: it's basically his Recluce Saga series, which gets its 17th and 18th, if my maths is correct, entries in 2014). The first half of the review comprises of the blurb and essentially an overview of what it's about and some of the details, so we can skip that.

The review proper opens with a quote from the book, and... yes, it's definitely a Modesitt quote. The reviewer makes fair criticisms about the characters, but then makes a point I find highly amusing. That point is "There’s nothing intricate or enlightening from the words uttered other than the occasional glimpse of opinion which Modesitt decided to slide into the novel as a substitute for a soapbox.", and I find this amusing because this is essentially what Modesitt does. Modesitt does not write light-hearted, happy-go-lucky, singing-and-dancing fiction. His books almost always contain discussions about human nature, morality, religion, economics, social behaviour and so-on. That's what he's done for three decades now (two as of Archform: Beauty), so any Modesitt reader would know what to expect. It's essentially like criticising Stephen King for using slurs in his work. The third paragraph is essentially the same, and can probably be discounted.

The penultimate paragraph uses hindsight to criticise the science in the book, using an example of some technology that released *after* the novel as a reason as for why Modesitt's approach to technology is wrong. Well, that doesn't make any sense. Science-fiction authors are often ahead of, or wildly behind, the curve of scientific and technological progress. Remember Arthur C. Clarke talking about moon bases? Yeah, never happened, did it? What matters with technology and science in sci-fi novels is that it makes sense in that  specific context, and that the author makes you believe that it makes sense. This is contrasted by the final paragraph, which praises the foresight in other regards - see? Like I said, authors are either behind or ahead.

The closing line is about as constructive as a block of TNT, in which the reviewer says they won't try his (better) works. Well, brilliant. It's a review that doesn't really go into what was good or bad about the book, but essentially just slates it (bar that one moment of praise) and the reviewer states they probably won't try anything else. You can see why this review might be a little problematic. It's not really constructive, and the reviewer seems to revel in their ignorance and apathy about Modesitt's work. And then this happens...

Oops. Oh, Mr Modesitt, did you have to? Commenting is bad enough, but that's a really bad foot to start on. It's a complete and utter breach of blogging etiquette. Yes, the book got great reviews, and it's actually probably quite good (I've got it, but not read it), but that doesn't really have much relevance. We then descend into a discussion in the comments about opinions and accuracy. And, to be fair, Modesitt does not actually say anything that is untrue. Just because you have a viewpoint, it doesn't mean you're right (nor wrong), for example. This goes on for a short while until we have perhaps Modesitt's third failing (after the first comment and then continuing to comment), which is when he states he writes books for people who think.

Yeah. Now, this has me conflicted. Firstly, it looks very arrogant and is quite confrontational, and I'll agree it was a misstep. But, you know? As someone who's read maybe ten or so of Modesitt's novels, it's *true*. Modesitt does not write fiction that is 'light'. He does not write fiction that is necessarily easy or unchallenging. His books challenge the way you think, they go into the ins-and-outs of morality, about how balances must be maintained, about how evil people can do good things and good people can do evil things, and many other things. Anyone who reads Modesitt with even a hint of regularity can tell you that. If you don't like that in books, chances are you would not like Modesitt. This blog post is a perfect example of what Modesitt is like, or of course we can have a quote from the book in question. Criticising Modesitt for writing what he does, and has always written, strikes me as very odd.

I think it's a case of both parties looking bad here. The review was pretty poor as reviews go, mostly because it feels like it doesn't really go into anything except "this book had things I didn't like or expect therefore it's poorer for it". It criticised Modesitt for the very things he's loved by his readers for. The reviewer came off as disinterested and even dismissive of the author's bibliography, and it's clear from the opening that they couldn't even really be bothered to research his work. Modesitt is in the wrong for breaking etiquette and for responding in a rather bizarre (and arrogant-sounding) way. So I don't think either gets away cleanly.

But to be honest? I think the reviewer comes across worst, especially with this little addition later on:

Tip for you here, Ian Sales: A good author can write a bad book. A bad book does not a bad author make, right? Calling an author "shit" because you don't like what they've done is not an opinion, it's an attack. It is the book that is bad, not the author. And just because you don't like a book, doesn't make it "shit", okay?

So yeah, that's what I'm thinking. I think both parties involved have really not done anything to stop this happening, and whilst I don't think the reviewer necessarily instigated it, they've certainly not helped their own case by arguing back and then by posting (and arguably endorsing) a 'verbal' attack on the author. Modesitt shouldn't have commented, especially in the way he did, and for most people I think that's the core of the matter. But no, I do not believe either party is innocent, here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

REVIEW - Raising Steam by Sir Terry Pratchett

Ah, 40 Discworld novels. 35 for adults, 5 for younger readers, and over a dozen tie-in and supplementary books. It's hard not to see Discworld as being one of the core pillars of contemporary British fantasy, and indeed it's been published for 30 years now - longer than I've been around. It's definitely a big thing, and rightly so, yet with a series so long, it's only natural that some books would be weaker than others.

Raising Steam is the third Most von Lipwig novel, and takes its place as more a sequel to the City Watch novels (particularly Thud! and Snuff) as opposed to following on from Going Postal and Making Money. Moist's life is, again, becoming too safe. His marriage to Adora Belle Dearheart is pleasant, and both the Post Office and the Bank (and the Mint, by extension) are doing well, leaving Moist devoid of danger and instead a stack of paperwork. That is until a plucky young man finishes his father's work and brings the steam locomotive to Ankh-Morpork, instantly changing the future and the prospects of the world. And that brings me on to my thoughts, and I'm totally not going to start this off with an animated image that's meant to represent what I thought of it...

Oh, yes, actually I am.

Oh, boy, where to start with this novel. I'll confess I've never been particularly keen on Moist, but I found myself okay with him in this novel, yet I wonder if that's more because he didn't really seem the same. Indeed, that's a statement that can be applied to many characters in this book. It's happened before in previous books where characters seem a little different, but never before have I read a Discworld book where the main characters seem so changed. Adora Belle was almost unrecognisable, with her manner of speaking changing out of nowhere. Other well-established characters make appearances, and again, they don't feel quite like they did in earlier books. Whilst Moist was arguably improved, with other characters I just felt like I was reading about... well, other characters.

In terms of the plot, it wasn't particularly deep nor interesting. It felt like a rehash of plots we'd seen before, with additional time-jumps and an extended and extremely anti-climactic finale. The book seems to take place over the course of roughly a year (which is much too short for the events in it, of course), yet this time scale is barely communicated at all. There's also a few plot diversions that seem to be vaguely explained at the time but as the book goes on, you wonder if there was actually a point to them. At times it seemed like it was going to expand on certain things, but then forgot to. Characters seem to jump about the place, appearing where you thought they couldn't and out of the blue, and I was left wondering what was happening on more than one occasion.

I tend to find that the Discworld books are relatively inoffensive, yet Raising Steam came close to Raising Vexation in me a few times. The language used was occasionally problematic, but the way some characters were described made me a little uncomfortable. To start with, there's a word that creeps in twice, a pejorative term with links to travelling ethnic groups, and both times its use is completely avoidable, and for emphasis I've underlined it.
"And Harry was a good employer, but also not today, because today his stomach was giving him gyp by means of the halibut to which the phrase long time no see could not happily be applied" (p.27)

" 'I surely do, Mister Lipwig! I believe in the sliding rule, the cosine and the tangent and even when the quaderatics give me gyp, yes, I still believe' "(p.339)
Some would argue the pejorative meaning of 'gyp', if you replace it with 'trouble' then you have the same effect without using a potentially loaded term. I found it unusual to find in a Discworld novel, let alone twice. The issue with language doesn't end there, with such words as 'sissy' finding their way in.
"...but it must also not be so gentle as to imply that either the giver or the receiver is a sissy." (p.359)
This particular word seems entirely out of place and indeed against the flow of various aspects of the novel, although it must perhaps be noted that sexuality is never really something that seems to be touched upon in Discworld (unless it's the male gaze).

Oh, yeah. Strangely for a Discworld novel, we're almost entirely free of references to bosoms (there's one possible joke and a breastplate reference), yet we're told something from Moist's viewpoint and it is, as far as I could tell, the only single comment of its kind, and it caused me to set my teeth a little.
"... and Captain Angua, try as she might, looked stunning in her uniform, especially when she was angry" (p.179)
Of course, you might accuse me of being over-sensitive, but add into this moments where a member of the City Watch refers to dwarfs as "lawn ornaments" (p.284) and it feels as if the book is just riddled with unnecessary comments and even potentially xenophobic and racist implications. That's not to say the book is in itself racist or any of these things, but there are a lot of parallels that could be made, and when one considers the progression of Discworld (increasing equality for the races, the recent inclusion of goblins, female dwarfs, etc.), it seems like such comments and outbursts go against a lot of what Discworld is actually good at doing. 

Is it all bad? No, not at all. But it certainly doesn't stand out as one of the strongest Discworld books, with its sudden change in tone for numerous characters and its weak plot, not to mention its somewhat dull closing scene which leaves the impression we're in for yet another novel of this style. Whilst I laughed a few times, I had to push myself for too much of this book, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed most of it. Some of the details were brilliant, but for the most part, I didn't find this that entertaining. The few moments of Pratchett's trademark wit and wisdom were buried in a relatively mediocre story, and conflicted with his own use of certain words.

I'm sure some people will love Raising Steam. I'm sure some people will call me a heretic or something less pleasant for this review. Fine. I'll admit I'm not exactly one to love every Discworld novel, and I can dwell on the negatives more often than the positives. Hardcore Discworld fans might not appreciate the reiteration of facts, new or less-experienced Discworld readers will perhaps be left confused as this book relies somewhat heavily on the stories of Thud! and Snuff, and everyone in between will probably be okay with it. But this is not the strongest outing in Discworld - maybe not the worst, either - and I struggle to find anything overwhelmingly positive about it. Do I recommend it? If you're a Discworld fan, yes. If not? No, I can't. There's so many better Discworld books, in terms of quality and reader friendliness. Raising Steam is, if nothing else, a disappointing read, although I shall certainly not abandon the Discworld franchise.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition

(Note: For this review I have watched the film only once (I never saw the standard cut), and have not viewed any extras or commentaries. There WILL be spoilers ahead, but I will try to keep them vague.)

The Hobbit is, without a doubt, one of the most famous, popular, influential and loved fantasy novels of all time. Almost every reader of modern fantasy has read it, and many love it, and rightfully so. Whilst it isn't problem-free when held up to modern sensibilities, it still remains a cherished book that graces many people's shelves. Coming almost a decade after Peter Jackson's (mostly) excellent The Lord of the Rings adaptation, The Hobbit seems a strange move. Shouldn't it have been done first?, many asked. Why two - and then three - movies, considering it's so short? How can a 2-300 page book aimed at younger readers end up as almost twelve hours of film, the same length of time as Tolkien's longer, deeper, more adult work? Well, apparently it's quite easily done.

Released in cinemas in late-2012, with the extended edition (~13mins of new/extended footage) hitting early-November 2013, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a near-three hour journey through Middle-Earth. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, it takes a more jovial tone and isn't afraid to literally sing and dance its way through the story. Within ten minutes of the film, you're swept up into an epic story reaching across years of Middle-Earth's history, amazing set pieces and vistas with the view panning across them, revelling in little details. Whatever you may think of the film, the world design is nothing short of spectacular.

I do have problems with this film, though. Heck, I wouldn't be me if I didn't. The Lord of the Rings was prone to waffle and dull scenes with actors standing around looking dazed (I'm sorry, Liv Tyler. I loved you as Arwen but dear gods she was dull), and at times it seemed like it was cutting corners to get to the next big set piece. The Hobbit doesn't quite do that, because many of the scenes are 'the next big set piece'. And many are gloriously done, and a joy to watch - so much so that I found myself wishing I had a HD screen and a Blu-Ray player to better enjoy the stunning vistas.

The special effects are still too wooden and fake at times. It's hard to describe but many times it was clear that you were watching some CGI because movements weren't quite right, or it defied any real sense. I'm put in mind, in particular, of an action scene towards the end of the movie in the Goblin King's lair, where the dwarves and Gandalf escaped in an... unconventional way, and that part of the scene looked wrong. Sticking with the visuals theme, I'm still not entirely sure I'm okay with the design of the dwarves, nor even some of the acting, but they didn't break the film for me. I thought, over all, Dwalin, Balin and Thorin were the better dwarves, Glóin and Óin being two others I like in theory, but seemingly not having huge roles. The others I could largely do without, mostly because they either have a look that doesn't quite fit or they just feel wrong.

The Dwarves: Click to Enlarge
The tone of the film also seemed to be at odds with itself, especially when compared to the earlier The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas the earlier films were mostly sober and serious, The Hobbit seems to try to blend that with exaggeration and humour, and it doesn't particularly work. The dwarves mostly look utterly ridiculous, some barely even wearing beards, others with over-the-top hairstyles. It feels, at times, like an over-ambitious parody than genuine design, and it's a shame. They don't feel like they quite fit in the film for the most part. This is then added to with the Goblin King's... well, it can only be described as a Disney moment (and it was so incredibly out of place), and the scene with the three trolls, and I just wasn't sure what they were trying to do with the film. At times it threatened to be a self-aware parody which tapped on the thin glass of the fourth wall, and at times came exceptionally close to breaking it, and not in a good way.

I think there's some good things to take from this film, though. We have expansion of some roles, some bits of history and behind-the-scenes moments that were added to great effect, deepening the story and addressing issues that existed beforehand. It was also quite good to see a certain fan-favourite cameo return, and in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it moment there's even some female dwarves.The attention to detail is generally excellent, and it creates a believable, beautiful world.

Returning to compose is Howard Shore, once again doing an excellent job. Some motifs from The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Shire pieces) resurface, and this time the dominate theme is the melody to The Misty Mountains, the song sung by the dwarves (which took the internet by storm when it was released ahead of the film). It's an epic soundtrack that compliments the film perfectly, and one I'll certainly enjoy listening to.

To conclude, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a conflicted and confusing film, unsure whether it wants to build on the sober trilogy it precedes, or whether it wants to be a brighter, funnier, happier story. These two threads intertwine and conflict, resulting in a film that feels inconsistent and unsure. Yet for its issues, it is an enjoyable film, although likely won't be as popular and defining as Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whilst the split to three films may concern some people, based on the first movie alone I feel it is a wise choice, and one that should pay dividends. I'm definitely looking forward to next month's The Desolation of Smaug, and next year's There And Back Again.