Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Fofo”

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #33: The Break of Noon by Neil LaBute

Target: Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon: A Play

Profile: Drama, Spirituality, Religion

I read about fifty plays every year.  Some for the first time.  Many for the third or fourth times.  It comes with the job of coaching high school speech and debate.  As a general rule, I don’t let these plays (and assorted other things) count toward my review goals, mostly because a lot of them are ten minute scenes, but also because there is a difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure.  I rarely treat a potential speech piece the way I do an epic fantasy, or a piece of popular nonfiction.  But every once in a while, something will overlap.

Neil LaBute has always been intriguing to me.  I’m particularly fond of his short play, Iphigenia in Orem out of the “Bash” compilation.  LaBute never lets the uncomfortable topic get in the way of telling a story, and the scenes are all the more compelling for forcing the audience to confront these terrible situations.  I could go on, but most of what needs to be said about his provocative style can be found in other, more professional reviews and criticism.

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #32: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Target: Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen #2)

Profile: Epic Fantasy

Steven Erikson’s second entry in the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a much better novel than its predecessor, Gardens of the Moon.  The characters are more interesting, the plots less confusing and the ending sequence is done with such panache that it’s hard to find fault with it, even if you don’t like the outcome.  Part of the improvement comes from the slow process of learning all of Erikson’s terminology, but Erikson has also tightened his storytelling style.  He also simplified things by killing off a staggering number of principle characters.

Deadhouse Gates picks up almost directly where Gardens left off.  In the wake of the Ascendant Confluence on the continent of Genabackis, members of the Bridgeburners start making their way back to the Empire, but get sidetracked along the way by the threat of rebellion in the Seven Cities region.  In spite of this setup, the core protagonist is probably Duiker, a military historian attached to the Malaz 7th, who experiences the rebellion first hand and crafts a poignant tale of an army desperately defending the Malazan refugees from the overwhelming forces of the Whirlwind Armies.  While Duiker’s story is probably the least critical to the overall shape of the series, it is the strongest narrative line of the books so far, and the most emotionally invested.

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Fofo’s reviews of the Malazan Book of the Fallen… 

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #31: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Target: Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)

Profile: Epic Fantasy

Gardens of the Moon is a sprawling book, made more so by the in media res start and a veritable ton of unknown jargon/terminology.  The book features a cast of no fewer than nine ‘main’ protagonists, (and this is a conservative estimate) twelve (or fourteen) parallel storylines and significant asides to peek into the lives of several antagonists and minor characters.  The only shocking thing is that the book is STILL SHORTER THAN REAMDE!  Fuck you Neil Stephenson.

These are facts that you should know going into either the book, or this review.  Epic fantasy can be wonderful, but there is a small school of writers that take the ‘epic’ to expansive new places.  If you’re a fan of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind or even George R. R. Martin, you’ll probably enjoy the scope of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, even if you don’t like the story being told.  These… massive novels reject conventional reviews, partially due to their scope, and partly due to the nature of the series as a whole.  The sad fact is that, without their companion books, these bloated tales don’t really hold up on their own, sagging under the weight of too many characters, too many unfamiliar terms and too much set-up for the next book.  But once the architecture of the series is taken into account, the reader’s eye can be drawn to the shape of the epic, glossing over the ugly details and just absorbing the world and the major story arcs.

By many benchmarks, Gardens of the Moon is a bad book.  The dialogue is sub-par, the storylines are confusing for the first third of the book and it seems to take Erikson a really long time to get to the damn point.  Having said this, I’m already three quarters of the way throughDeadhouse Gates, (Malazan #2) and some of the bigger themes have started to force me to reevaluate Gardens.  Still, it is hard to forgive Erikson this somewhat lackluster start.

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #30: Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

Target: Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You

Profile: Non-fiction, Sociology, Neuroscience

I added Everything Bad to my reading list shortly after finishing Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.  I was looking for a counterpoint to Postman’s arguments and the internet was fairly aggressive in promoting the dichotomy between the two books.  In practice, that comparison doesn’t really hold up, in spite of Johnson’s insistence that it does.  But where Postman has centuries of history and sociological evidence to back up his ideas, Jonson has a handful of examples from the top half of the 2000s, and a mountain of conjecture.

Steven Johnson’s core concept is the ‘Sleeper Curve,’ a theory which posits that there are significant  cognitive benefits to our increasingly complex popular culture.  Johnson never formally defines the Sleeper Curve anywhere in the book, but the general shape of the theory is fairly obvious.  Everything Bad primarily wants to prove that we are getting smarter because our media is getting more complex and deeper.  The book is split into three sections: first, contrasting historical television programing and computer gaming with the present entertainment markets; second, providing scientific evidence that we are getting smarter; and finally, a shorter section addressing the content versus raw complexity issue.

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #29: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Target: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction

The Long Earth is easier to define by what it isn’t.  It isn’t the epic collaboration that Good Omens was.  It isn’t really sci-fi, or at least not sci-fi that most of us would recognize.  It definitely isn’t comedy.  And it isn’t bad.  I think a lot of readers went into the book expecting another Good Omens, and were disappointed, but the critical thought that went into crafting this off-beat novel is solid and the story is engaging and interesting.  Really, the book is an exercise in concepting; posing a scenario and extrapolating the consequences from as many angles as are relevant.  In that context, The Long Earth is a great success.

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #27-28: Divine Comedies by Tom Holt

Target: Tom Holt’s Here Comes the Sun and Odds and Gods

Profile: Comic Fantasy, Absurdist Fiction, Satire

There’s something soothing about British satire.  The formula is simple: take a modern social or political problem; build it into a fantasy or sci-fi setting; ridicule liberally and wrap everything up with a thoughtful look at the original problem.  Only, sometimes there’s nothing to do but accept that the universe seems to be built for the express purpose of driving us all to an earlier grave.  Tom Holt’s satire runs the gamut from meaningful social criticism to unsuccessful exercises in comic absurdism.  I’m particularly fond of his Snow White and the Seven Samurai mashup, but both of the novels in the Divine Comedies omnibus tend toward the absurd end of his spectrum.  Part of the problem is that when you’re talking about the meaning of life, the comic framework of satire undermines the thoughtful conclusion.  The world is pretty nasty and… we’re supposed to keep laughing?

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #26: Iron Council by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s Iron Council (Bas-Lag #3)

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Politics, Bas-Lag

I’ve been having some trouble getting traction on this review.  Not because I don’t know what to say about the book, but because everything I’d say has already been said.  If you go to the Wiki page for Iron Council you’ll find a fantastic summary of the events of the book, along with snippets of some of the better reviews, both positive and negative.  They touch on the book’s overt politics, it’s relatively anemic setting development and the unique perspective China Miéville brings to the fantasy genre.  I’ve been somewhat verbose on these topics in my other reviews of Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels.  But between those and the internet’s surfeit of quality opinion, I’m finding myself without much to say.

What should be said is that Iron Council is an excellent book, in spite of critical opinion.  It is a less than stellar entry in the Bas-Lag sequence of books but it still stands well on its own.  It is also exemplar of Miéville’s literary philosophy and worth reading for that reason alone.  It is probably the most political piece of fantasy you’ll ever read, stuffed to the brim with socialist rhetoric, liberal ideals and a cast of dissidents and nonconformists.  But if you don’t let the message get in the way of the great story and Iron Council will start to feel a whole lot more like Perdido Street Station.

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Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #25: Salute the Dark by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Target: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Salute the Dark (Shadows of the Apt #4)

Profile: Alternative Fantasy, Steampunk, Epic Fantasy

This review contains some minor spoilers.

Salute the Dark brings the first major story arc of Shadows of the Apt to a conclusion.  The book is so final it could easily be confused for the end of the series.  Protagonists die off left and right, and plotlines get resolved or shoved under expositional carpets.  But because none of the major arcs are really resolved, there is a real sense of dissatisfaction coming from the final chapters.  The Wasps are still there, stopped for the moment but far from beaten. The Emperor’s quest for immortality ended with many questions unanswered and a mess of major antagonists dead.  And Thalric changed sides four or five more times.

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Fofo’s reviews of the rest of the Shadows of the Apt series

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #24: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Target: Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest

Profile: Fantasy, Weird Fiction

I know just enough about H.P. Lovecraft to say four things and get three of them wrong.  It’s not that I don’t like the author, or the genre he helped shape, rather that the critiques of his work are such that a literary dilettante (me) will find them somewhat difficult to get at.  Of his works, I probably enjoyed his “Dreamlands” sequence most of all, and it was those stories that popped into my head while reading Palimpsest, though the resemblance is passing at best.  Valente’s novel is almost painfully postmodern, built out of rambling streams of consciousness and suffused with mysterious and nonsensical imagery.  But it is these modes of writing that best capture dreaming, and the world she describes, while garish and gaudy, draws its inspirations from Lovecraft’s Celephaïs and Baharna.

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Fofo’s blog moved!  Check out the new website – Deconstructive Criticism

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #23: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Target: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Profile: Non-fiction, Epistemology, Sociology

Non-fiction is never easy to review.  An informed author should be an authority on the subjects he or she is writing about, so it can be difficult to confront the author’s logic unless the reviewer is an expert too.  The problem is magnified with time.  Even if I were an authority on epistemology and education today, would those perspectives really be able to critique the ideas put forth thirty years ago?  I may be able to analyze writing style and form, but a critique of content is difficult at best and always extremely subjective.

Still, after reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I cannot help but disagree with a few of Postman’s arguments.  Some of what he is saying has been made obsolete by time, but a few of his attacks on our television culture are just wrong or ill-formed.  There is an extremely valid criticism of the modern news broadcast here, but a few pieces of Postman’s argument are contradictory or flawed enough to bring the whole book into question.

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Fofo’s blog moved!  Check out the new website – Deconstructive Criticism

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