Friday, December 31, 2010

Trin's Best of 2010

2010 was a year of mostly mediocre books for me, so I was hard-pressed to choose at least 4 that were really good enough to be worthy of the 'best of 2010' title. Additionally, only a couple of books I've read this year were actually 2010 releases, and I've reviewed only two or three of them. Oh well.

So, here's my best of '10 list, in no particular order:

The Separation (2002) by Christopher Priest

What can I say? It blew my mind. I've since read The Affirmation and I had a hard time deciding which one of the two was better. Priest's unreliable narrators are simply awesome.

(Here you can read what Thrinidir thought about The Separation)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) by Carrie Ryan

The one book on this list that I've actually reviewed :) I put it on this list partly because it really was one of the best books I've read this year, but also the most surprising one (in terms of quality).

You can read my review of Forest of Hands and Teeth here.

The Long Price Quartet (2006-2009) by Daniel Abraham

Definitely one of the best fantasy series I've read lately. I admit that I've not yet read the last book, but the first three were really good - and, which was even better, the quality went up with every next book (instead of down, as it so often happens). I honestly liked all of it - the setting, the characters, the plot.

(2008) by Ursula Le Guin

This was my last (finished) read of 2010. I heard a lot of praise for Lavinia, but I hardly imagined that it will be that good. It was really nice, finishing a year of mostly unimpressive books with an unexpectedly good one.

Lavinia will be reviewed here; I'll probably put the review online next week.

Biggest Disappointments

Empress by Karen Miller. First book I was unable to finish in a long, long time, partly because the plot was going nowhere, partly because the protagonist was so incredibly annoying.
The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan. After the surprisingly good first installment in the series, I expected something equally good from the second book, but got a lukewarm plot and boring protagonist instead.

Books I expect most in 2011:

The Islanders by Christopher Priest -this will be his first novel in a long time and I'm curious what it will bring.
The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss - I liked The Name of the Wind, but this book will probably decide whether I'll keep following the series or not.
The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan - I got the impression that not many people liked The Steel Remains, but I actually enjoyed it. I just hope that the sequel will be as good or better.
His Father's Fist by Matthew Stover - Yay! ^^ After Blade of Tyshalle, which was great, I found Caine Black Knife a bit disappointing, mostly because it was very short and ended, if I remember correctly, with a huge cliffhanger. Naturally, my hopes for His Father's Fist are high.

Last, but not least, let me wish you all a happy 2011 :) May it bring as much joy as possible.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Freda Warrington - Midsummer Night (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: I got a review copy from the publisher (Tor)

Gil wants to escape from the world, so she books a cottage on an estate belonging to Lady Juliana Flagg, a famous sculptor. Much to Gil's dismay, Lady Flagg's annual art school is taking place on the same estate, meaning Gil won't be as far from other people as she wanted to be. Despite her best efforts to stay away from other people, she stumbles onto a path into Otherworld, the realm of faeries, and forms a new friendship. And while friendship is going swimmingly, the Otherworld only brings trouble – first of them being a young boy who seeks shelter in Gil's cottage.
(This is what Midsummer Nights is actually about. I don't know who wrote the original summary, but it is full of weird mistakes.)

Midsummer Night is a second part of the Aetherial Tales series (first part being Elfland), but even though I didn't read Elfland, I didn't feel like I've missed anything – Midsummer Night can easily be read as a standalone novel. It's been a long time since I've read an urban fantasy book that dealt with the fairy world, and even those I've read last were all YA books, so I was happy to see one written for adults. Luckily, Midsummer Night didn't disappoint.

One of the first things I've noticed was that the troubled protagonist was very well written. Gill, suffering from PSD, is a perfect example of the 'show, not tell' principle - staying in character throughout the first few chapters, being paranoid and filled with irrational guilt, feeling asocial and broken. Her thoughts are full of pessimism, she doesn't know how to act with other people and everything she sees reminds her of the event that caused it all:

“What was it like, to be part of such a clique? Dangerous, maybe. You could find yourself suddenly rejected by the pack, alone and broken.”

Later on, though, Gill gets over her fears and negative feelings; she becomes much more normal and likeable, but also less interesting as a character. The plot of Midsummer Night is pretty generic, but since the book is well-written, I didn't mind it that much. It seemed to me that Warrington was not really trying to give us anything new or unique, but rather trying to write a decent genre book. I was also happy to see that she was aware that the whole 'I accidentally wandered into Otherworld' thing has been around for ages and therefore didn't overdo it – instead of dwelling on Gill's disbelief for a chapter or two, Warrington moves on with the story instead.

Sadly, after the first few chapters, the plot deteriorates a bit – it becomes a very typical urban fantasy plot, with protagonists moving to and fro between Earth and Otherworld and some romance tossed in for good measure. This could become boring very quickly, especially as the Otherworld parts were one of the least interesting in the book, but luckily, the parallel plotline saves the day – dealing with Lady Juliana Flagg's history, it was much more entertaining; I would actually be perfectly happy even if the Otherworld parts (or most of them) had not even been in the book.

While Midsummer Night was not one of my favourite books of 2010, it certainly was one of the best urban fantasy books I've read lately. Warrington obviously knows how to write and if the plot is a bit generic, the very lifelike characters and the family secrets more than make up for it. All in all – enjoyable.


They say it's better late than never: merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: I've heard that it's a good post-apocalyptic book.

Dagny is a confident young executive of Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company which is but a shade of its former glory due to difficult economic situation and incompetent leadership. While Dagny is determined not to let her company sink, other successful bussinessmen crumble under the pressure of the government and unfair competition. To save her company, Dagny has to take a leap of faith - she enters a bussiness partnership with Hank Rearden, the inventor of the supposedly brilliant, but as of yet untested new alloy, Rearden Metal.

As soon as I've read the first few chapters, I realised that Atlas Shrugged is definitely not a post-apocalyptic book. I was nevertheless captivated by Rand's prose, the plot was interesting and protagonist likeable, if a bit of an implausible character. It seemed to me that Atlas Shrugged will probably be a very good read – until I began reading the second part of the book.

While the first part is more plot-oriented, Rand uses the second part of Atlas Shrugged to present her dystopian future to the reader. As promised in the blurbs and various reviews, her ideas and world-views are unusual, sometimes even radical, but what bothered me most were the inconsistencies and improbabilities.

In Rand's dystopian world, law works in weird ways. There seems to be no constitution that would interfere with the new laws that are constantly being passed; the latter just spring into being with incredible ease that doesn't seem very realistic. The book is set in a time of changes, yet there is no explanation whatsoever of how the present situation came to be. That, too, nagged at me while I was reading, especially as the situation mentioned is very unlikely by itself – in every single major industry, there is but one competent person on whom absolutely everyone relies. Of course, this makes for a very nice setting for the point Rand wants to prove (remove the competent people and the economy collapses), but it still looks like a very implausible background to build your story on, not to mention that the lack of explanation is somewhat surprising, since Rand obviously did lot of research on various subjects such as the organisation and operation of railway system and various economical situations.

The society depicted in Atlas Shrugged is no less strange. The politicians, as far as I've managed to gather, don't have an agenda; their only goal seems to be gathering as many votes as they can, but it seems as they only want to get elected for the power the position would bring them. They let various committees, cobbled together from random wealthy businessmen, decide on matters such as radical changes in the country's economy; at least the politicians still have some power over deciding who gets what materials and, sometimes, which laws will be passed. I couldn't help but wonder – how come? Why is quality of service of no concern to anyone and what happened to consulting with professionals when deciding on important matters?

The general public doesn't seem to matter in Atlas Shrugged; even though they're the ones voting, the big fish rarely think about them. There's no mention of the role they play in supporting the economy or how important they are when it comes to selling non-essential products like cosmetics, toys … – the businessmen in Atlas Shrugged deal mostly in steel, transport, oil..., things that always sell and rarely get out of fashion, but what about the industries that depend on the fickle customers? The workers in various plants are pretty much the only mention of 'the people' and they are mostly referred to as if they were simply living, breathing tools without personality. The curious thing is that Rand's main characters never think of exploiting the workers, even though they're all about profit; despite the desperate situation, no-one seems to think of employing the minimum number of workers for a minimum wage or moving the industry to other countries, where the price of labour would be lower. In fact, other countries are mentioned only once or twice in the whole book (there's a mention of a trade with Germany and a Danish pirate); import and export seem to be unimportant or non-existent.

The capitalists, who are the true protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, are the most curious lot in the book. Rayn distinguishes two kinds of capitalists, successful and unsuccessful ones. The former are smart, fair and honourable, while the latter are spoiled, corrupt and college-educated (despite being college-educated herself, Rayn presents it as a bad thing). They are also running the business only because they've inherited it, or because everyone else is doing it, whereas the 'good guys' do it because they love their work. What struck me as really odd was that those capitalists, competent and incompetent alike, have no power whatsoever. Of course, the 'bad guys' all have friends in high places (what kind of bad guys would they be if they didn't have any?) but still, I'd really like to know how it is possible to run a very successful business and at the same time have no power at all.

What seems perhaps most implausible is how the 'good guys' all agree in their world-views, beliefs and virtues, so they can relate perfectly to each other and are as unified as they can be. I don't think such a thing would be possible in the real world – real people are too different to each other, they have different upbringings and convictions, so this Rand's clique of competent businessmen is yet another implausibility for the list. It is same with the immense success they have all achieved through hard work and use of wits and therefore proved that they are able businessmen. Ironically, it is Rand herself who mentions other people rising through incompetence and timid personality, so it's all a bit of a mess – success proves that someone is competent, but not when incompetent people are successful? This and other, similar contradictions, leave the reader confused and hardly add to the reading experience.

In general, it's clear that Rand sees her version of capitalism (not the dystopian one the book is set in but the one her protagonists keep talking about) as the ultimate world order and tries to prove that by presenting us with a dystopia where the last of the 'good guys' try to succeed against the prevailing incompetence. The problem, though, is that it's very hard for a reader to distinguish between the good and the bad without Rand explaining which is which. Judging a character's competence by success is no good, as I've mentioned before, and it's the same with their ability to keep the company up and running (in fact, the 'bad guys' are even better at this than the 'good guys'). So, a 'good guy' must be both successful and able to prevent his company from collapse while not pulling any strings, being a fair boss and not selling products by deceiving people. It sure sounds nice, but not very profitable – and Rand's capitalists, logically, value profit above all else, not to mention that no profits probably means no success.

Then, in the third part of the book, Rand depicts the 'good guys' not only as good businessmen but also as brilliant at anything they decide to do, from fishing and farming to sewing and building motors, when they decide to form a self-sustaining community away from civilisation. Again, Rand doesn't explain how a handful of people manages to produce their own paper, wine, cigarettes, ceramics, paints and all kinds of cloth (all high-quality products, of course) and mine gold and iron, neither we get to see how can all those natural resources be available in such a small area. I know that Rand's idyllic valley was meant to depict an idyllic capitalist society, but yet again, the sheer implausibility of it ruined most of it for me.

There were some other convictions presented in Atlas Shrugged that bothered me, such as that the poor are poor because they are either stupid or not trying hard enough (I wonder whether they knew the term 'cultural deprivation' in 50's?) and a fervent rant about how communism is the greatest evil possible. As for Rand's style – her prose is wonderful but most of the dialogues are very long-winded, repetitive and incredibly boring, with Jon Galt's 60-page monologue taking the prize (it is not only long and boring but also tells the reader nothing that hasn't been said or thought at some previous point in the book).

So, what can I say? Atlas Shrugged starts off nicely, but is sadly reduced to beautifully written propaganda after the first part of the book – and as much as I enjoyed Rand's prose, I really dislike reading propaganda. My initial excitement about Rand not being afraid to write about economy and its mechanisms gave way to disappointment as I saw that she doesn't really provide any plausible explanation of her imaginary society's foundations, probably because there are none. Atlas Shrugged did give me some food for thought, if mostly in form of me spotting the implausibilities, but as far as works of speculative fiction go, I wouldn't call it one of the more enjoyable ones.

N/A (I'd give it a 5 for prose, a 2,5 for plot and a 0 for the dialogues)


The longest review I've ever written! :) Also, sorry for not updating in quite a while, I was re-reading ASOIAF and not writing any new reviews.


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