Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The End of Harry Potter

We've all gone a bit potty at our house. Son #1 and I both read THE BOOK last weekend. My wife just finished it last night, and son #2 will probably be done in the next couple of days. Son #3 just started reading the series (on his own--I've read most of them to him aloud) a few weeks ago and is almost done with Chamber of Secrets. We've been fans of the books since they first came out here in the U.S.

So here is a short, spoiler-free review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I posted over at Library Thing (if you are not familiar with LT, you must check it out.) They've got a contest going where you can win prizes for reviewing the book and giving a thumbs-up to other reviews. This review, if you can call it that, doesn't address all the issues I had with the book (the completely unnecessary device of the Hallows, for instance) but sums up my overall reaction quite nicely.

Expectations were high for this final installment in the HP series. One hundred pages in, I felt sure those expectations would be met. Three hundred pages in, I was beginning to have my doubts. By page 500, I was seriously worried. But by the time I read the last word on page 759 I was completely satisfied.

The book starts off with a bang, but the bulk of the middle chapters turn into a standard fantasy quest. Which, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing; however, in this instance, the story really gets bogged down and never seems to advance in any meaningful way until the very end. This isn't to say there aren't some wonderful, exciting scenes mixed in along the way--they are just few and far between.

The problem is that one of the series' main characters doesn't really make an appearance until the end of the book. No, not that guy. I'm talking about Hogwarts. So much of the wonder and magic of the series has to do with the school itself--the classes, the teachers, Quidditch, the castle with its myriad rooms and hidden passages, the Forbidden Forest, etc., etc. I know it was necessary for the story that the main action take place away from Hogwarts, but I think it really hurt the book to keep Harry away from his only true home for so long.

Because once Harry and friends finally arrive at Hogwarts, things really get moving. Everything kicks into overdrive and leads up to a real corker of an ending. I'll forever have imprinted in my brain the image of a certain character's charge across the room, wand waving, shouting out "..." (Sorry, I almost forgot I want this to be a spoiler-free review!) Shades of Ripley's final stand against the Queen in Aliens!

Despite my concerns, Rowling manages in the last couple of chapters (plus the epilogue) to close out the series in absolutely satisfying fashion. I've gone back and reread the epilogue a few times already, not only for what it reveals, but for the way Rowling is able in a few short pages to come full circle and set the ending tone back to that optimistic sense of wonder and magic that so fully embodied the first few books in the series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Readercon 18, cont.

I knew when I sent in my registration for the con that I would only be able to attend Thursday and Friday. The open-to-all Thursday night sessions were great and I was really anticipating an enjoyable day's worth of programming on Friday. I was not disappointed.

I caught the tail-end of the opening panel on Heinlein. The claim was made that Heinlein introduced dialogue to popular SF. Before he came along, SF was almost exclusively descriptive, with the exception of H.G. Wells, whom Heinlein worshipped. I skipped out early because I wanted to make sure I got a seat for the first session that I was really excited about: a Jeff Ford reading.

There was another reading still going on, so I was cooling my heels in the hallway, when up walks Jeffrey Ford. I was only introduced to Ford's work last year via several sites/blogs (most memorably Jay Tomio's blog, where he was listing his Top 100 of the last ten years) but have developed into a big fan. I enjoyed his novel, Mrs. Charbuque, but it is through his short stories that his talent really shines through. He's got lots of great stories, but Botch Town might be my favorite. So here I am, alone with Jeff Ford, and what do I do? Nothing. I would love to talk with him, but approaching people I don't know is not a strength of mine. Also, I don't want to bother the guy. So the room empties and we head in with others that have shown up. The room seats about 30-40 and just has a long, low table at the front--no podium. None of which matters, because we get started and Ford pulls out a brand new story, The Drowned Life, and starts to read. It's a great story. Very much in the Ford ouevre--dark, a bit twisted, with an eye for the odd detail that really gives life to his stories.

Next was a panel discussion on The Slipstream/Fabulation/Magic Realism canon (with handouts!). Although I wasn't at the last two days of the con, I'm pretty sure this panel took the 'Most panelists crammed onto one dais' award. I was looking forward to this one mostly because I really like the writings of Paul DiFillipo and Catherynne Valente. Other panelists included F. Brett Cox, Ron Drummond, Graham Sleight, John Kessel, Victoria McManus and Theodora Goss. I'm definitely going to be checking out Goss' short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting because she presented some very articulate and intelligent arguments. Unfortunately, the panel spent a lot of time just trying to figure out a working definition for "slipstream". Listening to the discussion, my main thought was, "So what?" I mean, what difference does nailing down a definition really make? None that I could see. My own definition of slipstream would be something like this: anything that isn't easily categorizable as science fiction, fantasy or horror. End of discussion.

I actually left early since it didn't look like there was going to be any discussion of actual books. They did hand out a rather disjointed list of titles organized (?) in some puzzling ways. Paul DiFillipo has posted the entire list here. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the fact that several of the titles listed in the "core canon" were published in the last few years makes the whole thing seem a bit silly. The fact that one of the titles had not yet been published was ridiculous! And no Mark Helprin?! I know his politics are pretty unpopular with the majority of the SF set, but Winters Tale is an incredible book, and Helprin is generally acknowledged as an American magic realist. Borges' Collected Fictions was the only unanimous choice, which I don't think anyone will argue with. At the very least, I've got another list of recommended titles that I can sift through.

I meant to attend another reading at 3:00 p.m., given by Chris Genoa, the author of Foop!, but they opened the dealer room at the same time, and I was lost for quite awhile. Too. many. books. I managed to extricate myself with only moderate damage to the bank account and made my way to a reading by Kelly Link. Much like Jeff Ford, it hasn't been long since I read my first Link story. Her collection, Magic for Beginners, was released last year to pretty much universal acclaim--and it deserved it. Her stories stick with you long after you've finished reading, so I was thrilled to hear her reading a new story, a unique take on the Cinderella fairytale. I also caught a reading by Catherynne Valente who read a couple of stories from her upcoming The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice. This is the sequel to the first Orphan's Tales book, In the Night Garden, which I read a few months ago. These books are novels told in an amazing series of nested stories. Valente writes beautifully and if you haven't read this, you are missing out.

Young (and Very Young) Adult F&SF was the next panel I attended. I had a few reasons for attending this one. I've got four boys that all fall into this readership category, so I'm always interested in finding new titles that might interest them. My #3 son is a big Spiderwick fan and the author of that series, Holly Black was one of the panelists. Last, but not least, I'm in the midst of writing (or attempting to write) a kids book that would probably fall into the very YA category. Besides Ms. Black, the panel consisted of Michael J. Daley, Sarah Beth Durst, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Sharyn November, and Elizabeth Wein. This panel had the potential to be a major yawner were it not for the efforts of the moderator, Ms. November. She was hilarious. First, she ripped into the panel description provided by the organizers and pretty much did what she wanted from that point onward. It actually turned into an interesting discussion on the different types of YA and some of the influences of the panelists/authors. The glut of YA fantasy was a topic, as was the inclusion of "smut" (Ms. Black's word) in YA fiction. As the father of four boys I was particularly interested to learn about Daley's book, a YA sci-fi adventure called Shanghaied to the Moon.

I rounded out my Readercon experience with readings by James Morrow and John Crowley. Both read from novels-in-progress, The Philosopher's Apprentice and Four Freedoms, respectively. Both were excellent, though I have to admit by this time I was running on fumes since I hadn't taken a dinner break. I attended the The 2008 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award Ceremony and the Meet the Pros(e) Party, where I spoke with Michael Daley for a few minutes and got to meet Ted Chiang.

Overall it was a great experience, and I was sorry I couldn't attend the rest of the con. Maybe next year.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Readercon 18

This was my first con of any kind, and I honestly didn't know what to expect. I only knew this wasn't the kind of convention where you might bump into a Klingon or an Orc on the way into or out of the restroom. As its name implies, Readercon is all about the literature--books, authors, editors, publishers, etc. Which is the reason I decided to attend. I'm all about the books; and while I wouldn't cross the street to meet an actor, the prospect of meeting, or at least being in the same room with, some of my favorite writers had me a bit giddy.

I attended the two Thursday night panels, which was open to all and was the first time the con has held any programming on a Thursday. Hopefully it won't be the last. The first panel was titled, "The Real Year" is Ageless! and featured panelists John Clute, Elizabeth Hand, David G. Hartwell, Barry N. Malzberg, and Graham Sleight. This was an interesting discussion based on an idea that Clute first wrote about some 30 years ago--that each work of fiction is informed by a "real year" no matter when it was written or when it is set. This real year comes across in many ways: dialogue, characterizations, societal attitudes, politics, etc. For instance, the panel generally agreed that Ray Bradbury's real year is somewhere in the late 20s - early 30s. While the discussion was interesting, Clute argued that the idea of the "real year" is a critical tool that can work well in specific applications, but needs to be used sparingly.

"What book is most emblematic of Readercon?" started out as a panel discussion, but quickly evolved (by design) into an audience participation event. The panelists were Paul DiFillipo, Sarah Smith, F. Brett Cox and Darrell Schweitzer. The discussion was wide-ranging. Some people stuck to the topic and tried to come up with titles that really embody the spirit of Readercon. Others seemed like they were just reeling off a list of favorite books. Yet others dove right into the deep end, suggesting that "the book not read" or "the book not yet written" best embodied the spirit of Readercon. Following is a list of suggested titles and the name (when I could catch it) of the person suggesting them:

David Hartwell: 334 by Disch and Engine Summer by Crowley
John Clute: Little, Big by Crowley
Barry Malzberg: The Hustler by Tevis, The Demolished Man by Bester, They'd Rather be Right by Clifton & Reilly "A novel that is both not very good and very important."
Paul DiFillipo: The Post Office by Bukowski, Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon
Sarah Smith: Slammerkin by Donoghue, Mistress Masham's Repose by White
Darrell Schweitzer: Camp Concentration by Disch
F. Brett Cox: Sarah Canary by Fowler, Was by Ryman
Greer Gilman: The Child Garden by Ryman, Lud-in-the-Mist by Mirrlees
A guy in a Hawaiin shirt: The Book of the New Sun by Wolfe
Unidentified man: anything by R.A. Lafferty
Eric Van: Dhalgren by Delaney
Dave Shaw: Voyage to Arcturus by Lindsey
Kay Kenyon: Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin, Viriconium by Harrison
A guy in an orange shirt: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories by Wolfe
Unidentified: The High Crusade by Anderson
Unidentified: Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury
Liz Hand: Viriconium by Harrison
Rick Wilbur: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Miller; Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harrison
Gary Wolfe: A Course of the Heart by Harrison
Karen Joy Fowler: The Once and Future King by White, The Green Child by Read
Louise Marley: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Wilhelm
Ron Drummond: Engine Summer by Crowley
Diane Weinstein: Little, Big by Crowley, Titus Groan by Peake
Lucius Shepard: Fiskadoro by Johnson
John ??: Our Lady of Darkness by Leiber
Unidentified guy with beard: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Carroll
Michelle Sloan: It Happened in Boston? by Greenan
Bob Colby: Herovit's World by Malzberg
The con's "official transcriptionist": Cloud Atlas by Mitchell
?? Hirsch: The Demolished Man by Bester
Unidentified: The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses by Apuleius, translated byAdlington
Unidentified: works of E.R. Edison
Keith Roberts: Pavane by Roberts (I think this was the author recommending his own book)
Suzanne Church: the YA books of Scott Westerfeld

I probably missed some in there, and I know that more people brought up Engine Summer, Little, Big, The Book of the New Sun and Dhalgren--I just didn't write them down every time because I was making a list of book recommendations for myself.

This discussion went on until 11:00 pm, and could have gone on all night I'm sure. This was a great introduction to the con--people sitting around talking about some of their favorite books. I had a good time, but I felt woefully underread compared to most of the people attending. I read a lot, but I don't exclusively read speculative fiction--and I'm particularly weak when it comes to classic SF. There just isn't enough time to read everything I want to read, much less everything that I should read!

I've since picked up copies of Dhalgren, Engine Summer and 334 so I'm planning on digging into those soon. Right now I'm reading Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. More on that later. I think I'll save my report on the Friday events at Readercon for another post. For a more comprehensive (and undoubtedly better written) report of the entire con, see here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Inaugural post

I set up this blog about a year ago and am just getting around to my first post. This tells you almost all you need to know about me. Granted, I only created it so I could comment on another blog that wouldn't allow you to comment unless you were registered with Blogger. That was a few months after I had decided I better find out what all the fuss was over these blog things I'd been hearing so much about. I'd been reading Neil Gaiman's online journal for several years, but hadn't really ventured beyond that into the greater blogosphere. As you can see, I am not an early adopter. I'm more of a mid-range fosterer. I may not be the last person in the neighborhood to get on board with whatever the newest big thing is, but I definitely like to wait until I'm sure it has sticking power.

So I'm late to the game, but after months and months of lurking and occasionally commenting, I've decided I want to play. Why? Two reasons. First, as a writing exercise. I've always wanted to be a writer, specifically a fiction writer, even more specifically a speculative fiction writer. I have written some things, but I am cursed with an almost chronic lack of discipline when it comes to writing. Part of it is fear; most of it is just plain laziness. I'm looking at this blog as a way to jumpstart myself into doing some sort of writing on a regular basis.

Second, as a method to review and recommend books. The thing I enjoy most about the blogosphere is finding people that have similar taste in books. Most of the books I've read in the last year or so have been based on the recommendations of other bloggers/reviewers. Books like City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Air by Geoff Ryman. I know there is this ongoing debate over the merit of online reviews, but I honestly couldn't care less. It bothers me not at all that there are some in the print "establishment" that question the legitimacy of online reviews and reviewers. When I find someone who loves some of the same books that I love and they recommend a title, I'm going to give it a try. And if I then come to trust that person's opinion, I'm going to keep checking back for further recommendations--no matter what anyone else thinks. Frankly, I find the whole argument a bit silly--just do what you do and don't worry about what anyone else says or thinks. Yes, I know, easier said than done.

I imagine this blog will be mostly about books, but it will probably have a smattering of sports (big baseball fan) and movies and television and who knows what else. I'm not expecting anyone to actually read it, so it really is just for me, which means I can go off in any old direction I want. Which is cool.

Coming up in the not-too-distant future, I will post a review (such as it is) of The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon and a brief report of the one day I spent at my very first SF convention, Readercon 18, in nearby Burlington, Mass.