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review 2017-02-16 15:16
Amazing
Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew - Philip J. Currie,John A. Pickrell

We’re in a golden age of discovery – and the fossils coming to light show dinosaurs were stranger, bigger, scarier and more diverse than we ever imagined.

From outback Australia to the Gobi Desert and the savanna of Madagascar, award-winning science writer John Pickrell sets out on a world tour of new discoveries and meets the fossil hunters leading the charge. Discover the dwarf dinosaurs unearthed by an eccentric Transylvanian baron, an aquatic, crocodile-snouted carnivore bigger than T. rex, the Chinese dinosaur with wings like a bat, and a Patagonian sauropod so enormous it was heavier than two commercial jet airliners.

Why did dinosaurs grow so huge? Did they all have feathers? And what do sauropods have in common with 1950s vacuum cleaners? Weird Dinosaurs examines the latest breakthroughs and new technologies radically transforming our understanding of the distant past.

My rating:4.5
What did I think
First off I want to say that this would have been a five star read for me if it had 2 things and they are:
1: how to say the dinosaur's name
2: the mean of said name.
Other than that I loved it ,but then again I love reading anything that talks about dinosaurs ,so if you love to read about them and learn about them then you need to pick this one up and add it to your collection, I know I will be , there was so much information about some.of the old ones and about new findings that made this book amazing to read. With that said I would love to say thinks to Netgalley for giving me a chance at reading this and for finding another amazing dinosaur book to add to my collection, in a change for my honest opinion which this is.can't wait for it to come.out to buy.

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review 2015-07-21 20:15
M. john Harrison's 'The Pastel City'
The Pastel City - M. John Harrison

Fantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use the strangeness of magic to tap into the more remote corners of the soul, and then obscure their transgressions behind the fantastical facade. Like Moorcock, Leiber, and Vance, Harrison is playful, he is rebellious.

Indeed, in his swift, pulpy approach, Harrison very much resembles those authors, but his voice sets him apart. There is a scintillation, a sophistication, a turn of phrase which shows a practiced hand, and unlike many fantasy authors, Harrison's voice is very consistent. He is aware of what he is doing, the effect he means to produce, and he generally succeeds.

Moorcock was fond of saying that he was a 'bad writer with big ideas', and the same can be said of many genre writers, from R.E. Howard on, but Harrison is not a bad writer, and it's enjoyable to see someone of his skill take up the torch--leaving no doubt why he was so successful in inspiring New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer to tear into genre (with varying degrees of success).

He had already made a name for himself as an editor and ruthless critic working at Moorcock's New Worlds, often lamenting the shallow predictability of genre fiction (his critical work has been collected in Parietal Games ), and this is clearly a stab at trying to break out of that monotony--to practice what he had been preaching. It is rather less wild and experimental than his later works, but there is something very effective in the straightforward simplicity displayed here.

The most obviously groundbreaking aspect of the work is his setting (not, as Harrison would insist, his 'world'). He combines science fiction and fantasy tropes quite freely, but with much greater success than Leiber's clunky attempts, and much more overtly than Moorcock's nods to quantum physics in Elric. It acts as a reminder that despite all the purists trying to drive a definitive wedge between the genres, they are really doing the same thing: creating physical symbols through which to explore ideas (it's Clarke's Third Law again).

An easy example is Star Wars, a fantasy story about wizards, prophecy, spells, magic swords, funny animals, good vs. evil, and the monomyth which adopts science fiction only as an aesthetic, a 'look'. It isn't forward-looking, it's mythical, which is why the laser beams only shoot at a fixed point in front of the ship, like World War I biplanes. Nowadays, the concept of mixing fantasy and sci fi has trickled down into the public consciousness, showing up in cartoons like Adventure Time--and to a large part, we have Harrison to thank for that, because his version (complete with laser swords) came years before Star Wars, and also presents a much more nuanced view of the world.

On the surface, Harrison's rusted-out future world resembles Vance's, but it's much closer to fellow New Wave Britisher J.G. Ballard (or Le Guin): a fantastical headspace of extremes, when everything is dying and collapsing around you, and yet life goes on--dwindling, certainly, but fundamentally not very different from how it has always been. It’s a portrait of existential dread, our fear of being alone, our foolish habit of nostalgia, of seeing the past not as it was, but as a sort of promised land, a missed opportunity for our neurotic brain to cling to.

The dying world is the legacy of poets (at least, of the Victorians, who have the most influence on our modern notions of the poetic self), from Byron’s Darkness to Shelley’s The Last Man and the mythology of Blake--and of course arch-pilferer Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, in this post-modern world, it’s become almost trite to riff on The Waste Land and it’s world built around the sad, intellectual man who regrets that all meaning has been stripped away, and he’s left to figure it out on his own.

However, fantasy has long been lagging behind, particularly highly-visible epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s, which behaves as if existentialism and skepticism never happened, instead inundating the reader in a top-down, authoritative voice full of message and allegory and obvious symbolism--though Tolkien himself often denied that this was the case, as a believer, to him the real world was a symbolic allegory.

The 'dying Earth' is the same old trick of fantasy, to take a state of mind and literalize it, to produce a setting that reflects it, and through which the author can explore it. It's like how in a Gothic novel, it rains when people are said, and lightning strikes as the villain observes the results of his cruelty.

Sure, it's also what a comics writer does when he puts the fate of the world at stake to increase the tension--but I won't say it's a bad trick, or a dirty one--it all depends on the magician who is using it. Are the a con artist, trying to win us over and sell us something, or are they a trickster like Houdini or James Randi, forcing us to confront the fact that we can so easily be fooled--indeed, that we may want to be fooled.

I find Harrison to be a trickster, an invoker of our better nature, if only because he realizes that the mind can be unsure--it can change--so, what happens to a world founded upon a changing mind? It's a question Harrison only touches on here, before diving in headlong in the next book, and finally getting a grasp on it in the third and fourth.

Unfortunately, one area where Harrison fails to meaningfully improve upon earlier genre outings is the portrayal of women. They are rarely present, and when they are, they tend to the weak and distant. We don't get inside their heads as we do the male characters, and so they do not really feel like complete characters, but objects of focus and motivators for the men around them. I mean, it's not like we're getting a trite Madonna/Whore love triangle, like Tolkien's, but moving from 'bad' to 'neutral' isn't much of an improvement, especially for a book written in the seventies--and the portrayals don't get much deeper in the later books.

I've often complained that many genre authors (like fellow dying-earther Gene Wolfe) give you two hundred pages of plot buried in four hundred pages of explanation, description, exposition, repetition, and redundancy--but I'm glad to say that in Harrison's case, he's happy to give us the two hundred and leave off the rest.

My List of Suggested Readings in Fantasy

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review 2015-07-15 21:46
Jeff VanderMeer's 'City of Saints and Madmen'
City of Saints and Madmen - Jeff VanderMeer,Michael Moorcock

Sometimes it doesn't matter what you hear about a book, all the promise described in glowing reviews--it doesn't matter who suggests it, on what authority or with what arguments. Sometimes, you're still going to come out the other side disappointed, confused how this could possibly be the book you had heard about, trying to reconcile the words of friends and fellow reviews with what you find on the page.

I'm there again. There's something in it reminiscent of the moment after a car accident, where you're sitting there in disbelief, trying to make sense of it, half laughing, half shaking your head.

It's not that I don't see it--the book certainly has the right markers: the self-awareness, the meta-fictions, the ironies and self-contradictions, the allusions and in-jokes, the big, rearing ugliness of modern literature. And yet to say that it has those markers doesn't mean much--it's like saying that a math book has equations, it doesn't mean that they add up to anything, that they're accurate.

Indeed, markers are the easiest things to fake--we all know what a piece of literature is supposed to look like, and so we can take the right words and the right techniques and include them. But of course, you can use a word without understanding its definition, and you can adopt a technique without ever considering why that technique is used.

The most obvious marker, at first glance, is the self-awareness of the text, what the kids these days call 'meta'--where not only are you writing, you're also commenting on the fact that you're writing, making jokes and references, reminding the reader of the artificiality of what they are reading.

It's a trick at least as old as Ariosto and Cervantes, but which has become especially popular in this Post-Modern Age of Skepticism. After all, we're not supposed to trust authority, we now take it for granted that the book is not the 'Logos', the Word of Truth, and so it makes sense for the author to step out occasionally and acknowledge that. And yet, since it is the default now, it's really not enough simply to be self-aware, just to poke at the fourth wall for the sake of doing it--that's played out.

Much of the self-awareness takes the form of a jokey, silly tone, and much like in Iain Banks, it seems to be an ill fit for otherwise dire and serious stories. More than that, VanderMeer is constantly harping on it without much payoff--there are some truly clever pieces of wit, here or there, but for every one that hits its mark, we have to wade through ten others that don't.

It starts to feel like being at a party with a guy who has to make some comment about everything, who keeps mentioning that people think he's funny, who tells you how funny his jokes are before he tells them, says 'wait for it!' before each punchline, and then explains the joke once it's done. In King Squid he writes:

“... six hundred continuous pages of spurious text that no true squidologist can read today without bleeding profusely from the nose, ear, and mouth.”


And it just feels like a bad internet comment--it's edgy, full of hyperbole, and so non-specific that it could have been appended to pretty much anything. That lack of precision makes humor impossible--because being funny means hitting your target right in the heart, not just pelting some refuse near it. From the same story:

“... the Society ... was unwise to choose as observers the Fatally Unobservant.”


The observers were unobservant. That's not even wordplay, it doesn't even reach to the level of the humble pun--and it's giving me unpleasant flashbacks to Discworld.

In his introduction, Moorcock compares VanderMeer to Peake, but he just lacks any subtlety, and it all smacks of trying too hard, just worrying incessantly at the edges until they all begin to fray. When he mentions the Borges Bookstore (on Albumuth Boulevard, natch), which he does in every story, it's a nudge that threatens to bowl the reader over, a wink by way of facial spasm.

It's not only with his jokes and allusions that VanderMeer leaves nothing to chance, he has characters tell us in footnotes when we are supposed to think they are funny, he mentions when a certain part is deliberately over-written, or that we shouldn't trust some character, or that this point-of-view shift indicates a change in the character's personal identity.

Yet this is a book that people say is challenging, is intellectual and mysterious, something you have to put together yourself, piece by piece. My idea of a challenging book is one that trusts the reader to come to their own conclusions, to figure out the themes for themselves, and to find humor where it lies, not one that leads them along by the hand. Sure, sometimes his instructions are contradictory--we're told at first that something is important, and later that it's not trustworthy--but the real problem is that we're being told outright at all.

A lot of this self-awareness takes the form of self-deprecation, as in this line:

"Throughout the story, X communicates to the reader "between the lines" in a rather pathetic manner. Such self-consciousness has clearly corrupted his writing."


But self-deprecation is only effective when it is honest, when it acts as a genuine reveal of character, not just a sarcastic defense mechanism--a schoolyard dodge, 'if I say it first, then they can't make fun of me for it'.

Self-awareness needs to be more than just a pose, because otherwise, you just fall into teenage rebellion, where it becomes an excuse, a crutch, a way of distancing one's self from the reader, and from judgment--'Yeah, I know--Did you think I didn't know that? Everyone knows that.' It becomes a crutch to fall back on, an attempt to regain some semblance of control, just like all the explanations of what the reader is supposed to be getting out of this.

Certainly, VanderMeer set himself a great task, and there's something admirable in that, but it isn't one of those great, inspirational 'troubled experiments', like Moby Dick or A Storm of Wings--in large part because Harrison manages to achieve in A Storm of Wings everything that VanderMeer can't seem to do here. However, Harrison always lets the story stand on its own, he gives no excuses, nor does he spell out what we're supposed to take away from the book.

It's a lesson all artists need to learn: if you're going to be brave and create something, then be brave all the way through. Don't stop halfway to explain yourself. When you hand off your work for others to enjoy, don't include qualifiers and excuses--even though the urge to do so will be strong. You have to let the work stand on its own, and if you aren't willing to do that, then don't take on a monumental task, because the meddling will ruin it.

And VanderMeer set a monumental task for himself--there are a lot of moving pieces here, and keeping them all spinning is a master's work. The structure itself is obsessed with metafiction, with all of these 'in-world' documents that are supposed to come together and produce a greater whole: a scientific article about squid, a series of art critiques, a pamphlet about the history of the city, an asylum doctor's interview, letters, a story written in secret code, and several more.

Yet, I rarely found that these metafiction elements were well-written enough to merit inclusion--they certainly paled in comparison to the pure fiction stories. Indeed, there seemed to be a sense that they were all extended jokes--in An Early History of Ambergris, the fact that there were more footnotes than actual text, and the same in King Squid, except this time it was the bibliography that was longer than the story, or in The Release of Belacqua , mocking the fact that art critics can often only guess at their subjects' motivations.

But all of these jokes relied on their great length, the need for the author to just keep at them, to keep extending them ever longer, which only actually works if the joke is funny enough in the first place to survive such a stretching on the rack. What marks great lengthy jokes is the author's ability to keep raising the stakes, to keep making things more ridiculous and involved, to drop the other shoe--and then another--until it's all piled on top of itself, redoubling its own absurd premise. Instead of this, VanderMeer keeps the same pace throughout, merely adding on more of the same, and so the last line holds no more humor than the first--indeed, rather less by way of attrition.

The central story that connects all of these it The Strange Case of X, which literalizes the fiction process, writing the author into the story, making him the god who creates the world, but is also trapped by it, by his own obsessive imagination. Again, it's an old trick--I found it trite when Grant Morrison first pulled it out (not to mention the third, fourth, and fifth times), and I still think it's something rather difficult to pull off. It forms a sort of 'answer' to Harrison's conclusion to the series, A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium', but again lacks the necessary subtlety and conviction.

Comparing Sartor Resartus to A Brief History of Ambergris, for example, a great deal of what makes the former so successful is that our crazed academic takes himself so seriously even as he spouts the most absurd nonsense--indeed, we almost feel we believe him. In contrast, VanderMeer's is constantly telling us how funny and silly he is, and as such, he feels less wonderfully absurd and more 'look at me being wacky'.

I got the impression that The Strange Case of X was supposed to be a sort of surprising twist story, forcing us to question our assumptions about the nature of reality versus fantasy. However, right from the beginning, I assumed the twist--I’m not saying I cleverly figured it out, but that it never occurred to me that the story might end any other way. It would be as if a story ended with the revelation ‘he was a dog all along!’, when the first several stories in the collection were also from the point of view of dogs, and the story in question kept mentioning leashes and chew toys. Perhaps if it were read in isolation, it would work better, but when collected with other Ambergris stories, it's hard to imagine reading it any other way.

Then there's the fact that these metafictions tend to fall into worldbuilding cliches, where the author literally sits you down and dumps a huge pile of exposition on the reader, not only explaining the history of the city, but also giving comments along the way suggesting how you should feel about it. It struck me that one of the only times I've seen this done well was in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , and that's only because it was clever and witty enough that the worldbuilding didn't matter, it was completely secondary--indeed, if you took any one of those entries completely out of context, it would still be amusing.

Susanna Clarke managed to do the same thing with her footnotes, and it's a lesson all authors should learn: always be putting on a show, so that your words do double duty. Don't just be self-aware, be self-aware and funny, don't just be funny, be funny and thoughtful, don't just be thoughtful, be thoughtful and exciting.

Otherwise, it becomes the equivalent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun books, where there's supposed to be this huge, complex, interesting meta-story behind the real story, as long as you reread it and carefully put together all the pieces--but why would anyone want to reread a dull story over and over in hopes that it might become interesting? It becomes the equivalent of the epic fantasy standby: 'You have to keep reading until the fifth book, that's when it gets good. A good author ensures that the story is intriguing on both the small and large scale.

Also like Wolfe (and Banks again), there are some very cliche problems with character and point-of-view. Just like in bad Steampunk (meaning most of it), where authors completely forget the 'punk' and make all of their characters upper class and educated, VanderMeer doesn't give us any views from oppressed or minority classes. It's all about the difficulty of being a smart, middle-class white male artist (or scientist).

Women are largely absent, except as objects of desire. We don't get to go into their heads, to see their point-of-view, we aren't asked to explore their struggles or concerns. Even as objects of desire, there's never any relationship or intimacy, just distant, creepy obsession. Indeed, the only genuine, long-term romance represented in the book is between two men.

The title character of Dradin, In Love is typical of such, being an obsessive creep who fantasizes about a woman he's never spoken to. Dradin is an ass of a character, but this isn’t the worst crime--many such asses in fiction are amusing, insightful depictions, even as we roll our eyes at their foolishness or cringe at their cruelty, we laugh and even sympathize with figures like Flashman or Steerpike. Dradin’s true sin is that he’s both unpleasant and dull--I don’t mean merely unassuming, like Chekhov or Kafka’s quotidian characters, but flat.

However, there is an implication that this is all on purpose, that he's meant to be this way--but of course, doing it on purpose isn't a justification, just as being 'self-aware' isn't--so, why is he this way, is it a parody of such characters in fantasy? Well, Dradin starts off an obsessive creep, and grows increasingly obsessive and creepy as the story goes on, demonstrating it twice and three times over.

Perhaps it's written for the reader who will, at first, assume that Dradin is a genuinely nice guy, and who will then be shocked and appalled at his later behavior? If so, then all VanderMeer has really done is write a fable for the naive--what does this present for a reader who dislikes him from the start? Not very much, I'm afraid, which is why it's important to make sure that a story works on multiple levels, such that it can interest various audiences at the same time.

There is a point, in any piece of art, when to add a further stroke would worsen it, would make it too busy, would destroy the sense of fluidity and gesture. Every artist knows this point exists, but for most of us, we only recognize it once it has passed, once we have already ruined it, and it becomes abundantly clear that we should have stopped a moment sooner.

Yet, there is a need in us to keep going, to keep carving away at our work--especially when we see the errors in it, which we always do. Once you've passed that point of no return, where each additional mark just muddles it a little bit more, it can be almost impossible to stop, to salvage something from it. Much easier to start over--and usually, to make the same mistake again.

An embarrassment of wealth becomes a wealth of embarrassment so easily when we overreach ourselves, when we are striving for something and all along feeling that it's too far beyond us even to approximate it. VanderMeer's work is full of reaching, and full of self-corrections, of tiny modifications in the course--because he is steering by the bow of his ship, not by the horizon.

Markers are easy to imitate, which is why VanderMeer can write

"On the thrice chime, a clerk ... came forward"


And if you weren't paying attention, if you didn't quite know what to look for, it might seem somehow interesting to mistake an adjective for an adverb--to use an odd word without really understanding the definition. What a shameful, whence the thrice badly book failure the aspiringly author.

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review 2015-05-28 01:39
You find yourself in Area X...
Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) - Jeff VanderMeer

When you're dealing with a series as freaky wig-out as the Southern Reach, it's difficult to wrap things up satisfactorily. You could go the way of the X-Files, and just get stupider and stupider until you die, having destroyed the mystery with a drearily linear explanation that insults everyone's intelligence. Some just never wrap, eventually howling out into the the void with less and less coherence, until it's just eidolon arms writhing in a no space. I think both have their problems, but I do have a preference for the screaming void. I felt like Acceptance cut the difference, which works better than it should, compromises being what they are. That said, I think there could have been maybe 15 more pages of coda. Shrug emoticon. 

 

Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach series, which heretofore has been tight little Gothic mindjobs. The first follows a biologist on an excursion into Area X, an uncanny bit of landscape on the "forgotten coast". (I'd put it mid-Atlantic: above DC, below Maine.) The second follows the newly appointed director of Southern Reach, the clandestine organization which monitors Area X. Both books are suffocatingly personal books, written in a tight third person, and both occur in short time frames: maybe a week, a month. Both are regretful, in a way, both their characters on the wrong side of meaningful lives. Both creeped me the fuck right out.

 

Acceptance instead has four or five point of view characters (all of whom we've met in the previous books). There's even a point of view character written in the second person, which seemed just bizarre and unneccesary. Honest to glob, I spent way more time than I should trying to work out why this one character was second person, and I have no answers, especially given who the character it is. I mean, I can see how she's a pivot in a way, a bridge, but I'm not sure this translates into you. Or me. Whichever, second person is a pain in the ass. If any of y'all do have an answer, drop me a line. The time frame also cuts between a then and a now, sometimes confusingly, which is either a bug or a feature, not sure.

 

So, I liked the answers I got, and I liked that I didn't get all the answers.VanderMeer's been building some metaphorical systems through the series, and in many places, he just laid the final card on the tower, and then gave it room. Honestly, that kind of restraint is commendable in an author, especially in science fiction which tends to the monologue at the end, letting you know how clever everything is. I have some reservations, but mostly they are personal weirdnesses, and not something the average reader is going to get fussed about. I bolted this trilogy down in a way I haven't in a long time, and that is really saying something. Good show. 

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review 2015-05-12 04:50
Cthonic Spies
Authority: A Novel - Jeff VanderMeer

Jesus Christ. Not as tight as the first, but still suffused with the same Gothic panic: institutional spaces, rotting, claustrophobia, lies. The director of Southern Reach, which is a clandestine organization tasked with monitoring Area X, interviews the biologist from the previous novel, returned by some unknown mechanism from the unknowable incursion into our reality, just there on the shore. The whole thing reads like a wiggled out spy novel written by Lovecraft, but even more upsetting. Dag, yo. 

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