Driving Blind by Ray Bradbury

Driving Blind.jpgThis is another collection of Ray Bradbury short stories. Bradbury is always readable and interesting but I found that the whole of this collection left something to be desired.

Most of the stories in this book are not in Bradbury’s usual genre of science fiction and fantasy (or horror). They seem to be more in the line of literary fiction. As such I found them less than satisfying. I don’t know if that was because I’d rather be reading science fiction or because the stories themselves were not as good.

Bradbury’s usual style of sparse but meaningful prose is present in every story and many of them end with his signature twist or reveal of things being completely different than originally apparent. The stories are as good as anything that Bradbury ever wrote.

I didn’t find the subject of most of them to be nearly as interesting nor as gripping as most of his other work that I’ve read. I loved his Martian Chronicles and his Illustrated Man. Some of his stories I have read many times because they are beautiful or terrifying or insanely good.

There were no stories from this book that I would like to read again. None that jumped out at me and grabbed my imagination like I know Bradbury is capable of doing.

It was a good book, but it wasn’t great. I expected more from Bradbury.

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Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon.jpgI have read and enjoyed several of Saldin Ahmed’s short work in the past so I was not surprised to find this book enthralling and exciting in equal measures — though at only 290 pages I’m not sure that it qualifies as a long work.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat and what he really wants is to retire, get married and spend his life drinking cardamom tea. His assistant, the dervish Raseed bas Raseed is a holy warrior whose piety matches his skills with his blade. They encounter Zamia Badawi, Pretector of a tribe of desert dwellers who have all been murdered by ghuls leaving her and her ability to take the shape of a lion as the only remnant to seek revenge.

They quickly get involved in a mystery to find the most powerful sorcerer Adoulla has ever seen while the despotic Khalif tightens his grip on the beloved city. The Falcon Prince, a rebel fomenting a revolution to overthrow the gods blessed Khalif and free the commoners of the city, is causing trouble and may be involved and Adoulla’s own acquaintances aren’t safe as ghuls begin attacking people inside the city.

Mystery, intrigue, revolution, alchemy, sorcery, magic, religious crises, emotional relationships and lumbering monsters amidst swords and fire and a girl who can turn into a lion sound like too much to be contained in a work this short but Saladin Ahmed rolls it all up neatly in a way that feel satisfying and like it must have contained much more than if possibly could have.

The characters in this book are all memorable and the writing is fast and fun.

This is ultimately a sword and sorcery tale set in an Arabian inspired setting. Even the magic used relies on combinations of the thousand names of god and the monsters they face are ghuls and djenn as well as jackal monsters and lions. It’s not intended to be a deep examination of moral and ethical questions but it works some of those in anyway. The political situation in Dhamsawaat is such that the main characters each have different and sometimes conflicting views. Raseed and Zamia both have their religious beliefs thrown into question while struggling to remain faithful.

The result is a book that is far better than it needs to be and a lot a fun at the same time.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn.jpgThe Last Unicorn is a strange combination of anachronistic satire and a beautiful prose poem about depression and the meaning of beauty.

The story is about the Unicorn who hears from some hunters in her wood that she is the last unicorn and from a butterfly that the Red Bull has driven them all down the road long ago. She sets out to find them, saddened by the news.

Along the way she meets Schmendrick, a bumbling wizard who can’t seem to gain control of his magic and Molly, a middle-aged woman who has grown bitter and cynical due to her experiences of depravity. The three seek out the Castle of King Hagard in an attempt to find the unicorns that he has trapped in the sea.

This book is full of metaphors and similes that twist and turn on their own heads so that they are both surprising and lyrically visual in a way that no other phrase could possibly be.

She laughed with a sound like snakes hurrying through mud

Beagle is not just turning a story into a poem. He is turning legends and myths and tropes and stereotypes upside down. The band of thieves tell themselves they are like Robin Hood but later they admit they don’t rob from the rich to give to the poor, they rob from the poor because they don’t fight. The story knows it is a fairy tale and is happy to acknowledge that fact.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

But, somewhere in the twists and turns of phrase, hidden behind all the humorous details and bumbling wizards and self-aware stories and twisted tropes hides a deeply emotional story about depression, bereavement and the meaning of love and beauty and how those things play together and against each other.

This is a book that deserves to be read many times. There is depth in here that I have not plumbed in a single reading. I can see that this book is a great metaphor itself, built around a number of other powerful and imaginative metaphors but I can’t see the whole picture in one encounter.

I definitely believe that this should be read (the movie is pretty great as well) and it contains so many depths and layers I wish there was a literary class I could take that would pick it apart and examine it in detail. This is one of the best books and has some of the most fascinating writing that I have ever read.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island.jpgWhat is there to be said about this book? If there is a stereotype of pirates and pirate adventures it probably came from this book. As is the case with most of these kinds of things the original is the best.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island as an adventure for boys and it has stood the test of time better than many other books. It holds up pretty well. Jim Hawkins sets sail to seek for Treasure Island following a map left to him by a dying patron in his mother’s inn. What follows is an adventure of betrayals, pirates, murders, thefts and scheming.

Long John Silver is the probably the most charismatic and lovable murderous pirate that ever existed on page and Jim Hawkins takes to him right away before discovering his treachery.

If you come across one of the abridged versions of this book don’t bother with it. The abridgments are all terrible as far as I can tell. The original is not very long and it’s worth the read.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni.jpgSome book are more than they seem and better than can be described. This is the case with Helene Wecker’s debut novel, the Golem and the Jinni.

A disgraced Rabbi who practices Kabbalistic magic creates a golem for a client who wants a servile but intelligent wife without the effort of actually meeting and being kind enough to somebody to get married. The client dies on the boat on the way to America just moments after waking the golem and she finds herself without a master in New York in 1899. She meets an elderly Rabbi and he names her Chava and teaches her how to fit in and how to hide her nature as a golem. She doesn’t need to eat or sleep and she can sense what people want without even trying.

A Bedouin wizard, centuries before, trapped a jinni inside a copper flask and he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in lower Manhattan. He gives the jinni the name Ahmad and teaches him to work the tin in his shop, taking him in as an apprentice. Ahmad is freed from the flask but an unbreakable iron band around his wrist keeps him tied to his physical shape.

Eventually the two meet and become friends the kind of which most people can only hope to find.

The resulting story is probably the most fascinating one that I have read in many years. Chava and Ahmad are very different people and they approach the world in very different ways. On top of that there are dozens of other interesting characters that populate the pages of this book. This is a story about people who are struggling to fit in to the world that is strange and wonderful. It is about mistakes and finding your way past them. It is about life and choices and death.

The whole is beautiful. Helene Wecker spent a great deal of time on the prose of this book and the result is marvelous. Every page, every word is intricately selected to bring the meaning that is needed to every scene. Every scene, however trivial, tumbles about and comes back again in a fascinating circle of events that make the story powerful and satisfying on many levels.

Add to the beautiful writing and emotionally powerful and fascinating story the fact that so much of it is based on Jewish and Islamic mythology — something I had not seen before in fantasy fiction (beyond the occasional golem monster and the genie from Aladdin) this book is fresh and powerful and should be read by everybody.

Helene Wecker has written a classic of fantasy of literature that shines with surpassing beauty.

Kitty and the Silver Bullet by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty and the Silver Bullet.jpgIn this 4th volume of the Kitty Norville series, Kitty must move back to Denver because her mother is facing cancer treatments and she can’t bear to be away, even if it means her old pack of werewolves might hunt her down and kill her.

This is a return to form for Kitty. She does some radio shows, which have been my favorite parts of these books all along and I missed those scenes from the previous book. She also returns to Denver where she has to face the abusive relationship that she fled from in the first book. This time, though, she is not here to turn tail and run or to submit. She’s here to defend her right to live how she wants.

Kitty finally stands up for herself and I found that the way the character has grown over the last three books there was never any doubt in my mind how things would turn out here. She has changed from the timid and spineless follower she was in the first book and now she is a leader.

Kitty is short and small and will never be the physically strongest person in any given group of adults but she has learned to lead by intelligence and personality and sheer force of will. What made this book so satisfying was looking back at the progression of how Kitty has grown and changed over the course of the previous books.

It’s easy for characters to remain static, especially ones that are in a long running series such as this. The truly great series of books are the ones that see the characters grow and change over the course of the series, much like real people do.

Kitty has grown significantly but so has Carrie Vaughn’s writing. The first books felt awkward, like she was just trying out her newly found skills and wasn’t sure where everything actually fit. By this book everything is smooth, the plotting, the characters, the relationships, and the words themselves are comfortable and fit into place.

Carrie Vaughn has a great cast of characters and I’m interested to see where this series will go from here.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Farthest Shore.jpgLeGuin has established herself as one of the best writers of the twentieth century. She can do more with a single sentence than many authors can manage with hundreds of pages of text. The Farthest Shore is no exception to her excellence.

Ged is an old man now and the Headmaster of Roke when a young prince comes to him with news that magic all over the archipelago is failing. Ged sets sail with the young prince to find out what is wrong and finds that many people don’t even believe that magic is real any more. They have fallen into using hallucinogenic drugs to hide their fear of death.

They eventually sail to the ends of their known world and even beyond and into the land of death itself in order to bring magic back to the land.

As is typical with LeGuin the experience as a whole is really the source of joy that this book brings. The characters are fascinating and the story is reasonably interesting but LeGuin’s writing and the wisdom that she communicates with every line make this book feel like a near spiritual experience.

LeGuin has a lot to say about the world and life and making choices and she says them all with such grace and conciseness that it feels almost crass to review her work. The Farthest Shore is a continuation of the story she started with The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan and spiritually it is a maturation of those two books.

Each of her books in this series imparts wisdom with every word. Ged learns to live with the consequences of his own foolish decisions and to confront them instead of run form them in the first book. In the second book Tenar learns to face her fears and push back against the oppression of history that forces her to live a life of restrictions and servitude. In this book Ged and Arren learn the uselessness of fearing death and how corrupting that fear can become.

I will repeat what I’ve said previously about the first two books in this series. Read these. Read them again if you have already. My one regret with these books is that I have not read them as many times as I have read Tolkien’s work and can not focus as deeply on their strengths. They deserve to be taught in schools and loved by people of every age. LeGuin is one of the finest writers ever and her Earthsea books are among the best of her work.