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If my review title makes you want to howl and scream with the unparalleled, uncompromising rage of a true English-language pedant, then you are going to love this book. Hard.

The full title is Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, but reading it is a breeze. It is a book for the layperson, so even if you haven’t quite nailed that dissertation defense, you’ll be fine. I first became familiar with David Crystal several years ago when I read his A Little Book of Language. I’ll go ahead and credit that one with my ongoing (and increasingly professional) love affair with linguistics. This book is similarly charming, and far more loaded. If you tend toward descriptivism, Dr. Crystal is going to do his damnedest to shut you down. This is an old man, and he often sounds it, but the depths of his enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious and he turns what would be trivia in the hands of a less invested writer into an engrossing, millennium-spanning saga of the character and personality of our favorite linguistic streetwalker: English.

Crystal’s central thesis seems to be two-fold: that there is a method to the madness of English orthography and that we can and should do a far better job equipping ourselves and our children to manage it. And manageable it is! But madness with a method is still madness and tracing that winding road from Anglo-Saxon to Shakespeare to spelling bees to tweets is fascinating from beginning to end.

It is a beautiful history, told by a man bewildered with love, and appended with two concerned, pragmatic chapters on how to help other people love it better.  “The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding,” he says. And he’s right. So go on an adventure; I dare you.

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First of all, this is a sequel. If you haven’t read the preceding novel A Wizard of Earthsea, then go do that right now. It’s not long. I’ll wait…

It’s wonderful, right? I remember how the prose grabbed me when I first read it, and it still grabs me that same way. It’s like The Gunslinger in that way; it feels truly, effortlessly ethereal. The text exists outside of time, as do all great fairy tales. And that’s the one problem with the sequel. Much like The Drawing of the Three (a great book in its own right), The Tombs of Atuan fails to perfectly maintain the style of A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s absolutely the same world and the characterization and world-building remains consistently excellent, but that rhythmic, trickling, watery prose has given way to an equally stark but much more traditional novelistic style. It’s a weak criticism, to be sure. Styles change and I’m afraid that that sort of tonal resonance may be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for an author. It’s been so with King, and it may prove to be so for LeGuin.

Luckily, as I alluded to above, the book itself remains solid and even innovative. Certain stylistic flourishes I expected never materialized, but the way LeGuin wove the story was still magical. It’s a subtler sort of genre inversion she works than that of Miéville. Miéville plunges you headlong into a world that is just as different tonally and superficially as it is under the hood. LeGuin’s creativity is much more human, much more classic. She doesn’t build Earthsea from the ground up at the start and you don’t realize how distinct it is from the Tolkien master style until you find yourself in a hole in the world with her as she creates and fills it in in front of you, and I have to imagine that’s how storytelling has worked from the beginning.

The island of Atuan was one such hole, and so was the larger role of women in the world. The edition I read has an afterword by the author herself, and she explains the cultural context in which she wrote The Tombs of Atuan, one in which female characters lacked power and agency. We’ve come a long way in giving female protagonists power; we have warriors and sorceresses and witches and goddesses of unfathomable destructive power, (almost) every bit as potent as the boys, but modern authors still struggle to give their creations agency.

And that may be the most impressive thing about the book: that LeGuin does not simply imbue the girl Arha with agency from the beginning, but allows her to self-actualize against a backdrop of orthodox masculinity. Ged is a player in the story of Arha’s coming into her own, and it enriches his own ongoing story as a supporting character in this sequel.

The Tombs of Atuan is almost exactly the sort of superficially evocative, wonderful read that you’re already expecting, but with the lights off, in the deep, labyrinthine catacombs that undergird it, there is something altogether different and important happening. There are more holes in Earthsea to be filled in subsequent books, but the complicated, overdue pubescence she forces onto genre convention with this book may prove to be Earthsea’s most important, impressive legacy.

“When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before,” expounds Ged at one point in the story. “It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.” An insight, yet LeGuin’s words make me feel fully fed.


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There is a very deliberate sort of chaos in Perdido Street Station. Everything about it is designed to force square pegs into the rounder, well-worn holes of our expectations for fantasy and horror. Its pages are occupied by fantastical races, but their separation from humanity is stark and marked. There are no beautiful elves or noble dwarves found in New Crobuzon, but there are frog-like vodyanoi and beetle-headed khepri and culturally alien bird-folk and inconveniently spiny cactus people and…and…and…

I’m not going to lie; I came into this book with high expectations. After a weirdly long period of ignorance before finally discovering the work of China Miéville (thanks in no small part to CBR6), I began reading feeling very let down. The first several chapters failed to grab me. I couldn’t tell if the plot was a slow burn or if the whole story was simply the increasingly cynical, nihilistic, and distasteful state of the crumbling wash of slums and misery that is its setting.

But once things start happening they don’t stop and the sheer intentionality of everything he’s writing becomes increasingly clear. He’s a man making a lot of points and doing it in a fantastically creative setting. What initially seemed an effort to shove as much lamentable grotesquerie at the reader as possible is suddenly revealed to be a stunningly ambitious work of fantasy world-building and an uncomfortably acute reflection of the failings of our own world. Don’t get me wrong, the continually deepening sense of worseness toes very vigorously at the line between affecting and absurdist at times, but it balances out favorably overall.

Fully acknowledging that it becomes occasionally repetitive, the writing displayed here is simply electric. It’s like Lovecraft in that, swapping “eldritch” for “thaumaturgic,” etc., etc. But all is forgiven when some new and alien perspective is demonstrated, when Miéville weaves words into scenes that make your imagination strain against its creaking confines in a struggle to visualize exactly the controlled chaos being laid out on the page. The agonizing misstep that is the extended monologue in Chapter 38 is easily forgiven because this same book gives us the Weaver, an achievement in alien thinking and characterization that you have to read to believe. Any page the Weaver occupies is an absolute joy.

I think I said it best (and most succinctly) in a text I sent to a friend encouraging him to read Perdido Street Station: “It reads like a D&D playing, decidedly less xenophobic Lovecraft had a baby with a political scientist.”

“That is indeed weird,” he responded.

It really is. And it’s so, so good.


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Cannonball Read 7 is upon us and the last time I tried to participate I failed miserably.  Which is weird, cause I read a pretty solid number of books that year…

So, let’s give it another go, shall we?  For AlabamaPink and for literacy and for the spirit of flipping cancer the bird!

Effortless!  Fey!  Engrossing!  Eloquent!  There’s some blurbs, and I mean every word of them.  These are short works, hence my dual review, but they are the very soup and cheese of madness in literature.  The acrobatics that Carroll puts the English language through are as breathtaking as they are simply presented.  But let’s get specific.

Throughout Alice’s adventures in Wonderland there is nary a plot in sight.  A plot would make too much sense, or would too directly funnel the dreamy insanity of the text.  Instead, I would describe the style and product as one of uncorked effervescence.  These stories are made of bubbles.  Things just pop up, but you’re no more surprised than to see boiling water in a pot.  And then things just pop entirely and you move on.  Or rather, you fall deeper in.

There is absolutely no explanation given at any point and I wanted for none.  No explanation could satisfy.  The characters are all distinct and Alice’s experience of each of them is completely honest.  This world breathes but it doesn’t follow our rules.  There is a sense that underneath it all, there is a set of guiding principles by which the dimension and its inhabitants operate, but Carroll never tries to bring it to the surface and neither should we.  It is organic, it is inexplicable, it cannot be reproduced.  It makes as little sense as lightning in a bottle and is just unlikely to happen a second time.  But the craziest thing of all is that it did.  Lewis Carroll put pen to paper and banged out two trips to Wonderland, and the second didn’t fall on its face.  In fact, I preferred it.

You see, lightness and inconsequence and variety all have their place in illusory literature.  And yet the bubbles burst, the steam dissipates, and the pot settles down.  I remember laughing aloud and often while reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I read sections to friends and tasted the words trip and tumble over my tongue.  But I don’t remember any of it particularly well.  It is an ill-defined feeling.  Through the Looking-Glass is another beast entirely.  There Wonderland bares its fangs but slightly, and yet the feeling burrows and bloats and sets up shop in the back of your mind, making itself comfortable and plopping down in self-satisfaction right on top of your brainstem.  There’s something wanton in it and the constant poetry pushes sense up against the ropes.

I can complain only about the framing narratives.  I could not care less about Alice’s sister or her cats, and when she speaks in the “real” world you want to stop up your ears and pretend she’s not there.  Carroll relies too heavily on wrapping up the stories as dreams or sleepy-time fantasies.  I don’t blame him; he couldn’t have had any other idea what to do with Wonderland.  He just uncaged it, a very little bit.  And that’s what we have to do.  Open up your door, whisper the words, listen to how they hop and skip out of your mouth and into your ears.  It’s genius and it means nothing at all.  It is a glimpse into pure mind, and it is just-because.


I have very little idea as to how to go about reviewing Frankenstein. Frankly, it took some effort.  I realize that I started this whole gauntlet with H.P. Lovecraft, a veritable king of overwrought and antiquarian prose, but I could not handle the dialogue (internal or external) in this book.  And considering that it is a series of first person narratives within one another, that’s saying something.  Lovecraft wrote to match a style, he wrote to elicit a feeling out of time, and yes, he overdid it quite a lot of the time.  This is not a fourth Lovecraft review, but he certainly has something to say about the book and about why I finally cracked it open.

In his seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft calls Frankenstein “somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism.”  I’m not entirely sure that I agree.  Hardly a page–nay, hardly a paragraph passes without Victor waxing eloquent on his utter worthlessness and inhuman betrayals.  He cannot recount a moment of his story without warning his listener in the framing narrative against any repetition of his mistakes.  Further, he lambasts curiosity itself.  The novel is chock full of messages, many of them wonderful if not wonderfully wrought, but among them seems to be a painfully unnatural aversion to looking behind the pretty colors of the imminent natural order.

The story preceding the completion of the monster (overlong and consisting not so much of a family history as an epic poem in praise of upper-class rural Swiss upbringing) is clearly meant to more profoundly devastate the reader following later tragedies, but it is tough to feel deep loss when every character acts, thinks, and speaks in the exact same way.  We can never miss anyone when everyone else is the same person.  There is only one character who stands out, one character who displays anything other than tragically inappropriate sensationalism and loquaciousness, and that character is cast aside from the human race entirely.  Yes, Frankenstein’s monster is the novel’s single interesting and unique player.  But holy crap is he fascinating.

Despite Shelley’s unfortunate inability to let the monster speak as anything other than a presumptuous  noble, massively educated and with gilded tongue, the creature manages to articulate himself more clearly, sincerely, and sympathetically than all the rest of the cast combined.  When he is given the opportunity to finally speak for himself (halfway through the book about two framing narratives deep) it is a shot to the mouth.  It is waking up to a jack-hammer on your nightstand.  The “daemon’s” brief(ish) autobiography is spectacular and exactly what the novel needed as a whole.  It reinvigorated me; I became excited to read the book and dove in at every opportunity.  It gives a focus and a pace to the story that the theretofore meandering speechifying of Shelley had hogtied and hidden behind a shed of ostentation.  And then it was over.  And Frankenstein continued in his blind game of both considering himself the lowest and unluckiest of human beings and blaming his creation for everything from stubbing his toe to the very Earth pulling a Krypton and blowing the fuck up.  And yes, this is a charge which I will level at the character at every turn.  Seriously, any sympathy he may have incurred is swept into the toilet every time he gives voice to his apparently unparalleled woes.  But enough about Frankenstein; that guy sucks.

Frankenstein’s monster is an incredible creation, both of the title character and of Shelley.  The manner in which he relates the creeping development of consciousness is enthralling; his first periods of animal survival have in them something beyond the experience of the author; his early observations of humanity pull one up and out of cynicism and gives one a planetary pride; and his fall is as devastating as it is unavoidable.  Read this book.  Read the hell out of it.  Read every crappy chapter that you have to so as to absorb the story of the conglomerate creature.  Make it a part of yourself.  Prometheus was never terribly interesting, anyways.  The good stuff is what we’ve decided to do with fire ever since he slipped us some.

Continuing through my massive backlog of cheap classics via nook, I ended up spending some time with Jules Verne again rather quickly.  And I loved it.  But even now, weeks later (my reviews are very behind), I still can’t place exactly why.  Let’s try to figure that one out together.

If you think back to my review of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you will recall that a chief complaint was the overall repetitive nature of the text.  Well, Verne (or his translator) doesn’t seem to have quite so much trouble with that here.  You will also recall that my chief praises were of the book’s adventurous spirit and sudden gravitas.  Well, those are both present here as well, and in spades.  Around the World does seem to take much more of a “and then there was this cause why the hell not” sort of approach to the story, but it works.  I mean, there’s not much going on in terms of plot, but it is certainly more cohesive and present than in 20,000 Leagues. And what Around the World lacks in Nemo, it makes up (partly, at least) in Phileas Fogg.

Loathe as I am to continually compare this book to my last with Verne, I have no choice.  Honestly, I loved them both, but this one just shoots out of the gate with so much more breathlessness.  The characters, while all equally inexplicably and impossibly noble, are differentiated significantly more than “this one’s Canadian and impatient, these ones love fish, and this ubermensch has a mysterious past.”  Don’t doubt that they are all caricatures, but it’s a book about a bet to circumnavigate the world.  And that’s exactly what it feels like.

After the exhaustive cataloguing of Conseil, I fully expected his counterpart here, the circus-gymnast-cum-suddenly-devoted-manservant Passepartout, to be some sort of amateur geographer, listing off altitudes and precipitation and waxing eloquent on the virtues of European imperialism.  And that last part does have a place in the story, but humorous and speedy observation takes the place of global oceanic surveys and the very few big events that happen deftly blend that same rush and humor with an honest desire to give the audience a couple of delicious red herrings and make the characters as genuinely good as possible.

I really didn’t mind in the least just how much of this story Jules Verne pulled out of his butt as I burned through it over some toast and  orange juice.  Don’t take any of the characters so seriously as Captain Nemo (who continues his badass reign) and don’t worry too much about the few incidences of spontaneous Europeanization.  Nothing this breezy can offend too deeply and it’s too much fun, and far too short, to get up in arms about it.

A shorter (and likely less eloquent review) yes, but it’ll suffice for what it is I’m reviewing.  Give it a shot.  I’m no Phileas Fogg, but I’ll bet it’ll sit with you just fine.


I didn’t know exactly where this collection fell in the general mythos of Sherlock Holmes when I started it.  It was next up in my huge collection of classics on my Nook.  Being particularly chronologically occupied when getting into a new series of stories, I was initially very put off after realizing that I was perusing the middle of the man’s career.  The good news is, though, that this collection is imminently accessible.  Outside of a very few references to prior adventures, which are peripheral and have little to no bearing on the case currently at hand, you can dive right in with this particular book.

Each of the stories is written from the point of view of Watson as he reminisces or combs through case files collected over his long association with Mr. Holmes himself.  And I have to admit, Watson shocked me somewhat.  He’s not the bumbling fatty that generations of visual versions have bequeathed to us.  He is Sherlock Holmes’ dearest (and arguably only) friend, which is what makes him so much more infuriating.  He is a veteran of the Afghan campaign, a successful medical doctor, brilliant in his own right, and a happily married man.  And yet Sherlock Holmes shits all over him.  Seriously, the detective is a dick.

Watson is startling well-spoken, intelligent, and loyal to a fault.  And how does Holmes thank, nay, reward him?  By constantly showboating and sniping at Watson’s failure to pick up on some apparently insignificant detail that no one without the inherent wealth or time of leisure and total lack of society of Sherlock Holmes could ever be bothered to master the noticing of.  And Watson just keeps taking it. He falls for Holmes’ bait every damn time.

“Well Watson, this certainly does seem to be a difficult case.  Do you notice anything useful?” Holmes may mutter disinterestedly as he hides his prick grin.

“Well, the client is wealthy, and I can medically diagnose him with my eyes closed in the other room.  But no, as usual, nothing helpful,” Watson might reply.

“Well, Watson, if you have half a brain, a single functioning eye, and can tell right from left then you must have noticed that this man is not, in fact, a Bulgarian merchant but is, in fact, a horse.  See his teeth?  Anyways, I’m bored now since I’ve already solved the case.”

“Really?  Wow, then where is the cache of diamonds?”

“Oh, I don’t want to tell you yet.  First I’m going to throw on some black-face, go slumming, have a sandwich, synthesize a new element, and then you can meet me at the bank at half-five on Thursday next.  And bring your gun?”

“My gun!  Is there to be danger?”

“Could be.  You’ll take point,” said Holmes as he snorted a mountain of cocaine and disappeared into his boudoir to hide from the womenfolk afoot.

Yes, it seems like I’m lambasting a classic character of English literature.  Mostly because I kind of am.  But I loved it.  Honest!  The reason I am so hard on it is because it promised so much that it failed to deliver on.  Most of the stories have little to know drama.  The stakes are so low they’re under the table.  And whenever something genuinely sinister happens and it shakes Holmes out of his ennui he gears up to be some badass avenging angel, prepared to cross seas and mountains to bring the felons into swift and terrible secret karate justice.  And then they die in a tragic ice-cream cart accident.  Or a cat sneezes on them and they fall permanently comatose in an allergic fit.  Some of these stories just finish up right as they get genuinely interesting and the stakes come out of the basement.  I can only imagine that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle realized he’d taken too long being clever and was out of paper and had his own mountain of cocaine that needed snorting and so couldn’t be bothered giving the thing an actual ending.

Doyle is clearly brilliant!  He’s got a great concept, a great set of characters (if they would just shape up a little more often), an pleasant style, and (in spite of some clearly pulled-it-out-of-his-butt moments) is an immensely creative and clever man.  So yes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was awesome.  And that’s what made it so damn frustrating.

I’d recommend it.  I intend to pick up the rest and fill in the blanks (in order this time) and I think you’d be doing fine by yourself if you did the same.  You’ll be impressed.  And then you’ll tear your hair out and punch a wall and beg Watson to just pistol-whip Holmes in the ear before reaching up out of the page and cocking Doyle in the nose until he finishes the story up big and proper like he promised eight pages back.


The first thing to be said is that I really should be more prompt.  Secondly, Captain Nemo.  Let’s back up, shall we?

I finished 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea some time ago and although I’m not sure I had any specific timeframe in mind at the outset, the book definitely took me longer to finish than anticipated.  No doubt because there is a great deal of dry (*harhar*) material padding out what is otherwise a none-too-hefty story.  So should you read it?  Yes.  Yes you should.

This is my first time reading Monsieur Jules Verne, a posthumously claimed father of science fiction literature, and I was initially shocked by the repetitive nature of a great deal of the text.  Looking back, I’m sure some of the blame falls on the translation, the translator of which I fail to recall.  However, a great deal of the novel is epithetical.  Every character has a select number of traits by which they are referred and identified, most irritatingly in Conseil, a Flemish “lad” who is called “gallant” entirely too often.  And Conseil is really a very good place on which to hinge certain strengths and weaknesses of the text overall.

You see, Conseil is a cartoonishly slavish devotee and manservant to his master, the venerable Professor Arronax, through whose eyes the reader is related the story.  The man is fully extreme in his occupation and acts as the professor’s pet classifier.  Arronax, being an eminent marine naturalist, relates huge sequences of nomenclature and geological data for each of the Seven Seas traversed.  Yes, that’s right.  So far as he was able Verne included, in long-ass lists, every marine plant, animal, and rock formation that he conceivably could have without calling the thing a specialist text.  Being no expert marine naturalist myself, I was forced to take his word on it as he wowed me with the wonders of the sea and the limitless potential of electricity.  When Conseil was mentioned I always went on guard, knowing that a whole heap o’ fish were about to come pouring off the page.  And yet, this grounds the novel somewhat intriguingly.

You see, our own venerable Steven Lloyd Wilson has called science fiction, and I’m either paraphrasing or completely filling his mouth with totally foreign words, a vehicle to poke at our limits and celebrate our potential for progress.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea does all of this.  However the science shook out historically (despite coming up with a full early model for the submarine, Verne was no seer (and the Nautilus is no mere submarine)) it made the book feel like an exploration.  This is science, it says.  It may not jump off the page, but look at how everything else jumps off of it!  Most of the book is spent cruising under the waves without any real problems beyond a weirdly stir-crazy Canadian harpooner.  There are scenes of action and adventure, and the science serves as a sink of the real world that leaves the reader hopelessly unprepared to really tackle the improbability of many of the characters’ discoveries, but one issue stands out from amongst the rest.  Preeminent, ridiculous, necessary, feared, and beloved: Nemo, captain to the Nautilus and an apparent god among men.

It doesn’t take an ancient Greek to tell that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is hugely indebted to the Odyssey. Nemo’s very name is a callback to Odysseus’ clever introduction in Polyphemus’ cave, and there are few characters in literature quite so simultaneously tragic and haughtily superior as those two.  And Nemo is a fully ridiculous character.  He speaks God knows how many languages (without a trace of accent), he’s inexhaustibly wealthy, he’s got a veritable Library of Alexandria in his study aboard the submersible, he’s a scientific genius a century ahead of his time, a singularly compelling individual, and a totally, unbelievably, unrelatably preposterous character.   But every time he keeps or loses his cool, playing the pipe-organ (onboard, in the aforementioned library) with distracting mystery or fighting a shark with a knife(!), the reader is game for it.  This character is a total badass.  He is a consummate human being in his accomplishments and his questionably stubborn faults.

Read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You might not always feel like much is going on, but when something does happen you will be knocked right the hell over and you will read those damn fish-lists for just one glimpse of Nemo going mano-a-mano with a giant squid with nothing but an axe and unquenchable fury.  And then something genuine and human will happen out of absolutely nowhere and, inexplicably, you will feel just a little bit like crying.

To all few of you

Apologies and fear not.  A new review is forthcoming.  This week no less.  Tremble and quake in excitement as we approach…


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!!!


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