Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Blackout by Connie Willis

I am, in general, a big fan of Connie Willis. Not every book has struck me exactly right, but I do enjoy them. And this series of time travel books tend to be enjoyable, although they vary wildly, from a door-slamming farce to wrench-your-heart-out, leave-you-in-tears Black Death Romps. So I was excited to start the first of two books that won the Hugo a few years ago.

And I was not disappointed. While nowhere near as good as The Doomsday Book, Blackout is a very good entry into this series, and suitably tense at times, through leaving us entirely with the historians as their drops...fail to open. In the middle of the war. In the middle of the Blitz. Is something going on in the future? Or have they altered the timeline, causing the future to cease to be? There is a partial answer to this at the very end of the book, but by focusing on the past alone, after the first third of the book, is very effective at giving us the same kind of tension that the historians are under.

We don't know any more than they do, and that lack of knowledge is terrifying - particularly when you're supposed to have the knowledge - you're a time traveller, after all!

Three historians are surveying three different parts of the war. Eileen/Merope is watching children who have been evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. Mike is supposed to be at Dover, watching and interviewing those who are evacuated from Dunkirk, but isn't allowed to go near Dunkirk himself, as he could far too easily save a life that wasn't to be saved, or cause someone to die who should have lived. Polly is actually witnessing the Blitz, but armed with a lot of information as to where the bombs are to fall - except that not all the bombs were accurately reported, to keep the Germans from knowing just how effective their attacks were.

And then, one by one, they find their drops aren't working. They try to find each other. They wonder what has happened. And they grow ever closer to the days where what they know about the War come to a close, and they'll be just as vulnerable as those who are living through them for the first time.

Willis does a marvellous job of humanizing these types of situations in these time travelling books. She takes something, and makes it real, gives us vivid characters we care about who are in immediate and present danger. It doesn't matter that they're fictional - that sense of needing to catch your breath makes everything more immediate.

But still, this isn't quite the pulse-pounder at least one other of this series has been. But it is thoroughly enjoyable, and I look forward to All Clear.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Fifteen

I don't want to scare you, but here's the final part of Round One! Tune in tomorrow, when the shit starts to get real as we start Round Two. Expect tears and gnashing of teeth as books I loved are more likely to come up against each other!

Assassin's Apprentice vs. Storm Front

          Winner: Assassin's Apprentice

I'm on the record as finding Storm Front amusing but not that great, so it's not surprise to anyone, I suspect, that when these two books entered the ring that is my brain, Assassin's Apprentice won. And it's not just because one is an assassin - you'd think Harry Dresden would see that coming from a mile away. No, in addition to its skills at poisoning and stabbing, Assassin's Apprentice has a really good story going for it, and that's what allowed it to take Storm Front to the mat.'

419 vs. Perdido Street Station

          Winner: Perdido Street Station

Do I have to even write this one down? Yeah, it's not 419. It's one of the creepiest, most ingenious books I've read this year. It's language that just washes over me (and I might need a bath after) and makes me so happy (if a little grimy.) It's truly terrifying at times, genre-bending, and an all-around awesome book. It's Perdido Street Station.

Johannes  Cabal the Necromancer vs. Leviathan Wakes

          Winner: Leviathan Wakes

I found Johannes Cabal the etc weirdly weightless, although not without occasionally charm. But that's not charm enough for me to sign off on selling my soul not to send it off to the abyss of Books Rejected In The First Round. While Leviathan Wakes seemed to me to be a bit Blood Music-lite, it was solid Space Opera, with interesting characters and a good story. That's enough, in this match-up.

Zoo City vs. Paper Towns

          Winner: Zoo City

Sure, Paper Towns was fun, but it was only a town, after all. And did any of the inhabitants carry around animals that let everyone know they committed murder? No? I read two Lauren Beukes books right at the end of the year, and one blew my socks off, and one I "only" thoroughly enjoyed. This is the latter, but the tale of Johannesburg in a world where no one knows why sins have become visible, or animals is both flashy and depressing. Check it out.

Blackout vs. Moxyland

          Winner: Moxyland

I really like Connie Willis. And I really liked Blackout. It's not as wrenching as The Doomsday Book but it is tense and interesting, and I look forward to the companion novel. But Moxyland blew my mind. It isn't fair that a debut book should be this good. And man, when this woman takes her novel in unsettling directions, she does it. The book is great, the ending stunningly dark. (Reviews for both these books will be forthcoming.)

Monday, 30 December 2013

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Only the second Delany I've read, and as with the first one, the thought that comes to mind is "what took me so long?" I've loved both - the first for its myth and poetry, and this for the ideas, the prose, the explorations of self and identity. These are hitting exactly in my wheelhouse. This is closer to straightforward science fiction than was The Einstein Intersection, but with a magic all Delany's own.

At its core, Babel-17 is a story of how language shapes identity, possibility, and experience. The words we have, the words we use, and the unspoken assumptions built into those words, and how those assumptions influence what we can and cannot even conceive. That is wrapped around a galaxy at war. (Well, galaxy? Larger? Smaller? Larger than the solar system, anyway - Delany does not feel the need to go into detail, and it really isn't necessary.) Both sides appear to be human. We don't know much about the origins of either - just where we are, right now.

And where we are, sabotages are happening with increasing frequency, accompanied by bursts of what was presumed code that no one has been able to crack. Until they bring in a poet and former starship captain, Rydra Wong, who is the first to perceive that it's a language instead of a code. She amasses a new crew to go after this mystery, and sabotage starts to strike closer and closer to home.

And that's all I'll say about that. The story itself is not the main issue here, but it would still be a pity to spoil it. It is the interplay of ideas and words, like shadows on the water, that continues to strike me, days after I finished it. What Delany does with the core ideas I've written about is truly striking, and provides an emotional as well as an intellectual centre to the story.

But the ideas don't stop there - they come, faster and faster, a universe of assumptions and ideas that Delany doesn't hold our hands through, but poses in provocative fashion. Wong is one of the best female SF characters of the time period that I can think of, interesting and entirely herself - neither superwoman nor helpless. The diversity of the cast puts most modern SF to shame, but it's never the focal point of those characters, just something about them. In a story about how language creates identity, it would be ridiculous to have a whitewashed cast, and Delany weaves them in effortlessly.

Body modification seems to be all the thing, and although some are made uncomfortable by it in the book, many embrace it, and the discussions of what are interesting. And sexuality - the ships seem to run on triads, both corporeal and noncorporeal (yes, as I said, the ideas never stop). In both cases we're presented, the marriages this creates are (or were) one female, two men, but all are married to each other, and again, this causes some discomfort amongst the more mainstream characters, but...I could go on and on about all the lovely detail he's painted in, but perhaps I'll stop.

Have I mentioned that this is less than 150 pages? Yet it never seems hurried, or rushed, or overpacked. This is truly one of those books where every word seems chosen. It's a good book to near the end of the year with, a reassurance of the potentials of science fiction in the past, present, and future.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Fourteen

The Shadow Woman vs. Truth and Beauty

          Winner: Truth & Beauty

While Truth & Beauty didn't touch me the way it seems to have others, at least it wasn't irritating to read, and The Shadow Woman did that. Often. Second in a row where a Scandinavian book has felt false to me - or at least, badly translated. I've read good Scandinavian books, but this mystery fell flat, and so the biography of a difficult friendship wins in the dying days of the first round.

Falling Free vs. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

           Winner: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Oh, now this one isn't fair! These are two books I genuinely enjoyed a whole lot and how can I choose? Let's see, Jemisin's wonderful fantasy with a flavour a bit unlike anything I've read before and beautifully mythic ending or Bujold's gripping tale of othering in space. It's not a great reason, but this is the only Jemisin on this year's list, and the third Bujold. Plus, the initial sections of Falling Free made my stomach roiled, which is partly a testament to their strength, but makes it harder to pick up again.

Luka and the Fire of Life vs. The Painted Girls

          Winner: Luka and the Fire of Life

Don't get me wrong, The Painted Girls is good historical fiction. But it can't possibly hold a candle to Salman Rushdie, or to this novel in particular, which blended together mythologies new and old in a gloriously and beautifully messy fashion, swept me along for the ride, and left me wrung out and crying at the end. Luka's quest to save his father's life may have had personal reasons for hitting home for me, but I stand by this as a marvellous book no matter your own experiences.

Of Blood and Honey vs. The Man Who Folded Himself

          Winner: The Man Who Folded Himself

Oh, come on! Is this the day of difficult rounds? (I know it's only going to get harder from here, but this is the first round! How many days have I had easy choices - or had to pick between two mediocre books?) Let's see - fantasy set during the Troubles in Ireland, or mind- and gender-bending science fiction? It's a tough choice, and I encourage interested parties to check out both. But The Man Who Folded Himself is just too neat to pass up. However, if you like Irish folklore and fantasy at all, Of Blood and Honey is a worthy read too.

Babel-17 and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut The Moon In Two

          Winner: Babel-17

Seriously. What is with the matchups today? I guess I read a real spate of winners right at the end of the year! I haven't even written my Babel-17 review yet - watch for it later today. And as much as I love Valente's Girl-Who books, Babel-17 knocked my socks off. As a meditation on how language shapes perception alone, I'd have to award this round to Delany.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Paper Towns by John Green

I've now read two John Green books, and I'm sure that's not enough to fully gauge his entire oeuvre. But it is enough to feel like I've seen his tricks, and while I enjoyed both books, I just might be done. It's not a knock against either books - they're fine young adult books. They just don't transcend that genre.

The very best children and young adult books have something to them that speaks to the hearts of adults as well, that uses the particular to say something about the universal in such a way that endears them to me forever. Those are not these books.

Instead, these are very good slices of early 21st-century teen life, with mostly believable characters and interesting stories. But nothing more. Again, not a knock, but now I feel like I've seen it, and can move on. Someone tell me if he reaches another level with his next book - and not just if he tells another good yarn for teens.

In Paper Towns, Quentin, the main character, is involved in a late night escapade with his neighbour, Margo, just before she disappears. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out where she went, and if the messages she seems to have left for him have a deeper meaning - if, indeed, they are a trail of bread crumbs leading him to her.

Having read the acknowledgements and seen that his inspirations were young men going off into the wilderness to find themselves, like Into the Wild, it's interesting to both switch genders on that, and to tell the story from the perspective of one of the people who is left behind. It does leave Margo weirdly opaque, from which I think stems the complaint I've read about John Green's early books focusing on the quirky female, only one step removed from Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But in this case, anyway, I think that's the point. Quentin doesn't know Margo. In fact, no one knows Margo. And he realizes how much everyone paints their own version of her in their heads, and are even more free to do so when she's not physically there.

So, what doesn't work for me? Well, these insights are interesting, but they just sort of…lie there. It's one step from the prose that would layer that into something more profound. As it is, they seem sort of like superficial insights, which are perhaps what teenagers would have, but I want just that little bit more.

And Ben. I wasn't fond of Ben, with his calling all girls honey bunnies and overly stylized speech. I knew girl-crazy band geeks in high school. I ran with the nerd crowd (surprising no one, I'm sure). I don't remember those kind of verbal quirks. He's just too much, all the time, and it reads as a weird unrealistic note in a book that is otherwise very good at capturing teenage verbal patterns.

(Side note: it was weirdly apropos the mention of Radar's parents' Black Santa collection, as I was reading this just as Fox News was going apeshit over the very idea of a Black Santa! This kind of quirk worked just fine, as did Radar's Omnictionary obsession.)

So, in the end, Paper Towns is a fun young adult read, but I feel like it's going to slip away from me quickly. It's good, but not great, and while I would quickly and without hesitation recommend it to teenagers, I wouldn't for most other people.

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Thirteen

Okay, yes, I read a lot of books this year. We're coming to the end of the first round in a couple of days, I promise. To be precise, right after the New Year, when I'm sure I've read all the books I'm going to in 2013.

Madame Claire vs. The Power of Habit

          Winner: Madame Claire

While far from a classic, Madame Claire was charming. The eponymous character, her family, the story, were all enjoyable to read, but marred by a ending I didn't particularly like. That still lifts it about The Power of Habit, which had a few good ideas, but meandered far from their shores, and ended up feeling more like a rah-rah for corporate capitalism than I was truly comfortable with.

The Alchemy of Stone vs. The Atrocity Archives

          Winner: The Atrocity Archives 

I liked was Sedia was trying to do in The Alchemy of Stone, and her prose was truly lovely at times, but it never quite gelled quite as much as the other entry in this particular match. I've struggled with Charles Stross' work for a while, never liking it quite as much as I wanted to. With this book, however, I finally found one I could enjoy without reservation. Cross Cthulhu with governmental bureaucracy, and this is exactly the book you'd want to come crawling out of that unholy union.

The Name of the Wind vs. The Way of Shadows

          Winner: The Name of the Wind

Fantasy books with similarly-cadenced titles? Well, yes, but when it comes down to a comparison, Brent Weeks just can't hold a candle to Patrick Rothfuss. The Way of Shadows was fine, but lacked the courage to keep up the darkness it tried to establish. On the other hand, Rothfuss' book was a meander through an early life in the best possible use of that term, with a framing device that gave Kvothe's youthful struggles poignancy. I can't wait to read more.

Wicked vs. Kushiel's Dart

          Winner: Kushiel's Dart

Wicked was a reread, and I was surprised how disappointed in it I was. It felt lacking in every way. And I felt no such disappointment in Kushiel's Dart, which created a world rife with politics and sexuality, and explored one character's movements through it in ever-intriguing ways. Not for the prudish, Kushiel's Dart was some of the most finely realized fantasy I've read this year.

The Fault in Our Stars vs. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

          Winner: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars may not have moved me to tears, but The 100-Year-Old Man moved me to active boredom, if such an animal exists. This Scandinavian import had more ambition than it had tight plotting or intriguing characters. And while teenagers struggling with cancer didn't hit my emotional buttons, it was nevertheless refreshingly free of saccharine.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Twelve

The Autobiography of Mark Twain vs. The Magic Mountain

          Winner: The Magic Mountain

Twain almost pulls it out, with his charming and sometimes brutally witty turns of phrase, but the autobiography, as befits a mass of papers left after his death is messy and meander-y. It's almost enough to lift it over The Magic Mountain, which at times I found very slow going, but in the end, there was enough underneath the pages of the seven years spent on top of the mountain to lift this one over the other.

Foundation and Empire vs. Cane River

          Winner: Foundation and Empire

Cane River has some excellent moments, but it's a bit handicapped by its beholdenness to its subject matter. And Foundation and Empire may not be great literature, but it's a classic of the science fiction genre, in which Seldon's plans are thrown utterly awry by the inability of psychohistory to cope with strange individuals.

The Last River vs. The Hawk and His Boy

          Winner: The Hawk and His Boy

This is not a battle of favourites, but among two enjoyable but not remarkable books, the fantasy tale of The Hawk and his Boy is slightly generic but enjoyable. On the other hand, The Last River also feels generic, and adventure stories of extreme sports are never going to be my favourite genre. So if it comes to white-water canoeing down a river in China and a thief finding out his opened more than he thinks in a certain box, we're going with the thief.

I Capture the Castle vs. The Scarlet Letter

          Winner: I Capture The Castle

Interesting. A classic of repressed feeling and expiation vs. a very charming examination of the life of an eccentric and impoverished family in a castle in England. I really don't know which to choose. But I think I'd settle down more happily for a second time with I Capture the Castle, so it's going to win. And more than its charms, of which it has plenty, the examination of artistic block also grabbed me.

The Sixth Column vs. The Borgia Betrayal

          Winner: The Sixth Column

Ugh. This is a match-up I'd rather not deal with, as I didn't like either of these. The Borgia Betrayal irritated me immensely, particularly with its constant apology for what it was, and while The Sixth Column is vastly more readable, it's heavily marred by racism. I don't want to pick either, but if I have to, despite how frustrated it made me with Heinlein in his early career, I will go with The Sixth Column, if only because it's interesting to see how some of the themes of invented religions had their seeds this early.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

This is a lovely little mindbender of a book - not hard science, for those who are so inclined. But a true literature of ideas, looking at identity and self through the lens of time travel, through one man (and all the versions of himself) and how he chooses to use it.

He is not a representative man, that's for sure. He is self-absorbed to a fault, choosing, once he has acquired a time travel belt, to socialize only with himself.

Which requires a digression into the kind of time travel Gerrold is hypothesizing. It is quite different from most of the SF in that vein that I'm familiar with. No paradoxes. No worries about interacting with other versions of the self, past or present. In fact, that's the way the narrator prefers it. No, instead of a whiteboard that is wiped clean with every change, he describes it as adding layers of paint to a wall - you can paint over as many times as you want, but the previous changes are till there. Eventually, the narrator comes to understand it as a proliferation of alternate universes, all of them inaccessible to himself once they have split, but real nonetheless. Where other Dons or Dans or Dannys - or, for that matter, Dianes or Donnas - have made other choices.

As a result, he changes the world freely, including major historical events. But that is not what the novel is about. These are throwaway lines, about how he occupies himself in a long life that is lived in a non-linear fashion. He talks about being unstuck from the seasons, from history, from weather. And yet, the feeling that comes across about this life of huge diversity and adventure are the ways in which his life is circumscribed. When he isn't travelling in time, his life is bounded by a single year to which he returns, and for the most part, to a central location - a mansion where he can always walk into a poker game with other versions of himself.

And his social circle is entirely bounded by himself, both for entertainment, and eventually, int arms of his sexuality. Although the character initially discovers his attraction to the past and future versions of himself, and acts upon them with more or less eagerness (the version who finally takes over the story revels in his discovery of his homosexuality), I would eventually come to dub his orientation "solipsexuality" - as he eventually starts a longer-term relationship with a female version of himself. But his sexuality is never turned any further outside than another version of himself. The narrator never sees this as a problem, but the walls he puts up around himself and his world, when he has all of time to play in, strike me as a bit tragic.

It's hard to say that there's a consistent narrator - in fact, it would be easy to argue that with each asterisk-break, another version picks up the story, with similarities to the previous but not identical to them. In one case, his sense of identity starts to break down into the psychotic, and has to be stopped by other versions of himself.

I'm sure I've served to confuse rather than enlighten you, but perhaps you'll take that as a reason to pick this up. It's a short little book, but the ideas within it are fascinating, but the character at the centre, perhaps, slightly sad. It is of a man who has become an island, even when surrounded by people, because they are all mirrors of himself.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Eleven

The Prisoner of Tehran vs. The Turn of the Screw

          Winner: The Turn of the Screw

It's hard to beat the sheer creepiness of The Turn of the Screw, no matter what your interpretation, from repressed sexuality to ghost story. The Prisoner of Tehran was fine, but not great, and so the ghosts of fiction beat out the ghosts of the past in this particular battle.

Funny Boy vs. Bookman

          Winner: Funny Boy

This is a hard one! I liked both of these books, without loving either of them. The inventiveness of Bookman almost gives it the edge here, but in the end, there were some flaws in the book (including making Irene Adler a force for law and justice, which I had difficulty buying) that gives the win instead to a set of linked stories about a boy growing up and discovering his sexuality in a Sri Lanka riven by ethnic clashes.

Leviathan vs. Sarah's Key

          Winner: Leviathan

Sarah's Key was one of the books that really made me angry this year, so you can guess that this battle's not going to that one! While there were some powerful parts, the insistence that the pain of the American journalist when her marriage was breaking up in some way complemented the pain of the Holocaust was enough to make me ballistic. Leviathan is fun steampunk for kids, complete with living flying beasts captained by the Royal Navy. This version of a World War made me much less angry than the other.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running vs. Trunk Music

          Winner: Trunk Music

Oh goodness, I don't know. I really don't. Murakami's musings about running and life, or a solid Los Angeles mystery? Generally I think Murakami would win a matchup of this sort, no problem, but since I'm a walker myself, I think maybe I'll take the long way around and award it to the sprint of Trunk Music and let What I Talk About continue on its marathon.

The Violent Bear It Away vs. How To Be A Woman

          Winner: The Violent Bear It Away

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed How To Be A Woman a lot, as light fun. And there were aspects of Flannery O'Connor's short novel that bothered me. But for lasting residence in my head, I have to give this one to The Violent Bear It Away. This examination of faith, fatherhood and fate is harrowing to read, and the words are almost as violent as the title.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

I found Falling Free to be an extremely stressful book to read! Around the halfway mark, I was dreading picking it up, as I wasn't sure how much more I could take of quaddie mistreatment. I started to give myself permission to just read a chapter at a time, instead of pushing for 100 pages. Luckily, shortly after that, the quaddies started fighting back, and I got right back into the swing of it. I just don't deal well with lack of agency.

And for a while there, the quaddies were being treated so cruelly that it was roiling my stomach. Bujold does an impressive job of showing troublesome treatment without going into great detail. Instead, she lingers on the mindsets that make such treatment possible, and that is even more upsetting. Watching the process of dehumanization and some of the horrible things it makes possible is a difficult read.

This is loosely (extremely loosely) a Vorkosigan book, as I understand that Miles runs into the descendants of the quaddies in some books, but it takes place long, long before that. The quaddies are part of a genetically engineered workforce for space, with two sets of arms, one set replacing the legs, which are much more useless in freefall. They're brought up by...well, that's not true. I was going to say that they were brought up by people who think of them as less than human, but that's wrong. The initial scientists on the project, and the few who remain from those days, are deeply attached to the quaddies, and the people who took care of their upbringing also see them as people. It's those who come after, who replace the initial people who had contact with them, who insulate themselves with paperwork and trying to assert their position in a company, who see them as less than human.

And Bujold creates a truly loathsome avatar of this in Bruce Van Atta, the engineer sent up to oversee the project. He's an asshole, pure and simple. And takes advantage of the quaddies in almost every way they can be taken advantage of, including the squicky. He also doesn't understand why the psychiatrists can't assure him of perfect obedience - they've been shaping the quaddies since birth, after all.

Others in the company carry irrational hatred for mutants, and see their genetically engineered charges as abominations. This all sets the stage for disaster, as first the company tries to regulate their sexual and social interactions to disastrous effect, and then as they become superfluous when artificial gravity is developed. The plans the company have for the quaddies are chillingly plausible.

Luckily, they have a few allies, and are not without resources of their own. With their new engineering teacher, they come up with an audacious plan to remove themselves from the control of the company.

This is not an easy book, in content if not in prose. But I do so enjoy it when people manage to stick it to the man.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Ten

Snow Crash vs. Cetaganda

          Winner: Snow Crash

So, my favourite Neal Stephenson so far (out of two, and I had major issues with Cryptonomicon) or my least favourite Lois McMaster Bujold? (Out of three or four.) Cetaganda was still a lot of fun, but lacked some of the fire of her Vorkosigan books I've liked more. And the ideas behind Snow Crash were a lot of fun. I can't say it was my favourite book of the year, but this take on neurolinguistics and pizza delivery wins out.

A Bigamist's Daughter vs. Gypsies

          Winner: Gypsies

Another one of those where the science fiction mediocre book wins out over the mundane mediocrity. Gypsies is far from Robert C. Wilson's best, but this world-hopping fantasy at least held my attention more than single women 1980s angst in New York City.

Double Act vs. Pandemonium

          Winner: Pandemonium

It's so rare that you read something that feels genuinely new and innovative, and so I am happy to award this match to Pandemonium. Double Act was young adult, and fine but unexciting. Pandemonium, on the other hand, gave me a world full of demonic possession, but recognizable demons with recognizable patterns of possession. What were they and why? Fascinating.

Joyland vs. The Native Star

          Winner: Joyland

Perhaps only the second Stephen King novel I've ever read (no horror for me, thanks. Can't deal with it, enjoy sleeping too much.) And it was a good one. This is much less a mystery than it is a meditation on growing up. And that easily lifted it above the California vaguely steampunky fantasy that is The Native Star

The Affinity Bridge vs. Tau Zero

          Winner: The Affinity Bridge

Usually, I'd expect Poul Anderson to win. But Tau Zero was curiously bloodless, and while provocative, also a little boring. The Affinity Bridge was far from a masterpiece, but its steampunk was at least more interesting, even though it took until the final pages of the book for one character to really make an impression.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

So, I was reading 419, which was all about 419 scams, and was very unimpressed. It wasn't perceptive, it didn't grab me, and the characters all seemed flat. Move your gaze a week or so, and I start reading this urban fantasy set in Johannesburg, and although 419 scams are only a very small part of what this book is about, the small space they occupied in this book was far more interesting and trenchant than the entire other book on the matter.

And, for that matter, Zoo City, is just chock-full of ideas, and I love fantasies that are that fresh and innovative and imaginative. This book is a little bit mystery, a lot desperation, an exploration of a new type of divide between humans, and the society it creates when you can read someone's crimes on their shoulder.

Well, one crime, anyway. If you're responsible for someone's death, an animal appears. And a magic is unlocked. This varies greatly by person, but the mere stigma of being "animalled" is great, and a ghetto springs up to house them, after they've gotten out of jail. The wider society despises them all equally, even if their animals were acquired in an act of self-defense. No one quite knows why the animals started to appear, and the theories advanced in snippets range from scientific to theological. What is known is what happens if your animal is killed, and it's not pretty.

The main character, Zinzi, has a sloth. And an ability to find lost things, seeing them connected to their owners and able to track them down and return them. This doesn't entirely pay the bills, so she runs 419 scams in her spare time, trying to get out of the debt she racked up in her former life when she was a journalist and a junkie. She gets wrapped up in the death of an old woman, and the disappearance of a young pop idol, paid very good money to track her down before she turns up with an animal of her own, thus killing her fledgling career.

The world of this Johannesburg is dingy, flashy, opulent, dirt-poor, full of divides and separations. The city is fascinating, and I very much enjoyed the urban fantasy take on this place. But more than that, I enjoyed Zinzi and Sloth. Zinzi is far from a virtuous character, although she is nonetheless sympathetic. Her animal was acquired more through negligence than intent, and Sloth is truly endearing - we all know what a weakness I have for fictional animals. Watching the two of them try not to be sucked into the undertow, or worse, The Undertow, was always an excellent experience.

This is very solid urban fantasy, and the world Beukes creates is just so full of ideas and their exploration that I am very much looking forward to future ventures into the stories she creates.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Nine

Boneshaker vs. The King's Buccaneer

          Winner: Boneshaker

The King's Buccaneer was solid fantasy, but didn't shake my world, while Cherie Priest's book was not perfect, but was interesting and different, and unlike many others, I liked the main character a lot. She was stubborn and angry, and I responded to that - and comments on my own personality can form in a queue on the left. There might be biting.

The Buddha of Suburbia vs. All Quiet on the Western Front

          Winner: All Quiet on the Western Front

I liked Buddha of Suburbia, but its hard to justify picking the swinging sixties and Orientalism against such an affecting book about war. All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful look at humanity and dehumanizing the enemy during war, and made me quiet and thoughtful. The other is still worth a look, though.

Alone in the Classroom vs. Accelerando

          Winner: Accelerando

I wanted to like Alone in the Classroom a lot more than I did. But I felt the same way about Accelerando. In the end, both were lacking, but at least one had extreme post-human ideas and crazy science fiction going for it. When given the choice between slightly baffling science fiction and slightly boring mundane fiction, the science fiction is going to win every time.

The Sword-Edged Blonde vs. The Emperor's Edge

          Winner: Sword-Edged Blonde

Snarky semi-noir hardboiled detective...fantasy? Count me in! It's not a perfect book, but Bledsoe's take on the sword-wielding mercenary who happens to be a private detective investigating the disappearance of his buddy the king's child tickled me greatly. And The Emperor's Edge was nothing special.

Soulless vs. Hounded

          Winner: Hounded

Second in a row with the snark helping edge out more generic fantasy/steampunk. It's going to come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I like the snark. And Hounded is chock-full of it. A two thousand year old druid who owns a New Age shop in Arizona and is on the lam from the Tuatha de Danaan? Yes. This one.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

I am often at a loss with memoirs. I don't know what I'm expecting out of them, or how really to take them. As they're about lives, they don't conform to narrative conventions, but as they're not histories, they tend to give little of the context I crave. At best, they're someone giving you a glimpse into their life, and that springs vitally from the page. At worst, it feels like reading about a stranger, without enough of the context to understand.

This one falls somewhere in the middle. I feel thoroughly "meh" about Truth and Beauty. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it, I was never eager to get back to it, but I was never loath to pick it up. It's certainly heartfelt, although sometimes it felt like a friend trying to lay claim to her best friend, to make sure all the other friends knew she was the most important. Maybe that's part of the dynamic of the relationship, and if it is, it comes across on the page.

This is the story of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealey. I know little about either of them - well, I've read one other Ann Patchett, and I really didn't like it, so we were not exactly starting out on the right foot here. They became close friends while struggling through writing programs, and, well, I'd say supported each other through the following years of teaching and struggle and writing fellowships, except that it seems that the support went mostly one way.

Because it feels like Lucy Grealey would be very frustrating to be friends with, if you're expecting friendships to be reciprocal. I've had friends like that, who took all the attention I would give and gave little back, around whose much more intense lives I let myself become absorbed and only realized later how little I was getting out of that relationship. But I pretty much left those behind after high school and decided I wasn't doing that anymore - if I was going to be friends with someone, I wanted there to be give as well as take.

But it doesn't seem like Lucy gave. She had an immense need, and it seemed to have gratified Ann Patchett to be needed that much, and no doubt she was exciting to be around. But you can't save someone with the sheer force of your desire to meet her needs, and propping her up only lasts so long - as it did in this case, with a death.

Would I be more tolerant of this narrative if it didn't have the barest echoes of something I recognize and was very glad to get away from? If the romanticization that can occur after death didn't cast its light over a situation that sounded so frustrating? If people can be friends with people who need so much, more power to them. And Patchett doesn't paper over how difficult Lucy was, but the overwhelming sense is one of having been grateful for being allowed to be needed. It's an interesting study, but either too far or too close to my experience for me to truly enjoy.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Eight

The Silver Skull vs. Bloom County Vol. 4

          Winner: Bloom County Vol. 4

While I love Bloom County (Opus!) a lot, I don't know if any of the volumes would have won unless this situation came up - it was up against a book I didn't like very much. And that's what happened in this case! The Silver Skull wasn't terrible, but it wasn't very good, either. In fact, I barely remember it, and that's far from a good sign. So I am happy to bestow this particular crown on Opus, Milo, Bill the Cat and everyone else and wish them luck on their 1984 presidential campaign.

The Wild Things vs. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

          Winner: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I liked The Wild Things a lot more than I ever thought I'd like a novelization of the movie of Where the Wild Things Are, but in the end, when it imitates Godzilla and strides into Tokyo to knock over buildings and take on The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the wistful poetry and pervasive strangeness of The Ocean distracts people from the destruction, and charms me into awarding it this round, and sending The Wild Things back to Monster Island.

The Crown Conspiracy vs. Bob the Gambler

          Winner: Do I have to? Fine, Bob The Gambler

This particular battle is far less which I liked more, and far more figuring out which of the two I liked less. In the end, Bob the Gambler merely had frustrating characters, while The Crown Conspiracy had irritating characters and an annoying plot. Don't expect Bob the Gambler to survive the next round, but it ekes out a win here.

The Lies of Locke Lamora vs. His Majesty's Dragon

          Winner: The Lies of Locke Lamora

I enjoyed His Majesty's Dragon more than I had thought I would - it's solid fantasy with a tinge of those naval Napoleonic war books. But I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora.  The characters are great, the storyline engrossing, the world interesting - and Scott Lynch is not afraid to break his toys. It's devastating and necessary. There's a lot of swearing, which some people have complained about. Not me, though. It seemed perfect for the story that was being told.

The Blade Itself vs. Incarceron

          Winner: The Blade Itself

Like a bunch of these, I didn't love either of these two. I remember dinging The Blade Itself for feeling too derivative, and not fully committing to its darkness, and Incarceron for having neat ideas but not the best follow-through. It's coming down to how much of the books I remember - a few of the characters from The Blade Itself stay in my mind all these months later.

The Shadow Woman by Ake Edwardson

It's difficult to tell what the main problem with this book is - the prose, or the translation. It could be either. Or both. But either way, in English, this book is clunky. The prose is distracting and frequently uses turns of phrase that make me shake my head. (Someone could see the headache? Through your skull? As opposed to just noticing that you were acting like you had a headache?) It's so devoid of elegance or grace, and isn't even serviceable. It's just bad.

But that might not be the author's fault. Might be the translation.

However, the clunky prose was accompanied by characters who frequently did inexplicable things, and made comments that rang so false and weird. Remember what I wrote about 419 by Will Ferguson, where I was saying I like books that make the strange familiar, but they have to actually do so? Like that book, this is just strange, just reactions that seem 10 degrees off of true, but with no explanation as to why. I refuse to believe it's just because I'm not Swedish.

When the mystery finally comes together at the end, it's a fairly good reveal, but the trip to get there was painful. The detectives seemed to be floundering, their bafflement about their victim meaning that I got very little sense of what was going on or that it even might tie together in the end, let alone a sense of how. I don't mind not knowing how, but for much of the book, I really felt like it might not tie together at all. That they might find the killer and it would be so entirely random as to have made reading this book pointless.

A woman is found dead in the woods. No one knows who she is. She is not on any radar, seems to have no family or friends. The young police inspector (inspector? I'm fuzzy on how Swedish police might work) Erik Winter is just coming back to work from a vacation. (I haven't read the first book in the series, so I don't know if this is vacation laden with narrative meaning that I'm just missing.)

They know the car might be a Ford Escort. Or at least, a car seen near the police scene. That's about it. Eventually, the woman's identity comes to light, but these details are like pulling teeth. Might be accurate, but then I need some good scenes with the police that explore how they deal with a case like this.  There are procedural scenes, but character development is lacking.

And boy, is it. Winter doesn't want to settle down with his girlfriend. Why? He doesn't go to see his sister or nieces very often, even though he likes them. Why? There seems to be some hostility from the brass. Why? (Maybe these are all explained in the first book, granted.) But a lot of it seems like throwing traits at the wall without thought for how they might go together.

Ultimately, this was a barely satisfying mystery. The story, when it does come together, piqued my interest slightly, but by then, it was almost too late. Perhaps in better translation, although this stiffness of prose might be the original too. Hard to say.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Seven

How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You vs. Among Others

          Winner: Among Others

In this battle, a book of webcomics of which I found the first funny and the rest merely amusing goes up against the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. To be fair, Among Others did not set my world on fire, but it was quite fun. I loved all the references to books I'd loved growing up, and she captures this borderland between fantasy and reality very well. Sorry, Cat Plotting to Kill You. My cats may be doing so, but their antics are more amusing than the comic.

The Age of Miracles vs. Bleak House

          Winner: Bleak House

Bleak House! Bleak House! Bleak House! Perhaps not my favourite Dickens, but this one still brings The Age of Miracles to the mat handily.  The book battle starts off a little shaky, but The Age of Miracles lack of good science and addition of unnecessary hyperbole just can't stand up against the steamroller that is 19th century jurisprudence.

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years vs. Ensign Flandry

          Winner: Ensign Flandry

An evenly matched pair! Neither are at the top of their respective weight classes, neither are amazing, both are amusing. It's the battle of the books I feel unemotional about! Hitty feints to the left, with her charming story for children about a doll in Maine, and lands some good punches on my personal attachment to that state, but Ensign Flandry, in the end, wears her down with some solid but uninspiring science fiction.

The Breast vs. Half-Blood Blues

          Winner: Half-Blood Blues

Oh god, Half-Blood Blues takes this in a walkover. I never did understand the point of The Breast, in which a university professor turns into a breast. It's got nothing to say about gender, oddly, and I read this slim volume with absolute bafflement. If it's above my head, I'm happy to say that Half-Blood Blues is a beautifully written book about jazz in Nazi Germany and Occupied Paris that I would be happy to see win out over many things, but particularly in this case.

I Am Legend vs. Bonk

          Winner: I Am Legend

I liked Bonk a lot - who isn't going to enjoy reading about sex? But it just can't compare to the punch of I Am Legend, which aims to leave you in the dust with its closing paragraph, which reframes everything that came before and makes it far creepier. And it was pretty creepy to begin with. I read it for the first time knowing the twist ending, and that made it even more horrifying, as far as I'm concerned.

"Tanks" by Murray Leinster

I am not entirely convinced that this is a science fiction story. It's not a bad story, mind, but I'm having trouble seeing where the science fiction comes in. There are tanks, sure, but a previous story had tanks, and I'm pretty sure they were an established technology by 1930. (If not a perfected one.) I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it to be revealed that they were really fighting some science fiction enemy - aliens or robots, or hell, mad scientists, since they seem to be the enemy du jour.

Unless I missed something glaring, though, that's not what happened here. The field of battle is never clearly defined, but one of the parties is the United States Army, and they seem to be fighting on American soil. The enemy appears to be human and have roughly equal tank technology. This is a military story, except that it's about a war of 1932 that never happened. Is that enough to make this science fiction? Only for extremely loose definitions of the term.

It's a tale of gas and tank tactics, mostly about two infantrymen who find themselves in a foxhole after a gas attack, and a general who must suss out what his counterpart is doing. Both sides seem to be Americans, although that's not clearly said - but when the two infantrymen take a prisoner of war, he's from New York, and he and one of the infantrymen have a grand conversation comparing favourite places.

The only real technological innovation seems to be a new deadly gas, but that is hardly enough to vault this into the speculative territory. It's a straightforward military cat-and-mouse story.

So, women? I wouldn't expect any, but there isn't even the mention of a girl at home.

Race? Well, that's interesting. There's little overt mention of race, although apparently the war is being fought between the United States and the "Yellow Empire," which certainly carries certain racial baggage. When a soldier from the Yellow Empire is caught, he's described as having "the beady eyes and coarse black hair that marked him racially as of the enemy." But that doesn't extend to other characteristics - the story is quick to point out that "his language[was]  utterly colloquial." So there's a hint of race here, but the enemy is not particularly othered. The whole conversation is between three guys who are pretty much the same - being infantry gives them more in common than race or warring faction divides them.

And science? Well, there's the gas. And the tanks. And that's it, really. No scientists, just divisions between infantrymen and tankmen. And generals.

This is an interesting story, but not science fiction.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Six

Bloom County, Vol. 3 vs. Deathless

          Winner: Deathless

I love Bloom County, I do. But I adored Deathless beyond all measure. Mixing Russian history and folklore? Are you serious? There isn't a step put wrong in this one, and this story that involves Stalinist house-domovoi and how stories become ingrained in the world is sad, terrifying, and poignant. I love Catherynne Valente's writing style, and this one in no way disappointed. This was one of those books that inspired me to evangelicalism. Read it!

Angelmaker vs. Deadline

          Winner: Angelmaker

I knew I read three books I loved in fairly quick succession, but I am so relieved to see that they won't come up against each other in the first round. Angelmaker delivers the knockout blow on this one, easily coming out on top of the fine but not spectacular zombie/surveillance society stylings of Mira Grant. It's steampunky, it's also about state abuse of power, it has sexy lesbian spies and clockwork bees. What else could you possibly want? Love it, love it, love it.

The City & The City vs. The Talented Mr. Ripley

          Winner: The City & the City

This is the third of the books I loved that I read while I was away at a conference. Both of the books in this match-up are a little bit noir, so I like to think of The City & the City sneaking up on The Talented Mr. Ripley, (maybe using weird techniques to go unseen), and stabbing Patricia Highsmith's book in the back. This was my first adult China Mieville book, and I loved it. I honestly don't think I can summarize it easily. Just read it.

Moving Pictures vs. Remake

          Winner: Moving Pictures

Neither of these books rocked my world. Moving Pictures was a Terry Pratchett I read when I wasn't sick, and Remake was a Connie Willis that seemed more derivative of her other work than a good entry into her canon. But of the two,  Moving Pictures had a bit more to say about the world of entertainment, even though that was what they were both about. Willis' dystopia of a world of copyright battles and nothing new being made pales beside her other work, but the creation of Holy Wood outside Ankh-Morpork tickled my funnybone at least a little.

A Week in Winter vs. A Good Man

          Winner: A Good Man

A Week in Winter was lovely and light, but it can't possibly compare to Guy Vanderhaeghe's third book in his Western Canada series. (Third? This is the only one I've read, so I'm not all that sure.) While I enjoyed heartwarming stories in Ireland, the bleakness of the Canadian and American prairies, sexual politics in largely homosocial towns, and negotiations in bad faith with Native Americans, of the two, A Good Man is a good read.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

What if possession was an epidemic? What if the same demons kept taking people over for short intervals, over and over? What would they be? Are they demons? Is the cause religious or scientific? And what would it do to you to be one of the possessed?

These are the central questions of Pandemonium, which was an assured first entry as a science fiction novel. I found little of the first-time stiffness, the over-explanation, the clunky prose. Nope, this one is deftly written, and twists and turns in entirely logical but surprising ways - and I never saw those twists telegraphed. I am impressed.

This skirts the line of fantasy and SF, in part because no one really knows what causes the demons to possess people. And the idea of recurring demons showing up with recognizable M.O.s all over the world is fascinating, from the Painter, who possesses people and causes them to make recognizable pieces of art, to the Captain, who possesses soldiers in the line of fire and causes them to do heroic but often deadly things, to the Truth, who possesses people in order to kill those who are perpetrating lies, to the Little Angel, who kisses sick people on the lips and kills them, somehow. And a whole lot more.

Add to that the idea that most demons have a type, like the Little Angel, who only possesses young girls with long blonde curly hair. Or the Hellion, a Dennis-the-Menace type that only goes after young boys.

The main character, Del, has been possessed once or twice himself, but now fears that the demon he was possessed by as a boy never really left - he just managed to contain it. This shouldn't be possible. What does it mean for his sanity? What does it mean for his future? And can he ignore the increasingly loud rattling of the cage in his head?

I really don't want to give away more than that, but I highly recommend this one. It has the self-assurance of an accomplished writer, and interesting things to say and fascinating ways to get there. I love the inventiveness. And the Philip K. Dick cameo.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Five

The Sisters Brothers vs. The Complete Cosmicomics

Winner: The Complete Cosmicomics

I was too distracted by the grammar in The Sisters Brothers to really be absorbed by it, and while every one of the Cosmicomics might not have grabbed me, there were enough gems to give Calvino the easy edge. Why had no one thought of writing science fables before? Some are purely magical.

Chess Story vs. The Birth House

          Winner: Chess Story

While The Birth House was fine, it didn’t have nearly the emotional punch of Chess Story, which takes less than a hundred pages to rip your heart out, and stomp it into tiny pieces on the floor. It’s a chilling look at the long-term consequences of having survived the Nazis. Size does not equal impact, and this book is living proof. Ow, ow, ow.

Young Miles vs. Clara Callan

          Winner: Young Miles

This was a surprisingly hard one! I liked both these books quite a lot, and Clara Callan is one of those indelible characters that sticks with you. Plus, I liked the epistolatory nature of book. But even those things couldn't lift it over the absolutely amazing manic romp of Young Miles. From the frenzy to the pathos, Lois McMaster Bujold has created her own indelible character, writing style that wraps itself around you like a fuzzy blanket, and some damn good science fiction.

The Third Man vs. The Eye of the World

          Winner: The Third Man

This one was easy, thankfully. I liked The Third Man quite a lot, and The Eye of the World only passably. One was merely serviceable fantasy, which I have been assured goes downhill from here, and the other atmospheric in Cold War Vienna. It was one of those books I read (there were a number) during our Cold City game that bring back fond memories both of the fiction and of the game.

The Marriage Plot vs. The Secret Life of Bees

          Winner: The Marriage Plot

Another easy decision. I didn't like The Secret Life of Bees all that much, particularly on its need to have a white narrator for black stories of the Civil Rights movement, and its emphasis on the maternal black mother substitute. And I did like The Marriage Plot, although not as much as I liked Middlesex. The world of academia, growing up, marriage, and depression. A solid read.  

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

It happened right there on the first page. Mieville referred to sewers as "secular sepulchres," and I almost swooned. Perdido Street Station had me in its thrall from pretty much that point on. The relationship got a little rockier as the book got creepier, but I managed to hold on through some fairly disturbing stuff, and am happy I did.

So, how to discuss this book? It is utterly unlike anything I've read before. It's my third China Mieville book, and I've enjoyed every single one. The sheer imagination of this guy awes me. The descriptions are beautiful and verbose - and I know some people get bogged down in those descriptions and turned off by the erudite vocabulary, but for me, it's all part of settling down with one of these books. It takes a shift in my head to let this prose wash over me, but I feel that the descriptive passages, although plentiful, are also essential.

Let me tell you why. One of the most brilliant things about this book is the city itself, New Crobuzon. These descriptive passages make that city come alive, take on its own character in the book. But not in a facile or easy way. It's not anthropomorphic, it's not cute, it doesn't sit up and talk and want attention. But after the first chapter, I was convinced that the city itself was as essential a character as anyone else in the book. That ability to make that city come alive without needing to dumb it down or make it more human - to have the life of a city be alive and yet as alien as, well, a city would be. It's a remarkable feat. In many of his books, Mieville explores city life in ways I've never seen before, but strongly respond to.

The people who live in the city are equally fascinating. New Crobuzon is a city of numerous races - humans are the largest segment of the population, but there are also substantial enclaves of what seem to be some Egyptian-inspired races - human bodies with the heads of scarabs, mostly human bodies with bird heads and wings. (Although, the book points out, those races see humans as having khepri or garuda bodies with weird human heads.) There are vodyanoi, whose faces are in what would be our stomachs, and can shape water. There are the cactacae, cactus-people. There are power differentials between these groups, which sometimes flare into violence.

Class and the relationship between the powerful and ruled are also main themes in the book. The events are set against labour unrest, militia crackdowns, and suppression of the independent press. Alliances and distrust are sown throughout the book, and some of the powers that be in the city emerge more than halfway through, and amazing idea follows amazing idea, and not every single one lands perfectly, but they take my breath away nonetheless.

Isaac, the main character, is a scientist on the outs with academia. He is also having a transgressive interracial love affair with one of the khepri, the races with giant scarab beetles for heads.  Lin, who is an artist, is crossing both that line and one of gender, as khepri women mate with male grubs only for procreation, and for pleasure with each other.  Isaac is approached by a garuda whose wings have been torn away by the justice of his clan, who desperately wants to fly again. Isaac delves into the underworld to get specimens for his research into flight, and makes some fortunate and some unfortunate connections.

But when nightmares start to rise in New Crobuzon and drooling, mindless denizens start to show up in alleyways, they might trace back to some of Isaac's experiments - to no one's greater horror than his. The city government calls on ancient and unknowable forces to combat them, the underworld gets involved, and yet it is a small group outside of either of those power structures who fight frantically to actually solve the problem.

The slake-moths are fucking creepy, and there were moments when I had to put the book down and away to distance myself for a while before I picked it up to go on again. I'm not good with horror, and this almost bridged over into that territory - and yet, I had to see how it finished. At the very end, there is a move into different systems of justice and different ways of looking at crime, and I found that difficult territory. I mention it specifically to give a warning to those who don't want to read about sexual assault - it's not easy stuff, although it isn't facile either. But is it given enough room, if you want to go down that path?

This is a complex book, a beautifully descriptive and audacious book, and it is difficult, in language and content. You have to be on your toes to keep up with this one, and most of the time I was. And very happy to have been so.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Four

The Cat’s Table vs. Hyperion

    Winner: Hyperion

I’m sorry, Michael Ondaatje. There are lots of first-round battles The Cat’s Table would have won. But not when it’s up against the book that fucking blew my mind. If you can read just the first story of Hyperion, and not come out of it creeped out and dying to read the rest of the book, then I’m severely worried about you. This is a strong contender for the whole shebang, people.

The Beautiful Mystery vs. The Portrait of a Lady
    Winner: The Beautiful Mystery

Well, I didn’t really like The Portrait of a Lady very much. And Louise Penny writes a damn fine mystery. This one, set in a remote Quebec monastery, switches up the Three Pines formula, but pays off with a truly heartbreaking conflict between characters that’s been building for books. Not many mystery writers weave these larger stories over several books, and none do it as well as Penny.

When Gravity Fails vs. The Family Trade

    Winner: When Gravity Fails

Neither of these books inspired any great passion, but I found When Gravity Fails the better of the two. It’s steampunk/transhumanism may feel not quite as revolutionary now as it may have been when he wrote it, but it has some nice noir aspects. (I like noir, can you tell?) Mostly what I remember about The Family Trade was vague irritation that the main character was simultaneously an economist/medical doctor/journalist/something else.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland…vs Moon Over Soho

    Winner: Moon Over Soho

Aaaahhhh! This is the first matchup that hurts! These are both the sequels to books that I absolutely adored, and while neither is quite as amazing as the first in the series, they’re both really good. And how do I choose? In the end, it’s going to come down to a weird factor - the amazing audiobook narration of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. That’s what is letting Moon Over Soho squeak out a win. Now I want to pet The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and comfort it and assure it I still love it too.

The Singapore Grip vs. The Nothing That Is

    Winner: The Singapore Grip

Oh, right. Now there are two books I don’t care about, after the agony of the last choice! Fine! Be that way! Going along with the established theme of nonfiction rarely beating out fiction, Farrell’s book about Singapore at war, and the frustrating tendencies of the business class to screw over everyone in pursuit of their own success wins over the overly-erudite look at the concept of infinity.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Round One, Part Three

Swann’s Way vs. A Storm in Flanders

    Winner: Swann’s Way 

I can’t say that Swann’s Way grabbed me deeply, but put up against A Storm in Flanders, there’s no real contest. Swann’s Way is not plot-heavy, but it is beautifully impressionistic in detail, capturing moments that were both familiar and strange. A Storm in Flanders was okay. Swann’s Way for the detail-oriented win! 

A Passage to India vs. The Reality Dysfunction

    Winner: A Passage to India 

Weirdly, both of these books include sexual assault as a theme. But whereas it’s mostly window-dressing to make the villains in The Reality Dysfunction more villainy, it’s the starting point for a fascinating investigation of colonial power in A Passage to India. There was a lot I liked about The Reality Dysfunction, but its sexual politics left me with a bad taste in my mouth. A Passage to India it is! 

Lord Jim vs. Quiet

    Winner: Lord Jim 

Is a nonfiction book ever going to win out against a fiction book? This was a difficult one, not because it was difficult to choose between them, but because neither grabbed me hard enough to make it an easy option. However, the consideration of masculinity in colonial settings just barely ekes it out over the satisfaction I got from reading about how introverts are awesome. (Did I do a fair amount of reading about colonialism past and future this year, or is it just me?) 

The Idiot vs. Behind the Scenes at the Museum

    Winner: The Idiot 

When two books I don’t feel that strongly about are pitted against each other, I am worried that there’s a danger of me auto-picking the classic, to prove my intellectual worth, or some such nonsense. Still, while I enjoyed Behind The Scenes at the Museum, it was marred by a major flaw, and so I think that gives Dostoyevsky the edge. Prince Myshkin’s naivete and the reaction of society to him stand out much more strongly in my memory. 

Roadside Picnic vs. When Will There Be Good News?

    Winner: Roadside Picnic 

Poor Kate Atkinson. I did generally like her books this year, but there were flaws in each that are hurting them in this early round. Roadside Picnic, on the other hand, is a well-deserved classic of science fiction. It is creepy, in its depiction of the waste left behind by an uncaring universe, and the effects of that waste on human society in general and in particular.