Friday, 31 January 2014

Sapphique by Catherine Fisher

I gave the first book in this series a bit of a light ride, because I was intrigued by the ideas, and thank goodness, it was something different in a mass of fantasy books that were decidedly running together. So although there were things left unexplained, relationships that seemed strained, I hoped those would be delved into in greater depth in later volumes, and let it pass. Unfortunately, the second book doesn't resolve any of the problems, and seems to be the end of the series, so, where am I left?

Slightly disappointed, that's where. This isn't a terrible book, it's just not as good as it could be, and that's frustrating. Her ideas are good, but Fisher too often goes for obfuscation instead of explanation, and while a little of that is fine, particularly if it's leading to a big and worthwhile reveal, vagueness because you don't have the concrete answers to give? Not so much.

So, in this book, we continue the strange story of the actively ahistorical Realm and the prison Incarceron, and...wait. No, wait a second. It's the prison, right? The whole story is about the prison and its relationship to the Realm, and how there's supposed to be no way out of Incarceron. And yet, we never see anyone sentenced to the prison. Are we really supposed to believe that once they exported all the criminals to Incarceron, crime magically ceased? Entirely? For the duration of two books? When it's shown how awful the Realm is to live in if you're not one of the aristocracy?

Prisons are not generally completed artifacts. For this story to make more sense, there would have to be an examination of crime and what it means, and what it means for the Realm to have Incarceron as an easy solution to their criminal problems. And I've just realized there is none of that. Huh.

So, yeah, a book about a prison that ignores crime as a social and practical problem is not going to be so good. (Yes, there is violence in Incarceron, but it's not crimes, you see. They're already in prison, and, oh dear. Yes, this is definitely something that needed to be addressed.

At any rate, for all the talk about "no way out of the prison," Finn, who grew up there, may be the prince regent. The Warden's daughter, the Warden now trapped in the prison is trying to help him secure his throne. Meanwhile, the prison has become consumed with the idea of escaping itself, and that's a problem for those within. And without, as the prison seems to be able to manipulate their world as well, in inexplicable ways. And with that, I was waiting for a revelation, even guessed at one, only to have it never resolved. The prison can just do those things, I guess. And this is another place where no answer is not the way to go.

So, yes. In the second book, the promise of the first largely fizzles out. And it's too bad, because this isn't terrible, it's just unsatisfying. I wanted to know why, I wanted consideration of consequences. And the characters themselves weren't strong enough not to buckle under the weight of the ideas that went unrealized.

Near the end, Jared says that now he understands everything. I only wish I did.

(Plus, I was expecting it would turn out that the Realm was the prison, or part of the prison, or a similarly shrunken universe in someone else's pocket. I was very disappointed that no more information was ever given.)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

This book makes me feel like a bad leftie. I wanted to like it so much more than I did, and while parts of it are very powerful, the book is overlong, and treads the same ground so often that I had to force myself to finish it.

When I started The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists I was full of enthusiasm, as the first chapter introduced the main character, Frank Owen (likely named after Robert Owen, but this caused some confusion for me at the start, as I couldn't quite remember Robert Owen's first name, and became briefly convinced this was supposed to be Robert Owen - look, my timeline was a little spotty. A quick glimpse at wikipedia showed me how much earlier Owenism started.)

Frank is a skilled housepainter, particularly with the detail work. But he, and all the other skilled workmen he works with, work for a firm that takes as much as it can out of them while paying them as little as possible. The names are not subtle in this book. We have Slyme, we have Crass, we have Rushton and Sweater (think what that means in a work context, not in regard to an article of clothing), we have the firm of Dauber and Botchit. I could go on. Subtlety is not this book's strong point.

In the first chapter, during their lunch break, Frank expounds his Socialist views to his coworkers, and damned if every argument they make against him doesn't have eerie similarities to ones we hear today about the laziness of the poor, and the inability to pay people any more than the bare minimum. Frank disposes of these arguments handily, and I am excited.

The book goes on to examine the lives of the housepainters, how difficult (read: impossible) it is to live on the pittance they are paid, the effects this has on their health, on their families, on their work, on society. And all is going well - it's not an easy book to read, but it is a powerful one.

And then I get to around page 200, and I well and truly have the point. By page 300, it feels like we're just retreading the same ground. I get it, already! I'm on board!

And it keeps going. And I realize there are 300 pages more to go. And the arguments he's making, the destroyed lives he's describing, they're devastating, but not more devastating than they were the first time he outlined them all. The caricaturist descriptions of the evils of the capitalist and the system continue - and it's not that I disagree, it's that I'm tired.

And there are still 200 pages to go. Getting through this book was truly a slog, and ended up knocking at least a star off of my rating. There are really good arguments in this book, and some not-so-great arguments, but it is just too long. If it was half the size, and he made his strongest (and devastatingly effective) arguments in 300 pages and finished, masterpiece. At 600 pages, it's wearisome.

The title comes from the idea that the working-class must be philanthropists, to work for so little in order to let others make so much. Barbara Ehrenreich makes a similar point at the end of Nickle and Dimed. But she knew when to stop, when she'd made her point and could leave it with the reader. This book does not.

I am heartened that this book made it onto the BBC Big Read list. I'm also a little puzzled.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Thursday, 30 January 2014

In The Night Garden by Catherynne Valente

I'm going to start with a digression. I love John Sayles movies. Adore them. And once you've seen them all, you can see a progression in his technique of interlocking stories about communities instead of individuals. Lone Star is the epitome of this, effortlessly moving back and forth in space and time to create one of the masterful pieces of storytelling I've ever seen in my entire life.

But of course, he couldn't start there. There are earlier movies, where you can see it in its formative stages, where it's not quite so assured, where he almost loses that strong line of storytelling that makes Lone Star hang together. City of Hope is a great example of this. It's good, but there are moments when the stories almost fly apart, when he almost falls off the tightrope he's walking across. But he needed those movies, I'd guess, to figure out how to do this.

That's kind of the way I feel about In the Night Garden. I have loved or really enjoyed all of Valente's books that I've read. I'm a big fan. And while I quite enjoyed In the Night Garden quite a lot, there were moments when it feels like she was almost losing those strands of story, that they weren't being woven together quite enough and started to feel a bit snarled instead of simply messy.

Which is too bad, because this is exactly the sort of book I would expect to love. And while the way the storytelling didn't quite hold together didn't ruin the experience, it is a sign, I think, of a technique in its beginning stages, which I think I see come to fuller fruition in later books.

It's all about fairy tales. It's about storytelling. It's, at times, a gloriously messy tapestry of interlocking and nested stories, weaving back and forth between them. And if at times, the threads get tangled and don't hold together, if I can't keep all these stories in my mind and lose connections, well, that's not the end of the world. But it feels like she's so close to a masterpiece and comes away with merely a really enjoyable book.

In the Night Garden begins with a bit of an Arabian Nights tinge to it - a  young prince in a castle sneaks out every night to the garden to hear the stories of a young girl who others call a demon. Her stories are not discrete units - each dovetails into the next, and each of her narrators runs into other storytellers in turn. Stories are nested, come partway out, dive back, and later stories dovetail in interesting ways.

A necromancer is a villain of many of the early stories, and the myths of how the stars came to be, and how they might still be around, and what grace could be given by or stolen from them. A city with competing religions that existed in harmony faced down an invading army, and a woman went looking for the saint she was named after. Bears turned to men, girls to birds, and nothing was ever quite what it seemed.

Each individual story is really good. There are just too many to keep straight, and times when she tried to draw them together and it worked and times when I couldn't remember what she was referring to and it fell a little flat. But it's a valiant effort, and a thoroughly enjoyable book, if you can let go of needing to fit it all together.

The Family Trade by Charles Stross

This was just okay. Oddly, it had exactly the opposite problem as the last (and only other, so far) Charles Stross novel I've read so far. Neither are enough to put me off reading more. When I read Singularity Sky, I found the writing very dense, and was often at sea, with no real idea what was going on. In The Family Trade, I initially found the writing style too simplistic. Whether that changed, or I finally got into the rhythm of the book, it's hard to say. But either way, this isn't a classic. But neither is it terrible.

Miriam is a business journalist (and formerly a doctor, which is just a little bit too much of stuffing ALL THE SKILLS! into one character). She uncovers a huge business conspiracy, and is promptly fired by the magazine she works for, and warned off of looking into it any further. However, this soon becomes moot (and virtually forgotten, although there are a few allusions that the "family trade" could be behind it) when she is given a locket belonging to her birth mother, who had been horribly killed when she was but a baby.

The locket moves her between worlds, poof! To a North America with very low technology level, and a European feudal society. This society is ruled by a king, but de facto controlled by The Clan, a group of families that, with a certain (but not too much) amount of inbreeding, can use the lockets to walk between the two worlds. (Who first discovered this talent and how?) Once there, she is hailed as her mother's heir, heir to two noble families, and not incidentally, therefore, a major threat to the Clan's operations on our world, on their own, and a lot of people's dynastic and pecuniary interests. So people try to kill her. A lot.

The Clan is into some shifty business. They may courier things for their side, by moving them quickly in our world to their destinations. But they also courier things that it's all right if they go slow, just as long as they arrive. And evade the notice of police. Any guesses as to what that might be?

So Miriam has to figure out a sort-of feudal society, where women are starting to change their roles, but not entirely, and where any one of a number of people might be out for her blood. And she falls, fast, for a cousin. Which, you know, in theory in that world, might be fine. Not so much in practice. The romance is, regrettably, a little weak. It happens very quickly, and I never entirely bought into it.

And yet why am I saying that this was okay? The writing grew on me, Miriam grew on me, and although I never loved it, I may check out the next book in the series to see where it goes from here. I'll certainly check out his other serieses at some point.

But my main gripe was that this book just...stops. There's little pacing, it's obvious that this is first in a series, but there really isn't any building to a climax and then resolving, leaving cliffhangers for the next book. This just stops, in the middle of the story. So maybe that's why I'll check the next one out.

I hope I like other Stross' better. I love reading his twitter feed!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell

Warning: some of the characters in this book are immensely irritating! This doesn't make it a bad book, but it did make me want to strangle Walter at regular intervals. And he's fictional. That's an accomplishment.

The Singapore Grip takes place in Singapore during the Second World War, in the weeks leading up to the Japanese attack. It focuses on the industrialists who have made their fortune there, and and many, many people who try to cling to what they consider normalcy, even in the face of imminent attack.

Walter Blackett is behind the immensely profitable rubber company Blackett & Webb. They are coming up to an anniversary of the company, and Walter is obsessed with the anniversary celebrations, and how it will show that Blackett & Webb have done nothing but good in Singapore, are unreservedly forces for good in the area and the world. Walter's belief in the goodness of capitalism, and himself in particular is set against labour unrest, and many demonstrable ways in which he and his family and others like him have enriched themselves at the cost of others, that most of what they have been good for is amassing wealth and not for, say, treating their workers well, or making sure anyone in Singapore gets a fair deal.

They've made money, and Walter doesn't see himself as a bad guy, so he figures that it is business that makes the world go round, and without him doing what he does, everyone would be much worse off. Matthew, the son of Blackett's deceased partner, Webb, does not see the world that way. Matthew is too much of an idealist, but he perceptively takes apart Walter's claims to any kind of moral high ground. Matthew, on the other hand, has ideas for where the world can go that ignore human frailty and self-interest in favour of believing that everyone would take care of each other if we only let them. Laudable, but not in any way practical.

And as the war edges closer, Matthew becomes immersed in immediate, as Japanese bombs start to fall, and his house becomes the centre for a fire brigade, and he spends his days trying to put out fires in Singapore, scorched and blackened. In the meantime, Walter continues to worry about his anniversary celebrations, and the immense amount of rubber he had waiting in his warehouses.

The Singapore Grip is an intriguing look at inertia in the face of imminent disaster, and the ways in which people cling to the normal in extreme circumstances, even at great cost, and without much heed for those around them. It is also an indictment of self-obsession of the wealthy, and their belief that what is good for them must be good for others. And it is about a city where war edges ever closer, and the question becomes whether or not they will survive the bombing or the occupation.

I can't say this is the most gripping book I ever read, but the characters are very interesting, even when I wanted to strangle them.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart is a thoroughly amusing children's story about bleedover between fiction and reality. It is a bit repetitive, and since it's so long, I felt that this looping could have been condensed and lose very little from the story, but overall, it's an enjoyable read. I could see particularly bookish children coming out of this reading themselves blind trying to make words come alive off the page.

Meggie (and yes, it tickled me to have a main character with a name so close to my own, although I much prefer the full version to any shortening) has been brought up by her father, who mends books for a living. They live a peripatetic lifestyle, often packing up and moving on at the drop of a hat. When Meggie is (wait, how old is she? Between 10 or 12, I would guess) older, she and her father move on again, but pick up a companion named Dustfinger, who has a pet marten that Meggie could swear had horns. Mo, her father, claim they're glued on. Meggie's not so sure.

As the story progresses, Meggie eventually is confronted with the idea that Dustfinger is a character from a book, and not the only one loose in our world. Her father has the uncontrolled gift of summoning realities from fictions, and unfortunately, who he brought over was the nastiest villain in a book called Inkheart. (It is called that, right?) And some of his compatriots. The gift is not without its other costs - something must be called into the book to replace what has come out, and that something was Meggie's mother.

The villain, Capricorn, wants Mo's power to use as his own, to call forth treasure from books, and other villains to swell his ranks. He doesn't believe that the power is uncontrolled, and captures Meggie, Mo, and Meggie's mother's aunt, Elinor and brings them to a small village he controls in Italy. The rest of the book is around their struggles not to give Capricorn what he wants.

And this is where I found it got a little repetitive. They evade capture, are caught, escape, are caught, some escape again, some are caught again, and this goes on or just a little too long. It feels like these cycles could have been easily condensed, so we weren't retreading the same ground quite so many times. It's not a huge problem, but this is quite a long book, and it would have been nice if it were a bit tighter. If those loops seemed essential, that would be a different matter, but they don't.

But there is a lot here to like. It's a good story, the villain is excellent, and the solution that Meggie and the author of Inkheart come up with is quite satisfying. I wouldn't hesitate to give this to children to read, but at the same time, it doesn't leave me eager to find more by the same author to read myself.

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

I have a hard time not wanting to shake people who gamble in desperate hopes of hitting it big and sit down and show them the math.

I wasn't great at Math in high school (having the most boring teacher possible for grades 11 and 12 didn't help), but I did take Finite Math, in which I had a ball. I avoided Calculus or Algebra, but Finite was exactly my speed. And probabilities were my favourite part of that class - and we went through most games of chance and looked at probabilities, and why, specifically, the house always wins - the ways in which games are subtly tilted so that the flow of money is always towards the house. Also, dudes, casinos are money-making enterprises. Seriously.

So I have very little patience for magical thinking when it comes to gambling. Making larger bets does not make your base probabilities change. It just doesn't. If you want as close to a sure thing as you're going to get, go with the birthday bet in a room of 25+ people.

I've been in a casino exactly once (my brother-in-law is a dealer at one.) My mother-in-law gave my husband and I each $20. My husband didn't even do anything with his - he was freaked out by the whole casino experience and found it depressing. I have to agree. I, on the other hand, had a great deal of fun by carrying out an experiment. I changed my $20 into quarters, and hit a slot machine with two cups - one with my $20 in it. Into the other, I put all the money that came out of the machine. When my initial $20 was gone, I took my second cup and cashed it in. Turned out I was down about $2.50, so I walked away with $17.50. Of course, this is exactly what casinos don't really want you to do. They want it all to go back into one cup, so you feel like you're winning without an actual gauge.

That meant that while I enjoyed the writing style of Bob the Gambler, I had a hard time being sympathetic. I do get it, I know people are like this. But this is one place where just a tiny bit of numeracy would help.

The main character, an irritable architect, and his wife, live on the Mississippi. They are generally happy, but vaguely discontented. They discover gambling. The wife first, then, the husband. They convince themselves they know how to beat the house with positive thinking and large bets. They get further into debt. They convince themselves that one big score will do it. They get even further into debt.

You can see where this is going. This isn't an overly depressing book - it's not an overwrought tale of dust and degradation. It's just a slow slide by two people who convince each other that they know what they're doing. They don't end up on the street, although they do end up moving back in with the man's mother. They try to stop gambling. Then they're convinced that just one more big bet will do it. They are never completely down and out, but there's no real promise they'll ever actually realize that why they're losing isn't because they aren't holding their noses right.

It's not an ugly book, but it did make me damned frustrated. Which was maybe the point.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do by Valerie Wilson Wesley

Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do is a fairly light comedy, less in the sense of being funny than in the Northrop-Frye sense of everything being resolved into its proper place and marriages cementing everything by the end of the book. As such, it's just okay. There are parts I liked a great deal, but then there were issues, and some of the dialogue was, quite frankly, clunky.

At the start of the book, Eva's husband Hutch leaves her, abruptly, and instead of talking about anything that's bothering him, because he doesn't feel enough "joy" in his life.

And that was the major flaw. For most of the book, every single problem could have been solved by people sitting down and talking about what they were thinking. There was nothing more complex or anguished than that. And the author didn't take the time to explain why one character found it difficult to talk about his feelings until the end of the book, by which point, it was a little late, and didn't explain everyone else's similar inability.

So that's frustrating, because it feels like false drama.

Anyway. Once Hutch has moved out, he begins an affair with his best friend's neglected and much-cheated-upon wife. Eva, on the other hand, finds herself in a passionate sexual relationship with a former boyfriend of her daughter, and that causes all sorts of waves. She and her daughter clash over this and her daughter's decision to leave her fiance and become a stand-up comic. Hutch and his son clash over Hutch's initial reaction to his son's sexuality.

Everybody's mad at somebody about something and no one will just TALK about it. Okay, let's put that flaw aside. Other than that, there are some moments of genuine emotion in here, as Eva learns how to negotiate her new single life, and the censure she gets for the path she chooses.

(On the other hand, the author tries to hard to balance having Hutch do and say some really assholish stuff but not have him be an asshole. It doesn't quite work - either the words and actions need to be toned down some, or she needs to work less on making him a nice guy. There's a dissonant note there.)

And while some of the book is really very good, every once in a while there would come a line of dialogue that was so fake, so dissonant that it made me pull my head out of the book and shake my head.

I found it interesting that she was writing a book about upper-middle-class Black family life and had race be present, but not what the story was about. There's a weird thing that happens in some reactions to stories written by non-white authors, that they're judged for either being too much race, or censured because race is incidental. I'd like to see and read a wide variety of voices, that run the entire gamut of experience. This particular one definitely falls on the latter part of the spectrum.

I haven't looked into the author any more, but I hope this is an early effort, and I hope she gets better as she goes, because there is some real promise here. It just needs slightly better dialogue, and conflicts that can't be resolved if two people would just have one conversation in which substantive things were said.

Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright

I am trying to write this while a cat sleeps partly on the keyboard, so please be tolerant of unusual amounts of typoes and general nonsense. He already tried to sleep right across the keyboard, thereby inadvertently turning the music up really loud, and then looked really startled.

But this has nothing to do with Clara Callan by Richard Wright. I don't think she even has a cat. But cat or no, I very much enjoyed this book. It mixes diary entries with letters in a hybrid epistolary novel, but does it very well. I complained because Jo Walton's Among Other was in a diary format but didn't use it as well as I would have liked. This is how to do it well. There is a narrative here, related by Clara to her sister, Nora, her friend, Evelyn, or, much of it, to herself alone. And it is compelling.

Clara lives in small town Ontario in the 1930s. Her father has just died at the start of the novel, her sister has just moved to New York City to pursue a career as a radio actress, and Clara teaches at the local school, as she has done for years. Somewhat at odds by herself in her home, Clara offers surprising and acute observations on small-town life in early 20th century Ontario. The effect of gossip and its limits. The judgment of those who transgress, and the helping hands that are nonetheless extended. This is a more nuanced view of a small town, and while it certainly portrays it as a difficult place to live if you don't fit in, it also shows how eccentricity is, to some degree, tolerated and indulged.

Clara loses her faith in a deity, suffers a terrifying event, deals with the aftermath, keeps most of it to herself, and writes sometimes to her sister. She suffers from periods of depression, of elation, of confusion, of loneliness and of enjoying her solitude. Her journey will shake no worlds but is entirely engrossing.

If you're looking for a more nuanced view of small-town life than we normally get, where it is often shown as absolutely, cloying, stranglingly horrible and small-minder, or as an idyll spoiled by the city, this is the book to look at. Wright has done an amazing job of capturing on paper a difficult character, who rebuffs as much as she welcomes. And yet you love her and all her prickliness and independence, as much for these attributes than despite them.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Let me preface this by saying that I'm quite sure that nothing in this review will come close to equalling the great one Jeffrey Keeten did, which I am purposely not rereading until after I write this, as it will intimidate the heck out of me.

A large part of that is that I'm still digesting the book, still unsure what it means to me, to others. There is that dissociated drift of the main character still meandering around my head, and I'm not sure if it will ever come to roost. Which is one of Binx Bolling's worries - becoming detached, just Anyone Anywhere, on Any Street. He worries about it so much that the movies are his method of anchoring himself to a time and a place - and the irony of using mass-produced media to make sure you are Someone Particular Somewhere is strong.

Binx drifts through his life after returning from his experiences at war. He makes money, he visits his family, he disappoints his aunt and confuses his mother, he sleeps with his secretaries, and he goes to the movies. He worries about being just one in a crowd - not being just like everyone else, but losing himself so much that he is just one of a faceless thousand. It isn't just that he could be lost to a casual observer, it's that he could be lost to himself.

Binx is intelligent, he seems not without appeal to those who know them, and yet there is always that sense of unreality between him and those around him. Only his cousin, who struggles with her own problems of being in the world, seems to understand. Or does she? Does he?

In some ways, this felt like an American version of The Stranger. But I liked it better. I still feel like The Stranger went over my head, and Binx, while detached from society and its expectations, gave me more to latch onto. Although I still wanted to shake him at times.

The Moviegoer is a hypnotic look at post-war ennui, at detachment, at living in cities, of the search and retreat of one man who is always worried about being swept away from himself.

Friday, 24 January 2014

"Old Crompton's Secret" by Harl Vincent

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Next Up: The second issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, from February 1930.

This story is not bad. It's a little morality tale wrapped up in a science fiction veneer, and it does what it's trying to do quite well. There were few moments of hilarity, although the overtones I've noted in other stories of scientists overreaching acceptable bounds are very much present in this one. The author, Harl Vincent, apparently wrote many pulp science fiction stories through the 1930s and 1940s, and while this isn't literature by any stretch of the imagination, it's a solid little story.

(Do I use the word "solid" too much? I've noticed it a lot recently, but I haven't thought of another word that works as well yet. It denotes a story that isn't fantastic, but isn't wracked with major flaws either. Enjoyable without being inspiring.)

At any rate, this story is about Old Man Crompton. I'm sure that comes as a shocker. He's a recluse in a small-town, who becomes obsessed with his new neighbour (no, not in that way), a young scientist who is experimenting in a lab he convinced his wealthy father to create for him. Tom is after nothing less than immortality and rejuvenation, and with the help of "rays," he succeeds. (At least it's not vibrations this time!)

Going along with the theme I've previously noticed of "scientists are kind of dicks," although Tom rejuvenates his old dog, he refuses to do the same for Old Man Crompton, spurning him as not the rich captain of industry he envisioned selling his services to. (Although, really, wouldn't you want at least one human test subject before trying it on a captain of industry? And Crompton's right there, offering himself up. Seriously.) So Crompton takes a swing at him, believes he's killed him, climbs into the machine, rejuvenates himself, then wrecks the whole thing and runs away.

And this is the point where it turns into a morality tale about how the human race isn't ready for immortality. It always kind of depresses me that so many science fiction writers, then and now, always decide that, without really taking the time to explore what immortality might do to us as people, what ethical adjustments might occur (views on suicide, for example, would have to undergo a complete overhaul), what it would do to society. Nope, it's almost always a gut reaction of "We Aren't Ready For This!" Maybe we're not, but could we, you know, explore that?

But at any rate, Young Man Crompton finds that his old mind doesn't match his young body, and he can't run away from his past. So he comes back to turn himself in for murder, but finds there was no murder. (Seriously, didn't he check the newspapers when he was on the lam? The son of a very rich man is found bludgeoned to death in his lab, it's going to make the news.) But Tom has grown up too, and recognizes that the human race isn't ready for immortality.

And then, for some reason, Crompton ages 60 years in 60 seconds, for no real reason. (The rejuvenated dog has had no such incident - it seems to be the guilt and relief that ages him in seconds.)

I am sort of tired of being a little repetitive here, but then again, it's the stories that are repetitive in their lack of certain things, and the only way to acknowledge that is, well, to acknowledge it. So, again: race is notable by its absence.

So are women. Not a single woman in this whole story.

And as for non-heterosexuality? Not unless you want to read something into Old Man Crompton's obsession with Tom, but in this case, I don't think the text supports it.

Class? Well, yeah, sort of. Tom is obsessed with wealth as a marker of worth, and partly scorns Old Man Crompton because of his lesser class status. He grows out of it, apparently.

And what about science? Well, this is another cautionary tale of the things scientists are doing that could doom us all. And Tom, in the beginning is single-minded and selfish. He doesn't really come off that well, and that we've seen before.

But for all that, this is a good little pulp story, and less ludicrous than most.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

I got pushed into reading this slightly earlier than I had intended - but my mother is here for a visit, and she started to read the first book, and as she neared the end, there started to be threats about what might happen if I didn't hurry up and finish this one. (Threats of booknapping!)

So I did, and finished it in record time, which didn't particularly surprise me, as these are easy reads. But oh-so-fun and entertaining. Aaronovitch has such a knack for turns of phrase that make me grin. And Peter Grant remains an incredibly entertaining lead character, and the exploration of what magic means in this world is very interesting.

Peter, you see, isn't quite satisfied with the "well, it's magic, isn't it?" explanation. He's noticed that batteries turn to sand around magic, and otherwise, well, let's just say that the energy has to come from somewhere, and "this is your brain on magic" has a fairly literal meaning. So he's gradually experimenting on figuring this out.

In between cases, of course. And with his governor still on sick leave, he's about all the magical protection London's got. Of course, his fireballs don't always go off, but at least he's not exploding apples anymore!

Peter is embroiled in two cases - one involving men who have been killed by vagina dentata, and the other surrounding jazzmen, who are dying with alarming regularity, right after gigs. And "Body and Soul" rests in the air around the bodies.

In the meantime, Peter's romantic life isn't any less complicated. Beverley Brook is off living with Father Thames people these days. Leslie's face fell off in the last book. (And this is something I really liked, the refusal to back away from the repercussions of what happened last book. Poor Leslie's face isn't something that can just be fixed by either magic or medical science. Small steps can be taken, but there is no magic bullet. So to speak.) And the first jazzman Peter investigates has a sexy girlfriend who seems interested....

Yet again, these are fun, if sometimes oddly paced. I think the odd pacing, though, is because Aaronovitch is determined to write about policing as it is rarely written about. Once on a case, police don't, can't, individually, work around the clock. They can't devote themselves entirely to everything that comes along. At some point, they have to go home, watch soccer, and try to be something other than a police officer for a little bit. There's not really another option. And yet, so much TV and fiction have given us those preternaturally dedicated law enforcement or private detectives, who work round the clock on that one big case, tirelessly, unaffected by sleep deprivation. And then it's done, and then they can relax.

But Aaronovitch makes the point that there's rarely just one big case, and you can't go without sleep or downtime, or else you'll burn out (and with magic, that could be quite nasty.) So in the middle of following up leads on the cases he's working on, he'll go home at the end of the day. Or in the early hours of the morning, and sleep until noon.

This undercuts the drive of the novel, but it makes another point, and I think it's a good one. We see Peter both on and off-duty, and have to realize that there is such a thing as off-duty, and there has to be, even in the middle of two big cases, because there will never be a time without big cases.

At any rate, this is the type of meandering I'm glad to be along for. I wasn't quite as attached as I was to Midnight Riot, but then, that had the theatrical backdrop. I like jazz, but I'm don't respond as strongly to it.

But this is a worthy successor to the first book, and I'm still eager to read the third!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Handling Sin by Michael Malone

This is an exuberant, raucous, Drunkard's Walk of a book. It's the kind of book words like exuberant and raucous were coined to describe. And I loved it.

There is a huge, entertainingly flawed, and distinctly memorable cast of capital-C Characters. The story weaves all over a good portion of the southern United States. The plot veers crazily as well. This is a book you have to go into just wanting to be entertained, and willing to let the author take his own sweet time.

The main character is Raleigh Hayes, and as far as he's concerned, he's the only sane man in a family of careless, irresponsible flibbertigibbets. (I can't believe I finally got to use that word!) On the other hand, Raleigh regards himself as the paragon of normalcy. He runs his own insurance business, has a wife he loves and two daughters who are, disconcertingly, hitting adolescence, hard. He goes to the right church and belongs to the right civic clubs. He has well and carefully invested his money.

His life might have been thrown for a loop when one daughter started racing stock cars and the other aspired to be a Valley Girl, or when his wife became the very public spokeswoman for Mothers of Peace, and started to contemplate running for office.

Might have, that is, if his father, Earley, hadn't just the day before broken himself out of the hospital, withdrawn what Raleigh regards as his future inheritance from the bank, bought a new Cadillac and hit the roads with a young black woman no one had ever seen before. And left behind a laundry list of bizarre tasks (including stealing a plaster bust from the library) that needed to be done before Raleigh can bring everything to New Orleans in two weeks time and can retrieve his father and his inheritance.

On the way, he brings along the neighbour and best friend he always thought of as ineffectual, and ends up seemingly involved in finding his reprobate brother, a murder, a break-in, a jail break, drug running, conning wealthy Southern women out of fur coats and money, delivering a baby, taking down the Klan, a gunfight at an amusement park, a search for buried Confederate gold, and a duel. With swords.

Some of those things he actually did, others he was just near or accused of. I'll let you figure out which!

This book is hilarious. But what I haven't gotten across yet is how tender and heartfelt it is. About those sneaky messages about family and love and acceptance that sneak in behind the scenes. And by the end, Raleigh realizes that order doesn't necessarily bring you control, and maybe, just maybe, a little chaos is good for the soul.

I highly recommend this one. In fact, the only thing I didn't like about it was the title.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

In Comanche Moon, Larry McMurtry has a deep sense of his characters and what they might do at any given moment. This often leads to scenes that ring true for the characters, but don't advance the narrative, or, indeed, subvert the narrative drive. This sprawling novel is not one of plot. It is one of detail, and character-driven meandering.

I like meandering, when it's done well. And this is. Even though I did get a little annoyed once or twice when there was a scene that did nothing to advance the narrative thrown in there to show why one character would make a completely left-field decision that would have no impact on the later story. Not too irritated, but a little. He made it work, is all I can say.

Of course, to write a novel about a sprawling cast of characters, and letting them lead the way, you have to have good characters. And he does. Focusing on the Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Cull, this book also weaves around McCrae's lost love, Cull's ignored woman, other rangers, the former leader of their Ranger troop, Inish Scull, Comanche warriors who are being pushed off their land, a Kickapoo scout for the Rangers, and a Mexican bandit and slavekeeper who captures Scull.

Each follows their own agendas, and they are frequently surprising and unexpected, but always consistent with what we know. It takes place over huge swathes of time.

(Side note: I was somewhat surprised to see that this book was dedicated to Susan Sontag - on research, it seems she was a good friend of McMurtry's.)

None of the characters are cardboard, all have their own desires, and with all good novels, those frequently conflict. The women are well drawn and interesting. I don't have the knowledge to know whether or not Native readers would feel the same way about the Native characters, but they aren't caricatures, anyway. They are all complex and unique.

If you're looking for a novel with a driving narrative, this is not the one for you. But as a character-driven look at Texas as it changes, as more white settlers enter, as the Rangers weather the Civil War and find themselves increasingly irrelevant to a more settled society, it is very good.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

"Invisible Death" by Anthony Pelcher

Strangely, the last story in this particular issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science was also probably my favourite. It's pulpy as heck, with some hackneyed writing, but it's also entertaining, bounces along well, and has several surprising moments. Plus, in a lot of ways, it breaks thematically with some of the things that I've been analyzing in the last few old SF reviews I've done.

The title, of course, is over the top. But over-the-toppedness is really part of the fun, isn't it?

This story starts at an inquest into the death of a scientist. He was killed in his lab, but no one saw the intruder (hence, the title). Then, a car seen near the site disappeared. Then, the wealthy industrialists who worked with the scientist, in a remarkably cordial relationship, are blackmailed. If they don't drop money in a package on a crowded street, they will be killed, one by one. Attacks do happen. Each is preceded by a loud humming noise, and no one can be seen.

The intrepid police officer assigned to the investigation first goes down the red herring of the foreman in a plant, who was overheard "cursing capitalists," but it turns out he's just crazy. (We'll talk about class in just a moment.) In the end, the police officer found out that the deceased scientist had been working on the mysteries of invisibility, harnessed, of course, using the POWER OF VIBRATION. Sound familiar?

I mean, at this point, in this one issue of the magazine, vibration has allowed invisibility, mind control, and shaking yourself through to another dimension. What can't vibrations do? Apparently, nothing. They're practically a shorthand for "magic."

Shall I give away who the bad guy is? I'm not as concerned about spoilers in these reviews, but look away quickly.

It is, of course, the former circus performer who lived next door to the scientist and was secretly a homicidal maniac with delusions of grandeur who stole the devices, killed the scientist, oh, and has secretly been hypnotizing a set of triplets for years and years.

Those circus folk, amiright?

Let's talk first about what was not different. Race is present by its absence. So is any kind of non-heterosexuality.

But women, now that's interesting. Remember that scientist I was talking about at the beginning? Okay, yes, he was a man. But his wife was also a scientist, and the two were childless (there's a hint that they had children and they died) and worked together out of their home. She's not a huge character in the story, as it turns out, but hey, a female scientist who is quite competent showing up and testifying at the inquest into her husband's death? I'll take it.

That does, of course, have to be juxtaposed against the other female characters, the beautiful and hypnotized triplets. One of whom is described, pricelessly, as displaying her "nether charms" when the policeman comes to call, presumably to distract him.

It's not that it's great on gender, but man, that female scientist is the first that I've seen.

As for class, the industrialists are all pretty kindly old men. And that foremen cursing capitalists is only mentioned twice, and is quite the red herring.

But most interesting are the scientists. As I've pointed out in previous reviews, in many of the stories in this issue, the scientists were not the heroes. They were evil, or at very least, more concerned about their careers than the public at large. It's sort of refreshing to have scientists who aren't mad. This is one of the only stories that doesn't seem to regard science with a certain amount of horror. (I except that one that was really more fantasy than science fiction, as there weren't really any scientists in it, and no science except a magical vibrator - the one that shook you into another dimension.)

It's funny because I've read assessments of old science fiction that talk about the first wave of science fiction, where the scientists were all the heroes, and then later people started to question what was coming out of the laboratory - but these stories are definitely in the latter camp, suggesting that, as always, life is more complicated. As early as 1930, some authors are certainly working the mad scientist trope for all it's bloody worth. So much so that it was a surprise to find a positive depiction.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

I thought I'd read this before. I really thought I had. But maybe I just saw it on my Mom's headboard when I was little, with other Asimovs, and thought I'd read it. Because it rang not a bell at all.

Except that I knew within the first 30 pages who the murderer was. So either I had read it and blocked out everything but that, or Asimov didn't construct his mystery particularly well in this case. I think it's the latter. It's a matter of a few extraneous details at a moment that felt far too obviously one chosen to weave in things that would be important later.

It's too bad, because I enjoy Asimov's actual mystery series quite a lot. But, as I've said in the past, the real key is, is there enough here, even when the mystery is gone? It's a big yes for me.

Lije Baley, cop, is paired with R(obot). Daneel Olivaw to solve a crime - a Spacer has been murdered in their separate Spacetown, and it appears to have been a job by an Earthman. Baley hates the idea of robots, and being partnered with one, but does his job - although he is often blinded by his hatred to some fairly obvious matters. It makes one wince. But his screw-ups are interesting and understandable.

But what made this book really work for me is the society Asimov has created, and his explorations of its strengths and weaknesses. This is not future capitalist society. Nor is it communism, but a curious mixture of both and something else - what he calls Cityism. In a highly interdependent society, everyone has access to the same base level of living (a very poor one), but can earn privileges based on the position one holds and its importance to the overall scheme.

It's centralization on a huge scale, and the places where it binds are obvious - indeed, the book revolves around a "Medievalist" revolt against the huge Citystate. (For "Medieval," read "20th Century".) They want to go back to the land, and hate and despise Spacers for starting to introduce crude robots to the culture.

But there are too many humans for that, really. Where could they go? Spacer worlds are underpopulated, but are stagnant (and regarded by the Medievalists as decadent.)

Where this gets particularly interesting is in the discussion over humans losing their jobs to robots, who can do basic tasks (Daneel, a Spacer robot, is far advanced beyond those available in general society.) It caught me short, when I noticed Asimov was using specific words to describe those robots that were taking people's jobs for less money (maintenance, basically), and the violent reaction against them.

It was "inscrutable" that did it. I started to pay attention, and most of the words used to describe these job-stealing robots were specifically ones that were commonly used to describe Chinese workers on the Pacific coast of the U.s. and Canada, when racism and violence frequently broke out, and the Chinese workers were targeted by angry white workers. It's very subtle, but it's not a mistake.

That parallel drawn, this opened up into an examination of how "foreigners" are regarded by the working-class, and the violence he was discussing was drawing on a long tradition of racism and nativism. Medievalism had worthwhile ideas, but there was this distinct tinge that was there to point out that these are not even necessarily new arguments, but they are sometimes ugly.

Where do you go from there? Asimov suggests into a hybrid culture, working with, not against, the "other." To create something entirely new, provide a genuinely new frontier to a world that had forgotten not only what a frontier was, but even what daybreak looked like.

On one level, Caves of Steel is not a great murder mystery. It's an interesting but not spectacular science fiction book. But once he started to get me thinking about race and class, I was hooked.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Gully Foyle is not a likeable man. But he is a compelling one. And in The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester wrote one of his best. (I do like The Demolished Man a little bit more.)

Stranded in space, running out of air, Gully Foyle watches as a ship that could save him passes him by. This changes something in him, turning him into a monster bent on revenge (comparisons to The Count of Monte Cristo do not go amiss.) Although he gains sophistication and self-control throughout the book, he remains a tiger, burning his way through the lives of those he encounters.

The world through which he moves is drastically different from our own. The primary mode of transportation is jaunting - teleporting in relatively short hops, up to 1000 miles - and the world has adapted itself to this technique. Jaunting has had profound effects on living arrangements, population distribution, and the status of women.

Wealthy women are kept separate, sequestered, in windowless wings, where jaunting is impossible. Even those without resources find their possibilities strictly proscribed.

The Inner and Outer Planets are on the verge of war, and through this strides Foyle, caring for neither side, unaware he possesses the most powerful weapon either side has yet conceived.

The world Bester creates is vivid and complex, the characters intriguing, Foyle's mission compelling. He takes this strongly unpleasant character and yet makes him interesting, and his mission urgent. Who holds the fate of the world in their hands? Who should? Gully Foyle's answer to that question is simply staggering.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Let me try to explain why I didn't like this book very much. I believe one of the sales quotes on the back of the book can help me communicate why. Keep in mind that this is, at least in part, a book about French complicity in the Holocaust:

"Sarah's Key unlocks the star-crossed, heart-thumping story of an American journalist in Paris and the sixty-year-old secret that could destroy her marriage."

And that, unfortunately, is how the story reads sometimes. Not all the time, but there is a good deal of the book where it feels like the rounding up of Jews in Paris and their subsequent journeys to Auschwitz are mostly important for the strain it puts on an American journalist 60 years later, and how it affects her marriage.

Now, if this were more sensitively written, if that were the story, how researching trauma can alter a person and have a deep and lasting impact on themselves and their lives, that would be extremely interesting. This is not that book. This is the book where the American journalist is, at least at the beginning, the only one who cares about this atrocity, and all the French are, to put it lightly, assholes. A few become less assholish, the rest, from her husband, to some of her in-laws, remain these caricatures of French asshattery.

She cares, you see! They don't! They just want to ignore it! (If this book had explored the reasons why people have a hard time acknowledging trauma, that would also have been extremely interesting. Do we see a pattern here? If this book had...if, if, if. But it doesn't.)

It also has annoyingly short James-Patterson-style chapters. Why? They flip back and forth between the present and World War II. But we're not given enough time in either time period to really get invested. I just really hate the extremely short two-to-four page chapter thing that Patterson made so popular. I can see the occasionally short chapter thrown in for emphasis, but when the whole book is like that, it's choppy.

And it's irritating, because some of her material about the past is actually quite affecting. But then we jump away to the annoying story of Julia and her asshole husband who has been cheating on her for years, treats her like shit, and doesn't want her to have a baby. This story has no depth, the characters are almost cartoonishly evil or good. Sarah's actual story is heartbreaking, but it's undercut because it keeps being important because of its impact on Julia, and this is not dealt with well or with real understanding.

There are a lot of places where this could have been a better book. But I was very disappointed.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - My Favourite Book of The Year

So, we're down to this. It's taken me weeks and a few heartbreaking choices, but we're down to the final two. So here we go, the last book battle in determining my favourite book of last year:

Hyperion vs. Luka and the Fire of Life

          Winner: Hyperion

And in the end, it's not as hard a choice as I feared. I really did love Luka and the Fire of Life, but Hyperion was definitely the book that set me back on my heels as I was reading it. Every year or two, there are those books that hit me like a ton of bricks, that I then want to tell everyone in the world about. A few years ago, it was My Name is Asher Lev. The year after that, it was Cloud Atlas. Then a year or two passed without a book that made such an impression, but this year, Hyperion took up the tradition.

I also feel strangely less evangelical about Luka and the Fire of Life. Hyperion I feel very confident about recommending, but Luka and the Fire of Life feels more personal, more intimate, and I'm less sure other people will like it. Seriously, though, if you like messy tales of mythologies ancient and modern (and by modern, I mean video games), it's a wonderful book.

But it isn't Hyperion. Hyperion is a masterpiece of science fiction. It's verging closer to horror at times than I like to get, but only at times. It is creepy. I love the riff on The Canterbury Tales, and I love the stories that come out of that.

I am just about to delve into The Fall of Hyperion - I might start it this weekend. Look for a review to see if the second has the same impact.

Thanks for joining me on this crazy ride. So here are my favourite books this year (including one I dropped in the Round of 16 and brought back to make an even 10), and links to my reviews of them:

1. Hyperion
2. Luka and The Fire of Life
3. Deathless
4. The Lies of Locke Lamora
5. Invisible Man
6. The Beautiful Mystery
7. Pandemonium
8. Joyland
9. Kushiel's Dart
10. Perdido Street Station

Friday, 17 January 2014

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

This is the third Jack Reacher novel I've read, but I've been jumping around in the chronology. I believe I've read the first, and then this and one other, which I believe are both fairly recent. I suppose I could look that up, but it's not all that important. But my point was that I was a little surprised by the characterization of Jack Reacher in this one.

Sure, I get that he's essentially a huge, bearlike Sherlock Holmes, who can occasionally burst out into incredibly effective violence. But I wasn't quite expecting commando Jack Reacher. I'm not sure what I think, or how this fits into the rest of the series.

Because in this one, Reacher storms the castle, pretty much single-handedly. It's interesting, but without further knowledge of the series - is there precedent for this?

At any rate, the case seems to start the way many of his cases do - Reacher drifting through the wrong place at the wrong time. He's hitchhiking, and is picked up by two men and a woman in the car. One of them eventually manages to signal to him that the other two are not what they appear - and that both of the extra passengers are in the car to help fool roadblocks.

But the ground gets even muddier from here. After an attempted shooting, Reacher has to fend off the FBI (who want to arrest him) in order to follow the kidnappers and attempt to free the other person who was being held. This culminates in Reacher storming an old military installation by himself. That's the part I found a bit weird.

But these books have always struck me as an enjoyable and relatively undemanding way to spend a couple of hours - and when I'm deep in a weighty tome, that is exactly what I need. I'm reading another long book that is resting heavily on my shoulders, and which I'm mostly finishing out of sheer cussedness. And it was a delight to escape from that to here, an interesting mystery that I was pleased to read, but which I don't feel needs to solve the mysteries of the Sphinx, or come up with the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. (I doubt the weighty tome will come up with 42 as an answer.)

I don't have a lot else to say, I guess. This is a mystery series I do quite enjoy, and Reacher is a strange bear-like Sherlock Holmes crossed with a drifter. The knowledge he has strains credulity at times, but it's not like I'm reading this for absolute realism. The last two I've read both center around military secrets parked out in the heartland during the Cold War and forgotten, and that theme is very interesting, if unsettling.

But most of all, it was fun. And I read it when I needed fun.

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Semifinals!

And now there are four!

Hyperion vs. Deathless

          Winner: Hyperion

Not an easy choice, but still, in the end, I didn't bend myself into knots over this one. I loved Deathless a lot, which I am sure is absolutely apparent by now. But Hyperion is the one that feels like it rewrote my brain. I don't want to belabour The Priest's Tale, but if you can read that and not be hooked and immensely creeped out, I don't know who you are. It's got just the right mixture of religion and science fiction for me. It's truly masterful. And I love what Valente does with Russian folklore, but in a year of some very good books, Hyperion blew my mind.

The Lies of Locke Lamora vs. Luka and the Fire of Life

          Winner: Luka and the Fire of Life

Another choice that doesn't seem that difficult. Like Deathless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Luka and the Fire of Life was the one that I felt hit me on a very personal level. As I've been very upfront about, that's probably largely because it's about the impending death of a parent, which is something that has particular resonance for me these days. I wonder sometimes if it will never not have that resonance, if once you've gone through that particular crucible, it will always colour your responses to fiction. I am quite sure Luka and the Fire of Life is probably not for everyone. It's messy and haphazard, but beautifully and skillfully so.

Only one more battle to go! Tune in tomorrow for the grand finale!

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has this uncanny ability to make the strange familiar, and to draw on the familiar and make it something unearthly. The weaving together of recognizable life with unmistakable magic is enthralling, and here, in this book about returning to the source, to childhood, to memories long and perhaps best forgotten, he weaves another spell that has some of the creepiness of Coraline, but with a more adult tinge.

This is about children, again, though. The narrator has grown, but as he returns to his parents home for a funeral, memories he had forgotten since the last time he went to his source well up again, and he remembers being a very small boy, and the chain of events that beings with the suicide of a boarder. As a result, he meets the Hempstock women, all three of them, maiden, mother, and crone. They feel like home at a time his own home is becoming increasingly strange.

But they are not, perhaps, part of the everyday world. The suicide has let something dangerous loose in the world, and the boy goes with Lettie, the youngest of the Hempstocks to bind again what is loose. He lets go of her hand, though, at a critical moment, and in that moment, something comes back with him.

That's all I'll tell of the plot, but it is marvellous the way Gaiman takes very mundane concerns like money woes, the attraction of a parent to someone not their spouse, sibling rivalry, and connects it seamlessly to myth, to legend, to the supernatural, in such a way that it seems to reveal how those connections were always there. We just forgot how to see them.

The sense of a world that is larger and darker and more dangerous, where actions have repercussions far beyond the ones we can see, where the wrong turn can send one tumbling helplessly down the rabbit-hole, pervades this book, and creates an atmosphere that is at once alienating and comforting.

By revealing the stories, the connections, behind our lives, the intertwining of experience and narrative, Gaiman has created something quite unique, and that feels like it will last as long as we choose to recognize it.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Quarterfinals

Sort of. I have to do a little finagling and one three-way to get it down to eight competitions, but we're getting close to the end!

Invisible Man vs. Hyperion

          Winner: I don't know!

I seriously don't know. I'm going to have to write myself into an answer. I'll write it above when I figure it out, but I'm starting to write this trying not to twist myself into physical knots as I try to puzzle it out. Invisible Man is a classic in the best sense of the term. It is difficult, it's beautifully written, there's this sense of dread that pervades the pages. It knocked me for a loop. The problem is, so did Hyperion. Hyperion is a science fiction classic. It's also beautifully written. The Canterbury Tales feel, the great variety in the short stories, the death of the universe as the backdrop - it's amazing. They're both the sort of books, to quote my favourite author, that ought to be served with a whisk brush, to dust yourself off after you pick yourself up off the floor. I can't choose! I must, by my own silly rules!

So, so, so. I'm going to fall back on my identity as a nerd. I truly think both these books will last, and Invisible Man is probably the more important of the two. But if I had to pick one of the two up this very second to read again, it would be Hyperion. Followed closely thereafter by Invisible Man. I guess this is how you can tell a good book battle - picking either one would leave me metaphorically feeling like I'd torn one of my limbs off.

          Winner: Hyperion

The Beautiful Mystery vs. Deathless

          Winner: Deathless

So, after an incredibly difficult battle, there's a relatively easy one. I've been clear about my love for Deathless from the beginning, and while The Beautiful Mystery is a really excellent mystery novel, there's no way it can come even close to the other. If you like mysteries, check The Beautiful Mystery out. Well, read the whole series. In order. There's this amazingly good throughline that is just paying off in the last couple of books. But winner? What Catherynne Valente does with Russian folklore. No question.

The Lies of Locke Lamora vs. Pandemonium

          Winner: The Lies of Locke Lamora

If you read every book I knock off from here on in, it'd be hard to go wrong. This is truly down to choosing between excellent books. And of the two, The Lies of Locke Lamora is the one I've been raving about more this year. I've been telling people about the demon-infested world of Daryl Gregory as well, but my first taste of Scott Lynch's work has made me eager for more. (Yes, I know there are more books out, I just haven't gotten to them yet.) Why aren't there more con men fantasy worlds with swearing and serious fucking consequences? And could anyone else write them quite this well?

Joyland vs. Kushiel's Dart vs. Luka and the Fire of Life

          Winner: Luka and the Fire of Life

In this three-way battle, it's relatively easy to lose the Stephen King. I liked Joyland quite a lot, but didn't love it. It's one of the only books I didn't love left in the competition. It's harder to knock out Kushiel's Dart. But Luka and the Fire of Life quite frankly, moved me to tears. It's not a neat, tidy book. I keep describing it as messy, and it is. But gloriously so. I get the feeling it might not be for everyone, but it was definitely for me. And the underlying theme of losing a parent made it particularly poignant.

When Gravity Fails by George Effinger

When Gravity Fails was pretty good, without ever quite achieving greatness. I enjoyed it, but the pieces never entirely came together and swept me away. It was, however, part of my ongoing project to read all the Hugo nominees for novels. It's going to take a while.

This book is cyberpunk, with a strong dash of noir. (Not that that's surprising - a lot of cyberpunk seems to revolve around noir storytelling.) It is less sterile than Neuromancer, much messier and more lively. So, if it's cyberpunk, what are the modifications that have been made to bodies that bring whether or not someone is still human into question?

In this case, moddys and daddys. Moddys are other personalities that you can plug into your brain and act as they would act. They're used for sex, a lot. And also so you can be James Bond. Given the fear the main character has of these types of modifications, and how he describes plugging in Nero Wolfe (and I did totally love that it was Nero Wolfe), outside of the sex, I'm not sure why people would want to. It might be helpful, I suppose, but it seems like you're a passive observer while another personality takes over your brain. That's interesting. I'm just not sure why it's so enticing that Marid, the main character, is known as the one man who doesn't have plugs in his head.

Daddys, though, they do seem more interesting. A little like a babelfish, but more limited in scope. They're add-ons, languages, skills, hunger suppressants, reflex sharpeners, whatever you could want to give yourself an edge.

This world, though, is not the corporate one we see in a lot of other cyberpunk. It's set in the Budayeen, a crime-ridden district in a city in the Middle East that I don't think is ever named. We get flashes about the rest of the world - Russia, the States, and most of Europe have fractured into tiny states. The context for this book is Islamic, and that was definitely interesting and unexpected.

The other major modification is that sex changes seem to be relatively easy (although I don't think they're cheap, which raises the question of how people from this very, very poor district are all affording them). I'd be hard-pressed to go back in the book and find a woman who was born a woman. Although there are plenty of men who were born men. This perspective on the fluidity of gender could be interesting, but it's not handled as well as, say, Varley does it. Once "changed," women who were born men fall into the most stereotypical of gendered behaviours. That's a bit of an issue.

Marid, the lead character, is approached in a bar about finding man's son. But that man is shot to death right in front of him, by James Bond. Marid tries to walk away, but one of his friends comes and approaches him for help, and then disappears. Shortly thereafter, other people start turning up dead, some tidy assassinations, others horrific and bloody. And Marid is caught in the middle, and employed by the local crime lord (who he swore he'd never work for) to look into it.

Marid is a reluctant hero, and a lot of the book is him lounging in bed not looking into things when he really should be.

But the mystery is suitably twisty, and the world very interesting. The characters were a little weak, but this is worth checking out if you're looking for a different kind of cyberpunk.


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

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead

I am so torn on this book! There is so much to like, so many interesting ideas and characters. And then there's this one flaw that kept niggling away at me, that prevented me from really losing myself in this book, and I wanted to get lost here. It's frustrating! But I think this is an early book in Sanderson's career, so I have great hopes that future books will fix that problem.

The city of Elantris lies in slimy neglect. Ten years ago, the men and women who had been selected by some unknown criteria to become Elantrians, to wield magic and the powers of the city, fell prey to a sickness that appears to have killed them. Except they are not dead. And more citizens of Arelon are taken every week by the disease, which strikes seemingly at random. They are thrown into the city to fend for themselves, their hearts no longer beating, their hair fallen out, their skin grey.

Oh, dear. The more I think about the brief synopsis I want to write, the less brief it seems! I'll try not to spend too much time on it, I promise!

All right, there are two main characters. One of them, Prince Raoden, heir to the throne, is taken by the Sheod, the disease that makes people into what the former Elantrians have become. He was beloved by the people in a way his father was not, and sees only the best in everyone. An idealist, he tries to take an Elantris that has fallen into chaos, and reform it into a liveable society.

Sarene, the princess of a neighboring country, was on her way to marry Prince Raoden when he was taken, and has been told he was killed. Her marriage contract is nonetheless binding, and with her myriad skills, she tries to figure out who her husband would have been, and make a place for herself in a crumbling kingdom.

One of the things I liked most was the feeling of a society in flux. Elantris fell, not hundreds or thousands of years ago, but ten years ago. The kingdom of Arelon is still trying to figure out what it is in the wake of that loss, and has settled on some weird merchant/royalty hybrid. It's not going well. The throne could topple at any moment. Oh, and there's an exterior religious threat.

And what Elantris is, and the implications of the strange changes that were made when the city and its inhabitants fell, that was fascinating. Particularly the revelation that with the body in a state of stasis, it can no longer heal itself. But pain was not turned off. So a stubbed toe will never stop hurting. A broken arm will never heal, and the pain will be excruciating. A cut will never close - although you won't bleed. Lack of food will not kill you, but it will make you brain-breakingly hungry.  The implications of this for a desolate society were dealt with very well, and this was an immediate attention-grabber.

So, those are the things I liked. But the main thing that drove me crazy was the way the two main characters seemed teleported in from our time period. If you don't want to do a monarchy with your fantasy, fantastic! That is too often the starting point. I encourage writing fantasy novels that question those basic assumptions of fantasy. But if you change those things, you have to give me context. You have to tell me how Raoden got to the surprisingly modern thoughts on personal liberty and effective peasant management. You have to tell me how Sarene developed. Because as it is, it feels like you took two people from my time period, and dumped them in another setting, even though they were supposed to have been born and bred there.

Changing social structures is great. Changing them without giving me context means that the two main characters, both of whom I liked, I often also found jarring. Why would they have exactly the same viewpoint as fairly leftie people of the early 21st century? Why? I liked that Sarene was interesting and complex and emancipated. But too little is given to give her context, and so often she and Raoden seemed to float apart from this story, part of the society they're in, and yet alien to it. (Again, it's fine if people manage to break societal conventions, but there HAS. TO. BE. CONTEXT.)

So, in the end, I liked Elantris even when it bothered me. I just wished I wasn't getting pulled out of its spell so often.

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2013 - Part Four!

Hey, this is small enough now to fit a round into one entry, with a little squeezing. You know what that means - we're very close to crowning a winner. Along the way, I expect to be thrown into fits of despondency as my favourite books of the year start to fall. I just have to remember, I did this to myself. Without further ado: Round Four!

Invisible Man vs. Altered Carbon

          Winner: Invisible Man

It's an easy choice - I liked Altered Carbon well enough, but Invisible Man stands tall above it. It's one of those cases where the sheer weight and dread that various sections of Invisible Man sparked in me make it one of the most emotional reading experiences of last year. In comparison, Altered Carbon was a lot of fun.

Doomsday Book vs. Hyperion

          Winner: Hyperion

This is a really tough one! I loved both these books, and I've written repeatedly about how emotional Doomsday Book made me. But Hyperion hit emotional buttons as well, and something else besides. It's rare to find short stories that good, and to have linked short stories this good, this creepy, this varied and yet thematic...yeah, it has to be Hyperion.

The Beautiful Mystery vs. Chess Story

          Winner: The Beautiful Mystery

Strange. Last time, I picked Chess Story over the book I thoroughly enjoyed, because it was so powerful. And it might still be more powerful than The Beautiful Mystery, but still, I'm not picking it this time. The trauma might be different, and lesser, but in The Beautiful Mystery, it was happening to characters I'd known for years. And the mystery surrounding it was great.

Deathless vs. Bleak House

          Winner: Deathless

Another relief - a relatively easy choice. Love Dickens, but Bleak House is far from my favourite. And for books that nestled close inside me, it's hard to top Deathless. It's like Catherynne Valente has a checklist of the elements I like best, and wrote a beautiful legend around them. And Stalinist house-elves.

Half-Blood Blues vs. The Lies of Locke Lamora

          Winner: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Another case where there were two books I really enjoyed, but the nerd in me wanted to go with The Lies of Locke Lamora, and I'm in the habit of listening to my inner nerd. Half-Blood Blues is a really strong book, and I liked it a lot. But I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora. Only slightly fantasy (although it feels like it will get more fantasy as I get to later books?), it's rollicking, enjoyable, and later, devastating.

All Quiet on the Western Front vs. Pandemonium

          Winner: Pandemonium

I have to keep reminding myself that this isn't a "best" book tournament, but rather, a contest to figure out my favourite book of the year. And hence, I feel okay knocking out what is objectively a better and more important book for one that I just enjoyed the hell out of. (I realize this is something I'm not consistent on - it changes from book to book.) So, sorry Great War soldier's tale. It's going to the demons this time.

Joyland vs. The Violent Bear It Away

          Winner: Joyland 

All right, The Violent Bear It Away is finally up against a book that is good enough to allow my discomfort with some of the subject material to knock it out of the competition. I stand by the other parts of the book as truly shaking and wonderful. But Joyland, while not a literary classic, hit just the right notes of elegiac romanticization of early adulthood combined with a mystery, a tiny bit of supernatural, and the joys and pleasures of working at a job to give people a fun time.

Foundation and Empire vs. Kushiel's Dart

          Winner: Kushiel's Dart

Apparently I like the sex-ridden fantasies more than the science fiction classics. In this case, anyway. But more than that, I like the way sex is handled in this book. It's not my particular taste, but it's not exploitative, and weaves into the story in fascinating ways. Plus, the main character is thoroughly engaging, and the ways in which she is pressed into unexpected service were interesting. I do like Foundation and Empire, but today, I'm not feeling it quite as much.

Luka and the Fire of Life vs. Perdido Street Station

          Winner: Luka and the Fire of Life

Oh, why did I ever start this crazy tournament? This is exactly the kind of match that tears my heart out! No matter which one I eliminate, it's going to leave me sore and emotionally bruised to let one of these go, as I loved both of them. Luka and the Fire of Life is gloriously, joyfully messy and painful. Perdido Street Station is vivid, grimy, and painful. So which do I pick? In the end, I'm going to go for the life-affirming craziness of Luka and the Fire of Life over the more bleak Perdido Street Station, but make no mistake. This is one of the closest match-ups so far, and Perdido Street Station holds a special place in my heart.

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

Reading the books on my friend's kindle has meant that there have been a bunch of books that I have tried that I probably would have taken a long time to get to otherwise, if ever. Some of them have been not to my taste. But this one was more than a pleasant surprise. It was, by far and large, really delightful.

In the fantasy post-apocalyptic setting of this book, humans live in scattered settlements, a few cities, and the past fading into distant memory and myth. There are stories of before, of technology and advancement. But with the coming of the demons, the corelings, human memory was scattered, and existence reduced to survival against astounding odds.

The corelings rise every night, and tear everything they can get at limb from limb. After the cities had been broken and people dispersed, wards were rediscovered, which keep homes safe from coreling attacks. They are not sure things, though. Smudging or scratching can blunt or destroy their effectiveness, so they must be constantly guarded and redrawn. And even so, some mornings people awake to the burning ruins of their neighbours and friends.

Most in this world have turned to survival, to becoming more insular, keeping themselves and their families alive. The numbers of people are slowly dwindling, but no one looks at the bigger picture - cut off from each other except for the infrequent forays of Messengers, towns look to their own and nothing else. Knowledge is fragmented, although there are hints that if the disparate pieces of information were ever brought together, more would be possible than anyone thinks.

Three young people are in perfect position to do so, each scarred by encounters with the corelings. Arlen attempted to save his mother's life from the corelings while his father cowered, and almost died. Leesha fled her mother's house to the safety of the local female Healer, and was saved from coreling attack by Bruna, the Healer. She is scarred both by that encounter and the reaction of the villagers to her, and to the rumours spread about her by the man she was supposed to wed. Rojer was protected in the basement by an entertainer while his parents were killed and their house burned above him.

As they grow, each discovers different things. Arlen has a skill for wards, and starts to collect all the different ones in one place. Followed by his past in very literal ways, he makes discoveries that threaten to make him into a figure of legend - or cost his life.

Leesha is tutored in the skills of healing and even more secret skills of fighting the demons. She is ostracized by those around her, and persecuted, but her skills grow. She is also the moral centre, dedicated to healing people no matter what.

Rojer shows an aptitude for music, and discovers the effect of his songs on the corelings.

All three come together by the end of the book, and for the first time, the possibility of more than mere survival looms. I look forward to learning what comes next!

I enjoyed the world these books created, the gender politics of the smaller towns, the difficulties of negotiating such things when there are few other options, the differences between cities and towns, the semi-feudal state that has developed, and particularly, the legends, and what happens when legends seem to come to life.

I've been finding a bunch of fantasies I've read recently feel like retreads of the same old ground. This feels fresh, bringing new and interesting aspects to the table, and that is a great relief.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up - Round Three, Part Three

Another longer one, bringing Round Three to a close!

All Quiet on the Western Front vs. The Sword-Edged Blonde

          Winner: All Quiet on the Western Front

I may be choosing based on a feeling of duty rather than sheer enjoyment, but as much as I enjoyed the fantasy noir of The Sword-Edged Blonde, it's merely fun. The same cannot be said for All Quiet on the Western Front, but in this battle, the experience of war and the common humanity of soldiers has to win out over a king named Phil.

Hounded vs. Pandemonium

          Winner: Pandemonium

The snark goes down today. I liked Hounded, the millennium-old druid and his faithful dog. And fights with witches, werewolves, and the Tuatha de Danaan.  But it was mostly an entertaining diversion. Pandemonium is one of the most assured debuts I've read in a long time, and this story of demon possession in a world very like our own, and the eventual answers, absolutely captivated me. Both these authors were pleasant discoveries, but Pandemonium was the book I became passionate about.

Joyland vs. Turn of the Screw

          Winner: Joyland

Look, I feel like I've done my duty pick - and I stand by that choice. But it makes me feel better about picking Stephen King over Henry James. I liked Turn of the Screw, but between two tales of atmospheric, windswept, remote locales, Joyland was simply more fun. And finally gave me a Stephen King experience. So there's that.

Leviathan vs. The Violent Bear It Away

          Winner: The Violent Bear It Away

And the pendulum swings back the other way. I feel weird keeping The Violent Bear It Away around so long, which is probably why I keep mentioning its upsettingly homophobic interlude which adds nothing to the story. But the rest of the book haunts me still, and its take on faith, rationality, and the way to live keeps me from turfing it from the competition. Flying living zeppelins can't quite take this one out, razor-pooping bats or not.

Foundation and Empire vs. I Capture The Castle

          Winner: Foundation and Empire

I am, dear friends, a nerd at heart. When I enjoyed two books about the same amount, and one is science fiction and the other is straight fiction, my lodestone is always the science fiction. I Capture the Castle is charming, but Foundation and Empire is a classic. Not perfect, not exquisitely written, but a classic.

The Atrocity Archives vs. Kushiel's Dart

          Winner: Kushiel's Dart

I liked the Lovecraftian bureaucracy of the laundry. A lot. But it doesn't really compare to Kushiel's Dart, which gave me a fantasy world unlike any I'd seen before. (And actually caused me to question whether or not it was actually fantasy.) I also really enjoyed the centre spot sexuality played in this one, with being exploitative or crass. It's not for the prudish, but it is for me.

The Fault In Our Stars vs. Luka and the Fire of Life

          Winner: Luka and the Fire of Life

Two books about, loosely, death. One is perfectly fine young adult, the other a gloriously messy mishmash of mythology and video games, stories and legends, irreverence and pain. So, yeah, I'm picking the latter. Rushdie has created something quite unique here, and I loved it for so many reasons. The John Green I merely enjoyed. Also, of the two, the Rushdie book was the one that made me cry.

Babel-17 vs. Perdido Street Station vs. Moxyland

          Winner: Perdido Street Station

An extremely tough three-way battle at the end of Round Three! These were all books that I thoroughly enjoyed at the end of the year, from the beauty of language in Babel-17 to the grimy streets of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station to the cyberpunk South African dystopia of Moxyland. Picking between them is terribly hard, but in the end, the swooning I did over China Mieville's descriptive passages carries the day.

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

I was fully prepared to not like this book. Not for necessarily rational reasons - I've never read Eat, Love, Pray, and have refrained from doing so both because of the immense hype around the book and the message that in order to find yourself, you had to be someone who already had an immense amount of privilege. I'm not saying that's what Eat, Pray, Love is like, as I'm talking from no knowledge whatsoever. But the publicity around the book just stank of that point of view.

So I was skeptical when I sat down with Committed, unsure I wanted to read her point of view on marriage, and why she was so skeptical of it, etc., etc. And the truth is that while I didn't love this book, I did enjoy it, and she grew on me. Her views on marriage going into writing the book are completely alien, but I liked the way she grappled with them.

So, about a book about marriage, I feel like I should at least briefly state something about myself, to give you context. I've been married for almost ten years. We lived together for six years before that, so we certainly weren't hurrying into anything! In fact, when people have asked me what was unexpected about getting married, my general answer was that I was surprised at how little getting married changed anything.

Which isn't to say that I had any hesitancy in standing up and marrying my husband. I've always thought that the act of making your commitment public in front of your community is a very powerful act. I've also always thought that it was a mistake to think that that ceremony would create commitment if it wasn't there already.

And, you know, so far so good! As always, he's my best friend, and we've been through some heavy shit the last few years, from the death of my father to the crappy economy and the effect it's had on jobs in our area (consistently the second highest urban unemployment rate in Canada! Hurray?) He's my rock, and I try to be his. Our hobbies heavily overlap. Not trying to brag here, but I think I have a pretty damned good marriage.

So I come into this book with a drastically different opinion and experience from Elizabeth Gilbert, who went through what seems like a very painful divorce, and got married too young, without thinking it through. So her struggles with the institution were somewhat foreign. But I'm fascinated by marriage, and by the views other people have of that simple little ceremony. And her history was fairly solid - simplified for the audience she's addressing, but her research covers most of the books I would have wanted someone to cover.

And the personal story is interesting, and by the end, affecting. I wanted her to succeed. So while this wasn't my favourite book, it ended up finding a spot with me much more than I had expected. Not enough to go make me seek out Eat, Pray, Love. But enough to make me open to reading future works - I think she just had a novel or book of short stories come out.

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Hands up, everyone who read this and considered giving it an extra star just because of Carl the dog? Come on, be honest.

Because Carl is a truly great character, and I don't even like dogs. On the other hand, most of the characters in this book are entertaining, but Carl stands out.

Fuzzy Nation, a retelling of H. Beam Piper's classic Little Fuzzy, is a quick and fairly easy read, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would sit down, and fifty pages would fly by faster than it seemed they possibly could. Here is not dense narrative prose. This is straightforward, moves along well, and is often funny and always entertaining.

Holloway is a surveyor on a distant planet, about to become extraordinarily rich due to a recent claim and a confusion of contracts. Under law, however, if a sentient species is found on a planet, the corporation exploiting its resources is required to close up shop and leave the planet immediately. Of course, this gives them a vested interest in not discovering a sentient species.

But these little creature, fuzzies, show up on Holloway's doorstep, eat his sandwiches, train his dog, and watch his computer screens. Holloway's old squeeze, a biologist who is still pissed off that Holloway betrayed her during a disciplinary hearing, is convinced that these aren't just really intelligent pets. They qualify as sentient. Joe is skeptical, not least because of that large amount of money he won't be making.

And the corporation in question acts about the way we'd expect a corporation faced with losing vast profits would act, with intimidation, veiled and open bribes, and finally, outright violence. Holloway has to decide where he stands - and if he doesn't stand with the fuzzies, who will?

The fuzzies themselves are delightful characters, Holloway is interestingly self-interested, the biologist honest, and her new lawyer boyfriend not a jackass.

I truly love a good courtroom smackdown scene. I really do. And Fuzzy Nation has a doozy. There's something incredibly pleasurable about reading about a person, group of people, or company, who think they can buy and sell justice the way they buy and sell everything else gets systematically and legally eviscerated. It's part of why I found the third book in Stieg Larsson's series so deeply satisfying.

Fuzzy Nation is not going to set the world on fire with its prose. But it is witty, amusing, easy to read, and lingers in the memory. Scalzi creates great, memorable characters and has them do intelligent, interesting things. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it's not.

Monday, 13 January 2014

When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

How do you write about trauma? Are you verbose and expansive? Terse and straighforward? In this case, you use elegant and spare prose that brings home the extent of the wrong by never quite stating it in so many words.

When The Emperor Was Divine is a short book, but exactly as long as it needs to be. It is not stridently angry, it is quiet and sorrowful, and I think, anger simmers slowly below the surface, but is not and cannot be let out.

Julie Otsuka has told the story of the Japanese internment in the United States during the Second World War through an unnamed Japanese family. The unnaming, which I only noticed near the end, is deliberate and powerful. The main characters are the son and the daughter, the mother and the father. Mirroring how much was stripped away from them during the war, this one family exists without names. This both universalizes their experience while allowing it to remain particular. I can imagine many ways in which this particular narrative trick could backfire, but it works here.

As the book starts, the mother sees the posters announcing the upcoming internment, the preparations she is required to make, what she is allowed to bring. The father has already been taken away, months earlier. They are not to be sent to the same place. She makes her preparations calmly, methodically, and they depart.

And spend years in an internment camp, where the days go by, and they try to keep a sense of self in a world where most markers of identity have been stripped away. They are not harmed, they are not physically injured, but the writing style emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of such an action, and perils of monotony and captivity.

The world outside is not let off the hook, either. They return, eventually, and had created stories of how they would be welcomed back, but the hates the war fostered have not dissipated, and nationalistic anger still simmers under the surface. But the violence that takes place in this book is never overt, never physical. It is nonetheless present.

Will they be able to find a sense of self again? Or who will? When fear surrounds you, when the government can cut you out of a crowd, divorce you from your life, and hold you apart from the rest, what else could they do?