The writing is great, the characters are vivid and compelling, there's a lot of wonderful humor — but unless you are hunting for some misanthropy, stick with his earlier works. I'd recommend Cat's Cradle....more
I'm very happy the bookclub's dictatress selected this, the first novel in the author's "Prostitution Trilogy", because the third, The Royal Family,I'm very happy the bookclub's dictatress selected this, the first novel in the author's "Prostitution Trilogy", because the third, The Royal Family, is 800 pages (divided into 593 chapters).
The book become more complex and interesting in the final stretch, although it didn't quite get over the hump to earn four stars.
My early complaint, tThe book become more complex and interesting in the final stretch, although it didn't quite get over the hump to earn four stars.
My early complaint, that the central characters had what amount to superpowers — the smartest person you know would eventually apply to three of 'em, and the toughest person on the planet to another. It's one thing to instantly appeal to reader identification because of a juvenile wish-fulfillment of being the misunderstood or maligned Chosen One, versus organically building an attachment for a character (even an unlikable one) through understanding or even exposure to their actions under difficult circumstances. Instead, towards the end, we've got a gut-punch of unfaithfulness and betrayal that would only make sense if the characters involved were adolescents, not seasoned veterans of how miscommunications can bring death. Where was the, "Wait, am I making any assumptions here?" moment? Not there, because the author is jerking the readers around by the emotions.
The whole character-with-superhero aspect never went away, but the world-building became engrossing enough to compensate....more
This appears to be the recommended translation, per Wikipedia. But do I go for the very cheap Kindle version ($1.99), or actually dish out ten times tThis appears to be the recommended translation, per Wikipedia. But do I go for the very cheap Kindle version ($1.99), or actually dish out ten times that for a hardback, y'know, to put in the bookshelf for show-off purposes?
Ah, and I notice that the Kindle version has lending set to "Nope, sucker!" Hmmm. Or maybe just borrow a copy from the library, since they've got 24 copies of this edition....more
Excellent imagery and narrative flow are the wins for this monsters-and-magic fantasy, along with good character development. A hero whose skills vergExcellent imagery and narrative flow are the wins for this monsters-and-magic fantasy, along with good character development. A hero whose skills verge on superpowers is the biggest flaw (albeit a near omnipresent one in fantasy), as does an over-reliance on stupidity — the author's story requires a few too many characters to ignore their self-interest in ways that are implausible....more
There really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personaThere really should be more books in which a descendent reconstructs reminiscences of an ancestor's life into a narrative. There can be a more personal feel than one might typically get than in most historical fiction. There might actually be a lot of this; the only thing similar that I've read is the excellent and award-winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History.
One Thousand Chestnut Trees: a Novel of Korea takes place before and during the Korean War. This was a little extra interesting to me because my father was one of the U.S. Navy pilots dropping bombs during that war, and I also studied the origins of the war a little in college (I remember being very interested in China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War).
But getting the feel on the ground during the conflict is important. Few of us in the developed world have ever lived through a war, huddling in the basement as bombs fall, struggling to find food and avoid predatory humans when the bombs aren't falling.
Not a great book, but very good within its scope, especially since few other books are likely to explore this part of history in quite the same way....more
A lot of imagination went into this book, but not enough discipline or storytelling craft. For the majority of the book, the author shoves the first-pA lot of imagination went into this book, but not enough discipline or storytelling craft. For the majority of the book, the author shoves the first-person narrator through inexplicable and astonishing events, and then crams their eventual denouement into a few pages via telling instead of showing, when other characters explain to our befuddled protagonist what was happening.
For most folks, that would probably be enough to shove this down to a one- or two-star rating, but I'm more generous. What really irked me about this book was the complete disdain for the laws of physics. Steampunk is, ideally, a subgenre of science fiction, which means it is supposed to show respect for as much of science as is possible within the bounds of the story. Want time travel? Faster than light travel? Or maybe teleporting "transporters"? Sure; but choose what you're going to mangle and keep it to a minimum. Steampunk in general doesn't deal well with this kind of parsimony, and this one is worse than most.
And how can you have a Victorian England steampunk story that appears to be completely missing railroads?!?
This is pretty vintage for steampunk — in fact, the author gets credit for inventing the term, however, since it was published in 1987. I found the couple that was from the future (kind of) quite entertaining, although the explanation of their origins (another of those annoying "tellings") was disappointing.
Recommended only for steampunk completists. Sorry.
(This was the book of the month for the SciFi and Fantasy Reading Group for April 2013. It was discussed here). ...more
I feel like I should give this a one-star review, but also a three-star review. Ergo, the compromise.
One stars for its personal appeal: I found it borI feel like I should give this a one-star review, but also a three-star review. Ergo, the compromise.
One stars for its personal appeal: I found it boring. Considering I love pop cog in general, I found this a little surprising. On reflection, I realized this book's appeal (except, perhaps, to comedians and professionals in the cog biz) is theoretical. It is unlikely that any disease will be cured if someone nails the theory of funniness, and the only profound change foreseeable in society at large will be when someone creates a humorbot, which appears to be some ways off. I've read plenty of books that only have theoretical applications, but they help me understand social problems that I find important (such as how the cognition of morality heightens partisanship and reduces the likelihood of our civilization solving some pressing problems).
Three stars for those that do find the theory of humor appealing. Even for them, this is a pretty dry book, I think.
For someone who wants to create jokes or humor, there is plenty of material here that will provoke thought as to where to experiment, and why those approaches are likely to work.
Oh, there is some humor interspersed, of course. There are plenty of examples of what the authors are dissecting, and some of them are good.
Here's a sample from the exploration of one-liners: "Dog for sale: Eats anything and is fond of children." If you get bored of the actual content and skim for the jokes, you'll find better and worse.
So here is the joke I transposed and updated from one of theirs:
An engineering team was demonstrating their voice-synthesis software to their executives, and decided to have some fun. So they built a cardboard robot on stage, hiding the computer within, programmed with a series of jokes making fun of management. On the day of the presentation they watched and enjoyed the mixture of discomfort and ironic amusement among the audience when, to their surprise, someone in a back row seat stood up and started complaining. "Managers play an important role in business! Just because engineers and their managers see the world from a different perspective isn't evidence that managers are stupid — I'm sick and tired of being treated like an idiot just because I've taken a job that isn't as hands-on as the people I'm managing".
The engineering team nervously glanced at each other, until the team manager stood up and apologized: "Uhm, we meant this in good fun, and certainly didn't intend any" —
The manager cut him off: "Quiet — shut up! I'm talking to the robot, not you."
This was actually a blonde joke in the book; I thought I would update it to a group that is more a politically correct target for scorn....more
I’m a little surprised at my reaction to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. You see that I gave it a four-star rating, but that is, frankly, for you and notI’m a little surprised at my reaction to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. You see that I gave it a four-star rating, but that is, frankly, for you and not for me.
I don’t plan on reading any more of this series, and I’m probably going to be hesitant to read anything quite like this.
Because it turns out there are multiple definitions of the genre “historical fiction”.
Here we have a depiction of the intimate lives of actual historical people, and the author has — brilliantly, it must be acknowledged — made up the relationships and attitudes of those people.
In contrast, in two other historical fiction novels I’ve enjoyed, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, the main characters are purely fictional, even though the portrayal of the times in which they’re living provides a deeply nuanced view of the historical angle.
I’ve realized that I don’t really want an author tampering with real people. Mantel’s period here is the time of Henry VIII, with a specific focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the House Tudor period of British royal history will know the outlines of the story; it is naturally riveting, and has been told many times. My strongest previous memory is actually from the 1966 movies A Man for All Seasons, which zeros in on Thomas More (one of four main Thomases in on the action, by the way).
The contrast between the two is what got me thinking. The movie (and the theatrical play it was based on) is a hagiography of Saint Thomas More, brilliantly played by Paul Scofield, and Thomas Cromwell is well off to the side, and portrayed as something of a thug, if I recall correctly (I’ve got the DVD sitting in front of me, but haven’t re-watched it yet, after thirty-plus years). In Mantel’s book Cromwell is portrayed with extraordinary sympathy, while More gets hacked up a bit (heh heh) as an sanctimonious hypocrite.
Which is correct? Careful examination of period diaries, etc., might shed quite a bit of light on that, and we can make some inferences based on what we know about the culture of the times, but ultimately we can’t know whether either of those two portrays is more accurate, or if they are both far from the mark.
For example, consider the relationship between Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.
Henry was turning his society upside down by pushing the Catholic Church away. His friends would be other members of the aristocracy, and they’d be naturally wary of undermining the established order, especially since the growing power of the merchant classes already had them on the back foot. Henry could easily find himself struggling to fill positions in his administration that normally would be populated by those friends, and turn to those of lower class.
Later, as his peers discovered the world wasn’t suddenly ending and that their absence from court was hurting their interests, they would return.
Mantel has Cromwell becoming something more than merely a trusted advisor of Henry VIII during this period. That is quite plausible; history tells us that he was very, very successful for many years, so he must have been an astonishing person.
But the alternative is also plausible.
Henry may have never felt comfortable with his obvious reliance on someone of such a low birth. He would never have any fear of betrayal, of course — Cromwell’s position and prestige would have made him Henry’s creature regardless of their mutual affection of lack thereof. (Even if, as the French ambassador asserted, Henry thought of Cromwell along the lines of his “the most faithful servant” he had ever had, there are many nuances to that phrase, not all of which require affection.)
It really shouldn’t matter which view is correct after almost five hundred years, should it?
But we still deeply care about whether Nixon was really a jerk or not, and if we were told that Abraham Lincoln was actually manipulative and amoral, we’d be very offended. How far back in history do people have to recede before we should cease to care whether they’ve been transformed by an author into someone to whom they bear no resemblance?
I’m reminded of the scenes from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which Hamlet appears. His lines are the same as those in Hamlet, and played straight, but Shakespeare’s actual story is wondrously subverted by manipulations of those minor characters. Because Hamlet itself is fiction, that really doesn’t matter. But did Mantel do something similar in Wolf Hall? If not, then apparently Robert Bolt had done so in A Man for All Seasons, right?
If none of this quibbling is likely to bother you, then by all means read this book. Be prepared to have Wikipedia at the ready to remind yourself of who everyone is, however. These times were as convoluted as they were fascinating....more
And that's a good thing, 'cause this book is a romp and a hoot, just as Jim Butcher's are.
Quick synopsis: Peter Grant is a rookie in the London constabulary when he discovers, after a grisly murder, that he's interviewing a ghost. This leads to a sudden and welcome career change when his skill is discovered by the force's one-man X-Files division.
This isn't his first outing — and he has penned other stuff, including Doctor Who serials, so Aaronvitch writes better than Butcher did at the beginning of the Dresden series. I think the latest Dresden books are better, but that's probably because Butcher has been developing his world and characters for over a dozen books now.
Sure, there are differences, but I can't imagine anyone familiar with both not agreeing that there are vast similarities. For example, there's this perky blonde cop that serves as an unresolved romantic interest and partner in adventuring. Sound familiar? Oh, and magic and high-tech electronics don't mix. Although I've only read the first in the Rivers of London series (two sequels are out, another due next year), the world seems so congruent with Butcher's that I can even imagine a cross-over, which would be a kick.
Definitely a page-turner, too. I wouldn't recommend starting this the evening before an important day. You'd stand a decent chance of suddenly putting down the completed book and realizing it's dawn.
If you like fantasy and don't mind quite a bit of foul language and the like, this might be a great read. Not quite a life-cExcellent rollicking read.
If you like fantasy and don't mind quite a bit of foul language and the like, this might be a great read. Not quite a life-changing, jaw-dropping five stars, however. The author does a magnificent job of world-building, and his characters are vivid and engaging. Considering that this was the author's first novel, this is especially impressive.
The foul language can be a bit jarring at first, but the action takes place almost exclusively within a strata of society where it is pretty much required — think thieves, pimps, and worse. If you're still ambivalent, check out Nataliya's review. She gives it a five-star rating and so much enthusiasm that any further review on my part is superfluous.
(Book of the month for the SciFi and Fantasy Reading Group. Full details here)....more
I find Cory Doctorow a little bit of mystery. I’ve read three of his books. This one, plus Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Makers, and whileI find Cory Doctorow a little bit of mystery. I’ve read three of his books. This one, plus Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Makers, and while he writes enjoyable stories, they aren’t nearly good enough to warrant his fame amongst the digerati. I haven’t yet read Little Brother, which School Library Journal recommends over this one.
I suspect there are several factors that account for his popularity.
First, not too many authors are doing near-term speculative fiction. The geeks amongst us are especially interested in this topic, since technology is a large determinant of what will happen in the coming decades, and they (well, “we” would be more appropriate) are especially intrigued by that interaction.
Second, his role as a high-profile blogger and co-editor at Boing Boing contributes to this. Dedicated fans of science fiction will know of dozens of other authors, but many of Doctorow’s followers probably aren’t interested in the broader field of science fiction — just the stuff that seems most relevant to their lives that Doctorow specializes in.
Finally, he sucks up to his peeps. Geeks are the heroes in these stories. They are often imperfect, and don’t always get what they want, but they are the center-stage protagonists, aggressively tackling big problems and changing the future, while non-geeks either flounder helplessly or are the enemy to be overcome.
For the Win is appropriate for teens and adults. The extensive discussion of finance and economics is complex enough that only a very precious tween is likely to be patient and interested enough.
And, sadly, that same extensive “discussion” is the burden that yanks this book down towards mediocrity. Yeah, Doctorow is famous for his progressive positions on economic freedom and libertarian intellectual property rules (both of which I agree with), but as part of the background of his story, he felt the need to explain financial derivatives, macroeconomic theory, and justification for labor activism. You’ve all heard that rule that a good author should “show, don’t tell”? Well, he spends page after page telling. It doesn’t help that all of that dross is also frenzily explained in the context to MMORPG economics, which might make it too abstract for many readers to translate into their non-fiction quotidian lives, which is presumably Doctorow’s aim. This is too bad, because at least some of that discussion could have been elided. The wikipedia page on Show, Don’t Tell quotes Hemingway:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.
If Doctorow had trusted his readers’ intelligence, he could have kept that info-dumping to a minimum and kept the story moving at a brisker pace.
Once the reader has received sufficient lecturing, things heat up nicely. Most of the latter portions of the book are quite riveting, although a late lesson in macroeconomics does intrude. Doctorow’s characters are vividly portrayed, although perhaps there are one or two more central players than he really needed. As in most of his books, his speculative vision of our future is also hyperbolic enough to strain credulity — that several game economies would soon rank among among the world’s largest real economies might have seem barely plausible when the staggering growth curve of World of Warcraft seemed to keep it in the public eye, but we’re over that now.
This stands a decent chance of remaining a minor classic, and it is a pretty quick read, so it is recommended to anyone interested in speculative portrayals of the next decade or two, or science fiction completists, or anyone who wants to get a sense at why Doctorow is a Big Name in some circles. For everyone else, read Little Brother and continue here if you discover you have a taste for more. ...more
A brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the scienceA brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the science we deal with to a magical reality, albeit one a number of glaring inconsistencies. The book was written in the early 1980s, long before today's mash-up of terrorist bogeymen and lurking environmental catastrophe — the cultural nightmares of the time centered on nuclear holocaust, instead, and Boyett's magical apocalypse serves a similar purpose.
The plot structure is a very predictable one — quite derivative of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, as well as numerous others. The fantasy and magic are integral, but unfortunately there's just too much nonsense and silliness.
The natural audience for this would be tweens and impressionable preadolescents whose critical faculties haven't yet developed, but the moderate amount of sex might need to be considered.
The author was only twenty-one when this was published, which is pretty amazing. His relative immaturity explains the juvenile exuberance, the simple story, and the somewhat crudely integrated sex. Sadly, it would have been a better book if he'd only received rejection notices, was forced to put the manuscript in the back of a drawer and returned to it a decade later when he wasn't so impressed with himself.
Wow, very close to being a five-star book. Actually, I'm not even quite sure what is holding me back.
Fleshed out characters, mostly showing a great deWow, very close to being a five-star book. Actually, I'm not even quite sure what is holding me back.
Fleshed out characters, mostly showing a great deal of psychological depth, a wondrously convoluted plot... this was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. The winners of those, back in 1988, were Brin's The Uplift War and Murphy's The Falling Woman, respectively. I've never heard of the latter, and although I enjoyed the former, I think Effinger wrote a better book.
In many ways this book is highly reminiscent of China Miéville'sThe City and the City. Both are detective novels set in a depressing city in, broadly speaking, a similar part of the world, although Miéville's locale is Balkan whilst Effinger is somewhere in the near middle-east (or, perhaps central asia?). Both are very cynical, with corrupt and byzantine politics.
I guess that comparison is what keeps me from giving Effinger that fifth star — while this is a very good read, it isn't at quite the pinnacle of creativity that Miéville achieved. Still, very definitely worth reading.
(This is the science fiction selection for the Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club for the month of February 2012. Visit this link to see all of the discussions, group member reviews, etc.)
Update and note to self: I spotted this on my shelves and had no clue what the book had been about. Luckily, my GR friend Sandi gave me a nugget that reminded me: “a depraved, degraded Arabic city where people change gender and personalities like I change shoes” — oh, yeah, that book....more
Definitely fluff. I felt guilty reading this, but it was fun. I note that the vast majority of folks reading this are women, which makes sense. This iDefinitely fluff. I felt guilty reading this, but it was fun. I note that the vast majority of folks reading this are women, which makes sense. This is written from the perspective of an empowered smart-aleck struggling with fools on all sides. But there's worse: she's got mild body issues (albeit a completely enamored husband) and the constant burden of wearing Victorian clothing. Definitely a hoot....more