I bounced from this one pretty hard. At first the prose was enchanting and the setup was intriguing. But as it developed I found it tedious, ponderousI bounced from this one pretty hard. At first the prose was enchanting and the setup was intriguing. But as it developed I found it tedious, ponderous, and headed in a ridiculous direction....more
The best, most reliable way to get me to buy a book is to compare it to a John le Carre novel. There are writers I like better, but the sly thrill I gThe best, most reliable way to get me to buy a book is to compare it to a John le Carre novel. There are writers I like better, but the sly thrill I get when the intricate and far-ranging puzzle pieces of a le Carre novel start falling together is rare enough for me to find in novels outside of le Carre's that I reach for it when promised. You think I'd know better by now. For whatever reason the effect of a le Carre novel seems to be impossible to imitate.
So that's how City of Stairs ended up in my hands. Specifically, I heard an interview with the author where he spoke about the influence The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had on his novel, and within the hour I had downloaded it and started to read.
To cut to the chase, this is not a fantasy spy novel. It's actually more of a murder mystery, or police procedural, than it is anything else (moreso almost than even a fantasy novel), where a character who we are told is a spy foregoes the black arts of tradecraft for the gum-shoe trail-following of your average shamus. And as a fantasy procedural it's pretty good, though a little too upbeat and banter-reliant given the case at hand.
The secondary world fantasy setting is intricate and well-developed, if that's your thing (it's less and less my thing), featuring something of a power reversal between a former quasi-Euro-tinged colonial power and a distinctly Indian subcontinental-flavored colonial subject. It also features gods, the fascination with which in fantasy literature I don't for the life of me understand. The fact that it was about gods more than anything sapped my interest from the book more than its unearned le Carrean pedigree (and which I admit is entirely a problem with this particular reader than with the novel).
The one consistent irritation I had with City of Stairs that I'm pretty sure is the fault of the book's rather than with my expectations/tastes are the massively clunky expositional passages. Barely a chapter passes without a relentlessly informative "As you know, Bob" lecture that runs over multiple pages and which characters launch into at the slightest hint of an interrogative. I know it must be difficult to have a complex and elaborately worked-out world while lacking a stylistically suave way of getting it onto the page, but when push comes to shove I vastly prefer the third person, textbook-style infodumps....more
I feel like some of the best, grittiest, most gonzo science fiction you can find these days is in comic books. You've got Brandon Graham's Prophet rebI feel like some of the best, grittiest, most gonzo science fiction you can find these days is in comic books. You've got Brandon Graham's Prophet reboot and Multiple Warheads, Rick Remender's Black Science, Eric Stephenson's Nowhere Men, and now this one. The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history of the Manhattan Project, layered in with post-apocalyptic, conspiracy theory, intergalactic warfare plot threads. So much fun....more
I am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with sI am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with somewhat gaudy cover art featuring people and places whose names contain an excess of vowels and apostrophes. So that I bought this novel on the day it came out and finished it in less than a week says a lot. To me, anyway.
I first heard of this author through her essays, in particular We Have Always Fought, which is a bracing rhetorical bucket of cold water over the head, one of those pieces of writing that articulated something I already kind of knew on some level but did it in such a way as to actually change the way I look at the world. It rearranged my brain. The way Hurley writes about stories as significant, high stakes political endeavors that can change the world in some meaningful way is immensely exciting, and something I believe, too. So of course I was curious about the kinds of stories she tells.
The first thing that struck me, however, is how epic fantasy-ish it is. We get the requisite map, the reminder that this is "Book 1" of what I presume is a trilogy, and the monsters and cosmology and vowelly-named people, places, and cultures that contain just a slight hint of real world ethnic and cultural markers. This has more to do with my ill-suitedness for the genre at large, though, than with anything germane to this novel. But it's worth noting that while MIRROR EMPIRE does a great many subversive, progressive, and downright refreshing things on the story level, its props and window dressing come straight from epic fantasy central casting.
Beneath the nacreous epic fantasy surface polish, however, is an amazingly complex, hyper intelligent, maximalist fugue of a story with a great many interesting things to say about pacifism and warfare, genocide, gender role mutability, self-violence, and even the deadly importance of books and the art of translation. On the thematic level MIRROR EMPIRE is probably one of the most ambitious fantasy novels I've read. Unlike some ambitious works that seem to lack the narrative underpinning to fully realize that ambition (such as Mieville's Bas-Lag novels), the story stays firmly on the rails, its heavy freight confidently in tow. ...more
McBain writes bog standard hard boiled in all its terse, grim, misogynistic glory. One of my more significant issues with crime fiction is that the naMcBain writes bog standard hard boiled in all its terse, grim, misogynistic glory. One of my more significant issues with crime fiction is that the narrative formula is as entrenched as it is tired, and while I admit that these stories still hold some sway for me, the way a bag of Swedish Fish or Doritos will still manage to find its way into my hands, I am getting less and less out of it. ...more
Here is a crime novel that does something different. Driver, the semi-eponymous protagonist, is a Hollywood stunt driver, one of the best in the businHere is a crime novel that does something different. Driver, the semi-eponymous protagonist, is a Hollywood stunt driver, one of the best in the business, and on the side he puts his skills behind the wheel to use as a getaway driver for petty criminals. Until something goes wrong. That's the logline, anyway.
Driver is a charcoal sketch of a character, both badass to the core and totally hermetic on the page, and for that reason he - and this novel - feel alternately thin and mythic. In some ways Drive is a study in how to make a short novel (~150 pages) and its laconic, lonely hero feel more substantial than perhaps they really are. The novel's militant non-linearity, which frequently drops the reader without warning into episodes from Driver's deep and not so deep past, its oblique foreshadowing, and the pure badassness of even Driver's incidental actions (opening the throat of a skinhead on the way to his car, for instance, before driving off) leave ample narrative white space for the reader's own imagination to fill in. And that's really quite brilliant, so long as you don't think about it too hard....more
Last month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odLast month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odd sandwiched between new fiction by 21st century lit-fic superstars, but Simmons’s obvious love of classical literature, with a plot structure borrowed directly from Chaucer and frequent shout-outs to Keats among others, never lets the reader forget that the author is a classical literature super nerd. The only downside is that the novel ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but because the slow reveal had already given me a sense of what was going on, and because the the plot threads were starting to fray a bit towards the end I didn’t feel the need to dive into the second book right away. Perhaps I’ll save it for the winter....more
This very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felThis very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felt episodes that glancingly attempt something more.
The book begins with our unnamed first-person narrator returning to the house of his youth on the occasion of (I think) a funeral. These opening pages are freighted with a deeply introspective world-weariness, and it felt like the story was gearing up for a kind of self-realization narrative.
But once home, our narrator encounters a mysterious neighbor, and this encounter summons the memory of an experience the narrator had as a child. That story, as recalled by the narrator, is the meat of this novel, and it's interesting and just as full of monsters and fairies and magic as you'd expect from the byline. There are some dark moments, and a twist of tragedy. But it all comes across as very harmless and safe, even in some of the less comfortable and sad moments.
For me, though, the novel only became interesting in its final pages, after the narrator finishes recounting this experience he had and is talking with the mysterious neighbor. Without getting into specifics, it is only at the end that the story starts trying to broach some of the self-realization hinted at in its opening pages. But before it goes anywhere, the book ends.
I feel like Gaiman has a clearly defined comfort zone, and if he tentatively sticks a foot outside of it, as he does here at the very end, it is only to withdraw it a moment later with the hope that the attempt at something deep will count for the real thing. I look forward to the day he works up the courage to venture outside of his self-circumscribed magic circle and tell us about the monsters he really sees there....more
Arguably the most significant musicology book of the 20th century. Every time I pick it up I come away with a new insight into the music I've been lisArguably the most significant musicology book of the 20th century. Every time I pick it up I come away with a new insight into the music I've been listening to since I was a wee little one. Some music theory knowledge is necessary to understand much of what Rosen discusses, but it's worth it for those who really want to understand how this music works....more
The wistfulness in Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is so tactile you can almost feel it through the paper, at least if you read the hard copy. The firsThe wistfulness in Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is so tactile you can almost feel it through the paper, at least if you read the hard copy. The first-person narratives of two lovers unfold in alternating chapters, separated by time (a few years) and geography (Uganda & the United States), and also by cultural differences, secrets, and silence. It’s a kind of love story, but it feels more like a story about the limitations of love. It is not inherently tragic or violent or even unhappy, but even now, a few weeks after having finished reading the novel, I get distinctly wistful melancholic pang thinking back on it. And I’ve finally figured out why.
Our two narrators are “Isaac” and Helen. I put “Isaac” in quotes because it is not his real name, and also to differentiate him from the real Isaac, another character in this story who is, for a time, “Isaac’s” best friend.
“Isaac’s” narrative takes place in Uganda in the early 1970’s, and chronicles his deep and tragic friendship with the real Isaac. Helen’s story takes place in the American Midwest a few years later, when “Isaac” has fled to the United States and met Helen through the social services agency where she works. Helen’s narrative chronicles their relationship over the course of about a year.
At no point is “Isaac’s” real name revealed. Early on in the novel “Isaac” tells us that, “When I was born I had 13 names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have 13 names.” All we know beyond this comes from a brief passage later in the novel when we are told that it starts with ‘D’ and sounds to Americans like “Daniel.”
Outside of Isaac and Helen he does not seem to have any friends. His family gets only a few brief mentions, and apart from a taste for Victorian literature and a vague desire to become a writer we know very little about him. The extreme blankness of “Isaac’s” slate allows the reader to write in details large and small, which lent him a strange mythic quality, despite the distinct non-mythic nature of his story.
“Isaac” and Isaac meet during their freshman year at university in Kampala. Isaac is charismatic in extremis, gregarious and funny and endowed with a satirist’s eye for politics. “Isaac” is very nearly his opposite: introverted, shy, and very serious. Opposites attract, and so of course the two become fast friends.
A word about the historical setting: this is Uganda in the early 1970’s. Idi Amin has recently seized the presidency from Milton Obote in a military coup, and though neither person is mentioned by name Mengestu depicts the place and time with such specificity as to make it perfectly clear. In September 1972 Obote’s supporters, aided by members of the Tanzanian military, attempted to recapture the presidency from Amin, and failed.
Isaac and “Isaac” find themselves caught up in this coup, or at least in Mengestu’s fictionalized version of it. When the Isaacs realize the rebellion is a lost cause, Isaac, who has become an officer in the rebel army, decides to stay and fight to the end. He gives “Isaac” his passport and his identity, and tells him how to get to the United States. The violence of the rebellion mutes the sadness of their parting . Thus ends “Isaac’s” narrative, just as Helen’s is about to begin.
If “Isaac” is introverted, Helen is completely closed off. “Isaac” at least had his friendship with the real Isaac. Helen seemingly has no platonic relationships, with the possible exception of her boss at the social services agency. While Helen’s relationship with “Isaac” develops naturally enough, even at their most intimate there is an abyss of secrets between them that they confide only in the reader, an abyss that persists more-or-less unbridged through the end of the novel.
And here, I think, is the source of the novel’s ingrained, underlying sadness. Helen and “Isaac’s” parallel narratives, with their extensive interiority and introversion, reminds us that whatever trauma and tragedy and joy and rage and sadness we contain, only a tiny fraction of it escapes the gray matter between our ears to be shared with others. It’s as if we spend our whole lives with the deepest, thickest, juiciest, hairiest roots of our identity wrapped within a hermetically sealed garden into which only our dearest intimates can sneak the occasional peak. Among other things, All Our Names is a graphic, somewhat exaggerated illustration of humanity’s seemingly hardwired reticence even, or perhaps especially, with those we love the most.
That’s what Helen and “Isaac” tell us in their different ways. And that’s why this book, beautiful though it is, kind of bums me out....more