In my review of Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground, I said that book was not for everyone. Really, Nick Mamatas might as well get t-shirts printed up wi...moreIn my review of Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground, I said that book was not for everyone. Really, Nick Mamatas might as well get t-shirts printed up with that phrase. I like him, both as a person (we met briefly at WorldCon in San Antonio in 2013, I follow him on Twitter and Facebook) and as a writer--but he's really not for everyone. His stories (and personality) can be cynical and caustic and deal with unpleasant things; and the argument could be made that he likes to shock people.
So when you get a story like Bullettime--a story about a school shooter from the semi-sympathetic POV of the school shooter himself--it might be tempting to say that this is shock for shock's sake; and yet, I think we should resist that temptation here. Bullettime is a rich horror-noir about the dual failures of the society and the individual.
Dave Holbrook has problems: he has no friends in a school with some serious racial tension, other than the fedora'd and trench-coated immigrant Oleg (more an acquaintance than a friend really); his dad is distant, from the "back in my day... why can't you make friends?" school; his mom is a straight-up alcoholic; and Dave's primary interests are online porn and cough syrup. And also, the mysterious new student named Erin, who may or may not be Eris, Greek Goddess of Discord--and who may be pushing Dave towards shooting up the school.
Which is both successful and not, depending on which of many universes we're in. That is, one of Eris's first moves--according to the cough syrup-fugued Dave--is to send his real, conscious self into the Ylem, a sort of no-space from which he can watch every version of his life. In some, he doesn't shoot up the school; in others, he does; in some, he dies early, even before he meets Erin; in others, he survives to live life as a state employee. (His job: fixing or installing lottery tickets, that mass-market symbol for randomness and the possibility of a good life.) Dave's story doesn't move linearly through these lives, like a sort of Groundhog Day. Rather we see some events leading up to the potential school shooting and also some events, in this or other lives, that happen elsewise. Dave in Ylem has an omniscient view of all of his lives, not that that really helps any of the many possible hims.
In that way, Bullettime is sort of plot-light, with us seeing several episodes from his life, and the constant reminder that things could go differently. And yet, for all the many possibilities open to Dave, there's a real sense of tragedy here: the focus of the book isn't the plot or the science-fictional many-worlds, but how terribly screwed-up Dave is, both by the world and by himself. Could his parents be different? Could his school situation? Would any of that really be enough? Popular narratives about school shootings tend to focus on the shooter-as-loner, -as-troubled, but there's plenty of examples of people who aren't either who have done terrible things--and plenty of troubled loners who never do.
Mamatas does a very good and very troubling job putting us into the very claustrophobic position of a kid with no good way out.(less)
Robby Reed is a fantasy teenager, though it's unclear whose fantasy he is. He's a brilliant, clean-cut kid, with a bunch of friends and no real proble...moreRobby Reed is a fantasy teenager, though it's unclear whose fantasy he is. He's a brilliant, clean-cut kid, with a bunch of friends and no real problems, who lives with his grandfather and their live-in housekeeper, in the small town of Littleville. Robby's favorite exclamation is "sockamagee," which has never actually been uttered by any living teen. He's so brilliant that when he finds a mysterious dial, he can decipher the alien/mystical writing on it; which leads to him learning that if he spells "HERO," he'll turn into a superhero.
And just in time, too, since Littleville is a surprising center of crime and close enough to many other big cities that are all interchangeable and also crime-ridden. But all the crimes are strangely boring and pointless. Oh no, the Moon Man is stealing lunar equipment from the moon landing exhibit and if he gets them... well, I don't know.
In other words: welcome to the 1960s Silver Age. Today we think of the Silver Age as a little goofy--though there's some uncertainty about how self-aware the creators and consumers were about that goofiness; but the flip side to that goofiness is how silly and light and unimportant these stories are. Someone tries to steal something, Robby turns into a superhero and stops them, and Robby gets home in time for dinner.
Even with that formula, Dave Wood and the artists go through some fun (and necessary) variations, either with weird villains (the descendent of an Egyptian sorcerer who finds the magic masks that give him the power of Egyptian gods, the thieves whose bodies are clay-ey, the guy who controls insects that can change size, etc.); weird transformations (the time Robby turned into Castor AND Pollux, the time he turned into freaky heroes, etc.); or the too-few times when the H-Dial got "misused" (in "Dial V for Villain" and "Dial H for Heroine"). There's some fun to these stories, but not a lot of mystery or suspense: Robby always catches the bad guy and gets home in time. It's the 1960s sitcom version of superhero comics.
What's really interesting about these stories is how crazy they are and how certain issues are just taken as a given. Robby lives with grandpa and Millie--so where are his parents? Robby can't tell anyone that he's a superhero--but why? And when Robby turns into a superhero Native American or a go-go dancer superhero or (especially oy vey) when a girl uses the H-Dial!--we see how very different the 1960s are and how all that goofiness is founded on some really strange presuppositions.(less)
Whether you meet Robert Jackson Bennett in public (where you'll notice that he is tall) or you know him from his blog (where you'll notice his obsessi...moreWhether you meet Robert Jackson Bennett in public (where you'll notice that he is tall) or you know him from his blog (where you'll notice his obsession with solar power), you'll probably notice that he's a funny guy. If you've never heard of him, here's the 2-minute introduction to some of his humor.
Which is why it's so interesting to me that Mr. Shivers is such a purposefully humorless book. "Man whose child was murdered hunts the serial killer" isn't a premise that lends itself to comedy, which is why I say that the book is "purposefully humorless." Still, that was the first surprise in store for me when I read this book. (Maybe I should've paid more attention to the cover: a hobo sleeping on train tracks with the tagline "No one can cheat death.")
The second surprise--and here I'm laying out all my cards--is that I didn't really care for the book that much. Bennett has several books written now and he's won awards; this one won the Shirley Jackson Award. It was put out in hardcover. It was reviewed in the Washington Post.
But it didn't work so well for me. The story here is basically encapsulated in that one line I gave above, with some minor details: during the Depression, when many people are lost in America, Connelly goes searching for the quasi-mythical figure who killed his little girl; he meets a band of people--ex-priest, Jew, woman--who are likewise searching for this Mr. Shivers; they have some adventures and face some troubles, until...
Well, I don't exactly want to spoil the plot for anyone, but at the same time, so much of the story seems like a remix of other works. This paragraph may contain spoilers by referring to those other works, such as Sandman and American Gods and "The Lottery." That the plot, which is heavily hinted at the beginning: if you hunt monsters, you might become a monster, and here's some oblique references to the coming destruction of the atomic bomb.
On top of that, there's the style, which seems like a Cormac McCarthyesque strain, with descriptions that have to be read slowly (but don't add much) and conversations that never quite rise to the Biblical horror of McCarthy's "every man is tabernacled in every other." Then, for me, there's the thinness of the historical setting, with a couple of issues sticking out as not quite fitting the world. And if my summary of Connelly's traveling companions seems thin, that's because they seem pretty thin in the book.
Now, all of this may be purposeful: we're focalized through Connelly, who is a husk of a man being devoured by his revenge quest, with very little interest in other people, and an obsessive orbit around his internal pain. All this can be intentional on Bennett's part--but it doesn't make it entertaining or interesting.
But let's end this with some positive notes. While not a lot happens with these characters on their quest, when something happens, Bennett writes a very exciting action sequence, with breathless action and vivid violence. I'm also impressed by what Bennett does when Connelly finally gets the upper-hand with a devilish assistant to Mr. Shivers: whereas I'd been looking forward to this comeuppance, the vengeance is so horrible that in one paragraph my sympathies suddenly felt very conflicted. Without any of the usual forms of sympathy-conflict--you know, the "should I hurt my friend to get at my enemy?" usual rigmarole--Bennet gives us what we want (vengeance!) and confronts us with the horror of it.(less)
Curiously, I have a lot more to say about my reading experience than about this book. Part of that is just realistic: it's the 5th book in a very popu...moreCuriously, I have a lot more to say about my reading experience than about this book. Part of that is just realistic: it's the 5th book in a very popular series that has inspired hatred and love, often in the same person. If you were going to read this or avoid this, that decision was made long before you skimmed my review.
And I also don't have much to say, and certainly nothing that hasn't been said before. It's a long book; and I don't think it has that one "oh god" moments that some of the others do; and there's lots of violence; and it's been so long since I read the last one that I'd forgotten a lot; and, yes, it's pretty compulsively readable, even when Martin tends to repetition. I said in my review of A Feast for Crows that the decision to break these two novels up by geography rather than by time was an odd choice, especially since "novel" isn't really a good description of these books: there's very little shape or structure to them. Also, this volume uses the rotating POVs to give us overlapping views of the same events more frequently than the first three. That is, an earlier book might give us A's view from before the battle and B's view after the battle; but now we get more things like A's view of his part of the battle and B's view of the same battle. It's a fine technique when we are interested in A and B or where differing accounts give us a wider view of the world. But sometimes, in this book, it feels like we're just going over the same ground again.
Now, about my reading experience: whereas I'd listened to the first four books, this was the first one I'd read. Luckily, I'd seen enough written online that I wasn't surprised by the spelling of anyone's name or anything. ("Oh, 'Euron,' right, homophone of 'urine.'") But since this was the first I'd read--and pretty geographically diverse--I kept having that fantasy book urge to flip to the front to look at the map. (Is there a map? I don't know, I never gave into the urge. But it was there in a way that it wasn't when I listened to the books.)
It was also interesting to me that my Nook app gave me a page count for each chapter and a percentage count for the book, though this percentage count was not constantly on screen. So I would read a whole chapter of someone's story, feel accomplished because I read 36 pages (or more, if I had the font turned up), and then check my total percentage and see I had barely moved the counter. And every time it was a crushing reminder of how much more I had to read, which I could forget about while reading the ebook in a way that the physical book would never have let me.(less)
Cloud Atlas is a book I loved that I wouldn't recommend for everyone: yes, the characters were sharply written and the plots were engaging--but the wh...moreCloud Atlas is a book I loved that I wouldn't recommend for everyone: yes, the characters were sharply written and the plots were engaging--but the whole thing is underpinned by an elaborate riddle-like structure that many people aren't going to enjoy all that much. By comparison, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is a much more conventional book that I really liked: sharp characters, engaging plot, but told rather straightforwardly.
When I picked up Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, at first it seemed more conventional, closer to Tartt than to Cloud Atlas. To be clear, that's not a bad thing: a good story with good characters and good writing is a good thing--it doesn't have to be elaborate and strange to be good. We have a fish out of water story: the Dutch clerk of the title sent to work for the Dutch East India Company in Japan in order to make his fortune and return to marry his beloved. But things don't go so smoothly: the office on the artificial island of Dejima (so that the Europeans don't set foot on Japanese soil too much) is full of ne'er-do-wells of various sorts, from the profit-oriented to the merely cruel. Then there's the unexpected romance with a Japanese woman who studies European-style medicine. And let's not forget that the Japanese interpreters guild is likewise full of schemers. Oh, and yes, Jacob has smuggled into Japan his family's heirloom psalter--which is forbidden on Japan.
So the stage is set for a straightforward romance with betrayal sort of story, focused on the isle of Dejima. But--and I won't get too into this because I don't want to spoil anything--the story spins somewhat out of control, eventually involving a hidden monastery, a British warship, and abducted women. This isn't a bad thing, but Mitchell does somewhat scatter the reader's attention by jumping from one scenario to another. Like Cloud Atlas, it all comes together; but unlike that book, the switches in attention are both more disruptive and less drastic: we're always in or around Japan, and yet it still doesn't feel quite like there's a single thread to lead us through the book.
And on top of that, much of the book involves even further digressions, as one character or another tells some story. Many interesting, but often still feeling very much like a digression. There's one scene where Jacob de Zoet tells an entire Greek myth to the Japanese magistrate while there's a British warship outside their doors. You'd think someone might have said, "Let's talk about this after the invasion."
That said, I do want to highlight Mitchell's gift of dialogue and character. The Dutch East India Company employees are a rag-tag group from around the world, each with their own view of the world and their own haunted pasts. And most importantly, they each have their own diction. It may be a little over-done for some readers, but for me, like a Tarantino movie, the dialogue doesn't wash out into a gray mass and that's a treat.(less)
I picked this book up for a very specific reason: I wanted to see how someone thoughtful would go about creating a science fiction serial novel or mos...moreI picked this book up for a very specific reason: I wanted to see how someone thoughtful would go about creating a science fiction serial novel or mosaic novel. That is, a novel where each chapter was its own story, but also where each story added up to a larger unit of narrative. So, for instance, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad approaches this: each chapter tells the story of one character in or around the music/entertainment business, but the whole collection adds up to... well, this is a literary novel, where what it adds up to is a thematic wholeness. But I wanted to see someone try to write a more traditional military sf novel, where the chapters added up to a significant plot. And I chose this book, even though I haven't enjoyed the two other books by Scalzi that I've read. At the very least, as a reader of his blog, I had some assurance that the book wouldn't be offensive, so I could focus on the technique.
I don't think John Scalzi would have a problem with me disliking this book; sure, a nasty review is no fun, but, as he says frequently on his blog, his work isn't for everyone. That said, over the last few years I've noticed that there's only a limited amount of pleasure in writing scathing negative reviews (and even less pleasure in hate-watching something). It's probably because I'm old.
With that in mind, I will leave it at this:
Lessons learned from reading The Human Division:
-I don't enjoy banter for banter's sake, especially when that's the only emotional level. (People die, a spaceship is destroyed, war hangs in the balance--but, sure, let's take time to trade a quip or two.) -Some "As you know, Bob" info-dumping won't derail the story too much. -Superhuman characters with no discernible stakes--and not much personality beyond the ubiquitous quippery--are not easy to identify or sympathize with, especially when so much is already given to them. (I mean, there's one chapter where a soldier with a brain implant and a history of classical music is kidnapped and blindfolded--which isn't that much of a problem since she makes a map of her room with echolocation, down to the shotgun on a table.) -Ditto--double ditto--for smug characters.(less)
Let's start with the basics here: the title is "Sex Criminals"--so maybe don't buy this for your tween nephew or niece and maybe don't read it in publ...moreLet's start with the basics here: the title is "Sex Criminals"--so maybe don't buy this for your tween nephew or niece and maybe don't read it in public so much.
Here's the story: Two people who both have this magical ability join together to right wrongs (sort of). Sounds superheroic, but it gets a little odd since their magical power is to stop time when they orgasm. This first book collects the first five issues, which flip back and forth (gosh, Fraction loves playing with time) between these two people meeting and talking about their pasts (which itself involves lots of flashbacks) and their disastrous plan to right some financial wrongs.
Fun if odd premise; but what raises this to the next level is Fraction's smart tone, arch but deeply felt at times, and with some serious issues: love, sex, rape, pornography, desire, trauma, teenage mystery. (I especially like this one moment where one character makes a sexual abuse joke about a pornographic actress, whereupon her image comes alive to scold the person about assuming something about her just because she's a sex worker.)
I'm not sure where the story will go from here, but--if you don't mind some adult themes (i.e., lots of tits and toys and even a wang or two)--this is a comic worth looking at.
The second collection of Allen's prose continues the themes/style of Getting Even, with a lot of parodies of essays covering "Lesser Ballets," ancient...moreThe second collection of Allen's prose continues the themes/style of Getting Even, with a lot of parodies of essays covering "Lesser Ballets," ancient Biblical scrolls, the history of civil disobedience, and slang. There's also parodies of other formats, including the artist's notebooks (here, filled with ridiculous worries and ideas from Allen's own notebooks), Two-Minute Mysteries-style "solve the puzzle with the detective" stories, and oral history from the 1920s/Jazz Age. There's also a couple really good examples of Allen running with a premise, as in the mock-academic essay wondering about the real authorship of the Shakespeare plays--if Marlowe was really Shakespeare, who was Marlowe?; an essay imagining the Impressionists as dentists, and, in one of the best, another detective story, this time involving a call-girl racket where the call-girls are being used for their conversational skills and interest in high culture.
Again, there are only a few of these that could be called stories, like that "Whore of Mensa" story; even something like "No Kaddish for Weinstein," that seems to be the story of a sad sack, is mostly just an excuse for a series of ridiculous lines.
Which brings me to something I forgot to say in my last review, about Allen's use of the ridiculous. For instance, take the opening paragraph to "Examining Psychic Phenomena":
There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open? Unexplainable events occur constantly. One man will see spirits. Another will hear voices. A third will wake up and find himself running in the Preakness. How many of us have not at one time or another felt an ice-cold hand on the back of our neck while we were home alone? (Not me, thank God, but some have.) What is behind these experiences? Or in front of them, for that matter? Is it true that some men can foresee the future or communicate with ghosts? And after death is it still possible to take showers?
There are some example of that high-to-low movement here, mostly over a few sentences, e.g., There's an unseen world! But how far from midtown?
But notice also that there's a movement from normal (or expected) to the ridiculous and unexpected: seeing ghosts, hearing voices, running in a horse race; seeing the future, talking with ghosts, afterlife showers.
Another technique I forgot to call out explicitly is Allen's playing with the literal meaning of language, which gives us that slip from "What is behind these experiences?" to the ridiculous "Or in front of them." In these early essays, Allen does a lot of that slipping from a meaningful phrase to a ridiculous but clearly related other phrase.(less)
A collection of Woody Allen humor pieces; the first of three that I grew up with. Getting Even mostly has the sort of short humor pieces that would ru...moreA collection of Woody Allen humor pieces; the first of three that I grew up with. Getting Even mostly has the sort of short humor pieces that would run in the New Yorker.
Let's break it down:
Parodies of academic discourse: The Metterling Lists (lit analysis of a guy's laundry lists) My Philosophy Spring Bulletin (class description) Hassidic Tales (tales and folklore analysis) Conversations with Helmholtz (interview with great psychoanalyst The Discovery and Use of the Fake Ink Blot (history of pranks)
Historical absurdity: A Look at Organized Crime The Schmeed Memoirs (the Nazis' barbers memoirs) Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This? (the invention of the sandwich considered as a serious invention) A Twenties Memory (a ridiculous fake memoir of meeting famous people, with the repeated joke that they would break his nose) Viva Vargas! (parody of Latin American revolutions)
Others: Death Knocks (a play about death as a schnook) The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers (two jerks play chess by mail) Notes from the Overfed (a Dostoevskian take on fat) Count Dracula (Dracula accidentally comes out during an eclipse) A Little Louder, Please (a man struggles with his inability to understand pantomime) Mr. Big (a noir parody of a man hired to find God)
In this list, we can see a number of Allen interests (psychoanalysis, history, specialized jargon (in both academia and chess-by-mail)); but I'm particularly interested in Allen's techniques of humor. His most common technique is juxtaposition, putting usually some high-minded note next to some banal and small-minded note. For instance, in "My Philosophy," we read
"Schopenhauer called this 'will,' but his physician diagnosed it as hay fever."
(Which is a lot like Nathanael West: "If you desire to have two parallel lines meet at once or even in the near future, ... it is important to make all the necessary arrangements beforehand, preferably by wireless.")
Allen also really likes to take a premise and run with it for a while. So we may read about how the Earl of Sandwich toured the great cities of Europe with his act--making hamburgers. Or he may note that the Mafia doesn't spend a lot on office supplies and then note a few of their cost-saving measures.
In all of these--the juxtaposition of high culture and small personal concerns; or the mashing up of two disparate sphere--Allen's funniest moments usually have a Twitter-esque sting in the tail, setting up a situation in the first half of the sentence and then reversing it in the second half. Perhaps one of my favorite examples of this is from "A Twenties Memory," where the narrator notes that he was hanging out with other artists and
"I was then working on what I felt was a major American novel but the print was too small and I couldn't get through it."
But as much as I loved these when I was young, they seem... amusing rather than actually funny to me now. Only a few of these actually attempt to tell funny stories, which seems like a harder task than a short essay making jokes about college courses and how they apply to the real world.(less)
I've never read any of Pratchett's Discworld novels before; but between friends who love him and some helpful websites telling me where to start (sinc...moreI've never read any of Pratchett's Discworld novels before; but between friends who love him and some helpful websites telling me where to start (since the first novels are generally considered the worst of the series)--and with my added interest in comedy in science fiction and fantasy--I finally decided to try one.
And I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, I'd heard that Pratchett liked to poke fantasy tropes in the eye, much in the vein of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is an encyclopedia/atlas of all the old tropes: monasteries are where you go to get trained, unless they get burned down to motivate you (sometimes both), while people with magic or special destinies have red hair or purple eyes, and etc., etc. Which is a fun concept, but not really the sort of humor that I think can really sustain a novel.
But, while Pratchett does like to poke tropes in the eye, that's not the only game he's playing here. First of all, the plot actually would make sense even if it were played straight: there's a scheme to summon dragons in order to set up a fake king; which is only opposed by the City Watch, who are out of their depth and have their own problems (alcoholism, culture shock, greed, etc.); and when the scheme goes awry, a deadly dragon crowns itself as king.
So, second of all, as much as this takes place in a fantasy world; as much as it is comedy; Pratchett has serious issues and themes here about loyalty and duty and power and human nature. (Although, the longest monologue about human nature comes from a very cynical person, which makes the book seem somewhat cynical, even if this speech doesn't entirely hold up logically.)
Third, there's all sorts of humor here, from the genre aware characters (who go about making their job harder since only "a million in one shot chance" will work--because it's always a desperate last chance that gets the dragon); to the ridiculous comparisons and a lot of casualness to the tone, which keeps it light even when we're dealing with death and disorder (so when a guard kicks a stony troll in the crotch, he discovers that his stones are much rockier than expected--wah, wah); there's the allusions to other works, as when the Captain reenacts Dirty Harry with a dragon rather than a gun; but, best of all for me, there's a lot of irony and reversal humor. For instance, when a mob comes to kill off some harmless swamp dragons, we get the Dirty Harry allusions, which, fine, doesn't work for me, but fits in with the light tone; but then, when the dragon-breeding lady goes from trying to hold off the mob to charging them money for a dragon charity--that's deep comedy.
It's not perfect for me. I mean, it has this very British sense of humor about badly-spoken French; and the "one in a million" becomes a running joke in the last hundred pages or so, when it never appeared before. But overall, while I may not have laughed out loud, I did smile a lot--and I did get interested in these characters.(less)
I picked this up after hearing Greg Rucka talk about the inception of the work. (Has that movie just completely co-opted "inception" as a word/thing?)...moreI picked this up after hearing Greg Rucka talk about the inception of the work. (Has that movie just completely co-opted "inception" as a word/thing?) Apparently, his view of a neo-feudal world wracked by serious environmental problems comes from... well, looking around at the current state of things. In this interview, he actually sounded really distraught by all this, which I dug, as I am similarly distraught.
The premise here is that there are several powerful families; supported by a totally dominated serf population; with some more waste population outside of the compounds; and that each family has an immortal, bio-enhanced or cybernetic warrior called a "lazarus" (from its habit of being killed and getting up again). Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of the Carlyle family, which consists of psychotic, incestuous twins (again!), a science-oriented sister, and maybe one other brother, all under the patriarch.
This first book of four issues doesn't really do much more than that set-up: we see Forever Carlyle take care of waste intruders to a family compound; execute an innocent serf because of inter-Family war; make inter-Family peace; and deal with some Carlyle family issues. Does that sound jam-packed? Maybe for one paragraph, but for four issues, it's pretty light on plot, and pretty heavy on setting.
Since I am interested (and yes, distraught) by that setting, I will certainly look at the next collection.(less)
I heard Holly Black speak about this book at the 2013 Austin Teen Book Fest, and, much like her acknowledgements page at the end of the book, the talk...moreI heard Holly Black speak about this book at the 2013 Austin Teen Book Fest, and, much like her acknowledgements page at the end of the book, the talk was a lot about her growing up as a vampire-interested outsider. And, sure enough, The Coldest Girl has a lot of vampire romanticism and emo-goth moments. But as much as you might want to grind your teeth over that, don't ruin those pointy canines yet.
Because as much as this might be a girl-falls-in-love-with-vampire story, there's a lot more going on. First, of all, there's the brilliant set-up that allows us to go into a post-apocalyptic urban ruin: vampires have only recently come out of the shadows (dark shadows?); and they--and humans infected with pre-vampirism--are forced into lawless zones called "coldtowns." So: vampires, plus post-apocalyptic adventure.
But the real inventiveness and smarts of this novel are that
(a) Black digs into what this sort of exposure would mean in a digital age. People are broadcasting shows from the coldtown, they are blogging about their experience, they are making friendships on forums online;
(b) as someone who flirted with light goth culture in the 90s, I recognize the emo-goth and vampire romance here partly as a true-to-life representation, partly as a loving view of a subculture for misfits, and LARGELY as a deconstruction of that romance, with many of the worst people--both most dangerous and most annoying--being people so deep inside their own fantasies that they're incapable of doing the right, humane thing;
and (c) the main character of the novel, Tana, is active, adventurous, smart, strong, complex, flawed--in short, everything you want in a protagonist. Though boys are a big part of the story, Tana is a person by herself, a person whose important relationships include friendship and family relations, as well as romance.
The plot may or may not thrill--Tana gets involved with some mysterious vampires with their own mysterious agendas--but the characters and the themes are enough to keep me reading.(less)
My online book club voted for Roadside Picnic as the follow-up to last month's book, Lem's Solaris. And they make a pretty nice pairing:
a) in Solaris...moreMy online book club voted for Roadside Picnic as the follow-up to last month's book, Lem's Solaris. And they make a pretty nice pairing:
a) in Solaris, experts go to an alien planet to investigate a weird living ocean; not much happens; the characters are mysterious and cold; and it's kind of a bummer. Also, it was made into a film directed by Tarkovsky.
b) in Roadside Picnic, aliens drop off some stuff on Earth in the middle of a town, so both experts and regular folk have to deal with it; it's all about illegal smugglers who venture into the very dangerous Zone and the police agents who try to stop them; the characters are generally passionate and we get some narration from two POV characters; and it's not entirely a bummer. Also, it was made into a film directed by Tarkovsky.
Roadside Picnic is short and fast, broken down into five sections (some spoilers here, but I tried to keep it light):
1) an interview with a scientist explaining the Zones. It's a pretty quick introduction to the premise here, that aliens have visited Earth (sort of) and left a bunch of stuff behind.
2) The smuggler ("stalker") Red who works at the institute tells his depressed but brilliant scientist boss about something inside the Zone.
3) Three years later, now married with a kid, Red gets involved in more stalking/smuggling.
4) A guy you thought was a smuggler is secretly an undercover cop trying to stop smuggling.
5) Red goes in to the Zone to recover a magical wish-granting object.
The whole thing could be a fun adventure story, with only a little of 4 being devoted to philosophical and theoretical discussions about the possibility of communication; and that last section, while mostly adventurous, has also launched a few critical papers, since it seems to have a sort of fairy tale quality (a quest for a wish-granting item, passing through several obstacles) and also a utopian bent, since Red's final wish is the most famous line from the book:
HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!
Which is a nice wish, though it seems somewhat oblique to the whole issue of alien communication and the effects of this sort of intrusion.
Also, does this set-up and discussion remind anyone else of Michael Crichton's Sphere?(less)
Every review of Tidhar's Osama is required to mention how Tidhar has a global (i.e., non-American) background--Israeli-born, lived in South Africa and...moreEvery review of Tidhar's Osama is required to mention how Tidhar has a global (i.e., non-American) background--Israeli-born, lived in South Africa and Southeast Asia, lives in England; or how this novel grew out of Tidhar's close calls with terrorism. So there, I've fulfilled the requirement. (Why does no one mention that Lavie used to maintain the World SF Blog and edited the Apex Books of World SF?)
We could also start with Tidhar's apparent enjoyment of genre play: taking some clear genre and playing with the elements. This is a man, after all, who wrote a story where Jekyll/Hyde boards the Titanic (ah, that literary/historical mashup), turns out to have been Jack the Ripper (ah, the Ripper conspiracy), and ends with the ship running into trouble... when Godzilla rises from the seas. (The story is "Titanic!" and though I've spoiled the very short story's plot for you, it's still such a hilarious remix--with a point!--that it's worth checking out.)
Tidhar's Osama could be seen as the collision of these two spheres: it's an alternate history mixed with a noir story mixed with a sort of metaphysical fantasy (genre play, whee!) that covers a noir detective's global search for a writer in a world without global terrorism (global-perspective, terrorism, whee!). That writer writes pulp novels about the adventures of Osama Bin Laden. (Oh, I forgot: Tidhar's blog and Twitter also occasionally note his fondness for old pulp novel novels/covers, including the Nazisploitation "stalag fiction" that was popular in Israel in the 1950s. So Osama is at the center of that Venn diagram.)
The story is sort of the zero-degree of noir stories: mysterious woman with a quest, shadowy opponents who try to scare him off, a steady stream of clues given or found by following morally ambiguous characters. (Including, for all intents and purposes, Rick from Casablanca.) The detective Joe is a cypher, with no particular background or life (or dreams), almost approaching parody of the noir detective; while the other characters are also mostly thin, on purpose. Really, the only characters who seemed rounded to me were the slightly foolish married couple at the Osama Bin Laden convention. Perhaps Tidhar and I have met those same people at various sf cons...
And depending on your interests, that thinness of character is an example of what might be the sticking point of this novel: for all that there's an alternate history background (de Saint-Exupery was the president of France instead of De Gaulle) and a noiry plot (one man trying to track down another man for a woman), Tidhar's interest doesn't seem to be to fulfill the traditional pleasures of these genres. I wouldn't even say that Tidhar's novel fulfills the Dickian promise of a man lost between dimensions. (For one thing, Tidhar's book is a lot slower and more tone-oriented than Dick's books.) It's slow, and melancholy, and while there's some hard-hitting real-world moments about terrorism (what they do to us) and war (what we do legally to them), most of the book seems to focus on that unfolding melancholy of what's lost no matter which turn history takes. Not exactly a fun book, but an interesting one.(less)
I first heard of the Beka Cooper series from Alyssa Rosenberg (formerly Culture Editor at ThinkProgress, currently at Washington Post), who praised th...moreI first heard of the Beka Cooper series from Alyssa Rosenberg (formerly Culture Editor at ThinkProgress, currently at Washington Post), who praised the series as an interesting alternative to George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (which she also likes a lot). And since it happened to pop up at my library for digital download, I decided to give it a try.
And I'm glad I did: Beka Cooper is a shy but tough girl from the poor quarter of this sprawling and cosmopolitan city who has decided to make protecting people her life's work by joining the police force of the medieval city. (These guardsmen and women are colloquially known as "dogs," so the Beka Cooper titles trace her growth across several species, from stubborn terrier to... more stubborn bloodhound?) Beka is the sort of heroine it should be easy to dislike: not only is she incredibly talented in all the police skills of fighting and memorization and detective work, but she also has the magical power to talk to pigeons--who are inhabited by the unquiet dead, so a constant stream of information about murders--and to air elementals in the city that just capture what people say. She's also been informally adopted by the provost, this town's equivalent to a chief of police. It's like if Bruce Wayne was adopted by Jim Gordon and also could talk to animals. It's less a mystery of "will she solve the crime?" than "when will she?" Her one weakness is that she is painfully shy around new people and with public speaking--which isn't really enough to humanize her and make her a character the readers want to identify with. Oh, wait, I forgot that her magical talking cat might be a god. So the deck is stacked pretty heavily in her favor.
And yet, Tamora Pierce makes Beka's story interesting: while she might be the perfect cop, there are other challenges around her (her siblings have some issues with her) and the characters around her are engaging and interesting, from the very nice fellow trainee, to the humorous and deadly lady knight, to the handsome young rogue. Also, for all these characters and some bit of romance, there is no hint here of a romantic triangle. Beka Cooper likes boys, but her world doesn't revolve around them, thank god.
As I said, the plot and the mystery don't really cause too many thrills or surprises; and with Beka's police and magical powers, her success is never in doubt. But the description of this world and these characters, as well as the interesting genre mash-up--the YA fantasy police procedural--make this an entertaining book.(less)
Have you ever heard of Christopher Farnsworth's secret agent-vampire, Nathaniel Cade, and how he fights jihadist-created zombie/golems and other monst...moreHave you ever heard of Christopher Farnsworth's secret agent-vampire, Nathaniel Cade, and how he fights jihadist-created zombie/golems and other monsters, all using his super powers and the magical relics the US government has collected over the years, from saint's hands to alien spacecraft? Seems like the sort of thing that would be right up my alley, a sort of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 mash-up of various conspiracy theories and pulp gimmicks. I mean, when we first see Cade's trophy room, we pass by a skull from Innsmouth (Lovecraft) and a bit of human-shaped engine (Ellis's Steam Man of the Prairies), which really does put this book in my corner.
The words “bug fuck crazy”, one sometimes feels, get bandied about too often by careless reviewers, yet I feel no hesitation in applying them to Christopher Farnsworth’s remarkably screwy series of thrillers featuring Cade, the titular President’s Vampire.
And yet, I didn't think this novel was screwy and gonzo enough. Sure, there are zombies (of the Frankenstein monster variety) and there's alien spacecraft and the Masons are a serious contender for the Illuminati crown. So don't get me wrong: this book is a fun, fast-paced thriller/adventure about a gruff but humane vampire and his human handlers (the shallow new kid, the dying old hand) as they fight off monsters from the shadows. It's another version of the Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction comics--and we always need new versions of that story.
So a quick and pleasant read, but not nearly as bug fuck crazy as I expected or wanted. Maybe that's a fine thing: this is a book without much irony or winking: it takes its pulpy premise seriously. But I can't help but feel that there's a tension there between the ridiculous premise and the straight execution.
(Final note: I'm also marking off points for including Frankenstein--the doctor--and making him a German noble, while keeping him as the inspiration for Mary Shelley, since in Shelley's book, Frankenstein is a Swiss citizen.)(less)
I think I first heard of this book from Annalee Newitz at io9, where, as prelude to a discussion of contemporary literary fantasy-realism, she called...moreI think I first heard of this book from Annalee Newitz at io9, where, as prelude to a discussion of contemporary literary fantasy-realism, she called this one of the best books she read this year (which was 2012). Personally, I don't see it.
Don't get me wrong, the book is pleasant enough on almost every level: nebbishy floater finds his way into quirky bookstore with quirky employees and patrons--the man who is always excited, the archeology student who knows all about past objects, etc.; nebbish has much more accomplished but slightly ridiculous friends--his old fantasy RPG friend who started a computer company for modeling the physics of boobs, the polished PR executive who has one interest (rock climbing), the Google employee who has lots to say about the Singularity and not much else, etc; and the nebbish discovers that the quirky bookstore is connected to this centuries-old cult that is currently run by the villainous (but never actually mean or dangerous) ex-friend of the quirky bookstore owner; and the nebbish without much skill or knowledge eventually solves the problem by coordinating his friends into solving the quests.
Which is about the most interesting thing about the book: instead of a standard "Chosen One" fantasy, Sloan gives us the "Fixer as hero." All the other characters seem like slightly cartoonish, flat versions of people, which makes it hard to take seriously any of their worries or accomplishments.
The issues that this book deals with are interesting and serious: freedom of information (code breaking is both what you do to unearth an old secret and what you do to break DRM so you can pirate ebooks), digital vs. analog vs. physical (burning a CD is very different than burning a book), and so on. But without a story or characters that hook us, the book ends up not really digging into these issues.(less)
A book that was recommended to me on my trip to LA and that I would recommend--with a little eyebrow waggling.
First, while Steven Pressfield makes som...moreA book that was recommended to me on my trip to LA and that I would recommend--with a little eyebrow waggling.
First, while Steven Pressfield makes some interesting points, the book shows its age in at least one way: it references Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as models of excellence. It's worth a smile to read about Tiger Woods's discipline, considering his sex scandal. (I also don't entirely think that Arnold Schwarzenegger is what he is because of his gym discipline; as many people have noted, what set him apart in the body-building world was his charisma and charm.)
Second, and more importantly, Pressfield makes comments about, basically, the secret operating system of the world: capitalizing Resistance; arranging angels on the side of the writer; noting that if we all did the thing God put us here for, we wouldn't have any of the problems we do--including domestic abuse and alcoholism and dandruff. That "dandruff" comment made me stop and think: Pressfield notes that the artist has a sense of humor about their art--and "dandruff" sounds like a joke. So, exactly how serious is he about this? There's a reason why I found this book in the self-help section rather than in the how-to/writing section of the bookstore.
(Though Robert McKee's introduction makes clear that McKee isn't spiritual and all the ideas in the book work for him too. Just, instead of Gods and angels, he thinks genetics.)
That's all the stuff I would waggle my eyebrows over. But still, there's something undeniable interesting and worth reading here, I think, for people who are interested in creative or chance-taking work. Pressfield focuses on writing--that's what he does--but he mentions asides about painting and composing and even starting your own business that you're passionate about. So there is something here for anyone who is taking a chance and facing fear.
And Pressfield writes in an interesting, aphoristic way that I imagine might help a lot of people facing fear. Maybe you don't quite believe that God put you here to be your best self (I don't), but you may still recognize that sense of depression that comes from not doing something that you want to do--and that sense of Resistance with a capital R that comes when you actually have a chance to do it.
So, if that's you, you might want to look at this book. Which I'm about to raid for aphorisms.(less)
After going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, what I really wanted was a knowledgeable friend--someone whose eyes I could catch, wh...moreAfter going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, what I really wanted was a knowledgeable friend--someone whose eyes I could catch, who would reflect back to me my own "what the fuck?" expression over a display of two small mice on a piece of toast with a caption that stated that eating mice on toast was a cure for bed-wetting; someone who then could go on to explain what the truth was behind the mice-eating bed-wetting cure, the horn cut off an old woman, the wheel of bells created by Athanasius Kircher, and so on.
Weschler's book on the Museum of Jurassic Technology more-or-less fits perfectly as that friend, with the downside that I didn't have it with me while I was at the museum. (They sell it at the gift shop, but it's almost too dim in there to read, so.)
The first third of the book (pp4-69) goes through Weschler's own experience of the Museum: he sees some displays, is utterly confused, befriends the curators and owners (the Wilsons), does some research into the history of the museum and the reality of its displays. The two keywords here, I would say, are ironylessness and confusion. Weschler was as confused by this museum as I was, and when he tries to investigate the reality, he runs into David Wilson's ironylessness over everything in the museum--the real, the fake, and the in-between.
[E]ach time [I visited the museum] David would be there manning the desk, so that after a while I got to know him pretty well--which is to say, it felt like I got past the first layer of ironylessness to, well, maybe a second layer of ironylessness. I don't know. (41)
I love that "I don't know" at the end, which is pretty much where the museum lives. As Weschler notes, in some ways, the museum is both parody and homage to museums and museum-ness; a throwback and celebration to the moment right before the confusion of data turns into the neatness of theory and fact. In one episode, Wilson tells a Cornell biologist (Tom Eisner) about the Museum's display about a mysterious bat that some native South Americans only knew as a mysterious devilish force; and which was finally discovered in a lead wall set up as a trap. It's a crazy story that honestly raises the hair on the back of my neck. (Try for yourself here. Eisner's response
That's exactly what it's like when you're out there in the field and you're first encountering some of those marvelously strange natural adaptations. At first all you've got is a few disconnected pieces of raw observation, the sheerest glimpses, but you let your mind go, fantasizing the possible connections, projecting the most fanciful life cycles.
Which brings us to the second third of the book (pp71-109), where Weschler puts the Museum of Jurassic Technology into the context of the Age of Wonder and the wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosities), where Europeans tried to collect/organize all the wonders of nature and man. This part gets a little theoretical; but it's a very nice introduction to this area of history. (I'd also suggest Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen if you're interested in this topic and how it relates to new media, since many cabinets played with new technologies of seeing.)
Weschler gives this context not just to look at some interesting, under-understood moment, but to think about how these cabinets were built out of phenomena without understanding or according to different rules of understanding. (I love the display that was organized by defect: double apples, siamese twins, two-headed cats--all things doubled.) In its way, Wilson's museum (Weschler's subtitle calls it a "cabinet of curiosities") fits here, especially considering how many of its displays are on the edges and frontiers: Russian rocket theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the dogs of the Russian space program both had displays when I went.
Weschler ends this section with a visit to Wilson's workshop, where he was putting together a big exhibit on symbolic cognition and folklore cures--including the toasted-mice bed-wetting cure. And here, where Wilson is creating the exhibits, we're returned to that weird feeling we had at the beginning: of not knowing how much of this is a put-on job, how much parody, how much homage, how much actual museum.
The last third (pp111-168) are all notes and tangents and sources for Weschler, which in its form felt very much like an infection of the museum itself. I mean, some of these notes were useful, some interesting, some distracting. Which might be why Weschler put them in.
Still, this book is not the museum, and while it's a useful companion, I find myself wishing I could go back to the museum rather than reread the book about it.(less)
This book was a little--just a little--interminable. Or at least it felt that way to get through. (And only seven discs long!) Skimming through some o...moreThis book was a little--just a little--interminable. Or at least it felt that way to get through. (And only seven discs long!) Skimming through some other reviews, this seems to be Matheson's least solidly-recieved book, in that it has a wide range of reviews.
And sure, there are things to like: the 82-year-old narrator remembering his 18-year-old self gets to voice some of our own problems with his younger self's actions. And...
Well, maybe there's more to dislike here: the plot is thin, the episodes meandering, the minor characters are shallow, and the whole thing feels pretty stake-less and verges on wish-fulfillment.
That is, the story is about Alex White, young man who has problems with his father, who fights in World War I, befriends an odd Englishman, and then decides to go to the Englishman's mysterious home town. And that town has both a dangerous witch and some too-ordinary seeming fairies. Do you know what the witch and the woman fairy want to do? Have sex with the main character. When the witch can't get him (possibly for some ritual, it's never really clear), she goes crazy! Blah.
Now, if the story were as straight-forwardly told as Matheson's Shadow on the Sun, I'd think it was a little wish-fulfillmenty; what puts this over the top as an interminable read is that our narrator White is himself an author and continually comments on the story he's telling, mostly just noting how much he can alliterate in a sentence. Which is not an interesting meta-commentary to inflict on a story. On top of that, the supernatural here is pretty boring: it seems like a mix of ordinary folklore, which is then flattened into normality. It's funny when a townsperson refers to the little people in a no-nonsense, that's-just-the-way-it-is style; but when everyone does that, it just robs the whole thing of any sense of mystery or otherness. Not even the main character shows much interest in that, but instead mostly thinks about his alliteration.(less)
You know how middle movies in a trilogy sometimes get criticized, justly or not, for merely spinning their wheels and setting up the third movie?
End o...moreYou know how middle movies in a trilogy sometimes get criticized, justly or not, for merely spinning their wheels and setting up the third movie?
End of review.
No, OK, a little more: as in I Am Not A Serial Killer, John Wayne Cleaver wars against his serial killer tendencies, until he is confronted by a supernatural killer. There's more of that "I like this girl, but can't deal with her," which is pretty ordinary teen feelings re-cast in fantasy-horror terms. (For the record: I love this sort of metaphorization. Are you worried about the working class? Write a novel about robots! Etc.)
And Wells plays with some dark material here, which I half want to salute for his riskiness and half found distasteful. For instance--spoilers!--John Cleaver attempts to sate his darker urges with fire and ends up killing a stray cat. Knowing how many people would be turned off by that, I thought it was an interesting, perhaps brave move on Wells's part. When the new serial killer targets women and John has fantasies about violence against women... I began to glaze over. "Oh, this again."
But while the story ends with some big revelations--the demon John killed in the first book was just one of many and now he has a cellphone with the numbers of several of them--most of the book is just John fighting "Mr. Monster," his psychopathic tendencies. And those fights aren't very interesting. (less)