Patrick DeWitt’s western, The Sisters Brothers is, for me, a lighter version of a Cormac McCarthy novel. An acquaintance of mine had it pushed to her as a hilarious, funniest book ever kind of thing and it set her up for immense disappointment. I mean, it is funny but in a dry, dark, taking horrible things seriously kind of way. I can’t remember if the Coen brothers comparison is on the cover of the book (mine was an e-copy) but it’s funny in the Fargo way, not The Big Lebowski.
In any case the story is about a couple of bounty-hunting brothers (whose last name is Sisters, which makes this another addition to the collection of books that cause misreadings of their titles based on imagined apostrophes – my favourite other example being Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End) going down from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a guy. There are shitty horses and merciful decisions and badass gunfighting (badass in the brutal “there ain’t nothing honourable about shooting a man” kind of way), and it definitely fits in the picture of the time painted by Deadwood or Unforgiven.
I liked it, but anyone selling it as a funny book is emphasizing the wrong aspects, I think. It’s a story of brutality and masculinity. And it has a great cover.
Every so often I get far enough behind in my book blogging I just declare bankruptcy and start fresh. This is one of those times. Here’s what I’ve read since my last book review:
The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.
This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death is a collection of short stories about people who know how they will die as predicted by a Machine. It is, of course, a sequel anthology to Machine of Death (in which I had a story).
Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North and David Malki ! have put together a great collection of stories. As is usual with an anthology some are more to my taste than others. I quite enjoyed the stories that played with the idea of “unkillable” people (who’d all have cancer or something non-violent) and putting them into badass commando roles. My favourite of these was probably Tom Francis’ “Lazarus Fission Reactor Sequence” which also combined some office comedy as part of being a henchman for a supervillain in there too, but the grim science fictiony “Not Applicable” by Kyle Schoenfeld was also pretty great.
Rhiannon Kelly’s “Natural Causes” was my favourite of the more “realistic” stories because of how it dealt with small-town issues of appearances and conformity. And Ryan North’s “Cancer” laid down some real science and feelings.
So yes, this book did feel a bit more diverse than the first one. The stories covered a wider range of settings and people were definitely playing with some more meta-ish concepts surrounding the Machine. You should totally read it. (And if you participated in the Summer 2013 Humble Ebook Bundle you probably have a copy of the first volume to whet your appetite, so go read it first!)
I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.
First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.
Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).
Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.
Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.
Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.
In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.
I don’t think I’m unreasonable in being disappointed in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. The concept of the book is that the planet’s rotation is slowing, and the protagonist is a 12-year-old girl in California just living her life, trying to deal with things like unpopularity and parental infidelity.
One one hand, the book had this science fictional concept of the earth slowing and days lengthening, which is kind of interesting and no more ridiculous than Life As We Knew It‘s moon suddenly getting all up in Earth’s face. But it’s written as if the author had no idea how seasons work. There’s a bit of lip-service to the madness that comes from white nights at extreme latitudes, but the idea that the sun going down at 9pm isn’t a terrifying thing seemed completely foreign to the author. There’s a bit of information tossed in about the earth’s magnetic field, but it was very cursory.
Also, all of the big problems that arise from this global catastrophe are kind of glossed over in simplistic ways. Not just that the 12-year-old protagonist glossed over them because she didn’t get them, but like the author didn’t think it through very hard and just had the idea of monolithic blocks that would react in certain ways across the continent if not the globe.
So it seems to me that the book wasn’t written to be a science fiction book, but a backdrop for this young girl’s story. Fine. I can get behind the idea of a coming of age story in the midst of global crisis. The science and sociology could have been passed off as niggling details to annoy me if the story of the girl was compelling, but I did not find it to be so. There was a boy, and a lack of friends, and death, and a cheating father. It wasn’t terrible, but it felt simplistic and too uninvolving to distract me from the issues I had with the end of the world.
It might be an okay YA book, but I think a lot of readers would be put off by the lack of plot. In any case, Life As We Knew It is a much better YA book in the same vein.
What I liked about George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December is the aspiration in all the stories. All these characters are trying so hard to have a life that isn’t terrible, but they are stymied by the world and their delusions. In the right mood that makes the stories funny, in the righter mood that makes them terribly sad. All these people poised right on the teeth of capitalism, about to get ground up by the system in absurd ways. And sometimes they escape.
The Tombs of Atuan is one of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and I have the vague feeling that it’s one she was less than pleased with decades later, which is why the main character returns in Tehanu. I confess I don’t know exactly why I think this is the case. It’s one of those things I read out in the digital wilds, I guess.
In this story, Tenar is a young girl who is raised to be a priestess of shadowy death in a nation ruled by god-kings (who are in competition with her older and more ineffable deities). She learns the ways of power and her labyrinth domain to such a degree that when Sparrowhawk the sorceror arrives looking for treasure and blundering into their traps she is in a much more powerful position than he is. But she abandons her life in the tombs and in the end she escapes.
Reading the story, I could see why LeGuin would want to revisit it later. Politically there’s a lot of reification of colonial and patriarchical themes in this story. Her backward ways are overturned by encountering the rational mage who liberates a girl who would remain trapped for all her life if he hadn’t happened along. This is happening to a heroine who’s already had her name stripped from her. I mean Tenar is a fine character but if you’re interested in feminism she’s not exactly an aspirational model.
It still strikes me oddly that I’m only reading these books as a 30-something-year-old person. I wonder why these weren’t part of my early sf education. They should be for kids today.
Jo Walton’s book Among Others is a librarian’s dream book. It’s about a 15-year-old Welsh girl in a terrible English boarding school in 1979. But Mor loves science fiction. The book is about reading science fiction and fantasy and the power that these stories have. And holy shit does she read. The book is full of commentary on Zelazny and Delany and Tolkien and who might have actually seen elves and known something about how magic really was.
Because Mor’s mother is a witch. At least, she’s alluded to as being a witch. And her twin sister died trying to stop their witchy mother from doing witchy things. But Mor is not an entirely reliable narrator in this story about magic that can always be explained by coincidence.
The librarians in the book are heroes. They help Mor meet other bookish people and place countless interlibrary loans for her. It’s the kind of book that makes me happy when I fill out those forms for my library members.
I believe it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards, but a lot of that has to be because of its near complete immersion in classic science fiction which would be near to the hearts of those prize-selectors. But still. A very good book about books.
I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.
I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.
The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.
I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.
There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.
So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.
I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).