book review: pre-holiday 2013 roundup

I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.

  • Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
  • Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
  • Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
  • The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
  • The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
  • Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
  • Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.

Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.

book review: the testing

The Testing is Joelle Charbonneau’s Hunger Games clone. Young people from post-devastation colonies are selected to compete for spots in the government’s university, like some juiced up Gaokao. The testers are sadistic and the tests have consequences.

It wasn’t badly written, but I can only recommend it to people who liked the Hunger Games and dislike novelty. Oh! Here’s a difference: The female protagonist is only in love with one boy. I guess that makes it un-Hunger Gamesish.

book review: the maze runner

I read James Dashner’s dystopian YA dystopia book The Maze Runner more out of duty than pleasure. The story isn’t terrible. There’s a small colony of teenage boys living in a compound in the middle of a shifting maze with no memories of their lives before they arrived but their names. Thomas is the hero and we follow him from the day he arrives in the maze.

A few bits of the story irked me (a colony of boys – plus a telepathic Smurfette character – might have made sense when Lord of the Flies was written but without a reason, it seems pretty stupid this century) but it was the writing that really killed the book for me. Its sentences were boring, and everything felt very telegraphed. There weren’t any really interesting questions beyond the information everyone withheld from Thomas, but the withholding felt incredibly manipulative throughout.

I would recommend this for kids who found The Hunger Games too dense/intense, but it pales in comparison on pretty much every other level. Not terrible, but there’s way better stuff out there (The Knife of Never Letting Go leaps to mind, especially since the consequences of the all-male colony are explored.)

book review: the fat years

On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.

The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.

The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.

book review: revolution (the authority vol. 7)

I’ve only read Warren Ellis’ run on The Authority before reading Ed Brubaker’s Revolution (Book 1). The Authority is the Wildstorm universe’s Justice League analogue, except rather than just maintaining the status quo they take an active role in getting governments to behave better.

In this book, Jack Hawksmoor God of Cities, has taken over the presidency of the United States and is on his way to making the world a better place whether people like it or not. Renewable energy for everything, healthcare and all the good stuff. But not everyone is happy about it. The Authority has to deal with a rebellion by a bunch of “patriotic” superheroes who are much more powered than they used to be. And Midnighter (the Authority’s Batman analogue) has been brought into the future by Apollo (the Authority’s Superman analogue) to see what a terrible fascist dystopia the Authority hath wrought with the best of intentions. Midnighter is sent back to try and make sure that future doesn’t come to pass.

It’s a good story about politics and superpowers that deals with things differently than the mainstream DC or Marvel continuity really would.

My big problem with this book is that the VPL doesn’t have book two, so I haven’t been able to learn how it ends yet.

book review: monsters of men

Monsters of Men is the concluding book in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. This trilogy was less like three separate books than one story separated into three volumes, which is part of why I preferred this book to the middle book. It actually had an ending.

[Spoilers to follow.]

In this concluding section Todd and Viola have to try and unite humanity against the overwhelming opposition of the aliens they thought they’d killed in the war (before Todd was born). They’re trying to create a peace and Todd is becoming more like the Mayor because he’s learning so much. There’s a lot of Star Wars-esque father issues going on. Viola is hiding her distrust of the new Todd and they’re all growing up and she lets the war get personal while she’s trying to broker a peace. It’s all very dramatic, with one excellent return of a character from early on in the story that I didn’t see coming. And it ends really well.

There’s a new viewpoint character, one of the aliens, which I quite enjoyed. One of the issues with the series is that the first book is told completely from Todd’s perspective, and Viola doesn’t even have a voice for a good chunk of it. In the second book she becomes a viewpoint character. But if a young woman starts the first book, there’s not a lot for her right off the hop. And explaining that Viola is there and everything Todd thinks at first is wrong kind of defeats the purpose of how that book is set up. I don’t know if it’s a huge problem, but the fact that it takes so long to get a kickass female protagonist might turn off some female readers. Just a caution.

book review: the ask and the answer

The Ask and the Answer is the second book in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. I didn’t like it as much as The Knife of Never Letting Go, but it is definitely worth a read. (There will be spoilers ahead for TKoNLG ahead. Be warned.)

If the first book is about Todd becoming a man, this one is about the kinds of choices an adult has to make. Todd thinks that Mayor Prentiss is his enemy but through this book he has to work with him at the cost of most of his soul. Viola gets to be a viewpoint character through this story and she’s in with the rebel/terrorist organization trying to stop Mayor Prentiss using bombs. The two of them are stumbling separately through terrible morasses of gray moral areas, so the adventure of the first book, with its clear goals and antagonists is largely gone.

There’s a lot of torture in this book. At least it felt like a lot. It’s much bleaker than the first. There’s more distrust between Todd and Viola but it isn’t pushed to such extremes that you have to yell at the characters or anything. They’re the only ones they really can trust, but it’s hard. Viola is being used to ferry bombs around to blow shit up and Todd’s being used in concentration camp duty branding the aliens. Nothing really good happens in this book, which is mighty oppressive (and that’s from a person who enjoys Empire Strikes Back downer endings, especially in the middle book of a trilogy). Oh no, the interactions with the horses were a tiny bright spot.

Also, I hated the fact that the publisher used a different font for Todd and Viola’s narration, especially since they were also labelled [Todd] and [Viola]. It was redundant and Viola’s font bugged the hell out of me.

I’m looking forward to finishing the series to get a fuller perspective on it, but yeah, so far bing an adult on New World sucks.