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 secret history of science fiction

The Secret History of Science Fiction (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel) is a collection of short stories, some from traditionally SciFi associated authors and some by “literary” ones. The idea is that SF and stuff that shows up in the New Yorker are far from mutually exclusive. Apart from the point of the book, this stood alone as a collection of great stories.

My personal favourites were, Margaret Atwood’s story Homelanding (a beautiful introduction between two species, ending with why she will not say “Take me to your leaders”), George Saunders’ 93990 (about science), and Carter Scholz’ Nine Billion Names of God (about the art of fiction). There were only a couple of stories I didn’t care for, but that’s to be expected when you’ve got such a range of authors in a book. I completely expected to like this one story by an author I usually quite enjoy but could barely get through it.

At work I’ve started recommending authors from this book to everyone who asks for one of those borderline SF books, like Oryx and Crake or The Cloud Atlas or what have you. Sadly we don’t have this secret history in our collection. Single tear.

book review: the left hand of god

Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God wasn’t really my cup of tea. It’s an alternate history (or sf) book about a boy who’s been brought up by this horrible cult to fight some unnamed Antagonists who then escapes with his (forbidden) friends out to the world. The whole thing felt like an amateurish take on Gene Wolfe’s (excellent) Book of the New Sun series.

Some of the things that annoyed me: Is it alternate history or SF? The city the three boys (and rescued girl) escape to is called Memphis and it’s unclear if this is the same Memphis that’s out in Egypt or not. There’s a desert, but the fort in York is a few days travel away. And Jesus of Nazareth was the guy who was in the belly of the whale. It feels like Hoffman was just pulling out historical names and places and slapping them down without any thought for how they’d interact. I think the Antagonists are Muslim analogues, but there are Jews that are just called Jews. It’s all very sloppy.

The Cult of the Hanged Redeemer is a cartoonishly dark take on Middle-Ages Christianity. So much so that I was sure the book was a fantasy novel. They eat gruel and get tortured and have to deal with their Original Sin and get flayed for breaking the rules. These are the ancestors of the Dan Brown Catholics. But Thomas Cale (the morally bereft thuggish anti-hero) got hit in the head as a young man and can tell what people are going to do in a fight, making him a preternatural killing machine.

Oh and he falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the Roman Empire governor analogue, but he’s so tortured and inarticulate. Oh noes. And apart from being a preternatural killer (demonstrated by his kicking the ass of the greatest fighter the Roman academy has produced in twenty years and then killing a hardened soldier who hates him in a gladiatorial duel) he’s a tactical genius and the battle in the end is lost due to other people’s incompetence and he does something heroic even though he’s so troubled.

I also hated the narrator’s voice. There’re these offhand implications that Cale will do great things and change the world, and these folksy “Oh but how could Cale know what she was thinking, the way we do?” kinds of asides that infuriated me.

And then the end of the book isn’t an ending but the point of departure for a series. A series I have no desire to read. Good thing I didn’t spend money on it. (It was a review copy from LibraryThing.)

book reviews: a summary of the past month

I’ve been reading, but not a lot, and for some reason haven’t been real keen on writing everything up as I finish it. Here’s what I can remember since the last review.

Recently I finished Shadow & Claw the first two volumes of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy. A classic and one I’m enjoying. It’s got short chapters which help you not feel like you’re slogging through stuff.

I read The Moor’s Last Sigh just before the Salman Rushdie thing. It was the last of his novels I hadn’t read and good. I feel like I’ve said this before about some other book but it feels like the novel is an excuse to get the backstory out there. We need to read the story of Moraes’ grandparents’ love story to know anything about him. It’s interesting to consider in light of SR’s notions of the role of the novel today.

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut was found at a used bookshop a few weeks ago and devoured in an afternoon. Have I mentioned that I got the first volume of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing? The new edition that has his first story on the title in it, not just the beginning of his first arc. Also read Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, and today I finished Nick Abadzis’ amazing comic Laika, which was heartbreaking.