book review: breakout

Breakout was my first (non-graphic) novel I’ve read starring the badass criminal Parker. I’ve read some Parker stories in Darwyn Cooke’s great graphic adaptations, but never one of the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) originals. This is what I imagine the James Patterson machines/Lee Childs of the world are wishing they were writing.

Parker is a badass (I may have mentioned this already). The book opens with a heist going bad and Parker being arrested. He immediately starts making a plan to break out of jail, but he needs a crew. So he makes one, but to get one of the people he needs he has to agree to a job later, which leads to… well a plot that just keeps on ticking over. Even if things don’t feel uber-realistic they feel very appropriate for  the story. The sentences are simple and the action is clear, never super subtle, but it’s just somehow so much better than an Alex Cross story.

If you like crime stories, you should really give one of these a try (and the Darwyn Cooke comic adaptations are also great).

book review: pinball 1973

I’m not entirely proud of how I got my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Pinball 1973. I found a pirated translation in the geocities archive. So I downloaded it and put it on my ereader and felt bad. But. It’s not available to buy in English anywhere but Japan in a version that was created for Japanese learners of English. Murakami has said that he’s not interested in his crappy immature work being translated for international audiences. So a copy of that English version of Pinball 1973 (and his very first novel Hear the Wind Sing) is something I’d been keeping my eyes open for for ages, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $100 on a copy. This was a free PDF with the attendant formatting issues, but because it’s ripped from the Kodansha student edition of the book, it’s an Alfred Birnbaum translation (not some amateur’s), so that’s good.

(Note: If you ever want to buy me a present I’ll cherish forever, get me signed/rare copies of books that I love that are too expensive to justify buying for myself, since I have a copy of the work already. See what I did there? I differentiated between a FRBR work and an item. I’ve learned something in this semester of library school.)

Anyway, Pinball 1973 is about the boku narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase (and Dance Dance Dance) and his friend the Rat (just a name). It’s very loose and non-plottish. The narrator is living with indistinguishable twins and generally feeling like his life is aimless. The bit of plot comes from him trying to find a pinball machine of the type he played a few years before, but that quest is barely there at all. The whole thing is much more of a mood piece.

It definitely feels like a warmup to A Wild Sheep Chase. You can see all the Murakami-isms taking shape and it feels familiar but sketchy. Nothing’s as stab you in the heart awesome as his later work, but it’s Murakami that I hadn’t read before, so how could I dislike it?

book review: zero history

Last night I finished William Gibson’s latest book, Zero History. I’ve read some reviews saying it is his best book, but I’m not sure (I’m partial to the old cyberpunk novels, what can I say?). But I did really like this one, much better than Spook Country. Which is interesting because Zero History is a sequel, the third in the Bigend trilogy. Hollis Henry, the protagonist from Spook Country and Milgrim, a character from Pattern Recognition (which I really love) are both hired by extravagantly wealthy and curious businessman Hubertus Bigend (he’s Belgian originally, so you can pronounce his name the way it looks or kind of frenchified) to investigate some jeans.

What’s cool about the book is how it deals wish fashion and military contracting. The plot itself is pretty simple, but the worlds that Hollis and Milgrim are moving through are strange but entirely in our branded present. The book’s filled with iPhones and Macs to such a degree that when a character uses a no-name computer it’s really notable. There’s discussion of the recursion of military influenced clothing on fashion and how boys wear clothes to try and have themselves mistaken for people with skills they don’t have, like they’re special forces or something.

The plot, well, it pushes the characters along. I don’t read Gibson novels for the plot. This one was especially odd because the protagonists are both working for someone they don’t really like and don’t really care about, so there’s a distance between them and needing to reach their goals. As it goes on they do have more of a stake in the resolution but the value here is seeing this military-fashion complex kind of world.

It made me want to care about my clothes more than I do.

book review: ares express

Ian McDonald’s Ares Express is sort of a sequel to Desolation Road. I say sort of because it’s set in the same world (Mars) but only has one character that’s in both books. While Desolation Road was all about these little stories being piled up on each other, Ares Express has a plot. A big ol’ saving the world kind of plot.

The main character, Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, is getting trapped into a marriage she doesn’t want so she takes off and uncovers a villain trying to destroy the world, to remake it for and by humans instead of machines. Her grandmother goes chasing after her. Through the story they meet a bunch of people and get help and Sweetness is very conscious of being in a Story, which is a tiny bit tiresome, but whatever.

The thing I felt was least satisfying about it was all the backstory given to the circus people. Once you’re about two thirds of the way into the book, Grandmother Taal is dealing with these people and we have to sit through all these explanations of where they came from that just bog the story down. If it was earlier, it wouldn’t be so frustrating but it felt so extraneous for what were minor but necessary characters. It kind of feels like they had a bigger role in the book earlier but got scrunched down to what they were.

That was really my only gripe. There was loads of awesome stuff like playing cards for years of your life and anarchist artists who were very good with explosives, and comedians as the saviours of humanity, and children being used as furniture and lots of mirrors and plunging headlong into things.

I think I prefer Desolation Road, because of its non-plottiness, but I was happy to go back to Mars in this one.

book review: perdido street station

China Mieville is a writer whose name I’ve seen bandied about a bunch by other writers on the internets. When I saw Perdido Street Station at a used book store before leaving for Calgary I saw a perfect bus book: long and plotty. I hoped I’d like it, and I did. It’s kind of an urban steampunk/fantasy with birdmen and thaumaturges and science and flintlocks. It drew me along well, even though the main “We must save the city” plot only begins a third of the way in, which was an interesting choice. I liked it because we were being drawn into this other, less urgent, problem of science and art first which got us into our main characters (one of whom gets dropped once the big bad plot begins). By the time everything begins really happening we can see how much of it is our heroes own fault and we’re really attached to them. Very well done, and somewhat different from the school of thought saying you must start as late as possible.

The other interesting thing is whether this counts as SF or horror. In the shop I bought it, it was in the SF section but has a horror stamp inside. There were lovecraftian sorts of beasties in it, and a couple of descriptions were pretty nasty. Definitely not some sort of high fantasy, but I’d have a hard time seeing it as a pure horror movie. The main characters do have quite a bit of agency and though not everything is wrapped up with a nice neat little bow, not everything dies. There are more New Corbuzon novels and I’ll probably read them as they pop up in used book stores.