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.

booklog summary: august/september 2013

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 Dog Stars by Peter Heller: Good post-apocalypse stuff. Realistic but not too depressing.
  • Time and the Batman by Grant Morrison: Kind of bullshit. Can’t remember why.
  • Zoo Station by David Downing: A cold war spy novel set in Berlin. I think I’ve now conflated an article I read by LeCarre into the plot, but I liked it.
  • Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire: Good rough early work, but man is his current stuff ever better.
  • Poor Yorick by Ryan North: Good, but not as crazy as To Be or Not To Be, which is gonads-out amazing and will get its own review.
  • 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa: I loved this 22 volume manga, even if the end is a little abrupt.
  • Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: It took me forever to read this book, but that’s just because it’s oppressive and painful like the history it’s based on.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Really good. Different from Mechanique, more grown-up, but I can’t hold that against it.
  • The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno: Not as Encyclopedia Brown grows up as I wanted deep in my heart, but still more than decent.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling: Kidbrarian confession time. Before September I’d only read the first Harry Potter book and only knew the rest of them through Wikipedia. I have rectified that (and think the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite) (and was a little chagrinned that my MBTI says I’m Hermione when I wanted to be Sirius Black).
    Harry Potter MBTI chart

    Harry Potter MBTI – makani.deviantart.com | simbaga.tumblr.com

  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: The earlier stuff was more interesting before it got to the states.
  • The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson: A sort of post apocalyptic noir thing in a similar vein to Gun Machine, but not quite as good. Still decently readable.
  • Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu: Very good George Saunders-esque short stories. Highly recommended.
  • Penguin: Pride and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz: A comic depicting Gotham’s Penguin as a tragic villain. Much better than I expected, but not amazing.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I love love love the Tines (pack mind aliens. The story was fine but the politics got me angry. Totally worth it if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • By the Balls: Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender: Noir stories set in Nevada in the late-90s. Good pulpy stuff.

The last book I read is one I really liked and will get a full review later this week.

book review: this is how you die

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!)

book review: siege 13

I read Tamas Dobozy’s collection of short stories entitled Siege 13 on the recommendation of one of our library members. Dobozy writes about Hungarian immigrants to Canada and their communities, sort of. I didn’t know much about 20th century Hungarian history before reading this book, but the WW2 occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists led to a lot of traumatic life-shattering events, even for those who managed to emigrate to the west, so that forms the backdrop to most of these stories.

They were well-written enough, but I was lured in by a promise of beguiling weirdness, which there definitely wasn’t enough of for my taste. They were stories of informers, and of relationships between people who hid themselves away and who tried to falsify histories. They weren’t bad, and Dobozy is very skilled but they just weren’t my kind of thing.

book review: the book of cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.

Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.

Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.

My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.

book review: tenth of december

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.

book review: the ladies of grace adieu and other stories

It’s been a while since I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, so the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu that dealt with characters from that novel probably had a bit more for recently finished readers, but as a book of fairy stories, the whole collection was very good.

Embroidery emerges as a motif in a couple of stories, but faerie are far far more prominent. I enjoy Clarke’s depictions of the fae as being bizarre aliens who don’t understand human concerns very well. The story set in the town of Wall (from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust) was probably my favourite in the book because the human was clever enough to get out with his skin intact, but not able to pull out a real victory. It felt very satisfying in the way a much older story would, which is what you want out of a book of faerie tales.