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 raven boys

The Raven Boys is the first book I’ve read by Maggie Stiefvater, which probably makes me a bad teenbrarian. I’m sorry. If I knew she was this good I’d have started earlier.

Blue is a girl who’s grown up in a house full of women. Who are psychics. As a result she’s grown up with the very specific prophecy that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Oh, and Blue isn’t a psychic herself.

The Raven Boys are all students at a posh private school. Gansey is born to be a politician, but is fixated on discovering a dead Welsh king buried on a ley line in Virginia. He’s assembled a posse of friends to help him. Once Blue is added to the mix the quest kind of takes off.

So yeah, there’s loads of good pop-occult history going on, but what made this book work so well for me is all the class division going on and how fucking important it is to these characters. Gansey and Ronan (his scary friend who spends most of the book reckless, fighting or nursing a baby raven) have more money than god. Blue and Adam (who lives in a trailer with his abusive father and works a million jobs to pay for his schooling) are not rich. And these divisions are hugely meaningful to these people. Gansey is utterly condescending to his friends and offends people because he has no real concept of the value of money. Adam won’t leave his abusive situation and let his friend take care of him because he does not want to be bought. Gansey doesn’t want to buy his friend; he wants to help with the means he has.

All of the tension and argument that happens in this book is along those kinds of lines. There is no one person who is being an ass and could make it all better by just doing one little thing differently. It’s these worlds of money and gender and privilege all colliding in great ways with an epic quest. That the flaws of characters are built into the structure (or energy if you want to use the lines of power that the book takes seriously) of the world they find themselves makes it fucking great. (Also, I’ve cussed more in this review than there are swears in the book, but Stiefvater does the whole “he let out a stream of inventive invective” type thing really well.)

Excellent book. Cannot wait for the next one in the series.