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Friday, January 02, 2009

The Books I Read: Sept - Dec. 08

Well, there haven't been too many posts about writing this past month. Holidays plus keeping my head down in revising water has kept me from interesting notes. So in lieu of a real post, here's my reviews of all the books I've read or tried reading since September. I hope to make this a quarterly thing, so look forward to more.

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

I likes me some Cory Doctorow, but I think this is the weakest of his novels. It doesn't suffer from over-vocabulization like his others, but the plot flickers back and forth between the present, in which not much happens, and the past, where the usual techie sci-fi of Doctorow's novels is replaced by the non-too-interesting life of a systems analyst. The main character comes up with some genius idea for file sharing between cars, and his partner and lover conspire to cut him out of the deal. The story takes place from his perspective, so there's no real tension until the very end, when you find out he's been duped. I think the problem comes from Doctorow trying to insert all these infodumps, which works in Little Brother, but not in this book. It's a bunch of jibber-jabber that comes off like an essay, and does little with the plot. I still don't know what an "Eastern Standard Tribe" is. It seems to be some sort of loyalty to a time zone, but its not significant to the plot. There's plenty of other free Doctorow writings out there, so leave this one to last.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I don't read much non-fiction, but my wife's family does, and this book was recommended by my father-in-law, who grew up in Iowa and had a lot of the same experiences. This is a humorous memoir of Bill Bryson living in post-WWII middle America - a time of great prosperity, innovation, and innocence. A time when kids could fall off jungle gyms and break their leg. A time when neighbors came over to see the new washing machine or Buick. A time when you played outside. Now playgrounds are made out of rubber tires and abandoned, neighbors brag about getting a new TV in their Facebook status, and the Internet eliminates the need for 'outside'. Its a look back on the ridiculousness of the Cold War propaganda and the eternal quest to see boobies. It's disjointed, but its message of life in a world out of time, a world that seems impossible now, gives hope and inspiration to me as a parent.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Can't beat those free books. Especially from favorite authors. Neil Gaiman/Harper Collins released the free version of this on his website for the month of October. It was loaded with DRM and new downloads for stat tracking that made the whole thing a big tech mess (when are people going to understand its impossible to get accurate stat tracking on the web. I know, I used to do it). But I read the book. It definitely feels like Gaiman's first attempt at a novel, but that shouldn't stave off fans. It reads like a combination of Alice in Wonderland meets urban fantasy. The story is nothing new - a guy in Office Space world runs into a damsel in distress and slowly starts to be pulled into her world of danger and adventure. He only wants to get back to his boring identity, until he actually does, then realizes he wants to go back to the danger and death that awaits him with big nasty pointy teeth. It works, because it's got good characters (Croup and Vandermar, Hunter), but they're hit and miss (Lamia, Marquis de Carabas). It ends earlier than I expected, but I'm not sure if that's because I didn't want it to, or the build-up to the climax wasn't cued correctly. But I still liked it.

Mortal Ghost by L. Lee Lowe

Another free online book. I don't know where I got it from, but you probably haven't heard of it. It doesn't even have an ISBN number. I think it was serialized in some guy's blog. And it shows. Only a few serials can become novels. Dickens can do it. L. Lee Lowe can't. What happens is a bunch of plot threads never get wrapped, or get wrapped too quick, or don't matter if they're wrapped or not. Set in England, a homeless kid runs into a girl and starts living (begrudgingly) with her hippie parents (I mean hippie in a negative sense). Oh, and also he may or may not be a ghost/dead. Also he's pyrokinetic and/or psychic. Also, he's a little gay. The girl gets raped, repeatedly, and the guy doesn't do much about it, except give her comfort sex. Also, he can somehow talk to the couple's dead son. And finally, the father takes the kid to a super computer, because he as a nature photographer runs in the same circles as A.I. designers, conveniently located a few miles away on motorcycle. Also, the AI starts to take over his brain. The whole thing ends when he sets a party on fire where the rapists (who he doesn't kill, cause he's a pussy) again attempt on the girl, and then 'nobly' sacrificing himself in a police shootout. Oh, and the girl gives birth to his baby. The story meanders from tedious conversations to inexplicable conversations and improbable relationships and implausible reactions. Monumental events happen and none of it seems to matter. Skip this one, and wait for Black Hole Son to bring back legitimacy to the pyrokinesis genre.

Blind Shrike by Richard Kadrey

Awesome book. I think it was published as "Butcher Bird" but the free version is called Blind Shrike, which is better, I think. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson - a graphic novelist stooping into the world of pure text. So far I haven't found anything wrong with it. This guy knows how to write interesting plots, snappy dialogue, and fun characters. The visuals in this book leap off the page. The plot never stops moving. And the whole story _matters_. Like Neverwhere, a no-nothing guy runs into a damsel in distress (although she can wield a mean sword) and slowly starts ot be pulled into that world. He only wants to get back to his adventureless boring identity, etc. etc. But as opposed to the office types we can identify with, these people are tattoo artists, blind princess sword-slingers, and the Devil (capital D). It's like Alice in Wonderland designed by Rob Zombie. I highly recommend it.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Obligatory read. I was thinking how one would write a mystery novel, should I ever be called upon to do it. This book is an anthology of Sherlock shorts. Each one tries to be original and meaningful, but eventually they end up blurring together. Some of them are just silly, like the girl who was murdered by her father by sending a poisonous snake into her vent, while the house was being renovated, and then somehow calling it back so the weapon is never found. I think Doyle was trying to concoct ridiculous scenarios so he could draw the reader in, but then the solution becomes equally ridiculous. The formula never changes - recitation of the problem, a few mysterious manueveurs to gather clues (which usually comes from Douchebag Holmes not letting Watson in on anything), and the killer is caught red-handed. I guess I see how future mystery genre novels were created, but I skimmed through the last few stories.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (incomplete)

Couldn't get passed the second story. It's another short story collection (you know, maybe I just don't like short stories), but they're slipstream/magical realism. I don't know what slipstream is - I think it's like Being John Malkovich - but I don't think I like it. It annoys me because it feels like an art house film - two convenience store clerks, one who always wears pajamas, talk about some girl the main character likes. I think the moon falls down, or they're on an island. Zombies wander up from a canyon and stand around trying to buy things. And none of this is metaphorical. It smacks of "Waiting for Godot" - existensial nonsense where nothing means anything, or means it too literally. This type of story's pretentiousness wounds me, even when I'm not reading it. I don't hear anyone else in writing circles talking about this book, so I don't think I missed anything.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I started borrowing The Sandman from the library this quarter. So far I've read three of the ten (I can't remember why I got stopped), but I plan to read more. I don't much care for the art (Gaiman and Dave McKean are like *this* but I never much cared for him), but the storytelling is awesome. What can I say? I'm a Gaimanphile. And here he is at his sickest. I'll never forget when I realized it was a convention of serial killers ("cereal lovers convention"... jesus, am I dense or what?) and the issue in Vol. 1 at the diner is burned into my brain. I can't believe I've neglected the series this long. Bless the day I realized you could get graphic novels at the library.

Ancestor by Scott Sigler

An action/horror novel. I first heard this guy on EscapePod and found this free novel. It's fast-paced, but the "monster" doesn't activate until two-thirds into the book. The remainder is a whole lot of things pseudo-happening without a lock on the characters to care about. Its precursor to the main event, instead of being the main event. The thing that bothers me is that the first chapter or so focuses on none of the main characters, like a prologue that's irrelevant to the main story. Then the rest of is half reading about science experiments and half living in an ski lodge. Parts of it are fun. Parts of it seem implausible, or there are throwaway characters that seem important but never are. I was also missing the Michael Crichton-esque infodumps about genetic engineering. I'm not sure what the guy was trying for, but there's no real sense of dread, like Stephen King and Clive Barker are famous for. This might be my first horror/action novel, but I feel like he should have picked one or the other. Nonetheless, I'd like to read more Sigler in the future.

Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War by Benson Bobrick

I don't read very much non-fiction and this is why - you already have to be an expert to understand the material. It's like you already have to know the story to read this story. This was sitting in my bookcase on my wife's shelf, and I was out of books for the moment. I thought this might be neat - an epistolary of a Civil War soldier's journey. And it would be good if I ever wrote a war novel. Turns out the book's audience is for Civil War-philes only. Unless you know the battles and the people, you won't get anything out of it. It's mostly description of battles, with some politics scattered here and there. Surprisingly little of the material focuses on the "soldier's story". And even when his letters come into play, the guy only talks about where he is and what's happening on the front, from an angle of ignorance and forced optimism. And only the first half of the book is the narrative. The rest is the full record of his letters. I don't blame the author - he's not writing to a fiction lover's audience. But still.

Ragamuffin (sampler) by Tobias S. Buckell (incomplete)

Couldn't make it through this one. And it wasn't even the full piece. I wanted to like Tobias S. Buckell, I really did. He's a well-known blogger, and he's popular among the other writers I read. But I just couldn't get my head around it. Just couldn't care. Some girl escapes an enclosed city to go into space. I never get a grasp on what world she's in, what she's trying to do, or why I care. The people around her do things for seemingly no reason. This is one of the things I don't like about sci-fi - a lot of it is too hard (hard in the sense of lots of technical detail and scientific accuracy) leaving it inaccessible to the dumbass that is moi. Sorry, Toby. I tried.

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Nothing wrong with Tarzan. He's become a modern myth like Paul Bunyan and Batman. Some might call him a proto-superhero, since he seems able to do superhuman things when the plot demands it, like take out a cheetah and learn English on his own. It's a pulpy serial in the truest sense of the word - unfinished and unfocused - meant to appeal to the base emotions of the day. I liked learning where Tarzan truly came from - the differences between what we know of him now. This is a good case of a better medium being able to tell the story. Burroughs goes through everything linearly - we learn he's a prince from the get-go, along with how his parents were brought to the island. It's a flawed story, but it's a strong concept. I'm glad the subsequent versions have hammered it out properly. But it's good to see how these things start. Even the crappiest story can net a million dollars.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

I got this book because I thought my work was going to start a little book club. I thought, "hey, I'm a writer, I should get on that". Unfortunately, the people who were in charge got laid off. But I'd already got the book from the library, so I still thought I'd check it out. It's an alternate history if Charles Lindbergh, a fascist and Jew-hater, became president, and takes place from the perspective of a Jewish family in New Jersey. I liked this book because its a well thought-out portrayal. I really got a feel for what it's like to be Jewish in this type of world, and how scary it must have been during WWII, because if America lost, your new ruler would be Hitler. There's not a lot of dialogue. There's a lot of long paragraphs, and the story is told in spurts of significant events. It's almost a history book. Some thought the central conflict wrapped up a little too neatly - an ending inspired by Mr. D.E. Machina - but I was more bothered by the abruptness of it. I guess the timeline proceeded as normal after the climax, but I was begging for a "where are they now" denouement.

Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge (incomplete)

It's a Hugo Winner. He's a famous author. I should have been able to make it through, but I just couldn't care about the problem they had to solve. That seems to be the reason I don't make it through many books. Plus I got transferred to a busier division at this time so reading became less of a priority in lieu of keeping my job (see above). There's nothing inherently wrong with the story, but there's a lot of characters and new technology to learn, and it all became too much for me. It's a science-fiction book for science-fiction lovers. And I'm a story lover.

Watchmen by Alan Moore, et al.

It's all the geeks are talking about these days, what with the movie coming out and all. To be honest, Watchmen didn't really click with me. Maybe it was the deconstructionism of my beloved heroes. Maybe it was the old-timeyness of it (a lot of the 1980's stuff is outdated). Maybe it was the multitude of characters to keep track of (the material never focuses on the people making the plot move, and the filler material focuses on insignificant people). There's two superhero teams, and not all the characters are significant. Maybe it was having to keep track of four storylines at once (the main background/macguffin, the subject of the particular issue, the citizens perspective, and the pirate comic book). What I did like is that all the characters are archetypes of standard superheroes (Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman) combined with a war movie, like Platoon - immoral douchebags and lots of shades of gray. For a comic book, its too much, more than is needed. But after watching the trailer post-read, I'm looking forward to the movie even more. Go Rorschach.
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