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Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Books I Read: April - June 2009


The Darkness and the Light by Peter David

This is an awesome book, but I was intimidated by its length. Although it's quite the doorstop, it's also a sprawling fantasy epic that encompasses multiple storylines and races - human, troll, merpeople, cyclops, vampire, etc. I don't read much high fantasy, but I've been meaning to get into it. I read it because it's by Peter David, who I've been meaning to read more of ever since Tigerheart.

But this story's great because it always keeps you going, and all the storylines are set evenly, with interesting climaxes and developments. There are twelve worlds, each with its own race and society, and each has their own storyline. But it's not too hard to keep the characters straight, or remember who's where. The world is complex, but the plot is not. It reminded a bit of the way I write, where everything's set up like a domino pattern. The story is where you watch the dominoes fall. The only difference is I have one character who does a lot of things and he has a bunch that do a lot of things. It's fast paced. It's fun. And it's worth it.

I love comic book writers-turned-novelists.


The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (unfinished)

It was meant to be research for Mermaid Story - a world where the water level has risen and people are forced to live on boats and the tops of ruins. Swamp vegetation has taken over, along with some giant lizard creature things.

This felt similar to The Blue World in that it's one of those old, pulpy science fiction novels that was created when the public was ready to consume anything. I got this one used, because there were no copies to be found in the library, nor Amazon.

But unlike "The Blue World", I just couldn't get into it. It has the same 50's charm as "The Blue World", but it seemed so blocky and systematic. I didn't know what people were talking about. It seemed character-based, but I didn't know who the characters were or what their roles in the world was. It took place too in media res. As far as the setting, it was more about the swampiness than the oceanness, and my story is all about the ocean, so it didn't help. I read about fifty pages, but it was just so tedious. I didn't care about the characters, and I felt I could spend my time reading better books. I can see why it was hard to find.

Ironically, J.G. Ballard died while I was reading this. I have nothing to say beyond that point.


Content by Cory Doctorow

A rare non-fiction read for me, but you can't beat the price. And since it's a collection of small essays, each not much longer than a short story, it's a great read for downtimes at work. You all know Cory Doctorow - Internet guru to the stars. He's taken all the articles and essays he's written and compiled them into one neat little package.

Doctorow's an excellent non-fiction writer. Except for Little Brother and parts of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I like this better than his other fiction books. Maybe it's the easy digestibility. Maybe it's his ability to bring up simple, valid points for complex situations and gives examples that I can use in my own arguments. Maybe it's that he's a geek like us, and he's concerned about geek issues, like copyright, DRM, and the changing ways we're getting information.

I recommend this book, mostly because it's free. Read a few essays, and see if you like it. Won't cost you a dime except your time.


The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

I enjoy the writings of Jim C. Hines. Especially his blog. Because, I guess, he's like me - he has a family and a day job, but he also manages to write publishable books.

I've got to admit, I wasn't that impressed with Goblin Quest - it felt too much like a D&D campaign, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Stepsister Scheme. What's special about this book? Hines takes the traditional Disney princesses we all know and vomit over, but bases their histories on the original fairy tales (very few of which end well), and then turns them into Charlie's Angels with more trolls and magic.

Hines keeps the plot moving with plenty of action, and not a lot of reflection. I was disappointed they didn't go into the character's back stories more. Most of us don't know the real fairy tales, and I know that Hines did his research. The character's histories only come out in snippets - Sleeping Beauty reveals her heartless nature comes from her victimization, Snow White's flirty nature with the Woodsman who died for her, and Cinderella's story continues after the prince puts the glass slipper on.

The only other problem I had was that the male types were A) missing for the majority of the story (being kidnapped) or B) drunken gnomes, evil trolls, suggestion-susceptible goblins, or the like. This is a common complaint about a lot of feminist literature, and it surprised me coming from a book written by a man. I understand the desire to make a story female-centric, but that doesn't mean men don't exist or all evil. I don't want a Bosley, and I don't want a Sailor Moon Tuxedo Man. I'm not sure what I want, but I know what I don't want. I guess it's one of the trappings of the genre.

But the characters are damn fun, and the story is damn fun, and I can't wait until The Mermaid's Madness (which I pre-ordered), not because it dovetails with Mermaid Story, but because I always look forward to post-origin story stories. Plus mermaid war!


Post Singular by Rudy Rucker

This book is a trippy, zippy neo-science fiction. Something that combines the campiness of old with the technology of new. I don't really like that sort of thing. It's like what Cory Doctorow writes and what Snow Crash evolved into. I don't like my science-fiction in my fantasy, especially when you start as one and migrate to the other.

The story is about a possible "singularity" (look it up). In this case, the singularity is all of us becoming computers, or basically the world becomes an Internet somehow. I don't really get it. It's half technobabble and half stifled dialogue. Meanwhile, an autistic boy finds a parallel reality that doesn't much like us by using the World Internet. This reality is populated by slow giants who like cuttlefish.

I don't get it. There's parts of it that seem researched enough to be a Crichton novel, and then junk like alternate reality giants with Japanese gardens. Then you bring in some fresh-faced teens, an autistic boy, and a big benevolent AI who wants to take over. Everything just seems mish-mashed with hip cyberpunk terms and illogical human behavior. But the most important thing is that the characters are no one you want to care about.

Like The Drowned World, the characters seem blocky, and more concerned about everything else besides their own relationships. This is my big problem with a lot of science fiction, and why I don't read the generic stuff. The authors know technology, but not people. He uses addicts and affairs as a side story, when that's a profound trait that needs to be explored. And when I say side story I mean it's practically forced in there, as if there needed to be something to keep the women readers occupied. People have sex at the drop of a hat, have affair after affair with the affected looking the other way, and no thought for their children, who wander out of the house and get high on A.I. Everyone acts like a kid, especially the adults.

I don't know whether he's trying to be Neal Stephenson or Phllip K. Dick, but I can't think of any reason to read this book. It now occurs to me that I've been reading quite a bit of singularity literature these days (The Rifters Trilogy, Accelerando, various Hugo-nominated short stories), and I haven't liked any of it. I don't think it's because I don't like the concept, it's that the stories are just cyberjunk with wooden characters and pithy motivations. Maybe that's the nature of the beast when we all turn into computers.


Flood by Stephen Baxter

This book was on order from the library and I had two weeks to read this 500 page monster, because there was so much demand for it. After reading it, I don't know why, and I think there's going to be a lot of disappointed people.

Again, this was research for the Mermaid Story, and my best source, because A) it takes place in the current time on planet Earth and B) occurs similarly to how my Earth is going to be flooded. My big problem was that, since the ice caps melting won't cause all the world to flood, I needed another possible method (my second best method was ice comets causing the flood, like ice melting in a drink). In this novel, undercrust seabeds start leaking into the oceans, causing the rise.

But this has very little to do with the plot itself. Which is sort of the problem. The main characters are four people who were held hostage for four years by a Spanish Al-Qaeda faction. This is a profound character development that's totally glossed over in the story. I would have rather found out how these characters deal with four years in captivity than what I got instead. And they seem none the worse for wear for it.

What being a hostage has to do with the world flooding, I don't know, but they're rescued by some CEO of UltraTech who treats them like his personal pets, and acts as a deus ex machina through the story. He's the only one who can get the world out of the chaos by building generational ships, island cities, and helicoptering out when the going gets tough. Also one of the hostages has a baby conceived by terrorist rape and there's some sort of conflict to get her back. And the baby grows up to be an ungrateful bitch anyway.

See what all that content has to do with the world flooding? No. Here we have a background that has nothing to do with the foreground. In fact, I don't think I can tell you a single actual event or sequence that happened in the novel. There's so many characters scattered across the story and so much time that passes. It's like the words nibble away at the plot instead of taking satisfying bites. It wasn't worth the wait, and it didn't really help me with my story. I guess this will teach me a lesson about doing research.


Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty

A freebie, and the sole written word I've read from the First Lady of Podcasting. Mur's pixie voice and soft-spoken geekitude rings out in waves in this superhero novel - if the guys from Cheers were C-list superheroes forced into action, pitted against both superhero and supervillain. This is for the Matter-Eater-Lads, the Bouncing Boys, and the Lasso Kid's of the comic book world.

Well, it's a good concept anyway. But the problem is the plot goes around and around and it never feels like you get anywhere. It's like the middle could be taken out, and you could have the beginning go to the end without missing much. This story could be a play, since it feels like they stay in one spot the entire novel. They go to their base, they go outside the bar, they go back to the bar, they infiltrate the "enemy base" to rescue someone, they go back to the bar, they go to a cave, then back to the bar. Maybe it's me, but it never felt like the characters were moving forward. And if the characters don't move forward, then the plot doesn't.


The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Probably the best I read this quarter. John Scalzi wraps up the Old Man's Universe with the last possible tale to tell. We're out in deep space with the army and special forces defending new colonies. We've told the army's story. We've told the Special Forces's story. Who's left? The colonists.

It's not an examination of colony life, although those glimpses are present and interesting. It's more about how the how the watershed conflict between the humans and the rest of the universe takes place. It's about war, it's about peace, and it's about the distance between people and government.

Scalzi is the guy that writers want to be. I don't how the guy can keep the plot moving when nearly 90% of his writing is dialogue, 9% is infodumping (but done in an entertaining way), and 1% is the gunfight at the climax, but he does it. I think it's because he doesn't just give a narration of what happened, he teases and toys. He's standing on a stage with a bunch of upside-down boxes, and he delights in turning them over in just the right order to keep you intrigued.

It's the best book I read this quarter, and the most memorable. It's only a matter of time before he gets a Hugo (could even be this year!). It's my top pick for Satisfying Reader Experience(tm).


So that's it. In between all this, I also was doing some RFDRs that limited my reading abilities. Some loooong RFDRs. Not terribly fun to do. I'm definitely done with amateur reading for a while. I need to focus on published work, so my own shit doesn't degrade.
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