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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Books I Read: July - September 2009


Tokyo Zero by Mark Horne (unfinished)

This was the last of my free ones I gleaned from, I think, Scribd. I searched for top 10 free eBooks. I'm not sure if I ever finished any of them. You get what you pay for.

This one was no different. It never gets to the plot. It has no characters, no motivations, no clear objective. I think it was supposed to be a cyberpunk/spy novel, but it felt like, if they were playing football, the characters would be running around in a circle instead of heading towards the goal post (and not in a good way).

It was self-published, no one's heard of it, it has no ISBN number. It doesn't show up on searches for GoodReads or LibraryThing, so I thought, why should I bother reading it. The writing is nice, but if not for the placement in Japan, I wouldn't have gotten as far as I did.


Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

Mr. Westerfeld is the creator of the immortal "Uglies" trilogy - a sharp, science-fiction YA about a dystopia centered around plastic surgery and the rebels who are living natural "ugly" lives. This novel is not about that. This is about vampires. Sort of.

It's more about parasites. Well, let me explain this way. Half the book is facts about parasites that read like those tidbit sections you might see in a Biology textbook or Highlights magazine with the title "Did You Know?" The other half is some teenager who's been infected with a parasite that gives him all the benefits of being a vampire, and none of the weaknesses, except being horny all the time, which doesn't really figure into the plot (and is par for the course for any teenager). He works for a secret underground organization, and his mission is to find all his old girlfriends who he accidentally gave the parasite to and have become ghouls. Then he's given the mission to find his first girlfriend, the one who gave him the curse in the first place (whoops, tripped over the allegory in the doorway. Silly me). Then he does a lot of exploring, and revelations, and he ends up realizing the kindly secret conspiratorial underground organization who took him in has been hiding information and manipulating him all the time. Didn't see that coming.

This book was full of meh. There was too much description, too much trying to create dread. And you can't do that in a YA book that's full of slang and goofy teenagers. And there was a severe lack of vampires for a story about vampires. Lots of parasites, cats, and rats, but no vampires being vampires. And the whole MIBs in an underground war has been done to death, and it's no better here. I found myself looking forward to the educational sections about gross parasites and how they help and hurt nature. It's an adult story dumbed down to a YA level, and leaves you unsatisfied. If I was an editor, I would have passed on this novel. But I can see why someone would have accepted it.

The only reason I picked it up was because I'm in love with the Uglies trilogy, but I guess in Westerfeld's case, we must look forward, not back. Good thing that includes Leviathan. Metal vs. Meat. Can't wait for the war to begin.


The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Public domain book. I added this to my queue when The Graveyard Book was coming out, because I realized how little I know about The Jungle Book. It's been a long time since I saw the movie, and I've never read the novel. There's not actually a lot of The Jungle Book in this. Two, maybe three stories. And Shere Kahn is killed in the beginning. The rest are some stories about elephants and seals that involve a lot of "not things happening".

It's not dissimilar from "Just So Stories", and thus my review is not dissimilar. The stories just don't hold up well. They were meant for another time. Except Rikki Tiki Tavi, which could take place in space with aliens if you switched some characters and settings around. I started skipping towards the end, because I just didn't feel like the stories mattered. If you want a Jungle Book fix, see the movie.


Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston

An excellent crime novel. I don't read many of these, and I don't remember when this one dropped in my folder (probably courtesy of Boing Boing). It's one of those "wrong place at wrong time" capers that involve fifty different parties trying to get the Maltese Falcon, and the main character has no idea what's going on, but in the end, he successfully screws everyone. There's corrupt cops, mafia, gangs, car chases, and gym bags full of money. Every trope that makes this genre great.

What you don't expect is how sharp and clean the writing is. Short sentences. Short words, but popping with description and energy. It's a fast read, it's satisfying, and there's no element that goes past your head. Everything is well understood and there isn't a trace of purple prose. My only beef is that sometimes you feel like characters are running in circles just to fill words. The bad guys beat him up. Then some different bad guys beat him up. But I think that's a crutch of this type of mystery-crime novel. I rarely read fiction that doesn't have some surreal element to it, but this is one of the best I read this quarter.


How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

This was a nice small read for times when I'm waiting for my wife to get out of the bathroom. A page or two at a time, kind of like "365 Tips for Being a Better Writer". The nice thing about Orson Scott Card, the same thing I liked about Characters & Viewpoint, is that he uses good examples. Real life examples. Examples you can utilize in your own pre-writing. It might not work for you, might not fit your style, but it worked for someone and it might work for you. That's why I hate writers who say "Well, everyone's different, I can't give you any advice, it might not fit you, everyone has they're own way". Yeah, I know that. Tell me your way, I'll see if it works for me.

The problem is the book is outdated. It talks about magazines and sources that are either dead or no longer relevant. It has no Internet resources. The ways to submit works has changed, culturally. He advises mass submissions and unagented queries. If I was writing a writing help book, I wouldn't include anything that might become obsolete in the future - it just would make me look stupid.

I'm not 100% sure this book helped me a great deal, but I think it was more important I was able to look into a professional writer's head, and see how it works. Then I can at least try and incorporate it subconsciously. Creativity doesn't just happen, it must be made to happen.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the best book I read all quarter. Two thumbs up! Highly recommended. Why? Combine Battle Royale with teen dramas on the WB (with a little The Running Man thrown in) and watch the awesome. I've never seen a novel with a stronger beginning - the environment and backstory is established immediately, there's tension from page one, and the story has started before the end of the chapter. You've got a doomsday clock going, high stakes, and not much thinking. And the whole story is totally relatable to high school - I'd almost call it as allegorical.

The story's composed in three parts. The first part is where we see our main character, a teen called Katniss living life in the slummy District 13, where starvation and poverty is standard fare. Part two occurs after she's chosen to participate in the District Games, which is essentially Battle Royale minus the backpack & collars and plus the rivalry, because whoever wins gets set for life (although evidence suggests you never live down the scars). This part is where my "The Running Man" reference comes from, because we see the pre-interviews, the training, and the media circus surrounding this young girl. It's where the high school allegory shines brightest.

First people judge you on your appearance. Then you're judged on your chance for survival and given a score, but not told the criteria on which they judge you (may this be like the elite clique giving you your place in the world?). Then you give an interview, but its Hollywood hype - it's giving people an identity, a personality that they want to see. Some play the psycho tough, others place the cunning fox. You see, the purpose of this media circus is to get people to like you, and if they like you, they might buy you something during the games - food or weapons or medicine. So you've got to get yourself a personality, an image, and suck up to those fans. And it tears Katniss up because it's the opposite of what she is, a hard-working, bitter hunter from the coal-mining district. Now she has to be a dizzy damsel in unrequited love with her district partner. You can never be yourself in this game.

But here the initial inertia fades as the anticipation of the battle seeps through every word. Flashbacks to her life in District 13 try to build her character and romantic tension between her friend and her District partner (who she may have to kill at some point). There's a great deal of her thinking on this, on the consequences of her actions, and what this means to her survival and future relationships. It's not really a problem, because you always want to see what happens next, but it feels like padding.

Then we get to part three - the battle. Here it gets really introspective, because Katniss is on her own, clinging to the trees and looking for food, as she tries to play both the battle game and the media game (the audience is watching her every move, and could decide whether she lives or dies). It unfolds realistically, which is sort of the trapping of this story. Katniss does a lot of wandering, a lot of thinking, a lot of worrying. That's what you'd expect, but it doesn't move the plot much. You find yourself hoping to get to the end of the chapter, where you know something interesting is going to happen. But something interesting always happens. And you watch her alliances and enemies and actions have dire consequences as the plot moves along, and all Katniss wants to do is get out alive, compromising her values and hurting people as she does it.
Then some mutant dogs made out of the dead competitors attack them.

Ahem.

All in all, this is a definite must-read. I'm sure someday we'll recognize Suzanne Collins and Scott Westerfeld as the mother and father of modern YA science-fiction.


The Patriot Witch by C.C. Finlay

Tedious. Imagine if the there were witches in the Revolutionary War, and those witches were on both sides, controlling things through subtle magic - debilitating spells, artifacts of protection, and conspiracies with leaders. This book has three parts - the Shot Heard Round the World, exile at a farm full of witches, and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The problem is that it's filled with descriptions of the battle, through the eyes of the main character. You can tell the author is a historian with a lot of junk knowledge he/she wants to take out and demonstrate. It reminds me of when I read Testament: A Civil War Soldier's Story. There's a lot of people moving around, getting shot, and I don't care about anyone. I just can't work with descriptions of war battles. I need single character moving through plots and revelations.

The other problem is that the witchcraft works when it wants to - there are no rules, and no flash. It's nothing special. I was looking forward to this book. I was imagining witches on broomsticks flying over the Lexington and Concord, shooting spells at British witches, while a battle of mortals raged on below them. But it's nothing like that. It's more like some poor schmoe finds out he's magical, has to go join some other bitchy witches, bonds with them, mentor dies, and he must go into battle and redeem himself.


Black as Snow by Jonathan Munn (unfinished)

A freebie offered by the author under creative commons because he couldn't find a publisher for it. Meaning it's not a real book. As Johnnie Cochran said, "If there's no ISBN, you must not begin".

It's not interesting at all. No tension, no rise and fall, no pushing the goal posts back. I think it's supposed to be like Watership Down, because it's got talking bunnies that are trying to stop builders demolishing their home. And all the time, I was thinking how cool Watership Down was and how lame this is. The bunnies don't act like bunnies. They keep diaries. They're into Bruce Lee and Kung Fu. And the Extraordinarily Empowered Girl who can talk to animals is so unsympathetic I wanted a horse to clock her with his hooves. Not worth reading.


Wild Wives by Charles Willeford

Damn, this thing is short. It's one of those pulp novels that were all the rage during the depression - hastily written, cheaply produced. I'm glad I got the opportunity to read one, but I'm really surprised how short it is, not more than 50,000 words. These days you can't get a contract for anything less than 90,000. But we're also not in a dust bowl.

This one's about a private detective who gets involved with a woman trying to elude the bodyguards her husband's set on her. Meanwhile, there's a subplot about some beatnik chick trying to become his apprentice, and he blows her off sending her on some wild goose chase. Then there's some murder, and some escaping, while he realizes the hot piece of ass he's been hitting is really psycho and unreliable, saying what she wants to get what she wants. She's set him up to think he murdered her husband, when she's really the one who did it. At the end, he's killed the bitch, managed to make it look like she was psycho, gets the evidence so the courts won't be able to touch him, and he's won the day. Then the subplot comes back and he goes off to jail. Reminds me a little bit of McTeague by Frank Norris. Ending a la "Tales from the Crypt".
It's a short read and a bit of history. It's not boring, and it's not spectacular. It's pulp. I recommend it.


Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Swedish people are long-winded.

Good, now that that's off my chest, let's continue. I added the movie to my Netflix queue when I saw it was A) on a lot of "Top Ten Films of the Year" lists and B) could be watched online. The movie was good, but quite slow in some places. I love the story, and I love the concept, but there were a lot of places where I could have pressed fast-forward. But I liked it enough to see how the book compared.

The reason to read a book after the movie is to see what you missed - what "really" happened. "Let the Right One In" is pretty much the same, but much, much longer. Every detail is explored, every thought, every idea, every conversation is brought out into long detail. You lose what the author is trying to say, because there are so many storylines. And if you stop reading, you're going to forget what happened. It was like Lindqvist just kept writing and writing and writing, then he had to pee, came back, and realized he had written 40,000 pages.

Maybe this is just a case of liking the first version you see (like sometimes you hear the remix or cover first, and you like that better than the original song), but I recommend the movie over the book. You don't miss anything, and the movie makes a little more sense. Plus, I like Eli as a girl better than a castrated boy. And the visuals work better in film than in the book.


A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Why did I read this? I'm not a girl. I'm not eight years old. I'm not living in the turn of the century.

Well, I decided to read a little young adult fiction aimed at females, just to see what it was like. I'd read "Jungle Book" and "Just So Stories", so I wanted to see how the other half lives. It apparently lives in a great deal of warm and fluffy feelings. Burnett must have been a genius to stretch this story out as long as he did. Talk about your Mary Sues. The "little princess" in question is a precocious girl from a colorful background traveling in mysterious India, who's dropped off at a girl's school. Everyone loves her, except for the trunchbull Miss Minchin. She spends half the time being the Jesus-figure for her obnoxious spoiled classmates, and the other half being a poor ragamuffin once her dad dies and her fortune's lost, and she's relegated to scullery-maid (what is a scullery? And are they so dirty they need maids?). Then she uses her *imagination* (sparklies!) to rise above her seeming poverty and remain a "princess".

Anyway, I got an interesting glimpse of female characters during this time, and what they were into. Good thing we got out of that era. Now, where's my sandwich, woman?


Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton

There was an article on Boing Boing about this book being made into a movie (starring Jon Heder). Cory Doctorow cited it as one of the great books he was handing out in his early days in the bookstore. It sounded interesting, and luckily, a few days later, it was released under a CC license. I'm glad it was - it's a good read. At some point during the late eighties, every television is America is hijacked by Buddy Holly, apparently broadcasting from some sort of biodome on Ganymede meant to look like the Ed Sullivan Show. No one knows why this is happening, how, or what it means, but when Buddy Holly reads one of the signs in the studio "Call Oliver Vale for assistance", our main character who shares the same name knows he's in a heap of trouble.

My beef with the book is that it's not science-fiction. Humor, yes. Sci-fi, no. There's a strange broadcast, yes, but its existence is simply a macguffin to get characters moving. There are aliens, yes, but they never figure into the main plot. They don't act like aliens or do alien things (and yes, they started this whole thing as a little "prove you are worthy" test for humans). There are robots, yes, but its a robot dog, who no one seems to care much about, especially when it regurgitates a beer can as a gift. There are no spaceships, lasers, xenobiotic life forms, or different planets. So why call this science-fiction? This is a chase novel with a science-fictiony like thing at the beginning. It could be the same story without it.


The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Second in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy (and I still don't know whose dark materials they are, or why they're so dark. You can turn on the lights if you want), and the first where I don't have the help of a movie. The story is interesting, but it suffers from the trappings of the second part of a trilogy - all set up for the ending, resting on the laurels of an exciting beginning.

Also, it starts to become heady and scientific, talking about dark matter and molecules, getting my science-fiction in my fantasy. This is what I was talking about with Peeps in trying to be epic and melodramatic by making it "oh my god, this shit just got real". Some people can do it well, but I don't think you can have metaphysics and talking animals in the same book (and not have the metaphysics explaining the talking animals), unless you dedicate your science to explaining everything in your fantasy. Michael Crichton did that with time travel in Timeline, but it took a third of the book to do it. Still, I will be reading the last book.


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I read this in anticipation of Wicked, the revisionist sequel which tells the untold true story of the Wicked Witch of the West. I read it many, many, many times in my youth, and it's still just as wonderful as I remember. But I knew I needed to catch up on the Oz when I saw the map in the front of Wicked and there's Quadling Country marked and where the Yellow Brick Road goes, and a whole bunch of stuff I barely remembered, and I thought, "Oh, shit, this uses the whole thing, and I don't remember any of it". So I did a quick catch-up, which was quite an enjoyable blast from the past. Still holds up well.


The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi

This is book is awesome. In the first 13 pages, Gepetto gets into a fist fight, Pinocchio gets Gepetto sent to prison, then he kills Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. This is great!

As you can tell this book is far removed from the Disney version. Everybody's a jerk. Must be an Italian thing. I'm not sure who this book was audienced to -- little boys maybe? -- but the language still holds up. The culture does not. It's super easy to read, but the plot is not terribly coherent, and there's no unifying force. It seems like 65% of the book is just Pinocchio being bad, then, when he realizes he's about to get burnt or hanged or shot, he suddenly cries, "oh no, I'll never be bad again", and he repents and is saved. Then he goes and does it again. Reminds me of the American prison system. Must be required reading for lawyers.

The storytelling is terribly unpolished and incohesive. There's no unifying story, just Pinocchio running around getting into trouble. After about halfway, it starts getting obnoxious, because he has no real goal. He has nothing he wants.

I'm really on the fence about the value of this book in terms of today. Would I recommend it for anyone? Would they get anything out of it? Maybe, since the chapters are short and the characters dynamic, they'd get more out of it than I did.


So that's it. Fifteen books this quarter, although a lot of them were super short, or unfinished. Next time, I gotta read less, or shorten the span between booklists. It took half a month to write this entry.
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