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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Books I Read: October - December 2009


Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I borrowed this one from my mom, along with the rest of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. It is a long read, and it reminds me of those early modern literatures that expound a lot of philosophy along with the story (i.e., students go to a coffee shop and wax poetical about the nature of something while nursing the drunken one-night stand they had ). Not that I'm saying the story is pretentious. It's not. But it is long-winded.

The storyline is good and the writing style is quite palatable. It made me feel smart to read this book, even though I was reading it for the pure fantasy and "what happened next/behind the scenes" of The Wizard of Oz. That's the problem with this book. It's got a lot of intelligent messages about art, science, politics, and the nature of evil. Pretty Shakespearean stuff. But it sacrifices the fantastic elements for these dialogues.

Plus, it violates the Wizard of Oz canon, and I can't get past that. You can add stuff to the universe, but you can't change the existing universe. Especially one that's as iconic as the Wizard of Oz. I don't care if you change the 400 other Oz books, you can't change the first one. You cannot say the Winged Monkeys were made through biological alchemy by the Wicked Witch. They were controlled through a magic cap, and created as a wedding gift. The Tin Woodsman was not created the way he was (although Maguire tries to nod towards continuity with this, it fails to incorporate all established canon). The novel can't decide if it's pulling from the book or the movie (look at the witch's appearance) and the final confrontation with Dorothy is all wrong.

These glaring errors pull you out of the story, but most of them don't occur until the end. I'm really not sure whether to recommend this one or not. But for me, I know I don't want to play in this universe again. Maybe wait for the movie-musical in 2011.


The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

The thickened conclusion to the story of some little kids trying to kill God... but in a good way. It feels like Pullman was trying to pad out the novel here, and time he should have spent wrapping up storylines was spent with meaningless non-obstacles. Will gets drunk on vodka with no consequences. The dimension-skipping knife breaks, only to be easily repaired with no consequences. Going to the land of the dead and freeing everyone, with no consequences to the main plot. It seems Pullman needed space to put in the subplots. It made the story drag out, and it's long enough without the filler.

If it wasn't for the padding, would it still be a good story? I don't know. I guess I didn't really care for this piece, or the trilogy. I felt like I had to read it to find out what happened. I don't know where it went wrong. Maybe it just didn't click with me. Maybe it was too British, maybe it felt too stilted, maybe I couldn't identify with the characters. Ah well, c'est la book.


Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm

It's hard to read and repetitive. Every story is a variation of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. There's lots of long paragraphs, little dialogue, and the narrative does little to evoke imagination. Everything happens in sets of threes, and I know nothing is going to happen the first two times, so I would just skip to the third.

Every story is the same. Someone goes out into the world to seek fortune, marry someone, or defeat evil. He/she collects some magic artifacts. Something happens based on wordplay or puns. Then he's told not to do something, and inevitably, he does it. Because where would the plot be if anyone actually followed directions? Otherwise we wouldn't have Gremlins. Go see the Disney versions.


The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines

I was really looking forward to this one, and not just because it dovetails with my own mermaid story. The mermaid fiction that isn't a rehash of The Little Mermaid is few and far between, unless it has more mush or turns mermaids into horrible sea monsters. Before I start let me just say I love me some Jim C. Hines. He's a cool guy and the writer I can most relate to in this world. I like his work.

But the story left me dissatisfied, maybe because my hopes were too high. It's an action-oriented plot, meaning characterization and plot get pushed to the background. There's lots of pirate ship fights, tense trespassings into enemy territory, and hand-to-hand or magic-to-magic combat. That means there's no neat revelations or "oh crap" moments that provoke an emotional reaction and make the plot page turning like The Hunger Games did.

The characters are great, but I wished they had been explored more. And I felt he was padding near the end (maybe because I know he was padding near the end because he wrote it on his blog). Maybe it's just me, but I wanted to see more of the mermaid world. He had a great antagonist--Ariel made into a serial killer--and it looked like he was going to do a good job with her, but then she was reduced to a mewling, muttering straitjacket-wearer huddled up in a tower. Her potential as an enemy ended up largely ignored, and heroes are only as good as their enemies. 3.5 stars.


Makers by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow's latest (free) release steers away from the singularity science-fiction & urban fantasy and returns to base roots--boys with toys. The story chronicles two Makers, people who build random DIY stuff just to see if they can, like a hive of Tickle-Me-Elmos that collectively drive a golf cart. Eventually they create some sort of "ride" that garners worldwide attention, including Disney Parks, who wants to tear them apart, steal their ideas, and sue them to the short-and-curlies. Along the way, Doctorow interjects some singularity elements like drastic weight-loss medical procedures, 3-D printers, and advancements in shantytowns.

I don't think it's as good as Little Brother. There's not as much tension, and the plot meanders. Lord does it meander. The first part, with the boom and bust of the Makers, acts more like a prologue. There's no real unifying goal for the protagonists to achieve (except maybe to be left alone so they can build their things). It's treated more like obstacle, overcome, obstacle, overcome. And the final resolution seems deus ex--the bad guy spontaneously learns the error of his ways and converts. Plus I don't get the "ride". Is it a museum? A fictional exhibit? A sort of play? And some things suffer from "24" disease. It would be nice to see communication and events happen so fast, but I don't think that's realistic.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good book. It and Mermaid's Madness were probably the two best books I read this quarter. But the story is more like a serial than a novel, and I'm no big fan of serials.


Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk

This book was offered for free for one day from Jeff Burk's website. I unfortunately did not get to download it, because I read my blogs in the morning. And by the time I saw it, the offer was already over. So I had to procure this book through... different means (I mean, seriously, one day? Come on).

I'd heard about Shatnerquake from Wil Wheaton, so I was excited to read this. I was surprised at how short it was. It's more of a novelette than a novel. It reads at warp speed. Of course, I don't think it's meant to be taken as serious literature, since the story is about how all of William Shatner's previous roles come to life at a William Shatner convention to attack William Shatner in a devious plot conceived by (wait for it) Bruce Campbell fans.

There's weirdness and there's funness. I think I liked this book, but it was so weird that I'm not sure. There's a lot of Crowning Moments of Awesome, like when James T. Kirk takes out a room of fanboys with a light saber. The only fatal flaw is that it's not very serious. It's a little trashy, and definitely throwaway. I'm reminded of the old days of pulp fiction. This is definitely it. Of course, I want to read more.


Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

I can't remember why I got this particular book at this particular time from the library. I think I needed some short books because my second daughter was about to born and I didn't want to get into anything epic or long that I might forget about in case I couldn't read it for two weeks. So YA would work. Also, I think I needed to get it quickly and this was on the shelf.

This was not the novel I expected it to be. It's minimal on the action, minimal on the science fiction. It's a lot more like A) essays on militarism and citizenship and B) the story of a man's military career, which doesn't include much combat. There's not much science fiction stuff here, at least nothing plot-centric. It's more on the periphery, with the space stuff, aliens, and some military tech. You could take that out and easily make it a literary novel.

I can definitely see where John Scalzi got his inspiration for Old Man's War from this novel. It's fun to have read that and then read this. There were definitely times I thought "This is not a novel, this is a bunch of ranting" and "This would have a hard time getting published today, because of all the parts where the plot doesn't move". Not that that matters, I'm sure these were the reasons it became popular. I recommend Old Man's War first. Then if you liked that, read this. It's like seeing the special features for Old Man's War.


The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga

Another YA novel. Somewhere along my writing research I stumbled upon Barry Lyga's journal, who was giving a series of posts on writing advice. There wasn't a lot here that wasn't new to me, but I did like the conversational style he used. It reminded me of Jim C. Hines, but aimed at the younger. So I thought I might try one of his books. Like Starship Troopers, I needed something short and available, and this was it. Plus the story idea appealed to me--goth girls were one of my adolescent fantasies.

But what struck me was how similar it was to "Blood: I Live Again". A disaffected loser who does nothing but introspect and whine forms a relationship with an unstable goth girl. Hilarity ensues. Of course, saying the two are similar are like saying "Old Man's War" and "Avatar" are similar. But as I was reading it, I thought "This is what Blood: ILA would've been like if it had been publishable." That's what made it the most fun, but that's a characteristic that can only appeals to me.

Now I'm a Barry Lyga fan, and I plan to read more of his novels soon.


Sausagey Santa by Carlton Mellick III

After Shatnerquake was done with its one free day, Burk saw how well it did and offered a bunch more. This time for a longer interim. There was a lot to choose from, so I selected one that fit the season.
This one is even weirder. It's exactly what it says on the tin. Santa is made of sausage. His fingers are Vienna sausages, and his head's a big bratwurst. According to the novel, he was immortal but he got sick of living forever. But all his suicide attempts failed. So he fed himself through a meat grinder. This still didn't work so his enslaving elves transformed him into sausage so he could move around.

This is not the weird part.

The weird part comes from the main character who is married to a dominatrix who wants to be a Transformer, has a child who has some sort of growth in her head, twins that are forever strapped to his wife's back, who get their limbs lopped off in the battle with Frosty the snowman, Santa's mortal enemy who controls coffee birds--flying amorphous blobs of congealed hatred.

Also there's sex with elves using extra-dimensional panties.

I think that's all I need to say.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Didn't intend to read this one. I had finished the book I brought to the hospital during the birth, and needed something else to read. So I stopped in the gift shop and looked for something. Lots of chick lit I didn't want to read. Lots of covers with roses and quaint cottages. But then I saw the dismal visage of Viggo Mortensen staring at me from the third row. It was the closest to science fiction they had, but I had seen the trailer for the movie and thought it was neat, and I like apocalypse fiction. So I bought it for $7.99.

I don't often read literary novels. Really, it's just a road movie of a father and his son (who are never named) as they trek across a decimated country (they never say why, but I think it's nuclear winter). The style is extremely simple, there are a lot of section breaks, but no chapters. I thought the story was realistic, but never particularly engaging. Maybe because no one has a name. I saw a few instances of literary no-no's (a switch to first person, some telling, some wool-gathering) and I never really felt I needed to see how it ended (because it was obvious from page 1), but I was intrigued to see what happened next before they got there. There are no spectacular events, it's really more of a log of what happened--they find some food, they meet an old man, they sleep, they walk, they eat some peaches out of a can.

I didn't particularly like it, but I didn't feel like I wasted my time either.


The Æsop For Children by Aesop (I think)

I liked this one better than Grimm's Fairy Tales because A) they're all super short, great for reading a teeny bit at a time and B) the language is much more understandable. But like Grimm's Fairy Tales, the stories get repetitive after a while. They're all moral lessons, and they fall under three categories: evil is its own ruin, be honest and don't lie, don't be vain, greedy, or prideful. Consequences of failing to heed lessons A, B, and C will result in you being eaten by a tiger 90% of the time.


Midnight Girl by Will Shetterly

A free e-book. I can't remember where I heard of it from. Must've been Boing Boing, since that's my usual source for the free e-Book movement. Like most other e-Books, this one is science fiction and has a low buzz. Unlike most e-Books, this one's YA, and it's actually pretty good. To a point. It's about a young girl who discovers that her mother is a vampire/werewolf/shapeshifter thingy and her father is a vampire/werewolf/shapeshifter thingy hunter, and that she's destined to end the war between the two families.

The dialogue is quick-witted, and there are some good parts to the book, like when the main character is forced to suck blood for the first time, an act that's almost guaranteed to kill the person due to the initial bloodlust, and she finds her best friend is forced to be her first victim, so they have to figure out a way around the binding spell. And when the council of families on her father's side decide they must kill her to save everyone, and she willingly volunteers (a sixteen-year-old!) to be killed for the good of everyone.
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